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Strategies to use when making travel complaints

Travelers enter a security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport

Travelers enter a security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport on Friday, April 11, 2014. Credit: Uli Seit

This is the first of two parts. Click here to read the second part.


Overcharged? Misinformed? Didn't get what you paid for? Travelers with a gripe against an airline, hotel, online travel agency, credit card issuer or some other travel seller often send me a copy of their complaints. And I never cease to be surprised at how many of those complaints are rambling, unfocused and weak. Certainly, there's no "sure thing" way to have a complaint resolved in your favor, but you can improve your odds of success fairly simply.

FIRST, ESTABLISH WHAT YOU WANT What would be the ideal solution?

MONEY OR EQUIVALENT If you are actually out some money, you will almost surely want reimbursement. And if a supplier caused great inconvenience, you might also decide that the mistreatment warrants a monetary compensation.

A BLACK MARK If you conclude that your problem, however annoying, does not rise to the level of warranting a monetary resolution, you can still give the supplier a black mark.

AN APOLOGY Apparently, some folks just want a seller to tell them, "Yes, we goofed — sorry." If that's all you really want, fuggedaboutit. Suppliers' lawyers don't want them issuing any statements that might provide fodder for a future lawsuit.

KNOW WHERE TO COMPLAIN Often the guilty party is obvious. But in a monetary dispute involving two or more distinct parties — an airline and an online agency, for example — each typically blames the other. Here, you need to determine (1) which organization actually caused the problem and (2) which one has your money.

ASK FOR SOMETHING! If your complaint rises to the level of warranting compensation, ask for compensation. The most ineffective complaints I see exhibit the same fatal flaw: not asking for anything specific. Instead, they present their complaint — often a laundry list of grievances — but wind up with a weak "what do you plan to do about this?" or "I trust you will provide an appropriate response" or an even weaker "how did I go wrong?"

If you can demonstrate that the supplier's misconduct left you with an out-of-pocket loss you can document, you should certainly ask for at least that amount. Even if you can't show an out-of-pocket loss, you can set some reasonable cash value on inconvenience, especially loss of work or vacation time.

Keep in mind: suppliers hate to cut checks. An airline, hotel, or cruise line will likely be more generous with vouchers for future services than with cash. Similarly, airlines will be more generous with frequent flier miles. If you're willing to accept vouchers or miles, say so in your complaint. You might even want to ask for more value in vouchers than cash. In any event, however, before you accept a voucher, make sure it doesn't include restrictions/expiration date you can't accept.

If you can't reasonably expect to receive cash compensation, you can at least give the supplier a black mark. These days, for travel complaints, the independent "gripe sites" such as My3Cents and the Squeaky Wheel seem to be losing ground, and some travel gripe sites, including the Ticked Traveler, have disappeared. Instead, the most effective places to post black marks these days are the giant all-purpose sites such as Yelp or the giant traveler-review sites such as TripAdvisor.

With an airline problem, you can submit a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Unless you show violation of a law, the DOT won't help resolve your complaint. But it does score your complaint in its ongoing monthly and yearly "Consumer Reports." And a DOT complaint carries a surprising amount of weight: In 2013, only 13,000 total complaints were filed against all airlines — less than one for every 100,000 passengers. And these DOT scores are important: The media regularly report on them, several widely used airline rating systems incorporate them, and airlines really do try to minimize them.

NEXT WEEK: More details on pursuing a monetary complaint

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