Sunday, October 27, 2019

Travel agents are changing--how to choose the best one for your needs

Today’s post is by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott. His latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Finding the right travel agent used to be easy.

The top agents had a defined set of skills and certifications, and they belonged to the same trade groups. So for someone like Kathleen Corcos, who recently contacted me for help finding a “reputable” travel agency in the Chicago area, the answer should have been pretty straightforward.
The role of travel agents is changing. but
they still aim to help travelers make decisions.
“I’m planning a trip to Europe and I need someone with experience in booking rail trips,” said Corcos, a retired university administrator from River Forest, Ill.

A quick visit to what was then the American Society of Travel Agents’ website to find a specialist in European travel would have yielded a few usable leads.

But in the fast-changing world of travel, is anything that simple? Maybe not. Airline, car rental and hotel sites enable you to act as your own travel agent. If you need a little hand-holding, you can visit an online travel agency and avoid some fees. And now, to add to the confusion, some travel agents aren’t even calling themselves agents anymore.
What will signs of the future say?
That’s right, those agents are now advisers. Last year, the American Society of Travel Agents changed its name to the American Society of Travel Advisors.

Paul Metselaar says it’s an important shift. Travel agents are no longer “order takers,” or intermediaries between the traveler and a company, he says. People now think of them as professionals, like lawyers or accountants. As the CEO of Ovation Travel Group, a New York-based agency, he was among the first to discard the “agent” label in favor of “adviser.”

“As travel advisers, we’ve built a significant level of trust with each of our customers on a highly personalized level,” he says.

In the face of fierce competition from online agencies, travel agents are also upping their game, says Dave Hershberger, ASTA’s chairman and owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Cincinnati. “That’s the biggest change,” he says.

Instead of offering a broad range of services, many agents now specialize in niche products such as honeymoons or cruises.

If agents — or advisers — don’t see themselves as intermediaries anymore, are there some trips you should book yourself? Yes. For a simple weekend trip, self-booking might be easier. Plus, you can avoid an adviser’s consulting fee, which averages about $100 per trip. But for a complicated rail adventure through Europe, like the one Corcos is planning, you’ll probably want to hire an adviser.
Making travel decisions may be difficult.

So how to find an agent in this topsy-turvy world of travel?

You’ll still want to look for certifications and association memberships. For example, the Travel Institute’s Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) designations mean an agent has taken the time to study and understand travel. In 2017, ASTA created a Verified Travel Advisor program, which indicates that an adviser has met “a higher level of verifiable professional knowledge.”

Of course, membership in ASTA or in the Association of Retail Travel Agents is also a sign that your travel adviser means business.

Some of the best travel agents, or advisers, are affiliated with well-known franchises, such as American Express or Carlson Wagonlit Travel, or with an agency network such as Travel Leaders, Signature or Virtuoso. These affiliations offer peace of mind and, sometimes, lower prices.

For example, membership in Travel Leaders or a similar network means that the agent is properly trained and insured and that there’s an 800 number you can call 24/7. “It ensures that you have someone to help you if your trip is disrupted or you need advice once you arrive in your destination,” says Roger Block, president of the Travel Leaders Network.

It's a big world! Go explore!
There’s more, says Matthew Upchurch, the CEO of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel advisers. “Reputation, experience and professionalism certainly come into play,” he says. “But then you have to count on the X-factor, which really comes down to chemistry.”

“A great travel adviser will be happy to provide references — not just online testimonials, which can be posted by anyone,” says Christine Hardenberger, owner of Modern Travel Professionals, a full-service travel agency in Virginia Beach. “People are less likely to lie when contacted directly.”

Above all, stay flexible as the industry changes. The economics of being a travel adviser are still shifting, according to Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark, a new platform for travel agencies. The next generation of travel advisers will change the model to be more customer-centric, Ezon says.

That would be good — for everyone.

Photos from free sources.



Monday, October 21, 2019

Five great reasons to venture out from Albuquerque

Petroglyph National Monument, Boca Negra Canyon
One of the largest petroglyph concentrations in North America, the monument isn’t a single object but several areas featuring more than 25,000 highly fragile petroglyph images scratched on boulders along the volcanic cliffs of the West Mesa escarpment.  Boca Negra Canyon provides some of the most accessible, and therefore most heavily visited, petroglyphs in the Albuquerque area. 
Guides can help interpret the drawings--or use your imagination.
Archeologists believe that many of the images, including those in the Canyon Trail area at Boca Negra, date back at least 3000 years.  Although no one can say for sure what many mean, images often portray animals, birds, geometric shapes, and weapons. Guides provide interpretive talks to help visitors understand the historical importance of the drawings.
A short walk takes you to a variety of these prehistoric drawings.
Several short trails (with the city in near view) provide plenty of images to photograph and interpret however your imagination leads. 

Tinkertown Museum
As you head along the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway, but before reaching Hwy 14, stop to visit Tinkertown Museum.  You’ll find an amazing collection of wood carvings and other items created by the late Ross Ward. The main features are an animated Old West Town and Three Ring Circus.  Set among other historic relics, frontier humor and the thrill of the Big Top come alive in thousands of hand-carved figures, the majority done personally by Ward. 
A few of the creative figures carved by Ross Ward.
An artist and carousel painter by trade, Ward spent 40 years creating his dioramas and the museum proudly exhibits a sign saying, “I did all this while you were watching TV.”   What began as a hobby grew into a huge conglomeration of scenes and collectibles.

A small portion of the wondrous vignettes hand-carved by Ross Ward.
Walls and buildings made from 55,000 discarded glass bottles, metal sculptures, mining tools, and an antique wooden boat that’s been sailed around the world are on display in this private museum now run by his family.  Anyone with a fondness for quirky memorabilia and appreciation for creative passion will love this place.

Tinkertown closs for the winter on October 31 and will reopen on April 1, 2020.
Sandia Crest Byway

For an absolutely stunning drive, follow the Turquoise Trail as it heads out of Albuquerque on NM 14.  Past Tijeras Canyon and Cedar Crest the highway soon intersects with the Sandia Crest National Scenic Byway, otherwise known as NM 536.

A beautiful drive out of the city
Located on the east side of the Sandia Mountains, the byway curves sharply through the mixed conifer vegetation of Cibola National Forest to an altitude of 10,678 feet. You’ll see a rainbow of pastels—pink flowers, blue sky, and feathery white clouds—contrasting with multiple shades of forest green.  Trailheads for more than 40 hikes dot the roadside, and most are quite doable even for novices. 
Spectacular views from the trail.
If you choose not to detour for a hike you’ll arrive at the Visitor’s Center after 12 miles. There you’ll find the trailhead for a lovely, moderate hike to the Kiwanis Cabin.  The trail is well marked and maintained but not crowded.  For a little more challenge while hiking, take the rocky path on the rim and enjoy unobstructed views of rugged peaks across the mountain range. 

You’ll arrive at the Kiwanis cabin, built as a CCC project in 1936 to provide a place for hikers to stop and rest.  Perched on the peak’s edge it provides an excellent vantage point for photography enthusiasts. 
Landscapes to stop and admire
Back on Hwy14, drive northward to the old mining towns of Golden, Madrid, and Cerrillos for a look at life as it used to be. Galleries, antiques shops, and small museums attract visitors now. 

Take a Llama to Lunch
Leading llamas through Carson National Forest near Red River was an experience in nature appreciation with unanticipated depth.  Our guide kept a watchful eye on his charges, both human and animal, and a running conversation about the surrounding natural environment. 
Llamas usually follow well.

 “I want people to appreciate the nature that belongs to all of us,” says naturalist Stuart Wilde.  “The llamas are a means to accomplish this goal,” adds the owner of Wild Earth Llama Adventures, which provides excursions from half day to overnight.
Nature at its best
Not only will participants learn about llamas (very social and non-threatening) and fragile plant ecology, but they will also enjoy a gourmet camp lunch, beautiful scenery, and an empowering adventure for outdoor-loving people of all ages. 

Sandia Aerial Tramway
At the top of the tram, you arrive at Sandia Peak.
Your visit wouldn’t be complete without an overview of Albuquerque—and there’s no better way to do this than on the Sandia Peak AerialTramway.  The tram crawls 2.7 miles up Sandia Mountain on the eastern edge of the city.  While passing through four climatic life zones, spectators may glimpse deer, mountain lions, and small mammals, plus golden eagles, red tail hawks, and ravens.  
The Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway traverses
stunning mountain scenery.

After disembarking at the summit, visitors can hike or mountain bike, or enjoy golden sunsets while dining at High Finance Restaurant. From 10, 378 feet high, you’ll take in breathtaking vistas of the mountains and the sprawling city below.  Tram riders get a close look at the 300 million-year-old lime and 1.4 billion-year-old granite in the strata of the mountain, ingredients that make the mountain turn a pinkish watermelon color in late afternoon (Sandia means watermelon).

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier





Monday, October 14, 2019

The most annoying things travelers do

This guest post is by Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

Tourists can be absent-minded and obnoxious, and they often leave their common sense at home.

How annoying are travelers? A recent survey by the online travel agency Agoda breaks it down by behavior:

  • Noisy travelers (57%)
  • Travelers glued to their devices (47%)
  • Those insensitive to cultural nuances (46%)
 Shut up and travel!

Why are travelers so loud? Yes, there's the joy of discovery. You can't help but gasp the first time you stand at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and stare into the abyss. Or when you catch a glimpse of the Alps, the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal.
Headphones or ear buds can signal that you
don't want to talk at the moment.
But there's more going on here. It feels almost as if everyone's hearing aid has a low battery, and they're yelling at each other. It's a uniquely touristy behavior, for which there's no rational explanation.

And it's also the meaningless and seemingly endless dialogue.

"The chatter could be talking a lot because of nerves," explains Jacquelyn Youst, founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Protocol, an etiquette school. "That's particularly true on planes, where you could be seated next to a nervous traveler."

Her advice: "If you are sitting next to a chatty traveler, put in your earbuds." This is the universal sign for 'I do not want to be disturbed.'" 

And if you're not on a plane, then move away from the disturbance.

Power down that phone

Taking pictures with a smartphone is
common, but sometimes just look and enjoy
the scenery.
 "Put down your phone once in a while and unplug," says Andrew Moore-Crispin, a frequent traveler who works for Ting Mobile, a pay-as-you-go mobile service. "Take that walk on the beach without bringing your phone.”

On vacation, device addiction is an embarrassment. I've seen kids staring almost catatonically at their screens at America's favorite tourist attractions, from the Statue of Liberty to the beaches of Santa Monica, California. 

Learn the language, s'il vous plaƮt

Taking the time to learn even a few words in the local language can go a long way when you're traveling to change you from a walking stereotype into a welcome guest. Consider Arlene Englander's experience when she visited Germany with her husband.

"We'd both listened to some Pimsleur CDs from the library for an hour a night for three weeks, so we could actually have brief conversations in the language," says Englander, a clinical social worker from North Palm Beach, Florida. "I've never seen people so thrilled by our efforts as the Germans were."

On the flip side, you can easily offend someone if you insist on speaking English all the time. It's difficult to understand how off-putting an "English-only" attitude can be until you master a second language – and hear what they say about you behind your back (falsely believing that you can't understand them).

The fix: In the run-up to your trip, devote a few minutes a few times per week to an online language learning program like Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise, Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone.  Try any of them and you'll find language instruction has come a long way from the days of reciting verb conjugations. These apps use different types of quizzes to teach you basic vocabulary and sentence structure. Odds are at least one will suit your learning style. 

Avoiding linguistic faux pas can not only make you a more welcome traveler but also increase your enjoyment of the places you visit.

Break these other bad travel habits

Consider curbing these patterns while you're at it: 

Failing to plan: Tourists are often disorganized. "A checklist is a simple way to save a ton of mental energy – and ensure you never forget anything," says Jimmy Hayes, a frequent traveler who co-founded Minaal, a bag and accessories company. He recommends using project management software like Trello or Asana to build a packing checklist. "You can even build multiple checklists, based on destination or climate," he adds.

Not reading the instructions: That can lead to serious consequences. Consider what happened to Paul Warren, who runs an e-commerce business in Redington Beach, Florida, during a trip to France. When he needed to refill his rental car, he didn't pay attention to the fuel type. "I put the wrong grade of fuel in the car at the gas station, just before getting on a major toll road," he recalls. The engine sputtered and stopped shortly afterward. (Tip: Use Google Lens to translate text you don't understand without having to type it in.)

Limiting yourself to tourist traps: Why does everyone flock to the same attractions? This may be the single most annoying thing travelers do. They read the same online reviews, crowd into the same restaurants, visit the same attractions. But just a little research online or at your local library will reveal there's more to see out there. Much more.

Photos from free sources




Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Drive roads less taken in Arizona and New Mexico

If you’re the kind of traveler who avoids Interstate freeways in favor of back road adventures, here’s a book you’ll enjoy reading. Arizona and New Mexico: 25 Scenic Side Trips (Imbrifex Books) by Rick Quinn will guide you through these two states that are full of stunning scenery and interesting landmarks on the roads less traveled.

And there's no better way to scratch the travel itch these days than by taking a road trip in your own car. 
When researching this book for the Roadtrip America series, Quinn drove 11,000 miles and shot 7,000 photographs. The result is expert advice that will help make a road trip through this part of the American southwest a memorable journey, perhaps the best summer vacation for your family.

Memorable is easy, since the region is loaded with natural wonders (Grand Canyon National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, White Sands national Monument, Antelope Canyon, etc.), historical and cultural sites (Cliff Dwellings, Petroglyph National Monument, Aztec Ruins National Monument, etc.), and scenic landscapes (Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway, Monument Valley, Salt Mission Trail Scenic Byway, etc.).
Although Arizona and New Mexico are full of amazing and notable destinations like these, Quinn's desire is to entice travelers to explore more.

Of course he knows that the fastest way to travel long distances by car in the U.S. is on Interstate highways, so each side trip that he describes begins at an exit off an Interstate and takes the traveler back to an Interstate at the end.
Quinn provides alternative scenic routes from Interstates 10, 17, 40, and 25.  Each of the 25 trips is driveable in a day, so there’s no reason to stick with a boring, quick, point-A-to-point-B drive through. Choose as many detours as time allows for fascinating additions to your road journey.

The book is easy to follow with color-coded pages for routes that are sorted by geographic region. In addition to beautiful color photos, he includes visitor information for parks, attractions, and unusual lodging and dining along the way. A driver who sticks to Interstate travel might never see or even know about many of these. So it becomes a trip of discovery perfect for solo travelers or families looking to get away after months of quarantine--but hoping to avoid crowded cities, beaches, or other popular tourist destination.
A stunning landscape of deserts, mountains, and canyons provides a backdrop for explorations as you travel at a slower pace on recommended two-lane highways. Keep a highlighter handy as you read the book to mark the spots you won’t want to miss. Then plan your road trip through these remarkable Southwestern states.

The book is available from Amazon and other sources.