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Five ways to save a vacation gone wrong


As a frequent traveler, I’ve had my fair share of vacation mishaps. A hotel in Granada, Spain, lost my reservation on a holiday weekend when most accommodations in the city were booked. A car rental agency tried to charge me a much higher rate than the one I had reserved online. I’ve been assigned to hotel rooms that smelled like cigarette smoke or had the wrong number of beds. And here I thought vacations were my time to relax, have fun, and get away from the stress of daily life.

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, occasionally something will go wrong during your vacation. However, you can learn to deal with these problems in a way that gives you the best chance of minimizing your stress and saving your vacation. Use these five tips to turn a potential vacation nightmare into a minor glitch in an otherwise relaxing trip.

1. Deal with the problem right away

You deserve an enjoyable vacation, so don’t play the martyr and keep mum when you’re not happy with a component of your trip. Very often, a solution is readily available, and only requires that you speak up.

For example, if you don’t like your hotel room, you should immediately go to the front desk and explain what you expected. Niki Leondakis, chief operating officer for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, explains that it’s a hotel staff’s “genuine goal to make sure each guest has a good experience. They’ll do whatever they can to make the guests happy.” Depending on the scope of the problem, the hotel staff can switch you to a new room, send a technician to fix something, or even find you lodging at another hotel. But, they won’t be able to solve a problem if they don’t know about it.

2. Stay calm, but be firm

Travel professionals are humans, too, and no one likes to be yelled at. If your car rental agency tries to overcharge you or your cruise line sticks you in a cabin under the all-night disco, don’t start cursing and threatening. Instead, calmly explain your situation.

“If you present your argument in a level-headed way, you’ll get some compensation. If you’re adversarial, you won’t get anything,” explains Laurie Berger, “Travel Q&A” columnist for the The Los Angeles Times. “Even if the company is in the right, if you approach the situation in the right way, they’ll bend over backwards for you.” No one wants to deal with a hothead who is threatening a lawsuit. The travel staff will be much more willing to deal with a rational guest who is offering a reasonable solution to the problem at hand.

But being cool doesn’t mean being a pushover. “Stay at the desk,” advises Al Anolik, a San Francisco travel attorney and author of “The Frequent Traveler’s Guide.” Even if there are other guests lining up behind you, he says, the hotel is obligated to deal with your problem in a timely manner. And if an employee says that someone is working on the issue or will be sent up to your room to fix the problem, ask for a time frame, so you know when to check back if the problem is not resolved promptly.

3. Ask for what you want

You can facilitate a resolution of your problem if you are clear about what an acceptable solution would be. You’re not being greedy or demanding if you calmly state what can be done to make you happier with your situation. “Some people complain but they don’t know what they want,” says Berger. “Be calm, collected, and ask for what you want, whether that be a room change, a refund, or a freebie.” If you’re specific about what level of satisfaction you expect, the travel providers can determine if they can fulfill your request or offer a comparable alternative.

For instance, if your hotel room or cruise cabin is dirty, noisy, or smelly, you should ask for a new room. If none are available in your room class, you can reasonably request a free upgrade. If your reserved car is not available, ask your car rental agency to upgrade you for free or rent you a car from another agency at no extra charge to you. If you can’t be accommodated at an equal or higher level to what you booked, suggest a refund.

4. Document everything

It will help your case if you can provide proof that the problem existed. Photos or written statements will be especially helpful if you end up having to seek restitution or file a complaint upon your return. If you’re like the majority of travelers, you most likely will have a camera, camcorder, or camera phone with you on your trip. Take photographs of any insects, unclean areas, or broken fixtures in your accommodations; your rental car or other modes of transportation causing problems; or even the employees who tried to (or refused to) help you.

Additionally, you can attempt to get information in writing, such as promises made by staff members or acknowledgments of the problem by management or other guests. If you can get a written statement, your compensation claim will often get more attention should you need to file one on your return.Some employees may not be willing to put anything in writing, but you can at least write down the names and job titles of the people you dealt with.

5. Follow up when you get home

You may want to forget about your travel mishap when you get home, but you’ll be doing yourself and future travelers a service by following up with your travel provider. If you remain unhappy with the service you received, a follow-up letter or call is your last means for negotiating compensation. In addition, you will do your fellow vacationers a favor by alerting the travel provider to unacceptable products or practices so they can make changes on the corporate level. For example, if many travelers write in to complain about a hotel property or excursion that was part of a package tour, the company might choose to alter the tour itinerary to omit that component.

Kimpton’s Leondakis concurs. “The best thing to do is write a letter. A hotel [or other travel provider] can research the incident from that document and can follow up on restitution made. A letter creates a document that can be followed through, while phone calls are less effective.” She also suggests that you send your letter to more than one person within the company; if you address your letter to the general manager of a hotel, CC the same letter to the corporate office. Then if the letter doesn’t reach the intended recipient, someone else will have a record of your claim.

Take control of your trip satisfaction

Ultimately, the more quickly and easily you can resolve a vacation problem, the more you’ll enjoy your time away. Do your utmost to reach a solution when the problem first occurs, but if it becomes clear that a satisfactory arrangement isn’t forthcoming, get your documentation in order and follow up on your return home. Remember these five tips, and you’re more likely to come home with a triumphant story about the disaster you averted on your fabulous vacation, rather than a tale of woe about your ruined trip.

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