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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fee-Fi-Fomites: Avoiding Germs Like the Plague

Okay, Ladies and Germs:

It's time to improve your word power. Today's lexeme is fomite. What it is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, is an inanimate object (such as a doorknob) that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and serves in their transmission. For the air traveler, fomites are lurking everywhere you look, and even places you don't.

Let's ponder the cribs of fomites at the airport. We'll start with the touch screens on the self-service check-in machines. Next, let's wander over to the elevator and ATM buttons. I like to feel I've escaped relatively unscathed from these areas thanks to the use of knuckles rather than fingertips.

You might want to avoid touching handrails lining stairways and escalators. But admittedly, it's pretty hard to avoid touching the locks on bathroom stalls and the flushing implements on toilets ('nuf said). At the very least, use a paper towel to open the door handle leading you out of the bathroom.

Now, even if you manage to make it through the airport fomite-free, good luck on the airplane, my friend. There's the fomite on your tray table. There's the fomite in your seatback pocket (which is a popular place to stuff used tissues, if you catch my drift). Speaking of drifts, there's the ventilation system to consider. Since you are dealing with recirculated air, the best bet is to avoid using the overhead air vent, which can blow fomites straight into your lungs. Other ventilation notes--air circulation tends to be better toward the front of the plane. So if you sit in the first 10 rows, you are exposed to fewer germs. That said, if a passenger in your row or in three rows behind or in front of you is hacking away, you're screwed, no matter where you are sitting. When you get off that plane, all you can do is take your Emergen-C, use other immunity-strengthening strategies, pray, and get plenty of sleep.

Back to our friends the Fomites. The Fo Fighters are at their mightiest in the airplane lavatory. Ah, yes, those lovely lockers that challenge even the most flexible contortionist when nature calls. Simply put, airplane lavs are disgusting. How often do you see them cleaned during flight? It really makes one question the mental health of those who use said privies to join the Mile-High Club.

But I digress. Even if you wash your hands prior to exiting the W/C, you are not out of the woods. First, consider that the Environmental Protection Agency has found that 17 percent of all water taps on airplanes contain coliform bacteria (and hold that thought as well...we'll get back to it in a minute). So, that water you are using to clean your hands--maybe not so much. Secondly, to escape from the W/C, you must touch that door handle. I have taken to using a towelette to open the escape hatch, so that I don't have to use hand sanitizer upon returning to my seat. (Then I dispose of the fomite-filled towelette in the seatback pocket).

Okay, back to those water taps. Included in the EPA tap list are those in the kitchen galley. That means the water used to make coffee or tea is running through a germ-filled tap 17 percent of the time. And since said water is seldom boiled to the point where germs will be eliminated, consider that your cuppa java may by plagued with pathogens. So, you might want to buy your Starbucks in the airport and bring it on the plane.

Remember, dear reader, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. But let me proffer a few closing tips for fending off those foul fomites. The best advice I can offer is to be aware of your surroundings, wash frequently, carry hand sanitizer and a brawny supply of paper towels, and run like hell when the person sitting next to you in the waiting area starts sneezing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tips on Tipping

I’ve read many articles on tipping at hotels, but today’s USA Today article is one of the best summaries I’ve seen. Even I, the experienced travel expert, learned a tip or two.

To wit, I’ve always been confused about when and how much to tip the parking valet at a hotel. Here’s the deal, according to the six etiquette and hospitality industry experts polled in the article. When a valet opens the car door for you--no tip. When said valet takes your car to park it, no tip necessary (although half the experts say one could tip about $2). However, when said valet returns the car to you from the parking lot, our experts say you owe $2 to $5. I imagine if you have a clunker, $2 is acceptable, while Porsche owners should pony up $5. (Although perhaps there should be a reverse correlation between compensation and the value of the car. After all, the experience of propelling a Porsche is priceless, while prodding a Pacer is not so valuable to the valet).

But we digress. Back to tipping, this time inside the house.

The rules of tipping housekeepers are rather blurry. Many people don’t realize that maids are part of the tipping landscape. Most of the experts in the USA Today survey say $1 to $2 a night is fine, with higher daily amounts for luxury hotels. Instead of leaving one tip at the end of the stay, tip every day to ensure the person who is doing the work gets the reward. Plus, since one interpretation of the word “tip” is “to insure prompt service” (although methinks insure should be replaced with ensure or assure), a daily tip may result in a cleaner room or an extra bottle of skin lotion.

Most of the other basics are well-known: A bellman gets a buck or two per bag; the concierge is only tipped for special services (hard-to-get reservations at restaurants or the theater; filling out-of-the-ordinary requests); waiters get 15% to 20% of the pre-tip bill (unless they are working a buffet, when only 10% to 15% is necessary).

Who doesn’t get a tip? Generally, the front desk staff, the room service deliverer (assuming service is included in the bill), and the Maytag repairman. After all, if something is wrong with a guestroom, the occupant should hardly be required to compensate Mr. Fix-It.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum? No, Free-Wi-Fi-Fo-Fum!

It may cost you an arm and a leg to buy a ticket for holiday travel, and you may have to pay up to $100 more per trip for baggage check-in, in-flight food and a blanket, but Yes, Virginia, there is a skyward Santa Claus. Instead of riding with Vixen and Dasher, though, he’s Wi-Flying Virgin and Delta, courtesy of EBay and Google.

Right now, EBay is only playing Kris Kringle to fliers on select Delta flights during Thanksgiving week. Still, the free Wi-Fi by EBay means fliers can get an early start on holiday shopping. Meantime, Virgin America is teaming up with Google to offer free in-flight Wi-Fi to all passengers on all of its planes from now through January 15. Ho, ho, ho.

But the Google gift-giving doesn’t stop there. The Internet giant is truly getting into the holiday spirit by providing free Wi-Fi at 47 airports across the country through January 15. While most of the airports on the list are located in medium-sized cities (Baltimore, Nashville, Oklahoma City), travelers venturing through Seattle, Boston, Houston, and San Diego will also be recipients of Google’s magnanimity. However, if you’re traveling through JFK, Newark, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington, DC, there's no Google for the frugal. Still, the airports that Google is covering handle more than a third of all U.S. air travelers.

Travelers can pay the holiday cheer forward by making an optional donation to select non-profits while on line in the airport. Google will match donations up to a maximum of $250,000.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Laura Talks Travel Deals on TV

As promised, here's this week's appearance on DC's NewsChannel8. Please note that after the segment ran, several airlines, including United, American, Delta and Northwest, raised their "bah humbug fees" (for travel on holidates) from $10 up to $20 one-way.