Ten years ago, the this column quietly embarked on a mission to offer readers practical travel advice. The lack of fanfare was no coincidence. America was emerging from the Great Recession, and some wondered if there would be much of a travel industry left to cover.
In my debut column, I criticized a group of fellow consumer advocates who believed tarmac delays were the No. 1 passenger rights problem in the country. My colleagues were pushing for a law that would ban lengthy delays.
“Worse,” I wrote, “they’ve convinced many travelers that tarmac delays are the only important passenger rights issue.” A consumer advocate arguing against a new consumer protection law? Counterintuitive, but I had nothing to lose.
(I was right about tarmac delays. They weren’t the biggest problem faced by travelers in the country in 2009. They were near the middle of a long, long list of passenger grievances, topped by issues such as airlines hiding the cost of their tickets and fare refundability. The Transportation Department later acted on both of those issues, creating a full-fare advertising rule and a 24-hour refund rule.)
The column continued to find worthy targets. Among them: loyalty programs, which are terrible investments for most travelers; surprise fees, which too many consumers pay out of embarrassment or ignorance; and dwindling customer service, which too many people accept without questioning.
A quick look at a few common themes during the past decade shows how far we’ve come – and what lies ahead for travelers.
In 2009, airlines had just started charging passengers for their first checked bag. This column documented the rise in baggage fees and the ridiculous lengths airlines would go to collect them. On the hotel side, it charted the troubling emergence of mandatory resort fees, which are tacked on to the room rate after an initial price quote.
There are a few important takeaways. Many travel companies believe it’s absolutely fine to mislead you to make an extra dollar. And we’re heading toward a future in which confusion and misdirection aren’t the exceptions but the rules. Hold on to your wallet – and always read the fine print. It’s about to get even stranger.
And then there are the scams. The phishing scams, which cost vacation rental customers thousands of dollars, have been among the worst. The car rental repair scams, the parking ticket scams and the timeshare scams rank right up there, too.
Scammers are also getting smarter. Just when I think I’ve written my last story about fraudulent travel clubs or worthless vacation ownership schemes (same thing), someone seems to come along with a brand-new pitch. I hate to think of how many more people would have fallen for one of these come-ons if I hadn’t written these columns.
Finally, there’s the government. Every year in late November, I review the Transportation Department’s record of protecting air travelers. During the Obama administration, DOT officials welcomed my inquiries because they were allowed to do their job, for the most part. But lately, the department has taken a more hands-off approach to consumer protection, which some say has given airlines license to mistreat their passengers. The column has also taken the Federal Trade Commission to task for failing to enforce truth-in-advertising regulations.
I can’t take credit for any of the consumer-friendly laws that have been enacted in the past decade. Those include the full-fare advertising rule, which allows you to cancel your airline ticket within 24 hours, and legislation regulating airline seat sizes. Nor can I claim responsibility when the DOT or FTC, under public pressure, acts to protect travelers. But it might be safe to say that without the Navigator, there would be a little less accountability.
People often ask me where I get my column ideas. That’s easy. My best ideas come from you, my amazing readers. That’s what I love about writing the Navigator. Your emails and your comments and questions from our weekly online chats set this column’s agenda. If you stopped asking me to look into your problems or answer your questions, I would have nothing left to write about – or to fight for.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.