Oh when oh when will that pesky volcano stop erupting?

Here’s a story that’s familiar to anyone traveling to and from Europe in the last week: Erupting volcano. Canceled flight. Nothing to do but hit the Internet for some help.

Thanks to my friends over at Google for suggesting this. I had a blast creating my search story.

Smile! The TSA is taping you — and here’s what you need to know about it

security checkYou may have noticed that the Transportation Security Administration, the agency charged with safeguarding America’s transportation systems, has a thing for video.

Last week, when it was accused of taking a passenger’s child during screening, TSA released footage of the woman that shows it never happened. And yesterday, it posted images of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s screening incident at Salt Lake City International Airport (scroll down for the videos). The congressman had reportedly gotten into a verbal scuffle over the agency’s use of full-body scanning technology.
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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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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.

What we did this weekend: golfing with pirates in Orlando and exploring Maitland’s Mayan Courtyard

Golf and pirates! Who can imagine a better combination? Not Aren, Iden or Erysse, who tried their hand at minigolf.

Aren, Iden and Erysse visited the Mayan Courtyard at the Maitland Art Center. Not shown is Iden falling into the fountain. We decided to keep that out of this video. After all, he has an image to uphold.

You can see more pictures here and view archived videos at our travel video site.

Ready for your close-up? How to be a YouTube star on your next vacation

Marilyn Parver never wanted to become a YouTube star. Neither did Iesha Walker.

Their path to social media celebrity didn’t involve uploading an overproduced music video, clips of dancing comedians or laughing babies. They just took their video cameras on vacation.

Parver whipped out her handycam after two passengers began arguing on a recent JetBlue flight and taped the fracas. When flight attendants asked her to erase the footage because they were afraid it might “end up on YouTube,” she refused — and was later escorted from the plane in handcuffs. The clip ended up on YouTube, where more than 30,000 people watched it.

When Walker checked into her cabin on Carnival’s Destiny, she found wires hanging from the lamps above the beds, a soiled toilet seat and toilet bowl, a grimy shower stall, broken tiles and a broken wall panel above the bed. And there were bugs. Lots of bugs. So she pointed her camera lens at the infestation. When Carnival refused to reimburse her for the cruise, she uploaded the video.

This is only the beginning.

Online video is big. Americans watched a record 13.5 billion online videos in October, the last month for which figures are available, according to Comscore. That’s a 45 percent increase from a year ago. Nearly 8 out of 10 Internet users watched an online video, and among younger users, the Internet has already become a TV substitute.

Some of the most effective Internet videos are ones that allow travelers to “voice and record their own perspective, opinion and experience,” says Fionn Downhill, the chief executive of Elixir Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Videos documenting authentic, user-generated experiences spread like quick fire because they speak to the concerns and sentiment of the market.”

How do you become part of the video revolution on your next vacation? Here are a few tips.

Pack the right camera.
Today’s video cameras are small, affordable and shoot in high definition. I just field-tested the Flip Mino HD, a $229 camera that’s so inconspicuous, I could — and did — film anyone, anywhere. I gave it to my sons (ages 6 and 4) and they took some good pictures. The footage downloaded directly to my PC and could be posted to the Internet within minutes. I’m especially excited about the convergence of the SLR camera and video camera, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, which allows you to take broadcast-quality video and sharp photos. Once these technologies get a toehold among travelers, the video revolution will really catch fire.

Get to know the competition.
In an age of citizen journalism, your competition could be your seatmate. What sets your video apart from the tens of millions of clips on the Web is a basic understanding of what makes a compelling video. It’s part science (good lighting and composition) and part art (understanding why a billion people want to watch a guy named Matt dancing). The first part is easy. The second part — not so easy. In online-speak, a popular video is called “viral” because it spreads quickly. “Over the years I’ve had more misses than hits with viral videos,” says videoblogger Brandon Mendelson. “The ones that became hits were the ones that I had low expectations for — and the ones I had high expectations for, never reached the success I envisioned.”

Post helpful information.
For years, only production companies with expensive cameras had access to video cameras and the means to broadcast what they shot. Not any more. And guess what? People are interested in the other side of a travel product — the side the airline and hotel don’t necessarily want you to see. Travel blogger Darren Cronian recently uploaded a tour of his hotel room at London’s Shaftesbury Kensington Hotel and was surprised when prospective guests began contacting him. “People are searching for hotel reviews on sites like YouTube,” he told me.

Be yourself.
It’s easy to distinguish the corporate video from the homegrown travel production — even if you shoot both on the same camera. The commercial video usually has one purpose, says Tom Flanagan, the chief executive of the Denver-based marketing company Red Robot: to drive sales. “It is obvious that consumers increasingly demand more,” he says. They don’t just want to be pitched. They want to see videos that are interesting, authentic — and brief. Enough said.

Tell a story.
Even though you’re dealing with a new medium, a lot of the old rules apply. A popular online video has to tell some kind of story, even if it’s a simple tour of your hotel room or an argument on a plane. That’s the assessment of writer and producer Tim Street, who specializes in creating and distributing online video. “I’ve had over 30 million views of my videos online and what I’ve learned is that you can’t just make a video and expect it to go viral,” he says. “You need your video to be emotionally engaging moving two or more emotions. You also need spectacle and story.” Incidentally, there’s plenty of that in the travel industry. It’s just waiting to be discovered by you.

Be responsible.
Camera-toting tourists have a lot more power than they think. Use yours responsibly. Alexia Nestora, a consultant for a tour operator in Littleton, Colo., remembers how one unhappy customer posted a video that alleged her client was operating a fraudulent business. In the clip, he burned a T-shirt with the company’s logo and scrolled text with falsified information. More than 500 people downloaded his tirade. “We know that we lost a few sales as a result of the video, people would call after they had booked — sometimes even forfeiting their deposit because this video scared them off,” she remembers. Lesson learned? Online videos “can no longer be ignored by marketers and must be monitored,” she says. But the takeaway for us, the folks who are creating these videos, is that the world is watching. Think before you post.

I’m not sure anyone fully understands what video means to travel — let alone the Internet. As Wilson Cleveland, a vice president at CJP, points out, “Video is the best medium for bringing an experience or storyline to life.” It can provoke a visceral response from you. But is that all?

I believe it’s possible that we’re are entering an age in which a single online video has the power to transform an obscure destination into a must-visit Mecca — or to turn throngs of travelers away from an airline, car rental company, cruise line or resort.

Will this make the travel industry offer better customer service? Or will they just try to confiscate our video cameras when we’re on the road?

Better hold on to your cameras.

An adventure on Hontoon Island

Aren, Iden and Erysse Elliott spend a morning looking for Indian shell mounds and minding the alligators at Hontoon Island State Park, near DeLand, Fla.

Here’s the video that got grandma detained on JetBlue flight

Remember Marilyn Parver, the grandmother who was detained after she refused to delete a video she had lawfully taped on a JetBlue flight? Well, after weeks of back-and-forth with the airline, she’s released the incriminating tape.

Here it is:

On second thought, it’s not that incriminating. It’s a passenger arguing with another one about a child that is apparently misbehaving.

Passenger 1: Get the hell out of here.

Passenger 2: Excuse me!

Passenger 1: Stop!

Passenger 2: Can’t you control him?

Passenger 1: I don’t wanna control him.

I’ve seen this before. It’s nothing.

But what JetBlue sent to Parver … that’s something.

In a rambling letter to her, the airline disclosed that it does indeed have a rule against people taking photographs on planes.

JetBlue’s policy above 10,000 feet is to request passengers to discontinue videotaping or photographing, particularly the cockpit area or inflight procedures.

In light of this, our crew decided to identify the passenger who had been taking photographs and request that he/she delete the photographs.

(Curiously, JetBlue doesn’t feel bound by its own policy. It videotapes the interior of its cabins — below and above 10,000 feet.)

The letter also accused Parver of being “argumentative, condescending and belligerent” and refusing to obey the instructions of crewmembers.

Parver sent me the letter on Monday evening and denied she had acted inappropriately. She also questioned JetBlue’s “policy” on photographs, noting that passengers were not informed of this rule when they boarded.

I suggested that Parver publish the videotape online. By Tuesday morning, she had.

I was at an all-day meeting yesterday, but I noticed that my friends over at Photography is Not a Crime had an insightful post on this, which included some valid points about JetBlue’s flight attendants disregarding their own policy.

I think JetBlue could have handled this differently. Rather than sending a lengthy, defensive letter to the customer, the airline could have tried to patch things up. It’s obvious that she wasn’t taping the flight deck for nefarious purposes. Arguments between passengers such as the one she taped are pretty common these days.

The crew overreacted and the company overreacted. Its letter to Parver has just reopened old wounds.

Grandmother arrested after refusing to delete JetBlue fight video

Marilyn Parver filmed an altercation between two passengers on a recent JetBlue flight. When she refused to delete the footage from her video camera, she says the airline threatened to blacklist her and accused her of interfering with a flight crew, which is a federal crime.

You can read the account of Parver’s flight and subsequent arrest here. And look for Parver on ABC’s Good Morning America, along with the incriminating footage.

Parver contacted me yesterday to, as she put it, “get the word out.”

I am a 56-year-old grandmother who has never had so much as a speeding ticket. But on July 26th, I was taken by armed officers, in handcuffs, off JetBlue flight 195 for refusing to delete a video I had taken of a minor altercation between passengers over a screaming kid.

The flight crew made up a charge of interfering with the crew. My recording proves I did nothing wrong. I never even stood up. I was left with the threat that I will never be able to fly on JetBlue, that I will go on the no-fly list, and have a report written about me filed with the FAA.

I only refused to delete a legal short video. This is a complete misuse of power and what happened to me could happen to anyone.

I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t find any rules that would prohibit a paying passenger from filming the interior of a JetBlue aircraft or of any commercial plane. Parver said she phoned JetBlue later, and that a representative told her she could tape whatever she wanted.

My reading of the law — and again, I’m no expert — suggests the JetBlue flight crew overstepped its boundaries. In a big way.

I asked Parver if she would consider posting her footage to the Web so that we could see what the fuss was about. She said the JetBlue crew specifically told her they didn’t want the material posted on YouTube, which is why they were so insistent that she delete the videotape.

Instead, Parver is taking her case to ABC News, where its legal department can fend off any attack from JetBlue. I think that’s probably a smart move. YouTube might delete the footage, anyway.

This case underscores the travel industry’s sensitivity to the growing influence of social media, and particularly to viral videos. Makes me wonder how many other passengers have been asked to delete images that were not flattering to an airline.

Update (12/2/10): Parver has sued JetBlue.

5 sexiest in-flight safety videos ever

In-flight safety videos are big news, thanks to Delta Air Lines’ spiced-up preflight announcements. So as a public service, I’ve reviewed the five sexiest in-flight safety videos online.

Let’s get right to it …

Delta Air Lines

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

What’s sexy: Angelina Jolie lookalike has a gleam in her eye as she discusses water evacuation.

What’s not: nothing.

Air France

Rating: 4

What’s sexy: it’s en Francais.

What’s not sexy: it’s … en Francais.


Rating: 3

What’s sexy: supermodel shows how to move seat into upright position.

What’s not sexy: symphonic soundtrack is a snoozer.

Virgin America

Rating: 2.5

What’s sexy: lithe female passenger blows into flotation device and smiles.

What’s not sexy: having a bull for a seatmate. (Wait, maybe I got it the wrong way around?)

Air New Zealand

Rating: 2

What’s sexy: woman in leather boots demonstrates brace position.

What’s not sexy: male announcer urges passengers to “do up” seatbelts.

Hat tip to Jeanne “I’m-immune-to-your-charms” Leblanc for finally convincing me the Delta video had gone viral.