How to Complain Effectively When Travelling

If you’ve ever had a fellow traveler cut in front of you in line, or had a TSA agent scold you, or had a hotel try to take advantage of you, and your approach in each case was just to let it go, you may be a remarkably well-adjusted individual. Or, suggests mental toughness coach Steve Siebold, you may be an approval addict.

An approval addiction, Siebold says, means your concern about what other people think of you may be preventing you from standing up for yourself. His advice? Get over it. “It’s great for people to like you,” he says, “but if they don’t, it’s not your problem.”

That’s not to say that you need to go from zero to nasty the second something doesn’t go your way. The idea here is to try on different approaches for asserting yourself until you find one that fits. For instance, there’s the “wince/bare your neck” approach, says Dr. Mark Goulston. “Wincing shows that it pains you to have to say something critical [and baring] your neck makes it easier for the person you’re criticizing to bare their embarrassment without becoming belligerent.”

So, Goulston says,  you could look at the guy who just stepped in front of you in line at your departure gate and wince and say “Excuse me, we’re all feeling stressed right now, so you may not have noticed that there are lines waiting here and I just wanted to let you know and I would greatly appreciate it if you would take your place at the end of the line,” and then you might assert yourself a bit further by stepping in front of that person to retake your place in line.

If you have even a slight approval addiction, here are more approaches that may help you kick it.

How to stand up to the TSA

While passing through airport security in Hawaii with her two-year-old son, registered nurse Anya Clowers was told by a TSA agent that she couldn’t bring her bottle of liquid fever medicine through security, at which point she noted that the bottle “was only two ounces and I was allowed to carry this on board under the three ounce rule and medicine rule. Furthermore, I explained my son had a heart condition that required me to treat fevers. I showed her the letter explaining his condition from the cardiologist,” at which point the TSA agent told Clowers that she needed a prescription to carry the over-the-counter medicine. Clowers asked for the agent’s supervisor, showed the higher-up the cardiologist’s note, and was allowed through with the medication. “When I returned home,” Clowers said, “I filed a formal complaint stating agents should know their own rules,” adding that “after that episode, I advise printing out TSA rules that apply to whatever you are carrying on board.”

Another time Clowers said she was reprimanded “for not having the lid of the empty sippy cup open for the TSA agent to see that it was empty. So I smiled and then said, ‘Please consider when working with parents that we have only two hands. Exactly which of these two hands did you want me to use to open the empty sippy cup for you while I am removing my shoes, my toddler’s shoes’” and Clowers went on to enumerate all the other things she had to do at that moment, saying she “remained calm and quiet and made sense. I believe [the TSA agent] was embarrassed because he mumbled something and I was on my way. It is not a requirement to have the sippy cup open to prove it is empty. Sometimes just quietly pointing out the situation and your view of their actions is enough to eliminate the situation.”

How to get your way at a hotel

Frequent traveler Scott Hardy says “I can’t tell you the number of times I have checked in at a hotel and not received the promised room, package, or price. I escalate the typical way, going up the chain of command that’s on duty,” but he also researches ahead of time who his hotel’s VP of customer care or operations is, so if he’s having a problem at check-in “and the managers on duty aren’t helping me, I write down their names in front of them and let them know I’ll be sending a note to Bob Smith [or whomever the VP of customer care is] for assistance. This will typically inspire a little more research into your situation.” Hardy says even if you don’t get what you want at that very moment, keep at it. In one case -- his honeymoon -- when Hardy and his bride hadn’t received the balcony room they’d been promised, he emailed the VP, who remedied the situation the following day.

Sometimes the threat of a supervisor will do the trick. “Once I checked into a New York City hotel [having] noted on my reservation that I have asthma and was in need of a non-smoking room,” explains travel agent and mother of three Sally Black. “When I arrived, I was told they had no available non-smoking rooms. I immediately asked to speak to a supervisor. When the desk clerk asked why, I told him that we would probably need [the supervisor’s] authorization in order to upgrade me to a non-smoking room for my health issues. With that, the desk clerk upgraded me to a very nice non-smoking suite.”

Be prepared to follow through after the fact, too. Waking up to no hot water and tiring of assurances from the front desk that the problem would be fixed, writer Susan Finch took the novel approach of washing her hair with water heated in her hotel room’s coffee maker, as she had been in a wedding the day before and “I had a lot of hairspray and gel that I desperately wanted to get rid of.” Because of her inconvenience, the hotel told Finch that “the parking and valet would be free, including tips” but was later “pressured by the valet to tip. We explained the situation, but the valet had no idea what we were talking about when we indicated we were told parking and tipping were free.” She later emailed the hotel’s corporate headquarters explaining her dissatisfaction with her experience, including hotel management’s failure to communicate with the parking staff.  “I was expecting an apology and a discount for a future night’s stay,” Finch says.” Instead I got a full and immediate refund.”

How to set taxi drivers straight

While in a Copenhagen taxi last year, founder John E. DiScala says that upon reaching the hotel, “the driver tried to charge a waiting fee. I was with another travel writer so we pretty much know the game. Waiting fees are already loaded into the meter since they turn it on when they get called. We weren’t going to give him any more money -- taxis are already crazy expensive in Denmark -- and when I said let me check with my hotel front desk on his extra fee he backed down.”

While he’s in a cab, Hardy always asks the driver “what route he’s taking, even if I don’t know the city. I keep a serious look on my face and consider his answer.” If Hardy knows the city and is happy with the answer, he doesn’t follow up, but otherwise he then asks “Are you sure that’s the most efficient route?” as “that way they think it’s not your first time there. If they come back with ‘Which way do you want me to go?’ my stock answer is ‘Your way sounds good, I just want to make sure were taking the fastest, most direct route.’” Be confident and polite while still letting your driver know you mean business, Hardy says, noting that he hasn’t “been intentionally looped since I’ve started this practice.”

He adds, “I still get the occasional cabbie who doesn’t know where the heck he’s going though. Some things you can’t help.”

A few more lines to try on those line cutters

Former flight attendant Heather Zorzini says “for queue busters, I use my favorite line, "After me, you're first!" The line, she says, “is a gentle reminder with a bit of humor.” If someone cuts him in line, Hardy will “politely, yet firmly say ‘the line actually starts back there. It’s a bit of a mess, huh?’ I say it with a smile, but, I keep a firm edge to my tone. People tend to say ‘Oh, sorry, thanks!’ and move back. This way I’m not calling them out as intentional line cutters and they don’t lose face, but everyone else in the line is happy.”

Or you could try Teri Gault’s variation, which is "Hi. You know I didn't realize it myself at first either, but the line starts WAY back there," followed by a chuckle, so you get across to the cutter that "I don't think you're stupid, because after all, I did the same thing,” which Gault says “works every time, unless they are the type that deliberately ignores you” in which case she follows up with an “Excuse me! Yes! I’m talking to you! The line is back there!” Gault notes that she “used to be a professional singer. So this time I am speaking from my diaphragm and about an octave lower, and three decibels louder, and it is not nice, because I figure, this is not a nice person,” adding “you should see the shock, and hear the chuckles. Because most of the people in line behind me heard my [initial] meek, sweet attempt.”