Friday, April 4, 2008

Weekly Roundup April 4

I've been taking a break this week but that's no excuse to not keep up with the reading! Here are this week's picks:

Needs no explanation: 5 Tips Every Traveler Should Know About Internet Security on Brave New Traveler. I once caught someone else posting comments using my information (forgot to clear the cache, I think). I've been very careful ever since!

How to be a gracious guest: 7 Ways To Thank Someone For Staying At Their Home, also on BNT.

Great health advice for avoiding stomach upsets: Chris Elliott's That’s sick! 8 ways to avoid the bug. I didn't know about the first one. Yikes!

Is it worth booking through a travel agent? Check out Elliott's Four secrets for finding the right travel pro before you decide.

And finally, just for fun: WestJet’s April Fool’s joke.

Safe travels, everyone!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekly Roundup March 28

Another short week, but a good one. Here are my picks:

Can you live without electronics? Try MacKenzie Berg's the Joy of Traveling Unplugged on BNT. Perhaps it's the nature of my job, but I think it would be very difficult to be completely unplugged for a while. (And therefore worth doing!)

I wasn't sure how to react to this one at first: Angola to host landmine pageant. It's not what you think.

Want to take better pictures? Lola Akinmade's 5 Tips for Taking Better Photos of Landmarks on Matador's the Traveler's Notebook shows you how to infuse some originality into conventional travel photography.

Looking for inspiration? Olivia Giovetti's the 20 Most Memorable Travel Films (That Aren't Really About Travel). I admit I've seen a few "movies that inspire travel" type articles in the past year, but this one has a different spin, and you may come across some titles you might not have considered. I like to check out the "special features" on the DVD too. The feature on New Zealand as Middle Earth has some stunning views of the landscape.

How to go beyond "sight seeing": Try Amanda Kendle's How to Use All Five Senses When You Travel. Definitely worth a look if you're a writer.

There's a lot of good writing out there I haven't tapped into yet. Suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What will it take to get travellers to listen to safety advice?

A pretty flight attendant with Angelina Jolie lips? An animated cartoon?

Airlines are getting more creative when it comes to getting people to pay attention to those pre-flight safety demonstrations. Thanks to YouTube, the latest safety videos have been making the rounds in the media and travel blogs.

What's all the fuss about? See for yourself. Here's Delta's new video featuring the widely-discussed "Deltalina" (flight attendant Katherine Lee):

Compare that with Virgin America's animated version:

Essentially, it's a question of presentation. My training in rhetoric and information design is prodding me to analyze the videos, but I won't venture such a tangent because the content and presentation have already been widely discussed. Whether or not these in-flight videos do their job effectively on the plane depends on the audience.

But off the plane... With all the media attention, I'd wager that millions of people who aren't currently travelling have watched the video because they read about it or heard about it somewhere. YouTube and blogs make the information easy to disseminate (in fact, it took me less than a minute to embed the videos into this entry). If airlines are looking to educate people, then this was an effective strategy. (Not to mention good advertising, but I digress).

It makes me wonder what other safety information might benefit from a more creative approach. Most of the travel safety advice I digest in a day is text on a web page. That being said, I've noticed that advice is slowly going multi-media. For example, the CDC now offers podcasts on various topics. Travel safety training courses are also becoming more common for business travellers and students, but I'm wondering when the traveling public will catch on, or if this training will eventually go online.

I'm curious... Could videos and podcasts about travel safety engage a wider audience? If "Deltalina" told people how to avoid common safety and security issues, would they be more likely to listen? Or do people still prefer a webpage or report that can be mined for information and printed and carried along?

Your thoughts?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Weekly Round-up March 20

It's been a short week but a good one for travel reading. Here are my picks for the week:

Should we be demanding more services and amenities for all those extra fees we're paying? Chris Elliott has the answer in What to expect during the Year of the Fee. I especially love the point about airlines tracking luggage.

Go Green Go Travel's Ultimate Guide to Thrift Store Shopping: 34 Tips and Tricks for Travelers offers great tips for thrift store shopping for your travel needs.

Traveling in the United States? Wisebread's David DeFranza gives travellers 7 Reasons to Take the Bus. (Although I vote with some of the commenters: Consider the train as well).

This one made me laugh: F. Daniel Harbecke's Budget Travelers Are Hippie Scum on Brave New Traveler (which has recently had a face lift -- nice!). The article is complete with photographs "courtesy of hippies".

This story won't affect your travel plans, but it might make you look at world events a little differently: German pilot who killed Little Prince author apologizes. "Enemy" is such a powerful label that it lets us overlook a lot. Imagine your career choice putting you in the position of unknowingly killing someone who inspired it.

Something to think about if you want to volunteer abroad: Check out travel blogger Anna Etmanska's DIY Voluntourism on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog.

Have a good long weekend!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Do you want to know now... or later? Travel warnings for Guatemala

Further proof that it doesn't hurt to compare government travel advice: Guatemala travel warnings.

The story:

On March 14, four Belgian tourists and two others were kidnapped in Livingstone in the Izabal Department. The attack is part of the ongoing dispute between local indigenous people and Guatemalan authorities. Previously, nearly 30 police officers were kidnapped.

How it plays out in the advice:

March 14 - Media reports pick up the story fairly quickly. Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade issues a travel warning that day advising its citizens against "non-essential travel to the Izabal Department, especially in the tourist town of Livingston and in the area of Rio Dulce." The warning also notes that authorities were planning to evacuate all tourists from the area.

March 19 - The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issues a Warden Message stating that it is "
advising its employees to avoid travel to the Livingston area until further notice. American citizens who decide to travel to the area are encouraged to check with ASISTUR at 2421-2800 extensions 1301, 1305 and 1306, or the U.S. Embassy at 2326-4405, for the latest information before traveling." (**Note that embassy personnel are advised to avoid travel, but US citizens aren't explicitly banned).

March 19 - The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues the following warning: "We advise against all but essential travel to the tourist destinations of Rio Dulce and Livingstone in Izabal Department following the kidnapping, and subsequent release, of four foreign tourists on 14 March 2008... The situation is now under control but local tensions remain and there remains a possibility of further unpredictable acts. If you intend to visit this region you should remain vigilant, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor the local media for developments. "

As of the time I am writing this (March 19), the New Zealand and Australia governments have not issued new advice.

As you can see,
the advice is quite different depending on the source. Unlike the Tibet warnings, the timing is different as well. The Canadian government's advice was the quickest to be released, and identifies an immediate concern (the evacuation of tourists from the area). The US and UK perhaps waited until after the crisis had passed perhaps in order to review and assess the situation before issuing advice. Or maybe they directly contacted citizens who were there (at least those who had registered) and then posted advice for the public later.

Confusing? You bet. After all, there's more than four day's difference between the warnings.

Is this case part of a pattern? No. No single government can claim the title of always being first when it comes to releasing information, or having the "best" information, or making the most updates for any given situation. How each one responds and reacts depends on a myriad of factors we can really only guess at.

Bottom line: Compare, compare, compare. Once you know about a situation, your best bet is still to monitor local news and follow the advice of local authorities.

That, at least, is one thing all government travel advice seems to agree on!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The World in a Week

In a previous post I mentioned my reasons for abandoning a weekly round-up of news events in favour of interesting travel articles. One of the reasons for this switch is that I tend to see the same issues over and over again in the news. The people and places may change, but in any given week certain things are likely to occur.

While the inquest into Diana's death and the latest celebrity hi-jinks aren't likely to affect your travel plans, here are ten things I see in a typical week that might :
  1. Something blows up. Unfortunately, bombs are a daily occurrence rather than a weekly one, and they aren't always where you'd expect.
  2. There's usually one tropical cyclone (aka hurricane or typhoon) somewhere in the world, if not two or three in peak season. Not all of them strike land, but some will head for tourists areas.
  3. Severe weather kills people and destroys homes and businesses.
  4. A union or workers' group is on strike or threatening to go on strike. Not all strike threats are carried out, and some job actions are short and cause only minor delays. Others cause massive transportation disruptions for both commuters and tourists.
  5. Someone is protesting something. Sometimes these protests end in violence. Usually they don't, but they should be avoided anyway.
  6. People die due to an outbreak of some illness. Avian Flu is perhaps the most widely reported due its pandemic potential, but there are many other diseases that pose an immediate risk to travellers.
  7. There are earthquakes. Luckily, most earthquakes are minor ones.
  8. Elections (including the run-up and post-election periods) cause controversy at best, outbreaks of violence at worst.
  9. There is an air travel related incident, whether its an accident, near accident, severe delay or customer service issue.
  10. There is war and civil strife.
Okay, I admit that the last point is very broad. It's a truism to say there is always going to be war somewhere. However, I read enough about fighting in places like Iraq and Sri Lanka (not to mention the many others) that war should at least be included on the list. Many countries previously affected by war, such as parts of Eastern Europe, recover in a few years and become tourist hot-spots again.

So is the world really that scary? Bear in mind that these ten things cover more than 200 countries and regions (contrary to the Disney song, it really is a big world after all). Most of these issues might have travellers making adjustments to their plans or taking extra precautions rather than running for their lives... if they are affected at all. Sometimes the news seems worse the further away you are from it.

What you don't hear about in the mainstream news is the hundreds of thousands of travellers each week that don't have any problems at all. Should you read the "scary stuff"? It's all part of keeping informed. How seriously you take it is up to you.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are crimes against tourists on the rise?

Is it getting more dangerous to travel?

Media coverage in the past few weeks would certainly have us believing it is. Just this past weekend:
Every day, it seems like we hear another story about a tourist becoming a victim. Is the media looking to cash in on tourist-related stories, or is there actually cause for concern?

I suspect I know the answer, but the question warrants further investigation before I attempt to define one. For the moment, I'd like to pose the following question: Is it getting more dangerous out there, or is the media hype unnecessarily scaring away tourists?

Your thoughts?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Think all advice is created equal? Here's how travel warnings compare

Do different governments offer different advice in response to a crisis? Yes, and here's a good example. In response to the protests in Tibet turning violent, the following governments have issued the following advice:

Australia says:

"Several days of protest activity by Tibetan monks in Lhasa turned violent on 14 March, with reports of rioting and property damage. The situation on the streets of Lhasa remains tense. In these circumstances, you should reconsider your need to travel to Lhasa. "

See the advice update here.

Canada says:

"OFFICIAL WARNING: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against non-essential travel to Tibet.

"Reports of rioting in Lhasa, Tibet, have been received from the region. Some Embassies in Beijing have received first-hand reports from foreign nationals in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence.

"Canadian citizens in Tibet and especially in Lhasa are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. Canadian citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors to the extent possible. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control.

"Canadians who were planning on travel to Tibet are advised to defer non-essential travel at this time."

Read the full advice here.

The United Kingdom says:

"There are reports of widespread unrest in the city of Lhasa. There is no indication that foreigners are being targeted, but there is potential for anyone in the city to be caught up in the violence.

"British nationals are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. You should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control. British nationals should be aware that videoing or photographing protests could be regarded as provocative by the authorities in Tibet.

"We are investigating reports that flights into and out of Tibet have been suspended.

"British nationals due to travel to Tibet should contact their tour operator."

The United States says:

"This Warden Message is to advise Americans of reports of rioting in Lhasa, Tibet. Some U.S. news media are reporting violence associated with protests in the city of Lhasa. The Embassy has just received first-hand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other evidence of violence.

"American citizens in Tibet and especially in Lhasa are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. U.S. citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings, and to remain indoors to the extent possible. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control.

"Americans who were planning on travel to Tibet are advised to defer travel at this time."

See the full Warden Message here. Note that this warning was put out by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which is a U.S. government inter-agency website (which includes the Department of State). If you were relying on the DoS's Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts alone, you would miss this information entirely. (Urgent information is often distributed by OSAC rather than the DoS).

Essentially, all of the governments are telling travellers to avoid Tibet for now. As you can see, the rest of the information differs -- likely based on their respective resources. One has heard reports about flight disruption while another had heard reports of gunfire. The AU government doesn't provide as much detail (perhaps it doesn't have to, or contacts its citizens directly).

The distribution is also different. OSAC issues Warden Messages separate from country-specific travel advice, while the other three disseminate information by updating their country travel advice pages (subscribers are notified of changes through email or RSS). Of course, many other governments issue travel warnings as well. My intention here is to show a sample of how the content differs from place to place even though the message is often the same.

Anyone curious about the situation should also check out the latest news online. A post on GoGirlfriend Travel outlines some of what the latest reports are saying.

Who offers the best advice? My recommendation is to compare. As you can see in this post, one source alone might not cover everything.

UPDATE (March 16):
  • The U.S. State Department added a Travel Alert for China on March 15.
  • On March 16, New Zealand Foreign Affairs updated its advice for Tibet.
  • Australia and the UK have updated their advice over the weekend.

Weekly Round Up March 14

What a week it's been! All that snow that was so generously heaped upon us last weekend is now melting away. Doesn't seem right somehow.

Without further ado, I bring you this week's picks:

Who really benefits from new green policies? Chris Elliott's How to spot the travel industry’s eco-spin makes you wonder if the travel industry is making any progress at all.

Not related to travel, but worth a look: Go Green Travel Green's Organic Goes Corporate. The theme sort of ties into Elliott's point about how we want to feel good about our choices, but really we should be looking a little deeper.

Who do you trust for travel advice? Newsweek tells us why user-generated content is falling out of favour in "Revenge of the Experts". Am I surprised? Not really. Travel expert Arthur Frommer also weighs in on the issue on his blog as it applies to travel. (I might blog about this issue myself)

Something to help you pass the time: Knitting for travelers: And you thought the craft was just for old women on Gadling. I must admit, knitting socks has kept my stress levels low through many a travel delay!

Janice Stringer tells us
What Every Parent Should Know About Traveling With Their Kids on BraveNewTraveler. When I saw the title, I had expected to see the usual list of safety and security tips but was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite. Based on her own experience, Stringer discusses things such as providing structure and learning new things as a family.

Good for a laugh: The 5 Worst Travel Gadgets & Accessories on Matador's The Traveler's Notebook.

Practical advice: 6 Tips for Sleeping Well in a Foreign Place. Read the comments as well. There's a great tip about earplugs.

As always, send along any suggestions! I'm always on the hunt for new reading material.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No liquids or gels, but dead bodies allowed?

I'm surprised luggage restrictions don't cover this: Airport stops women with human remains in suitcase.

Long story short: Two Italian women were caught on a stopover in Munich with the remains of one of the women's late brother in their suitcases. The man, who died eleven years ago of natural causes, wished to be buried in Italy. Naturally, airport security got a little suspicious when a skull and bones showed up on x-rays...

What's surprising about this story (other than a body in a suitcase, I mean) is that airport officials let them continue on to Naples. However, they were able to produce a valid death certificate proving there was no foul play, and no German laws had been broken. The article doesn't go into a lot of detail, but these women must have been very brave (and have a very strong constitution) to undertake this feat. I imagine that procuring services to repatriate the dead is a very time consuming and expensive process, and one they decided to bypass for whatever reason.

I'm sure at some point someone will issue a piece of advice warning travellers not to pack human remains in their luggage and instead contact their government about repatriation of the deceased.

And someone will read the warning and laugh and say "oh yeah, like that ever happened!"

Well, now you have proof.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Weekly Round-Up March 7

This week's round-up features a lot of tips and advice:

Why travel shouldn't scare you: Travel guru Chris Elliot's 5 tips for avoiding a near-miss offers some great advice. I particularly like the point about not letting near-misses stop you from traveling. (And yes, technically a "near-miss" means a collision, but that's not the point).

Eating right on the road: More budget travel advice from Nora Dunn: The Culinary Essentials Every Budget Traveler Should Know. Also good advice for starving students!

Your weekly dose of health advice: Veteran flight attendant James Wysong's Is there a doctor on board? offers advice for travellers about medical emergencies -- both what to do to prevent one and what to do if one is happening. (Imagine dying because you didn't want to make a scene...)

Something to think about: Lola Akinmade's The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time. I think my personal favourite is from Aldous Huxley: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Tips for budding videographers: Stephanie Bryant's 4 Easy Tips for Shooting Better Travel Videos. Photographers can also benefit from this advice too.

Planning a trip around the world? Here's a good place to start: Amanda Kendle's How to Plan a Round-the-World Travel Route that Makes Sense.

That's all for this week. Read an interesting article that I missed? Post a comment!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"If it's dangerous, the government should be warning tourists..."

Who is responsible for the safety of tourists -- the government or the tourists themselves?

Many people are asking this question following the death of 15 year-old Scarlett Keeling at a tourist resort in Goa, India. For those of you not familiar with the case, here's a brief overview of what happened:
  • A British family is on vacation at a resort in Goa. The mother leaves daughter with a 25-year old male tour guide while she goes to tour another location.
  • Keeling is last seen leaving a beach bar early in the morning, allegedly drunk.
  • The unfortunate teen is found dead.
  • Authorities claim her death was an accidental drowning.
  • The teen's mother, Fiona MacKeown, claims her daughter was raped and murdered and is calling for further investigation.
A quick google search of "rape" and "India" revealed numerous stories throughout January and February of tourists who were sexually assaulted-- including stories published in local papers such as the Hindustan Times. Keeling became the latest victim in a growing trend of violence against women.

It's a horrific situation to be sure. However, as the investigation continues so too does the finger pointing, according to an article in the Times Online.

On one side is chief minister
of Goa, Digambar Kamat, claiming that foreign women need to take more responsibility for their safety -- such as not walking around alone after midnight when there is no police patrol on the beach or dressing inappropriately. “Foreign tourists have to be careful,” he says in the Time article. “They can’t just do these things and then blame the government for the consequences.

On the other side MacKeown is claiming that the government (of Goa) should be warning tourists about safety concerns. “If they are saying it’s dangerous for British people, then it’s the government’s responsibility to warn people,” she is quoted as saying. “There should be signs up, but there aren’t. Instead, it’s advertised as a hippy paradise, so you don’t feel it’s dangerous when you walk around.”

Also weighing in on the issue are numerous readers (from both Britain and India) on the Times Online site. Many posts criticize the mother for leaving her under-aged daughter behind in the care of a stranger, or allowing her daughter to be wandering around drunk if the first place. Others describe dangerous circumstances and male predators in Goa, as well as a lack of cultural awareness and modesty on the part of women travellers. One post even points to the carelessness (or arrogance) of travellers in taking their safety for granted when they are abroad.

Who is right? Perhaps everyone is, or no one is. The issue of "why wasn't I warned?" versus "the information is out there, why didn't you look?" seems to creep up every time a tourist is a victim of an accident, illness, crime, sexual assault or other incident. There's no easy answer, but the questions highlight the need for better safety and security awareness.

My condolences to Keeling's family. I hope her attackers are caught.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The World's Top Art Museums -- Quality or popularity?

Wondering where the most popular art museums are in the world? TripAdvisor has just compiled its top ten list:
  1. Musee du Louvre, Paris, France
  2. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome, Italy
  3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
  4. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California
  5. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
  6. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
  7. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  8. Tate Modern, London, England
  9. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
  10. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
How were the competitors chosen? According to the press release, the list was prepared based on traffic to museum web pages on Michele Perry, director of communications for TripAdvisor, claims "This top 10 is a check list to see the very finest artwork in the world."

The list is a good starting point for people looking for a short-list of museums where they can find famous works of art, such as Van Gogh's Starry Night or Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. I confess I could happily spend days in any of these museums. They've become tourist destinations for a reason, after all.

But do they house the "very finest artwork in the world"? Not necessarily.

The nature of any top ten list is that there are always good contenders which don't make the cut. For example, I noticed that all of these museums are in a "Western" country (with four in the U.S. alone), so I wonder what other major galleries and museums from other parts of the world aren't on the list. I'm also curious about the smaller museums and local galleries that don't get the publicity and the popularity, but have the potential to teach me more about local culture and history. Do I want to go to a popular tourist attraction, or a "hidden gem"? (Or both?)

We can't define what is "good art" or any more than we can tell people where and how they should travel. It's a matter of personal preference on both counts. I hope more information and articles will become available on the "hidden gems" in the art world. Take them or leave them, it's nice to have choice.

In the meantime, the official websites of the aforementioned top ten are worth a look. Some even include a virtue tour.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Weekly Must-Read Feb. 29

Who said it could be the end of February already? The fact that we get an extra day this year isn't much of a consolation.

As I say good-bye to this stormy month, here's my list of "recommended reading" for the week:

Something new to try: 5 Steps to Solid Travel: How to Beat Airport Security Every Time on Vagabondish. I'm a fan of bar soap, but I've never tried solid shampoo, moisturizers or any of the other "solid" products writer Nora Dunn discusses. It's worth a look.

Environmentally-friendly advice all of us can afford to follow: 20 Cheap and Simple Ways to Travel Greener, also on Vagabondish.

Incidentally, if you want to make climate change worse, check out Forbes' Eight Reasons You Need To Fly Private. One can't help but wonder why budget travelers should have to care more about the environment than corporate travelers and luxury clientèle.

A good-advice-from-someone-who's-done-it story: 4 Lessons Learned From The Camino del Santiago Pilgrimage on Brave New Traveler. I've been a little fascinated with the Camino de Santiago myself since I saw a show of paintings from an artist who had made the pilgrimage.

Need a passport photo? How to take a great picture and how to get it cheap: Wisebread's Passport Pictures for Under a Dollar and Go Girlfriend Travel's Looking Like Your Passport Isn't a Good Thing.

Last minute addition: 7 Steps for Creating an In-Town Vacation on Matador's The Traveler's Notebook. Support the local economy. Save Money. And if you think about it, a vacation in your hometown has less environmental impact. What's not to love?

Suggestions? Feedback? Leave a comment!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

How to make any hotel environmentally-friendly

Would you pay more to stay in a hotel that was environmentally-friendly? According to a survey conducted by the Canadian Hotels Association, "62 per cent of business travellers and 50 per cent of leisure travellers would pay $20 more to stay at an environmentally friendly hotel" (if everything else about the room was the same). In other words, travellers will pay more for rooms with low-flow toilets and shower heads, recycling bins and energy efficient lighting.

Interesting, but the survey seems at odd with one I saw while researching an article on green travel for road trips. The results -- travellers actually use MORE energy and water while they are on vacation because these resources are viewed as being "free".

I'm left wondering: Who is responsible for saving energy and water - the hotel or the guest? As a former inn housekeeper (two summers during university), I can't help but weigh in on the issue.

What can hotels do?
  • Encourage guests to re-use clean towels and let staff know if they do not require new sheets or other amenities everyday.
  • Use energy-efficient light bulbs.
  • Use energy-efficient appliances.
  • Improve insulation to keep rooms cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
  • Install low-flow toilets and faucets.
  • Provide recycling bins.
  • Provide dishes (mugs, glasses and silverware) in rooms.
  • Use environmentally-friendly building materials.
  • Use environmentally-friendly cleaning products.
Many hotels, such as the inn where I worked, were implementing these measures to save costs long before "green travel" because the latest trend.

But that's only half the battle...

What can guests do?
  • Skip long showers and don't make the jacuzzi bath a daily event. Even low-flow shower heads won't make a difference if people take longer showers than normal.
  • Turn everything off when you leave. I can't tell you how many rooms I've entered where lights are left on and the air conditioning is blasting hours after a guest has gone out for the day or checked out.
  • Let hotel staff know if you don't require new sheets or towels everyday.
  • Use up the amenities. If you don't bring along your own toiletries, open new bars of soap and new bottles only when the previous ones are empty. Take open bottles and soap home with you (they're great for camping and short trips).
  • Use the recycling bins provided.
  • Eat out rather than ordering take-out.
  • Don't litter.
In the meantime, energy costs are rising and along with it the costs of transportation and accommodation. It puzzles me that travellers have to pay more because of increasing energy costs but they are willing to pay more for energy efficient accommodations.

It seems to me that if hotels make an effort to reduce energy and resources, and travellers do their part to consume less, then costs shouldn't go up and everybody wins.

Perhaps in an ideal world, but not in this one.

In the meantime, check out Green travel tips for the road (the article I wrote last year). I also recommend the Go Green Travel Green blog for more tips and trends. Blog co-editors Kimberly Lang and Elizabeth Sanberg's recent article on Vagabondish, 20 Cheap and Simple Ways to Travel Greener, provides great advice on how we can all be a little greener, regardless of our budget.

As usual, comments are welcome (and invited!).

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Drink spiking on the rise

I still remember the "how-to-avoid-date-rape-drugs" lecture from my university frosh week orientation. It went something like this: Buy your own drinks. Never let your drinks out of your sight (or never put them down). Drink with people you trust. If you don't feel "right" (e.g. intoxicated after only one or two drinks), get help ASAP.

It's a standard lecture for first year college and university students, but I wonder if people should have the same lecture before they travel abroad. In the past week, I've read about drink spiking in the news as well as in government travel advice. This crime is on the rise in many countries including Australia, the UK and Indonesia. I already know it's an issue in many Asian and Eastern European countries (it's in the travel advice). Contrary to what you might think, both men and women are at risk because the intent is often robbery or assault.

Chances are drink spiking is an issue in the country where you live, and you're already used to taking some precautions. But are you more at risk when you travel? Yes, for two reasons:

1) Criminals specifically target tourists. Tourists are perceived as being wealthy, and chances are they are carrying cash and travel documents with them.

2) Tourists don't always practice the same level of security as they do at home. They trust fellow travellers and friendly locals, even though both are total strangers. In many places you should be more vigilant, not less.

Where can you find out if drink spiking is a problem? Government travel advice will often include a note about it in the "Crime" or "Safety and Security" sections. It's not hard to find information any government or social service group's websites. If you're looking for a fresh perspective, try Tim Patterson's "Tripping Out On The Road: Drugs, Alcohol And Travel" on Brave New Traveler. The article takes a realistic and non-preachy approach to the issue that emphasizes safety while enjoying yourself.

In the meantime, remember what your frosh leader told you. It's good advice.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Could it have been prevented?

It's been a bad week for tourists, at least according to media reports. Consider:
If you dig into the past few months' news, its easy to find stories of tourists becoming victims. Travel is such a huge industry that when anything happens to a tourist it gets splashed all over the news. Statistically speaking, most travellers do not experience serious problems like injury or death. However, what makes these cases interesting is the speculation surrounding them: Who is to blame? Could these incidents have been prevented?

While swimming in chum-filled waters with sharks was probably not the safest activity to engage in, what about the normal act of flying? Is the flight attendant to blame for a lack of care? Should the victim have taken more precautions for her health? Should the 82 year old snorkeler have stopped the first time he felt short of breath? Did the abseiler take necessary safety precautions? It will take a lot of time and a lot more questions to reveal the truth (if it's possible).

If my experience in travel safety has taught me anything it's that people have a different tolerance for risk. Your best bet is to learn about the risks, no matter how big or small, and take steps to mitigate them. But avoid risks altogether? I don't think we can, or should.

In the meantime, I won't attempt to provide a definitive answer for the question I posed in the title of this blog. That's for investigators to decide, not the media.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Can you trust your travel company?

How reliable is your travel company? And how can you tell?

I've been revisiting the issue of travel scams again after being contacted by a traveller who has concerns about a trip she booked with a company over the phone. Everything seemed legit when when the trip was booked, but later research online revealed problems with the company. The issue becomes who can you trust for advice, and what can you do if you are a victim?

Previous articles I have researched and written mainly focussed on travel scams you might encounter while you are traveling (such as counterfeit police and con artist scams) or general tips for avoiding travel scams. With vacation and time share scams on the rise, I'm now taking a different tactic and looking at ways to identify and avoid scams before a trip is booked. Yes, the topic has been covered before, but the statistics I've seen suggest that people still aren't getting the message.

One really valuable resource I have come across for Canadian and U.S. companies is the Better Business Bureau (commonly known as the BBB). The BBB website offers visitors the ability to look up a company and read an online report about its record. Does the company comply to BBB standards (i.e. have accreditation)? Does the company have a satisfactory standing with the BBB? How many customers have complained? What were their complaints regarding? Were the complaints resolved?

Visitors can look up the travel service providers, hotels, etc. and learn information that might be crucial to choosing reliable services. Also, if you are the victim of a scam (or think you might be), contact the BBB. You can file a complaint with them and they will assist in resolving the problem.

I'm hoping that further research will uncover comparable services in other countries (suggestions are welcome!). I think the BBB website is a useful tool for doing a little research before you book.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Weekly Roundup: An impossible task

For the past two weeks I have attempted a weekly round up of news/events/current issues --- and failed miserably. It's not for a lack of trying as there is certainly no shortage of things going on in the world. Too much, in fact, to choose only ten or twelve items to focus on in a blog entry. How do you selection items? How can you prioritize them? It's tricky.

For instance, this past week there were at least three political stories that made the news: the elections in Pakistan, Kosovo declaring independence, and the ongoing crisis in Kenya. So do I overlook Iraq? Sri Lanka? Chad? East Timor? Zimbabwe? (and the list could go on...) Oh, and Castro resigned, which really isn't going to affect your travel plans but made a big media splash.

On the health front, a couple more people died of avian influenza in China and Indonesia. How does that compare to the yellow fever outbreak in South America? Or the reemergence of tuberculosis? Or the ongoing risk of dengue fever or contracting a form of hepatitis? When you've seen the rates of HIV, AIDS, and cancer... it's hard to maintain perspective.

And let's talk about the weather... Tropical cyclones Ivan and Nicholas hit this past week, but in any given week there is at least one tropical cyclone striking somewhere in the world. Severe cold weather and harsh conditions are making life difficult in parts of China and the Middle East, though they get less media coverage than severe winter storms in the U.S.

And airplanes... I have seen the whole gamut this week from airline mergers to plane crashes, emergency landings and incidents of discrimination (actual or perceived). Not to mention potential transportation strikes...

Bottom line: Every story is important to someone. If you want to see what has happens in the news this week, check out this page at AllSafeTravels.

In the meantime, I'm switching tactics and will instead provide a weekly report of interesting stories I read during the past week. Watch for my first post coming this week.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

U.S. announces new security measures for trains

"The next attacks will be on trains."

One month after the 9/11 attacks, I was travelling by train to Toronto and sitting next to someone who worked in the security industry. It was a weekend when there was a warning for more attacks to hit, and Toronto's CN Tower was on the list. The person I was sitting next to was telling me his theories about how what the next target would be... Trains.

Why trains? A lack of security. I considered by own experience... No one screened my luggage and no one even checked my ticket until an hour after the trip was underway. Worse yet... Union Station is right in the middle of downtown Toronto, right next to a popular landmark specifically named in a threat. Now I can laugh about feeling frightened, but it wasn't funny to me at the time.

In the coming months I had expected changes to train security. However, over the last several years, all I saw were notices to the effect of the company having the right to inspect luggage and a warning that unattended luggage would be confiscated. Otherwise, it has been business-as-usual.

Until now-- Amtrak is implementing new security measures, including bomb-sniffing dogs and random luggage checks. According to an article on CNN, there have been very few (if any) changes to train security since 9/11 despite the fact that experts have been warning about vulnerabilities. There have been several articles on the topic in the media this week, and everyone is quick to point out that these measures are not in response to a specific threat.

I wonder how effective these measures will be, or if other rail companies (such as Canada's VIA Rail) will follow suit. The Transportation Security Administration is applauding the new procedures, but I'm reserving judgment until I hear what the critics will say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kosovo gets its own advice

The UK gets my vote for "most proactive government" when it comes to responding to Kosovo's new independence in their travel advice. While all of the major governments have been updating their travel advice, the UK was the first to issue separate travel advice for Kosovo.

Other governments may follow suit in the coming weeks -- depending on their position and whether or not they recognize Kosovo's independence. For now, information about Kosovo can be found in their Serbia travel advice.

What's the advice currently saying? Serbia views the declaration as illegal, which means protests and other related civil unrest have occurred and will continue to occur. It's a touchy subject that travellers should avoid in conversation, and entry and exit issues are bound to occur. As a general rule, travellers should avoid large crowds and protests. The U.S. government issued a Travel Alert for Serbia after its embassy was attacked by rioters.

No doubt Kosovo will be under close watch by nations around the world in coming weeks.

Attention Canadian travellers: Don't use your CCC as a travel document!

"The Certificate of Canadian Citizenship is not a travel document"

I probably recite these words in my sleep. I've lost count of the number of times I have seen this warning in the updates to the Travel Reports published by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT). This week, DFAIT has been updating the wording to this note of caution in dozens of the travel reports. Here's what the standard warning message now says:

"A Certificate of Canadian Citizenship is not a travel document. A Canadian passport is the only reliable and universally accepted travel and identification document available to Canadians for the purpose of international travel. Canadian citizens returning to Canada who present other documents, such as a Certificate of Canadian Citizenship, birth certificate, provincial driver’s license, or foreign passport, instead of a Canadian passport, may face delays or be denied boarding by transport companies."

In fact, if you read the website for the CCC (Proof of citizenship), you'll see the warning: "A citizenship certificate is proof of citizenship. It is not a travel document. Any Canadian citizen wanting to travel outside Canada should obtain a Canadian passport."

And yes, that includes for entry to the United States. While researching an article on US/Canada entry requirements, I came across several posts on discussion boards where people have tried to use the CCC as a travel document to enter the U.S. The result? Let's just say border officials weren't too impressed, and the travellers were left confused and frustrated.

Bottom line? Get a passport. Don't try to use your CCC as a travel document.

Or else...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Six things train travellers should know

Delays, inconsiderate passengers and equipment breakdowns are unavoidable nuisances that main people face. So why do some travellers fair better than others? Preparation and attitude are the key. Back from my latest train trip, I'd like to offer this advice to make everyone's trip a little less of a hassle:

1. Wear appropriate footwear. Think maneuvering steep stairs (which are icy-slushy-snowy this time of year) and walking in moving cars. Not the best place for spike heels, high heels, flip flops or any other sort of footwear that might come off and/or cause you to stumble.

2. Pack sensibly. Like airlines, trains have luggage limitations as well. Holidays and university reading week (usually mid-February) are especially packed (if you'll pardon the pun) with arm loads of gifts and bags of laundry. However, there is only so much room on the train cars. The result? Passengers are often separated from their luggage as station staff try to find room for everything. It's a bit of a scramble to find a bag during quick station stops.

How to get around the extra hassle? I've noticed that a lot of frequent travellers pack smaller cases that can fit into the overhead luggage compartment. Other tips such as making sure your contact information is with your luggage and making your bag easily identifiable (such as a bright luggage strap or bits of yarn) can be helpful in a crunch. If you're travelling between major cities, as about the checked luggage service.

3. Everyone can hear everything. Your train seat does not come equipped with a cone of silence. Most travellers now pack a set of headphones for their music or DVD players, but cell phones are still an issue. Be mindful of what you say -- remember you're travelling with complete strangers. I've heard conversations that contained personal or business details that shouldn't be common knowledge. (I've noticed that cell phone users tend to speak in a louder voice than passengers conversing with their neighbours). A train trip is probably not the best time for sensitive conversations.

4. Train late? Keep your receipt. Anyone who travels by train regularly in Canada knows that the trains are frequently late. The rail company's policy is to give passengers a 50% discount on their next ticket (for the same trip) when their train is more than one hour late arriving at their final destination. This policy isn't always communicated to travellers en route.

The discount is good for six months, so it's worth knowing about.

5. Go with the flow. Unlike air travel (and I've read the horror stories), Canada's rail travel company has a more humane policy when it comes to serious delays. They can hold connecting trains or offer alternate transportation. At main stations such as Montreal and Toronto, they will even provide temporarily stranded travellers with food and water.

I don't deny it's frustrating, but every time there's a problem I remind myself that air travellers often have it much worse. No one likes delays, but patience and courtesy can help lessen the frustration and anger.

6. Pack a snack. If you're not travelling first class, your at the mercy of the snack cart which may or may not come around promptly or have what you want. I've found bringing a bottle of water and a healthy snacks is a great backup plan. I often buy a drink or a sandwich (when fully stocked, they do offer a good variety), but bringing my own food means I always have something I want to eat ready when I'm hungry.

Do I find the train "a more humane way to travel" as they claim? Yes and no. For many business travellers and students, it can be a boon and a hassle. The key is to travel smarter, and make the experience more humane for yourself and others around you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Crime and Safety Reports coming out for 2008

Curious about crime and safety for your destination? New information is becoming available. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) has started releasing its annual Crime and Safety Reports. (OSAC is part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for the U.S. Government). The reports typically cover such topics as:
  • Overall Crime and Safety Situation
  • Political Violence
  • Post-specific Concerns (i.e. country specific concerns like local scams and common crimes)
  • Natural Disasters
  • Police/Emergency Response
  • Where to get help in an emergency
Not every country is covered, but some countries such as Mexico will have city-specific reports. (The ones for Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey have already been released). Don't look for them at all once -- the reports are usually rolled out throughout the year. The reports are worth a read even though they are specifically geared for U.S. citizens (translation: beware of any bias). They often provide more detailed information than is found in government travel advice.

Incidentally, those of you still shaking your heads at Australia's travel advisory for Canada will be mollified by OSAC's Toronto Crime and Safety report in 2007. Not all countries receive such a glowing review.

See the OSAC Crime & Safety Reports page for the latest releases. Any available Country and city-specific reports can be found on the Country Travel Advisory pages at AllSafeTravels under the "Security" section.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Why did Brits need consular help in 2007?

Why did British nationals need help from their embassy in 2007? The FCO wants you to know.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice typically contains a point in the summary about how many British nationals travel to a country and why they need consular assistance. Here are the top 5 most reasons I see the most often:

1. Lost or stolen passports - the most common reason Brits needed assistance worldwide.
2. Arrests or detentions - usually from drug offenses or alcohol-related incidences.
3. Deaths - usually from natural causes.
4. Hospitalizations
5. Victims of petty crime - usually tied to loss of passport.

Of course, there are many other reasons and many of those reasons are country or region-specific. For example, help avoiding arranged marriages was an issue for a dozen cases in Bangladesh. Some British citizens needed help with proper documentation for marriage in Belarus. Kidnappings and child abductions were issues in some countries like Nigeria. Nigeria also had an unusually high incidence of people becoming victims of scam artists (about 600 cases, according to the advice).

Often the travel advice will say "most visits are trouble free", but it's interesting to find out why people needed help. As you can see, many of the issues can be avoided with extra precautions such as taking care to protect your valuables, keeping a close eye on your travel documents and not becoming involved in illegal activities.

As far as I can tell, the FCO is the only government to include these points in its travel advice for every country. It's worth a look, even for other nationals. It's also a good idea to take your embassy's contact information with you (including emergency contact) in case you do run into trouble.

Events this week Jan. 26 - Feb. 1

This entry is a new feature I'm trying out to provide a summary of what happened in the world this week. Of course, it would be impossible to cover EVERYTHING that went on, so consider this the "highlights". My goal is to stick to the top 10, but as you see I went a little over that this week!

Looking at the past week's headlines, weather is the dominating theme. In the Northern Hemisphere, severe winter weather reared its ugly head:
  • Major storms hit North America, but also the Middle East (Jordan, Israel, Iran, etc).
  • China continues to suffer from the heaviest snowfalls in years during its busiest travel weekend, and hundreds of thousands of people were stranded or had their plans seriously disrupted.
  • In Tajikistan, icy temperatures and a lack of resources has created an energy crisis which could lead to virtual blackouts for most of February.
  • Three ships ran aground in or near the UK due to severe storms.
  • Heavy rains caused severe flooding in Indonesia, killing three people, displacing about 7000, and affecting flights and transportation.
  • Other parts of Europe were hit with wild weather.
South of the equator, three tropical cyclones were on the loose:
  • Fame reappeared off the cost of Madagascar. Last I heard, the death toll was up to 12.
  • Gene made its way across Fiji and Vanuatu, reaching CAT 3 strength at some points in its journey.
  • Gula spun by Mauritius and and the French island of Reunion.
Of course, this is just a sampling of all the weather-related stories (otherwise I would be writing a ten page report!)

Ongoing situations:
  • Unrest continues in Kenya following the death of two opposition MPs this week. By Friday, everyone seemed to be talking and agreeing on the fact that the violence has to end (it's a start!)
  • More people were killed in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. Sad to say, but I see news about deaths in these countries on almost a daily basis.
  • Floods continue in many parts of Africa, including Mozambique.
  • More people died from avian flu in Indonesia, which currently has the highest mortality rate for the disease so far (102 deaths in 124 cases). Other outbreaks are still ongoing, including in India and Bangladesh.
  • Kosovo continues on it's path to independence, and neighbouring countries are nervous, but no official declaration has been made yet.
For more news that may have affected your travel plans, see the Breaking News section at AllSafeTravels.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The view from the Earth Observatory

Text, text and more text... That pretty much sums up my day. Email, RSS, webpages, advice, news... you name it! Consequently, I like sites that make me look at the world differently, or provide me with a new understanding of a particular situation.

Lately one of my favourite indulgences is NASA's Earth Observatory. I watch the Natural Hazards page in particular. Where else can you see what a sandstorm looks like? Or the Middle East covered in snow? Or see the devastation left by a tornado or forest fire?

It sounds a little morbid, but it's not. I find the site helps understand the enormous impact these disasters can have. I see a lot of cyclones in the news, but actually seeing the sheer size of a storm near a land mass leaves me with a new understanding that I don't get from weather reports or news. The images and stunning.

I also like the Unique Imagery section. What can I say? It makes you see the world differently, whether it's Fall Colors or Phytoplankton blooms.

The site is well worth a look.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Travelling to the States? I get it, already!

Tomorrow is January 31 -- the day the new entry requirements to the U.S. come into effect. I have had this date imprinted in my brain for the last several months because I look at so much travel advice. I keep track of breaking news. I've posted the updates. I've seen the ads. I've even written an article about the issue.

And then in today's mail: an "adcard" from the Canadian government reminding me, yet again, that as of tomorrow I will need a birth certificate and my driver's license to visit the States through land and sea entry points.

Why all the effort? Because people are confused. Because last time they changed requirements (for air travel) huge backlogs and delays occurred. Because if border officials have to verify your identity through another means, you will have to wait and everyone in line behind you will have to wait (etc, etc). In other words, this is not going to be a smooth or easy transition.

Why are people confused? Because the policies keep changing, and they will continue to change. Canadians will need a passport to get into the States by 2009 -- unless the U.S. pushes the date back again, or issues passport I.D. cards, or gets their enhanced driver's license program in place by then.

My advice: Treat the U.S. border as if it were any other foreign border (rather than one that we've had relatively easy access to in the past). Regardless of where you plan to go, check out entry and exit requirements before you travel (while you still have time to get any missing documentation). A passport is still your best bet if you don't already have one.

Anyone who still hasn't seen the advice can find it here: Travel Documents for Entering the United States

The best part: Apparently U.S. officials won't enforce new border ID rules until June 2009.

Friday, January 25, 2008

How safe is Canada?

If you've been watching the Canadian news at all today, you might get the impression that Australia has issued a new warning against travel to Canada. Check out today's headlines:

"Australia issues travel warning against Canada" (CTV News)
"Australia issues travel warning against Canada; says not as safe as SKorea" (The Canadian Press)
"Australia Posts Travel Warning About Canada on Website" (CityNews)
"Be careful in Canada, Australians warned" (Globe and Mail)

So what's all the fuss about? I'm not sure, to be perfectly honest. The "warning" is not new. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Australia (MFAT) has had a travel advisory (it's name for country specific travel advice) for Canada posted on its Smartraveller website for quite a while now.

Did anything change today? No. The advice was last updated and reissued on December 5, 2007 -- it says so right at the bottom of the page. The only notable change made at that time was the addition of the note about bush fires. The terrorism warning (now standard in most government travel advice) has been in place since the August 3 update. (If anyone is curious, take a look at what changed over the last two years.)

I won't attempt to comment on the content of the travel advisory (a subject for another post, perhaps), but one has to wonder why the Canadian media has suddenly realized this advisory is out there and is choosing to comment on it now?

We can critique the content of articles and of the advice itself, but the good news is the articles have people talking, and hopefully reading the government advice.