Consumers Fault Airlines for Poor Service, Cramped Seats

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U.S. Airlines Rank Lowest in Satisfaction Among Travel Sectors
Mel Evans/APUnited Continental Holdings finished last among U.S. airlines for customer satisfaction.
By Karen Jacobs

U.S. airlines lag hotels and online travel agencies in customer satisfaction as travelers face increasingly cramped airplanes and poor in-flight service, a poll published Tuesday showed.

The annual American Customer Satisfaction Index found that airlines scored 69 on a 100-point scale, compared with 75 for hotels and 77 for Internet travel agencies. Though that grade was unchanged for air carriers from the year before, only subscription TV service, social media and Internet service ranked lower among other industries tracked.

The ACSI Travel Index is based on random interviews with more than 7,400 U.S. customers of airlines, hotels and Internet travel websites from October 2013 to March 2014. The poll is the latest of several studies in recent weeks suggesting airlines have room to improve various aspects of customer service.

An annual report from researchers at Wichita State and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical universities found that while carriers overall had fewer passenger complaints, on-time performance and mishandled baggage rates worsened in 2013 from 2012 .

Another study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund found that Spirit Airlines (SAVE), American Airlines Group (AAL) and United Continental (UAL) ranked worst in terms of passenger complaints.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The ACSI study found that while airlines got high marks for the ease of check-in and reservation procedures, the onboard experience could be improved. Customers rated carriers low on the quality of in-flight service such as beverages, bathrooms and seat comfort.

"The biggest challenge [for airlines] is the flight itself," David VanAmburg, managing director of ACSI, said in an interview. He said passengers give low marks on seat comfort because flights have become crowded and cramped as carriers look to fill every seat. He said he doesn't expect this trend to reverse since fuller airplanes have helped airlines improve their financial performance.

"It's been a clear trend in the industry in recent years to create cost efficiencies by putting more people on the plane," VanAmburg said.

Airlines with the highest satisfaction scores were JetBlue Airways (JBLU), Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Delta Air Lines (DAL), the survey found. United Continental had the worst score.

Hotels fared better than airlines in the index but lost stature as room rates went up. The overall hotel industry ranking of 75 was down from 77 in 2013.

Customers don't feel hotel amenities have improved as prices have risen, VanAmburg said. Budget and middle-market hotels such as Choice Hotels International's (CHH) Econo Lodge fared worse in guest satisfaction than luxury hotels. Marriott International's (MAR) Ritz-Carlton scored highest among hotel brands in the index.

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Consumers Fault Airlines for Poor Service, Cramped Seats
Before you book a room, call the hotel itself (the specific location, not the chain's 800 number) during business hours to see if the hotel will match or beat rates you've found online. Sometimes they'll throw in extras such as free Wi-Fi, breakfast or late checkout. This gives you maximum flexibility because you usually don't have to pay in advance, plus you won't need to deal with a third party if something goes wrong or you come across a cheaper alternative.  
Some hotels charge a resort fee that may not be included in an online quote. Others charge for Wi-Fi, breakfast or use of the gym. In a city center, parking can cost $35 or more a day. To avoid unpleasant surprises, always ask about which fees are included and how much they'll cost you.
Many small hotels don't want to pay search site commissions and therefore they don't participate. When you call them, you're often talking to an owner or manager who is empowered to offer a discount. TripAdvisor (TRIP) is a good site to use to identify these small hotels, but you should go directly to the hotel to make reservations.
If you're traveling with a family or planning a longer stay, look into renting an apartment or house. You can find listings at HomeAwayFlipKey and VRBO, among other services. Many of these lodgings charge a cleaning fee, so keep that in mind when you're calculating total costs. But with a kitchen you may save on food because you can cook some meals.
On a road trip, pick up the coupon books at rest stops and convenience stores. Those coupons, offered by the owners of individual franchises, often beat the national deals advertised on the chains' websites.
This doesn't work at the height of the tourist season, but often times it will get you the best deal at hotels that start the day with plenty of empty rooms. If you just show up, you can also see the room before you commit. Several apps, including Hotel Tonight, cater to travelers looking for a room on the fly.
If you book with a service that requires payment in advance, read all the fine print. And make sure you know how much it will cost if you have to cancel.
In Europe particularly, tourist offices offer room-finding services for same-day rooms. Even in the United States, some cities, such as Newport, R.I., get a list every morning from local hotels of rooms they want to sell for that night. "Think of this as an old-fashion version of Expedia.com, only a real-life person finds the accommodations that is right for you ... at the right price," says Andrea McHugh, marketing and communications manager of Discover Newport.
Sites such as BetterBidding.com allow you to find out what other travelers have paid at HotWire and Priceline and can sometimes identify the "mystery" hotels that keep their name and location secret until you book.
Groupon (GRPN), LivingSocial and other deal-of-the-day services offer travel deals, but most of the time you must act quickly to snag one.
If you're traveling to just one destination, look for a deal that includes hotel, airfare and car rental, which may be cheaper than buying these components individually.
Many credit cards offer points equivalent to several nights' hotel stays just for signing up, plus you can earn points when you use your new credit cards. "Using hotel points for free stays is the best deal in the travel industry," says Kevin Barry, who publishes Frugal Mouse, a website about traveling to Disney parks. "Last fall I went on a two-week vacation to Europe. ... One hundred percent of our hotel stays were covered by hotel points, and we stayed at very nice locations."
That means fall in Florida and summer in the Caribbean, winter in Europe, weekends near convention areas and weekdays in resort areas.
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