The secrets to a hassle-free summer vacation seem simple enough: Keep a checklist. Read the rules, especially if you're flying. Take photos of your rental car. Don't make assumptions about your hotel. And remember your paperwork when you're traveling overseas.
But simple as that sounds, in practice it's not always that easy.
Let me say right from the outset that I hardly started out as the world's smartest traveler. But over the past decade and more, I've learned, from my own wide-ranging travels and from the many problems I've helped resolve for readers, what not to do when you're on the road.
So what are the most common mistakes that travelers make? And, more important, how do you avoid them? How, in other words, can you vacation like the world's smartest traveler?
1. Be prepared
Bob McCullough, a sales representative for a cheese company in Hainesport, New Jersey, admits that he's a serial procrastinator, so he decided to start packing for a recent trip a full week in advance. He even booked a flight leaving Philadelphia on a Sunday to avoid the Monday crush of business travelers.
"I got to the airport two hours before my flight, found the parking garage pleasantly unpacked, and parked in a spot I had never dreamed of finding on a weekday," he says. "I opened the trunk and reached in to grab my suitcase -- which wasn't there. I realized then, in shock with a cold sweat building, that I had left my suitcase in its normal pre-staging area of my laundry room."
The smartest travelers plan ahead, like McCullough, but they also have a fondness for checklists. Did you pack the right clothes? Remember all the power cords? Is your luggage in the trunk of your car? Lists are your friends. Smart travelers know when to wing it and when not to. Sure, your friends and family might poke fun at you for keeping a list for everything, but they'll thank you when you're the only one with a power adapter in France. Travelers who keep lists are far less likely to get into trouble on the road.
2. Read those airline rules
Airline policies can be counterintuitive, even bizarre. For example, a one-way ticket can sometimes cost more than a round-trip ticket on the same plane. A change fee can exceed the actual value of a ticket. Also, "nonrefundable" means nonrefundable, except when it doesn't.
Confused yet? If it's any consolation, even airline employees sometimes get mixed up about their own rules. Don't laugh, I've seen it.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt remembers seeing an unbeatable deal for a flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, Florida. But when she arrived at the airport, she noticed her itinerary. "The plane landed in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans before finally arriving in Tampa," remembers the writer from Santa Monica, California. "I still groan when I think of how stupid I was."
Based on the cases I've mediated, my best advice is to familiarize yourself with the always-changing, often Byzantine rules developed by the airline industry -- rules that are often created for the sole purpose of "protecting" an airline's revenue or, to put it in terms that everyone else can understand, to separate you from your money.
They may make about as much sense as a coast-to-coast flight with four stops, but you -- and you alone -- are responsible for knowing the rules.
3. Take photos of your rental car
Anna Arreglado didn't do that when she recently rented a car in Bardonia, New York. "My mistake," says Arreglado, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Sure enough, the car rental company came after her, insisting that she'd damaged the vehicle. She couldn't prove that she'd returned the car unharmed. It was her word against the company's.
Fortunately, Arreglado reads this column and knew how to fight back. She disputed the claim in writing and copied her state attorney general on the correspondence. "Within an hour of sending my email, I got the case dropped," she says.
Listen up, campers: Take pictures of your cars before and after your rental. Some customers allege that car rental companies have built a profitable business around charging you big bucks for small damage, and the only way to avoid a repair bill is to show an "after" image of your undented car. That, and maybe having the email address of your attorney general.
Actually, the take-away from Arreglado's story applies to more than rental cars. Sometimes, a brief, polite email to any travel company will get the resolution you want -- if you copy the right people.
4. Assume nothing about your hotel
No segment of the travel industry -- except perhaps the airlines -- profits more from our collective ignorance than hotels. They would like you to think that they're the only lodging option in town, but they're not. Today's accommodations cover the spectrum, from glamping to vacation rentals. Don't lock yourself into a traditional hotel or resort, at least not without first shopping around. You might be able to find a bargain on Airbnb.com with a better location and fewer hassles.
Travelers make other assumptions about their accommodations that aren't necessarily true, too. For example, you'd imagine that the room rate you're quoted is the room rate you'll actually pay, maybe not including sales taxes.
But when Tom Alderman recently tried to book a room at his favorite casino hotel in Las Vegas, he was broadsided by a mandatory $14-per-night "resort" fee, which supposedly covered in-room wireless Internet access, use of the fitness center and "printing of boarding passes." He was particularly outraged because the resort had repeatedly promised on its website to "never" charge a resort fee, like other Vegas resorts. "I'll never stay there again," says Alderman, a retired documentary filmmaker.
Resort fees are normally disclosed just before you push the "book" button, so don't thoughtlessly click through. If you see a fee you don't like, stop what you're doing and look elsewhere for a room.
5. Don't forget the paperwork
Having the right visas and permits and an updated passport is your responsibility, no two ways about it. That's a difficult message for many travelers to hear. They rely on the advice of a travel agent or what's posted on a website and believe (incorrectly) that those third parties should reimburse them when something goes wrong. This is especially common in the case of cruises, where a birth certificate, instead of a passport, is often enough to board a ship.
The consequences can be heartbreaking. A worried mom from Sacramento, California, recently contacted me because her daughter and son-in-law, en route to their honeymoon in St. Lucia, had been stopped at the airport and denied boarding. The reason? The bride's passport was due to expire soon -- too soon for her to be allowed into the country. Some countries require your passport to be valid for six months from the date of your entry. An alert travel agent might have caught the problem, but now it was too late. And without travel insurance, the entire trip would be lost. "Can this trip be salvaged?" the mom wrote to me, with only hours before the vacation was to have begun. Sadly, it couldn't be.
Point is, the most common travel mistakes are easily avoided with a little planning and by taking common-sense precautions. It looks easy, and sometimes it is easy. But the truth is, in many cases, there's often a lot more to it, and questions arise. And that's what this column and I are here for.
• Elliott's latest book is "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler" (National Geographic). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.