Tips for getting the 2016 vacation you want: No. 1

May, 2009: Canal barge cruise through Burgundy, France. Photos by Jane Wooldridge / ONE TIME USE ONLY.

May, 2009: Canal barge cruise through Burgundy, France. Photos by Jane Wooldridge / ONE TIME USE ONLY.

Tip 1: Update your 2016 travel datebook. 

Family wedding? Conference? Business trip? Get the dates and places onto the calendar.

Once you know when and where you’re already going, you can figure out if you want to add additional time to any of those trips, so you can leverage your travel time and airfare.

Or not. If you’re of the school that fish and family both have a three-day limit, or your annual professional conference is in West Boringsville, you can save those precious vacation days for a trip that really makes your heart sing.


Off to Antartica: Rolling through the Drake Passage

The dreaded Drake Passage keeps many people from contemplating a trip to Antartica. The sail through the Roaring Forties leadings to the Screaming Fifties (we’re talking latitude here) on to the Antarctic Convergence (where the water gets REALLY cold) and the Southern Ocean.natdeck

Night-time swells were up to 20 feet, we’re told; by day, we’re rolling (and yes, the ship and those aboard it do roll, clinging to ropes stretched across the lobby) through waves of 12 to 15 feet….what’s considered medium crossing conditions. The skies are variable, which is to say one minute hailing, the next sunny, the next so foggy you can’t see the waves outside the window, and again to snow and sun.  A scopolomine patch proves critical. The young girls (and old men) who thought they could tough it out are finding otherwise. (For me, with a patch stuck securely behind my ear, the trip is a breeze.)

In the climate controlled comfort of our 162-passenger ship, the National Geographic Explorer, we can only imagine what it might have been the Shackleton crew and those of other exploration teams to sail the Beagle Channel, heading to who knew exactly what. To be whipped by hail and snow and gusts on a sailing vessels whose canvas was already worn from the trip from Europe – these people were brazen, brave and likely nuts. What an amazing feat it was.

Here aboard our Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic trip, we’ve got snug parkas, warming cups of hot cocoa and a photo lessons with the staff. Our biggest problem: figuring out how to get the best photographs.

No ice floes yet, but we’ve got hundreds of miles yet to steam before we hit the shores of the White Continent.

Real customer service — and a smart survey to back it up

Far too often these days, ‘customer service’ is a sad joke. Take the cable company that took three visits, 12 hours and four guys to hook up our pre-wired house earlier this week…and was accomplished only after three-plus hours on the phone with dispatch. Or the estate sales company partner who bailed on us last minute with a raft of spurious excuses (but had bandwidth to handle another estate sale elsewhere in the neighborhood on the same date that was arranged far after ours.) The city official who insisted that a previously accepted permit application be reprinted in a different order — at a cost to the tax-paying applicant of $275. The off-shore digital “help” function that can rarely provide more than additional frustration. Or the mechanized answer system at … you name the company, it doesn’t much matter. It all amounts to “dis-service.”

So it is with surprise and delight that I report an airline customer experience that was not only pleasant, it was actually helpful.

This morning I was alerted by a computer call to my cell phone that my long-booked flight would be sadly delayed. Since my trip is a short one — less than 48 hours — to a professional conference, this was not good news.

I immediately phoned for a reservation agent, a process that involved a maddening digital phone system and, even at 5 a.m., a 10-minute wait. When the system asked if I would be willing to take a short survey at the end of my call, I punched yes, figuring I’m be on a tear about another dreadful experience.

Then Scott got on the phone. After a frantic plea for help, he actually … helped me. He told me he was going to investigate the issue, came back on the line to explain it was a mechanical delay but he was looking for alternatives, came back on the line again to explain he was trying to rebook me on a competitor airline that would get me to my conference around my original arrival time, and came back on the line to tell me the mission had been accomplished and he’d need just a few more minutes to be sure my ticket was properly reissued.

Wow. Wow. WOW. Was this some early morning fantasy?

The survey at the end of the call was, as promised, blessedly short. The single question: On a scale of 1 to 5, with five being ‘absolutely’ and one ‘no way,’ would I hire the person who had just helped me?

You betcha!

I’d not only hire that person, I’d hire that company … and will likely do so next time they and I are flying the same way. And, because good service should be rewarded, it’s only fair that I give the company name: Delta. After having suffered a raft of discouraging service issues with Delta some years back, I turned my back on the company. Now, I’m likely to at least check out their schedule and fares next time I travel.

Other companies should take note. As service providers of all types get bigger and more complex, they often assume they can dominate the marketplace regardless of how poorly they treat customers. It’s a foolish assumption. Competitive products often arise out of dissatisfaction with the status quo … that’s how Southwest, for instance, came into being. And with rapid advances in technology, today’s monopoly can be tomorrow’s legacy leave-behind. For proof, you need only look to VOIP phone providers, alternative parcel carriers and e-mail.

Good customers service might not stop technological advancement, but customer loyalty can staunch the impact of change.

Good customer service is also a form of living up to commitments…something our society could use a whole lot more of.