11 September 2007

Don't buy travel online

I have a couple of 'golden nuggets' of advice that I've regularly passed on to travellers over the, almost, twenty years that I've been a travel journalist. I'm just going to mention one of them again....

Never buy anything but the most simple travel components online.

Low-cost flights, basic hotel bookings, simple city break packages for two... are generally ok (especially if you actually have first hand knowledge of the accommodation or destination)

...but never buy anything more complex online, like multi-leg flights or a family beach holiday. Always do the research online and then book it through a human.

It's not just to avoid the laughable pitfall of booking the wrong thing - this week's humerous Internet mis-booking story in the press is about the Norwegians who ended up in Rodez in France, instead of Rhodes - it's because computers can't anticipate the things you expect, or need to consider. There simply isn't a select-best-hotel-based-on-possibility-of-aunt-joining-us-midweek button on an internet booking form. Nor do computers have personalised expert knowledge - that's why travel agents were invented!

The only reason for booking travel online is to make life easier and reduce costs for the travel company, if that's what you want to do. That's why companies make it difficult to use the phone or charge you extra for it (like British Airways who add a £15 per person surcharge for telephone bookings).

07 September 2007

Belgium on the brink of break-up?

I've long been aware of the two contrasting halves of Belgium.

When I was 12/13 I was sent for a few weeks to stay with a French-speaking Belgian family in Mons who were friends of my parents (very longstanding friends as things turned out. Only death and old age has finally stopped them being travelling companions.) And it was there I first began to realise there was a rift between them and their northern neighbours.

Over the years I visited a number of times, both along the coast (as a sailor) & inland (as a travel journalist), and during that time I've watched as the ancient differences between the Flemish and the Walloons have become more formalised and pronounced.

Particularly noticeable in my line of work was the break up of the national tourist board into Tourism Flanders-Brussels and Belgian Tourist Office - Brussels & Wallonia.

And I'm ashamed to say that only this week, in my own small way I even exacerbated the situation by cracking a (mild, but rather witty) anti-Walloon joke with a Flemish friend.

I mention this because in the context of the European Union, the idea of individual would-be states asserting their independence (Scotland for example) hasn't really seemed terribly disastrous.....or imminent.

But I was brought up short this morning, reading this appraisal of current Belgian politics which suggests that the 'unlikely' might become 'likely' rather more quickly than anyone had supposed.

05 September 2007

Grassing over the cracks

I like this photo, sent this morning by GNER's press office. (GNER are the popular East Coast train operator who won't be for much longer, cos they lost the franchise.)

In order to highlight new statistics showing rail travel from Newcastle to London is more than five times greener than flying they covered the concourse of Newcastle station in astroturf for one day this week.

Phone a Belgian

Automated telephone answering systems are one of the unloved but all-pervading features of modern life, so it's nice to get a press release from Tourism Flanders-Brussels who are promoting their enquiry line on the grounds that it is operated by humans.

Tourism Flanders- Brussels operate a “real” live operator line from Monday to Friday on a London local rate telephone number. Calls are actually answered by a member of staff unlike so many tourist offices nowadays! Its is rare not to have automated answering lines and we pride ourselves in the fact that we can answer public queries in person without the need to incur prohibitive telephone rate charges for our visitors.

The Tourism Flanders-Brussels live operator line is manned daily from 9am – 4pm, Monday to Friday. Should the public want further information, a free brochure ordering line is available too.

In a world where we all rely on machines, it’s nice to know that some tourist offices value the human touch!

Of course the irony is that if the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium suddenly started attracting significantly more visitors and enquiries (maybe triggered by a rush of enthusiasm for human operated enquiry lines!) one of the first things to go in order to cope more efficiently, would be the humans who answer the phones.

Still, t
here is a more serious and more sinister aspect to all this.

Machines answering phones are generally accepted as unpleasant but necessary, as long as they make the process of being routed through to a relevant person more efficient.

Phone transactions that are entirely machine operated (booking tickets, paying bills) are tolerated but dis-trusted and dis-liked.

The Halifax bank is the only organisation I am aware of that has crossed the line and turned to the 'dark side' by introducing a machine that phones you... and goes on relentlessly phoning you every two hours or so (during the day and early evening) until you have completed the transaction. Phone stalking by machine.

I know this because I refuse to talk to it on the grounds that once companies get the idea that we'll answer phone calls from their machines, the floodgates will open and we'll be deluged with their spam.

It is also
the ultimate insult to treat customers as non-human entities that can be engaged and handled at arms length by a machine.

As the Carlsberg adverts would have it - it's a pity Tourism Flanders isn't a bank because they'd certainly be better than the Halifax.

(and yes, I will be voting with my feet and taking my business elsewhere)

04 September 2007

Watch out for travel surveys

Note to self: It's best to be a little more sceptical than you already are, of all those surveys sent each day by PR companies ....

Surveys are one of the PR industry's primary tools and yet the example of Veet's Sexy Walk survey summarised here illustrates just how seriously dodgy (and ridiculous) they can be.

I do occasionally use the copy from travel survey releases - if they haven't twitched my 'tosh antenna' or 'subtlety sensor' - but I think I need to be even more wary these days.