No-Nonsense Traveler’s 5 Simple Rules of Complaining

Travel is always fraught with risk. The question is how you deal with setbacks. Here, our No-Nonsense Traveler shares the five simple rules he used to overcome a recent ticket booking nightmare.

If you were one of the unfortunate many who had to travel by air this past Christmas, you may have fallen victim to the extensive delays and cancellations in the days before and after Christmas. While I had no problems flying to Tulsa, Oklahoma on December 20, it was quite a different story when I tried to return home to New York on December 27. Through dogged persistence and not a small amount of luck, I was able to complain my way to a happy solution, but many others weren’t so lucky. Here’s how I did it.

Complaining is a Form of Negotiation

My partner and I arrived at the Tulsa airport on a beautiful but chilly morning and waited for our United flight to board. When boarding time had come and gone (and when we realized that we had no chance to make our connection in O’Hare), I went to the gate agent to change our connecting flight. I volunteered to give up our seats and go out on a later confirmed flight that afternoon in return for two round-trip vouchers on United. I haven’t decided yet if this was my downfall or the sweetener that makes the rest of the debacle so easy to swallow.

But those later confirmed seats evaporated when the later flight was delayed and delayed and delayed, making any connection through Chicago impossible. By this time, there were no more flights on Saturday to book, and I was told that the earliest we could expect to get back home was … Tuesday. I now had a sinking feeling that the vouchers I’d so happily jumped on were a sinking ship. That’s when I had my fateful and fruitful conversation with a customer-service agent in Manila.

People often bristle when they realize that they’ve called a customer-service number in a faraway country. But while this agent was formal and played by the book, I could sense that he still had some compassion. I asked him if there was any way I can be rerouted through a different airport and still get back to New York before Tuesday, but all the United flights were already overbooked. I was polite but firm; perhaps there was a hint of despair in my voice (a lonely cat, a job to return to on Monday morning). Since I would be delayed much more than four hours, I asked, could we could be put on a different airline? “Perhaps.” That was the opening I needed. We went through virtually the entire outbound flight schedule while he checked the flights in his computer.

We finally found two seats on American Airlines to Newark via Dallas for Sunday morning. Sold. But he told me that he would need American’s permission before he could put me on the flight. Would I hold? Yes, I would hold. And I threw in a hearty salamat (thank you in Tagalog). A few minutes later, I was booked. While myriad other travelers sat sadly or screamed loudly at gate agents all across the country, how had this happened? I have my theories.

Five Simple Rules for Complaining

1) Take a deep breath. When things aren’t going well, I can be emotional. I think my relative sense of calm from the outset helped me succeed in this situation.

2) Say exactly what you want but be reasonable. I wanted to be in New York by Sunday, and I was willing to do anything to make that happen—except pay extra. I think part of the reason I got what I wanted was because I didn’t muddy the waters asking for free hotel rooms and meals, which might have caused the rep to bristle.

3) Sell yourself. As silly as it might seem, making a self-deprecating remark or trying to identify with the person who has the power is one of the wisest moves you can make. I knew a couple of words of Tagalog, and I’m not sure if that made any difference at all, but I was looking for every possible thing that might help me. The almost-tearful sound in the voice doesn’t hurt either.

4) Be nice, no matter what. Bottom line: you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Neither of us became exasperated, and we just kept working together until we solved the problem.

5) Never take the low road. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is not to disparage someone’s English-language skills when they have your travel fate in the palm of their hand.

My situation could have ended up very different. The woman at the United Airlines counter in the airport expressed sincere skepticism when I walked my transfer voucher over to her for endorsement. Apparently, many people had much worse luck than I did in rebooking their flights for Sunday. So we ended up spending the night at the airport Hilton Garden Inn. I wasn’t happy to have to pay for a hotel room or meal, but I was happy to get home.

Oh, and one other thing. We ended up stuck on the tarmac in Dallas on Sunday morning for almost 3 hours. While that could have been an additional exasperating delay, it was much easier to take when we discovered on check-in that, not only had United booked us on the American Airlines flight, but that we’d been upgraded to first class. And we got miles. Salamat.