Tag Archives: travel tips

What Ever Happened to Travel Agents?

What ever happened to travel agents, do they still exist? Are they extinct? Absolutely not, they are alive and thriving. Like many other industries, the internet has affected the way that travel advisors work. Years ago trip planning always included visiting a travel agency, flipping through brochures and having an agent book the trip. Now much of the booking can be done online, so many travel agents have closed their brick-and-mortar offices and do most of their business remotely.

 

 

When would someone use the services of a travel agent? Some people say always, others say never. In truth, it’s not an always or never situation. It really depends on the type of trip you’re booking. A simple airline ticket, hotel room or even a cruise can be booked online with the click of a mouse. But if the itinerary is more complicated or you’re trying to coordinate group travel, a good travel advisor can save you time – and money. Here are some examples of when you can benefit from using a travel advisor:

– Trip planning: Some people know exactly when and where they want to go. Others have no clue. They may only know that they want to take their family to a warm destination sometime between June and August. A good travel agent uses a survey/interview process to help the client determine what will work best – and will offer several options. They partner with the client to custom design the vacation.

– In recent weeks we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of natural disasters that have resulted in flight/hotel cancellations, cruise ship re-routing and much more. Stranded travelers have had great difficulty getting through to airlines, or the online travel agencies (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) to make adjustments. Many have been kept on hold until their cell phone battery died; then they have to start all over again. Those who had travel agents just had to make one call to let them handle the issues from their office. Agents have access to inside personnel at hotels, cruise lines, etc. who can get much quicker resolutions. They are your best advocates.

– Specialty trips: Some trips are lengthy, more complicated and may have multiple destinations or multiple modes of transportation. A travel agent can ensure that all of the connections and fine details mesh.

 

– Group travel: Have you ever tried to coordinate a group trip or family reunion? It can be like herding cats. A travel agent can serve as the central point of contact and communicate itineraries, payment deadlines and so much more. They also handle all of the accounting – keeping track of who has paid, how much people still owe and what’s outstanding. When a group is small 5-10 people, it’s no problem. But when the group is large, 20 or more, it becomes much more difficult. Group members may be hesitant to give you their credit card information, so it’s much easier to use a trusted travel professional.

– Busy professionals: I’ve seen commercials for OTA (Online Travel Agencies) that will allow you to search hundreds of travel websites. In today’s fast-paced world, many people are too busy to search hundreds of travel websites. One call to a travel advisor can simply that process.

The travel landscape is constantly changing. There are daily changes to airline fees, hotel policies, TSA requirements and much more. People who only travel once or twice a year may not be aware of those changes. Travel agents study trends daily and can inform their clients about how the changes will affect them. When is a passport required? Which countries require visas? What regions require immunizations? This is information that a travel advisor can provide. Here are some examples of valuable information:

– Some American citizens don’t feel the need to get a passport since they don’t travel outside of the United States, but that is all going to change in 2018. Starting at the beginning of next year, residents in nine states will need to have passports in order to take any kind of flight, whether it is international or domestic. Those states are: Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington.

– Many countries require that your passport be valid for 6 months beyond your travel date. So even if your passport is still valid, but will expire in 3 or 4 months, you won’t make it through immigration.

– Travel agents can give advice about dress codes and what is acceptable. Some countries require women to cover their heads before entering a church or mosque. In others, showing too much skin is frowned upon – so no tank tops or shorts for men or women. I few months ago I visited the Monaco Casino and they do no allow running/tennis shoes or ripped jeans. I saw several people turned away.

I’ve heard people say, “I don’t use a travel agent, I just book online.” Newsflash, if you book on a website like Expedia, Travelocity or Hotwire, your using an online travel agent (OTA). Often they are in another country, working from home or a call center.

Aren’t travel agents expensive? No. Most of their services are free to clients, since they are paid commissions by the travel vendors (except for airlines, who do not pay commissions). Some agents might charge a service fee for complicated bookings, or airline bookings, but they’ll let you know that right up front. Here’s another newsflash – you pay fees even when you book online since those fees are built into the price. For example, if you ask your travel agent to book a hotel room for you, he/she may find a rate of $199 per night, and the commission will be paid out of that rate. But if you book the same hotel room through an OTA, or directly with the hotel the rate will be the same. You’ll still pay the commission – they just keep it instead of paying the travel agent. You won’t get any additional discount for booking directly.

The same thing happens with cruise bookings. You can book directly with the cruise line. But travel agents often have access to discounted rates and extra perks that the cruise lines don’t tell customers about.

So why not take advantage of the free services offered by the travel agent?

How do you select a travel agent? Are they all the same? No, all travel agents are not “created equal”. Unfortunately, it is a loosely regulated profession. So it is important to shop around and thoroughly vet an agent before trusting them with planning your vacation. Even if someone tells you that they are a “certified travel agent” that’s not enough. They may actually have extensive experience and knowledge – or they may have just paid $99 and taken an online class to get that “certification”.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Make sure they have a website.
  • Make sure they have a social media presence.
  • Get references from past clients, customer reviews, Yelp, etc.
  • Make sure that they actually travel – a good travel agent has real travel experience.
  • Find one that has knowledge about the destination(s) that you plan to visit and the type of travel that you want to do. For example, if you’re planning a destination wedding, a safari specialist won’t be of much help to you. If you want to cruise, make sure that they can give you information about several cruise lines, ships, etc.
  • Find someone with a broad range of travel expertise, in hotels, resorts, cruises and current trends.
  • Ask them what they specialize in. Although all travel agents have access selling all travel products, most tend to specialize in destinations or types of travel. You’ll get better service when dealing with someone who is a specialist in your desired destination.

Working with a travel advisor is not right for everyone – or for every trip. But working with the right one can be priceless.

 

 

Family Matters

sierra-lake-view_crop – Waking up at a campsite to the delicious aroma of bacon frying and seeing the morning rays of sunshine filter through the redwood trees

– Being fascinated by the exhibits and immersive experiences at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry

– Taking in the wonders of the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore and Old Faithful during a summer road trip

clark-kids-in-washingtonWith my siblings in Washington, D.C.

All these are fond memories from traveling with my family as a child – and all occurred before I even turned 16. My parents didn’t have much money for travel, but they planned strategically and exposed my siblings and I to some memorable experiences. Dad was an amateur photographer, and this was long before digital photography, so his camera bag, stuffed with film, lenses and several cameras, always laded him down. He took beautiful pictures and we made beautiful memories.

gg-bridgeWe lived in the San Francisco Bay area, so many of our journeys were road trips around northern California. We’d ride up into the redwoods, or drive to the coast and dip our toes into the chilly Pacific Ocean. Anyone who visited San Francisco in the 60’s may remember Playland and Ocean Beach. It was an amusement park located along the Great Highway in what’s now known as the Richmond District. It closed Labor Day weekend in 1972. I can still remember the Funhouse with its mirror maze and it’s Barrel of Laughs (a rotating walk-through wooden barrel).

170px-laffing_salAnd I can still hear Laffing Sal, the automated character whose cackle echoed throughout the park. In those days the attractions were much simpler than those in today’s high-tech amusement parks. I’ll admit that my 7- year -old mind was convinced that Laffing Sal just might be real (scary thought). But we had great family fun there.

Travel provides a perfect way for families to explore, enjoy and make memories that will last a lifetime. However, one primary consideration is always cost. Years ago a trip to an amusement park like Disneyland was fairly affordable, even for a family with several children. Now that same trip to the Magic Kingdom could easily cost a king’s ransom just for entrance to the park – and that doesn’t include any meals or souvenirs.

However, cost doesn’t have to prevent families from traveling together. They just have to be creative about how and when they do it. A family vacation doesn’t have to be a round-the-world trip in a private jet. It can be as simple as a short road trip to a neighboring city. The goal isn’t so much about racking up miles as it is about spending quality family time. That camping trip might be just an overnight campout in the backyard. As long as everyone is there and there are some good eats (and hopefully no cell phones), it can be a memorable experience. Children don’t ask for much – just their parents’ attention.

Not all of my childhood family vacations were cross-country journeys. Some of those “trips” were really only daylong road trips with a picnic lunch. But I have such fond memories of the times that we spent together.

family_minas-kidsIt is important for families to travel together. Not only is it a great way to bond, it’s an opportunity to expose our children to other cultures and ways of life. It also teaches them basic social skills like how to go through security at an airport or how to order in a restaurant. Our son was 11 months old when we took our first family vacation. We stayed at a vacation rental in Nassau, Bahamas. We enjoyed the convenience of having a little kitchen and other home comforts with our toddler. When he was a little older we began to cruise and took several Caribbean, Hawaiian and Mediterranean cruises. lee-family-cruise-pose

It was great since there were always activities onboard for his age group and lots of other children his age; and my husband and I were always able to enjoy some “grown folks” time.

Since dinner in the main dining room is always a fine dining experience, he learned to order from the menu and use the correct silverware for each course of the meal. But there were always foods that he could enjoy during his “I only want burgers & hot dogs” phase. One of the ports of call on our Hawaiian Island cruise was one of the islands of Kiribati. It was a beautiful island that evoked memories of the Swiss Family Robinson. There he observed the simple way that the island children lived with no video games or fancy toys.

lees-on-amalfi-coastHe was in high school when we took our first Mediterranean cruise. Visiting the Acropolis in Athens brought his world history lessons to life.

 

Now he’s all grown up, on his own and a serious globetrotter. But he still loves to travel with us when his schedule allows. Our latest family trip was to China where we climbed the Great Wall of China together. That’s an experience that we’ll never forget.

lee-family-on-great-wallI advise everyone to get out and discover what the world has to offer…as a family. Whether you go near or far, you’ll make lasting memories.

the-greatest-legacy-we-can-leave

 

If it Sounds Too Good….

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”

vacation for 4No doubt, you’ve heard this old adage many times in your life. And it’s true; especially in the travel arena. If you’ve tried to book travel online recently (and who hasn’t?) you know that there are literally hundreds of websites advertising thousands of “cheap travel deals”. Are they legitimate or are they scams? How can you tell?

As a travel professional who only works with reputable vendors – and vets them thoroughly – I was curious so I decided to check out one of these fantastic deals.

Eiffel Tower With Blue Sky

It was a 4-night getaway to Paris (round-trip airfare, 4 nights in a centrally located hotel) all for the low, low price of $699 (per person, based on double occupancy). Sounds good, huh? Maybe too good….This particular deal could only be booked by telephone, so I contacted the call center to make sure that $699 was the actual cost. As it turned out, there were a few more charges that had not been included in the original advertisement. They included a Paris city tax ($3 per night), seat selection fee ($98), checked bag fee ($149), 2% credit card processing fee.

TOTAL PRICE: $977 (a far cry from the low, low price of $699)

Hold on, it gets worse. This particular vendor had some very interesting clauses in their terms and conditions.
One stated: Airfare costs and availability are subject to change at any time prior to payment. Even after you have paid, trips with scheduled air transportation within or from the United States are subject to supplemental price increases that may be imposed by the supplier and/or government. By agreeing to these terms and conditions you consent to any such price increase.

Another stated: Fares and prices advertised on this site are accurate to the best of our knowledge. However, on occasion, inadvertent errors in relation to prices and flight details can occur. We will inform you as soon as reasonably possible of any such errors and we reserve the right to charge you the correct fare or, as appropriate, correct any inaccurate information in the contract between you and the carrier or ourselves.

So apparently if I booked the trip through them I was also agreeing to pay “unforeseen” price increases due to “inadvertent errors”. Are you kidding me?

Since they would only complete the booking via telephone, once they had my credit card number, who knows what the total charge would have been?

When booking travel arrangements for our clients, our agency always requires them to complete a written credit card authorization form. It shows the exact amount that will be charged to their credit card. It provides protection for them from unauthorized charges, and protects us against fraudulent accusations.

To add insult to injury, I found that I could book the trip online myself for almost the same price – without all of the “interesting” terms and conditions.

I’m not saying that discount travel deals don’t exist, but it is important to check them out thoroughly and read ALL of the fine print.

Here are some tips for vetting those great deals:

  1. WALK THE DEAL ALL THE WAY THROUGH. The advertised price is a lead-in price that does not include all of the taxes and fees. So don’t expect that $299 cruise to be only $299. Even when cruise lines or hotels advertise, “kids go free” it only refers to the base fare, but you’ll still have to pay taxes and fees for that free person.
  2. CHECK THE DATE: The advertised price may only apply to a particular date. I recently saw an example of this with a cruise fare where the fine print stated, *Fares from $499 is based on 12/11/16 for 6-day Caribbean sailing only Fares apply to minimum lead-in categories on a space available basis at time of booking. So if you and your BFF are thinking about taking a cruise on any other date, the $499 price will not apply.
  3. CHECK THE VENDOR’S TERMS AND CONDITIONS THOROUGLY. Once you complete the transaction, you have agreed to those terms, whether you read them or not. If there is a dispute, you will have no recourse, after all….you agreed.
  4. THERE AIN’T NO FREE LUNCH. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour companies and all travel vendors are in business to make money. They may offer discounted rates, or extra amenities, but FREE? Forget about it. Even if someone offers your free show tickets or buffet vouchers, you’ll only get them after setting through a high-pressure presentation.
  5. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR. If you’ve ever shopped at a swap meet or street market you’ve probably seen some great deals on Rolex watches….or cheap designer purses. Guess what? They’re not authentic. Neither are many of those unbelievable travel deals. There are times when hotels or cruise lines will offer discounts on unsold inventory and those are good deals. But if you see a deal like “stay at the Ritz Carlton for $49/night” or “take a 7 day cruise for only $199”, be skeptical, very skeptical.
  6. BOOK THROUGH A REPUTABLE TRAVEL AGENT. An experienced travel agent can recommend reputable travel vendors because they have vetted them and have relationships with them. If there is a problem you have an advocate to help you sort it out.

Those unbelievably low travel deals are going to continue to flood your inbox and pop up on your computer screen. Just be sure that you check them out thoroughly before booking any travel. And if it sounds too good to be true…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Connections

I have a serious case of wanderlust. Travel has been my passion for several decades and during that time I have been to numerous cities in 25 different countries. Travel has enriched my life on so many levels. I have developed a deep appreciation for other cultures – and a deeper appreciation for my own. I’ve learned that no matter where I go, people are just people; and we are more alike than we are different. I have especially enjoyed making people-to-people connections. Some have been brief encounters while others have developed into lifelong friendships. Here are just a few of my “global connections”.

In 1984 I traveled with a choral ensemble to Ecuador to participate in an international choir competition. In Guayaquil I met a lady named Gladys, who was a member of another choir. We were drawn to each other, probably because we looked a lot alike. Although I could only speak a little Spanish (muy poquito), and she spoke even less English, we made a sister connection. Between some very animated sign language and my poorly conjugated Spanish verbs, we managed to communicate.

santorini greco gold familyLEES WITH KERAMYDAS FAMILY

In 2005 our family took a Mediterranean cruise and Santorini, Greece was one of the ports of call. I’d seen pictures of those whitewashed buildings with the azure rooftops, but they were even more spectacular in person. We spent a lovely day strolling through the charming shops of Fira town. Santorini is known for beautiful jewelry, and there are lots of jewelry shops to choose from. We wandered in and out of several, but were drawn to one in particular. It was run by a family; parents and two identical twin sons. It was a pleasant experience (no hard sell), just like visiting with old friends. The father even offered us some of his homemade wine and it was delicious. We made several purchases and went on our way. In 2007 we returned to Santorini and paid another visit to our friends. We have continued to stay in touch and hope to see them again next time we’re on the island.

ac with waiters_thumbADRIENNE WITH WAITERS

In 2010 the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland. It was notable because the volcanic ash plume disrupted air travel in northern Europe for several weeks. The eruption occurred 3 days before we were scheduled to depart on a cruise that was going to sail from Lisbon, Portugal to Oslo, Norway. However, many flights were cancelled since most of the major European airports had to close. As it turned out, the Lisbon airport did not close, so we were able to make it to the cruise ship. But many of the other cruisers did not make it. So the cruise ship was only 1/3rd full. That meant that the crew had fewer passengers to serve. The dining room was very sparse at dinner and there were lots of empty tables. It worked in our favor because our waiters were especially attentive. We got to know them well since they had lots of extra time on their hands. They told us all about their homelands, families, and future plans. Both were fairly young (about our son’s age) – and homesick, so they also enjoyed a little parental advice.

kelsey & meADRIENNE AND KELSEY

In 2014 we spent some time in one of our favorite cities, Paris. One afternoon we discovered a little cafe near the Montparnasse Tower. We sat outside to enjoy the lovely spring weather and struck up a conversation with a young lady at a nearby table. We don’t speak much French, so it was nice to chat with someone else who spoke English. She was a student who had spent several months studying there. We exchanged travel stories and contact information. We’ve stayed connected on Facebook, and hope to meet again – maybe in Paris.

rob and kevin_thumbROBERT AND KEV

During a transatlantic cruise we made friends with 2 wonderful people from the U.K. We started chatting over drinks one evening and found out that we had lots in common. Even though we were from different countries we found that we shared many of the same opinions and challenges. We exchanged contact information and promised to host them if they ever came to San Francisco. A few months later Kev took us up on that promise and we had a great time hosting him in our City by the Bay.

rob kev in sf_thumbROBERT AND KEV IN SAN FRANCISCO

In 2014 we also spent time in another of our favorite cities, Barcelona. Since we had been there several times before we decided to leave the city and go out to the Penedes Wine region. It was a group tour and they took us to several delightful wineries. At each one we enjoyed tasting and delicious tapas. Our group was comprised of 15 people who were from various parts of the world. 3 of the ladies were from Osaka, Japan. I don’t speak any Japanese but one of them spoke a little English, so with the help of a few glasses of wine and some very animated sign language we managed to communicate. Kaori and I exchanged contact information and we have stayed in contact on Facebook. Of course her posts are in Japanese and mine are in English, but pictures transcend language barriers.

frex ac and girls_thumbADRIENNE AND FRIENDS AT FREIXENET

As I write this I am already planning my next adventure, and looking forward to making more travel connections.

How Did You Learn to Travel?

plane at gateHow did you learn to swim? Did you go to the deep end of the swimming pool and jump in? Probably not. You probably started with inflatable water wings, then moved on to swimming lessons and soon enough you were dog-paddling your way across the pool.

How did you learn to ride a bicycle? Did you hop onto your bike and take off down the street? Probably not. It is more likely that you started by pedaling around on a tricycle, and then it was on to your first little bike with training wheels. Finally Mom took off the training wheels, let go of the back of your bike, and you wobbled your way to two-wheeled freedom.

How did you learn to cook? Was the menu for your first dinner party standing rib roast and grand marnier soufflé? No, it was probably more like grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup.

So how did you learn to travel? What are the ABCs of globetrotting? Is it necessary to take lessons? Of course not – travel is a very individual experience and each of us has very specific preferences. It’s not as simple as learning a set of “dos” and don’ts”. There is no school, travel is more of a learn-by-doing experience. However, if there was a Travel University, and they asked me to teach Travel 101, here are some of the topics I would include in the course curriculum.

passportsHow to Pack – If you are planning to be away from home for more than a day, you’ll need to take at least a few things with you. Your destination, and the length of your trip determine what you take. You might be able to manage an overnighter by throwing a few things into a backpack. Some people even manage to take long trips with only a backpack. But if you are going on an extended journey or are planning to visit a different climate, you’ll need something larger. It also depends on your personal style. If you are one of those creative types who can make 27 outfits from 2 pieces of clothing and a few accessories, you won’t need much luggage. But if you’re one of those people who want to make a different fashion statement every day, you’ll need to pack accordingly. Small cosmetics and fragrance samples are a great way to conserve space and weight.

Think about where you’re going and pack accordingly. For example, If you’re going to a tropical climate it’s doubtful that you’ll need that down jacket. Since most airlines charge baggage fees, taking too many pieces of luggage can be quite costly.

How to dress – Be sure to dress for the climate that you’ll be visiting. Last October I spent a week in Dubai where the temperature was triple digits every day. Then in November I traveled to China where it was quite cold and snowing. I took the same amount of luggage for both trips, but used very different packing strategies.

It is also important to dress for the culture that you’ll be visiting. Scanty or revealing clothing is frowned upon in some cultures and at many holy sites. I’ve seen young ladies in hot pants turned away from St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In Dubai I was very careful about what I wore. I saw many women in traditional dress and just as many in western-style clothing. I wanted to make sure that I was cool and comfortable, but did not offend in any way.

adrienne in jerusalemOne of the accessories that I always carry is a light pashmina. It doesn’t take up much space and can be used to cover my head and/or shoulders when necessary.

How to pick the destination – It is important to choose a destination that you really want to go to. You will be investing your time and money, so you want to get a good return on those investments. I’m a travel professional, so often clients look to me to help them decide where to go. In order to do so I have to ask them several questions like:

What is your budget? I’ve found that many people haven’t even considered total cost. In reality, that’s what’s going to drive your travel decisions. In addition to airfare, there is the cost of lodging, meals, tours, tips and entertainment. So all-inclusive resorts are good options since they include all meals, drinks (soft drinks and alcoholic beverages) gratuities and non-motorized water sports. Cruises offer excellent value since they include all meals, nightly shows, night clubs, childcare, and of course transportation from port to port.

What sort of travel experience are you looking for? If they are retired and looking for a quiet relaxing getaway, I won’t suggest that they take a Disney cruise. If they are young wild and free, I know several resorts that will give them exactly what they’re looking for.

What are your interests? Interests vary widely, so it is important to identify destinations that will satisfy those interests. An adventure traveler with an interest in wildlife might enjoy a trip to the Galapagos Islands. A history buff might enjoy a tour of the Tower of London. That fashionista would definitely enjoy a trip to Paris to shop on the Champs Elysees.

Aerial Oasis of the Seas - At Sea off Miami shoreline Oasis of the Seas - Royal Caribbean International
Aerial Oasis of the Seas – At Sea off Miami shoreline
Oasis of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International

Even cruises differ widely. An Amazon River cruise through the Brazilian Rain Forest on a small vessel allows passengers to experience wildlife, piranha fishing and all that the jungle has to offer. An ocean cruise on a big ship can be like a floating city. On a recent transatlantic cruise my husband and I sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas with 5000 other passengers. We enjoyed gourmet dining, Broadway shows, an onboard surf simulator, ice-skating, a world-class spa, designer shopping and more. It was a 12-day nonstop party from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona.

Take it Slowly – In today’s fast-paced world people often think that they have to rush into traveling at top speed. You don’t have to jump in at the deep end; it’s OK to ease into experiences. You may want to take your first trip with a buddy who has been to the destination before and can show you the ropes.

The good news is that there are some really good flight deals on the market. But before you book one, make sure it’s a destination that you really want to visit. If that’s not the case, it’s not a deal for you. And make sure that you can get lodging that fits within your budget. Hotel prices are often driven by demand. Recently we found a great airline price to Las Vegas. But when we checked hotel prices for those dates, we found that they were astronomical. Needless to say, we didn’t book those flights.

Start by taking local trips- there are many attractions near our homes that can be great ways to explore local history and culture. This is especially valuable for families who want to introduce their children to travel. A trip to a local museum can give them an appreciation for art exhibits so that eventually they are ready for the Louvre. A trip to a nice restaurant will allow them to get comfortable with ordering from a menu, being served and tipping a waiter. We began cruising with our son when he was quite small, so he learned the art of fine dining at an early age.

There is no single way to learn to travel, it is an individual endeavor. Learning as you go is part of the fun and It is well worth the investment. As a wise man once said, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”.