Bangkok-bound? Uncertainty abounds

Written by admin on November 28, 2008 – 12:52 pm -

This time next week, I’ll scheduled to be jetting off to Asia. The first stop on this marathon is Seoul, South Korea. It’s not that I’ve had a deep and dirty yen to visit this country. But, since we’ll be flying from New York, Seoul is a good spot to acclimate to the time change. I’ll have time to take a quick look-see, explore the tiny streets and alleys in the city’s market that people report deserves exploring and 30 hours later, proceed to Bangkok on my way to Laos.

Or so we thought and still hope. As of today, the airport is closed, a battle is brewing and there’s general unrest. Tourists are unable to fly to the main international airport. Some planes are landing and taking off at an auxiliary airport. But the situation is a mess in so many ways.

When the news broke over the radio and TV, I could sense impending trouble. The first call I made was to Sivan, my travel agent at Imperial American Express Travel Services.

Within minutes, she had made additional reservations via Hanoi, Vietnam. At the same time, she advised us to wait and evaluate the travel situation until after the Thanksgiving holiday. This is when you’re grateful for a really competent travel consultant who doesn’t flinch after receiving high-stress emails or semi-hysterical phone calls.

Traveling between Paris and Washington, DC is one thing. But a trip across Asia with late-minute changes requires a pro, who has immediate access to all of the booking engines and can accomplish things with the click of a mouse.

OK   – I can (try to) be laid back but it’s not really my style. And if it were mine, it isn’t Vietnam’s. Visitors are required to have a visa to enter the country and it doesn’t come fast or cheap.

A passport expeditor, he said he’d get the visa within 24 hours. But we’d be required to supply proof of flights and confirmation of hotel rooms. Thank goodness for the Internet … but who needs the drama, trauma and the stress. Don’t get me wrong. I love Vietnam. But I’ve been there three times in the past three years and wanted to see Bangkok this go-around.

Thailand has already experienced a dramatic drop in tourism. This isn’t helping the situation to be sure. Then again, who wants to go to a country in the midst of civil disobedience?

I’ve contacted people I know living or working in Thailand. They have responded that it’s safe to come to Bangkok and I shouldn’t fear for my life. The media tends to loop video segments dramatizing the situation. However, landing at the airport may prove problematic, no matter what my friends have to say.

Yes, I will use my city smarts, be on the lookout for pickpockets and people up to no good. And if the flights are taking off and landing, I’ll request a hotel car meet us. There are times it’s worth the extra money to have an extra barrier of protection.

But unless the flights aren’t going, we’ll be there. Know you’ll hear more about the experience. And yes, we’ll definitely register with the Embassy.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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Do you really want to eat after midnight on long-haul flights?

Written by admin on November 24, 2008 – 12:54 pm -

Why do airlines insist on feeding passengers when it’s long after the dinner hour?  Even after midnight? If passengers haven’t already eaten, it’s because they don’t want to. That is, of course, with the proviso that passengers are fed at all, which is rarely the case when when winging across the country on a domestic flight (except on Continental).

Perhaps you have an answer, but I don’t get it. Most people, it would seem, who board planes at midnight or later, prefer to sleep. Three course meals are rarely on their minds. Flight attendants I know can confirm that passengers may want a drink or two (only for medicinal purposes) to help them doze off. But food isn’t of much interest.

During the past week, I have flown on two long-haul flights that departed after midnight. I was fortunate to be able to upgrade to business class with frequent flier miles. The business-class sections on both legs of each trip were full and most passengers were asleep within minutes after the captain announced it was OK to sit back, recline and relax.

There’s another dining conundrum that in my experience U.S. carriers fail to address. After sleeping for six or seven hours, I wake up ravenous. I don’t expect or want a full dinner. But how about something more substantial than potato chips and chocolate bars? On the last 15-hour-long business class flight I took, I had to beg for a sandwich, which was hijacked by an accommodating flight attendant who raided the first class galley.

After comparing U.S. flights to the ones I recently took on Open Skies from Kennedy to Paris, I shot an email to Chris Vukelich, an executive with the airline. I asked him about shifting the dining timetables.

His response was short and to the point. “Most airlines in business class provide some flexibility when it comes to eating. British Airways offers a program called “Raid the Larder” which allows Club World passengers to choose from sandwiches and other items when they want to eat, even if they have had the regularly scheduled meal or chose not to eat it. The lack of flexibility by most U.S. carriers to their business class passengers is incredible.”

Other airlines, such as both Virgin and BA, provide pre-flight meals in the business/first-class lounge. Passengers can then go right to sleep after take-off. These pre-flight meals are perfect when flying on relatively short overnight hops such as Boston-London or NY-London.

When traveling in Asia, I find it’s worth maintaining a club pass for entrance to business class lounges. These lounges normally offer passengers breakfast, lunch and dinner finger food. They also provide snacks, free alcoholic drinks and free Internet access.

When traveling on Asian airlines, if passengers awaken mid-flight, there is always something to nibble on, no matter the hour. In addition, the staff is gracious about serving a hungry passenger in their seat if the passenger requests.

On most U.S. airlines, passengers often come away with the feeling they’re imposing on the staff.

What is wrong with this picture? There’s cost cutting, but it rarely feels like passengers are the priority. U.S. airlines should learn that it doesn’t take much to buy loyalty but it’s up to the airlines to make the additional efforts.

No one relishes feeling like cattle. Heck, even cattle aren’t fed after midnight.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Passionate about shopping? Stop over at Dubai International Airport

Written by admin on November 21, 2008 – 12:56 pm -

If you want to buy it all without paying sales taxes, the Dubai International Airport is the place to go. It may be a bit of a trek for Americans. But some people will do anything for a bargain. Even though many are reeling from the overt signs of a recession, it clearly isn’t impacting others who are born to shop and have the funds.

Dubai Duty Free is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Terminal 3 has just opened and there’s even more glitz. Now travelers can shop in an 8,000-square-meter (86,000 square-foot) mega-retail-center.  Stores are open around the clock. Retailers from every part of the world have outlets. It’s considered one (or probably the) best duty-free shopping complex anywhere in the world.

When the shopping center opened its doors in December 1983, the first year’s revenues were only $20 million. Last year, Dubai Duty Free registered record sales of $880 million — 24 percent more than the previous year.  There were 19 million transactions; that’s an average of 52,000 sales per day, an increase of 18% over 2006.

Dubai Duty Free is projecting another record year in 2008. Mid-year sales were approximately 30 percent ahead of last year’s. If the trend continues, spending will top $537 million.

There’s not even a need for dedicated shoppers to leave the airport since (depending on your nationality), 96-hour visas are available. Visitors holding a US passport can stay up to 60 days. The Dubai International Hotel is right in the complex. But there are many other nicer hotels within 15 minutes of the airport/shopping heaven. Choose from any and every type of decor and be surrounded by all types of places to eat, including way too many Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC outlets. But unless you have an outbound ticket, airport security isn’t going to let you enter the premises.

There’s little to nothing you can’t buy in Dubai Airport Duty Free. It’s a global shopping center, where all you need to do is garner the strength to go from store to store and hand over your credit card. Do alert your card provider before setting out on this foray.  You might want to increase your credit limit.

It’s hard to get close to the counters where gold jewelry and bullion are being sold. Many people would rather invest in it than put their money in stocks and bonds. Buyers will find a lot of 22-carat gold. It’s the closest to the pure metal and you’re charged according to weight. If it’s more than a chain, you’ll most probably pay extra for the design. Keep in mind it’s softer and more fragile than lower grades of gold.

From electronics, to watches, designer clothes, crystal, liquor, cigars and cigarettes, the selection doesn’t stop. There is also gourmet food from various parts of the world including Beluga caviar.

The Dubai Airport is one airport where it’s better to allow extra time before and after a flight. Even for non-shoppers, the airport makes for some of the best people watching in the world. People are everywhere — shopping (of course), lining the corridors, sleeping and surfing the Internet on free WiFi (within limitations because many sites are banned and the government does not permit downloading Skype).

Lucky passengers might win a lottery since there are all types of promotions to entice people to return and return again. Many people from neighboring areas fly in and out of the airport to quench their shopping desires. When it comes to marketing, this group knows how to move merchandise and has won more than 150 awards from industry and media entities.

There are plan for future development in the event people are worried there won’t be enough to buy. And you’re thinking how to cut down on gift buying this Christmas. Some people aren’t faced with the same dilemma.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Kudos for answering complaints, United!

Written by admin on November 13, 2008 – 12:58 pm -

United Airlines has just been commended by an independent advisory panel for improving its customer relations program. Airlines are now being rewarded for communicating with their customers. Wasn’t that once a basic good and expected business practice?

The Global Six Sigma and Business Improvement awards for Best Project in Achievement, Marketing and Customer Experience said the airline has made significant new gains in dealing with its public relations challenges. It’s implemented a new system to improve the quality and timeliness of customer responses, inquiries, compliments and concerns.

Barbara Higgins, vice president of customer relations, said “While United is taking aggressive steps to address the causes of complaints, we are equally focused on ensuring that concerns are addressed quickly and effectively. This award is indicative of some very significant progress.”

The normal domestic traveler may not notice a great deal of difference when winging their way from Chicago to Denver or Boston to DC. However, the airline does far better when it comes to long haul flights, most notably flights to Asia where service takes on a different look and feel.

Perhaps there are three contributing factors:

1. Many of the passengers are business travelers and are paying substantially more for their tickets.

2. Others use their premium status and miles to upgrade to business or even first class.

3. The flight crews tend to be more senior than the ones flying between Washington, DC and Chicago several times a day since it’s a short hop, skip and jump.

Airlines are certainly more solicitous to passengers they’re sure to see again and again than people who take that once-per-year vacation.

Hopefully, United will find a way to extend their long-haul service attitudes and procedures to their domestic routes. That will go a lot further toward improving customer relations that simply answering complaints more efficiently.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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10 rules for solo travelers

Written by admin on November 3, 2008 – 1:09 pm -

Friends ask me about possible difficulties for those traveling alone. My answer is they should go and not let allow the unknown stop them. Sure there might be some scary and even lonely moments. But there will be many unanticipated compensations and wonderful adventures.

I meet new people I would never meet if traveling with an entourage or a partner. I get to travel at my own pace. I can go where I want to go when I want to go there. I can indulge my curiosity gene. Once, solo women travelers take the plunge, it can be habit-forming.

Here is a collection of 10 rules for solo travelers. With a positive attitude people will return home more confident, with plenty of new friends and enough stories to fill a year of cocktail party chitchat.

1. Plan ahead. Do some extra research about your destination. There are planners and there are people who prefer to be surprised. The latter approach isn’t such a good idea if you’re alone.

2. See what colleagues you may already have at your destination. If you’re a member of a professional or social organization, chances are there’s the equivalent or a chapter in the city you are visiting. If there’s an event taking place during your stay, attending it will give you insights in addition to introductions to others who share your interests.

3. Meet new people at your destination by enrolling in a class. Depending on how long you stay, language classes can be ideal. There are frequently courses for as short as a week and these classes offer an opportunity to become fully immersed in the culture. Other options: classes in European history or art history.

4. Sign up for a tour of a city (ask at the tourist information office). You’ll learn about the town and meet other travelers. I’ve found walking tours are best for meeting other travelers.

5. Ask friends with acquaintances abroad to make introductions to people who live in cities you plan to visit. In these days of the Internet, it’s not all that difficult to fire off an email to people in every part of the world announcing a friend’s arrival. But, understand not everyone is going to be receptive to meeting you. Don’t take it personally.

Having lived in Paris for 20+ years, an email announcing a friend of a friend is headed to the City of Light can invoke fear and dread. I live and work in Paris. I have trouble keeping up with my real friends and a visiting fireman isn’t always welcome. On the other hand, I’ve met some fascinating people with whom I still maintain friendships.

6. Use your big city smarts. Carry a moderate amount of cash and one credit card to charge purchases or access cash from an ATM. Leave your diamonds and Rolex at home in your safe deposit box. Photocopy the main page of your passport. Losing a passport can turn a sightseeing vacation into one spent at the consulate that is invariably many miles from your base.

7. Register your credit cards. Pay a few dollars and register credit cards so only one call needs to be made in case they disappear. Leave a copy of the information in your hotel’s safe deposit box and with a friend at home who is willing to make a call to the credit card registry service.

8. Stay at B&B’s that are run by a host family. It is like having a friend in town that can show you the ropes.

9. Go to restaurants where you can dine at the bar. Restaurants with wine bars, tapas bars and sushi bars are a boon for the solo traveler. The experience can be almost like a communal table. Some restaurants even have communal tables, especially in Germany. If people aren’t able to strike up a conversation over food — well, that’s a sad commentary.

10. Most foreign cities have English language publications that list activities targeted at Expats. In Paris, many of the bookstores sponsor readings (in English) that are free and frequently fascinating. Ditto for universities as well as the Anglophone library. Before you know it, you’ll be trying to figure out whether or not you can fit in all of the activities that interest you.

Walk along well-lit streets when many natives do their window-shopping. Enjoy the scenery and sit down at a cafe and watch the world go by. Take advantage of evening entertainment: concerts, movies and “after dark tours.”

Western Europe is a piece of cake since the hospitality industry is tourist friendly and wants the business. I’m heading for Dubai this week and yes, I’m going alone. It’s going to be a different experience. If you have any tips, please post them. Know they’ll be carefully read.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis; with a travel bug that knows few boundaries.

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