While growing up, Christopher Elliott remembers there were always three magazines on the coffee table: Time, Good Housekeeping and National Geographic. Drawn to the exotic pictures and detailed articles in the venerable magazine, Elliott said National Geographic "took me to far off places and inspired me to be a journalist."
Now, after 20 years of traveling and writing for a variety of publications, Elliott is the company's travel consumer advocate where he writes a column tackling readers' gnarliest questions about challenges encountered on the road.
"My fiancé walked out on me, can I get a refund?" and "Hotels.com left me in Paris sans hotel" are the titles of a couple of his recent columns which are syndicated in National Geographic Traveler and publications across the country.
Elliot recently collected some of his readers most frequently asked questions and has published them in a handy reference book. "How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler (and save Time Money and Hassle)" includes chapters on: Finding the most reliable travel advice, using loyalty programs, side-stepping currency traps, the lowdown on passports, and choosing ideal lodging.
The book's easy-to-read format offers pros and cons for a number of basic travel decisions - whether to book a hotel room directly or a discount site like Priceline and case studies in which Elliott has helped readers extract refunds or get the services they paid for.
Also sprinkled throughout are tips, "smart" and "not smart," that could help travelers avoid serious missteps. Don't for instance, don't t loose official documents issued when entering a foreign country - you will need them to get out. Do digitize your wallet before you leave. Make digital copies of all IDs and make the accessible online in case your wallet is stolen.
"I was hoping readers would take it along on a trip and when they encounter a problem open it up and find an answer," he said.
Elliott, who estimates that he spends about 300 days a year traveling, admits the industry has some problems.
"Airline rules are confusing and often customer-hostile," he said of his own experiences. And that is what ultimately led him to write a consumer advocate column.
"I didn't like what the airlines were doing to people and I was complaining a lot." An editor suggested that he write a column about those intractable issues. It was titled "The Crabby Traveler" and Elliott said he was flooded with mail. The column morphed into "The Travel Troubleshooter" and led to his current post as an ombudsman for National Geographic.So how does Park City stack up in the eyes of an expert traveler?
Elliott was in Park City in April, his third visit over the years. He said the town has become noticeably more upscale but that is not what impressed him the most. It was the city's walkability and friendliness that he will remember.
"It was very pedestrian friendly. I love that. There were people with dogs and on bicycles. Growing up in Europe I look for that in a place, the ability to walk and interact with people."
As to the trend toward more luxury accommodations, Elliott suggested that local hoteliers and resort owners should keep fancy amenities in perspective.
"There is this push to add more luxuries and frills. Certainly it is true that travelers want more and you can never give them enough but, and this is where Park City excels, it's hospitality, remembering to say hello and go out of your way for the visitor. It's being there when they need you," he said.
"There are places I've been where they take the tourist for granted and think if they just offer better beds or a faster chairlift that's going to be the thing that makes them come back. But that's not it. It's the attitude of the people you meet and the friends you make."
"How To Be The World's Greatest Traveler (and save Time, Money and Hassle)" by Christopher Elliott is published by National Geographic and is available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Chris Elliot on Social Media sites For the consumer:
- Don't rely on a single source, go to multiple sites
- Trip Advisor is not the most credible resource
- Word of mouth from a friend is the best referral
- Guide books, magazines and newspapers are better because they are fact checked
- For a high-ticket trip like a safari go to a travel agent who has expertise in that area
- Social media has become influential and powerful, for a small business it can make or break it
- Don't ignore a negative comment posted about your establishment, try to respond with a detailed explanation
- Don't hire a reputation management firm to handle comments, put your resources into being a better business
- Accept that there are trolls out there and that readers can see through them
- Posting a response to a negative comment shows potential customers that you care