Stage one: When it happens
Act quickly Say you're at a hotel and the air-conditioning is feeble or a lightbulb is out. Contact the front desk immediately. If the representative can't or won't remedy the situation, place a call to the company's toll-free customer-service number or, better yet, the frequent-guest rewards program (you did join, right?). When a Holiday Inn in Salem, Va., told Michaelene McWhinney, a BT reader from Greensburg, Pa., that it was out of hangers, McWhinney got in touch with Priority Club customer service. "We had hangers delivered to us within an hour," she says.
Control your emotions "I can tell you that, hands down, being polite and reasonable when you complain will get you the farthest," says an airline reservation agent who prefers to remain anonymous. "My coworkers and I often talk about how we dig our heels in when someone talks down to us, screams, swears, or threatens us." Bear in mind that you want action, not simply a chance to vent. "If customer-service employees think there's nothing they can do to make you happy, they won't bother," says David Rowell, publisher of The Travel Insider website.
The goal is to be firm and clear, without coming off as insulting or aggressive. Maintain your cool throughout all correspondence: Reps will be noting in your record how you behave, so there's little use in turning on the charm after a history of tirades.
Build a case Keep track of the names of anyone you speak with and the chronology of events. Hold onto receipts, estimates, confirmation numbers, and brochures. You never know when the info will come in handy. Simply noting what the rep was wearing can help. If the behavior of a Continental Airlines staffer is in question, for instance, the airline will want to know if he or she was wearing a red jacket, which distinguishes customer-service representatives from other personnel.
Companies say that having photos to accompany your complaint is unnecessary, and probably won't affect their final decision. If it comes down to your word versus an employee's, however, the right photo just might tilt the outcome in your favor. Certainly, no company wants a photograph painting it in a bad light circulated on a website or anywhere else.
Stage two: When there's no quick fix
Take a smart approach If you used a travel agency, it should work as your advocate before, during, and after the trip. But the responsibility of badgering a company often falls to the customer. While corresponding with a company by letter or e-mail is time-consuming, calling can be frustrating in a different way--you may have to repeat the same story as you're passed along from one employee to another. Often, the issue isn't resolved with a single call.
Include relevant facts Don't give the company an excuse for dragging its feet in making a decision. Always include your name, address, and phone number, as well as the reservation number, how the reservation was made, and the dates and places involved. You don't have to write a cohesive essay; bullet points will do the job fine.
Try flattery It never hurts to note the great experiences you've previously had with the company. If you're a member of that company's rewards program, say so. "Mention the overall business you've given them," says BT reader Marie Wilson, of San Carlos, Calif. "If you've logged 50,000 miles with an airline or stayed a lot of nights at that hotel chain, the company will want to know."
Be open-minded about compensation "I let the agent come up with a solution, rather than demand something specific," says Lesley Woodward, a reader from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. "His or her offer is sometimes better than I could imagine. If it isn't acceptable, I ask for alternatives." Most companies are extremely reluctant to hand out cash. "If your flight is overbooked, you can ask for a ticket on the next flight out and an upgrade," says Chicago reader Concetta Phillipps. Discounts and vouchers for future bookings with the company are also fairly easy to come by.
Stage three: Following up
Be persistent Whenever you're not satisfied, press your case with someone else. Call back and try your luck with a different representative, or ask to speak to a supervisor. "If there's nothing else that the manager can offer, ask for the name and number of the district manager," says BT reader Ruthann Galarza of Milwaukee.
Go public Newspaper travel sections and Budget Travel and other travel magazines want to hear about consumer experiences--especially instances of fraud. They can sometimes shame a company into giving you what you want.
File a complaint with consumer-affairs departments or, in the case of airlines, the Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The agencies are rarely able to intercede, but at least there will be an official record of your dissatisfaction. If you want to warn other travelers, post a note at a user-review site like Epinions or TripAdvisor. The companies we spoke to say such entries don't make a difference in how they resolve complaints. Many companies won't even admit to looking at these sites--which is silly, because potential customers certainly are.