If you believe you have been clearly wronged on a trip, don't suffer in silence. Often, a complaint or two are all it takes to expose illegal actions, recover compensation or raise services to a reasonable level for the next traveler.
Here's a primer on how to sniff out potential disappointments, and how to complain effectively if you feel ill-served by an airline, cruise line, hotel, travel agent or tour operator.
Pay as little as possible in advance. And keep in mind that if you use credit cards for expenses, you can stop payment if the service doesn't materialize.
Be reasonable. Don't expect a spotless hotel room and impeccable service in Eastern Europe; don't expect to go insect-free in the rain forest. But if something serious does goes wrong, waste no time . In the airport, state your case to the supervising ticket agent. In the sky, tell the supervising flight attendant. In a hotel, inform the manager on duty. On a tour, talk to the guide or manager.
Be definite about what you want: a new room; a full refund; credit toward a future tour or cruise; whatever. Keep in mind that customer service representatives are more likely to offer credit toward a future trip than they are to hand over cash.
If your first complaint isn't made in writing, take the first opportunity to scribble a detailed, fact-laden account of what went wrong when, what you did, and what the company did. If you decide to pursue the issue, most of this information should be in your first complaint letter.
If you can't get satisfaction quickly and there's a logical exit, bail out.
"The more you tolerate a problem, the weaker your case is for a refund or a price adjustment," says Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. Even on a cruise, Perkins says, a customer who believes a refund is in order should get off at the next port, say why, save relevant paperwork, and start firing off letters.
Generally, your first complaint letters should be to your travel agent and then to the individual or company you think did wrong. If you landed in a rotten hotel on a package tour, write the tour operator first.
Even if your case is strong, you may get a form letter back several weeks later. Persist. "Your complaint usually lives or dies on the second letter," maintains Ed Perkins of Consumer Reports.
In that second letter, say why the first response was unacceptable, and repeat the details of your case. Set a deadline for response by the company.
If this doesn't bring an acceptable make-good offer, you could be out of luck. If you're still determined to fight, think: Are you dead-set on chasing down a refund, or will you be satisfied to throw doubt upon the firm's reputation?
After that, you can send letters to travel publications, to a government agency, to industry associations the offending travel company belongs to. Send copies to the offending company. (Unfortunately, neither of the top trade groups for airlines and cruise lines have complaint programs.)
If all else fails, of course, you can consult an attorney about a lawsuit. But these are ideas aimed at solving your situation before that. Here are some organizations that accept consumer complaints:
About travel agents and others: The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) mediates disputes involving its 20,000 members, which also include airlines, cruise lines, hotels and tour operators. Spokeswoman Emily Porter says the society's Consumer Affairs department (1101 King St., Alexandria, Va. 22314) handles more than 100 disputes monthly and usually can broker a compromise acceptable to both parties. The organization can censure or drop an uncooperative company. (No companies have been dropped this year; one has been publicly censured.)
About tours: The U.S. Tour Operators Assn. (211 East 51st St., Suite 12B, New York, N.Y. 10022), a trade group that includes about 40 of the largest and oldest tour operators in the country, "will try to intercede if it's a realistic complaint," says President Bob Whitley. But disciplinary actions are rare: The last such case Whitley can remember came in 1992, when the organization privately persuaded a company to change its advertising claims.
About hotels: Aside from fielding complaints at the front desk, most hotels provide comment cards in guest rooms. Complaint letters should go to the general manager. Chain hotels often maintain quality control departments, too.
The government: Besides the offices below, consumers might be able to seek help from their local small-claims court or a city or county consumer affairs office.
* The California Attorney General's office Public Inquiry Unit (Office of the Attorney General, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento 94244-2550; telephone 800-952-5225 from inside California, often busy) staff of six is flooded with several thousand cases of all kinds per month. Mail is preferred; response is pledged within six weeks. The office writes accused business to ask about complaints, often prompting settlements.
* The U.S. Department of Transportation principally compiles and releases statistics on various airlines and on occasion may act on an individual complaint. Write U.S. Department of Transportation, Consumer Affairs, Room 1045, 400 7th St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20591; tel. 202-366-2220.
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or s ubsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.