When Greek-American Chris Elliott launched his journalism career, he steered a steady and mindful path between the guardrails of the five W’s and the H, the hallmark of straight news reporting: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The process served him well at iconic papers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
On the journey, though, he had a moment of clarity. “I realized I was covering the news,” he recalled, “but I wasn’t making a difference. I started to see problems but no solutions.” What brought him to that point, was when readers began peppering him with questions that he knew, in his heart, deserved deeper answers than what one might expect from an advice columnist.
When he joined National Geographic Traveler as the magazine’s ombudsman, “I realized I had a non-profit on my hands,” he said, adding he was about to put sea legs on the advice he got from one of his professors in graduate school at the University of California Berkeley: “to do more with the talents I had.” It was the same inspiration telegraphed from his father, a retired minister. “My father was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. He had a very clear sense of right and wrong.”
These days, the 52-year-old Sedona, Arizona resident and single father of four operates Elliott Advocacy, where he and his staff immerse themselves in unearthing answers to all manner of questions, particularly those associated with the travel and tourism industry. He also manages to find the time to author books on the subject and pens a column that’s syndicated in 100 newspapers, including the Washington Post and USA Today.
In a typical day, he may be involved in untangling questions over the “mandatory resort fees” charged by hotels, which can tack on as much as $15 a day to a guest’s bill. “And you have to pay it.”
“You have to be the guy to tell them to stop,” he declared. “I guess you have to have some moral authority.”
Elliott’s sensibilities also come into play as he hoists the red flag on being alert to certain deceptive practices and the danger inherent in timeshares. “The pitch comes when you least expect it. When you’re on vacation and your guard is down.”
He also offers common sense advice. For instance, he wrote that “hotel staffs respond favorably to polite guests making reasonable requests. Making demands or saying “do you know who I am?” will almost certainly fail.”
As the pandemic dragged on, Elliott wrote that airlines “like to take credit when they refund tickets for canceled flights. It is a goodwill gesture when a customer cancels and receives a full refund.” But here’s the rub: When the airline erases a flight, “it must refund the ticket under federal rules,” he stressed. “That’s not a goodwill gesture – although the airline may want you to think it is…”
In a recent column in the Washington Post, Elliott shared with readers a dream: his desire to obtain Greek citizenship. “It won’t be easy,” he admitted. “Before I can apply, I have to find my grandfather’s birth records,” along with his own birth certificate. “Then I’ll need to appear in person at the Greek Embassy for an interview with the head of the consular section. The application process will take at least a year and probably longer.”
But persistence tempered with patience is what Elliott trades in. And he advises the public to practice both qualities. “I don’t think the public likes confrontation, generally speaking.” Companies, he pointed out, are satisfied when a customer settles for whatever the company is offering them. “That psychology is absolutely wrong. Companies build these huge walls that keep people from filing complaints.” Remaining faithful to traversing a stable line between the guardrails of fairness and honesty, he asserted, will always lead him to the transcendence that is his goal. “At the end of the day, I’m not advocating for the companies.”