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.


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.

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.

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 |

Don’t blink. There’s an upcoming flight where one of the female flight attendants isn’t

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:52 pm -

Only the very rich and famous can afford to make such a wager and carry it out with panache. In addition, the proceeds will go to charity, merci. Virgin Airlines Chairman Sir Richard Branson, will be dressed as a female flight attendant on a special flight on May 1st between London to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To make things a wee bit kinky, if one of the 160 passengers bids $650,000, he or she will have the pleasure (?) of shaving Branson’s legs.

You may be wondering how this came about. Branson lost a bet to Malaysian airline mogul Tony Fernandes of AirAsia, a low cost airline that’s ferrying passengers throughout Asia. The two wagered that whichever of  their new Formula One racing teams finished ahead of the other, the “loser” would cross-dress in their respective female flight attendants’ uniforms. And, that means wearing high heels.

A one-way ticket aboard the flight, which will  feature a magic show and live bands will cost about $7,300.00. Proceeds of both the bidding and ticket sales will go to beneficiaries designated by Virgin Unite, Sir Richard’s non-profit foundation.

Mr Fernandes said he’ll let Branson keep his beard. But, the 60-year-old entrepreneur will be expected to wear high heels, put on some make-up and perform all of a flight attendant’s responsibilities.

Do you think people will really be monitoring how well Branson serves drinks and meals to the passengers? My bet would be no. But, it would be fun to watch and have a performance card to fill out. After all, if you can afford to pay that much for a ticket, the service should be impeccable.

Photo: The Power of Giving

Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Glimpses of Berlin — What I didn’t see, what I learned, heavy food and clubs I didn’t visit

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:50 pm -

Karen Fawcett continues her visit to Berlin. In her first post she focused on an overview of the city. Here she delves into more specifics after a recommended bird’s-eye-view of the city from the TV tower that she passed up.

Sights we saw and (mostly) didn’t see:

People who go to a place of any size, spend a day sightseeing and think they’ve seen it amaze me. That’s one reason to steer clear of tours where travelers are whisked from here to there with an agenda like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels… or maybe Berlin?” How about seeing the city? How about seeing what’s in between this city and the next?

OK, here are some suggestions for an in-depth Berlin visit. I certainly did not get to all of them! But, for more than a fleeting overview, these are sights and experiences that add another level of familiarity with Berlin.

For a 360-degree overview of the city, the Visit Berlin Tourist Office suggests you go here. It is a TV Tower 680 feet high (270 meters) where you can get an stunning overview of the city; you can see many of its tourist attractions from here, including the Reichstag (Parliament building), the Brandenburg Gate and the Main Railway Station, as well as the Olympic Stadium, the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Potsdam Square (Potsdamer Platz). This makes sense.

We didn’t go. Instead, because of a recommendation, we ate at Solar, at the summit of a high-rise building. Our source assured us it’s a local hangout where we wouldn’t encounter tourists. She was right. The food was more than decent, portions were huge and could be split and the prices were moderate especially compared to Paris. As guaranteed, the view was incredible and the decibel level could blow out people’s eardrums. Décor-wise (all-black and glass), it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s the type of place you either love or hate, and you know darn well there’s a whole lot of shaking going on after midnight.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie (and yes, there’s a kind of cheesy feeling that comes from being besieged by people being able to buy a piece of the Berlin Wall) and other relics of the Soviet era. We walked through The Brandenburg Gate and studied the exteriors of Museum row.

I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t go to the Jewish Museum. You need to dedicate three days to do it justice.

But, contrary to what you may expect, this is not a to-do-and-what-to see article. It’s more about the very superficial conclusions I came to during my stay in the German capital. If you’re looking for tourism information, the Berlin Tourist Office has a first-rate site.

My way of learning is to interview people and ask lots of (often, too many) questions. One advantage I have, is that I know I can and will return to Berlin. Perhaps, sooner than later.

I grilled Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, a Bonjour Paris contributor, who lives in Berlin and commutes to Paris. She shared her insights and said, “I can’t emphasize strongly enough is that Berlin is a poor city. It was flattened in WWII, isolated by the Wall, and it’s never recovered. In 2004, Klaus Wowereit, the mayor, said in an interview, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)

Beginning with the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 2009, investors have been building non-stop, so construction is always visible. I love the quote from Jack Lang, former French minister of culture, when he talked about Berlin’s growth and how quickly it’s changing. “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” Of course, Lang missed Baron Haussmann.

“Literally every week a new store opens up, a new building is being built… fueling the economy with the hope it will pay off. People, especially Americans, are investing in Berlin, but you have to think long-term to make it worth your money,” Toma said.

Some things I learned:

Even though Berlin and Paris are so close (by plane), it’s an eight-hour drive and an overnight (12 hour-long) train trip between the two capital cities.

Think BIG. Streets are wide, stores are big and the city feels quasi empty.

Don’t expect people to speak English. It’s a plus if they do if they’re of a certain age. Younger Germans will, but they’re not necessarily the ones who are manning information booths in the train or subway stations. Use transport maps, or a smart-phone application if you have one.

Many Germans steer clear of making eye contact. I hate generalizations, but that tends to be the norm if you’re passing by and through. If they know you, it’s something else.

Waiters are professional and appear to do their jobs well. But, they’re not as friendly as those in the U.S. nor as professional as waiters in France. Tips are not included. Supposedly, 5% (more or less) of the check is the norm.

Taxi drivers don’t necessarily speak English. Be sure to have the address in writing of where you’re going, plus, your return destination. If you find the “right” driver, however, you’ll learn a lot. The one we snagged when we went to the airport was full of information and was happy to share his sense of how the city and housing demographics have changed. When we thanked him, he thanked us, remarking that passengers usually treat him as if he’s invisible.

People aren’t supposed to cross the street when there’s a red light – even if there’s not a car in sight and it’s 6 a.m. Moi?

Even though graffiti is an art form, don’t toss your trash on the sidewalk including a napkin that happens to fall.

If you happen to have a car and park illegally even for a minute, even if the police don’t arrive in time to give you a $5 ticket, other drivers and passersby will reprimand you.

Berlin is a safe city as long as you use big city smarts. At the same time, some younger Berlin residents buck the establishment. Don’t be surprised if you see storefronts that have been bashed in and because it’s non-shatter glass, you might mistake it for being an art statement. It’s not. One shop owner told me it’s frequent and perpetrated by Berlin punks.

Compared to Paris, it’s cheap. If only it weren’t so expensive to check luggage on flights, it would have made dollars, cents and euros to have bought drugstore and grocery items and so much more and brought them home.

Food and More:

Berlin is the land of coffee here and coffee everywhere. The first café in Berlin was opened in 1670. Between Einstein and Starbucks, fast, good and moderately priced carryout coffee to go is available whenever you’re in the mood. And you can sit down in the shops, inside or out, no matter how cold it is. Bring on the lattes and the “white coffees” that are made with condensed milk. The majority of these places have free WiFi and are enormous compared to those in Paris.

I’m told women with curves are appreciated…it’s a bit of a culture shock after living in Paris where women are forever on a diet and are seemingly born without hips and thighs.

Come to think of it, you’ll see relatively few French women drinking beer contrasted to those in Germany. Yes, there some very good wines produced there, but nothing compared to the amount of beer. On nearly every block, you’ll see a restaurant with a cheery rosy-faced (wooden) man beckoning you in for beer and local cuisine.

If you like your food heavy and copious, you’ll be in heaven. Expect to be served bratwurst, other sausages and foods that don’t leave you craving for another meal within two hours—or maybe two days. Portions of Wiener Schnitzel are enough for two people if you aren’t into super-size-me portions. Head to Ottenthal if you want to taste the real thing perfectly prepared.

Berliners are crazy for organic and you can get organic almost anything for same price as nonorganic. Go figure…

Clubs and more:

There’s an enormous club scene in Berlin and, generally, it doesn’t get going until late (and not every night). We were advised to go to Cookies Club in Berlin, which is hot and heavy on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but were told it didn’t really get swinging until 2 or 3 a.m. and stays open until 6 a.m. Even though it was practically in the Westin, there was no way I was going to make an appearance. Although I awakened at 2 a.m., wearing a terry cloth robe to a hip hang-out isn’t comme il faut.

There’s a super jazz club, but hey, tired is tired. Badenscher Hof is by reputation a crowded hole in the wall in West Berlin that reminds you of what a night out in Berlin would have been like in the 20s. For a more modern feel, and perhaps bigger names, there’s also A-Trane.

Neighborhoods and shopping:

The reason we weren’t museuming is because we were exploring neighborhoods trying to decide why the city is so über hot and hip.

More of Berlin coming in the final saga.

Photo by http2007 Flickr Creative Common

Posted in Consumer Traveler |

FAA adds 27 additional air controllers to graveyard shift

Written by admin on July 26, 2011 – 3:49 pm -

Sleep is good. But, not when you’re on duty in an airport control tower and responsible for planes landing. After air controllers were found asleep on the job at Washington’s Reagan National Airport; Seattle’s King Field, Wa.; Lubbock, Texas; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Reno-Tahoe International Airport, Nv.; the federal government added a second controller at the 27 air towers that were staffed by only one person on the late night shift.

This was instituted after two jets landed without tower help at the Nation Capital’s Reagan airport.  Another plane, an air ambulance flight carrying a sick patient, was able to land without tower help.  The planes (and who knows how many others) landed safely. But, who would opt to be on them?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said, ”I am totally outraged by these incidents. This is unacceptable. “The American public trusts us to run a safe system.”

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt agreed with Lahood and announced an additional controller would be added on overnight shifts. ”Air traffic controllers are responsible for making sure aircraft safely reach their destinations,” Babbitt said. “We absolutely cannot and will not tolerate sleeping on the job. This type of unprofessional behavior does not meet our high safety standards.”

No kidding. But, did it ever occur to you there’d be a sole controller in a tower at a major airport? And certainly not at Washington, DC’s Reagan Airport. After all, it’s the one that members of Congress traditionally use. Maybe in some out-of-the-way airports with little traffic might not need 24/7 air traffic controllers.

Response from the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Rockerfeller (D-WV), was unusually blunt.

I just got off the phone with the FAA and told the Administrator that I am sick of this. I have the utmost respect for air traffic controllers, the vast majority of whom work hard and are outstanding professionals. But we can’t have an aviation system where some of the people responsible for safety are literally asleep at the switch. This has to stop. The agency needs to do whatever it takes to keep air traffic controllers from sleeping on the job or not treating their responsibilities with the highest level of seriousness and attention.

Chairman John Mica (R-FL) of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took a different approach. He sees the increased workers on the graveyard shift as a misdirection of resources.

“Only in the federal government would you double up on workers, averaging $161,000 per year in salary and benefits, that aren’t doing their job.”

“This increase in staffing, when there is little to no traffic, also misdirects our resources and focus away from congested air traffic control facilities.”

Mica and other Committee leaders plan a closed door meeting in Washington on Thursday with FAA leaders to discuss the recent spate of near misses, runway incursions and incidents of sleeping on the job.

The FAA said a second controller will be added to the midnight shift at Akron-Canton, Ohio; Allegheny, Pa.; Andrews Air Force Base, Md.; Burbank, Calif.; Duluth, Minn.; DuPage, Ill., Fargo, N.D.; two airports in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Ft. Worth Meacham, Texas; Grant County, Wash.; Kansas City, Mo.; Manchester, N.H.; Omaha, Neb.; Ontario, Calif.; Reno-Tahoe, Nev.; Richmond, Va.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego, Calif.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Terre Haute, Ind.; Teterboro, N.J.; Tucson, Ariz.; Willow Run, Mich.; Windsor Locks, Conn., and Youngstown, Ohio. A second nighttime controller was also added at an approach control facility in Omaha.

This issue of air traffic controllers leaving the tower and taking naps is not a cut and dried issue. In many cases controllers have to visit the bathroom, which may be on another floor of the tower. And some experts say that naps actually help with alertness in the towers when air traffic picks up. This is a debate we will certainly hear over the coming weeks.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Photo: regulus-starnotes.blogspot.com

Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Berlin — Getting an overview of this massive German capital

Written by admin on April 13, 2011 – 2:26 pm -

Traveling from Paris to Berlin on no-frills Easy Jet Airlines was perfectly fine. The planes were clean, the flight attendants professional. One flight steward even had the courtesy to laugh when someone asked if there were a charge for a glass of water. In his very British accent he replied no, but there was one for coffee. Best of all, the flight was cheaper than cheap and, once in the air, it took only 90 minutes.

We decided to train it to the hotel rather than spend money on a cab. That was possibly a mistake since it was a 15-minute-long walk to the airport station and a subsequent 30-minute wait for the next train, which was the slow train into the central station. No RER that whisks by the outskirts of the city and we immediately spotted the considerable graffiti that’s considered an art form there.

By the time we arrived at The Westin Grand Berlin (thank goodness for Starwood points), we weren’t feeling so perky. But, that wasn’t going to deter us, come hell or high water. Nor was the bone-chilling cold weather that had us wearing so many layers that I felt like Charlie Brown. A friend, who lives there, says there’s a reason the city is called Buuurrrrrlin. And the summers tend to be hot. OK, one doesn’t travel for the weather unless you’re off on a beach vacation and then, you can only hope.

The hotel was very, but very nice, albeit without free WiFi, one of my pet peeves on my hotel list, but I won’t go there. Its location is ideal if you want to get around by public transport. The Welcome Pass is a real bargain for tourists. My friend and I spent hours on the hop-on-and-hop-off City Tour bus and were impressed by how much we were able to see and how comprehensive the narration was and in impeccable English, thanks to earphones.

Our M.O. was to do a complete tour and then decide where we wanted to spend time. Berlin has incredible museums and there’s no way you can see a fraction of them and do them justice. The Jewish Museum consists of three buildings and is more than 3000 square meters in size or about 32,000 square feet.

We were forced to make an executive decision. Were we going to see the city, which is known for being the hip and happening place in the EU, or spend all of our time in a museum or two? We opted for the former, vowing we’d return and do only culture.

Contrasted with Paris, it’s huge and the German capital takes a lot of exploring in addition to a more than superficial knowledge of history. The more we saw of Berlin, the more we realized people can spend weeks sightseeing and only get a glimpse of the city and its many layers. It still has the feeling of an Eastern Bloc city where so much was leveled during WWII. Its architecture is a tribute to those who rebuilt the city after the WWII and after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, when there was another massive wave of construction.

What We Did:

After the city bus tour, we took a boat trip on the Spree. Because it was before the season began, we couldn’t find a barge with English narration. We followed a map noting where we were and drinking hot chocolate laced with rum. It was an eye-opener that there are approximately as many canals in Berlin as there are in Venice.

On the banks, there is nothing but restaurants and even though it was frigid, people were eating outside, bundled in blankets the restaurants supply. If you spy a red or bright yellow fleece blanket with fringe, chances are people have helped themselves.

Residents of Berlin so love the sun they’ll seize every opportunity to sit outside. Rumor has it that there are more convertibles there than in any other European city. This may reflect the fundamentally optimistic nature of Berliners, who concludes that putting down the top means the weather must really be nice and warm and sunny, even if they’re wearing clothes appropriate to hit the ski slopes.

We walked throughout the city, not always precisely certain where we were going. Always a believer in leaving time for serendipity, we explored streets and came to one conclusion: living in Berlin costs substantially less than it does in Paris. That gave me pause and more of an understanding as to why Berlin has become a center for artists and writers. Before going any further, I am NOT moving there for so many reasons including that fewer people speak English and there’s no way I’m ever going to learn another language even if I took total immersion classes. At my age, life is too short.

Photo by http2007 Flickr Creative Common

Posted in Consumer Traveler |