Medjet Travel Assistance Tip – It is often argued that travel and tourism is a powerful force to knock down barriers, build trust and promote peace and understanding. But first, it might be useful to know which countries are the most challenging when it comes to the “welcoming” factor. The World Economic Forum (WEF) now ranks 140 countries by how friendly—and unfriendly—they are to incoming tourists.
While there are always other ways to measure a country’s popularity, such as infrastructure, cultural resources, safety and security, the one factor that continues to resonate with the WEF and travelers alike is the local population’s attitude toward foreign visitors.
The worst offender? Bolivia, followed by Venezuela. The most welcoming countries were Iceland, New Zealand and Morocco. What about the U.S? Not exactly a flag-waving moment of celebration: according to the WEF, the United States only placed 102 out of 140 in terms of “welcoming.”
The “friendliness factor” was just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and used a ranking of 1 to 7, with the lowest meaning “very unwelcome.”
OK, so much for the numbers and the rankings. What really counts is what is in your own travel experiences. There’s simply no way you can describe an entire nation in one blanket term. I’ve been to Bolivia and Venezuela and had an incredible time with the locals every time. On one trip I had someone in New Zealand who was rude to me. Does that drop the entire country off the top of the list? Hardly.
However, America’s position in 102nd place should be a wake up call to our government, especially in terms of where our visitors first have contact with our country: customs and immigration.
I experienced the problem first hand when I came in from Tokyo, landing in Los Angeles. American Airlines used to have their own international traveler processing facility, but this time they had closed the terminal to incoming passengers. After an 11-hour flight, we were shepherded over half a mile to the Tom Bradley customs area. Once we got there, we were stuck behind an Airbus 380 from Korean Airlines. It was madness and to make matters worse there were hundreds of people in front of us. It’s understandable that it takes time to process two full planes. However, there are about 68 different inspection stations for Customs and Border Protection at Tom Bradley International and only 22 were staffed–that’s less than a third.
Foreign passengers were waiting up to two and a half hours! You don’t need a World Economic Forum study to determine that this is unacceptable. And the impact of that “greeting” to our foreign visitors has had a substantial impact on lost opportunities, jobs, revenues and relationships..
We’ve had a lost decade of visitors because we weren’t perceived as, nor were we, welcoming. That lost decade translates to millions of jobs lost in our country.
And let’s not forget the often harsh concept of reciprocity. For example, consider Argentina. For an American tourist visiting this beautiful South American country, it now requires a $131 payment to enter. Why? because that is what the U.S. charges Argentinians to enter the U.S. This is an unacceptable barrier to entry.
But there is some good news: a year ago, the average wait time for a Chinese, Russian, Indian or Brazilian citizen to get a visa to visit the U.S. was a ridiculous 160 days. Many, if not most prospective tourists and business travelers simply gave up trying to come here. Then, the U.S. State Department realized the economic impact of all of this. They reassigned consular affairs officers to staff the problem and now, the average wait time for a U.S. visa has dropped to just two days.
Now, if we can only welcome these visitors when they get off the plane!
Medjet Travel Assistance Tip – When news struck that a Carnival ship was stranded in the middle of the ocean, days away from land, a debate got heated on my Facebook page.
“I would never go on a cruise” wrote one PR executive.
“I just completed my 35th cruise. So to say one will never cruise after hearing this is crazy,” responded another.
One person suggested, “I think it’s better to avoid the mega ships.”
There’s no doubt, the deteriorating conditions on the Carnival Triumph were outrageous: no electricity, few working bathrooms, stifling heat, and limited food.
But let’s talk about the facts: Cruising remains an incredibly safe operation. In 2011, 20 million global passengers took a cruise. And with very few exceptions, notably the Costa Concordia tragedy a little more than a year ago, there have been remarkably few fatalities on cruise ships.
The most terrifying thing that can happen on a cruise ship is an onboard fire, and that’s what happened on the Carnival Triumph. A fire broke out in the engine room. But today’s modern cruise ships are equipped with great fire detection and suppression systems. Water-tight doors were immediately closed, the ship’s air conditioning and ventilation systems shut down, and then the fire suppression system went into action, flooding the entire engine room with chemicals designed to inert the oxygen and starve the fire.
But when the fire suppression flooded the engine room and starved the fire, it also knocked out everything that operates on fuel (i.e. engines, generators). Translation: The ship was dead in the water…floating, with minimal electrical power. Conditions went from good to worse very quickly.
This became an inevitable PR nightmare for Carnival and there are some very angry passengers with lawyers by their sides. But the facts remain: an engine room fire that could have been catastrophic was quickly extinguished, and no lives were lost.
Can cruising be made safer? Absolutely. Increased safety and cross-training of crew, mandatory dual language requirements, and better waste management systems, will go a long way in improving cruise safety and the health of passengers on board. Sometimes it takes a bad situation to make necessary changes: almost immediately after the Costa Concordia tragedy, several cruise lines began requiring that muster (life boat) drills take place before the ship leaves port.
Will this type of situation stop me from cruising? Absolutely not. There are risks to any type of travel and once in a while, a crisis breaks out that makes a lot of people question whether it’s worth it. But the numbers—and common sense—are definitely on your side here. I’m not a cheerleader for the cruise industry. I’m just rooting for the facts. So…happy cruising!
Medjet Travel Assistance Tip – These days, it seems like airlines are doing everything they can to eliminate the human element from the airport experience. But are we sacrificing service for expediency?
We’re already used to managing our travel on the computer and these days some airlines are even letting you check in automatically when you book your ticket. Just click a box and an airline like Air France KLM will send your boarding pass automatically to your email or smartphone. With smartphones being so…well, smart, most people don’t even have to print out their boarding passes. Just hold up the barcode to be scanned and you’re done. At that point, practically the only human interaction takes place when you get your luggage tagged at the airline counter.
Well, now even that has become automated. Several airports in Europe including Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Paris’s Orly offer a self-service bag drop system. Some airlines are even testing out automated boarding turnstiles at the departure gates.
Forget about handing your boarding pass to the agent. You scan your own and get on board, no human interaction required. Continental tested it out in Houston a while back, and a number of airlines in Europe and Asia have already implemented it.
The airlines argue, not surprisingly, that all this automation reduces workload, which allows staff to focus on bigger customer-service issues. But of course there are those who believe the airlines’ long-term goal is to reduce the need for human staff altogether. What’s next?
Virtual customer service? Guess what, it’s already here. Say “hello” to Ava, the holographic avatar in all three New York-area airports. Her job is to field those common customer-service questions like where the taxi stand is located or where’s the nearest bathroom.
You¹ll see a similar avatar named, Paige in Washington¹s Dulles Airport, and in Boston¹s Logan Airport her name is Carla. The UK introduced its virtual airport assistants, including Holly and Graham, last year.
On the positive side, computers and avatars never have a bad day unless, of course, there’s a malfunction. Or worse, they don’t function well from the start. Consider this — Paige, Carla, Holly, Graham and yes, Ava weren’t designed to think creatively or solve problems beyond the simplest situations. And in my opinion, when the art of conversation is lost…so have we.
Medjet Travel Assistance Tip - In a time that air travel has become an expensive hassle, train travel is limited, and gas prices are skyrocketing, it’s not a surprise that bus travel is booming.
And the numbers are impressive.
Intercity motorcoach industry provided nearly more than 700 million passenger trips—that’s 76.1 billion passenger miles last year. Compare that to 717 million trips on U.S airlines, and 28 million passengers on Amtrak in the same period.
And why? For starters, the price is right.
Curbside bus operators, like Boltbus and Megabus, have contributed to the bus industry’s growth with low cost fares (some tickets cost as little as $1.50) and an on-board experience that often includes free Wi-Fi.
But what about bus safety?
With ridership up, so too are high-profile bus accidents, many of them fatal.
Driver fatigue, lack of training, and mechanical failures have all contributed to bus accidents. There has been growing awareness at government enforcement agencies. In 2012, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has ramped up bus inspection and last May their inspectors shut down 26 companies on a single day.
To be fair, traveling by bus still remains a safe method of transportation. The disconnect, however, lies, in the ongoing legislative debate for safety standards in motorcoaches. At one point, The Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act of 2011 called for a series of safety measures, including seat belts, strengthened roofs and glazing windows. At the same time, the Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety bill called for more empirical studies by the DOT before making any mandates, and bus operators would have had at least 18 years to retrofit their vehicles.
The latest version of the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, which actually became law, only calls for more studies and recommendations, but little concrete action.
Even the movement for seatbelts—which the National Transportation Safety Board recommended back in the 1960s—has yet to become a requirement for buses already on the road. New coaches have them, including Greyhound and Megabus, but the bus industry continues to argue that retrofitting existing vehicles costs too much money.
Bottom line: I still maintain that bus travel is a viable and affordable option, especially if you’re traveling under 400 miles. But don’t let convenience get in the way of common sense. You have a right to ask any operator about their license, driver training and safety inspections/violations; In fact the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the DOT, even has a SaferBus app that lets you look up that information before you book your ticket. And, if your bus comes with seatbelts, use them.
Medjet Travel Assistance Tip – There have been some changes in how the TSA is handling “trusted travelers” to help make the security screening process a little more efficient — especially if you happen to be a frequent flier.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol finalized the Global Entry program this year, which is great news in both concept and — for a change — in execution. This is a voluntary initiative that gets you easier access across the border when you return home to the U.S. by skipping the long lines and instead using touch-screen kiosks in the arrivals area.
There are now more than 30 airports in the U.S. with Global Entry points. To get access, you have to pay a $100 fee and undergo a pretty thorough background check before determining if you’re eligible for a 5-year membership.
But Global Entry membership also comes with a potential TSA bonus: You may also be eligible for the new PreCheck program. The TSA and Department of Homeland Security have already tested it out in seven airports, and are rolling it out to 28 more by the end of 2012. Qualified fliers go through an expedited security line, without having to remove their shoes, belts, coats and laptops.
If you’re a serious frequent flier who has accrued elite status on a loyalty program, you may also be eligible.
One caution: there is, however, a catch: You won’t know if you’ve been approved until you get to the airport and the TSA checks your boarding pass and I.D. And if you get the green light, then you’re sent to that very desired PreCheck lane. And you also have to remember that even those who are approved may still be subject to random screening.
Now here’s my take: I’m a fan of anything that expedites the screening process and these are steps in the right direction. It’s using common sense in the screening process and letting frequent fliers save time and energy. But the real challenge lies ahead: at what point are there too many “trusted travelers” in this growing and popular program, when the lines for PreCheck will actually be longer than for everyone else?keep looking »