What I Learned About Travel From Protesting the $40 iPhone Upgrade Fee

Every 2 years something pretty cool happens: I commit to paying AT&T $2400 over the next two years.  In exchange, they give me $300 off the price of an iPhone.  Pretty dumb deal, actually, when you phrase it that way.  Anyway [shoves logic aside], I get a new iPhone every two years.  “BUT THE SAMSUNG IS BETTEI’m happy you like the Samsung, but I’m happy with my iPhone, and yes I’m going to leave that quote unfinished.

Here’s something incredibly dumb about upgrading with AT&T.  I’m committing to paying a number of dollars with a comma in it over 24 months to them, but they have a curious little charge called an “upgrade fee”.  This time around it was $40, last time it was $35.

What follows is a tale of my frustration with this fee and what we can all learn about traveling from it.

I hate fees with ambiguous titles and a fun little hobby I have (a hobby which reminds me I need to get out more) is calling companies out when I see them.  And so it happens every two years with AT&T.  Last time I hemmed and hawed until they waived the fee, although they were sure to mention that this was absolutelyone-time exception and I should bold it whenever I talk about it in future blog posts.

I inquired on Twitter about what I was getting for the $40 this time.  This was their response: “It allows us to continue to provide customers with excellent services now and in the future!”  Ok, so if I don’t pay them $40 everyone’s excellent service will be ruined now and forever.  Keep in mind, the way they define “excellent service” is by charging you money in order for you to commit to paying them more money.  Definitely wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone…

I responded, using what I thought was sterling logic, asking what then my $100/month went towards.  After prodding them a few times, I finally got this response:

“It also goes to equipment subsidy costs & the operational costs to process equipment changes & towards towers”  So that tells me three things: 1) AT&T expects us to pay for a portion of the subsidy they give us towards the cost of a new iPhone, 2) we pay to move service from one phone to another, and 3) our regular monthly payments don’t pay for towers, only upgrade fees do.  My responses would be 1) then quit calling it a subsidy if we’re paying for a portion of it, 2) I’d bet that they wouldn’t charge me anything to downgrade from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 4 so what gives, and 3) really?

What does this have to do with flying and/or travel?
Great question, we’re getting to that.  If you travel at least once in your lifetime, there’s a very good chance that you and a travel provider will end up on different sides of an argument.  There is an art to getting what you want, and unfortunately the squeaky wheel almost always gets the grease.  Instead of just complaining to your coworkers about it (and watching as they subtly slide on their headphones), what if you could do something about it?  I’ve found the following formula to be most useful when complaining to a corporation:

  • Be kind – the first few people you speak with most likely do not have the ability to do anything about the fee and will insist that you must pay the fee.  Don’t be rude to these people, they didn’t personally decide to charge you the fee and they’re simply doing their job and following the rules set for them the best they can.  Be abundantly kind to them yet insistent that the fee just doesn’t make sense and you don’t follow their logic.  Eventually you’ll get punted up the chain a bit and will at some point get someone on the line who has the power to waive the fee for you.  You will get nothing by being rude to these people.
  • Be prepared to be on hold for a long time – It’s a waiting game, and if you’re asking for an exception you will absolutely be put on hold quite a few times.  Don’t get frustrated with this, pour yourself a glass of wine, read some Trip Reports from your favorite travel blog, and enjoy the wait.
  • Ask for what you want – Declaratively ask for what you think will make it right.  In the AT&T case above, what I want is pretty cut and dry: the $40 upgrade fee waived.  I say those words over and over again.  “[sweet logic as part of the discussion] and that’s why I’d like the $40 upgrade fee waived.”  “I understand your point, however I still think the fee is misguided and would therefore like the $40 upgrade fee waived.”  “Yes, my house is currently on fire, those are the smoke alarms you hear, and because of that I think you should waive the $40 upgrade fee.”
  • Don’t be ridiculous – Flight delayed 15 minutes?  Don’t be an idiot and claim that you deserve 50,000 compensatory frequent flyer miles and complimentary Executive Platinum status.  You don’t get to successfully complain that often, and you better believe companies keep track of the waivers they hand out to people.  If you truly believe you were wronged, ask for whatever will make it right, nothing more and nothing less.
  • Hang up and call again – Sometimes you’ll find someone having a bad day and they’re not smelling what you’re stepping in.  That’s ok.  Politely ending the call and calling again will put you in front of a different agent who may be more helpful.  When I say “hang up”, I don’t mean just slamming the metaphorical phone down (i.e. pressing the end call part of your screen with particular vigor), just very politely inform the agent that someone is coming into your office, you have an incoming call that you must take, your house is on fire, T-Mobile is calling, etc., and end the conversation.
  • Know when to give up – Sometimes you will not win these arguments.  This does not entitle you to act like a child and swear at or cuss out anyone on the phone.  At a certain point you need to wash your hands of it and move on in life.  Before I begin my epic protesting, I will set aside a certain amount of time that I’m willing to dedicate to it (for my AT&T fee thing, it’s two hours).  If I reach my time limit without a result in my favor, then I know I need to wash my hands of it and move on.  Don’t dwell on stuff like this.  Most of these battles will be fought on personal principles, and corporations are so large that there’s very little “personal” about them (or “principle”, for that matter) and sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

I hope this helps.  (And, for those curious, I’m still in discussions with AT&T about the fee.  They are planning on calling me after I have my new phone so we can discuss it.  I’ll keep everyone posted.)

What about you?  What are your tried and true techniques for productively complaining?


  1. I think the key to every successful discussion is, as you stated, the ability to remain calm and polite. That doesn’t mean be a doormat, but it is certainly far more likely to get what you want if you remain professional and courteous.

  2. As a “seasoned traveler” I would like to emphasize the suggestion of “Call Again”. On more than one occasion I’ve been in a bad spot and simply resorted to continuously calling the airline until I found somone who could help me. One notable example was during weather IRROPS in Dallas. I was stranded in ORD with nearly everything being cancelled to Dallas. My original and backup flights were cancelled, and I was re-accommodated on a flight the next day. Unfortunately, the next morning held a once in a lifetime event at my son’s school that I was unwilling to miss…..To the extent that I was ready to rent a car a drive. After 5 conversations with my desk that ended in “you have no options”, I finally reached someone who was 1) willing to do more than just look at their computer and state the obvious, and 2) think outside the box and help me find a way. At the end of the day I caught a ride on the last flight out late that night and I made the event. As with any service industry, not everyone is willing to go the extra mile, but invariably you’ll find diamonds in the rough if you look hard enough.

  3. Switch to tmobile. No activation fee and it’s 4 lines for $100 vs one line for $200.

  4. I’m surprised you haven’t switched to an unlocked phone. I have a full price iPhone and can swap SIM cards around when I’m in other countries for super cheap data and local calling. Plus, now AT&T has a Bring Your Own Device rate that is cheaper than the contract rate. It feels good to not be in a contract!

    BTW, the reason I got to an unlocked phone and out of contract was because of T-Mobile. I used them and loved them in Dallas, but their coverage in the Sierras is MISERABLE. Constantly getting No Service and “Searching…”. I switched back to AT&T last week. I will really miss the included international data (which was great when transiting between countries) but having good service at home is more important.

  5. I’m surprised you left out “make the agent think you are about to start crying” from this list of tactics. Or does that only work for me? 😉

  6. Thanks for your wise words! Upgrading to an iPhone 6s and had this fee applied. Chatted with online support ONLY ONCE resulted in a waived fee message on my account. I will need to call back once the fee is billed to actually waive it, but I’ll take it! I threw math in their face and basically said “so I spend 5,280 for the next 2 years and I will get rewarded with 400$ off the price of my phone. In order to get $400 off my new phone I have to spend $45?


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