Are full body scans really the answer to airline security?

Written by admin on December 31, 2009 – 3:14 pm -

Are full body scanners the answer when it come to averting potential terrorist attacks when going through airport security? Would you object to walking through them? Are they an invasion of your privacy?  Would you ask to be individually screened?

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport will implement them within three weeks after the Christmas Day incident of explosives being concealed by Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab on a Detroit bound flight.

Many people questioned feel being screened should be a non-issue and the sooner the better. They want to speed up the time it takes to clear security and would welcome not having to take off outer garments, removing shoes, belts and not being required to unpack computer bags.

On the negative side, even then, these machine aren’t foolproof because it’s necessary to rely on humans to do visual scanning in an extremely finite period of time. That means evidence might be missed and the people responsible for scanning may not have the required technical expertise to intercept it.

One executive warns against an over reliance on technology. He feels it breeds complacency due to the belief machines have taken care of an issue so you do not need to worry. He’d be willing to walk through a scanning machine but would have greater confidence in the El-Al method of questioning. Even though he objects be being grilled and prodded, he has more faith in it from a security point of view.

A travel executive voiced she doesn’t think full body scans are the answer and will cause many to re-think their travel plans. She feels the TSA has numerous problems and when new screening systems are introduced, people manage to get through with contraband. The real issue is that people who want to cause harm will find a way to do it.

The ethical issue of privacy is out of date states one airline executive. The person doing the screening doesn’t see the passenger in person unless the passenger himself chooses to identify him or herself.

Tony Lamb, an operations research analyst with Scientific Research Corporation, says, “the TSA’s security paradigm is extremely reactionary. I remember never having to go barefoot at the airport until Richard Reid tried to blow up his Nikes. Now someone new hid some Semtex in his underwear and we’ll have full body scans. The bottleneck is at the security screening and it’s faulty. Unfortunately, it’s better than what we had pre-9/11.”

Lamb never liked the federalized guards at TSA. “They’ve had minimal training before being posted; a lot of them are little more than mall cops and are task saturated. Screening all of the passengers for possible bombs, knives, and guns in the allotted time is tough.”

Alisa Templeton from the Denver area says, “Hell no to body scans and here are just a few reasons why: They’d slow down, not speed up, security – especially if any of the TSA agents are gawkers. It’s a violation of my privacy. Yes my doctor sees these things, but she’s a doctor. Terrorists will find ways around the scanners as they’ve already done with watch lists and other security measures.”

People have different (and sometimes very passionate) opinions about these scanners. Please post how you feel and would you alter your travel plans?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Weather gods wreak havoc in U.S. & Europe

Written by admin on December 21, 2009 – 3:18 pm -

If your immediate travel itinerary includes a train trip on the Eurostar, you’d better make alternative reservations and hope. Eurostar has announced it’s suspending service indefinitely until the company is able to rectify the most recent problems that caused trains to break down and passengers to be stranded. With Christmas only days away, more than 55,000 passengers’ trips have been canceled.

Saturday was chaos as 2,000 passengers were evacuated from six trains. People were trapped in the Channel Tunnel for up to 16 hours, after condensation caused a series of electrical failures, on Friday night. The stranded passengers had to walk through the darkened tunnel.

Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown has said, “We won’t  resume services again until we’re  sure trains can get through safely. We want to understand what caused this unprecedented breakdown.”

But getting anywhere in Europe may not be easy. Cold snap wreaks havoc across Europe as the EU is experiencing some of the coldest temperatures in recent history. Mother Nature isn’t cooperating with the travel gods. In France, 40 percent of flights out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports were canceled as a second wave of snowstorms hit northern France.

Airports in Duesseldorf, Germany, Belgium’s Charleroi, Liege and Brussels airports were also closed due to heavy snow. Severe delays and cancellations were reported at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

In the U.S., airports in the Washington, DC area were closed on Saturday. The region experienced the largest snowfall ever recorded in a single December day. New York area’s airports were closed for a portion of the weekend and passengers were advised to access airlines’ websites before heading to the airport.

If you happened to be in much of the East Coast, even if planes were flying, passengers may not have been able to get to their flights. The mayors of Washington and Philadelphia and the governors of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware declared states of emergency. There simply wasn’t enough equipment to cope with the areas’ accumulated snow.

In West Virginia, blankets were given to hundreds of drivers and some motorists were stranded on highways for up to 27 hours, according to Red Cross spokesman Jeff Morris.

A massive snowstorm headed north to New England and blizzard warnings were still in place in some parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island on Sunday. A record number of car accidents have been recorded during this period.

So many people have been stranded on the roads, in trains and airports that this December will go down in transportation history as one of the worst ever. If you’ve been a victim of the weather, please post your comments. Could transportation officials have done a better job? If so, how?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

It’s Almost Christmas in Paris

Written by admin on December 19, 2009 – 12:19 pm -

It’s almost Christmas, and Paris looks more festive than ever. If there’s a recession, it’s hard to tell based on the number of people (the majority of whom are French) walking up the Avenue des Champs-Élysée on the last Saturday of November.

From the Place de la Concorde to l’Étoile, 400 trees edging both sides of the avenue are wrapped in more than a million lights. It’s a dramatic display of shimmering twinkles. The Ferris wheel at the end of the Tulleries Garden at the Concorde is incredible to watch whether or not you have the nerve to climb aboard for one of the greatest views of Paris including the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre.

There is a Scrooge element—and it’s understandable. Some Paris residents try to steer clear of the Champs-Élysée because it’s too commercial and is the land of tourists. To name a few landmarks, there’s a McDonald’s, Virgin Megastore, Louis Vuitton, Citroen, Mercedes, Peugeot, Haagen-Dazs, Nike, more restaurants than you can name with terraces cascading onto the sidewalk (thank goodness for space heaters and awnings when it’s cold and especially if you need a smoke), and so many movie theaters that New Yorkers might think they are in Times Square. Abercrombie and Fitch has announced it’s going to open a Paris outlet there.

Funny how this ho-ho-ho season happens every year, zooming in whether or not people are ready. Even if you’re not a believer in the religious aspects, you can’t help but be affected, even moved, if you’re living in a nominally Christian country. There’s nowhere to escape all of the Yuletide joy even when you don’t feel joyous

One major difference between the U.S. and France is the French have a jump on “doing” Christmas because they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. On the other hand, the French government doesn’t allow sales to take place until January 6, and the winter sales officially end on February 9, 2010.

So much for waiting to visit friends until the day after Christmas and stopping on your way at your favorite store to buy them an already reduced gift. Promotions do take place, but legally, those items are supposed to be ones that don’t come out of the store’s regular stock. Go figure.

This year, as usual, there’s a Christmas market on the Champs Élysée, and even at nearly midnight in the rain, the area is always so jammed that people are bumping into each other. So much for personal space.

The Paris tourist office is marketing the City of Light big time. It’s not only targeting foreign tourists but also ones from other parts of the France. Many people are hopping on high-speed trains to visit their capital. So don’t be surprised by crowds.

There are other Christmas markets throughout France, with wonderful handcrafted ornaments, gifts and food items. Work a visit to the Christmas markets into your plans if you’ll be in Paris around Christmas. Below is a list of some of the major markets:

  • Paris features several Christmas markets, with most starting sometime between late November and early December. Consult the Paris Tourism Office for a list of the markets.
  • Strasbourg - Nov. 29 to Dec. 24 – This is one of the largest Christmas markets in France.
  • Mulhouse – Nov. 21 to Dec. 31 – This Alsatian market features shopping while sipping mulled wine and Christmas biscuits.
  • Menton – December – The 15-day worldwide Christmas festival in this charming Riviera town features lights, shows, the Christmas market and nativity scenes. For more information, contact the Menton Office of Tourism.
  • Orleans – December – This Loire Valley city, and home to Joan of Arc, hosts a Marche de Noel. For more information, visit the Orleans Tourism Office.

Most residents of Paris cave into their bah humbug sentiments and make at least one pilgrimage to the Champs-Élysée. This is especially true if they have young children who think there may be a Père Noël.

Don’t miss the exploring the Place Vendome and Paris’s shopping streets. If you want to get into the Christmas spirit, go window shopping (in this case, looking) at the major department stores: Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Au Bon Marche.

If you feel like being elegant, dress up and take a tour of Paris’s five-star hotels; The Meurice, The Bristol, The Four Seasons, The Ritz, Le Crillon – and those are just a few.

Save enough time to stop in churches and savor one of the most beautiful cities in the world dressed in its Christmas best. I love seeing her from a boat cruising the Seine. And yes, Christmas in Paris isn’t Christmas without visiting Notre Dame.

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Some do’s and don’t of vacation rentals – will you fall in love?

Written by admin on December 15, 2009 – 3:21 pm -

Having written extensively about vacation rentals, I’ve learned quite a lot since I took the plunge and rented an apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After years of advising Bonjour Paris readers to stay in apartments rather than hotels, in order to experience a place as a quasi-local, it was my turn.

Never having been to the Paris of South America (and speaking no Spanish), B.A. had been on my must-visit list. An acquaintance decided she wanted to perfect her tango so an apartment was the best solution. Eating every meal out is expensive and two people (who’ve never traveled together) confined to one room could spell disaster.

The Internet is a wonderful thing when selecting a temporary home. Enter vacation rentals or short-term rental apartments plus the name of the destination in the search function and you’ll be inundated by choices. Too many. The selection process is challenging, especially in this economic market, when people might opt to rent out properties rather than sell them.

Renting an apartment site unseen is akin to a blind date. Will you fall in love even if you’ve looked at lots of photos?  Wide angle lenses and photo-shop can do wonders.

Tips I’ve learned from being on the buyer’s end:

- Do initial research about the city. Decide what you want to see and study the transportation system. Opting to rent a less expensive apartment a bit out of town, may ultimately end up costing you more money if you’re wedded to taking taxis or are locked into spending time commuting to see what you’ve come to see and do. Surf the web and if you like paper, buy a guide book or two. The DK-Eyewitness Travel “Top 10 Buenos Aires” book with its pull out map was my bible.

- If you’re a woman alone – or traveling with another – evaluate your comfort level if you want to return home late from dinner, or in the case of B.A., a milonga (a tango hall) that doesn’t get started until 11 p.m.

- Reality check: if you’re going to be somewhere for only two or three days, it’s probably not worth renting digs. You’ll need to hit the grocery store and buy essentials such as soap, etc.  Consider whether or not you want or need a concierge or someone to set up tours, make suggestions and/or dinner reservations for you.

How to evaluate a property:

Make certain there’s a high-speed Internet connection if you’re off to a city. Even if you’re not taking your computer and have no need to be on-line, it signifies the landlord caters to business travelers and usually, a more upscale market. Take a careful look at the photos of the kitchen and the bathroom facilities. Living rooms and bedrooms can look charming. Photos of them can be deceptive but they can’t hide an antiquated kitchen or circa 1942 bathroom plumbing fixtures.

How soon and how thoroughly is your rental request answered? People who are professionals are very responsive because there’s so much competition.

Always ask the size of the apartment. A two-bedroom apartment isn’t necessarily spacious when it comes to Americans’ expectations. Forty-square meters is tiny (440-square-feet) and believe it or not, some apartments with those dimensions are intended to accommodate four people.

Do you want to stay in someone’s apartment or are you more comfortable staying in one that’s used exclusively for rentals? A just-rental apartment tends to be less personal. On the other hand, you may not be tripping over the owner’s belongings.

Is the apartment’s owner (or rental agency) willing to have you speak with previous tenants? Is there a manual to the property and a 24-hour-contact number in the event there’s a serious problem with the apartment?

We rented a renovated two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor that was ideal for sharing. Its American owner emailed a response within one hour of the inquiry and his support staff was excellent. There was a car waiting for us at the airport and someone who met us when we checked in and explained everything in perfect English. There were even cards for us that included the apartment’s address and all of the telephone numbers including the cell phone that was there for our use. We had no complaints. Judy and I were able to share an apartment without getting in each others way since we kept very different schedules.

Another group of apartments that intrigued me were Apartments in a Recoleta Mansion that have been developed by a 38-year-old San Francisco native. Brent Federighi decided to restore the facade  rather than tearing down the building, which so many builders have done in B.A. since it’s easier and less costly. The 18 apartments have the  feel of a boutique hotel. There’s a lobby and a concierge on the ground floor office plus a small pool on the building’s roof.

These apartments are being sold to individuals who want to own a pied-à-terre but want to defray its cost. It’s better than a time-share for those who have money to invest and want an occasional home in Buenos Aires.

Even though where you stay for a short vacation isn’t a life or death matter, it can impact your feeling about a place. Prospective tenants need to read between the lines of rental ads. It’s not always obvious.

Do you have additional tips?  Or have you rented a place to find out it’s a dive upon arrival? If so, what did you do?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |