During lunch recently, while the TV was on to one of the major all-news networks, a segment on travel caught my attention. The anchorwoman was interviewing a couple she gushingly introduced as important travel experts, the topic was finding airline seats, and one of the "experts" solemnly told the audience that if viewers wanted to see how many seats were actually available on any given flight they should check SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com).
That advice was flat-out wrong: SeatGuru does not have information on seat availability -- and as far as I know, no other site does, either. Those self-styled experts also gave out some poor advice on getting the best hotel deals.
Now, SeatGuru is a great resource for air travelers -- it posts seating dimensions and charts for every plane operated by most of the airlines you're likely to fly, currently 97 and counting -- for a total of more than 700 individual seating charts. SeatGuru's displays show seat width, legroom, which seats have limited or no recline, which have power ports, where lavatories and galleys are located, and lots of useful stuff. But it doesn't have anything about available seats.
The lesson here is that just because a person is introduced as an expert on national TV doesn't mean he knows what he's saying. Or, even worse, maybe he does "know" it, but just doesn't remember the old saw, "It ain't what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you do know that ain't right."
Clearly, any time you hear unexpected advice or new knowledge, look for a second opinion. After all, if that's a good idea in matters medical -- where doctors need real training, degrees and accreditation -- it's doubly important in travel, where anybody can pass him/herself off as a travel "expert."
Most of the established professional travel writers and reporters I know are reliable. They try to get their facts straight, and tell you when they aren't sure or are guessing about something. Off the top of my head, I can list lots of frequently featured and quoted travel "experts" and reporters who really are good at what they do: Darryl Jenkins, Peter Greenberg, Chris Elliott, Bill McGee, Scott McCartney, Ben Mutzabaugh, Don Phillips, Pauline Frommer, David Rowell, Randy Petersen, George Hobica, my several colleagues at SmarterTravel, and the dean of us all, Arthur Frommer, just for starters. (Please don't feel bad if I left your name out of the list -- the list of good ones is very long.)
By and large, the good sources of information in this business try to check their facts carefully before going public, they admit errors, and they make sure to let you know if they represent any organization that sells travel or have any personal interest in anything they discuss. They disclose whether an airline they discuss gave them a "free" trip or a hotel "comped" their room.
To my mind, the news media have a special responsibility to vet any "experts" they present as such. And unfortunately, they don't do as good a job as they should. The 24-hour news cycle is all too hungry for content, and it's easy for a programmer to accept a publicist's word that the client qualifies.
The bottom line to all of this is that you can't have too many good information sources. Read your Sunday paper's travel section: Even though it may be shrinking, it is still focused on opportunities to travel from your home area. Read Budget Travel, Travel Leisure, National Geographic Traveler and Conde Nast Traveler. If you're online, keep up with the good information websites, including Fodor's and Frommers.
And sign up for any electronic travel newsletters and bulletins you might find useful -- from the airlines you travel the most, your favorite hotel chains, the big online travel agencies, and independent sources such as SmarterTravel. Work with a good travel agent.
Knowledge might not always mean power -- but it always means getting more for your money.