If you’re reading this, then something has probably gone wrong with your trip. Maybe your airline canceled your flight or your hotel lost your reservation. And you need to know how to solve your travel problem.

I can help. Over more than two decades of consumer advocacy, I’ve helped resolve tens of thousands of trips that went wrong.

Before I get to the solutions, let me be the first to say, “I’m sorry.” This may be the first – possibly even the only time – you’ll hear a genuine apology. The travel industry isn’t very good at owning up to its shortcomings. I’ve at least tried to make up for some of them.

Christopher Elliott, the Travel Troubleshooter ...
Christopher Elliott, the Travel Troubleshooter

Common travel problems

I’ve spoken to countless travelers about their vacation mistakes, and it often comes back to one thing: poor planning. It’s easy to ruin a vacation. Just schedule your flight for the wrong day or forget to confirm your hotel reservation.

You can minimize those issues by double-checking your flight time before you leave, and double-checking your dates before you click the “book” button. (Remember to account for time differences.) Review the fine print for surprise fees and words like “nonrefundable” before you book.

You can’t control the weather (at least not yet). You can’t do anything about crime or other disasters. But you can anticipate them when you schedule your vacation.

Corporate travel is a little different. It’s not about having fun, but about getting from point A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible — and without spending too much money. Among the most common problems: Any type of delay (airline, car rental or hotel); loss of luggage or valuables; problems with documents such as visas, passports or work permits; and health problems.

But whether you’re traveling for business or leisure, all have a common first step to resolve the issue. It all runs through the customer service department, which is my specialty. Delays, lost luggage, missed flights, bad hotels — consumers try to get them resolved through a travel company’s customer service department. And not always to your satisfaction.

Travel problem solutions

My consumer advocacy organization helps advocate for customers at no charge. Many of the cases we handle include problems with airlines, car rental companies, hotels and vacation rentals. People line up for help getting refunds for airline tickets, hotel rooms and vacation rentals, or waivers of strict rules, such as nonrefundable tickets or hotel rooms.

Consumers don’t realize that they can fix problems like this on their own with just a little knowledge and the right plan of action. Here’s how:

Read the rules. Before you start your complaint process, you need to know if you have a legitimate complaint. For example, airlines have a document called the contract of carriage that spells out their obligations to passengers. It’s not exactly a page-turner, but you need to be familiar with the rules and, if possible, cite them when you believe the company isn’t following them.

Ask for help promptly. No matter what your problem, ask the travel company to address it immediately. Airline employees and hotel workers are not mind-readers — they don’t know you’re unhappy unless you tell them. Please be polite and include a reasonable resolution request. The sooner you ask for help, the sooner they’ll be able to resolve it.

Put it in writing. If no one can help you in real time, then it’s time to get in front of your computer and craft an effective email. Describe your problem briefly. You’re probably capable of typing the Great American Novel about your horrible trip. Don’t do it! The people reading your letter are sifting through hundreds of complaints a day. Try to make this as easy as you can for them.

Include all the relevant details. A company will need to track your complaint through a reservation number or a record locator. Don’t omit that information. At a minimum, include your full name, record locator number and the date you traveled.

Go through channels. Regardless of what happened, you need to be sure you’ve gone through the proper channels. That means letting the company that wronged you know about their failure in writing. Take screen shots of your online purchase and attach those to your correspondence. Then send your concise email to the company. (I can’t help you until you’ve received a letter or email back from the company rejecting your claim.)

Give the company time to respond. Many readers expect an immediate resolution. If only! You should receive an automated acknowledgment within 24 hours, but don’t look for a meaningful response for days or weeks. Be patient.

Appeal your case. I list the names, numbers and email addresses of the top company executives at https://elliott.org/company-contacts. Send them a brief, polite email and enclose your original correspondence. Start with a manager and give that person plenty of time to review your case. If that doesn’t work, appeal to a vice president and finally the CEO. Again, please be polite.

What if that doesn’t work?

These strategies will solve almost every travel problem. But if not, you still have three options:

1. Contact the authorities. The U.S. Department of Transportation regulates airlines. You can file a complaint with DOT if the airline isn’t following the rules. States regulate hotels and car rentals. You can file a complaint with the state’s attorney general. Other laws vary based on the country.

2. File a credit card dispute. A credit card dispute, or chargeback, under the Fair Credit Billing Act, is your final option — the nuclear option, as I like to call it. You can force a merchant to refund your money under certain circumstances. If you purchased a product or service that wasn’t delivered as promised, you might be able to do a chargeback.

3. Go to small claims court. Filing a lawsuit in small claims court can be an efficient way of recovering a refund. You don’t have to hire a lawyer, but bear in mind that the maximum claim amount is limited. Remember to keep a paper trail. Your judge will ask for all your records.

How do I solve a problem like a pro?

I have a few pointers for self-advocacy:

Get to the point. Say what you want. Tell the company how you think this would best be resolved. Do you want an apology? A voucher for a discount on a future cruise or rental?

Be reasonable. It’s important to be reasonable about your request. An airline won’t give you a free roundtrip ticket in first class because a flight attendant forgot to bring you a cup of coffee.

Don’t forget your manners. You probably feel like giving the company a piece of your mind, but your approach should be factual, detached and extremely polite. Mind your manners – say “please” and “thank you” and never, ever threaten. Phrases like “I’ll never fly on your airline again” or “you’ll be hearing from my lawyer” will severely limit the effectiveness of your appeal. Be positive. Instead of saying, “After my ordeal of cruising on your dreadful ship, I demand a full refund,” try, “I know how important customer service is to you, and I am confident you would want to address this situation.”

And if that doesn’t work?

When you’ve exhausted every appeal and the company still won’t do the right thing – or it simply won’t respond at all – please contact me. If you’ve received a definitive “no” from the highest level of appeal, or if it’s been six to eight weeks and the company still hasn’t replied to your query, I can help. Reach me at www.elliott.org/help.


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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