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IMG_1390By the end of the Star MegaDo day two, I was already overwhelmed with information. It was like taking a long drink of travel information through a fire hose – and for me, that wasn't a bad thing.

As if the tour of Rimowa wasn’t enough to get any travel aficionado started, day two had us spend the day with both Marriott and Air Canada. On this day, we got to go “behind the scenes” and understand how they do business for travelers of all kinds – from casual travelers passing through, to regular business travelers who call a hotel home for months at a time.

Each of the presentations provided a very unique look into how travel providers operate, especially when it comes to the customer experience. Making sure that each customer has a pleasant experience, from start to finish, is paramount to the success of a trip. Travel providers understand that, and work towards creating an experience for travelers of all kinds. Here’s what I learned about how they try to achieve it:

Study the consumer for best practices
With every customer that flies the skies, or stays at a hotel, that much more information is gathered about the customer’s habits. This allows each of the providers to learn what customers prefer – and don’t prefer – during their travels. Having one bar of soap in your hotel room, or boarding by zones, are all the result of research and feedback by you: the end customer. Of course, your experience may vary. And there might be times where you need an extra bar of soap, a pillow for comfort, or an item not originally provided in service. In those cases:

It’s okay to ask for more
If you need that extra soap, feel free to call housekeeping and ask for more. Within reason, travel providers are more than willing to accommodate your requests. So if you’re in need of that sip of water while flying, or the extra pillow in your room, let the front desk or flight attendants know of your request. In some cases, they can (and want) to help you. Remember to keep your queries as requests and not demands – you’ll always be able to get farther with honey.

Creating a better experience for everyone – not just elite travelers
One of the things that became apparent in both of our sessions on day two were the need to create elite experiences for everyone who steps onto an airplane or into a hotel lobby – whether or not you have status with them. To those means, travel providers are working to make required much more simple – from the check-in process to the boarding process. New, more intuitive software is being installed into kiosks to make checking in less of an ordeal, and checking in on a mobile device or 24 hours ahead of time is also becoming more available for travelers. Of course, for those elite travelers, airlines are continuing to find ways to reward you for your status – with everything from dedicated lines, to (in some airports) entrances that lead you directly to a lounge.

My thanks to Air Canada and Marriott for the behind the scenes look at how they operate with the customer in mind. Have you had a customer service experience that has changed your outlook recently? Or have you noticed your experience getting better or worse? Let me know where you stand – and if the changes you’re seeing are making a difference – in the comments below!

(Ed. Note: No compensation nor incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product, service, or brand mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)


This is an original Rimowa case built in the 1940's - while showing it's age, the structure and functionality of this case remain the same.Day one of Star MegaDO could not have come soon enough. The anticipation of nearly half of a year came to quite a start on Wednesday. The morning turned into an impromptu meet-and-greet in the lobby, as we waited for our (fashionably late) buses. It was incredible to talk about favorite places and destinations with other well-seasoned travelers of the world! In just the hour we waited for the buses, I was entertained with stories of broken lights in first class coming home from Australia, to the splendor of Southeast Asia during the rainy season. I’ve added at least a dozen new destinations to my list!

But the big excitement of the day came in our exclusive tour of the Rimowa North America factory. Known for producing high-end luggage from Germany, Rimowa has also opened a facility outside of Toronto, in order to better serve the North American marketplace. Not only do they make luggage there, but warranty and service repairs also go through this facility as well!

While we couldn’t get pictures inside the facility, we learned a lot about how new luggage is made, and how baggage loss and baggage destruction is being dealt with before a suitcase sees a tarmac – back at the factory.

Better Materials, Better Durability, Less Baggage Loss
As a general trend in the luggage industry, better materials are being put into place in manufacturing to give a suitcase a longer life. Your grandparents’ luggage may have been made with small wheels and hard plastics – which would need to be replaced in a matter of years. Now, suitcases are being made with bigger wheels (think office chair wheel size), and much stronger exteriors: such as polycarbonate, aluminum, and ballistic nylon. This gives the suitcase a much longer life – especially when they’re beaten and battered on the line at an airport.

Better Technology, Less Baggage Delay
It’s not just the materials that are changing. Multiple bag manufacturers are finding new ways to use technology to keep bags with their owners. One manufacturer has begun barcoding their bags for tracking, in the event they get lost from their owners – one call, and the manufacturer can help the owner find the bag wherever it may be. And Rimowa, in collaboration with Airbus and Germany’s T-Systems, is experimenting with “smart bag” technology – a bag that’s equipped with a computer that allows the bag to check itself in, be tracked with a smartphone app, and even give a delivery address in the event that it gets lost along the way. These technologies are keeping baggage delay and baggage loss at a minimum – and helping owners keep moving from point A to point B.

Even with these technologies, baggage delay and baggage loss happens to even the best travelers. But these new methods of making bags with better technology and more durable goods are a strong first step in stopping the problem before it has an opportunity to become a problem. And if baggage delay or baggage losses are still a major concern, many Travel Insurance Services plans offer a baggage delay or loss benefit. Just in case you’re traveling with something you can’t afford to lose.

Are you excited about the new technologies that are changing the way we travel? What do you look for when it comes to getting new luggage? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! 

(Ed. Note: No compensation nor incentive was given to mention any product or service in this blog. Travel Insurance Services and its affiliated companies do not endorse nor guarantee any product or service mentioned in this or any blog. However, we sure would love to hear about your experiences with them!)


 

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Photo Via: Techcitement.com

After nearly a year of anticipation, the week is finally upon me. All this week, I'll get to be up close and personal with nearly everything Canadian travel, as I join the ultimate pilgrimage for travel aficionados like myself: the annual Star Alliance MegaDO.

The first Star Alliance MegaDO (or SMD, as those in the know abbreviate it) was dreamed up five years ago, when a group decided they wanted to charter an airplane and tour where it (and many like it) were made: the Airbus factory in France. Five years later, MegaDO has become an annual tradition that gathers many frequent flyers, industry influencers, and other excited travelers, much like myself.

This year, the annual gathering centers around one of my favorite places in the world: Toronto. During the trip, we'll not only be flying a private United Airlines charter, but we'll also see where some of the best luggage in the world is made, go behind the scenes at a major hotel operation and airline, and tour the world famous airplane boneyard in Arizona. This week is truly promising to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Of course, my preparation for this trip began quite a while back - before any payments were made and plans were prepared for, this trip began with a much more simple action. To begin this trip of a lifetime, I started by applying for my NEXUS card.

As I've written about several times in this blog, NEXUS is a trusted traveler program for frequent travelers between Canada and the United States. The system effectively pre-screens potential travelers who plan on going back and forth on a regular basis. To apply for NEXUS (or any of the trusted travel programs), one has to start at the GOES website - the Global Online Enrollment System - operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office.

My experience applying for NEXUS was a relatively easy process. I started with the application form - and the hardest part of the form was trying to remember all of the places I've lived in the past ten years! With this information, I submitted my information for a background check by both Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Canada Border Services Agency. While they advise the process can take up to eight weeks, my application did not get processed for the better part of three months. Once it was, it was time for the part I dreaded the most - the screening interview.

I elected to do my interview at Fort Erie, on the other side of Niagara Falls. Fort Erie is one of the enrollment centers which completes iris scanning as part of the application finalization, which meant that I could use NEXUS when flying into Canada as well as at ground crossings. Once there, the interview process took all of 45 minutes. I was asked to submit my fingerprints, and confirm the information stated on my application. Once that was confirmed, I was interviewed by both a CBSA officer as well as a CBP officer, who each explained how the system worked from their perspective, explained all the potential violations that could have my card revoked, and answered any questions I had about the process. At the end of the process, my NEXUS status was approved, and I received my card within a week.

In addition to NEXUS, my trusted traveler card also gives me access to the TSA Pre-Check program (where available and when selected), further expediting my travels through the security checkpoint. Also included with the trusted traveler program is access to Global Entry when I am coming back into the United States - which will make my re-entry back to the US that much easier every time I come back from an overseas trip. For the process of the background check, six-hour drive to the interview, and $50 application fee, NEXUS was well worth the effort - and comes with plenty of benefits as well.

As I land in Canada, I'm incredibly grateful that I'll be able to utilize NEXUS to make my travels through security that much easier. Have you applied for NEXUS or another trusted traveler program? Has it been of much benefit to you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


Shutdown-KingsCanyon-NPS
Photo Courtesy: National Parks Service via NPCA

The great American scholar Yogi Berra was once quoted as saying: “It ain’t over until it’s over.” As for right now – and the current situation we’re in – it’s temporarily over.

Wednesday night, both houses of Congress passed a bill that would restore Government spending and end the shutdown, which was signed into law late Wednesday night. The government shutdown is now officially over, the debt ceiling is vaulted, and Americans can go back into the business of doing business. But more important for travel, National Parks and Monuments are open once again. Museums and memorials once again welcome visitors. And all government functions pertinent to travelers are fully funded and back to operational status.

So now what happens to travel and travelers?

With all government buildings open, all passport processing centers – including those that offer same-day service – are back to operational function. While passport centers vowed to stay open and processing passport and Visa applications despite the government shutdown (as they are independently funded through passport service fees), many offices were affected by virtue of being located in a government building. With everything open, it’s back to business as usual for the State Department. While we don’t know how many passport applications have been affected by this shutdown, NPR reports that during the last government shutdown, 200,000 passport applications were affected.

How do you know if your passport application is affected? The State Department website has a self-service portal for application status on their website – simply plug in your last name, DOB, and last four digits of your Social Security number, and you’ll get an update on your passport application status. If that does not give you the answer you’re looking for, call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 for more information. You can also e-mail the State Department at npic@state.gov, but it could take up to 24 hours to get your question answered.

During the government shutdown, many people had questions about the automated ESTA system (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) online and applying for a Visa to visit the United States. Because Customs and Border Protection was considered an “essential” function during the shutdown, ESTA should not have been affected for those eligible to use it: travelers who reside in the countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. For those who live outside of nations participating in the Visa Waiver Program, you’ll still need to apply with your local American Consulate – who’se locations remained open during the government shutdown.

Although the National Parks are back in operation and open to the public, it could take some time for the locations – and their regions – to completely bounce back. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that the economic impact of the shutdown could be as much as $480 Million. This deficit could mean a temporary downgrade in services available both around and your National Parks (depending on the site). For more information on services available at the National Park you plan to visit, start at the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov.

Now that the government shutdown has come to an end, we can only hope that another shutdown won’t happen for a long, long time. Were your travels affected by the government shutdown? Now that the shutdown has ended, are you looking forward to going on your trip? Let me know your feelings – relief or otherwise – in the comments below!


A wild Road Closed sign appears! Traveler uses open! Its not very effective. Unfortuantely, during a government shutdown, many travelers will experience a similar problem. But just because a national park is closed, you can still very easily go to a regional or state park! I know I am going to one this weekend...Today (Tuesday, October 8, 2013) marks day eight of the Government Shutdown. We have now had over a week of negotiating and deal making in Washington, all with the hopes of having this impasse come to an end.  Had you asked my opinion two weeks ago, I would have said that this shutdown would have been resolved by now – yet, we continue to find ourselves here.

As a result of the government shutdown, many people’s plans have been placed on hold or altogether cancelled as a result of closures, furloughs, or a combination of both. This has forced many people to put on hold vacations and visits to some of America’s National Treasures – some planned spontaneously, and some planned for years on end. However, those closures did not prevent a group of World War II veterans from visiting the National World War II Memorial last week (reports ABC News).

We may not be able to visit the memorials, museums, or national parks while the government shutdown continues. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our travel needs to be completely cancelled. While the government shutdown continues, here are four places that you can visit with relative ease, and worry less about forced closures:

  1. Another Country
    Just because the American government is shutdown doesn’t mean that other places in the world are as well. If you’re looking for a destination, now might be a great time to look outside the United States. Remember: even though many other operations are shut down, essential travel functions (such as transportation security, customs, and border patrol) are all still up and running. Just make sure that you have a valid passport before you book that flight outside the country. And if you don’t have one, you can still get a passport – just make sure that your preferred passport office is open before you go.
  2. State and Regional Parks
    This last week, we’ve heard stories about campers being forced to leave national parks, such as Yosemite, because of the government shutdown. But not closed are many state, regional, and municipal parks across the United States. While they are dependent (to a very limited extent) on federal support, the majority of their funding comes from camping and day-use fees, as well as state support. Now might be the perfect opportunity to visit one of these local treasures, and knock them off your “someday soon” list.
  3. Privately Funded Museums, Zoos, and Theatres
    The Smithsonian, the National Zoo, and many other federally funded museums and memorial sites are being closed as a result of the government shutdown. Going down with them is one of my favorite webcams: The Panda Cam at the National Zoo. But that being said, there are still plenty of privately funded Zoos and Museums that remain open, thanks to the generosity of private donors, trusts, and readers like you. A quick Google search of your area will give you a good idea of what remains open during the shutdown. And while this continues, I’ll have to find a new way to get my cute animal fix during the day.
  4. Your Local Library
    How long has it been since you’ve been to your local library? I’ll admit – it’s been a while since I’ve been to one, as well. But, libraries are changing the way people think about literature – no longer are they large, quiet buildings housing a lot of books. Instead, many libraries offer a lot of different culturally enriching events, like lecture series, art exhibitions, and museum features. Plus, if you’re traveling with children, libraries can be a great place to learn about the local culture, and have a hands-on experience around them! When I was in Boston, one of my regrets was not stopping in the Boston Public Library for an author talk. Maybe next time…

Despite the government shutdown, there are still plenty of places to travel to and visit around the world. How are you spending or planning your vacation time during this government shutdown? I’d love to hear your plans – let me know in the comments below!