Maybe your travel standards are too low

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Incredible customer service and travel used to be more or less synonymous. Not anymore.

The “aha” moment for Chris Nicholson came when he flew from Seattle to San Francisco recently and a flight attendant offered him the entire can of ginger ale instead of just a cup.

“After she had passed by, I asked myself, ‘What did I do to deserve that?'” remembers Nicholson, who works for a financial adviser firm in San Francisco. “It was such a small thing, which I would have taken for granted in plenty of other places, but in that situation, I felt like the people in charge of the orphanage had decided to give me seconds.”

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Nicholson was shocked by how far his standards had fallen when it comes to travel. You might be, too.

The domestic airline industry scored a cumulative grade of 69 for the second year in a row, according to the authoritative American Customer Service Index, barely a passing grade. Rounding out the bottom: United (60), American (66) and US Airways (66).

Hotels aren’t much better, squeaking out a cumulative grade of 75, down 2.6% from last year. That’s a gentleman’s “C.”

Along with persuading you to accept these shamefully low scores, the travel industry has introduced several dangerous new ideas. Among them: That our standards were too high to begin with; that we often deserve the horrible service we get; and that unless we continue to lower the bar, companies can’t survive. It’s time to call out these falsehoods before they ruin your next vacation or business trip.

When I hear from customers who say a travel company has gone “above and beyond,” I wonder: “Above and beyond what?” Jack Vonder Heide, for example, was scheduled to fly from Seattle to St. Louis recently when weather forced the cancellation of his flight’s first leg. He expected to be left high and dry, unable to make it to a keynote speech on time. But an airline agent worked for an hour to reroute him on another carrier.

“I made it to St. Louis with two hours to spare,” he says.

Just a few short years ago, rescheduling a passenger on a different airline, which is referred to as “endorsing” a ticket, was relatively routine. Then came policies like “no waivers, no favors,” which forced airlines to adhere strictly to a ticket contract and to save money wherever possible. Now passengers are stunned when a company does what it should have been doing all along, like getting you to your destination when it promised it would.

The travel industry wants us to think our expectations are too high and that we’re too demanding. That applies to the low prices we sometimes negotiate for their products. How often do you hear employees grumbling that “you get what you pay for”? Well, that’s code for: You’re responsible for our stripped-down service and everything-is-extra amenities. You asked for it.

No company embraces this idea more than Spirit Airlines, which recently offered 8,000 frequent-flier miles to any passenger willing to “unleash the hate” by telling the carrier how awful it is. You don’t have to be an airline analyst to get Spirit’s point: You deserve this airline, you cheapskates.

But major hotel chains do the same thing. Try booking a room through one of the “opaque” websites, like Priceline or Hotwire, both of which offer deeply discounted rooms from hotels that stay anonymous until after you’ve made a non-refundable reservation. Maybe you’ll get a nice room, maybe not. And when you complain about being in closet-sized accommodations next to a noisy elevator, the guy at the front desk, in a moment of candor, may say to you, “What do you expect? You only paid $59 a night for your room.”

Perhaps the most pernicious piece of industry propaganda is that our too-high customer-service standards are leading to the travel industry’s demise — indeed, that travelers are directly responsible for its lack of profits. The argument, spun by CEOs in earnings calls and echoed on industry-friendly blogs, is that customers demand unrealistically high service levels and low prices that are simply unsustainable. In order for the industry to survive, it needs to slash amenities and start charging extra for everything.

But that’s nonsense, too. The loudest complainers, North America’s biggest airlines, recently posted record quarterly earnings and are expected to rake in $8.6 billion in profits for the year, which would be a new high. Hotels should just shut up, too: This year room rates are expected to jump 4.2%, leading to robust industry profits.

The logic behind such arguments is also questionable. Imagine if during the last recession, America’s failing car manufacturers claimed that our desire for a deal had driven them to the edge of insolvency and that the only way to recover was to start selling vehicles without any wheels or warranties. From now on, those would cost extra. Do you think that idea would have flown?

Why should it be any different in travel? Our standards aren’t too high — theirs are too low. Your airline should be concerned about getting you to your destination, and your hotel should worry about your comfort as much as they do about the happiness of their shareholders. You are absolutely not responsible for their profitability. They are.

And yes, as a matter of fact, you deserve the whole can of soda.

Are your travel standards too low?

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How to get better service

• Ask. Sometimes requesting an amenity that used to be included, like an entire can of soda, is enough to get it. The employees often want to do the right thing, anyway.

• Travel with a business that still believes in service. You’ll find them at the top end of the customer-service rankings. In hotels, for example, Marriott, Hyatt and InterContinental lead the pack.

• Hold the line. When a company cuts amenities or adds a new fee, let it know you’re unhappy with its actions. That’s the only way to prevent these preposterous cuts from sticking.

26 thoughts on “Maybe your travel standards are too low

  1. How come airlines like Lufthansa, Singapore Air, Korea Air, Air France and even British Air can get it right? These airlines seem to be able to treat their customers right without having to charge an arm and a leg to do so! I guess it’s because there is no single USA carrier that carried the country’s flag!

    1. That’s an excellent question. I suspect it’s a number of different factors, including a competitive business environment (albeit less competitive, now that we’ve had another merger), management philosophy, a basic understanding — or perhaps misunderstanding — or the customer. I don’t think there’s a single explanation.

      1. The single factor is unfettered capitalism. When money is the only goal and people are treated like nothing more than a tool by which to make it you will end up with this kind of stuff. The only reason that the car companies didn’t try that is the outside competition from foreign manufacturers.

        1. This isn’t a political site, but my views on unfettered capitalism are pretty well known. We can’t let the free market have its way without sensible government regulation. This is one area where I think Washington can do some good.

          1. I actually agree to some extent. Economic systems are at best amoral. They ignore the human element in search of economic efficiency, the Holy Grail of capitalism.

            Without government intervention we would haven’t have minimum wage, civil rights in employment, safety regulations, etc. Lower income people would be paid in corporate “scrip”. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

            The question is, independent of a given situation, what is the guiding principle for government intervention. When should the government intervene?

            I submit that government regulation is strongest when the marketplace is not open and free (monopolies), it difficult for consumers to make meaning comparisons (financial services, legal services), etc.

            By contrast I believe that argument for government regulation is weakest when consumers have sufficient power and information to vote with their wallets.

            We see this in travel. In general we see far more restrictive rules with airlines, then with cars and hotels. I submit that’s because airline tickets are a much more complicated purchase and often times few options. Consequently, much of the new consumer regulations are geared towards airlines (passenger bill of rights, display full price, etc.)

    2. Add JAL and Cathay Pacific to that list.

      JAL still manages to surprise me every so often, when they do something nice that they consider routine customer service, that I never saw coming, even though I’m supposed to be used to their standard of service by now.

  2. @Christopher Elliott: I thought you were turning off your computer the other day (“What happened to my travel industry?”) – and instead, you wrote this.

    My husband’s comment as re Mr. Nicholson: “This financial services adviser was overwhelmed with this strange feeling called gratitude and it made him uncomfortable, so he snarked it out.”

  3. I recently flew to Paris. First flight was on an American air line. Flight across the ocean was on Air France. WHAT A DIFFERENCE!!! Air France had great food and service and the flight attendants were all “good looking.” On the American airline a couple of the flight attendants were so overweight they had trouble getting down the aisle (HONESTLY). Service was iffy and I did not eat the food. I never eat on a plane — but my husband said the Air France food was great.

    1. Air France Economy food are even better than some US airlines Business Class Food and the wine and digestif (Cognac or Baileys) are free, all the bread you can eat (I don’t eat bread but they passed the Bread Basket around many times). I once travel HNL-LAX on United First Class with B-757, the only choice is Fake Crab Salad.

      1. It’s part of the culture more than anything specific to travel. Spending money on food is a value, independent of the venue. I was in the hospital in Paris. Forget so-called hospital food, they served me Filet Mignon with black truffle oil.

    2. Air France Business Class meal for 1 hour flight Bangkok BKK to Hochiminh City SGN. 2010-02-07 Air France AF-174 – Seafood Lunch – Smoke Salmon Salad and Seafood Alfredo Noodles – Flight Info in Vietnamese.

    3. Welcome to the 21st century, where airlines in the United States no longer discriminate on the basis of physical appearance. I think what you’re looking for is what was called a “stewardess”.

    4. And what on earth does the appearance of the flight attendants have to do with it? Trouble getting down the aisle, fine, that’s a problem, but why do you care if they’re “good looking” as long as they’re pleasant and do their job?

  4. When it comes to hotels, I never book with opaque sites. I’d rather have a bad room in a good hotel, than just about any room in a bad hotel.

    During a trip to Lincoln, NE once, I booked thru the hotel site, my freind booked thru hotwire. Her hotel was directly across the street from the State Pen. Between the scary characters in the hallways, and parking lots, and some sort of warning siren going off in the middle of the night, she bailed out of there and ended up bunking in with me.

    1. Your friend was probably very safe. The Nebraska Department of Corrections prefers to let the crazies out early, so there’s no incentive to escape. (I am referring to the ongoing scandal where one guy was let out early, despite many warnings from the doctors and officials and he promptly killed 4 people in the Omaha area. Then the local paper looked into why he was out early and found out that there were something like 700 people let out early.)

  5. I am fortunate to be able to upgrade most of my flights with my miles and stay at 5* hotels using points to make them affordable. But I do stay in lots and lots of regular hotels and find that my standards are low … if the place is clean, the front desk friendly, the room usable, I’m happy; I don’t expect much.
    But I do make note of hotels that go beyond the norm and I chose them whenever I can. Hampton Inns, for example, seem to be better than most hotels in their price range. So I chose them whenever I can, especially for a stay of a week or so. I’m staying in one now at Rapid City to tour the Black Hills, it’s quite wonderful. Holiday Inn Express hotels rank right up there too.

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