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.