Travel Tips: How to Get Great Service
Published: November 2010
By Alexandra Wolfe
Insider travel tips on getting the best service possible when traveling.
Appearances Do Matter
Airlines want people who look like they paid for a first- or business-class ticket in the front of the cabin, so dress appropriately if you want that elusive at-the-gate upgrade. “A friend of mine was once bumped up to business class by a gate agent,” recalls George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com. “When he asked why, she simply said, ‘Because you’re wearing a suit.’ ”
If you’re trying to secure a hard-to-get dinner reservation, ask for it in person. “That extra effort, showing us how important it is to you, doesn’t go unrecognized,” says Kevin Mahan, managing partner at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern.
Carry Toll-Free Numbers
Avoid dealing with overseas offices of airlines and car-rental agencies when you’re traveling abroad. Instead, use Skype (skype.com) on your computer or smart phone to talk—for mere pennies!—with U.S.-based customer-service teams. (Just make sure they’re open 24 hours a day.)
Disarm Them with a Smile
“It’s the first thing I do no matter how stressful the situation,” says Lisa Sun, associate principal at McKinsey & Company. “People are so used to dealing with angry travelers. If you don’t make yourself into a human being, you become a transaction.”
Exercise the Golden Rule
Some hotels offer cash rewards to employees who receive good marks on guest comment cards. Those people are likely to remember your praise when you return. On the other hand, if you’re rude to housekeeping, it “will be noted in your profile,” cautions Michael Rawson, the general manager of New York City’s Mercer Hotel.
Find the Freebies
Priceline recently introduced a new service called Hotel Freebies (priceline.com) that shows you which hotels are offering upgrades, complimentary breakfast and parking, spa credits, and other such amenities.
Give Them a Reason
...when asking hotels for an upgrade, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality at New York University: “If you say, ‘I’m traveling alone with a child,’ hotels are much more likely to respond than if you just say, ‘Do you have anything better?’”
Travel companies court—and reward—early adopters. Look for special sales and exclusive perks on e-mail newsletters and company Twitter feeds. Speak up about your good experiences via social media, TripAdvisor, and other online review sites. (Hotels, especially, track these reviewers.) Use Foursquare (foursquare.com), Facebook Places, and other mobile check-in services to demonstrate your loyalty—and reap the attendant deals and discounts.
One of the hardest parts of service is trying to intuit a guest’s tastes. Help your concierge out by explaining your specific style and aesthetic, says interior designer Lisa Jackson: “When I get to a hotel, I go straight to the concierge and tell him that I really like modern, chic, new, and next. I say I want everything I do to fit into that theme.” Likewise, don’t be shy about telling your sommelier about your favorite recent wines, or letting your tour guide know of your hobbies and interests. The more they know, the more they can tailor the experience.
Car-rental agencies often have more economy reservations than they have vehicles, and are eager to hand out upgrades. “I recently swapped a Kia Optima for an enormous Chevy Traverse simply by asking at the Hertz counter in Baltimore,” says T+L editor-at-large Peter Jon Lindberg.
Keep It Personal
If you’re moving from one hotel to another, ask the manager of your current property to make an introductory call on your behalf. See if the concierge knows someone at the restaurant where you’ll be dining, or if your travel agent is friendly with your cruise’s chief purser. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your social network grows.
Learn the Language
Or at least a few key phrases. “It’ll help you develop a rapport with locals, and can get you insider access,” says Lorie Karnath, president of the Explorers Club. “I recently returned from the Marquesas Islands, where locals opened their doors to me thanks to my French.”
Make a Good Impression
On a large cruise ship with thousands of passengers, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Make a good first impression, and bartenders, waitstaff, and stewards will remember you throughout the voyage. If you do have a complaint or request, address it (nicely) to the staff member with whom you have a relationship or the operations manager for that department.
Note When Peak Season Is
If you want special attention—and the chance for a better cabin—try booking your cruise during off-peak times.
Offer Up Alternatives
Be creative in your requests. Some hotels may not be able to afford to give you a room discount, but they can offer you things that don’t cost them much, such as an airport pick-up, free valet parking, or a resort credit, says Michael McCall, professor and chair of marketing at New York’s Ithaca College. Similarly, although airlines may not give business travelers a break on airfare, they can offer frequent fliers a free day pass to their lounges.
Pick Your Loyalties Wisely
On average, about 70 to 80 percent of first-class seats are upgrades, says former American Airlines employee and senior director of TripAdvisor flights search Jami Counter. It pays to join an airline’s frequent-flier program—but not just any airline. Don’t pick a carrier headquartered in your city, because there will be a larger pool of elite fliers. “It’s a lot easier to get upgraded on airlines that are based elsewhere,” Counter says.
Quell Your Fears
…of must-use tech products breaking down on the road. Buy extended warranties and 24-hour support packages for faster service—no matter where you are.
Write down the name of everyone you deal with: reservationists, concierges, and front-desk staff. If you have to follow up on a request or complaint, it pays to be able to reference the staffer with whom you originally spoke.
Show Them the Money
“I always overtip,” says author Gay Talese, “especially at restaurants I want to go back to. I start with the maître d’.”
Travel Like Your Mom
“Talk to everyone—taxi drivers, doormen, anyone,” says Fred Dust, partner at Ideo. “It’s not so much about the questions, it’s about listening. My greatest tips come from something I learned through a longer conversation.”
Understand How a Restaurant Works
Don’t call during the lunch and dinner rushes. “They’ll put you on hold for 20 minutes and then talk to you for five seconds,” says Marino Monferrato, general manager of Cecconi’s, in West Hollywood, California. And know that most restaurants are wary of the 7:30 dinner reservation. “If they seat you then, they’ll only be able to get one seating at that table that night,” says Rocky Cirino, general manager of Marea, in New York. For a great table, you’re better off aiming for either 6:45 or 8:15 p.m.
If you have a bad experience, refrain from firing off a nasty letter to the president of the company. Instead, do some online research to find out who the right person is, or post a note on an online message board. “Cruise lines, for example, are much more likely to respond to complaints on social networks, since they have staff who monitor those posts and report them to the higher-ups,” says cruisecritic.com editor Carolyn Spencer Brown.
Write a Formal Thank-You
Had a good experience? Put it down on paper and send it to the general manager—and don’t be surprised if a bottle of champagne comes your way on your next visit.
X Marks the Spot
Finding the right seat on a plane is crucial. “I use seatguru.com to avoid bulkhead seats as well as ones that are drafty or narrower,” says Lisa Dennison, chairman for North and South America at Sotheby’s.
Yelling Doesn’t Work.
If all else fails, make this your travel mantra.