Remember when...

...you wrote letters, sent postcards to stay in touch?
...you carried rolls of film when you go on a trip?
...you brought bulky cassette tapes for a long flight?

Well take a step back in time, into The Travel Group Archives.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Girls Just Want to Have Fun (Part 2)
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Last issue, we reported what destinations North American travel agents picked for girl-only getaways. As promised, this issue we tell you our agents’ top choices:

The Hills Ranch (BC): It has villas, so the girls can hang out together after dinner. The spa treatments are great. There's hiking, cross-country skiing, an indoor pool and hot tub, lectures and group dining. Prices are middle-of-the-road, which makes it affordable for more than just your wealthy friends. (Cathy)
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Rancho la Puerto (Mexico, just south of San Diego, CA): This is an excellent place for a gal to go. Here you can have a fabulous week of rejuvenating your mind, body and spirit. No phones, no TV, no deadlines, just miles of hiking trails, healthy meals, exercise, rest and spa treatments in a peaceful setting at the foot of Mt Kuchumaa, just across the Mexican border. (Marie)

Flying U Guest Ranch (BC): A 5.5 hours drive to 70 Mile House, this ranch offers accommodation that is rustic but the units are large enough for several women to comfortably share one room. No need to cook (yeah!) or even make any decision about food, as the meals are at set times and prepared in group style.
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Each morning, their excellent horses are ready and saddled for you. (The cowboys aren't too shabby either.) You can enjoy unsupervised rides through the hills and around Green Lake. The evenings give you time to relax, go for a walk, or read a book; or if you are looking for a bit more excitement head down to the main lodge and sit around the fire, where it is easy to meet others. On Saturday nights a live band plays for those who like to dance. (Michele)

Cuba: I would definitely recommend any of the top all-inclusive resorts in Cuba. What better way to spend time with your girl friends than to lounge around in the sun, with hot guys serving you cool drinks on a beach so beautiful you'll feel like you're in a postcard. This is an extremely safe, no-hassle, relaxing holiday destination that is easy to get to on a non-stop charter flight. (Lisa)

Las Vegas: What girl doesn't like to shop? Vegas has great shopping choices plus a variety of shows that please every taste. Whether you want a wild "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" weekend or a deliciously pampering spa treat, Las Vegas has it all. (Lindy)
Crisis Management
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Sept. 11th, airline strikes, airline bankruptcies — we’ve seen a lot of emergencies in the airline industry over the past four years. And every time something major happens we read reports how airlines leave their passengers stranded for hours, even days, while they sort things out. Typically, it is travel agencies who come to the rescue. In our case, our clients come first of course, but once they have been helped we have looked after many others who booked online. The dirty little secret in the airline business is that airlines do not have an infrastructure to handle emergencies.

The latest episode that has effected our office was the string of hurricanes and storms hitting the Caribbean, eastern Mexico, and south-eastern U.S this fall. Just to give you an idea of how travel agents shine in these circumstances, here is the experience of our vacation dept. manager, Lindy Rothenburger:

“Hurricane Wilma in Cancun caused the cancellation of my wedding group scheduled to depart on November 6th. I immediately went to work with our group coordinator at Transat Holidays to rebook the group to Punta Cana instead of Cancun. The new arrangements seemed to be confirmed, so I started on the mountain of paper work involved in sorting out all of the changes. Besides issuing new documents, credit notes, and new invoices, all of the insurance policies had to be adjusted.

Just as I was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the tour operator called me with the bombshell. The new space they had confirmed the previous day turned out not to be quite as ‘confirmed’ as we thought! In fact, the charter flight was over-sold, and my group was out of luck. Taking a deep breath, I started scrambling. After a lot of searching and pleading, another tour operator offered us some seats. By putting pressure on the original tour operator that had let me down, I came up with the remaining 9 seats and the hotel arrangements I needed. I also persuaded them to honour their original promise of the free airline ticket and hotel accommodation that my group had earned from the original plans even though they no longer had the bulk of the group. By the Sunday before my wedding group was departing, I had all the pieces back together and spent most of my “day off” in the office putting documents and itineraries together for all of the passengers.

Unfortunately, my troubles were not quite over. The various tour operators I had cobbled together now required that my passengers pick up their airline tickets, transfer coupons, and hotel vouchers at three different counters at the airport! I just couldn’t see asking my clients to do this. By now, even I was getting confused by the complexity of the arrangements. I managed to convince all of the tour operators involved to courier everything to me so that I could sort the documents and put them together for each traveller. Then I went to the airport at 4:00am to personally give my clients their travel documents before checking in at their respective airline counters.”

Here are a couple of the comments Lindy received from her grateful clients:

“I was very impressed with the way you handled the arrangements, specifically all the changes from Mexico to the Dominican. The fact that you showed up at the airport so early in the morning blew me away. You have convinced me to seek your services the next time me and my girlfriend are travelling. ...Gary’’

“‘You did an absolutely amazing job of making things work for our wedding group. Your ears should have been burning as we all showered you with praise for this feat. …Joanie.’’

Regardless of the trouble and effort it takes to sort out these disasters, it is all worth it when you can look back with pride at your accomplishment. Appreciation from grateful clients is icing on the cake.

Way to go, Lindy!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Right Seat ~ Part II
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“Grande, extra hot, decaf, soy latte, please.” That’s the sort of thing you hear at your favourite coffee shop. If people are that particular about the coffee they drink, why shouldn’t they have strong preferences for where they will be sitting on an often crowded aircraft for hours? Aisle seat is the most requested. Statistically, twice as many people prefer an aisle seat to a window seat. Aisle seats allow you to get up without disturbing other passengers. They allow the quickest exit from the plane once you’ve landed. And, for some people who feel claustrophobic on planes, it gives a bit more sense of spaciousness and freedom. Unfortunately, there are only so many of these to go around.

If you fly a lot, you probably have “status” on one or two frequent-flyer programs, and therefore enjoy privileged access to the best seats on their affiliated airlines. Except, that is, when the flight is very full. Then, you’re in the same boat as everyone else. Airlines have been cutting capacity and refining their “inventory control systems” (ie. the science of over-selling flights as much as possible without getting caught), so more and more flights are going out full, leaving you limited seat choices unless you book six months in advance! In the U.S., flights ran a near-record 81% full in the month of March this year; so good seats have become harder to come by these days, regardless of your status.

Whether you are a frequent traveller or occasional one, here are some tips that might help you find that elusive “perfect” seat on your next flight.


Tips:

Ø Book further ahead. (Easier said than done, but your agent will offer to tentatively book a seat and hold it until you are ready to commit.)
Ø Check-in for your flight online. Many airlines, including Air Canada, British Airways, and even Southwest, now permit online check-in—in some cases up to 24 hours in advance. Take advantage of this, to get at the best seats.
Ø Even if you are not a high tier frequent-flyer, at check-in ask for a seat in the front rows. Often these seats have slightly better pitch.
Ø Pay a bit more for premium economy class—for example, Air Canada’s new “Club Class” on some international flights, British Airways’ “World Traveller Plus,” and United’s “Economy Plus.” Usually, these offer the same economy meal service, but give you the extra leg room that is more important. Some airlines, such as United, allow you to upgrade to this cabin for a very small charge at the airport.
Ø Reserve your seats at the time of booking. Your agent will never allow you to make the mistake of forgetting to pre-assign the best available seat at the time you book.
Ø Reconfirm the seats a day before the flight. Often airlines make last-minute changes to equipment; it can lead to a nasty surprise at the airport.

Ø Upgrade to business class. Either look for special business class fares or ask about using points to upgrade. (Air Canada does not offer points upgrades). If you are a high-tier member of a frequent-flyer program, make sure you let your agent know your status and wishes. He/she will automatically arrange for upgrades at the appropriate time and –equally important—make sure you pick airfares that permit upgrading. Many airlines, including Air Canada, restrict upgrades to certain higher airfares.
Ø Beware of online bookings. Most web sites, including Air Canada’s does not permit you to assign seats or even look at a seat map until you have paid for the ticket. You have no way of knowing if you will get a decent seat before you pay! Also, most online sites will not recognize your status with the airline, and therefore not offer you the preferred seats.
Ø Pass on your experiences to your agent, to better help him/her select the best seats for you on aircraft that you regularly fly. One of our clients, for instance, discovered that the “window seats” at row 13 on many types of Boeing 767s actually lack windows! We now know to avoid that row for this client.

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Is Bigger Always Better?

Cruise lines have been battling for decades to outclass their competitors' ships by making vessels longer, bigger, and full of amenities like mall-size promenades and ice skating rinks. What started as small refurbished ferries have turned into vessels bigger than aircraft carriers.

Carnival Corp., the top cruise operator, launched the world's largest passenger ship last year—the luxury liner Queen Mary 2 which stretches nearly four football fields. But the monarch's reign isn't lasting long: rival Royal Caribbean Cruises will start sailing an even bigger ship in early 2006, the Freedom of the Seas.

As the industry builds ships that keep getting bigger to meet growing demand, these megaships also create new problems. The lines have to balance the preferences of passengers who want flashy new amenities with those who are looking for quiet vacations. Many ports say these vessels make it tough to process thousands of people in just a few hours. Environmental groups also complain that bigger ships mean more pollution.

Cruise executives say they have worked to relieve those problems. For example, passengers can now check in online to reduce congestion at the port. And most passengers are clearly happy with the massive ships: passenger numbers have risen an average of about 8 percent a year for more than a decade.

The first modern cruise ship in the 1960s held just 560 passengers. In the 1980s, Carnival Cruise Lines launched three new ships that could hold nearly 1,800 passengers each. At the time, many observers wondered if there were enough travelers to fill them. The Freedom of the Seas will be able to hold 4,370 passengers. And Carnival is kicking around the idea of building a ship to take the title back, but it doesn't have any firm plans.

Clearly cruise lines favour big ships to take advantage of the economy of scale, and therefore offer passengers best value and at the same time realize maximum profitability; but what do passengers really think of all this? "A cruise on the big new ships is primarily what people want to buy. People are clearly voting with their wallets," said Adam Goldstein, president of the Royal Caribbean International brand. "We would be very happy to operate smaller ships if they could generate greater profitability than the big ships, but they don't."

Others, including some of our agents, aren’t so sure. “I’m not a fan of long buffet lineups, the search for a free deck chair, or the congestion getting on and off the ship at ports,” says Cathy Moore, our office manager and a frequent cruiser. “If you are more interested in the ports of call than the ship itself, I’d hunt down a small ship.”

“The smaller ships get into ports that the large ships can't get near. You can pull right up to the dock in ports rather than having to go in by tender,” adds Lindy Rothenberger, our vacation dept. manager and a cruise specialist.

But others love the giant vessels: you’re definitely not going to get bored on one of these: whether it’s miniature golf, a half dozen restaurants to sample, or just people-watching, the megaships offer lots of variety and activity for the more outgoing personalities.

Other issues with megaships are high cost for ports to accommodate bigger and bigger vessels and some environmental concerns. Maneuvering and fitting those ships into ports puts pressure on destinations, especially smaller ones. Antigua's port, for instance, recently spent $22 million to accommodate larger ships, but it's unclear whether Carnival’s monsters will fit there. Many smaller ports are worried that cruise ships might avoid them as cruise lines have to cater to a lower common denominator in passenger tastes. Add to this extra pollution and large-scale damage to reefs and the underwater ecosystems and you have the classic tension between economy and environment.

Right now, the momentum is definitely with ever-larger sized ships, but remember—we baby boomers are fickle!

Source: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/travel/3450666

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

World’s Most Expensive Resorts
So, what do you get at the resort Forbes Magazine picks as the world’s most expensive? Among other things, several hours of time daily on the resort’s yacht, unlimited spa treatments, and all the meals and drinks you want at the two gourmet restaurants.
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The place is called Rania, and opened this September in the Maldives. Okay, you want to know—what does it cost? Well, in low season, $8,000 US per night. ($10,000+/night in high season.)

The next question you probably are asking is just what makes a resort worth $8,000 a night? It’s got to be more than gourmet meals, spa treatments, and rides on a boat, right? Well, when you look at the top 10 most expensive resorts in the world (see below), there is one common trait: remoteness. They are located in some of the most exotic (ie. less-visited by North Americans) places in the world. That, and exquisite natural settings and beautiful architecture, add up to pricey accommodation.

Another gem is the One&Only Resort (part of the One&Only chain), also located in the Maldives. Here, you can enjoy a villa at a 109-acre island resort with 12 private, white-sand beaches. Choose from a villa on the beach, over-the-water, or with its own private pool—but each one comes with its own 24-hour “villa host” (ie. butler). If this option isn’t pricey enough for your taste, why not blow a cool $1 million US to take over the resort completely, and invite 200 guests for 5 days of room, food, Champagne, wine, tennis, diving, and a spa treatment.

No doubt you’ll want to send us an e-mail right away to book one of these top-10 resorts so here’s the 2005 Forbes list:

Rania, The Maldives
Altamer, Anguilla
Sandy Lane, Barbados
Frégate Island Private, Seychelles
Singita Private Game Reserve, South Africa
Turtle Island, Fiji
Explora En Patagonia, Chile
Laluna, Grenada
One&Only, Maldives
Eden Rock Hotel, St. Barts

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Free Ticket Picture

The Right Seat , Part I


If we were to survey our clients or any group of frequent-flyers, I am sure that the number one most important issue related to flying is THE SEAT. Generally, the more a traveler flies, the more savvy they are about airline seats, and the more demanding. So, what are the best economy seats on a plane? Which airline has them? And, how do we get them?

In the first of two parts, this article will explore which airline seats are considered to be best—by our clients and other experts. When you talk about economy seats there are many issues. For example, everyone wants either an aisle seat, window seat, or exit-row seat. There are customers who will specifically ask to be kept away from “screaming babies,” which typically inhabit the front or bulkhead rows. Without a doubt, however, the most important issue for frequent flyers is leg room, or as the airlines call it—“seat pitch.” Pitch is defined as the distance between the rows of seats from the back of one seat to the back of the seat behind when measured from the same point on each seat. Got all that? In other words, it’s “leg room.” Pitch differs from airline to airline and from one aircraft type to another, sometimes quite dramatically. While there are other issues governing seat comfort—the width and shape of the seat, for instance—pitch is the thing that preoccupies most frequent travellers, especially with all of the publicity about DVT.

This is such a big deal to “road warriors that there are many web sites devoted to the subject of seat pitch. The best is SeatGuru.com. It offers excellent, easy-to-read seat charts on all of the aircraft operated by the major airlines. In the case of Air Canada, for instance, you can view the seat plans for 15 aircraft types, including three different versions of Boeing 767s and seven versions of AirBus. One word of caution, however: it is sometimes difficult to find out from an airline which version of aircraft is being used. I recently called Air Canada reservations about a flight, but their reservations agent was unable to tell me which model of Boeing 767 was operating.

The seat charts on SeatGuru.com are excellent. Not only do they give you the exact pitch for various types of aircraft, each chart identifies, using colour-coding, which seats to beware of, to definitely avoid, and to try to get. They also tell you about seat width, which is also an important, often overlooked issue.

Exit row seats are universally considered the best seats on the plane because of the extra leg room they offer. Exit rows must be wide enough to accommodate quick evacuation of the airplane in an emergency. There are some things to be aware of about these much sought-after seats, however. For instance, when there are two rows of exit seats, watch out for the first one. Usually, the seats in this row do not recline! (For safety reasons, they must not block the exit row behind.) Still, if you have no other choice, this row is also a good choice because of the better leg room.

In many aircraft, there are two truly deluxe seats to look for. These are the window seats located immediately behind an exit row. In some cases the window seat from the exit row in front has been removed to make room to operate the emergency door. This feature offers the passenger sitting behind a nice window seat with incredible leg room. Always look for this option.

One more point about exit row seats: they are almost never assigned in advance. The airline is required to ask if you are “willing and able to help in the event of an emergency.” Passengers must be at least 15 years old, have the strength to open the emergency door, and have full mobility. Some airlines, such as United, Continental, Northwest, and US Airways do allow their top tier fliers to pre-select exit seats. (If you are Prestige or better on Aeroplan, United recognizes your status and will offer you preferential seat selection, including the exit row seats. Air Canada, on the other hand, does not pre-assign these seats to anyone.) Always ask for exit row seats (assuming you qualify and are willing to help out) at check-in; they will often be available because of these restrictions.

Another set of seats that are often good are the bulkhead seats, which are located immediately behind the dividing walls between cabins. A big word of caution here, though. Sometimes, leg room is worse in bulkhead. It depends on the aircraft configuration. Other negatives: there are no foot rests, there is no storage under the seat in front of you (because there isn’t a seat in front of you), your seat will be narrower than the rest because the meal tray must be stored under the arm rest rather than in the seat ahead of you, you may find yourself near to the restrooms or the galley (ie. kitchen). And finally, you are likely to have babies—doing all those charming baby things—for company. If you can get beyond these issues, have one of our agents check on the leg room issue. Again, as with the exit rows, bulkhead seats are usually not open for pre-assignment unless you have high tier status or are travelling with an infant. And, finally, even if you do find the perfect bulkhead seat, be prepared to be “bumped” by the airline if it needs to accommodate a parent with baby at the last minute. This is one case where babies overrule even the most elite of frequent-flyers.

Okay; so now we know a little bit about what are the good seats on airplanes; and we definitely know we want to be flying on planes and airlines that offer good seat pitch. Which airlines are these? To answer this, go a website by Skytrax. Skytrax is an organization that rates airlines on various issues, leg room being one of them. Their site provides a handy chart for comparing all of the major airlines—domestic and international—on the basis of seat pitch. You will find that regular economy ranges from a measly 28 or 29” for certain charter airlines to a generous 34” on airlines such as American, South African, Thai, and a few others. Most airlines fall in the 30-32” range. Again, note that seat pitch will vary dramatically from one type of aircraft to another; and even within the same plane there will be differences. (Often the first 10 or so rows in economy, which are reserved for elite passengers, have better leg room. You may request any seat that remains available at check-in.) Careful research is necessary if you want to pick the best seat. For more precise information, go back to SeatGuru.com or have one of our agents investigate for you.

Where does Air Canada and WestJet fit in? For Air Canada, it ranges from a scary 31” on many of its narrow, regional jets to a decent 34” on some rows of its AirBus330-300s and Boeing767-300s. WestJet used to offer only about 30 to 32” of leg room, but their new 737-800 series jets offer 34”. So, Canada’s two major airlines compare very favourably to their U.S. competitors.

Our agents are acutely aware of how important leg room and a good seat are to our customers; and they are trained to do everything possible to make your flight as comfortable as possible. In our next newsletter, we will look at what are some of the tricks for getting the good seats. Our agents know them all; now we will share some of our secrets with you.