Taking control of your travel life

By Randy Keck

For nearly an hour on a recent spring afternoon, I became embroiled in an unplanned, in-depth discussion with ITN Editor David Tykol regarding international travelers’ problems with the overseas travel arrangements provided by tour operators or other travel providers.

For a while our discussion was simply that, a discussion. After a while, however, I began to jot down notes — a telltale signal that a column idea was forming. It did. Here goes.

The new era in travel

Today it is undeniable that we context our experience of travel as incumbent in a new era in travel, one marked by the increased security concerns ushered into our permanent collective consciousness by the events of 9-11.

This new era of travel reality is in many ways akin to the trend in the new era of medicine in which patients no longer view the doctor as a “god,” someone in whom they place their blind faith and trust without questioning. Patients en masse are, fortunately, increasingly realizing in the modern world of “all about profits” medicine that they must choose to take a primary role of responsibility in both their health assessment and continuing overall health care.

Likewise, the new era of travel is one in which the prudent traveler should quite simply take nothing for granted. As in the above parallel, it today is a risk-oriented traveler indeed who automatically places blind faith and trust in their tour operator or other travel provider.

Who is covering your backside?

The medical parallel with travel continues. Who among us has not had problems in dealing with their medical insurance provider? Who among us does not understand that the majority of problems in this arena stem from the absolute fact that the medical insurance providers openly and overtly demonstrate by their actions that their primary responsibility is to stockholder profits, not customer/patient care?

While I am a strong advocate of travelers carrying at least a basic level of travel insurance protection, it must be accepted that the primary concern of the travel insurance companies is, once again, “profits,” not customer protection.

Travel insurance policies in general are carefully crafted to not cover many of the occurrences for which travelers need the greatest protection. Former travel insurance claims agents report having been rewarded for finding ways to deny or at least mitigate claims and save their employers money. How many ITN readers have fallen victim to a travel insurance provider’s interpretation of the fine print while inquiring about or after submitting a claim?

The best advice I can offer you as a traveler is to become a student of the subject of your travel insurance policy. Clarify any points on which you are not clear regarding coverage. Ask any and all questions before selecting a policy as well as after, up to the point of departure.

Please understand that my intent is not to be negative, even if my words seem to convey such an impression. My intent is to convey a clear, unmistakable message and, yes, sound a “take control” warning to anyone planning travel. It is especially aimed at those who may find my comments somewhat alarmist.

Avoiding falling prey

Accept responsibility for playing a major role in both the planning and execution of your travel plans. Be prepared to minimally do the following when planning travel.

1. In advance of forwarding a deposit, prepare a list of both easy and hard questions for your travel provider and insist on complete answers. Be absolutely clear about what is and is not provided in your tour or independent travel arrangements, and especially inquire about extra cost options.

2. Document all discussions with your travel provider. Decide which, if any, issues require written assurances and follow-up on obtaining such prior to making a deposit and well in advance of the departure date. Do not be lazy or haphazard in your approach.

3. Develop the habit of making a personal risk assessment regarding your travel plans in regard to issues such as personal safety and the possibility of your itinerary being altered after commencement of travel. This requires doing some current research about travel to the destinations being visited.

Some itineraries and experiences are definitely harder than others for the operator to both operate and, therefore, warranty. If unsure about committing to an itinerary, advise your travel provider that you would like to speak to a previous customer who has done the trip. This is often a good idea anyway, especially if you are unfamiliar with the company or destination. Follow up, asking in-depth questions.

Traveling with a balanced perspective

An important aspect of taking control of your travel experiences is choosing to make a commitment to being a good travel ambassador by replacing high-level expectations with humility and go-with-the-flow flexibility. If you encounter difficulties while on the road, I suggest the following.

A. In dealing with problem situations, employ role-reversal thinking before responding. Doing such can only improve the quality of your response.

B. In especially trying situations, count to 10 and take a deep breath before responding. Doing such can only improve the quality of your response.

C. If unavoidable and/or ongoing conflict appears inevitable while traveling, respond in a businesslike, nonemotional manner, picking your battles wisely. Register your concerns directly with those who are empowered to resolve problems, even if this means going over the head of your tour guide or tour leader if they will not or cannot effect a resolution. Do so even if it means telephoning or otherwise contacting your travel provider.

Overseas, be aware of specific cultural nuances when it comes to problem solving. For example, in many cultures, local guides and tour leaders will tell you what they think you want to hear instead of the actual facts that you really want to hear.

Document any problem in written form and decide if it requires immediate resolution with your travel provider. If not, you may decide to deal with it when you return home as opposed to risking ruining your trip by engaging in continuing hassles en route. In some situations, waiting may clearly not be advisable while in others it might be a matter of personal judgment.

D. Philosophically decide not to sweat the small stuff and be wise enough to realize most stuff is small stuff.

Answer the following question: “In a month or so, what difference will this situation or issue make to the rest of my life?” Most of the time the answer is “Little to none.”

Above all, reward your psyche by maintaining a balanced travel perspective.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Why do we travel if not for the unknown to become the known and to be the fortunate beneficiary?❞
— Randy reflecting on the “travel perspective” aspect of this column