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Friendly Planet Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Force of Nature’

Why we need to help Japan recover

A month has passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. And as you know, Japan is being rocked with aftershocks and the nuclear crisis continues to threaten the country.

You would think that the Japanese people would be in a state of mayhem and disorder, but it’s quite the opposite. What we’re seeing in Japan is how evolved, calm, and reasoned people behave during a crisis.

There’s no looting nor protests, and everyone is trying to help one other. It is the dignity and grace of the Japanese people that make their country so wonderful.

For example, right now the cherry blossoms are in bloom in Japan. Their blossoming sparks celebration. People go outside and enjoy picnics, parties, music, and the beauty of the trees. But this is not the case this year.

In the southern part of Japan, the damage was minimal compared to the north. But the people in the south who aren’t dealing with the aftermath of the disasters feel that it’s not appropriate to celebrate while their countrymen are suffering so much.

Instead, everyone is cutting back on everything. From cherry blossom celebrations to ordinary things, such as electricity and water to conserve resources. They’re doing this to stand in solidarity with their countrymen and women, and essentially, to do whatever they can to help one other out.

There’s a strong sense of responsibility in the Japanese culture and psyche. Their consideration of one another is remarkable and worth appreciating. It’s also one of the many reasons why we want to resume tours to Japan as soon as possible. However, we won’t go back until we feel it’s safe for our travelers.

Unfortunately I don’t see us resuming our Japan Panorama tours this year. The touring season is very short in Japan, and so we’ll have to wait until 2012 to go back. But until then, we can help Japan recover through donations.

We’re always looking for ways to get money directly to those who need it the most, and right now we’re asking you to make donation to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Thank you for your help. I know the people in Japan truly appreciate it.

Japan update: Travel news and ways you can help

Since my last update on Japan, I’m happy to report that our representatives in Tokyo are safe. We also have been in contact with our airline partners, Singapore Airlines, who have extended the deadline to cancel flights to Japan without penalty from March 20 to April 10.

That means insurance coverage is guaranteed only through April 10. However, I believe this deadline will be pushed back, as the nuclear emergency in Japan has complicated things.

So in order to make sure our travelers don’t suffer unnecessary penalties for canceling their April 19 departure or later for the Japan Panorama tour, which is not yet protected by waivers from suppliers, we’re not making any changes or canceling any tours at this time.

If you’re on our April 19 Japan Panorama departure, we’ve already contacted you with a list of options to choose from at this time, including booking another Friendly Planet Travel destination or a later Japan departure date.

Once we have a better sense of damage to the particular regions visited on the Japan Panorama itinerary, we will be better able to determine how to proceed. I want to assure you that we will act in your best interests. Flip back to my previous post to get more details about this decision.

Amid this disaster that has reshaped Japan physically, it’s clear that the Japanese people are methodical, strong, and united. One journalist I heard this morning on the BBC spoke of spending the night in a standing apartment in a village in the earthquake zone.

The family who lives there has no electricity, water, phone service, and very little food. Despite this, the journalist was welcomed warmly and invited to share whatever meager resources the family had. The journalist was surprised by the lack of hysteria and the stoic, calm attitude of the people she has met.

I’m not surprised. I’ve been working with the Japanese for years and know that they will recover and emerge from this better and stronger than before. That is just how they are as a people. For example, our representatives in Japan expressed their gratitude at having been spared the worst of the earthquake and the tsunami, but are worried about people in the worst impacted areas. Their message to me ended with this stoic line: “We will fight this tragedy together and recover, for sure.”

This is just one of the reasons why people — especially those of us who value independence, strength of character, and the ability to look ahead and work toward a better future — will not cancel, but postpone travel to Japan. And, at the first possible moment, they will make a beeline to be among the first to witness the recovery.

Friendly Planet Travel is looking for the best ways to help the Japanese people at this terrible time. We will get back to you with some suggestions for places to send donations that assure the help gets through quickly and to those who need it the most.

In the meantime, we are recommending Doctors Without Borders as a good place to send donations. They are very active in the Japanese recovery and have indicated they will need special funding to handle the crisis. I’ll continue to post updates to the blog, Facebook, and Twitter about the situation in Japan.

Japan earthquake travel update

This post has been updated here.

I don’t have to tell you about the natural disasters that struck Japan, devastating the country.

I love Japan and am heartbroken to see this beautiful country go through this horrible event. Our hearts go out to everyone effected by this disaster.

Thankfully, Friendly Planet Travel does not have any travelers in the country at this moment. However, we do have a scheduled departure date for our Japan Panorama tour on April 19, which is presently on hold.

For the moment, we have been informed that tickets issued for travel to Japan can be cancelled without penalty only through March 20. After that date, issued tickets can be cancelled, but for a penalty of $100 per person.

Since we have not been able to reach our land agents in Japan yet, we can’t determine if land penalties will be waived for April departures. We believe, however, that all of our suppliers will be lenient under the circumstances.

It is out of the question to even begin to determine the extent of the destruction in Japan at this early hour. In fact, a second earthquake occurred just a short while ago in the Nagano area, and there are likely to be aftershocks in the hours and days ahead.

In order to determine if travel in April will even be possible, we will need to assess the viability of the buildings in the cities where our travelers would stay. In the best case scenario, this will take weeks. The safety of our travelers is always our number one priority.

We will need to wait a few days until we make contact with our representatives on the ground in Japan. From there we’ll determine how cancellations of tours for April will be handled in order to make a final decision about our departure dates.

If you’re one of the travelers booked on our April 19 Japan Panorama tour, we are contacting you right now to give you all the information we have. Once the options are known, we will send them to you without delay. And be assured that no matter what option you choose, we will work with you to ensure you get a trip you are happy with.

The tsunami that hit Japan triggered tsunami alerts in other parts of the world where we do have Friendly Planet Travelers, including the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica. I spoke with our representatives in the Galapagos Islands and they they told me everyone is safe and has been moved to higher ground until the alert expires. Costa Rica was issued a “green alert,” which is considered not threatening.

In events such as these, it’s a good time to remind you of the importance of buying travel insurance. If your trip is cancelled, travel insurance typically covers up to the total trip cost. But there are some caveats.

In this case, travel insurance will cover the trips that are cancelled right now, that is, for departures through March 20. For the moment, airlines are waiving cancellation fees only through March 20 and insurance companies are following suit. It is to be seen how this disaster evolves. If it is not possible to conduct tourism as usual, that March 20 date will be moved back, and the coverage will also be extended.

Please be patient. The situation is still evolving, and it will take a few days to understand the full impact of the earthquake and tsunami. But be assured that we’re working 24/7 and monitoring the situation closely.

I will continue to post updates on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter as news develops. Most importantly, keep everyone in Japan in your thoughts. We will be creating a way you can help the people of Japan. I’ll tell you more about that in a future blog post.

What to do if the Northeast winter storm stranded you at the airport

A few months ago, I told you what to do if you’re stranded in an airport. Unless you’re living in a cave, you know that the U.S. East Coast was hit with a major snowstorm yesterday.

And if you’re reading this blog post from your smart phone or another mobile device at the airport, you’re probably one of the thousands of holiday travelers whose flight was cancelled.

Well the advice I gave you a few months ago applies today. Flip back to my original post to find out what steps you need to take to get home quickly and safely.

Friendly Planet erupts with activity after Iceland volcano blows

As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t have to tell you about the travel disaster that hit so many people in Europe and elsewhere. I thought you might find it interesting to know what we, at Friendly Planet, did after the volcano in Iceland erupted.

As soon as we heard about it, we called all hands on deck because we had travelers that were crisscrossing Europe, and as far away as India, as part of their travel. We had to try and make sure that we knew where they were, what they needed, and had a steady stream of information going to them about what to do.

We started calling airlines, but that turned out to be a waste of time. The lines were absolutely overloaded and it was impossible to get through. So, we went online in order to reroute as many of our travelers as we could.

We started on Friday and we worked straight through Sunday, getting everyone we could back to the United States. I was impressed and inspired by how hard the Friendly Planet team worked to accommodate everyone and how appreciative many of our travelers were of our efforts.

Mandi Fulk of our air department deserves a special mention here. She became a whirling dervish, simultaneously handling calls, finding odd seats, and piecing together amazing itineraries to get people home quickly. Thanks to her efforts, most of the people who got home in a timely way avoided the extra days and weeks of waiting to get on later flights.

The traveling public probably doesn’t realize that in a crisis, travel agents, like travelers, are forced to slog through on their own. Our industry is fragmented, and full of rules that make things difficult.

It isn’t easy to sift through thousands of flights. When every flight is booked solid and there are literally thousands of travelers competing for those odd seats, finding the seat or two that will bring Mr. and Mrs. Jones home is very difficult. While we didn’t succeed 100 percent, I am very happy to say that we got pretty close. Who is it that said, “the enemy of very good is excellent?”

What to do if you’re stranded in an airport

I don’t have to tell you about the calamity that hit European (and other) air travelers last Friday. Only yesterday, flights began getting off the ground and air transportation finally started to return to normal. According to a report I heard on NPR this morning, it will be weeks and weeks before the backlog of flights is cleared. Who knows how long it’ll take for all the thousands of stranded passengers to get where they need to go.

It’s not every day that you have to worry about what to do if a volcano erupts and halts air traffic. On the other hand, as we learned this week, it can happen. That got me thinking. What do travelers need to know in the event that some force of nature grounds air traffic and throws their plans into gridlock?

Here are a few suggestions you can follow if you find yourself stranded, sharing an airport with hundreds of other travelers in the same boat as you.

  • Call the emergency numbers your travel agent gave you. Friendly Planet gives everyone emergency numbers to call in their destination as well as our own number that is manned 24/7. Report what has happened and ask if any assistance can be provided by your agents and their representatives and what you should do.
  • Stay calm. Don’t look for anyone to blame, and don’t become overwhelmed. And don’t shout at the ticket agent who is dealing with the snaking line of equally upset travelers. Be the one traveler who is sympathetic to that agent. Out of gratitude for your graciousness, the agent will be more inclined to help you before the guy behind you, who has turned red from frustration.
  • Don’t waste any time. Take action yourself, and don’t depend on someone to come rescue you. If your flight is canceled and you have not gotten immediate instructions from your agents, take matters into your own hands. Start working to find yourself a seat on a different airline. You can go the Web sites of airlines that fly from where you are to where you need to go, check availability on the spot, and often, grab a vacant couple of seats way before that hassled reservation agent behind the counter gets to you. Call the toll free numbers of the airlines if you can’t get online. In an airport, you can even go from counter to counter, if necessary, to look for seats.
  • Book a new seat. Once you’ve found a seat and booked it, take your luggage and go to the new airline’s counter. Check in and say you have a reservation. Make sure you wrote down the new reservation number. Show the agent your original ticket and say you want to go on the newly reserved flight. The airline might ask you to pay additional fees , and I suggest you pay the fees if necessary. If the fees are extreme, try and negotiate. The agents behind those counters have more leverage than they want us to know. And you can always ask for a supervisor in an effort to lower those fees. But even if you have to pay something for a new ticket, buy it if you can. It’ll be worth it, trust me.
  • Get a receipt. You can claim that extra money from your travel insurance. If you purchased travel insurance (everyone should purchase it), you will be reimbursed for your extra ticket expenses due to involuntary rerouting, as long as you rebook yourself in the same cabin as your original flight. If you’re flying in coach, don’t rebook yourself in business class if you want the insurance to cover your entire involuntary rerouting expense. If you don’t have travel insurance and you have to swallow the cost of that new ticket, consider yourself lucky. You got home and didn’t have to spend even more money on hotel accommodations and food. Some stranded passengers will be spending more than a week or even two weeks in a hotel, at their own expense. And if you’re missing work on top of that, the extra cost for the new ticket might start to look like a pretty good bargain after all.

What to do if you can’t book yourself on a new flight

  • Book a hotel room right away. If you have to stay overnight, the same rules apply. Don’t wait around for someone to offer you a free hotel room. If one flight was cancelled, then yes, the airlines would get you a room to stay in. But this will not happen when air traffic is suspended. Find a hotel room on your own or you’ll be sleeping on cot in an airport gate area, along with hundreds of other stranded travelers.

Remember, if you’re traveling away from home, be prepared for the unexpected. Always have extra cash available before you go away on vacation in case an event like this one occurs. Hopefully you’ll never have to dip in to your stash, but if you have to bear some extra costs in an emergency, you’ll be covered and won’t feel panic.

Most important of all, try to keep a level head. There are things that happen over which you have absolutely no control. When that happens to you, you need to think creatively and calmly about how you will solve the problems that arise from those things that happened.

You have no control over the volcano or the grounded flights, but you do have control over how you will choose to handle yourself during the crisis. Sometimes, the very best and most wonderful adventures are those that happen serendipitously.

At the very least, use that extra time that you’re stuck to check out one new thing about that destination that you wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. Browse the bookstore at the airport for a new read. Give yourself the luxury of a nap in the midst of chaos. Watch the people go by. Write in your journal. Whatever it takes to make the time pass productively until your life is back in your control once again.

If you follow these steps, you’ll get back to the United States much faster than waiting for the airlines to help you. If you have any questions about what to do in a travel emergency, write to me directly.

After Peru mudslide, Machu Picchu reopens today

I wanted to start the week off with some good news. But before I tell you, let me bring you up to speed on what was happening in Peru. A massive mudslide occurred on Jan. 26 that closed cities, suspended all transportation, shut down tourist attractions, and more.

Since then, the country has been working hard to repair the damage. On the top of the list was reopening Machu Picchu, which is among the most important and popular tourist destinations in this hemisphere. I’m happy to report that PeruRail will resume service to Machu Picchu starting today!

I’m looking forward to bringing travel back to Peru’s most spectacular site. When we first heard about the mudslide, we got very busy. Two of our tours, Amazing Peru and Peru, Ecuador and Galapagos were directly affected.

If you’re wondering how Friendly Planet handled this force majeure, let me tell you what we did to accommodate our travelers. First, we immediately contacted our suppliers and made sure that there were no penalties associated with any of the options we were giving our travelers. Then we gave everyone four options to choose from.

Travelers could go on the same tour, but with an adjusted itinerary. The next option was to schedule a later departure date and receive a $100 credit to help with costs associated with changing domestic flights. Lastly, if travelers didn’t like either of those options, they could book any other Friendly Planet tour or, if travelers found none of the options appealing, they could get a full refund.

When situations such as these occur, we do everything possible for our travelers so they avoid incurring extra costs and experience as little inconvenience as possible. I put myself in their shoes. Telling them their tour is canceled because something happened that was beyond their control, and then letting them cope with the consequences themselves, is simply not an option for Friendly Planet.

In the case of Peru, I think we did a terrific job accommodating our travelers. Now that tours to one of the most stunning sites in the world is back in business, take a trip to see Machu Picchu. It’s one location everyone should see. If you want to experience it, book our 12-day Amazing Peru tour or the 15-day Peru, Ecuador and Galapagos tour.

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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