Wall Street Journal’s McCartney: Airlines have gotten “carried away” with fees

Scott McCartney writes The Wall Street Journal’s “Middle Seat” column and is the author of the new book “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” With the travel season about to take off, I asked him for his thoughts on flying in the summer of 2009.

Q: What should air travelers expect this summer?

McCartney: I think this will actually be a very good summer to travel, if you can afford it. The recession has lowered ticket prices considerably, left hotel rooms far more available at lower prices and reduced congestion at airports and in the skies so flights are running more on time.

The dollar has rebounded some, and so it’s a good year to venture overseas. Crowds should be smaller and merchants should be more anxious for your business. We may well look back on this year and say there was a window of opportunity when the airline system and major tourist destinations didn’t bog down as much under the weight of summer crowds and travelers actually had the upper hand.

I’m taking my family to Europe — tickets were about half the price of what I probably would have paid last year. Hotel rooms seem to have good availability using points or reasonable rates in dollars. I just think that if you are able to do it financially, it’s a great time to go.

Q: I really like the subtitle to your book, “How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.” What do you think is more important to travelers — dignity, sanity or intact wallet?

McCartney: Thanks. Full disclosure: It was my wife’s idea.

I think it depends on the traveler, but for most, the wallet is the bottom line. Travelers will endure a lot to save a few bucks — just look at the popularity of discount European airlines and the long bus rides, infrequent service, high fees, etc. that people put up with for a cheap fare. While indignities anger them and inane experiences do make them crazy, getting gouged is what really sends people over the edge with airlines.

I think to some extent it’s a reflection of the animosity travelers have toward airlines. Airlines do bad things to people, and people remember. Goodwill and warm consumer feelings get ruined when a bag is lost, a flight is canceled, a traveler is bumped, a crew times out leaving a planeload stranded. What’s more, airlines make the money part of the experience so difficult — changing prices, limited availability, etc, etc. You go to a car dealer to buy a car thinking that salesman is out to take as much advantage of you as possible, and you know you likely won’t get as good a deal as the guy next to you. You just assume that. And I think it’s much the same with airlines. Airlines battle their customers over money — not a good position to be in.

Q: I noticed that almost the entire book is dedicated to air travel. There’s a brief chapter on hotels and cruises. Why did you decide to emphasize air travel?

McCartney: You’re right — 29 pages on hotels and cruises in a 300-page book, so about 90 percent on airlines. There’s also stuff early on picking the right vacation and some general travel experience stuff.

The reason is that I believe the air part of any trip has the greatest potential for disruption. Vacations get ruined by the flight there or the flight home. Business travelers rarely lose contracts or have their lives turned upside down by hotels. Yet airlines dictate much of how they get their job done. The penalty for airline problems is severe for travelers. The airline ticket is a far more complicated transaction than renting a car or a hotel room. And airline-related issues stretch far: frequent flier programs, first-class upgrades, baggage service and fees, security and airport hassles–you name it.

I also believe that the airplane trip holds the greatest fascination for people. Soaring into the sky and traveling at 500 miles per hour still amazes us, and the operation of airlines today is enormously complex. I wanted to explain to people how it works — from how airlines price tickets to how the FAA operates the air-traffic control system. By understanding how things work, travelers are better prepared.

Bottom line: Flying is where people need the most help. The goal of the book is to help people improve their travels, and 90 percent of that does come on the airline side.

Q: How often do you fly, and if you don’t mind me asking, which loyalty programs do you participate in?

McCartney: I fly a couple of times each month. Not every week, but a mixture of long trips where I’m working on multiple stories and quick out-and-back trips to see a particular airline or report a particular angle.

I try to spread my flying out so I get to compare different airlines first-hand and try different hotels. I’ll take a trip just to try out a new airline and look for interesting innovations. I’m a member of the loyalty program at Delta, American, United, Continental, Northwest, US Airways, Southwest, jetBlue, AirTran, Starwood, Marriott and Hilton.

Q: When it comes to air travel, where do travelers lack understanding of the industry, generally speaking? Why do you think they don’t get it?

McCartney: Let me take the second first: They don’t get it because airlines do a poor job of explaining their business. I really believe there’s a major communications gap.

And I think it starts internally: Often airline managers don’t explain policies, decisions and practices well to their own employees. And that leads to lousy service. But it amazes me that there are business travelers riding the same airline every week who themselves run very complex businesses and they don’t understand a lot about why airlines do the things they do.

I think the lack of understanding comes on two fronts: the financial and the operational. Travelers often think airlines are jacking up fares and fees and somehow taking advantage of them when the airline is losing money on the ticket. It’s not like these companies are wildly profitable. But it goes back to the disparity that travelers face: sometimes a ticket costs $200; sometimes it costs $1,200 for much the same trip.

The penalties airlines impose seem irrational to consumers: $150 to change a ticket with a few keystrokes, plus the higher fare? Inconsistency leads to misunderstanding.

On the operational side, it’s also poor communication. The classic example: weather delays. Clear skies in New York, and the flight to Florida is delayed due to weather. You call your wife in Florida and she says it’s sunny and warm. Those lying airlines! The bad weather may be in North Carolina and that’s disrupted traffic up and down the East Coast, but airlines don’t take the time to explain.

Same with canceling flights — they’re just canceling because of light bookings! Most likely there is more to it than that, but the airline doesn’t explain. Same with lost baggage: No bag, where is it? The airline can’t tell you! That just increases anxiety. When will it get to me? The airline can’t say. How frustrating for the traveler!

Q: How are the airlines like the funeral home industry?

McCartney: There’s a good joke in here somewhere!

For many years one of my standard questions for airline executives has been, Is there any other industry that makes it so difficult to use its product? It’s fun to see them ponder that, and I really believe it’s an issue that is fundamental to the problems of the airline industry.

The many rules, comple
xities, penalties and difficulties of buying tickets and traveling by airline can discourage people from traveling. If your customers dread it, it’s not good for business.

Only one airline executive has given me an answer: Mike Gunn, the former marketing chief at American, once suggested health care was more complex and frustrating. He had a point. Perhaps that’s not the company that any industry wants to keep, right?

When I posed the rhetorical question in the first draft of the manuscript, my editor at Harper, Ben Loehnen, had an answer of his own: funeral homes. He did it for a chuckle, and I liked the comparison. On one level, funeral homes have opaque and confusing pricing, a reputation for gouging people who need services at the last minute and plenty of complexity and different service levels. On another level, you have to die to actually become a customer. So looking at it that way, it’s clearly more difficult.

Q: Is there a right way and a wrong way for an airline to charge a la carte fees? Can you give me and example of an airline that does fees right?

McCartney: I think value for the fee charged is the key, plus full disclosure of what the fees are and what you get. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to charge extra for United’s Economy Plus seating, for example. You get extra legroom, and for some people, having that option is terrific.

On the other hand, I think it’s ridiculous for US Airways and Northwest to be trying to charge for choice seats — aisle or window seats at the front of the airplane. Worse, it’s outrageous for Spirit to be charging fees for routine services that add no value – a fee to buy a ticket online instead of at an airport, for example, or even a fee to reserve a seat.

I also think airlines needs to look closely at how high they’ve raised some fees. As I mentioned, $150 to change a domestic ticket when you also charge any fare difference seems extreme. Is it fair to charge $100 to redeem a free ticket when you have marketed and enticed your customers into believing they can redeem miles for free travel? If I carry a pet into a cabin myself I’m charged $150 on Delta. If your luggage weighs 60 pounds, it’ll cost you $250 round-trip on United but only $100 on American and Continental.

Airlines have gotten carried away with some fees, I believe, because customers have begrudgingly accepted them and paid them. But in the long run there is a cost to those companies. If consumers don’t believe the price was fair, they may go elsewhere next time.

Q: Are airlines regulated enough? Where would you like to see the tighter regulation? And where do we need the government to take a more “hands-off” approach?

McCartney: I don’t think government should try to regulate customer service beyond the traditional regulatory role in any business: discrimination, accessibility, anti-trust, etc. Let the marketplace take care of companies with poor service. But I do believe government has a role in regulating safety, and the FAA often isn’t doing enough.

The Colgan/Continental commuter crash hearings at NTSB this week are a sickening reminder. Today, for example, an FAA safety inspector testified he knew of systematic safety violations. But did he do anything? Apparently not. It appears as though that captain should have never been in that seat flying that plane. That’s a major regulatory failure, and obviously a company failure, that killed 50 people.

Q: You seem to strongly endorse participating in an airline’s frequent flier program. Is there anyone who would not be well-served by collecting frequent flier miles?

McCartney: If infrequent travelers can supplement a mileage account with a credit card and other purchases, then it’s probably worthwhile. But if you really don’t fly enough or buy enough, or prefer to take credit-card rewards in some other form like cash or points rather than miles, then the frequent flier program can work against you.

Loyalty is the question. The risk is you’ll be trying to build miles and purchase a higher-priced ticket or opt for an inconvenient itinerary just to stick with a preferred airline. If you don’t travel regularly, you’ll pay more than if you weren’t a member of a program, and so that free ticket you hope to someday score, and may never get because of capacity restrictions, may cost you quite a bit of money. For many people, mileage-based credit cards may not be the best choice as well.

Q: If you could change one thing about the airlines, what would it be? And if you could change one thing about airline passengers, what would it be?

McCartney: Allow me to offer two for each.

On airlines, I’d simplify the business everywhere I could. A contract of carriage at many airlines is longer than an IRS Form 1040.

Secondly, I’d get airline CEOs and their boards to recognize that it’s not their financial prowess or legal intuition that matters, it’s their leadership ability. Airline CEOs are football coaches — though most don’t recognize that or aren’t comfortable with that). The successful ones are able to rally the troops and excite the customers.

Throughout my tenure covering airlines, the one constant has been that when the CEO loses labor, it’s over. The job will end. The CEOs who can effectively communicate plans, motivate the troops and get employees working together have run good airlines. The ones who lose trust, don’t inspire, can’t articulate clear goals and try to run the business as though it was a bank or telephone company always fail. It’s a different kind of business, and I think it requires different skills than just being strategically smart in the boardroom.

On passengers, I’d love to see less brow-beating by road warriors. Many of use have the mentality that the airline can do something better for me if I make a big-enough stink or yell at the airline employee until I win. And too often, it works!

It’s the obnoxious traveler who holds up the line for the rest of us, or insists on claiming that one last seat when there’s some poor kid with no status trying to get Home. Travel is tough, and travelers could do more to take care of each other.

To that end, my second simple change: Every passenger would ask first before reclining a seat back into someone’s lap. Space is tight, and too often a reclined seat makes life far worse for the passenger behind you. A reclined seat means they probably can’t open a laptop screen, for example. I think people should turn around and say something – “I’d like to recline my seat, just wanted to warn you…”

Maybe a compromise can be reached so there is still room for the laptop? Maybe the courtesy will prevent the passenger behind from kicking and kneeing the seat. Or my personal favorite, opening a newspaper so it brushes the head of the recliner.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

Will you flip for the Flip Ultra?

Like so many things in life, the latest Flip Ultra is two steps forward and one step back. At $199, this compact HD video camera is less expensive than the sleek Flip Mino. But it’s also bulkier than its little brother, both literally (it’s big enough to accommodate two AA batteries, as opposed to the internal battery the Mino runs off) and figuratively, since it can hold up to two hours of high-resolution (720p) video, twice as much as the Mino.

What I liked: In the tradition of previous Flip cameras, the Ultra is super-easy to use. The stereo mic is a huge upgrade from the tinny-sounding mono mic on the Mino. The camera felt solid in my hand, and even though it didn’t have any discernible image-stabilization technology, I experienced less shake when shooting. The USB port makes a better connection with some PCs — no need to unplug all the peripherals when I’m downloading video. Editing the images on my almost-obsolete version of Final Cut Pro … well, that’s another story.

What I didn’t like: If you’re used to the Mino, you may not appreciate the heaviness of its successor. The buttons take some getting used to; I turned the camera off when I was trying to zoom in on a subject, because I was used to the Mino configuration. A lot of my shots were unacceptably jerky. Flip should consider flipping the switch on image-stabilization when it develops its next generation of cameras. And batteries. Don’t even get me started on batteries. It takes seven hours to charge the internal batteries the first time around. Whoa.

What everyone else is saying: The Flip Ultra is getting a round of reasonably good reviews. USA Today recommended it as a “fun, easy and highly compact video camera to capture baby’s first steps, your European vacation highlights or a family reunion.” CNET gave it three out of five stars, adding that it’s “only worth buying at a reasonable discount off its list price.” Our friends over at Engadget panned the camera because of its image stabilization issues.

Field test: I shot SeaWorld Orlando’s newest rollecoaster, Manta, on both the Mino and the Ultra. I couldn’t have achieved the same angles with a conventional video camera unless it was tethered to me, and that was something the ride attendants weren’t going to go for. (In fact, I had to sneak this camera on the ride … sorry, SeaWorld.) Can you tell which footage was shot on the Mino and which was done with the Ultra?

Give up? The coaster POV shots were done on a Mino, but everything else was shot on the Ultra.

Buy or not? Get one. It’s a useful travel companion.

US Airways customer service director: À la carte fees are the only way forward

John Romantic is the director of customer relations and central baggage resolution at US Airways. But he’d prefer that you simply think of him as your advocate at the airline. For the last nine months, he’s had the unenviable job of improving the carrier’s checkered reputation for customer service. I asked him how he’s doing it.

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about some of the changes within US Airways, when it comes to handling customer service questions. And I’ve seen a marked decrease in reader complaints. What are you doing?

Romantic: We are doing a lot, and we’re glad there is a buzz starting.

My goal when taking my position nine months ago was to transform customer relations from a complaint resolution center into a customer advocacy center. Better said, while we handle customer inquiries, we also need to globally understand customer sentiment and use all of that data to look at our product, policies, and processes. Our focus is to find ways to be easier to do business with.

Q: How?

Romantic: We code 100 percent of the customer responses we receive, and have created better reporting from this data. We have established an executive steering committee which meets regularly with the primary focus of understanding our customers’ feedback, and finding ways to improve our customers’ experience resulting in reduced complaints. The work of this team has lead to several recent changes – with some still in progress.

We realize we have a little more ground to make up on customer complaint rankings, but our actions are starting to close the gap with our competitors.

Q: How many requests does your department handle in an average week? Can you break it down by phone, fax, letter and e-mail, please?

Romantic: The actual number of requests varies by time of the year, load factor, peak and off-peak times. But the current breakdown is 91 percent handled via e-mail, 5 percent via phone and 4 percent via fax or written correspondence.

Q: What’s the best way of contacting US Airways when you have a problem with a flight?

Romantic: The preferred method of contacting US Airways is to use our Web form on the US Airways Web site under “Contact US”. The data provided by the customer on the Web form enables us to assign the issue to the best person available in customer relations to handle the request.

It is also the most expeditious method of contact in that it allows the representative to complete any research before responding to the customer.

Q: What’s your average response time? Do you have performance targets for responding to customers, and if so, can you tell me what they are for inquiries by phone, fax, letter and e-mail?

Romantic: We publish a response time of one to three business days. But to be honest with you, I get a little excited when our response time climbs above one day. We are looking to improve upon that metric by looking at more technology to improve productivity and respond more quickly.

Q: How are passenger inquiries prioritized? Do frequent fliers get answered first? Do people with tickets booked through a consolidator get processed closer to the end?

Romantic: Another advantage to using the Web form is that the structured data fields enable us to triage – or compartmentalize emails by issue or customer type. This allows us to prioritize certain types of customers such as Dividend Miles Preferred customers or customers with disabilities. It also allows the many compliments that we receive to be handled later in the queue and by other employees in the department.

Emails sent directly to specific personnel at US Airways do not get the same level of filtering or prioritization. We do not currently differentiate our service by ticket price in any way.

Q: Tell me more about your new email system. What did you change, and how is it working out for you?

Romantic: In September of last year, we replaced our database system with a Web-based customer response management system. The CRM application provides us with a database by which we can better understand our customers’ concerns as well as positive customer feedback. It also enables us to better manage the type of requests coming in as a result of the email triage component of CRM.

We are looking at more automation as well that will further improve productivity and reduce customer response time.

Q: What one thing about handling customer complaints do you wish customers knew, but don’t?

Romantic: Customers can do a couple of things to ensure an appropriate and speedy reply to their concern.

Customers should always summarize their concern at the beginning of their note, including key information like their confirmation code, date of travel, and flight numbers. Then, provide a few succinct bullet points illustrating the key aspects of their experience. We sometimes get very long, detailed letters that include irrelevant information. These types of contacts are difficult to comprehend and craft an appropriate response in a timely manner.

And give us a chance. Sometimes customers feel like they increase their chances of a successful outcome by sending their concern to multiple points of contact in the company. We have seen instances where customers research our corporate officers, sending each one a personalized letter detailing their experience. This sometimes lead to multiple people trying to solve the problem, and can cause the response to be delayed.

Q: Let’s say the question wasn’t answered. That happens from time to time — and I’m guilty of doing this, too — but sometimes agents read the first two paragraphs and send a form letter that doesn’t address the issue. What’s next?

Romantic: This does happen, but fairly infrequently. Our representatives are well-trained to handle just about any type of customer issue to their satisfaction.

The appropriate way to handle this is to simply send us another short response. We categorize this as a rebuttal, and it gets prioritized for handling. We also realize that at some point it may make better sense to use the phone and we will contact a customer after a rebuttal. This also gives me an opportunity to look at rebuttal responses for coaching improvement, as we strive to continually increase customer satisfaction when corresponding with customer relations.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes customers make when dealing with your department? Is there one thing that guarantees you won’t get an answer — like YELLING or using profanity?

Romantic: Well, we understand when things don’t go well that a customer may be upset. Our representatives are well trained to handle the emotions that sometimes follow service failures.

One thing we hear from time to time is that responses from customer relations get trapped in someone’s spam filter. So, it is best to ensure that your email is set to receive a response. We do appreciate not yelling or use of profanity though!

Q: What do you think passengers should expect from US Airways? Do you think that differs from what passengers expect, and if so, how?

Romantic: I believe that more often than not, we are able to meet our customer’s expectations. It really depends on the circumstances and the type of service failure. Expectati
ons seem to have a wide range dependant on the person and their situation.

We do get a lot of requests for roundtrip tickets on traveled — yet delayed — itineraries. We do not provide round trip tickets as compensation, but we do compensate with future travel dollars when the circumstances warrant it.

Weather delays and cancellations can also be tricky as we typically do not compensate for acts of nature outside of our immediate control.

Q: I’d like to ask about some of the more recent changes, including the baggage fees that were added last month. How do you go about explaining something like this to passengers who maybe feel as if luggage charges and other ancillary fees are unfair?

Romantic: Without a doubt, the airline industry has changed dramatically over the past five years. The model that airlines used five years ago is no longer a model that can sustain the costs of doing business. Even at today’s lower fuel prices, airlines are still losing money.

As a result, most major airlines are adopting an “à la carte” business model, which allows customers to pay for what they need, and not pay for what they do not need.

Sure, it sounds easy to just raise prices across the board instead of applying fees for services. But with too much capacity in operation and fares changing literally every minute, it is simply too hard to raise fares while remaining competitive with other airlines.

Besides, if you are on a business trip or typically carry on your one bag, then you would not want to be subject to higher fares. So, for some customers, the a la carte business model may actually save them money.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, which shows 63 people wrote to the government to complain about US Airways in February. Can you help put that number into perspective for our readers? How do you get that number down, apart from appealing or shifting the complaint to a regional carrier?

Romantic: In February, US Airways flew 3,843,035 passengers which excludes Express carrier traffic and received 63 complaints written to the DOT [Department of Transportation]. That is a rate of 1.64 per 100,000 customers flown. Purely from a numbers perspective, most carriers are within 5 to 10 complaints of each other monthly. And US Airways is closing that margin fast.

We are analyzing our DOT complaints very closely. As I mentioned earlier, we are looking at everything we do that may detract from customer satisfaction. The prominent driver of DOT complaints for all airlines is ineffective recovery from flight problems that occur. While US Airways boasts one of the better on-time records of late, we must look at ways to better manager service challenges when they do occur.

The March report will be out soon, and we are definitely seeing progress. The actual number of DOT complaints is down 35 percent year over year through the first quarter of 2009, and 29 percent on a ratio per 100,000 customers.

Finally, it is my responsibility to understand what drives complaints and work on solutions. As we do that, I also want to ensure that all customers know that their voice is being heard when writing directly to my customer relations team at US Airways.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

Rosetta Stone’s Adams: World travelers should learn Spanish, Chinese

International travelers know what a formidable barrier a foreign language can be. From time to time, language spills over into the headlines – as it did last week when Fidel Castro insisted his brother’s comments about political reform in Cuba were “misunderstood.” Tom Adams knows about language barriers and how to overcome them. He’s the chief executive of Rosetta Stone. Yeah, the company with the ads featuring a hardworking farm boy and an Italian supermodel. I spoke with him recently.

Q: Can you get along with just English when you travel internationally?

Adams: You can if you’re traveling to major cities and don’t plan to really engage. However if you’re trying to go into the field and really discover a culture and a country, then yes, you do need another language. I think that anyone who has successfully learned another language knows that the benefits are tremendous. Those that experience success communicating in a new language often describe it as life-changing.

Q: Let me confess, I’m one of the people who makes fun the tourists who try to learn a language before they visit another country, or worse, they tote around a phrase book and read from it. Convince me of the error of my ways.
Adams: I would tend to agree, people that try to get by with a phrase book don’t get very far. It’s better if people can learn a language the way they learned their first language, without translation, so they have an intuition behind the language when they are actually in country. I think it is wonderful that people make the effort to try and go deeper into the cultures that they explore when they are traveling. Locals will give you points for trying and it makes life more fun.

Q: As a student of linguistics in college, I always thought total immersion – which to me always meant dating a native speaker – was the best way to learn another language. Was I wrong?

Adams: There is no doubt that immersion-based instruction is the way to learn a new language. In fact, I would challenge that those who try to learn any other way are highly likely to fail. Dating someone from another country is not enough to learn a language, though it is very stimulating.

The problem is that if they speak your language you’re likely to stay in your comfort zone and use your native language. An instructional immersion environment forces you to use the language. If you’re learning the right way with the right immersion tool or service, then having a boyfriend or girlfriend that speaks that language natively provides a great opportunity for practice – as well as motivation.

Q: Why don’t more Americans speak a second language?

Adams: Fundamentally, Americans have not had the opportunity to use the right methods. Most Americans use grammar translation and classroom solutions to memorize vocabulary, translate the language and pass the test.

Learning another language works better when it’s done in a natural way and you can leverage your own language learning ability. If given the opportunity to learn with the right tools, Americans – like others around the world – can learn languages with great levels of success. Of course, many Americans do not travel internationally as much as Europeans, for instance, so there is less opportunity to use the language – and that does not help.

Q: If you’re monolingual, and had to pick just one language to learn, what would it be?

Adams: Choosing a language to learn is a very personal decision. I decided to learn Chinese because I was being relocated to work there. I know others who have learned Russian because they are married to someone of Russian origin. It’s a very personal thing.

Q: What are the advantages of knowing another language, particularly from a traveler’s perspective?

Adams: If you want to engage a culture and feel somewhat independent when you’re traveling, then learning and knowing another language is critical. Imagine the reward from being able to greet people and have basic ways of introducing yourself and making that initial connection.

Add to that the freedom and independence when you can experience a country without being restricted to English. Imagine being in China and being able to say “I would like to buy that for a cheaper price, what can you do for me?” If you do gain real proficiency in the language and are able to communicate on a social level with friends that you make – that takes the trip to a whole new level. Someone that speaks even basic Portuguese will have a completely different level of experience when traveling in Brazil. It’s life changing.

Q: Which languages do you speak, and how did you learn them?

Adams: I speak Swedish, English and French fluently. I learned all three languages through immersion. Swedish is my native language and I learned the other two as a result of living in France and England as a child. I’ve studied Spanish by going to Spain and spending time there at a language center and living with Spanish students. I also have a basic knowledge of German and Chinese, which gives me some freedom and empowerment when I am traveling in those countries. I learned Chinese by living in the country and using an earlier version of Rosetta Stone.

Q: Which is the most difficult language to learn, from your perspective – and why?

Adams: All languages are learned by people as they grow up. For example, an Arabic boy learns Arabic just as easy as an English boy learns English. There is really no difference. And yet as adults, we try to rely on our own language to learn the new language. Whether you’re learning Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Polish, Russian you’re really learning the same way. All languages can be learned provided that you learn them the right way.

Q: When you’re learning a new language, you make rookie mistakes. Do you have any favorites you’ve heard?

Adams: When I was learning Chinese, one of the challenges I had was that the word “is” or “am” is pronounced essentially the same way. Depending upon the tone in Chinese, “shi” means either “shit” or “am.” In the beginning of my Chinese language learning experience, I would say “I am Tom Adams.” However, I was actually saying, “I shit Tom Adams.”

Q: How many languages should a world traveler know? And which ones?

Adams: At least one other language, but preferably two. In today’s world, if you know Spanish and Chinese you’re in a great position. You can travel throughout the Americas or to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and a huge number of people are able to understand you. Chinese and Spanish are of course important for business.

Q: If you could change one thing about one language – declensions, script, inflection – what would it be?

Adams: If I could change one thing about the languages that I have studied it would be the tones in Chinese. I found using tones very challenging since it conveys alternate meaning and it relies on your aural muscles and their ability to interpret those different sounds. It takes a while but soon you get there and there is no way around it.

Christopher Elliott is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. For more interviews, check out his travel blog.