By Christopher Elliott

If you've recently been the unlucky recipient of a rejection letter from your airline, hotel or car rental company, you're in good company. The travel industry appears to be sending out more form letters than ever.

I know, because my blog is the travel industry equivalent of the "Wall of Shame" to which high school seniors pin their college rejection letters. Every day, travelers click on my site to admire the latest pre-written "no" from a company. There's no shortage of material.

"British Airways assures you of our best attention at all times," concluded one recent missive, sent to reader Raymond Fink after he asked the carrier to honor an oral agreement to refund his ticket when his mother fell ill. Fink, who works for an insurance company in Jersey City, N.J., was sent the same form letter over and over, suggesting that the airline's "best" attention may have a deficit.

Increasingly, I've noticed that the boilerplate e-mails follow a formula: Turn down the customers, then tell them that they aren't being turned down, but that it's for their own good. Oh, and there's some good news, at least for you English majors out there: The quality of the messages has improved markedly, as travel companies look for new ways to let their customers down. It has become something of an art form, in fact.

But take a closer look at these e-mails, and you'll find clues as to how the travel industry feels about its customers and how you might ultimately get the service to which you're entitled.

Here, for example, is an e-mail Doris Honeycutt received after she said that her jewelry disappeared at a Days Inn property. "The Days Inn is committed to ensuring that good service and quality accommodations are provided by our licensees," it read. "Each Days Inn facility is independently owned and operated by licensees. Your comments have made us aware of an instance when one of our licensees did not meet a valued customer's expectations."

In other words, we're not rejecting your claim. Days Inn provides only the best service, and we aren't denying you compensation. Our "licensee" is.

Some rejection letters go a step further. Reader Jay Green recently lost 9,000 Hilton HHonors points because of inactivity on his account. He says the hotel chain never notified him that the points were about to expire. When he wrote asking to get the points reinstated, he received a response that said: "HHonors is a loyalty program recognizing those customers who frequently transact with the Hilton Worldwide Portfolio of Brands. To provide recurrent customers with the richest and most flexible program possible, we close inactive accounts."

Put differently, we're saying "no" to your request for your own good. (Hilton reinstated Green's points after its rejection letter made its way to my site.)

These messages have an almost poetic cadence that has to be admired. To tell someone "no" without telling them "no" and to turn the argument on its head, suggesting that you're better off, or even responsible for this action -- well, if that's not art, then I don't know what is.

The faceless men and women who write these letters should be acknowledged. Because even if you can't see the art, you can always find an opening that might let you practice customer-service jujitsu of a sort. You can use the rejection letter to your advantage.

Almost every letter leaves open the possibility of an appeal. Yes, even the ones that insist that the company will not respond to any further e-mails.

The trick is to send your next letter to someone higher up. Finding the right person isn't difficult, even at a company that generally doesn't like to talk to customers, such as an airline. An Internet search for the vice president of customer service normally turns up a name. All you need is the company's preferred e-mail address format (often first initial, last name and you have a direct line to a higher authority.

Then craft an appeal that refers to the opening left by the form letter. For instance: Fink's letter from British Airways ended with a promise to pay the "best attention at all times." So that's how you start your appeal. You say, "I'm relieved that your airline promises to pay the best of attention to my feedback at all times. I have some comments that I believe you will find helpful."

Here are a few more ideas from someone who's read far too many rejection letters and rebuttals: Keep your appeal brief and polite. If you can't get to the point by the second paragraph, don't bother. And avoid threats such as "You'll be hearing from my lawyer" or "I'll never stay in your hotel again." Remember, real people are reading your letter -- at least for now -- and they have feelings, too.

Don't think of a rejection letter as a final answer, but as the next phase in a negotiation. It's a phase the travel industry has long neglected with terse denials and undiplomatic language, but one that's evolving into a creative-writing art form all its own.

Enjoy the art, but don't let it stop you from getting what you deserve.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.


© U.S. Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter

Travel | Rejected? Enjoy the Art, But Appeal