The Travel Critic

The social network goes skiing

Before he downloaded an iPhone app called Cyclemeter two months ago, Donald McNeill had only a vague idea of where he’d skied on any given day.

But after he hit the slopes of Killington, Vt., for a few early-season runs last weekend, he knew exactly where he’d been — right down to the minute.

“I could track the number of runs, vertical feet, and how long I’d been skiing,” said McNeill, a retired sales manager who lives in Bridgewater Corners, Vt. “The app also accesses Facebook and Twitter, where it updates your status as you reach certain intervals.”

As the 2010 ski season starts, developers and resorts are releasing a flurry of new applications for skiers and snowboarders. They include everything from high-profile contenders like Vail Resorts’ EpicMix, to less flashy initiatives, such as Newry, Me.-based Sunday River’s new Facebook application, Sunday River Patches.
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Don’t tape my junk: Travelers catch surveillance fever

Don’t touch my junk became a protest anthem against intrusive airport security screenings, thanks to John Tyner’s now-famous pre-Thanksgiving encounter with TSA agents in San Diego.

But the incident is part of a little-noticed trend among travelers: The confrontation was videotaped not just by airport security cameras, but also by the would-be passenger.

Tyner, an Oceanside, Calif., software developer, recorded his interaction with TSA screeners on his cell phone and posted the clips to his website, and the incident went viral within a few short hours.

Travelers may be one of the most monitored groups of Americans. Whether it’s cameras in airports, hotels or train stations, software that tracks your activity when you book online, or applications that record your customer-service calls for “quality assurance purposes,” you can be assured that someone is watching when you’re away.

And now, travelers are watching back.
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Driving home for the holidays? You’ll get there — eventually

There’s good news and bad news for motorists this holiday season.

America’s roads have never been safer, statistics show. But, depending where you live, they may never be slower.

“The big new trend this year is the construction,” said Carol White, co-author of “Live Your Road Trip Dream.” “With all the TARP funds rolling out on highway projects, last summer was a mess, and I think it is going to continue into the winter months in areas where weather permits.”

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government has spent $27 billion for highway and bridge construction in the last two years.
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Disney turns to guests to promote theme parks

In one video, a little boy dances during a parade at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In another, a young girl dressed as a princess embraces her father. And in a third, two women explore Cinderella Castle.

All are part of Disney’s new campaign called Let the Memories Begin — a promotion that relies on what the company refers to as “guest-generated” content.

“Let the Memories Begin is about real guests making real memories in our parks,” said Leslie Ferraro, executive vice president of global marketing for Disney Destinations.

“Disney guests have always loved sharing their vacation memories with us and each other. New technologies like YouTube and Facebook have made it easier and faster for our guests to share their memories, for Disney Parks to spotlight those memories on a larger scale, and for us to reinforce to our guests how important we think their memories are.”

Disney isn’t alone.

The travel industry — which for years considered videos as byproducts of a happy vacation, if not liabilities that occasionally found their way on to the Internet — has also had a change of heart.
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How safe is a cruise?

The debut of two brand-new new cruise ships — Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth earlier this fall and Royal Caribbean’s massive 16-deck Allure of the Seas in December — coincides with the beginning of “wave period,” a time of year when most people book their cruise vacations.

But talk of cruises inevitably raises the subject of cruise safety. A few weeks ago, a 79-year-old British man disappeared from a cruise ship in the English Channel. He’s only the latest in a list of passengers who either vanished or fell overboard.

The cruise industry contends a trip on the high seas is safer than a drive to the airport and a stay at a hotel. But just how safe is it?
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Are travelers overloaded by social media?

Mary Gallagher recently received an e-mail from the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau offering “hot deals.” But there was a catch: In order to receive them, she had to follow Tucson’s tourist authority on Twitter and friend it on Facebook.

That didn’t sit well with Gallagher, a travel writer, who said she receives enough deals each day.

“How much Facebook and Twitter drivel could you spend each day reading?” she said. “This really, really annoys me.”

Are travelers overloaded by social media? It’s a timely question, given the release of “The Social Network,” which topped the box office for several weeks in October, is about the origin of Facebook, the most successful social network on the planet.

Travel is a huge component of social networking, propelling applications like Where I’ve Been — a website that allows users to mark their travel history on a color-coded map — to stardom.

“It can get to the point where it’s too much,” said Brian Ek, who oversees some of Priceline’s social media efforts. Which is to say, somewhere along the line, the travel experience isn’t meaningfully enhanced by having more friends or followers.
“I’m not sure if, as a traveler, you have to participate in a social network in order to have a good trip,” he said.

But where’s the line? Gallagher saw it when Tucson e-mailed her. She replied to the sender, complaining that social networking deals exclude travelers who don’t participate in these newer networks. She also asked that her name be deleted from Tucson’s distribution list.
Related: See the world through your smart phone

A 2010 YPartnership survey suggests most travelers are probably still looking for the line. Results show that 91 percent of respondents use Facebook, about a quarter use MySpace, and 17 percent are on Twitter. But the research also notes that only 1 in 20 leisure travelers has ever made a travel decision based primarily on research or feedback received from a social networking site.

A recent University of Maryland study found that American college students are addicted to social media. In fact, being away from social media was like a withdrawal, similar to the kind experienced by an alcoholic. One of the researchers, Susan Moeller, described some of the subjects as “incredibly addicted.”

A recent survey of frequent travelers by Egnyte, an information technology company, found that 53 percent of people admit to using their smart phone when in a hotel bathroom.

When the line between reality and virtual reality start to blur, you could be in trouble. “You lose track with whether or not you’ve spoken with someone or whether you’ve seen something on Twitter or Facebook,” said Chris McGinnins, a travel blogger with an active social network. McGinnis said older travelers, who can remember a time before social networking, might find something wrong with this behavior when it’s pointed out to them. But younger travelers think nothing of it. And that worries him.
And who said you can never have too many friends? Many travel companies, including media-savvy JetBlue, have initiatives aimed at boosting networks simply for the sake of having the highest profile. JetBlue (1.5 million Twitter followers) recently gave away 25,000 frequent flier miles to random followers.

On the flip side, there are individual travelers who are in the business of collecting friends and followers, too. Experts would diagnose this kind of compulsive behavior as an addiction if it involved anything else.

If you’re obsessively collecting new followers, can’t bear to be apart from your cell phone and often confuse what’s happening on your social network with reality, you, like Gallagher, have found the line.

(Photo: B. Hernández/Flickr Creative Commons)

“Please, can we go back?”

When Kathy Potvin told her grandson she was considering breaking a tradition of visiting Ocean Park, Maine, last summer, the 7-year-old protested.

“But we’ve always gone there,” he told Potvin, a librarian from Nashua, N.H. “He said, ‘Please, can we go back?’ ”

Her family had returned to the same hotel every year since her grandson was 18 months old. She couldn’t say “no.”

“He spent almost an hour in the car on the way up, talking about going to Snail Rocks, catching crabs, walking to the ice cream store, feeding the seagulls, riding his boogie board, going to Chicago Dogs,” she recalled. “Honestly, I was thrilled. It’s those kind of traditions and memory buildings that is a huge part of the appeal of the same old, same old, and make us behave like Capistrano Swallows.”

This is the time of year when most winter vacations are booked, and Christmas and New Year’s getaways tend to be repeats like the Potvins’ — a trip to a favorite mountain resort or a city near family.

Redundancy has a lot of value, both for travelers and for the travel business.
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Are travelers frill-seekers? No, but here’s what they really want

Free drinks. Room upgrades. Better restaurants.

That’s what the travel industry thinks you want from your next travel experience.

American Airlines last month announced it would start serving Admirals Club lounge visitors free drinks, adding that it decided to make the move because it’s “committed to investing in enhancing the travel experience for its loyal customers.”

Priceline, meanwhile, announced the launch of a free new service on its site that lets future hotel guests search its database of published-price hotels for all kinds of valuable hotel freebies. (Customers who “name their own price”, however, will still face surprise parking charges and resort fees that add to the cost of their prepaid room.)

Also, details of Royal Caribbean’s highly anticipated Allure of the Seas leaked out. Among the ship’s planned amenities will be a Brazilian churruscaria restaurant and the first Guess store at sea.

But is that what travelers really want? Perhaps not.
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How to fall into a real travel bargain this year

It’s that time of year again.

Summer’s over, the kids are back in school, the weather is starting to cool off and everyone’s thoughts are turning to vacation.

Well, maybe not everyone, but for some contrarians, a fall getaway is more than a passing thought. They wouldn’t dream of going away any other time.
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Believe it or not, the travel industry still cares about you

On a recent flight from Philadelphia to Phoenix on US Airways, Sarah Andrus left her jacket underneath the seat in front of her. “It was a gift from a friend and unique,” recalled Andrus, a director for an Olean, N.Y.-based manufacturing company. “I called the airline with low expectations of recovering my jacket, but I thought I’d give it a try.”

She was lucky enough to get through to a US Airways employee named Tanya, who understood her predicament. “I followed her instructions to the letter, and heard back from someone within two hours. They had found my jacket and would keep it until my return flight,” Andrus said.

Frequent travelers can be forgiven for thinking the travel industry doesn’t care about them, but simply wants their money. Last week’s report that airlines had collected $2.1 billion in fees in the second quarter — an increase of 13 percent from the previous quarter — while continuing to suffer from near record-low customer-service scores, does little to improve that image.
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Revenge of the car rental agents

Be nice to your car rental agent. Otherwise you could end up like Hank Jeffries.

He doesn’t remember saying anything offensive to the clerk when he rented an intermediate-size vehicle in Cancun recently. It didn’t matter: Jeffries’ “confirmed” $325-a-week rate through his travel agency turned into $900 when he checked in.

“I said I wanted to rent the car,” said Jeffries, a retired information technology worker from Los Angeles. “Not buy it.”

That may have rubbed the employee the wrong way.
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Ship of fine print: 7 clauses to beware of in your cruise contract

If you ever want to feel confused, outraged and powerless all at the same time, just read your cruise line’s ticket contract.

Carrie Streahle didn’t know what was in hers until her cruise arrived late in Houston, and she had to pay an extra $1,900 in airfares and accommodations to get home. She contacted Carnival, asking for reimbursement.

“Carnival’s first response was that we didn’t have travel insurance,” she says. She protested. The cruise line responded again, this time blaming Mother Nature. “They said they can’t control the weather,” she says.
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Oh no, you didn’t! 5 ways travelers have lost their manners

They’re loud. They smell bad. And their clothes would make Mr. Blackwell blush.

What is it about travel that makes people jettison their manners?

Whether it’s the Ugly American or the Entitled Elite, travel has no shortage of unflattering stereotypes. They’ve always been with us. They’ll always be with us. But are their numbers growing?

Hard to say. When it comes to air travel, it’s difficult to tell whether unruly passenger incidents are on the rise. Both the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration keep records on aircraft incidents, but they’re just the cases they’ve acted on, and don’t necessarily reflect any trends. Same for hotel and cruise incidents. There are no reliable statistics.

But the anecdotes. Oh, the anecdotes!
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Travel complaints that fail: 5 kinds of emails you should never write

What kind of a complainer are you?

Maybe you’re the squeaky wheel — the guest who keeps writing back over and over, even after you’ve been told “no” in a dozen different ways. Or maybe your grievances fall into the “special circumstances” category — you’re sick, you’re broke, you’re having a bad year.

Perhaps you’re a name-dropper, copying a vice president or CEO on every customer service inquiry to ensure it receives the proper attention.

You could be the litigious type: “Give me what I want, or I’ll sue.”

At the right time, these are all perfectly reasonably ways to complain to a travel company. At the wrong time, they can doom your customer service request to failure at the hands of a dreaded form response.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals’ annual conference in Atlanta. After my speech, I witnessed a surprisingly lively and candid discussion among the participants, all of which were customer service managers in the travel industry. The topic? How to value your customer. Specifically, how do you prioritize requests from customers based on their elite status?

During our debate, the audience referred to the kinds of complaints they get, and much to my surprise, I found I had categorized them in a similar way. You need to know about these groupings, because being in one or another can make a big difference in how your grievance is handled.
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Shorter vacations? Tighter budgets? Welcome to the new “normal” in travel

When Roger Bell takes a vacation, he normally flies to a national park or visits friends up north for two weeks. But like many Americans, Bell, a Woodstock, Ga.-based technical writer, lost his job in 2009. And that changed the way he vacations — maybe permanently.

Bell was unemployed almost a year before finding a new job that paid 25 percent less than his old one. That, in turn, downsized his next vacation from a destination like Yellowstone or Yosemite to an overnight trip.

“I’m only taking a few days off work over the weekend and only going to coastal Georgia for a beach trip by car,” he says.

Welcome to the “new” normal in travel: Shorter, less expensive vacations — or in extreme cases, just daycations — being taken by increasingly cost-conscious travelers. Maybe you’ve been on one of these mini-trips in the last year. If you haven’t, you probably will.

Travelers say they’ve begun strategically downsizing their vacations, and there’s no evidence the cuts will be reversed anytime soon. Quite the contrary. From where I’m sitting, it looks as if these changes are here to stay.
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