Smart Traveler, Smartphone

If you want better customer service on your next trip — and who doesn’t? — then reach for your pocket.

But don’t bother pulling out your platinum card to impress a ticket agent, or a crisp bill to tip your bellhop. Whip out your wireless device instead.

Your smartphone is likely the most effective tool for securing the treatment you deserve when you’re on the road. Today’s iPhones and Galaxys are multipurpose tools for travelers, 
allowing us to send messages, calculate a tip, find a flight, and, oh yeah, make an actual voice call. And the built-in camera is for more than just the cute faces your kid or cat makes.

“Smartphone photos have leveled the playing field when it comes to customer service,” says Carlos Miller, publisher of the blog Photography Is Not a Crime.

It isn’t the digital images alone that prod companies into upping their game, but the potential of the images to spread across social networks. Often, photos broadcasting the moldy bathroom tiles or the broken airline seat offer a shortcut to the normal grievance process, eliminating the need to write a complaint letter.

Take photos of your rental car as if it were your newborn baby.

Companies will do a lot to avoid having their reputations besmirched by photos of broken toilets, busted TV screens, and unpalatable meals. Sometimes, you don’t even have to post the incriminating images online to encourage a business to do the right thing. Just the suggestion of your finger hovering over the Instagram icon is often enough.

Karen Rinehart, a writer who lives in South Bend, Indiana, routinely photographs her hotel rooms when they are unclean. “When the staff sees me snapping away, someone usually offers to get the room cleaned or give me an upgrade to a better room,” she says.

Dave Nathan, a retired firefighter from Birmingham, Alabama, was disappointed when he used his Delta frequent-flier miles to purchase a first-class seat on a flight from Berlin to Paris on Air France, one of Delta’s code-share partners.

“It turned out that this version of first class was three-across coach seating with the middle seat blocked out by a flip-down tray,” he recalls. “My knees were firmly wedged against the seat in front of me.” He sent an image to Delta, which credited him with 9,000 frequent flier miles.

The phone is also your most loyal companion when you’re on the road. Take a broken parking meter, for example. Michael Edelstein snapped a cellphone image of his busted meter in Berkeley, California, and when he received a ticket, he sent the picture to the court. Case dismissed.

Also, take photos of your rental car as if it were your newborn baby. In an effort to boost profits, some car rental companies aggressively pursue every possible damage claim, even for minor dings and dents, and even when there’s no proof you did it. Your photos may be your only defense against excessive or specious charges. Make sure you take photos before and after the rental period.

At the airport, I opt out of the TSA’s full-body scanners at the screening area, which means I automatically receive a pat-down. Lucky me. Taking photos or a video of the manual search (or having a traveling companion do it for you) is perfectly legal, as long as local ordinances don’t forbid it and you don’t interfere with the screening process. I find that it makes the screeners conduct their search by the book (lest the images end up on Facebook).

But hang on, shutterbugs. Not everything can or should be photographed. “In the United States, as a general rule, if you can observe something from a public place you have the right to take a photograph,” says Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

When it comes to private property like a hotel lobby or the interior of an aircraft, photography is sometimes restricted by policy. Osterreicher says the rules should be clearly posted. But there are documented cases of passengers being shown the door for taking photos of their airline seat. The scenario is even murkier overseas, where laws or customs can prohibit taking pictures even of public places.

I think it’s only a matter of time before the travel industry embraces photos as a way to help customers. It sounds far-fetched, but some industries have already done so, according to Jordy Leiser, who co-founded an independent customer service ratings and analytics company called StellaService.

One confectioner asks a customer to send a picture of a damaged box of chocolates before it authorizes a refund. The most forward-looking businesses, Leiser adds, “use photos to enhance their efficiency and better serve customers.”

With every photo you take and post online, you’re pushing the travel industry toward a day when it welcomes your photos of its products — especially the ones that illustrate your disappointment — because it’s an opportunity to improve.

If that ever happens, I may be out of a job.

Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate for National Geographic Traveler and writes the Problem Solved column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.


  1. Alexander
    Berlin, Germany
    September 16, 2014, 1:28 pm

    You might want to live in a world where travelers travel to “boost their profits” or where a phone is “your most loyal companion” – I don’t.
    That is one of the reasons why I have started the blog

  2. Karen
    October 9, 2013, 8:47 pm

    I’m impressed! I read this post, little thinking it would be relevant. But only a few days later, when my room-service meal was not as described on the menu (I’m really not that fussy, but a burger that supposedly comes with thick-cut chips and a salad arrives with tired fries and no salad, it’s annoying), I was too tired and hungry to send it back, but I did take a picture.
    I politely let reception know on checkout next morning and received an apology. But when I showed them the photograph, they immediately offered a 50% discount on the meal. That was fair – the burger was good!

  3. Mary Norton
    October 4, 2013, 1:43 am

    We also take a picture of our luggage so when it gets lost, we can help the airline identify it. No matter how good the service in a place is, there are those odd times when things get unnoticed. Unless it is repeated often, we usually just help out. We often stay in hotels for a few month so building good relations with the staff is important to us. Wherever we are, it is home of us.

  4. Jim
    Oct 2, 2013
    October 2, 2013, 5:15 pm

    NO person, company, agency should ever have a reason to not allow or like photos being taken, IF they are doing their job properly and correctly and within the constraints of the law.
    NO police officer, TSA member, or DHS member should have a problem with photos being taken IF they are doing their duties in accordance of their required policies and procedures AND the law. It is simple as that. That being said, definitely take photos where allowed, keep them and use them if necessary in court or arbitration hearings.

  5. Qoc'avib
    September 30, 2013, 3:22 pm

    This is so true! I really agree with the fact that easy access to take and share photos on the internet is revolutionizing the service industry. I never thought of using it as an upgrade tool though!

    What advise you have for some one who is planning on traveling as far as what kind of camera phone to get in preparation for a trip? How many pixels are really needed to get that sunset on the beach? Are phones with sim card capabilities better when traveling internationally? great article

  6. Sarah
    September 25, 2013, 4:09 am

    The great thing about smart phones when travelling is the ability to download apps. I downloaded the Emergency Info Screen App before my trip to get a snap shot of all my emergency details onto my iPhone Lock screen. Putting it on my lock screen meant any emergency responder around the world can view my emergency details without unlocking my iPhone. I loved the fact that I could update the lock screen with my countries consulate details as I went from country to country. It also comes in handy when you are taking travel medication, notifying the responders what you’ve been taking eg. Malaria tablets. Well worth the download for piece of mind.