How to Complain and Get Results


You can find more stories like this in our Travel Section.

You asked for a non-smoking room and the hotel said no problem, but when you checked in, the room reeked of tobacco smoke. You put a lock on your luggage, but when the airline returned your bag, the lock was broken.  The sporty roadster you requested from the car rental agency turned out to be a gas-guzzling SUV.

Now what?

You complain. But you don’t complain just to let off steam; that’s venting. Venting and its first cousin, ranting, may make you feel better, but they don’t get you anywhere.

You want recompense – maybe money for a new bag, definitely a new, smoke-free hotel room - and you want to do your bit to shape-up the company. You understand that if the company management doesn’t hear from you, they won’t know they have a problem and will be thus unable to fix it.

But, there are rules for how to complain and get results.

Don’t lose your temper. You don’t want this moment to devolve into a quarrel. Keep your cool, stick to the facts, keep it short and be polite.

Be specific. Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business-travel Web site, suggests taking notes to bolster your memory and emphasizing only the major issues (not the little things that only add insult to injury).

Build a paper trail. That’s part of being specific, and it shows you know what you’re talking about. Keep credit card receipts, airline e-tickets, boarding passes and hotel documents. Send only copies, never originals, when you produce documentation to the offending company.

Understand that timing is important. In some cases – as with the hotel room that was supposed to be non-smoking, but wasn’t – you must complain in real-time. You want to transfer to another room and you need to do that now. Work with the front desk – softly, softly - to get that new room.

Amy Bradley-Hole, a veteran employee of hotel companies in the U.S. and abroad, said that frustrated guests should complain right away. “I’ve received countless letters from guests who had problems during a stay but never brought them to anyone’s attention,’’ she notes.
Many such problems can be resolved if they are addressed promptly. In the case of the bag with a broken lock, speak to an airline supervisor in the baggage claim area at the airport. Or ask to speak to that airline’s airport duty manager, who has more authority.
Complain to the right person. In some cases, it’s the baggage handler. Other times, it’s the airport duty manager. If satisfaction is not forthcoming, then write, call or e-mail the company’s management, tell them your problem, document it, and politely spell out what you want them to do. Go to the director or vice president for customer service, and direct your complaint to them by name. You can often find names and job titles on company Web sites.

Keep your request for compensation in perspective. You might like to luxuriate in the presidential suite at the hotel the next time you stay there, but that might be overkill. A discount or voucher for your next stay might be a more appropriate reward.

And finally, no matter how frustrated or angry you might be, don’t indignantly inform the offending company that you’ll never patronize their business again. You may feel that way deep inside, but blowing-off the company you are trying to persuade to help you may instead convince them they don’t have any incentive to keep you as a customer – you’ve already told them it won’t matter anyway.

If dealing with the company doesn’t work, try going around or over them. Complaints about airlines, for example, can be directed to the Department of Transportation by calling (202) 366-2220 or going online at

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