Do You Really Need A Travel Agent?

angry travel agentsWhen Anne Roderique-Jones compiled a list of “Ten Things Travel Agents Won’t Tell You,” for Women’s Day Magazine a week ago, she couldn’t have known that her piece would generate nearly 1,400 comments, many of them from irate travel agents. But travel agents are a beleaguered lot, their ranks thinned dramatically since the dawn of the digital age, and they don’t like getting kicked around. In addition to the avalanche of critical comments from travel agents beneath the story, the American Society of Travel Agents responded with a list of their own, “Eight Reasons Why Travel Professionals Create Value.”

I think the Women’s Day list, which was pared from 10 items down to 9 after the magazine admitted that a point about travel agents collecting commissions from airlines was inaccurate, is mostly common sense stuff that wouldn’t be news to most savvy travelers. Obviously travel agents do receive some commissions, may not have been to the place they are recommending and cannot always secure the best prices, but does that mean that they serve no real purpose in the Internet age?

I’ve traveled all over the world and have very rarely used travel agents, even before the invention of the Internet. But I still think that travel agents serve a useful purpose, particularly for infrequent travelers. A good travel agent can do a lot more than just get you the best price. They can offer advice on the best routes, pitfalls to watch out for, baggage restrictions, how to travel with pets and 1,000 other things. If you have all the time in the world to research every last detail of a trip on your own, you may not need a travel agent. But if you’re short on time and don’t travel often enough to know all the nuances, it makes a lot of sense to trust a professional to plan the trip for you.

New Website Offers Solo Travelers A Chance To Sleep With Strangers

scary hotel roomWould you be willing to shack up with a complete stranger to save a few bucks on accommodation? If you’re the adventurous sort, you can do just that on a new website called Easynest, which matches up single travelers who don’t mind sharing a hotel room. Users set up a profile or use their Facebook profile and can post a hotel room they have booked and want to share or browse to see what other users are offering.

For example, a young Greek woman named Antigone wants to share a $200 room at the Milford Plaza Hotel in New York in December, someone named JC James wants to share a $60 room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Overland Park, Kansas, and a child who appears to be approximately 18 months old would like to share a $400 hotel room in Jakarta in July.

I’m a risk taker and I’ve spent plenty of nights at hostels around the world, but I don’t think I’d try my luck on a site like this one. Anyone can set up an innocuous looking profile online and then turn into a bloodthirsty Jeffrey Dahmer-esque cannibal once you turn the lights out. Would you be willing to give this site a try?

China’s State-Controlled Media Recommends Top 10 Nude Beaches

nude beach patmos greeceLooking for nude beach recommendations this summer? You probably wouldn’t think to consult Xinhua, China’s state-controlled press agency, but here comes editor Yang Yi’s list of their “Top Ten Sexy Nudist Bathing Spots Around the World.” I stumbled across the link to the slideshow while checking out an article about their new English language travel website and had a few good laughs reading the photo captions.

According to Yi, Australia’s Lady Bay Beach “is one of the legitimate nudist beaches announced by the Prime Minister in 70s,” and the entire city of Rio de Janeiro is “the most ‘eye-candy’ beach” where visitors will “find many graceful statures and beautiful faces in beach activities.” In “Cape Down” (sic) South Africa, Yi recommends Sandy Bay Beach because it has “inconvenient traffic,” which makes it feel “away from the world.” Other entries included San Gregorio State Beach in California, and beaches in Negril, Jamaica, British Columbia and St. Martin. The entire state of Hawaii also made the list. Aloha!In recommending Paradise Beach in Mykonos, Yi opines, “Europeans are always full of reverence for human body … In other European countries, restrictions on public nudity are very relaxed. Say nothing of other countries like Netherlands, France, and Spain, even England, which is strict and conservative in some people’s eyes, possesses officially-recognized nudist beaches.”

It’s obviously a pretty half-assed list and some of the stock photos they used look like models from cheap ’70s porn sets. But it’s nice to see that state-controlled media in China is letting its hair down and chasing clicks just like every site in the West.

I hit a couple clothing optional beaches in Greece last summer and can highly recommend Plakias on the island of Crete and Psili Ammos beach in Patmos. Somehow I don’t think editor Yi has spent much time on nude beaches, so if you want more detailed recommendations consider checking out Captain Barefoot’s Naturist Guide to the Greek Islands.

The Day I Jumped In Regent’s Canal And Tried To Save My Wet iPhone With Uncooked Rice

regent canalThere are plenty of ways for Americans to make a good impression in London. Scurrying into stores dripping wet, asking for large sacks of rice and zip lock bags isn’t one of them. I was enjoying a relaxing walk along Regent’s Canal after a visit to the Camden Lock Market in North London when, daydreaming, I tripped over a mooring post. I fell to the ground and my backpack, containing my Nikon D7000 DSLR camera and my iPhone, tumbled right into the canal.

It only took me an instant to realize that I needed to jump in the water to retrieve the bag and in my urgency, I didn’t think to ditch my wallet or take my shirt, pants or shoes off before taking the plunge. Recovering my bag was easy, but hoisting myself back out of the canal took some doing. And as I pulled myself out of the murky, smelly water, a small crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle, perfect theater for a Sunday afternoon.”You oh-roight, mate?” one man asked as I stood on the narrow walkway, dripping wet and feeling ridiculous.

“Nice day fer a swim, innit?” quipped another. Indeed it was a lovely day for a swim; 61 degrees with London’s characteristically ominous, fast-moving clouds.

A passing boat pulled over and a couple rushed over to me with a bath towel and a clean T-shirt. The man said the shirt was mine to keep and the woman helped me dry my camera and iPhone.

“You’ve got to find a sack of rice and fast,” the man said. “The sooner you get your electronics sealed inside a bag with rice, the better your chances.”

I walked back to the Camden Lock, my pants feeling oppressively wet and heavy, with water sloshing around in my shoes. I consoled myself with a roti at a Pakistani sandwich stall and the owner confirmed that I needed to find some uncooked rice and fast.

A South Asian clerk in the nearest supermarket I could find, eyed me warily as I asked for a big bag of rice and zip lock bags.

“Why are you all wet?” he asked.

I explained and suddenly he became interested in my quest.

“I have a wet iPhone too,” he said. “Let me know if the rice works, will you?”

He didn’t know what zip lock bags were, but we found the British equivalent along with a few small bags of rice. After I paid for the items, I crouched down in the corner of the store and put my camera and phone inside the bags, then began poring the rice over them. An over-officious middle management type in a short-sleeve shirt and clip-on tie came over to me, and in the sort of vaguely hostile way a store security guard might approach a homeless person, he asked, “What uh you doing there, sir?”

But thankfully my new friend rushed over to explain. “It’s OK,” he said. “He just took a swim in Regent’s Canal and is trying to save his gear.”

I returned to my apartment in Earl’s Court, still wet and smelling like something unpleasant dredged from the bottom of the canal. I rather liked my new T-shirt, but felt sick thinking that I may have just pissed away $2,000 worth of electronic equipment into an old canal. I heard different stories about how long I needed to keep my gear turned off and inside the bags of rice. Some said you needed just 24 hours, but others said 3-4 days. I was in town to cover Wimbledon but played it safe, resisting the temptation to snap photos of the All England Club for four full days. On my last morning in town, I nervously took my items out of the rice, like a teenager opening a slim-looking admissions letter envelope from their dream college.

The camera worked, but the iPhone was displaying gibberish. I took it to a cellphone shop on Earl’s Court Road and a Pakistani man named Akbar, who sat on a stool surrounded by phones and phone gadgetry, read my iPhone its last rites.

“This phone is dead,” he said, grim faced and stoic. “Very dead. I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done.”

I felt a bit like a dog owner facing up to a grim diagnosis from a veterinarian. As I boarded a train for the brilliantly named tube stop “Cockfosters” I took stock of my trip. I was leaving town without a working phone but I had an unforgettable story to tell. And a new T-shirt.

Is Priceline Lowering Its Standards For 3-Star Hotels?

crappy hotelI’ve been a devoted user of Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” bidding tool for years. In the past year, I’ve written columns here on how to game their bidding system, how to overcome their new bidding hurdles, and another piece about trying to decode their star system. I still love the bidding concept but after several negative experiences of late, I have a few words of cautionary advice on how to bid for hotel rooms.

Two years ago, Hotel Deals Revealed did an analysis comparing Hotwire to Priceline on how generous they are in assigning star levels to hotels and concluded that Priceline was more cautious in assigning stars (i.e., they weren’t overrating hotels). But based on several recent experiences bidding on three-star hotels in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and London, I think Priceline has lowered its standards for how they classify three-star quality hotels.While bidding on three-star hotels in the U.S. in the last three months, I’ve gotten Holiday Inn hotels on four consecutive occasions. Each hotel was adequate, sort of, but none was as clean or nice as what I’ve been accustomed to getting – Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, etc. – for three-star bids on Priceline over the years.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a good example of how Priceline’s ratings have changed over the years. I’ve gone to Charlottesville several times over the years and have used Priceline on multiple occasions. There are a number of good three-star hotels in town – Hampton Inn, Doubletree, two Courtyards, a Residence Inn and others. But Priceline now considers two Holiday Inn locations in town as three-star properties as well.

I’ve stayed in both and they simply aren’t as clean or nice as the hotels mentioned above. The furniture at the University location, for example, is dated and ill fitting – the office chairs in the room don’t level up with the desk, for example, and on a recent stay there were a host of dead bugs in the sliding glass door, which also had a broken handle.

But as mediocre as the Holiday Inn Charlottesville University is, it’s the Taj Mahal compared to the Avni Kensington, a supposedly three-star property I got from a recent bid on Priceline in London. (Priceline refers to this hotel by its old name, the Kensington Edwardian.) My first impression was of their bathroom in the common area. There were no hand towels next to the sinks – just rolls of toilet paper to dry your hands.

My room had three droopy old single beds plus a broken television and non-functioning Wi-Fi. (The Wi-Fi was later fixed; the TV was not.) Trip Advisor categorizes the hotel as a two-star property, which is about right. I made a complaint about the property to Priceline but they stated that the hotel was “unwilling” to issue a refund so I was out of luck. A Priceline spokesperson told me several weeks ago that the company uses a number of criteria in categorizing hotels, including some factors that travelers might not care much about – like if the place has a full-service restaurant, a pool and others.

But what I found most interesting about the experience is the fact that I was unable to review my hotel experience in London on the Priceline site. I asked the customer service rep how I could leave a review of this hotel on the site because they use the customer reviews as a basis for how they categorize the hotels, but she said I had to wait to see if I received an email inviting me to take the survey. I looked through my inbox and noted that I had received survey requests for all of my previous hotel stays (none of which had I issued complaints over) but I didn’t get one from this stay in London.

Priceline gives bidders guarantees that they’ll receive a hotel with positive feedback (it varies based upon the star level you are bidding on); so I can’t help but think that they flag customers who complain about a property not to receive the survey email.

What can you take away from my bidding experiences? The most import thing is to do your homework before you bid. Use Priceline’s normal search function and look at what they are offering at each star level. Then check the reviews of those hotels online and assume you’ll get the place that has the lowest reviews. If you can’t live with that, you need to bump up the star level you’re bidding on.

For example, if you are bidding in the north suburban area of Chicago, and you see that Priceline has a hotel they consider a three-star property but that it has horrible reviews, assume that if you bid three stars, you will get that hotel. If you can’t live with that, you need to bid 3.5, or find another way to book your room.

July 8, 2013 Update: A spokesperson for Priceline tells me that the company sent me a survey email on 6/22 inviting me to review the hotel I stayed at in London. I have double checked both of my email addresses and I never received it. Either way, there should be a way for customers to review the hotel they stay in, whether one gets their email inviting them to do so or not. And, after bidding on yet another 3 star hotel in Portsmouth, NH this week, and, once again, getting another Holiday Inn with so-so reviews, I stand by what is written above. 3 stars with Priceline used to mean Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton and so on. These days, it seems to be Holiday Inn and other brands in that tier.