Hey, did you forget to pack your common sense?

Hey, did you forget to pack your common sense?

Common sense has always been a precious commodity in travel. You don’t need stories about tourists plunging off cliffs in their cars or YouTube videos of national park visitors nearly being mauled by wild animals they were trying to pet to be reminded of that uncomfortable fact.

But is common sense as we know it dead? Talk to other travelers and to survival experts, and the troubling answer is: maybe.

The severity of the problem became clear to me when a regular reader of this column, Robert Welch, e-mailed me a photo he took of a hotel door left ajar. Welch, who works in the security department of a large chain hotel in New Orleans, says every night, guests leave 25 to 30 doors ajar, presumably so they can run down the hall or out to dinner without having to remember their key cards. That’s about 6% of all rooms.

“It’s the No. 1 reason why a theft occurred whenever I’ve investigated it,” he says.

Michael Frost, a corporate director for a non-profit organization in Long Island, N.Y., marvels at the number of pricey electronics that guests leave at a resort pool.

They’ll think they’re fine, he says, “because I’m on vacation and not thinking as clearly as I would at home. It’ll be there when I return. Wait a minute, where is my iPad, Kindle, Galaxy or Nook? It was right here. Right on my chair! Call hotel security! What do you mean the resort isn’t responsible for it?”

Heather Heenan, who works for a major airline, says she could “fill a book” with the lack of common sense passengers demonstrate once they enter the airport. “They suddenly don’t know left from right,” she says. “They can’t read a simple sign. They claim they are unable to use a kiosk, even as they hold their iPhone, which is infinitely more complicated.”

Among her favorite passenger questions: Which are the window seats on a diagram of the aircraft? And: Are flatirons and hair driers allowed through security? After all, other hair products, such as gel and hairspray, aren’t.

Richard Lilley, an adventure guide from Charleston, W.Va., keeps a list of common-sense lapses that’s “staggering.” It includes visitors “trying to touch the lethal snakes and plants, standing on the crumbling edge of cliffs, wandering into the jungle and actually trying to feed crocodiles by hand.”

As an advocate for travelers, I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who seem to be completely out of touch with reality. They want a refund for a non-refundable ticket (what part of “non-refundable” don’t you understand?). They want me to retrieve their expired frequent-flier miles (they’ve expired — look it up in the dictionary). Or they want travel insurance to pay a claim for something that isn’t covered by the policy (if it’s not in the policy, it’s not covered).

Experts say common sense is on the verge of extinction among travelers. Creek Stewart, a survival expert and author of Build the Perfect Bug-Out Bag, says it’s not abstract, as in the movie 127 Hours, which is based on Aron Ralston’s story of surviving an accident in Utah, in which he had to amputate his forearm to save his life.

“Unexpected survival scenarios can happen with little to no warning,” he says. “Even on pleasure vacation cruises.”

Several factors have led to the demise of common sense. It’s partly technology, like GPS cellphones and Internet search engines, that allows travelers to go anywhere without knowing anything. But it’s also a lack of adversity, which either gave our ancestors generous helpings of common sense or killed them. To some extent, says survival instructor Cody Lundin, it’s also the latest survival TV shows, most of which are hosted by “adventure actors” instead of true experts.

“Worse,” says Lundin, who runs the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz., “we’re in denial about it.”

Could it really be that common sense is dead? Whenever I hear about a tourist killed or injured while doing something stupid, I have to wonder. Given how unprepared the traveling public has become, it makes visitors walking targets for scam offers, predatory prices and junk fees. But it also means that even a little common sense can take you a long way when you’re on the road.

Is common sense in travel dead?

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Don’t forget to pack your smarts

Here’s how to improve your travel IQ:

Meet other savvy travelers. You can participate in the weekly #Travelskills chat on Twitter, which covers some basic travel strategies.

Read up. Books such as Joshua Piven’s The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel can help you escape some bad situations. How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler, by Christopher Elliott, also can help keep you out of trouble.

Take a survival course. Classes from Cody Lundin’s Aboriginal Living Skills School and Creek Stewart’s Preparedness Training will make you aware of common travel pitfalls.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You are, of course, assuming that common sense is only dead in the traveling public. It’s much, much more widespread than that.

  • fshaff

    I remember a trip we made to Yellowstone a few years back. In one of the geyser areas there are wooden paths to
    walk on to navigate around and through the area, with many warning signs for people to remain on the path. What
    did I see? Well, there was a couple with a child walking along the path, when the man decided to get closer to a hot
    boiling geyser. He edged closer to the rim of the pool of hot water to take a closer look and some pictures. Luckily,
    the ground beneath him did not give way, otherwise he would have fallen in and been boiled to death. Tourists just
    don’t realize how dangerous it is in that park – you MUST stay on the path! And in the same park, watch tourist attempt
    to feed or touch bison or even bears. They obviously have lost all of their common sense.

  • MarkKelling

    Why does anyone need common sense anymore? If you do something that a person with common sense would know not to do and it goes wrong for you, all you have to do is pick from one of the hundreds of lawyers out there specializing in lack of common sense situations and you could get rich. Or you can publicly shame a corporation using the internet and they will pay you to quit talking about whatever it is. All you have to do is whine loud enough and you get rewarded for being foolish.

  • Carchar

    I think common sense is just as dead or alive as it ever was. Even the neanderthals and cro magnons had their fair share of smart and stupid.

  • Nigel Appleby

    Common sense isn’t dead, but it isn’t very common!

  • polexia_rogue

    the GPS common sense fails always amaze me.

    comedians make jokes about “my GPS wants to kill me, it told me to take a sharp right off a bridge”

    but OMG there are people who would actually do that.

    if your GPS gives you a command that is not possible it means you need to pull over and hit the reset button.

  • John Baker

    I think it’s two things. It’s that common sense is dead and the “rules don’t apply to me” syndrome. Add them together and it’s a deadly combination.

  • y_p_w

    Not everyone boils to death.

    There was a cowboy named Kendall Vanhook Bumpass. He discovered a geothermal area in California that he described as “Hell”. He came back with reporters to document his discovery. At that point his leg busted through a thin crust and his leg was scalded to the point where it had to be amputated. Today this area is known as Bumpass Hell. It’s located in what’s now Lassen Volcanic National Park.

    However – animals don’t understand the danger and many die from being burned. There was a dog that ran from a car in Yellowstone and jumped into what it thought was a cool pool. It was a hot spring. The dog owner’s friend went in after it even with others yelling that it wasn’t worth it. He died the next day in a hospital. The guy who pulled him out was severely burned. The dog stayed. Apparently the spring exploded an hour later because of all the fat that was melted off from the dog. Of course wild animals die all the time.

  • whs

    Perhaps the lack of common sense in travel is more a symptom of the fact that today there is a lot more travel by a much larger segment of the population. People more often find themselves in situations where the dangers are not familiar. In addition these transitions happen quickly. Instead of planning and researching, we jump on a plane and we are there.

    In addition, we know people do not multitask well. If we are presented with an exciting, engaging and unfamiliar environment, we must take the brain power to absorb all this stimulus from somewhere. This is often at the expense of “common sense”. As an example, consider how many stupid things otherwise intelligent people do on their wedding day (and I am not talking about getting married in the first place!).

  • $16635417

    I was on a guided tour of the Everglades. We stopped along a small stretch of water where some German tourists were also standing. Our old Florida guide starting slapping the water along the shore to simulate a bird flapping in the water. He then told us to watch the water and sure enough we saw alligators swim up close and some come in the water from the shoreline across from us thinking lunch was served. The German tourists got all excited and one rushed into the water to get a picture taken with the gators. Our guide started yelling at him to get out and looked confused and asked “You mean they aren’t friendly?”.

  • varflow

    Watch the movie Idirocracy. The people in that movie are what we are becoming.

  • S363

    It’s long been my belief that common sense isn’t actually all that common.

  • Helio

    For Chris to think about: are you helping to increase or decrease the overall common sense when you accept (and win) cases of non-refundable tickets, lack of insurance, etc?

    Maybe, just maybe, if people have some drawbacks due to their poor choices, they might use a little more common sense next time ;-)

  • Helio

    Unfortunately, I must agree with you.

  • Annie M

    Your column more than proves this with the questions you get. And this is the kingdom of “I bought a non-refundable ticket but think I have a legit reason for getting a refund when I had to cancel and didn’t buy travel insurance because I am special.”

  • Annie M

    You also see this all the times. At the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, there are tons of signs that tell you to keep behind the ropes on the cliffs and we stood counting how many people walked over the signs to stand and take pictures right at the edge.