Help! They upgraded my hotel bill

Question: I have a problem that you may be able to help me with. Last year, my husband, Juan, traveled to Valencia, Spain. I made his hotel reservations through a travel agency.

When he tried to check in at Melia Rey Don Jaime, it did not have a room for him. He was moved to the Confortel. The rate at the Confortel was nearly three times more than his original reservation. He was charged an extra $1,034.

Juan was told to call the reservation company, Utell, which promised to straighten this out when he returned home. After he came back to the states, he submitted his receipts to Utell.

But Utell recently told me that the hotel property is no longer with their company and that I would have to deal with the hotel in Spain on my own to get a refund. Can you please help me? — Olivia Suarez, Albuquerque, N.M.

Answer: Your husband shouldn’t have had to pay the difference between the hotel he was supposed to stay in, and the one he was sent to.
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5 almost free iPhone apps you absolutely must take on your next trip

iphoneThere are more than 50,000 iPhone applications out there, accounting for over a billion downloads. Hard to pick just a handful to take on your next trip, isn’t it?

No worries. As someone who stood in line to buy the first iPhone, and has pretty much bought each subsequent iPhone within 24 hours of its release — not always with positive results, but that’s a story for another day — I’m here to help.

Here are five almost free iPhone “apps” I can’t leave home without.
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The agony and ecstasy of online travel videos

videoAllow me to vent for a minute.

Online video may be the future of travel, but it is most certainly not the present.

I’ve just spent the weekend battling a Samsung video camera, Apple’s Final Cut Pro and YouTube, and I can say that with absolute certainty. Yes, video — specifically high-definition video — will revolutionize the way we travel. And soon.

But not just yet.
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What happens when a million iPhone 3Gs units hit the road?

You get this: Video uploads to YouTube from mobile phones jumped 400 percent in a week. The mobile video revolution has begun. And no one will be more affected than travelers.

133988-iphone3gAllow me an “I-told-you-so” moment. A few weeks ago, I predicted the new iPhone would mark a turning point in the way we get our information about travel and the way we share our travel experiences. But in order to do that, video use on the iPhone would first have to become ubiquitous. With a million iPhones sold in the first week, and YouTube being overloaded with iPhone-generated clips, I’d say we’re well on our way.

I bought an iPhone last week and took it through the paces, and I’m impressed by what I found. And I mean that in both ways: positively and negatively.

First, the cost. Although the new iPhone’s margins seem thin — it costs $179 to build and sells for $199, a profit of just $20 — Apple charged me far more to upgrade from my iPhone 3G. By the time I had paid all the extra fees, I was looking at close to $500. That’s ridiculous. It turns out that AT&T, the wireless network on which the iPhone runs in the United States, refuses to subsidize the new handsets.

I think the final barrier to the video revolution won’t be technology, but corporate greed. When the iPhone can run on any network — indeed, when a device with the same functionality of the iPhone is available without any of the restrictions Apple currently imposes on this gadget — then there’s no stopping this migration to video.

I’m disappointed that the 3Gs can only shoot standard definition video. But wait! It can shoot HD, according to those who have peeked under the hood. But HD has been disabled, presumably to spare the iPhone’s battery. Please!

But that’s where my disappointment ends. Shooting video on iPhone is as easy as taking picture. You have to remember to hold the phone correctly — horizontally, not vertically — otherwise the image is clipped when you try to edit it. Another caveat: Watch your fingers. On several occasions, I obscured the tiny lens, rendering the video unusable.

Image stabilization is as good as any I’ve experienced on a conventional video camera. The sound quality is decent enough for a video postcard and works well with the VGA-resolution video.

Here’s a little clip I shot this weekend of our trip to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fla.

The rudimentary built-in editing features allow you to shorten a clip and then post it to YouTube. If you want more, you’ll have to switch to iMovie, Final Cut, or another video editor.

And that brings me to importing. For now, iPhoto is the best way to pull the clips on to your computer. My iTunes player all but ignores the video I take, which is really annoying. I’m sure a fix is imminent.

What’s really needed is better program for importing, editing and compressing video and then exporting it to YouTube or one of the other video sites I discussed in my last post. Apple also needs to figure out how to make the iPhone zoom, and it needs to make it easier to attach this new camera to a tripod.

Patience, my friends. I’m sure all of those features are on the way.


Where do you post all those soon-to-be viral vacation videos? Click here to upload

Good thing YouTube isn’t losing as much money as everyone thought, because when it comes to posting your vacation videos online, you probably don’t want to waste your time anywhere else. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Of course there are other sites where you could upload your travel clips. There’s Flickr, run by Yahoo. And Vimeo, which specializes in smooth, high-definition video. And scores of smaller sites that I won’t even bother mentioning, not so much because I don’t want to confuse you, but because I don’t want to confuse myself.

I love YouTube. I also hate it. I’ll get to the reasons in second. First, though, let’s have a look at the other two contenders.

Flickr is primarily a photo-sharing site. I post all of my pictures to my Flickr account, which allows me to share snapshots with friends, groups and even do some limited editing. About a year ago, Flickr allowed you to upload videos — much to the horror of some resident professional photographers, who were dead-set against the idea of video soiling their corner of social media AstroTurf. Since these probably were the same people who swore they would never shoot anything but film back in the mid-90s, you can’t take their protest too seriously.

Flickr is extremely forgiving, when it comes to the type of video it accepts. It allowed me to upload virtually any format and displayed it correctly without any letterboxing or otherwise screwing with anamorphic ratios. For someone who has spent many hours resubmitting my clips to Final Cut’s Compressor application, in a futile effort to make it look right online, I can safely say this is Flickr’s best quality.

Its worst? You’re limited to just 90 seconds. So you have to be brief.

On the other hand, no site handles video in a more sophisticated way than Vimeo. Loading your clips is a cinch. Vimeo plays high-definition videos with astounding clarity, and without the dropped frames you see on other services. (Dropped frames are basically when your video stutters and jumps around, and it makes all your hard work look like something shot on a disposable camera.) There are a number of really innovative networking features, but unless you have $59 to spend on Vimeo Plus, you probably don’t want to bother. You’re bound to run up against space limits on the free version, may upload only one HD video a week, and aren’t allowed to embed your own videos on your site — unless you’re willing to pay.

And why pay for something that you can get for free?

All of which brings me to YouTube.

I wish this Google-owned site were as easy and fun to use as Vimeo, but it gets my recommendation only because its free, and it works. Not always, but most of the time. In a previous column, I described my frustration with how YouTube handled aspect ratios on the Canon Vixia HFS10. Well, I finally figured out how to get rid of that annoying black border I was griping about. Load everything into YouTube as a 1920-by-1080 video, and suddenly, it’s gone.

While researching this problem, I discovered this hurdle had been encountered, and overcome, by a couple of people who weren’t content to live with the letterboxing, but that they kept the answer to themselves because they apparently didn’t want to share. Something about YouTube’s secret sauce. Not good.

Despite all of its faults, YouTube has become the de-facto standard for video online — a kind of MS-DOS of the moving image. This is both comforting and distressing. It’s comforting, because you know everyone else is trying to work with this imperfect technology. And it’s distressing because, well — it’s imperfect.


Open your eyes: everything is about to change for travelers

One of the most popular cameras on the number one photo-sharing site isn’t a camera at all. It’s the Apple iPhone.

133988-iphone3gI mention this for two reasons. First, because a new iPhone is being released June 19. And second, because it now includes a feature that promises to change the way we travel: a video camera.

The specs are nothing to rave about — 640 by 480 pixels, which is not exactly HD — but the implications are far-reaching for each and every one of us. At the touch of a button, travelers can now publish an edited video to YouTube. Not coincidentally, YouTube just last week added a feature that allows you to directly share clips to Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader.

Why does any of this matter to travelers?

Because it marks a fundamental shift that could alter the way we get our information about travel and the way we share our travel experiences.

It’s a move from “tell me” to “show me.”

You can already see the beginning of this migration on social networking sites that specialize in travel, where users are gravitating toward photos, as opposed to written reviews. Just last week, in a post about TripAdvisor, several users claimed they disregarded the written reviews and just looked at the pictures. When everyone is carrying a video camera, and when posting to the Internet is as easy as pushing a button, imagine how people will make travel purchasing decisions?

Let’s just take a moment to consider this.

Say you’re buying a plane ticket, but it’s a toss-up between United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. At the moment, you can look up reviews of both airlines and find lots of information on blogs. You can also go to a seat review site like SeatGuru or to an old-school forum like FlyerTalk, and get a reasonably good idea of what to expect. But what if you have actual user-generated video content of the seats and can compare seat pitch, in-flight entertainment, and overall comfort by seeing it instead of reading about it.

How would that change things?

What if you’re trying to decide where to make restaurant reservations? You could check out Zagat or Yelp and read all about it, but what if you could see the entrees as they’re served?

Now imagine these video clips are delivered in real-time, or as close as possible to it. Sites like 12seconds and Seesmic already let you do that. (Think Twitter for video.)

Now imagine everyone has access to it in real time. That’s what Google Wave is all about, and when it’s released later this year, it could potentially revolutionize the way in which we consume information. Here are a few highlights of Google Wave’s features, courtesy of our friends over at Lifehacker.

We’re on the verge of nothing less than a revolution in media. The travel industry will be at the frontline, but it won’t take long to turn everything upside-down.

Are you ready?


Vexed by the Canon Vixia HFS10, but it can still travel with me — as long as it behaves

I wanted to like the Canon Vixia HFS10. I really did.

hfs10I own two Canon cameras — the mercurial Canon 1D Mark III and the forgiving Canon EOS 40D — but when it comes to video, I’ve always shot Sony. Still, the HFS10 looked like the ideal travel companion. It was compact, light, had a terrific lens and most important of all, it seemed easy to use.

But looks can be a little deceiving. While this video camera shoots razor-sharp, high-definition video and conveniently stores it on a 32GB internal drive (there’s no tape to mess with, thank goodness) I found so many headaches with turning the 1920×1080 resolution video into something YouTube could understand without screwing up the aspect ratio that I nearly threw this camera out the window.

Just to be clear, I didn’t. It is, as I write this, being put in a box and sent back to Canon without a scratch.

But enough about me. Let’s go right to the videos I shot during our travels. Have a look at this embedded clip that I shot while we stayed at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort near Sarasota, Fla., a few weeks ago.

Looks just fine in the embedded version. But when you click on the video and watch it in YouTube you see the problem: A thick black border surrounding the image. No matter how many settings I tried to fix it, I either ended up with this border or I had a “scrunchy” aspect ratio that made everything look squishy. My colleague Jeffrey Lehmann, who hosts a PBS travel show, says aspect ratios are a common problem, no matter what camera you’re using.

After a few tries, I finally figured out how to make the border disappear.

The Vixia HFS10 is a true “prosumer” camera in that it combines features you won’t find on the entry-level cameras that the rest of the tourists carry, such as a microphone terminal, a decent lens and an advanced image sensor. The $1,300 pricetag will ensure that not everyone is carrying this Canon videocamera this summer, but the few who spring for it are guaranteed to have superior shots. If they can get past the aspect ratio issue on YouTube.

What I liked about it: The HFS10 is a cinch to learn. The menu controls are super-intuitive and have lots of options that you’d expect from higher-end professional cameras. Its autofocus worked well even in low-light conditions, but I particularly liked its face-detection system that automatically recognizes a human face and focuses on it, as opposed to some other inanimate object in the room. If only my other cameras could do that!

What I didn’t like: Besides the aspect ratio problems, I found the batteries ran down quickly despite promises of extended usage from new, “intelligent” Lithium-Ion technology. Although the HFS10 shipped with PC software, you were on your own to figure out how to run it on a Mac, which consumed several frustrating hours.

What others are saying: CNET gave it a so-so review, pointing out that although it shoots terrific video, the lens cover rattles when it’s closed (it does) and that it has no eye-level viewfinder (which it doesn’t). Wired liked the camera, calling it “a great shooter with a ton of features and technology.” And Digital Content Producer raved that the HFS10 produces images “far better than it has any right to.”

Although this camera isn’t without its frustrations, I think it makes a worthy travel companion for your summer vacation.