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Smartphones can help you navigate a new place; they can also be powerful consumer advocacy tools. (Photograph by Tyler Metcalfe)

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.

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.