World renowned nomadic travel reporter and consumer advocate, Christopher Elliott, sat down with us to share his best travel practices – from what to book in advance, to must-haves in-flight, to a couple of his favorite destinations. Keep up with all of his travel stories on Chriselliotts.com and learn how he is empowering consumers to solve their biggest challenges at Elliott.org.
1) First and foremost, how did you become a nomadic travel reporter?
One of my first jobs in journalism was at National Geographic. I was there for 16 years. And it was really my editor, Keith, who, after meeting my three-month-old son, asked when I was planning to travel with him. To which I replied: “Well, I don’t think I’m taking him anywhere – he’s three months old!”
Keith told me that my son would learn more by traveling than in any other classroom and created a role tailored to me to make that happen. I eventually ended up as the magazine’s Editor At Large, where I wrote stories for the blog and consumer news section about family travel.
And from 2004 until today, I’ve been on the road with my family – at times with all three kids domestically and more recently with my two sons, Aren and Iden, internationally.
2) Dare we ask what your favorite destinations are?
I’ve been on the road for such a long time and have so many favorites, so it’s hard to nail it down. But overall, it comes down to walkability, great food and good people.
Domestically I would say Sedona, Arizona. We lived there a little under a year and it has everything we love: natural beauty, hiking, restaurants, good grocery stores and great energy. If you like photography, it’s a terrific destination. And we loved the people – they’re no-nonsense, they treat each other well, and they have this Western sensibility.
Perhaps a surprise – we loved West Hollywood in Los Angeles, California. Great energy and we could walk everywhere. Within a few blocks of our rental, we had the L.A. Farmer’s Market and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Internationally we’ve been reminiscing about Paris a lot. There’s a certain lifestyle that we really fell in love with there. It’s not just a food destination. Food is life for Parisians. We truly didn’t have one bad meal there. We’d go to a hole-in-the-wall and tell the manager how great the food is, to which we’d receive a response along the lines of: “Of course it’s good! You’re in Paris.”
When there we also really felt that the French liked to form deep personal connections with you as visitors, in business and in their personal lives.
If I had to settle down somewhere, it would be Paris or Nice (Nice has better weather, so I had to throw it in there). But of course, I’ll never settle down.
3) Your best piece of travel advice – go!
Zig when everyone else is zagging.
When everyone is going to Orlando for spring break, maybe consider a completely different destination where there are fewer people. Go to the mountains, head to Wyoming or Colorado and catch the tail end of ski season.
Why? Because most of the time, the worst travel experience is when there are too many people and not enough destination. If I look back on the times when traveling was terrible, it was always because it was too crowded.
Avoid crammed tourist traps – maybe even by walking half a mile away from where everyone else is. We did that in Paris and still got great food and great architecture. Go to the Eiffel Tower in the early morning when everyone is sleeping and having breakfast.
Simply put: thinking in a contrarian way leads to a much better travel experience.
4) When planning a trip, what do you book in advance?
First thing we do is make sure we have plane tickets, then we go onto Airbnb or Vrbo and book a place.
When it comes to ground transportation, that’s less of an issue to book in advance. We usually opt to stay somewhere very central (rather than a suburb) in order to use public transportation or Uber.
That preliminary research on location is the most important thing for you to do in advance, as you want to make sure you’re in the right neighborhood.
5) You mentioned Airbnb and Vrbo – are you a short-term rental fan over hotels?
I’d say that we usually opt for short-term rentals. My favorite company is Blue Ground as they offer rentals for extended periods of time, like one to three months, and it’s all standardized. Why is that important – because sometimes, when you walk into a vacation rental, you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Having a rental means being able to cook and prepare your own food because, let’s be honest – you can’t do restaurants for one month straight. And as my trips are usually around this length, this type of accommodation makes the most sense. Other benefits of a rental include getting to know the people in the neighborhood.
That said, if I was without my kids and just with one other person traveling for a week or less, I’d choose to stay in a hotel.
6) Share with us your in-flight travel must-haves
When I think of must-haves, I think of what I carry on to a plane. What you check, in my opinion, must be expendable in case things go wrong.
We can start with the boring stuff: vital medications, a change of clothes, my laptop, which I can’t live without, etc. But there’s one item that I absolutely love – it’s a set of Sony Noise Canceling Earbuds. They block out all the noise on the plane and I even use them on super load ferries. Turn on your music and you’re in another world.
I’ll also add that I bring a travel yoga mat everywhere because no one wants to do yoga on a hardwood floor.
7) And because we can’t help ourselves, how many countries have you been to?
Well I know I’ve been to all 7 continents, but I don’t know how many countries. Probably around 100. I honestly don’t count them and I don’t do toe touches where I jump into a country and then leave. Usually, we stay for a month at a time, minimum.
8) Any last words?
I’ve had many interesting travel experiences – including one near death experience. Overall these years on the road have been incredibly formative in learning the intricacies of new cultures and diving deep into global happenings that you weren’t previously more aware of. My editor was right – it’s better than a classroom.