Category Archives: Travel

Stuff to take with you…

When Your Bag Never Arrives

Word on the street is that airline technology is moving in so that you can track your bag through messaging on your phone. That means that you don’t have to wait for half an hour at a baggage carousel when the airline already knows that your bag is not going to show. A simple alert, and you can head straight to baggage information.

But airlines are moving beyond this and want to eliminate that mess. You know, selecting what your bag looks like on an identity kit picture and filling out a silly form that is filed away (FYI: never lose your bag at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport!). So, this is an improvement. However, airlines get a whopping $4 billion per year in baggage fees. This is another way for them to give you false statistics. If you do not fill out the form and they inform you your bag is missing, you can alert them on where you would like to receive your bag. That means that your bag is not lost or missing but is simply “arriving for your convenience at your home address.” So they look a little more efficient than they are. They still charge you for the baggage fee. All they have done is change the goal post, make our lives a little better, and make themselves look fabulous.

I for one am all for avoiding the dreaded line at baggage services. That’s at least a two-hour killer right there. Frankly, the only reason that you should ever check your bag is if you’re skiing or emigrating.

Get Me to the Front of the Plane

Here’s a confession, I like to travel at the front of the plane.  But guess what, who doesn’t?

We work on getting our points up, we stay on airline routings that are not necessarily optimal, and we do this all so that we can boost our points with one airline.  This way we collect millions of points!  But then usually we squander them on a $200 Amazon gift card.

JetBlue Mint Service

As everyone in the points business knows, you never use your points for small dollar items.  You use your points to get to the front of the plane on long-haul flights and the airlines know this.  The business of flying in business is changing though.  A continental business class roundtrip ticket used to cost $2,600.  With JetBlue and its Mint service, that price drops by $1,000.  Frankly, from a service point of view, JetBlue can easily take on the United’s and American’s of this world.  In fact, they have done so successfully that United and American have been dragged screaming into the lower cost option.  The problem for these guys is that they have high cost infrastructure and nothing to sell except for creaky old planes and cranky staff.  Good luck with that.

Extra Checks at TSA

Given the recent state of events, it’s not surprising that TSA is tightening its grip on the security checks at airports.  There’s not just the possibility that we all may soon have to travel without our computers, but at the screening stage it looks as though we are headed to a process that has us separate the contents of our bags into different bins.  The days of simply removing your liquids and creams into a separate bag may soon be over.  Now there are going to be bins for jackets, belts, shoes, creams, liquids, plus paper and electronics.  If you’re traveling, it probably makes sense to unclutter your bag.  The more stuff that you have floating in that thing, the more likely it is that they will want to look inside it.  That is what will cost you time and hold up the lines.

In addition, TSA is becoming super diligent on the two bag carry-on rule.  I ran into a problem the other day at Logan Airport and had to quickly unzip my main bag and put my man bag inside of the main bag because I had a backpack as well.  Of course, all of this is good as it is all planned to make us safe and secure when we fly.  This always bring me to the question – why don’t more people apply for TSA Precheck or Global Entry?  None of the rules that apply or are shortly to be launched will affect TSA Precheck.

That brings me to the last thing, airlines do a phenomenal job of screening passengers.  Soon they will be able to determine through government issued ID whether you have a reason for them to be suspicious.  Where is Amtrak in all of this?  Take the Acela from Boston to New York or New York to Washington; a well-trafficked route and you wonder why they do not institute an x-ray machine and an ID check before you get onto the train.  It’s not perfect but it seems in this ever security-concerned world that it would make smart dollar sense to invest in something here.

Incidentally, TSA has assured us that the extra security checks they are putting in place will be tested not just for security but also for speed for consumers.  You almost wonder why people that fly on planes are not forced to get global clearance.

A Petition for Better Swimming Pools

When I travel, I like to swim.  It’s easier to carry a pair of goggles and light-weight Speedo than it is to cart a whole bunch of keep-fit stuff in your bag.

So, I have a fairly honed in radar for decent pools.  I even have an app to detect swimming pools in Paris and I know all the great pools in London.  I swim in the sea if the beach is protected and the water is calm but I constantly run into hotels with lots of land and inadequate pool facilities.  I wonder if these guys ever had a pool advisor.  If you would like to work out in a pool, it has to be a minimum of 20 meters; 25 is preferable and anything beyond that is gravy.  It always amazes me that on cruise ships with 4,000 to 5,000 passengers and luxury accommodations, the pool is nothing more than a tiny splashing pool a little bigger than a big over-chlorinated Jacuzzi with God knows what in it.

Huge resort complexes have fancy pools with kidney shapes that you cannot swim in and more often than not are unheated.  Hotel pools are, in general, absolutely hopeless.  I just want to advocate for a few more meters and some common sense.  After all, people do use swimming pools for exercise and when you sit on a 1,000-acre complex, what difference does it make to add 10 extra meters to a pool?!  Trying to find out whether the pool in a hotel or complex is adequate for swimming is also tricky.  Go look at the photographs of the pool online.  Those images can be mighty deceptive.  It’s like the pool at the villa in Tuscany or Spain that you rented that turns out to be a little bigger than a bathtub.

For those of us who like to swim, preferably in a heated 25 meter pool, let’s just get some common parameters for discovery and let’s ask hotels and complexes to give a little more thought, a little more honesty, and a little more land for the non-Olympian swimmer who likes to keep fit.

Flight Delays: A Lesson in Patience

While stuck at LaGuardia for 7 hours due to a delay,  I was reminded about the issues facing our teachers who are travelling with their large groups and encounter a situation similar to the one that I encountered.  Let’s face it – in travel, stuff happens, and weather, equipment problems, and any host of other issues can cause delays to occurs.  It’s one thing for a single traveler to have to deal with a delay, and that in itself can be a bit of a nightmare.  Tempers get frayed and the best plans get ruined under the best of circumstances, when flights are delayed for only a couple of hours.  But now add 30 people and group travel to the mix and you have a whole different ball game going on.

First, most of us who travel regularly, tend not to check our bags.  That is a huge advantage when you are faced with a delay because you can move around easier and abandon ship quickly without having to wait for your bags to be retrieved.  But mostly everyone travelling with a group has checked their bag so there’s no flexibility.  Furthermore, everyone travelling with a group is super time-sensitive about their scheduled itinerary.  There are excursions, dinners, a tour guide, you name it, everything is synchronized around an arrival and a departure date.  If you change one day, you cause a ripple effect that sometimes is tough to recover.  Three days in Paris is not easily tradeable. There are trains and timed entrances that hang on these itineraries. One day off can throw a whole year of planning out the window.  All of the meetings that have taken place to prep the groups, prepare the parents, and then all of a sudden, a weather delay can throw off the entire itinerary.

It’s so important to have a service-oriented organization that is ready to make adjustments quickly and do everything to make this better.  At ACIS, that’s what we try to do.  Make it better, accommodate requests, shift itineraries around, stay in constant touch with teachers at airports, and try to intervene and assist in guiding airline representatives as they attempt to sort out the mess.  The amount of emails flying around here during a delayed flight is astonishing.  Bottom line, everyone is trying to help and trying to get our clients to their end destination as efficiently as possible without skipping a beat.

It is not always easy and not always seen as such.  That’s the tough thing about delays and cancellations.  From our point of view, we try to think for the airline, look at options, and beat the crowds that have already formed at the gate as delays and inevitable cancellations start to cause havoc.  Just being able to see things that the rest of the delayed passengers can’t see, gives our ACIS passengers a key advantage.  Our air team is always looking to resolve this stuff ahead of the airlines.  If we can think for the airlines and come up with solid suggestions, we can beat the crowds.  That’s what we want to do.  Tour managers at the other end are busy accommodating these changes as well. They are trying to figure out how to synch the late arriving group with an itinerary that doesn’t quite look like it did.  We also ask airlines to accommodate groups, if they have the flexibility, by extending a day wherever possible.  Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t if there just isn’t the space on the return journey to accommodate.  Plus sometimes groups do not have the flexibility to add an extra day.  We add stuff to itineraries and redress the things that have been missed.  We want to get this trip of a lifetime back on track.  Usually, we succeed.  The most important part in all of this is the group leader.  They set the tone.  They are the leader.  More often than not, that is the difference between winning and losing.

Travel Briefs 3 – Here Comes Summer

 

With the melting pot of a new administration, Trump travel paranoia, anticipated holdups in immigration entering the USA, and a strong dollar, international travel inbound to the USA has decreased.  Add to that there is an increased likelihood of the laptop ban in the Middle East countries being expanded into other countries and the USA as a destination starts to feel the pinch in terms of dollars.

The fares for international travel have also dropped as airlines are trying to lure Americans outside the country with great deals in land and air.  Domestic airfares, on the other hand, have increased as more Americans are staying at home.  It is going to be an interesting period for travel this summer.  The discounted European airlines are disrupting the regular stakeholders and consumers are benefiting across the international skies.  There are phenomenal deals on Turkish Airlines at the moment if you are willing to go that route.  Turkish is one of the largest airlines in the world with feeder flights across the European landscape.  Good news for Europeans is that in spite of the recent terrorist incidents, London reports strong traffic and Athens, perceived safe, is up by a whopping 41%.  So the Americans are on the move but the Euros are staying put.  In the Caribbean and Central America, Zika is still a massive negative for young families.  Bottom line is that there are deals to be had, places to go, and people to see.  It’s time to leave the house and go through the garden gate.

 

Travel Briefs 3 – The Secret of 261/2004

Does anybody really know that there is a flight compensation regulation called 261/2004 which establishes, under EU law, common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, flight cancellations, or long delays of flights?  Well, there is money in them there hills folks! 

Compensation can be between 250 Euros and600 Euros depending on the flight distance and length of the delay.  Short delays of two hours get you 250 Euros but a four-hour delay through an overnight will clear a cool 600 Euros, not to mention compensation you can independently retrieve for hotels.  This only applies to flights that originate in the EU but it also means that any American carrier is fair game.  However, it has to be a non-weather related delay.

For an overnight delay, a mate of mine just pocketed 1,800 Euros plus the cost for the added hotel night.  This rule is out there but most people do not know about it or take advantage of it.  So, next time you are delayed in Europe, you might want to pray that the delay goes over two hours!  The mechanism for retrieval of the money is pretty easy and it’s protected by the solid ruling of the EU.  Who said delays were really lousy?

 

My First Jaunt in Cardiff

It’s a strange place to go for a football game.  When I think of Wales, I always think of rugby, but this was the Champion’s League Final; the most important soccer game of the year. For some ungodly reason, the match was held in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. Presumably because someone paid a lot of money to someone else for the privilege.

Confession #1 is that I had never been to Cardiff before and was ready and waiting to discover a part of the British Isles that I was unfamiliar with. Confession #2, Wales had never really been on my wish list. Still, only a two-hour intercity train from London’s Paddington Station and voila…you’re in Wales or Cymru. What I know about Wales is that its famous for its castles, its rugged interior, and the mountain range known as Snowdonia. Add to that a strong Celtic tradition, a bizarre language, and a history of coal and it’s all a bit of a hodgepodge!

The Sandringham Hotel, our base for the weekend, which was a bit of a scramble because of the Champion’s League Final, was a perfectly centrally located hotel, albeit a little basic. It was a short walk from the station to the hotel and delight upon delight we found that the hotel had another side to its personality. This was no ordinary bog standard hotel. It had a ground floor jazz club that stayed open until 3 o’clock in the morning. Things were looking up.

We were right on St. Mary’s Street, the main drag of Cardiff, where I imagine there are more pubs in the one quarter mile than most cities in the world. For a Champion’s League soccer match or a rugby match, you could say that this was pretty optimal. In addition to that, places seemed to stay open late. Still, we had a lot more to see than just pubs. We had to visit the famed castle and the Central Market which was just off St. Mary’s Street – in fact everything seemed just off St. Mary’s Street!

As it turns out, Heineken had taken over the Cardiff Castle so all we got was the view of the outside. The Dutch had invaded Wales! As for the marketplace, it had a glass atrium, an upper level, and a very Victorian feel to it, but most of the shops had decided to close, presumably because there was a spare 60,000 people in town who wanted to buy something. These guys really knew how to make money! No problem, we wandered around, found a tea shop, and had some Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit depending on who you asked (it’s basically just cheese on toast with a lot of brown sauce on top of it).

We went to the game which was truly fabulous and the stadium was remarkable. I believe it was almost twice the size of the town! In the end, Real Madrid won the game and we got to eat at the Charleston’s Steakhouse which is the only place in the world I had ever been, apart from McDonalds, where you must pay for your meal before they serve you. Their secret recipe? They stay open until 4 o’clock in the morning and they were doing a lot of business.

So, Cardiff – a lively city? Yes. A great stadium for soccer and rugby games? Absolutely one of the best in the world. A lot of things to do there? Absolutely not. The pubs stayed open late and no wonder since there isn’t much to do here besides drink, eat Welsh rarebit or rabbit, and have a steak at 4:00 AM. It’s a place I can wait to return to.

Roaming Naples: Part 3 – The Naples Metro

I’m not a big fan of the Rome Metro but I was persuaded by my Italian friend that the Naples one is just about the best in Italy.  So I decided to take a chance.  To start, there is the usual Italian problem of any Metro entrance – where do you buy a ticket?!  It’s a struggle.  The ticket machine does not work, the guy that has the booth by the entrance does not sell them, and the woman at the top where the newsstand is wasn’t there.  After five minutes of inquiry, we discovered a shop where you could buy these train tickets.  I guess Neapolitans have season tickets or something but it sure was a bit of a struggle to figure out how to get on the train.  Once down in the dungeon of the Metro though, it all looked pretty cool.  The trains were clean, it was highly logical, and unlike the chaos of the streets above, the metro had a quiet sense to it.  We were able to travel clear across town with ease.  Sure, the Metro map was a little graffitied up and maybe some of the posters were a bit too raunchy for some tourists, but the trains were perfect.  I quite liked the idea that Helmut Newton photographs were being advertised here and exhibited at a palazzo nearby.

 

Keep Rolling On

As a traveler, I’m finding more and more people want to know about the safety of visiting places in Europe. What’s it like traveling on the Metro or the Tube? Did you feel insecure about being in a crowded square? Were you suspicious of people who look different to you?

I am quickly becoming an authority on answering these questions. I was in London many years ago at the time of the horrific bombing of the Tube and buses (the 7/7 tragedy), I was in Paris the same day that there was an incident at the Louvre, and I was in London the day after the recent attack at London Bridge. As statistics will bear out, the truth is that it’s safer to travel in all of these cities than it is to step in your car or ride your bike through New York City. Life goes on. Imagine the alternatives – we lock ourselves away, we stop traveling, we stop interacting, and we prepare for the worst by surrounding ourselves with a moat. How crazy is that?

I walked across London Bridge on the Monday after the incident. Commuters were going to work, the bridge had temporarily become a pedestrian zone, and I looked across the river to Tower Bridge on one side and St. Paul’s on the other. The Shard towering above the ancient river as if it had been there forever. Everything seemed normal. Just then, a young girl on a skateboard rolled past me and I smiled to myself. That’s what we have to do – forget the moat, keep rolling along.

Roaming Naples: Part 2 – The Naples National Archaeological Museum

Not far away from the nativity street is the entrance to the National Archaeological Museum right on the edge of the Centro Storico.  Here there are lots of statues and art that easily rival or outperform anything to be found in the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Vatican.  These are the great marble collections of ancient Rome, Pompeii, and Herculaneum.  However, the main draw for me was that this is the only place in the world where you can actually see the artwork paintings of Pompeii.  They are still as beautiful as if they had been painted on a wall only a few years ago.  This is where you get to see the people, the backdrop, the landscape, and how people dressed in Pompeii.  The most iconic fresco in the room is the “Woman with Wax Tablets and Stylus” also called “Sappho.”  I wanted to stare at her forever.  If you have never been to this museum, jump on a train and enlighten yourself.  It’s a mindblower.

Roaming Naples: Part 1 – Presepe

Strolling through the Centro Storico in Naples is a trip within itself.  I was on the way to the Naples National Archaeological Museum but had to stop along the Via San Gregorio Armeno to check out the pedestrian street laden with a combination of kitsch nativity scenes and the real stuff.  They’re called presepe which essentially means “a crib.”

This is where every single Neapolitan family comes to at Christmas time.  In fact, my Italian friend told me that pretty much everyone in Italy has some kind of glass enclosed nativity scene that has been handed down or is part of the family treasure.  These things are wild.  Some of them have intricate waterfalls and the possibilities to extend across the room like train sets.  The price ranges from the basic model for 50 Euros to over 10,000 Euros for elaborate ones.  But for Italy, it is not just Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in these scenes, there is a whole hobbit village created around the manger with trees, vegetation, waterfalls, windmills, you name it.  They can be made of terracotta, wood, and cardboard.  Even my communist friends have a presepe!  But to note, Jesus is always the last to enter the scene and is only placed in the manger on Christmas Eve.

Some of these nativity scenes are simply breathtaking works of art, and some of them have odd characters like Maradonna, Naples’ most famous soccer player, hanging out close by.  Neapolitans love football more than anything so why shouldn’t they incorporate their most famous (albeit an Argentinian) into their presepe tradition?!  Onwards and upwards to the National Archaeological Museum I went.

Making My Way Around Naples

Let me start out by saying that I visited Naples on my own a few years’ back.  It was just a quick
stroll from the station and around the city for about two hours before heading back to Rome.  It was interesting but I really didn’t get a sense of the city.  Now we have a client that I know that would like to go to Naples but the rap on the city is that it has a lot of petty crime.  So off I went with my man bag in hand for a virgin overnight in Naples.

First of all, it’s only a 63-minute journey on the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples.  The train is super fast. The Italians love their high-speed train links.  They’re really good at this stuff!  After a particularly dreadful on-train coffee served by a particularly disinterested on-train steward (the Italians are really good at this stuff too), we had arrived in Naples.  My mate had organized a taxi (booked) from the station and so far, so good.  We safely got to our hotel on a nice stretch of the promenade that sits opposite the island of Capri.  In between, there were the usual underground excavations for a project that would never be finished, but no matter, we were here.  The trip had been entirely uneventful, no muggings, no hassles and now with the light of the early evening, we decided to go for a walking tour.

Here’s the thing about Naples – it’s handy to know your way around, there are lots of hills, it’s a chaotic, and there are lots of different areas with very different characteristics.  The first stop was the Palazzo Mannajuolo which holds an incredible staircase; probably the most breathtaking internal staircase in all the world, la scala ellittica.   We strolled around the hilly Chiaia and stopped at an old-world candy store in San Ferdinando.  We came across a beautiful piazza with the pantheon-like structure of the church of San Ferdinando.  The piazza here is open and full of light with Vesuvius in the background.  The opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was showing La Traviata.  There is a spectacular galleria, the Galleria Umberto I, close by as well.  It houses thousands of panes of glass sitting in a cross formation with a whole series of panels of Jewish stars that form part of the glass decoration.  The history of Naples is more or less the entire history of the our ancient civilization.  One thing’s for sure, it makes Rome look like a young lad.

The light was dropping so we wandered back to the harbor to prepare for dinner near the Castle Nuovo (not very nuovo actually).  That is where I had the most incredible spaghetti alle vongole I had ever eaten.  So, this was Naples and we had only been there a few hours.  More to come.  Wow.

Travel Briefs 2 – Rome to Naples

The most chaotic thing about Naples, Italy was trying to get there from the Stazione Termini railway station in Rome.  The traffic setup was crazy.  They are renovating the station and there is no great place to drop-off or pick-up passengers.  Then suddenly, we walked through the utterly dysfunctional part of the Stazione Termini and were presented with a sign reading “Lavori in Corso”.  Essentially meaning “Men at work.”

I had this feeling that the sign indicated that behind this fenced area (it wasn’t a fence, but a plastic sheet) there were men at work, diligently improving the station for human kind.  Not just for me but for my children and my children’s children.  Building a better future so that others I could not even imagine would be able to sail through the station in a way that seemed entirely impossible now.  Of course, I had to peek behind the plastic.  Couldn’t resist.  But sure enough, the utter stillness of the other side provided every evidence that indeed there were no men at work, nor women, nor anybody.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day.  The station would wait, not just f or me but for my children and my children’s children.  Roma, non basta una vita….Rome, a lifetime is not enough.

Apple and Tech21 – My Love (and Hate) Affair with Apple Accessories

I had recently switched my iPhone case from the beloved Tech21 to Apple.  Boy, I loved those Tech21 cases.  You could throw your iPhone in the air and watch it slam down on a piece of concrete and nothing would shatter.  In fact, when I first went to the Apple Store to invest in one, the guy gave me the sales pitch on the Tech21 and told me it was shatter-proof.  So, I took the case, put it on my iPhone, threw it up in the air, and watched his face in horror as the phone landed on the Apple ground.  Guess what?  He was right.

But now Tech21 has broken their promise in providing the case that is perfect in every way.  The new case, for some ungodly reason, has the silent button opening designed for a five-year-old or people with micro fingers.  Seriously, guys, I use that switch all the time!  It’s a shame.  I’m not saying that you should take the designer who designed the new case and march him/her out the door, but maybe you should check the fingers out on this person.  They sure cannot be ordinary fingers.  Or else this person just prefers the “Do Not Disturb” crescent moon symbol.  Living dangerously if you ask me when you are at the theater.

So, Tech21, I abandoned you.  I went looking for an Apple case and invested in their silicon line.  I like it because when you leave your phone on the arm of an airplane seat during landing, it does not slip off.  It stays put easily.  I also like it because I can access the silent switch with ease.  But when I started to use it, I noticed that the silicon began to wear on the corners.  What a drag.  I have an Apple Store near me and I walked in expecting some kind of interrogation on receipt verification, the usual sales obstruction stuff, etc.  But instead, the guy told me to go pick out a new case and we would just do a straight switch.  Or if I wanted the money back, he would just transfer it back to my card.  The whole transaction time was five minutes.  Brilliant service.  Hey Tech21, change your design.  I will still leave the door open for you.  Hey Apple, you’re the best.