Crop circles are back!

Remember crop circles, those strange shapes that started appearing in the Nineties in fields all across England? We haven’t heard much about them lately, but according to an article in the Guardian’s G2 magazine, this year hikers in England’s beautiful countryside should see a bumper crop. May was a banner month, and new circles are already showing up in June. The article has an interesting gallery of some of this year’s best and gives a step-by-step guide to making your own, although there are more detailed instructions at How Stuff Works.

Nobody is sure when the crop circle phenomenon actually began, but simple designs caught the attention of UFO researchers in the Seventies. Soon simple circles weren’t enough and designs became more and more elaborate. Paranormal investigators argued whether they were made by aliens, earth spirits, or dozens of other possible sources. They tried to ignore the TV interviews with artists who showed how you could flatten wheat into designs with simple tools such as a board and rope. The craze eventually spread to mainland Europe, Japan, and North America.

Some artists have even created an organization called Circlemakers and boast of their work on their website. Not only have these guys done the typical circles and designs, they’ve also done ads for Shredded Wheat, Nike, and Hello Kitty.

This hasn’t stopped organizations such as the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group from studying what they say is an unexplained phenomenon. They claim that while evidence such as post holes or confessions by artists prove most crop circles are man made, a minority of circles defy explanation, an argument that is tantamount to saying that while we have documentation for the construction of most medieval cathedrals, there are no blueprints or payrolls for other cathedrals and therefore they must have been made by aliens.

But that is neither here nor there. The truth is not as mundane as the skeptics insist or the believers fear–in fact the truth is even more amazing than UFOs or Earth Powers or whatever. Dedicated groups of artists have, usually for no fame or money, imprinted complex works of art onto the landscape under the cover of night. England has always been a culture deeply tied to its landscape and hiking is one of the most popular activities here. Most of its ancient monuments such as Stonehenge or Silbury Hill are in fact modifications of their natural surroundings. As England becomes more urban, the English are losing touch with the landscape. The artists who make crop circles are bringing their country back to its roots. It’s an amazing cultural movement that is giving the country beautiful works of art rooted in tradition yet with a futuristic twist. They should be applauded.

I once got to examine a crop circle near West Kennet Long Barrow. Circle makers like to make their designs near ancient sites, which is pretty easy considering the countryside is full of them. This circle was a simple pattern, a big circle with some radial designs. Being on the hill leading up to one of England’s most impressive megalithic ruins added to the atmosphere and made the visit more memorable. As the hiking season gets going, I’m starting a new series called English Country Walks. If I come across more crop circles, I’ll be sure to take photos and share them here!

American Airlines’ Mitchell: We want to give passengers “what they value most”

Mark Mitchell, American Airlines’ managing director of customer experience, is the point man for customer service at the airline. With the summer travel season now underway, I asked him how air travelers could have the best possible experience, and what airlines like American are doing to make it better.

Q: What can air travelers do to get the best possible customer experience from an airline like American?

Mitchell: Our goal is to provide travelers the best possible experience, and it begins long before someone steps inside an American Airlines plane. We strive to ensure that our tools, processes and interactions make it easy for someone to choose American — whether it’s booking online at or redeeming AAdvantage miles with our new flexible awards booking tool or making a call into our reservations system. And once in our care, the American Airlines team is committed to doing everything within its power to offer travelers the best customer service.

We take this very seriously. More than 200 employee-led teams across our network over the past two years have been working to identify issues and develop solutions within six key issues customers care about: delays and delay management, gate interactions and the boarding experience, on-board interaction, cabin interior condition, baggage handling and baggage resolution.

Q: Is it possible to run a profitable airline and have happy customers? Or does an airline have to choose one over the other?

Mitchell: We believe that customer satisfaction is a critical part of the path to profitability. American is committed to enhancing the customer experience, and we believe that will help turn our company around financially.

Although the economic environment remains challenging, we continue to look for new ways to improve operations to provide passengers the best experience possible. For example, we know on-time performance in the form of predictable and reliable schedules is important to our passengers. Some aspects that affect on-time performance — such as bad weather — we cannot control. But American is focused on those things we can control.

We implemented new procedures last year, including adding time to our schedule, re-adjusting flight plans to increase speed, pairing pilots and flight attendants with specific aircraft and deploying new technologies to help speed our customers through the airport. The enhancements were made with one simple goal — get our passengers to their destinations on-time, with as few hassles as possible. And while we do not control bad weather and delays because of air traffic control issues, we are seeing that the new system we have built is helping us to navigate a better airline when these events occur.

Q: What should customers expect from an airline like American?

Mitchell: They should expect that American will deliver on its promise to offer safe, dependable, on-time service. American is continuing to invest prudently in the airline, even during these difficult economic times to help us deliver on this promise more consistently. In addition to many technology investments to provide better tools for our employees and customers, we also began taking delivery of 76 Boeing 737 aircraft that will help us keep customers loyal to American while helping the company reduce costs.

Customers should also expect that American will continue to lead the industry in making booking travel easier. American recently introduced ”One-Way Flex Awards” — this gives our 63 million AAdvantage members more options to redeem travel. They new technology provides customers the ability to use miles on a one-way basis at half the round-trip mileage requirement and to combine different types of award travel on a single ticket.

Q: What should they not expect?

Mitchell: Travelers should not expect airlines to be able to account for bad weather or airport delays caused by congested airports or outdated air traffic control system in every instance. However, we continue to invest in new technologies that will help us better navigate through these issues and speed up recovery when they occur.

Q: American Airlines created your position in 2007. If I recall, the idea was to demonstrate American’s commitment to a better overall customer experience by adding a new leadership position within the company. How is the customer experience better today than it was when you started?

Mitchell: The customer experience has improved on many levels. I am fortunate to work every day with a dedicated team of employees from various backgrounds, including information technology, maintenance, flight and customer service, to support our frontline employees where the customer experience activities ultimately take place. Our role is to track results, identify best practices, and work across various functions and organizations to facilitate and ensure activities are successfully carried out.

By all measures, we have been successful. For example, in year-over-year comparisons between December 2007 and December 2008, American has seen complaints across all six issue areas decline by more than 28 percent and a marked improvement in customer experience ratings in five of the six customer service issue areas.

Q: Last year, American Airlines implemented a new customer blueprint that focused on delivering the basics, including safety, dependability, cabin cleanliness, baggage handling, courtesy and professionalism. Why was such a blueprint necessary?

Mitchell: The customer blueprint was born out of our need to formalize how we wanted to differentiate the travel experience for our customers and was based on feedback from the many different work groups involved in improving our customer experience scores. It also provides the basis for our roadmap and to establish priorities for our many customer initiatives.

It is tangible and visual, and it serves as a good reminder for all of us to keep the customer experience first and to remember to give our customers what they value most.

Q: The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index has just been released, and your airline scored a 60, which is down more than 3 percentage points from last year. What accounted for that drop, in your opinion?

Mitchell: I can’t account for the Customer Satisfaction Index, but I can tell you that American’s internal customer satisfaction surveys — from cabin cleanliness to handling baggage to onboard interactions with our flight attendants and delay management — show marked improvements from a year ago. And the benchmarks we measure ourselves against indicate otherwise as well. In fact, in mid-May, American paid out $14 million to approximately 72,000 frontline employees for meeting customer service and operational goals during the first quarter of 2009.

Q: It’s been a year since American Airlines added a $15 fee for the first checked bag. From a customer service perspective, how is that working out?

Mitchell: Customer acceptance on domestic bag fees has gone well. Even in the earliest days a year ago, the process went more smoothly than many expected. Since then, customers have come to understand — and we believe, accept — the process and the concept of paying for the optional services that you choose.

Selling food onboard is another similar example. Basically, those who use it, pay for it. Those who choose not to pay for it, don’t. That would include approximately 50 percent of American’s domestic trav
elers who do not check a bag and therefore do not pay a fee.

Incidentally, that percentage of carry-on travelers has not changed — it is about the same as before the fee was implemented. We have seen a decline in the number of second checked bags. Also, premium travelers are exempt from the charges. That includes top-tier AAdvantage members, full-fare travelers, as well as those traveling on military fares.

When it comes down to it, approximately 25 percent of American’s domestic travelers actually pay the first checked bag fee — that means about 75 percent do not.

Q: In Gerard Arpey’s recent remarks at your shareholders meeting, he said the key to American’s a la carte pricing initiative’s effectiveness is that it gives customers the ability to customize their travel experience as they see fit, according to what they value most. What are the customers you interact with telling you about a la carte prices?

Mitchell: The fact is airlines’ costs continue to outpace fare increases and have not produced the type of returns necessary to sustain a healthy business. The key to our unbundled — or a la carte — pricing initiative is that it gives customers the ability to customize their travel experience as they see fit, according to what they value most.

As an industry leader, American recognized that the industry needed to balance revenue with giving value to our customers. We began offering unbundled services such as buy-on-board food in 2004, and continued to lead this trend on the bag fee front in 2008, with the rest of the industry following.

We recently enhanced our buy-on-board food service in the coach cabin, selling Boston Market sandwiches and salads on some longer flights. We have assembled a team as well to focus on maximizing the customer value proposition across all the optional services we have available. This team is working diligently across our many channels to understand how to offer each of these in a way that customers get the value for what they choose to purchase.

Q: I want to stay on the subject of prices for a second. Transparency seems to be a big buzzword in the travel industry. Some online travel agencies have starting quoting total prices for certain items, like hotel and car rental rates. Do you believe your customers would benefit from having fares quoted that included all taxes and mandatory fees?

Mitchell: While total price may sound like a simple concept, in practice it is not. If one or two airlines were to choose to do that while others did not, their prices at first blush would appear to be more costly than those advertised or offered by competitors. Most Internet Web sites and computer reservation systems show the lowest prices first. Those who follow the industry know that it takes only a very small difference in price on any given route to drive customers away.

The bottom line is that the absolute full price, including any additional taxes or fees that are not already within the base fare, are fully disclosed to the shopper before they ever have to push the purchase button. They do see the bottom-line price before purchasing and that is the most important fact here. Full price before you buy.

Q: There’s a debate raging in Washington over passenger rights at the moment. I think it’s fair to say the airline industry has resisted most of these proposed new rules. Do you envision any scenario under which the defeat of the latest passenger rights legislation might lead to a better customer service experience?

Mitchell: We believe that the issue of how passengers are treated on flights when delayed on the ramp has been addressed by each carrier individually. Our goal at American is to ensure our customers and their belongings get to their desired destinations safely and on time. In the event of bad weather, we’ll always make the safe decision. As I mentioned earlier, we have implemented a host of new initiatives designed to enhance the customer experience, especially when planes are uncontrollably delayed at airports due to bad weather.

Read more of Elliott’s interviews on his travel blog.

Talking Travel with with Karen Schaler, author of “Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go?

Karen Schaler is the author of Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go? A former embedded war correspondent in Afghanistan, she’s experienced the highs and lows of travel. I asked her how to get the most out of your next vacation.

Schaler: It’s all about changing your attitude by changing your environment. By using travel therapy, visiting different destinations can help you deal with what you’re going through in life. Whether you’re going through a breakup, lost your job, stressed out, looking for a way to add some sizzle to your relationship or re-invent yourself you can use travel therapy to make sure you’re picking the trip that’s best for you based on what you need and want.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

I personally have been using travel as my therapy for years to not only help me get through the tough times but to also celebrate special occasions. I got the idea after I returned from working as an embedded war television correspondent in Afghanistan. I was going to the gym when I was grumbling about something insignificant and said out loud, “I need to get on a plane, I need some travel therapy.” It was like — bam.

I had been using the concept for years but had never put it into words. I knew I had to write about it so I could share the idea and hopefully help others pick vacations and special trips matching their emotions. So I finished the documentary I was working on about Afghanistan and quit my television career of more than 15 years. I knew there was more I could do and contribute so I cashed in my 401K and starting traveling and doing the research for the book.

Q: At a time like this, when travel — especially air travel in the United States — is awful, shouldn’t people be staying home when they want any kind of therapy?

Schaler: It all depends on your personality and where your head and heart is.

With travel therapy, there isn’t one answer that fits everyone, or one trip that has the answers. It’s all about picking a trip that fits what you personally need, not your best friend, or your neighbor, but you. For some people, getting on a plane and getting away is exhilarating and liberating and they barely notice the delays and travel headaches. While for others even the idea of air travel gives them hives.

Q: How do you know what trips to pick?

Schaler: Not every trip is for everyone in the book in each chapter there are fun, simple quizzes that help you narrow down the trips that are best for you. That way, you’re not just picking any random trip and ending up disappointed with your destination.

Q: Where should people not go if they’re looking for a therapeutic travel experience?

Schaler: Again, this depends on your personality and what you’re looking for. In the book, each chapter has a section called DO NOT ENTER giving you a list of places you shouldn’t go.

Q: For example?

Schaler: If you’re looking for a romantic escape, you don’t want to go to a family friendly resort where you have screaming kids killing your quiet time. However, if you’re looking to reconnect with your kids then a family friendly choice is the perfect option. Key to remember is one person’s idea of travel therapy could be another person’s nightmare. You need to pick the trip that’s right for you.

Q: Where is the most therapeutic destination for you?

Schaler: This answer changes depending on what I’m going through in life. When I was uninspired at work and looking for a challenge traveling and reporting in Afghanistan was the perfect place because it helped me realize life is short and never to settle.

When I was searching for a way to re-invent myself I found volunteering at an orphanage in Malawi was a life changing experience that helped me gain perspective and appreciation for everything I have.

When I want to really spend quality time with a boyfriend, I love sailing because I can truly disconnect with the world and reconnect with who I am with. Honestly, I find anytime I can travel and experience new place and meet new people I’m happy and thankful for each moment I have on the trip and can’t wait to write about it and share it with others. I really do love it that much. Good thing I’m a travel writer, right?

Q: Absolutely. So what advice would you have for those of us who are disillusioned by travel, who would really rather stay home? Can we be rehabilitated?

Schaler: Hummm…let’s see, what are you going to find at home. The same o’ll same o’ll? How has that worked for you so far? If your answer is “not so great” then get off the couch, turn off the TV, and pry your fingers off your BlackBerrys.

There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore. Anyone can change, you just need to take the first step and planning the right trip is key and can help you find your way in more ways than one!

Q: I want to ask you about when therapy goes wrong. Has that ever happened to you? What can you do about it?

Schaler: Of course we’ve all taken the wrong trips. It happens when you don’t spend the time doing your research and you come home disappointed and disillusioned.

Making sure this doesn’t happen was one of the inspirations behind writing this book. In this economy, you can’t afford to take the wrong trip, so I wanted to have one compressive book that helps you plan a trip and get it right the first time so you’re not wasting your valuable time and money.

In the rare case if you researched and planned and you still find yourself on the wrong trip try and think outside the box and be flexible. Spend time thinking about what you can change to make it better instead of just complaining about what’s wrong.

Q: Some therapies in the medical field have been discredited, like leeches and lobotomies. Convince me that this isn’t just another faddish cure that will go the way of transcranial electroshock.

Schaler: Travel therapy will never be a faddish cure because the benefits from travel are timeless. It will never go away because there is a whole world to explore and once you get started it’s hard to stop.

When people complain to me about something like being stressed out or sad about a breakup, I like to say, “Take two trips then call me in the morning.” Of course there is never one cure that works for everyone, but I’ve heard amazing stories from the travelers and therapist I have interviewed about how travel changed their lives. I know it has changed mine.

US Airways customer service director: À la carte fees are the only way forward

John Romantic is the director of customer relations and central baggage resolution at US Airways. But he’d prefer that you simply think of him as your advocate at the airline. For the last nine months, he’s had the unenviable job of improving the carrier’s checkered reputation for customer service. I asked him how he’s doing it.

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about some of the changes within US Airways, when it comes to handling customer service questions. And I’ve seen a marked decrease in reader complaints. What are you doing?

Romantic: We are doing a lot, and we’re glad there is a buzz starting.

My goal when taking my position nine months ago was to transform customer relations from a complaint resolution center into a customer advocacy center. Better said, while we handle customer inquiries, we also need to globally understand customer sentiment and use all of that data to look at our product, policies, and processes. Our focus is to find ways to be easier to do business with.

Q: How?

Romantic: We code 100 percent of the customer responses we receive, and have created better reporting from this data. We have established an executive steering committee which meets regularly with the primary focus of understanding our customers’ feedback, and finding ways to improve our customers’ experience resulting in reduced complaints. The work of this team has lead to several recent changes – with some still in progress.

We realize we have a little more ground to make up on customer complaint rankings, but our actions are starting to close the gap with our competitors.

Q: How many requests does your department handle in an average week? Can you break it down by phone, fax, letter and e-mail, please?

Romantic: The actual number of requests varies by time of the year, load factor, peak and off-peak times. But the current breakdown is 91 percent handled via e-mail, 5 percent via phone and 4 percent via fax or written correspondence.

Q: What’s the best way of contacting US Airways when you have a problem with a flight?

Romantic: The preferred method of contacting US Airways is to use our Web form on the US Airways Web site under “Contact US”. The data provided by the customer on the Web form enables us to assign the issue to the best person available in customer relations to handle the request.

It is also the most expeditious method of contact in that it allows the representative to complete any research before responding to the customer.

Q: What’s your average response time? Do you have performance targets for responding to customers, and if so, can you tell me what they are for inquiries by phone, fax, letter and e-mail?

Romantic: We publish a response time of one to three business days. But to be honest with you, I get a little excited when our response time climbs above one day. We are looking to improve upon that metric by looking at more technology to improve productivity and respond more quickly.

Q: How are passenger inquiries prioritized? Do frequent fliers get answered first? Do people with tickets booked through a consolidator get processed closer to the end?

Romantic: Another advantage to using the Web form is that the structured data fields enable us to triage – or compartmentalize emails by issue or customer type. This allows us to prioritize certain types of customers such as Dividend Miles Preferred customers or customers with disabilities. It also allows the many compliments that we receive to be handled later in the queue and by other employees in the department.

Emails sent directly to specific personnel at US Airways do not get the same level of filtering or prioritization. We do not currently differentiate our service by ticket price in any way.

Q: Tell me more about your new email system. What did you change, and how is it working out for you?

Romantic: In September of last year, we replaced our database system with a Web-based customer response management system. The CRM application provides us with a database by which we can better understand our customers’ concerns as well as positive customer feedback. It also enables us to better manage the type of requests coming in as a result of the email triage component of CRM.

We are looking at more automation as well that will further improve productivity and reduce customer response time.

Q: What one thing about handling customer complaints do you wish customers knew, but don’t?

Romantic: Customers can do a couple of things to ensure an appropriate and speedy reply to their concern.

Customers should always summarize their concern at the beginning of their note, including key information like their confirmation code, date of travel, and flight numbers. Then, provide a few succinct bullet points illustrating the key aspects of their experience. We sometimes get very long, detailed letters that include irrelevant information. These types of contacts are difficult to comprehend and craft an appropriate response in a timely manner.

And give us a chance. Sometimes customers feel like they increase their chances of a successful outcome by sending their concern to multiple points of contact in the company. We have seen instances where customers research our corporate officers, sending each one a personalized letter detailing their experience. This sometimes lead to multiple people trying to solve the problem, and can cause the response to be delayed.

Q: Let’s say the question wasn’t answered. That happens from time to time — and I’m guilty of doing this, too — but sometimes agents read the first two paragraphs and send a form letter that doesn’t address the issue. What’s next?

Romantic: This does happen, but fairly infrequently. Our representatives are well-trained to handle just about any type of customer issue to their satisfaction.

The appropriate way to handle this is to simply send us another short response. We categorize this as a rebuttal, and it gets prioritized for handling. We also realize that at some point it may make better sense to use the phone and we will contact a customer after a rebuttal. This also gives me an opportunity to look at rebuttal responses for coaching improvement, as we strive to continually increase customer satisfaction when corresponding with customer relations.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes customers make when dealing with your department? Is there one thing that guarantees you won’t get an answer — like YELLING or using profanity?

Romantic: Well, we understand when things don’t go well that a customer may be upset. Our representatives are well trained to handle the emotions that sometimes follow service failures.

One thing we hear from time to time is that responses from customer relations get trapped in someone’s spam filter. So, it is best to ensure that your email is set to receive a response. We do appreciate not yelling or use of profanity though!

Q: What do you think passengers should expect from US Airways? Do you think that differs from what passengers expect, and if so, how?

Romantic: I believe that more often than not, we are able to meet our customer’s expectations. It really depends on the circumstances and the type of service failure. Expectati
ons seem to have a wide range dependant on the person and their situation.

We do get a lot of requests for roundtrip tickets on traveled — yet delayed — itineraries. We do not provide round trip tickets as compensation, but we do compensate with future travel dollars when the circumstances warrant it.

Weather delays and cancellations can also be tricky as we typically do not compensate for acts of nature outside of our immediate control.

Q: I’d like to ask about some of the more recent changes, including the baggage fees that were added last month. How do you go about explaining something like this to passengers who maybe feel as if luggage charges and other ancillary fees are unfair?

Romantic: Without a doubt, the airline industry has changed dramatically over the past five years. The model that airlines used five years ago is no longer a model that can sustain the costs of doing business. Even at today’s lower fuel prices, airlines are still losing money.

As a result, most major airlines are adopting an “à la carte” business model, which allows customers to pay for what they need, and not pay for what they do not need.

Sure, it sounds easy to just raise prices across the board instead of applying fees for services. But with too much capacity in operation and fares changing literally every minute, it is simply too hard to raise fares while remaining competitive with other airlines.

Besides, if you are on a business trip or typically carry on your one bag, then you would not want to be subject to higher fares. So, for some customers, the a la carte business model may actually save them money.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, which shows 63 people wrote to the government to complain about US Airways in February. Can you help put that number into perspective for our readers? How do you get that number down, apart from appealing or shifting the complaint to a regional carrier?

Romantic: In February, US Airways flew 3,843,035 passengers which excludes Express carrier traffic and received 63 complaints written to the DOT [Department of Transportation]. That is a rate of 1.64 per 100,000 customers flown. Purely from a numbers perspective, most carriers are within 5 to 10 complaints of each other monthly. And US Airways is closing that margin fast.

We are analyzing our DOT complaints very closely. As I mentioned earlier, we are looking at everything we do that may detract from customer satisfaction. The prominent driver of DOT complaints for all airlines is ineffective recovery from flight problems that occur. While US Airways boasts one of the better on-time records of late, we must look at ways to better manager service challenges when they do occur.

The March report will be out soon, and we are definitely seeing progress. The actual number of DOT complaints is down 35 percent year over year through the first quarter of 2009, and 29 percent on a ratio per 100,000 customers.

Finally, it is my responsibility to understand what drives complaints and work on solutions. As we do that, I also want to ensure that all customers know that their voice is being heard when writing directly to my customer relations team at US Airways.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

Talking Travel with Equitrekking’s Darley Newman and Chip Ward

Have you ever dreamed of seeing the world on the back of a horse? I’ve had my fair share of horseback adventures, so it’s definitely something I’d love to do. It’s certainly an eco-friendly and challenging mode of travel.

Equitrekking, the first travel television series to explore the world on horseback, takes viewers horseback riding around the world to experience history, adventure and culture with local people. Darley Newman, the show’s hostess, and her husband Chip Ward, its producer, searched the world for the best places to horseback ride. Everywhere they go they ride on local breeds of horses.

Gadling had the privilege of sitting down with Darley and Chip to learn more about Equitrekking and to talk travel. Enjoy!

GADLING: Thanks for taking time to correspond with Gadling! Where are you now, and what are you travel plans in the foreseeable future?

Darley: We’ve just gotten back from riding with the gauchos in Uruguay, our 27th episode, and we’re traveling to Montana, Jordan, Peru and Alberta next.

GADLING: What is the ultimate aim of your Equitrekking series?

Chip: Our initial goal was just to get ONE episode on PBS. Now we have 26 episodes broadcasting in over 93% of the country and Equitrekking broadcasts internationally in over 25 countries. We also have a coffee table book, Equitrekking Travel Adventures on Horseback, and our website has become a great resource. We couldn’t have dreamed it better. That said. It’s been a lot of hard work. We just hope to continue traveling and producing Equitrekking, because we love doing it and it’s a special series. There’s really nothing else like it on television.

GADLING: Can you briefly explain for our Gadling readers where the Equitrekking idea came from?

Darley: Equitrekking is the first travel television series to explore the world on horseback. Equitrekking combines my passion for horses and travel with my background in television production, so that’s how it all got started. In every episode, we travel through an area with local people on horseback to discover history, stunning scenery, culture and destinations that aren’t on the typical tourist path. This is my favorite way to travel, because I discover things that aren’t found in the guidebooks.

Chip: When you explore a place on horseback, like we do in our series, you ride with local people, who are showing you the best of their area and their favorite places. I usually end up just chatting with the locals as we ride, and we have regular conversations about what’s going on in the world, etc., so I’ve gotten to hear a lot of different world views. Horses are really just a way to see the world, and from a much different perspective.

Darley: Seeing a place on horseback, gets you off the beaten path to some beautiful natural areas where a lot of people don’t venture because they are remote. This makes the trip very special. I am also more aware of my surroundings when I am riding and so I notice more than I normally would if I were walking or biking or in a car. In Costa Rica, we rode through the rainforest, viewing howler monkeys, colorful macaws and other animals we wouldn’t have seen had we been in a noisy vehicle and maybe even hiking, as we were able to travel further into the jungle more quickly and quietly.

GADLING: What is the coolest equitrek you’ve done?

Darley: Central Turkey was one of our coolest adventures. We rode through these bizarre geological formations, called fairy chimneys, in Cappadocia, and to Güzelyurt, a small village in Cappadocia where not a lot of tourists trek. Because of this, the villagers were very welcoming and curious to see what we were doing, especially as we rode through the town on horseback. The town is literally carved into this big rocky outcrop. As we rode through the cobblestone streets, local children came out of school to greet us. In Güzelyurt, many people are still living a subsistence lifestyle, so we passed people laying out apricots to dry and riding by carrying wheat on their donkeys. We were invited into a local home to drink homemade ayran, a salty yogurt drink that very popular in Turkey. Because we rode with a local, we were able to meet others in the village, who invited me into the town square to play backgammon and have tea, before we visited Güzelyurt’s underground city. It was an amazing experience that we were able to film for our new Equitrekking Central Turkey episode.

Chip: One of my favorite experiences was riding in Waipi’o Valley on Hawaii’s Big Island. It’s a valley nestled between the ocean and steep mountains, and one has to hike down a mile long, very steep decline to get there or have a pretty substantial vehicle with 4WD. Of course, one must walk back up the road as well, which deters many tourists. It turns out that people live in the valley, many without electricity, showering in waterfalls and subsisting off an abundance of fresh fruit, fish and taro. These folks are truly off the grid and rather welcoming provided you aren’t there to disrupt their lifestyle or damage the land. There are wild horses, spectacular scenery and the freshest fruit I’ve ever tasted.

Darley: In Waipi’o Valley we actually rode wild horses native to the valley that Maile, our guide who was born and raised in the valley, had tamed. This is the only wild herd in the state of Hawaii. At many points during our riding and filming, my horse would whinny really loudly to his friends, who were milling around eating grass and crossing dirt lanes throughout the valley. Because there are rivers to cross and because you can ride with a true local like Maile, I think horseback riding is a really great way to experience Waipi’o.

GADLING: What is the difference between horseback riding abroad and equitrekking? More importantly, how realistic is equitrekking for practical travelers?

Darley: Equitrekking is a word that we use for horseback riding travel in general and you can do this type of travel in far away destinations like Namibia or in areas closer to home, like your local trails, and state or national parks. The great thing about horseback riding is that there are opportunities for all levels of riders on all budgets. You just need to find a riding opportunity that fits your fitness level, budget and riding ability. For instance a stationary ranch vacation can be great for beginners and families, because you can ride when you want, get paired up with a seasoned horse and experienced wranglers. The horse and the wrangler can both help you learn to ride and then when you get to sore you can sit on the porch or soak in the hot tub. There are lots of riding opportunities in the U.S. state and national parks that may suite beginners and more experienced riders and these may range from one hour to multi-day trips, so you can make a vacation out of the ride or incorporate one into your vacation. More experienced riders may want to head to Ireland and ride from inn to inn or take off with the gauchos at an estancia in Uruguay.

GADLING: What are the newest destinations for the latest Equitrekking series, and where else do you hope to go?’

Chip: We have a new season of episodes starting now on PBS with high definition episodes from Scotland, Alaska, Southern
Spain, Quebec City and Beyond, Wales and Central Turkey. We’re in pre-production on a new season now. We just returned from Uruguay and are traveling to Alberta, Montana, Peru and Jordan in the coming months and then… I’d really like to film in Kyrgyzstan for the fifth season.

Darley: I think that people would be surprised by the great horseback riding opportunities around the world. I hope to hit as many places and ride as many horses as I can and learn about these destinations from the locals, because it’s such an exciting way to travel.

GADLING: What is the most challenging part of filming and photographing Equitrekking?

Chip: Equitrekking is a very challenging series to film, because a lot of times our entire crew is on horseback. That means that Greg, our cinematographer, and I are sometimes riding with our equipment, like in Costa Rica. We filmed a Cabalgata with hundreds of people on horseback. Everyone is riding and constantly moving with stops for food and drinks, so we had to get set up to film and then gallop ahead to keep getting in front of the crowd. We galloped with our high definition cameras and equipment, which is not easy to do and can be stressful for us producers who own the equipment! It was worth it though, because the Cabalgata is such a unique thing to film.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy shoots. Last winter we filmed in Quebec and Greg and I were hiking uphill through backcountry snow ten feet deep, wearing snowshoes and falling into snow banks. We did this so that the main path where Darley and her local friend Daniel would be riding would remain pristine for the filming. I ended up losing a shoe and falling into snow up to my neck. Greg wouldn’t help me out ’till he got some good pictures. The good thing about our crew is that we have a sense of humor along with our sense of adventure. You can never really plan what’s going to happen on our shoots, so we always just go with the flow. There are so many stories I could tell you… frozen equipment in -10 degree cold, overheated equipment in 110-degree desert heat. In Quebec I had a hard drive tucked against my chest to warm it up because it froze solid. In Turkey I crawled through tunnels with my still camera in an underground city that ran for miles. Early Christians hiding from persecution originally dug out the tunnels in the first century. Some are lit… until I accidentally kicked a bulb and shorted out the system. We had to crawl out from several stories underground. Total darkness is something we in the modern world don’t often experience, unless of course you’re in an underground city. You tend to miss the holes in the ground, which drop down to other levels as they’re masked by total darkness. It’s always an adventure.

Equitrekking’s new fourth season debuts on PBS stations across the nation in April and May. You can find out where Equitrekking is broadcast in your area with our PBS station finder. Check out their companion coffee table book, Equitrekking: Travel Adventures on Horseback, or read Darley‘s blog. The Equitrekking website is a resource for travelers interested in horseback riding with video clips, expert and travel articles and an online Travel Guide.