After Linda Grimes accidentally cracked the windshield on her uninsured Enterprise rental car, she imagined a worst-case scenario unfolding, including months of back-and-forth between her and the company's legendary claims department.
She says that the car was damaged under innocent circumstances. As she tried to adjust the seat and the rear-view mirror, "I heard a crack," recalls Grimes, an Air Force retiree who lives in Little Elm, Texas. "There was an arch-shaped crack around the rear-view mirror. I was stunned."
Like many travelers who think that they're out of options, Grimes turned to me for help. My first question to her was obvious: Have you asked Enterprise to review your bill? She hadn't.
In the heat of a customer-service dispute, it's easy to forget the first rule of a resolution, which is simply to ask the company for help. Whether you're complaining about a noisy hotel room or a slow refund, it is human nature to either complain to someone who can't fix the problem or to keep quiet and hope that the trouble resolves itself.
Grimes contacted the car rental company and reached a representative of its damage recovery unit. "To my surprise, they listened and determined that I was not at fault and are closing the case out," she says. "They were very polite and said I might receive another letter asking for payment for damages, but to ignore it. I just had to get the right person to listen to my experience with the car."
An Enterprise representative said drivers should contact the company immediately when they have any concerns about their bill. "Our objective is to do everything we can to quickly investigate and resolve claims," spokeswoman Laura Bryant said. "The process obviously is not perfect, but it is very detailed and comprehensive, and we thoroughly review all documentation provided by customers. Every precaution is taken to ensure that customers are not inadvertently charged for damage that did not occur during their specific rental period."
Reliable statistics on the number of travelers who fail to request a resolution are difficult to come by, but a recent Aberdeen Group survey found that on average, companies resolved a customer problem on the first call 65 percent of the time. This suggests that asking for help — as opposed to just venting — is the most effective first step toward a resolution.
It's often easier said than done, though. Whom to ask? That's the question Elaine Evosevic-Lozada had when she landed in Orlando recently with her family. Her brother-in-law had reserved a minivan through Hertz.
"When we went to pick it up, they didn't have any more minivans," she remembers. That resulted in something of a standoff, with an agent quizzing the family about how many passengers they needed to accommodate, and the family repeating its request for the minivan they'd ordered.
The solution? The Hertz agent pulled a few strings and upgraded the family to a luxury car that could accommodate eight passengers. "They gave it to us for the same price as the minivan," says Evosevic-Lozada, who works for a nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh.
One thing is certain: Walking away disappointed wouldn't have helped.
Just asking isn't always enough. It's how you make your request, as Teresa Wallis, who also recently vacationed in Orlando, recently discovered.
Her family's flight from Branson, Mo., to Orlando was canceled, and her family had to wait a day and pay for new airline tickets to get to Disney World. She asked Disney whether she could start her vacation a day later. "They were super accommodating and updated the reservation and sent me a new confirmation e-mail," she says of Disney.
But when she arrived at the Pop Century resort and tried to check in, a Disney cast member delivered some bad news: They had no reservation.
Worse, the resort was sold out. Wallis asked whether there was a room available at a different hotel.
"At this point, I was almost crying after the stress from the day before and having to go back home with our bags packed, going back to the airport the next day, paying a much higher price for the flight, and then getting there to have no room," Wallis says.
Disney granted her second wish, too. After about 20 minutes of deliberation, it offered the family accommodations at the Grand Floridian, the resort's upscale property.
Remembering to say something, but also framing your request in a polite way and being persistent, can dramatically reduce the number of mishaps on your next trip. And that applies to more than a rental car or a hotel problem. Airlines, cruise lines and vacation rental managers also usually respond favorably when a customer comes calling. Just don't forget to ask.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)
The Travel Troubleshooter