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Travel Advice

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Fall and Rise of the Travel Agent

In 1990, I left my job as a broker in Manhattan, booked an open-ended ticket to the South Pacific, New Zealand, and Australia, and wrote my first travel story, “Dining with the Descendants of Cannibals on a Fijian Island” for the Miami Herald. It would prove to be start of a career where I would write more than 1500 stories (over 300 articles for the Boston Globe alone) and visit over 80 countries. Then the recession hit. I lost more than half my editors in 2008/2009 as magazines folded and newspapers either eliminated or greatly reduced their travel sections. Wanting to utilize my travel expertise, I convinced my wife to join me in a business venture and become an accredited travel agent. 
 
Close family and friends scoffed at the idea, as if I just announced that I was becoming a blacksmith. After all, wasn’t it President Obama who suggested in a town hall meeting that travel agents were becoming obsolete? How could they possibly prosper against big-pocket online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, and Orbitz? There was just no need for them anymore, or was there? Since we opened our home-based travel agency, ActiveTravels.com, in May 2012, without benefit of advertising dollars or a marketing department, there has been a steady stream of traffic. At a recent breakfast at the Four Seasons Boston for travel agents, many people we met in that room said they had a banner year in 2013. 
 
To read my entire essay on the role of the travel agent, just published in an academic journal by the Boston University School of Hospitality, please click here
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/07/14 at 10:59 AM
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

February Newsletter Now Available at ActiveTravels.com

Not surprisingly, we booked quite a few trips to Tuscany last summer. The hotels that received rave reviews from our clients are featured in this month’s newsletter, “Eat, Play, Live!” You’ll also find a detailed description of Israel from our own family trip, a highly reputable outfitter from Croatia that we recommend, and why we believe Global Entry is better than TSA Precheck. 

 
Since we started ActiveTravels, we have been churning out these monthly newsletters hoping to inspire your travels. One of our long-term goals was to categorize each of our headings, so members can have this library of information at their fingertips. We’re almost there. We’ve been working with web designers and we hope to be finished with this task by the end of the month. Simply type in your password and you’ll find close to 20 Quick Escapes to tempt you, or peruse our main feature, “News from the Road,” which tackles one region at a time, like Kenya, Turkey, or the Canadian Rockies.
 
I’m off to Jamaica for a much needed vacation, back on February 24th. Happy travels! 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/13/14 at 11:00 AM
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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Key to Getting a Better Hotel Room

For those of you who missed my story in this Sunday’s Boston Globe, here’s the unabridged version on how to get a better hotel room:
 
After an exhausting 4-hour flight delay, you arrive at your hotel, only to wait on a long line at check in. You can’t help but take out your frustration on the person working the front desk. She smiles, types in your information, says, “Have a nice night” and hands you the key to the worst room in the property. You know, the one that’s next to the noisy ice machine a good quarter-mile from the elevators. 
 
Don’t underestimate the power of the front desk, notes Jacob Tomsky, author of the best-selling Heads in Beds (Doubleday), now available in paperback. Tomsky, 35, spent a decade in the hotel industry, 7 of those years manning the front desk at an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel. We caught up with him in New York to get some pointers. 
 
So how do you get the front desk to give you the best possible room?
Kindness and patience are always the best start. The front desk is doing their best to please everyone, so there’s no need to go overboard about that one special occasion that brought you there. The key here is to differentiate yourself from the 300 other people checking in that day. Providing a gratuity right away will go a lot farther than anything else. It’s a nice way to thank the agent for their hard work. It will also make them pause, look up and do everything to find you the best room and upgrade you. 
 
Was there ever a case when someone’s rude behavior resulted in a downgrading of a room? 
Absolutely. Almost daily. If you are demanding and say something terrible to me or my co-workers, then I’ll put you into a room that’s horrible, one that’s loud or has an obstructed view that doesn’t let in any sunlight. And the best part, you’ll never know. 
 
Is it better to book a room via a travel agent or calling the hotel directly than to reserve through websites like Hotels.com or Priceline? 
From a business standpoint, people who book through third-party travel sites are looking for a discount. The likelihood that they’ll return to your hotel is close to nil. So discount reservations are our last priority. Also, those third-party sites often don’t know the property. I once had someone checking into a midtown Manhattan who wanted a beach view. A good travel agent knows to call the hotel 2 to 3 days before you arrive to speak to the front desk or general manager. It’s a business of people serving people. The more you can connect with the hotel, the better your stay. 
 
Is it worthwhile to return to the same hotel in a city to hopefully get the best room?
Definitely. I had guests meet me just one time and then email me upon their return. I’ll go out of my way to ensure they have a nice room. The best time to get an employee’s name is not when something goes wrong, but when it goes right. When you return to the property, you can find that employee and pick-up where you left off. It’s all about relationships. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/11/14 at 11:00 AM
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Countries on My Wish List for 2014, Panama

The Panama Canal turns 100 in 2014. That alone will garner the country much press. But we like the fact that Copa Airlines, the wonderful Panamanian airline, is now offering direct flights to Panama City from Boston. At this point, there is no direct service to any other Central American country from Logan, including Costa Rica and Belize. What you’ll find is the same rainforest, exquisite coastline, eco-resorts, macaws, and howlers you’ll find in Costa Rica with far less traffic. Upscale lodgings like the Waldorf Astoria are also starting to pop up on the Panamanian map. Go there now before it becomes overbuilt. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/16/14 at 11:00 AM
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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Countries on My Wish List for 2014, Iceland

If you’ve seen Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you realize that the diverse landscape of Iceland plays an important role in the movie. Other television series like Game of Thrones also adore the mix of fjords, mountains, and hot springs as their backdrop. A popular destination for Europeans these past two decades, Iceland is finally catching on with Americans. The most acclaimed drive in Iceland is the Golden Circle, with stops at Tþingvellir, the historic rift valley where the Icelandic parliament first convened in 930 AD; Geysir, the geothermal hot spot that lent its name to all geysers; and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. After the drive, it’s time for a dip in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous geothermal pool, before hitting the eclectic restaurants (dishes include smoked puffin breast) and electronic music clubs in Reykjavik. It’s no surprise that Iceland is on the minds of many of our clients for upcoming travels this summer. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/15/14 at 11:00 AM
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Monday, January 13, 2014

Favorite Travel Days in 2013, A Special Shout-Out to Boston!

While a subway ride to downtown Boston doesn’t really qualify as travel, I can’t hide the joy I felt watching the Red Sox parade with good friends the first Saturday in November. Seeing Big Papi rap, hearing the Dropkick Murphy’s sing “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” watching our surprise hero, Koji Uehara, blow kisses to the crowd, it was exhilarating. The stunning worst to first turn-around for the Red Sox was exactly what this city needed after a hellish Marathon day. I was at the Marathon, taking my usual space with my family cheering on the runners near the infamous Heartbreak Hill on Mile 19. It was a perfect day for running, sunny and brisk. Then I went home to watch the Red Sox win with a walk-off hit in the 9th inning. Everything was perfect until it wasn’t. The next thing you know my hometown is in lockdown during our precious April school break while the police are in a shootout in nearby Watertown with the brothers who bomb innocent people. 

 
Sad as it is, tragedy has a way of bringing out the best of people’s humanity. I was suddenly talking to reclusive neighbors and everyone was heading into the city to support the bars and restaurants most affected from the senseless act. The Red Sox simply rode the wave of adulation and support, as if the World Series win was predestined. And Boston continues to grow and evolve, especially the area around the Seaport and Fort Point. I was just in the Fort Point neighborhood over the weekend, enjoying oysters, lobster rolls, and an excellent local microbrew (Trillium) at Row 34, the latest offering from the team that brought you Island Creek. If you haven’t been to Boston in a while, 2014 is a great time to return and see all the changes. Best if you come during Patriots Day (April 21st) to cheer on the runners. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/13/14 at 11:00 AM
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Friday, December 20, 2013

Make a List, Check it Twice: Set Your Travel Goals for 2014

December is the month most of us set aside time to create a list of goals for the following year. I would urge you to add the destinations you want to visit to that lengthy list. I know, it might seem silly to add something as frivolous as travel to your lofty aspirations, but give me a minute to explain. By creating a list of locales you want to definitely visit in the upcoming year, if not the next 1-3 years, you’ll be assured of finally going to those countries and cities on your wish list. No longer will they be dreams, but a reality. Perhaps even more important, by being organized about where and when you want to go, we can book flights and hotels months in advance, saving you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. For example, a client came to us in November to book flights over Christmas to Buenos Aires. Round-trip airfare was over $3,000! If they had given us six months lead time, the price of airfare would be cut in half. Yes, it’s exhilarating to be spontaneous when it comes to travel, but realize that you pay a hefty price. 
 
Hopefully, an Alaskan cruise is on your wish list for next summer. That’s our lead story in our December newsletter. Other topics include hotels we recommend in Madrid, a weekend escape to Woodstock, Vermont, an outfitter known for their walking vacations, and the numerous options available when traveling with your extended family or a large group of friends. 
 
Wishing You All a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous 2014! I’m taking a much-needed break from blogging and will be back on January 6 with my top travel days in 2013.
 
 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/20/13 at 11:00 AM
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Friday, December 06, 2013

Say No Mas to Cancun

n 1974, a team of Mexican government computer analysts picked a long sliver of land on the Atlantic shoreline as the country’s next Acapulco. The powdery white sands and turquoise waters, separated from the mainland by a lagoon were ripe for development.  Sheraton, Hilton, and Marriott swiftly built their hotels, soon joined by upscale Ritz-Carlton and the flashy Le Meridien, and Americans took the bait wholeheartedly. Today, Cancun is the number one tourist destination in Mexico. Sadly, however, the Mexicans catered far too much to their northern neighbors. With a Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Café, Outback Steak House, and a McDonald’s or shopping mall on every other block, the 14-mile-long Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) looks much more like Miami Beach than any Mexican village. In fact, the Cancun version of the Miami Herald arrives at your hotel doorstep each morning. Roads are often flooded and prices for dinner are exorbitant in a country known for its affordability. 

 
But what really upsets me about Cancun is that a mere hour’s drive is the authentic Yucatan. The mega-resort sprawl on the coast leads to Playa del Carmen, once a sleepy outpost favored by European backpackers and scuba divers. You’ll have to hit the ruins and village of Akumal before you can snag a bungalow on the beach that feels genuine. If you really want to savor a slice of the Yucatan rich with history and culture, head inland to Merida. Here, you’ll find the oldest cathedrals on the North American continent, even a mangrove swamp that is home to a colony of pink flamingoes. South of Merida is some of Mexico’s finest Mayan ruins on the Puuc Route. The rounded pyramid at your first stop, Uxmal, stands majestically on high ground. Kabah is known for its almost maniacal façade of 250 Chaac sculptures that line one wall. Walk past the wild turkeys and brilliant red birds in the forest of Sayil to reach its grand palace. Whatever you do, don’t waste your time in that Disneyesque version of Mexico, Cancun.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/06/13 at 11:00 AM
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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Headed to French Polynesia? Skip the Island of Tahiti

I’ve been thinking a lot about the South Pacific this week. Perhaps it’s the frost on the windshield of the car this morning forcing me to deal with Father Winter or flee to the tropics. Similar to Africa, the South Pacific is one of those places that get under your skin, coaxing you to return as often as possible. Unlike the majority of the Caribbean isles, which can only boast a white strip of sand, the South Pacific isles are jaw-dropping jagged peaks that rise straight up from the ocean, carpeted in emerald green overripe foliage. For me, this is paradise. 

 
After my inaugural trip to the region in 1990, I would make the South Pacific my area of expertise, returning as often as possible. This is especially true of the French Polynesia isles, a mere two hour flight past Hawaii. Perhaps, I was fed too much Fletcher Christian as a boy and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Captain Bligh. Or maybe it was the languorous women Gauguin painted after entertaining them in his supposed House of Debauchery. 
 
All I know is that when I first arrived on the island of Tahiti and its bustling city of Papeete, I would have been happy to be back in Boston scraping the ice off my sidewalk. There were traffic jams, pollution-spewing cars, far too many uptight Frenchmen, and tuna sandwiches at $20 a pop. If Fletcher Christian saw present-day Tahiti, he might have continued his voyage with Bligh. Their major site, The Gauguin Museum, had no original works by the artist (another ironic twist is that Gauguin’s masterpiece, Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going? (1897-98), is right down the road from me in Boston). Across the way, the Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens, a collection of tropical plants from around the world founded by a former MIT physics professor, was not in the least bit memorable. I wanted to get lost in the lushness of nature, not take a walk through some manicured garden. 
 
Then my wife and I made the wise move to head to Raitea. For me, authenticity in travel often goes hand-in-hand with a solid connection to the people of that community. Within 15 minutes of paddling on a winding river that snaked through the island, we came upon a group of kids diving off a tree swing into the water. They were so excited to see us that they insisted on showing us the small thatched huts they lived in, sat us down on a mat, and served us fresh papaya from the fields behind them. 
 
On another trip, a 16-day cruise aboard the freighter ship Aranui brought us the Marquesas. 750 miles north of Tahiti, the Marquesas are the most remote islands in the world, farthest from any continent. Immense green mountains pierce the clouds overhead on many of the twelve islands, retaining the savage beauty that inspired Gauguin to live and be buried on Hiva Oa. A young 22-year-old sailor named Herman Melville was so enraptured with the island of Nuka Hiva that he chose to jump ship and live with cannibals rather than continue his voyage. You can read about it in his first book, Typee. One of the most stunning natural sites I’ve ever seen was the Bay of Virgins on the island of Fatu Hiva. Towering, storm-worn basalt rises from the ocean’s depth forming a v-shaped buttress that’s illuminated by the sun. In the distance, serrated ridges and impassable gorges stand as a monument to the centuries of volcanic fires that formed this fantastic landscape. 
 
When I returned from my trip to the Marquesas, I met a couple who spent their entire honeymoon solely on the island of Tahiti. It made me want to cry. It reminds me of a backpacking trip I took to Newfoundland, where we went off the trail less than 100 yards to look straight down at a magnificent fjord. Our guide knew it was there, but unfortunately none of the other hikers did and kept on walking. My hope for creating our travel agency, ActiveTravels.com, is to steer travelers in the right direction so they don’t spend their entire time in French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/05/13 at 11:00 AM
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Monday, December 02, 2013

Honesty Leads to the Best Travel Writing

Pressured by travel editors to write flowery prose about a destination so that publications can secure those necessary advertising dollars, most travel writing is a bore. Even worse are travel writers who pen stories in return for a free press trip. Their writing is often indistinguishable from a publicist’s press release. Take it from a travel expert. Rarely have I ever encountered a perfect trip, where the travel, accommodations, and destinations are all stellar during the same jaunt. There is always some adventure you’re thrust into willingly or not, some bizarre local you meet that helps define the place, and a slew of mishaps. Place those anecdotes into the article and you have a great read, not unlike the writings of Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux. 
 
Rarely do I see a scathing review of a destination, so when I came across this little gem from a writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was thrilled. I was researching a trip to northern Sumatra for a client who wants to see the orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park. Unfortunately, they have to fly in and out of Medan, the third largest city in Indonesia and the focus of this story. 
 
All week, I’ll be sharing with you some of my least favorite misadventures in print. Enjoy. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/02/13 at 11:00 AM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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