It was bound to happen — passenger gropes a TSA agent

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:08 pm -

What comes around goes around and sooner than later a passenger was going to turn the tables and grope a TSA agent. Not that groping is ever funny, and now, 61-year-old Yukari Miyamae from Colorado, is facing felony charges.

Last Thursday, Miyamae was in Phoenix’s Sky Airport en route to Colorado when the incident occurred, KWGN reports.

According to the arrest report, Miyamae is accused of groping TSA agent Barbara O’Toole’s “left breast through her clothing and squeezing and twisting it with both hands without the victim’s permission.” Gee, what if she’d had permission?

Yukari Miyamae admits she groped the agent. Consequently, she faces felony charges of sexual abuse. Miyamae was released from a Phoenix-area jail on Friday.

This is a real turnaround when the TSA, and more notably TSA agents are accused of groping grandmothers, people in wheel chairs, babies and even celebrities. Perhaps, you had to be there to understand what happened and Miyamae’s motivation.

If you’ve been subjected to a severe pat down when going through security, have you ever been tempted to reciprocate? Thinking. As the world turns.


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

What foods are you allowed to bring into the U.S.? It can be a mystery

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:07 pm -

OK, we’re supposed to be experts on travel issues but there are times that rules and regulations can leave even pros baffled. Is it because it’s a changing playing field? What foods you can bring into the US from overseas?

There’s a lot of controversy over this issue. This is an interesting and informative site . But, I’m beginning to believe nothing is set in stone, except (possibly) a lot depends on which side of the bed the inspector got up.

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is, even if you buy cheese at a French airport, and tell the sale person you’re U.S. bound, and are guaranteed the package will make it through customs when property wrapped, don’t accept it as gospel. Ditto for caviar. Between the beagle brigade and the inspectors, I’ve seen some lovely food items left in the inspection area.

It’s hard to watch grown people cry over cans of foie Gras and vacuum packages of ham being confiscated. Are you allowed to bring croissants into the US? My guess would be yes based on this list provided by the CBC.

Travelers definitely must take precautions when returning from adventure travel or farm tours, etc. Contact your tour operator for information about possible exposure to diseases the U.S. may not have. Find out what needs to be done before leaving and returning.

I must plead guilty. I never considered the house we owned in Provence (surrounded by vineyards) to be farmland and noted nothing on my customs declarations. Was it? I’m still not sure.

If you’re subjected to a secondary scanning, Kenneth Larson, a retired aerospace contracts manager said, “Anything with aluminum foil wrapping around it that sets off a metal detector, won’t make it. The scanner does not have the time to open, examine and analyze it. So, it hits the garbage bin.”

Once you’ve stood in line and opened every suitcase and then had them go through the scanner (again), bringing in food becomes substantially less appetizing. I had this pleasure when I was traveling with my cat and brought a sealed foil package of food in her carrier.

If you don’t declare agricultural items and are found out, you’re liable for a $1,000 to $50,000 fine. Do you have to declare candy, etc. that are prepackaged in the original manufacturer’s wrapping? People have been told no but it’s not 100% clear.

After doing substantial research, my conclusion is that getting through customs with food products is a moving target since the rules seem to change frequently.

If you have any insights, please share them. If you’ve had items confiscated, what were they? Do you always fess up about the wedge of runny cheese you’re bringing home as a souvenir of your trip? It tastes so much better in the U.S.

Photo courtesy U.S. Customs Service, photographer James R. Tourtellotte


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

How to train house guests or be one

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:05 pm -

Summer is here, and more than a few people would like to come visit if you live in Paris, New York City or have a country house almost anywhere. Mention beach, and you may find yourself with new and dear friends.

Free is better:

There may be B&Bs galore or inexpensive hotels close to where you live, but free digs are cheaper yet. Besides, staying with friends feels better than a hotel. Whom would you trust to steer you to the right places—a friend or a concièrge? Friend only have your interests at heart when they recommend a restaurant (and possibly a desire to get you out of their hair for a couple of hours) while it is possible the concièrge gets a free meal or a referral fee from the resto for his efforts.

Be sensitive:

House guests can be wonderful when they know and really understand the rules. If you hear the least bit of hesitation in your host’s voice when asking whether or not you may stay, move right on—not right in—and try someone else. If you have enough friends, you’re sure to catch one in a weak moment or at least when they’re cracking open their second bottle of wine.

One of my friends loves having guests. I accuse Sally of running a hotel, but attribute her being the hostess with the mostest to the fact she was in the Foreign Service and was stationed in some hardship posts where she was delighted to have company and had hot and cold running staff to look after them.

She’s left the government, but has a large house and works in an office. When her working day is done, it’s done. She’s trained her guests to shop for and prepare dinner or, better yet, make reservations. It always seems right to me that the person who makes the reservation should ask for the check—and pay it.

Sally leaves for the office before people are up and the refrigerator is stocked with the essentials for breakfast. As I do, she takes the initial order for what they want before they arrive and stocks coffee, tea, milk (regular, low-fat, and the list goes on), juices, fruit, breads and expects them to restock their own special brand of organic Swiss muesli.

House guest etiquette:

Guests don’t need to feel that pots and pans and dishes will break if they look at them cross-eyed. No one likes to return home to a sink filled with dirty utensils. And please don’t use the excuse, “I wasn’t sure how you like to load the dishwasher.”  Load it carefully, run it when it’s full, and please (if you’re staying with me), unload it and put the dishes, glasses and silverware where they belong. If you leave two “mystery items” on the counter, that’s OK. They will be put away in the proper place.

Unless you’re in the boondocks without a car, find a grocery store, a place to buy wine and liquor and go all out and spoil your host(s) with flowers, unless there are so many in the garden they’d be redundant. It’s OK to deadhead the roses and cut some and put them in vases inside the house.

Bathroom manners:

If you’re staying in a Paris apartment, chances are pretty good that bathrooms are at a premium. A WC is not a library and please don’t plan on making it one unless you’re home alone. Do pick up your towels and please show others courtesy. To be blunt, the toilet brush is there to be used, and please don’t leave the toilet seat up.

Unless you can close the bedroom door:

I don’t want to get personal but unless your room is separated from the living quarters, please make your bed in the morning, pick up your clothes and try to keep the room in order.

Apartments and houses (and this is certainly more prevalent in countries outside of the U.S.) tend to be small so your mess becomes visible to others. If it’s me, color me cranky. Tripping over other people’s stuff makes me feel as if I’m camping.

Do not feel it’s offensive to strip the bed when you’re leaving. Place your sheets and used towels in a pillowcase. If there’s a spread, make up the bed (sans sheets) until there’s time for someone else to do it – usually in preparation for the next guest.

My son and daughter-in-law have shoes off rule in their house. I’ve adopted it and keep a basket by the front door since I hate seeing shoes strewn everywhere. Some adults may be taken aback, and if they’re coming to my once-a-year dressy dinner party, they may wear shoes. But the reality is that floors tend to creak when a building is more than 120 years old as is my Paris apartment. No one loves hearing footsteps above them or finding shoe polish on their upholstery.

A friend of mine asked me to compile a do’s and don’ts guide for people who rent her country home. Clearly it wasn’t the same you’d send to guests. But, come to think of it, I may just write one specifically to friends and (some very recent) acquaintances.

Children:

Yes, children are frequently part of the house guest package. But they should be their parents’ responsibility. Other adults should not be responsible for entertaining them, cooking for them or cleaning up after them. Parents should bring their off springs’ favorite toys (please nothing that squeaks or makes ungodly noise) and please no magic markers that are indelible and your hosts will never be able to forget them long after they’ve come and gone.

Another plea to parents: Take a look when you arrive at your destination and if you see things your children will find irresistible, quickly ask your hosts if you may remove them before something breaks. Not everyone’s house is child-proofed.

If your children has special food preferences, bring them with you. Fruit Loops cereal is not necessarily standard fare.

Being a guest:

Some people love staying with others. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be one of them because I feel as if I have to wash the kitchen floor, paint the ceiling, and take out the trash before the wastebasket is full.

And since I’m the guest, I feel it’s my responsibility to pay for dinner. After one go-around as a house guest, I calculated it cost more to be a guest than if we’d stayed in the town’s hotel. Plus, I feel terribly embarrassed asking whether or not someone has Wi-Fi since running Bonjour Paris isn’t a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job (especially when living in another timezone. If it were, I could take a real vacation! What a nice thought… er, fantasy.

Please add any tips or thoughts you might have for being a good host. Ditto for being the perfect house guest. It’s an acquired skill.

There are so many permutations my head is spinning. Having had 86 consecutive nights of guests when I first moved to Paris, I’m still suffering from shell shock. And that was 23 years ago.


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

5 hotel complaints — how do you resolve them?

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:04 pm -

How many times have you stayed in a hotel and found it to be perfect and satisfy your every whim?  Probably not many. Are your expectations realistic? Perhaps yes and maybe no. But, there are specific things that seem to drive people around the bend.

The number one complaint:

If there’s no WiFi, people cry foul and will often book a room in another hotel. In addition, WiFi had better be free. Even though there are no supplemental charges when you’re staying in a Holiday Inn, stay in a some really chi-chi hotels in London or Paris and other countries and there may be  hefty fees. Unless you’re one of the super rich, what-me-care types who never looks at bills, this causes major resentment since you’re already paying big bucks (or euros) to stay in the deluxe “palace” hotel.

Another gripe comes when logging on is so difficult you’re forced to wait for an IT person to appear in order to access your email. Not everyone travels with a computer, but an increasing number of people don’t leave home without a smart phone, a digital reader, an IPad and the list goes on. Many require WiFi connects. I don’t even want to think about the cell phone bill I discovered when I returned from Asia and was confronted with roaming charges.

Even when you’re on vacation, it’s irritating not being able to surf the Internet in case you and your family want to go sightseeing or out to dinner and want to check directions, hours and take off prepared.

Bark Not:

An increasing number of hotels have become  ”pet friendly.”  One person complained she was awakened by a dog at 4:30 a.m. Apparently Fido’s owners were out cold or didn’t feel like walking their charge. So he barked for 30 minutes before he was taken out to do his stuff. Sue, who was in the adjoining room, wasn’t happy and suggested to the management they have pet friendly rooms in a separate part of the hotel. Some people feel that way about children — but let’s not go there.

Being Green:

Environmentally conscience people resent the amount of waste hotels generate. One friend said he doesn’t need his sheets changed more than once a week and even when he asks, they’re changed more frequently. Robin also gripes about all of the tiny bottles of plastic shampoos, lotions, etc. that aren’t bio-degradable. When are hotels going to get smart and have large, refillable dispensers?  It’s a win-win since everyone will end up saving.

Housekeeping and people responsible for checking the mini-bar:

Jim said, “I don’t like housekeeping trying to open the door when I am inside the room. This happens even when I have placed a do not disturb sign on outside of the door. I always put the safety locks on too and anyone trying to open the door makes me jump. I travel a lot, may sleep weird hours and work even stranger ones.”

Other gripes emerge when someone from housekeeping (or maintenance) decides they can vacuum or start banging at 7 a.m. They may be awake but many guests aren’t and why do they feel the need to yell from one end of the hall to another?

Pillows, blankets and hangers:

People want good pillows and not the cheap foam ones that keep your head cranked up in an uncomfortable position. Then there the lumpy or hard as rock ones. Personally, I’ve given up and travel with my own pillow. It’s been with me around and around the world again and is a real constant in my life.

In addition to enough pillows, people want extra blankets that should be wrapped in a cover, a signal they’ve been cleaned. Many hotel guests are all for duvets where the cotton covers are changed between (or even during) each stay.

Hotels tend to skimp on hangers and one person remarked she is invariably annoyed when to hangars can’t be removed from the rod and she has to fight to hang up her clothes. Jean said she might understand if she was checkiing into a cheap motel but has zero tolerance when she’s staying at a good hotel.

It goes without saying, there are laundry list of wants such as fluffy towels, a robe, good lighting and items that have been covered in other ConsumerTraveler articles. And yes to flat screen televisions, black-out curtains and showers with sufficient water pressure and not so many dials that you have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to turn it on and off while not getting scalded in the process.

Suggestions:

One person said there should be a housekeeping menu card when you check in with a list that clients can check off regarding their wants and needs. That’s not a bad idea. But you must have others. Please feel to post your hotel irritations and some remedies as how you can have your requirements met with a minimum of stress.

Photo: dimensionsguide.com


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

A love letter to OpenSkies

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:03 pm -

I’ve finally seen the light and am no longer spending time and money on mileage runs hoping to collect frequent flier miles for upgrades from economy to business class. The upgrade days appear to be coming to an end and if you’re able to snag one, you probably won’t know until the last minute.

With fewer flights (and smaller planes), the chances are far less. If it’s a long haul flight, who wants to end up at your destination feeling as if you’ve been through the wringer and all you want to do is sleep.

I’m not happy  squeezed into a middle seat. I’d rather buy a business class ticket from a consolidator than stand waiting for my name to be called if a place is still available. By the time I board, I’m in a sweat after forking over miles plus $450 each way for the pleasure of more legroom. And forget about buying the least expensive ticket because they don’t qualify for upgrades.

Because I commute between Paris  and Washington, it feels so good to have found my airline: thank you, OpenSkies.  The other passengers, be they French, American or Brits, who take a connecting flights in Paris, say they like the airline because it’s more laid-back and with fewer passengers. OpenSkies, a subsidiary of British Air, bought L’Avion and L’Avion’s planes are being made to look like the ones from OpenSkies.

OpenSkies is an all-business class airline that feels as if it’s a club. It currently flies between Newark and Paris, and Washington, DC, and Paris Orly Sud airport. The planes are Boeing 757-200’s, retrofitted to accommodate far fewer passengers than the aircraft can handle when they’re shipping cattle—about eighty-six people. You get on (and off!) very quickly. There are also twelve flat “biz beds” that recline 180 degrees. Some people book the trip to Paris in the biz-bed and fly back in the biz seat that reclines 140 degrees.

When questioned as to whether or not they’re planning to expand the routes right now, a spokesperson from OpenSkies, said they’re concentrating on the existing ones.

The feeling of being pampered  begins as soon you check in. The personnel welcomes you as if you’re a VIP;  the baggage allowance is three bags. You receive your boarding pass and a lounge admit slip, so you don’t have to sit in the corridor or go shopping to fill your time until the flight departs. Why would you?

The lounges offers snacks, wine, spirits, coffee—all on the house—or included in the cost of your ticket. You can have  a meal in the lounge and then go right to sleep on the plane. Make your phone calls, use the WiFi, be left alone or simply chill out. There’s also priority security clearance in Paris if you’re flying OpenSkies.

If you plan on buying duty-free, do it at the airport because you can’t on the flight —and so much the better so there’s more time for the crew to cater to their clients’ whims. If you ask if you can eat your more-than-decent meal (served with an eye for presentation) earlier or later, no one tells you it’s now or never. It you don’t like the wine you selected (and thank goodness, they’re French wines – which seems only appropriate between France and the U.S.), you aren’t made to feel as if you’re a criminal if you ask to sample another. The selection of after-dinner drinks is fewer since OpenSkies doesn’t serve miniature bottles.  The flight attendants make cocktails and serve passengers since they’re more than service oriented.

The flight attendants go out of their way to make you feel welcome. On one flight when I was upgraded to a biz-bed seat, I fully expected the steward to tuck me in under a white cotton duvet. Was I comfortable? You bet.

Dealing with snarky flight attendants has become tedious for frequent flyers, who don’t want to hear about the crew’s personal problems or that their pensions have been cut. Please don’t think I’m not sympathetic. But that’s not why I board a plane. I fly to go somewhere, not to be a stranger on a plane or a shrink. And yes, I talk to the crew (when I’m not sleeping) because I was destined to spend much of my life “up in the air” à la George Clooney.

If you take OpenSkies, you’re rested even if you don’t sleep as most passengers appear to do, especially on the east bound route between the U.S and Paris. Some people may watch movies on the mini-screen TV or work throughout the trip. People, who are cramming for business presentations, are happy to see electrical plugs in the console. It’s terrible to be forced to count the minutes until a computer battery fades into the dark of the night.

Even if your final destination isn’t Paris, OpenSkies supplies first-class tickets on the TGV to other cities in France. It’s part of the deal and a darn good one.

OpenSkies should also be considered a feeder airline and I don’t mean that as a negative. If you want to go further afield, there are many low cost airlines in the E.U. that make it easy for you to go where you want to be, with minimal wear and tear. For example, if Milan is your final destination, a round trip ticket on Easy Jet can cost less than $100 depending upon when you reserve. Anyone can tolerate sitting up straight and not being served more than water when the trip is only an hour and a half long.

OpenSkies  just celebrated its third anniversary, and may there be many more. Price: OpenSkies has had numerous promotions and if you’re flying between Washington or New York City and Paris, it’s important to get on the mailing list and book seats when the prices are right. When they are, you’ll pay only a couple of hundred dollars more than coach on other carriers. One caveat: if you need to change your date, expect to be hit with a hefty change fee. But that’s no different from other airlines.

There are lots of changes taking place at OpenSkies. Dale Moss, who’s been head of the airline since it launched, is retiring. He’s made 145 transatlantic  trips and feels it time to spend more time with his family. It’s not surprising that all the flight attendants with whom I’ve spoken feel as if they actually know him, because they invariably do. It’s so apparent they enjoy their work and function as a team.

Patrick Malval, Regional Commercial Manager Western Europe for British Airways (BA), took over as Managing Director of OpenSkies on June 30th. Malval (who happens to be French) has been a board member of OpenSkies for over three years and with British Air since 1990. He’s held various roles within the commercial organization before being appointed in 1999 to Business Sales Manager for France. On my most recent flight, the flight attendants said they’d met their new boss and were excited over the prospect of working for him since he exuded enthusiasm.

OK, I’m a convert and so are many of my friends. I would have made the leap sooner had it not been the airline didn’t accept animals on  flights. But, now they do and I know my jet-setter Kitty (or a canine companion) would have liked the airline as much as I do. Animals weighing up to nine pounds (including their carriers) can sit in the business section of the plane. Up to three larger animals may be checked in cargo. Naturally, there’s a charge for their transportation and required documents proving they’re healthy. But as the French would say, “C’est normale.”


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

The Paris Air Show takes flight

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:02 pm -

On Monday, June 20th, it’s come one and all in the aviation business to showcase their aircraft and see which company is going to come away with the greatest number of sales. The mega show opened at Le Bourget . It’s the world’s largest and oldest aviation trade show and this is when it’s make or break the bottom line to who orders what from which manufacturers.

More than 2,100 exhibitors from 45 countries are participating in the week-long event that showcases both commercial and defense aircraft. Airbus anticipates scoring big orders for its new, more fuel-efficient version of its workhorse A320 shorthaul jet. Boeing is highlighting its new mid-range 787 Dreamliner and its 747-8 intercontinental passenger jets.

The show is taking place amid skyrocketing fuel costs and bleak forecasts for the international air transport market. As a result, airlines will be on the hunt for cleaner and more cost effective ways to transport passengers. There are billions of dollars (not to mention thousands of jobs) at stake. A key emphasis is on environmentally friendly aircraft.

The International Air Transport Association warned that natural disasters in Japan, unrest in the Middle East and rising fuel prices, could cause the airline industry’s profits to collapse only a year after they’d begun to recover from the global economic crisis.

On the what’s new front: people will be carefully inspecting a solar plane, biofuel jet engines and pro-type planes of the future. For example, International aviation group EADS has revealed a concept for a Concorde replacement which could allow travel between Paris and Tokyo within three hours. Its Zero Emission Hyper Sonic Transport (ZEHST) concept, unveiled ahead of the Paris Air Show this week, uses rocket power to transport passengers above the Earth’s atmosphere, dramatically cutting flight times.

Airbus is pushing its “A320neo” a revamped version of the standard A320 that has been reengineered to be 15 percent more fuel efficient. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Boeing is advising buyers to be patient.

Airbus’ first order at the Paris air show was from GE Capital Aviation Services, or GECAS, an aircraft leasing company. It signed a confirmed order for 60 A320neo aircraft, valuing the deal at $5.47 billion.

The commercial leasing and financing arm of General Electric (GE) ordered the aircraft with CFM’s LEAP-X engine for all 60 aircraft, bringing the total number of aircraft in the A320 family ordered by GECAS to 390.

Qatar Airways: The upstart, fast-growing Gulf carrier is buying extended versions of the long-range jet, the 777-300, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker said during a news conference alongside Boeing’s commercial aircraft chief. On the plus side of the balance sheet for Boeing: It just announced the first big-ticket order in its rivalry with Airbus as the Paris Air Show is taking off. Qatar Airways ordered six 777 jets for a total of $1.7 billion.

Airlines squeezed by higher fuel prices are rushing to order the Airbus jet, which isn’t scheduled to be ready until late 2015. Boeing’s top marketing executive Randy Tinseth said last week it will decide in the coming months whether or not to upgrade its existing 737 model or design an entirely new plane, which wouldn’t be available until the end of the decade.

In the meantime, Airbus has booked more than 330 orders and commitments for the A320neo since its commercial launch last December. Airlines include: IndiGo, Virgin American, Brazil’s TAM and airplane leasing company ILFC have placed orders as of now.  A (more than) slight embarrassment:  The Airbus A380 super jumbo jet suffered damage to its wing tip Sunday after the slow-speed collision with a building at the Le Bourget and the plane has been grounded.

Boeing and Honeywell are both touting the first biofuel-powered trans-Atlantic flight, with Boeing flying in its 747-8 freighter from Seattle on a mix of biofuel and jet fuel. Honeywell is taking credit for the “green jet fuel” it developed to power a Gulfstream business jet on its way from New Jersey to Le Bourget just in time for the air show kickoff.

EADS will demonstrate the world’s first diesel-electric hybrid aircraft at the show, part of its strategy of cutting its fleet’s carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2050.

OPTICOR is displaying its advanced transparent plastic that has been developed for aerospace applications. Gulfstream has chosen the OPTICOR material for use in the new G650 jet’s passenger-cabin windows. PPG Aerospace’s advanced transparency material has passed the qualification testing of Federal Aviation Administration. Show attendees will have an opportunity to view a passenger-cabin window designed with the OPTICOR material. Don’t hold your breath. These plane won’t be ready for at least 40 years.

The Paris Air Show is the battleground for the traditional biannual showdown between Boeing and Airbus for which manufacturer can generate new and more orders. Airlines in the fast-growing Asian and Middle Eastern countries have been ordering hundreds of new aircraft to meet skyrocketing air traffic in those regions.

Airbus edged out Boeing at last year’s Farnborough International Air Show, booking deals totaling $13.2 billion; Chicago-based Boeing’s orders totaled $12.8 billion.

These results were a significant improvement over Paris Air Show in 2009, when many airlines closed their checkbooks in the wake of the global financial meltdown. Boeing Co. upped its forecast for aircraft demand over the next 20 years, saying airlines will need $4 trillion worth of new planes to meet a pickup in passenger numbers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

If you happen to be in Paris and see a lot of wining and dining taking place, don’t be surprised. This happens when there are billions of dollars at stake.


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Air France launches its 538 seat jumbo jet between Paris and Washington, DC

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 4:01 pm -

Air France Airbus 380 made its debut between Paris and Washington-Dulles on June 7th and will use this 538-seat plane on its San Francisco run during the summer. The double-decker aircraft features three to four classes of service, spacious cabins, a sophisticated lighting system synchronized with time zone changes, an art gallery, six bars and extensive on-demand entertainment programming.

The aircraft has reduced CO2 emissions (20 percent less fuel burned compared to an A330) and is supposed to be the quietest aircraft in its category. Air France is doing this in collaboration with Delta via a joint venture.

The daily A380 service  between the U.S. and France will depart Washington-Dulles at 4:40 p.m. and arrive in Paris the next day at 6:00 a.m. local time. The return flights will leave Paris at 10:40 a.m. and arrive in Washington-Dulles at 1:00 pm local time.

The aircraft is divided into four cabins: 9 seats in La Première/First Class, 80 in Affaires/Business Class, 38 in Premium Voyageur/Premium Economy Class and 389 Voyageur/Economy Class.

With the current service on the New York-JFK route, Air France A380 now serves three different U.S. destinations. Air France will also operate the A380 between Paris, Johannesburg and Montreal during the summer of 2011.

Would you want to take a flight with that many passengers aboard? Some people say yes while others state they’ll steer clear of such a large aircraft. Business traveler John Sanson said, “I bet boarding and disembarking is going to be a nightmare, not to mention waiting for checked luggage.”

Are you booking seats on these super-sized jets? If so, are they more comfortable or do you feel as if you might get lost?

For more information: Air France.


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Safety when traveling

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:59 pm -

Editor’s note: Karen Fawcett offered her suggestions on travel safety to readers of her Bonjour Paris, an on-line magazine. They resonate for all travelers.

An email has just crossed my screen pleading for help. It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Another traveler has just been robbed in the Paris Métro. He claims he was on the lookout for people up to no good; unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Hit-and-run thieves have more schemes for separating you from your possessions than Campbell’s has varieties of soups.

These synchronized plots are seemingly innocent, but voilà, within minutes, you’ll emerge virtually nude and missing so many essentials your trip may be ruined. If not ruined, you’ll find yourself standing in line at your country’s consulate hoping it can produce a replacement passport in time for you to make your outbound plane. Wouldn’t you rather be standing in the Louvre looking at a new exhibit? Or walking the streets of Paris or other cities being inspired by their architecture? Here are some current scams and situations that should raise caution and engage defensive street smarts when encountered.

Beware of groups
Gangs of kids or savvy (even grabby) adults looking to augment their incomes view vacationers as prey. No matter how cosmopolitan or sophisticated a tourist may seem, as a whole many appear tentative, especially when in the midst of a crowd. This is especially true when they’re in a country where they don’t speak the language and haven’t developed a sixth sense about the rules of the local highway.

Even when people aren’t far from home, petty thefts are rampant. So many cell phones have been lifted in the Washington, DC metro that the transport authority waged an anti-theft campaign. Steve Jobs would be proud his personal media players are so in demand. The powers-that-be in charge of the area’s subway have taken ads on local television stations instructing commuters how to avoid being ripped off. Imagine, there’s a secondary market.smartphones

Keep your smartphones, cameras, digital readers and other devices out of sight
If your iPhone or iPad disappears in Paris, don’t even bother reporting the loss to the police because you won’t garner any sympathy. They’re today’s prize, to the point that the Paris Mayor’s office is trying to have them locked if used by anyone other than the rightful owner.

No, it’s not a gold ring
Whatever you do, don’t fall for the “gold” ring trick. No one is going to give you one even if you supposedly dropped it. Keep on trucking, even if it means walking (carefully) into the street. One friend always carries a whistle. It’s not dumb to know how to yell “help” in the home language. In French, that’s “au secours!” as in “o skoor” with a long o sound to open.

Think big city smarts
There are so many things people can do in Paris and in other EU cities—as well as destinations throughout the world where crowds gather. We’re not just talking public transportation but sporting events, public places and even museums. Many people go to markets only to discover they have no cash and/or credit cards when they reach to pay for that precious item they’ve discovered. You know, the memento that you planned to buy as a forever reminder of your trip.

Stay alert
When arriving at your destination, stay awake long enough to clear Customs and be 100% certain that after you’ve done so, you’ve organized your essential papers, credit cards, money, etc. Whatever you do, be sure to place the collection in different places on your body, luggage and, if you’re traveling with a companion, split valuables. Do not do as so many travelers do and carry any of these vital items in your pockets and/or backpacks. It’s a cinch for a thief to grab your necessary papers if they’re grouped together. Please remember, they know the airport or train station a lot better than you as well as the fastest exit. More than likely, your papers will be long gone before you’re aware you’ve lost them.

Transportation
Even though it may seem more expensive, if you’ve traveled for hours and through multiple time zones, it’s often prudent to order a car or shuttle or take a taxi to your destination rather than a train. If you’re landing in Paris, the RER has had more than its quota of reported robberies. So many people doze off during the ride that it’s a prime place for groups of thieves to take advantage. Just because someone is younger than 12 years old, don’t assume they’re innocent. Many of these children never see the insides of any school other than the ones of hard knocks.

Late at night, train stations attract unofficial “taxi” drivers who extort enormous fares from unsuspecting passengers. If you find yourself in such a situation, find a nearby hotel or restaurant where you can get an idea of the fare you should expect to pay before you accept an offer from one of the “helpful” guys lurking anywhere but at an official taxi stand.

Be on guard
Be leery of some people who offer to help you with your suitcases when you’re boarding a train. If you’re traveling heavy, you might consider him or her a savior. I didn’t feel that way when I “lost” a purse in Avignon the day before I was scheduled to go to the U.S. Thank goodness my airline ticket was with my computer that I watched like a hawk because if it were to be stolen, there would be serious repercussions.

The same goes for “survey-takers” holding clipboards, strangers who approach by asking, “Do you speak English?” or those with a card bearing crib notes in several foreign languages. You pause, they get too close and so on. Just keep walking.

Safety precautions before leaving home
Before you leave home, make two or three copies of the pertinent pages of your passport. Ditto for the numbers of the credit cards you’re going to be using during your trip. Notify fraud departments at your credit card companies of your travel plans and be sure that you have a four-digit numeric code that will enable you to access ATMs that are increasingly omnipresent in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and even Eastern European cities.

Leave a copy of all of this information with a trusted relative or friend at home, and carry a set with you; if you’re traveling with a companion, carry your own plus a copy of your companion’s data. Contrary to what many believe, you are not required to carry your passport with you—a photocopy will suffice. In France, you have 24 hours to produce the real McCoy if necessary. Stores will accept a photocopy as identification for détaxe forms.

When you reach the hotel, stash your passport and extra credit cards in the hotel safe. Take only a couple of credit cards with you during your outings. Don’t walk around with wads of cash; most places accept Visa and MasterCard and, again, ATMs are common at banks, hotels and even the French post office stations. American Express cards can be problematic in Europe because they tend to charge merchants higher transaction fees. If you’re staying at a five-star hotel, not to worry—there’s enough margin built into their rates.

Jewelry
Don’t wear flashy jewelry; it only draws attention and this holds true for costume jewelry as well. Professional thieves usually know the real stuff versus the fake; however, amateurs will go for anything that shimmers. Make it your business not to wear adornments that scream “bling bling.”

The advice may sound trite and some may wonder why any of these hints merit discussing. However, just walk into any foreign consulate in nearly any country and you’ll encounter a group of fellow countrymen singing the blues. Stay alert to minimize being the victim. Don’t be paranoid after reading this: the great majority of ConsumerTraveler readers return home safe and sound.

If you have stories you’d like to post, please do so. We can learn from one another.

Photo: public-domain.zorger.com


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Bullfights: Should they be added to UNESCO’s list of world treasures?

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:57 pm -

Bullfights. Should they be added to UNESCO’s list of world treasures? Many people in Spain think the tradition should be included. After all, it’s a seminal part of the country’s history. Now, The French Ministry of Culture is backing the proposal and the International Humane Society is up in arms.

Kitty Block, vice president of the organization stated, “We are deeply concerned the French government has approved this proposal. We hope UNESCO, a well-respected international organization will recognize it’s  inappropriate to classify bullfights as a ‘cultural’ practice. Bullfighting is not culture. It is torture that deliberately causes immense suffering to defenseless animals.” Two thousand bullfights take place each year. More than 11,000 bulls are killed in official bullfights. The real number is closer to three times that statistic.

Bullfighting traces its origins to 711 A.D., when the first bullfight took place in Spain at the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. It’s estimated one million people watch bullfights annually in Spain. Spain isn’t the only country where this takes place. It’s still practiced in a few South American countries, Mexico and Nîmes in Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. The ring in Nîmes is a magnificent Roman amphitheater and very much worth visiting. But in my opinion, not at the end of Easter, when a million people crowd into it to watch the five-day-long bullfights.

Pedro Ortiz, a former Spanish politician and radio commentator said, “The debate about bullfights has been going on for years.” He finds it ironic the French are taking a position. Many others agree.

A key question is whether or not UNESCO should be designating things such as this as a part of the world’s cultural heritage? One of the benefits of such a classification is that it attracts people from all over the world and drives tourism big time.

As a Francophile and a Paris resident, I’m all for French food being fair game and clearly a national treasure. For many, it’s a passion. But, should helpless animals be included on the UNESCO list? What do you think?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Photo: Bullfight Pamplona, Spain ©Leocha


Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Karen Fawcett in Berlin — hotels, more shopping, antiques, eating and sights not visited

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:56 pm -

Editor’s note: We’ve been through Berlin with Karen, including what she saw and many sights she never saw. in her inimitable fashion she talks through more of what she missed and what she doesn’t want to miss during her next trip to Berlin. This is the whimsical stuff of which great return trips are made.

If you’re into luxe and history, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin is considered by many to be “the” hotel. It’s classic and has an indoor pool, a spa and a one-star Michelin restaurant. Located across from the Brandenburg Gate, it opened in 1907. Emperor Wilhelm II was its most loyal (and demanding) guest. No one was permitted to put a foot in the door before him and he treated the hotel as one of his palaces. You can make it yours.

It quickly became the hotel for the nobility, the rich and the famous and even some of Germany’s intelligentsia. Embassies moved their offices to the premises and used its reception rooms.

If the hotel, which was renovated for approximately €245,000,000 and reopened in 1997; has a familiar look, it’s because the movie “Grand Hotel” was based on the property. It’s where Greta Garbo whispered the phrase for which she’ll always be remembered, “I want to be alone.”

A friend recommended the Bleibtreu Berlin Hotel. Since Barbara is a German architect, who worked on my apartment, it seemed only appropriate to see where she stays. The hotel was renovated in the early ’90s by an artist and is near Kurfürstendamm. Barbara reports the hotel serves great breakfast (no, not just coffee and a croissant, but one that sticks to your ribs—for weeks) and, contrasted to the Adlon Kempinski, is a veritable bargain. It’s a short walk to the subway—great when exploring a city that has an excellent transit system.

Palaces:

Thanks to all of you who sent messages about the palace that’s been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Monument. No, I didn’t go to Sanssouci in Potsdam. I know it’s near Berlin and is a smaller-version Versailles constructed à la Rococo. It will be on my to-do list on my next trip. When we were in Berlin, it was too cold and too far to go and who needed to worry?

Shopping:

If you’re into labels and expensive, Berlin is definitely a buying center. Your can head here if you need to stock up on Louis Vuitton, Gucci and designers who make a statement when you wear their clothes and when you receive your credit card bill.

According to Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, “The other place in town to shop is in the West on the Kurfürstendamm, known locally as the Ku’damm. There’s rarely a crowd, even on Saturdays.” Certainly not like Paris or Amsterdam.

Toma raves about Berlin for its antiques shopping and says, “Berlin is a treasure trove. First, there is the Suarezstrasse that has thirty antique dealers clustered together. Thirty doesn’t sound big, but this district packs a punch: you can find anything you want and you’ll want everything you find. Vintage everything is HOT and cheap, especially when compared to Provence and Paris.” Clearly, there was no way we could go to all of Toma’s secret sources and have signed up for one of her antiques tours.

More shopping and eating:

Don’t miss the mega department store KaDeWe. Not only is it 60,000 square meters large with an enormous selection of clothes, accessories and more but also on the top floors, there’s food, glorious food. For my money and calories, this one beats London’s Harrods in a heartbeat. People must go wild deciding what to buy, much less what to eat. If you’re language challenged, head to the top floor where there’s a cafeteria like none you’ve ever seen. All you do is have to point, pick up and pay.

Berlin is filled with ethnic restaurants and choosing isn’t easy. Not everyone craves heavy food all of the time and if you’re coming from Paris, you might really want to opt for good Italian food.

Charlottenburg is definitely worth a visit in addition to a walking tour of the neighborhood. If you miss sushi, head to voilà. This is a first-rate and fun restaurant.

Monsieur Vuong was the surprise of all surprises. You would have thought it was haute cuisine. When we arrived, there was a line long enough that we considered going elsewhere in the Mitte neighborhood. We stood with the gang and were given tea (and shawls) to keep us warm. A camaraderie among those left out in the cold formed and it was actually fun to wait together. Good thing too. When we were seated, we sat wherever there was a place and were served sensational Vietnamese food. This restaurant has a very limited menu but what it does offer, it does well. If you’re going for a huge wine menu, forget it. You have the choice of red, white and rosé. If I remember correctly, you could choose from three or four beers. By this time, it was very late.

Walking back to the hotel, we decided to cruise the Mitte area the next day. There was so much to see. Yes, there will be a return trip. In the meantime, I’ll be studying Time Out Magazine, planning which exhibits to see in this edgy and happening city.

Sequel

Readers sent comments and suggestions about the many things I missed during my whirlwind trip. A couple of Berlin residents offered “insider tours” on my next trip. Thank you, and the answer is yes.

There was even an email regarding transportation. Ken Dole suggested, “Splurge and take an overnight train. Book a private sleeper car. You board at the Gare de l’Est. Arrive early because it leaves at 20:20 (8:20 p.m.) Read, socialize and turn in.” For those who miss dining cars, the overnight train has a real one. Ken continued, “At 9:00 a.m., the train arrives in central Berlin at the Zoo or Hauptbahnhof (near the Reichstag). Passports and tickets are collected on the train at the beginning of the trip, so you won’t be awakened during the trip. They will be returned to you before you arrive in Berlin. You’ll have a porter who serves only a few passengers. Take the train one way and fly back or vice versa.”

That’s a great idea for train aficionados and the full-fare price is just over $400 for a single cabin. If you book a ticket through Rail Europe, it costs approximately $270. Remember, prices are always subject to change.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Photo: Charlottenburg (no, Karen didn’t go there) by http2007 Flickr Creative Common


Posted in Paris |