Since he started a consumer advocacy website in 1997, author and travel writer Christopher Elliott has fielded tens of thousands of complaints from travelers who have encountered problems they want him to fix. During that time, Elliott and his volunteer contributors have bucketed those complaints into general categories that offer consumers a roadmap to not needing his services by either resolving the problems on their own en route or avoiding them altogether.
Elliott personally receives dozens of emails a day, but asks consumers who want his advocates to investigate their issues to fill out a longer form that covers most of the information he needs to help adjudicate issues between travelers and the suppliers they feel have wronged them.
In January 2018, Elliott’s website had its first 500-complaint month, and he believes the site will have its first 1,000-complaint month by the end of the year.
Most of the consumers who fill out his website form have complaints that are “difficult and intractable problems,” he said, and by the time consumers reach Elliott, they often are filled with “rage” from their frustration, financial loss and a sense of being wronged. (Elliott thinks it is no coincidence that his recently hired executive director is a licensed psychologist.)
In 2017, Elliott partnered with the American Society of Travel Agents to advocate for agents and consumers, even speaking at the Global Conference in San Diego. He has enlisted the help of travel agents, like Helen Prochilo, owner at Promal Vacations, in Long Beach, New York, to work on the high inflow of cases.
“Most of the issues that are posted are caused by people who would be better served using a travel agent than booking themselves. Many people think it’s very easy to book their own travel but it’s not always as simple as it seems,” said Prochilo, who also is co-director of the Long Island Chapter of the National Association of Career Travel Agents.
“When people read about the horrible things that happen, inevitably we get to the point where we realize they could have avoided it using a travel agent,” agreed Elliott.
As a result of years of reviewing complaints, his role makes him a “very careful traveler. When I read nothing but horror stories all day long, you get this sense, you’re glad that it wasn’t you,” and as a result, he takes more precautions to keep his travels relatively problem-free.
Here are Elliott.org’s top six tips to help travelers stay out of trouble, and keep them happy before, during and after their trip. Travel agents can pass these along to their customers, adding more value to their consulting role and further strengthening those relationships.
1. Take the time to fully understand what you are booking.
“Just because you can look up a fare and book it, that doesn’t mean you understand the airlines’ complex fare rules. The travel industry has its own rules and sense of logic, and most people don’t understand it,” he said, noting airline ticketing and refund rules and hotel prepay restrictions. “It’s all illogical and even airline customer service departments have a hard time explaining it.”
Prochilo noted how a common problem is “’the airline spelled my name wrong on my tickets.’ Airline websites only print out what you, the consumer, put in. In most cases, if you catch your mistake within 24 hours, you can get it corrected with no charge. I’m shocked at how many folks do not review their confirmations,” Prochilo said.
2. Purchase travel insurance.
“Even just thinking about travel insurance isn’t common,” said Elliott, who believes half the complaints he and his staff review could have been avoided if the consumer simply had purchased travel insurance.
“Everyone thinks, ‘My vacation is going to be fine. My connections will be fine.’ And then they end up losing everything and contact me to get help. They send threatening letters to the local newspaper, or ‘7 On Your Side,’ and that can sometimes work. But it would be so much easier if they just purchased travel insurance,” Elliott said.
Prochilo hears the same all of the time. “’I got sick and I couldn’t travel and want the airline/cruise/resort to refund my money.’ Or ‘my flight was canceled due to weather and the airline won’t give me an overnight hotel.’ In cases like this, that’s what travel insurance is for. Even if it’s just an airline ticket. if your flight is canceled and you need an extra day, most airline policies will only reimburse you up to a certain amount,” she said.
3. Do your due diligence.
“Read the fine print before you purchase. Read it twice, and click once,” Elliott said. “If you had taken the time to read everything, you might not even have purchased the product.”
4. Plan for the unexpected.
“People are overly optimistic when it comes to travel. “They think planes take off on time and that hotel rooms will be ready when they arrive. All of their dinner reservations will go flawlessly,” he said. “The people who contact me for help thought nothing extraordinary would happen, but of course, something did. Travelers need to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
5. Pack your manners with everything else.
“Often you will find people are their own worst enemy. When something goes wrong, they make it worse by their rudeness. A customer service representative is a human being, and if you treat that person, who probably isn’t happy about the events surrounding your misfortune either, politely, you may never need to contact me,” he said.
“But so many people have an event on the first day of their trip, they get really bent out of shape trying to fix the problem, and they end up ruining the rest of their vacation. If they had packed their manners, they likely would have had a much better trip.”
6. Book through a travel agent.
“Most of the people who contact me think they can DIY their way through their vacation,” he said. “I tell them, next time, find yourself a good travel agent, not just any agent. You’ll keep yourself out of trouble that way. A good travel advisor tells the clients everything I do, so the consumer can make an educated decision and protect themselves.