Four secrets for upgrading your next vacation

by Christopher Elliott on March 30, 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.

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.

Solution: It’s still a buyer’s market, so shop around
At a time like this, car rental companies are desperate for your business. So if you find a car rental agent harassing you to buy unneeded insurance, pushing you to take an unnecessary upgrade, or adding unexpected surcharges to your bill, walk away. Go to one of the other car rental locations at the airport and ask for a rate. You can still do that. And unlike airlines, you do have a choice when you rent.

Problem: Predatory cruise lines
Back in the days of the “Love Boat”, a floating vacation was an all-inclusive experience. Today, the love’s gone — and so is the “all-inclusive.” Cruise lines, like airlines, have discovered so-called “ancillary” revenues. They hand you a drink at the welcome reception — sign here, please. You want bottled water in your room? That’ll be an extra $6.95. You’d like to eat in a specialty restaurant? A $20 fee will be added to your bill. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that the low cruise fare was just a way to lure you on board. Now that you’re trapped at sea, it’s time to give your credit card a workout. (If you ever wonder what it’s all about, get up early on the last day of your cruise and watch people settling up at the front desk. You’ll see a lot of disappointed passengers.) The cruise experience is well on its way to becoming a massive bait-and-switch operation.

Solution: Find a good agent, but do your homework
A competent travel agent is an excellent resource for planning a cruise vacation, but don’t rely on one exclusively. Instead, research the kind of cruise you want before visiting a travel counselor. Some upscale cruises such as Seabourn’s, are far more “all-inclusive” with tips and alcoholic beverages part of your fare. Have a cruise line and a destination in mind, and more importantly, know what you don’t want. Then ask a cruise agent for help. (Keep in mind that cruise agents take a commission of around 10 percent of your booking.) A good agent can prevent an avaricious cruise line that’s just trying to get inside your pocket from broadsiding you. Plus, travel agents can ensure you don’t end up on a singles cruise for your 20th wedding anniversary.

Problem: Hotels that hate us
You’ve probably checked into one of these properties before: The place is falling apart. The proprietor is a dead ringer for Basil Fawlty, the cranky innkeeper in the 1970s British sitcom, Fawlty Towers. You feel entirely unwelcome. If you’d only known about this disaster beforehand. Unfortunately, the number of these hotels appears to be on the rise, and unlike the TV show, they’re no laughing matter. One night in a dump like this can leave you wishing for a quick end to your vacation. Bad hotels don’t just take their guests for granted, they prey on them with poorly-disclosed surcharges like “resort fees” and mandatory gratuities. They barely tolerate our presence, and when we have the audacity to complain about something, they shrug us off.

Solution: Get social
Use social media to find — and punish — the worst properties. When it comes to hotels, the Internet is by far the most effective way to avoid a troubled hotel. Despite the best efforts of these awful hotels, it’s impossible to hide from an angry public. Sites like TripAdvisor, Twitter and Facebook let them name names. Don’t stay at a property that hasn’t been vetted by the Internet. (It’s true that hotels — both good and bad — try to influence social media, but their efforts have a minimal effect.) Bottom line? If your hotel checks out online, chances are you’ll have a good stay.

It’s a shame that I have to write a column like this. Travel should be getting better, not worse. But as basic principles of customer service get pushed aside by people with titles like “revenue manager” and “vice president for analytical systems” there is no other way.

If you don’t act now, you’ll get downgraded.

(Photo: fatcontroller/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • http://www.bonjourparis.com Karen Fawcett

    Chris – thank you for the excellent advice. I’d like to add a plug in for another two airlines:

    Virgin America

    If you have some extra cash and can afford a somewhat more expensive transatlantic ticket – OPEN SKIES.
    I’ve never felt as spoiled on an airline recently. The flight crews are actually glad to see the passengers and make them feel special!

    I am so happy it is launching a Washington, DC – Paris flight in May.

  • Laura Townsend Elion

    Chris-

    Excellent advice!

    The bit about settling up on the cruise line is the one that resonanted with me. On our last cruise we paid for a restaruant upgrade, some shore excursions, and we tipped our servers well, and that was about it, we were happy. But the last morning of the cruise I actually heard screams and yelling behind some of the cabin doors after the bill have been shoved through. It was a Disney cruise and folks had small telephone book-size packets from bar charges (on a Disney cruise! who said it was for the kids?). If you don’t want to be surprised, limit the drinking, or drink on shore visits where you have to settle the tab then.

    As far as rental cars, it pays to say it again, as you have before, inspect the cars carefully and document – there has been an upswing on rental companies coming after renters for damages, whether caused by them or not.

    And it is defintely true that you can’t always avoid an airline you hate. I’ve had to fly some I dislike when they were the only one offering a connection or flight time I had to have – so it is much better to make them aware of your displeasure in other ways, such as lobbying for legislation.

  • dcta

    You know, some of this is very interesting.

    As for air – I haven’t had a bad flight experience in years – it’s not that I’m riding in Business or First, it’s not that I’m not dealing with baggage fees, it’s not that I’m not dealing with being at the airport ridiculously early and then being bored to death waiting…I think it’s my attitude – I know what to expect by now and, well, it is what it is.

    Cars – join the “club level” of one of those companies – National or Hertz or Avis and you’re less likely to be disappointed with an older or banged up car.

    Hotels – it’s been probably 6 years since I’ve had a client return from vacation and complain about the hotel/resort. Honestly. Again, depending on what property they are going to, I make sure that my clients’ expectations are reasonable and appropriate – and I research the hotels/resorts very carefully before recommending one.

    Cruise – spot on. If someone is attracted to NCL’s rather low cruise- fare, we have a pretty good conversation about why it is so low and what to expect in terms of dining…and their ultimate bill. AI cruise lines you did not include: Regent Seven Seas and you may as well include Crystal with the enormous (up to $1k per person) ship board credit they give each passenger.

  • Hapgood

    You forgot one important “secret:” STAYCATION!!

    No, not for every vacation. But maybe occasionally you could devote a week or so to discovering some of the interesting places in your home town that you overlooked back in the days when air travel was enjoyable and hotels treated their guests as guests. If you do your homework (i.e., read some guidebooks to plan an itinerary like you’d do for any other trip), you can enjoy a real vacation that avoids the hassles and rip-offs, saves you some money, helps your local economy– and sends a message to the “industry” in the only form they’ll listen to. That’s not an ideal solution, but it’s worth an occasional try.

    As for the airlines, I think you got it slightly wrong. Stop flying AND tell your elected representative you’re unhappy. Complaining to your elected officials would probably be more effective if it’s accompanied by “voting with your wallet.” The bottom line is the only thing the “industry” executives care about and notice. If the Quarterly Numbers show their dissatisfied customers refusing to buy degraded products, they might take notice.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    Chris wrote an excellent article, Where’s the Service?, http://traveler.nationalgeographic.com/2010/04/insider-text/2, at the National Geographic Traveler which I think hit the nail on the head.

    Chris wrote “the Internet may be the biggest culprit of them all; it mostly replaced the ranks of travel agents and turned every travel experience except the super-luxurious into a commodity. In this new world, service takes a backseat to price.” I agree…travel has become a commodity not an experience. It seems like most travel providers do not know how to sell its value, how to sell its unique value proposition and etc…instead they just cut prices and services to match the discounters.

    Also, Chris wrote “The prevailing customer attitude is rude, entitled, and occasionally, abusive. It’s an attitude I encounter more and more. So what if the ticket is nonrefundable—I want my money back! Who cares if I paid for a courtyard room—I deserve oceanview accommodations! Don’t you dare charge me for the dent I put in my rental car—it’s the cost of doing business! It isn’t just that we want more; we want more than we deserve. The most common request is from airline passengers who are delayed because of thunderstorms or faulty equipment. It’s not enough that the airline offers meal and hotel vouchers for the inconvenience—passengers feel entitled to compensation for the half day of their missed vacation, and they want it now.” I agree…part of the problem is the consumer…the other part of the problem is the travel provider.

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