Best Travel

The One Best Travel Tip You Need To Know

I get asked for travel tips all the time, packing, gear, finding the best airfare, choosing a hotel, and so on and son. For each specific line of inquiry, I have plenty of advice, but several recent experiences have led me to believe that there is one simple, overarching tip that often works with airlines, hotels, restaurants and pretty much all facets of travel, and can make your trip, smoother, cheaper, less nerve wracking, and applies before and during travel.

Hang up and call again. Talk to somebody else. Like I said, it’s simple.

It’s no secret that customer service has greatly declined across many industries, and travel is one of them, with calls outsourced to remote workers who often seem to have no clue, with massive staffing shortages to boot. The result is worse customer service than ever, but also customer service that may mean well, but lacks the experience, information, authority, or all of these, to help you. If they say they can’t do something they may be wrong, they may be lying, or it may be true, but there is likely someone else who can do it. In every tier of every company, there is usually someone with more authority who can actually make decisions. I cannot recount how many times I have been told something is impossible, or cannot be done, or is not company policy until another representative did exactly what I wanted.

I fly United a lot and have 1K status, which is the top of the normal frequent flier program and second highest tier you can reach. Because of that, I often travel on Star Alliance partners, and recently used miles to book tickets for my wife and I to Paris on Lufthansa (through the United site), via one of their hubs, Munich or Frankfurt, I can’t remember which. From where I live you always have to change once, so I would have preferred to book the United flight via Newark with a short domestic hop and then non-stop to Paris (one of the biggest problems with Star Alliance “partners’ is that they don’t let you book seats in advance, offer non-point upgrades or extend any courtesies other than free baggage and priority boarding, whereas with United itself you can choose the best seats in advance and often get free upgrades), but the United flight was not available with miles and the Lufthansa was.

A few months later the schedule changed and the connecting flight to Paris from Germany was too tight. I got a notice about the schedule change, and it said I could change my flights, as is the case when the schedule changes. However, when I called United (on a Saturday), I was told that because I had booked Lufthansa, I could not switch to the United flight from Newark, only another Lufthansa flight, and the only available option added a 7-hour layover. Basically I was told sorry, you can’t move to that flight, period. So, I called back a couple of days later and got a different representative and suddenly, without hesitation, I could switch to the United flight I wanted in the first place, and I did. The only difference in the situation was someone else at the keyboard at the other end of the phone.

This is a perfect example of this simple tip – call back and talk to someone else. But it also brings up an important corollary that I have also seen over and over again – avoid weekends. If you think about it for a second, who would choose to not work weekends in customer service? The people with the most seniority. Who actually knows the systems and can most efficiently help you? The people with the most seniority. Here’s another crystal-clear example:

I just went on a ski trip to Europe with two other couples. One of my friends and his wife flew Swiss, and he doesn’t have Star Alliance premier status, so he has to pay for extra checked luggage. He was trying to decide whether to bring their skis or rent so he called the number on his Swiss receipt – on a weekend. He asked what the policy would be for two people to check ski bags and they told him it would be $300 and tried to get him to charge it to his credit card in advance over the phone. This was a crazy number, but more importantly, Swiss, famous for serving myriad ski destinations in the Alps, has a unique policy of always allowing you to transport your ski or snowboard gear at no charge on all its flights, something most passengers wouldn’t know, but something that the person answering the phone at Swiss absolutely should know. I told my friend to call back and talk to someone else – during the week. He did, and they happily told him about the free bag policy, but he could have easily been out $300 for no reason. Both times he called the same number at Swiss.

Another buddy of mine recently bought tickets in economy on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, and then, after the fact, decided he would rather spring for business. He called and the representative told him he could only upgrade with points in Turkish’s Miles & Smiles frequent flier program, not his United points even though they are both Star Alliance. Fair enough if that’s their policy. But he then tried to pay for the upgrade, and they told him no, only miles. Anyone who flies a lot and knows frequent flier programs would see this fails the smell test, as mileage upgrades always take a back seat to cash, which is what airlines are in the business of obtaining. Again, he called back and talked to someone else with a different story.

These tales bring us to corollary two – if the information you get sounds ridiculous, like a $300 charge for checking skis or an airline refusing to sell you an available premium ticket, that’s a red flag that you need to hang up and call back and talk to someone else.

Obviously, there are times when your issue cannot be resolved because you want something impossible, like a free upgrade you are not entitled to, and no matter how many people you call you won’t get your impossible wish. But anytime your gut says you are getting misinformation, your brain tells you are getting nonsensical information, or you get routed to someone who barely speaks English and you cannot understand – which happens more and more – it’s time to politely say “thank you very much, have a nice day,” then hang up and call back.

Or as frequent flier and airline information website One Mile At A Time put it in a feature titled How to Talk to Airline Phone Agents, “Hang up and call again. This has been a mantra in the frequent flyer community for years, and for good reason. If you’re not ‘connecting ‘with an agent, or they don’t seem like they’re going to be helpful, politely thank them for their help and end the call. Even with long hold times you’ll generally come out ahead by spending the time to find a good agent, in my experience.”

Which brings up the downside of this strategy. These days, hold times can be awful, especially if you don’t have frequent flier status, and calling back after finally getting through may seem like a bad idea. The key is to try to call when its less busy – not during nationwide ice storms that are delaying thousands of flights and crippling the network, but early in the morning or late in the afternoon (but not weekends).

It’s not always airlines and sometimes it can be a much simpler issue. When I was skiing in Italy, one of my friends had to go pick something up at a shop in the next town, about 4 miles away. The region has no Uber or Lyft, so he went to the front desk in the evening and asked about arranging a cab to take him the next morning, wait a few minutes and bring him back. The clerk made a call to a local cabbie and said €70. It seemed crazy for a 20-minute trip (or less) so I suggested we have dinner and try again. After our meal, he went back, and another clerk was at the desk. This time she made a few calls and settled on €40. Boom. That’s a huge difference, and all it took was virtually hanging up and trying again with someone else.

All of the above true stories occurred in the last month, but there are many, many more.

The hotel example of this tip would be requesting a late checkout. Call the night before and often front desk staff will tell you to call back in the morning, but that doesn’t help you plan, and realistically, their rationale about knowing how many rooms are turning over is unlikely to change significantly between the night before and the morning. They are often just programmed to say this, and don’t usually bother checking occupancy. This is when you want to ask someone else, but unlike a massive call center, if you hang up and call the front desk again you will likely get the same person. This is when you want to ask in person, or ask someone other than who you just spoke to, the concierge or a duty manager, and you can suggest they actually check occupancy. It’s much harder for them to blow your request off to your face than over the phone.

Often families traveling book multiple hotel rooms and want them to connect or be adjacent. Many hotels won’t guarantee this, but the reality is that hotels can – and do – block specific rooms. This is one where you wat to call in advance, and if told they can’t do it, hang up and call back. The bottom line is that there is someone at the hotel who can book your rooms.

Restaurants? Over the Christmas holidays my wife and I went to New York and booked a reservation at a Spanish restaurant I have long wanted to try. I made the reservation through one of the popular online third-party reservation platforms. But when I got my confirmation, it said outdoors, and it was freezing cold. I called the restaurant, and they said yes, they had outdoor patio seating with heaters, but this December in New York was frigid with high winds, and I asked about changing to inside. I was told that since I booked online, they couldn’t change it. Hang up, call back, someone else. Yes, we have a great table for you inside. It can be that simple.

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