Travel Tips, Thoughts & Rants

Travel well

The simplest thing anyone can do to travel well or better is take less. Who’s going on the trip, you or your wardrobe?

How often do you see people struggling on aircraft or through parking lots or dragging their suitcases through crowds? It’s hell. I know because I’ve done it. As a young man I ran out of money in Dublin and had to get up an hour earlier so I could walk 15 blocks to pick up a bus to the airport. I was so broke I couldn’t afford a cab. I had a miserably large suitcase full of clothes I didn’t need and had to keep stopping to cope. It was a good, early lesson.

I’ve been in the Paris Metro and seen elegantly dressed people – one woman in a taupe skirt, red jacket and Hermes scarf stands out – struggle to drag their bag up two steps as hundreds of people walked past. Paris is miserable for all these tiny sets of steps that require constantly picking up your suitcase. And in London, I avoid some Tube stations because they don’t have escalators. I have a friend who lives in North London. If I mistakenly take the Tube all the way to the overland station in Finsbury Park instead of switching at Kings Cross I face a 110-step spiral staircase. You try lugging a heavy suitcase up that! And if  you’re unlucky enough to be caught in a crowd of commuters there’s little patience or sympathy for someone blocking their access with a big suitcase.

It’s one thing to be able to manoeuvre your luggage across the living room floor and in an airport which is level and has escalators and elevators, but it’s quite another to watch it bump along cobble-stone streets, or get it on and off buses and trains, or trying to fit it into small foreign hotel rooms (which may or may not have a working lift).

Think carefully about what you are going to do, what you will need and take less. AND leave room in the suitcase for purchases. You should never leave home with a full suitcase.

My rule of thumb for better travel: one checked bag, one small carry-on, and one hand free at all times. You need that hand free to open doors, hold railings, keeping your balance and for simple protection against street people and hawkers.

Travel is about you, not your stuff.

Being Safe

Sadly, this weekend we have seen 50 people perish in an airline crash in Buffalo. On a positive note, a similar number of people walked away from a crash landing at London’s City Airport, and then there were the 150 people who survived the landing in the Hudson River in January. And if you think back to 2005, an Air France flight crash landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport. The aircraft was incinerated, but all 309 people walked away.

As someone who travels a lot (I average between 20 to 42 flights a year) safety is always on my mind. I don’t obsess about crashes, but I do want to walk away should it ever happen. Most of us don’t pay attention to the safety instructions on a flight, especially if you are on multiple flights in a day. We know how to undo the seatbelt, we know if an air mask pops from the overhead to put it on first before we help another. I have a vague idea how to use the life vest should it be a water landing.

BUT what we should all do with each flight to ensure our safety is check for the emergency exits closest to our seat. I always look for two sets of doors, because as happened in the Hudson River crash, it may not be safe to use one door. If all passengers did that one thing, checking where the two closest emergency exits are, they would have done themselves, their seatmates and their families a huge favour.

That’s not obsessing about the negative, it’s just being pro-active for our safety, like maintaining your car’s brakes.

Nickel-and-dimed to death

Travel is my passion. Sadly, as passionate as I am for travel, I feel nickel-and-dimed to death by user fees, surcharges, and any other name bureaucrats are giving to their growing list of quasi-taxes.

Every week I am tempted by the weekly emails from Air Canada, American Airlines and travel booking sites telling me about their sales and great discount fares. My temptation is clipped, however, when I click the “book now” option. While Air Canada may be prepared to fly me from Halifax to Toronto or Dorval for $199, the government and a list of mystery suppliers are crippling my ability to travel. For example, a $199 flight to Montreal from Halifax carries a $41 Navcan surcharge, $20 airport improvement fees, $40.86 provincial tax, and $24 security surcharge. That adds up to a 63 per cent in “extras”. That $199 cheap getaway suddenly ballooned to $324.86.

These surcharges and taxes are even more absurd when you look at flying from Toronto to Boston or New York. Same seat price: $199, plus add-ons: $69.32 Navcan surcharge, $24.34 airport fees, $20.27 GST, and $57.27 for “other” surcharges (including security), which dent the credit card to the tune of $370.30! And that is a travel killer. That extra $171.30 should have paid for a hotel and dinner. Instead it goes to Ottawa.

Travel surcharges seem to grow on an almost daily basis. One that really irks me are these destination marketing surcharges to hotel rooms which range from one to two-and-a-half percent. This will be used to promote the city to groups and events. It’s not much money on a $200 hotel room, but it’s part of the cumulative effect on a travel budget. When did it become the individual traveller’s responsibility to pay for a businesses’ marketing plans? Hasn’t this already been built into their pricing structure? Or should it be? Are we rewarding poor business practices, seeing double dipping, or suffering an industry’s political statement?

The array of surcharges and taxes on travellers in Canada gives new meaning to creative accounting. There are fuel surcharges on certain routes. Then there’s the “debundling” of services in which Air Canada has the lead. The idea is you only pay for what you use. So, you pay for food, you pay for headsets, you pay for a blanket and pillow. You pay for a checked bag or a second checked bag. Basically you pay and pay and pay and have no say in anything. Of course, the airlines and airports tell you you have the option of not flying. No, many of us don’t have that option. Work requires it.

On top of these charges, since airlines and car rental companies have cut their commissions to travel agencies, the consumer, while not seeing a similar reduction in airfares or car rentals, is now being assessed $20-60 fees for services. At least the travel agent has access to a variety of fare and travel options, and for residents of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia provide financial protection  when things go wrong, like the bankruptcy of a Canada 3000. (Travel agents also save us the aggravation of sitting on hold for 30-40-60 minutes with the airlines, listening to a recorded message telling us how important our call is.)

For some reason, the government and the people who run airports seem to believe Canadian travellers will pay anything. True, some business people can’t avoid travel. But that large segment of recreational travellers – the people hotels, airlines, and restaurants rely on for their weekend and shoulder season business – don’t have to travel, and that is an issue for Canada’s $80 billion tourism and travel industry.

I also find security fees a particularly galling add-on because we pay a universal charge for an uneven level of airport security. Why is it that a bag which requires a 15-minute hand search in Halifax doesn’t raise an eyebrow with security at Toronto’s Pearson airport, Paris’ DeGaulle Airport or London’s Heathrow? And why are we paying more for security when American airports still allow curb-side check in? These additional costs and inefficient security measures are changing travel patterns. I know executives who now travel via train between Toronto and Montreal, because a) VIAOne is cheaper than a regular full fare plane ticket, and b) it’s almost as fast as a flight, when you factor in the time it takes to get from a downtown office to and from the airport, waiting times at the airport as well as the flight time.

It seems travellers face all these charges because the people who impose them on us don’t have to pay for their travel. They travel at the public’s expense, so what do they care how deeply individual travellers have to dig into our pockets? I’m sick of being nickel-and-dimed to death every time I walk into an airport or on to an aircraft. And a lot of this is due to the actions of politicians as much as airport authorities or airline management.

2 responses to “Travel Tips, Thoughts & Rants

  1. Shannon MacLeod

    I love this advice & agree with it 100%. It’s solid!!

    • Thanks Shannon.

      Sorry for being so long in responding. I’ve been in Wales and England. It was a very hasty trip. My mother has been in hospital since September 3rd, so I spend 8-14 hours a day there. Her doctors gave me approval to do a little research, so I got the okay on a Tuesday and flew out Saturday.

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