Tag Archives: Travel Agents

Interested in Voluntourism? Do Your Homework.

(Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Monitoring meerkats in Kalahari.  (Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Voluntourism.

For many travelers, the chance to combine tourism and volunteer work sounds like the making of a great itinerary. It’s a nice and noble gesture, a chance to leave a good footprint in the places we trample for our own pleasure. It’s a chance to combine a passion for travel with a desire to give back and, hopefully, make a difference.

It’s often said that travel is the best education because it gives us a chance to connect with other cultures in a multitude of ways. Voluntourism provides a greater opportunity to make this connection. Over the past decade, voluntourism has developed into a revenue stream for travel companies and charities. It’s a product that gives them an opportunity to court tourists and travelers who want to get away and do good works at the same time. Sounds simple enough.

But where does your money go?

It’s the first question you might want to ask. If you sell travel, it’s the question you want all the answers to before you recommend voluntourism options to customers.   It’s the question that’s brought a lot of controversy to voluntourism, because the high price a consumer might pay—and some of these experiences can be pretty pricey—don’t always have a high level impact on the people and places where the good Samaritan work is being done.

Last month, The Journal of Sustainable Tourism published a study that revealed the more expensive a trip product, the less responsible it was. It also discovered that the less expensive the experience, the greater the impact. The study also found that just because a product is labeled as a volunteer tourism opportunity, it doesn’t mean the end results will be positive.

So what’s a traveler with pure intentions to do? According to Victoria Smith, lead author, and Dr. Xavier Font, who conducted the study, there are a few key things to look out for:

How is your money being used?
Basically, you’re looking for pricing transparency. If a company doesn’t publish this information, ask them to break it down for you. You want to know where your money is going and how the community or conservation effort you’re serving is benefiting from it. Most companies will take a cut, and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be more than 20%.

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

How does this project make a difference?
If you’re going to put in the time, you want to be sure it was well spent so it’s good to know the goals and details of a project up front. You also want to be sure that the project you sign up for will, in fact, use the skills you bring to it, or that you actually have the skills that might be needed. Depending on the project, you could be doing anything from chipping paint, to data entry, to teaching English, for example. It’s preferable to know in advance what you’ll be doing.

What is the length of the project?
In order to make a difference, we typically need to put in an investment of time. From students to baby boomers, people who commit to volunteer projects realize that to have any kind of impact, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for shorter-term experiences and that good things can’t be done in 48 hours. Where there’s a will—and a desire to give back—there’s a way, and travelers who’ve set their sights on charity work who can’t commit to extended lengths of time often use any vacation opportunity to connect with volunteer opportunities wherever and however they can.

It’s not about me.
Remember, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.  Voluntourism isn’t vacation and any company that markets an experience this way should probably be avoided. Anyone looking to enjoy a bit of down time may want to cover that part of the trip first. This way, your needs are out of the way. Being of service is about following someone else’s lead; it’s about putting the needs of the community or the task at hand before your own. You’re there because you want to make a difference and the gift of giving is in knowing that your commitment contributes to the overall impact of a project.

Be prepared.
Committing to volunteer work abroad isn’t something that should be done on a whim. In addition to researching the company you book with, and depending on where you’d like to serve, you may need a visa, vaccinations, and possibly a background check. Doing your homework will help you identify the project that’s right for you.

Since his volunteer experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ken Budd uses his vacation time to lend a hand around the world. It’s part of his mission to live a life that matters. Anyone who’s ever thought about volunteering, whether at home or abroad, may want to read his travel memoir, The Voluntourist. For a listing of credible organizations that market to individual or family volunteer experiences, Peter Greenberg Travel Detective is a good source. Voluntourism.org is a resource with loads of info, and TripAdvisor is another site to review volunteer experiences.

Whether you want to stay local or travel far.  Whether you can commit two nights, two weeks or two months to help make a difference, it’s all good.

Concierges—The Keys To The City.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

This week, I had the incredible opportunity to work with some of the best concierges in New York City.

While I’ve often had the occasion to work with concierges while managing events programs in hotels, as an individual traveler I recommend using their service to help acclimate yourself to any new, or familiar, destination you may visit. We may live in the “just Google it” era, but there’s no substitute for the human touch.

“The thing with us is, yes, it is the Internet age but you have guests that come to you with piles of paper from their online research that you have to sort through to put them on the right track,” says Domenic Alfonzetti, chef (French for lead or head) concierge for the InterContinental Barclay. “You booked the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, it’s not a time ticket. Now you’re stuck queuing for 90 minutes or 2 hours before you can go through the security check and board the ferry. To boot, you didn’t check the weather, it’s raining, and it’s 32 degrees, or there’s too much ice on the Hudson and the boats aren’t going out! It’s always best to check with us first before you do these things,” he said.The Statue of Liberty and the circle line Ferry

Similar to travel agents, concierges will often get you the best rates and save you time as well. They’ll give you the lay of the land, east side, west side, all around the town. Their role as hotel ambassadors isn’t just about recommendations. Speaking with guests and establishing relationships helps concierges glean information and get regular feedback on restaurants, shows, or experiences they can’t get to themselves. They count on guest feedback to get a feel for whether or not to promote these places.

Beyond these doors...

Beyond these doors…

Concierges are also tapped by other sources, like travel agents, for their expertise in sourcing the best experiences within a destination. “There’s a lot of hype in New York City tourism and the concierge is all about substance, about making the discerning choice for our guests,” said Rafael Susana, concierge with London NYC.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

If you’re wondering if millennials use concierge services, they do…in addition to their smartphone. “A lot of young people come down for recommendations and then double check it online” said David Rahner, concierge for JW Marriott Essex House New York. “Or they might have found what they want online but had they not stopped by, they may not get that extra bit of info that they’ll need to know about location, traffic, or the best time of day to reach a destination to avoid rush hour, construction, or some other issue that’ll ruin their plans.”

Another similarity they share with travel agents is that they experience and live the information they deliver.

Nicole Longchamp, concierge for the W New York Downtown said, “It’s about providing service. For me, it’s not work. I’m a natural explorer and when I see things and enjoy them, I share them with people. I notice things that most people don’t notice and see their importance as places of interest—from hole in the wall restaurants to the hardest table to get. My life is my work.”

“The best part is when guests come back smiling and purposefully stop by my desk and give me a report back of how great their day or night was—that’s what makes it so rewarding,” says Rahner.

Ela Orosova, concierge for Loews Regency, will happily share how her service extends beyond the desk. “Many times, we deal with helping guests recover lost items, like passports, iPhones, or other valuables. Often, it’s only through the determination and follow-up of concierges that guests are reunited with their items,” she said. Orosova knows that part of her job is to ensure that a guest isn’t worrying but rather enjoying their trip.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits.  Car not required.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits. Car not required.

Alfonzetti recently taught hospitality classes for over 2,000 Super Bowl volunteers. He said he had a great time teaching, and with his warm personality, approachable manner, and killer smile, he’s a natural for this line of work. Afterward, he went on to represent the New York Concierge Association at the Super Bowl Host Committee media lounge at the Sheraton Times Square this week, where he worked with 52 fellow concierges from around the city. “Assisting the media and other guests who needed info on how to get the most out of this town has provided us a great opportunity to learn from one another and be ambassadors for the city and the state. It’s encouraging other host committees to use the untapped power of the Les Clef d’Or, the national organization, as well as the local organization of concierges.

All of the concierges I met this week have hospitality in their bones and it was a great pleasure to work and learn from them. In fact, whether you’re a traveler or a travel agent, the next time you’re staying in a hotel, if it’s not a regular practice for you, take the time to introduce yourself and ask for their assistance in turning you on to something you don’t have on your itinerary.

In the meantime, here’s an opportunity to meet Domenic Alfonzetti and hear about some of the sweet things he has in store for visitors to New York City (YouTube clips are sometimes temperamental, so if you have any issues viewing the video then just click here):

Return of the Travel Agent.

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Last week’s wintery weather got a lot of play in the news and across the blogosphere. As mentioned in the last post, while the weather wreaked a lot of havoc, travel agents also grabbed some limelight as they came to the rescue of customers stranded in the deep freeze at airports or in places they were trying to make their way to or home from.

On the heels of their success in dealing with the upset caused by the weather disruptions, travel agents are getting another boost. It seems like self-booking online is beginning to drop like those cold temperatures, which has travelers looking towards travel agents for their expertise. For more details around this, check out Travel Agents Back In Demand.

For some folks, getting away from booking online is like weaning yourself off caffeine. We’ve become so addicted to living life through online channels, it’s a hard attachment to walk away from…but it can be done. The same way you bonded to your smartphone, you can bond with a travel agent.

If you’re accustomed to navigating your life through online activity, you probably cringe at the idea of someone else handling your travel. I get it, you like the self-drive aspect. It’s a control thing, especially if you’re good at it.

Most people flock to the web with the goal of finding affordable travel, forgetting that time is money. And while it’s unlikely that millennials will start using travel agents anytime soon, for anyone who has ever been burned by an online travel “deal” or whose online booking has been derailed, there’s security in knowing there’s someone who’s got your back, who’ll go to bat for you, and who acts as a lifeline of sorts. Plus, they’re real and won’t run out of batteries.

After taking a hit from all of the online competition, it’s good to see travel agents on the rise. There’s plenty of great travel booking options to suit every need, let’s not forget that they’re one of them.

Travel Agents Battle Frozen Flights

Hank Cain, Chicago, Polar Vortex

Chicago, a frozen city. (Photo credit: Pilot Hank Cain)

Some people feel a bit pressured over resolutions when the New Year rolls around. If you don’t have any, it’s easy to buy into the belief that you need to make some. At some point, it just becomes overkill.

The thing is, any time is a good time to bring positive changes into your life but the New Year certainly helps. If you’re a travel agent, counselor, advisor, or travel ambassador of any kind, and have been meaning to take a stab at writing about your trips, or publicizing photos or videos of your experiences, then why not use 2014 as the inspiration to do it? Forget about labeling it as a resolution; instead think of it more as a chance to play around.

I haven’t cracked the code entirely on how to deal with the bad angels that hold us back from putting pen to paper but I do believe that giving yourself time to play is one powerful arrow to have in your quiver. And that’s the great thing about writing, or taking pictures. Because when you start playing with an idea you go places in your mind that aren’t set up with boundaries and “do not enter” zones. It’s the ultimate playground. And there’s a bonus to playing, you get happy—and who doesn’t want to be happy?

This week, travel agents have been busy bees, working overtime helping their customers out of a frozen jam. Between holiday travelers trying to make it back home or business travelers hitting the road again, the recent snowstorms that socked the Midwest and Northeast grounded thousands of flights. Things got worse when something called a polar vortex delivered a bone chilling, deep freeze that settled in across much of the country and the temperature plummeted into the single digits.  Chicago, with record-breaking temps of -15 degrees and a wind chill of -47 that gripped the area, seemed to take the brunt of it and looked like a city suspended in a giant ice-pool. Niagara Fall froze.  But when JetBlue canceled thousands of flights it was the icing on the cake.

The polar vortex even gripped Niagra Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The polar vortex even gripped Niagara Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

For anyone who booked their travel online, you could tap away on that smartphone and it wasn’t going to do you much good. Without the likes a travel agent or airline rep trying to sort it all out for you behind the scenes, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that you were getting on a plane. Yeah, I know, I’m tossing the clichés around but it’s kind of hard not to play with them given the circumstances.

Any time there’s disaster that affects air transportation, travel agents hustle to get travelers where they need to go. These days, most folks find it hard to believe there was a time when if you wanted to fly, you’d have to use a travel agent. With all of the online options out there to book travel and hotels, it’s understandable. Especially for anyone who came of age using the Internet.

Polar Vortex, Boston, canceled flights, JetBlue

Boston’s frozen flights.

Although it’s faced mammoth competition from online services, the travel agency industry is still holding its own. It continues to prove that travel agents matter, but it shouldn’t take bad weather or a disaster for consumers to recognize their value.

Right out of the gate, 2014 presented travel advisors with the perfect opportunity to prove their mettle but there’s a lot more that they bring to the party and I hope they share it. With all of the competition out there in the travel zone, agents and advisors shouldn’t feel awkward about tooting their own horn.

It’s a new year—be bold, be brave, have fun with it. Play.

In Jackson Hole, Sleigh Bells Ring.

Feel the call of the wild at Spring Creek Ranch, WY.

Feel the call of the wild at Spring Creek Ranch, WY.

The holidays are staycation time for me. Like most people, it gives me a chance to catch up with old friends  or check out festive things happening in and around the town.  It’s like a  “time out” of sorts to indulge and maybe even be a bit lazy but when I heard about Spring Creek Ranch, I found myself wishing I could jump on a plane with a few friends tonight.

Sign me up and giddy up. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Sign me up.  (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Located just 10 minutes from Jackson Hole in Wyoming, conditions are cream of the crop when it comes to skiing. As someone who learned to ski on the black ice of Vermont’s Killington Mountain, being able to glide across fine, white powder is like dreaming on a goose down mattress after chasing sleep on a hardwood floor. Any opportunity to ski in those conditions is a gift but it’s their wildlife and natural history safaris that caught my attention.

Muledeer.  (Photo:  Spring Creek Ranch)

Muledeer. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

Being smack in the middle of a winter wonderland on a horse-drawn sleigh surrounded by herds of elk sounds like a plan to me. Another ride takes you over to East Gros Ventre Butte, a mountain summit with one of the most spectacular views in the country. Afterwards, you can warm up with a hot toddy or a lovely meal at The Granary and marvel at the views of the Grand Tetons. A snowshoe hike will get your cardio going a bit while you follow tracks set by local wildlife. There’s dog-sledding, tubing, and ice-skating, too. If you’re into winter sports, Spring Creek Ranch offers unique experiences to enjoy these activities and absorb the stunning and natural environment that surrounds you. They even have a photo safari led by a professional photographer. For anyone who likes to bliss out behind a camera, this one’s for you.

View from The Granary. (Photo:  Spring Creek Ranch)

View from The Granary. (Photo: Spring Creek Ranch)

People often associate the term “safari” with far off places but the truth is there are plenty of safari experiences to be had in the US. The ones Spring Creek Ranch offers are calling my name.

Named “2014’s Best Overall Resort In North America” by Ski Magazine, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort offers by far some of the best conditions on the planet for enjoying the white stuff.   If frolicking in the cold isn’t your idea of a good time, there are loads of activities in the spring and summer.  From horseback riding, to balloon rides, to white water rafting, it’s an adventure travelers dreamscape.  Even better, the airport, the only one located within a national park, has direct flights from most major cities in the US.

As I compile my list of where to go next year, it looks like this is falling within the top ten. So many places to go and so much to see.

It’s the holidays, I can dream, can’t I?

Mousehole Memories.

The Mousehole Cat, Mousehole, Cornwall

Mousehole. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

One Christmas many years ago, I woke way too early and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I ended up watching British Christmas stories on Public Television. One stuck with me, The Mousehole Cat.

Tom & Mowzer. (Illustration:  Nicola Bayley)

Tom & Mowzer. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

It was the story of Mowzer, a cat, and of her fisherman, Tom. They lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole,  (pronounced Mowzal) named for its tiny harbor with a narrow mouth that hid the town’s small boats  safely behind the rock wall. The vivid illustration was eye-catching and the narrated story told the curious tale of these two soul mates that sailed the sea together to bring back a daily catch of hake, ling, launces and fairmaids. It portrayed a town life of community, animals, of sustenance from the sea, the cruelty of Mother Nature, and of love. At the end of the story the illustration dissolves into scenes of real life taking place in Mousehole during Christmas. It was inviting and if you’ve ever visited Cornwall, you’d appreciate everything you might think the season would look and feel like in this small, seaside town. I was hooked.

The following Christmas my boyfriend’s parents, who live in England, gave me the book, The Mousehole Cat. A year later he took me to Mousehole and I felt like I was in the book. It was just as picturesque, inviting, and charming as it appeared in the story. Mousehole is a hilly and curvy town with winding alleys and there were cats everywhere. Cats on cars, cat sitting all about the cobble-stoned lanes, cats in gardens, cats lounging in front of shops. We drove very slow. And there was also the mouse-hole shaped harbor, just like in the book.

The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber, Nicola Bayley

Mowzer’s & Tom’s daily catch. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

Such a safe and pretty harbor.

Such a safe and pretty harbor.

We booked into an inn that looked out over the harbor where colorful fishing boats bobbed about. Then we freshened up and strolled the town. Us Americans seem to fall easily for the quaintness of English culture and here I was surrounded by it. My guy, born and raised across the pond, seemed to get a kick out my enthusiasm.  Seeing as how he’d never been to this part of Cornwall, he gave into the magic of it all as well.

At a small café we enjoyed Cornish pasties and, even though I didn’t need them, afterwards I stuffed my face with fresh cream and scones. We popped into a few local art galleries and passed gardens exploding with flora and fauna typically seen in warmer zones.  Stone cottages with flower boxes overflowing with bright purple petunias, scarlet million bells, and host of other bright petals in various hues of blues and yellows were inviting.  The cliff walk welcomed us with briny air and a carpet of wildflowers. Mousehole is designated an “Area Of Outstanding National Beauty” by the British National Trust. With its natural beauty, charismatic culture and atmosphere, it easily earns that distinction. Because of its sheltered coast and mild climate, there’s a whole ecosystem going on here.

Mousehole, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, cats

Mousehole cats chilling out.

Back in the room I gazed out on the harbor, thinking about Mowzer and Tom. That night we enjoyed dinner in a local pub, The Ship Inn, surrounded by locals. Fisherman hugged the brass rail, drinking amber lager or ale with thick beards of foam. We had cider, shared a bowl of Cornish mussels and sopped up every drop of the garlicky, white wine sauce with granary bread. I ordered the John Dory but I really wanted star-gazy pie, a traditional Cornish dish made with pilchards, eggs and potatoes but it wasn’t on the menu that night. It’s baked in a pie dish, with fish heads and tails popping out the pastry crust, just like in the book.

Each year on December 23 Mousehole welcome locals and visitors to celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. The festival is a celebration of this legendary Mousehole fisherman who risked his life during a severe storm to end the famine that had come to the town. The festivities include a lantern procession and lots of star-gazy pie. Antonia Barber, inspired by the legend and the tradition, made Tom more famous when she wrote The Mousehole Cat and partnered with Nicola Bayley who created the fine and imaginative illustration.

Mousehole, Cornall, Christmas, England, illuminations, Britian

Christmas time in Mousehole.

This year, Mousehole celebrates its 50th anniversary of Christmas illuminations. This little town puts on one of England’s most spectacular displays that lights up the harbor, raises money for charity and draw people far and wide. The celebrations kicked off this past Saturday and will run to January 4.

Tintagel Caste, Merlin's Cave, Cornwall, Cornish coast, England, United Kingdom, ruins

Tintagel Castle.

We traveled by car from London to Mousehole. The trip took about four hours and we stopped along the way for treats. I almost caused an accident when my guy said, “There’s Stonehenge” and in my excitement slammed on the breaks and asked where? But come on, it’s not every day you see a historic druid monument just off a motorway.  And I was driving on the wrong side of the road, on the road side of the car.  After Mousehole we tripped along the Cornish coastline, drove through pretty towns along single lane roads tunneled by hedges so high all you can see is the sky above you.  We passed through Land’s End and visited the ruins of  Tintagel Castle, where Merlin’s Cave is said to lay beneath along sparkling, cobalt blue water.

My visit was a treasure and as much as I’d like to be in Mousehole right now, I’m content with my own little tradition. I’ll curl up on the coach with a steaming cup of English tea and The Mousehole Cat. I may even take a crack at whipping up a star-gazy pie this year, although I may have to substitute the pilchards.

Ever been to Mousehole? If so, I’d love to hear your stories. If not, here’s a peek (but if you don’t see the link below then just click here):

Tis The Season…For Great Travel Books!

One of the very cool images from Safari: A Photicular Book.

One of the very cool images from Safari: A Photicular Book.

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
–St. Augustine

It’s the Christmas season. It’s also a time when gift giving gets a bit stressful. But hey, why makes things hard on yourself? If you’ve got people in your life who love to travel—whether they’re friends or customers—there are plenty of goodies out there that’ll bring a smile to their face and give them fresh ideas. The best part is, you don’t have to go far to find them. They’re most probably right in your neighborhood or just a click away. Inspiration is everywhere but it’s especially nice when it comes gift-wrapped, so here are a few hints to make your life easer:

Published last year, Safari: A Photicular Book is stunning. I’d like one myself! It was created with something called Motion Viewer design that brings the images on the page to life. It’s an eye-catching book and a great educational tool for children or just about anyone who loves animals. It might even inspire safari travel and how cool would that be?

Anyone with a love for photography will lose themselves in the black and white imagery in Genesis. Sebastião Salgado’s eight-year photo project that he calls his “love letter to the planet.” From South America to the Sudan, he traveled to over 32 destinations, mostly by foot, to capture the most incredible images.  Within this book anyone can explore Earth’s untouched regions. A great escape.

I’ve got a friend who’s determined to visit every national park in the U.S. If you have one too, then you might want to put this on your gift list. America’s National Parks is a treasure that springs to life in your hands. This pop-up picture book is fun, beautiful and educational. Even better, a portion of the book’s proceeds go directly to the National Parks Conservation Association, so you’re really giving two gifts. Just looking at it will have you jonesing for an Airstream trailer.

Keeping in line with gifts that keep on giving, how about magazine subscriptions? For just twenty bucks or less, they also make a great stocking stuffer. Depending on which one you choose, they’re mailed monthly or quarterly which is a nice treat for the lucky recipient. My picks are AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, or Travel + Leisure. If these magazines don’t inspire travel, I don’t know what will!

Tis the season, so spread the wealth and please contribute any literary travel gift ideas you’ve got up your sleeve.

Let’s get people in the air, on the waves, road, rails, and trails.

Cheers!

Many Rivers To Cross With AmaWaterways.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

River cruising is becoming a preferred choice for vacations as travelers seek out new experiences. Hard to believe that the industry only emerged in 1992 after the completion of the Main-Danube Canal, making it possible for pretty much all of Europe to leverage its maritime landscape. While the Continent’s rivers had long been used for merchant trading, the completion of the Canal opened up new routes and provided the European travel industry with unique opportunities for travelers to experience this destination from an entirely different point of view.

While American travel companies didn’t jump on board until around 10 years later, they quickly witnessed the rise of river cruising once they rolled out their ships. One of the lines making a name for itself on this side of the Atlantic is AmaWaterways, which operates voyages in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. For anyone who’s never been on a cruise or doesn’t like the idea of being on the open ocean, river cruising offers a unique opportunity to test the waters. I had a chat with Gary Murphy, Vice President of Sales from AmaWaterways to learn more about its growing appeal.

Q: For an industry that’s fairly young, you’re doing pretty well. What’s all the fuss?
A: Over 90% of the folks who book with us are people who enjoy cruising but want a more intimate experience than on a gigantic ship. They love the feeling of going on a smaller boutique type of experience. Depending on the itinerary and ship, we max out at 162 guests. River cruising can be a very leisurely vacation or it can be extremely active. The ship is not the destination like it is on an ocean cruise.

AMAWaterways' Zambezi Queen

AMAWaterways’ Zambezi Queen

Q: What do you want people to know about this bird’s eye view?
A: When you look at river cruising, you need to look at it like a floating hotel. Many cities in Europe evolved along the banks of major rivers and a river cruise can take you right to the historic center of those cities. Often, you’re asleep when the ship is en route to the next destination. If you’re going through central Europe on a motor coach or train, you’re traveling during the day. On the ship you wake up in a new town, go out and explore it, come back to the ship for lunch, then cruise to another town. There’s always something new to see.

Q: What about those bikes on your European itineraries.
A: We once had a group of six women who planted the seed for guided bike tours. They were on a cruise in the Netherlands and didn’t take the daily sightseeing tours with us – instead, they borrowed our bikes and planned out their own routes, cycling to the next port and meeting back up with the ship. They did all the research themselves, which was a bit of work for them. So we thought, let’s do this for our guests. Now on every European itinerary (except Portugal) we’re the only river cruise line that travels with over 25 bikes stored on the ship. They’re completely complimentary and guests love being able to explore on their own or take a guided bike tour.

Q: So you’re giving it up for us gals here, right?
A: It was a great idea and we’re happy to give those women full credit! Women like to bike and they don’t want to have to carry their luggage with them or have a van follow them. Many of our ships cruise along the Rhine or Danube, both of which have paved bike paths along the riverbanks, completely separate from the roads. On certain days you can ride ahead of the ship, going through small towns along the way, and meet the ship in the next port. If the ship is in port all day, you can borrow a bike and sightsee on your own, returning to the ship later that afternoon. On our guided bike tours we have two guides, one who rides in front with the fastest rider and one who rides in back with the slowest rider. They’re there to keep an eye on everything.

Vineyards along Portugal's Douro River.

Vineyards along Portugal’s Douro River.

Q: What’s the most popular itinerary these days?
A: The most popular cruise for the company is also the most popular cruise with women, Budapest to Nuremburg on the Danube. It’s a great itinerary with Vienna, Budapest, a pre/post stay in Prague, and pretty little towns like Durnstein and Melk. Another popular one is our Paris & Normandy cruise. France is commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, and our Paris & Normandy itinerary includes some special excursions to the D-Day beaches. And we have a Knitting Cruise that sails over New Year’s in 2014, which is already 60% sold out.

The Danube.

The Danube.

Q: I don’t knit but it might be a good excuse to learn. Who’s the inspiration behind these ideas?
A: Kristin Karst, our Executive Vice President, is very creative, very active and she loves designing eclectic itineraries. For instance, she created a Chocolate Cruise where guests visit a castle, see how chocolates are made, and learn how to pair dark chocolate with red wine. Our culinary and wine tours are really popular. In Austria, guests on our wine cruises get to do a tasting of Sekt, the Austrian version of champagne, served inside a mountain cave outside the town of Schlumberger.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Up close and personal in Normandy.

Q: You’ve added a new destination in 2014 that’s long been closed to tourists. Tell me about Myanmar.
A: It’s a niche market. We like going into destinations that are interesting to operate in. Our president, Rudi Schreiner, is a river cruising pioneer who loves going into new areas of business and designing ships that best serve that area. Our ships in Mekong are hands down the best ships there. Rudi is designing a ship for Myanmar, a beautiful small ship with only 28 suites. It’s the perfect size to operate on the Ayeyarwady River.

Q: For all its popularity, there’s not a lot of advertising for river cruising. Why is that?
A: We advertise in conjunction with retail travel agents and all of our business comes through them. We create a lot of educational tools for travel agents because it’s very important for them to understand our product and the exceptional value we offer. A good travel agent can point out the differences and benefits between competitors and help clients determine which river cruise is the best choice for them. The best travel agents are the ones who know how to match their clients to the right product.

Q: Younger people don’t typically cruise, are you seeing any changes there?
A: We’re seeing them in multi-generational family travel because river cruising lends itself to that type of vacation experience. For instance, teenagers or active folks can bike, their parents can go on a culinary tour, the grandparents can go on a leisurely walking tour, and then you all meet back on board to share a meal and spend some time together as a family.

You know, two years ago I went surfing in Indonesia and brought my family with me. We were standing in the airport and my daughters started complaining about the long flying time. My 16-year old turned to me and said, “Dad, we should have just taken another river cruise!”

Curious if a river cruise is the way to go? Learn more at AmaWaterways or speak with a travel agent.

Remembering a Globe Trotter.

He traveled from here to Timbuktu and lots of other places.

He traveled from here to Timbuktu and lots of other places.

A particular piece of news caught my eye last week when I read about the death of William Haeseler III.

Who, you might ask?

For most people, the name probably doesn’t ring a bell.  It didn’t ring a bell for me either but the fact that he spent his life traveling around the world did.  The fact that he spent his career as a travel agent did, and the fact that he wrote about his travels in a weekly column got my attention.

Except for obituary mentions, when I googled Mr. Haeseler he doesn’t show up anywhere.  I looked for Mr. Haeseler on Facebook and on LinkedIn but didn’t find him there either.  It’s possible he had a presence on those social media sites and that his profiles were pulled down quickly, but I don’t think so.  What he did have was a presence in the travel industry.  Along with his wife, he led tours to remote destinations like Antarctica and Timbuktu. You never hear of anyone going to Timbuktu.

He also won National Geographic’s geography contest.  The prize? Around-the-world vacations for him and his wife.

Mr. Haeseler knew his stuff.  Originally from North Tonawanda, NY, he traveled to over 150 countries.  He even wrote a book, My Whole Life Was A Vacation.  His weekly column, Globe Trotting, ran for more than 20 years in his local paper.  This guy clearly lived and breathed travel and used his position as a travel agent as a platform to shout about it. That, I’m sure, generated a boatload of business for him within his local community and perhaps even further afield. No one told him it was part of his job, no one told him it wasn’t.  I suppose it just seemed natural for him to share his experiences and love of places.  It was a passion and when something becomes a passion it injects desire, discovery and inspiration into your personal and professional life and you want to share it.  He died at 83.

We could all learn a thing or two from Mr. Haeseler.  Travel agents who toy around with writing about their experiences need to come out of the shadows.  Be bold, take the first step, trip, fall, get up and do it all over again.   Just keep at it, make it a habit. Sound your voice.  It may or not be squeaky but the only way to know is to share it.

It’s easy to cuddle up in the arms of resistance but it’s a dangerous place to live if you want to stay relevant in this ever-changing industry.

Thank you Mr. Haeseler for your exploratory spirit on and off the page.  Thank you for sharing and for showing us how it’s done.

Read more about William Haeseler III.

Don’t Fear The Reaper.

'Til death do us part.  (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

‘Til death do us part. (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

“How do you say skeleton in Spanish?”

It was my first trip outside of the U.S.  I was 11 years old and sitting on the edge of my bed in the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City watching cartoons. A kid was dancing with a chorus line of skeletons. Their bones rattled as they danced around. Intrigued, I asked my mom to translate for me. “El esqueleto,” she answered.

It was October. A time of year when Mexicans prepare to celebrate el Dia de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead. From October 31-November 2, they gather to honor friends and family who’ve died. During this cultural celebration, each day has its own significance with lots of preparation leading up to it. In many homes, alters adorned with marigolds, incense, candles and candies are created. The belief is that during this time the gates of heaven open and spirits return to their loved ones.  It’s a reunion of sorts and families picnic in cemeteries.  Great festivities take place.  It’s even a bank holiday.  Sugar skulls, confectionary coffins and elaborately painted skeletons are also displayed.

Some people get a little freaked out by this idea. Not me. Raised on good, old-fashioned horror movies, many a night was spent huddled with my siblings on the couch with a fresh bowl of popcorn waiting for a ghoul to appear on the screen. I love this stuff and what kid doesn’t like sugar? Even more, I became fascinated with the little clay, hand painted skeleton figurines I’d glimpse around the town and in shop windows.

How sweet are these? (Photo credit:  Examiner.com)

How sweet are these? (Photo credit: Examiner.com)

The only thing more enticing than exploring the Camino Real Hotel, with the scent of Mexican oregano and poblano chili drifting from its restaurant, was ogling the skeletons set up in various scenes of everyday life. A bride and groom, a cowboy on a horse, a few fellows playing pool, a guitar player. You name, they created it. Mexican art can be whimsical and playful, and its full wickedness appears in the Day of the Dead dioramas.

Must be the season of the witch.  (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

Must be the season of the witch. (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

By day we explored the city and walked its streets. We visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where Mexicans and tourists made their way across the plaza to its doors upon their knees to honor her significance and gaze upon the cloak of Juan Diego that holds her image. We explored the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park where I became intrigued by another relic, the Aztec Calendar with its secrets locked within its stone. Afterwards, we strolled around Chapultepec Park. With its forest and lakes, the park is an oasis in the city.

I was digging all the old stuff and don’t think my mom was thinking too clearly when she agreed to a visit to the Pyramid of the Sun. She booked us a tour and we took an early morning bus to the ancient city of Teotihuacán. When we arrived a local guide gave an orientation about the ruins, where 200,000 inhabitants vanished without a trace. Even today, they still don’t know how this place was built.  I was intrigued again. My mom on the other hand went a bit pale as she gazed up at the very steep, 250-step climb ahead of us. Had anyone else been with us, she probably would have bagged it. But seeing how it was just us, she boldly took the first step. “Don’t look down” became the mantra as I held her hand from time to time, and we ascended higher and higher. When we reached the top she was quite pleased with herself. We stayed there for a while, staring out across the land, wondering what life must have been like for the people who once lived there and where they went. Getting down the pyramid was a different story and a whole different mantra.

Don't look down.  Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

Don’t look down. Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

On the way home the bus stopped along a market route where locals sold treasures made from famed Mexican silver. I’ve never seen so much silver in once place.   My mom bought me a bracelet. It was wide with cutouts and a detailed Aztec calendar intricately carved within its silver.  Decades later I sold it a stoop sale. What was I thinking?

But I still have the tiny skeleton figurines on my bedroom bureau. Like the Aztec Sun calendar, and the ruins of Teotihuacán, they remind me that everything changes and that everything can go poof in a second.

And this why we travel, right? To come outside of our own world, learn something new and, often times, something that makes sense.

That’s the real treat.