There’s no such thing as too prepared

You can’t be too prepared.

I understood that in the abstract sense — who doesn’t? — but it wasn’t until one day exactly 20 years ago that I learned what it really meant. That’s the drizzly, bitter cold Northern California day I discovered I was broke.

I lived in a rat-infested tool shed that had been turned into a spare bedroom in a run-down part of East Berkeley. Down to my last $20, I trudged up to Telegraph Ave., to visit my bank. There, an ATM delivered the bad news dispassionately: I didn’t have enough money in my account to cover next month’s rent.

Come March, I’d be homeless.

I’d taken an enormous risk, leaving my job in New York to become a freelance writer. But fortunately, I’d also taken with me the best advice I’d ever gotten: Not just to be prepared, like a Boy Scout; but that it’s impossible to be too prepared.

Only a few months earlier, when I told my friend Charlie Leocha about my plans to go independent, he shared with me the 90/10 rule of freelance writing. Many try, but few succeed.

“Within six months, 90 percent of the people who go freelance return to their 9-to-5 jobs,” said Leocha, a veteran writer himself who at the time owned a publishing company.

“How do I not become another statistic?” I asked.

On paper, I had a good job as a section editor for a travel magazine. But in practice, the workplace was unbearably toxic. I couldn’t imagine coming back — ever.

“You need to have at least six months of work lined up,” he said, adding, “you can’t be too prepared.”

Before I tendered my resignation, I asked everyone I knew if they’d let me write for them after I left on Jan. 1 — a date I’d carefully chosen because I figured no one gets fired on New Years Day, so it would look as if the decision to leave was mine alone. By the time I landed in San Francisco, I had assignments lined up through June.

Don’t just prepare — overprepare

I didn’t know it in 1994, but over the next few years I would specialize in a particular kind of journalism: consumer advocacy — specifically, helping travelers. You don’t have to be an expert to know that calling your hotel to confirm your booking or verifying that your flight leaves on time is a sound practice.

The value of being too prepared can’t be overestimated in my line of work. Over the years, I’ve dealt with literally thousands of cases that wouldn’t have happened if a traveler had just picked up the phone or logged on to a website to verify a few details.

In my new book, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler the value of preparation is a common theme. But it wasn’t until I worked on my bonus chapter — interviews with the 24 smartest travelers in the world — that I understood the value of being truly prepared.

One by one, serial travelers from Pauline Frommer to Rolf Potts underscored the importance of careful planning. And they don’t just plan; smart travelers overplan.

For example, many travelers will buy a guidebook before they go on a trip, but smart travelers purchase several guidebooks (you’re welcome, Pauline) and find online reviews and consult a trusted travel advisor and they ask friends for advice and they talk to a local. Put it all together, and you have all the makings of an incredibly smart trip.

A happy ending?

If you read my stories about consumer advocacy, you probably know that my favorite endings are the happy ones. The traveler gets an apology and a refund from a hotel or cruise line then rides off into the sunset.

But in travel, as in life, you don’t always get a happy ending.

Even with all the preparation in the world, things can still go wrong. That’s what the rest of How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler is about: dealing with the inevitable bumps on the road.

They don’t have to ruin your trip, by the way. In fact, they can make the journey more interesting and rewarding, because overcoming adversity, as my dad used to say, can be a character-building experience.

My story does have a happy ending. All those assignments I’d asked for before leaving my job paid off. After a week of teetering on bankruptcy, I received one check that covered the rent, for a story I’d written in early January. A week later, another check arrived. I could afford groceries!

I was in the 10 percent. Thanks, Charlie.

Fast forward to today. The support of readers and editors who share my passion for advocacy have propelled me to a nationally-syndicated column and a job as the reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler. A network of trusted friends helps me mediate tens of thousands of cases every year.

Next month, Leocha, who went on to become one of the most influential policy advocates for travelers in Washington, is joining me to create a new membership organization called Travelers United.

I’m prepared for anything.

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 Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Stephen0118

    Awesome story. Thanks for sharing that, Chris. In a few months, I may also be making a change in my life.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Thank you Chris for sharing the story about your early years.
    One of the reasons why you are so emphatic with problems is because of those early tough times.
    I just left a part-time job because it was also toxic.
    My blood pressure was up, my boss was moody and wouldn’t speak to me and my dedication to my job was not only overlooked but never appreciated.
    It is a tough road to walk away. But as I sit here drinking my coffee and looking at the blue sky (although it is cold), I thank my lucky stars that I just got my life back.

  • Mikael Mik

    Until trying, you’ll never know. We’re glad to have you Chris. Where would I get my fix of daily travel articles if not for here =).

  • Donald Camp

    As a fine artist we share the 10/90% rule. I also share with you the early life frustration of the news room. In 1981 at the age of 42 I resigned from a big city major daily newspaper to take control of my life. Many people told me that I was being irresponsible since I had a family to support. However with the moral support of my family I started college to earn my degrees in fine art. At age 48 I earned my MFA. The most important words spoken on the first day in MFA seminar by the department chair were “Most people quit too soon.”
    I’ve work at my successful career and now have works in major museums and private art collections. At this point in my life I would add to to the words that were spoken in that MFA seminar, “It’s never too late.” My children are proud that they shared in our success and now live by the same code. Don’t give up too early and it’s never too late to do what you love.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Thank you!

  • Ward Chartier

    Finding yourself down to your last few dollars and having the will and the energy to get through the situation builds character and provides life-long lessons. That was my experience, anyway. I am richer for having been poor.

  • Ward Chartier

    Just searched online for your work, Professor Camp. Spent a few minutes exploring. What I saw, I enjoyed, so I’ll go back and look some more. Wish you many more creative and productive years.

  • sunshipballoons

    Good story. But: (1) East Berkeley? You lived in the Berkeley hills? Where did you find a rat-infested place there?? and (2) I don’t think you’d have been homeless the next month if you didn’t want to be; you could have made the landlord evict you.