Monday, November 24, 2014

Travel Agents in an online world

Being a travel agent is a difficult task, at least, being a good travel agent is.

An agent is supposed to keep abreast of the latest trends, every hotel and air carrier on the planet, foreign exchange trends, weather forecasting, potential security issues around the globe, immigration requirements for each end every country and be up-to-date and cheery with the delivery of this knowledge; and always at the lowest price.

Years ago, well, fifteen or so anyway, travel agents, like practitioners of almost every art, needed to know more than their clients about any single transaction. This was not really too difficult, and their role as the gatekeepers between clients and the principals in the business was well established. And then a funny thing happened; more and more information became accessible to the individual and the role of the intermediary became almost obsolete in many fields.

It is true, of course, that unless value is added to a transaction, there is little or no point in paying for the professional services; an accountant who continuously said “That’s a good idea” to each of your suggestions would not last long in that role.

And a funny thing happened in the travel business; the good agents got better, and the poor ones disappeared. Simple, and good for everyone, one would think, but why do so many travellers cringe at the concept of an intermediary when planning their travel?

I shall give you an illustration. Years ago, the most common question that we received was “What is the cheapest ticket to London?” Our answer was always, “Where in London do you want to go?”, and the responses were interesting. Apart from being able to sort passengers onto Heathrow and Gatwick flights according to their answer, a remarkable proportion, nearly 50%, were in fact going to Hull, Cardiff or another variety of UK destinations. Aware that London was a hub for cheap flights, and unaware of the time-geography of the island, they assumed that getting to London inexpensively was sufficient.

As it happens, one can fly to a variety of UK regional airports including Humberside  (for Hull) and Cardiff for only a small additional cost, and many were delighted and flew to their destination happily and with considerably less expense and frustration. Now, however, the question is the same, and the answer from the Binary Net will always be the most economical fare (or quite often, but that is a different matter), and thus completely unaware that their journey could be fare easier they revel in the fact that they “beat the street” and found the lowest fare to a destination to which they really didn’t want to fly.

The web is, of course, a fine tool, but it is not more a tool than the phone system. It is also worth considering that when businesses spend millions developing their websites, it is to maximise their revenue, and not to minimise your expense; and those are completely different questions and requirements.

The web is where much information is housed; little knowledge is there and the key to successful web-use is knowing the correct questions ask. It is a pasteurising environment, with fewer companies, operating under a variety of disguises, selling fewer products.

It is an addictive environment, and a tantalising one where one knows’ that alternatives exist, but tracking them down and using them as building blocks for your vacation or business trip can be difficult.

And, of course, you won’t miss what you never knew existed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Munich Airport; a stopover hotel with a difference.

Munich airport is a fine place, and as such, I try to use it as my primary connection point in Europe. For a variety of reasons, I have spent more nights in hotel rooms by airports in the past couple of years that I would normally choose, and the offers from airport to airport vary tremendously, and Munich is no exception.

There are often convenient, but hideously expensive on-airport properties, and then there is the option of travelling into town. This can vary in complexity and cost from Narita airport which lies some 90 kms from Tokyo to London’s Heathrow airport, only 15 minutes (and an eye-watering £20) from the center of the city.

A couple of days ago I needed to overnight in Munich, and unwilling to pay the €300 requested by the Kempinski or head into the city, I looked for a close-by option. It is a lovely hotel, and I have enjoyed staying there in the past, but €300 is a touch steep.

The small town of Neufarhn is only thirteen kms from the airport, and much of that seemed to be spent driving around the runways, and some seven minutes later, with the taxi hitting speeds of 150 km, and the meter whizzing around at a considerable speed, we screeched to a halt by the Gasthaus Gumberger; shaking from the experience and €27 poorer I checked into the property and absolutely loved it.

It was a fairly substantial hotel, and bed & breakfast (a single room) was €99. A comfortable room, an ample dinner at their convivial restaurant and friendly staff were exactly what I wanted. The following morning, however, with more time to spend returning to the airport, I decided to take the train, an option that had eluded me on the previous evening.

The station was a fifteen minute walk from the property, and from there the S1 runs every twenty minutes to the airport for a mere €1.30; I noticed that there was, in fact, another hotel, the Hotel Maisberger adjacent to the station, and at €65 - 85 per night, a fine option, and one that I shall try on my next overnight in Munich.

There are many options like this for spending the night at airports, and many comfortable properties that are completely unlike the soulless airport chain hotels. There are even chain-hotels that are so spectacularly well placed (The Premier Inn at Gatwick), that one can overlook their lack of charm.

It is, however, worth doing a little research before charging on-line to take’s  lowest priced airport option.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Scotland; all fun and games

Scotland is a truly peculiar destination, and touring in Scotland - its Highlands, its Lowlands, its cities or its islands offer visitors more variety than one can shake a proverbial stick at.

It is also, one of those countries that virtually every visitor believes that they know before they arrive; they know because, as the Scots themselves say “Everyone in the world is either Scottish or wishes that they were”; an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is certainly something in this remarkable place for everyone, and most of the jewels need a little fossicking. 

I have been fortunate to have been here many, many times. The first visit was back in about 1972 when, infatuated with a Scottish girl who I had met on a school cruise, I decided to hitch-hike to East Lothian to see her. I recall her bewildered parents when I arrived, and Anne herself (for that was her name) was equally bemused to see me turn up at the farm gate early one morning. In those days, of course, there was no internet, and communication was sparse. I did, however, spend an enjoyable few days, and in the timeless way of fathers was introduced to the joys of farming; having arranged my first driving licence (tractors only), and shown me a field to clear, I enjoyed the first few days and then left hitch back to London, some 350 miles to the south. I still have the licence.

In subsequent years, my visits have taken me in more comfort at times, and from the gorgeous rolling hills and ineffaceable sense of time in The Borders to the remote islands of Shetland, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country.

The islands of the north and west are communities unto themselves; the remote isles of Shetland slowly reviving an identity in the 21st century are most interesting. They are easily accessible either by air or through the splendid services of Northlink, a ferry company serving Orkney and Shetland from Aberdeen. And these islands, steeped in the history of the Vikings, and home to some of Europe’s finest archaeological sites are to be savoured.

In almost complete contrast the rigged islands of the Outer Hebrides are exercises in stoicism, visible in the architecture of everything from the small stone crofts to the concrete bus shelters designed to withstand some mighty gales; there are thriving communities and there are abandoned communities, and one, an island some fifty miles of the western shore was abandoned in the 1930s after hundreds of years of habitation.

A bus shelter on Lewis

The island, St. Kilda, has to be one of the most evocative places that I have visited; it has given its name to the suburb of Melbourne, founded by some of the first St. Kildans to emigrate away from their brutal life of bird catching, bird plucking and bird eating on an isolated, windy and craggy rock in the Atlantic ocean. However it was exactly those features that attracted me to the island, and a few years ago I headed out in a smallish boat to visit Hirta.

Approaching St. Kilda

The Bay on Hirta

Stac Lee and Bororay

The journey took about four hours,  one passenger actually turned a fetching shade of green and spent the whole time on land praying for an airport to be suddenly constructed. It wasn’t, but the weather picked up, and the day on the island was simply gorgeous. Some of the houses on Main Street have been restored by volunteers from the National Trust and somehow the atmosphere of the island still felt inhabited; perhaps by the spirits of the long forgotten islanders, or perhaps from the simple strength of character that has been woven into the island’s fabric during their hundreds of years of harsh tenancy. Whichever it was, I loved the day, and became completely mesmerised by the hundreds of thousands of birds living on the rugged stacks; it was a visit that I would like to repeat.

Main Street
Heading to the Bird Cliffs
 And far from these remote islands, there are hundreds of villages and towns that exude “Scotland”; Dornoch, Huntly, Melrose, Stornoway, Stromness, Brae,  Drymen and so many others are wonderful destinations, and all so easily accessible to visitors wanting to step, just a little, from the beaten path.

And finally, in this note about Scotland, I would be remiss to show my hand, and say that (friends notwithstanding), I prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh! Glasgow is wonderful; heavy, secure, beautiful and with some of the regions greatest museums (a couple of reasonable football teams), fine monuments and terrific restaurants and nightlife. On the other hand, Glaswegians do have a virtually impenetrable accent.

When you visit Scotland, however, be sure to explore; the brands are great, but the soul of the country lies in its depth and lies in the people who live in the remarkable communities that weave the unique fabric that is Scotland.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Scotland; The Northwest in November

Touring in the Scottish Highlands is always a joy, and travelling the far-north of this wonderful destination is always an exercise in surprises.

The scenery is breathtaking, the communities are charming, the food is memorable, accommodation delightful and the weather always a subject of conversation. This trip was no exception, and having decided to spend a few days in the South Of The North Of Scotland, with friends who dwell in Ardgay, I suggested a two-day drive to the north coast.

The A838 - the busy northwestern highway!

I had my reasons; in search of a series of Around Britain driving programs, I needed to find some suitable accommodation and ideas for this part of the country, and besides, I had taken the road from Ullapool around the northwest cape to Durness once before, and it was truly one of themost spectacular roads it has been my privilege to drive.

The Northwest Scottish coast
And so, with accommodation (dog-friendly) arranged at the Borgie Lodge, we set out along the shores of Lochs Shin and More heading to the coast. The sun shone, the copper colours of the fading autumn reflecting in the still waters of the lochs were extraordinary. We stopped to gasp and photograph frequently, and by the time that we reached the “Main Road” at Laxford Bridge, we had completely used up our supply of superlatives, and were almost silent as we headed to Kinlochbervie and the quite remarkable Oldshoremore Beach.
Oleshoremore Beach

Now I drop these names for a reason or two. Firstly, those of you heading to the northwest of Scotland should add them to your must-see list; it is all too easy to pick communities at random, after all, they all look the same on a map, but the cluster of communities at the Rubha na Leacaig (and no, I have no clue what it means) are absolutely delightful. The beaches are superb, if a tad chilly, the villages old and secure in the way that communities many hundreds of years can be, and the atmosphere of the coastline epitomises the region.

It is difficult to quite grasp the lifestyle of sea communities in the far north; obviously fishing and beachcombing are their traditions, but living in such distant and climatically challenging villages makes one perceive the world in a quite different way. I am a tad envious of this perspective, and realising that I am, growing up in the centre of London, as far from a Gaelic seafarer as one can be, look at their lives through rose-tinted glasses. One forgets the danger of the oceans as romantic ideals of the sea flood though one’s mind, and those gorgeous, white-painted cottages that huddle together in the small villages evoke such images that the thought of their heating bills, and drafty stonework rarely impede. In truth, the reality of village life in the distant northwest of Scotland is one of community, and while there are many leaving the region for the comforts and work of the cities, there are many migrating the other way in search of a less stressful existence; one can only hope that each find their own peace.

And so, after letting the dogs run and splash on the beach, we continued north along the now single-tracked road to Durness.

Oldmoreshore Beach
Access to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the UK is by ferry across the Kyle of Durness which operates somewhat eccentrically. In the off-season, which is now, it operates according to the weather, and only by going to the ferry point and reading the instructions can one get an idea of the possibility of sailing. Yesterday, it simply said “No Sailing Today”, so that was that. We returned to Durness for a sandwich and continued along the coast to Tongue.

Pocan Smoo
The road is truly extraordinary; one jumps hundreds of millions of years at the turn of Loch Eriboll where we are informed that the lands on either side of this waterway are from different millennia, and one can see a dramatic change in the agriculture and features of the land. As we continued from here, the land became flatter and intermittently there were more cattle grazing, and more frequently huge stags peering at us from their vantage points in the moorlands.

Sunset at Loch Hope
And so we continued until dark, which came at precisely 4.11pm, a touch early, and an impediment to full-on sightseeing, but for us it was ideal, and time to enjoy the hospitality of the Borgie Lodge, our destination for the night.

It was, and probably still is a slightly unusual place; rated with four stars by the Scottish Tourist Board, two stars by the AA, and by us as a mixture of the spectrum of stars that we could imagine. More about The Lodge in due course.

Sunset from the causeway at Tongue