Fee waivers and free upgrades abound during the holiday travel season

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Go on, ask your airline for a favor -- maybe an upgrade to business class or a waiver on a ticket change fee. While you're at it, see whether your hotel will offer you a suite for the price of a standard room.

The answer could be yes.

No, really. In an effort to spread a little cheer, ticket agents and front-desk workers are known to bend a few rules during the holidays. This year, they'll probably be doing it more than ever, perhaps with the reluctant blessings of their bosses.

"This holiday season, travel companies will be much more sensitive to the economic condition of their customers and show some flexibility," predicts Geoff Galat, vice president of worldwide marketing at Tealeaf Technology, which develops online customer experience management software for the likes of Continental Airlines, Expedia and Priceline.com. "Customer retention is so important now, so I think we may see companies going above and beyond."

There's just a problem or two. No airline, hotel or car rental company will announce that it has gone soft. If it does, it might as well leave the company safe open and ask customers to help themselves to what's left of the cash.

So travelers have to guess. Galat often flies from Atlanta to San Francisco with his Ridley road bike. The Delta agents at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport always charge an extra $175 for his wheels. But lately, he has found that employees let the fee slide when he's traveling back from San Francisco.

Why? "It's a mystery," he told me. (I asked Delta about the apparent inconsistency, and it couldn't explain, saying only that Galat should have been charged both ways.)

It's also a mystery to travelers like Nicolas Clement, who works for a government regulatory agency in Madrid. Last New Year's, he and his wife found a discount rate at a full-service hotel in Boston around the holiday. Neither of them had been frequent guests. By all measures, they should have been assigned the worst room in the house -- you know, the one between the elevator and the ice machine. But they weren't.

"They upgraded us to a corner suite with a view of the harbor," he remembers.

"It's not consistent," says Susan Hoekstra, author of the book "The Service Journey," who is a frequent traveler and a skeptic about the travel industry's holiday niceness initiative. Even if there's a uniform directive to waive change fees or refunds, she says that enforcing them in a uniform way is not always possible.

"If the hotel is empty, then it's easy to be flexible," she says. "But if the plane is full, what can you do?"

The travel industry must be deeply conflicted about this. On one hand, it knows that making an exception to its rules for the holidays is good for business, because it makes customers happy. And happy customers are repeat customers. On the other, it suspects that letting too many $150 ticket change fees slide is also bad for business, because in the short term, it nudges it closer to the void. And right about now, many parts of the travel business -- including airlines and some hotel companies -- are toeing the cliff.

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