How Travelers Can Deal With Customer Service Problems

Airlines and rental car firms don't have enough staff to deal with complaints, so here are some tips to minimize hassles

Illustration of a person talking on the phone with a plane flying overhead. Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, iStock

The rebound in summer travel has caused more than the usual amount of headaches for Americans hitting the road

And it’s not just the shortage of flights and rental cars. Consumers are finding it harder than ever to resolve flight changes, botched reservations, billing errors, and other screwups. 

The problem is that while airlines and rental car companies focus on adding flights, finding pilots, and managing car inventories, customer service has lagged far behind. 

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"No one knew how quickly travel would come back once Americans were vaccinated, and companies are trying to catch up,” says Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of The Points Guy, a website offering advice on travel rewards and credit cards. 

My own family encountered this head on when we had to change our flight and car rental dates in April. We ended up getting billed for both reservations, and it took months of calls and emails to get a refund. At one point, the wait time for airline customer service was nearly 9 hours. We left a callback number, but no one ever returned our call.

So as the July Fourth holiday weekend approaches, here are some tips to minimize your travel hassles and help resolve any complaints that do crop up.

Use a Credit Card

Avoid using a debit card for key transactions such as airline tickets and car rentals.  That’s because under federal law, credit cards offer more protections, such as the ability to dispute errors or unfair charges.

If you use a debit card instead, some banks will investigate but others may not, says Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer group.

Another plus for credit cards: Many offer travel rewards programs that can give you cash back or points for future travel.

Document Your Travel

Keep a careful record of your transactions, including reference numbers, dates, and the names and titles of any customer reps or other employees you deal with. 

“These days it makes sense to have paper copies as well as digital copies on your phone, so you have access to records if problems arise,” says Mayerowitz.

If you’re renting a car, take photos of the vehicle before you leave the lot and after you return. You can also ask the rental car staffer to sign off on the car when you bring it back.

Check for Surprise Charges

Keep all your paperwork, and review your account later on to make sure the amounts you’re charged are consistent with what you were promised.

Recently some travelers have been hit with surprise cleaning fees, sometimes $400 or more, for car rentals, says Couch-Friedman. 

The charges often involve claims that the driver was smoking, despite being a nonsmoker. Others are fees for minor issues, such as a bag of chips left in the back seat, she says. 

If you’re hit with unjustified fees, having photos and documentation of the car’s condition will help with the dispute.  

Try Multiple Ways to Get Help

If you do have an issue, you may need to be persistent to get it resolved. 

Start by phoning and emailing the company to establish a record of complaint, and include copies of key documents such as tickets and receipts. Calling early before East Coast business hours begin can help put you closer to the front of the line, says Willis Orlando, a flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, a website. 

You can also check to see if your app has a text message option. “That may connect you with an agent more quickly,” Orlando says.

Posting complaints on social media may be a good shortcut to a resolution, travel experts say. But some companies are more active than others about monitoring and responding to complaints, so check to see if there are responses to previous messages.

If the standard methods don’t get you help, you can escalate by reaching out to an executive at the company. Your best bet is to contact the head of customer service as the next step rather than the company’s CEO, because that person will be best able to resolve the problem, says Couch-Friedman. 

You can find a list of contacts for many companies at Elliott Advocacy. For more tips on getting the customer service you need, see "How to Complain Well and Get Results."


Photo of CR Money editor, Penny Wang.

Penelope Wang

I cover everything from retirement planning to taxes to college saving. My goal is to help people improve their finances, so they have less stress and more freedom. What I enjoy: walks through the city, time with family, and reading mysteries, though I rarely guess who did it. Follow me on Twitter (@PennyWriter).