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What to Do When Airline Customer Service Isn't

Traveling is one the best part of life, but it can also be fraught with unexpected "surprises." One grumpy customer service rep can make a trip go from bad to worse, but that doesn't have to be the case. Here are some tips to help you navigate a similar situation.
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Nightmare Connections
I recently had a very mixed bag of customer service experiences with United Airlines on my last excursion to Chile. With travel consistently being in flux and potentially highly stressful for many, I expect customer service representatives from any organization to be considerate and helpful. Unfortunately, it's not always the case, and it certainly wasn't for me on this trip.

My four-flight journey took me from LAX to Houston, Houston to Bogota, Columbia, Bogota to Santiago, Chile, and ended up in Punta Arenas, Chile. Right out of the gate (literally) my first flight was delayed due to technical issues. Then, mid-flight, due to unforeseen weather issues, the plane was rerouted. We made an unplanned stop in Abilene, Texas (never been there before) to avoid storms and pick up gas, as apparently we didn't have enough to make it to the opposite side of the Houston/Hobby airport.

The total sum of our equipment switches and re-routing cost passengers three hours of delay and many missed flights--myself included. Since it was the first of my four flights, I was particularly stressed.

Customer Service -- Not

After an interminable 60-minute wait in the customer service line, the rep I stood before proved to be less than service oriented. In fact, she was rather surly and unaccommodating. I knew I needed her help if I was going to get to where I needed to be. I greeted her with my best -- rally through the traveler weary -- "how are you doing?" I got no answer. In fact through the entire interaction she never made an effort for actual eye contact. This was going to be trying. I kindly asked her if there was any way to reroute the remainder of my flights, skip the leg to Bogota, and fly directly to Santiago and on to Puntas Arenas. I needed to reach my final destination in the 24 hours I'd scheduled. She responded with an aggravated exhale, tapped furiously at her computer keyboard, asked her co-worker if her computer was working, because hers was not.

After several more stinging keyboard strikes, she flatly told me I was out of luck. She told me I needed to continue with my intended three remaining legs but on the following day.
And because I would be arriving one day later than I'd planned, there would be an additional hotel stay in one of my two stops -- an expensive detail I'd not accounted for in my budget.

When I asked if the airline made allowances for hotel accommodations, she haughtily handed me a slip of paper with a 1-800 desperate-traveler-in-need-of-hotel room phone number. She went on to say that weather doesn't count as an airline issue. I wondered if not having enough fuel in the plane to reach your intended destination count?

Customer service - Redux

I walked away from the service desk perplexed about which route to take. I had a five-hour layover to decide. To get some perspective on my predicament I purchased some water, took a deep breath, and decided there had to be a better way. My solution was to get back in the customer service line and hope for a different customer service person. Twenty-five minutes later my prayers were answered.

This time, the United Airlines customer service rep really took my request to heart. She not only found me a direct flight to Santiago, she was able to coordinate the final leg of my flight with only a five-hour delay. This meant I would arrive at my destination within my 24-hour time frame I needed. To top it off, she was also able to arrange it so I didn't have to pay any additional charges or change fees.

Service with a smile

Then, much to my unexpected delight, I boarded a nearly empty plane. There were only 60 passengers on the flight to Santiago. Why the first rep wasn't able to find the same open flight the second rep did, using the same computer information, at the same customer service desk, will always remain a mystery to me.

The flight attendants onboard were very gracious, and even encouraged all of us to spread out and take the center rows so we could sleep on the overnight flight.

Customer service To-do's when you're the customer

Traveling is one the best part of life, but it can also be fraught with unexpected "surprises." One grumpy customer service rep can make a trip go from bad to worse, but that doesn't have to be the case. Here are some tips to help you navigate a similar situation.

1. If you find yourself face to face with a miserable customer service rep keep your cool. Oftentimes if you are kind to them, they'll respond in kind.

2. Don't always take the first answer you're given. It helps to talk to another person, and not to let one person ruin your trip (everyone else after my grumpmeister was friendly).

3. Traveling does have its inherent challenges. Weather, flight delays, technical issues are all part of the experience. Many times these issues can't be avoided and patience will be your friend.

4. If all else fails, remember it's not the final destination, but the journey that counts. Every part of traveling is the adventure. Inevitably you will get to where you're going and it will be worth the trip.