The Travel Technologist

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.
Continue reading…

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.
Continue reading…

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.
Continue reading…

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.

Tariff trouble: Is my airline itinerary illegal?

It’s no secret that fare rules — the all-uppercase gibberish you often see on the bottom of your computer screen when buying your ticket — are designed to make your airline a few extra bucks. Some of so-called tariff rules require a Saturday night stay. Others insist you use both halves of the ticket.

Like most travelers, Robert (no last name, and I’ll explain in a second) try to travel within the rules. But then life happens.

Here’s the note I got from Robert about his tariff rule trouble. Maybe you can help him do the right thing.

I have an airline puzzle.

I booked three non-refundable round-trip tickets for me and my family from the Washington area to Salt Lake City recently. We were planning to stay in Utah for a week and a half and return on June 22.

A month after I booked the tickets, my sister announced she was going to get married on June 25, so I called American Airlines to see if I could change my return tickets.

They said it would be $150 per ticket, plus up to $80 extra for each ticket for the fare difference. But looking at one-way trips from Salt Lake City to Washington, I discovered tickets that would only cost $80, a third of what it would cost to change the date on the return ticket.

It would make a lot more sense for me to just miss my return flight home on the 22nd and catch the one-way ticket home on Saturday.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of calling the airline back to try and negotiate with them again, and I asked them why it was reasonable for them to charge me $230 in change fees when I could just buy an additional one-way ticket for $80.

The customer service rep was upset and said “You can’t do that! And the fact that you’re telling me this makes it three times worse, because now the airline will be checking.”

I responded that I wasn’t necessarily going to do that, and that I didn’t have to extend my ticket; only that I wanted to do it if it wouldn’t be too expensive. I further said that if I couldn’t buy a one-way ticket home on American Airlines, I could do it on another airline.

She basically hung up on me after that.

I immediately booked the $80 one-way tickets through Expedia. But now I’m worried that something bad will happen. Will they force me to pay outrageous fees when I try to board the one-way flight home on June 25 after I missed the original flight home?

This is a terrific question. So I put it to American Airlines. Here’s the response from spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

We don’t know exactly what the agent said or in what tone, but we will definitely pass these concerns on to the Reservations Staff supervisors so they can follow up as necessary.

Regardless of what is said, it always needs to be conveyed in a professional manner. If that, indeed, was not the case, we would certainly apologize. We suspect she may have been trying to explain that any employee, RES agent or anywhere else, who finds out about anyone violating our ticket rules or tariffs must report it from an ethical standpoint. We are not saying the customer KNEW he was doing that, and if not, that probably should have been explained to him as well.

We cannot say for sure what becomes of every situation reported by an employee.

It may, or may not be followed up. There are many factors in that — the nature of the fare rules violation and how significant it is, whether it appears to be a continued pattern of abuse or gaming, the sheer volume of things to check out at any one particular time, or whether other potential factors come into play….not all of which can be discussed for fear of providing a “how-to” lesson. Ultimately, [the passenger] will need to decide how he is going to travel.

From all appearances, our policies were correctly followed in terms of the change fees and new fare. The customer had originally purchased a low-fare, non-refundable ticket in which change fees apply (as you know, not all types of tickets are subject to a change fee). Since the customer asked to change the date of travel the change fee applied.

Also required in such changes is that the new fare offered be in the same fare category as the original ticket. That is why the fare offered was also in addition to the change fee.

As you’ll see below, even though you’ve probably looked at them from time to time, our Conditions of Carriage spell out the rules about changing itineraries, as well as a separate section about certain practices that violate our tariffs and/or fare rules.

Unfortunately, and the passenger may not be aware, but by not using the second leg of his round-trip ticket AND by also purchasing an additional one-way ticket for the same itinerary, he is violating the tariffs by engaging in a practice called “throwaway ticketing.” American specifically prohibits this practice.

Buying a ticket is a contract, one that the carrier must uphold AND the customer as well. But, it’s important that the customer read the fare rules in the information provided in the Conditions of Carriage. Such information is available by clicking on each fare on to see its rules. I would encourage a customer to do that for such information, and also, should they have additional questions, to call our Reservations number.

We are not saying, as I noted above, that this will definitely happen, but we may under those fare rules.

Here’s what might happen if Robert is caught. American could,

Cancel any remaining portion of the passenger’s itinerary, confiscate unused flight coupons, refuse to board the passenger or check the passenger’s luggage, or assess the passenger for the reasonable remaining value of the ticket, which shall be no less than the difference between the fare actually paid and the lowest fare applicable to the passenger’s actual itinerary.

It should be obvious why Robert doesn’t want his last name used in this story. What’s less obvious is what he should do now.

No one wants to run afoul of an airline’s rules, even if the rules don’t make any sense. And let’s be clear: From a passenger’s perspective, these rules don’t make any sense.

So should Robert stay or go?

I had a follow-up conversation with him after checking with American, and he can’t bring himself to paying the change fee. He’s sticking to his original itinerary — throwing the return ticket away and flying on the one-way return.

I think American will look the other way. The airline typically goes after fare rule violators who are elite-level frequent fliers with a track record of being repeat offenders or travel agents who enable this kind of behavior. Not people like Robert who are going to their sister’s wedding.

What do you think? Should Robert pay American the extra money? Should he take the one-way flight? Do these tariff rules make sense to you?

Here’s a wireless headset you’ll actually want to pack

When it comes to wireless headsets, I had all but given up on finding something usable for my travels. The leading products are too bulky, uncomfortable or deliver inferior sound quality. I preferred the cheap wired unit that comes with my iPhone 3G.

voyager-proThen I tested the Plantronics Voyager Pro and now I can say there is hope. This is a headset you’ll actually want to pack for your next trip — if you can get past some of the minor inconveniences.

The Voyager Pro is the evolution of Plantronics’ popular over-the-ear Bluetooth headset, the Voyager 510. At a $99 list price, the exterior design is little-changed, but it comes with a host of new internal features, including souped-up noise cancellation and three layers of proprietary wind noise reduction.

I evaluated the Voyager Pro under several conditions: in a noisy home office, outdoors, and in a car. The headset delivered crystal-clear audio indoors, and I could hear just fine outside, even in intermittent wind gusts. But in the car, I had several minor issues with the Bluetooth signal. On the up-side, I found that the Voyager Pro was comfortable after an hour of constant use (even though it looks like an oversize hearing aid).

What I liked: The device is a snap to pair with your cell phone, charges quickly and offers a super-long talking time (up to six hours). Plantronics’ obsession with noise and wind-reduction really paid off, and I’d love to see similar technology used in other headsets (you reading this, Apple?)

What I didn’t like: Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t pair the headset with my PC or with my regular phone, a Plantronics Calisto Pro that I loved right up until the day my two-year-old daughter decided to drop my headset in the toilet. Had I been able to tether this Bluetooth headset, I would be one happy caller.

What others are saying: CNET gives the Voyager Pro a thumbs-up, saying its sound quality “simply cannot be beat.” The folks over at Slashgear also delivered an upbeat review, touting the Voyager Pro’s “amazing” sound quality. Boing Boing had a lukewarm write-up that berated its design but liked the headset’s battery life. Oh well, can’t win ’em all.

If you need a wireless headset, for your travels, you can’t do much better than the Voyager Pro. It may be the only wireless headset on the market that doesn’t sound like a wireless headset — and that’s saying a lot.

Now that I’ve found my Google Voice, mind if I sing a little tune?

Any day now, Google Voice — an application that integrates voice mail, phone service and e-mail — will be released to the general public. As someone who has tested Voice since its introduction, here’s my advice to travelers: Get your number as soon as you can.

Google Voice is a personal communication hub. Incoming calls can be routed to a phone, cell phone or transcribed and sent as an e-mail. (The predecessor to Voice was, appropriately, called Grand Central.)

The application is so feature-rich, I’m not even going to bother trying to describe everything it does — except to say that like almost everything else Google does, it’s free.

For example, here’s how to route calls to your phones.

To say that Voice has the potential to change the way you think of the phone would be no understatement.

The ability to check your voice mail messages from any PC (something that used to be the exclusive domain of corporations with million-dollar IT budgets) is liberating. You can also screen your phone calls or send them straight to voice mail, which can be really useful when you’re on the road with an iffy cell phone connection or out of the country, trying to avoid usurious roaming charges.

But my favorite Google Voice feature is the ability to transcribe your voice mails into text. It is also my least favorite.

Let’s just say the technology is less than perfect. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t, it’s hilarious.

Here are a few messages that landed in my “in” box recently:

hi chris my name is neil i’m a freak the return your page i was gonna send you an email but i don’t think i have an actor

Nothing kinky going on here. The message from Neil said he was a frequent reader of my page, but that he doesn’t have an accurate e-mail address for me.

hi christopher this is mary recruitment hide emailed you back on april the twentieth about prances cruises

No, Mary’s last name isn’t “recruitment” and there’s no prances cruise line.

hey chris it’s in the that i just want to give you head

Actually, that was from a colleague who was calling with the completely honorable intention of giving me a heads-up on a story I was expecting.

I like Google Voice for the way it makes travel easier, but I think I’ll keep it for the laughs.

The Travel Technologist returns: Will he flip for the latest Flip?

In 1998, I began writing a weekly online column called The Travel Technologist. The premise was simple: Review the latest gadgets for travelers. Today I’m reviving the feature after a five-year hiatus, with a slightly different focus. I’ll be covering hardware and software products used by travelers, with a special emphasis on social media. If you have any comments or suggestions on future reviews, please contact me.


Like so many things in life, the latest Flip Ultra is two steps forward and one step back. At $199, this compact HD video camera is less expensive than the sleek Flip Mino. But it’s also bulkier than its little brother, both literally (it’s big enough to accommodate two AA batteries, as opposed to the internal battery the Mino runs off) and figuratively, since it can hold up to two hours of high-resolution (720p) video, twice as much as the Mino.

What I liked: In the tradition of previous Flip cameras, the Ultra is super-easy to use. The stereo mic is a huge upgrade from the tinny-sounding mono mic on the Mino. The camera felt solid in my hand, and even though it didn’t have any discernible image-stabilization technology, I experienced less shake when shooting. The USB port makes a better connection with some PCs — no need to unplug all the peripherals when I’m downloading video. Editing the images on my almost-obsolete version of Final Cut Pro … well, that’s another story.

What I didn’t like: If you’re used to the Mino, you may not appreciate the heaviness of its successor. The buttons take some getting used to; I turned the camera off when I was trying to zoom in on a subject, because I was used to the Mino configuration. A lot of my shots were unacceptably jerky. Flip should consider flipping the switch on image-stabilization when it develops its next generation of cameras. And batteries. Don’t even get me started on batteries. It takes seven hours to charge the internal batteries the first time around. Whoa.

What everyone else is saying: The Flip Ultra is getting a round of reasonably good reviews. USA Today recommended it as a “fun, easy and highly compact video camera to capture baby’s first steps, your European vacation highlights or a family reunion.” CNET gave it three out of five stars, adding that it’s “only worth buying at a reasonable discount off its list price.” Our friends over at Engadget panned the camera because of its image stabilization issues.

Field test: I shot SeaWorld Orlando’s newest rollercoaster, Manta, on both the Mino and the Ultra. I couldn’t have achieved the same angles with a conventional video camera unless it was tethered to me, and that was something the ride attendants weren’t going to go for. (In fact, I had to sneak this camera on the ride … sorry, SeaWorld.) Can you tell which footage was shot on the Mino and which was done with the Ultra?

Give up? The coaster POV shots were done on a Mino, but everything else was shot on the Ultra.

Buy or not? Get one. It’s a useful travel companion.

Where are all the bloggers?

Hurricane Katrina was a defining moment for Rachel Gradwohl, a frequent business traveler. A consultant for a national accounting firm, Ms. Gradwohl blogged about being made homeless by the disaster in her Web journal, the Princess Diaries (

Ms. Gradwohl, now based in New York, says the public exposure that followed, which included an article in The New York Times, made her more cautious about what she writes.

“After word got out about my blog, a lot of people from work started reading it,” she said. “I felt as if I lost my anonymity.”

She also had second thoughts about both her blog’s title and her narrative technique, saying that they may have given the misleading impression that she lives the good life while on the road.

“When your boss is reading your blog, you say to yourself, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t write about staying at the Ritz-Carlton,’ ” she said.

Perhaps Ms. Gradwohl’s experience helps explain why more business travelers don’t blog. An Internet search for full-time business travelers who write Web logs produces astonishingly low numbers, considering the eight million Americans whom the Pew Internet and American Life Project say publish a blog.

But that appears to be changing. “Just wait,” said Steve Broback, a business traveler in Woodinville, Wash., who edits the new blog Inflighthq ( and is an organizer of a blog conference called the Blog Business Summit. “The rush is starting.”

Mr. Broback, whose Web journal is sponsored by Connexion, Boeing’s wireless division, writes about the plight of the road warrior and offers links to news for business travelers. And he expects a lot of company soon. “In a year or two we’ll probably even have blogs focusing on vintage airport vending machines,” he predicted.

Why haven’t business travelers embraced blogging yet?

“It’s probably a time issue,” said Patrick Gray, whose blog ( chronicles the almost nonstop travels of a management consultant. “The easy part is getting the blog set up and working on the templates. The hard part is finding the time to write for it.”

That is no exaggeration. In one dispatch, Mr. Gray recounts a trip on which he lost track of time. He and a colleague argued about what day of the week it was. Only after checking his luggage to find out how many clean shirts remained did they agree that it was Wednesday.

“That posting got a lot of response from readers, because they could relate to forgetting the day of the week,” he said.

But business travelers have other reasons for steering clear of blogging, according to Alex Halavais, a blogging specialist and an assistant professor of communications at the University at Buffalo who publishes a blog at “Even a mention that you are in a particular city may sometimes be enough information for a competitor to surmise what is going on,” he said.

As an example, “I have been especially circumspect in blogging about my recent job hunt,” he said. “Some things are simply better to keep private, and these things often go hand-in-hand with business travel.”

On the other hand, some business travelers let it all hang out. Consider “jenidallas day-to-day” (, a widely read blog with a business travel theme, and one of only a few written by women. Much of the author’s musings are personal, like her description of an upper respiratory infection, her account of Christmas shopping or her reaction to be being propositioned on a business trip (“I am not sure whether to be flattered or annoyed,” she wrote).

But for all her openness, she does want to keep one thing hidden from public view: her identity. Though she publishes a photo of herself on her site and is also a prolific contributor to the discussion forum FlyerTalk (, where she posts her comments as “techgirl,” she asked that her name be kept out of this article.

“I would not want my clients and others necessarily having a link between my name and my blog,” she said.

Experts on personal Web journals predict that more business travelers are likely to hop on the blogging bandwagon, and for good reason: they are modern-day Marco Polos, eager to recount their latest adventures and reveal their latest discoveries.

“Business travelers really have a unique opportunity to reach out to locals to get expert advice on where to eat and what to do while in a particular city,” said Kaye D. Trammell, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University who wrote her doctoral dissertation on blogging.

She says business travel is a “bloggable” subject, whether the topic is “rebuilding New Orleans or the ponderings of a consultant who sleeps in a new city every week.”

Professor Trammell recently created an offshoot of her academic blog ( to chronicle the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In one posting, she observed her students returning to an eerily quiet campus for the first time since the storm. “These displaced students,” she wrote, “have lost nearly everything.”

If there is such a thing as an established business travel blog, it probably belongs to Gary Leff, the chief financial officer of a university research center in the Washington, D.C. area. Mr. Leff’s “View from the Wing” ( focuses on award-related news interspersed with his personal observation about travel. He rips into the Westin Sydney in Australia, for example, for adding a $1.30 fee to his bill as “a donation” to a United Nations charity, and says he is little mollified by the fact it removed the charge after he complained.

But unlike political bloggers, who tend to approach their Web journals with a strong ideological agenda, Mr. Leff says he does not have a mission – except, maybe, to help others by pointing out some of the hazards and opportunities of the road. “Travel is a small niche in blogging,” he said. “Award programs are just a small part of that niche. Some of the subjects I write about are only interesting to a small group of people.”

Perhaps the group is not large, at least in comparison to the overall travel industry. But to the hotels, airlines and car rental companies, business travelers who are likely to read blogs such as Mr. Leff’s are their best customers. And blogs have become the latest way to reach them. For example, Extended Stay Hotels, a Spartanburg, S.C., hotel chain, recently set up a blog called Road Warrior Tips ( Several newspapers, including USA Today and The Los Angeles Times, now publish regular blogs about business travel on their Web sites.

Blogging specialists say that it is not a matter of if, but when, these business travel bloggers will start using their clout in a concerted way to change the travel industry.

And when that happens, says Professor Halavais, of the University of Buffalo, “the travel industry will need to adjust.”

As for Ms. Gradwohl, in the future she expects to delve more into the routine frustrations of business travel than the highlights that led to some unwanted notoriety.

“I’m stuck at the airport a lot,” she said.
Continue reading…

Extend your laptop battery’s life

On a recent stopover at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I flipped open my laptop PC, hoping to chip away at the 7,000-some e-mail messages that had accumulated since leaving Anchorage, Alaska, four hours earlier.

“Don’t even think about it,” my laptop screen flashed back at me contemptuously (I’m paraphrasing the error message a little here). “I’m out of juice.”

And then, before I could find an electrical outlet – don’t bother looking for one at Sea-Tac, by the way; I think they’ve been removed from the waiting areas to punish business travelers who are too cheap to buy an airline club membership – the laptop expired.

The irony, of course, is that I had spent most of the previous week researching this column on how to extend your PC’s battery life while you’re on the road.

In a 2002 survey by chipmaker Intel, 57% of laptop users said they wished their batteries lasted longer. And that is wishful thinking, according to Isidor Buchmann, president and founder of Cadex Electronics in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He suggests that although batteries become about 10% more efficient every year, the average PC’s power needs also increase by about the same amount. Result: The average battery life is still painfully short (under three hours for most laptop models).

But you don’t have to end up sitting in a waiting area, staring at a darkened screen, like I was. Here are four tried-and-true tips to extend the life of your laptop battery. Why should you take advice from a guy who couldn’t keep his own unit charged? Read on if you want to hear my sad excuse.

Power down all nonessential functions. Switch it off if you’re not using it. Many business travelers already know that you don’t want to take the DVD player for a spin on the plane, and that every time you hit “save” it can set the hard-drive whirring, which devours even more power. “But users often also forget to turn off their wireless card when they are no longer using it but are still using their computer,” notes Mike Fuller, executive vice president of PC Laptops, a Sandy, Utah, laptop manufacturer. “When the wireless card is on, it still continually searches for networks.” In Windows XP, click on “Power Options” in your control panel. It allows you to reduce the power consumption of any number of your computer devices or of your entire system.

Stay out of extreme temperatures. The technology that powers you battery isn’t terribly complicated. But it’s important to understand a little bit about the chemistry behind batteries, and how that can affect your work. Specifically, temperatures can affect the performance of your battery. It’s best to use (and especially charge) your batteries at room temperatures. Extreme conditions can drain your battery quickly. Also, avoid partial charges and use the battery until it is dead. Battery experts liken partial charges – and discharges – to eating a cup of lard every day. It significantly shortens your battery’s life. Considering that a lithium-ion battery can explode if it’s improperly used, it could also shorten your life.

Let your laptop do the saving. Not every computing device handles a power source in the same way. Some of the more sophisticated laptops, which are designed with business travelers in mind, are misers when it comes to using power. And that’s a good thing – if you can remember to take advantage of it. “Most users make the mistake of simply not choosing to use a product’s built-in ability to conserve battery life,” says Dan Coffman, a senior product manager for PC manufacturer ViewSonic. How do you harness your PC’s built-in ability to save? Consult your user manual. Often, calibrating your laptop is as easy as double-clicking on the battery icon in the toolbar.

Always, always carry a spare device that uses batteries. How obvious is that? Well, if you’re trying to keep under the onerous new airline weight-limits, it isn’t. But as Rick Thompson, director of engineering at Valence Technology in Austin, Texas, observes, “the availability of ‘free’ power outside of your hotel room is not predictable.” That’s a nice way of saying it. In fact, I sometimes think airport terminals, car-rental facilities and hotels try to hide the power outlets from us to keep us from accessing their free power. Thompson recommends a system that can simultaneously charge a second portable device such as a cell phone or PDA, allowing you to multitask your battery operations.

If you’ve stuck with me long enough to hear my pitiful excuse for running my laptop battery down, here it is: My 2-year-old-son, Aren, uses my laptop to watch “The Wiggles” while I’m on the road (if you don’t know who “The Wiggles” are, consider yourself fortunate). Aren decided to pull the power chord while he was watching an episode and used up all the power to run the DVD player. By the time I got to the PC, all the juice was gone.

I should probably thank Aren. He taught me how fast a DVD can run down a lithium-ion battery (in almost no time). Incidentally, he’s also demonstrated how impact-resistant a battery can be (surprisingly) and that at least some of those warnings about the battery coming into contact with liquids are exaggerated. You’d be amazed at how well a battery holds up to liquids, especially whole milk.

Reality (battery) check

If you rely on a battery to get work done while you’re away, you should, however, give yourself a reality check. Because while batteries can extend your productivity while you’re on the road – in a plane, at a remote site or sitting in hotel lobby – they won’t last you long enough. And if Buchmann is correct, they never will last you long enough.

I mean, even if you’ve taken all of these precautions, you can probably still think of several instances where you had a brilliant argument on the tip of your fingers, only to have the laptop power down under a faltering battery. I took the steps, and even without my toddler’s interference, it was probably only a matter of time before my battery ran dry at an inopportune time.

The point is, while these tips will help extend the life of your battery, they won’t make them last indefinitely. PC manufacturers may make it seem as if their laptops will run forever, but most of us know otherwise.

The tablet PCs are turning

Late last year, Cox Communications in Omaha, Neb., needed new computers for its field technicians. In the past, the telecommunications company had chosen laptops over newfangled tablet PCs, the so-called next generation of portable computing. But after inspecting the new Panasonic Toughbook CF-18 ($3,200) computer, a durable shock- and water-resistant gadget that resmbles an oversized personal digital assistant, the company had a change of heart. “As far as we’re concerned, the tablet represents the future of computing,” says spokeswoman Lisa Turner.

Times change – and so have the tablets. The newest crop of these fledgling devices capitalize on the best portability features of their finicky predecessors while adding on wireless functions that make them more practical. And, although most of them are priced for business use, a U.S. News test of four models found there’s plenty of appeal to the home user even if the devices haven’t quite cleared every hurdle.

Tablets still haven’t tackled their chief obstacle, the stylus vs. keyboard trade-off. Through tapping on the screen with a stylus – the way one does with a PDA – tablets could eliminate the keyboard altogether, making the device even easier to use than a laptop while you’re on the go. But writing a long e-mail or report with a just a stylus can be tiresome.

Thus some tablets, such as Viewsonic’s V1250S ($1,895), have a convertible keyboard that flips onto the screen’s backside when not in use. Others like Motion Computing’s M1400 ($2,000) offer a detachable keyboard that plugs in through a USB port.

But now that wireless computing is more common, tablets are becoming a more appealing option for Web-surfing, reading e-mail, or other situations when you want to check a few things quickly. Unlike laptops, you can use tablets without sitting down and folding them outand tablets screens are easier to read than those on PDAs and cellphones. The models from Panasonic, Viewsonic, Motion Computing, and HP’s Rugged Tablet PC tr3000 ($3,450) all have integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standard communications, so you don’t have to bother hooking up to a printer or storage device if you’re in range of compatible devices.

Although each of the four models had clear, bright screens and reasonably long battery lives (up to five hours with the Toughbook), they still have a way to go before they’re ready for prime time. The Viewsonic, for example, tended to get uncomfortably warm after a few hours of use – too hot to rest on the lap. The HP Rugged Tablet ran a little slow, and its screen edges didn’t always respond well to the stylus. The Motion Computing’s USB keyboard, which snapped on as a peripheral, proved awkward to use. The Toughbook? It just looked more like a Hummer – and was almost as expensive as one.
Continue reading…

Online travel, version 2.0

Finding an affordable plane ticket or hotel room used to be a no-brainer for Beth Bowers, a software trainer in Cassopolis, Mich. She would click on an all-purpose travel Web site like Expedia or Orbitz and routinely find the lowest rates. But lately she’s noticed that the bargains aren’t as abundant. “I can find the same prices – and sometimes better ones – when I go directly to the airline or hotel Web sites,” she says.

In other words, the rules of online booking have changed. A lot. Last year, about 35 million Americans booked travel reservations on the Internet, according to the consulting firm PhoCusWright. The one-stop sites previously served them well. But hotels and airlines are now looking to reclaim their chunk of the profits discount travel sites like Priceline and Orbitz have been earning. As a result, airline and hotel sites now often get you the best bargains while Expedia, Orbitz, and similar sites have become a better option for package deals.

Hidden perks. For example, nearly every hotel chain now offers a lowest-rate guarantee for guests who book online through their site directly. Other perks such as loyalty points and a flexible cancellation policy also are reserved for those who book with the hotel. Starting in May, the chain of hotels that includes the Ramada and Howard Johnson inns will even offer a free night if you find one of their rooms for less on another site. United Airlines similarly gives customers bonus frequent-flier miles for booking at the airline’s site.

Meanwhile, online agencies are improving their services to keep users coming back. Indeed, the big three – Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz – offer new technologies that mimic a real travel agent. For example, Expedia’s new airfare comparison calendar answers the question “Will I get a better rate if I leave a day earlier?” by giving users a glance at price rates for the month. Even Priceline and Hotwire – sites that focused so exclusively on deep discounts they didn’t reveal the specifics until after the purchase – are becoming customer friendly. Both now offer more specific details upfront on some of their travel packages.

Bottom line: Mix it up. No matter where your loyalties lie, in this year of fast online changes, it always pays to shop around.
Continue reading…