How to book your vacation

In my last column, I wrote about my friend Maryam, whose trip to Hawaii was tarnished by several booking mistakes. Since that column generated a lot of interest, I thought I would tell a different story this time-- a story about another friend, Robert,

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When traveling, it pays to be active

Also Available at MSNBC.com
You've gone thousands of miles, so why not leave the beaten path?
Increasingly, travel is woven into our daily lives. Whether for business, pleasure or holiday merry-making, travel is as much a part of our lives as MP3 players and cable TV.
With so many people traveling (42 million Americans will travel over the holidays alone), I'd like to make the case for treating travel as a hands-on adventure, rather then a passive sightseeing opportunity. It can make a big difference in the rewards you reap.
Here's an example. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Panama. Naturally, I ventured down to the famous canal. While dining on the top level of the canal restaurant, I watched a cruise boat navigate the lock, transiting from west to east. Passengers lined the decks, waving gaily to those along the shore. "How boring," I thought, and sad, too. Here are all these people who've traveled so far and they're stuck on a bacteria-ridden boat, waving as opportunity passes them by.
Determined not to be a passive traveler, I ventured off in my four-wheel-drive truck to see the real sights. I found a local crossing point and stopped in the middle of the canal for a close-up view of the lock mechanisms -- truly a marvel of engineering. I continued along a dirt road until I literally could drive no more. I had arrived at an idyllic, tranquil cove offering a billion-dollar view. A couple of fishing boats were returning to shore -- just dinghies really, with small outboard motors. I offered the guys a few cold waters I had in the truck, and we chatted about this and that. One offered to take me out for a short ride, and I accepted. It was a priceless experience -- totally unique and personal, and nothing like the touristy shore excursions the cruise passengers were in for.
Another such blessing occurred when I was in Ethiopia, where I was traveling with a group to see the countryside, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the giant ancient monoliths in Aksum. (For two excellent articles on this little-visited country, see On the Right Track in Ethiopia and Advancement in Ethiopia. I was there for the nature and the history, but I found a spiritual renewal sitting among a crowd of local men drinking a beer and talking about sports, music and even a little politics (there is a picture of me with the group in the first link above). Most of the conversation was happy and trifling, but I also learned that one of the group, a youngster of about 13, had lost all his family and was living on the streets. Despite his sad story, you could not have found a better-adjusted kid, who joked with me when I called him Snoop Doggy for his love of rap.
Now, I am no stranger to poverty, but something about the people of Ethiopia genuinely touched me, and I was glad to have stopped by the side of that dusty road. While my travel companions were stuck watching a touristy coffee ceremony, I was sitting on a tree stump talking and laughing and drinking with some wonderful people. Of course, as word got out that an American was handing out beers, more and more townspeople came out to greet me, but no one was begging for anything or taking advantage of the situation. With each beer, I received a heartfelt "Thank you." All in all, I spent about $12 to buy 25 beers, and I got another priceless moment.
When it comes to travel I truly have been blessed. This past year I traveled to more than 21 countries. I saw the ancient pyramids in Egypt, the wonders of the Roman Empire, and the beauty of Budapest. I visited Vietnam and found it easy to understand why Sen. John McCain has become so devoted to this country. I travel first class and I stay at 5-star hotels, but what really hits home are the everyday people I meet along the way. The boy doing perfect back flips in the field beyond the Queen of Sheba's throne, and his luminous smile when I gave him 50 birr (about $5). The Ethiopian farmers cultivating the land as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. These are people and blessings I'll hold dear this year.
My advice is to embrace the wonderful world of travel. If you can get off that cruise ship or tour bus and rub shoulders with the locals -- do it. Of course, be careful, but experience tells me that there is much in this world to discover if you let down your guard just a little. Put aside your first-class airs and humble yourself to the world around you. Open your eyes, open your mind, open your heart -- open your wallet if you have to. The blessings will all be yours.

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Get the service you deserve

Also Available at MSNBC.com
Hotel hospitality often times makes or breaks a trip
The world is not wanting for world-class museums, historical churches or breathtaking views. Nor is it lacking in companies providing planes, trains or automobiles. What the discerning traveler does not find often enough are travel providers offering high-quality service.
To my mind, travel is service. Wherever I travel, the quality of service I receive is what makes a trip memorable or a disaster. Price is not the issue. I believe service should be excellent whether you are staying at an ultradeluxe Four Seasons Hotel or a value-orientated Hilton Garden Inn. In fact, I have stayed at the crème de la crème of hotels whose service was terrible and at value hotels whose service far exceeded expectations.
It is important to differentiate between true service-oriented travel providers and those whose commitment to service is only a facade. Let me use a few examples from recent hotel visits to demonstrate my point. With the exception of the hotel in Vietnam, none of the hoteliers knew I was a travel writer. Ironically, the Vietnam hotel is my example of poor service.
The Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo is one of the pre-eminent hotels in the world, and my first visit there, in 2001, was an exceptional experience that has probably spoiled me. On a recent visit, however, a few hiccups occurred. Nothing serious, but a collection of small things like having to call twice to have my cell phone brought up from my car, and having to make more than one call to get ice and an international adaptor brought to my room. All in all, not a big deal. But when I checked out and mentioned that the service was not as great as it had been on my previous trip, the front desk clerk notified the general manager, who came to the desk, personally apologized and then took care of my bill. (Now this was way beyond the call of duty, as my daily rate was 520 euros per night!)
On another occasion, I was checking into the Hotel Palace in Barcelona when my colleague noticed that the rate was 15 euros higher than what he thought we had been quoted and that breakfast was not included in the rate as he had expected. As it turns out, my colleague was wrong on both counts, but come Monday morning, the manager approached us during breakfast to say that he had adjusted the rate and that breakfast would be included after all.
Now the Vietnam story. This one is instructive because it illustrates what I've found to be a common combination: gorgeous view, lousy service. When I was in Vietnam in October, I had the opportunity to visit Evason Hideaway & Six Senses Spa at Ana Mandara, a resort located on its own island -- arguably one of the most picturesque settings in the world. But I found the staff to be unwelcoming, forgetful, slow and indifferent to its guests (I got not so much as an apology when the gift shop clerk gave my purchases to another guest). Of course, service often takes its cue from leadership, and this resort is run by an arrogant general manager who (among other things) failed to return phone calls when I inquired about a pair of shoes I had left in my room; he later answered my complaint that it had cost me $40 in phone charges to reach him with an abrupt "I can't do anything about that."
Don't get me wrong. Quality service doesn't mean you get a refund every time you have a bad experience. This past summer, I visited The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest. I must have had a bad flight, because I got all upset over something silly like having to wait for a minute before the front desk picked up the phone. When I complained (and I had no right to), the hotel manager personally apologized and gave me his direct number should I need anything else from the hotel. Here I was whining, and yet the hotel showed me respect and demonstrated care for my experience. This hotel manager made his guest whole.
The Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C. takes an equally respectful and proactive approach toward customer service, placing complimentary bottles of Voss water in every guest room. Many hotels offer bottles of water, of course, but they typically come with a tag saying you can enjoy the water for a $15 extra charge! The Park Hyatt also offers two empty slots in the mini-bar for your own beverages. Nice touch. Another nice touch: When I called the operator to get the room service department, he did not transfer the call but instead promptly took my order himself.
Commitment to service is also expressed as a willingness to listen to the customer and change business practice. During a recent trip to Ethiopia, Green Land Tours led me through the many wonders of northern Ethiopia. On the last day of my trip, I spoke to the owner of this tour company and told him that his buses were not up to par and that I couldn't recommend the company to other travelers because of it. Well, between the language barrier and my boorish attitude, we had a clashing of Titans (mind you, the buses weren't awful; I'm just a tough critic). Later that evening we cleared up our misunderstanding, as Dario, the owner, explained to me the difficulty of obtaining financing for tour buses and how they can cost more than $60,000. I apologized for my ignorance -- and arrogance -- and we made friends. The very next day, Dario sent an e-mail saying that despite the large investment, his company was expanding its bus fleet to better serve its customers. Hearing the customers and acting on their feedback is the highest proof that a company cares about you.
Finding hotels with good service can be tricky. You can't rely on the ratings of peer-to-peer sites such as TripAdvisor, especially if you have high standards for service. Instead, I recommend that you call the hotel yourself and get an idea of how they treat their guests by asking questions about the property. You might also ask how long the manager has been there. A new manager does not necessarily signify trouble, but if someone new is on board, you might ask what happened to the last manager. Finally, go with well established hotel groups. The Hiltons and Four Seasons of the hotel world work hard to keep their brands up.
Travel is service. When you come across a travel provider that offers value and quality service, you are certainly in for a good ride.

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Delta US Airways: No way!

After spending a week in Ethiopia with no connection to the civilized world, I returned to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., to see the most ridiculous headline of the year: “US Airways makes $8.76 billion bid for Delta.�
I thought that maybe I was delusional or suffering from malaria.

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Flying first class? Not today, sir

Imagine my surprise when the ticket agent told me that I did not have a first class seat. “What?� I sputtered. �But I confirmed that seat just an hour ago!� On this particular occasion, comfort was foremost in my mind. Just a day earlier I had flown 8,000 miles home from Vietnam, and now I was jumping on a plane for another 6,500 miles to the South of France. When you’re traveling more than halfway around the world in less than 24 hours, comfort seems like a big deal. But the agent...

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Make the most of your loyalty program

Deadlines are approaching: Don't miss out on your rewards
Are you a frequent flier, frequent car renter or frequent hotel guest? Have you checked the calendar lately? Important deadlines are fast approaching. If you don't plan ahead, you may lose your chance for hard-earned rewards.

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Are we safer now? You bet!

Don't buy into propaganda. The state of air travel has improved
By know we have all been inundated with reminders that we passed the fifth anniversary of 9/11 on Monday. Americans cannot and should not forget the atrocious attacks on American soil -- attacks that shocked and changed the world forever.

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A contrarian trip to Europe

Europe has not been on my list of top travel destinations this year, mainly because of the unfavorable exchange rate. My theory of "contrarian travel" generally takes me to places offering better value but, like many travelers, I sometimes yearn for Europe's beautiful cathedrals, quaint towns, charming cafes and culinary delights.

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Has American Express lost it?

Starting Oct. 1, 2006, American Express will eliminate a valuable point-earning scheme for holders of its Green, Gold and Platinum cards when it stops awarding double points for "Everyday Spending," i.e. purchases made at supermarkets, drug stores and gas stations.

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Gotta get me a cool car

How to get a sweet ride without breaking the bank
On a recent trip to Spain, I rented a BMW 3 Series car with Hertz's NeverLost GPS system and unlimited mileage for 92 euros a day.

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