Photo: businessman shouting airline check-in

A traveler and a ticket agent "talk about the weather."

Photograph by Glow Images, Getty Images

By Christopher Elliott

Providers and customers are on opposite sides of a growing divide. Can this marriage be saved?

They call it the hospitality business, so why does it feel so hostile? It wasn't always like this. A generation ago, "travel" and "customer service" were practically synonymous (free meals served by fawning flight attendants, liberal refunds, and hardly a surcharge to be found). But a deregulated airline industry, a couple dozen terrorist events, and a recession or two later, and here we are: Welcome to the unfriendly skies, car rental counters, and hotel lobbies.

My in-box is stuffed with complaints from mistreated customers. A cruise line that carelessly drops a customer's bag overboard. A driver charged for a crack on the windshield he didn't put there and then threatened with a collection agency if he doesn't pay up. A flight attendant who blocks a new mother from using the rest–room—and then laughs when the incontinent woman can't hold it in any longer.

Hard to believe, but this stuff is for real. On an American Airlines flight from Albuquerque to Dallas, passenger Jon Buschman says a flight attendant inexplicably pelted him with a bag of pretzels and then doused him with water, seemingly on purpose. Afterward, she patted his head and face. "I did not provoke her," he told me. Late last year, a shocking video made the rounds online: It showed a valet at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown St. Louis taking guests' cars for joyrides—peeling out, revving the engines, doing doughnuts. These incidents are more common than you might think. Travel companies' mistreatment of the very people who keep them afloat is reflected in their plummeting customer-service scores. In one report, the Internal Revenue Service had better marks than the airline industry. How far we've fallen.

And yet, the industry can't take a hint. Travel companies continue to bleed customers dry. Mandatory "resort" fees for hotel guests are now the norm at many hotels. Car rental companies push incomprehensibly dense contracts at drivers and persuade them to buy unnecessary options. Most recently, Ryanair said it wanted to charge passengers for using—I'm not making this up, folks—the restroom. That's right: A fee to pee.

Customers haven't exactly turned into model citizens along the way, however. They lash out at flight attendants, make fake bomb threats, strip naked and run through the cabin. They break hotel furniture and trash rental cars. The prevailing customer attitude is rude, entitled, and occasionally, abusive.

It's an attitude I encounter more and more. So what if the ticket is nonrefundable—I want my money back! Who cares if I paid for a courtyard room—I deserve oceanview accommodations! Don't you dare charge me for the dent I put in my rental car—it's the cost of doing business! It isn't just that we want more; we want more than we deserve. The most common request is from airline passengers who are delayed because of thunderstorms or faulty equipment. It's not enough that the airline offers meal and hotel vouchers for the inconvenience—passengers feel entitled to compensation for the half day of their missed vacation, and they want it now.

How did it come to this? You could blame the economy, or terrorists, or inept management. Think about it. Layoffs translate into cuts in service and more work per employee, both resulting in shorter fuses across the board. The threat of terrorism has made everyone more afraid to travel and has turned U.S. airports into virtual prisons. And please, show me just one well-run travel company, and I'll show you a hundred more that aren't. It's as if this industry rewards incompetence.

But the Internet may be the biggest culprit of them all; it mostly replaced the ranks of travel agents and turned every travel experience except the super-luxurious into a commodity. In this new world, service takes a backseat to price. When asked why airlines treat their customers worse than overnight parcels—give that some thought: at least packages are delivered on time—executives say their surveys show that price is what matters most to the consumer. Perhaps. And perhaps we asked for it. But that doesn't necessarily mean we don't want any service.

The plummeting service ethic in the United States is particularly noticeable to people traveling abroad. In Thailand's hotels, they greet you by name and practically carry you into your suite. No detail is too small; no request too large. What a contrast to your favorite chain hotel in Topeka or Tulsa or Tucson, where you're met by an unsmiling receptionist who acts inconvenienced because she has to swipe your credit card and hand you a room key. Room service takes forever; the food is delivered cold and overpriced; and it tastes like cardboard. Thanks for nothing.

There is a two-part fix. One: The travel industry needs to stop thinking of its customers as either walking ATMs, as cargo, or in extreme cases, as the enemy. It can start by answering its phones instead of sending us through a labyrinth of voice-prompts when we have a question. It can publish a fair contract on its websites that's written in English, not legalese. Its agents can use niceties such as "please" and "thank you" when they deal with customers. It can halt the myriad ridiculous fees and surcharges it has dreamt up in recent years. It can tell its lobbyists to stop blocking laws that would protect travelers.

Two: As my mother always used to say, "Two wrongs don't make a right." That applies to travelers who have been delayed, overcharged, put on hold, inconvenienced, or ignored. Just because you've been disrespected doesn't give you license to be a jerk. Complain? Yes. Complain loudly? Sure. But don't be rude.

The real key is to know your rights. If you carry the fine print (contract of carriage, car rental agreement, frequent-flyer statement) with you, you have an important tool to getting good service. It's easier to disarm rudeness when you've got the facts at your fingertips.

Both providers and consumers of travel can do better. "Oh, behave!" Austin Powers said. Yes, let's.

Join the conversation or tell us your trip troubles. E-mail contributing editor Christopher Elliott at celliott@ngs.org or follow him on Twitter (@elliottdotorg).

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