By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/13/2008 9:34:08 AM ET 2008-10-13T13:34:08

If you’re a traveler, there’s only one presidential candidate you can vote for: John McCain.

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No, wait — I mean Barack Obama.

Or none of the above.

Confused? So are a lot of travelers who vote.

During the presidential primaries, I pointed out six issues the candidates ought to pay attention to if they wanted to make their traveling constituents happy. They included fixing airline delays, lowering gas prices, easing traffic congestion, simplifying confusing travel requirements, propping up the dollar and funding mass transit. I suggested any candidate who talked about those issues might also score big points with travelers.

And the winner is ... well see, that’s the thing. Even after the dust settled and two major candidates remained, there was no clear-cut favorite for the traveling public. Neither McCain nor Obama had courted travelers, making it difficult to determine which senator would act in our best interests in the White House.

So I put the questions directly to the would-be presidents. I contacted each campaign, just as I had done earlier this year, and asked for the candidate’s position on the issues that are important to travelers.

Neither responded.

I’m in good company. A few months ago, the Travel Industry Association of America, which represents the U.S. travel industry, sent a detailed policy questionnaire to both campaigns. “The candidates have not answered the specific questions,” says Geoff Freeman, a spokesman for the group. “To date, neither campaign has addressed travel issues in-depth.”

You know what that means? That’s right — it’s up to us to figure out the real traveler’s candidate. Here are five questions that might help:

1. Which candidate understands what it’s like to travel now?
Do the prospective Presidents know what it’s like to sit in economy class? To wait in line at the airport? To be given a closet-sized room between the elevator and the ice machine? Yes — and no. Neither has probably experienced the misery of travel recently, at least not the way you and I have. McCain, a former prisoner of war, is the hands-down winner when it comes to being in a confined space, and, for that matter, waiting. But Obama knows a thing or two about airline mishaps. This summer, his campaign plane was forced to make an emergency landing after the pilot said he could no longer control the aircraft. And a few months before that, his private jet clipped the wing of another plane at Chicago’s Midway airport. Bottom line: both men probably know travel is awful, at least in theory. But will they do anything about it?

2. What do the candidates say — and not say — about travel?
McCain and Obama have hardly spoken about travel. Obama released a fact sheet on transportation (PDF) that calls for the government to “revitalize transportation infrastructure,” which includes modernizing air traffic control systems, strengthening air safety regulations, and supporting Amtrak funding. McCain has also addressed some of the transportation infrastructure problems, including a brief statement on his Web site in the wake of the breakdown of a Federal Aviation Administration computer system, which led to widespread delays in August. He’s also talked about gas prices and called for a gas tax holiday. But what they haven’t said about travel could fill volumes. Both candidates have generally shied away from talking about the big issues for travelers, including the weak dollar, airport security hassles and travel restrictions, to name just a few. The real question is: Which candidate has been the quietest?

3. Which candidate will help international travelers?
America’s standing in the world community is at a low point, according to a survey conducted by the BBC World Service last year. That’s made international travel difficult for Americans, who often find themselves harassed or blamed for foreign policy decisions (like invading another country) they had nothing to do with. Some just lie and claim to be Canadian in order to be left alone. “The notion of the ugly American long predates George Bush, of course, but Bush’s time in office has produced a sea change in how Americans are regarded abroad,” says Matt Petersen, a director for a nonprofit organization in Alexandria, Va. He believes Obama is the best candidate to repair America’s battered image abroad. He may have a point. If McCain kept U.S. troops in Iraq for the next 100 years, it would probably be unhelpful, at least to our image.

4. Wait, are these our only choices?
If neither major candidate turns you on, no worries. You can always vote for Ralph Nader, who at last count was on the ballot in 45 states. As frequent traveler and campaign volunteer Toby Nelson points out, Nader is a true advocate for travelers. He founded the “Six-Footers Club” in 1999 to represent the interests of tall passengers, has supported airlines that uphold high customer service standards, and fought against reprehensible airline practices such as overbooking and bumping. “Nader has also strongly advocated increased funding for Amtrak,” he adds. I can’t argue with that. Perhaps the best vote on Nov. 4 is for “none of the above.”

5. Does it really matter who wins in November?
Sure, but not the way most voters think it does. Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group, says the important decisions are being made by lawmakers in the House of Representatives. He’s right. How can anyone forget the bailout bill that failed when members of Congress couldn’t agree on the new law (it eventually passed, of course). Travelers who are worried about issues such as airline delays and travel restrictions should pay less attention to the presidential race  and more attention to the folks running for office in Congress and the Senate. “You have to ask: What’s their agenda?” he says. “Where do they stand on the important issues?” Maybe the winner of the presidential beauty pageant is completely irrelevant.

Add it all up, and what are you left with? A few unpleasant facts. As a traveler, your vote for president is close to meaningless. The major candidates are taking you for granted, showing you little of the love they lavish on other special-interest groups.

But don’t stay home on Election Day. Instead, vote for the man you dislike the least, or don’t vote for president at all. Instead, pull the lever for a local candidate.

When you do, you could be casting a ballot for real change.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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