Where to Complain and Get Results

What can a traveler do when a long-anticipated vacation turns into a holiday headache?

Unfortunately, when things go wrong and consumers seek an explanation or apology from a hotel, airline or other travel service, they often get neither on their first approach.

But in many cases there's an agency out there that wants to hear and count your complaints. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for instance, compiles month-by-month figures on consumer air travel gripes.

It's far more rare, however, for an organization to do something about travel problems, such as offering a refund or a credit toward a future purchase.

Here is a list of public and private entities that track travelers' complaints, beginning with local groups and concluding with national ones. A few general rules:

Have a written account of your problem, succinct but as full of detail and as devoid of emotion as possible. (Except for the Department of Transportation, all of the groups below require that complaints be in writing.)

Complain as soon as possible after the event.

When complaining directly to a travel company, say exactly what compensation you want.

To register a complaint, begin with your travel agent, if you used one. Next, write to the company that made you unhappy and keep a copy of your letter. If the company replies, keep a copy of that too. If you're dissatisfied with the response, consider contacting one or more of the organizations listed below. Some experts say that writing directly to the head of the company, rather than the customer service department, gets better results.

If all you really want is a sincere apology, steel yourself for disappointment. Tell your friends which company disappointed you and how, and move on.

Here are places to turn to when you have a travel-related problem:

Travel Consumer Restitution Corp. This quasi-public state agency was created in the mid-'90s to protect California consumers who book certain travel services through California companies. A reserve fund of more than $1 million has been established to reimburse travelers who don't get paid-for services from a California-based travel seller. For claim forms, contact the organization at P.O. Box 6001, Larkspur, CA 94977-6001; fax (415) 927-7698. (No public phone, Web site or e-mail is available.)

California attorney general. All travel agencies or others who sell travel in California must register with the state and post a bond or set up a trust account to guarantee funds will be available to repay consumers if a trip is canceled or other services aren't performed.

Consumers who want to check on the registration of a travel seller (look for the CST number in ads), report an unregistered seller or register a complaint can contact the office at 300 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013-1230; (213) 897-2645. They can also contact the attorney general's Public Inquiry Unit, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, CA 94244-2550; (800) 952-5225, fax (916) 323-5341, http://www.caag.state.ca.us.

American Society of Travel Agents. ASTA, a trade group, takes complaints only about its member companies. ASTA says it tries to mediate complaints and will tell inquiring consumers whether a member has two or more unresolved complaints within the last six months. Contact ASTA's Consumer Affairs Department, 1101 King St., Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314; (703) 739-2782, fax (703) 684-8319, http://www.astanet.com

U.S. Tour Operators Assn. USTOA, another trade organization that tracks complaints only about its members, reviews complaints and forwards them to tour company executives. Contact USTOA at 275 Madison Ave., Suite 2014, New York, NY 10016; (212) 599-6599, fax (212) 599-6744, http://www.ustoa.com.

Better Business Bureau. For complaints or general information about businesses in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, call (909) 825-7280, fax (909) 825-6246 or go to the bureau's Web site, http://www.labbb.org. In Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, call (805) 963-8657, fax (805) 962-8557, http://www.santabarbara.bbb.org.

U.S. Department of Transportation. This agency takes travelers' complaints, mostly about airlines. Monthly figures, which can be seen on the agency's Web site, track late flights, mishandled baggage, oversold tickets (resulting in bumped passengers) and consumer complaints. Contact Department of Transportation, C-75, Room 4107, Washington, DC 20590; (202) 366-2220, http://www.dot.gov/airconsumer.

PassengerRights.com. The Web site at http://www.passengerrights.com makes it easier for travelers to lodge complaints with airlines and federal officials. The site, born in April 1999, is a commercial venture (aimed at winning paid subscribers to a newsletter), but its free features are handy, especially the pages that demystify the workings of the airline, cruise, rental car and hotel segments of the travel industry. (Warning: Don't spend too much time browsing through the site's collection of horror stories, or you'll be afraid to go anywhere.)

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