How to squeeze a ‘yes’ out of your travel company

By | July 24th, 2010

This isn’t a political column, but when I heard the next president of the United States, Sarah Palin, announce she belongs to the party of “no” — actually, make that the party of “hell no” — I thought for a moment she was talking about the travel industry.

I’m just kidding about the president thing. But not the “no” part.

Travel companies love telling their customers they can’t help them. Want an upgrade? No. A different room? Sorry. A few more days to use a ticket credit? Forget it. An extra hour on your rental car? Nope.

The travel business hasn’t been about “yes we can” since the airlines were recklessly deregulated in the 1970s. But unbelievably, the industry has taken an even harder line in the last year or so, saying we can take it or leave it at a time when they need us more than ever. Go figure.

(Are there exceptions? Sure. I can think of a few caring travel agents, hotel companies and even an airline or two that stand out. But that’s another topic.)

Since I mediate travel disputes every day, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the different ways in which travel companies say “no” — and to find out whether these uncrackable cases can be fixed.

Normally by this point, I would have rolled out a few examples of real travelers who had their cases rejected in a spectacularly humiliating way. I’m staying away from anecdotes in this column to protect the privacy of those who have been repeatedly turned down.

Here are the type of “nos” I hear and a few tips on how to handle them:

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Sorry, we can’t bend that rule.
One of the most common complaints I get comes from travelers who want their company to bend a rule for them. Topping the list are award mile-exemptions. Customers log into their mileage accounts only to discover they’ve lost 300,000 hard-earned frequent flier miles, and they want their airline to turn back the clock. In the good old days (pre-2008) it wasn’t so hard to find a customer service representative who might help. Today, even an inquiry by yours truly isn’t enough. The answer is still “no.” Your miles are gone.

Tip: Know which rules are bendable. Airlines are trying to unload trillions — literally trillions — of miles of mileage liability, so they have a huge incentive to expire your miles quickly. You’d be better off asking for something that won’t cost them as much, like a better seat assignment on your next flight.

Refund? We don’t give refunds.
Everywhere you turn, the travel industry is putting up “no refunds” signs. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, even some car rental companies, are telling their customers “no money back — ever.” Do they really mean it? Yes, they do. The problem is especially bad with hotels, which are luring in customers with lower, nonrefundable rates that are often poorly disclosed. When customers try to change their plans — wham! — they’re hit with the bad news. Your money’s gone. Hotel guest are often shocked by how rigid the properties are. There are no exceptions.