Let’s hear it for the travel heroes!

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Marie Robertson can’t stop doing good.

Two years ago, the Houston airline agent held a United Airlines flight for a passenger visiting his dying mother. Her compassionate act became a feel-good story that resonated among airline passengers – partly because her industry had a reputation for sometimes being less than caring.

It turns out she wasn’t done. Robertson contacted me recently because she’s working on a new campaign to put the brakes on distracted driving (you can learn more about it here). She says most “don’t text and drive” efforts fail because motorists quickly forget them. But Robertson wants to change that by placing “don’t text” warning stickers inside car windshields and reminding drivers that their actions affect other people.

“Our goal is to reach everyone,” she told me.

I’m happy to help. I spend too much time dissecting the failings of the travel industry, and particularly of airlines like United. But you can’t encourage selfless behavior without first acknowledging it.

Here’s the problem: Some travel companies believe it’s the grand customer service gestures, like holding an aircraft at the gate, that impress us. And they do. But not as much as the little things, like taking care of an ailing passenger even when no one is looking, or a smile and, “Thank you for your business” when you check out of a hotel. Or handing out stickers that make the road a little safer.

Those small things can make a big difference on your next trip. And you’ll rarely read about them in a column, except today.

When word got out I was working on a story about travel companies that offer excellent customer service, I heard from people who thought going the extra mile would set them apart, and maybe inspire a favorable mention. One property was proud of a worker who had fulfilled a dying wish for a terminally ill guest. A luxury hotel in Chicago told me about an employee who offered a guest his suit for a business meeting after that guest had lost his luggage.

A Miami Beach hotel shared the tale of “Bubu the Bunny,” a young guest’s favorite stuffed toy that a family had left behind on its way to an Orlando theme park vacation. An employee volunteered to drive four hours to reunite the rabbit with its owner.

These are heartwarming stories, and exceedingly rare. You might travel a lifetime and not experience one of these special service moments.

Of course, passengers have their own ideas about excellent service. Nicole Greason, who works in the marketing department of a college in Tempe, Ariz., recalls a recent flight from London to Phoenix on British Airways. She had a debilitating migraine headache. A flight attendant noticed her pain and brought her ice packs, water and medication from his private stash.

“I have not forgotten how well I was treated on that flight and I have become a fan of British Airways,” she says. “I can’t wait to fly across the pond again — on British Airways, of course.”

The flight attendant’s actions won’t earn him “Employee of the Month” and on any other day, no one except Greason would give them a second thought. But today, on behalf of all passengers who brace themselves for a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude when they board a flight, I say: Thank you. Mr. Unnamed Flight Attendant, you are a credit to your profession.

There’s evidence travel companies know the little things are important. For example, if you e-mailed a hotel with a question two years ago, the response would take anywhere between 48 hours to 5 days, according to OwnerListens, a mobile customer service platform. “Today, average response time is less than 48 hours,” says CEO Adi Bittan. A prompt reply seems like such a minor thing, but Bittain says guests rate these companies higher because of it.

You probably don’t need a study to tell you small acts of service make the travel experience better. It’s common sense. People like Robertson, the United Airlines employee known for holding a plane, know that as well. She says she was just doing her job then, and wants to continue helping. Robertson notes that she’s not alone. Many of her colleagues in Houston care deeply about service. They try to help passengers every day, despite airline policies that often make it difficult.

Travelers love stories about customer service heroes. But mostly, they just want a little courtesy and compassion when they’re away. Is that asking for too much?

Is good customer service recognized enough by travelers?

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Where to find better service

Every travel company is capable of offering excellent customer service. Here’s how to find and encourage it.

Look for special training. Companies like Ritz-Carlton and Disney have such well-known reputations for service that they offer hospitality training to other companies. That’s a good sign.

Recognize the little things. If an employee helped you, take a minute to contact the company and compliment that person. Send a brief e-mail via their website. Over time, the commendations will ensure these quality workers are rewarded.

Patronize the best brands. The American Customer Satisfaction Index recognizes the best airlines and hotels. Marriott and Hyatt, for example, rank highest in the latest survey. Stay with them, and avoid substandard companies.


I didn’t damage my rental car, so why do I have to pay?

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When Katherine LaFaso returns her Enterprise rental, she’s charged $500 for damages she says existed before she picked up the car. But how can she prove it?

Question: I rented a car from Enterprise in Paramus, N.J., for a month while my car was being fixed due to an accident. It was the only rental available that day, and an Enterprise employee told me there was an open claim with some damages, which were pointed out to me. I was told I would be contacted in a few days to switch out the car for one without any damage, but that never happened.

When I returned the car, there was a more detailed inspection done by a different employee. The damage in question didn’t even look like damage; it looked more like bad repair work or an imperfection. But the bottom line is: I did not damage the car.

Enterprise charged my credit card $500 without my authorization, and my credit card company recently sided with me and credited my account. Enterprise’s damage-recovery unit is now giving me an ultimatum: Pay up, or we’ll send this to collections, and you could face legal consequences. What are my options now? — Katherine LaFaso, Paramus, N.J.

Answer: You could pay this bill — or fight it.

Here are the reasons to pay: Enterprise claims that you damaged its car, and if you don’t settle up, the car rental company will have to cover the damages. Also, your damage claim may be referred to a collections agency, and you might be added to Enterprise’s “Do Not Rent” list.

Here are the reasons to fight: Your claim raised several red flags that were so troubling even your credit card company sided with you in the dispute. There is the arbitrary $500 charge (despite the fact that Enterprise showed you no repair invoice). And any claim at or near $500, which is the normal amount of an insurance deductible, is suspicious, because it looks as if a car rental company is going for the easy money and trying to keep your insurance company out of its business. By your account, Enterprise lost the credit card dispute, which means it couldn’t prove that you were at fault.

I think this easily might have been avoided. First, never accept a damaged car, even if it’s the last one on the lot. If, for some reason, you feel you have no choice, then take lots of photos or videos of the vehicle with your phone. Document any pre-existing damage in writing, ask a manager to sign the rental agreement, and then get the manager’s business card. You’ll probably need it later.

If you’d shown Enterprise the images and a signed rental agreement with the damages documented, you never would have been charged $500, and you wouldn’t be receiving threatening letters now from the damage-recovery unit.
I’m getting a little tired of these cases. If car rental companies simply asked their customers to photograph their vehicles before driving them off the lot and offered a clear way to document any pre-existing dings and dents, then these cases would disappear overnight. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to end these time-wasting claims, unless they are amazingly profitable.

I contacted Enterprise on your behalf. It reviewed the claim, and although it said there is “no evidence” to support the allegation that the damage was pre-existing, the regional manager who was handling this claim has left the company. As a result, Enterprise couldn’t clarify some questions and follow normal protocol. Enterprise dropped its claim.

Should Enterprise have dropped this claim?

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