Friday, May 30, 2014

A New Kind of Travel Insurance

So crazy it just might work...

This a phrase I often associate with Warren Buffet and his dynamic and genius way of approaching business. So, it should be no surprise that Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance, a subsidiary of Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, has entered the travel insurance game with an offbeat approach.

When I purchase a flight or trip somewhere, I almost never check the box for travel insurance, except if it's an international flight or an extended trip where something could go wrong. Many other people also throw caution to the wind and choose not to buy it, mostly because some trips are low risk and low cost, so insurance doesn't really seem worth it.

Travel insurance is easy enough to buy and relatively cheap, but people are still a little hesitant to get it. Probably because they are confused by what it covers, how much it covers and when exactly it's necessary. But I think when people hear about this new plan from Berkshire Hathaway, they might just decide to check that box.

AirCare, the new plan from the Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection unit, is basically a new form of trip protection. When people sign up for typical trip protection, they generally get covered for three things: cancellations (in the event you need to cancel the trip, your prepaid expenses are reimbursed), delays (if an airport is shut down due to weather, your prepaid hotel expenses are covered) and trip interruption (if you have to cut a trip short for any reason, your covered). The cost of each of these varies depending on the price of the trip or how much you want to cover.

But AirCare is a bit different.

Remember when your flight got delayed and you missed your connection? AirCare will give you $500.  Or the time you thought you were about to take off, but instead got stuck on the tarmac for three hours? Here's $1000 bucks in your pocket. I think you get the idea.

Coverage costs $25 per trip and every time any of those airline inconveniences occur, you get paid. Flight is delayed more than two hours? Here's $50 transferred automatically to your bank account to spend on food, drinks or whatever you need to get through the rest of your stay at the airport. Delayed or lost luggage? Just snap a picture of the airline-issued baggage claim tag, send it to BHTP, and they start processing the claim right away and transfer either $500 (delays) or $1000 (lost) into your account. *Bonus: The coverage can be purchased online up to an hour before your flight!

And guess what? These types of inconveniences are happening more and more. According to reports from FlightAware, about 90,000 flights have been canceled since December 2013, and about 30 million U.S. passengers are affected by delays or cancellations, costing even more money in lost productivity and additional expenses, according to masFlight.

The airline industry can be unreliable, we all know that, but when those inconveniences happen, it would be nice to know you have a check coming your way. I know it's something I might consider on my next trip, especially since the last two times I've flown, I've experienced a delay. Unfortunately, those delays weren't long enough to warrant any reimbursement. So I guess that's the risk you take. Spend $25 and possibly get some money if things go wrong, or spend $25 and have everything go right. And if the latter happens, at least you had some reassurance that not all would be lost if you happened to miss your connection.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Getting Crazy Weird in Austin

Somewhere on 6th Street. That's where it happened. The realization that Austin really is...weird.

But in the best sense.

This past Memorial Day Weekend, I traveled to Austin, Texas, for my friend's bachelorette party. After grabbing my bag and hopping on the MetroAirport bus ($1.50 to the city - what a deal!), I made my way downtown to the Omni Hotel, where our group was staying. Only four of us were there early on Friday, so we decided to explore the city a little and get some lunch on South Congress (SoCo).

We decided to go to Magnolia Cafe, because, apparently "Everybody Knows - Everybody Goes." We were welcomed by a neon "Sorry, We're Open" sign, which may have been a hint to the oddness of Austin. But I thought nothing of it, since I'd seen similar signs in Chicago and elsewhere. There was a short wait, so we went next door to Prima Dora, a little gift shop with Austin souvenirs and crafts from local artists. This is where we saw our first (but definitely not our last) "Keep Austin Weird" mementos.  I knew this was a common saying in Austin, but I never realized the sheer ubiquity of the phrase until this past weekend.

It was fitting that I should see these funky, tie-died souvenirs within the first few hours of the trip, because it only got stranger from there.

After lunch, we walked down SoCo, where we found some eclectic places, lots of interesting gifts and trinkets, plenty of cowboy boots and more than a fair share of food trailers. We even sampled some rather off-beat drinks, including cilantro lemonade, which I did not expect to like, but actually found extremely refreshing.

That evening, we took part in a dance class at Broken Spoke, one of the last of the true Texas dance halls. But not before one of the craziest, weirdest cab rides of my life. Our driver held what looked like a conga drum and played us some interesting versions of popular songs during our drive. He also liked to honk his horn at so-called "douchebags," crack jokes non-stop and give us all multiple compliments (of various appropriateness). Needless to say, we got more than a few looks as we drove by, but I think many of them must of been visitors, too, because this kind of peculiar behavior is common in Austin, right?

We arrived at Broken Spoke just in time for the class. A tiny, very tanned woman stood at the front of the dance floor telling us all about the Texas two-step and the history of the dance hall (she did more talking than dancing), and then showed us some basic moves (slow, slow, quick, quick, slow). I'll admit that we weren't the best dancers, but we spent the rest of the evening swinging around the dance floor with various gentleman who asked us to dance (including a suave 70-year-old man and a crazy talented 19-year-old kid who claimed to work for Disney and had plans to be on Dancing with the Stars, no joke).

After we'd had our fill of dancing, we left the Broken Spoke and headed back downtown to 4th Street, where we hopped from bar to bar collecting interesting folks (mostly men) along the way. We hit a couple gay bars, but it must have been near closing time, because the dance floors were practically empty. The bride-to-be wanted to keep going, so we found another gay bar that stayed open until 4am (don't ask me the name, because I couldn't tell you). But when we got there, we discovered that Austin bars stop serving alcohol at 2am (or at least this one did). Why then would you bother staying open until 4? Just strange.

The next day was spent relaxing on the calm waters of Lake Travis, where we rented a pontoon boat for the afternoon. A few hours of basking in the intermittent rays of sunlight, quick dips in the refreshing lake and a couple drinks, was all we needed to gear up for another long, weird Austin night.

That night, we hit 6th Street, unaware of exactly what we were getting into. Apparently, there are two sections of the street that are polar opposites of each other. West 6th features trendy, contemporary bars and rooftop lounges, exuding a sense of fun sophistication. East 6th is packed with a variety of sports bars, cheap dives and college hangouts. Guess which side we ended up on.

The night started at Cheers, a joint known for its array of shots. We met a bachelor party, and they bought us a pickle shot (vodka and pickle juice), and claimed it was delicious. I completely disagree! A couple more cheap drinks there, and then we headed to Maggie Mae's, one of the nicer bars on this strip of 6th. We walked into a New Orleans-style courtyard, with the night sky above our heads, and then made our way up to a huge rooftop deck where a large screen projected music videos in front of a dance floor. Most of our time was spent overlooking the street outside the bar, which kept getting busier and busier by the minute. Before we knew it, the whole street was swarming with people...of all different colors. It was one of the best places to see how peculiar Austin can get.

And that kookiness spread throughout the bars. The next place we hit featured a mechanical bull (the bride-to-be gladly took a ride), and more than one slightly creepy guy making candid comments that nearly made my jaw drop. We ended the night dancing on the bar at a place called The Library, which is kind of ironic but seemingly appropriate for the city that has truly caught us all by surprise.

As we fought our way through the streams of people pouring out of the bars at closing time, we came across plenty of quirky characters that forced a second look. Despite my awe, I couldn't help but laugh. This city gave us some crazy memories unlike any other, and I can't help but credit Austin's weirdness for that.

Our last full day was spent hanging out at the rooftop pool of our hotel, where we met some local guys who were oddly entertaining and more than willing to put our drinks on their tab. The afternoon was spent chatting about the most random topics (Game of Thrones, styling hair, proposals, etc.), meeting other groups hanging around the pool and reveling in how different Austin is from the rest of Texas. In fact, a guy we met from Dallas even said Austin should be a separate state.

I went to Austin once when I was 15, but it has changed significantly since then. The city has boomed in just the last 10 years, becoming one of the top destinations in the country. And as much as I've written about the city and all the great reasons to visit, I hadn't experienced it first hand. The curious nature of Austin is a bit bewildering at first, but once it settles in, you wouldn't want it to be anything other than beautifully weird.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ready to Travel!

Summer doesn't officially begin until June 21, but the real kick off is Memorial Day Weekend. This is the first long weekend of the year when the weather is actually nice, and the last one for three months. And after the winter we've had, people are itching to travel, embrace the summer and enjoy some warmer temperatures.

I am among those eager travelers. I am currently sitting in the O'Hare airport, waiting to board a plane to Austin for my good friend Laura's bachelorette party. Of course, I had to pick the busiest travel day of the weekend, and I'm flying from one of the destinations that is expected to get the most visitors this Memorial Day.

According to travel website, Orbitz, Chicago is one of the top five most popular destinations people will travel to this weekend, along with Las Vegas, New York, Punta Cana and Cancun. Priceline places Orlando and San Diego in its top five list, so clearly there is no guaranteed algorithm for figuring out where people are going. The bottom line is...they're going.

Nationally, about 36.1 million people will hit the road during the holiday weekend, according to AAA auto club, up 1.5% from 2013. The national travel estimate is 2.6% higher than its 10-year historical average and the second highest since 2000. The numbers indicate a new high as the economy continues to recover from the recession, the unemployment rate has dropped and overall consumer confidence is on the rise.

With all this activity, I was sure the airport would be a zoo, with long lines to check bags and get through security. So I took the cautious route and hopped on the Blue Line at 5:30am to get to O'Hare by 6am for my 8:30am flight – considerably earlier than I usually arrive for a domestic flight. To my chagrin, there were plenty of open kiosks, and I checked my bag in less than five minutes. And the security line? Non existent! I was through the line and sitting in the airline lounge by 6:15am...seriously. Are they sure about this travel rush?

I'm not saying I don't believe the predictions, I anticipate that it will get worse later in the day, since many people still work on the Friday before Memorial Day and then leave early or right when the clock hits 5pm. But maybe it won't be as crazy as we all think. Then again, I could be sorely mistaken. I return from my Austin adventure on Monday, probably the second-busiest travel day of the weekend. And I don't have the good fortune of an early flight. So we'll see what happens then.

Good luck to everyone traveling this weekend. I wish you all the best kick off to summer and a great Memorial Day.

And please, feel free to share your weekend destinations. I'd like to create my own list of top destinations based off responses I get from people. Maybe I'll ask a few folks here in the lounge...let the polling begin.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Road Trip Essentials

Road trips have become a regular occurrence in my life lately. In the last six months, I've driven to Des Moines, Michigan (twice), Delaware (via Baltimore not Chicago) and Nashville. This weekend, I'll be heading up to Milwaukee, a drive I've done many times before and is one of the shorter road trips I've done as of late (in fact, I'm not sure I would call it a road trip, since it's less than two hours and requires no stops). As someone who has come to appreciate a good road trip, I was thrilled to learn about Turo (formerly RelayRides) and their Road Trip Essentials Campaign. Turo is a useful outlet for people to rent out their cars to other people. Not a bad way to earn a little extra cash, as well as give your car a new adventure to embark upon--and yes, I am personifying automobiles.

I know I'll be taking a few more road trips in the near future, and this campaign made me think about what makes these long drags on miles of highway a little more bearable. What are the things I absolutely cannot live without on the road? And here it is, my list of road trip essentials.

Road Trip Essentials

  1. Trail Mix: I'm a sucker for pretty much any of the Trader Joe's varieties, but really any mixture of salty, sweet goodness to tide me over between meals works for me.
  2. Sweatpants: Face it, you're in a car for hours on end, you want to be comfortable. Plus, they're super easy to pull on in the morning when you have to hit the road early.
  3. iPad: Usually, I'm driving with someone else, and we aren't going to be talking every minute of the trip, so I need something else to keep me entertained.
  4. A que of good podcasts: What do I like to do with hours of uninterrupted time? Treat myself to some quality podcasts. Favorites include - Ted Radio Hour, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, Freakonomics, The Moth, Planet Money, RadioLab, This American Life and Stuff You Should Know
  5. Sunglasses: You never know what the weather will be like as you drive, so it's always good to have sunglasses. Plus, I'm all about preventing macular degeneration.
  6. Lip Balm: My lips are always chapped, so I have to have my Burt's Bees lip balm on hand at all times, especially on a long road trip.
  7. Music: When I need a break from podcasts or chatting with my road companion, I turn to a great playlist. I find that country music is fitting with road trips. Maybe it's the beats or the lyrics, but it just makes you want to roll down the window, crank up the volume and sing out loud!
  8. Tevas: Again, I have to be comfortable while driving, and my Teva sandals are the most comfortable shoes I own. Even in cold weather, I'll bring these along to keep my feet happy on the road.
  9. Caffeine: Many of my road trips start early in the morning, so coffee is definitely necessary, especially if I'm taking the first driving shift. And since road trips can be monotonous at times (especially while driving through countrysides with nothing to look at), it's pretty much a given that a few more caffeine stops will be made.
Feel free to try any of these on your own road trips, or share your necessities on the road. I'm always open to new things! Happy driving!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Travel Effect

In case you didn't know: It's National Travel & Tourism Week!

This is the annual salute to travel and tourism in our country, and it is marked by hundreds of events across America. The theme this year is the Travel Effect. This is an industry-wide campaign to showcase the benefits of travel, both on an economic and personal level.

The economic impact of travel is astounding. It generates around $2.1 trillion for the U.S.; supports nearly 15 million jobs; contributes more than $134 billion to the federal, state and local tax base; and it is America's number one services export. And now you know!

But it doesn't stop there (how could it possibly?) It's proven (yes, research backs it!) that travel has a positive effect on relationships, health, education and more. According to the Framingham Heart Study, female participants aged 45-64 were asked how often they took vacations. In a 20-year follow up study, the women who vacationed every six years or less had significantly higher risks of having a heart attack or a coronary death compared to those who took a vacation at least twice a year. The results were similar in men, even when accounting for factors like pre-exisitng conditions or affluence. These studies have noted that one of the most important benefits of travel is the reduction of stress. The Mayo Clinic found that not taking a break from everyday stressors can elevate cortisol (stress hormone) in the body and speed up the aging process. Now who wants wrinkles in their early 30's? I know I don't!
And many other Americans agree with me. According to the U.S. Travel Association's report on the benefits of travel, a survey found that leisure travelers believe vacations are a necessary practice, and 82% believe they need a vacation as much if not more during tough economic times. So why then is there this "day off deficit" taking place in America?

A study from Oxford Economics found that 40% of Americans leave some of their earned time off unused. That equated to 429 million untouched vacation days in 2013, just over three days per worker! That figure cost the U.S. economy $160 billion in spending, which could have supported 1.2 million jobs. Not only that, but those folks who chose to forgo using those vacation days have, in a way, debilitated their health, hurt their productivity and jeopardized time with their families.

So what's holding us back? Our demanding jobs. I'm just as guilty as the next person for leaving a few unused vacation days on the table because I just couldn't take the time away from work. But the truth is, those days off would have helped me and my company. Maybe taking that long weekend would have given me the stress break I needed to think more clearly about a project or given me a new perspective on an assignment.

I'm usually pretty good about taking the time that I've earned, but every once and a while, I find myself checking email on my phone or thinking about my to-do list, when I should be enjoying my time away. So while this effort to get people to take their paid vacation time is a necessary initiative and definitely one I support, I hope some attention is paid to the fact that many people are still working, even when on vacation, and that's something that can hurt their health, too. Because the stress and the demands are following them on their trips, causing them to feel guilt for not working, pulling them away from family time and creating emotional turmoil.

We must find a way to encourage Americans to let go, unplug and truly leave it all behind. Your job will be there when you get back, you are not the linchpin of your company (at least I'm not) and you (should) have a team that will carry the weight while you're gone.

So go ahead, take those saved up vacation days and go somewhere you've always wanted to visit. The Travel Effect is a powerful one, and we should all be open to its benefits.

*All logos and images are credited to the U.S. Travel Association and National Travel & Tourism Week.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

buildOn: Encouraging Education, Inspiring Change

The statistics have been pushed at us for years. High school drop-out rates, percentage of illiterate people worldwide, number of children without access to education. The astonishing figures have been proclaimed on news broadcasts and radio shows, in political debates and government policies. The facts have even trickled into our everyday conversations. But more often than not, we shrug our shoulders and think "what can we do?"

But not Jim Ziolkowski.

Who is that, you ask? He's the founder, president and CEO of buildOn, a non-profit organization building schools in developing countries, while simultaneously operating afterschool service programs in the U.S. in some of the country's toughest inner-cities.

I learned about Jim and his amazing organization last night at a Go Girl Travel MeetUp dinner, where the company's CMO, Carrie Pena, was our guest "expert" for the evening. She spoke of buildOn's mission to halt the seemingly endless cycle of illiteracy and poverty both here and abroad, and, I have to admit, it had me mesmerized.

One of the main aspects of buildOn is constructing schools in developing countries, such as Malawi, Nepal and Nicaragua. To date, 611 schools have been built, and some 85,000 people (children to grandparents) attend those schools globally. Now, you may be asking if those schools have been built in communities that actually wanted them, and the answer is yes. buildOn collaborates with the people who will benefit from the schools, works with the community to attain proper permitting and makes sure all regulations are met. The deal: the village provides the land, up to 3,000 volunteer work days and a gender-equal Leadership Team for the construction project. buildOn provides the engineering, materials, skilled labor and project supervision. The other part of the deal is that the village must promise that girls will attend the school in equal numbers with boys.

But that's just one part of the mission. Here in the U.S., the buildOn staff runs afterschool service programs at 62 high schools in six regions, focusing on schools in urban, low-income areas. Students who are part of the buildOn programs take part in weekly service outings like tutoring and serving meals at soup kitchens, as well as educational courses that boost global awareness of issues in developing countries. Every year, a select group of students and teachers will get to travel to one of the communities they have been learning about and help construct a school with buildOn. A truly special opportunity, as many of these students have never even been outside their own neighborhoods.

buildOn has taken those disturbing statistics and created a movement to not only fight illiteracy, poverty and low expectations, but to also transform the perceptions, potential and futures of youths in America and around the world. So if you're tired of shrugging your shoulders over the state of education and want to start doing something about it, then get involved with buildOn. You can fundraise, start a chapter in your area, help with buildOn events or even build a school in one of many remote locations. The opportunity to affect change is waiting, get building!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Can We Improve the Plane Boarding Process?

We've all been there. Waiting outside the gate as one group after another is motioned to board the airplane. When your group is finally called, everyone rushes to the podium to hand over their ticket (or scan their smartphone) and get on the plane. But once on the jetway, there's another line, which continues on into the aisle of the plane. The reason for the delay is because multiple people are trying to get into the same row or are searching for overhead bin space, forcing people behind them to wait until they can get by and cause more people to wait as they get to their seat. It's been like this for years, and the process has only been made worse by the increase in carry-on luggage thanks to airlines boosting fees for checked bags.

I have seen the process hundreds of times, with airlines boarding first class or premier level fliers first, and then boarding the rest of the plane from the back to the front (standard). I've always known it is slow and somewhat inefficient, but until I read this article on Vox, I never realized how absurd it actually is. And as much as I'm not the biggest fan of Southwest's process, I'm beginning to warm to it a little more after reading this.

The thought process is that by boarding from the back to the front, you'll avoid a buildup of passengers waiting while everyone puts their bags up and finds their seats, because people will be moving from the back forward. But this only works if people actually board in order, from very last row and on. And even then, someone who is in the aisle seat might reach the row first, and then is forced to get up while someone in the window or middle seat gets in, thereby forcing people behind to wait and more congestion to build up.

The article discusses a few alternative options to the standard boarding process, and compares times for each one. Based solely on time, the clear winner is Southwest's procedure, followed closely by a method of boarding people from the outside-in, which means all window seats go first, followed by middle seats and then aisles. Apparently, some airlines have caught on to the efficiency of the latter, and have started to implement it. But if that's so, I clearly haven't experienced it yet. So everyone should just switch the Southwest way, right?

Not necessarily. While it may cut down on the boarding time, Southwest's process causes other problems, mostly with customer satisfaction. It isn't the most convenient system for people traveling in large groups, because they aren'y guaranteed a spot together on the plane. And a lot of people hate having to jump online the minute they are allowed to check in so they can get a good boarding number. If you're even five or ten minutes late, you could be in the last boarding group, inevitably leaving you with a middle seat in the back of the plane.

Of all the methods mentioned, the one that makes the most sense is a theoretical one that no airline currently uses dubbed the "Steffen method." It's similar to the outside-in process, but it is more choreographed in that the window seats from one side of the plane go first, followed by the window seats from the other side of the plane, and so on. In addition, the rows of passengers allowed to board are staggered, preventing multiple passengers from using the same aisle space, and therefore reducing congestion.

Even though better methods have been developed, airlines will most likely stick to the process they have right now, because it allows them to charge passengers for priority boarding. If they had a quick, efficient boarding process, they wouldn't be able to make a profit off people who want to skip the hassles of boarding.

So the answer to the question is, yes, we can improve plane boarding, but will it actually happen? It's not looking good.