Broadcasting your comings and goings through social media? You might regret it

Written by admin on July 10, 2009 – 5:18 pm -

In an era of social networking, when people are posting the happenings taking place in their lives and are tweeting and posting every move on Twitter, Facebook and other sites, we know more about one another and strangers than we ever have before.

Tripit is a great site for recording travel plans and there’s an application for linking it to your LinkedIn, profile so if friends or business colleagues are traveling to the same place at the same time, you can meet up.

Some people have many followers. And we’re no longer referring to only young people, since the demographics of social networking have rapidly changed in the recent past.

Now, baby boomers have taken to networking big time. With the advent of cell phones with innumerable social media applications, we can twitter about trips in progress and shoot photos of our family standing in front of the Eiffel Tower in real time.

Are we setting ourselves up to be robbed or have our identities stolen by broadcasting our every movement?

What happened to the days when parents advised their children not to tell their classmates the family was taking its annual vacation or going to Grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner?

It wasn’t so many years ago when people were nervous that a person’s house might be robbed if an obituary were printed in the local newspaper or if there were a for sale sign posted in front of a house that was still furnished.

Many people have alarmed their houses and apartments with complex and intricate alarm system. But sophisticated robbers — with enough time and advanced warning — may be able to crack the codes and clear out your life and possessions as you’re posting your every movement for the cyberworld to read.

Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says, “People just don’t realize the kind of information they give out in social networking sites can be used on its own or with other information to commit identity theft and other fraudulent activity.”

We know robberies have radically increased during the recent recession and neighborhood papers are filled with notices of who and what’s been taken via break-ins and muggings.

I have a kitty/apartment sitter coming to stay in my digs during my upcoming trip. And I spent the money to install an alarm system for extra precaution.

What steps are you taking to protect your home and safety not to mention your peace of mind?

It’s a whole new world. For better or for worse.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

5 think-ahead strategies that make travel easier

Written by admin on May 22, 2009 – 5:42 pm -

There are ways of minimizing stress when taking to the skies but sometimes, it takes imagination in addition to organization.

Think ahead about packing
Pack the day before or even earlier, then take everything out of your suitcase and whittle down your possessions. Unless you’re going to be seeing the same people for two solid weeks (and who cares) and have to attend a black tie event, travelers can do with half of what they think they need to bring.

For city travel, black is always safe for women. Bring a skirt, a pair or two of pants, a jacket, some wash and wear tops, one dressy blouse and different accessories. Scarves, shawls, costume jewelry and a silk flower to pin on your jacket or place in your hair can give women an entirely different look.

Men have always had it easy. Unless they have business meetings that require a suit, a navy blazer and gray pants with a shirt and a tie is usually as dressy as they need to get. Add some khaki pants and knit shirts and most men are on their way.

Assemble a plastic bag containing pills and copies of the prescriptions (generic please) that you need to pack in your carry-on bag even if you’re checking a suitcase.

And give careful thought to electronic accoutrements. All the many cords, converter plugs, chargers, camera apparatus such as a memory card reader or extra camera batteries are some of them. Separate the cords with rubber bands or twist-em’s so you’re not confronted with having to untangle everything.

Whether or not you check a bag is up to you. I try to avoid doing so since I’ve arrived at a destination too many times without my luggage — or have had to wait longer than I care to for the carousel to cough it up.

One caveat — don’t try dragging such a large carry-on that your back hurts before boarding the flight, or you’ve alienated your fellow passengers and the flight crew before getting your suitcase into the overhead compartment.

Think ahead about clearing airport security
Some frequent flyers are opting to become members of CLEAR where they’re on an immediate fast-track to be waved through security.

The most challenging items are electronics and personal items that require screening. Clear plastic zip-lock bags are godsends.

Have your computer ready for inspection as well as your cell phone, camera, keys and anything that might set off alarms. This sometimes includes coins and sometimes not.

Then there’s the make-up, toothpaste, etc. etc. bag, which invariably contains liquids and has to be removed from the suitcase to be screened.

They should be placed on the top of the bag for easy removal. I place all of these items together in a cloth bag so I can pull everything out in one easy swoop.

Clearing security is stressful at best. But take your time while being as efficient as possible and don’t let people push you. Airport lost and found areas are treasure troves and there’s nothing worse than realizing you’ve lost an essential.

I never wear a belt, shoes that aren’t slip-off or heavy jewelry. If I had any “important” jewelry pieces, there no point in traveling with them and being worried about robbery. Also, there’s less to take off in line.

I also have succumbed (inelegant as it is) to wearing a neck pouch containing my passport and boarding pass. This isn’t high fashion. But after leaving these essential papers in a tray, I’ve come to the conclusion there are times to be chic and other time when being secure is more appropriate.

Think ahead about waiting at the airport
I’m a great believer in belonging to an airline club because I travel enough to justify the cost. Plus, it’s not unheard of when one of the employees is able to wangle a better seat or possibly an upgrade. There are occasions when you can buy a last-minute upgrade for substantially less money than it would have cost if you’d bought a business class ticket.

One-time passes can be purchased for airline clubs if you find you’re going to be delayed. As crowded as some may be, it’s more comfortable waiting in a club and if you want or need to work, you can get on line. Be certain that if you’re not flying internationally you keep track of time because many clubs don’t announce domestic departures.

Many people go to the bar, or in some airports where there are decent restaurants, eat before the flight leaves and thus avoid eating (or buying) mediocre airline food.

Think ahead about your seat on the plane:
Some airlines aren’t permitting passengers to pre-select their seats, while others save advanced booking for premium clients. If you’ve bought your ticket though a travel agency, they can arrange for a seat to be assigned. If you’re flying United or some other carriers, opt to pay the extra money for somewhat more legroom. Five inches can make a big difference.

Consult Seat Guru and you’ll be able to tell the seating configuration of specific planes. If you can pick and choose and there isn’t a plane change, you’ll have an advantage when selecting your seat.

There are different theories and if you’re flying coach (and most of us are these days) hope the flight isn’t full and you can stake out five middle seats and the armrests go all the way up. One of the best transatlantic flights I recall was when I lucked out and slept across the ocean.

Think ahead about getting from the airport to your hotel
This tip, passed along to me by a wise traveler, has saved me time and aggravation countless times. Take a clear folder with your itinerary. Access or and print out a map of your destination including the directions from the airport. This will put a stop to a lack a communication or a joy ride should you encounter a cabbie with whom you don’t share a common language. And even if you do, some streets are difficult to locate.

Please add your hints for making trips easier. These are just a few.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

10 bizarre, hilarious and surreal border-crossing adventures

Written by admin on April 17, 2009 – 6:03 pm -

Some of the funniest stories I’ve heard have been from people who’ve had to deal with airport security in these post 9/11 days. The incidents only add to the adventure of going through border controls.

Perhaps the parties involved weren’t amused at that moment. But in retrospect, they make for amusing party conversation. We have to laugh, or we’d cry.

Your place or mine? A businessman landed Seoul, Korea, admittedly punchy after the trans-Pacific flight. The male passport agent extolled how handsome he was and after the perfunctory “business or personal” exchange, asked him for the name of the hotel where he was staying. Not being quick on the draw or knowing the name of another hotel in the city, the new arrival blurted out the name. Realizing he had possibly put himself at risk for an unwanted visitor, he locked every lock to his room in case he received an unsolicited knock on the door. He didn’t. But one can’t be too careful and it did give him a bit of an unsettled stay.

Do you feel lucky? In the Dallas Fort Worth airport, a woman was asked, “Do you have any firearms on your person, ma’am?” She did a double take asking him to repeat the question.  As it turns out, business travelers in DFW forget to unload their Colts from their briefcases often enough the TSA makes a practice of asking that question of everyone as they approach security. When she was unable to wipe the incredulous look off her face, the TSA guy offered a final explanation, “You’re in the Republic of Texas, ma’am.”

Victoria’s secret. Another woman recalls the time she landed in Mexico City. The immigration officer asked if he could inspect her hand luggage and naturally she agreed. He reached in and the first things he pulled out were her portable CD player, a book and her make-up kit. The next thing to emerge from the sack was a black lace bra. He was instantly mortified and all but shouted, “Oh God! I’m sorry, ma’am!”  He quickly stuffed everything back in the bag and couldn’t look her in the eye as he waved her through security.

Farm aid. When returning to Atlanta from Tuscany, a woman was honest about the fact she’d spent two weeks on a farm while there. She was sent to an area where she was nearly hosed down and had to have her shoes and feet washed. She also admitted to bringing Panforte (a regional cake) into the U.S. After having to wait for an hour, the mystery was finally solved since the representative of the Department of Agriculture thought Panforte was meat – which is a giant import no-no. In the meantime, they’d made her open every suitcase, surveyed each and every item and didn’t seem to care she had more than her fair share of leather goods. She says she’ll probably skip the honesty bit on her next trip to the Italian countryside.

Tell it to the judge. One man admits to having committed a serious mistake when he was leaving Russia because he shaved off his goatee and his passport picture showed him wearing it. When he arrived at passport control in St. Petersburg, the young woman at the counter asked for his documents and started stamping away. After noticing the discrepancy, she called her supervisor who started the inquisition. What was he doing in Russia, etc.?  The head of the passport control desk came in and started asking even more questions including what he did for a living and whether or not he was married. He answered honestly but was more than perplexed when this woman suggested the two of them get married. He politely turned her down and explained his fiancé was a Russian Federal Court Judge. Hearing that, he was immediately escorted to the terminal and was able to forego waiting in line.

What kind of terrorist are you? One woman reports that no matter where they travel, her husband is singled out by security since he has a dark and swarthy complexion and apparently has the M.O. of a terrorist (whatever that means). On one very early morning flight, he opted not to shave and was a prime target for being frisked. The TSA officer asked them to take everything out of their carry-on luggage, which they did as instructed. The new and young TSA inspector was embarrassed by some of the “dainty” items contained in her carry-on and started blushing bright red. She offered to repack the bag. But that didn’t stop the other inspectors from having a good laugh at his expense.

It coulda been me. A noteworthy story from LAX (Los Angeles). A woman was using a pay phone to contact her ride. The person next to her kept stepping on her toes until she asked her neighbor to stop backing into him. As chance would have it, it was Ray Charles who smiled and said, “Dear I am so sorry. I can’t see you. I’ll try and anchor myself more.” That was some brush with fame.

Oh, this is exciting! A public relations executive recounts the time she was escorting a group of journalists on a press trip. As everyone was in the process of having their carry-on bags x-rayed, one bag started moving and shaking. The bag is question contained a (back?) vibrator and the owner had forgotten to remove its batteries. Naturally, the trip began with a bang.

One love. A consultant who was returning from Jamaica where he was working for a large multinational bank was stopped by customs. The inspector proceeded to pick through his belongings and the search took hours. The customs agent apologized but explained that anyone who travels alone to Jamaica, on a ticket purchased 24 hours before and who was carrying very little luggage containing a laptop computer and wearing a suit was bound to be questioned and searched upon arrival in the U.S.

Banned. The last story is very personal. I was on my way to Morocco on assignment. My husband decided he would accompany me. It wasn’t until we were in the taxi approaching the Paris airport that he realized he was traveling on an expired passport. He decided to take the chance and go anyway. He cleared Paris security and customs in Morocco while I was busily pretending I didn’t know him. As we were leaving the Morocco, a customs official noticed the problem. He said he would have to exile him from the country. This was fine with my husband since we were on our way back to Paris. I didn’t breath during the entire return trip assuming he’d be arresting by French authorities. Happily, he sailed through French customs. Men of a certain age with gray hair (I guess) look less threatening. It goes without saying I have become a compulsive checker of passports. I might have been visiting my husband in jail. French jails leave a lot to be desired.

OK, here’s a start and I’m certain there are a million other such stories as the above. Post them and (possibly) we’ll have a good laugh. Or a cry.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Which airport do you dread the most?

Written by admin on March 16, 2009 – 8:39 pm -

It feels like sacrilege to be writing this, considering I’m someone who loves and lives in Paris. But that doesn’t mean I have to relish its main international airport Roissy – Charles de Gaulle.

Perhaps it was because I was flying on a Friday the 13th and because Terminal One is (still) being renovated that getting through passport control and security was enough to make most people experience heart palpitations.

Departure passport control madness
There are numerous airports I try to avoid when clearing security or customs is mandatory. London-Heathrow is one of them as is Chicago-O’Hare. Airports in India and some developing countries are no fun either. But Paris? I’d never had such an experience when departing.

Arriving at the airport nearly three hours before take-off should have been more than enough time especially because I was flying business class. (Thank goodness for accumulated miles with which to upgrade.)

Obtaining the boarding pass was a no-brainer and I was given a pass to the Red Carpet lounge where I could relax before boarding. I must admit I was surprised I had to pay a €36 departure tax that previously had been absorbed by the airline. But times are tough. It’s only money and so far, so good.

That’s where the good luck ended. Only one checkpoint was open where passengers were required to show their boarding passes and passports to take the rolling sidewalk up to passport control. I had a deja-vu feeling of arriving in New Delhi, India only to find myself in the midst of hundreds of people pushing to get into the front of the line – as if there were a line – in order to clear customs.

The Aéroports de Paris inspector stopped the hoards of people who were trying to get to their planes and instructed them to wait since there was a back up at passport control. There’s nothing like hearing those words when your flight may be leaving without you, even though you’re supposedly there in plenty of time.

When the impatient crowd was permitted upstairs, there was more than an hour’s wait to have passports stamped to leave France. The four inspectors looked at each and every document as if people were trying to come into the country rather than exiting. The line kept getting longer and longer and people looked increasingly nervous.

By the time I arrived at United’s Red Carpet lounge, there was already an announcement to go to the gate for security clearance. We had to wait again to have our luggage searched and to have our passports and boarding passes inspected yet again for our flight on a U.S. carrier.

The line went on forever and the inspectors were none too swift; there certainly weren’t enough of them to contend with the numbers of people and their carry-on luggage.

Eventually, passengers heading to Dulles were given priority so the flight could take off on time. As it was, people straggled onto the plane until the very last moment and the pilot advised everyone to take their seats immediately or we’d lose our take-off slot.

On-board disappointments
One of the perks of flying business class is being given a drink before take-off. I opted for a Mimosa in order to quench my thirst and hopefully calm my nerves.

When it was time for a drink before lunch, I requested a glass of champagne. Colette, the very French flight attendant who’d been with the airline for more than 15 years, apologized by saying that all United serves in business class is sparkling wine imported from the U.S. and she was humiliated that flights originating in France were no longer serving French wines. “It only stands to reason that French wines are substantially less expensive in France.” Colette kept repeating as a point of national pride.

She went out of her way and highjacked a flute of French champagne from first class. How spoiled I was even though it certainly wasn’t Dom Perignon. Lunch was lunch but certainly not the same as it used to be. Colette explained they did the best they could, but with such massive staff cutbacks only so much was feasible when it came to food service and it certainly wasn’t French.

U.S. customs ease
Going through customs at Washington’s Dulles Airport was the height of organization. Everything went smoothly until an inspector randomly waived me to another exit area where each and every bag was checked for food products. I had none and know better. The extra inspection didn’t take too long.

Perhaps I should just chalk it up to bad luck and plan not to book another flight on Friday the 13th.

Which airports do you dread the most when it comes to going through security and/or passport control? Some are clearly easier than others.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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The State Department is warning about what?

Written by admin on January 2, 2009 – 12:25 pm -

Give me a break! Today, the US State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans about potential crimes exploding in the UK. Tourists going to London could be victims of muggings, ATM scams and possible rapes by unlicensed cab drivers. Visitors should be on their guard.

The State Department’s UK advisory included, ”Despite the excellent overall safety record, British trains have poor track conditions, which have resulted in some train derailments and have caused some fatalities.”

Tourists can be easy victims of petty crimes if they’re not careful and have that vulnerable or lost look. And as economies are hurting, expect increased crime wherever.

New York City banks are being robbed with greater frequency. Does this require a travel advisory? As Willy Sutton allegedly responded when asked why he robbed banks, ”Because that’s where the money is.”

Perhaps it’s been a slow holiday season in the Nation’s Capital for those condemned to work. But wait a minute.

Here’s another alert: The State Department strongly recommends that American citizens “refrain from all travel to the Gaza strip and that people currently in Gaza depart immediately.” This recommendation has been in effect since the deadly roadside bombing of a U.S. Embassy convoy in Gaza in October 2003. It applies to all Americans, including journalists and aid workers. ”No official travel is permitted inside the Gaza Strip at this time.”

Now that makes more sense to me because of the on-going bombings in Israel.

There’s something called being prepared and being prepared. Always use big city smarts. However, some places are more volatile than others. Travelers should keep things in perspective. London isn’t high on my “do not go” list. Is it on yours?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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Big Brother is watching travelers — here’s what you can do about it

Written by admin on October 7, 2008 – 2:42 pm -

A group of Canadian human-rights advocates and computer security researchers has discovered a huge surveillance program in China that may be tracking your phone calls. It’s just the latest in a series of computer-security breaches that may affect travelers.

The system tracks text messages sent by subscribers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, the Web auctioneer that owns Skype an online phone and text messaging service. It monitors and archives certain Internet text conversations that may or may not include politically incorrect words.

This has focused increased attention on the Chinese government’s Internet monitoring, which created controversy this summer during the Olympic Games in Beijing. It’s estimated that 30,000 or more Chinese Internet “police” were monitoring online traffic, Web sites and blogs for offensive content.

The Chinese may be more overt when it comes to censorship. But no one should be complacent that someone might not be intercepting your calls or emails. More than one divorce complainant has produced reams of emails and .wav files and told it to the judge.

This doesn’t happen in the usual divorce case. But when big bucks are at stake, don’t think a private detective doesn’t have a battalion of computer savvy types who can break into your email account more quickly than you can log on. Some of these geeks probably aren’t even shaving. Welcome to the new generation of kids who can type more quickly than they can write.

Computer security causes many people to have second thoughts. As one who does nearly all transactions on-line, including banking, shopping, booking air tickets and hotel rooms, my credit card may very well be at risk — not to mention my credit worthiness.

Here are some rules consumers should consider following:

- Use one credit card for all of your on-line purchases.
- Change your password frequently and steer away from using your birthday or the name of your first-born son.
- Frequently access the recent transactions of that specific credit card. This can be done either on-line or by telephone.
- If you’re traveling, contact the issuing bank and advise them of your itinerary.
- Be sure to have a four digit pin code in order to withdraw money from an ATM. Change the code after each trip.

Back to the initial point, never send an email with information that could ruin you or your business and certainly don’t do it over a public unsecured WiFi connecton. There’s a reason companies set up encrypted Intranet communications systems. And even they’re not infallible.

Being able to speak to friends and family, not to mention business associates is a terrific tool and Skype claims it’s secure and customers shouldn’t worry. But in the event you’re having a tryst or something more, find a different way to communicate and say nothing that can be misinterpreted.

Come to think of it, that’s probably a rule we should all take to heart.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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