When I was a kid in the UK, I used to listen to the shipping forecast on the radio late at night. It felt cozy and reassuring when I was tucked in my bed and thinking of all these ships bobbing around in the harsh waters around the northern parts of the UK and beyond. It has become quite a famous institution in fact. At the London Olympics it was played along with Elgar’s Nimrod to denote Britain’s maritime heritage. There were updates of mysterious places like Tyne, Dogger, German Bight, Fair Isle and the Faroe Islands. I had no idea where most of these places were but like most youngsters in the UK, it became part of every Brits upbringing and it still beams out across the air waves today. This summer I decided to go visit one of these places; The Faroes. I had never been and had not much of a clue exactly where it was.
Getting there is not easy. Perched between the Outer Hebrides and the southeast tip of Iceland in the inhospitable waters of the Atlantic ocean, there is no direct service from London or many other European gateways. You can fly quite conveniently from Copenhagen or Reykjavik on SAS or Air Atlantic (the Faroe national carrier). We chose SAS and that was probably our first mistake in trying to get there.
It’s a two hour and 30-minute journey from Copenhagen. The runway at Vágar Airport in the Faroe Islands is small. It was a cloudy day and when we finally arrived, after some delay, the pilot felt encouraged to make his descent. But the cloud cover ultimately was too much for him. As we descended, I felt the surge of the engines as he pulled out of the landing. After circling above for 10 minutes, he informed us he would have to go back to Copenhagen.
Yes, that really did happen.
According to the locals, only travel on Air Atlantic as the Faroe pilots know how to land in cloud cover on a short runway. That was advice I wish I had earlier!
The next day we tried again. The weather was much better and the views were spectacular. As we descended, the archipelago of 18 islands suddenly appeared as we dropped onto what seemed to be a 50 yard runway that is cut into the edge of a steep cliff. We had made it and so the adventure began.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I like New York City a lot, and although it’s not my favorite city, I do appreciate its amazing museums and grand theaters. I love the neighborhoods that stretch all the way from the Battery to the Bronx and the new Brooklyn, unrecognizable to my wife now who went to Bayridge High School and grew up a stone’s throw from the Verrazano Straights. New York has a busyness to it with its big, broad avenues, and trying to catch the pedestrian lights as you walk so you don’t need to stop and can just zig zag your way from 30th to the park. I love Soho and the Village and always wondered where I would live (probably Soho although the park is stunning). So my question on New York is why is it so ratty in places? London can be patchy and the outskirts of Paris are dreadful, but we are talking downtown New York City. It’s very uneven to me. Fun, but dirty, and even the late-night scene is sketchy.
My favorite restaurant in the city is Esca. I love this place – great seafood, nice wine list, but honestly, it’s stuck in the seediest part of town on 43rd Street and 9th Ave, next to porn shops and dodgy quick bites. It’s weird, New York. The transportation hubs just seem to be seedier than they need to be. Grand Central is a beautiful station but it’s confusing. The shops and kiosks around it are grim. Penn Station is even worse and is surrounded by dodgy hotels. Yet here in the thick of it is Madison Square Garden. Let’s not forget to mention LaGuardia Airport, antiquated and inefficient, with no great transportation link into town. Welcome to New York.
So, yeah, I do like New York for two days, grab an overpriced play and go out to a nice dinner, but in the end, no prejudice, London is just a cooler place.
Learning the English language has become a huge opportunity for the bright and enterprising. Take Lucy Earl, a Brit who recently graduated and started to think of ways to make English learning fun and frivolous. She ended up obtaining a following of 350,000 people who wanted to know why Brits drink pimms and take tea at 4:00 pm, why they pronounce fruit as “froot” and not “fru it”, “choobe” and not “toobe”, and “choona” not “toona”. She compiled a list of the 100 must-to words that you need to know in English, she did a Christmas swear words special, and her website launched her into the English language stratosphere.
Her YouTube teaching course, English with Lucy, provides short videos filmed at her home, on the streets, and while taking a bus to the town center. It is a slice of England as well as some fun lessons in English. She has 12 million views on some of her most popular videos plus an international following. She reportedly earns about $40,000 a year in advertising revenues alone but bottom line is that it’s fun. She is fun and everyone gets to see a slice of real life through Lucy’s eyes.
Language schools take note. Online language is growing fast. Teaching English as a foreign language and heading abroad, while still popular, are being outpaced by this phenomenon. Lucy got it right and right again. Note that there are 1.7 billion people learning English. It’s going to be 2 billion by 2020. 375 million people speak English as a second language and 750 million as one of their foreign languages. 300 million people in China have learned English. Incidentally, if you want to teach English in the UAE, they pay you $4,000 a month and in Japan about $3,500 a month. Lucy is doing alright and with simply a 500 URL camera and little to no overhead. She is light as a feather on the business front. Zero overhead. Exports for English language teaching e-books have doubled in recent years while hardcopy books have dramatically declined. The lessons are good for all, make the classes fun, and give people a slice of the culture. Check English with Lucy out on YouTube. It’s free!
So after the recent debacles with United and American, the government is getting heavy. Finally, we are seeing the government recognizing that consolidation is creating an arrogance in service and in amenities. After deregulation in 1978, industry charges like baggage fees and bumping passengers have been pretty much left to the airlines. And 80% of USA domestic business is now in the frightening hands of four airlines. Power to the few and less power to the consumer.
Airlines claim that overbooking helps keep fares low and provides less risk so more choice for consumers. Understood, but you have to be nice too! Honestly, whoever comes off a plane and says that they had a fab and fun experience? Now United are going to have to put their money where their mouth is. Dragging a guy down the aisle sounds like a bad wedding arrangement. It nearly cost them their business. CEO Munoz stated that he is committed to making things better and now overbooking as a policy is going to be phased out. Southwest, the darling of consumers, actually has the highest overbooking of any airline. They were just smarter and nicer about it.
We all get that overbooking creates more flexibility for airlines and lots take advantage of the compensation. It doesn’t take much but being nice and being smart makes the difference. Having a positive attitude and being customer friendly is key. That’s all we ask for. We are not cattle.
Here’s a shocker. High-tech, super slick Airbnb have teamed up with the Hearst Corporation to produce a travel magazine; essentially Airbnb Magazine. The rationale is that nobody knows better where people want to go than Airbnb does. They see it in demand and deals and have it resourced from billions of data points. As such, they can provide stories for people and places that are hot and can write about places that are trending. Savannah, for example, is one of Airbnb’s biggest sourced destinations, Porvoo in Finland is another. Go figure!
The first launch will be this May. It’s going to provide competition for mags like Afar and Conde Nast Traveler but Airbnb is different by basing stories and articles on where people want to go. In other words, they’re putting the power into the hands of the consumer instead of the usual fantasy articles that occupy most chapters of a travel mag. Incidentally, one of the best travel mags for me is British Airways High Life. Of course, the only problem there is that British Airways has to fly there and it’s only available on the airplane. I always steal a copy!
Airbnb mag is an experiment but like travel books, people still love travel in print form. Look at the success of Rick Steves. Regular monthly mailings will be forthcoming if this finds success.
Now airports are moving into food and drink technology. Many airports have iPad ordering systems set up around bars and themed food restaurants. The deal is that you sit down, swipe your credit card, choose items from the iPad menu, and then food or drinks come flying out at you from places that you had no idea. Meanwhile, there are bartenders that you cannot order from and wait staff that appear randomly with your food in no apparent order. The basic problem with that system is that it’s not that good. Somebody has to keep coming in to manually assist and more often than not, the timing is all screwed up. Sometimes you get wine when you should’ve received coffee, or pizza when you were looking for dessert. It helps to pass the time and the idea is to simply centralize the operation center, but the problem is that it doesn’t work that well.
I have never not had access to my Uber account. It goes with me everywhere and is sort of like a travel companion. However, it doesn’t get to go to Italy with me and I hate that. The cab company lobby there is just too powerful. So apart from not being able to see the sights of Ancient Rome and renaissance Florence, Uber does pretty well with me.
Then the horror of all unthinkable horrors happened – my Uber account was hacked!
I didn’t spot it at first. I kept getting messages from an unknown source in Russian but I kept on deleting them. I figured that it was a Russian wedding inquiry. Then one day, my Uber driver asked me if my name was “Dinrat.” No, that’s not me. And then I realized I had been hacked! Ok, no issues. I check my credit cards and reboot Uber but for three days I couldn’t log back on. I used the help button that Uber indicated I should use, restarted it, resubmitted it, but for three miserable days, I was Uber-less. Nobody to talk to help you, just dependent on their technology to resurface. It was not easy, believe me. Friends would have to pay for my transportation and I started to do the unthinkable…take taxis! It was a pretty grim experience.
It was tough and I felt lost. I didn’t know who to turn to. That’s what I realized that I was an Uber addict. Take Lyft, friends told me, but I couldn’t give up on Uber. So after 20 back and forth messages, we were able to make amends and I got back into a relationship again. Life without Uber. Honestly, I feel really bad for the Italians!
If you are going to get stuck at an airport and your flight is going to be endlessly delayed and possibly canceled, one word of advice, pray to God that you are not stuck at LaGuardia Airport. It sucks. Watching delays unfold and getting bad updates and then inevitable cancellations are frustrating and bring out the worst in all of us. Airline staff is not helpful and nobody has a clue. Usually, they point to a gate complaint line that is a mile long and have you wait there. If you are really lucky, you get a snack voucher. As for a hotel, dream on!
What I never understand is why the airlines do not better prepare their staff for dealing with these situations. At the airport, I saw queues and queues of people trying to get out and I thought how bad airlines deal with this stuff and yet this is where they should shine. Stranded passengers, helpless passengers, simply giving soothing words and realistic directions and expectations on how to get out of the mess would be helpful. It is always a drag to watch this debacle. It could be so much better. It’s as if they have no training on what happens when stuff goes wrong. That’s the only time they have to worry and that’s when they can really overperform. We know the airline food is bad, the seats are cramped, and the service in general on the plane is very average, so how about excelling at this? Help passengers who are trying to figure out what to do, concentrate on the pre-boarding service, calm people, assure people, and take a genuine interest in getting people into a good frame of mind. Maybe they should have yoga attendants at the gates helping passengers breath. It’s a shame. This is an area where you don’t have to do much. Just be service-oriented and kind. Is that too much to ask?