How do I know our collective travel literacy is lacking? I run a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that helps travelers every day. This summer, our caseload spiked to levels I'd never seen — hundreds of complaints a week, if not more.
Most were the result of misunderstandings — people who wanted refunds on nonrefundable airline tickets or to be let off the hook for damage to their rental cars. No, Americans aren't the world's savviest travelers. Less than half of us have passports.
Travel literacy falls into two broad categories: understanding how the travel industry works, with its often arcane rules and restrictions; and being aware of other cultures and customs. One is easy to overcome; the other isn't.
I'll start with the first one. At least 95 percent of it is reading the rules — all of them. A vast majority of misunderstandings with airlines, hotels, and cruise lines end with travelers acknowledging that they failed to review the terms of their purchase. That's how they ended up with a nonrefundable hotel room or a restrictive timeshare.
Most of the remaining 5 percent is fixable with real-world experience. The more you travel, the more you understand how the system works. It's not something you can learn in a classroom. (Less than 1 percent of the problems involved truly intractable issues that need a professional advocate — and that's what I do.)
People who claim they can teach you the ins and outs of the travel industry and make you more travel-literate with a simple course are probably exaggerating. It's true that you can pick up valuable skills on travel safety through a course like Depart Smart or learn more about optimizing your loyalty programs by attending Frequent Traveler University. But there's no substitute for being there.
So let's talk about achieving the second part of travel literacy — looking more like a citizen of the world than someone who's never crossed a county line.
While these tools could make you a smarter traveler, only one thing is guaranteed to improve your travel literacy. You have to get out of your seat.
If you're a novice, start with a guided tour. Visit a travel agent, or select a tour operator from the United States Tour Operators Association website. A competent tour operator can handle everything from hotel reservations to meals, so you can experience a destination relatively worry-free.