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How to Gripe Effectively While You're Traveling

When you travel, anything and everything can go wrong. It can cost you time, money, and aggravation. And the best way to deal with it is to complain. But what are the best ways to get your voice heard, and get some satisfaction? CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg shared pointers on "The Early Show" Thursday, and he does the same here:

Anyone who travels knows something always goes wrong, and it usually happens in a sequence of bad events. I once counted about 47 different points of abuse awaiting travelers from the moment they buy their ticket until they return home. And I've always said that we define a successful journey by how much we minimize the abuse.

But sometimes, it's unavoidable, draconian, mean-spirited, and it doesn't just inconvenience us, it COSTS us -- in time, money, aggravation, and tension.

And we want to complain. But how? To Whom?

The art of complaining actually starts BEFORE the complaint, When something is in the process of going wrong. We all have been there. And when that happens, you need to seek answers -- immediate answers if at all possible -- from someone at the top.

My overriding mantra is:

WHO:

Never take a "no" from someone who's not empowered to say "yes" in the first place. Talk to the highest level of authority you possibly can. The desk attendant is not likely to be able to do as much as the general manager. Or any supervisor. Be nice, but assertive. Not aggressive. Get first and last names and titles. And if necessary, witnesses to your ordeal.

By the same token, don't aim too high. Don't demand to speak to the CEO of Hilton because your room didn't have the view you requested.

HOW:

Keep a paper trail: times, names, titles, and dates and try to resolve your dispute BEFORE you leave the hotel or airport, cruise ship or rental car counter. You have a better chance of seeing your situation resolved if you deal with people in person.

When corresponding in writing include: name, address, daytime phone number (including area code) and e-mail address, name of the airline or company about which you are complaining, flight/hotel stay date, flight number, origin and destination cities of your trip. Include a copy (not the original) of your airline ticket, itinerary sheet or confirmation e-mail, and any correspondence you have already exchanged with the company. (See sample complaint letter at the bottom of this article)

Carry a camera -- not just to record vacation memories, but to document any rental car dings, dirty hotels, or any other complaints that may arise. Very important -- make sure your camera has a time/date code option. Use it. This is especially important in documenting the condition of your hotel room, your baggage, the interior of your aircraft, the pre-existing dings on your rental car.

As hard as it may be, maintain a pleasant, but firm tone. Remember, this is the person who is going to help you get what you want -- or get you to the person who can. The quickest way to not get what you want, is to immediately alienate the person with whom you are speaking by taking a harsh tone right off the bat.

Make it known that you are dissatisfied, but, if properly accommodated, you will use their services again. Loyalty still counts for something.

Don't exaggerate any wrongdoing, but be clear in what you expect to receive.

If possible, use your clout. Airlines hate to lose business travelers, so if you write a letter of complaint, put in on your company's letterhead. And if you're a frequent flyer, put down your account number.

Copy appropriate people -- the Department of Transportation, the state attorney general for consumer affairs, or other appropriate agencies, as well as consumer watchdogs (that also includes - ME! My website acts as a complaint advocate for travel problems, and has the imaginative title of PeterGreenberg.com!

If it comes to it, file a formal complaint (see resources below).

DISPUTING CHARGES WITH YOUR CREDIT CARD

Never pay cash for travel services. Why? Because you may have legal recourse if you charge your travel purchase and don't receive the goods or services you contracted for. Use your credit card as a weapon when necessary. If a hotel charges you a resort fee but never disclosed that fee when you made your reservation, or when you checked in, go ahead and dispute the charge if the front desk won't take it off your bill.

Under federal fair credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge you do not consider legitimate, and that includes a travel purchase gone awry.

However, there are some caveats to the Fair Credit Billing Act:

Its settlement procedures apply only to disputes about "billing errors," which include:
Unauthorized charges. Federal law limits your responsibility for unauthorized charges to $50
Charges that list the wrong date or amount
Charges for goods and services you didn't accept or weren't delivered as agreed
Math errors
Failure to post payments and other credits, such as returns;
* failure to send bills to your current address -- provided the creditor receives your change of address, in writing, at least 20 days before the billing period ends; and charges for which you ask for an explanation or written proof of purchase along with a claimed error or request for clarification.

To take advantage of the law's consumer protections, you must: write to the creditor at the address given for "billing inquiries," not the address for sending your payments, and include your name, address, account number and a description of the billing error. Send your letter so that it reaches the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you.

Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof of what the creditor received. Include copies (not originals) of sales slips or other documents that support your position. Keep a copy of your dispute letter.

The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.

And speaking of letters, here's where to write, depending on the specific complaint:

PLACES TO COMPLAIN

FAA Aviation Safety Hotline:
Maintenance improprieties
Aircraft Incidents
Suspected Unapproved Parts
Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) violations:

Assistant Administrator for System Safety ASY-100
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591
800-FAA-SURE, 800-322-7873, or the Aviation Safety Hotline at 800-255-1111
http://www.faa.gov/contact/safety_hotline/

FAA Aviation Consumer Hotline

Ask questions about:
FAA-monitored consumer issues
Hazardous Materials - report specific violations
Whistleblower Hotline - aviation industry employees can report information relating to air carrier safety or participate in other protection activities
Report:
Maintenance impropriates; Aircraft incidents; Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) violations:

Federal Aviation Administration
Consumer Hotline, AOA-20
800 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20591
1-866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322)
http://www.faa.gov/passengers/travel_problems/consumer_hotline/

TSA Aviation Security Complaints

To report specific violations and concerns about security:

1-866-289-9673, TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov
http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/customer/index.shtm

Department of Transportation Airline Service:

Complaints not related to airlines safety or security
Lost or mishandled bags
Delays
Mishandled animals
Voluntary or involuntary bumping

DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD).
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Web form: http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/escomplaint/es.cfm
202-366-2220
http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/CP_AirlineService.htm

All complaints are entered in DOT's computerized aviation industry monitoring system, and are charged to the company in question in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.

http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, c-75 (Norman Strickman)
Room 4107 U.S. Department of Transportation
400 Seventh STreet, SW
Washington, DC 20590
e-mail- consumer@ost.dot.gov

TSA Discrimination Complaints:
Race, sexual orientation, disability ( i.e. harassment over medications), etc

Transportation Security Administration
Director, Office of Civil Rights
601 South 12th Street - West Tower, TSA-6
Arlington, Virginia 20598
Attn: External Programs Division

For more information, contact the Office of Civil Rights at 1-877-EEO-4TSA (4872)
**This is a direct link to airline CEOs, Presidents or General Council's physical addresses http://airconsumer.dot.gov/rules/19920410.htm**

And last but not least, never underestimate the power of social media to complain. It doesn't take the place of good old fashioned letter writing, but it is becoming increasingly effective. Consider the case of Dave Carroll:

He was traveling on United Airlines from Chicago to Nebraska. An employee at the gate insisted that he check his $3,500 Taylor guitar. Carroll normally never had to check it, but the employee insisted.

United Airlines baggage handlers then broke his guitar. Carroll tried for almost a year to get United to compensate him, but in its final letter to Carroll, UA said that he would get nothing. So Carroll wrote and produced a music video about his experience that went on to become an Internet sensation.

It was such a hit, that UA bent over backwards trying to get him to accept their apology offer and compensation. But Carroll insisted that the time for negotiating was over and went on to release a sequel, and recently completed the trilogy, as promised.

The complaint video never got him compensated by United, but in the end it was even more effective. Taylor guitars invited Carroll to their headquarters and gave him two new guitars. He's appeared on countless television shows and his music career has shot skywards. He actually credits the bad behavior of United with indirectly boosting his career, but it was his musical "complaint" video that did the trick.

Another example: When Kevin Smith was thrown off a Southwest Flight for being "too fat to fly," the loquacious writer/director voiced his concerns via Twitter. He tweeted after he was removed from the plane and continued to update his page with his latest interactions with Southwest customer service and public relations representatives. He then continued his crusade against the airline on his website and on his podcast.

What did he do right? He continued to update throughout the entire process, he kept track of all names and details of communications with Southwest, and he was incredibly persistent.

What did he do wrong? The notoriously foul-mouthed director didn't pull any punches and let loose a stream of four-letter words. He was too confrontational right off the bat.

So how can you complain effectively on Twitter? You can't just make one post and expect it to get their attention.

Document the entire travel process. Before you leave, mention @airline or @hotel in a few tweets to put yourself on their radar.

Then, if something goes wrong, post about the experience as it unfolds. If you were already talking about them, you are able to build up some momentum.

Make suggestions along the way, pointing out problem sources and people.

Southwest Airlines has more than 1 million followers on Twitter. They respond to customer problems/complaints every day. American Airlines has nearly 40,000 followers; Virgin America has more than 57,000

To see a sample complaint letter, go to Page 3.

SAMPLE COMPLAINT LETTER

John. H. Smith
Metropolitan Airlines
555 Nowhere Blvd.
Anywhere, MN XXXXX

Dear Mr. Smith,

First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to address my travel concerns. Per our conversation, I am following up my recent phone call with a formal letter of complaint regarding my recent experience on your airline.

I have included with this letter a copy of my ticket on your airline, flight XXX. As I mentioned to you on the phone, I was a passenger on the 12:00 pm flight from Miami to New York on March 13, 2010. While in New York, I stayed at the HOTEL JOHN Q. PUBLIC from March 13-March 16. Also included in with this letter is a copy of my New York itinerary with appropriate email confirmations from both that hotel and your airline.

To recount my story here, my luggage was lost during my travels with your airline, and it was not returned in a timely manner. When I attempted to remedy the situation with your lost baggage department over the phone, I was assisted by JOHNNY APPLESEED, based in Minneapolis Minnesota. He told me the luggage would be sent to my hotel in New York within a day. As I also mentioned to you on the phone, it took a week, and my luggage was shipped to Miami, not New York. As you can imagine, this caused considerable inconveniences for me during my stay. I am however, a frequent flyer with Metropolitan air, Frequent Flyer Number XXXXXXX. For my aforementioned troubles, I expect to be credited per your airline's discretion. If this matter is handled properly, I see no problem with continuing to be a loyal and frequent customer of Metropolitan Airlines.

I appreciate your attention in this matter.

Best Regards,

Your nameJane A. Smith
Your title
Your affiliation