Friday, June 17, 2011

A Day of Armchair Travel

I read about this concept in an article and couldn't help but be intrigued by it. What exactly is armchair travel? It's basically being transported to a destination without actually leaving your seat--or kitchen, or office, or wherever you happen to be situated. There are the typical mediums for armchair travel: movies, music, books, pictures, etc. But there are also some other ways to discover a place without physically going there. Food, drinks, language, art and news stories are all methods of learning, providing want-to-be travelers with the means to venture around the world, even if they cannot find the time or the money to actually do it.

To give you a better idea of what I mean, I'll give you a glimpse into what a day of armchair travel--or as the article sometimes calls it, lazy travel--can look like. As a news analyst, I spend the day perusing the internet for stories about current events relating to business, politics, technology, marketing, hospitality, lifestyle, and, of course, travel. In the morning, I traveled to the Philippines (U.S. issued a travel warning to the country), Charleston, SC (residents there are suing Carnival Cruises over their massive ship), San Francisco, CA (the Fairmont Hotel is being put up for sale), and Vancouver, Canada (Canucks fans went on a rampage after losing the Stanley Cup finals to Boston). Within the span of one work day, I can move from one coast to the other, leap over the pond, scale the terrain abroad, and cruise back on over to my desk, all before clocking out. What's even better is that I learn something in the process. I gain knowledge about a place through the events that are going on right now. News stories are a window into how people are living, responding to the daily problems, triumphs, concerns and hopes that they encounter every day. I will admit that reading through story after story can get a little tedious, despite all the fascinating things happening in our world. Also, the articles are so brief, it doesn't give me a chance to really get lost in a single location. Just as I'm getting pulled in, the final sentence approaches and I move on to the next place.

Books offer more of an opportunity to immerse yourself in a destination. As I pedalled and climbed to sweaty glory in the wee hours of the morning, I did it all from the mountain farms of southern Appalachia. I was reading Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, the story of three individuals whose lives are magically entwined through nature, love and the wilderness. I felt connected to this world I had never seen, and it made me feel like I knew what people living in that region of America are like, how they talk, their daily routines, their culture, their general environment. I still have more to read, more to learn, but I am eager to venture back there in the evening before drifting off into my own dream world.

But before going to Appalachia, I visited Spain. My friend Laura and I sat down at a table in a bustling, warm restaurant in Chicago, only to quickly drift into the kitchen of a Spanish Tapas bar, the spicy aromas wafting around our heads, penetrating our senses. The sizzling plates of spiced potatoes in tomato sauce, mushrooms stuffed with pork and cheese, and grilled fresh vegetables titillated our appetites and rocketed us into another culture completely diverse from the modern American city outside. We were in a quiant town in the Spanish neighborhoods outside Madrid, sitting at a wrought-iron table atop cobble-stone streets, sipping sweet sangria in the afternoon sun.

The perfect end to a day of armchair travel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Airplane of the Future?

The future is a curious thing, who knows what people will wear, what kind of homes they will live in, what new gadgets they will use. It's a mystery only to be revealed as it becomes the present (deep enough for you?) However, Airbus is giving us a preview of what the future of air travel may look like.

The company revealed pictures and computer-generated video of what planes will look like in the year 2050--or at least what it predicts for the future The plane shows a long fuselage with duel fins on each side of the tail area, giving it a futuristic look. Airbus told reporters that it wants to do away with first- business- and coach-class, and instead offer zones for relaxation, activities and work.

The impressive images show uneeded seats at the rear of the plane collapsing, while the rest of the seats are moved to provide travelers more legroom (stretching out will be easier than ever) and the seats will morph to fit passengers' bodies (no more worrying about accommodating larger people or passengers getting angry about having to purchase a second seat if they do not meet a certain weight requirement). One of the most noteworthy features is that the aircraft will be built of "intelligent" materials that turn from solid to transparent on command, giving passengers a panoramic view of the sky. (I don't know about anyone else, but this would scare me just a little bit. I find comfort in the confines of the opaque cabin.)

As far as those "zones" are concerned, there are various ideas that Airbus proposed. The "vitalizing zone" is meant for relaxation, incorporating mood lighting, aromatherapy and acupressure treatments. The "tech zone" will offer corportate travelers a space to connect with their offices or clients via computers or other devices. The "interactive zone" will be in the center of the cabin and allow passengers to play a round of golf through a virtual projection. (I assume other sports or games could also be played. Round of tennis at 30,000 feet anyone?)

Of course, these are all just grand dreams envisioned by company engineers and whether we will see any of these features in future planes will depend greatly on both the quality of the technology and whether airlines will decide to purchase this impressive--and can we say slightly unrealistic--jet of the future.

For a better idea of Airbus' concept future plane, check out this video:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Drama of Travel

There are varying levels of drama when it comes to travel. There's the stressful itinerary and planning aspect that relates to catching your flight on time, or dealing with lost luggage, or arguing with a stewardess over a missed connection, or realizing the hotel does not have your reservation saved, or discovering the tour you wanted to do has been sold out since January. Those are all scenarios we have dealt with and are prepared to deal with if they happen to arise. But then there's the unforseen drama of travel, the experiences we never see coming. These usually involve travel companions or acquaintances we meet along the way, and they can usually cause more anguish and turmoil than an unfortunate shift in plans, because the drama is always personal.

When you make plans to travel with friends or family, or go visit someone for a trip, there is always the chance that issues can arise. First, money. People usually set budgets for themselves when they travel--unless they are those lucky individuals who have the luxury of splurging without worrying about what it will do to their savings account. On average, most people will decide ahead of time what they want to spend money on, whether it be a few dinners at upscale restaurants or a shopping spree or sightseeing tours. However, when you travel with others, more likely than not, their budget is different. While it may seem like this should not cause problems, money is probably the number one culprit for arguments, especially when traveling. One person may get jealous that another is spending so much, or may feel pressure to spend more than he or she has. There's also the reverse side, where one may feel guilty purchasing an expensive outfit or meal while their friend cannot afford it. Money is always a difficult subject to deal with, and I know from personal experience that it can create some extremely tense situations. The best thing to do is to discuss your budget well ahead of time, making sure your travel companion knows exactly how you feel about expenses. It may not solve everything, but at least there is an understanding established before the trip begins.

Second, personal agendas. Everyone has activities they want to do and sites they want to visit, but the reality is that a group trip is not all about one person. If you have travel buddies, you need to respect that there may be things they want to do that you do not, and vice versa. Sometimes there are two extremes, with one person wanting to spend their vacation relaxing, no agenda necessary; and the other scheduling one event after another hoping to keep every minute of the day occupied with something. This can create some real problems, and in those cases, it's best to go your separate ways, even just for a day. Otherwise, neither one will get what they want out of the trip.

Third, general proximity. Being around the same people for a certain amount of time can become irksome for anyone, especially people who like their privacy or enjoy alone time. Also, there are some personalities that just clash, no matter how well you know the person or how tolerant you may be. And travel can add a whole other level since it takes you out of your comfort zone and into a different world. You are already dealing with the new environment, and a conflicting personality in your travel group will not help the situation. Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this, thinking only an idiot would go on a trip with someone he or she did not get along with. Well, you would be surprised how travel can bring out sides of people you never expected. Once again, if this kind of drama comes up, taking a step back from it and spending some time alone is probably the best solution. Either that, or you could take the confrontational approach and let the person know their voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

These are some of the most common dramatic events--at least that I've experienced. And I can only hope that my next two trips will be completely drama free. If not, the best thing to do is roll with the punches, and make every effort to avoid a ruined vacation. But overall, I have found that traveling with friends can be one of the most memorable experiences, and nothing should interfere.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Creating the Perfect Travel Itinerary

Two weeks. 11 days, if I'm being completely accurate. That's how long I have until I take my first vacation in almost a year. (Yes, I know I went home for Christmas, but that doesn't really count in my opinion.) I've purchased outfits, made lists of items I still need to get, requested the time off work, and scheduled the appropriate manicure/pedicure/haircut appointments so I look my absolute best before jetting off to Myrtle Beach.

Now the question is, what to do when I get there. While I am super uppity about planning my flight itinerary, hotel accommodations and car rental, the rest of the trip is usually left up in the air--or left up to someone else. The great part about vacation is that you are not required to have every moment of your day planned out. You can get up at any hour and decide right on the spot what to do that day. And that's basically what I intend to do on my trip. However, there are many people who have to follow a schedule, who like to have activities planned for each day, and like following a regiment so that they can get the most out of their destination.

For those over-planners, or even those laid-back travelers, there are tools that can help you create the perfect itinerary for your personality. Obviously, you could go the traditional route and pick up a printed travel guidebook from the store and flip through the pages to select attractions that appeal to you. However, in our tech-savvy, digital world, physical books pale in comparison to the mobile applications and websites out there. In an article from USA Today, there are two new tools to help plan a digital itinerary that you can take with you on your phone or tablet:

  • SpotWorld is a free iPhone app that creates itineraries for 32 cities based on travel-guide content and social-media recommendations. Travelers can customize from existing itineraries or ask Facebook friends for tips.
  • Plnnr.com acts as a virtual travel planner where users can automatically create an hour-by-hour schedule based on a series of questions about the trip, like dates, length of stay, theme, intensity and luxury level.
These are just two options, and unfortunately they are a little limiting. For me, neither one is helpful because they do not feature Myrtle Beach. So, I have to rely on other sources to plan my trip. Luckily, as a freelance travel writer, I do a lot of research on various places around the world.

If you would like another technology-based suggestion, try TripIt. I talked about this free application in a previous blog post (See: Travel and Technology), but just to refresh your memory, it will take all your travel information and build an itinerary around it. You can forward all your confirmation emails for flights, hotels, etc, and it will keep it all in one place. You can add maps, pictures, recommendations and more as you continue to plan. It's a pretty helpful tool, since it will work with whatever city you plan to visit.

If you prefer doing your own research, I recommend visiting the website for the city's tourism and convention bureau. This will feature all the major attractions, restaurants, activities and events in your destination, as well as articles about unique spots, hidden gems and must-sees. Most of the time, you can talk to a representative who can help you set up a travel itinerary. If a tourism office seems too promotional and focused on marketing, then check out any of the travel-booking websites like TripAdvisor, Expedia, Travelocity, etc. All of them have suggested itineraries on their sites, as well as recommendations from other travelers.

If you are one of those people who does not need to plan every second months in advance, but choose to figure it out when you arrive, just ask the concierge at your hotel. They can recommend a variety of sites to see or events to attend. After all, they live there, they probably know better than a website or a guidebook. I find asking locals or friends who know the area for their suggestions, because they will more than likely give you a tip you would not find anywhere else.

Since I'll be going to Myrtle Beach with a friend who has been there before, I'm relying on him to offer ideas for how to fill the days. Though I'm not sure he will be able to pull me away from my schedule of lounging on the beach, swimming in the pool, walking along the coast, shopping and catching up on my reading. Yeah, that sounds like the perfect travel itinerary to me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Groupon Enters the Travel Market

Happy June, everyone! In celebration of the summer season and the (hopefully) warm months ahead, I have some exciting news for all you budget travelers out there. Groupon is launching a new travel deals site!

Now, I know that LivingSocial already features travel deals, and I have certainly looked into their offerings. But what could be better than another popular discount site providing us with even more sensational deals on hotels, airfare and car rentals? This just means more options for the consumers, and I can totally get behind that.

Groupon collaborated with Expedia on the website, so travelers will get access to more than 50,000 hotels--obviously not all at once, but hopefully through the course of the next few months or years. As far as I know, Groupon Getaways--that's what it's called--has not officially launched, but you can go online and sign up to receive the daily deals via email. I plan on signing up right now, so I can be first in line when a half-price weekend trip to Florida pops up or a five-night stay in Bermuda becomes available for 60% off.

Not only will this website provide significantly discounted trips, but it could help spark some inspiration in you travelers looking for something new and different. Or plant the desire to make a spontaneous, quick escape somewhere for a weekend. For those who read my blog regularly, you will recall my post about single travel...well this is the perfect opportunity to capitalize on a great deal and steal some alone time.

As much as this sounds like a sales pitch for Groupon--and trust me, I hate being a cheerleader for companies--anything that relates to travel--especially cheap travel--is reason enough to shake some pom poms. So go ahead and sign up for the website, and when it launches at the end of this month, be ready to scoop up some pretty sweet deals.