May 27, 2016
Exploring the Future of Travel @ TravelTechCon
Introducing Travel Tech Con, an independent conference organized by a group of travel startup founders who share a common passion of moving the travel industry forward. Now in its first year, the event this month spanned over two days, the first of which had 15 startups present at the Plug & Play Center in Sunnyvale California. Day two focused on players in the world of travel tech addressing what needs to change in the next ten years to bring an industry with an antiquated infrastructure up to what consumers expect in 2016 and beyond.
Photo credit: EMaze.
From Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, the Internet of Things, Big Data, Open Travel Standards, Automotive Innovations and more, we heard from Adobe’s Head of Global Industry Strategy & Marketing for Travel & Hospitality Mohammad Gaber, Emergent VR’s Peter Wilkins on the future of VR and Travel, OSLET’s Gadi Bashvitz on using personalization to drive conversions, Chute’s Ranvir Gujral on AI, GEIOS’ Michael Frischkorn talked about using IoT to help travelers create more memories, and Roomstorm’s Maksim Izmaylov talked standards, a necessary for efficient global communication.
There was also an interesting panel on emerging automotive tech which was addressed by Roadgazer’s Maria Mokhnatkina, Bosch’s Tom Lindma, Skurt’s Tin Hang Liu and Princeton Optronics’ Alexey Kovsh. The second day was held at Yelp so not surprising to hear from Yelp’s Rachel Zhao who talked about making it global while keeping it local. SFOX’s Akbar Thobhani, Factom’s Tiana Laurence and Norm Rose talked about the opportunities Blockchain can bring.
Think of it as a distributed network that offers value….value that can’t be duplicated. When you’re dealing with strangers, blockchain can offer tremendous benefits. Since travel is so distributed and so global, blockchain is a way to help make travel booking more direct and more efficient, cutting out the umpteen number of middle men that are in the way of a vendor and the consumer today.
This will allow direct booking will increase and improve. Since blockchain is all about being decentralized, it may be harder at first to establish loyalty although new models will certainly evolve to re-engage and build loyalty with customers. The future is here but it's just not distributed…yet. The idea for vendors is that they should be able to continue using their existing systems but supplement them with blockchain to more directly reach their customers.
Blockchain is contextually the next infrastructure platform that could eliminate the middle man in travel as well as help to reduce fraud. Other trends include the growth of services like AirBNB and couchsurfing and as more services like it emerge, identity and transparency will increasingly become more important. And of course, we talked about the interests of millennial travels since their patterns of behavior is so different than the generations behind them.
Millennials increasingly want experiences not physical objects. People are traveling earlier than ever and they want to see the world. There’s less fear than ever before, largely because millennials are more familiar with the world because of social media and technology.
While so many tour companies and destinations still focus on print articles and advertising, they don’t realize that most millennials find their ideas about where to travel and what to do through social media and online networks. They trust what their friends recommend on these social networks over something they might read in a magazine they don’t have a personal connection with. Because they use technology all the time and it’s an integral part of their world, they also expect technology to be part of their travel experiences.
May 10, 2016
uHoo, Most Advanced Indoor Air Quality Sensor Now Available for Pre-orders
When I was approached by a company that is trying to transform how we all think about the air we breathe, I was intrigued. After I learned that it wasn't an outdoor environmental play, but indoor air, I was even more intrigued. After all, how bad could indoor air be? It turns out, pretty bad.
After I did some of my own digging, I wanted to be involved. There are some alarming stats of why you should care and why what they're doing matters.
Meet uHoo, the most advanced indoor air quality on the market, which is now open for pre-orders over on IndieGoGo starting today.
More than any other product in the market, uHoo provides real-time alerts on unhealthy air, going deeper and broader than other products. What sets uHoo apart is its eight dedicated sensors, detecting Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Ozone, Air Pressure, Volatile Organic Compounds, which are found in paint and home cleaning products, Temperature, Dust and Humidity and all sensors are dedicated, which is not the case with most other solutions.
With concerns on indoor air quality at an all-time high and the fact that we spend nearly 90% of our time indoors (some studies say more), uHoo aims to transform people’s health by providing an affordable solution for asthma and allergy sufferers, for people with toddlers at home and for anyone who genuinely cares about their health.
Couple that with unhealthy indoor air being linked to cancer and heart disease, 6 in 10 homes being hazardous to their owner’s health and half (yup, that's 50%) of America’s schools having problems linked to indoor air quality, a product that detects the particles and chemicals we breathe in real-time can be transformative to our day-to-day lives.
What Don’t We Know?
Given the tragic news reports on poor air quality in schools and drinking water in Michigan, it’s more important than ever to be proactive and know whether you’re in a healthy environment before it’s too late. With uHoo, you can know first-hand what the quality of air is like in any room or building where you live or work. uHoo is only 3.3 inches in diameter, 6.2 inches high and weighs less than a pound, so it can easily sit unnoticed at home, in gyms, churches, spas, community centers, basements, your office or kid’s bedroom. The list is endless as to where uHoo can be used.
According to the American Lung Association, “it’s hard to know when air in your home needs cleaning; the indoor air you breathe can be hazardous to your health without any telltale signs.” In other words, we can’t manage what we don’t know or can’t measure. Their site includes other useful information worth checking out as well, like identifying what makes indoor air unhealthy and how pollution can hurt your body. They also have a useful list of what all of them are so you know exactly what could be in the air you breathe at home or work.
Revolutionary For Businesses Too
You can have multiple devices on one account, so you can monitor different locations around the clock. This is not just a great feature for businesses that are looking to ensure the quality of the air is healthy for employee’s optimal well-being and productivity, but can significantly reduce operating and health-related costs by knowing how to regulate the air more effectively.
Here's How It Works
Simply plug uHoo in to a power outlet and connect it to the WiFi network – uHoo does the rest. The quality of air is detected instantly and shows up on your smartphone via a free app (support for both iOS and Android).
All of this data is securely and safely stored in the cloud for easy access from anywhere in the world and can be shared with loved ones and/or health practitioners. The ability to share data and devices means that you can stay on top of other family member’s indoor air quality, such as an aging parent or grandparent, or your child when you are away. What else is cool is that it shows the history of your rooms over time. You'll also get notifications so you can track what's going on in real time.
Or, you can simply get a glimpse of your day, knowing which rooms performed well and which ones didn't. uHoo even recommends things you can do to improve your air depending on what the reading is. Imagine being able to track your kid's school remotely -- if the air is unhealthy, you can know about it right away. Same goes for your own home, office or wherever you spend a significant chunk of your time.
There's also a very cool Health Diary, which allows you to track how you're feeling and when. It will record symptoms or issues in the room you happen to be in, all of which correlates back to the data uHoo is picking up.
You can also see results in chart form, which will lay out the results by VOCs, ozone, temperature, humidity, CO2 and so on.
uHoo comes in two versions: Classic and Premium, the main difference being the number of dedicated sensors that the device will detect. The device comes with a power adapter, and a micro-USB cable.
Details on how to pre-order a uHoo from only $99 for a limited time can be found on https://www.indiegogo.com/at/uhooair. I love this - questions on any of it, let me know. Since I'm working the company, I already have a uHoo and absolutely love knowing when I'm breathing healthy air or not. This is particularly useful for travelers as well who stay in hotel rooms on a regular basis -- you might be surprised by the results, even from high end hotels.
They'll be shipping in Q4 of this year and availability is worldwide.
March 30, 2016
DENT 2016: From the Morality of Sex Robots & AI to Free Diving & Mental Health
Putting a dent in the future -- isn't that a compelling idea? And, what's even more compelling is that it means such different things to different people and why the eclectic DENT Conference in Sun Valley Idaho, is so unique.
From technologists, entrepreneurs and scientists, to artists, astronauts and Olympic Gold medalists, people gather around to hear radical new ideas, learn from the best of the best and share their best practices, all under the roof of the Sun Valley Inn, a stone's throw from Baldy Mountain and incredible skiing, even in the Spring. The brain child of Seattle-based Steve Broback and Jason Preston, DENT is now in its fourth year and my third year of attending, DENT's format is a mix of educational, interactive and thought provoking, with un-conference break-out sessions, fireside chats and general talks.
Since the backbone of the conference stems from the technology community, it seemed fitting that American futurist and author Amy Webb would speak. As the Founder of the Future Today Institute and an Adjunct Professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, she dabbles in a lot of projects. She asks us wryly: "What happens when we get what we say we want?" On the topic of Emerging Tech Trends and the hot button in Silicon Valley right now: Big Data, she addressed where and how that data will change how we think about the world and how we interact with it. What if an algorithm could predict our news? What if a news story could be written by an algorithm, using curated and scraped data that could get published? If you follow financial and sports news today, you may be surprised to learn that many of these stories are already being written by algorithms. Yet, it's not something we really think about and curation is already there in some industries. What if algorithms designed our real world experiences OR even more radical: what if algorithms could program our people?
Photo credit: www.goldenhourblog.com
I've been seeing this for the last few years -- curation is becoming more and more automated and we are moving towards hyper personalized news. Rather than reading a single news story, data that reaches our desktop or mobile device is becoming more personalized for you....all programmed by an algorithm.
The nugget of news will be personalized based on our own old data and online behavior which means that there’s an infinite number of possible stories that could be distributed. What if in the not too distant future, there will be editors but no journalists. Imagine that you will have your own personalized news feed that is pre-filtered based on your likes and preferences.
Yes, it's happening, but it begs the question: is that what we really want? Because there are so many possible places to get our news, the real value will be super customized and personalized. Sure, it will be content vetted, but isn't there an element of joy when we discover new things outside our comfort zones? If the vetted, curated big data funnel merely delivers me content on travel, photography and food because those are topics of interest I search about the most, will I ever learn about something new I might want to try, like martial arts or sky diving?
And, if I'm a democrat that searches more for Bernie Sanders talks than Ted Cruz, will the articles on Bernie be more favorable than the ones on Ted Cruz, and how does that algorithm decide what bias to let me see -- and more importantly, not see. What gets marshaled to the top and what gets moved to the third page of my search? Machines are learning from human behavior every day, including political views, our income brackets and the ugly biases of racism and homophobia. Truth be told, we are leaving bread crumbs everywhere, every single day. Perhaps in the future, we will PAY to be anonymous and that will be worth more than anything else. I couldn't agree more.
Amy reminds us that the future isn't something that happens to us passively -- – it is something that we are creating proactively and collectively. PATH's CEO Steve Davis addressed Malaria. What does Malaria have to do with technology and innovating the future you ask? A lot when you reflect on the fact that it's 2016 and with all of our advancement, Malaria still remains the number 3 killer in the world.
A child dies every two minutes, and 453,000 people die each year. How is that possible you wonder? It's not just that Malaria is a disease of poverty, but Malaria contributes to poverty.
If you're not familiar with PATH, they work on vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, service and system innovation and they partner with organizations to drive down these diseases that affect so many and so unfairly. With so many creative and bright minds in the room, Davis asked people to think about how to effectively design new issue and systems over the next 10-15 years around products, around operational management and logistics and around financing, all of which could accelerate the progress they make in Africa and beyond.
Currently, Malaria is not being solved by the private sector but he suggests that the real solution is a complex level of collaborations between private sector and governments and that cost and affordability is critical to solving this. Says Davis, "In regular technology innovation, we think about the cost later.
With Malaria, we need to think about the ultimate cost first and then design around that to get to that price, otherwise it won't work." They work in endemic conditions, where there’s not proper education systems and the environment is harsh which means that their work comes with enormous constraints. It should be no surprise that the health systems they work in, especially in Asia and Africa, are incredibly complicated from years of aid and development agency and colonialism mixed with new agencies pouring money into the system.
They are tracking index cases through droids and an app and using this model alone, they are attempting to check and treat every household to better figure out where people may have gotten infected. With a bunch of new data models, knowing where the reservoir is and where the mosquitoes are, is critical to their long term success.
They've been working with Tableau to see where transmission is coming from and to give the data back to the health workers in the front line. To make malaria history, they need to deploy resources faster than the disease can spread, so it's an aggressive but important mission. There's a huge sea change in global demographics. The faster we can get people in these countries to move into lower and middle working class, the faster we can eradicate diseases that are impacting so many.
DENT is a dazzling and mind-expanding experience where people join forces for various collaborative efforts to move the needle and dent the future.
This my friends is how community forms and how the magic and power of one mind + one mind = ten minds gets started. It happened in Silicon Valley and it happens around the world, including once a year in beautiful Sun Valley, where people with a genuine desire in helping good ideas grow and spread, all come together with overlapping interests and empathetic hearts. Those interested in additional photos, below is a collection of networking and after hour shots....
Greg Kisor, Renee Blodgett, Michael Grabham -- photo courtesy of Russell Sparkman
Kris Krug with Jason Nunnelley
Above, Matthew F. Reyes of GoPro and Scott Jordan of ScotteVest
Above, Jason Preston interviews Buick's Dan Kinney who leads User Experience for their Global Connected Customer Experience Group. See journalist Myriam Joire's video interview with Dan at DENT.
Speaking of Buick, how's this for stunning? T'was nice getting picked up from the airport in a gorgeous Regal, especially with backdrops like these.
Larry Brown plays magical tunes...
Marsha Collier, Phil Colley, Buick, Renee Blodgett
Simon Winthrop performs
Steve Broback, Co-Producer of DENT and Phil Colley of Buick's OnStar team
Renee Blodgett, Greg Kisor, Maryam Scoble
Food and wine is also an integral part of the event, so a great choice for foodies who also love tech and innovation...below are some shots taken at the delicious Vintage Restaurant, where Buick held a thought provoking dinner. See my write-up on two foodie gems in the heart of Ketchum.
There's also delicious dining at the Warfield Distillery & Brewery in the center of town...
And, a delicious spread at the home of Scott Jordan, CEO of ScotteVest
Did I mention that Sun Valley also has superb skiing, even in mid-March?
March 30, 2016 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Events, Magic Sauce Media, On Innovation, On Science, On Technology, On the Future, Science, Travel, TravelingGeeks | Permalink | Comments (0)
January 17, 2016
New York Times Travel Show Round-Up, Much More Fun Than CES!
I missed last year's New York Times Travel Show since we were about to embark on a 5 week long journey cross country -- our hashtag for the tour was #WBTWxAmerica for those interested in seeing photos on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We left New York the week before the event, and only a day before the city got hit with a snowstorm.
This year, we were proud media partners of the event since it remains one of my favorite travel shows in the industry. I love the fact that the show is a great mix of trade and consumer content and brings together some of my favorite destinations in the world all under one roof.
Despite the fact that is an American East Coast event, countries as far away as Taiwan and Japan showed up, there were wellness offerings from gems like Tahiti, St. Lucia and Bali, plenty of South American representation, and it took me nearly a day to make my way through the Africa aisle alone. From learning cool facts about specific destinations and exploring the latest from African safari tour companies, which we'll be expanding in 2016, I could have easily spent a full day in discovery mode.
Below, Arthur Frommer, from the infamous Frommer's Guides, opened the official consumer day of the event, which included a formal ribbon cutting at the entrance on Saturday morning, January 9. Some of my personal highlights are outlined below - as always, questions or comments, leave them in the comment section or feel free to tweet or email me @weblogtheworld.
I was thrilled to see my pals from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on-site; we went on a press trip with them a few years back and loved it -- see my coverage of Estonia and Lithuania. They also served scrumptious cheese from the region which I dared not say no to -- food is such an integral part of travel for me, that I can't separate the two. Speaking of food, Dubrovnik is having a Good Food Festival from October 20-23, 2016, where you'll get dinner with a famous chef, taste traditional and not so traditional dishes, take part in gastro tours, entertainment and live musical performances and have an opportunity to attend workshops and presentations. More details at www.tzdubrovnik.hr.
Croatia was promoting Wellness Travel among other things, which was exciting for us since we are not only expanding our Wellness coverage significantly in 2016, but it's a personal passion of mine and has been for years. Be sure to read my Wellness Travel Round-up of the show, which is going live next week.
I also got enticed by some of Adriatic's tours, which does land tours to Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia and charter cruises of the area. They specialize in excursions to Croatia and the Balkins, including island hopping, which had me at "hello." Niche Touring offers fully guided travel for small groups, which makes for a much more intimate setting, something we applaud.
They too focus on Croatia, but to off-the-beaten-path hidden places often not found on a typical tourist itinerary. Their tours emphasize the history, local food, and culture of each region, shared by the Croatian people you meet along the way. We're keen on reviewing one of their tours as I was impressed by their big heart and personalized approach to tours of the area, which include both water and land experiences.
I didn't have time to visit the Hungary or Czech Republic booths, although I have been in recent years and they remain on my fabulous destination list, so if you haven't been, be sure to read our coverage (Hungary and Prague specifically). Our content on Russia isn't deep but it's worth a meander as the content is full of rich photographs and history. And, my last trip to Berlin Germany this past year included more time in East Berlin than West, so be sure to read through our coverage over the past year.
I've lived in Europe, traveled through the continent extensively and have had long stints in Amsterdam, Corfu, Innsbruck and London, where I studied for many years. In fact, I've been to every country except for Norway which is very much calling to me -- seeing new images of northern fjords makes it hard to resist. If you're eager to see what I'm referring to, there's no better place to start than Instagram - do a search for #Norway and you'll be blown away.
This past year, I went to Germany and Austria, so be sure to browse through my articles of Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg, including a fabulous one on Salzburg's 50th Anniversary of the Sound of Music and the previous fall, I went to Normandy and Brittany, where I took so many enticing photos, you'll be booking your flight to France tomorrow. High on my "return list" over the next two years are Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Spain. Who knows -- maybe one will even be a winter trip. It was great running into Michael Gigl from the Austrian Tourism Board aka @AustriaTravel at the show.
I didn't spend time with destinations at the show because of my strong familiarity of the countries, however I did talk to a few tour companies and river cruise companies who are offering some interesting itineraries in Europe today. I'm far from a cruise expert although hope to experience a few of the higher end cruise lines so we can do a unique comparison based on "physical/experiential", "fine touches" and "wellness" in 2016 and 2017.
On my hot list right now are RIVER CRUISES. Watch for more from us in that area as we begin to explore what some of the leaders in river cruising are doing in Europe and Asia. For example, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises operate a fleet of 21 river cruising cruise ships along the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt, and China.
All inclusive Scenic offers unlimited drinks and butler service for guests and Viking River Cruises apparently has six new Viking Longships making debuts in 2016 across Europe. Avalon operates 15 ships in Europe and eight more in the Galapagos, Mekong Delta, China and Egypt and AmaWaterways has an impressive list of options through European rivers as well. Itineraries across river cruise companies range from major cities like Amsterdam, Budapest, and Vienna to delightful, small towns and villages like Austria's Durnstein and Germany's Breisach.
Africa, in particular, South Africa has always had an emotional hold on me, largely because I spent an exchange student year abroad in South Africa during my most formative years, lived there again just as Apartheid was lifted and led a blogging tour there roughly a decade later.
I also taught English in Kenya, saw some of the most surreal desert scenery on the edge of Somalia, slept on beaches in Lamu, Pemba and Zanzibar and saw gorillas up close in Uganda and Zaire before the western world had an opportunity to. I have gone on life changing safaris in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa where I watched elephant trunks swaying in unison over a river for hours and was transformed by a tree standing alone in silence along the Namibian Border.
I was swept away by the hospitality and insights of the people of Zimbabwe and it's majestic Victoria Falls, ate so many avocados and bananas on Dizzy and Wally's farm in Zambia that I could barely walk, and I was brought to tears by the generosity and warmth of the Malawi people where we camped on a beach for more than a month. In the nineties, I marveled at ancient tombs in Egypt and fell in love with the markets of Morocco -- the list goes on. It's clear that I have a bias but with good reason. Africa is a magical continent and it boasts far more than safaris and Stellenbosch boasts some of the best wine you'll ever taste.
The girls from Zambia were a hoot and I could have talked to them for hours and after seeing stunning photos of Botswana, my heart cried out to be there with nothing more than me, a tripod and my Canon 7D. I've been wanting to go to Madagascar for years as well as to some of Mozambique's more remote islands where they boast luxury experiences worth having. And, if I got an invitation to Mauritius, I'd be packing my bags tonight. Morocco and Egypt had plenty to take in (Egypt handed out fun t-shirts) and I learned about luxury properties in Casablanca I didn't know existed.
African tour companies were in full force, from offering a variety of options, whether it be glamping in the bush, safaris, photo tours, luxury resorts and spas to cruises departing from Cape Town. Uber Luxe Safaris were offering unique itineraries, from chimpanzee trekking, a canopy walk in the Nyungwe Forest National Park, Birding, Water Fall Trails, tea tours and hanging with monkeys. Uber Luxe Safaris is based in Rwanda and specializes in authentic luxury experiences in East Africa.
The Zulu Nyala Private Game Reserve looked compelling. Nestled between the wilderness reserves of Mkuze, Hluhluwe, St. Lucia and South Africa's Sodwana Bay, the reserve boasts elephant, rhino, buffalo, hippo, giraffe, leopard, cheetah, antelope and more. The privately owned reserve is home to over 40 different species of animal and bird life and on-site, they have 50 ethnic-styled suites and panoramic views from common areas in the Lodge.
They also have a tennis court, craft and curio center, a games room, which is great if you're traveling with kids in tow, a pool, a bar and reading lounges. I chatted with the guys from Eyes on Africa for awhile who offer tours to Namibia's Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei red sand dunes, South Africa's Kruger National Park, Livingstone and Vic Falls, River rafting and helicopter flights in Zimbabwe and Zambia, canoe rides along the Lower Zambezi River, Mount Kenya, Amboseli National Park, Zamzibar, Selous, Africa's largest wildlife reserve, the Serengeti for the Great Migration, Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro Crater, island hopping in the Seychelles and swimming with whale sharks in Mozambique among other experiences.
I was also enticed by Bush Butlers, who I might add were the only ones who served Biltong at their booth - two thumbs up! They offer tailor-made safaris and tours to a number of intoxicating locations, from Tanzania, Kenya and Bostwana to Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
They cater to your needs, which include family style safaris, luxury safaris, or beaten track adventure style trips. Some of the highlights include seeing hippos in Gabon, viewing gorillas in Uganda, ballooning in Namibia, taking in Madagascar's Baobabs, seeing the world's largest land migration in Tanzania's Serengeti, scuba diving with whale sharks and manta rays, and catching tiger fish on the mighty Zambezi River. I can assure you that going through the Namibian Desert in a 4x4 Explorer will transform the way you look at the world.
While I still haven't been to Antarctica, we have a bunch of coverage on We Blog the World from other writers, so be sure to read through them and take in the photos.
The images are breathtaking and before seeing them, it wasn't a big priority on the list, but today, it's in the top 10. Hurtigruten is one company I discovered at the show that encompasses all things Antarctica. They're known as a leader in polar exploration and offer new Discovery Style Voyages, which is great for people with a true spirit for exploration and learning, but without the rigors of a full expedition.
MS Midnatsol is the ship, which holds a maximum of 500 travelers, and they start and end in Punta Arenas at the tip of Chile where I visited a few years ago. I'd encourage you to take the time to explore Chilean Patagonia including Torres del Paine if you venture that far south. The ship explores some of Chile's deep fjords before making it's way to the more wild and beautiful Antarctica. Remember how I said that Norway was calling to me earlier on? Note to self: Hurtigruten also sails to Norway, visiting 34 small ports, most of which big ships simply can't enter.
Truth be told, I didn't spend as much time in the Asia section as I had hoped, but did visit Japan, Taiwan who always has a big booth at the show, China, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. There were some great dance and music performances on-site all weekend and many countries were giving out bites, with all the spices from home. Oh so delish!
Malaysia had a colorful area with cultural backdrops where you could dress up in a traditional costume and have your photo taken - my favorite was this little girl who was eager to pose in front of the camera. Adorable!
While China can be overwhelming given the country's size, I find that it's worth spending time with locals who specialize in tourism since they have detailed maps, which you often can't find online and can elaborate on some of the gems outside traditional hot spots like Shanghai and the Great Wall.
I spent time with the rep from the region of Henan, which is central and to the north of the country, which touts a number of unique excursions and adventures. We may explore this region in more depth and consider a trip in the future.
Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Airlines was holding a fun promotion at the show, which involved social media; simply engage your audience with a photo and hashtag #SriLankanUSA2016 for an opportunity to win a trip. Here, I learned a lot more about Sri Lanka than I expected and it's risen to the Must Visit List, so stand by as we do a little more research and plan for a future trip.
Central America and the Caribbean
Panama has been getting more visibility lately as has El Salvador so I spent time gathering information on eco-friendly lodges, resorts and wellness getaway ideas for both countries.
The Dominican Republic was handing out a salted cod concoction!
Cooking demonstrations were part of the agenda on both days for a variety of destinations including Latin America. On Saturday, they had a Taste of the World Kid's Kitchen where Robert "Chef Bobo" Surlves and Spoons Across America engaged children in hands-on tasting and cooking classes. There were number of other cooking presentations as well, from Taiwan and South Africa to upstate New York and Lebanon.
Anguilla presented me the biggest surprise from the Caribbean Region. A place I knew so little about before the New York Times Travel Show, I left with a burning desire to visit -- after doing a little digging, it seems like an ideal location for a romantic getaway or a wellness retreat.
We love Canada and there's a ton of coverage on We Blog the World so be sure to read through the articles, which cover a variety of regions from the west to the east coast and everything in between.
We also have coverage of some of the southern Arctic region as well. As for the U.S., remember that we drove across country earlier this year, so in 2015 alone, we hit around 20 states between our trip and other side trips on both coasts separate from our journey. It's hard to say what my favorite memory was, but rest assured, there was no state that didn't hold a precious gem of some kind, whether it be blues music, food, culture, dancing, fashion, theater, thermal baths or nature.
There is a ton of coverage on our trip, which includes New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, California. If you've never done the drive, I strongly encourage it and feel free to hit us up for tips. Below, a shot of a break we took at dusk on the way from Oklahoma to Texas.
This year, hot on the list is New Hampshire, Vermont, more Upstate New York (we're biased remember) and Long Island (I've yet to really explore), Pennsylvania and North Carolina. A trip to New Orleans would also be a nice plus if there's time between our international travel.
As lame as it sounds, I only visited one booth in South America - Argentina, a country I've been wanting to visit for years.....of course, they were pouring fabulous wine wine from Mendoza on Sunday and serving cheese, crackers and salami to accompany. I love the Argentina Tourism PR and marketing team as well as the guys from Aerolineas Argentinas. One of these days, you'll find a wealth of rich photography taken on my Canon 7D from an extended stay in Argentina, so stand by.
Above, I refer to Ines Segarra as the Head of Fun for Argentina, although her official role is the Director of Tourism based out of New York. That doesn't mean I'm not paying attention to other countries on the continent.
Also high on my wish list is Peru and Colombia, although we have plenty of coverage on We Blog the World on both from other writers. At the show, I talked to a few tour operators about some of the excursions they offer to the region. I loved my time in Chile and Ecuador, including the Galapagos Islands, so be sure to read our coverage of both countries, where there are plenty of engaging stories and photography from other writers as well.
At some juncture, I want to see and experience Bolivia's Salt Flats or Salar de Uyuni in Spanish. It is located in the Daniel Campos Province in Potosí in southwest Bolivia near the crest of the Andes and they were formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is apparently covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness and is beyond surreal. While this photo is sure to blow you away, you'll find plenty of other breathtaking images on the web and on Instagram.
Photo credit: Huffington Post Below, saying YES to GLOBAL WELLNESS in the Wellness Pavilion, a new section of the show this year. (see my write-up for the specifics). Also in the Wellness Pavilion, I attended a light experience with the folks from Color Spa -- more details in the wellness travel post.
There was an entire section dedicated to fun things for kids to experience across cultures and tons of music and traditional culture.
Trade Day is simply what it says it is....the day those of us who are in the travel trade come together to learn from each other and network. It is typically held the day before the official show opens, and tourism boards, government officials, cruise lines, safari companies, hotels and resorts, chefs, authors, journalists and others in the travel biz, partake in conversations centered around marketing, sales, operations, logistics and best practices.
To give you a snapshot, I attended panels on Travel Media in the Digital Age with Facebook's Mike Rooney, PhocusWright's Lorraine Sileo, and TripIt's Lauren Moreno, a session on Wellness Travel with Anne Dimon of Travel to Wellness, Brian Povinelli of the Westin and Bonnie Levengood of MSC Cruises, and a Culinary Tourism discussion with TravelSommelier's Darren Humphreys, Parla Food's Tim Ries, Friends of the High Line Stephanie Schneiderman, and Tia Stephanie of Tours Cultural Journeys to Mexico and Colombia.
The cruise lines showed up in force and we heard from Cruise Planner's Michelle Fee, Celebrity Cruises Michelle Homoky, Wendy Whitener of Carnival, Ken Muskat of MSC, Lisa Falango of Royal Caribbean, Anthony Viviano from Princess & Cunard Line, and river cruising specialists, Cindy Christen from CroisiEurope, Cindy Sullivan from Globus, Susan Shultz from American Cruise Lines, John Restuccia from Uniworld, Chris Greco from Rauck and Kirsten Karst from AmaWaterways. Other sessions included a focus on Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America, Hawaii, Florida and National Parks.
Speaking of Florida, they had a great chef at their booth who was preparing delicious popcorn, shrimp and papaya - YUM!
I'll end with a visual of where this piece began -- below is a shot of Arthur Frommer doing the ribbon cutting on Saturday morning. Bravo and kudos to the New York Times Travel Show team. If you haven't been before, it's a must attend, so be sure to watch for announcements on next January's date and the details.
November 19, 2015
A Toast to Silence Along the Jamaican Coast...
For the second night in a row, I hadn’t bolted the door. When I woke up, I had that dizzying feeling you get when you’ve passed through too many airports in a short period of time, wondering where you were and what day it was.
There wasn’t a sound to be heard except for a distant bird’s call that didn’t remotely sound familiar. I tried to put my attention on it so my mind didn’t race off into the land of thought, the ever land of thought that never seems to shut down. What hadn’t I done the day before that still needed my attention and all the things that so often steals precious time away from the serenity that this precious island had to offer.
I was on the very same Caribbean island that I read about for the first time when I was ten, and while I hadn’t heard of Reggae or the Blues yet, the novel painted such a rich picture that I knew the rhythm and beat by heart, so much so that I imagined drums on the ceiling of my bedroom and if anyone ever asked me, I would swear they were real, as if a helicopter dropped them by night and parachuted them away the moment daylight hit.
My imagination couldn’t have been more vivid at the time and dancing colors of multiple rainbows were part of the canvas of life I painted for myself each and every day; it was a beautiful innocent time where stormy grays and dark blacks didn’t exist, not even in my mind’s eye. It was the start of my exploration of music and I so wanted to be the character in that mystery novel I can’t recall the name of, just so I could dance all night and write music all day.
I wanted braids in my hair with bright purple ribbons and to see the sun set so far south of a coast I only knew as bitter and cold. I had finally gotten to Jamaica and while I was far away from that ten year old self, I couldn’t help but wonder where the character in the book had lived and what they were doing now. After all, the character must have been based on someone’s experience a long long time ago and to this day, I’m convinced of it.
The story shaped my musical path and the kinds of destinations I gravitated to for so many years and while part of me longed to dance the night away with purple ribbons woven through soft brunette braids, this journey was to experience a different side of Jamaica….the silent side.
The breeze began to move the wooden shutters in the French doors of my room which led out onto a stone patio which faced a windy Atlantic sea. As they moved, I could see the flickering light of early morning, the sun so much brighter and warmer than what greeted me at home.
Still fatigued by a long year of travel and transition, my groggy state stumbled towards the flickering light and slowly opened the door I forgot to bolt and as I did, the wind grabbed it away from me, blowing it wide open and with it, the other side.
I stood there in my black knickers and turquoise sleeveless top with the lace v-neck top that barely showed a tan line from the day before feeling the warmth on my face, completely aware of how healing it felt. Wiping my eyes, I heard the silence within the silence as I suddenly noticed a flock of tiny little yellowish white butterflies dancing in the sky, eye level between me and the bushes in front of my cottage.
I smiled as wide as a child does every minute of the day. No more racing, I thought. No more activities, I begged. No more to-do’s, asks, demands and bills I wished. Just butterflies, the here and now butterflies before me that were as precious as an unaware newborn.
Like a newborn would, I watched them buzz around the sky as if it were the most magical fairy tale ever seen. I breathed in the sun, gazing from left to right, taking in the lush green tree to my right, the crashing waves up against the rocks ahead of me and the bright pink bourgainvillea flowers that lay scattered around the gardens. They were everywhere in Jamaica and I never grew tired of seeing them.
The beach area to my right and left was known as Treasure Beach in the St. Elizabeth Parrish, one of 14 on the island. It is called the "Bread Basket" of Jamaica in that it is most known for its farming and fishing, and provides 80% of the agriculture in Jamaica. The grass and trees were lush and green for unlike the dry arid California that continued to face a drought, rain wasn’t a stranger to this land.
The rains often hit during the afternoons in the Fall and so mornings were typically glorious, loaded with sunshine, happy birds and dancing butterflies.
Not in the mood to open a laptop or cell phone, I looked around the room for something to bring with me to the Adirondack chair on the patio since I was oh so not ready to face other people’s voices just yet.
There were two fashion magazines on my bedside table and a Holy Bible underneath the night stand, something provided by the property. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t picked up a bible in at least a couple of decades and so with a curious but wry smile on my face, I grabbed it and slowly made my way outside.
While I do believe in God, I'm equally able to connect with atheists and agnostics for the simple reason that I believe that religion and religious dogma is the root of so much pain and destruction in the world, which has resulted in more division than unity. I probably subscribe to more of a Buddhist’s view of the world than anything else perhaps and within that context, I now see the bible as a fascinating book with poetic writing that can provide masterful insights into the mind of mankind and the instincts that drive his or her ego.
I read a few passages from Matthew and while beautifully written, I felt they didn’t provide as much guidance to someone lost or in need as Pema Chodron or Ken Wilbur does, at least for me. Lost in pure reflection, I closed my eyes as I felt the sun quickly heat up as early morning made its journey to mid-morning.
The sounds began to change, as simple as the pace of the wind and the waves which continued to crash upon the shore. Jamaica is the kind of place that makes it easy to believe in God or if you really can't go there, then a Universe that will provide exactly what you need when your heart is open to receive.
As I opened my eyes, fearful if I didn’t my mind would start racing on all the things that made me a slave to life rather than me creating one, I saw once again the dancing butterflies buzzing around, unaware of time and likely unaware of thought itself. I wanted to be that butterfly, full of so much energy and beauty, knowing that it brings the same pure smile to a baby as it would a 90 year old man, and even more importantly, for the same reason.
I wondered if butterflies knew that when they finally blossomed from their caterpillar state that they had such a short life to live and in that knowing, they focused on happiness and joy through the only ways they knew how…. by dancing lightly and freely through the air. Or, like the character in my Jamaican novel, did the butterfly not realize how short its life would be but simply decided to focus on painting a new canvas of life each and every day, one that would bring them and others around them pure joy?
For my Jamaican character, it was writing music and playing drums and for the Jamaican butterflies before my eyes on that beautiful morning, it was dancing through the sky as if thought didn’t exist and never would.
Perhaps my two Jamaican experiences would overlap after all, the fictional fairytale I had only known as a child and the real one that was as memorable and precious as the story, but rather than a life filled with music, it was also filled with silence. Both were equally perfect and both swept me away into a different land, where there was no time or space for thought, but only smiles, laughter and peace.
"The World Surrenders to a Silent Mind" -- Lao Tzu
That’s what life is like when you’re truly present I reminded myself, whether it’s a storybook character or a butterfly or you shedding your own wings, ready to fly away.
I nodded in gratitude to the Jamaica before me, the silent one, the one full of soft ocean breezes, dancing butterflies and Caribbean trees. I raised my hand to the sky, as if holding a glass of wine to make a toast.
“To Silence,” I said to the swarm of Jamaican-born butterflies, so unaware of the impact they had on me on one morning in their short lives. In return, they continued to dance before me as my smile got wider and wider. And then, I went back to that innocent and precious dream where butterflies, clouds, skies, fields of grass and music were all one.
Photo credit for butterfly dream image: www.photoshopcreative.co.uk.
September 17, 2015
The Magic of Mirror Lake's Reflections at Dawn
The loons are echoing in the background and I can hear their call much louder than I can on Caroga Lake’s waters for some reason, my old stomping ground.
I’m not sure if part of it is the fact that I’m a hundred feet higher than I normally am when the loons call to me or the fact that we’re further north in the Adirondacks – either way, as I sit here reflecting on Mirror Lake’s serenity and magic, the loons are part of it all and its a beautiful thing.
Small as it is, Mirror Lake is large enough to tire your arms as you paddle from one end to the other. The loons are in the middle and along the edge. Frogs too.
I never tire of lily pads and their slimy underpinnings that keep them connected to the lake’s murky black bottom. As I slide by them in my canoe, I hear nothing but the soft sound of the paddle jolting the still waters. I bring my paddle inside the canoe and then the real magic starts….I wait a moment or two and then....nothing but silence.
Silence gives more to humanity than almost anything else I know and yet so few of us have ever been shown the beauty that lies within its oh so solo echo chamber. Within that echo chamber is a kind of fearfulness; it’s about as tangible as it gets. When all the sound and clutter disappears, we are left with nothing but ourselves and that can be a frightening thing at times.
I bring my hand under the lily pad so I can scoop one up as I did as a child and in doing so, it brings a smile. It flops down onto the bottom of the canoe as I scoop up one more. As I do, I can’t help but notice that the sky is changing.
The sun isn't quite up yet but it is fighting to make its way through the mist, through the fog, through the clouds, through the murk of dusk before the sun finally breaks. As the minutes go by, the skylight changes, and as I look around, no one has yet joined me on this mysterious and blissful journey that brings in the tranquil Adirondack dawn.
Finally, the sun emerges as naturally as water flows down a river, falling into its rightful place at 6:25 am, and then to its new rightful place at 6:45 am, 7 am, 7:21 am and so on until the lake slowly but surely wakes up to a new day. Gratitude sweeps over my body for I realize there's simply nothing more perfect than this -- and, more importantly, no time and no other place I'd rather be.
On the other side of the lake, there's no color in the sky at all. Pure mist flows left to right evenly as I spot another couple on the lake paddling as quietly as I had been doing for the past hour. It's clear that morning has broken however and I think about what the afternoon will have in store.
Even when it's a clear day, the clouds are not as bouncy and fluffy as they are in America’s mid-west, the mountains are not as luminous as they are in the Rockies or as blue as they are in the Carolina's, but they are genuinely calm in that knowing sort of way that only natives truly appreciate and understand.
We all have a knowing of the soil that enriched our earliest days on this earth and for me, it was the Adirondacks. While my hood is further south than Mirror Lake and Lake Placid, which almost border each other, and were apparently even connected 5,000 years ago, I know them both as if there were my own native waters.
The lakes on the Adirondacks share so many of the same nuances, including the crunchiness of empty snail and clam shells below your feet as you walk in shallow waters, the endless lily pads, the glow that hits the lake as dusk approaches 7 pm on a late summer evening and of course, the magic of early morning dawn on the lake when you alone take her in and she you.
If you haven’t grown up on a lake or spent a significant amount of time on one, you may not realize that every voice echoes and you can hear conversations across the water. It was one of the ways we learned about our neighbor's lives and their neighbor's lives, just as we did on the Timberlane Blueberry Farm where our family picked cans of berries religiously every late August.
It is here where you learn not just about the community around you (your brethren) but nature’s wonders, which is what ultimately opens you up to life’s happiest moments. The key is to listen carefully and be present when the paddle is moving and more importantly to the silence when it’s not. And of course, the textures beneath that silence...
The dog’s fastidious bark.
The loon’s melodious call.
The eagle’s rustling nest.
The purring motor in the fisherman’s cove.
The child’s precious and innocent laugh.
The waves crashing upon shore after a boat passes.
The woman’s call to her loved ones as dinner is near.
The snore of the old woman who fell asleep in the chair across the way.
The hum in the background that becomes so familiar, we never question what is….
The little girl who asks ‘where’s Peter?’ curious about her brother’s whereabouts five minutes after he pokes fun of her for nothing at all.
The chatter of the boys at the fire with beers in their hands before the family arrives.
The sound of a soft splash as a small child jumps off a float nearby.
It’s the sound of pure Adirondacks but if you listen to what isn't being "played", you begin to experience the sound of silence for it is here where nature rules. Nature is honored. Nature is adorned. And, nature dictates the order of the day. It is a smooth order, like following the tune of a river and the direction it is naturally designed to flow. No fighting, no conflict, no friction…..just going. Just being. Just silence.
Then, a stirring. I was becoming aware that morning was emerging and faster than I wanted it to. The sky was beginning to grace us with her precious blues and the sun was shining upon the trees so their green could truly be seen as green.
Reflections on the lake remained as perfect as they were, but the mist had given way to a bright sun that would warm our bodies while we splashed and played on the lake for the day.
I turned the boat around, back to civilization, back to where camps, a couple of hotels and homes lie scattered around her edge.
Ducks, Adirondack chairs, canoes, the transition of trees, lily pads, loons echoing off in the distance and the soft sound of waves crashing upon the shore. Pure Adirondacks.
Dusk...another muted time of day worth observing - mist turns to a soft Victorian blue, but never luminous, always calming, at least to those who know these mountains and embrace these waters.
And, just when you think that the Adirondacks is all about pine trees and furs, you're blessed with the vibrancy of local summer flowers along the side of the road or in front of someone's camp and remember that nature is not just an integral part of her glory, it IS her glory!
Dear Mirror Lake, don't forget that you are an incredible part of an Adirondack treasure. In gratitude to the luscious days you gave us.
Be sure to read some of my other articles on the Adirondacks, including a loop we took last fall (Fall of 2014), a reflective piece on Caroga Lake, a trip to Lake George, the lure of an Adirondack summer, the heart of the Adirondacks (farmlands), the Adirondacks Trap Dike Hike, Timberlane Blueberry Farm, this year's Lake Placid to reference a few.
June 09, 2015
Soaring Fees & Declining Airline Service Do More Than Disempower Customers
While I’m not a 100,000 mile gal, I spend a lot of time on planes throughout the course of a year. When it comes to flying these days, I think we can all agree -- it's a far cry from fun. Barely tolerable is what comes to mind.
Photo credit: Outsidethebeltway.com.
The saddening reality is that airlines worldwide brought in $31.5 billion in non-ticket revenue in 2013 -- including passenger fees -- which is MORE than 11 times their non-ticket revenue six years prior, adjusted for inflation according to CNN Money. Unfortunately, there's little that we can do about it. There's no plea here and our voices go unnoticed....otherwise, the price increases wouldn't continue to soar year after year, not to mention new fees being added for incredulous things.
Photo credit: Dave Granlund.com.
Customer feedback no longer matters since it's become an industry that treats people more like helpless cattle in tow than worthful customers they care about "serving." Truth be told, I haven't had a memorable and rewarding experience flying coach in about 8 or 9 years and it's getting worse.
The smile comes on the video screen welcoming you prior to take off and if a video isn't enough to make the whole experience feel less personal, I saw a recent clip where an unnamed airline actually replaced people with avatars.
During that "happy" video, you're reminded that if you didn't bring your own headset, you can get one from them for a mere $5 and that's before you have to pay for the in-flight entertainment, no longer free. I'm old enough to remember when all of the "now" perks were just part of your normal travel experience -- the headsets, the meals, the movie, changing your flight date or time and hell, American used to give away pens and decks of cards.
Meals in coach used real napkins laid out on the side of your plate and silverware -- I'm not sure how I'm going to take a pilot down with a butter knife and silver fork, but hey, clearly they're still worried about it. If it’s domestic, I oscillate between my two favorite U.S. carriers – Delta and American and if it’s international, I try to use one of their partners for the mileage points although frankly, it's becoming less compelling by the day since it's a helluva lot of work to get "status" points and once you've killed yourself on god awful flights to get them, your perks and benefits get set back to zero before you have an opportunity to relish in boarding ten minutes early and that one bag free perk.
I avoid United as they remain as anti-customer as Comcast does on the corporate brand list....the two companies should do joint seminars on how to piss off a customer the most in a one hour period.
Photo credit: www.thefinancialbrand.com
If I don't have a choice to go with a preferred airline partner for international flights, I choose an airline that is known for its service and simplifies traveling for me at a minimum, or in the rare case, doesn't penny pinch me for everything. Virgin of course is the best known in this category stateside and they just came out with a credit card deal that allows you to change your flights for no fee. Remember those days? How bliss: "Customer-driven" decisions like that make me not want to ever fly another airline. When you purchase a car, design, color and safety matter a whole lot, but at the end of the day, the emotional reason for the purpose is how great you feel when you’re driving it.
Does it add to your experience and do you enjoy getting to your destination? The same applies to an airline experience. Too many airlines think they’re in the transportation business when they're in the hospitality, service and customer experience industry, even more than a 5 star resort is and frankly, I'd argue than any other business.
That might surprise you but in a 5 star resort, I’m not counting on service non-stop for anywhere from 3 to 24 hours like I am on a flight. From movies, wine, blankets, headsets, your bag, to a fee for the privilege of sitting in a middle seat towards the front of plane or boarding a few minutes early in a line that is now longer than the regular one. I've even heard rumors that American is going to charge extra if you want to sit next to someone else, even if there are plenty of empty seats available. WTF?
In 2012, airlines raked in around $6 billion according to USA Today, and airlines made over $20 BILLION with my least favorite airline leading the way - United ($5.4 Billion) according to CNN Money. Australia's Qantas Airways made $56.21 per customer -- the highest amount in that particular survey. Apparently the revenue came mostly through selling frequent flier points to partners such as hotel chains and car rental companies.
Airlines that made the most from baggage fees in order of milking you dry (from a 2014 Marketwatch article), include Delta, United, US Air, America and Spirit. Airline fees have risen from $2.8 BILLION in 2007 to over $30 BILLION in 2013 according to CNN Money. Below is a chart pulled from the same piece - original link below the image.
Photo credit: From CNNMoney.
Years later, I still hear arguments that they have to continue to rake us through the coals because of 9/11 and they'll also argue that gas prices have gone up so they need to compensate for that too.
While that may be true, gas has also oscillated and while it was extremely high a couple of years ago, we paid $1.77 a gallon in America's Midwest this past January. And, let's be honest, ticket prices have also gone up and flights are fuller than they've ever been before - it's very rare that I have an empty seat next to me and usually I'm sharing my paid seat with someone else when they can't fit that comfortably in their own. (this happens a lot btw)
It takes the fun and the pleasure out of traveling. Travelaholics or business travelers who hang their hat on airlines frequently will admit that if we could skip the airline process to get to their destination, they would. In other words, it's the worse part of the travel process -- getting from A to B is NOT about transportation, it's about the experience you have on the way.
This is why people smile when you mention the word Virgin -- it's because Richard Branson gets it. I also had the opportunity to meet Richard's CEO of Virgin Produced Jason Felts at Idea Festival last year and he is one of the most down-to-earth souls you'll meet sitting that high at the helm -- authentic and fun! His persona and energy gives you the feeling that he actually "cares" about their customers and I'll take it a step further, their experience of the world -- inside Virgin and out.
When I fly coach, it's such an uncomfortable experience that it's often difficult to imagine the joy I'll have when I finally get Italy, South Africa, Japan or wherever my journey might be taking me. Who doesn’t want to feel great on the journey there?
The problem is that most of us haven’t felt “great” on a journey to their destination in….well, years. We've all become accustomed to airline mediocrity, being treated as cattle (harsh, but true) and nickeling and diming every object we want to use and every move we want to make. As one woman put it who was standing in the security line before me at JFK recently, “now, it’s cattle in, cattle out, and no extra brownie points for being nice to the agent even when they were rude to you."
Most airlines have lost the essence of what matters to customers and forgotten what business they’re in. Virgin gets it right most of the time even though they were forced by competition to follow suit with with some of those ridiculous charges. That said, Richard Branson understands that he’s in the “travel experience” business -- my tagline, not theirs. It makes more sense for entrepreneurs who have successfully run high end theme parks or "high touch" resorts to run an airline since their approach to service and delivering an extraordinary experience are both so far beyond the mentality of most airlines, that their airline would likely very quickly stand out as the "Purple Cow".
Branson realized he had to build in “aha” moments into the Virgin flying experience, from check in to behind the doors of the Virgin lounge and ultimately the on-board service.
There are a few airlines who can get away with being in the transportation business like Ryan Air, where service and quality matters a whole lot less since you're paying so little for such a short flight. In a short flight scenario where the best deal is the order of the day, that free cushioned blanket and not paying for that tasteless processed meal isn't your top priority.
Travel is all about the emotions and memories you have during your journey, whether it's the journey of getting to a destination or an activity at a destination itself. Think about it. The Eiffel Tower is just a structure – a very large and beautiful structure, but a structure in the middle of a city nevertheless. People have come to associate romance with this structure and as a result, there have been hundreds of proposals in front of it. The emotion that is associated with this structure is significant for many. Paris exudes romance and restaurants and hotels embrace it - it's part of the French culture.
Exceptional service and including standards like a checked bag and more than just peanuts and pretzels on longer flights MUST BE the airline industry’s romance. Service and over the top customer care is to airlines what that memorable romantic experience is to Paris and why so many people flock to this popular European city.
While 9/11 was used as the primary reason airlines started tacking on additional charges, let's face it -- that was a long time ago and business & finance sites have reported how just how well the industry is doing. The additional charges have gone from annoying to ridiculous in some cases, outlandishly absurd in others. Rather than look for ways to innovate around customer service, they have looked for more ways to nickel and dime without creating more value and "high touch" moments for the customer.
Airline service used to be amazing however frequent flyers can attest that the "lack of caring” started before 9/11. And, it's not as if airlines have been at the forefront of innovation. The same inflight magazines and barf bags line the back of the seats together with the traditional safety cards we had so many moons ago. And let’s be honest, the tray tables are cheap and flimsy and really not suitable for drinks. I remember useful cup holders on the back of some airline seats but haven't seen those in years. There's no place to put that cuppa coffee while you’re working on your laptop or even reading a book.
Rather than provide a memorable experience, what I’m left with today is a series of inconveniences, thanks to a direction that some operations head at one of the airlines started and others followed. Let’s look at a series of pissy moments I didn’t have to endure two decades ago, most of which defy logic and are nothing short of infuriating for a customer. That said, they have become so common that outlandish fees have become the status quo and we now live in a world where each trip is more painful than the last.
Photo credit: FareCompare.com.
Booking a ticket: booking through an airline rep or agent on the phone now cost a fee - not the case 20 years ago. Since when did charging for a phone call to SPEND money with a company become okay? Imagine Macy’s charging you extra to make a purchase with a live person.
Booking a ticket online: while in theory, booking online has made things easier since you can jump online at 2 in the morning and purchase a ticket which I've done often, you incur fees and all sorts of cancellation policies that now get applied to the booking site as well as the airline.
Case in point is a ticket I booked through Expedia with Delta last year. When an emergency came up, I needed to change the ticket date and time from a flight from JFK to San Francisco. Expedia informed me that I needed to pay a fee to them as well as a fee to Delta for the change fee, on top of whatever the difference in fare was. After a whole lotta digging, I learned that the very same flight at the very same time 5 days later had many more seats than the original flight I was on, however the change fee for my $318 flight was slated to be $298.
When I looked at booking a new flight for that same route, there was only $14 difference in fare, and yet what I would be faced with was cost of a brand new ticket.
Blankets: Seriously? I once had a stewardess on United slip me a blanket saying she couldn’t bear to charge me because she found it so insidious. While I’m not a United fan, be assured that I have never forgotten that magic moment. Even though I still won’t choose to fly United because of so many previous bad experiences, she was a standout and her "out-of-the-box" attitude should be applauded, a rarity in the airline business today. Imagine a hotel charging for blanket and pillow use?
Headphone Charges: See above. Are you kidding? It is any wonder that there's hundreds of articles out there begging the question, “what’s next on the nickel and dime me menu? Toilet paper or the privilege to use the bathroom?” Oh yeah, lest not forget I can keep them, like I need 25 flimsy plastic headsets at home. At the very least, they don't charge you for using your own though it's probably on someone's list.
Change Fees: In the “we still care about customer service” days, we never had to pay for standby for same day flights if a seat was available in your class. Today, regardless of availability or the situation (see bullet 2 for an example of defying logic), you pay a change fee plus the difference in fare – same day, different day or anything in between. Bravo to Virgin for nuking that rule if you sign up for their latest credit card - oh so very smart! Doesn't it just warm your heart to hear that?
Additional Leg Room Charges: Remember the days when you could move to a better seat if space was available on the plane? Even if something is open in the emergency row or a preferred section (which it never is anymore), you can no longer sit there without incurring an additional $50 fee. Shouldn't seat leg room (and chair room) be ample to sit comfortably for a long haul?
Seats Are Getting Smaller And Yet: See above. It’s so politically incorrect to ask, but have the seats gotten smaller or are too many of us getting larger and larger? When I've raised this issue to other travelers and travel writers, they all agree that I shouldn't publicly bring this up because of the sensitivity around it.
Even if that's the case, if we don't discuss it openly, how can we come to a politically correct resolution? If someone is so large that I have to share part of my space with them in a way that is uncomfortable, then I no longer have a full seat even if I paid extra for that seat in Economy Plus. If I should be forced to pay more for a seat that is simply closer to the front of the plane, shouldn’t I pay less for less than a full seat? It may sound insensitive, but we need to figure out politically correct ways to handle this moving forward, sensitive or not.
More $$$ To Sit Closer to the Front: See above. Beyond absurd, they have created a "class" that applies to sitting closer to the front of the plane even if it's a middle seat – yes a middle seat with no additional leg room.
Paying More for a So Called Better Seat -- What About Paying Less For A Lousy One? If the airline thinks that sitting in a middle seat closer to the front should cost more, what about charging less for the aisle seat right next to the toilet or galley?
Let’s be honest - these are lousy seats, from dealing with the foul smell from the bathroom to the noise and chaos around the bathroom from the door constantly opening and closing. If they’re so hell bent on charging more for a middle seat closer to the front with no added leg space, why not charge less for a crappy seat where you can’t sleep or get any work done or if you get stuck in the back?
Wifi: Seriously, $30 for a flight? For those of you have used the various services know, wifi is rarely reliable for the entire flight. I have had so many touch and go issues with GoGo that I've been too frustrated to write about it yet. The codes either don't work or when they do work, I'm connected but then thrown off 15 minutes or an hour later.
Meals: The worse thing about meals on airlines today isn't even the extra charges even though we never paid for food 20 years ago either. Most of the food is processed or junk food (chips, nuts, processed meat and cheese and candy bars) and they charge a lot of money for the privilege of eating packaged food infused with sucralose, high fructose corn syrup, sugar and too many other unmentionables not worth naming.
For those who eat healthy and eating healthy is an important and integral part of your life, eating on airplanes today is a non-starter unless you're in First Class or bring your own meal on board. Europe still “gets it” and hasn’t dropped to American airline food “flight” standards, at least not yet….
Drinks: Most airlines now charge more for a beer or glass of wine than at a pub or bar, even from an expensive city. And, the prices for the cheap labels they serve keep going up.
Baggage Fees: Fees, fees and more fees. Now of course, you can often get your first bag for free if you gladly hand $100 or more a year for the privilege of spending money on their credit card.
Inflight Entertainment: Now, not only do we have to pay to see movies, but we often have to pay for each movie. The same applies to television. I was on a recent flight whose airline name I’ll omit, and on the TV menu, I had to pay $4-6 per episode.
TV used to be free for unlimited viewing and you never had to pay for a movie or the fee for a cheap plastic headset. In some cases, you can buy a bundle deal for a longer flight, but it's not cheap, especially if you have fidgety children at your side.
Arguing with Airline Staff About Why X is Wrong or Some Hidden Fee: while we may have add to endure a frustrating moment when our flight was cancelled, delayed or we were re-routed, airlines used to sort it out and even apologize profusely for the inconvenience.
Even when it wasn’t a technical issue, you were sent to a nearby hotel and given a meal voucher – in other words, you felt understood and cared for, and that they felt sorry for the situation, which can sometimes result in missing a family reunion, an important birthday gathering, wedding, business meeting or worse. I chatted with about a dozen people on a recent flight who were over 35 but under 60 (it was a long delay) and I was disheartened by their countless horror airline stories.
Perhaps there should be an "Airline Stress Tax" that gets reimbursed to the flyer? The toxic stress you often endure from flying is significant and has a price and yet airlines don’t seem to put a value on it. Trust me, frequent flyers do and, they are, but sadly there are few options today if any that make flyers feel empowered as a customer.
As extreme as you might think my bullets are, I’m simply trying to prove a point. These insidious add-ons have become so commonplace that we forget how emotional taxing each and every one is and how the combination of all of them has moved us out of an era of great service, something America was once notorious for, and into an era which focuses solely on increasing corporate profits over customer joy. A couple of exceptions are worth noting, something that would have been a normal airline customer experience in the past.
Sometime in the last six months, I ended a business meeting early in New York and wanted to get back to the west coast early. The thought of enduring the “fee” process or even calling to find out how ridiculous the additional charge would be, I decided not to make the call because of the stress involved in doing so, so simply headed to the airport instead. An odd thing happened. I was interjected in the queue by an overly friendly Delta representative who asked what flight I was waiting to check in for and when I explained that I had hoped to get on an earlier flight but wasn’t optimistic for all the reasons outlined above, he opened up a closed gate which led me immediately to a private area.
When I reached the service agent, I was checked into the earlier flight (4 hours before my original one) without getting out my wallet. A new boarding pass printed out with an aisle seat (my preferred choice) very close to the front on the 1 pm. No fee or some saga story about "it's our policy, I don't make the rules." What happened? I pinched myself not believing it was real and that I had somehow been transported back in time to a more formidable time.
Getting home earlier that day transformed my week given the grueling schedule I had gone through the previous ten days. I remember a time when it was simply a standard protocol for how an airline took care of their customers, an era where we weren’t nickeled and dimed for every transaction and every move, an era where we felt as if we mattered and our repeat business mattered.
A similar situation happened with American Airlines a week later when my baggage was 5 pounds overweight and the gleeful service agent let it slide. I was stressed about it for two days before my flight knowing that my bag for that trip would be heavier than most since I was heading to Vermont to review a ski resort and the temperatures were slated to be in the teens.
Most of the time, my bag weighs in at between 35 and 42 pounds, so why shouldn’t that one trip with a slightly heavier bag slide? In the above two cases, both service reps decided to let "policy" slide which resulted in memorable airline moments and a more loyal customer.
Maybe the Delta rep saw how exhausted I was and maybe the American Airline ticket counter agent liked my smile or saw that I had just taken an American flight three days prior, OR maybe they are just rare individuals who don’t think of their roles as airline employees but as vehicles for customer happiness. (Note my current frequent flyer status on Delta is significantly higher than American)
There is a huge value to be placed on a happy customer, a loyal one who will not just come back again and again but sing their praises when they're not flying. Most airlines have lost sight of who and what they represent as a business. When brands have been around for awhile, they can become complacent. Look at how god awful United’s brand was for years and while avid travelers still complain about them, their image has somewhat improved, but only marginally so.
Most people know the story of Canadian musician David Carroll whose guitar was broken by United -- on YouTube as of writing this, his protest song has received nearly 15 million views.
As for soaring fees and service going down the drain, it appears that customers are powerless at changing the current status quo. The first shot in the war over bag fees came in May of 2008, when American Airlines announced it would be the first legacy carrier to impose a “first checked-bag” fee (Spirit and Allegiant had such a fee at least as early as 2007 from the research I've dug up).
According to a useful article on airline fees from Christopher Elliott (link below under useful resources), the North American airline industry collected an estimated $8.2 billion last year for just fees for items such as checked baggage, premium seat assignments and early boarding privileges — a $700 million increase from 2013.
Isn't it time that these rules got reversed?
A question to the airlines heads making these “fee” decisions at home base: do you want to be seen as a transportation company that gets a customer painfully from A to B or would you like to be in the “ultimate experience” business, creating memorable moments for your customers in the way that Zappos has done so successfully over the years? The airline who truly figures this out will transform the travel experience forever.
Useful Articles on Airline Fees
- How Refundable Are Airline Fees from Elliot.org: http://elliott.org/the-navigator/refundable-airline-fees-not-much/#more-35966
- Airline Fees Are Out of Control But Who Can Stop Them: http://elliott.org/blog/airline-fees-are-out-of-control-but-who-can-stop-them/
- Are Airline Fees Being Properly Disclosed? http://elliott.org/blog/are-airline-fees-being-fairly-disclosed/
- Are Airline Fees Anti-Family? http://elliott.org/blog/are-new-airline-fees-anti-family/
- Maybe we should stop calling them Airline Tickets: http://elliott.org/is-this-a-scam/maybe-we-should-stop-calling-them-airline-tickets/
- 2010: Spirit Airlines breaks a new bag barrier by imposing a carry on bag fee (something Rick Seaney predicted one of the airlines might do, nearly a year before it happened)
- 2008: In August, JetBlue announces it will charge $7 for a pillow and blanket (but you can keep them, like I really want 25 of these at home after a year's tally of flights)
- 2008: US Airways begins a highly criticized practice: charging for all drinks (including water, coffee, and soda)
- 2009: US Airways stops charging for all drinks (mainly because no other airline dared join them)
- 2009: Airlines began adding surcharges to tickets for “peak travel days” in September of ’09; originally this surcharge was imposed on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holiday periods.
- A great article on airline fees across most airlines from AirFareWatchDog: http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/blog/3801087/airline-fee-chart.html
- Airline Fees Ultimate Guide (another great resource from SMARTER TRAVEL -- you can even download as a PDF): http://www.smartertravel.com/blogs/today-in-travel/airline-fees-the-ultimate-guide.html?id=2623262
March 20, 2015
Reflections on the East Coast West Coast Thing...
Preparing oneself mentally for leaving America's East Coast and its way of viewing the world is something I've done six times now, the first transition was to America's south, followed by Arizona and southern California and then, a few overseas stints where I lived in a variety of luxury, shacks and working class suburbs. In between, I hung my hat in villages, on a kibbutz, along the coast and amidst urban decay and sprawl.....I did it all.
Above, rural Virginia in all its glory, on a cold and brisk winter day.
Then, after many years doing what I was told in the Boston corporate world, I stored a three bedroom house in some warehouse in New Jersey and drove west in a silver Honda Accord named Hamilton with a kayak rack on its top. That was a decade ago. He's still with me btw and purring along.
Above, Boston's Charles River at dusk in the days when I lived there, not long before I moved west.
When you're born and bred in New England, East Coast roots are what you understand, what you know and connect to and the soil you want to touch when the tides are down, at least that's how it is for most people. I cried as I drove north on Route 128, for what I thought would be the last time, in a very long time. The car was packed, oozing with stuff I later would never need but couldn't part with at the time, and I looked like a young and modern version of a Beverly Hillbilly daughter, except with more miles under her belt.
I was bound for Canada since I was always one for choosing the path less taken and certainly zigzagging north and south over borders was one such way to do just that.
I could have taken Route 66 of course but I figured I had decades to tackle that one. Perhaps when I was old and gray and could whiz across in a slick purple aerodynamic RV just because I could?
En route, I was open to landing somewhere else other than San Francisco if another place spoke to me with more clarity, Portland and Seattle being on the top of my list, mainly for its access to some of the most beautiful mountains and scenery on America's west coast. My alternative route brought me into Canada, where I lost my radar detector during a police stop (who knew they were no no's in the Maple Leaf country?), before I then ventured south again through Wisconsin and Minnesota, both of which I loved.
It was summer, so fishing and camping were the order of the day, all of which I resonated with growing up in the Adirondack Mountains. (below a shot taken from this past fall of a trip through the Adirondacks - sunset at Caroga Lake).
I headed north again before making a central b-line through parts of Kansas, both Dakotas, Idaho and Montana. There I spent time in the land of the free where I discovered the solitude of America's western lands -- the nothingness of the plains where you could hear a pin drop and the air was quiet one minute and menacing the next. Ahhh yes, a decade ago.
I was younger then. I had visions of wearing a cowboy hat and boots with faded torn jean shorts and a stylish checked shirt that fit tightly but appropriately across my chest. Silver cuffs hung from my right wrist and a funky leather watch with an antiquated plate hung from my left. My visions included sitting at the counter of some $1 a coffee midwest diner with a girlfriend who was similarly dressed so we didn't look too out of place in a town we knew nothing about.
Later, we'd tackle some dive bar where Harley Davidson addicts would play pool around us while we drank $3 tequila shots and listened to Rock from our time on some worn out juke box. All of this, in a place where no one knew our names. Pure bliss.
I was alone for part of this trip and with random friends on other parts - they'd fly into a designated city and I'd pick them up until I dropped them off at an airport in a different state and continue on my journey. I learned oddball things about the country all the way across this big vast land.
I drank wine in Idaho by night and hiked by day, chowed down on hamburgers in small towns, tried local brew beer, picked blueberries, and wrote poetry with Craters of the Moon as my backdrop. I sat on haystacks in Wisconsin and laid my head among tall grass while one hung between my teeth as I looked up to a clear blue sky. I had a solo picnic behind a church steeple in a deserted ghost town that has barely changed a wink since it was first built in 1880.
I dreamed of a movie script I'd write one day as I laid my eyes on the magical never-ending Badlands for the first time.
I pissed on South Dakota soil, listened to youthful rock bands play in pubs till 2, tried karaoke against my better judgment, sampled whiskey during a bowling match in a place I can't remember the name of, and went bareback horseback riding in Washington State. I discovered Blodgett Oregon and sat in its library doing family research before landing in Portland where my first stop was the city's finest chocolate shop. Clearly, I had my priorities in tow on that trip.
This trip would surely be different. Not only was it winter this time around, but my perspective on life had changed after spending so many years on the untamed risk-taking west coast. That trip so many moons ago, felt more youthful somehow, but the fact that I was ten years younger was only part of the equation. The goal was to move states and to one about as far as I could go to from Massachusetts. As a crow flies, it was roughly 2,700 miles although I took so many detours, I probably added another 1,000 to the trip in the end.
Portland or Seattle didn't call loud enough and San Francisco was where I ultimately landed. Ahhh yes, a decade ago.
Over the past year and a half, I spent more time on the East Coast than not and my heritage and all of the memories that go with it, wrapped its way around me like a little girl's arms do to an adult leg during the shyest of moments. It wasn't a bad thing. It's not as if it called me back for good, but in all the most beautiful ways, my time there reminded me of the things I love about the Atlantic side of this Yankee land and just how different its people are from those I've been working and playing with for so many years of late.
Truth be told, I love the East Coast. I love the way people talk, their philosophical canter, their humor and wit, their directness, the way they look into your eyes rather than past them when they talk to you and their authentic honesty when you need it most. Some of you will disagree with the last one since New Englanders are known for being more discreet and conservative than West Coasters.
But, somehow I always managed to draw the truth out of my East Coast friends and when I needed raw honesty and perspective, I asked for it - hard and direct, the way we do in New York. And so, on a very cold but clear day in mid-January of this year, I set off on another drive across country to help another "life" move. We had a small apartment to clear out and despite its size, it still involved packing dozens of boxes and stacking a car full of more, not to mention loading up a large Yakima cargo box that sat on the top of a five year old gray Chevy Pontiac we named Vinny that was set to make the long journey.
Oddly enough, I felt somewhat melancholy about the departure, not unlike I did a decade ago even though my place was still on the west coast. There was something nostaglic about it and familiar - I had gone through this before and while last time, it was leaving a home behind, this time, it was leaving months of a different life behind, a life filled with diners who proudly served homemade chicken noodle and matzo ball soup, bagel and pizza shops on every corner and crisp cool evenings where we'd take late afternoon walks past the Long Island Sound.
The sunsets at times were even glorious. The below shot was taken in the Bronx, crossing the bridge to City Island at sunset this past fall.
Yet, it's a much harder life in New York, something I had forgotten since living in San Francisco for a myriad of reasons those who have left it behind, well know.
People tend to harder. There's always an edge. Traffic is busier. Prices are higher. The pace is faster. Houses are smaller. Jobs are more hectic. The demand is more intense. Schools are more crowded. Climate is harsher. Getting things done takes longer. And so on. But...it was a way of life I knew so well because it was part of my DNA - after all, I first learned how to walk on New York soil.
Nostalgic as it was, we were eager to drive towards warmer pastures, calmer waters, gentler voices....and skies where serenity is the order of the day. To a place where priorities are not about doing but about being. With that frame of mind, we made our way out of the Bronx after one final stop that had to be made -- Dunkin Donuts on Bruckner Boulevard. Sipping our piping hot coffees quietly, we made our way across the George Washington Bridge for the last time in our as unpretentious as they get Pontiac.
It was a bitter cold, but clear day. Snow, sleet or rain didn't get in our way and we missed a New York City blizzard by less than a week. 104.3 played on the radio in the background and we stirred gently as we made our way across the New Jersey border - moving in the car was a bit of a challenge given how packed it was and it wasn't until we hit Virginia that we were able to shuffle things around to make for more comfortable living quarters, for that is precisely what Vinny would become for the next month on the road.
We passed smokestacks in Newark, and made our way south to Pennsylvania taking in its like-winter skies along the way.
Covington Virginia too had smokestacks, a not-so-common sight in the industrial East Coast where manufacturing plants still thrive.
When we reached Maryland, we were greeted with yellow and soft peach skies set against bare winter trees.
West Virginia skies at dusk were similar, as were its trees and hills. Misty. Dreamy. Cold. Clear. Soft.
Through the car window en route.
The skies would get even more dramatic before night's end.
Our first stop was the Omni Homestead in Hot Springs Virginia and yes, it was rural and yes, it was surrounded by thermal hot springs, a perfect healing remedy after a long tiring drive from an urban sprawl. Read my extensive write-up on We Blog the World on the oh so traditional Omni property, the stunning wildlife and acreage surrounding it and the infamous Warm Springs Baths and Pools where Thomas Jefferson himself soaked to heal his aching body.
While still brisk in the evening, arriving in Virginia was a lovely reality check that the Bronx was no longer in our rear view mirror and the bitter cold New York winter was behind us. Alas, we hadn't seen a Dunkin Donuts since morning. Our drive from Virginia would mostly be rural. It was the first of many rural drives to come on our long journey through middle America.
The eastern part of the country with its wide open spaces and hills, would soon open up to glorious trees and peaks when we hit the edge of the renowned Shenandoah mountain range.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of greeting Virginia's stunning Shenandoah mountains, it spans 73 miles long across Virginia and West Virginia. The steep, narrow, sandstone-capped ridge extends from northern Bath County in Virginia to southern Hardy County in West Virginia.
The stretch serves as a haven for both family vacations and romantic getaways alike. There's plenty of hiking as you'd expect, but what you may not expect to find are vineyards, breweries and of course the nearby hot springs. The Blue Ridge Whiskey-Wine Loop is a self-guided tour of some of the loveliest vineyards in several counties in Virginia's central Valley. And, of course, the drive is breathtaking with plenty of views along Route 40 as well as numerous side roads you can take for a variation to the main road.
Reflections aside, we were well on our way to a month long journey that would forever transform our lives, as all trips of this nature tend to do. And, most importantly, we were ready. It was time and we couldn't wait to embrace the wide open road ahead of us.
This is the first post of many that covers our cross country trip -- while we crossed 15 states, our coverage can be found on the following We Blog the World state pages where we spent time: Virginia, Tennessee (Nashville, Memphis), Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico (Santa Fe) Arizona and California. The coverage will span from late March through June 2015. Also be sure to read our extensive write-up on Massachusetts from last summer which includes the North Coast, Boston and Cape Cod. Don't ask us for our favorite state because they were all truly magical and each place has its own known -- and unknown -- gems.
Photos: Renee Blodgett
November 24, 2014
On Japanese Quirks: Getting Over the Tokyo "Thing"
I spent a few weeks in Tokyo, the well recognized global city most frequent travelers have been to more than once. For this well-traveled chica, it was my first trip, largely since I had been told for years how hard it is to get around as well as how expensive it is to get around.
People also talked about the language barrier and truth be told, none of these stereotypes should scare a long time traveler and for some reason, between the stories and the radiation in the north, I put Japan on hold for awhile.
In just a few days, after nearly losing my cool getting lost five times in Shibuya's massive maze of a station, I fell in love with this renowned global Asian city.
First of all, a few surprises for the record. Formal But Genuine Friendliness: I was astonished how friendly people were despite the language barrier. Regardless of whether I was pointing to my map trying to get directions from a subway station to a restaurant or shop, or simply saying hello, I was greeted by a warm smile and a concerted effort to help even if they didn't speak any English at all.
One day as I flew forward in an effort to catch a fabulous shot in the north of Tokyo, I ended up face first on the ground, my camera lens thankfully was still in tact when I finally looked up. What wasn't in tact was my knee, which had lost a chunk of skin and was bleeding profusely. I tried to ignore this little incident because there were far too many photos to take and food to try, however a few women nearby came to my aid by pulling out band aids and antiseptic from their purses and offering them to me.
They wouldn't leave me alone until they were sure that my wound was covered and I was happily on my way. A similar thing happened in the airport on the way to Tokyo.
A Japanese woman sitting near me before we were due to board, noticed that I was shivering from JFK's overly active air conditioning system. She grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders, which not only took me by surprise, but for a moment, I thought I was in a small village and not an international city airport.
The act brightened up my day and frankly, my long flight ahead. It's All In the Order & The Details: Japanese people really care about the details. From great design to clean lines, I found things in order nearly everywhere I went, from prestine hotel rooms to efficient sushi bars.
The shops were also well organized and I always felt like I was being "treated" after leaving a shop where I had purchased something, a bit like upscale shops in Paris make you feel after you've parted with your money. They also know how to present themselves....well.
Whether it's women and girls in beautifully presented komonos or men in white business shirts who still looked good while they were drinking in a bar hours after they left work, it was a joy to see given how sadly accustomed I've gotten to the logoed t-shirts and jeans look in Silicon Valley.
Hair Cuts & Styles: Clean cut, design and sharp angles are the order of the day. I found this to be true in both women and men. They're also not afraid of going wild with color, which I love!
Hair salons were literally everywhere and reasonably priced compared to American standards. I had the feeling that you'd get higher quality stylists for about 30% less than New York or San Francisco for average ones.
Heated Toilet Seats: I'd be remiss if I didn't give Japan's toilet seats its own category. Heated and overly technical toilet seats were literally everywhere. I found them in restaurants, hotel rooms, and even shops. It's not just that they're heated, but there are several modes you can choose from for a variety of things, including the power level of your flush. You can do a soft flush or a more powerful flush depending on what is needed. It's certainly efficient although I have to admit, I was confused on more than one occasion and just wished it could read my mind and take care of the flush for me.
Great Restaurant Ambiance Inside & Out: I loved the restaurant scene. Aside from the sushi bars which you could find throughout the city, there were other more classic places where you could combine a cooked meal experience with music. Take Kuriya Restaurant in Tokyo for example, which also offers jazz on selected evenings.
Not far from the Omote-Sando area (a ten minute walk away), I discovered this cute little Japanese restaurant with the following entrance. You feel more like you're going to enter a garden than a restaurant and the inside was equally as charming, with plants scattered throughout.
Remember that its a global city so despite the fact that there are boat loads of traditional Japanese restaurants, sushi and noodle bars, you can find many ethnic restaurants, more popular in some neighborhoods more than others.
Not far from the Yushimi subway stop in the north of Tokyo, I discovered Dela, a quaint little French restaurant that served up crock pots of cheese and onion soup and had a fairly extensive list of French wines, including a Bordeaux I was happy to sip slowly throughout the night.
Japanese but modern is Uotaru Restaurant on Kasuga Street in northern Tokyo.
Fun Side Streets & Alleyways: The world is but a maze in Tokyo where you can literally find an interesting side street or alleyway off a larger street in nearly every neighborhood. The following side street is near Asakusa - note the chaos, but also the culture and the color.
Below is taken near Shinjuku.
Quirky Bright Objects: Because of their love of all things electronics and entertainment, it shouldn't be a surprise to find nearly life size brightly colored statues and objects throughout the city. Of course, they're not everywhere, but in more populated areas, you'll spot things like this. This was taken near Cat Street, a widely known shopping street where hipsters hang out.
The bright and the loud extends beyond objects onto city walls. The below shot was taken in another popular shopping area - Takeshita Street.
Martial Arts & Theater: It goes without saying of course, but Tokyo has its fair share of martial arts and decadent costuming. Theatre is also celebrated and there are options throughout the city where you can see classic performances.
Color: I've mentioned color quite a few times, but it shows up in places you'd least expect it such as the choice of paint for a building that would have remained gray in another city. Because the Japanese love gardens, there always appears to be flowering plants peaking around every building.
The Tokyo Tower Et Hem The Japanese Eiffel Tower: The Tokyo Tower was obviously inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Despite being taller than the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower only weighs about 4,000 tons, 3,300 tons less than the Eiffel Tower.
The below shot was taken while I was whizzing by in a car, so it doesn't look as grandiose as it looks in real time.
Size Matters: While you might think that London's Picadilly Circus or New York's Times Square are massive and confusing, they are country sisters compared to Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya's districts.
Overwhelming at first, you'll soon find yourself like a kid in a candy store, intrigued by the size and choice of colors throughout the city. Below is taken in the Shinjuku area.
Here is a video I shot walking through Shinjuku late at night.
Diversity in a Homogeneous Kind of Way: While on the surface, it appears that everyone looks like they're from Japan and its population even in Tokyo, is not as mixed as you'd expect, people are very individualized, expressing themselves in creative ways that make them stand out from the crowd, rather than blending into it.
I wondered if part of this wasn't because of the former generation's more traditional expectations and that the subsequent generations are wanting to set an example. There are several books out about this including The Lost Generation.
It's Not As Traditional As You Think: While there are plenty of traditional restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, in the hipper neighborhoods like Omote-Sando and Shibuya where hipsters crawl the streets till the wee hours of the morning, I discovered many more cosmopolitan cafes where you could as easily be in New York.
Funky Fashion: I LOVED the fashion in Tokyo even though a lot of it isn't necessarily a fit for my own personal style. Color exudes....everywhere. From shoes to komonos to more modern shirts and dresses.
White Gloves, Hats & Umbrellas Everywhere: Women take their skin seriously throughout Japan, not just Tokyo. Wherever you go, you'll find them wearing long white gloves to protect their arms from the sun.
Every woman seems to wear a hat, which means that the hat stores in this country are incredible. I bought three hats in Japan and didn't intend to buy any - love love love them.
The best hat store was one I discovered on the main drag at the Asakusa Market and yes, I did leave with one from his shop. Umbrellas are also incredibly popular and you'll find women carrying them everywhere for protection from the glaring sun.
Bikes Everywhere & None of Them are Locked: I kept expecting someone to show up from around the corner of a shop, someone who was dedicated to watching all of the unlocked bikes in the street that is. Everywhere I went, regardless of neighborhood, I found unlocked bikes everywhere. Apparently bicycle theft isn't a problem - how unusual for a global city but also refreshing. It reminded me of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen.
Safety and...Unattended Children: Unlocked bikes throughout the city brings me to safety. The other shocking thing was how many children I kept running into who were unattended.
Even in boisterous places like Omote-Sando, I saw small kids in their school uniforms, walking alone. They'd have their cell phones with them, backpacks on their backs and confident in their stature as if they knew exactly where they were going and hadn't a care in the world.
Shibuya Madness: Shibuya is as mad as everyone says it is. Regardless of whether you're there by day or night, it's a massive maze that can be confusing even for those without the language barrier. That said, it's a fascinating place to get lost and there are some fascinating shops and restaurants in the streets surrounding the main square.
Even if you hate crowds, you must go there for the experience regardless. Despite how many cities I've been to around the world, this one had me in awe again and again, each and every time I went there, which was a few times before my cruise and a few times after I returned to Tokyo.
Prestine Gardens: Does every Japanese citizen grow up caring about gardens? It appears so since I found plants outside of nearly every apartment or home regardless of neighborhood and they were all manicured.
The below prestigious and well kept gardens at the 5 star Otani Hotel is another example of where it extends to public places as well, which are not public or private parks. I stayed at the Otani and absolutely loved it.
Incredible Service: Prestine gardens and great cafe for nature (and things) extends to the service the Japanese provide. While the 5 star Otani Hotel in Tokyo may have been over the top in graciousness and service, the Keio Plaza Hotel, where I stayed for the last couple of nights, is a four star hotel that makes American four stars look like two stars.
Below two employees help me with my luggage, grabbing it the moment I walked through the door. Later, BOTH of them escorted me up with my luggage, asking me if there's anything else they could help me with again...and again.
Below, like everywhere I went, I was greeted with the warmest of smiles at breakfast one morning.
Speaking of Breakfast: Breakfast buffets in Japanese hotels are incredible. I could never understand why Americans would opt for the hotel restaurant that had American and western choices, when you could get the display of delicious Japanese options that are on offer. Have a look.
Bottled Drinks and Cigarettes EVERYWHERE: At first, I found myself hoarding bottled water every time I left one destination for another, because of how hot it was in Tokyo over the summer.
I later learned that this was a useless exercise since there are bottled drink machines literally on every corner. The great thing about them is that they're inexpensive as well. For around $1 or $1.20 a pop, you can get bottled water, iced teas, juices and sodas in a nano-second every time you're thirsty. It was one of my favorite things about the city.
The Electronics Thang: I'd be missing an important part of Tokyo culture if I didn't mention the electronics insanity of Tokyo.
There are a few neighborhoods that are worth exploring for electronics and one of them is in and around Shinjuku, which by the way, is a stone's throw from the Keio Plaza Hotel.
The other one is the notable Akihabara Electronic City, which is home to the world's largest electronics and electronics consumer goods in the world. Offerings range from appliances to computers and everything in between.
City Boat Rides from North to South: Not everyone I spoke to knew about this which I found surprising, but you can catch boats and cruisers from north to south and south to north, which is a great way to see parts of Tokyo not easily accessible by train or foot.
Some of the views from my boat ride, which only lasts around 20-30 minutes each way.
Hipster Shopping & Movies in Roppongi: I discovered this neighborhood and shopping area by accident despite the fact that its a very well known urban hang out in the city, by both locals and tourists. Roppongi has a massive shopping center that is open late - below is the view of the ceiling and surrounding area as you come down the escalator.
Sense of Honor: Honor is a big part of Japanese culture, which is in Tokyo as well. People respect elders and there is a gentleness and polite formality to nearly every exchange you have. I even noticed it with taxi drivers, which I found astounding.
The service felt more like I'd find from a limo driver than a standard taxi driver. Americans and the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from Japan's generosity and hospitality.
Random Festivals Without Warning: I love this about Tokyo and Japan in general. You'll find random festivals and parades when you least expect it. Below is the Shinjuku Eisa Festival, celebrated in part by a parade with dancers and drummers. It was incredible. I wrote a separate write up on the festival, so be sure to read it which includes a video of what I saw.
Did I leave anything out? What are some of the quirky and fun cultural things you experienced in Tokyo? Share below.
November 23, 2014
The Paris That I Never Seem to Tire Of...
I'm in a taxi whizzing down Boulevard de Magenta, one of those wider than normal Parisian streets. There are cheap shops where you can buy mobile phones, bags and wedding dresses in the windows on both sides and you wonder what surprise will come around the next corner.
We pass a sign for a Bach concert at one of the music halls, somewhere around Place de Clichy. My driver hangs a right on Rue de Rocroy and the street gets narrower. Small shops, a coiffure Mixte, a few not so stellar looking 2 star hotels, a cafe brasserie and tabac on every corner, a nail salon and a few optique stores for glasses. In my rear view mirror, I see travel agent and pharmacy signs as we weave in and out of even more narrow alleys and roads.
The meter is escalating and I can't help but think of the sign that had prefix prices for certain districts of the city. He is miserable and not worth the fight despite his fabulous taste in classical music which he has blaring from some device in the front seat I can't see. Salt and pepper, a sharp nose, no smile. He refuses to smile in fact and he hates that I am paying by credit card.
It was the first Sunday of the month and the sky was hazy but the day was warm, a rarity on Paris visits. I originally had plans to get out of Paris for the day with a friend, take in some gardens and have a picnic in a park however after the plans fell through, I changed course and decided after a taxi towards a more remote spot on the Seine, I would begin to walk and keep walking until the sun set.
One of my favorite things to do is meander through Paris without a clear purpose and just see what shows up. I had started my morning in a funky part of the Marais, where art and graffiti were plastered across walls before jumping into the cab. As the desire to see more nature and less people increased, it was time to move towards the water. And so....I asked the driver to stop on the Seine where there were very few people.
A couple of hours go by and I'm swept with gratitude as I sat along the Seine on that warm afternoon. I received a message at 5 am that same morning from an acquaintance who had just finished a ten day meditation retreat and I couldn't help but wonder during those reflective hours if I could do something like that knowing how hard it is to shut my mind down. He had asked me how often I meditated and I began to reflect on what meditation meant to me.
A meditative state for me isn't necessarily a specific place and time I dedicate to silence and breath but more of a state of being, one which I find hard to do in Silicon Valley, yet can so easily be brought into the moment I leave.
With a SIM card in my phone that gives me the ability to text or call, I purposely put it away deep into the bottom of my purse. Instead of the rings, beeps and web page loading distracting me, I listen to the sounds of Paris amidst the haze of the sky.
Most shops are closed, yet locals and tourists alike buzz past me on roller blades and bikes while boats zip past them making their way under each bridge that crosses the Seine as far as my eye can see.
From there, I figured I would pop into the Pont Neuf metro stop on the 7 line and keep going until some visual or sound suggested I get off - I love days like that when you don't have to be anywhere else other than towards what moves you in a given moment.
Despite my miles of walking, it still felt like a blissfully lazy day. Paris has a way of making even the most unconscious present, for her sounds, textures, smells and historical colors have a way of weaving you into her storyboard, inviting you to share her glory with everyone you encounter after you leave her soil. While her spell is cast on you, you become conscious of all of 'her' grandeur, including the most intricate details. A family rides by on bikes, a bright yellow balloon fixated to the boy's handlebars, an elderly couple walks their Jack Russell, a blue-eyed blonde blades past me alone followed by a dark handsome 30 something year old with Caribbean features.
A gray haired man in his sixties with a professor-like beard sets up shop nearby and pulls out a mahogany hard bound leather book and while I can't make out the text, my guess is that he's reading some Eastern European dialect. My gut says he's Hungarian.
Yanks walk past me with day packs, a baggy t-shirt hangs loosely over the older man's overweight middle. A brunette with a fabulous brown leather sachet strolls by ever so pensively.
She stops and then...pauses. As she looks out over the river, she pulls out a notebook and writes something down. Then, she raises her face, glances over at me and gives me a smile before tucking her notebook in a side pocket and moving along on her journey to who knows where. I wonder where for quite awhile until that thought was interrupted by a falling chestnut which landed near my right leg. The fallen chestnut dangled off the lengthy stone stair I had been sitting up against for hours.
As I continue to watch a very eclectic world drift by, an out of breath man and his daughter get off their scooters and begin to walk them along the main path that runs along the river.
A Chinese couple and their children speed by on bikes, the nearly bald teenage son's hands are off the handlebars, as if a symbol of his new profound freedom half way across the world while on holiday with his obviously wealthy family. A well dressed Italian couple give me a warm smile as they walk up the stairs next to me; the man's face turns to curiosity as he sees me writing with such purpose and speed.
Of course I'm writing about you I wanted to say with the same curious look and warm smile he gave me, but instead I redirect my attention to the sounds of the scooters and motorbikes in the distance, the taxi cab horns and the oh so familiar sounds that rollerblade wheels make, especially when the bearings are loose. I spot my first graffiti -- Buble But glares back at me from across the river, plastered in red on the back of a metal book stall, one of the many set up along the Seine to entice tourists to buy.
Then, I see two lovers embrace and I can tell from their energy that they both chose to be here and that it wasn't one edging the other on for some redeemable lifetime romantic moment of sorts.
Romantic it was however and they brought me into their world for just a moment. Accents told me that he was European and she was an Aussie and I couldn't help but wonder if Paris was a meeting place to ignite these two lovers to the next level or if they had been together for years.
I decide to walk to Notre Dame since it is almost in my view. I have been to this remarkable church at least a dozen times and yet I always get a slight skip in my walk when I see her beauty emerge as I make my way around the corner and she stands sprawled before me. All the cafes that line up along the edge of her have become tourist haunts -- crepes and coffees are twice the price and it's more crowded than any of the surrounding streets. Yet, I'm called into sit down at one regardless.
I choose the one on the corner at the very end of the road, mainly because the man making the crepes is so obviously French, which isn't as common as you'd think in Paris anymore.
So many crepes from local stands are now crispy from being cooked for too long. While I typically go for a savory crepe (mushrooms, ham and onions is my favorite), I opted for an apple sauce and coconut crepe and the 40 something year old charming local who made it for me, nailed it - Yum!!
I left the cafe happily with my decaf cappuccino and my perfectly cooked crepe and proceeded to the bridge where I sat along its edge watching a street performer, three massage therapists taking clients on in small chairs in the middle of the street and a not so funny clown who was attempting to get kids to laugh by holding a bicycle upside down while circus music played in the background. Before I left this crowded part of Paris I know so well, I contributed to the lock bridge, which is always a favorite stop of mine....the romantic in me I guess.
Montreuil Market Heading to Montreuil Market was somewhat depressing after the peace and serenity of Paris' magical river, the same one that artists have painted to and been inspired by for centuries. I remember visiting the market over a decade ago and then again a decade before that and from my hazy recollection, it's changed significantly. I seem to remember more antiques, paintings and jewelry, knick knacks and appliances.
Now it appears to be more of an old fashioned flea market, the kind you might find in America's midwest where trucks come for the day and try to sell cheap clothes and shoes for the widest margin they can get. There were aisles with tires, oil, toothpaste, soap detergent, tea kettles and even Middle Eastern traditional shawls, but for the most part, it was a collection of clothes heaped in piles for those with enough patience to sift through for hours on end.
If you haven't been however, I suppose its worth stopping by for the mishmash experience. Hours are 7 am to 7:30 pm at night and the market is open two days a week on Sundays and Monday's. The official address is Avenue du Professeur André Lemierre 75020 Paris. Télephone: 01 48 85 93 30.
The best way to get there is on the Metro Line 9 and the stop is Porte de Montreuil. The market is a short walk up the main drag from the exit to the station.
I come across fun jewelry with semi precious stones that an adorable Peruvian is selling. He is standing across from La Boulangerie de Papa, a quaint cute blue salon that also has an outside creperie stand on the corner. It's a mere block away from the Greek eaterie I had so much fun in four or five years ago on a cold winter's night. Gyros by the dozen....Moroccans nearby calling me to eat at their restaurant, offering deals and sweet nothings I can't make sense of.
Onion soup or fish soup, egg, salad and beef, chicken or fish followed by chocolate mousse, ice cream, cheese or fruit for E12 to 17 a head all inclusive and every variation in between although they all sound like the same offer after awhile.
Restaurant after restaurant on Rue de la Huchette, one of the main drags, I find that there are too many offerings to choose one, something I often feel when I'm walking through the Latin Quarter. Then, Le Lac de L'ouest for Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food across from the creperie but I'm not in the mood for Asian food, so I keep walking through her narrow streets.
A sweet creperie stands calls out to me with far too many sugar rich toppings to say yes to, such as chestnut, caramel, chocolate, strawberry, lemon, sugar, butter, honey, Nutella, apricot, banana and coconut, all ranging from 3.50 to around 8 euros.
Then a warm smile outside a restaurant on Rue de Huchette stops me in my tracks and so I indulge. Aperitifs start with Kir Cassis ou Peche, Kir Breton, martinis, tequila, cognac, Calvados, Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Rum. I have a small Kir Cassis although he tops up my glass before I can say no thanks to another. For E9.90, you can get Provencale or Cocagne or Complete or Bistrot or Basquaise or Kermaria AND a sweet crepe (various choices) with either cider, coke or apple juice.
Boulevard St. Germaine to Boulevard Des Italiens via Avenue de L'Opera Food stalls outside on the street on Boulevard St. Germaine sprawl in both directions. Viva Espana Bodaga grabs my attention with scrumptious looking Spanish food cooking away in large pots.
I sample some ham and then more Spanish food at Monceau Gardens.
I walk into Neo Cafe on 126 Boulevard St. Germaine to make sure my directions are in sync as I begin to realize I'm much further away from my hotel than I had thought.
Florian directs me in a deep dark and sexy voice, one that suggests there's a wink along with it even when there's not. Within a block or so from this quaint little cafe, I stumble upon another one called Tennessee Cafe, which isn't quite as quaint and it seems like it caters to yanks with its burgers and English menus. What is adjacent to Tennessee Cafe however grabs my eye.
There's a little passage called Passage de St. Andre, which is a narrow pedestrian cobblestone street that runs alongside the cafe. It looks historical and authentic in every way but it's hard to tell in Paris where everything is ten times older than even the oldest American city.
Cafes, bars and restaurants are strung along the left as you make your way down the cute pedestrian passage. I decide to have a drink at one of the cafes but need to move around a homeless person on his cell phone in the glass entryway to Thomas Travel to do so.
There's another homeless person along Boulevard Des Italiens who has a giant stuffed tan colored Snoopy sitting near him as he lay tucked up in his sleeping bag. I spot the elderly man perched up against a giant iron box on the same boulevard.
He had set up a fishing pole that dangled a cup from some fast food chain and while it slowly moved to the wind, he occasionally yelped into the dark streets. Then the giant life-sized chocolate lion in one of the windows along Boulevard St. Germaine and a giant pink elephant.
Then, a cafe calls my name. Here I stop and have a cappuccino while I watch people waltz by for the next hour or so.
In the spring, summer and fall, a great place to hang out is on the banks of Canal Saint-Martin. People lounge here, picnic here, play music here and hold hands. On Sundays, two streets running parallel to the canal, Quai de Valmy and Quai de Jemmapes, are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood is nestled between Gare du Nord and Republique in Northeastern Paris, in the 10th arrondissement. The main streets around the canal include Quai de Valmy, Quai de Jemmapes, Rue Beaurepaire and Rue Bichat and I'd recommend walking down all of them. It's a charming part of Paris not to be missed.
Other areas I love to wander through and try to each and every trip I make to Paris, include the Marais near St. Paul, Bastille and Luxembourg Gardens.
Be sure to check out our Paris section for great shopping tips, restaurant finds, and other reflective pieces like this one. There's also lodging & top hotels in France, and top hotels in Paris as well as general content on France. (travel to France).