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Bad Trip? How, Where to Complain

Consumers: A recent report shows many travel companies don't respond to letters, but here are some tactics to help get satisfaction.

March 30, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Every year, thousands of consumers come home angry from their vacations, pens poised to fire off letters of complaint. Often, copies of those complaints land in this office, and I've always wondered how much satisfaction those letter-writers eventually find.

But thanks to some number-crunching by the Better Business Bureau, we have a clue: most of the time, no satisfaction. And much of the time, not even the courtesy of a reply.

Tallying the results of 2,852 travel-related complaints lodged to BBBs nationwide over 12 months in 1995 and 1996, officials found that the average unhappy customer had a 42% chance of getting satisfaction and a 20% chance of not even getting a reply within 30 days from the company that inspired the complaint. (The BBB's category for travel-related complaints focuses on travel agencies, travel clubs and discount travel services, excluding airlines, cruise lines and time-share programs.)

In an analysis of 305 travel-related complaints lodged at the Better Business Bureau of the Southland (which covers L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), BBB officials found Southern California consumers seem to get disappointed and ignored even more often than their counterparts in other states. Over the report year ending Sept. 30, 1996, BBB records for this area show complainers had just a 38% chance of getting satisfaction--and a 36% chance of getting no reply at all.

These numbers dismay but do not surprise Edward Johnson, vice president of the BBB's Los Angeles chapter. Along with Las Vegas and southern Florida, Johnson says, the Los Angeles area is viewed by consumer activists as "a hot spot, a mecca for fly-by-night operators." Beyond that, he notes that the travel industry has "a higher percentage [of ignored complaints] than what we normally see in other industries."

Where to complain? First, write to the company that made you unhappy, keeping a copy of your letter and the reply (if there is one).

If you're still unsatisfied, the following organizations accept complaints in writing. Of the groups below, ASTA and USTOA are trade groups that generally take complaints only about member companies. The state attorney general's office focuses on companies that do business in California, and the federal Department of Transportation tracks complaints against on airlines. * American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA, the largest trade group of agencies in the U.S.), Consumer Affairs Department, 1101 King St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Consumer line: telephone (703) 739-8739. Callers can find out if a company belongs to ASTA and if the group has logged two or more unresolved complaints about the company.

* U.S. Tour Operators Assn., 211 E. 51st St., New York, NY 10022; tel. (212) 750-7371.

* Better Business Bureau, Los Angeles Chapter, 3727 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90020; tel. (213) 251-9696.

Ideally, when a complaint comes in, the Better Business Bureau (a nonprofit group supported by membership fees from participating businesses) contacts the targeted business, and that business finds a way to placate the unhappy customer. Meanwhile, the BBB keeps files on complaint-targeted companies and offers "company reports" to consumers who call or write to check up on a company. (Pending complaints aren't disclosed, Johnson says, but once a case is closed, even if a company has been targeted by one complaint and satisfied that customer, those facts will be included in a company report.)

* California Attorney General's Office, Public Inquiry Unit, P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, CA 94244-2550; tel. (800) 952-5225.

* U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, Washington, DC 20590; tel. (202) 366-2220.

As Better Business Bureau officials and industry professionals are quick to point out, asking the right questions in advance is the best way to find a reputable travel agent, tour operator or travel club that will make you happy.

The questions that follow add up to a sort of three-strikes-you're-out series of traveler consumer questions.

Strike one: If this company is a travel agency or a tour operator, does it have a nine-digit California Seller of Travel registration number? If so, the company has met certain state requirements for stability and money-handling practices. If not, the company may be breaking a law that took effect in January, 1996.

Strike two: Does the company belong to ASTA, the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. or the National Tour Assn.? The USTOA includes about 40 of the largest U.S.-based operators of tours worldwide and holds them to strict requirements aimed at ensuring reliability and protecting consumer deposits. The NTA (whose members mostly run tours within North America) has requirements less demanding than USTOA's, but has recently beefed up its consumer-protection program.

Strike three: Will this company accept payment via credit card? Credit cards allow consumers a key protection. If the company fails to deliver the expected service, a consumer can contest the charge through the credit-card institution. If a company won't take credit cards, your money is less safe.

I have used companies with one of these strikes against them. In desperate circumstances, I suppose I might use one with two of these strikes. But if you're shopping for a vacation and your travel agency or tour operator flunks all three of these questions, it's almost certainly time to walk away.

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