There’s a Japanese Travel Agency for Stuffed Animals (Because of Course There Is)

Unagi Travel, Facebook

You think you’re feeling cooped up and need to get out and explore? What about that teddy bear of yours that hasn’t emerged from your storage closet since 1985?

A Japanese travel agency, Unagi Travel, which calls itself a “travel agency for stuffed animals,” has been taking plush animals on trips for the last three years. Why? To allow their owners to live vicariously through them. In fact, many of Unagi Travel’s customers are physically impaired. Well, and photos of traveling stuffed animals are cute.​”I want to see and walk around the sights that I viewed through my stuffed animal’s journeys someday,” said a 51-year-old woman, impaired by an illness that makes it difficult for her to walk, to the Japan News.

Unagi Travel’s Sonoe Azuma has shepherded more than 200 stuffed animals on trips. Be it a bike tour of Tokyo or a cross-Pacific journey to the United States, Azuma posts many of the photos of the traveling stuffed animals on Unagi Travel’s Facebook page (which is about to become your time waster of the day).

Stuffed animal travel is decidedly more affordable than the human kind: tours are priced between $20 and $55, depending on what the stuffed animals are getting up to. And just in case your stuffed animal likes the element of surprise, there are mystery tours, where your stuffed friend takes off to an unknown location.

Sound weird? Azuma’s clients love it; according to her about 40 percent of her clientele are repeat customers.

“I’m happy if my activities encourage those who can’t be positive to take a step forward,” Azuma said.

Just like your garden gnome taking a trip around the world, but better.

Finding A Travel Agent Easier With New Tool

travel agentFinding a travel agent has never been a problem; there are plenty of them to go around. But finding a good one, an agent that can add value to our trip planning – that’s another story altogether. Now, a leading travel agency brand is providing us with an unconventional way to connect with its travel agent experts.

Travel Leaders is one of America’s top ten ranked travel companies with strong roots. The former Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, TraveLeaders and Tzell Travel Group joined together in 2008 to form one of the industry’s fastest-growing and robust networks of travel agents.

“Since its inception, Travelleaders.com has always provided consumers the ability to find the Travel Leaders location nearest them. Now, Agent Profiler takes the consumer experience much further and offers consumers an exciting new opportunity to browse for the travel agent specialist who most appeals to them,” Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group told Gadling in a statement.

Called their Agent Profiler, TravelLeaders.com has a dedicated online page that promises to match the traveling public with a Travel Leaders travel agent who best fits their own unique criteria and needs.Experts agree that a travel professional focused on being there for us every step of the way during the travel process is a good thing to have. Like having an accountant to do our taxes or a good mechanic we trust to work on our car, someone who specializes in just travel is good to have on our side. In the past, travelers looking for an agent went with someone suggested by a trusted friend or took their chances with an Internet search for one or just stopped by the corner travel agency, fingers crossed.

“Those who are currently featured on our website provide a full representation of their expertise and knowledge, including all their destination and lifestyle certifications, along with photos and biography,” added Block. “This enables consumers to select the agent that best matches their individual needs for personalized service that no online travel site can touch.”

Travelers can select expert counsel based on biography, experience, destination knowledge, specializations, certifications, awards and even by appearance. Hundreds of travel agent profiles have already been loaded onto the page.

Is this as good as the recommendation from a trusted friend for an agent that has proven themselves? No, not hardly. But surely a step in the right direction, backed by a consortium of travel pros that know what they are doing. Might be worth a shot.


5 German Phrases to Know When at a Travel Agency




[Flickr photo by hugovk]

Could a return of the travel agent be the key to stress free travel?

travel agent

The always excellent Joe Sharkey of the New York times has a fascinating article on how a travel agent could be your best friend when you are stranded.

Obviously, the nasty snow storms in December are what triggered his article, and in it, he describes how a travel agent can perform miracles most of us have to wait in line for at the airport.

Now, I can clearly remember the last time I used a travel agent – it was the year I got my first cellphone (1992). After that, I always took care of myself. First using a dumb terminal, then with primitive Internet based booking tools, and then moving on to the current generation booking sites.

And to be honest, I thought I’d never look back. In my opinion, the travel agent only did things I could already do myself. When I booked my honeymoon cruise, I tried walking into a local agency, but ended up finding a much better deal online.

So, why the sudden interest in the services of a travel agent? When people found out that the airlines don’t have the resources to deal with a large crisis, they got angry. And rightfully so – some passengers spent five hours on hold, only to be told that their next flight out would have to call back the next day.

[Photo from Flickr/adrian.acediscovery]

Of course, there is a price to pay when you hand over your booking requests to someone else – fees of around $37.50 per ticket. Add that to your baggage fee, fuel surcharges and other charges, and the price may simply be too high.

travel agent

Additionally, business travelers are usually already protected by their corporate travel booking service – which means the vast majority of customers for a travel agency would be consumers – a group most likely not too eager to fork over extra cash. And of course, there are also top-tier elite members of the airline that have direct access to their own service desk – usually bypassing any long hold times.

Gadling spoke with several travel agents for their views on why booking with them isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Luxury travel consultant John Clifford (@LuxTravel), President of
InternationalTravelManagement.com shares his expert tips:

The “internet information overload” has reached critical mass, and now aside from this overload, we have “crowd sourcing” to take into consideration such as recommendations from friends on Facebook, colleagues on Twitter, anonymous Yelp reviews and the like?

How in the world does anyone cut through the noise and make sense of it all? Sure they may espouse the greatest upgrade they got at a luxury chain hotel but that was because of all their loyalty points. It would not pertain to your stay, so how does that help you?

But trained, travel professionals, or “travel consultants” of today do. They/we’ve made it through the internet boom of the 90’s and redefined ourselves to be “lifestyle guides” that really take the time to listen & learn about each individual, and like a skilled artisan, carefully craft suggestions that are ONLY pertinent to travelers’ needs & wants.

If you consider only the facts of world developments, wars, strikes, natural disasters, storms, etc — that alone is proof enough for many to realize the old saying rings true, “without a travel agent, you’re on your own”.

Self booking is just that – it’s just the BOOKING or the very first step of a trip.

The entire travel cycle of experiences starts that moment and making wrong or uneducated decisions can reverberate through your entire travel experience and if you booked online, you have only yourself to get you out of a jam, out of a hotel room that looked cool on the web but in fact is a dump, or having accidentally booked yourself into Bucharest (Romania) instead of Budapest (Hungary) which a former client actually did and called me to help get him out of it.

Travel is becoming less transactional and more experiential. Even the harrowing experience of this last week where tens of thousands were stranded in NY during Christmas weekend were left without help, gate agents at airports reduced, call centers understaffed due to growth of online booking, web sites overloaded and not functioning and airline agents on twitter posing as customer service angels, when in reality only directing consumers to “be patient”, “wait it out”, and commiserate with those stranded.

I saved numerous clients from the recent storms, even my CPA who has never used me before as his wife likes to “play travel agent”

He was flying NYC-San Diego on an American Airlines flight (and a connection as well) and after holding for hours on the phone, American advised his wife it would be days before he could get home and he could sleep at the airport without any free stays, as “acts of God” are not covered.

After hours, he called and requested my help and getting his message on my iPhone,I immediately sprung to action and snagged him a low cost seat on the non stop JetBlue flight from JFK-San Diego, knowing they’re a smaller airline that is more creative & reliable in a pinch, and one that didn’t have to rely on a hub-and-spoke network to get him home like American did.

He did get home the next day instead of 4 days later.

And Deborah Peniuk, Owner & Travel Writer of AYA Life added:

The internet can be a great place to purchase certain travel products. I consult with clients on their best options for free; help them discover savings that don’t have hidden restrictions. There is a huge difference, so don’t confuse “transportation” with “vacation.” They are generally not interchangeable.

As your travel agent, I can work to immediately reschedule or cancel your trip in the event of a natural disaster (or Mother Nature not playing nice). Less worries for you! I help my clients to avoid online scams and “false” advertisements that are rampant online. I also take considerable time to explain to my clients the logic of travel insurance and recommend it every time!

Good luck trying to get the flight that you are late for changed if you’re in transit. If the WiFi in your airport goes down you’ll need serendipity to successfully maneuver the online morass. I strongly suggest checking the FAQ section; cancellation penalties and restrictions are usually hidden in the fine print. I’ve had clients who have called in a panic with huge apologies, wishing they’d booked with me (for my minimal service fee) instead of the huge dollars they end up paying to change their online booking.

We are consumer advocates: if you have a problem during your trip, as your travel agent I can act on your behalf to see that proper restitutions are made. You have a real person who is a phone call away to go back and complain to. As your travel agent, I will work hard to rectify issues and fulfill the trust you put in me. I add a “personal touch” to your travel planning experience and I offer help and advice that no website can provide. Wouldn’t you rather have a travel expert plan your trip? My Blackberry is never far from my ear!

In other words – you need to determine how much your time is worth – there is no denying that booking through a travel agent will cost a bit more, and it may not be as convenient as heading over to your favorite travel website and clicking “buy now”. The best way to think of the travel agent is as just another insurance – you may make 20 trips without actually needing their additional services, but once a blizzard hits during that 21st trip, you’ll be happy you paid a bit more once your travel agent gets you rebooked in minutes rather than hours.

What do you think? Could the additional services of a travel agent convince you to try them out instead of booking directly with an online travel site or airline booking engine?

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Four signs that people are traveling again, starting with the road warriors

Business travelers are voicing their demands, and why should the airlines and hotels care? Well, this group of travelers is going back on the road, buoyed by all that corporate cash. According to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, the U.S. travel agency/travel management company sector is set to surge 15 percent by the end of the year, compared to only 8 percent growth for the leisure/unmanaged business travel market. The business traveler is largely responsible for this rate of growth.

While the U.S. travel market as a whole is recovering, it’s the corporate travel folks who are leading the charge. “Corporate travel’s wild ride over the past two years has caused an unusual shift in trend, with online channels growing more slowly than the total U.S. travel market for the first time,” says Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright senior director, research. The phenomenon reflects the peculiar dynamics of this recession, but the reversal will be short lived. “In 2011, the long-term arc of continued shift from offline to online channels will resume,” Quinby adds.

So, what can the travel business expect in 2011 and beyond? Take a look below to see four signs that the travel market is on the mend.
1. A big swing: in 2009, the U.S. travel market fell 15 percent, due largely to the effects of the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent global recession. No business wants to spend money in those conditions. The economy may still be unpleasant, but companies are starting to put their capital to work again, and that includes investing in business travel to generate some revenue.

2. Half of the loss regained: the projected 2010 business travel market recovery means that half the spending lost from 2008 to 2009 is coming back. PhoCusWright forecasts a total U.S. travel market size of above $255 billion.

3. Growth trajectory: this year’s 10 percent overall growth rate isn’t going to get us back to 2006 levels this year, but the next two years will be positive. PhoCusWright says to look for record levels in 2012.

4. Online future: that sounds a bit obvious, right? Well, the numbers tell the whole story. Online travel agencies will beat the record levels they hit in 2008. The online leisure and unmanaged business travel sector fell only 5 percent last year, thanks to bargain-hunting. This year, the sector will remain stagnant, according to PhoCusWright, at 38 percent of the total U.S. travel market – I suspect this is because the small decline in 2009 sets a higher bar for recovery in 2010.

[photo by laverrue via Flickr]

Five predictions for the European travel market

The end of the year is the time for all kinds of predictions for the next one. Usually, I treat such conjecture as the bullshit that it is, but when PhoCusWright puts out a list of what’ll happen for the travel market, I tend to take it a little much more seriously.

The worldwide recession is still squeezing the European travel market, but the online sector is likely to be the star next year, as it was in 2009. Consumers are turning to the web more and more to book their travel in Europe, and this will have a profound effect on how travel products and services are sold.

1. Up a third: PhoCusWright forecasts that the online segment of the travel market will hit 34 percent of the entire industry in Europe in 2010. Customers will turn to the internet to find better bargains, accelerating the shift from offline to online. At the end of 2008, online accounted for only 28% of European travel sales.

2. Priceline’s the one to beat: Priceline has lagged the three largest online travel agencies – Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity – for years, but Priceline has seized some serious market share through the travel recession, due in large part to its acquisition of European company Booking.com. Priceline could take the #2 spot next year and will be well-positioned for the future.3. Metasearch arrival: Finally, there will be a solution to the fragmented online travel market! PhoCusWright forecasts the growth of sites that search across sites, which makes sense given that financial concerns are driving travel buyers to the web instead of traditional venues. There’s demand already, and economic conditions will feed the trend.

4. Big in Germany: Germany’s been gaining ground in the European travel market. In 2008, the country was responsible for only 17 percent of the space. Look for it to hit 20 percent by 2011, PhoCusWright says.

5. Look south for sunshine: Online penetration has topped 40 percent in the United Kingdom, and France and Germany are making progress. The easy wins are in the past. So, the travel business is looking toward the emerging travel markets of Europe: in the south and east.

There’s plenty on the agenda for the European travel market next year. Even in what will continue to be a tight economic environment, there’s plenty of room for growth. No doubt, the most important factor will be the recession, which will shape travel company behavior by driving buyers to seek better deals. The perception that online is the place to save will accelerate the push to electrons.