A Model Complaint Letter (And Why You Should Never Travel On National Express)

Travel is often full of minor annoyances, but sometimes things go so badly that complaining is the only option. Here's one example of how to go about it, plus a firm warning to any UK-bound travellers to avoid National Express at all costs.

A little context: I've been on holiday with friends and their family in the UK, and we've unexpectedly become stuck as a result of the Icelandic volcano activity. To make the most of the extra time, we scheduled a day trip to Cambridge by coach, but things went very badly wrong. As a result, I can only suggest that any fellow readers planning a European holiday avoid National Express no matter how appealing their prices might look. Our experience suggests the only reason the prices are low is that the maintenance system is non-existent.

Not only did National Express (the largest coach company in the UK) provide an abysmal experience in both directions, even their complaints process leaves a lot to be desired. As well as refusing to accept an Australian email address (claiming it wasn't valid), it also promises a response within "10 working days" — hardly a model approach for a consumer-centric company.

In one way, this isn't the ideal complaint letter: it doesn't specify the outcome required by the traveller. But sometimes, all you can do is vent.

Let me tell you how your useless company ruined our family day out to Cambridge.

It all started when the 09:15 service from Stratford to Cambridge arrived on time and then promptly broke down. At 10:00 we tried to call your company to see if we could use our tickets another day, but no-one was available to take our call . . . Meanwhile the 10:15 service came and left.

The bus driver was kept in the dark like the rest of us "mushrooms" while we waited and waited for — wait for it — three Ford Transit minivans, which turned up one and a half hours after we were due to depart, and at about the time we were due to arrive at our destination. Of course they didn't send buses with enough seats and four of our travelling companions were left on the pavement! Well done...

The "replacement" buses were from a hire company, which beggars belief. Surely you would have had a few spare coaches, especially given none of the services to Stansted or other airports would have been running. A bus company without buses is like a pub without beer! Unbelievable . . . but, it gets better!

We used our now limited time in Cambridge to have a quick look around before boarding our booked return service - the 15:30 back to Stratford. Wait for it... as we were boarding the bus driver told us that the air conditioning was broken and there was nothing he could do about it.

So, for the hour and a half back to Stratford, on a sunny day, we all sweated like pigs and slowly dehydrated. So, now with a splitting headache I write to thank you for thoroughly and most completely ruining our day with your substandard service, epic incompetence and lack of duty of care for your customers.

I don't anticipate a response as I expect your web form is as useless as the rest of your business. I would not give you guys a licence to operate a worm farm, let alone a corporate entity, supposedly providing a "service" to the paying public!

What tactics do you use when complaining — and what are the worst travel experiences you've had (National Express or otherwise)? Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman loves a good complaint letter. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


    If you wrote that way to me, I'd tell you to walk instead.

    this reads more like mudslinging than a model complaint letter.
    you certainly had a bad experience, but this letter could just have easily been addressed to a friend or relative telling them about your bad experience.

    For what its worth, on a trip in October 2008, I used National Express on a trip from Victoria Station (London) to Stroud.

    The experience was flawless. The bus was on time, had comfortable seats, there was no charge for my child, I had Internet Access (WiFi) for most of the journey and they even offered us bottled water. All this was only GBP10 each for about a 1.5hr trip.

    We'd use them again without hesitation.

    National Express - the last time I used them was when the bus from Heathrow Airport refused to take our baggage because we had "too many cases". We had just flown in from the US with a two cases / person allowance - who would have thought the airport bus would have been the weakest link. I see they have not improved.

    that wasn't a very productive letter of complaint at all.

    Considering the website your posting it to you might want to consider talking a wee bit more about structuring such letters? maybe a link to about.com?

    Your just using your position to try and rubbish National Express as your obviously very frustrated about your experience as I would be also but tbh ranting which is what your letter is not productive at all who do you think has to read that? some underpaid over worked jobsworth who will have 0 power to do anything about what happened to ya.

    my worst travel experience(s) have been with QANTAS. I gave up complaining and instead:
    * choose not to use them no matter what
    * actively discourage people from using QANTAS
    Word of mouth is a pretty powerful thing - and a lot can be done just by telling everyone you know AND going further by encouraging others to take their business elsewhere.
    I am using this strategy for the ALP internet censorship policy. Wish me luck - Australia needs it!

      Quantas service is certainly crap. I was travelling back from Sydney a while back, travelling with my VERY expensive guitar. I sent it in the precious cargo section. When we got to Perth it didn't come out of the baggage section. I went to the help desk multiple times, approach any staff I could, and after two and a half hours I resigned myself it was gone.

      As I was walking out, there it was, next to the exit door. Anyone could have picked it up and walked away with it. We're talking about a few $1000s of dollars work of wood and steel, left by the exit door.

      Qantas were completely unhelpful. This is only one such incident. I could name more.

      Like the time they made my Aunty -who'd suffered a stroke, walk through the security gates unassisted. Impossible. Why complain? Qantas don't care.

        What on earth have the security people got to do with Qantas? Nothing.

        did he say anything about sercurity people? nope.

    I provided what I thought was an informative letter to Pentax Australia regarding a Pentax E20 I bought for my wife a few years back. It was obviously of substandard quality.

    I sent the email through their webform. It was lengthy and informative, about 1000 words, and explained I wasn't trying to be malicious, but informative. I received back a one word email:


    Not only that, but the respondent masked his email address. I did what any technically savvy person would do, I checked the email headers. Lo and behold it came from [email protected] (or something like that).

    I then sent a letter to the head of CRKennedy (who imports Pentax to Australia) Malcom Kennedy. I contained a rough outline of the previous email, and then a note at the abject disgust I had for their methods of dealing with complaints.

    He did not tell me how he dealt with the person who 'dealt with' the initial complaint - I imagine a slap on the wrist, or he probably would have been more informative.

    He told me that they'd sold a large number of the E20 without complaint. It seems obvious to me that of everyone dissatisfied, only a small percentage would complain. Therefore, if the sample of complainants were larger than that of people reporting great usage, you've got a crap product. He letter did not indicate they'd recieved a barrage of emails regarding the great performance of the e20.

    Finally, he offered me a Pentax KM (entry level DSLR at cost price. I declined the offer as the KM does not meet my photographic requirements being an entry level camera.

    In all, although I was offered a DSLR at cost (so no real sacrifice on behalf of Pentax) I found the whole affair very disenchanting. I've since convinced a number of people away from Pentax for all sorts of devices. I appreciate the E20 is an entry level compact, The sharp decline in quality, probably due to a faulty flash, was in my opinion unreasonable.

    I wasn't expecting a replacement camera. What took me back was a company defending itself in an indefensible position. If you screwed up, admit it. If the camera is crap - don't tell me I'm wrong, just apologise and wish me better luck next time. Focus on good service.

    Moral: don't buy Pentax. You may get a crap product. But based on my experience, you will get crap service.

    it could be worse..
    you could have taken a train ;)

    a common mistake
    no uk transport service (or any other public service afaik) is actually 'consumer centric', they exist purely and only for the bureaucratic paperwork that feeds them

    i sincerely believe british employees must get performance bonuses whenever they find a new way of inconveniencing their customers

      Now, now. National Express are crap, as are most British train companies but that's no excuse to rubbish all public service providers.
      Sticking with transport, Virgin Atlantic and Eurostar both offer excellent customer service. When they're not striking, British Airways ground crew are excellent and most of their cabin crew are excellent. London's black cab drivers are the best taxi drivers in the world, with the knowledge of every street in the sprawling metropolis.

      Live there for a while and discover the network of footpaths, bridleways and cycle paths that make it possible to leave the car at home and walk, run or cycle to where you want to go. Nothing in Queensland comes close to the British system... which might explain why so many people drive... but that's off topic because your comment was on customer service.

      Get away from Transport and check out the British companies that offer customer service that I have never experienced in Australia. John Lewis (retail), Smile (banking) and Waitrose (groceries) are top-notch for quality of product, price and service.

      I used to travel on QR and they were tragic. Trains were late and overcrowded. Aircon was frequently stuck on full or not working. Phoning their helpdesk was fruitless as the attendants were friendly but useless. Their website was never up to date.
      I've never used Greyhound so can't really comment. I know two people who have and they were stranded for 12 hours after the bus broke down and left them stranded without food, water or toilet. At least they didn't insult the customers by offering to get some of them to their destination by minibus, eh?

      So anyway, before you rubbish all British public services, remember that the Australian equivalents really aren't any better. You're just used to them and know which to avoid. There's also a lot that's very, very good in Britain.

        yeah chris, i did live there for a while.. long enough to know which to avoid but not quite long enough to give up the frustration and blindly accept the illogic and inconvenience of a bureaucracy out of control

        and i can also say with absolute certainty that every single* trip i took in or out of london resulted in frustration, anger, disbelief or just manic laughter at the ridiculousness of the 'systems' (like why do i need three tickets for a return journey..which turns to blind fury at the other end when i discover i was only given two)

        more so, pointing out these sometimes minor, sometimes major foibles results in other brits to look at you befuddled and stupefied and exclaim - but that is just how it is! -

        and worse yet if you do actually try to complain or retrieve money owed by services that were never rendered - there you are met by a wall of paperwork, hundreds of years in the making, and the cruel insolent glare of the lady behind the counter saying 'next please' in response to your question

        i understand completely why angus chose merely to vent, rather than seek compense - in britain it is just not possible to do otherwise!

        * forgot about the cabbies.. they are good, even outside of london; i never flew virgin atlantic, however i did sample virgin rail which has to be the exception to my rule; i thought eurostar was french ;)

    while I'm not a frequent user of National Express so the only time I did use it was a trip from Sheffield to Gatwick Airport.. and not much to say.. It left and got there on time and was way cheaper than the train... but this was q few years ago.

    I like to state simply and directly what is wrong and what I think would be a possible reasonable response. I do not threaten the company.

    If they do not respond in a manner that allows me to forgive them ie I feel they heard me and have corrected the issue fully...

    I add them to my mental ban list and explain to my small network of friends and relatives why I think that is a good idea.

    If you need a list to get you started. :)
    Sony, Nestle, Berri Juice are the major names.

    I would estimate I cost Sony $20,000++ in sales loss, through word of mouth, for something that would have been solved with a "Oops! Sorry about that." and a $200 part.

    Berri Juice. They could have replied to their online customer complaint form...
    And I would never have had to escalated to ACCC.
    ACCC slapped their wrist and made them correct their labelling and probably fined them. And I haven't bought their juice for the last 5 years. Easy.

    This is supposed to be a 'model' complaint?

    I'd class that as a worthless, whining tirade.

    "sometimes, all you can do is vent" is not justification for a pointless attack on some poor office drone.

    On the plus side, at least you didn't waste any paper on this.

    A model for how not to write perhaps? Poor punctuation, scattered with colloquialisms, use of sarcasm in writing (can be misconstrued even if incredibly obvious) and, in general, far too emotional.

    You could make your anger clear without writing something that sounds like a kid's "what I did in the holidays" homework. Maybe it's just a British thing, but the art of the complaining letter seems to be far better done in the UK than it is in Australia. To be fair though, face to face complaints are something which Australians seem to be better at.

    Really, your bus was late and they found an alternative for you. It's not that bad.

    The letter is badly written, the link/headline is poorly worded....

    Really, I've come to expect more from Lifehacker.


    For a so-called seasoned traveler Angus, you certainly are naive here. 60,000 European air flights have been canceled because of the ash cloud so how do you think people are getting around? Trains and....buses! So perhaps National Express is stretched to the absolute limit putting on domestic services to pick up the slack and has left the dregs of the fleet to cater for the "ooh-aah" day tour crowd. That would explain why they had to bring in rental vans. Nice written hissy fit though. I'm sure National Express will move mountains for you over that letter (or perhaps volcanoes?).

    I want to point out something to anyone who wants to make a complaint to a large company.

    First tip : Begin with some praise, or outline some positive aspect on the company (even one)

    Secondly : Ease yourself into the complaint, and do so politely and rationally, you don't have to quote web forums or try to "prove your case"

    Thirdly : Ask for something reasonable, don't make demands, but rather along the lines of "I'm hoping in this unfortunate situation that per chance you could have someone look into this, or see maybe if there is an option to offer xyz for me, in light of what's happened, and with the frustrations it has caused"..

    Fourthly: Ask that they send this through to one of the managers in the complaints department to look into.

    Now, it may result in nothing, but it also heightens your chances of actually getting something. Granted, you may never use the service again, but atleast you -may- get something for the effort you have invested in contact.Something to actually show for your time.

    I've had to deal with alot of complaints working for an OEM in the past, and bear in mind, people who own products that are working do not email in to say "wow, love the tv, thanks".. They are too busy using and enjoying the product.

    But complaints like this, are simply a metophorical middle finger saying "F U", and to make it more confusing, nothing is being "asked for", or even requested. It's like a one way broadcast, not a conversation.

    The best tip I could ever give is, if you speak to a manager, even if you are stubborn or bullish about the situation and what can and can't be done. If you are polite, you will have the highest chance of any manager going the extra mile for you. It may seem unnatural, but i can vouch that the smartest complainers of all are those who know how to make a complaint gracefully.

    If anyone wants further tips on the "art" of complaining, just let me know. lol. There is an art to it. !! :D

    Worst travel experience? Going through Mexican customs at Mexico City, waiting around for an hour to board the plane and then having another customs person waiting at the boarding gate who refuses to let me board the plane because I don't have a slip of paper they gave me when I entered the country.

    Wondering why they didn't ask for this paper earlier at previous customs check but run off to get replacement paper. Manage to get paper in record time only to have flight attendant close gate (with other passengers literally just behind the rope and lining up to board plane) and smirk at me saying "Well I have to close the gate, you'll have to purchase another ticket and get another plane."

    Husband stays with me to arrange hotel but purchases a last minute ticket with our tiny pot of savings because he needs to be at work the next day. Aeromexico insist they have taken our luggage off plane because of international security legislation that planes can't fly with luggage unless passenger is on plane. I wonder why they would bother to take off our luggage but can't be bothered to let us board plane when plane hasn't fully boarded. Anyway turns out luggage was on board plane and husband's colleague gives us 500 euro excess luggage bill as he took our luggage from Paris to London, so yay, there goes two weeks rent down drain plus cost of husband's ticket, so two and a half months rent all because of little paper.

    So now my passport has a paper clip in it so random pieces of paper from customs don't get lost. Very annoyed when customs people take paper clip off, because of security threat, grr! Hope someone avoids having to go through expense/ travel hell by reading this post. Wish customs people would staple things in life Japanese customs do.

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