Monthly Archives: June 2010

In the Suitcase: Customer service abroad

“Customer Service” is a term that truly, really, only exists in the United States and perhaps in parts of Canada. Even in sections of the U.S., it’s a loose term. In other countries, the customer is not always right. I’ve been told this in many languages, and if I didn’t understand them in that language, they’ll switch to English (their only customer service) to tell me I’m wrong. You can’t even argue, and you can’t get overly upset trying.

I’ve been reading and reading about various safaris around Tanzania for our upcoming trip, and the comments that people have. “Our truck broke down in the middle of the park and we had to sit and wait for the driver to fix it. Why couldn’t the company send another truck out? We lost valuable time.” Etc. The company apparently offered to give them a free tour of another park after they complained, but they couple could not comprehend why the company didn’t send another truck to them. The response from someone else: This is Africa. You think these companies just have trucks lying around to send to people in the middle of the wild?

I’ve heard of people getting upset when hotels change reservations on them, flights change, routes alter, menus change. You can’t argue it. You can try, but you’ll just get yourself more worked up over it. In the Caribbean, you’re on island time. Things will happen when they feel like it. In France (and Italy, and other parts of the Europe), meals are supposed to be eaten slowly and enjoyed. The restaurants are not there to turn tables as quickly as possible. So you can’t get upset if the waiter appears to be ignoring you. He’s probably just leaving you alone. In China, you can’t expect to wait on an organized line for your turn. People don’t wait on line – they push to the front. I’ve been yelled at it several countries by waiters, salesclerks, hotel attendants, flight agents, cab drivers – and they don’t care. In their minds, I messed up and they shouldn’t have to do extra to get me out of the mess, whatever it was.

At the same time, you’ll sometimes come across customer service that is above and beyond what you’d expect.

Short of being ripped off, take it as part of the experience. If you go somewhere and are treated the way you “expect” – people waiting eager to please you, waiting hand and foot, then you’ve missed out on some of the true cultural experiences of dealing with people. At the same time, sometimes you’ll deal with individuals who want to make sure your trip to their country is memorable in a positive way. Take it as it comes and don’t over-expect people to cater to the ways you’re used to back home.


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In the Suitcase: keeping track of your immunizations

In preparation for our trip to Kenya and Tanzania, Jon and I went to get vaccinnated against anything our weak little American bodies can’t handle. There’s nothing like watching people in my office use toilet paper to open door handles because they’re so afraid of catching a parasite or something from their diseased colleague and then reading the CDC’s travel web site about all the wonderful worlds of bacterias and viruses we’d be exposed to while abroad.

Fortunately I’d already been vaccinated before traveling to India and Paraguay, so all I needed was a shot for yellow fever and a prescription for malarial pills and some Cipro. Jon had been vaccinated for a few before he traveled to Ecuador, but he wasn’t sure if he had completed his Hepatits A, exactly when he had his measles-mumps-rubella finished (likely in childhood), whether he’d had a tetanus shot recently and he thinks he might have had a meningitis shot once in college. We’d both brought the only immunization records we had, which was from a few years ago, but they were missing information prior to 2006.

There were a lot of questions: “I think I was vaccinated for Hepatitis B? Or was it A? Is TB the four-prong thumbtack one?” Yes, the nurse could have just shot me with another dose of Hep A and I wouldn’t come down with the disease, but it also cost $100 per shot of Hep A and B. Yellow fever was $130. Rabies series cost $740, which the nurse said we should just deal with if we ended up getting bitten by a monkey or dog and perhaps we shouldn’t try to pet any wild animals while over there. In addition, insurance did not cover any of it, except the basic childhood ones. Malarial pills should be covered. Our total was $615, including a consultation so we understood not to eat raw salads, to sleep under mosquito nets treated with DEET and to contact the embassy if we get sick.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to go straighten your medical history, especially if you’re a regular traveler, and make sure you’re covered for all the different vaccinations that may be required in different countries. All you need to do is contact the previous doctors and travel clinics you might have visited and get copies of your records sent to you. Several of these vaccines, once completed, protect you for life. Others may require a re-dosage after 10 years.

You can also opt to have your blood tested for immunity and see which ones have already been covered. This is only ideal if you’re missing information on several and not just one. It costs to have your blood tested and then you may have to pay just as much to be vaccinated for the one that you were searching for. Also, it’s possible to select your vaccinations. The nurse said that Tanzania falls into the “meningitis” belt but that it should be updated because it wasn’t a problem anymore, but Kenya was out of the meningitis belt. We decided to forgo the meningitis vaccination. However, if the nurse strongly recommended it, we probably would have bought into it.

Malaria is a pain because even if you take malarial pills, you’re not completely out of harm’s way. You should still exercise the same caution as if you haven’t been vaccinated against anything. Sure, people live in these countries and seem to handle life fine without any shots or medications, but be aware that they’ve also had a longer time (than your vacation) to develop these immunities. I’ve read about morons who travel over and want to develop the immunity the “natural” and organic way, but were probably sadly disappointed when they came down with malaria fairly quickly. 

Lastly, it’s just good practice to wash your hands frequently, don’t drink the water or eat the ice, don’t eat anything potentially washed in that water, don’t try to feed random animals, don’t do drugs and don’t sleep with strangers. But do have fun!

Some good resources:

MD Travel Health
World Health Organization

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In the Suitcase: Killing time at airports

So there I was in Chicago, waiting for tornado threats to pass by so I can fly home without the fear of being swept up into a whirlwind storm. What does one do in the event of a delay? I’d already finished my Michael Crichton novel and I didn’t care to purchase any of those airport reads. I already ate my dinner. I couldn’t go back into downtown, so there I stayed.

Fortunately, airports are so cool now that killing time in them is so easy. Here are some ways to pass the time.

1. Shop. Seriously, move over, Duty Free whose products haven’t changed since 1981. So many of your mall favorites are right here. Sure, you have to figure out how to cram it into your carry-on (although anything purchased after going through security is allowed as an extra carry-on). I actually, really, purchased a gift at Brookstone in an airport instead of at the mall because I knew I wouldn’t have to bring it through security and have it counted as an extra carry-on. You can also pick up clean shirts and a tie at  Brooks Brothers, shop for a new cell phone, buy movies, toys, anything. Overseas,  sometimes I just wait to get to an airport to do any of my shopping. In developing countries, the products are cleaner and better quality than those sold on the street (though maybe a little pricier, but what else are you going to do with your leftover currency?)

2. Eat. There’s Legal Seafoods in Boston Logan’s airport, Obrycki’s in BWI, Gladstones at LAX, Billy Goat Tavern at O’Hare, etc. etc. BBQ at Dallas Fort-Worth, Rocky Mountain steaks at Denver International, and so on. In addition, the service is speedy fast because they know you have a flight to catch, and sometimes a receipt from the restaurant gives you access to first-class lines at security so you don’t have to spend an hour waiting in the steerage line.

3. Massages. Whoever first put a massage chair at an airport was a genius. Sure, it’s one of those chair massages where they pull at your shirt and the world, literally, walks by and sees you being prodded and plied like a piece of dough. But when you’re stressed out, tired, sore from sitting in an airplane seat, so what better way to be relaxed than have someone punch your muscles into pulp? Aaaaaah.

4. Catch up on your sports. Sports fans, there are multiple sports bars in airports allowing you to enjoy the game and a brewsky of your choice. Sometimes you’ll have to contend with the local teams, which you may give two rats’ behinds about, but if you’re like Jon, you don’t care. You’ll watch the cricket championships if it’s all they have. The next thing you know, the agent is paging you to proceed to the gate.

Wine-taste. Yes, there are a number of wine-tasting counters at airports. Who knew? Indulge your palette before your flight. Vino Volo is opening a number of wine-tasting counters throughout the United States, with existing locations at JFK, BWI, Philadelphia, SEATAC, OAK, Newark, Detroit, San Antonio, Dulles and Sacramento. Try wines and bite-sized amuse-bouches before you take off on another journey.

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Cool Tools:

So you’re a “budget” traveler like me, which is a euphemistic way of saying we’re cheap. Rather, I’d like to think of it as being “practical” or “reasonable” or, mostly, “not being ripped off”. “Cheap” implies that I would put others in a poor position to save myself a few $ but really, I end up putting myself in the poor positions instead, with frogs in my room (India) or boiler-room temperatures (Costa Rica).

In any case, us “budget” travelers every once in a while could use a splurge, and with some careful planning, you, too, can enjoy five-star luxury for two-star prices.

Enter, a luxury travel site that is members-only and posts 18 listings. These can be currently available, or available at a future date. If you’re flexible with your travel dates, or with your location, which can be difficult unless your only desire is to get away and you don’t care where as long as it’s away, there’s significant discounts to be found here.

For example (and I thank the Chicago Tribune for its legwork): The Palomar Hotel in San Francisco has a deluxe room at $260/ night in mid-June, but Jetsetter offered it at $165. $165! I’m about to pay about that much for a Holiday Inn off the Garden State Parkway sort of near the Jersey Shore. Another find: The Standard Hotel in Miami priced at $206 for June (off-season, not bad) and Jetsetter delivered it at $135. Hotels aren’t limited to just the United States, though it seems a large percentage are within the country.

When I went on to test out the site, I gave it my e-mail address and then was stuck on a “waiting list”. According to the Trib, there’s already more than 200,000 members but I am just not special enough to earn my way there, yet. Apparently if you’re already a member, you can send an invite to your friends to join like a country club. Jetsetter is affiliated with the Gilt Groupe, an exclusive member-only site that offers luxury brands at a discount (can’t you tell by the addition of the letter “e” at the end of “group”?) Like anything, be patient when it comes to travel, except when a fantastic deal shows up.

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Cool Tools: The portable safe!

Guidebooks and people are always warning about valuables on trips. “Make sure you lock them in the hotel safe!” is a popular piece of advice. Well, if you’re a budgety traveler like I am and sometimes stay in places that don’t come with fancy-schmancy safes, then you’re in a bit of a pickle.

Fear not, I came across this great product that’s actually been out for a few years now: the portable safe.

Pacsafe makes all sorts of anti-theft travel gear, from bags and money belts to locks and cables and even this handy portable safe. You fold it up like a handkerchief and put it in your bag until you reach your destination, then you can stow away all your valuables into it, lock it up and lock it to something heavy (like a bed or bathroom sink leg).

Sure, you’re skeptical like me: “why don’t they just cut through the bag and take it?” Well, because Pacsafe uses these super-strong steel cables to make a net that is supposed to be slash-proof and secures your belongings inside it.

Need something bigger? There are two versions for laptops and other electronics that can also fit into any carry-on you might have with you. You can lock it to something inside your bag to prevent people from stealing out of your bag, which has happened to me, except they took an empty wallet (I carried all my cash and credit cards in my money belt for fear of being robbed out of my backpack – and it paid off).  But the best place is somewhere hidden in your room, locked and secured to something immovable, and then lock your room.

The small version retails at $45 and the large one at $90, which are not cheap. However, it’s like buying insurance – saving yourself the headache of replacing your passport and spending more money just to replace the missing items. I’m fairly excited to test one out this summer when we head out to Tanzania and Kenya!

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Cool Tools: Airport gyms finder

I’m sure many entrepreneurs have been salivating over this idea: a chain of gyms across airports for those with long layovers or a delayed flight. Easy, right? Rope off an area or lease space in an airport or several spaces in each terminal equipped with machines, weights, locker rooms with space for luggage and a shower, towel and toiletry service, and even a personal trainer you can reserve ahead of time. You can buy a one-time pass or a “frequent flier” pass. Believe me, I’ve mulled this idea over for a long time.

However, the concept has not caught on. Very few gyms actually exist in airports! It’s left many business-types scratching their heads in wonderment. Look at this golden opportunity! Look at all this low-hanging fruit! Look at all this (insert other terrible business cliches here).

What does exist, however, is this Web site: Airport Gyms, which locates the nearest gym to your airport and all the details you need. For example, perhaps you’re stuck in Chicago, as I was this weekend, awaiting tornado threats to pass so I could fly without worrying that we’d dash into a whirlwind. You click on “Illinois” and it pulls up the gyms all central around the airport. There happens to be one in the airport at the Hilton. For $15 I can get a day pass to the gym and swim in its indoor pool, and I can even purchase workout clothes if I have none with me. Or, perhaps I’d rather take a 5-minute train or cab ride to the Bally outside the airport.

If you’re looking for gyms actually located in airports, your dear Travel Hats writer actually combed through the list and found them:

Vancouver: at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel spa

Los Angeles: at LAX in the Radisson Hotel

Chicago: at the Hilton Hotel by O’Hare

Boston: at the Hilton Hotel (5 minute walk by sky bridges)(pictured here)

Detroit: at the Westin Hotel

Las Vegas: a 24-hour fitness (although apparently now it is only open to airport employees. Call ahead)

Pittsburgh: at the Hilton Hotel

The site depends on users and donations within the United States and Canada to function.

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In the Suitcase: Much Ado about (driving into) Manhattan

I do this every time I go into Manhattan, even when I lived there. I think, you know what, I’m going to drive there. I’m going to deal with the snarled traffic on the FDR and try this new trick by taking the Willis Avenue bridge, or if I’m coming from New Jersey, I’ll be lucky and there won’t be any traffic going through the tunnels. And then, I’ll find parking within reasonable walking distance to my destination. Of course I’m always, ALWAYS fooling myself.

Tip: don’t try to bring a car into Manhattan. Take public transportation.

When I lived in Manhattan, I compared it to Hotel California – you can check out anytime but you can never leave. And no wonder. If you’ve ever tried to leave Manhattan through the tunnels or the George Washington bridge, it can be so awful that you consider giving up and staying stuck on this island forever.

Getting into Manhattan costs money. How much money? Well, if you’re from New Jersey or south, you get to pay $8 to cross the Hudson. $8!! And about 30 minutes of your life sitting in traffic waiting to go through. And, as my friend Grace recently pointed out, you risk your life each time you go through those tunnels, eeking through those tunnels like toothpaste in a tube. Who knows what could happen down there, under the Hudson River, with nowhere to swim or run? I tried not to think about it as I edged my way into the city this past Memorial Day.

Then there’s the issue of parking. You can circle for hours, literally, especially since you can’t turn on red anywhere in the city and pedestrians take up all your green light time. If you do score a spot, you have to make sure it’s not a street-sweeping day, or a meter that will expire within an hour and there will be a meter maid standing there waiting for your meter to tick to 0. She’ll probably have your ticket written out in advance. Then you are always worrying whether someone has broken into your car and/ or driven it away. Or, you can park your car for $35 for the first few hours in some lot.

Heed my advice. Take the subway/ PATH/ Metro North/ Long Island Railroad/ New Jersey Transit/ Amtrak/ the bus into Manhattan. You can even park & ride. Here are some links to those forms of public transit.

PATH (to/from New Jersey)

Metro North Railroad (to/ from Westchester or as my cousin Sean says, the “Bestchester”, Connecticut and upstate)

Long Island Railroad (to/from Queens and Long Island, or as my friend Steve calls it, “Strong Island”)

New Jersey Transit (to/from NJ, duh)

Boltbus (to/from NY, Boston, Philly, Baltimore and DC)

Amtrak (Eastern Corridor and nationwide)

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