While the rest of Europe is freezing, the political heat in Greece seems to keep rising. It appears that the “debt deal” that was being considered has taken a back stage to the country’s apparent unwillingness to cut spending in order to qualify for the loans necessary to help it through this economic crisis. See this article from the Wall Street Journal for more detail.
From a traveler’s perspective, we think this means another “poor” year for travel in Greece. While you might be able to find some bargains, because travel will be down, you may also run into strikes, riots, demonstrations, intermittent transportation service and other headaches that do not appeal to most travelers. Our recommendation: look for an alternative to travel in Greece this summer. If you want to head in that direction, we recommend that you consider a vacation in Turkey.
Cold weather, ice, snow and blizzard force winds continue to wreak havoc with those attempting to travel on the “Continent”, particularly those traveling in Eastern Europe. Section of the Danube River in Romania have been closed to traffic and other sections have frozen over for the first time in twenty-five years. See this detailed review at CNN for more information. These articles from the UPI and France24 provide details on various aspects of the continued weather troubles plaguing Europe.
On February 8, 20122 the United States Department of State issued an extremely detailed Travel Warning for those who might want to visit or live in Mexico. Travel to Mexico appears to be increasingly dangerous for the casual traveler intent on exploring areas outside of recognized tourist zones.
The new travel warning provides maps that show the locations of areas to avoid when traveling in Mexico. Note that the travel warning includes this consideration,
“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day. The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes.”
The new travel warning is a “must read” for anyone considering travel to Mexico. It is quite long, but the detail is very useful. Several of the maps are downloadable, so you can keep them for future reference. Read the full text here.
The cold weather in Europe is not only getting colder, but it is spreading. On Sunday, Heathrow Airport outside London cancelled thirty-percent of its outgoing flights due to weather problems in the UK and Europe. London has been hit with ice, Rome with snow and throughout Europe many roads are impossibly impassible. See this article from CNN for details. Reuters has additional details that might be of interest.
If you can delay or defer your travel to Europe, do so as the weather is deadly and transportation difficulties will make it too difficult for quality touring. If you cannot defer your travel, take warm clothes and plan on bundling-up for the duration. The bad weather is intensifying and snow is expected in Belgium, Germany and possibly Greece. It is expected that weather conditions across Europe will worsen over the next few days.
It has been a tough week for travelers in Spain, Hungary and Eastern Europe.
Earlier this week Spanair, the fourth largest air passenger carrier in Spain, suddenly ceased operation, stranding thousands of travelers. See this article at the Avionics Intelligence web site for more information. Yesterday, Malev, Hungary’s leading airline, “collapsed” due to funding difficulties. Malev was Hungary’s official airline and carried substantial passenger traffic mainly within the country.
On top of the airline problems, dramatically cold temperatures and winter weather in Eastern Europe have contributed to a number of deaths and additional transportation delays.
It appears that this was a good week not to be in Europe.
As many of you know, TripAdvisor, which was part of Expedia, was spun-out in an IPO on December 21, 2011. We found ourselves wondering what that might mean for those of you who use TripAdvisor for advice on hotels, and the like. We are not sure the news is good.
You probably know that TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s largest travel site, has over 50 million unique monthly visitors and claims 20 million registered members. Due to its massive audience, it is able to publish 25 new contributions every minute and features over eight million travel photos taken by their visitors. TripAdvisor and its 18 subsidiary travel sites, operated by TripAdvisor Inc., attract more than 65 million unique monthly visitors. TripAdvisor’s subsidiaries include: www.airfarewatchdog.com, www.bookingbuddy.com, www.cruisecritic.com, www.everytrail.com, www.familyvacationcritic.com, www.flipkey.com, www.holidaylettings.co.uk, www.holidaywatchdog.com, www.independenttraveler.com, www.onetime.com, www.seatguru.com, www.sniqueaway.com, www.smartertravel.com, www.travel-library.com, www.travelpod.com, www.virtualtourist.com, www.whereivebeen.com, and www.kuxun.cn.
Of course, now that it is a stand-alone business, TripAdvisor needs a way to create revenue and does so by running ads and providing other services for its business partners. Indeed, this week TripAdvisor introduced a comprehensive Analytics Service for businesses that allow them to us a “management dashboard” to summarize the performance of their business on TripAdvisor at a glance. Hmm, we guess this specific business model means that travelers contribute independent evaluations to TripAdvisor and TripAdvisor finds a way to monetize the efforts of their visitors for the benefit of TripAdvisor. We realize that TripAdvisor need to make money, but when the companies that are TripAdvisor business customers are provided information on the ratings of their hotels or restaurants contributed by members of TripAdvisor or visitors to their websites, it feels like the contributors are being disadvantaged.
One has to presume that the reason for TripAdvisor to provide this feedback to business partners is to allow these businesses to take action and remedy ratings that do not benefit the business. Oh. Well, how will that happen? Well, honorable companies could use this information to reevaluate and improve the services they provide. Conversely, for companies looking for the quick fix might, solving the problem might be to find a way to improve the ratings without having to spend money doing so. If this case were to happen, it would appear possible that some companies could try to game the system.
Yes, we know that TripAdvisor claims to have a large number of analytical programs that root out deceptive evaluations. But the real truth here is that crowdsourced systems are just that. They reflect the crowd that is attracted to that website and the “crowd” brings all of their biases and everyday perspectives when providing an evaluation of a property or an attraction. Given the wide variety of people involved in providing evaluations at TripAdvisor, it can only be expected that reviews will evidence a wide variety of world views. Bad reviews of high-rated property or rave reviews of a previously low-rated property are not necessarily spam. They may be honest opinions. In other words, TripAdvisor may be able to catch flagrant violations of its policies, but it is likely that this in a very small minority of the cases of actual spam reviews. This is not a criticism of TripAdvisor, since it is a fundamental concern of all crowdsourced systems. What is the problem however, is that TripAdvisor has taken a crowdsourced system where people are willing to contribute their efforts without compensation to help other travelers and the company is now going to attempt to make money off their efforts.
Perhaps Expedia thinks the same thing. Recently (just after it spun-off TripAdvisor) it began providing “Expedia Verified Hotel Reviews.” In effect, when using Expedia you can read reviews for hotels in which Expedia has verified that the person contributing the evaluation both booked and stayed at the hotel in question. While this won’t solve all of the problems with people trying to tilt the evaluation system, it will make it more difficult for competitors to trash other properties and for owners of properties to tout their hotels. Good for Expedia.
High winds, heavy snowfalls and icy conditions are playing havoc with travel in Austria. The BBC, in a bevy of articles, describes the problems being caused by heavy snowfall in the west of Austria where villages and some towns have been cut-off due to road and railroad closure.
If you are planning on travel in Austria this week, you might want to avoid the most heavily hit areas.
Sometimes the world of travel is filled with controversies that are somewhat ironic. The two that follow are not your prime examples of Christmas stories, but are interesting nonetheless.
First, late last month the Israeli Ministry of Tourism announced the opening of the Gospel Trail, a forty mile hiking trail that connects Nazareth with many important sites in the Galilee area of Israel that were central in the life of Jesus Christ. We were pleased to see this acknowledgement by the Ministry of the importance of Christian tourism in the Holy Lands, as about two-thirds of the country’s visitors see the sites associated with Jesus of Nazareth. However, there already is a trail that connects the important sites in the Galilee that were important locations in the life of Christ. Before the announcement, the Ministry of Tourism had backed the Jesus Trail, a commercial endeavor that created the Jesus Trail connecting sites in the Galilee important to Christians. The founders of the Jesus Trail provide tours, accommodations and have published an excellent book to hiking the Jesus Trail.
The people representing the Jesus Trail were obviously miffed at the change in direction by the the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and, in response, established an interesting website to present their point of view. The two routes are similar, as is reasonable since they connect towns and places of significance in the life of Jesus, but the trails are not identical. Why the Ministry of Tourism felt there was a need for a second trail has not yet been made clear, but two different approaches to the same objective seems somewhat counter productive and will lead to confusion for many visitors. Perhaps time will reveal the factors that led to the development of the Gospel Trail.
A second item about activities in Israel caught our attention in the news this week. We understand that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is administered by the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Those who have visited this important church will have noticed that it is in need of repair, but the administrators cannot decide which party is responsible for which repairs. Last week the frictions between the religious orders that represent the three parties boiled over and they began having a spat while cleaning the church for a Christmas Mass. The clergy began beating each other with brooms to show their discontent. Apparently the action rose to the scale of a riot and the Palestinian Authority had to be called to restore order, which took over an hour. The spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority indicated that it “…was a trivial problem that…occurs every year.” Every year? The things you learn while reading travel blogs!
Click to see our recommendations on the best places to visit in Israel.
Happy Holiday wishes to all travelers around the world.
It seems like this is the time of year when many of us start to think about taking a tour to some exotic destination next spring or summer. Perhaps it’s the cold weather and being locked inside, or the end of the year rush to get things done, but we always start dreaming about travel at this time of year and really go nuts with exploring our dreams the week after Christmas. Somewhere about this middle of this process we decide that travel is really hard work. Maybe we could find someone to do it for us, or perhaps we should take a tour. Hmmm, a tour?
For those of you considering a taking a tour might want to read our article on evaluating tour operators. If you are concerned about the financial stability of your potential tour operator (after all you will need to make a deposit to reserve your trip), you might want to see of they are a member of the United States Tour Operators Association, a trade group trying to ensure integrity in tourism. Read our article on the USTOA for more details on why booking with one of their members might be a good idea.
A nationwide strike on Wednesday November 30, 2011 over pension rights will be joined by Immigration officers causing massive snarls for those entering the UK, especially inbound air travelers. The BBC and others are indicating that delays in processing inbound travelers could require as much as 12 hours before a person could enter the country. Airlines are recommending that passengers reschedule their flights to the next week.
Our advice – don’t fly to the UK until the week after the strike. Heathrow and other airports will be in chaos, although smaller airports might fare a little better.