In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Rising Fuel Costs Cause No Reason To Kill Vacation Plans

rising fuel costsAs travelers make plans for summer, rising fuel costs are coming into play more than ever. Still, a recent survey indicates that vacation loyalists continue to plan summer travel by land or air, despite rising fuel costs.

“Many Americans consider travel a mainstay to our way of life and are loyal vacationers,” said Bill Sutherland, vice president, AAA Travel Services in a statement. “While some Americans may modify their travel due to rising fuel costs, those who can are still choosing to travel and they are traversing the world.”

According to a recent AAA survey, many seasoned vacationers are expanding their travel horizons to exotic faraway lands too. While many Americans head to their computers when planning a summer getaway, AAA has seen a continuation of the number of vacationers seeking expert advice from a travel counselor to help guide their decisions, save time researching and get information on popular destinations.

The top 10 destinations asked about?

By land

  1. Orlando, Florida
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii
  3. Rome, Italy
  4. London, England
  5. Anaheim, California

By air

  1. China
  2. Peru
  3. The Galapagos
  4. The Amazon
  5. India

AAA has more than 54 million members, is a not-for-profit, fully tax-paying leader and advocate for the safety and security of all travelers. AAA clubs can be visited on the Internet at AAA.com.

America's Forgotten Vacation Spots


[Flickr photo via david drexler]

A travel agent who helps ‘people of size’ see the world

obese woman on beachAccording to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 68% of Americans are either overweight or obese. But the width of an average coach-class seat on an airplane is just 17 inches, and with the economy picking up and airlines cutting back on flight schedules to stay competitive, empty seats are becoming a rare commodity.

The Canadian government passed a one person, one ticket law in 2008 that classified obesity as a disability and required major Canadian airlines to provide obese passengers with as many additional seats as needed at no extra charge. In the U.S., airline staff occasionally ask larger travelers to buy a second seat but the issue can be contentious. Two years ago, a flight attendant on a Southwest flight removed filmmaker Kevin Smith from an Oakland-Burbank flight because he couldn’t fit into one seat and the flight was full. Smith had booked two seats but decided to go standby on an earlier flight. They allowed him to board but then asked him to leave once it was clear he couldn’t fit into the one seat.

Smith was outraged and tweeted, “You [messed] with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” among other things to his 1.6 million followers. But anecdotal evidence suggests that many airlines allow obese travelers to travel on one ticket, even if it’s obvious they can’t fit into one seat. In November, a traveler from Pennsylvania claimed that he had to stand for the duration of a seven-hour flight because his seatmate was too large for him to sit comfortably. The incident garnered widespread media attention, with many readers noting that they’d had similar experiences.

Spirit Airlines offers “big front” seats for an additional fee and other airlines also have new classes of service somewhere between business and coach, but most offer only additional legroom and not wider seats. According to the New York Times, at least three airlines do not allow obese passengers to sit in the emergency exit row. When it comes to airline travel, size clearly matters and the issue of weight and passenger comfort is likely to remain contentious.

Tony Harrell is a board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), and founder of Abundant Travel, a travel agency for “people of size” based in Alexandria, Virginia. In the interview below, I spoke to Harrell about a variety of issues pertaining to obesity and the travel industry.

How did you decide to start a travel agency specializing in overweight and obese travelers?

I started Abundant Travel two years ago, and my main inspiration was my then-girlfriend and now fiancée, who is a larger person. We were trying to find properties and destinations that would accommodate us and it got me to thinking there have to be other travelers who have similar concerns.What type of concerns are you referring to specifically?

Whether the property itself is accommodating as far as infrastructure goes; if the staff is likely to be friendly or ambivalent or even hostile to larger travelers; whether the destination is more known for the glamorously thin, so to speak, rather than everyday people.

What type of infrastructure issues do you look at in planning a trip for a larger traveler?

Where the rooms are situated in the hotel. They don’t have to necessarily be more spacious rooms, but in cases where we have travelers with limited mobility, an abundance of accessible rooms is helpful. But also getting from the lobby to the room, the number of steps someone has to take to get there. Things like that. And I would try to avoid hotels without elevators.

Or hotels that have long corridors that require a significant walk to get to the room?

Correct.

So when someone wants to book a trip with you, do you try to ascertain how large they are?

I definitely don’t ask for their dress size or weight. If they haven’t flown in a while, I will let them know that most coach seats are, on average, 16-18 inches, which is equivalent to a person with a 38-inch waist being able to be comfortable.

If you have a waist size above 38, you probably won’t be comfortable in a coach seat?

Correct. Even at 38, it’s not exactly the lap of luxury. I’m in that range and flying isn’t fun, even for me. So I advise them that there are other options to consider, including buying a second seat, or sharing a third seat with another larger person.

But it’s awfully expensive to buy extra seats or book in business class isn’t it?

It is another expense. You may be aware that the Canadian government has a one passenger- one seat law, which requires airlines there to only charge passengers for one ticket, no matter how many seats they require.

I imagine the airlines probably aren’t very happy about that law.

As a travelers’ advocate, it emphasizes the point that it would be more beneficial to provide more ample seating to accommodate larger travelers and even people who just have broad shoulders.

So do you think the U.S. should adopt the Canadian law?

I certainly would support that. I think another fair solution would be to create a section with more ample seating in the coach class and charge about one and one-half times a normal coach seat.

Like an economy plus section?

Right but most economy plus seats aren’t actually wider; they just have a bit more legroom.

obese man on beachHow should airline staff deal with larger travelers who purchase only one ticket but can’t fit in just one seat?

Overall, agents could use more sensitivity training. Perhaps discretely talking to the passenger and letting them know the situation and tell them what their options are without embarrassing them in front of their fellow passengers.

But on a full flight, you have situations where people end up standing because the person they’re next to is spilling over into their seat. In November, a traveler, Arthur Berkowitz, claimed he had to stand for 7 hours on a flight due to being placed next to an obese man. Some have suggested that there should be a strict standard applied to larger travelers who try to board a plane with only one ticket. Do you agree?

I can see where they’re going but it reminds me of being at an amusement park where they won’t let you ride something if you’re not tall enough. I don’t think it would be effective.

Do you think larger travelers are being discriminated against or is this just a practical matter of airlines trying to accommodate everyone and maximize profit?

Frankly, I think airlines have been trying to fit more seats in for a long time and if they are discriminating against larger travelers, it’s because they’re looking at their bottom line and don’t want to give away free seats. Some airline staff members have been insensitive in dealing with unprepared larger travelers. On the other hand, some larger travelers need to be more realistic and proactive about air travel and be prepared to make a larger investment in their airfare than they may have anticipated. That’s something we can help with at Abundant Travel.

But some larger travelers probably don’t want to admit they need two seats, right?

I’m sure that is the case with some. At NAAFA, we deal with people who are at different stages of self-acceptance. For people on the beginning stages of that spectrum, they might be in denial about needing a second seat. But when I travel with my fiancée, I take about one and one-fourth coach seats and I’m only on the high side of average. So I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting you need another seat.

So when you travel with your fiancée do you book more than 2 seats?

We always book three seats.

Airlines aren’t the only place where the seating issue with larger travelers comes up. For example, on crowded buses or trains, some travelers complain if larger passengers occupy more than one seat, forcing others to stand. What is the proper etiquette for trains and buses, should larger travelers give up their seat if the bus or train is full?

On public transportation, you’re paying for the right to use the system, not necessarily just for one seat. Perhaps some travelers could stand, but some could not. If there are parents holding small children or elderly people, perhaps larger persons could try to accommodate them, but otherwise, I think they should be able to stay in their seats.

Nearly 70% of Americans are obese or overweight; presumably some of them don’t travel because they don’t think they’ll be comfortable. Is this an untapped market for the travel industry?

Absolutely. This was the main driver for me to open this agency. It’s an underserved market, helping people of size.

Some might say that helping larger travelers enables them to continue living an unhealthy lifestyle. If a larger traveler can’t fit into one seat, it might also serve as a wake-up call that they might need to think about revising their diet or lifestyle, correct?

I see it more as a wake-up call for the airlines to realize they have a variety of travelers and need to accommodate them with more options. If they don’t create new alternatives for travelers they’re going to keep having these sorts of unfortunate situations.

Have you heard horror stories of larger travelers being treated poorly at hotels?

People who patronize trendy destinations tend to be slim and those guests may not be as welcoming to larger travelers.

So are there certain destinations you’d recommend more than others for larger travelers?

I would say Texas is one good option because a lot of the major cities there have a high percentage of larger people. They are places where larger travelers can go to and blend in, especially in a place like San Antonio. I would also recommend Disney World and other family friendly resorts where people are more relaxed and less uptight.

What about places like Aspen or South Beach, would you advise against places like those for large travelers?

Unless they have a real interest in those scenes, I would be hesitant to recommend those places to my clients, but of course, they have a right to go wherever they like.

What about cruises?

Cruises are pretty good, actually. For the most part you get to watch the scenery pass you by as opposed to having to walk around to admire it. But the cabins can be small, and when it comes to taking a shower, or if the passenger gets around by scooter, you have to make sure you pick a comfortable cabin.

Do you sympathize with travelers who are seated next to larger travelers that encroach on their space?

I respect where they’re coming from. No one wants to be uncomfortable on a flight, no matter what their size is. But again, I come back to the fact that airlines need to do a better job accommodating people of all sizes. Once they offer wider seats, it’ll make all the customers happy.

And what’s the best way for travelers who find themselves next to a large person and are uncomfortable to handle the situation?

If there are open seats, then it’s easier to handle. If not, I guess the person should just be respectful and approach the flight attendant discretely and see what arrangements can be made.

Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s fattest countries.

Photos courtesy of Tony Harrell, (Female traveler photo from Corbis) and final photo via Kyle May on Flickr.

Travel agents on the rebound with insider information

Travel agentsTravel agents, once being run out of business by Internet travel buying options, are making a comeback. Experts agree that using one as part of an overall travel buying strategy is a good idea, if for no other reason than to verify that what we did on our own makes sense. But the ongoing big problem with travel agents is finding a good one that actually does add value to the equation.

“A competent travel adviser can be your greatest asset when you’re planning a trip,” says consumer advocate Chris Elliott. “Good travel agents have an edge over almost any other seller of travel. They know what you want. They speak your language.”

A good, neutral source of information for helping sort out travel agents might also be your local Better Business Bureau who will have a score on any travel agency that has been in business long enough. The Better Business Bureau received more than 7,000 complaints nationally last year against travel agencies and bureaus.

Most complaints relate to consumers being misled by travel offers that failed to deliver or had paid money for travel arrangements that were never made. The Better Business Bureau offers some tips on using travel agents:

  • Ask family and friends to recommend a company they’ve used.
  • Get all vacation details in writing.
  • Verify reservations.
  • Consider travel insurance.
  • Pay with a credit card.
  • Be on the alert for travel scams.

Looking for advice on how to find a good travel agent? Elliott recommends interviewing a certified local agent. “The only way to know for certain if your travel agent is a keeper is to see what happens when you run into trouble,” he says.
“If they leave you hanging or do nothing more than send you the company’s 800-number, they’re not your agent. Chances are, they’re just in it for the commission.”

Some good reasons to use a travel agent, once you find a good one, include:

  • They may have access to deals you can’t get– Travel agents are notified of the latest offers, bargains and discounts first. Connected agents know even more, including what travel options are likely to go up or down in pricing and/or availability, and what can be critical information in a buying decision.
  • They speak the language of the service provider– Anyone who has ever tried to work with airline fare codes, codeshare rules or other cryptic travel speak meant for behind-the-scenes travel pros knows having one in their back pocket can bring huge advantages.
  • They almost always result in a better value- They may not be able to get a ticket to paradise for less than Discount Joe’s Travel Barn but they’ll probably be able to match it and throw in a perk or two that Joe knows nothing about.


The Ins and Outs of Travel Deals

Flickr photo by PinkMoose

Travel agents: The dinosaur you just might need

Travel Agents


A long time ago, in a travel world far away, you needed a printed ticket to get on an airplane and you probably got it from a travel agent. Now you buy online and there is no ticket, just a number. Not all that long ago, you needed special printed travel documents to go on a extended land or cruise vacation and you picked them up at your travel agent’s office. Now you don’t need those either and you probably don’t visit your travel agent’s office very often, if you even have one. Then, traveling meant being prepared with a trip to the library, book store and travel agency office for information . Now we click our way to expert status without leaving home.

We can easily book most travel options without a travel agent. That’s a fact. The big question though is: Should we?

These days about the only place you’ll find an airline ticket is on American Idol when when hopefuls get sent along to Hollywood. Travel agents still issue them but now it is mostly as a courtesy to clients too busy to do it on their own or as part of a package. Today, we can select the airline we want, when we want to fly and even a seat assignment, all online. Other types of travel as well, from land vacations to cruises, have been made available to click-and-book.

Where travel agents have the most visible value is being there for travelers when something goes wrong. But that does not happen all that much so those who are comfortable with the click-and-book method accept the risk.

More commonly, travel agents can offer great value that travelers could not get on their own.

That value may translate to lower prices, complementary upgrades, bonus amenities when traveling and other good things down the line, after booking. That “after booking” part is the unknown, difficult-to-measure factor that eludes many travelers.

Odds are up-front pricing on many elements of a travel purchase will be the similar or the same from one source or agent to another. Even compared to the service provider, be that an airline, car rental agency, tour company or cruise line, pricing is similar.

Or so it seems.

That similarity in price may be misleading and causes those with even a minimal online booking comfort level to think or say “What do I need this middleman for? I can do this myself.”

True, today we can do it ourselves. Do we save money? In the long run, probably not. Anything we can find online, travel agents can find too. They can also monitor pricing, economic, social or weather-related concerns that might affect your travel.

The big advantage of a travel agent today is very much like it was years ago, it just comes in different forms.

Your good travel agent will have all the information you need to make the most of your vacation. That may be as simple as sending along links to critical websites, basic but required literature on destinations or merely making sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted.

More importantly, your travel agent considers the act of booking the beginning of the transaction, not the end like the result of click-to-book methods. Once you have paid, you are done with the click-to-book way. Now all you have to do is make it to the airport on time for that flight and that is the end of it.

In today’s world, prices, availability and even the nature of travel are changing at a rapid pace. Websites update pricing and availability but offer little or no hope of passing new benefits available after the sale along to travelers. Click-to-book methods are pretty much done with you after payment is made.

Travel agents work on building or maintaining an ongoing business relationship with you and are easily accessible. Try emailing, tweeting or calling your click-to-book website.

Should your plans change, should you have questions or should you want to know more about where you are traveling and how you are getting there, your agent is just a phone call, email or tweet away.

A travel agent is “your friend” in the travel business. They are your friend who knows what is going on in the travel industry. They can put that information together with their knowledge of you for a winning combination that will reap huge rewards in the long run.

Need to book a quick business flight and be done with it? Click-to-book. Doing any actual traveling where memories, experiences, sights and sounds might be important? See a travel agent.

Flickr photo by Ivan Walsh