Thursday, March 01, 2012

How to Write a Complaint Letter

The wedding was beautiful, the weekend was lovely, but the hotel was awful.

When I checked in to the Ottawa Travelodge on Carling two weeks ago, I was excited to have been assigned a “pool view” room. But as soon as I opened the door, my excitement faded. The room had all the disadvantages of facing the adjoining water park—the constant sound of screaming children during the day; the echos of parents partying on their balconies at night; the smell of chlorine hanging in the air—but none of the benefits. In fact, instead of a “pool view,” our window faced a concrete wall, which effectively blocked any natural or artificial light from entering our room.

Right then and there, I should have asked to be moved. But I wanted to stay close to the rest of the wedding guests and I assumed that the noisy room came at a lower rate.

As the weekend wore on, our room wasn’t the only issue. It was Family Day weekend and the entire hotel was a gong show. At one point, I had to shove aside adults drinking in the halls and their naked children just so I could access my room. At night, guests propped open their doors with coolers (presumably filled with more alcohol) and yelled at their kids who were having glitter fights in the hallway. 

I’ve had more relaxing stays in youth hostels. But apart from a brief tirade on Twitter, I let it slide.

However, when it came to check out, I was surprised to learn that not only was our “pool view” room the same rate as “quiet rooms with actual views,” but the “preferred rate” we’d received for booking with a wedding was comparable to the rate we would have received for booking online in advance.

“Why don’t you write a letter?” Jay suggested. "Maybe we'll get a refund."

Over the past year, I’ve become known for writing complaint letters. Having worked in the hospitality industry myself, I place a lot of value on the importance of good customer service. When you pay for a service, you should receive it. And complaint letters get results—in almost all cases, the situation has been resolved satisfactorily and I’ve received a refund or apology.

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing travel complaint letters over the last year:

Pick your battles. While the Travelodge incident seems like the perfect example of when to write a complaint letter, it’s not. Not asking to be moved and failing to confirm the rate were my mistakes. And the other hotel guests? They were just trying to have a good time on their long weekend. A lot of situations are out of the control of service providers, including hallway glitter fights.

Before you put pen to paper, determine whether a letter will solve the situation or just aggravate it further. The thing about complaint letters is that while you may get your money back, you’ll never feel good about writing one. And remember—people who work in the hospitality industry know when someone is a habitual complainer and just trying to get something for free. Don’t be that person.

State your case by using business letter format. It’s easy for any pissed off tourist to fire off a quick email or post a nasty review on TripAdvisor. For this reason, using proper business letter format demonstrates that you mean, well, business. (And while it’s tempting to write in all CAPS, I suggest avoiding that as well.)

Be detailed, stick to the facts and explain why you’re upset without being rude. I’m going to sound a bit like Stephanie Tanner here, but to me it just doesn’t seem to make sense to complain about poor customer service, which often equates to rudeness, by being rude. However, be clear and detailed. The facts you include may help management investigate further and take action accordingly.

Close your letter by clearly letting them know what you are asking for. Often, you’ll be looking for a refund or a discount on future services. But you may also just be looking for an apology or explanation. Be clear about what it is that you want and why you think it’s the best solution to the problem.

Snail mail gets results. By taking the time to address and put a stamp on an envelope, it reinforces that you're serious. It also allows you to stand out from the onslaught of emails service providers get every day.

In addition to emailing my letter with any relevant documents attached, I like to send a secondary copy in the mail with any hard copy receipts. In the case of my letter to Big Bus Tours (see my complaint letter example below), this meant that my refund was processed within the week.


Note: The following is an edited version of the original letter I sent. The management at Big Bus Tours was awesome and promptly issued my group a full refund.

October 16, 2011

Big Bus Tours
48 Buckingham Palace Rd.
London, UK

RE: Refund Request

To Whom It May Concern:

Using two to three sentences, sum up why you are writing: On Saturday, October 17, 2011, along with three friends, I purchased four tickets to tour London on the Big Bus Tours. I am writing to request a full refund for the cost of the tour.

Include as much detail as it pertains to what happened or why you are dissatisfied, but stick to the facts: The Big Bus Tour had been advertised and sold to us by Big Bus representatives as a “24-Hour Tour.” We boarded our first Red Line bus at Stop 23. Since we only had one afternoon remaining in London, we were disappointed to learn from the tour guide that the buses were not, in fact, 24-hours. He also explained that the buses had reduced service after 5:00pm, but would be running until 7:00 pm. . . [I went on for another three paragraphs here with details, but there's no need to post the entire letter here.]

Reiterate why you are upset and summarize your main complaints: Big Bus Tours was incredibly disappointing. Not only do we feel that we were misled by the company’s advertising and representatives at stops, but we were given incorrect information by live tour guides, treated poorly by one of the bus drivers and received nearly no commentary from one of the “live” tour guides. 

Explain what you are looking for. Indicate that you will follow up as necessary: From start to finish, the tour was unsatisfactory. We did not receive the service that we had paid for and as such, I’d like to request a full refund for my party of four. Attached you will find the necessary receipts. I trust that you will respond to this matter promptly within the next two weeks. A hard copy of this letter has been mailed to your office along with the original receipts as well.




  1. You don't remember those hotels from when you were a kid ie in Lethbridge and Calgary and you were the kid. Not that you were allowed to run amok.

  2. I remember those hotels. And that's exactly what I thought about--how we were taught that we should talk quietly in hotel hallways. Throwing naked glitter fights in them was never an option.

  3. Thanks for all this information. I think you make very valid points and I appreciate them and agree with you. Business Complaint Letter Template


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