Hit the Road: Journalist serves as voice for the travel consumer

Your airline ticket clearly states that it is nonrefundable, but you broke your leg, had to cancel your trip and the airline is not too sympathetic.

Who you gonna call?

The toilet in your hotel room overflowed and management moved you to another room, but it’s a downgrade and they won’t refund your money.

Who you gonna call?

A rental car agency claims you are responsible for damage to the door, but you know you didn’t do it.

Christopher Elliott

Who you gonna call?

That would be Christopher Elliott, an award-winning author, consumer advocate, columnist and consummate traveler who considers himself “every consumer’s best friend.”

“When I call airlines, hotels and car rental agencies, they know who I am,” he said during a phone call from a rented home in Durango, Colorado, where he is temporarily headquartered with his children for several weeks.

They know him because the Elliott advocacy net spreads widely.

The UC Berkeley graduate and Fulbright Scholar writes for the country’s largest newspapers and magazines, appears on television and radio and has written several books. Elliott’s love of writing and travel merged some years ago during one of his nine journalism internships with the Los Angeles Times.

“They gave me the keys to a car and said your beat is Northern California,” Elliott explained. “I drove around and filed stories from the road. I knew then I wanted to be in travel writing.”

Elliott eventually went to work at the Wall Street Journal, which led to a job as a business travel editor, which brought him to the world of consumer advocacy, unfortunately a necessary service in today’s world.

“These aren’t the best of times for North American consumers,” he writes. “Government protections are being dismantled at a furious pace in the United States. Vital customer service functions are being outsourced or ignored altogether by corporations. More people are getting take-it-or-leave it attitudes at the front desk, on the phone or on the sales floor.”

The current philosophy of government is to protect businesses, he said.

“Consumers are looking to someone like me to help them. We are seeing the number of cases go through the roof. No matter what your political affiliation is, you should be upset.”

And about those airline companies?

“It’s all about the money,” Elliott said, “but it’s time to set that aside. They are transporting people, not cargo. When I ask them to take another look, nine times out of 10 they do the right thing.”

Enter Elliott’s staff, which includes 100 volunteers. They help solve some of the 100-150 consumer complaints that he receives weekly.

“We answer every email. It’s a time-consuming process.”

There’s another story here.

Elliott is a single father of three — they are 11, 13 and 15 years old — and travels with his children frequently. He often rents a home for several weeks or months so the family can tour an area in depth. They are home-schooled via online tutoring.

He began traveling with his kids in 2010, spending about 100 days on the road. That number is now 200 days, and Elliott believes visiting new places is one of the best forms of education there is. The kids seem to like it, he says, but if there comes a time when they don’t, “I’m not opposed to settling down.”

The author shares a few of his mistakes while traveling with kids at  http://www.elliott.org/blog/dont-do-this-when-youre-traveling-with-kids/.

Elliott’s newest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic Books/Random House). For help with a consumer problem, email him chris@elliott.org. To read some of his columns, visit http://www.elliott.org/.

For more stories, comments and photos on travel, both local and elsewhere, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

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