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Have you ever felt more like cargo than a passenger? Travel troubleshooter and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott of "National Geographic" and Elliott.org joins David Lytle to talk about the shrinking American vacation, recent changes in the travel industry, customer service and passenger rights, and some thoughts on what could make travel enjoyable again.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Travel Advice & Stories: elliott.org, Frommers.com.
  • Hidden Fees: Be aware of hidden fees tacked onto "one low rate" prices.
  • Learn How to Complain: Don't expect an immediate response to a complaint. Learn how to properly file your complaint and escalate your issue.
  • Relax: Don't try to experience everything a destination has to offer in a single day.
  • Disconnect: Take a vacation from technology. Turn off the cell phone/blackberry/laptop.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

David Lytle: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Announcer: This podcast is sponsored by Norwegian Cruise Line. Gone are the rules that say you must be somewhere at some time for something. It's called Freestyle Cruising, and it's only from Norwegian Cruise Line.
David: Hi, I'm David Lytle, Editorial Director of Frommers.com. Today, we're talking with Christopher Elliott. He's a journalist and consumer advocate. His articles, columns, and essays offer advice for people who want to become more informed travelers, which is why we thought he was a perfect match for our listeners.

He is the National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman, a nationally syndicated columnist through Tribune Media Services, and a commentator and independent producer for public radio. He's also the host of "What You Get for the Money Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. Hi, Chris.
Christopher Elliott: Hey, how are you?
David: I'm doing well. How are you doing today?
Christopher: I'm doing terrific.
David: Great. So you basically are a one-man cottage industry for consumer advocacy for travelers. You really cover a lot of bases here, and I'm a regular reader of your site, elliott.org. I tend to find myself actually sort of getting lost in it, because I'm like, "Oh, look at that link. I can read on this article now." And it's lots of practical advice.

Can you just give our listeners an overview of what they can find on elliott.org?
Christopher: Oh, sure. Well, elliott.org is really my personal website, and I've been publishing it, oh, since about 1996, going way back, so you'll find a lot of stories on there, and it's very easy to get lost. I actually get lost myself sometimes on it.
David: [laughs]
Christopher: But the whole reason that I do what I do is that there really isn't a place to go when people run into trouble on the road, and so I've really built my entire career around helping people. Some might even say that I have a rescue complex.
David: [laughs]
Christopher: So maybe I should go get some help for that. [laughs]
David: Not if you're helping other people.
Christopher: Yeah. This is kind of my therapy here. I do, as you said before, a weekly column called "The Travel Troubleshooter." And that's kind of my flagship column, and you can see that on my site every week. And what that is, basically, it's a Q and A column. People write in with seemingly intractable problems, and then I go out and I try to help them.

And you'll also find a lot of other things, too, that I do. I have a blog called Ellipses that I post to just about every day. And then you'll also find the archives going back, like I said, to '96, so you'll see a lot of the other projects that I've been involved in over the years.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Today, for example, on your blog, a great topic: "Do you have the right to a free WiFi signal?" Which, I say yes. And living in San Francisco, it's actually something that they're trying to pass citywide here, that the whole town will be free WiFi for anybody who wants it, because they consider it to be a consumer right, access to information.
Christopher: I agree. And one of the things I noted on the blog is that, 50 years ago, we didn't think that having a private bathroom in a hotel was something that was a necessity, and now you can't really get a hotel room that doesn't have its own private bathroom. And 100 years ago, having a hotel room that had electricity and plumbing was seen as something of a luxury, and 25 years ago, having a color TV in your room.

So I think people still have to kind of wrap their minds around what people think their needs are, in terms of information. And I think that WiFi is one of those things that's just becoming a necessity now. Really, it's almost impossible to buy a cell phone that doesn't have a WiFi component to it.
David: Right, absolutely. As I mentioned earlier today, I was standing in line at a movie last night with my iPhone, and I was reading some of your columns while I was waiting in line.
Christopher: [laughs] That's great.
David: Yeah. And because I was near a window, actually, while I was waiting, I was picking up a WiFi signal from across the street, because the iPhone itself, the EDGE network is not so awesome.
Christopher: No, it isn't. And I have an iPhone, too, and I'm running into the same problems, too, as you are. The EDGE network is way, way too slow.
David: Yeah, way too slow. But also, in that blog about the free WiFi, you touch on something else that really runs through a lot of your columns, a lot of your writing. It's the whole idea of those nagging extra fees for when people travel. Go into a hotel room, it's a $9.95 connection fee to get online, that gives you 24 hours.

Or you've written elsewhere about just the sort of prices of hotels, where they bury fees; like they'll have one low rate, but then everything else is extra. Same thing on a cruise ship: you'll find drinks in your hand suddenly are costing you extra dollars. Are you seeing sort of creep of this, across travel?
Christopher: I'm not sure if it's just me, or if it actually is on the increase. Certainly, one of the themes of my entire career as a travel writer and as a consumer travel advocate have been fees, and in particular, fees that are not adequately disclosed, where you check out at the end and suddenly you see a resort fee on your final bill, or you see a mandatory tip.
David: Right.
Christopher: My sense is that those fees are increasing. And the reason why is that, travel companies, they're in the business to make money, they're not in the customer service business. That's why someone like me has a job.
David: Right.
Christopher: And so, I think that the travel companies have all recognized that people are very price-conscious. We have what, in the travel industry, is called commoditization, which means that the airline seat, the hotel room, it is a commodity, and if it goes unused, it's worthless. So a lot of times, the airlines will try to sell it for whatever price they can get. And indeed, the concept of an airline seat as a perishable commodity.

So you have airlines and hotels that are seeing that price is a big issue with their customers, so they're trying to unbundle everything that they possibly can, like Ryanair. I talked to someone today who got a six pound air fare on Ryanair. What she probably doesn't realize is that she's going to pay many times that to check her luggage in or to get a seat assignment.
David: Right.
Christopher: So that's really the direction, I think, that we're heading in right now in the travel industry. And people still have this image in their heads of the travel industry as being an industry that is all about customer service. And to some extent, it still is, but it also is about profits. And they also have this image, airlines especially, of it still being the 1970s, before airlines were deregulated...
David: [laughs] Right.
Christopher: And thinking of it as the flight attendants are still stewardesses, and the meals are served on china and that kind of thing. And so, when they get on a plane, they're very surprised, and when they get socked with these surcharges, they're even more surprised, and when they see the delays, they start getting very upset about that.

So, really, what I'm doing, in a lot of cases, is just trying to help people understand what it is like to travel right now.
David: Exactly. I know, since I've been editing for Frommers.com -- I initially took over our flagship newsletter about five years ago -- a lot of the copy that we're putting out now is, "Here's the base price for a deal," and then it's four to five paragraphs of "except for..." You know, "Here's the proviso"

And one of the things that you have written about as well that we tend to write about is the forty dollar fuel surcharge, that actually has no place anymore because oil prices have gone back down.
Christopher: That is interesting.
David: But it's still being tacked on.
Christopher: Oh yeah, well that was the interesting thing, is that this happened a couple of years ago when fuel prices spiked and everyone had a fuel surcharge, and then the fuel prices went back down. And interestingly enough those fuel surcharges did not go away, at least universally, until people like me, and some other folks who are kind of travel watchdogs, said "Hey, wait a minute, you still have a surcharge, and fuel prices are back where they were before, what's going on?"

Well, it wasn't a fuel surcharge anymore; I call it a profit surcharge, because they just take that money and put it directly into the bottom line.
David: Right. When people write into you, how would measure your success rate, can you give a percentage on that, how you get the results that they desire?
Christopher: Oh yeah, I can give you some numbers, but I don't have any exact metrics. I would say that for every 100 emails that I get...

And let me maybe back it up a little bit. I get a lot of email, and I actually answer all of it myself. So if you write to me on the weekend, I have my little iPhone, and I take it everywhere I go and I answer email, and I really think that people are entitled to an answer to any question that they have about travel, because they probably are not getting it from their travel company.

So having said that, I would say that of every one hundred queries, only about two or three will rise to the level of being the type of complaint that is the kind that I can take to a travel company and say "Look, these people, clearly their grievance has fallen through the cracks, do you think you can take a look at this."
David: Right.
Christopher: The other 98 or 99 are probably cases where the person either didn't have a legitimate case, in which I'll tell them, "I really don't think you should be pursuing this."

But more often than not, it's someone who just has not gone through the right procedures, where they haven't filed a formal complaint, and they haven't written a note to the airline, or to the hotel, asking for compensation. And a lot of times they don't even ask for compensation, a lot of times they just write a complaint letter, and then it will end with "And I'll never fly on your airline again."

And the airline won't answer it, and they'll come back to me and say "Why haven't they answered this?" Well the reason is, how would you respond if someone said "I'm never going to fly on your airline again," what's the point of answering that?

Then obviously those other two will go out and, I would say, from that point on there is about a fifty-fifty chance of that turning into a column.
David: I think people, sometimes they just want to vent, too.
Christopher: Oh yeah.
David: They just feel better for throwing it out there. We get a lot of email into the website as well, and I actually think our numbers sort of match up. It's a low percentage of people where we actually feel like we need to follow through with something, and do a little investigating on our own.

Oftentimes it's just educating them on what the parameters are of their situation, what the rules are, what they need to consider the next time that they travel.
Christopher: And you know something, that's something that the travel industry should be doing, the airlines, the car-rental companies, the cruise lines, they should have someone who can, in clear intelligible English, explain to somebody why they didn't get the upgrade they had ordered, or why they aren't being offered a meal voucher when their flight is delayed for weather reasons.

And they don't, you call an airline up now, and excuse me if I get up on my soapbox here, but you get put through to somebody who doesn't speak English, and that's a real problem.
David: Oh, I was delayed on a flight to go to Los Angeles from San Francisco -- I was going down to speak at a conference -- and it was very clear that this delay was not going to be ten minutes, you could just sort of tell by the behavior of the staff behind the desk. It seemed like they, maybe, were even in the dark about why the plane hadn't arrived that we were supposed to be getting on next.

So my trick is always to have the airline's reservation number logged into my cell-phone, so I can just call reservations right away and not deal with the person at the desk. And they didn't even show that the flight was... One, I connected to India, and they didn't even show the right track for where the flight was, they said that it had arrived at the gate where I was standing.

So it seems to be that the companies are too large, possibly, to even establish logical communications, or information paths; or that they just don't care anymore.
Christopher: It could be a little bit of both, I know that there is some technology involved, but it's really hard to know who to feel the most sorry for. Do I feel the most sorry for these outsourced call-center people who are really powerless, they are reading from scripts, they have a good job for where they live, but they're taking a lot of abuse.

Or do I feel more sorry for the people who are calling, who are, at times, not understanding what's being said, and who are obviously going to get nowhere. It's just a game. We might as well do what Skybus has done and just close down the call center, and have everyone write in by email. I'm being facetious, but there are times when I feel that way.
David: Right, because you waste effort. The assumption is that you will be able to talk to a human at some point, who can help you resolve this situation, and it doesn't always happen, and that's just frustrating.
Christopher: I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that they're completely ineffective, but when you give somebody a script to read from and tell them that they can't do certain things, then you're going to have some disappointed customers.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and as you said, they're not really in the business of customer service anymore, it shouldn't even be called customers.
Christopher: No, they're passengers, they might as well be called cargo, and actually that's not too far from the truth.
David: Right.
Christopher: I think that the airlines, not to pick on the airlines, but they do in many cases think of us, not as customers, but as cargo. They have bean counters that are looking at the very bottom line and saying, "How many passengers do we need to fit on this plane in order to make more money?" And so for them it's just a mathematical equation, and you can't reduce customer service to that - I don't think, at least.
David: What do you hope to see happen? I mean, what's a major change that you would like to see happen that could improve the travel industry as a whole?
Christopher: Oh, that's a great question; I think that a good start would be the passage of some meaningful passenger rights legislation in Congress. And I was actually in Washington yesterday, talking to some folks in the Senate, and they are telling me now that there's a lot of opposition to the passenger rights bill that's been introduced.

There's two versions working their way through the various legislatures, and they are getting watered down as they go through.
David: Sure.
Christopher: So, when I say meaningful, it might be useful just to take a couple of steps back and to say "Hey, is this even going to do anything if it passes?"

Beyond that, the hotel industry is not federally regulated, it's regulated on a state-by-state basis, so you have good states, bad states, it's difficult to say what needs to be done there. Car-rental companies, certainly there are some shenanigans going on with the car-rental companies right now. I mean, we could do a whole podcast just on car-rental companies, I think.
David: Yeah.
Christopher: I think that really, the bottom line in the travel industry is that the industry needs to really find its focus again. Which is to say, a lot of these companies are public companies that are publicly traded, and the folks who are making the decisions feel that their loyalty is to the shareholders.
David: Right.
Christopher: Not necessarily to their customers. So that's why they're doing some of the things that they're doing. I really think that if we, as customers, can somehow show them -- maybe with our pocketbooks -- that running a business in that way is not in their best interest, I think that that would help them regain their customer focus very quickly. That might be a little pie-in-the-sky for me, but I'd love to see that happen.
David: Yeah. It seems difficult, simply because more people are traveling than ever before, they're dependent upon it.
Christopher: Mm-hmm.
David: We write about travel, we review hotels, how to take a great vacation, but there's that difficult process of getting to and from the place you want to go to, that almost, not to be overly negative, but it almost destroys your trip if something goes wrong.
Christopher: Oh, yeah.
David: You need nerves of steel when you go to the airport, hoping that each step of the way there's not a problem. You make it through screening, your flight's on time, you have a seat that's comfortable.
Christopher: Absolutely. There's been so much talk about this being the worst summer for air travel ever, and I think that that might be a little bit of hyperbole. I think that we're already halfway into probably one of the worst years for travel, not just air travel. Just for travel in general.

Let me tell you why. It isn't just the airlines that are screwing things up. I mean, the hotels are running at record occupancy rates, and charging record room rates. The car rental companies, not necessarily overcharging us, but they are finding some very clever ways of getting more money from us through surcharges, mandatory insurance, and things like that. So they're making the whole travel experience a little bit less fun.

One of the things about travel that I always liked, when I was first traveling, was that it was fun. They're just sucking the fun right out of it. I think maybe that's their worst crime, is that they've taken something that people found enjoyable at one point, and made it not enjoyable.
David: Right. There was a report, I think it was in "USA Today" maybe, last week. It was reporting on how more Americans are taking fewer vacations now, or if they're taking a vacation, it's three to four days as opposed to a week, and it's much closer to home.
Christopher: Absolutely. That probably came from the Travel Industry Association of America, they actually do surveys. Every year, I see a survey from them, and every year it seems that the average American vacation gets just a little bit shorter. Pretty soon, there isn't going to be an American vacation anymore. It's going to be a day here and a day there, and that's a real shame, because I think that... I mean, you see this in Europe, you see how vacations are so cherished, and how they take three or four week vacations.
David: Right.
Christopher: They have all their holidays. I think people need that. Humans need that in order to recharge their batteries. But having these mini-vacations means that people are treating them like they want to squeeze everything in in one day. I live in Orlando, and I have annual passes to the theme parks. I have three little kids, and they love going to Disney.
David: Sure.
Christopher: And we see this, we see people showing up and trying to cram everything into one day, because they only have a long weekend. They have to get back to work on Monday. And it just is no fun.
David: Yeah, that's the syndrome that I call "You Need a Vacation From Your Vacation."

[laughter]
Christopher: Exactly!
David: Yeah. Because they do, they're so stressed out, they invest so much hope into getting everything done, that they wear themselves out, practically, before they're even to their destination.
Christopher: I couldn't agree with you more. It's unfortunate. I think that there are a number of reasons for that. One reason is, people can't afford to take more of a vacation. It costs too much. Prices have become so outrageous.
David: Right.
Christopher: Even a theme park vacation -- or I probably should say, especially a theme park vacation -- is very expensive when you start adding things up. You've got kids, and meals, and tickets, all that. But the other thing is that with our work ethic the way it is, you can't afford to take a week off anymore. Now you're afraid you're going to miss something, or people are... basically, with Blackberries, they're on call 24/7 a lot of the time, so it's real hard to do that.
David: Right. "Crackberries", you know.

[laughter]
Christopher: That's right, yeah.
David: You feel the vibration in your pocket, and you're like, "Oh, I've got to check that." And really, you can just turn it off sometimes.
Christopher: It's funny, because you see them on the weekend. You see these dads -- and some moms -- that are on their vacation, and they've got their Crackberries stuck to their bodies somewhere.
David: Yeah.
Christopher: And you're going, "You're on vacation, dude." You want to say that to them, but you don't. But you see it. You see, a lot of times, guys walking away from their families to check email or to make a phone call, and I don't think that's a real vacation.
David: Right. In a way, technology works against us. When I was in college in the '80s, one of my best friends -- at this time it was just pagers -- but he was like, "I will never have a job that I have to have a pager, because I don't want people to get ahold of me when I'm not in the office."

Honestly, I wish that more people thought that, that they would allow themselves the time just to do something else. To appreciate the place that they're visiting, as opposed to trying to be in two different worlds at the same time.
Christopher: I think there's a growing realization that we have to do something about that. There's actually a hotel in Chicago that had a Crackberry recovery program.
David: [laughs]
Christopher: It was a weekend... I don't remember which one it was, but they basically had... You handed in your Crackberry at the beginning of the weekend, and they kept it there for you. They did whatever they could to keep you away from that thing.
David: That's funny. At the beginning of this, we were talking about the idea of free WiFi for everybody, and then at the same time, now we're talking against it. Because also, sometimes you need to disconnect.
Christopher: Absolutely. And I can appreciate the irony of the beginning and the end of our conversation being about technology, and how it's both good and bad. At the end of the day, I think that technology and what we're doing with it is really... the travel industry itself, really, has probably done more harm than it has good to our vacation, and to our ability to enjoy a vacation. So I think it would be happening with or without technology, I guess.
David: Right. Well, Chris, I want to say thanks a lot for talking today. I really enjoyed this.
Christopher: Yeah, me too.
David: Basically, I've been sitting here scribbling notes, just for column ideas down the road that we need to be writing about on the site as well. And hopefully we'll be able to do this again.
Christopher: I hope so too.
David: Good luck with all your advocacy you do for us travelers.
Christopher: Thanks very much.
David: Sure. Bye.

[music]
David: For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the web at www.frommers.com. And be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions. This has been a production of Wiley Publishing, and may not be reused or rebroadcast without express written consent.