5 tips from the world’s smartest traveler


So you think you’re a smart traveler?

Yeah, so did I – until I took this job. Now that I’m immersed in the wacky world of forgotten passports, flat tires, missed connections and trip-ending calamities that I thought only happened in the movies, there’s one thing I know: I am not the world’s smartest traveler.

But you can be.

In my new book, How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle), I serve the inside scoop on how to navigate the winding and confusing road ahead.

If you’re not a book person, don’t worry: I distill my favorite takeaways from the book here. Peruse them before your next vacation and I promise you’ll come home a little smarter, if not happier.

Travel for all the right reasons.

Most people book a ticket or pile the family into the minivan with the right motives. They want to get away for a few days of hard-earned rest. Or, if it’s a business trip, they need to go from point “A” to point “B” — a perfectly valid reason to rent a car, get on a train or board a bus.

But from time to time I hear from passengers like Predrag Djordjevic, who booked a Priceline ticket from Chicago to Belgrade. One of the carriers on his complex, multi-airline itinerary wasn’t coughing up his mileage credit, and he turned to me for help. (I tried to help, but failed.) Traveling for the miles, or because someone offered you something “free,” is a terrible reason to go, and as my late journalism instructor was fond of saying, “Down that road lies madness.”

Don’t let money ruin your trip.

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Money can destroy your trip, but not necessarily for the reason you think. Sure, travelers are broadsided with all kinds of unexpected bills, but often the wound is self-inflicted when it comes to the cold, hard cash they part with. They simply can’t click the “buy” button and let it go.

I recently heard from Tonia Pickard, who had booked a package vacation to Disneyworld through Expedia. Including airfare, she paid $7,445. A day later, Disney slashed its prices by 35 percent. Pickard submitted a request to Expedia under the online travel agency’s low-price guarantee, but it was denied. I asked Expedia to review its decision, but it wouldn’t budge. Pickard was upset, which I can well understand. But her experience underscores one of my principles of smart travel that I’ve learned along the way: After you push the “buy” button, you’ll be much happier if you walk away and enjoy the trip.

For goodness sake, read the fine print.

The disclaimers in eight-point type below a published offer can hide a multitude of sins, as my dad, a retired minister, might have put it. But he’d also tell you that devil is in the details, and Daddy, you’re right. You’d be shocked at how many travelers simply ignore the terms and conditions, believing they’ll be fine. Often, they aren’t.

The more complicated the product, the greater the chance you’ll become entangled in the fine print. Take travel insurance, for example. When Sandi Lichtman’s daughter got sick and she needed to fly home, she assumed the change fee her airline would charge her would be covered by her Allianz travel insurance policy. It wasn’t. The reason? The doctor who examined her daughter was a family member, and her policy didn’t allow that. There goes $335 out the window. But wait! I contacted Allianz and asked it to take a second look. It agreed to honor her claim. What, you thought I’d go 0 for 3 in my own story?

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Find a good credit card and use it.

Cash may be king, at least in parts of the world, but nothing protects your travel investment like a credit card with a reliable dispute-resolution department. Too often, travelers apply for credit cards for the wrong reasons, such as collecting loyalty points or getting airport lounge access. Often, these gimmicky cards come with an annual fee and higher interest rates. The real value of a credit card comes when you’ve made a travel purchase that didn’t work out the way you expected, and you have to dispute the charges or you need to buy something in another currency.

What’s your alternative? Well, you could always wire the money. But Kelly Rizzo wishes she hadn’t done that when she found a vacation rental online, which offered a $500 discount if she sent the money straight to the “owner.” Only, the owner turned out to be an impostor, part of a troubling and persistent problem of “phishing,” in which a rental manager’s identity is stolen. She lost $4,100, and the site through which she booked the unit only offered her a partial refund. If only she’d used a credit card, she could have contested the charges and received all her money back.

Plan for the worst but hope for the best.

More than 90 percent of all travel problems can be easily avoided through simple planning, starting with the luggage you bring, and extending to your passport, visa, calling to confirm your flights and hotel and making sure you have all your shots. Common sense? Sure, but when you’re on the road, common sense is the first thing to go out the window.

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I haven’t just seen it happen, I’ve done it. Once, I made it all the way to the Baltimore airport before I realized I’d forgotten my wallet, something that would have been easily remedied by checking before I left the house. A kind Southwest Airlines representative allowed me to go home, retrieve my billfold and ID, and take the next flight. I boarded the wrong train in Philadelphia once and nearly missed my flight. Thank goodness a conductor pointed out my error and showed me how to fix it quickly. And I once forgot to pack underwear on a trip to Québec City — easily remedied with a shopping trip, but embarrassing, nonetheless.

Whatever you do, don’t call me the smartest traveler. I’ve made my share of mistakes and learned from them, and that’s what this book will help you do. You’ll learn from my errors and those made by other travelers.

Take this wisdom on the road with you and hope for the best. You’ll have a great trip.

And if you don’t? Well, you know where to find me.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • naoma

    I go to Paris every year for 3 months. We rent a beautiful apartment from a man we met there. In the past we have rented from on line and they are NOT AS PICTURED. One had such ugly rugs I made my husband roll them up and put them behind the sofa. Another had a sheet hanging on the bedroom wall (covering horrible water damage) and no sheet fit the bed. Nightmares. Many people have rentals but will not show them to you. Our landlord is a gem and we have been staying at
    his wonderful apartment with a HUGE terrace for a number of years. No smoking. No animals.

  • Justin

    But Kelly Rizzo wishes she hadn’t done that when she found a vacation rental online, which offered a $500 discount if she sent the money straight to the “owner….

    Hello Ms. Rizzo. I’m a Nigerian Prince who has 50 gazillion dollars stashed away and need your help to smuggle it out of the country. For some reason, I can’t take from my own end pot of money,but need I your help….

    If it sounds ludicrous… why do people fall for these scams…. Never pay in cash or use irrevocable forms of payment. Even worse, if an offer sounds too good to be true, either it’s criminal or too good. Assuming the owner was legit, he or she wouldn’t have reported the income (tax evasion) as that’s the only reason people want to deal in cash. At worst, Ms. Rizzo found the renter was an imposter.

    Moral here, I have little sympathy for Ms. Rizzo.

  • Extramail

    I’ve forgotten underwear and forgotten my wallet before flying. Try finding underwear with teenagers and husband in tow during New Year’s Eve festivities in New York City. Not easy! The identification problem happened pre-9/11 and, because I was flying with my frequent flying husband, delta crown room folks made the arrangements for me to fly without my identification. Yep, I said crown room – that’s how long ago it was. Thus, those are the two things I now never forget.

  • Extramail

    I want to rent in Paris for three months . . . If you share you’re landlords name, I’ll make sure it is a different three months than when you go . . . Jealous, jealous, jealous!

  • Extramail

    Your landlord, not you’re. Auto correct, really?

  • Dutchess

    Another great piece of travel advice is don’t let a little hiccup ruin your trip.I’ve had cash go missing, met with gross hotels, missed/delayed flights, bad weather, and even rude transportation employees or other travelers but no matter what I NEVER let it ruin my trip. You move forward and look back and laugh later! It saddens and confuses me (and sometimes angers me) when I hear people let little things ruin their entire trip.

  • emanon256

    I was one pair of underwear short once. I discovered it late at night, the night before I was leaving. I ended up washing a used pair in the hotel sink with hand soap, I hung it on the shower rod to dry and it was still damp in the morning. I have not made that mistake again.

  • Raven_Altosk

    If someone wants you to wire money for ANY reason, it’s probably a scam. If not, it’s not worth the chance. I pissed off a travel agent once. She was one of Conde Nast’s “Belize Experts.” I wanted a dive trip, so I contacted her, she built and itinerary and then quoted me a price. I asked her to check a few other things out, she did…I was ready to book.

    I offered to call her with my CC#. She said no, she only does wire transfers.

    I said I refuse to use those, so she could take my CC or I would book elsewhere.

    After that, she got hostile and even tried to charge me a $350 “fee” (she even sent me an emailed invoice) for her work. Good luck collecting that, Cupcake. Good luck.

    I also wrote to CNT and told them about this fiasco…and wow, she’s not on their list anymore…

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    2 phrases for you: 1) Quick dry underwear (many different brands available); and 2) hair dryer.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I have a little more sympathy. Here in Silicon Valley, a lot of businesses, especially the smaller Asian one’s don’t deal with credit cards. I can see someone who is not experienced being duped by a person claiming that they’re not a business so they don’t deal in credit cards.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I did that once. One I arrived at SFO’s parking lot an realized I didn’t have my wallet. Taking the flight was impossible. Even if I got on the plane, no credit card or ID to rent a car, to get my hotel room, Fortunately, I got out of the parking lot within the grace period and had a full tank of gas to drive back home.

  • omgstfualready

    Agreed. Just know that ‘something’ will not be right. Then it’s a mind game of what and when. The how is usually on me.

  • Justin


    Even if a Small Asain firm doesn’t take credit cards, consider the following scenarios:

    1) Meet the firm handling business
    2) Write up Contract
    3) Pay (cash) upon work completed

    Ms. Rizzo never meant the imposter, responded to an online ad, and was duped by greed. I can save money by helping the landlord evade taxes…

    You wouldn’t pay a roofer up front, why pay these folks? Also, it’s like when contractors offer “cash discount” after finishing a job. We all know cash discount means they discount because not all money (if any), is going to hit the IRS books.

  • Daddydo

    I am really surprised by one of your examples. I have never heard of any travel agent, online or in person, that would not redfund a Disney reduction. They have a different sale each 6 weeks and Expedia should have made that refund. Tonia, if you have not already traveled, go after that $$$.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No, we don’t know that. That may be true for regular businesses, but it is perfectly reasonable for a someone who doesn’t rent regularly not to have a merchant account to accept credit cards and pay 2%

    FYI, that 2% translates to a lot more than because you’re paying that on the entire transaction. If you rent the place for $1000 but your costs are $800, that 2% or $20 represents a full 10% of your $200 profit.

    Plus, do you similarly avoid cash only brick and mortar businesses? By the same logic, you should because they’re only cash only to hide money from the IRS.

    Having said that, don’t wire money!!!

  • Justin

    1) Check vs. Cash. No Fees. Banks can trace checks, too.

    2) I don’t pay for a service until services are properly rendered.

    – Do you pay a roofer, contractor, etc before the job is done? I’d hope not!

    – Even eating out at a restaurant, the check comes AFTER the meal.

    3) “Brick and Mortar” – Thus a paper trail to conduct business in a lawful fashion. We’re referring to an individual NOT an established company. Argument is without merit.

    Refer back to Point #2. I pay once I confirm the validity of a product or the services are rended.

  • emanon256

    I personally have started avoiding business that give “Cash” discounts or are “Cash only.” I know we have discussed this before, and I think we disagree. Or maybe that was someone else on here who disagreed. I am of the strong belief that the advertised price, should be the price for all, and that fees should be part of the cost of doing business. I am against passing on costs, in either the form of a discount for some types of customers, and/or a price increase for other types of customers. I am a firm believer in the price being the price.

    To me, charging more to someone who pays by credit card, is no different than adding on a air conditioning surcharge when the temp goes above 90. Its also like the stupid fuel surcharges I keep seeing, though at least those are charged equally to everyone. If you want to raise your price because of fuel, raise your price, don’t keep it low and then charge us extra later. Taking credit cards is a choice, and if you do, accept the fee as the cost of doing business. If you don’t accept the fact that you will get less customers.

    Of course now I will get flamed with tons of people saying, “I only pay cash, I shouldn’t have to pay more because someone else uses a credit card.” The same argument got us into this whole baggage fee and economy comfort situation that gets argued here all the time.

  • emanon256

    Why oh why didn’t I use the hair dryer? (I did try drying it in the microwave, all it did was make it hot and still wet).

  • emanon256

    The only time I wired money was when I closed on my house, and it was my choice. My credit union wouldn’t write a cashiers check for any amount above $10,000, and my commercial bank wanted to charge a fee. Both banks would do a wire transfer for free with no issue.

  • bodega3

    Ok, now that is funny! Once you wring out the item, take the blow dryer to it for awhile then hand it up with minimal contact to anything, unless it is a heated towel rack(love these when traveling in Europe!). Then in the morning, take the blow dryer to it again. This helps soften the material, too. We have traveling clothes pins that hook onto towel racks or shower poles. We also use coat hangers with pant clips to hang out wet clothes.

  • Travelnut

    Ahhh, memories of the last time I was in Amsterdam and couldn’t find a laundromat, and I did my laundry in the bathtub and hung everything up to dry. I wrung them out, blew them with the hairdryer, hung them by the window so the sun would shine on them, wrung them out again, blew-dry them again… still took super long to dry my clothes! If there is an iron in the room and you can get the clothes to be just barely damp, that usually does the trick. I would have been afraid my clothes would catch fire in the microwave. :)

  • bodega3

    Yes, the iron is another tool I use. Problem with that in Europe, is that you usually have to request it but once they bring it to you, you have it until you check out. In Munich, we had a lot of hand laundry to do and a lot of it was dark clothing. The towels in our room were new and white. Good thing we have a travel lint brush! A lesson learned, so we now hand wash the clothes inside out to minimize any lint from the towels.

  • Dutchess

    Oh, there’s a great laundromat in Amsterdam right off Newmarket Square! We stumbled upon it walking around and it saved our buts on our month long excursion a few years ago.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I never thought about using a blow dryer. Once in the desert I ran out of clothes. Fortunately it was $100 degree at night and my room had a balcony. I hung out my clothes after dark and retrieved them before sunrise. Bone dry.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Still LMAO on that one, 3 hours later.

    Now added to my travel checklist: disinfect the room microwave before using it.

  • Travelnut

    Oh, wish I’d known! My “travel agent” (using the label very loosely, he was definitely an example of the ones who don’t know what they’re doing, in the discussion on the other thread) booked our hotel in a residential area about a 20 minute streetcar ride from the town center. I asked the desk clerk and the girl at the coffee shop, and the best answer I got is that most people had a washing machine in their flat, therefore no need for laundromats. I’ll file that for next time.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You’re conflating two concepts.

    1. Cheating on taxes
    2. Being a scam.

    Let’s take them one at a time.

    1. Cheating on Taxes.

    First of all, being brick and mortar doesn’t mean that there is always a paper trial. I worked for several attorneys with offices is nice Beverly Hills offices that didn’t report cash, particularly criminal defense attorneys. It got so bad, that several bar rules were passed giving the government clawback powers when clients paid in cash. I made it a point not to accept cash to avoid that temptation. I also had a client with a restaurant that didn’t report cash. I was young and naive. I learned about this years later. So brick and mortar business have the same non-reporting issue.

    If you eat at a small mom and pop restaurant, if you pay in cash, there is a reasonable chance that only a portion of it will be reported. So I expect that you will only pay with a credit card and not patronize those establishments that are cash only.

    2. Scams

    As far as services rendered, ALWAYS paying afterward is simply not true. When you go to a fast food restaurant, you pay first, then you get the meal. If you do a prepaid hotel stay, you pay before services are rendered. If you’re a new client of mine, you’re paying a deposit. Once you’re established, then different arrangements may be possible. You buy season tickets to sporting events, theatrical events, etc, you pay before services are rendered.

    Again, that being said, an experienced traveler or a more discerning person would not have made the error made by the OP. I’m merely suggesting that the absolutes that you are espousing are not part of common experience

  • Carchar

    After wringing out the item, wrap it in a dry towel and squeeze it really hard or step on it with bare feet. It gets out the excess moisture that wringing can’t extract and makes for far less time using the hair dryer.

  • Justin

    I don’t believe I’m conflating the two points.

    Cheating on Taxes / Scams are intertwined. A red flag is raised when a person I’ve had little interaction requests cash up front (Roofer, Contractor, etc). The question of whether it’s a scam or they’re cheating the IRS come to mind. What they do on their time is not my problem (cheating IRS). However, the question of honesty and integrity arise.

    If X is willing to cheat the system, are they going to cheat me as well? Therefore, A and B have a shared basis.

    2) Paying afterwards is the law of the land. I pay before I order at fast food, but I’m standing right there to correct mistakes. I’m not walking out until I check the food (final product).

    A pizza is a better example. I order a pizza, and pay the driver upon delivery. I guarantee the final product meets expectations, though same as fast food.

    Again, I put a credit card on file at a hotel. A “Hold” is placed. My card is not charged until check in. If I check out and do not like the room, I am not charged. – Inspecting Product.

    Sporting / Theatrical Events are different. We know the product is legit because of an established track record and being held at a reputable venue. I’m not the only one with money on the line. If the event is cancelled, refunds are issued with few exception.

    Attorneys are an exception. Paying up front is common place. Here’s where a little due diligence comes into play to ascertain the reputation of hired counsel.

  • Justin

    I’m in agreement. Factor the cost and charge equally. We all know credit cards charge fees, so price accordingly.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I beg to differ

    You are very much conflating too issues.

    If the question is whether you are going to get what you paid for, whether that person is cheating on their taxes or wife for that matter rarely enters into the equation.

    But the point about the attorney is exactly what I am saying. Paying upfront is common practice. Accordingly, as long as the attorney doesn’t come across as shady, you’ll pay.

    Same with the vacation rentals. Let’s walk through this together. You have a vacation rental in the US, but because you are small-time you do not have a merchant account nor associated with a rental agency. What options do you really have? Normally you would have the potential renter send you a check. But what if the renter wants to rent before the check would clear? Or even worse, the renter is from another country? The check will take 4-8 weeks to clear, even a cashier’s check?

    So it is not per se unreasonable to wire money. Just very imprudent

  • emanon256

    At least it was the washed underwear that went in there ;)

  • Justin

    I booked a hotel with the explicit reason of having a Laundromat in Italy. Place made every excuse why they couldn’t do laundry. Wouldn’t be ready, take too long, etc. So the guy recommended a Laundromat down the road.

    Never found the joint. I ended up wearing stuff twice (sigh), before making it to the UK where I had a friend. Used his facilities.

    I swear, I looked ALL OVER Rome and Hell Paris, too. I kind of figured at some point screw it. Sorry to any travelers around me =), but I did shower and try to let the clothes “air out”.

    Wonders of traveling! – I’d packed 7 or 8 days of clothing, too.

  • Justin

    Let me simplify a point. I’m not worried about “cheating on taxes”. Please re-read my post. What I’m eluding to is that someone wanting to “scam the system” is probably not an upstanding character. When it comes time for repairing a problem on the roof, fixing a repair, the same person of “integrity” might be MIA. That’s all I’m suggesting here. Research people wisely and pay accordingly. Avoid upfront transactions whenever possible.

    – We agree on Attorney argument.


    I’ll pass if the person won’t accept a check or credit card on a sizeable expense. Not worth the risk. Cash is GONE FOREVER. No take backs, refunds etc. If a person walks, so does the deposit. Imprudent is generous. Naïve and overtly trusting come to mind. I’d hope your legal advice to friends and family are to avoid cash payments on “larger” purchases.

  • Justin

    Microwavable ‘Hot pants”. Keeps you warm and dry even in the toughest times…. Wonder if that exists LOL.

  • bodega3

    I do that. See my other post about using white towels for dark clothes :-)

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I get what you are saying. What I’m suggesting is that its not a reasonable conclusion that cash = cheating on taxes. It certainly happens, but there are numerous other reasons.

    Btw. Truly large transactions are done by wire transfer, not credit card or checks.

  • adventurebaby

    Sometimes they make the best stories. My girlfriends and I got off the wrong train stop in rural Spain one time and had a wild adventure being led through town by the locals to the one guy who owned a truck and drove us incredibly fast to the next train stop to re-catch our train. The whole town was invested in getting us to our destination – it was awesome.

  • Dutchess

    That’s very true! My favorite is once in Morocco this adorable little boy in a school uniform offered to give me directions back to the main square. He kindly offered to show me the way and proceeded to get me more and more lost, then demanded money if I wanted to find my way back! Adorable turned to diabolical in a flash. I by chance saw a passing taxi on the opposite end of a narrow alley and bolted but it was a little unnerving. Now it’s a favorite anecdote of Marrakesh!

  • adventurebaby


  • OutpostMagazine

    “Travel for all the right reasons.” yes yes yes!

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