The German magazine “Spiegel Online” interviewed tourism expert Karl Born. The topic: German tourists tend to use precious vacation time hunting for flaws in their vacation packages or accomodations. With the right evidence, they hope to score a discount or reimbursement.
Karl Born, born in 1943, has worked for the German airline Condor and the tourism giant TUI, where he sat on the executive board. He is an honorary professor in tourism management and business administration at the University of Applied Sciences in Saxony-Anhalt. He also writes a popular weekly tourism column called “bissige Bemerkungen”, or “Biting Observations.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Born, you once said in a presentation that ‘complaints are as much a part of any holiday as the Eiffel Tower is a part of Paris and the Hofbräuhaus beer hall a part of Munich.’ The Germans are known for being frontrunners in global travel — but are they also world champions at complaining?
Born: In other countries, the complaint culture is obviously not as extreme as in Germany — especially when you see what Germans complain about. There is an enormous variety of complaints, ranging from the legitimate to the absurd. The Germans are behind a disproportionately high number of the ridiculous complaints.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: As the head of TUI have you experienced this personally?
Born: A hotel manager from Tenerife told me that tourists from other countries generally go about things a bit more elegantly. For instance, if they want to upgrade to a better room, the Italians will compliment the hotel staff and smile, while the Swiss often cite health problems as a reason for needing an upgrade. Germans, on the other hand, don’t beat around the bush and simply say, ‘If you don’t change this, I’m going to sue you.’
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And who has the most success?
Born: Italy, ahead of Switzerland — and the Germans’ problems are addressed last, according to this colleague.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Perhaps the Germans know too much about their rights for their own good?
Born: Maybe. The worst part is the famous ‘Frankfurt Table…’
SPIEGEL ONLINE: … a table that lists the percentage that may be reimbursed for specified shortcomings in tourism and travel services.
Born: Exactly. Many Germans are convinced that this table is the law, when in fact it’s only meant to serve as a guideline for the courts when they are presented with cases related to travel and tourism complaints. The German newspaper Bild prints the table every year and people then take this with them on holiday. Now tour guides are used to these people and know how to discourage them, because many incorrectly believe that they can just add up the individual values on the list. (eds. Note: There is a set limit to the percentage that can be reimbursed)
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That would make for some pretty large sums. Say the area of the hotel room is too small, there is a crack in the wall, the linen isn’t changed once and my table in the dining room isn’t clean. Based on that alone, I could add up a claim for a 50 percent reimbursement per day.
Born: Exactly. And if you’ve already managed to reach a 50 percent reimbursement, then the drive kicks in to push it to 100 percent. But those are the truly hardcore complainers — less than one percent of travelers take it that far. And I actually feel sorry for those people because they ruin their own holiday constantly looking for flaws.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But from the perspective of tour operators, it’s a problem when notorious whiners are constantly reporting their negative travel experiences to their friends.
Born: It’s one of the major topics of conversation when you’re at a party. One person starts talking about his vacation with TUI, and then every person present has his own horror story to share. Only two topics have this domino effect — holidays and car trouble.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Give us one tip: What should a complaint look like, if one wants to get at least a 10 percent reimbursement from TUI?
Born: There certainly has to be truth to the complaint. TUI is a difficult opponent because you’re going up against experienced professionals. They have processed thousands of complaints, so it’s relatively unlikely that a person can get a reimbursement for an invented complaint that lacks good evidence. But let’s say, you had construction work making noise outside of your hotel window. Take a couple of photos and send them, along with signed testimonies of two other hotel guests who support your complaint. With a tactic like that, you’ll likely get some money back. I don’t know if it will get you a reimbursement of ten percent, though. The important thing is that you can back up the complaint with evidence.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One customer won a case against TUI because he claimed that the adventure vacation he was promised had been too normal, and that his life had never been in danger. How can German travel law possibly support such a ruling?
Born: It’s true that the man argued in court that his life had never been in danger — but that’s not why he got his money back. He won the case because a certain part of the travel package, which was meant to be especially adventurous and exciting, did not take place.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are there any other complaints you will never forget?
Born: Once a tourist tried to pet a crocodile in West Africa. It snapped at him but fortunately didn’t hurt him. The man claimed that he should have been explicitly warned against petting the crocodile and even went to court. It took the judge about five minutes to throw the case out, saying that it’s common knowledge that you should not pet a crocodile. You don’t need an expert to tell you that. Another person filed a complaint last year and received a 10 percent reimbursement as a courtesy. Later, he said he wanted 20 percent because prices had increased. In cases like that I really have to wonder if these people are just joking or if they are actually crazy.
Interview by Stephan Orth. The text originally appeared in the book “Sorry, Ihr Hotel ist abgebrannt,” or “Sorry, Your Hotel Has Burned Down,” co-authored by Orth and Antje Blinda, and published by Ullstein.