Photography by Steven Martine
From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
You could accuse Christopher Elliott of building a career out of causing trouble. That’s his business: In addition to serving as this magazine’s ombudsman (see The Insider), the onetime scuba instructor tirelessly advocates for travelers as the co-founder of the D.C.-based Consumer Travel Alliance and as the author of Scammed. Through his website, Elliott.org, he helps readers solve trip woes, from mysterious cruise fees to car rental rip-offs. When he’s not making corporate enemies? These days Elliott is road-tripping across the U.S. with his family, blogging as they go.
What bugs you most about travel providers? The cheapness of some online travel agencies astounds me—that they would take all of their call centers offshore and have these people half a world away who don’t understand the customer at all, and who respond to every question by reading from a script. Cutting back on customer service is no way to save money. As for hotels, there’s been a move recently to make room rates less—or not—refundable. And car rental companies seem to thrive by going after every damage claim.
What’s your indispensable road gear? If the choice were between my checked bag or my iPhone, I would let the bag go. You can always buy new clothes. But my phone is my essential reporting tool.
Is travel getting worse? Some say it’s getting better: Travel is more affordable, more people can fly. But others say, look at the way we’re treated when we have a service problem. I put up a poll on my website recently asking this question, and 93 percent of my readers said it’s getting worse. I’m probably with them. Then again, sometimes I hear outrageous complaints from consumers who have done all the wrong things, who come across entitled. Unfortunately, those folks probably deserve the treatment they get.
What’s your solution? To vote with our wallets. It’s fair to assume that a $9 fare isn’t going to cover all of a company’s costs, so you can—and maybe should—expect service to suffer. Being willing to pay more reasonable rates might encourage better treatment. It’s an uphill struggle. Companies say the best consumer is the informed consumer, but they don’t mean it. What they want is for us to buy their products without thinking.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.