In the travel industry, little things can make a big difference.
The zipper on your suitcase, for example. Traditionally, airlines have excluded specific parts of checked baggage, such as wheels, straps, zippers, handles and protruding parts, when reimbursing travelers for damaged luggage.
Benito Leon, whose Kenneth Cole spinner was damaged on a flight from Anchorage to Dallas last summer, filed a claim with the airline, which insisted it didn’t cover damage to zippers.
“I was quoted this phrase three times,” says Leon, who lives in Miami. “ ‘American Airlines does not assume liability for damages caused to baggage zippers.’ ”
But late last year, the Department of Transportation formally clarified a federal regulation called 14 CFR 254.4. If an airline breaks any part of your bag — even if it’s sticking out — the carrier is on the hook for up to $3,500 per passenger.
Travelers (and, ahem, travel columnists) like to fixate on the big events, such as corporate mergers and congressional legislation. But often, the details that shape the customer experience are small, barely worth a mention in a story. From customer-friendly policies to thoughtful ways to welcome guests, the travel industry is discovering the power of small.
For example, every car rental company has a policy on late returns. If you’re a frequent traveler, like Linda Talley, you know that if you bring the car back past the deadline, you have to pay for an extra day. It’s how the policy is interpreted that matters.
“I like car rental companies that do have a grace period of, say, 15 minutes when returning cars,” says Talley, a behavioral theorist from Houston. Just a few minutes of looking the other way is sometimes enough to turn a late, frustrated customer into a happy one who is likely to return.
Car rental companies are also known to shuttle their VIPs directly to the airport terminal when they drop off their cars. But how do you define a VIP? Surely not someone like Austin Bliss, who runs a marketing firm in Boston and was traveling, under no special status, with his kids recently. But, as he discovered, their definition of “very important” has a little wiggle room.
“Instead of being told to ‘Walk over there and get on the bus,’ the check-in agent hopped in our rental car and drove us right to our gate,” he remembers. “It took probably 10 minutes of her time but saved us a ton of agony loading and unloading luggage, car seats and strollers.”
I’ve also experienced a VIP ride to the airport, a few years ago in Hawaii. It was completely unexpected. An employee saw my family and our baggage and decided to go the extra mile. It brought a smile to my face.
Many hotels now offer amenity kits for guests who leave their toothbrushes — one of the most common items travelers forget to pack — at home. These extras are unexpected and often unadvertised, but, time and again, travelers say they can make the difference between a good stay and a great one. (Kimpton hotels, take a bow. You offer anything a guest might leave at home, including a night light and superglue.)