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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's Up in Albania

If you are interested in reading about how tourism is developing in Albania, please check out my article at National Geographic Traveler's blog. The address is www.intelligenttravel.typepad.com. The entry was posted July 16, 2008.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Boarding Pass or Billboard?

Can a boarding pass be a billboard? Apparently, it is so, according to cash-starved airline executives. You have gotta love the creative twists and turns airline executives are taking as they scheme up new ways to make money. The latest twist in the revenue ramp-up is the addition of ads on the boarding passes that passengers print up at home. That's right--valuable printer ink will now get consumed publishing advertising for the airlines.

Of course, the airlines would have us believe that new policy is merely a service for passengers. For the boarding pass that's printed will be highlighted with targeted ads, coupons, and shopping and dining recommendations based on where passengers are going. People can opt out of printing the ads. On the other hand, they can also choose to provide the participating airlines (Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) with a host of information in order to get ads that are specially personalized. Of course, this option is also likely to get people bombarded with unwelcome e-mail blasts as well.

The five participating airlines have minority stakes in Sojern, the Nebraska-based start-up that's behind this venture. While revenues will be split among the concerned parties, the potential size of the purse is unknown. Sojern figures 40 percent of 700 million annual flight check-ins are conducted online, leading to 280 million blank billboards. Methinks Sojern overestimates that percentage, and neglects to take into account those who will opt out of the game. Time will tell if this commercial scheme goes the way of advertising on airsickness bags.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mr. Bill: Priceless

Apropos of nothing, kudos to MasterCard for bringing back Mr. Bill. Oh no, I'm showing my age, but Mr. Bill was one of my favorite Saturday Night Live bits way back when. For those who don't remember Mr. Bill, he was a little clay figure who was regularly subjected to humiliation, torture and angst at the hands of Mr. Hand. As he gamely endured his trials and tribulations, he would wail "Oh, noooooooooooo" in falsetto exclamation.

It's interesting that MasterCard has chosen to revive Mr. Bill for this summer's version of its "Priceless" ad campaign. After all, Mr. Bill's catchphrase seems to be a mantra for this year of economic woes. What current day consumer can't relate when Mr. Bill is scalded by hot coffee ("coffee-$2")*; hit by a briefcase ("briefcase-$120); and sent out an office window to find himself splat on a windshield of a city bus. Just as Mr. Bill comments, "Hey, the bus is right on schedule," the windshield wipers go into gear. Oh, noooo. Still, for Mr. Bill, what's priceless is making it through the day.

I wonder if MasterCard first pondered a Mr. Bill scenario where he's going to take a flight. After all, doesn't every airline traveler feel a bit like Mr. Bill these days, with the airlines playing the role of Mr. Hand? Baggage check--$25. Fuel surcharge--$50. Bottled water on the plane--$2. Finally, getting to your destination with your sanity intact--priceless.

To watch this priceless ad, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxMqDxtjw1U

*Two dollars? Clearly, Mr. Hand is not getting his caffeine fix at Starbucks.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum II

Nearly every day, American airline companies seem to be adding fees, cutting flights, firing staff, and generally making things unpleasant for their employees and for the innocent traveler. We are all now too familiar with the baggage fee that nearly every domestic carrier (except Southwest) is charging. But did you hear the one about the frequent flyer fee? Yep, on Delta and US Airways, there's no such thing as a free ticket, anymore. Redeem your frequent flyer miles on Delta and you'll pay $25 for domestic flights and $50 for international journeys. Delta is calling the fee a fuel surcharge, but whatever. The move follows on the heels of US Airways, which was first to announce a $25 fee on U.S. and Canadian frequent flyer flights. Free flights to Mexico and the Caribbean now cost $35 on that airline, and international tickets frequent flyer tickets cost $50.

In setting up their frequent flyer fee structures, these airlines are proving to be a bit geographically challenged. Delta includes Canada on its list of domestic destinations, which would make any Canuck say "Oh, Canada?" On the other hand, Delta considers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to be international destinations. Last time I checked, both were still U.S. territories. They do, after all, get to vote for president. But Delta would have the islands seceding from the Union, which, I guess, isn't extraordinary considering the airline is based in Atlanta.

But I digress. US Airways, in its infinite wisdom, counts Hawaii as an international destination. That's lei-ing it on a bit thick, don't you think?

Interestingly, while Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii count as international destinations when it comes to frequent flyer fees, when it comes to baggage fees, they do not. This is relevant, because Americans flying to international destinations are not charged for their first two bags. In other words, a passenger who redeems frequent flyer points for a trip to Hawaii will pay $50 for the "international" ticket, but will also have to pay $15 to check the first bag and $25 for the second, per US Airways' domestic baggage policy. Got that?

By the way, American Airlines, our friends who came up with the brilliant idea of charging for the first bag checked, is currently only charging a $5 processing fee for folks redeeming frequent flyer miles. But stayed tuned--that's likely to change any day now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Laura's Getting Around

And I'm not talking about my month in Europe, which I will report on in upcoming posts. No, the title of this entry refers to recent appearances all around the media landscape.

Radio: For everything you ever wanted to know about Albania, listen to my report on Around the World Radio. The program aired live in California on June 19. But you can listen to it in perpetuity at www.aroundtheworldradio.com. Click on Archives and go to the June 19 show.

Magazines: Head's up. In the June/July issue of Destinations , I write about brewery tours across America. If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive theme for a summer vacation (and you are older than 18), this article might get you hopping.

Online Columns: More than 10 years ago, I was one of the first travel bloggers. Under the name of Jane Air, I wrote a weekly column for the Women on Their Way website. I am happy to report that, after a lengthy hiatus, Jane is back. Read her humorous take on travel at www.wyndhamworld.com/women_on_their_way/jane-air/archives

E-Zines: Here's a link to Pink, which recently quoted me in a story about reading while traveling. www.pinkmagazine/exclusives/julyaugust2008/airport_amenities.html

Television: Stay tuned. I'm scheduled for some on-air appearances in the Washington, DC area in July.

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Airline Wedding...Or Are They Just Co-Habitating?

United and Continental are uniting. Mind you, they aren't merging. But the two U.S. carriers are going to hook up their global networks. What does this mean? First and foremost, the partnership will include new frequent flier reciprocity so that points can be earned and redeemed on both airlines. Travel on either carrier will count toward earning elite status. And members of either airline's airport lounge program will have access to both Continental's Presidents Clubs and United's Red
Carpet Club lounges.

In the U.S., United and Continental will develop an extensive code-share system. This means that both airlines can continue with plans to reduce the number of jets they each fly, while still providing fairly comprehensive domestic service. For flights that may involve a transfer from a United plane to a Continental plane, there will be a (theoretically) seamless process for ticketing, check-in, flight connections and baggage transfer.

Internationally, Continental will join the Star Alliance, thereby allowing code shares not only with United, but with international partners such as Lufthansa, Thai, and SAS.

Islands in the Stream

It's not a good time to be an island. The tourism industries of both Hawaii and the Caribbean are quaking in their boots given recent developments in the airline industry. With fuel prices skyrocketing, and with carriers cutting back on service to vacation destinations, islands, which can't depend on a drive market to pick up the tourism slack, are left treading water.

American Airlines recently announced plans to cut flights to the Caribbean by about one-third. The cuts go into effect in early September. Given that American is the chief source of air traffic to the Caribbean, this development has the potential to create a swath of economic destruction across the tourism-dependent region. The biggest cutbacks are taking place in Puerto Rico, American's Caribbean hub. Daily flights to San Juan from the mainland are being cut from 38 to 18. Among the routes being cut entirely--San Juan-Washington Dulles, San Juan-BWI, and San Juan-Newark. Meanwhile, American Eagle flights out of Puerto Rico to other islands are being shaved to 33 from 55.

Some of the Caribbean islands are trying to fight back. Creating a regional strategy will be on the agenda at the inaugural Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit in Washington, DC from June 21-24. Additionally, individual countries are getting proactive. Tourism concerns in the U.S. Virgin Islands are banding together to intensify marketing in the effort to increase demand for flights. By doing so, they hope to negotiate with low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue and Southwest to bring service to the area.

There is one shot of good news, if you want to call it that, for the U.S. Virgin Islands. It looks like American Airlines will agree to exempt boxes of duty-free liquor from the new checked baggage charge. Woo-hoo.

State of the Union

Hawaii has its own challenges. Even though it's a state, Hawaii often is considered foreign territory in the airline world. You need to redeem more frequent flyer points to get there than to any other U.S. destination. US Airways is lumping Hawaii in with international destinations when it comes to charging fees for frequent flyer point redemption (see 6/16 post). There's been some cutback in service from mainland carriers and the state has suffered heavily from the bankruptcies of Aloha and ATA. Furthermore, Hawaii, which already has the most expensive gasoline prices in the nation, has the highest airline fuel surcharges as well. Hawaiian Airlines just increased its round-trip surcharge to $120 on flights from the West Coast (the surcharge charged by most carriers on mainland routes is $20).

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau has launched a $3 million marketing campaign to entice North Americans to take their summer vacations in the state. Airfare-inclusive packages, with savings from $200 to $1000, have been created. Visit www.gohawaii.com for details. Still, whether that will be enough to convince cash-pinched travelers to say Aloha to Hawaii is a big question mark.