Thursday, February 27, 2020

How to get a travel company to respond to your complaint

Today’s post is by Christopher Elliott, whose latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Airlines, car rental companies and hotels claim that they’re responsive to customers’ problems, but who are they kidding? Too often, they answer your emails with pre-written responses and your tweets with canned one-liners. Or they don’t answer at all. So how do you get a travel company to respond to your complaint?

Know what a "free ticket" really is.
People like John Dignam want to know. He recently tried to redeem two “free” flight vouchers on Spirit Airlines. He and his daughter had received them when they volunteered to give up their seats on a flight from San Francisco to Baltimore. But when Dignam, a federal manager from Catonsville, Md., tried to use the vouchers for a new flight, Spirit only lowered the cost of each ticket by $12.98.

“Thinking this must be an error, I called and spoke to a Spirit representative,” he says. The airline confirmed that the vouchers had a combined value of about $26. “The remaining $188 was my responsibility.”

Dignam emailed Spirit asking if he had misunderstood the meaning of “free.” The response? Crickets.

It turns out that Dignam was talking, but no one was listening. I contacted Spirit on his behalf. The company said it hadn’t heard from him, blaming an “IT issue that we can’t replicate.”

It refunded Dignam’s ticket.

Choosing the right channel of communication is important. Most travelers pick up the phone to resolve a problem, but that is rarely the right move. A carefully written, rational complaint sent using the company’s online “help” form is far more effective, at least to start. If patience isn’t your thing, you could also ping a company on social media. Sometimes a tweet or a Facebook post can get things moving in your direction.

Travel agents can often help clients in a dispute.
Another often overlooked route to a quick resolution: a travel agent. You can often leverage that relationship to get a company’s attention. “A true travel professional is going to have a direct relationship with the hotel, airline or cruise line and can be your voice to get the issue resolved,” says Jennifer Achim, a vice president of marketing for Ovation Travel Group, a travel agency in New York.

If you want a travel company to respond to your complaint, you also need the right approach. Nancy Friedman, whose St. Louis consultancy, the Telephone Doctor, trains call center workers, recommends what she calls “CPR.”

First, she advises, stay calm. “Raising your voice usually will not get you better service — or any positive results,” Friedman says.

Next, prepare yourself with information — dates, times, names. The more specific, the better. And remember that the person you’re talking to—a hotel clerk or car rental agent, for example--normally isn’t the person who created the problem.  Blaming them for your misfortune can hinder your chances of getting a company’s attention.

The right words can help, too. Be sure to use what Joshua Dorsey, an assistant professor at California State University at Fullerton, calls the “language of business” to describe the problem.

“Keywords like ‘service failure,’ ‘switching costs’ and ‘cost of retention’ will always resonate with managers and customer service representatives, whether they admit it or not,” Dorsey says.

At larger companies, sophisticated software analyzes almost every customer service interaction, including phone calls. When phrases like “service failure” and even words like “disappointed” pop up, complaints are flagged and reported to managers.
Written complaints, including email, are more effective than talking on the phone.

Of course, you can do everything right and still fail to get a company’s attention. That’s probably because businesses have developed methods to more efficiently process — but not necessarily address — customer complaints. You can see that in the scripted online chats and endless phone trees that you have to negotiate when you want help. And you can’t help but feel that companies want customers with problems to just go away.

No surprise, then, that travelers are taking more extreme measures to get a company’s attention. One remarkable development is the power of online reviews.

 “The fact is, the travel industry lives and dies by their online reviews,” says says Elaine Rose, a spokeswoman for Review Inc., a Woodland Hills, Calif., reputation-management company. Even hotels and major airlines are managing their online reviews with software that will notify them when a customer has left a review — either positive or negative.”

A classic tactic for getting a travel company to respond to a complaint, threatening to sue, can backfire. That’s because companies normally refer lawsuit threats to the legal department. There, in-house attorneys must decide whether it’s a credible threat. If it is, they’ll respond to the complaint. But more often than not, they’ll write it off as an empty threat and close the case with no resolution.

If you have a consumer complaint and the company is being dismissive, maybe it’s time to adjust your approach. Consider another strategy or shift to a different channel. And remember, you can always take your grievance to social media.

Photos from free sources

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Zip lining through a rain forest in Fiji

Sometimes when you find yourself making lemonade out of lemons, the new activity is even better than you might have had before. That’s sort of what happened on our recent cruise across the Pacific Ocean.

One of the islands we looked forward to visiting was American Samoa. But a measles outbreak there got serious enough that the island became off limits for Americans. As a result, our ship couldn’t dock at the intended ports. Instead we spent an extra day at Suva, Fiji. 

Larry is ready for the first zip line.
Larry and I had an excursion on tap to visit Colo-i-Suva Forest Park, a spectacular rain forest with clear river waters and a waterfall pool just right for a cool dip. With our bonus day, we booked a last-minute tour to go zip lining through a rain forest—and it was one of the best we’ve ever done.

We arrived at Wainadoi Zip Line after a brief delay to enable our emptied bus to navigate deep pot holes in the dirt road. But it was worth exiting the bus for. Soaring through the air over a lush, green rain forest proved to be a fantastic experience.

Guides helped guests strap on harnesses and helmets and gave quick instructions for stopping oneself when approaching the platforms. Unfortunately, some of those instructions didn’t stick for some of the guests!

Beverly comes in for a smooth landing.
Opened in 2008 as Fiji's first zip line, Wainadoi is set in a thick rain forest. Platforms for eight zip lines of varying lengths are attached to trees. Constructed of iron in an open design, the platforms allow water to drain in order not to rot the wood. Ferns, palms, and a variety of tree species seemed close enough that we might collide when whooshing on the cables. But, of course, that didn’t happen.

Except for the path between zip lines one and two, which required a steep uphill trek, the other platforms were easy to access. That is, if you braked yourself properly and landed upright on the platform. Several folks found out that braking too soon stopped their momentum, thus leaving them dangling mid-line, and requiring them to pull themselves hand over hand to the next platform. A more exciting experience than they anticipated!
Another zip for Larry

The last zip provided a spectacular finish.  Guests soared through the trees, over a ravine and above a glistening pond. Refreshed with cool bottled water at the end, we enjoyed watching as smiling, excited (maybe relieved!) guests cleared the final hurdle. 

Although we had previously zipped in numerous other countries, this was still a thrilling ride, a serendipitous excursion that made missing a desired port a little less annoying. 

Back on the ship a delicious surf and turf dinner at the specialty restaurant followed by a glorious sunset capped a perfectly fine day at sea.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A day at Australia's Gold Coast

Despite the massive fires in Australia during their 2020 summer, during our January trip to Brisbane and Sydney we did not experience heavy smoke or see burned sections of land. Fortunately, there had been rain a few days before our arrival in Brisbane, which cleared the air and allowed us to follow our schedule of planned activities.
View of Brisbane as seen from the water on a Duck Boat ride.
Our first experience was a Duck Boat ride through the city and into the water for a look at the coast and Surfer’s Paradise skyline from that viewpoint. Back on land, we headed to the SkyPoint Observation Deck. A quick elevator ride whisked us 77 stories to the glass walls of the Q-Deck, Australia’s only beachside observation deck.

With unrivaled 360 degree views, we could see from the coast to the hinterland.  Informative displays shared facts about the region, but we were most enthralled with extended views of the 52-mile-long beach and a unique overview of the many bridges, canals, and Brisbane River that cris-cross the city.

A series of rivers, canals, and bridges winds through the city of Brisbane.
SkyPoint Observation Deck transforms into a chic, high altitude lounge bar with music and glittering skyline views on weekend nights. Unfortunately, we could not stay that long; in fact, a fast-moving storm mid-afternoon hastened our departure.
Our time at the Gold Coast
As Larry and I spent a warm sunny day exploring this uber-famous resort area we quickly understood why Australians often chose Queensland’s Gold Coast for vacation. Its unique combination of natural beauty and city attractions makes it a destination of choice for Aussies as well as travelers from other countries.

The beach extends for a very long way.
Australia has 35,000 miles of shoreline, but few are as impressive as the Gold Coast. White sand beaches, stunning high-rise residential towers, plenty of inviting shops and cafes, and a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere lure visitors here. This was especially true since our visit took place during the last week before a new school started. But there’s ample room on the beach and among shopping venues for crowds to spread out--and plenty of activities to keep all ages occupied.
Larry and I started our visit to the idyllic seaside community of Surfer’s Paradise with a lunch of fish and chips at the Surf Club. It was perfect for people-watching and enjoying beach scenery. After a modest shopping spree along the main street and in a few of the 120 mall shops (I purchased a cross made of Australian opal) we went for a stroll on the beach. A well-defined walking path sprinkled with adequate benches and even some shade enticed us to walk further, observing surfers riding breaking waves offshore and families enjoying the refreshing water.
Waves were just large enough to entice surfers.
I can’t be on a beach, especially one with soft golden sand, without testing the water. So I shed my shoes, tiptoed over some hot stairs, and waded into the surf. By this time, the wind had whipped up, so I didn’t venture too far into the blustery waves. But I accomplished my mission to sample the Pacific Ocean at Brisbane.
When the wind started blowing, sand was kicked up all along the beach.
Following our relaxed afternoon in Surfers Paradise, it was time to leave this small section of the Gold Coast and return to Brisbane. And the rains—which were definitely welcomed by the Aussies-- came soon after. Additional rain will alleviate devastating effects from the widespread fires, which would hopefully encourage more visitors to this beautiful region.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, February 8, 2020

A new way to celebrate Mardi Gras

Padre Island in Corpus Christi, Texas will host the 11th Annual Barefoot Mardi Gras Parade and Festival on Saturday, February 22, 2020. Barefoot Mardi Gras captures the great spirit of Island life and gives everyone in the family something wonderful to experience during this most lively time of the year.
Toes in the sand for Mardi Gras in Corpus Christi, Texas
The Barefoot Mardi Gras festivities will kick off with the Parade at 11:00 a.m. at Whitecap Beach and continue through Padre Balli Park.  Over sixty floats will stroll on along the beach, all decorated in traditional Mardi Gras themes and complete with the tossing of necklaces, galleons, and candy to the spectators. The Barefoot Mardi Gras Festival continues through 5:00 p.m. with an admission fee of $5. It will feature food trucks, live jazz and Cajun music, exhibitors, an art show and free children’s activities. The festival will be located at the Briscoe King Pavilion in Padre Balli Park.

Brisco King Pavilion in
Padre Balli Park, Corpus Christi
The 2020 King and Queen Ball will take place on Fat Tuesday, February 25 with a New Orleans style event featuring Cajun food, live music, and different fun activities. This event takes place at Waves Resort from 6:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.  At 9:00 p.m. the new Barefoot King and Queen will be crowned during a traditional New Orleans Processional in the festival.  Tickets for the Ball are $30 per person in advance or $40 at the door. The event is for people 21 years and older. Costumes are encouraged.

"We invite everyone to join us in a traditional Mardi Gras celebration that is family-friendly and uniquely held at the beach, said Elaine Motl, Event Producer for the Padre Island Business Association. “Leave your shoes at home and come let the good times roll!"

Whitecap Beach, Corpus Christi, Texas
Proceeds from the 2020 festival benefit the Island Foundation Schools and Big Brothers Big Sisters. For more information on the events please visit

Information courtesy of Teresa Rodriguez, Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau,
Photos from free sites

Monday, February 3, 2020

How is an Airbnb different from a B&B?

Today’s post is by Christopher Elliott, whose latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

The lines between an Airbnb – an apartment or room rented through the home-sharing site – and a traditional bed and breakfast (B&B) are blurring. Even the pros have trouble keeping up. And that's a problem.
"Airbnb has co-opted the B&B name," says Heather Turner, the marketing director for the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, a marketing organization for the B&B industry. "The terms Airbnb and B&B are being used interchangeably by guests – and by journalists."

Briefly, here's the difference: Airbnb is a lightly regulated home-sharing site that lets almost anyone list accommodations for rent. A B&B is a regulated small inn subject to state or local lodging laws. Think of it as a small hotel with a few extra perks and personal touches.

Why it’s confusing

It's not just the name that's confusing travelers. It's also that you can find a B&B on Airbnb, says Jordan Locke, principal consultant at Rev Party Consulting, an industry consulting firm.  And since Airbnb is technically an online travel agency, you can find professionally run B&Bs on the platform. "Many B&Bs and boutique hotels sell through Airbnb," he says. 

Airbnb owners, especially in some European countries, have also been running their properties like B&B owners, further blurring the lines.

So what's the difference?

The second "B" in B&B (meaning "breakfast") is the biggest distinguishing feature. 

"The difference between an Airbnb and a B&B starts with a complimentary full breakfast," says Brian Shields, the owner of Manor On Golden Pond, a small inn in Holderness, New Hampshire. A typical Airbnb will have a kitchen, sometimes stocked with coffee and tea, but rarely, if ever, will a host prepare a full breakfast.

"A true B&B is typically independently owned, and the owner lives on property or nearby, provides daily breakfast and housekeeping and the experience is very personal," explains Hana Pevny, an Airbnb host and the innkeeper at the Waldo Emerson Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine.  "In many instances, the B&B is a historic property or has a unique quality about the building or property." A home rented online through Airbnb can also be special, but you might have to cook and clean for yourself. You might also never see your host.

A real B&B is usually operated by someone with formal training in the hospitality business. And that person has insurance – lots of insurance. RenĂ©e Humphrey, who runs the Rainforest Inn in Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest, says her property requires expensive liability insurance. "We're also inspected by both fire marshal and health department as part of our licensing," she says. Vacation rentals booked online carry some insurance (you can buy more to cover a possible cancellation), but your hosts probably don't have any formal hospitality training.

B&Bs are less likely to have hidden fees. At least that's the assessment of Pam Willis, who runs The Gables Wine Country Inn in Petaluma, California. The rooms in her property are also available on Airbnb. "The published Airbnb rate appears much cheaper, but the fees drive up the costs," she explains. "While we don’t charge a cleaning fee, I’ve seen guests pay as much as $70 per night for the service fee. Airbnb charges us 3% of the room rate, so for $250 per room, that's $7.50 in commission, but the guest ends up paying a great deal more."

Is one better than the other?

No, say guests. 

"I think it all comes down to the style of hospitality," says Clayton Durant, the CEO of CAD Management, an entertainment consulting company in New York. "Many B&Bs offer many of the same amenities, like a single bed, bathroom, and breakfast. Each Airbnb has a unique personality of each house and apartment I get to stay at. You can’t beat the travel experience."

When deciding which is better for your next vacation, here are three key questions to ask:

Are you a do-it-yourselfer or do you like personal service? If you like breakfast, daily housekeeping, and concierge-level service, you'll want a B&B.  If you like making your own meals (and more privacy), go for an Airbnb.

Cozy or spacious? Fact is, most B&Bs give you a bedroom with shared common space. An Airbnb can give you the whole house. If you like to spread out while you're traveling, go with the Airbnb.

Are you trying to save money?  If you're staying somewhere for more than a week, an Airbnb can be far more cost-effective, even with extra fees.
Photos from free sources