How coffee taught me how to be a consumer advocate

Amenic181/Shutterstock
Amenic181/Shutterstock

It’s one of the most common questions I get as a consumer advocate: How did you get that job?

The answer: It started with coffee.

Seriously. My odyssey into advocacy began in 1984 with my first gig at a small business in Mountain View, Calif., that specialized in roasting gourmet coffee. It happened to be owned by my late uncle, who offered my younger brother and me a job and a place to stay in his spare bedroom.

You’re probably picturing me delivering lattes to the pilots at Moffett Air Field. Cushy job, right?
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The Travel Troubleshooter: How much is that coffee spill worth?

Question: My husband and I recently flew from Berlin to Newark on Continental Airlines. After about 45 minutes in the air, the flight attendants offered beverage service. I politely requested coffee.

There was no turbulence. When the flight attendant reached over my husband to serve me in the window seat, she spilled the entire contents of a cup of scalding hot coffee directly into my lap. I jumped out of my seat and took off for the restroom. I was scalded, traumatized and very embarrassed. Everyone up and down the aisle was staring.

My pants were soaked through to my underwear. The seat cushion was soaked and my husband’s shirt and pants were wet as well. Both seat cushions had to be replaced. The flight attendant was apologetic and upon my return from the restroom, realized that I was hurt and in tears. She offered me ice. I declined. Another attendant came over a while later and offered me aspirin.

The attendant informed us that we would be required to complete an incident report, which we did. We were also given a voucher to have our clothes cleaned.

In consideration of the pain, embarrassment and inconvenience, I asked Continental to reimburse my frequent flier account 100,000 miles, which is what I paid for my ticket. Continental has refused. Can you help? — Sheryl Siegel, Wellington, Fla.

Answer: Continental was correct to apologize and offer you the cleaning certificates. But how much more are you entitled to? What’s your pain and suffering worth?
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Good advice: Read every email twice before your first cup of coffee

Here’s a life lesson, courtesy of my friends at Starwood Hotels & Resorts: If you haven’t had your first cup of coffee in the morning, do yourself a favor and read every email twice.

In a pre-caffeinated state yesterday, I only skimmed Sandra St. Germain’s missive, which began,

I am writing to see what you suggest to resolve this before I am stranded in Egypt with my grandson and no hotel room.

I have been calling, several times, and even emailing as Le Méridien customer service representative told me to do, attaching a copy of my reservation, in an attempt to resolve the lost reservation issue.

Oh no! Grandmother. Stranded in Cairo. Needs help now.

I immediately went into rescue mode.
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A fee for drinking coffee in your room? What’ll they think of next!

Leslie Kelley’s room rate at InterContinental’s Barclay New York was an astonishingly low $129 a night. Astonishing, because the published room rate is $329 a night. And astonishing, because of the extras the hotel allegedly tried to add to her bill to make up for some of the lost revenue.

At least that’s her story.

Here’s the rate she booked through Hotwire. As a reminder, Hotwire is an “opaque” site that doesn’t tell you which property you’re staying at until you’ve made a nonrefundable reservation by credit card.

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Wow, that’s some deal.

But then things got interesting.

I guess they were not making any money off of us, since they tried to charge us more than $80 for a breakfast the day we were checking out — and that we did not have in their dining room. Got that taking off the bill as the signature on the receipt was nothing like my husbands and we were just heading out for breakfast. Don’t think we’d be eating again right after eating $80 worth of food there.

OK, that’s unfortunate, but it sounds like an honest billing error. Happens all the time, and the Barclay fixed it quickly. But then …

When we got home and got our credit card bill they had added another $3.25, not on the original check-out bill, for the coffee bags placed in the room.

Have you ever heard of a hotel charging for the coffee or tea that I previously thought was an amenity in the room? They certainly were not in the locked mini bar. What a bunch of cheapos! Is this a new practice of all hotels?

This is the first I’ve heard of a hotel charging for the in-room coffeemaker. Some unethical hotels add a “resort” fee that they say includes the use of an in-room coffeemaker, but I’ve never ever seen a fee for drinking coffee in your room.

Have you come across a surcharge for drinking coffee in your room?