Four secrets for upgrading your next vacation

By | March 21st, 2010

Think this is bad?

It could get worse. Much worse.

Travel is still at the beginning of its long descent into mediocrity. Airlines seem to invent new surcharges and passenger-hostile rules every week. Hotels aren’t far behind. Just the mention of the word “customer service” in the back office can be enough to evoke cackles of disdain from the underpaid employees. Worse, there are virtually no consumer protections against any of the inevitable abuses.

But you don’t have to go along for the ride. Sure, the latest customer surveys suggest customer satisfaction scores have plummeted to their lowest levels in years. (How bad is it? In one notable case, the industry celebrated a customer-approval grade of C-.) And if you read this column, you can try to count the many times the travel industry has let its customers down.

What, you’ve lost count? Me too.

“They have little regard for the customer,” says Ed Smith, a retired minister from Lenoir City, Tenn. “We used to be considered guests, but now — especially on the airlines — we are considered a necessary evil.”

There is hope, though.

While the travel industry seems hell-bent on downgrading your next trip, (and I have to be careful here not to single out my friends in the travel agency community — you’re the victims here, too) there are a few things you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen.

You can upgrade your trip. How? Here are a few tips I’ve picked up as a consumer advocate:

Problem: Airlines that treat us worse than cargo
Face it, you want to fly like you did before airlines were recklessly deregulated in 1978. Ah, those were the days! Back then, everyone was served an in-flight meal by a smiling stewardess, the planes were comfortable and on-time. Well, that’s not likely to happen again any time soon. But there are still two airlines — JetBlue and Southwest — that have outstanding corporate cultures and go easy on the fees. Avoiding bad service is not as easy. You could read the Transportation Department’s monthly report card, but you’ll probably just go cross-eyed doing that. You’re better off asking friends, monitoring the online buzz, and trying the airlines for yourself.

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Solution: Vote with your wallet — or just vote
The trouble with avoiding bad airlines is that even when you’ve identified one, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can stay away from it. This is where my airline apologist friends and I differ. They believe market forces will compel bad airlines to behave, that inferior airlines will be unsuccessful because people will refuse to fly on them. But you don’t always have a choice in airlines. When that happens, you have two options: stop flying or tell your elected representative you’re unhappy. That’s right, get political. It’s a mediocre airline’s worst nightmare: passengers who let Congress know they’re ticked off.

Car rentals: Clunkers for cash
A few years ago, it was difficult to tell one car rental company from another. Most of the vehicles were low-mileage, late model cars. The only thing that separated them was the price, at least from a traveler’s point of view. No longer. Today, after a series of car industry bankruptcies and consolidations, companies are trying to save money by “aging” their fleets — that’s industry-speak for keeping their vehicles as long as possible — and cutting corners everywhere. Not only that, they’re also inventing new fees and tightening their rental rules in the hopes of squeezing more money from their customers. That’s right: Less for more. Always a winning proposition … if you want to drive your customers away.