The Olympian task of going head-to-head with travel businesses

When Judy Galliher of Silver Spring sent me her hotel horror story, I had a reflexive, Scrappy Doo-like reaction: Lemme at ‘em!

My rescue complex is the natural result of a career spent solving travel troubles. And Galliher’s problem was a doozy. She’d reserved a motel in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, but her booking had been canceled twice — once because of an “error” and then a few months later because the property lost its franchise contract.

Suddenly she had no place to stay during the Games.

I e-mailed Galliher, as I have every other traveler who has taken the time to send me a note since I began writing this column, offering to help. Along the way, I learned something about my readers: You don’t necessarily want an ombudsman to fix your problems. Sometimes, you just want someone to listen (and maybe publish your story to embarrass the offending travel company).

“Since I’ve found other accommodations that are actually more to my liking,” Galliher informed me a few days later, “I’m not inclined to pursue it.”

But others have been so inclined.

For instance, Lynn Kamimoto, a recent guest at the Fairfax at Embassy Row. She thought her “grand deluxe room” included a full American breakfast at the hotel’s Jockey Club. It didn’t, and her deluxe room wasn’t as “deluxe” as the hotel’s Web site promised.

“Our room did not have views of Massachusetts Avenue, nor was it the larger configuration,” she wrote me. “Instead, it faced a service alley. . . . In viewing the fire-escape map on the back of the door, it seemed that we were occupying one of the smallest rooms on the floor.”

Her complaint to the hotel’s parent company, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, yielded a lukewarm apology and 7,000 frequent-stayer points, which didn’t quite cut it. So I contacted the company, after which Starwood sweetened the offer to a refund of the rate difference between the larger and smaller rooms, which came to about $50 a night.

“Thank you for your assistance,” Kamimoto e-mailed me.

Anytime.

Not every case is so easily solved, or even solvable. Leanne Omland of South Riding contacted me after her daughter was infected with H1N1 just before a flight to Ireland. “I spoke with an American Airlines agent by telephone to cancel the tickets a full two weeks before departure,” she said. “She was unable to connect us with any telephone number or name to arrange a refund on nonrefundable tickets. We have a customer service address at the [Dallas-Fort Worth] airport. I hesitate to send even copies of all our information out there to a mail drop location. Can you please help?”

Yes and no. Yes, I could help. But before I did, I needed to see American Airlines’ denial. In writing. Airlines are known to make exceptions to their refund rules when there’s an infected passenger.

If a written denial is unreasonable — and they often are — then Omland would have a paper trail that could be used to quickly resolve the case through my intervention or, if necessary, to sue the airline in small-claims court.

Omland is still waiting for a reply from American. And she isn’t alone. Bob Bouvier of Herndon was also on “hold” with his car rental company for what seemed like too long. He recently paid Budget 204 euros (about $298) for a car in Turin, Italy, but his credit card was subsequently billed another 160 euros (about $234).

“I filed a complaint on the Budget Web site that was acknowledged,” he wrote me. “After waiting a few days and hearing nothing, I called their customer service number. I was told it could take up to 21 days to hear something since he had to pass this over to their international office.”

Turns out that Bouvier didn’t have to cool his heels for the better part of a month. I contacted Budget on his behalf, and the company issued a partial refund. But it kept 77 euros (about $112) for a mandatory “theft protection” policy that had been poorly disclosed when he rented the car. “I would like nothing better than for Budget to be publicly humiliated for their shamelessness,” he said after the partial resolution.

Patience doesn’t come easy in a situation like this. Whether a travel company is holding $234 of your hard-earned vacation dollars or skimming $50 a night off the top, you want results. Right now.

But how do you define a result? I tend to think of it in absolute terms — a refund, an apology, or both. While I’ve found that readers of this column want their money back, they’re often willing to settle for having the offending hotel or airline be subjected to public humiliation in this column. Keep the cash, in other words; let the court of public opinion convict these companies and then warn would-be customers about doing business with them.

I understand the sentiment, but a public takedown is rarely a good idea. A vast majority of cases can be resolved with a simple strategy of politeness and persistence. The ones that aren’t can be handled in a court of law, or by yours truly.

(Photo: Globalreset/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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