By Christopher Elliott

Think this is bad?

It could get worse. Much worse.

Travel is still at the beginning of its long descent into mediocrity. Airlines seem to invent new surcharges and passenger-hostile rules every week. Hotels aren't far behind. Just the mention of the word "customer service" in the back office can be enough to evoke cackles of disdain from the underpaid employees. Worse, there are virtually no consumer protections against any of the inevitable abuses.

But you don't have to go along for the ride. Sure, the latest customer surveys suggest customer satisfaction scores have plummeted to their lowest levels in years. (How bad is it? In one notable case, the industry celebrated a customer-approval grade of C-.) And if you read this column, you can try to count the many times the travel industry has let its customers down.

What, you've lost count? Me too.

"They have little regard for the customer," says Ed Smith, a retired minister from Lenoir City, Tenn. "We used to be considered guests, but now -- especially on the airlines -- we are considered a necessary evil."

There is hope, though.

While the travel industry seems hell-bent on downgrading your next trip, (and I have to be careful here not to single out my friends in the travel agency community -- you're the victims here, too) there are a few things you can do to make sure it doesn't happen.

You can upgrade your trip. How? Here are a few tips I've picked up as a consumer advocate:


Face it; you want to fly like you did before airlines were recklessly deregulated in 1978. Ah, those were the days! Back then, a smiling stewardess served everyone an in-flight meal, the planes were comfortable and on-time. Well, that's not likely to happen again any time soon. But there are still two airlines -- JetBlue and Southwest -- that have outstanding corporate cultures and go easy on the fees. Avoiding bad service is not as easy. You could read the Transportation Department's monthly report card, but you'll probably just go cross-eyed doing that. You're better off asking friends, monitoring the online buzz, and trying the airlines for yourself.


The trouble with avoiding bad airlines is that even when you've identified one, it doesn't necessarily mean you can stay away from it. This is where my airline apologist friends and I differ. They believe market forces will compel bad airlines to behave, that inferior airlines will be unsuccessful because people will refuse to fly on them. But you don't always have a choice in airlines. When that happens, you have two options: stop flying or tell your elected representative you're unhappy. That's right; get political. It's a mediocre airline's worst nightmare: passengers who let Congress know they're ticked off.


A few years ago, it was difficult to tell one car rental company from another.

Most of the vehicles were low-mileage, late model cars. The only thing that separated them was the price, at least from a traveler's point of view. No longer. Today, after a series of car industry bankruptcies and consolidations, companies are trying to save money by "aging" their fleets -- that's industry-speak for keeping their vehicles as long as possible -- and cutting corners everywhere. Not only that, they're also inventing new fees and tightening their rental rules in the hopes of squeezing more money from their customers. That's right: Less for more. Always a winning proposition ... if you want to drive your customers away.


At a time like this, car rental companies are desperate for your business.

So if you find a car rental agent harassing you to buy unneeded insurance, pushing you to take an unnecessary upgrade, or adding unexpected surcharges to your bill, walk away. Go to one of the other car rental locations at the airport and ask for a rate. You can still do that. And unlike airlines, you do have a choice when you rent.


Back in the days of the "Love Boat", a floating vacation was an all-inclusive experience.

Today, the love's gone -- and so is the "all-inclusive." Cruise lines, like airlines, have discovered so-called "ancillary" revenues. They hand you a drink at the welcome reception -- sign here, please. You want bottled water in your room? That'll be an extra $6.95. You'd like to eat in a specialty restaurant? A $20 fee will be added to your bill. It doesn't take long for you to realize that the low cruise fare was just a way to lure you on board. Now that you're trapped at sea, it's time to give your credit card a workout. (If you ever wonder what it's all about, get up early on the last day of your cruise and watch people settling up at the front desk. You'll see a lot of disappointed passengers.) The cruise experience is well on its way to becoming a massive bait-and-switch operation.


A competent travel agent is an excellent resource for planning a cruise vacation, but don't rely on one exclusively.

Instead, research the kind of cruise you want before visiting a travel counselor. Some upscale cruises such as Seabourn's, are far more "all-inclusive" with tips and alcoholic beverages part of your fare. Have a cruise line and a destination in mind, and more importantly, know what you don't want. Then ask a cruise agent for help. (Keep in mind that cruise agents take a commission of around 10 percent of your booking.) A good agent can prevent an avaricious cruise line that's just trying to get inside your pocket from broadsiding you. Plus, travel agents can ensure you don't end up on a singles cruise for your 20th wedding anniversary.


You've probably checked into one of these properties before: The place is falling apart.

The proprietor is a dead ringer for Basil Fawlty, the cranky innkeeper in the 1970s British sitcom, "Fawlty Towers." You feel entirely unwelcome. If you'd only known about this disaster beforehand. Unfortunately, the number of these hotels appears to be on the rise, and unlike the TV show, they're no laughing matter. One night in a dump like this can leave you wishing for a quick end to your vacation. Bad hotels don't just take their guests for granted, they prey on them with poorly disclosed surcharges like "resort fees" and mandatory gratuities. They barely tolerate our presence, and when we have the audacity to complain about something, they shrug us off.


Use social media to find -- and punish -- the worst properties.

When it comes to hotels, the Internet is by far the most effective way to avoid a troubled hotel. Despite the best efforts of these awful hotels, it's impossible to hide from an angry public. Sites like TripAdvisor, Twitter and Facebook let them name names. Don't stay at a property that hasn't been vetted by the Internet. (It's true that hotels -- both good and bad -- try to influence social media, but their efforts have a minimal effect.) Bottom line? If your hotel checks out online, chances are you'll have a good stay.

It's a shame that I have to write a column like this. Travel should be getting better, not worse.

But as basic principles of customer service get pushed aside by people with titles like "revenue manager" and "vice president for analytical systems" there is no other way.

If you don't act now, you'll get downgraded.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine


© Christopher Elliott

Travel - Four Secrets for Upgrading Your Next Vacation