Travel is one of the greatest things in the world, but at the same time air travel – getting from point A to point B -isn’t always that fun. Even when we are fortunate enough to get into business or first class, things can go wrong. And if you travel often enough, eventually you are going to have at least one of those flights or string of flights that are so bad that the experience will make you want to just scream.
Well, Shelley and I had one of those experiences on our outbound flights to Kenya a few months ago. Due to three technical malfunctions our flight from Washington to Zurich was delayed by 4 hours which caused us to miss our connecting flight to Nairobi. After lots of confusion with the partner airlines (United, Swiss Air, and Kenya Air) we got rerouted via Dubai to Muscat, Oman. Then, after a long layover and more confusion in Muscat, we finally made it to Nairobi.
The whole process was a nightmare. We arrived in Nairobi 12 hours late, completely exhausted and rundown. We lost out on one night’s accommodation and an prepaid taxi ride. And to add insult to injury one of Shelley’s bags got routed to Amsterdam of all places, and it didn’t arrive until two days after we did. It was one of the worst overall flight experiences of my life, and I’ve flown quite a few times.
But on the plus side of this horrible series of flights we both knew there was an opportunity to possibly get something out of it. In particular we knew we had a decent shot at getting some sort of appropriate compensation from United. We decided to work the system as soon as we got back to Austin, because we didn’t want to mess with it while we were in Africa.
To make a long story short, we each ended up with 30,000 miles being put into our United MileagePlus accounts, and we also got an additional 4,000 United miles for our flights from Zurich to Muscat. We likewise got a $150 voucher we can apply to any ticket we buy with United in the next year. And we are in the process of getting about 3,000 miles from Delta, since we flew on Kenya Air, a Delta partner, from Muscat to Nairobi.
For me, those United points alone are worth about $750 in flights, so this outcome isn’t bad at all for an hour or two of work on our part. Yes, it did take a little bit of work. In our book How To Travel For Free, we specifically talk about how you can either spend more time or more money in order to travel more. And properly complaining to an airline when it screws up your flight is one of those opportunities to spend a little time ‘working the system’ in order to travel more for less money.
So what do you need to do when you have a bad flight experience?
1) Take a few notes of what is going on during the experience. Write down times and other important details while they are fresh in your mind. Chances are you are going to be pretty tired, worn out, and discombobulated at the time, so it will be hard to remember these things later.
2) Keep all of your flight documentation including your receipts and ticket stubs. The information on these things can make all the difference in the world in getting reimbursed, especially when partner airlines are involved.
3) File a good complaint with the airline. This can usually be done on the airline’s website. Let them know exactly what happened, and tell how the overall experience affected you financially, physically, emotionally, etc, and then let them know what you want, i.e. a refund, new ticket, points, or whatever.
4) If the airline doesn’t get back to you or if you’re not satisfied with their answer, then escalate things to the next level. (In our case, United first got back to us with only the $150 travel voucher, and we didn’t think that was nearly sufficient for what we went through.) Chris Elliot, a consumer advocate who writes extensively about the travel industry among other things, has a list of contacts on his website for the major airlines of the world. Carpet bomb any and all contacts that you can find with a follow-up email explaining your situation. If you feel like your particular story warrants it, then I would even send snail-mail letters as well.
5) If you still cannot get a satisfactory answer, then you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.
And if you’re feeling particularly creative, you can create a video like the one below that goes viral and becomes a PR nightmare for the airline in question.
Seriously though, if you do have a really bad experience with an airline, then it can definitely be worth your time to appropriately complain about what happened. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Or in our case the squeaky passenger gets (or at least often gets) free travel.