Three travel startups vie for top innovator

What’s the next cool travel tool? Maybe it’s one of these three startups that will vie for the title of Business Travel Innovator of the Year later this month at the Global Business Travel Association Convention‘s Innovation Series Competition:

30k: The technology computes the number of frequent flyer miles needed for any flight in your airline loyalty program and related alliance and private airlines. The membership-based service also highlights upgradable fares.

AirMule: This app matches travelers who have unused luggage space with TSA-certified shipping companies on the same route. Air couriers earn $150 per checked bag each way or they can buy an Airmule flight with savings built into the price. The company says it screens and inspects all shipments. It sends items for you to pack and deliver.

WayGo: Point your iOS or Android smartphone at a menu or sign in Chinese, Japanese and Korean for this free app translate it without an Internet connection. More languages are on the way.

The three companies already beat out six other startups to win spots at the convention’s expo July 15-19 in Boston and a chance to pitch their ideas to convention goers, who will vote for the top innovation. The competition is a partnership between GBTA and Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm.

 

Free showers: New Zealand airport perk is a fresh idea

Say you’re flying to New Zealand for a business meeting and, due to a delay, you don’t have time to first stop by your hotel after nearly 30 hours of travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice to at least take a shower before making your big sales pitch?

You can — if you happen to be at the Auckland or Christchurch airports in New Zealand. The best part is — the showers are free.

As someone who has paid to shower at a truck stop before taking a flight after a week of hiking and camping, I embrace the idea. I’m sure my fellow airline travelers would, too.

Showers are another way airports worldwide are, well, showering travelers with more amenities to keep them occupied and entertained while waiting up to several hours on their property. Nowadays, many airports have top-notch restaurants, yoga rooms, play areas, spas and more.

While some services generate revenue for airports, others such as free gardens, art and showers are more about making weary travelers feel comfortable than making money.

“Auckland Airport is essentially the country’s international gateway, therefore many of our guests will either have traveled from or be headed to other parts of New Zealand,” airport spokesman Gez Johns said in an email. “We therefore think it’s important to provide them with an opportunity to freshen up along their journey.”

Auckland Airport on the North Island provides seven free showers in or near bathrooms in the international terminal — five in the departures area and two in arrivals outside the secure zone. All of them are unisex and two are wheelchair accessible. In addition, the airport’s Emperor Lounge, its guest lounge, rents towels for the departures area showers for $5 plus a $5 deposit.

The Airport is adding three more showers as part of an upgrade to its international departures terminal, which will be finished in 2018, Johns said. It’s New Zealand’s largest and busiest airport, with over 17 million passengers a year.

Smaller Christchurch Airport (over 6 million passengers a year) on the South Island has eight free showers in each of its accessible bathrooms — two in the secure departures area and six in the land-side, non-secure area. (See photo at top.)

Although the showers are “not intended for able-bodied visitors’ use” some long-distance travelers use them, Yvonne Densem, spokeswoman for the Christchurch Airport, said in an email. The airport is in process of updating its public restrooms, she said.

Both airports’ online maps use shower symbols to designate where they are, but the maps are not up to date and do not show all of the locations. Go to an information booth at each airport or explore if you have time.

Is U.S. travel increasing despite or because of election?

The U.S. presidential election didn’t put a damper on U.S. travel in November as some expected.

In fact, business and leisure travel within and to the United States that month increased at a faster-than-average pace over the last six months, according to the Travel Trends Index released this week by the U.S. Travel Association and Oxford Economics. And travel is expected to continue to grow in the next six months even with some continued uncertainty.

After Donald Trump’s election win in November, “we were prepared to see a wary short-term reaction, particularly in demand for inbound international travel to the U.S.,” U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow  said in a statement.”Not only has no downturn materialized, but we have seen surprising strengthening in some areas, particularly the long-foundering domestic business travel segment.”

The travel uptick mirrors the rallying stock market, steady employment growth and other positive economic indicators. It should be noted that many of those indicators already were on an upward trend for many months before the election.

stock-graph
Stocks have rallied across indices: the Dow Jones Industrial Average (green line), the Standard & Poor’s 500 (blue line) and the Nasdaq (red line). Graphic is for the last six months. (Yahoo Finance)
The Dow Jones Industrial Average, one of the nation’s best stock baromoters, has gained 1,633 points since election day. Moreover, the Dow closed above 19,000 on Nov. 22 — for the first time in its 120-year history– and has been trading above that mark ever since then as investors expect more business-friendly regulations under Trump.

Today, the Dow was down 63 points as of 2:35 EST from Wednesday.

November travel trends

Travel within the United States accelerated in November, continuing a six-year expansion, according to the Travel Trends Index.

Most of the gains came from domestic leisure travel, which grew faster than domestic business travel. Still, domestic business travel reversed a trend where it was the only index segment to spend most of 2016 in negative territory.

International travel to the United States also rose in November, but at a slower pace due to pressures, such as global political and security disruptions and the strong U.S. dollar.

Outlook

Uncertainty still exists until Americans see more details about President-elect Trump’s policies.

The U.S. Travel Association predicts that overall U.S. travel will increase at an annual rate of about 1.8 percent through May, thanks to solid employment growth and healthy consumer spending. Once again, that growth will be led by domestic leisure travel based on forward-looking travel bookings, searches and vacation plans.

Adam Sacks, president of Oxford’s tourism economics group, expects international travel growth early this year will remain sluggish—and possibly decline—due to ongoing global political turmoil and the strong U.S. dollar.

Holiday crush: AAA forecasts a record holiday travel season

The crowds will shift from malls to roads and airports, as AAA expects a record number of Americans to travel this holiday season.

More than 103 million people are expected to travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, up 1.5 percent, or 1.5 million people, from last year. It’s the eighth straight annual increase in holiday travel, according to AAA.

“Rising incomes and continued low gas prices should make for a joyous holiday travel season,” AAA CEO Marshall Doney said in a statement. Overall, improvements in the economy are driving travel.

Consumer spending is expected to rise 4.1 percent this year vs. 2015, according to AAA’s holiday travel forecast report. The nation’s unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in November. Personal income will rise 3.3 percent as an improved job market drives up wages. The stock market is at a record high.

How people travel aaa-pie

Most holiday travelers (an estimated 93.6 million people) are hitting the road again, with road trips expected to rise 1.5 percent from last year.

That’s largely due to low gas prices, even though today’s average national price of $2.24 a gallon is higher than the of $2 a year ago. AAA estimates that U.S. drivers have saved over $27 billion at the gas pumps so far this year compared with last year.

In addition, average car rental rates are slightly lower than last year at $66 a day, according to the forecast.

Air travel will increase by 2.5 percent, with more than 6 million Americans flying. Other types of travel, such as by trains, buses and boat, will decline slightly.

AAA projects holiday airfares will average $204 for a round-trip flight on the top 40 U.S. routes. Lodging rates are to increase 7 percent, with travelers spending an average of $144 a night.

Where people go

While many people visit relatives for the holidays, others take time off for a winter vacation. Warm-weather destinations top the list, with the exception of New York, based on AAA.com bookings. Here are the top five destinations:

  1. Las Vegas
  2. Orlando, Fla.
  3. New York City
  4. San Diego
  5. Anaheim, Calif.

AAA’s travel projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit.

Q&A: What the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America deal means for travelers

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday completed its purchase of Virgin America, kicking off a merger process it hopes to complete within three weeks.

The Seattle-based parent of Alaska Airlines paid $2.5 billion for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice contingent on Alaska Air Group Inc. reducing the scope of its code-share agreement with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline based in Texas. Alaska expects to receive approval from regulators and Virgin America shareholders by Jan. 1.

The merger Alaska and Virgin America will create the nation’s fifth largest airline, with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations in North America, Costa Rica and Cuba. Based in Seattle, the combined airline will be a West Coast powerhouse, with hubs in Seattle; Portland, Ore., Anchorage; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Here are some answers to questions travelers may have:

Q. Where can Virgin America tickets be bought online?

A. Starting Dec. 19, customers can buy Virgin America tickets at AlaskaAir.com. They also can continue to buy tickets at VirginAmerica.com for the immediate future.

Q. Are there any new routes?

A. The combined airline will offer new daily flights to Minneapolis; Orange County, Calif.; and Orlando, Fla.; from its San Francisco hub starting in summer 2017. The schedule will be announced on Dec. 21, the same day tickets to those places go on sale.

Q. Will the Virgin America name and/or experience go away?

A. Travelers should not see “major changes” to the Virgin America product or flying experience in the next 12 months. Alaska said it’s “conducting extensive customer research to understand what customers value most” and hopes to have a decision about the Virgin America brand in early 2017.

Q. If you have an existing flight reservation, what should you do?

A. If you have an existing reservation, your reservation remains the same, and each airline’s current travel policies still apply. If you have a flight on Virgin America, check in at a Virgin America counter. If you have a flight on Alaska, check in at an Alaska counter.

Q. What changes will loyalty program members of each airline see?

A. Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate will continue to operate as separate programs. Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights and elite members will receive priority check-in and boarding on each other’s flights. Starting Jan. 9, members of both frequent flier programs will be able to redeem award travel on both airlines and Elevate members will be invited to open new Alaska Mileage Plan accounts.

aa-va-merger-chart
Courtesy of Alaska Airlines Group Inc.

Q. What does the merger mean for California customers?

A. The combined airline offers 289 daily flights to 52 places in California. Just from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 113 daily flights to 32 destinations.

Q. Will Alaska’s fleet change?

A. Alaska said it has not made any long-term decisions about its fleet. For now, Virgin America’s Airbus A319 and A320 jets will join Alaska’s all-Boeing fleet.

It remains to be seen how the Alaska and Virgin America merger and their different styles will shake out. Virgin America is known as young, fun airline with cabin mood lighting and touch-screen personal entertainment. Alaska has invested in technology, such as luggage tags customers can print at home, for more efficient operations.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works – and we’re confident fliers will agree,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement. “The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

Travelers can find more answers on an Alaska web page designed for that purpose.

Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

My new hat made by Nolly Martini. (Martin Melendy)

At New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier, a park ranger provides an update on daily conditions and safety tips.

The life-size image is a cardboard cut-out, but the ranger is real. His mother told me so.

I met Nolly Martini when I visited her Willows Crafts shop in Harihari, a tiny hamlet about 40 miles north of Franz Josef on New Zealand’s South Island.

I was attracted to the hand-knitted hats and scarves, and she told me that she makes many of them from wool and Samoyed dog hair. She also sells crafts made by other local residents.

As I paid for a colorful hat made by Martini, she told me that her son posed for the cardboard cut-out when he worked for the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The proud mother pulled out photographs of Mark Martini standing next to his cardboard double. (The DOC confirmed it.)

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A visitor walks through a lush rainforest on the Te Ara a Waiau trail. (Sheryl Jean)

Sure enough, Mark Martini’s image greets me when I arrive at Franz Josef Glacier later that day. (See photo at top.) The DOC told me that his image also graces the nearby Fox Glacier.

Tourism is one of New Zealand’s main economic engines. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions, with about 1 million visitors a year.

Continue reading Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

How to stay healthy while traveling

When I arrived home last week after an extended trip, my snuggest pair of jeans still fit.

While I don’t suggest losing weight as a holiday goal, I advocate staying healthy and active while traveling.

One of the great joys of travel is trying new things, whether it be food, drink or experiences. And people are apt to splurge while on holiday. So, go ahead and enjoy that German Schnitzel or trifle, just balance it with some vegetables in between.

The winter holidays bring special challenges because most of us eat more — and perhaps richer — food than we usually do. It’s important to stay active while spending quality time with family and friends. Take group walks before eating dinner and after dessert. Plan group outings, such as hiking, ice skating or sledding.

The fruit option for breakfast on a recent Qantas Airways flight from Sydney, Australia, to San Francisco. (Sheryl Jean)

Here are some of my tips to help you stay healthy while traveling any time of the year:

Stay hydrated: Drink as much liquid — preferably water — as possible to stay hydrated o a plane and on the ground. It’s good for your skin and aids in digestion. Avoid caffeine.

Make smart in-flight food choices: Bring or buy healthier food, such as fruit, salad or hummus, on U.S. flights. On international flights, choose fruit instead of the egg-sausage breakfast and skip dessert. Avoid salt and salty snacks, which will help your body retain water.

Continue reading How to stay healthy while traveling

Is it crayfish or lobster in Kaikoura, New Zealand?

Crayfish and whitebait fritters, and a half crayfish at Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Fritters are served as a sandwich or on top of rice with salad. (Sheryl Jean)

This post is a homage to the people of Kaikoura, which suffered a 7.5-magnitude earthquake about two weeks after my visit. I was writing this blog post in the wee hours of the morning  the earthquake and tsunami occurred.

The little beach town of Kaikoura is known for whale watching, swimming with dolphins and fur seals, but it’s also the crayfish capital of New Zealand.

Kaikoura means “eat crayfish” in the native Maori language. However, these crayfish aren’t the small critters you find in New Orleans, but what Americans call lobster.

New Zealand salt-water crayfish is a spiny rock lobster. It has a sweeter, more subtle flavor.

Drive or walk down Kaikoura’s Beach Road to nearly the end and you’ll see a road-side trailer called Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Stop!

The snow-capped mountains descend straight to the South Pacific Ocean in Kaikoura.

You’ll find crayfish sizzling on the grill as well as fritters (like pancakes) filled with crayfish, whitebait (another local delicacy) or other ingredients. It cost $15US for a half crayfish to $27US for a whole one, but prices elsewhere can be twice as much.

Sit to eat at a table facing spectacular powdered sugar-coated mountains descending straight to the South Pacific Ocean.

Another road-side trailer option is Nins Bin, about 12 miles north of Kaikoura on State Highway 1.

Killer views from New Zealand’s Bealey Spur Track are worth the climb

Today’s rain did not keep me from hiking the fantastic Bealey Spur Track near Arthur’s Pass on the New Zealand’s South Island.

It was pouring rain five hours ago, when I blogged about finding a silver lining in rain while traveling, and it’s raining again. But in between, I made the most of a few mostly rain-free, sunny hours.

The nearly 4-mile (four to six hours round trip) trail, which is mostly uphill, traverses mossy beech forests, tussocks and lots of mud today. (See photo below.) You can climb a nearly 5,100-foot hill for another 1.5 hours, but I didn’t have time for that given my afternoon start.

Once you climb out of the forest, the ridge line and top of the ridge provide jaw-dropping, panoramic views of Mount Bealey, Avalanche Peak, Mount Rolleston, Mount Aicken and other peaks, which range from over 6,000 feet to  nearly 7,500 feet, as well as the Waimakariri Valley. (See photo at top.)

Mud on the Bealey Spur Track on Nov. 3, 2016.
As a bonus I got to peek at the baches (a cabin in New Zealand) lining the private road where the hike starts. Some were rustic shacks, while others had been renovated into modern ski chalets.

Opportunity allowed me to jump ahead on my New Zealand blog posts to the South Island, but I’m not done with the North Island yet. Stay tuned!

Rain, rain go away … I’m traveling

Not too many people like rainy days on vacation — even in places known for rain.

I’m one of them.

Today, steady rain since early morning (see photo above) has scrapped my plans for a six to eight hour hike up to Avalanche Peak today in Arthur’s Pass, the highest village in New Zealand at about 3,000 feet. Arthur’s Pass is the highest and most spectacular pass  through the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. I snowed on the highest craggy peaks overnight! (It’s spring here.)

Here’s the silver lining: I can catch up on my journal writing, and with wifi, my blog posting.

This afernoon I vow to hike rain or shine!