Second-to-last Space Shuttle launch is big tourism draw

Tomorrow’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour has turned into a major tourist event, the Associated Press reports. NASA estimates half a million people will show up for their second-to-last chance to see a shuttle launch. Other estimates vary from 250,000 to a whopping 700,000. That could rival the crowds that came to see the first Moon mission.

Hotels are sold out and homeowners near John F. Kennedy Space Center are reaping the benefits by renting out spare rooms. Local businesses are also seeing a boom. The AP estimates the launch could pump $15 million into the local economy.

Let’s hope so, because when the last shuttle goes into space this summer, there won’t be any more launches for quite some time. NASA hasn’t finished developing anything to replace the aging shuttle fleet and transport to the International Space Station will be the job of the Russians for the time being.

The Endeavour launch is scheduled for 3:47 EDT tomorrow. It will be mission number 134 for the fleet. The final mission will take place June 28 or later and the honor will go to the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

I’m not surprised this is getting so much attention. I grew up with the Space Shuttle and I’ve always wanted to go to a launch. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll make it. I’ll be cheering, though, especially for mission commander Mark Kelly, husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a crazed gunman in January. She’s recovered enough to be present when Kelly heads for the stars.

I’ve never met Kelly, but I have met Gabrielle Giffords. She’s the younger sister of a college friend and I met her twenty years ago when she was a bright young Fulbright scholar. While I only chatted with her a few times I always had the impression she’d go far. My friend and I drifted apart, as college friends often do, but over the years I always paid attention to Gabrielle’s career. I wasn’t surprised in the least when she became a Congresswoman. And I won’t be surprised if I see her back in Congress one day.

Have a speedy recovery, Gabrielle, and enjoy the launch for me.

[Image courtesy NASA]

Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw

Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”

Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.

Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.

10 high-tech innovations invading the hotel world

Earlier this month, Melanie listed a couple of hotels that are investing in new technology to keep their guests pampered. As Melanie so correctly points out, guests are no longer content with an iPod dock. In this list, you’ll find ten ways hotels are adding new technology to their rooms, and how it can help make your stay more enjoyable (or more complicated.)

Whether the new technology makes it easier to book a room, stay entertained in your room, or make you more comfortable, all investments made by hotels should be applauded, especially when so many chains do the opposite and cheapen out.Mobile apps

Making the move into the online application world makes sense for hotels – they make their money off selling rooms, and the easier it is to book a room, the more money they’ll make. Many of the large hotel chains already offer mobile versions of their web site, but some have commissioned their own mobile application.

Being able to open a mobile app, locate the closest hotel and book it right on your device saves the hotel the cost of phone agents, and makes for happier guests.

Self service check-in kiosk

I’m in love with these new self-service check-in terminals. Thanks to these, I walk into the lobby, swipe my card, and get a room key. All without having to wait in line for the front desk. I’m not entirely sure how I can get a key with four taps on a screen, when the front desk staff seem to require five minutes staring at their screen to perform the same task, but I secretly hope more hotels introduce these new terminals as soon as they can.

Internet phones and feature phones

VOIP and feature phones take the boring hotel phone way beyond its original purpose. At some properties, these phones also offer the news and weather, assist with in-room dining choices and let you read email.

With all this information at your fingertips, you also no longer need the in-room hotel guide, which obviously saves the hotel a ton of money (and countless trees). Of course, as with all new technology, there will be people who’d rather keep things the old fashioned way, but the geek in me loves large screens and more buttons.

Loaner ipad and ebook readers

Sure, a lot of what goes into the “loaner iPad” is just marketing, and it does look good when publications mention your hotel chain and show people how hip you are, but there is also a convenience aspect involved.

I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to book a hotel that has free loaner iPads or Amazon Kindles, but I’d certainly not say no if one were offered for the duration of my stay.

Other hotels are using the iPad as a way to provide their concierge service with more up to date information, mobile maps and other mobile resources.

Faster internet

Lets ignore the pains of paying for Internet for a moment, even when you get free Internet, the speeds are often horrid. Many hotels installed their Internet infrastructure in the early 2000’s, and haven’t changed anything since. The problem with this is that Internet usage has changed in the past decade. In 2001, most people just wanted to grab some email and write a document. Nowadays, we are getting on a VPN, watching streaming video and checking out stupid Youtube clips sent by coworkers.

Bottom line is that the infrastructure in many hotels is not up to the task. Thankfully, some hotels understand this, and replace or upgrade their systems. In the photo above, you’ll see what a great hotel Internet service looks like. This example was made at the Hotel Arista in Naperville.

Online check-in

Surprisingly, the hospitality industry is playing catch-up with the aviation industry, and this in a world where the aviation industry is usually years behind the rest of the world. Online check-in is slowly appearing at some hotel chains. The advantage of this is that you can make sure the hotel keeps your room booked, even if you don’t show up till midnight. Some chains are even experimenting with online room selection charts, just like airlines let you pick your own seat. So, next time you had a bad experience with a specific room, you can avoid it well in advance.

Room access innovations

Hands up if you have ever walked to your room, luggage dragging behind you, only to discover that the damn room key doesn’t work…

Without exaggerating, I’d say that I experience this in one in ten stays. So, I’m happy to see that some hotels are innovating in room access technologies.

The Hotel On Rivington in New York installed RFID card readers on their doors, which means you no longer need to fiddle with your keycard – just wave the carde in front of the door, and it’ll unlock. No risk of wiping it with your mobile phone, or putting it in the wrong way.

Starting this year, several Holiday Inn properties will start a trial with smartphone operated door keys. With this system, your room key will be sent directly to your mobile phone, and you’ll be able to unlock your door without the need for a key.

HDTV and plug panels

I love connecting my own device to the hotel TV – it gives me a way to escape the mediocre programming and dreadful hotel promotional channels, and watch whatever I want. Thankfully, some chains understand this, and make it easier than ever to connect my own gadgetry to the TV. Hilton’s Homewood Suites and Hyatt Place properties are good examples of hotels that have innovated here.

Thankfully, not all hotels put HDTV’s in their rooms without adding HD content – many properties are investing in HD programming, and even offer HD video on demand. Some chains even offer interactive hotel guides on the TV, once again replacing the old hotel guide binder.

Social media initiatives

Hotels are in love with social media – and who can blame them? They follow their customers and offer them what they want.

Now, not all chains are as active as they should be, and some limit their activities to mentioning their latest press releases. Others have dedicated social media staff members who monitor all the various outlets, put together promotions and communicate with their guests. Examples of hotel chains that understand social media are Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Affinia, The Charles and Kimpton hotels.

Many of these companies also have dedicated Twitter and Facebook pages for individual properties. Following their pages won’t just keep you up to date on the latest press releases – many chains also post “secret” deals to their social media followers.

Media panels

I first came across these new media panels at a Courtyard by Marriott, and most recently also noticed them at Aloft by W. The panels are touch sensitive TV’s that offer news, weather, travel information and local information. They are perfect if you need to locate a quick bite to eat, without having to dig up your laptop. Even if you don’t really need the information, they are just fun to play around with.

Hotels keeping up the pace with new technology

iPod docking stations are so last year. Today, hotels are making a more concerted effort to upgrade their guest rooms and common areas with the newest technology that keeps guests connected, educated, and often times inspired, during their stay. While many hotels bring in iPads to keep their guests entertained, other hotels are getting super-sexy with some unique high-tech initiatives.

Check out the Royal Mansour in Marrakech. The property was created completely by Moroccan artisans and craftsman trained in the traditional arts of carving, silk weaving, and mosaics, but the hotel added cutting-edge technology throughout. For example, every guest room has a touch screen wall that enables guests to control lighting and temperature levels (tres chic!) and in case you tire of the personal butler service (although we can’t imagine why you would,) there is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ button on your wall for ultimate privacy.

Guest rooms at Pavillon des Lettres in Paris are perfect for the aspiring storyteller. Opening this autumn, Pavillon des Lettres is a small 26-room upscale hotel with a novel idea: guest rooms that are devoted to a letter of the alphabet that corresponds with a famous writer. (Think: H for Hugo or B for Balzac.) Passages from the writer’s books will appear above the bed and a hard copy of the book can be found on the nightstand. C’est magnifique! Closer to home, the quaint New England island of Nantucket is getting into the high-tech crazy. Nantucket Island Resorts offers Flip Video Camcorders for guests to use at each property, so you can record the sunsets, the hikes, the storms and the endless display of Nantucket baskets that parade around the island every summer. (Hint from this New Englander: Grab a seat at the White Elephant at sunset and capture the boats coming into the dock – it’s one of the best, and most unique, New England moments). You can enter a one-minute video clip in the Flip Out on Nantucket Sweepstakes for the chance to win a grand prize Nantucket vacation worth $15,000.

We couldn’t do a post about high-tech hotels without mentioning one of the newest and techiest hotels to hit the New York scene: Andaz Wall Street and the newly opened Andaz 5th Avenue. Thanks to technology, guests skip the front-desk altogether and use mobile tablets to check in with the hotel’s floating ‘hosts’. Have a rough day? Enjoy a glass of wine while you check-in. In a hurry? Check-in from the elevator on the way to your room. Guests just swipe their credit cards and a room key is created on the spot. Genius!

Gadling readers: What new technology would you like to see in hotels?

Going back to basics on the road – when high tech becomes high burden

In the past two decades, the high tech arsenal of the frequent traveler has gone through some major upgrades. What started with the brick phone, has evolved into a package of smartphone-digital-camera-socialmedia-netbook -3G equipment. On any given day, even the most amateur of travelers may be carrying over $1000 in high-tech gear. During one of my recent trips, I came to the realization that all this technology has stopped me enjoying travel as much as I should.

On the road, too many of us are more focused on making sure we keep our Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare account up to date, than actually looking out the window to enjoy the scenery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a return to complete non-tech, but there are ways we can stay connected and entertained without technology becoming a major part of our trips.
Social media

If I had to pull some kind of numbers out of my ass, I’d say that 50% of travelers are engaged in some form of social media when they travel. Some may keep this limited to a daily Tweet, others spend half their time making sure everyone in the world knows they just checked into the local coffee shop, museum, restaurant and attraction park on Foursquare. If you spend more than one hour a day updating your social media life, take a break. For starters, you need to determine just who you are doing this for.

I’m sure many of you social media aces think all your followers are constantly waiting for your next update, but you need to remember who you are traveling for – you don’t take trips for your followers, you take trips for your own enjoyment. If you fail to see just one amazing landmark because you were glued to your PDA or smartphone, then social media has failed you.

This doesn’t mean social media has no place in travel – I think there are plenty of things your online friends can help with. Especially when it comes to recommendations or other tips, the world of social media can be a great help. But don’t let online tools replace the old fashioned “ask a local” – remember when we used to do that?

Digital photography

Look, unless you are on a paid assignment from Newsweek, there is no real reason to be traveling with a $4000 camera and a bag full of lenses. Don’t get me wrong – I’d never recommend traveling without a camera, and I am jealous of great photographers, but just like with social media, spending too much time with your camera is going to divert your attention away from the reason you are on vacation.

The current generation point and shoot cameras are great for travel – you turn them on, take a photo and move on. There is no fiddling with the lens, no switching out the lens to something better, and no setting up tripods to get “the perfect shot”. At the end of the day, all your want to achieve is a collection of memories of the sights and sounds you saw, and perfect photos are really not required to bring back memories. In fact, the best way to record the feeling of your destination may be with something as simple as a $100 HD camcorder.

When shopping for a good point and shoot camera, you’ll want something that can last all day on a battery, can record HD video (with good audio), and something with good build quality. With a compact camera, you just pop it in your shirt pocket, without having to worry about dragging your massive camera bag around all day.

[Image from: Flickr / Claudio Matsuoka]

Ditch the laptop

In recent years, bulky laptop computers have become lighter and more powerful – making perfect travel companions. But at the end of the day, they still won’t last more than ten hours on a battery, and you always run the risk of breaking them or having them stolen. Yes – the iPad is a great alternative, but that hardly fits in the challenge of switching to a low-tech world, does it?.

For the first time in almost 15 years, I traveled with a notepad last week. And it was fantastic. Not a battery powered touch screen notepad – just a classic Moleskine and pen. Going back to how we kept notes back in school was weirdly satisfying, and I was able to put thoughts on paper much quicker than with any of my digital tools. Best of all, if you can’t completely break free from technology, you can scan notes or digitize them for use back home.

A perfect hybrid of old and new comes from Livescribe, who sell a pen that can record what you write, along with your voice. Simply jot your thoughts on paper, and when you get back home (or your hotel room) you transfer them to your computer.

Mobile phone simplicity

I’ve become so accustomed to my smartphone that I don’t ever foresee making the switch back to a “dumbphone.” Still, there are some advantages of a basic phone over a fancy smartphone:

  • Battery life – do you remember when your phone lasted 4 or 5 days? I’m betting that wasn’t with a smartphone. Today’s basic mobile phones have battery life in the 100’s of hours, some even last more than a week.
  • Price – I’m sure most of you spend well over $60 a month for the luxury of a smartphone, a switch to basic will save a fortune.
  • Risk – Walk down the street of some cities with your iPhone or Android phone, and you are an immediate target for a quick theft. Very few muggers will even consider the hassle of trying to steal your $20 Nokia from you.
  • Ease of use – Forget fiddling with syncing or configuring your email client, With a dumbphone, you just pop a sim card in it, and make calls. Not much more involved.

One affordable move could save you a fortune – switch to the combination of an iPod Touch and a basic mobile phone. With this, you get the best of both worlds – the same apps, email and Internet as on the iPhone, and no insane monthly data costs. You’ll need to learn to find free Wi-Fi to get online, but when you save $40/month, it may be worth the hassle.