What Exactly Is an Expert — and Is There Really Such a Thing?

“W hen bloggers refer to themselves as ‘travel experts’ or ‘thought leaders,’ who are we to question them?” asks Christopher Elliott in this article pertaining on how to spot tainted travel advice for USA TODAY. “Part of the problem is us. Somewhere along the way, American travelers lost their healthy sense of skepticism and began believing anyone with the word ‘expert’ in their title. They didn’t bother asking themselves how much these experts really knew or how they earned a living”

Aside from what I consider to be an obvious dig at Gary Leff of View From The Wing — whose weblog is one of the few discussing miles, points and travel which has been around longer than The Gate — has Christopher Elliott actually read some of the comments left by skeptical readers of that weblog questioning and critical of Gary? Thankfully, Gary and I have at least one policy in common: neither of us censor comments on our respective weblogs.

Regardless, Christopher Elliott — would he be considered an expert? — does have a point. Neophytes to miles, points and travel may indeed take every word of those who deem themselves experts as gospel — even when the information dispensed may be incorrect or misleading — and that could lead to unwanted consequences…

…and George of TravelBloggerBuzz — from whom I found out about the article written by Christopher Elliott in this article — has been adamantly on a campaign against whom he calls “titans” in an effort to protect unsuspecting readers of certain weblogs from blindly diving into debt in an attempt to take full advantage of maximizing miles and points by using and exploiting the supposed benefits of affiliate credit cards.

Frankly, I know little about affiliate credit cards; and — as I have indicated in this satirical article — I have no interest in being involved with any of that. What appears to be in question here is what exactly is an expert.

What is an Expert?

According to the Oxford Dictionaries in terms of English used in the United States, the definition of an expert is “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.”

With regard to experts, the Internet is in and of itself a dichotomy: on one hand, anyone and his or her grandmother can create their own weblog, post information and call himself or herself an expert; whereas on the other hand, many more people have access to criticize what that said expert posted and hold him or her accountable.

Who is the Expert Here?

I am reminded of the debate back in May of 2013 between Carol Sottili — a veteran travel writer for The Washington Post for greater than 20 years — and Dia Adams of The Deal Mommy. The debate centered around a deal posted by Sottili but criticized by Adams:

Pleasant Holidays is offering discounts on trips to Hawaii. The offer is valid on packages of three nights or longer at participating resorts on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii (the Big Island). Prices vary. For example, a mid-September package on Oahu including round-trip airfare from Washington Dulles, seven nights at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and one-week rental car from Hertz is $5,071 for a family of four. Priced separately, the package would cost $6,459. For the best prices, travel through June 6 or Aug. 14 through Dec. 18. Book by June 30. Info: 800-448-3333, www.pleasantholidays.com.

To be fair, I read all of the deals posted in that article by Sottili and Andrea Sachs; and — quite frankly — none of the deals interested me.

That is not to say that none of the deals are good deals. For example, airfare between Washington Dulles to Istanbul for $525.00 round-trip including taxes and fees is a decent deal — if you do not mind paying slightly greater than five cents per mile and traveling to Turkey during the winter months.

Why not ask those FlyerTalk members who traveled from Washington Dulles to Istanbul earlier in 2013 and paid $442.00 round-trip including taxes and fees if $525.00 is a good deal? The ones who were not already laughing probably muttered “meh”, as some of them paid as little as 3.85 cents per mile.

Does the fact that Carol Sottili has been writing for The Washington Post for greater than 20 years deem her an expert? Is she more of an expert than Dia Adams of The Deal Mommy because she is employed by a respectable publication?

Who cares?

What I care about are the facts:

  • Families with children old enough to attend school are not going to travel to Hawaii in mid-September — unless the deal happens to be irresistible, as in free or almost free.
  • Dia Adams found what is arguably a better deal by searching, complete with illustrations and links to sources to back up her arguments — but her suggestions are certainly not for everybody.

 

Sottili argued that had Adams “compared apples to apples and not changed the dates and the hotels around, you’d see that my deal was totally accurate. Your declarations of better hotel, better dates, better airport are all subjective. And whenever you switch all the specifics around, prices change.”

That is the whole point, Ms. Sottili. No one disputed the accuracy of the deal about which you posted. Rather — in order to get a better deal — one needs to be flexible in their planning of travel. Gone are the days where we relied solely on a travel section in a newspaper to highlight specific deals every week. Every person with Internet access has the capability to use a combination of powerful travel tools at his or her disposal to secure deals customized to how they prefer to travel. Granted, it does take time and patience to research — time which some readers may concur is worth more than the money on which they would save — and therefore might book that trip to Hawaii highlighted by Sottili because it is quick and easy…

…or perhaps they just do not know any better.

Don’t believe me? Read what members of both InsideFlyer and FlyerTalk had said about this debate — and the comments are not all one-sided.

Guess what? There are those who read the debate and disagreed with both Sottili and Adams — and, if so, hopefully they will at least learn from the debate to conjure their own customized travel, possibly using the information provided by both Sottili and Adams. What better outcome can you have than being part of the impetus of assisting readers to get the biggest bang for their bucks?

Summary

I personally do not believe that there are really true “experts” when it comes to travel, miles and points. In fact, credible people who are knowledgeable and experienced and are regarded as experts will be the first to tell you that there is always someone who knows more than they do. Randy Petersen — the founder of BoardingArea — comes to mind as an example.

It is healthy to challenge what may be perceived as the status quo. Technology can be quite disruptive. I know — I have had to personally adjust and expand my own “toolbox” over the years to embrace the changes. However, there have been discussions in a minimum of four different areas on the Internet pertaining to the aforementioned debate — including here — which hopefully will result in a smarter consumer who will be empowered to customize his or her travel while saving money in the process…

…and if someone takes the time and effort out of his or her day to offer feedback on something which you have written, consider it a compliment and a gift — even if that feedback may not be ideal. All of us — whether we are “bloggers” or veteran journalists — need to be kept on our toes at all times and constantly be held accountable to ensure that we provide the best, most accurate information to our readers.

I can tell you one thing that is for certain: I would rather have readers criticize what I write and leave negative — and hopefully constructive — feedback than the alternative, which is simply to ignore what I write altogether because they cannot be bothered and feel that leaving comments is not worth their time…

…but what do I know? I may not have lost my healthy sense of skepticism — but I will be the last person to admit that I am an “expert”…

12 thoughts on “What Exactly Is an Expert — and Is There Really Such a Thing?”

  1. Rick says:

    Can’t help but notice you like the word ‘pertaining’. Used twice in this post, and more interesting, Google search of your blog pertaining to the word ‘pertaining’ results in over 45 pages, or over 450 posts. Wow.

    https://www.google.ca/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=pertaining%20site%3Athegate.boardingarea.com

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for your thoughts pertaining to my use of the word pertaining, Rick.

  2. Bill says:

    The debate rages…among those who are too stupid to decide for themselves. Both parties are likely experts by most considerations. And experts don’t always agree or consider the same basic elements. Anyone who blindly trusts the advice that any “expert” provides has bigger problems; namely, anyone who blindly does so is an idiot. Travel agents, travel writers, travel bloggers, and even people like me who travel a lot and contribute often to FlyerTalk are all experts in our own way–for the travel and destinations that we know best for the people we deal with most often. Smart people consider the source of their advice/guidance; smart people consider other sources, as well. Dumb people make dumb decisions or don’t pay attention to the details. An expert can’t save a dumb person from himself.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      The frequent flier community is enhanced even more when the pooling of resources is truly collaborative, Bill. Like you, I also travel a lot and contribute on both FlyerTalk and InsideFlyer — and I learn a lot as well. No one is an “expert” on everything; but there is always someone who knows more about something than you or me.

      Thank you for the great response.

  3. icicle says:

    I think some of it happens to deal with how one views travel.

    For me, I look more or less thru the lens of the academic world. I would put more value in the words of a field research anthropologist than someone that pushes credit cards incessantly in their blog posts.

    I believe that there are travel experts. They might not be miles and points experts, but travel experts, yes. They have doctorate degrees in various fields of study. They run university study abroad programs. They do various field work. But these experts pertain (couldn’t resist) to a very specific travel topic.

    I like value; I like to save money and travel “first class”. Who doesn’t like “free”?? My problem with some of these “experts” is that they are so focused on either selling their products or hanging out in very specific hotels. Vendome! anyone??

    I question if some of these experts know anything about the places that they’ve travelled to…and are they just marking off a list? I find that my history degree forces me to challenge some of the more absurd travel blog posts; it becomes obvious to me that some of these people know nothing about the places of which they are posting. What is the motivation behind their blogs?

    Do any of these “expert” bloggers have a degree in language, geography, history, etc? Did any of them participate in a study abroad program while at college? Have they watched movies or read books originating from the destinations mentioned in their blogs? Have they held discussions on the various political or cultural landscapes while at these locations with the locals?

    And what is the motivation behind the reader? Maybe we should ask ourselves, what is our own travel behavior? Wanting to earn points to stay for free in Utah to go skiing is completely different from a pilgrimage to the Vatican. And what is the deal with what seems to be the whole “expert” blog love affair with the Maldives (which I do not understand. Not at all)- why is this held up to be the grand destination?? What is our expectations? Are we doing enough research? Are we asking too much out of the bloggers, and therefore need to take responsiblity for our own intepretation of their posts?

    I don’t like it when bloggers post misleading or non-factual information that can be discredited with one email, phone call, or simple internet search. I don’t like an “expert” claiming something as fact that I can, within a minute, prove false.

    If one claims to be an expert, or hints to it in their blog motto, one has the responsiblity to get it right. Once a blog becomes a business then different rules apply. Fact becomes more important than opinion. Be a salesperson and push those credit cards; but don’t lie to me about it. Don’t pretend to be something one isn’t. And get the facts right.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Those are excellent benchmarks by which to set a minimum standard, icicle.

      I suppose when discussing very specific topics, you are correct that there are experts in travel. It is one reason why I do not consider myself an expert, as I tend to be interested in a number of topics — travel and otherwise. Music is one of many of those topics.

      Even when some “bloggers” purport to be more focused, they tend to write about topics beyond their focus and might still call themselves “experts.” With that, I would have to disagree.

      I would not mind traveling to the Maldives — expensive as it is even when using miles and points — but it is not at the top of my list of places to travel. I would prefer to go to places about which fewer people have heard or experienced. That is tough to do if part of the audience comprises of members of InsideFlyer and FlyerTalk, who seem to have been everywhere.

      I also do not like when basic information is not researched or supposition and theory is passed off as factual details. At the risk of generating comments from what people call “trolls”, you have touched upon the main reason why I chose to use a photograph of myself as part of the look of The Gate: responsibility. I want readers to know that I stand behind what I write; and if any information I post is not factual or needs to be corrected, I take full responsibility for my errors and am not afraid to admit when I am wrong. It keeps me on my toes because The Gate represents me and who I am as a person; and it is not because I am narcissistic, self-absorbed or incorrigibly vain.

      For disclosure purposes, I graduated from art school in New York with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Communication Design. That might initially cause one to think “Are you serious? Who are you to write about miles, points and travel?!?”; but part of the requirements of earning my degree was studying art history from around the world — which is why I have an interest in architecture and art whenever I travel — as well as participating in residencies for studying photography in Europe and Africa.

      By the way, I enjoyed your “jab” pertaining to the word pertain. Thank you!

  4. Nick says:

    I will say that I question the usefulness of posts from bloggers who accept junkets, for example the Starwood ones. I don’t think one is able to give unbiased reviews when it’s paid for and future participation is on the line. This then calls into question all their other posts, exactly what is the relationship etc.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      In the greater than nine years in which I have been writing for The Gate, Nick, there was exactly one time when a trip was paid for me by a company — and that is one where I was a passenger on the inaugural flight of OpenSkies back in June of 2008.

      It actually was a great trip with very little wrong with it — even if I had paid for it…

      …but the way I look at it is this: constructive criticism and feedback is vital for improvement; and I would have no problem with offering constructive criticism whether or not a company paid for my trip. If they are not willing to listen to honest feedback or allow me to voice constructive criticism which could potentially be helpful and beneficial to the company, then it is best that there would be no future participation.

      Similarly, that is why I do not like the concept of offering affiliate credit cards. I do not want some company telling me what to do or how I write…

      …so I do believe that it is possible to be objective about a product or service — even if it was sponsored by the company; but I also agree with you that there are many “bloggers” who unfortunately do give biased reviews as a result of being gifted complimentary products and services.

  5. Captain Kirk says:

    I think the term expert is relative. I don’t travel as much as I used to but I am lucky enough to have been to Hawaii four times, Bermuda, other Caribbean islands, Napa, Chicago, and live near NY. To the people in my office, I am the expert. I will give advice to them on which airlines are best for certain flights, which airports are best, where they can get good fares, hotel property advice, car rental info, you name it. I am by no means a world traveler but have experienced enough and I am willing share the knowledge I have with others who request it. I find travel awesome and try to as much as possible. I don’t have a blog but I do belong to Marriott Rewards Insiders and it is a fantastic place to learn about travel in general not just Marriott. I recommend anyone to give it a look. I don’t have any allegiance to credit cards, banks, travel agents, or anyone else. My info and advice are totally first hand and if not, I let the person know where I got the info (The Gate) for example. I do think there are handful of bloggers on BoardingArea who are redundant in their posts or simply regurgitate news available on dozen other sites. Some have skewed viewpoints based on affiliations with companies to pay their bills. One reason I like The Gate so much is not only the topics you write about, the fact your writing style reminds me of myself, but because you don’t have an agenda other than to inform and have meaningful discussion about travel with commenters. You aren’t constantly bashing Delta points, aren’t constantly putting down hotel brands, or for that matter always propping up certain businesses or credit cards. You are one of the most impartial writers on BA and I applaud that. Keep up the good work.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I truly appreciate those thoughts about The Gate, Captain Kirk. Thank you so much — and I can assure you that the articles will continue to be impartial.

      Relative: that is the key word. You are absolutely correct and the general premise behind the article. We are all “experts” in one form or another, depending on the situation and the circumstances. No one knows everything; and I am not sure I even know of anyone who knows absolutely everything about a topic.

      Randy Petersen — who is the founder of BoardingArea and whom many people consider an expert on miles, points and travel for obvious reasons — has often admitted to me that there are many people who are far more knowledgeable about miles, points and travel than him; and he usually says that with a smile on his face.

      I have seen the Marriott Rewards Insiders community; and it is indeed a great place to learn about travel. It is the sharing and exchange of knowledge amongst all of us that helps all of us become that much richer in many ways — not assuming the role of an “expert.”

      You find travel awesome? Can we go so far as to say that it is a passion of yours as well?!?

  6. Dia says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks so much for the shout-out! Your take is always one I value.

    Two years after that post, it ranks among my favorites. I do appreciate the editor of the Post taking time to comment (more than I did two years ago) and have a slightly more nuanced view of what she is saying. I still don’t agree, but I kinda get it.

    As for “what counts an expert”, it’s an interesting question, but I think is sideways of the point. (Or at least my point). My issue with any expert is that they don’t represent YOU and YOUR needs. That said, basic fact checking is a requirement. It’s something I’ve seen sadly lacking on some Boarding Area and other large blogs lately. One “travel guide” post on Boarding Area by a self-proclaimed expert grossly misspells Mexico City’s tourist district- to the point that I had no idea what he was talking about!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you so much, Dia. I appreciate that!

      That experience of yours occurred when we both were still writing weblogs at First2Board; and I cannot forget about it once I read it.

      I am not familiar with the specific article on BoardingArea to which you refer; but your statement of “My issue with any expert is that they don’t represent YOU and YOUR needs” seems to be quite accurate to me and sums up the entire premise of a typical “expert” quite well.

      In fact, I do not think I could have put it any better myself…

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