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How to mouth off and get results

On the Road with Bill McGee

Most of us intend to prevent trouble before it even starts by making good travel planning decisions and straightening out problems as they arise. But every traveler knows that sooner or later they'll take "The Trip from Hell."

And then the trip turns into being all about filing a complaint to recoup your losses or get a measure of satisfaction.

Complaining isn't easy when it comes to the travel business. For one thing, it isn't easy finding the right ear.

Also, just about everyone's dissatisfied. Airline service has been commoditized so that expectation levels are higher for some metropolitan subway systems, and late-night comedians don't even bother doing airport security jokes anymore.

What to say

Whether you'r writing directly to a travel company or turning to a governmental agency or outside organization for assistance, here are some tips that will help your complaint letter get read (and hopefully generate a response):

•Keep it brief. Just stick to the facts. You'll have a much better chance of being heard.

•Keep it clean. Don't engage in name-calling or use foul language.

•List all the facts. Provide all the pertinent dates, times and relevant information (flight numbers and seats, vessel names and cabin numbers, hotel room numbers, rental vehicle plate numbers, etc.). If you can, send photocopies of your receipts, boarding passes, etc.

•Get names. Always include the names, titles and/or employee identification numbers of any employees who were directly involved.

•Be specific. Detail your losses, including added travel expenses, lost time from work, child care, etc.

•Make a suggestion for recompense. State exactly what compensation you expect from the travel company.

•Provide contact information. Let them know how to get in touch with you, particularly during business hours.

Airlines

As Chris Woodyard correctly pointed out recently, the government does not make it easy to file complaints against airlines. In fact, there are no less than four separate depositories. Here's a brief rundown:

•For air service problems caused by airlines, tour operators, travel agencies, and/or travel Web sites, contact the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division by calling (202) 366-2220; sending an e-mail to airconsumer@ost.dot.gov; or writing Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street S.W., Washington, DC, 20590. The DOT says that, when appropriate, it will forward complaints to airline officials for further consideration.

•For aviation safety problems, contact the Federal Aviation Administration's Safety Hotline at 800-255-1111; or write FAA, Aviation Safety Hotline, ASY-300, 800 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC, 20591.

•For aviation security problems, contact the Transportation Security Administration by phone, 866-289-9673, or e-mail, TellTSA@tsa.dot.gov.

•You can also obtain a copy of Fly-Rights, A Consumer Guide to Air Travel, at www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/travel/flyrights/flyrghts.htm.

•I know many people feel good writing to an airline's CEO or chairman, but I'm skeptical. Unless you personally know him or her, I'm doubtful your missive will get past an administrative assistant, who will forward it to Customer Relations.

Need contact info for the heads of Customer Care/Affairs/Relations at the 10 largest domestic airlines? The DOT has gathered the names, addresses, phone numbers and URLs for Alaska, America West, American, American Eagle, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, United and US Airways onto a single page: airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/contacts.htm.

Disabilities and civil rights

If you experience any form of discrimination from a travel company or want to complain about a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, you should check out the DOT's "Contacts for ADA Information or Complaints" Web page. These contacts are suitable for violations committed by airlines, cruise lines, bus lines and rail lines.

Cruises

When I was the editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, USATODAY.com columnist Linda Burbank wrote our "Consumer Power" column, in which she fought each month to get compensation for travelers who had been wronged. We soon noticed that one sector of the travel industry, in particular, was reluctant to provide refunds: the cruise lines.

They were quick to offer discount coupons for future sailings, but frozen-pizza makers do the same thing; it's a marketing ploy to ensure that you're back to spend more money. Yet Linda once achieved the near-impossible by securing a $30,000 refund from Royal Caribbean and Expedia for a family that had missed a sailing.

This isn't to say you shouldn't file complaints with cruise lines. But be aware that some companies may not respond the way you wish they would. Since nearly all of them operate ships flying foreign flags, the U.S. government's oversight of the cruise industry sometimes can be limited.

Here are some good resources:

•The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a very helpful "Cruise Ship Consumer Fact Sheet".

•If you have a concern about a "safety-related matter" onboard a cruise ship, contact the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office at 800-368-5647. The same number should be used to file complaints about lax shipboard or terminal security.

•To report unsanitary conditions on a cruise ship sailing in U.S. waters, contact the U.S. Public Health Service, Chief, Vessel Sanitation Program, National Center for Environmental Health, 1850 Eller Dr., Suite 101, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 33316; (954) 356-6650.

You also can contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, the CDC conducts regular inspections of cruise ships calling at U.S. ports. The results of the Vessel Sanitation Program are displayed on the CDC's Web site.

•To report illegal dumping, contact the Coast Guard's National Response Center at 800-424-8802.

•For other types of complaints, consider contacting the Federal Martime Commission, which has "limited jurisdiction over cruise vessels and operators" but welcomes complaints and will attempt to "obtain some form of cash or credit compensation." Among the types of complaints handled by the FMC: "Unexpected cancellations of scheduled port calls; substandard accommodations; unpleasant occurrences; misplaced luggage; unprofessional personnel; and missed air/vessel connections." To file a complaint, call (202) 523-5807; fax (202) 275-0059; or e-mail complaints@fmc.gov.

Other sources

The Council of Better Business Bureaus offers useful tips, as well as links to help you find local BBBs throughout the U.S. and Canada.

•Most states maintain consumer advocacy departments through the office of the state's attorney general or governor. Some major cities and counties also have consumer affairs departments that accept complaints. Certain states have reputations for being more vigilant than others; Florida, for example, has been very proactive in recent years.

•If you suspect you've been duped by a travel insurance company or a car rental firm, some state governments provide hotlines for insurance fraud. Check with the state's insurance department.

•If you're unsure what to expect from the travel industry, there's a terrific organization that can help you: the Consumer Travel Rights Center. The Lexington, Ky.-based CTRC aptly calls itself "the largest Web-based non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to protecting the rights of traveling consumers." The CTRC is headed by John Hawks, a veteran travel agent advocate, and Al Anolik, a well-known travel attorney. The site features the CTRC's own Travelers Bill of Rights, legal advice and a tool that provides legislator contact info by zip code. It's well worth a look.

One last shameless plug

Consider writing to Linda Burbank Traveler's Aide column here at USATODAY.com. If anyone can help you, Linda can.

Here's hoping that the travel industry hears you.

Send Bill your feedback

Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.

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