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Travel Talk: 10 Questions with Consumer Advocate Christopher Elliott

SmarterTravel
Consumer advocate and nationally syndicated columnist Christopher Elliott has a well-earned a reputation as “every consumer’s best friend.” The author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals has been helping consumers fight back against unscrupulous travel providers since the 1990s. I spoke to Christopher via email about his favorite destinations, best and worst experiences, and most practical tips for travelers. Visit him at elliott.org to learn how he can help with your consumer problems. (It’s completely free.)
 
Tell me about your favorite place you’ve ever visited.
 
As a chiild, growing up in Europe, my favorite place was the Alps. They’re magnificent. I love the way they look, the way you feel when you’re near them. There’s this sense of being grounded. Also, the skiing is incredible.

In high school, I had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona. And that was a different kind of magnificent for me. It seemed so much larger than even the Alps, in terms of scale. It was very special. I was there last month again with my family, and I now am convinced that this is one place you have to see before you die. I’d like to make it to the North Rim someday.

One other spot that deserves an honorable mention is Hawaii’s Big Island, with all of its climate zones, and the black volcanic rock. And the coffee. Take that drive up to the north side of the island, to Kohala Forest Reserve, if you don’t believe me. It’s really indescribably beautiful.

What’s at the top of your bucket-list, and why?

It’s Australia, definitely. I think I’m attracted to the differentness, the strangeness of it, and I mean that in a good way. It’s another world. But I don’t want to wait until I retire to see it; I’d like to take my family there soon. It’s not the most affordable place, unfortunately. Just the airfare alone would zap our vacation budget. But hey, it’s a goal.

What’s the best place you’ve ever spent the night … and the worst?

I know this is going to sound like a cop-out, but the best place I’ve ever spent the night is my own bed. You’re probably expecting me to say something like, “The Ritz Carlton.” Or, “The Four Seasons.” Certainly, those are great hotels, and I’ve had a good night’s sleep in many of those properties. But there’s no place like home.

Worst place? I checked into a youth hostel in New Orleans while I was on spring break in 1988, my sophomore year in college. I was traveling with two friends, and we had driven there from Southern California. This hostel was in a bad part of town and there cockroaches the size of mice that were climbing the walls and you couldn’t kill them, even with a direct hit with your shoe. I’ll never forget that.

Finish this sentence: The funniest thing that’s ever happened to me while traveling is…

… when I boarded a Southwest Airlines flight. I have to laugh every time. Those in-flight announcements are hilarious. The last flight attendant sang “Happy Trails” to an adoring and captive audience. Other than that, there’s not much that’s funny about travel. Not since the airline industry was deregulated, at least. Oh wait—maybe that’s a joke?

What’s your most practical tip for travelers?

Buyer beware. There isn’t a single part of the travel industry that isn’t fraught with problems and pitfalls that can ensnare travelers. So that’s my advice: Always be on the lookout, always be vigilant, always watch your back. Why? Because the bad guys are out there.

Your most essential carry-on item?

My iPhone. It’s my camera, my phone, my address book, my day planner, my writing tool, my video camera. Am I missing anything? Probably. It’s everything.

What led you to seek a career as a travel and consumer journalist? What kinds of experiences led you down this road as a career path?

I come from a service-oriented family; both my parents were in the ministry when I was growing up. So when I started my career in journalism, I think I understood that I needed to do more than report the news. I needed to make a difference.

As I began developing sources and covering business, I realized that consumers were having problems with companies that were difficult, and sometimes impossible, for them to resolve. I wanted to help. I thought I was just being a good reporter. Of course you would want to help—who wouldn’t want to do that?

Advocacy started to occupy a larger space in my life in 1999, which is the first year I started posting my solved cases online. By 2001, I had begun syndicating the feature to other sites and newspapers. My goal isn’t fame or fortune, it’s helping the most people I can, and I think I’ve been able to do that. I don’t always get it right, but I have always tried to, and I continue to try to do as much good as possible for the travel community and for travelers.

Best meal you’ve ever had while traveling?

This year, it’s a toss-up between two barbecue joints, Central BBQ in Memphis and Dreamland in Birmingham, both of which we experienced on the same day on a recent road trip. Of all time? You’ll have to ask Olelo Pa’a Ogawa over on the Big Island of Hawaii about that. She knows.

Your favorite book about travel?

Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Just because.

Planned itinerary … or just wing it?

Plan it. Trust me on that one.

SmarterTravel’s “Travel Talk” takes you inside the minds of seasoned travel professionals who dish on everything from favorite foods and favorite places to insider tips and funniest on-the-road experiences. Read our previous interviews here.

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