How to Complain Properly

I’m a big fan of the comedian Ze Frank. What first introduced me to his website was a digital birthday party invitation called “How to Dance Properly.” Press a button and he’d make some weird dance move. Anyway, things were different back during Web 1.0. Now I’m old and confused and don’t even know what version we’re on anymore…

Ze’s invitation to his friends was simple and direct. Too many letters aren’t. Even I am excessively verbose on this blog, but I have been practicing for years how to cut down on the words to make myself more easily understood. I hope that with this post some of you will learn how to properly craft a complaint letter, because sometimes complaining is necessary. And in those cases, a good complaint letter can get you some nice compensation. A bad complaint letter just makes you look like a rambling @%*^)#$.

Step #0: Most issues do not require complaint letters.

Yes, this comes first. Don’t waste other people’s time.

An airline lost my bag a few weeks ago when I flew to Amarillo. Megan’s bag showed up just fine, but not mine. It didn’t get loaded on my connecting plane despite a two-hour wait, but hey, it happens. Fortunately not too often. But despite all that inconvenience, I still got my bag on the next flight after mine. If I had flown to Europe and my bag was lost for three days, that would be something else entirely.

Other complaints are your own darn fault. I read about a lot of people who book flights with a third-party, select a special meal option, and then wonder why they didn’t get that special meal option when they were on a 737 in coach for a three-hour domestic flight. If you have special needs, whether they are truly serious or merely strong preferences, it is your responsibility to contact the airline directly by phone since they, not some third-party booking site, is going to be the one taking care of you.

Along the same lines, even if your issue is important, it doesn’t necessarily warrant the attention of the company CEO. Would you go to the CEO of your own employer if you had a beef with a colleague? No. If your immediate supervisor might be engaging in sexual harassment? Maybe. Evaluate who is most appropriate to resolve your situation.

Step #1: What is your desired response?

Don’t do anything without a purpose. My purpose writing this post is that I read too many posts on FlyerTalk where whiny people write two pages about how their trip was ruined over a missing fork at breakfast. And then they don’t even ask for anything in compensation!

A complaint letter is to inform a company of what went wrong so they can fix it or provide compensation to maintain your loyalty as a customer. Maybe both. But if you don’t know why you are writing the letter, it is not going to be effective.

Determine what will make you happy, assuming you get a response. Do you want an apology? Do you want money? Will miles or points or a gift certificate be sufficient? You will almost always get an apology and a nicely written letter if you ask for it. Points or credit are easier than a cash refund. But keep it reasonable. Make sure you ask for it so the company knows what it needs to do to satisfy you.

Step #2: Now write the letter.

Keep it short and topical. Start with the context (your reservation number, dates, etc.) Don’t include outside factors. Use direct sentences without long clauses, commas, and parentheses. Kind of the opposite of what I’m doing here. The person who reads your email has to read hundreds every day. Are they going to pay attention if yours is 10 times longer than the next guy’s? That kind of complaint is what form-letter replies were made for.

If it is easy for someone to figure out why you are upset, they are more likely to find a way to help meet your desired response. Including your elite number at the end never hurts so they know who they’re talking to, but don’t sprinkle it throughout the body of your letter, which just makes you sound like an annoying jerk.

Step #3: Wait a day, then re-read and revise.

Chances are you wrote the first version when you were angry. So calm down before you send it off. When you do, make sure you revise it. I revise everything, even email, because the first thing that comes out of my head is stupid.

Writing a letter is like giving a lecture to an audience. You are trying to convince the reader that your claim is important and deserves his or her attention. Chances are the more times you go over your letter, the shorter and shorter it will become. If you are really angry or a really bad writer, share it with a friend (who wasn’t involved in the issue at hand) for some impartial feedback.

Step #4: Follow through.

Start with an email. Most businesses have pretty good response time and quality, though you shouldn’t always expect something within 24 hours. I happen to be very fortunate as a Premier 1K with United since emails to 1KVoice sometimes get responses within the same day. But certainly, I think any customer should expect something within a week or two.

If you don’t get a response, or the response you get seems rude or condescending, then try social media. I don’t normally like to resort to social media right away unless it’s an urgent issue that they can actually handle. You have a bad hotel room and the manager refused to reaccommodate you? Social media might work. You’re unhappy with the in-flight entertainment? I’m not sure what someone behind a computer terminal in Atlanta is going to be able to do for you whether you’re 30,000 feet in the air or waiting at the gate.

Finally, if you’re going to get any compensation, it will be included in the first response. If you don’t like it, feel free to push back, but be reasonable. Say you wanted 10,000 miles and they offer 1,000. Negotiating for 9,000 won’t get you anywhere. They can do whatever they like. You are trying to persuade them to be nice to keep your business.

An example letter that doesn’t make you sound insane:

I’m not actually sending this letter because I don’t think it’s worth a complaint, but let’s use my non-issue as an example.

Dear Airline,

I recently traveled on flight 101 from ABC to XYZ on January 1, 2012. My flight connected to flight 102 from XYZ to DEF. Unfortunately, my checked luggage did not make it to my final destination on my flight. This service failure seems unreasonable since there were two hours for my bag to make it from one plane to another and my companion’s bag managed to make it just fine. I would appreciate a refund of the $25 checked baggage fee. In addition, I would appreciate a $50 travel certificate or 5,000 miles deposited to my account for the inconvenience caused returning to the airport to retrieve my bag.


Pewter Elite #7654321

And here’s another example for a hotel:

Dear Hotel,

I recently stayed at the AAA property with my fiancee from 1/1/2012 to 1/3/2012. Our reservation number was #13579. I made a special request in advance with the concierge for a bottle of Champagne to be waiting in our room when we arrived, but it was not present. When I called room service, they informed me it would be sent right away, but we still waited over 40 minutes before it finally arrived. This delay seems unreasonable, especially after the extra effort I put into making sure that it would be already available upon arrival. I would appreciate if the charge of $45.62 could be removed from my invoice.


Rutherfordium Elite #1234567

The Most Common Mistakes

I don’t think I’m capable of writing an insane complaint letter right now, but here are two of the biggest problems I often see:

  1. Lead-in with irrelevant concerns, or concerns that the writer later admits are no big deal. If so, then WHY are you writing about them?
  2. Complaints about standard features that perform normally but aren’t what you would like. If you want better in-flight entertainment, or if you prefer Coke instead of Pepsi, then fly a different airline.

What I have done is complain about minor things that shouldn’t be a problem for the company to get right. I’ll complain when a United flight attendant refused to serve a pre-departure beverage (unless it’s obvious that the plane is busy/late/whatever) because a United supervisor actually asked me to keep an eye out for that. I’ve written in to complain when the in-flight entertainment eats my $6 and doesn’t show any TV. It’s only $6, but I should expect to have a working TV at my seat, especially if it’s going to take my money anyway.

I’ve made my own fair share of mistakes. I’ve learned through trial and error how to keep it civil, just as I’ve learned how to keep it short and to the point. If you want examples of people who haven’t learned, just read MilePoint and FlyerTalk. They pop up every day. I’m not saying those people don’t have justifiably bad experiences that deserve some compensation, but I’m not even the hotel or airline being targeted and I hate the guys writing them, too! I hope these suggestions above help you keep your cool and get a better response the next time you run into trouble during your travels.

Flying Alaska Airlines in and out of Sonoma Wine Country
Chase Really Wants to Keep My Business (Not!)
  • retired nana

    I sent an email complaint letter last October and never heard anything from UAL. I didn’t see anything on FB in which to post my complaint that would be taken seriously (not the UAL sucks page). Any suggestions where I send a complaint letter to?

  • Tracy T.

    Great post! Thanks for the useful tips.

  • Johnny Triumph

    I really like Delta’s online comments/complaints page. They usually respond within 48 hours and it’s usually for an outcome that I like. I had a flight that the IFE was out (which included wifi). I complained and was credited some miles. Other complaints have resulted in $50 ecredits. I had a plane change (similar plane, same seating layout) and DL pushed my assigned seats 5 rows further back (6 seats in all, family trip). I complained and they said sorry but no way to change the seats or give any compensation. I responded that I bought tickets far enough in advance so that I could secure the row/seats I wanted. They responded again negatively. I sent back that I was disappointed in their response, that a change of plane where both old and new had the same seating should have resulted in the same seats. The came back with a mileage credit for each account.

    I never complain about things that inconsequential. When I complain I do it in an informed manner and politely; it’s not a rep’s fault that the mistake was made or that an airline policy is a certain way. These usually work out to my benefit.

    • AKold

      I agree! Delta always has a quick response and gives me miles even when I don’t ask.

  • Johnny Triumph

    DL also has very responsive social media outlets that are helpful.

    • Scottrick

      Delta, American Airlines, and Hyatt are among the best that I’ve seen.

  • Marcus

    I totally agree with Step #0 about most issues not requiring complaint letters. There was only one time I wrote a complaint letter recently. It was on Hawaiian Airlines. The problem was I had to change the departure date for the flight. I went online and did it. While the itinerary was updated, the e-ticket still had the original date, even after I made the change. Didn’t notice that something was wrong until it was almost too late. I wrote a firm but polite complaint letter to the airline afterward, and got an apology.

    Might be helpful to stress that you’re a loyal customer who has been disappointed by what went wrong. That way, they know you’re a good person and not just out to dump your anger on them.

  • PapaSmurf00

    Timely post as I was about to write United about my recent flight. I wasn’t actually aware about those United forms. As a 1K do you think it’s better to use one of them or contact 1K voice directly via email?