Crash Course: 11 Terrible Customer Experiences in Travel

Crash Course: 11 Terrible Customer Experiences in Travel

Getting a passenger from A to B. Giving them somewhere to sleep.

It seems so simple.

But with so much riding on travel for your customer – the cost of bookings, the early-morning starts, the importance or the fun of their trip – it’s a sector primed like no other to stoke their rage when things go wrong.

This was exemplified beautifully by Canadian folk musician Dave Carroll.

His chosen airline made him so mad that he wrote a song about them, which has since been viewed over 18m times on YouTube¹.

Have a listen, it’s a catchy number.

Anyway – given that Currency Alliance positions itself as a flag-bearer for great CX, I asked around the office for everyone’s worst ever experiences in the travel & hospitality sector.

The anecdotes revealed some interesting themes, and they should make for useful learnings for airline and hotel brands.

1. Travel-Sick

“I was once woken up by a flight attendant on an overnight flight with some unpleasant news… Someone had been sick on my head.

It was nobody’s fault really and I was cleaned off with wet wipes; the problem was that they refused to let me change seats!

The seat was disgustingly unusable; but there were no other seats in economy and I was not entitled to an “upgrade”.

After inconclusive and panicky discussions amongst the flight attendants, I took matters into my own hands and walked to the only available seat on the plane, in Upper Class – where the other passengers were vastly more sympathetic than the crew.

This unfortunate incident could have been handled so much better; instead, I was made to feel like I was the problem.

Predictably, the airline did not follow up to express concern or offer to dry-clean my clothes.”

2. A plane-crash of a CX…

“I was en-route from Amsterdam to the US, with a planned stopover in London for a 10am meeting.

Problems started in Amsterdam when a catering truck crashed into our aircraft (!), and the flight was cancelled.

Agents started rebooking people at the gate, but pace was glacial, and soon the next flight’s passengers began to arrive.

They tried to stagger people by telling us to collect our bags from bag claim and come back; in reality it made things worse. I came back to only two agents serving a line of about 300 people.

I tried calling reservations to re-book a flight over the phone, but was told this wasn’t possible, which I found remarkable.

Airlines suffer cancelled flights all the time, and booking a flight online only takes a couple of minutes. The absence of an easy digital means of re-booking a cancelled flight seems beyond belief.

Perhaps this wouldn’t have saved me waiting eight hours for the next available flight, or got me to my meeting in time. Cancellations happen and flight schedules are what they are.

But at least I wouldn’t have walked all over the airport, passing twice through security and passport control to access the check-in counter, lugging my bags in tow.”

3. Customer Disservice!

“On a recent BA flight from London to Mauritius, the crew were bringing round soft drinks.

There was a choice of orange juice or water, but more water than juice was being taken, so as they got towards the back of the aircraft they only had juice left on the trolley.

A passenger (our friend) didn’t want orange juice and asked if the flight attendant could fetch some water from the front of the plane.

The flight attendant’s response?

“Oh, what the f***!”

She then stomped off – not only failing to bring our friend’s water, but also not serving any of the passengers in the remaining rows, and never to be seen again!”

4. Pointless

“During the past 20 years, I´ve stayed in hundreds of IHG hotels and amassed hundreds of thousands of loyalty points.

In April 2015, with a remaining balance of about 88,000 points, I received an email from IHG stating that my points were due to expire May 31st that year, so I booked a Holiday Inn Express in London around the 15th of May to keep the account active.

After I checked out, however, I discovered that the email had contained wrong information and that the points actually expired on May 1st.

Despite my longevity as a customer, and despite showing them the erroneous email, IHG flatly refused to reinstate the points.

Since then, over 200 hotels that were not IHG have had my custom instead.

Seems kind of stupid to lose a customer like this.”

5. Weary traveller

“I once had an 8pm flight from Barcelona delayed, delayed, and delayed again until it was finally cancelled at midnight.

The airline put us up in a hotel, as you’d expect, but managed it horrifically.

First of all, we had to queue for two hours to arrange a hotel room and a flight for the next day, finally getting to my room at 2am.

But worse than that, they’d booked us on the 7:20am flight the next morning, meaning a 5am start and only a few hours sleep.

Airlines could soften the blow of mishaps such as these by publishing guidelines of what to expect when things go wrong; but the best thing they could have done was offer a range of different flight times – rather than wedging us all on the next available seats.

To top it all off, although they did finally pay €250 compensation, getting that was more exhausting than the flight itself. It took months to claim back.”

6. Second-class passenger

“I’ve only ever taken one connecting flight, stopping at JFK en-route from San Diego to London. I was broke, and it saved me around £80.

As a connecting flight newbie, I had no idea whether I needed to collect my bags and bring them to the next flight. But with a 90-minute layover – plenty of time, I thought – I went to ask at the airline information desk.

It turned out there were two lines: coach class (myself) and everybody else.

For more than an hour, I and the other economy passengers stood almost completely still, while wealthier customers sailed past us to the front of the queue.

The anger was palpable. One man progressed from cheerily strumming his ukulele, to flipping off the CSRs at the desk as he stormed off.

I too was eventually forced to give up. My luggage was worth less than the cost of buying another flight, so if it went missing, so be it.

I’ve always been happy to fly coach; that is the only time the lowly status of my ticket has been really rammed home.

To charge a premium on information seems wrong anyway; but the experience being left stranded, while watching those who could afford it get their problems answered, felt genuinely degrading.

As it happens, my bags made it home, and I can’t actually remember which airline it was. If I could, I’d never use them again.”

7. Customer’s always wrong

“Flying out of Lisbon to Barcelona, all the indicators – airport departure boards, and the Vueling App – said our flight was delayed by more than two hours.

I spoke to an agent for the airline, who explained that there was congestion in Barcelona and that the Captain would not get permission to fly until at least 3pm – so we should come back then for an update.

When we came back at 2:50pm, the flight had already departed.

Dozens of other angry passengers had also been misled – and to really rub salt in the wounds, we were sent back to the main ticket office to pay €280 for a flight eight hours later, “because missing the flight was my fault.”

I still have a screenshot of the Vueling App (taken at 3pm) stating the flight would depart at 3:40pm.

To make matters worse, that flight was also delayed by four hours. By the time we made it home to Barcelona it was 4am.”

8. Lip service

“I registered my US holiday home for rental via HomeAway before they were acquired by Expedia.

HomeAway had advertised a free year’s renewal subscription (about $350) if no bookings were made in the first year. True enough, I didn’t have any bookings, so I set about trying to claim the free second year.

The company, it seemed, did not want to help.

I initially called a week before the year was up. After waiting on hold for more than half an hour, the agent told me to call back after the anniversary date.

I called 5 times, paying international rates from Spain, and after 30-40 minutes on hold each time, never got through to customer service to effect the renewal.

I then tried contacting them by email and social media channels and only twice got a response – both times directing back to calling customer service.

I gave up.”

9. Disconnecting Flights

“I’m a member of loyalty programs with two different airline alliances: One World, and SkyTeam.

With both alliances, I’ve encountered problems with the name in my passport not quite matching up with the name in my rewards program account.

In the case of OneWorld (mostly Iberia flights), this was resolved with a bit of toing and froing.

SkyTeam made things a lot more difficult.

I initially joined via Air Europa; but when I tried to add to my account points from an Alitalia flight, they had no clue how to amend it.

I then asked Alitalia to help, but they asked me to either scan or physically mail my boarding cards.

I offered to send my eTicket but apparently this wasn’t good enough. Surely in a digital world things should be easier?

In fact, it’s turned out easiest of all to just stick with One World brands.”

10. Self-catering

“When we booked accommodation for a festival in Greece, the ad conveniently failed to disclose that our room would be uncomfortably small – and directly above a noisy bar.

After a real battle, we were finally moved to a brand new flat.

Seems like a win? Think again.

The kitchen drawers and cupboards were completely empty. No silverware, no dishes, no utensils – nothing.

Takes the definition of self-catering to a whole new level…”

11. So near, yet so far

“I once had a flight from Amsterdam to Denver rerouted via Miami due to bad weather, adding what should have been around six hours to my trip.

Oh well, I thought. It happens. No big deal.

But it was in Miami that the frustrations really began.

The flight to Miami arrived late, leaving only one hour for my connection which turned out to be too little – by one minute.

The attendant at the gate refused to let me on – which in fairness, was airline policy – and I was booked onto the next flight (6 hours later) without fuss or additional expense.

But it turned out the flight ended up getting held up at the gate, and so I sat there helpless, for a whole additional half-hour, watching as the plane I wanted to be on sat only a few feet away.”

Empower your employees to deliver great experiences

Everybody has a story like this.

Fortunately, Dave Carroll’s song offers up useful clues for travel brands in how to manage these cases better.

And so began a year-long saga

Of pass the buck, “Don’t ask me”,

And “Sorry sir, your claim can go nowhere.”

In the notes under his YouTube video, Carroll explains that it wasn’t the broken guitar alone that made him so mad.

It was the customer experience following the event – namely, spending nine months being disowned by an unbroken sequence of company representatives, all of whom “put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves”.

Herein lies your challenge – and also, your easiest opportunity to improve your CX.

To an outside observer, it’s obvious that Carroll’s guitar damage should have been compensated.

Clearly, the passenger whose seat got puked on should have been moved into the only remaining seat on the plane – even if it was in first class.

Those 88k IHG points should have been reinstated with no questions asked.

And how hard would it really have been to re-open that departure gate to save that guy a further 6-hour delay?

In fairness to travel industry professionals: it’s not always easy, as an employee, to have the confidence to step outside of your daily remit and know how and when it’s right to bend the rules – least of all when your industry is entwined with safety and security protocols.

But travel is a complicated, unpredictable sector where the unexpected occurs on a daily basis.

To help your customer service reps manage this, you must:

  • manage expectations on the front foot – so that customers and staff alike know what to expect of difficult situations
  • create a staff culture where solving customer problems is a priority, and empower your employees to act on the spot
  • say sorry when things go wrong (this is rare)
  • build up good will when things are going well.

Customers aren’t stupid.

They expect delayed flights, and they know that when a single brand has hundreds of thousands of customer relationships to manage, errors are inevitable.

But each one of those hundreds of thousands of customers only has a handful of brand relationships to manage; so in a sense, you will always mean more to them they will to you.

The matter of perception is crucial

It’s not the errors themselves, but the disconnect between expectations of how you handle them, and the reality, that destroys brand preference.

If you’ve put the groundwork into ingratiating yourself with that person, then properly-handled, easily-resolvable mishaps are unlikely to tarnish their perception of your brands’ value – and true, enduring customer loyalty will be your reward.

But if your brand fails to step up, they’re unlikely to forgive and forget, and highly likely to tell all their friends.

(Or if they happen to be a successful musician, they may even tell the entire world).

The choice is yours.

Could your CX be improved?

Currency Alliance can help.

We help consumer-facing brands forge alliances, easily and inexpensively, in order to drive greater customer loyalty.

Our free, simple, cost-cutting SaaS tech platform can be used to issue, buy, sell or exchange loyalty currencies with other brands.

This helps you turn dormant points into profit, whilst customers enjoy the freedom to earn and spend their points with a wider network of brands.

To discover the full range of benefits, explore the platform and find out more at