Thursday, December 28, 2017

How to fight back against the "beyond our control" excuse from travel providers

Today’s guest post is by Christopher Elliott, author of How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler. 

It's not our fault.

You've probably heard that line a time or two, especially from an airline, hotel or cruise line. It's the old "Act of God" excuse — or to put it in less theological terms, an event "beyond our control."
Reasons matter. That's because under the rules of most travel bookings, a company owes you nothing if these events keep it from operating. Blame it on Mother Nature, and the company can get away with almost anything. But there's a way to counter the oldest excuse in travel.
"'Circumstances beyond our control' are hard, even impossible, to define, "says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of

 Consider John Thompson's recent flight from Las Vegas to Boston by way of Washington. The carrier blamed "weather or air traffic" on a brief delay of his outbound flight — both events it claims it has no control over.

But that's not how Thompson remembers it. He says his flight from Las Vegas to Washington was also held up because it was overbooked, something which the airline can control.

"The delay was extended by another 20 minutes because no one was willing to take a $1,000 voucher to give up their seat for other passengers," recalls Thompson, a project manager from Chelmsford, Mass.

In the end, he had to spend the night in Washington, which cost him $125. The airline initially refused to cover his extra costs, but after I contacted it, Thompson was reimbursed for his hotel stay.

Turns out you can fight back.

Nancy Barnby, a retired high school teacher from Menlo Park, Calif., booked a room at a La Quinta hotel in Oregon two years ago to see this summer's solar eclipse. Then the hotel was sold.

"The new owners decided not to keep any of the prior reservations," she remembers. "But they also didn’t inform us."

By the time she discovered the canceled reservation, hotel prices were astronomically high. The new owners claimed the sale was an event beyond their control. I begged to differ. I contacted the new hotel and it covered the cost of her new hotel reservation.

"When someone uses the 'circumstances are beyond my control' excuse, they are utilizing a classic negotiation technique: the abdication of authority and responsibility," says Kwame Christian, director of the American Negotiation Institute, a consulting firm. The most important step you can take toward resolving your dispute is to persuade the company to accept the responsibility, he adds.

It's also helpful to turn the tables when someone tries to feed you that line. What would happen if you were the one with a circumstance beyond your control?

"What if you got sick or injured just prior to your trip, preventing you from traveling?" adds Sandberg. "It's pretty clear that an airline or hotel, while likely sympathetic to their customer, would not have any financial obligation to you."

In other words, more often than not, it probably is their fault that they couldn't operate their flight, offer you accommodations, or a car. The cop-out is a symptom of a much bigger problem: an industry that's used to getting away with it.

How to fight the 'circumstances' excuse

• Get informed with accurate and up-to-date information. I once pushed an airline to offer meal vouchers and compensation after it claimed runway construction was an event beyond its control. I gently pointed out that the construction, which had caused my flight to be canceled, must have been announced a while back. Indeed, the event was highlighted on the airport website.

• Go positive. Rather than making demands, try telling the company how it can fix your problem. Ask for the hotel to find a way of honoring your reservation when it closes for renovations. Stay upbeat. "Tell them, 'I really appreciate you getting me on this next flight. This is incredibly helpful,'" says Christian of the American Negotiation Institute. In the end, what matters isn't their excuse, but that you got around it.

• Buy travel insurance. Most policies cover trip interruption and don't distinguish between weather or a delay caused by an airline, rail operator or bus company. Delay coverage can be considerably more generous than an airline, says Sandberg. "Travel insurance can provide reimbursement for additional expenses, including meals, accommodations, local transportation and phone calls," he notes.

Learn more about how Christopher Elliott helps travelers at  his consumer advocacy site.

Photos from free sources.



Sunday, December 17, 2017

Spend the night with Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s a place where time stands still. Nature is the only determiner of hours passing. And time does pass quickly, even if you’re doing nothing. Which is precisely what makes the Seth Peterson cabin designed by Frank Lloyd Wright a special place.
View of Seth Peterson/FLW cabin from below
We arrived at the historic cottage on Mirror Lake in the Wisconsin Dells on a sunny September afternoon. But by nightfall serenity had taken hold and my husband mused, “It seems like a long time ago since we left our home in Austin.”

Angles highlight the entrance to the cabin.
The peaceful setting has that effect on visitors. Surrounded by huge oak, pine, and maple trees this cabin in the woods offers privacy and tranquility. Situated on a bluff 60 feet above the placid lake, the cabin was designed to meld into its surroundings, blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.
The bedroom in back is surrounded by windows,
bringing nature inside.
Built of native sandstone, plywood, pine, and glass in the style first developed by the renowned architect in the 1930s, the cabin is the last Wisconsin building designed by native son Frank Lloyd Wright before his death at age 91. It was commissioned by Seth Peterson, a 24-year-old government computer operator in Madison, Wisconsin, who aspired to be an architect in the mold of the master. 

Building the cabin
Construction on the cabin started in 1959, but before it was finished Wright died, and Peterson’s personal and financial troubles led him to suicide.  Neither saw the cabin completed, but it was finished in 1960 by a second owner. Eventually coming on hard times, the cabin was neglected for nearly two decades before the Department of Natural Resources bought the cottage as part of Mirror Lake StatePark.

Built with entire walls of windows, the 880-square-foot, one-bedroom cabin seems much larger. Its open floor plan, with the main living area surrounded by glass, brings nature into the room at every angle. Floors are constructed of unpolished stone, walls are made of terra cotta bricks, and ceilings are all wood panels. No matter where I stood in the house or which way I turned, I felt that the view was planned to be in harmony with nature.
As our stay continued, I noticed details of the structure that took awhile to absorb: Recessed lights framed by natural wood, so they blend into the ceiling; a glowing fireplace that spread light and warmth throughout the living room; Wright’s signature geometric motifs decorating windows; and furniture designed by the architect to work perfectly within the spaces he created.

Glass walls, angles, and geometric decorations are well-known
architectural elements that Wright used.
We also discovered two pennies set almost invisibly into different locations on the stone floor—a mystery we have yet to unravel.
Wright’s well-known angled wall design is also incorporated into one of the cabin’s exterior glass walls. The structure is a study in classic Wright architecture--but an accessible piece that visitors can actually become part of while living briefly in this creative icon. Sitting inside looking out the window at birds approaching the feeder or sitting on the outside deck (covered with falling autumn leaves) watching an occasional squirrel scamper by, it’s easy to get lost in the timelessness of this place.

Asters and other flowers
still bloomed in September.

Restoring the cabin
Contemplation also makes the visitor grateful for the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservancy, the organization formed to restore and operate the cottage. When restoration began in 1989 much of the glass was broken or missing, and there was massive water damage to the flat roof over the bedroom and part of the slanted living room roof. Fortunately, the masonry walls and stone floor were still in good condition. Today the cabin is an inspirational memorial to the man who had an indelible influence on architecture in America.

And people like me are able to marvel at this original Wright structure because the Conservancy devised a plan to help finance the restoration—rent it out to the public. Getaways have proved so popular that it’s not uncommon for certain dates to be rented two years in advance (We booked our stay almost a year ahead).
Larry is on the dock from which we
launched the canoe. Mirror Lake
is known for gorgeous reflections.
Exploring the lake

Soon after arriving I spied a path leading from the cabin down to Mirror Lake. At the path’s end I found a bright green canoe and small wobbly dock from which we could launch the canoe. Back at the cabin I shared my find with Larry. After locating paddles, life jackets, and the key to unlock the canoe’s chain, we hustled down the leaf-covered trail to start our water adventure.
Suddenly a strong wind blew in, the kind that portends a storm (we knew rain was predicted for the next day). We decided to go anyway, and for more than an hour we paddled through the narrow channel that led into open water. Large striated limestone cliffs guarded the channel until we reached open water. Shaded by trees on both sides, the channel gifted us with glorious reflections when the sun peeped through.
Enjoying the peacefulness of Mirror Lake.
It did rain but not for long, and the wind calmed, so we didn’t have to paddle against it on the return.  We arrived back to the cabin just before sunset and vowed to explore by canoe even further the next day. But first, we wanted time to appreciate our surroundings.
An idyllic setting beautifully showcased at Mirror Lake.
With no television or internet, the cabin becomes the perfect place to soak in the ingenuity of its creator. Even better, staying there gave us back the precious commodity of time—time to relax, refresh, and reflect on our lives and our surroundings.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Holiday magic at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Being a Texan, there’s not much opportunity for traditional winter magic—especially if snow is part of that equation. But we found a wonderful place to get in the holiday spirit on our recent trip to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
Winter at Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Sure, it’s colder than our home in the South, but that’s part of the intrigue. Wind chills in single digits, followed by beautiful white snowfalls, and shops decked out in Christmas finery quickly put us in a festive mood. Lights twinkled wherever we went, and reflections on the lake were just gorgeous.

As guests of Osthoff Resort, the timing of our visit put us right in the middle of several special holiday events, including the OldWorld Christmas Market. For 20 years the Osthoff resort has offered this European-style market to reinforce the spirit of Christmas.

German vendors offer carved wooden
nativities and ornaments for sale.
While many vendors bring their wares from nearby Wisconsin towns (think cheese, wool sweaters and mittens, and homemade jams and jellies), there are also booths straight from Germany, Baltic countries, Russia, and Turkey.

After chatting with St. Nicholas, it was time for lunch. We fortified ourselves with potato pancakes topped with applesauce and sour cream, beef stew, brats, and apple strudel.
Ready to scour the booths, we wandered through the large heated tent admiring hand-painted wine glasses, blown-glass ornaments, Russian Santas, Polish pottery, Scandinavian ornaments, gourmet chocolates, and wooden nativities from Germany.
I loved these exquisite blue and silver glass
Yes, we bought cheese (couldn’t resist the extra sharp cheddar) and a cute woolen cap that I love but will have to travel away from Texas to wear.
During our stay, we also had time to peruse ElkhartLake village shops, all within a few blocks in the “downtown” area. Hometown shops like these always tempt me, so it’s no surprise that I bought a stunning necklace at Gina’s Fine Gifts (lots of fun items here) and wine bottle stoppers at Enchanted Florals.
Modern shops occupy vintage buildings, like this one where we
samples wine, cheese, and crackers.
At Nordic Accents we chatted a while with owner Pirkko Jarvensivu, who is from Finland, and later admired fine art at Two Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Many of these shops are housed in original buildings, like Vintage Wine and Fine Food--a great place to sample excellent wines while owner Gina Borland shared her expertise with us.

Cookie decorating was a favorite of the younger set.
Dozens of families began arriving at the resort on Friday—in time to participate in hayrides, breakfast with Santa, and cookie-decorating workshops. My heart was warmed seeing multiple generations enjoying activities that have become family traditions over the years—the best examples of sharing the holiday spirit.
Snow covered the lakeside in a beautiful blanket of white.
If you’re looking for a place that truly conveys the magic and beauty of the season, Elkhart Lake would be hard to beat. Consider a holiday trip this year or next. And don’t forget to indulge in a little magic for yourself—spa treatments, a French cooking class, and dining in any of the village’s fine restaurants.

Photos by Beverly Burmeier


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why you should put Nuuk, Greenland on your travel bucket list

Despite weather that is often foggy and gloomy, Greenland can also be stunning in its simple Arctic beauty. As a visitor, expect to have experiences you'll find nowhere else in the world.
Icebergs are common year-round in Greenland's fjords.
Our first stop exploring the world’s largest island was at Nuuk, capital and largest city of this rugged land. Nuuk, a name given to the town in 1979, means “cape,” which reflects the its position at the end of the Nuup Kangertua fjord, At nearly 100 miles, this is the longest fjord in Greenland.  Adding to the impressive setting is Saddle Mountain which forms an 4,000 foot high backdrop for the town’s buildings.
Traditional wooden homes lie in the shadow of new, modern buildings.
Arriving there in July, we were surprised by how green and colorful the landscape was. Yellow, purple, and white flowers bloomed street side and in open fields. And the houses you see in photos of Greenland really are picturesque:.Most are painted red, blue, or green—bright enough to counter the dreariness of winter, we were told.

Tendering from our cruise ship, we docked at the historic colonial harbor with its quaint wooden buildings. Modern high rise buildings guarded multi-story coastal houses, and we walked by the  newly renovated market where local fishermen sell their daily catch.

Beautiful scenery includes hanging clouds over
Saddle Mountain in Greenland.
From that dock we boarded a small boat and cruised north through Davis Strait and into the beautiful Nuup Kangertua fjord. Hanging clouds caressed towering mountains, while sparkling white icebergs cast deep reflections in the ocean water. Shifting with the waves, the icebergs created blue-streaked whimsical sculptures floating along this unpopulated section of the fjord. Multiple streams of icy water flowed down the mountains into the fjord in a majestic display of wild nature.
Summer waterfalls flow from melting winter snow and ice.
And then there were whales. Once the boat captain spotted a particular humpback, he followed it around the fjord, giving us multiple opportunities for spectacular photos as it breached again and again. Known for a variety of wildlife including seals, reindeer, arctic foxes and hares, and ravens, Greenland attracts visitors looking for adventure on land and water. Whether you travel by boat, car, or on foot, you’ll see some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world.

Whales are an important part of Greenland's economy and culture.
After that excursion ended, Larry and I walked around town on our own, stopping to visit the famous red church and then walking up a hill to see the statue of Hans Egede, a missionary called the Apostle of Greenland.
Just imagine snow up to the windows
of Pauline's house!
Later in the day we enjoyed a visit with a local lady named Pauline. This 70-year-old former school teacher welcomed us into her bright blue house and offered our group a large spread of delicious homemade pastries, cake, biscuits, cookies, and other desserts along with coffee and tea.

Although her home was at the top of a hill, Pauline said snow gets as high as the windows in winter. But she embraced the darkness by appreciating light reflecting on snow, stars shining in the sky, and an outstanding view of the glistening ocean from her window. You can’t get more positive than that!

We enjoyed an assortment of delicious pastries that Pauline prepared.
We also enjoyed her stories about living in Greenland.
The world’s northernmost capital, Nuuk is the center for Greenland’s fishing industry and also provides good employment opportunities because it is the cultural, educational, historical, and economic center for Greenland. Yet the area is still remote, and travel to other parts of Greenland requires a very expensive trip by boat or airplane. So people don’t travel far from home but instead have adapted to the remoteness of their surroundings.
Settled by Danes, Greenland is recognized as a Danish sovereignty, yet the citizens still depend on annual subsidies from Denmark. As you can imagine, living in Greenland is very expensive, and conditions are challenging. About a quarter of Greenland’s indigenous population live in Nuuk, so perhaps that’s why most people have learned to accept hardships as their chosen way of life.

There’s a lot to admire about the hardy folks who live among the mountains and fjords of this dramatic land. Not the least of which is their appreciation for nature’s majesty.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier