No one likes to be wrong, especially when you write the best darned travel column in American journalism. So when a flight attendant flagged an inaccuracy in one of my recent stories, my heart skipped a beat.
"I just wanted to tell you it's against the law to photograph a working flight attendant and also against the law to video any working crew member at any time," she wrote. "Thank you for correcting this information."
Uh-oh. For years, I've advised travelers to take pictures and videos when something goes wrong, including on a plane. Was I incorrect?
I'll have the answer in a second. But fixing errors — that's actually a worthy topic. The holiday travel season is near, and while a lot of folks are on the road, I know I'm not the only one asking: How do you fix what's wrong about travel?
Make no mistake, the industry is broken. Badly. More than 17% of respondents to a new Aspect Software survey said they'd stopped doing business with a travel company in 2016 because of poor customer service, a 45% increase from last year. It's a trend that Joe Gagnon, Aspect's chief customer strategy officer, calls "alarming." If it continues, the industry will soon overtake the telecom and cable industry as a leader in bad customer service.
But the damage can be repaired. Here's how:
1. Eliminate ridiculous fees
There seems to be no escape from the fees and surcharges. Though some are technically avoidable, most are not. Travel companies used to apologize for them, but recently, as the profits began to pour in, they've gone silent. "Stop with the nickel-and-dime fees already," says Louis Altman, a frequent traveler who runs a telecommunication company in Portsmouth, N.H. "Why do I need to pay to pick a seat? Why do I need to pay to bring my stuff with me? I know fees are a massive profit center, but ugh — stop it!"
How to fix it: Travel companies could start including these "unbundled" amenities if they wanted to. They just don't want to.
2. End the status games
If you think the division of the classes is un-American, try flying. The cabin is clearly and unapologetically divided between haves and have-nots. "I'd like to eliminate the class system the airlines use based on status," says Angela Berardino, a frequent flier who works for a communication agency in Denver. "The drama and stress it causes to secure a seat, to line up to board — it honestly makes travel much, much more stressful. And I'm someone who has status on multiple legacy carriers."
How to fix it: Maybe it's time to scrap the loyalty programs that efficiently separate the elite customers from the rest.
3. No more lies
If you travel, it's hard to escape the web of lies spun around each product and service. "Review sites are easily bamboozled," says Tom Sheehan, who runs a tour company based in Gainesville, Fla. "Competitors can sign up under multiple pseudonyms and write scathing reviews about their competition. Dissatisfied customers embellish the issues to seek revenge on the property they feel let them down." Simply put, many user-generated review sites are compromised.
How to fix it: If these enormous travel sites took just one extra step to verify that a reviewer stayed at a hotel — a photo of a receipt might do it — it would dramatically cut the amount of fake reviews.
4. Keep your word
It seems so simple: Quote a rate, and that's what you charge. No "resort" fee, no extras, no surprises. Howard Zoufaly, a business consultant from Broomfield, Colo., says hotels don't always honor their commitments. One property, which offered "free" breakfast, recently made him pay. The reason? He stayed on a weekend. "It was false advertising," he says. "Consumers can't depend on the travel industry to keep their word."
How to fix it: Do what you say. How hard can that be?
5. Treat us like humans
If you've flown in an economy class airline seat lately, then you know exactly what I mean. It's cramped, and often the service is degrading. Kevin Farris, an account manager for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia, wonders why airlines can't offer a humane amount of personal space. "I just want to sit comfortably," he says. In an industry built on hospitality, no one should ever be treated like that.
How to fix it: How about federally mandated minimum seat standards in economy class?
Wouldn't it be great if one newspaper column could end customer-unfriendly fees and make the industry fairer, more honest — even more humane? In the meantime, I'm happy to fix my own mistakes. I asked my flight attendant friend to send me a copy of the law that said you can't photograph employees. She checked and discovered she was incorrect. There's no such law. Phew.
Who's already fixed — and who isn't?
Hotels. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), Hilton and Marriott rank highest with scores of 81 and 80 out of 100, respectively — and are the least in need of fix. The most: Wyndham (70) and Motel 6 (65).
Airlines. JetBlue and Southwest are tied with a score of 80 out of 100. The lowest: Allegiant (65) and Spirit (62).
Chain restaurants. Looking for good food and service? The ACSI recommends Cracker Barrel (83), Texas Roadhouse (82) or LongHorn Steakhouse (82). Chili's and Denny's get the bottom scores of 75 and 74, respectively.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate and nationally syndicated columnist. Email him with your travel problem at email@example.com, or visit his consumer advocacy site at Elliott.org.