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Charm or Chutzpah? Try Either; Both May Help You Get Your Way


When it comes to travel, I have two role models, both women over 65. One, an old college friend of my mother's, never leaves the house without looking perfectly turned out, from her matching handbag and pumps to her artfully arranged scarf, secured by a brooch. She chooses her words carefully and speaks clearly. I couldn't imagine her ever losing her composure or raising her voice. When she travels, she usually gets her way with ticket agents, hotel receptionists and restaurant maitre d's.

My widely traveled friend Margaret Fleetwood also favors scarves and seems to have the same sort of luck on the road, although I don't think it's really luck at all. Nor is the reason things generally fall into place for her the fact that she often stays in first-class hotels where the service is supposed to be good.

It isn't strictly the ages of these two women either. Plenty of older women are cowed into accepting less than top-notch treatment, tables by the kitchen and the worst rooms in the house.

Such things can happen to anyone. But I think they tend to occur most often with women, which some would claim means I have a chip on my shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. On the other hand, more than a few extremely successful and poised women have complained to me about ill treatment, including my older sister, a frequent business traveler. She recalls standing at a hotel registration desk with a male colleague who got there after she did. Instead of taking my sister first, the clerk turned automatically to the man. It was a small but galling slight.

I would like to know why things like this happen to certain women and not to others. For instance, flying to New York from India several years ago on Royal Jordanian airline, I stayed over at a hotel outside Amman. When I arrived at the airport the next morning, I learned that my onward flight was overbooked. The clerks at the ticket counter checked in one traveler after another but kept about 20 through-passengers cooling their heels.

Soon I realized that we were about to be bumped. I was desperate to get back to the U.S. and started raising a fuss, collaring every airline employee who walked by to demand a boarding pass. The more they told me to wait, the more insistent and vitriolic I became. Finally I got on the flight, minutes before it left, through sheer obstreperousness.

On other occasions, however, I've found that losing my cool only exacerbated things by making me seem weak in relation to the person who wouldn't give me what I wanted. Wheedling and acting the charming waif has worked sometimes but not consistently.

On that India trip something strange happened to me at a hotel in the Thar Desert city of Jaisalmer, where I arrived after an 11-hour ride in a hired car over the bumpy roads of Rajasthan. I presented myself at the registration desk of the Narayan Niwas Palace hotel, where I had a reservation. But the dark, uninviting room I was given, with a dysfunctional phone, didn't please me. Back downstairs I went, to tell the front-desk clerk I wanted to move. He said he didn't have anything else. I held my ground, puffed up my chest and told him that my old room simply wouldn't do. (I did not say I was a travel writer.) I don't know where I got the gumption to do that, but it worked. I spent several nights there in a brighter, less shabby chamber, with a phone that actually worked.

A similar thing happened to me at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, where I recently stayed to research a story. The morning I was scheduled to arrive, I called the restaurant in the lobby for a dinner reservation at 7 and was told I couldn't be seated until 9. Something enabled me to tell the reservationist that I would be a hotel guest and that 9 o'clock wouldn't do. (Again, I made no mention of being a travel writer.) Looking back, I love the way he said he could make an exception in my case and fit me in at 7.

I'm still trying to figure out what I did right at the Narayan Niwas Palace and Shutters. It has to do with assertiveness, certainly. But my friend Mariana Field Hoppin, who runs a public relations company in New York and usually gets what she wants, made me realize that other factors determine a woman's traveling success. She says that whether you're in Paris or Tombouctou, you must always be polite and dress well if you want to be taken seriously.

This could mean changing from a business suit into sweats at the beginning of a long flight and changing back just before arrival. You also need to enunciate clearly and keep the register of your voice low, so you don't sound like the Barbie doll you may not be anymore. Pack efficiently so you aren't one of those tedious people with more carry-ons than they can handle. And look every flight attendant, waiter or front-desk clerk in the eye and say "Bonjour," "Hola" or, if you're in China, "Ni hao." It takes only a few words of a foreign language to smooth the way, says Shirley J. Lane of Santa Monica, who, at 76, takes six to seven trips a year. If you can manage more, such as "How are you?" you may find that the most brusque people turn into marshmallows.

Getting what you want might not be as difficult as we think. I asked Margaret Fleetwood how she does it. Her answer? "Maybe it's the scarf."

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