When can we Travel Again? A Travel Agent’s Opinion

In recent weeks, cities, communities and countries around the world have all begun to slowly make their way out of self-isolation. Some countries faster than others; some still struggling with near impossible numbers of Covid-19 overwhelming their health care systems (or non-systems). The number of deaths in the past few months is heartbreaking.

Here in Nova Scotia, and Eastern Canada in general, we’ve faired well, at least in the Covid numbers game. We locked down early, people followed the rules (for the most part) and we’re opening up slowly. I remember early on when governments were telling us, if we do this well, the effects will be minor and you’ll wonder why we made all of these sacrifices; that’s how we know that we’ve succeeded and that it worked.

Whether you agree with the government’s harsh restrictions, social distancing and closing of a large chunk of the economy, or whether you don’t, you can’t argue that we’ve come through relatively unscathed in comparison to the world’s hotspots such as Italy, Brazil and the US. This is not to diminish the lives lost to the disease and all of the other tragedies we’ve had to endure as Nova Scotians in the past few weeks. We’ve certainly had a lot thrown at us in 2020.

Trust me, no one wants the world economy to open up more than me (and everyone else in the tourism industry). My business has all but been demolished as the ground fell out from under the tourism industry in one big collapse. But, I’m still here!

Like many of you, I had my big travel plans for this year cancelled. I was meant to be in Australia for just over three weeks with my mom in May.

With the recent announcement of Air Canada’s summer destinations and schedule, I’d love for all of you (and me too), to be able to hop on a plane this summer and go somewhere … anywhere … safely and in good health, but realistically, what does that look like?

While countries around the world are lifting restrictions and beginning to open up to tourists, there’s still a lot to be done before international travel is viable on a large scale. Although I’m all for day dreaming about travel, I think logistically we need to start right here at home.

Halifax has never been overly well connected to the world with direct flights. A few to the US, a few to the Caribbean in the winter and in the past few years, a few direct flights to Europe. Now, with the Halifax airport running only about 2% of its normal flights, you can be sure you’ll need to pass through Toronto or Montreal before going international.

With Ontario and Quebec being some of our hardest hit provinces, that holds concern for a lot of travellers just to get out of Canada. Flying through the US is also not an option until at least after June 22nd at this point. While technically there are still a few flights between countries, they are for essential travel and cargo, not for leisure travel.

And, let’s not forget that the Canadian Government still has an Avoid Non-Essential Travel advisory out, worldwide, for Canadians. This means that they still feel the risk level is very high for travellers and it also means your travel insurance will be extremely limited if you choose to travel despite the warnings. Don’t forget to ask me (or your travel insurance provider) about Cancel for Any Reason policies, which I think will become the new norm for most travellers.

In my opinion, and it is just that, an opinion, I think it’ll be early August before we see the Avoid Non-Essential Travel Advisory lifted. While you may be able to get a flight Internationally for leisure purposes before then, it’s important to look at all of the risk factors. And, these are different for everyone. Personally, I’m very unlikely to travel before that advisory is lifted. It’s just too risky.

It’s exciting to hear about Air Canada increasing their flight schedule and destinations for the summer; to hear about countries around the world beginning to open up; and murmurs of international travel bubbling to the surface. But let’s not forget that many places still have 14 day quarantine requirements on arrival, not to mention on return to Canada. Some countries are also implementing same day Covid testing at their airports so that you can avoid the quarantine, but that poses the question, what if you are asymptomatic but test positive? Or, what if you get sick on your fifth day of vacation? On the surface, it may seem like a good idea to test everyone before allowing them to wander at will, but it’s far from fool proof.

You might be hearing in the news (if you haven’t shut it off completely) about lots of countries with plans to open up to travellers for June and July which are great steps in the right direction, but it’s important to look closely to determine who is allowed to travel. For example, most of the European countries are opening to domestic and regional travel first with plans for international travel to open up at a later date. It’s great to see that many countries with land borders are partnering up to boost tourism between their countries, freely, but they aren’t yet ready to allow international travellers in.

If you are looking at potential for somewhere to go this fall in Europe, my feeling is that Greece and Portugal will both be great options, as will Iceland and Greenland. All are anticipated to open in June / July for international tourists. I hope that Italy will be ready as well, as they need tourism dearly after the difficulties that they had with Covid, but it is yet to be seen when International tourism will return to any of these destinations for sure. Hopefully we’ll know more by the end of June or mid-July.

Lisbon, Portugal
Cinque Terre, Italy

Moving on to the Caribbean, various parts of Mexico, Dominican Republic, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Grenada and more, are reopening throughout June and July for tourists with various rules and regulations. Flights with West Jet and Air Canada are resuming out of Toronto or Montreal for many of these destinations at the end of June or beginning of July, although at a much lower frequency than past years.

I suspect most Maritimers will be waiting until the winter to head south. If you missed your Spring vacation this year, or you just need another one, you won’t be alone! Lots of travellers are booking All Inclusive and cruise vacations right now for November/December and March Break. If you wish to ignore the Avoid Non Essential Travel Advisory though, Saint Lucia is a great spot to go in June and they are not requiring you to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, so you can enjoy your vacation without stress. You may, however, still have to quarantine when you return to Canada depending what each province decides in the next few weeks.

South America and Africa are a little farther behind. They are having more difficulties with the testing and treatment of Covid-19 patients. In many places they have less infrastructure, larger populations of poverty and overall, more obstacles than we do, in fighting the disease. I think you’ll see most of these countries remain closed until the beginning of September. And then, it is yet to be sen if they will open up internationally or just regionally. Argentina, for example, has already grounded international flights until September.

Twelve Apostles Mountain Range, Cape Town, South Africa

Parts of Asia are open, although very few flight options to get you there. Air Canada has flights from Toronto to Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo with a small selection of flights from three per week to one per day starting late in June.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Australia and New Zealand are doing well fighting Covid-19 and are working on an agreement between the two countries to allow travel, but it will be awhile before international travellers can enter without a 14 day quarantine.

All in all, it’s positive to see countries beginning to allow their citizens to move about more. Tourism is starting to open up world wide; restaurants, museums, parks and gardens are slowing getting back to business. This means many people in the tourism industry are going back to work. The progress will be slow over the summer though and many businesses who were forced to close will not reopen this season, if at all. This is the same all around the world.

In my opinion, I think we will be able to travel relatively freely throughout Canada by the beginning of July, hopefully with no further 14 day quarantines for changing provinces. This will also encourage lots of staycations in your own province, road trips to other provinces and domestic travel across the country. This summer and fall are going to be all about supporting local and supporting Canada!

Howe Sound, British Colombia, Canada

I’m hopeful that our borders will stay closed to the US for leisure travel until sometime in July as they have such a long way to go before the situation is controlled. I know the current ban is only until June 22nd, but I hope for an extension of another couple of weeks on top of that. I think shortly after travel to the US is reopened, we’ll see the Avoid Non-Essential travel advisory lifted. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if many provinces continue to recommend 14 day quarantine upon arrival home from international travel. And, unfortunately, that makes it a bit more difficult to take vacation. Unless, of course you work from home and can work and quarantine at the same time, or if you are retired and don’t need to return to work.

Tour operators around the world have suspended their tours until the end of June. Some have already further suspended until the end of July, August or September since it is clear that International travel will not be widely available to all countries this summer. I’m hopeful for September and October trips to Europe and the Caribbean and I’d like to think that international travel will be available to those interested in going to South America, Asia and Africa by November / December.

Of course, having the flights and borders open makes international travel possible, but for many, that won’t be enough to get them travelling again just yet. I know many of you are waiting for vaccines before you travel abroad and rightfully so. Everyone has a different risk tolerance, different health concerns, different family and work matters to attend to.

Most importantly though, when you do decide to travel again, it’s going to be a whole new world of processes, paperwork, testing, rules and regulations. There’s no time like the present to commit to working with a knowledgeable travel agent who will have your back if something goes awry along the way.

Personally, I hope to head across Canada some time late this summer or early fall just before business fully picks up again. Like many of you, I didn’t get my vacation this year and there are many spots in Canada that are worth checking out. Last year I had a fantastic trip to Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler.

This year, I’m thinking maybe Yukon for the Northern Lights or Haida Gwaii islands off the coast of British Colombia or Banff and Jasper. Watch my Facebook Page for upcoming webinars and conversations with companies who provide amazing trips right here in Canada. More information and inspiration will be coming your way soon!

As always, I’m here to help plan your next amazing trip. You can reach me by phone at 902 402 7646 or email – stucker@tpi.ca.

Travel Industry Updates

They say hindsight is 20/20.
With the state of the Covid-19 situation in China, then Italy, Iran, Spain and then the USA, I think we were all a little naive about how hard coronavirus would affect us in Canada. Maybe it was denial or lack of information from those in power, who knows. No point in playing the blame game.

Not in a million years did I foresee a State of Emergency, Social Distancing, panic at the grocery stores and not being able to visit friends and family for months in 2020. Not in a million years did I see the travel industry crumbling and coming to a complete halt for an indefinite amount of time. It was unfathomable that cruising, river cruising, land tours and all but the most essential of flights would come to a halt long term.

Travel Industry Closures and Updates

The travel industry has been one of the hardest hit industries. It was the first to be interrupted and will be the longest lasting. Long after the parks open, you return to dining at your favorite local restaurants, you go back to having care from your trusted (and much missed) massage therapist or chiropractor, the tourism industry will still be struggling.

For some businesses (not all), it’s as easy as returning to work and within a few days to a week, paying clients will return, cash will start flowing and business will steadily increase. Not that it will return to what it was before, but cash will begin to flow. For much of the tourism industry (airlines / tour operators / cruise ships / travel agents), we have to wait for world borders to reopen, international flights to restart, tours and ships to fill and people to feel comfortable traveling abroad.

As of today, April 15th, here’s a quick, very short and general list of what is cancelled in the tourism industry. This changes regularly and is only up to date as of today.

  • Adventure Travel: G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Peregrine Adventures – Worldwide tour operations suspended until (at least) May 31, 2020
  • River Cruise: Ama Waterways , Scenic Touring – Suspension of all river cruises embarking through June 30, 2020.
  • Ocean Cruise: Almost all cruise lines have cancelled sailings worldwide until June 30, 2020 / Many companies have cancelled their Alaska itineraries for the complete 2020 summer & fall season / Many new ship launches have been postponed / All ships sailing US waters are cancelled until July 19, 2020 / Canadian ports are closed to ships carrying over 500 passengers until (at least) July 1st, 2020.
  • Rail: Rocky Mountaineer – departures suspended until July 1st, 2020 / Via Rail Toronto to Vancouver suspended until June 1st, 2020
  • Airlines: Air Canada and West Jet are operating essential flights between various domestic destinations, but with extremely limited routes. Air Canada is operating flights to six international hubs, while also continuing to operate cargo flights of supplies. Most flights for the late summer and fall are still scheduled, as per usual, but I think we can expect to see many more cancellations, although hopefully only to specific routings and not en masse.

The Return of Travel

While I believe there will be travel to some extent this summer, fall and winter, I expect it to start with domestic and business travel before leisure travel picks up full force again. I think those great bucket list trips and dreams of traveling in our own great country of Canada will come to the forefront as many people still wish to vacation, but have concerns about going too far from home. I think we’ll see Nova Scotians who want to visit the Rockies, take that bucket-list Rocky Mountaineer train trip, Via Rail across Canada, spa vacations to Quebec, visit Canada’s North to see the Northern Lights, ski Whistler, visit the Polar bears in Churchill and Great Lakes cruises (did you even know that was a thing?).

Shameless self-promotion – I can help you with any of these amazing trips within Canada! If you’d like to go somewhere on short notice, maybe later this year, but aren’t ready to start international border hopping, there is plenty of adventure and beauty to explore in Canada. You can always reach me by email.

What’s Next?

It is still almost impossible for me to wrap my head around the complete crumble of the tourism industry, pushing back travel dates month after month, now shut down for the most part from mid March until the end of June. Will that extend further? We are yet to see.

I know many of my clients are itching to get a move on, but realistically we are all aware that international leisure travel is still months out of reach. The tourism industry has crumbled for the time being, but it will come back, one step at a time.

For now, don’t stop dreaming of where you’d like to go. Write down a list of places you’d like to wander to, things you’d like to see and do. Then, when the time is right, let’s work on making each one of those come true!

While I may not be earning an income at this time, my business is still very much here and I’d love to hear from you with what’s at the top of your travel list when Covid-19 is behind us, so leave me a comment below so we can all dream together.

When you are ready to plan your next trip, in Canada or International, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me, or contact me through social media on Facebook or Instagram.

Orphanage Trafficking – It’s time to stop it!

In late 2019 I had the pleasure of traveling to Nepal with Intrepid Travel. What an incredible experience! Beyond the obvious education and excitement that comes with traveling to a new country; meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food, there was a very specific “purpose” and educational component behind this particular trip with carefully selected agents from Canada and the USA.  Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel would also be adventuring along with us in one of his favourite countries! Little did I know that one of the areas of education for us would be about orphanage trafficking.

Initially, I almost turned the invite down as I thought Everest and high altitude trekking weren’t for me. Then I discovered that Intrepid has this beautiful Experience Nepal itinerary that visits the cities, nature and cultural sites of the Kathmandu Valley. It had some great small hikes and everything was at low altitude. Even I, as a pretty savvy travel agent didn’t know this! Now I do. And now you do too!

Click these links if you’d like to read about my experience White Water Rafting on the Trisuli River or the story of Kumari, a living child Goddess in Nepal.

I accepted the invitation to go on this special agent-only trip and came out the other side, changed.

As a special inclusion, we got to visit Forget Me Not in Kathmandu, a project supported by the Intrepid Foundation.

Forget Me Not is not a tourist destination. It’s not a store. There’s nothing to buy. It doesn’t provide services to tourists. It’s an organization … a very powerful one … one that I truly will never forget.

Photo of travel agents from Canada & USA with Forget Me Not
Photo: Louise Booth

Years ago, The Intrepid Foundation partnered with an orphanage in Nepal called Twenty Girls.  These girls had been in the orphanage system for four to 18 years. Having done their research, the foundation was confident that this orphanage was well run and well equipped to support these young women with suitable living quarters, healthy meals and education. All checks were in place to make sure that this was a positive care facility, not one of the poorly run orphanages that were rampant in Nepal, Asia and Africa perpetuating the cycle of abuse to orphaned children. This orphanage needed funds and the Intrepid Foundation stepped in to help.

Not long after this, an orphanage in Uganda reached out to Twenty Girls for support in reorganizing and learning how to better operate. Throughout a long process of auditing, it came to light that many of the children at the Ugandan orphanage still had living parents or relatives. It was discovered that the children had been taken from their homes in various ways.

Around the same time, the girls in the Nepal orphanage had become their own close-knit family. They had begun to open up to one another and they were sharing their stories and feelings from what they remembered, if anything, of their families and their past communities. Some of the girls were having dreams, others had encountered people in Kathmandu, strangers, who seemed to know them.

Eventually one of the young women spoke out to staff at the orphanage in Kathmandu. Despite staff being threatened by organizations and government to stay quiet, they spoke up and began an investigation to learn where these twenty girls had come from.

With few paper records from their past orphanage stays, fading or non-existent memories of their families and often no information about their birth-homes because they were too young to remember anything when they were taken to their first orphanage, it was a struggle to retrace each girl’s history. Not only was it difficult from a paperwork perspective, as you can imagine it was also a delicate situation as the girls were remembering bits and pieces of a life that they believed no longer existed.  Most of them had been in the orphanage system for many years, suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse, living in deplorable conditions and being forced into child labor either at the orphanages or on the streets. For years they had been told they were orphans, that their parents and families no longer existed, that they were alone or unwanted.

Learning that the orphans they were supporting weren’t necessarily orphans, put the Intrepid Foundation in an awkward spot. They couldn’t simply pull their support and see these girls without funding or send them back into the corrupt orphanage system, but yet they couldn’t continue to support an orphanage where the children were victims of orphanage trafficking.

A large audit and investigation began into the operation of the orphanage, where the girls came from and what was really happening. Little by little, with funding from the Intrepid Foundation, cooperation from the Nepali Government and the incredible efforts of child welfare and social workers, the stories began to be revealed and families of these ‘orphaned’ girls were slowly, but surely being found. In the end, 18 of the 20 girls from this orphanage were reunited with their families after many years apart.

Through all of this, a new organization was born, called Forget Me Not. This new organization would never again operate as an orphanage, but instead would focus on child welfare and reunification of families.

At Forget me Not, they proudly have a Change Makers Squad made up of five teens and young adults who were part of the orphanage system, four girls from the original Twenty Girls and one young man who spent several years in orphanages. These young Change Makers are bravely sharing their stories, spreading the word, educating their communities, raising money and standing up to governments, pressuring them to make changes to child welfare acts and to shut down improperly run orphanages.

Each of the change makers stood in front of us to tell us their role in the squad and their dreams for their future. Anisha, only about 17 years old, shared part of her story and brought me to tears.

Anisha and her sisters were taken to an orphanage when she was very young. Her dad had decided to give her and her sisters up and paid for them to have a ‘better life’, because in reality, he had wanted boys, not girls. Boys were perceived as more valuable in society.

Her parents had paid a handler to give them a better education and better life. The parents were tricked, as millions are, into trafficking their children to the orphanage system. While the parents believed they were doing something good for their daughters, as soon as they were out of sight, the children were taken hundreds of miles away and placed in illegal orphanages where physical, mental and sexual abuse (still, today) run rampant. They lived in unclean conditions with little access to food or water and many children are forced into child labor or the sex trade.

It’s easy for us to judge and say ‘don’t give your kids to strangers’, but it can be compared to paying for your kids to go to boarding school. Traffickers are well-dressed, educated, well-spoken and professional. They are friendly and seem trustworthy. They are offering a better education and better life for these children. It is a professional operation. It’s easy to fall for their charm, but never an easy decision for parents to give their children up.

It’s easy to place blame on the parents, but let’s get real for a minute and talk about you and I, as tourists, and how this is our fault too. Unknowingly, tourists are helping grow the orphanage trafficking trade. The more donations that orphanages receive, the more orphanages open and traffickers need children to fill the beds. Children are being stolen from the streets and lured from their parents with promises of a better future. The money tourists donate to orphanages rarely trickles down to the children that it was meant to help. Instead, it just creates more demand from the traffickers who keep getting richer. It’s heartbreaking. We are part of the problem and we can be part of the solution!

Children from these illegal orphanages are also being sent into the streets to beg for money from tourists, never keeping a penny for themselves, for fear of further abuse. While it is so very hard not to give a begging child money, I can’t stress enough the importance of this in breaking the cycle. The only way for these children to get off the streets is if there is no money for them to earn there. We must stop giving money to children on the streets immediately. The traffickers have money to take care of the children, they are choosing not to. When you give money to a child on the streets, you are not helping to feed that child, you are helping continue the cycle of orphanage trafficking. Let this sink in.

After moving between orphanages, each of Anisha’s sisters were eventually adopted by two foreign families. Anisha continued to be moved from orphanage to orphanage until she was taken to the Twenty Girls orphanage, supported by the Intrepid Foundation, where she found a sisterhood of 19 other girls. The girls became family and began to talk about their dreams and memories.

Eventually one brave girl spoke up about her memories and despite the controversy, an investigation was started in to the history of each of the girls at the orphanage. Where did they come from and were they indeed orphans with no parents?

Most of the girls remembered very little of being taken from their homes as they were so young. They didn’t remember their parent’s names or their communities. It took considerable support from the Intrepid Foundation, social services and the Nepali Government to reunite 18 of the 20 girls with their immediate family members.

Anisha was reunited with her mom, dad and younger brothers whom she had never met. She also reunited with each of her sisters who were adopted and currently live abroad.

If hearing her tell the story of her difficult life, and the emotional rollercoaster of reuniting with her long lost family wasn’t enough … just one year after they were reunited, her dad fell ill and passed away. She choked up a little as she explained that she never got to tell him how she felt.

Not a year after her dad’s passing, her mom also passed away, now leaving her and her two brothers orphaned, with no able relatives to care for them. This time she was truly an orphan. Being underage and not able to legally care for her brothers, they were placed in a legal orphanage in Kathmandu, where she can visit them regularly while she continues to finish high school.

Anisha bravely told us not only her story, but her dreams of becoming a lawyer and reuniting with her brothers to all live in one house as a family, when she is able to support them.

My heart absolutely explodes with heartbreak and admiration for this strong girl who has endured so much emotional turmoil in her short life, yet presses forward to pursue her dreams and take care of her younger brothers.

The Intrepid Foundation supports the vision of Forget me Not to fund the long and arduous process of tracking children’s families and reuniting them when possible. This means supporting the Change Makers’ efforts to raise awareness, educate the public and influence change. It also supports the counselling services needed for the children while they are dealing with the emotional turmoil that trafficking has created. While research and hard work isn’t very sexy or instagram-worthy, it is the right thing to do and drives Intrepid’s mission, through their entire business, of Purpose Beyond Profit.

The visit to Forget me Not is a day that is etched into my heart. It has inspired me to look for ways to give back and to never underestimate the power that travel has to change lives; mine, my client’s and that of the communities we visit.

Each year I choose a travel charity to donate to instead of sending Christmas cards to my clients. I feel the money is better spent making a difference in the lives of women and children around the world rather than paper and stamps in Canada. In 2019, I donated to Forget Me Not.

If this story has touched your heart, you can contribute through the Intrepid Foundation where every dollar you donate is matched (up to $600 000 AUD / year) and 100% of the funds go directly to the organization as admin fees are covered by Intrepid.

NOTE: This post is not sponsored. Views and opinions are my own. While I talk about Intrepid Travel and the Intrepid Foundation, it is not because they have asked or paid me to do so. It is because they are a company that I whole heartedly support for the way they are making positive change in the Tourism Industry and the communities we, as travellers, want to visit.

If you are interested in making a positive impact when you travel, doing the right thing, all while having a great trip, I would love to help you book your next adventure! I can be reached at 902 402 7646 or by email.

Nepal – Not Just for trekkers – Part 2 – River Rafting

Trisuli River Nepal

When I say Nepal, I bet you immediately picture snow capped mountains and sherpas trekking up narrow pathways, right? I bet not even one person’s first thought would be White Water Rafting!  Little did I know, there is amazing river rafting in Nepal. There are opportunities to raft on several rivers and I was lucky enough to enjoy a two day experience on the Trisuli River in Kathmandu Valley with Intrepid Travel.  Despite my initial apprehensions, it was one of the highlights of my trip!

The Drive to Trisuli River

I’ll admit, I was apprehensive about White Water Rafting in Nepal. The last time I did white water rafting was class 4 rapids in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic after a hurricane. While it was a helluva time, it also came with a sore back, a few waterfall drops and being flipped out of the boat under a waterfall. While I enjoyed it for the most part, I always wondered if I could do it again. I wasn’t a fan of being flipped out of the boat and caught underneath the pressure of a waterfall for a few seconds before being spit back up to the top. It scared me and I’ve never forgotten it.

I didn’t know what to expect for rafting in Nepal, but there was an option to sit the activity out, so I was safe. If I whimped out, I could sit out. Phew! That was enough of a safety net for me that I didn’t panic over being forced to do it. After our briefing with our guide though, it was clear that the rafting would be relatively tame in comparison to what I had done before. We’d be bopping along on class one and two rapids for a few hours, each of two days. And if we did it on one day and didn’t want to the second day, we could travel in the van (equally bumpy, by the way … just less wet!), to our next spot.

We drove about 60 kms from Kathmandu to Trisuli River, taking us about three hours to get there. Once outside of the city, the highway is not at all what highways are in Canada. It’s barely a two lane road, in various states of disrepair. This is the only road heading to the west, to Pokhara. It eventually splits where you can head to the south to Chitwan National Park and the Indian border, or there are a couple of branches off the main road to go to other cities or countryside areas. It is a very limited road network in general.

Being the only road between two of the major cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, as well as connecting all of the other areas in the south and west to those two cities, as you can imagine, it is packed with traffic; buses carrying local people to the bigger cities, transport trucks carrying cargo, ambulances carrying patients to Kathmandu, locals going from home to work, or from one community to the next, tourists packed on buses and then us, tourists in a private van. Everyone uses this one road. There are no other options.

I can’t tell you how thankful I was for our stealthy, alert, non-risk taking and skilled driver who kept us safe the entire trip. We were safely tucked in to our clean van with an extra seat or two for space. Our luggage was all inside, not piled on top like on many buses. We had air conditioning, no crying babies and washroom stops. We could even request one if we needed it. You can’t do that on the public bus! The public buses, were standing room only, falling apart, dirty and dangerous. I can’t count the times they passed in precarious locations and the bus leaned so hard to one side that I thought it was just going to roll on over!

On one side of the road, the vehicle would be hugging the rock wall or dusty vegetation, which was only a foot from the window, separated from the road by a makeshift drainage system to keep the roads from flooding. The small drainage ditch had no recourse against mudslides though, which happen frequently during summer monsoon season, often creating damage so bad that it takes months to fix. On the other side were many sheer drops, only occasionally protected by cement block guard rails. Always, we were being overtaken by various trucks, buses and motorbikes weaving their way in and out through traffic, passing in the most precarious of locations with blind S curves ahead and patches of loose gravel everywhere. The buses and trucks have a way of communicating through beeps and blinker flashes to tell one another when it is ok to pass, but even still, it’s a dangerous situation. One of the only saving graces was that the roads were so narrow and bumpy that getting to above 60 kms an hour was near impossible.

We climbed up, up, up into the hills (they only felt like mountains) and started snaking our way through the S turns and switchbacks up, down and around the hills. The scenery was beautiful with its small communities perched high atop the mountains and intricately terraced rice fields spilling down over the sides of the hills.

We got stuck in a couple of traffic jams where it seemed like we might never move, but eventually the long line of traffic would crawl over the narrow bridge carefully or past a broken down vehicle, completely blocking one lane of the barely two lane road. Heavy trucks and buses struggled to slowly climb the hills, but most seemed to make it, eventually.

We passed through various communities and saw lots of rest stops, restaurants and washroom facilities along the way. Some looked better than others. At the halfway mark we made a pit stop for coffee, snacks and washrooms. While the washrooms weren’t sparkling, they did have one Western toilet and three squatter toilets. There was no toilet paper, but there were sinks with soap and running water. There was a coffee shop, chips, chocolate bars and local rum, which many of our group purchased to share around camp that evening.

As we passed the halfway point, the road levelled out and while still twisty and turny, it was considerably flatter as it travelled along the banks of the river. This made for beautiful views of the rushing waters, large boulders and suspension bridges stretching from bank to bank.

About three hours in to the drive, we took a sharp turn in a town and headed down a very steep road, on to a dirt road facing the river. We piled out, gathered our essentials for a day of rafting and got ready for the next part of our adventure.

White Water Rafting

Knowing the Trisuli River was fed by glacial waters, I struggled my way into a full-length wet suit with no sleeves. While the guide told us we weren’t going swimming, he said it cheekily and it was always questionable whether he intended to tip us or not. At this point, I still didn’t know what to expect for how big the rapids would be, so I decided a wet suit was the way to go. A couple of people in our group braved the trip without though and they survived just fine.

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
November is peak season for tourism as the weather throughout the country is nice. In the Kathmandu Valley we had warm, sunny days of about 20 – 25 degrees most of the time. For the most part, swim suit, tshirt and shorts were fine for rafting, but it did get a little chilly if you were wet and in the shade, so the wet suits were a good decision!

After our safety briefing, we broke into two teams and hopped into our sturdy rafts. We practiced a few commands from our guide on the flat, calm waters and then we were off through our first class one rapids, smiling and bumping along, getting splashed with the chilly, refreshing glacial waters all along the way.

That’s me in the back!

We chatted amongst ourselves, laughed, shared stories, admired the beautiful hills, terraces and precarious suspension bridges. We rode the relatively mild rapids on and off for a couple of hours until lunch.

Here’s where my next big surprise came in. Our guide navigated us to the side of the river where we hopped off the boat and stepped on to a beautiful, soft, sandy beach. I was absolutely enamoured by it. Who knew there were beaches in Nepal? It was clean, soft and beautiful! The perfect little rest stop for us to refuel before our afternoon rafting.

Our guides and support rafters quickly busied themselves setting up tables, unpacking plates, cutlery and drinks. Then they whipped up lunch in a flash. There was no shortage of food: Croissants and breads with peanut butter or jams, potato salad, corn salad, salami and samosas. We sat in a circle in camp chairs and stuffed our faces, gathering energy for the afternoon’s ride.

The guides and support rafters packed up all the bits and bobs as quickly as they had gotten ready and once again we were ready to take on the river. In the afternoon we had a couple of stronger rapids, one big ‘get down’ moment where we all hopped in to the centre of the boat and held on while the water washed over us and then we leisurely floated our way to camp for the night, arriving mid-afternoon.

Our guides and support staff were super friendly and clearly were having a fantastic time on the river as well. It was interesting to learn that many of them travel to other countries, such as Japan to train and learn on different rivers. One of our guides was from Japan, practicing in Nepal, getting different experiences around the world!

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal

River Life Camp

Our guide had done his due diligence in preparing us for our accommodations for the evening to be basic. We’d be sleeping in tents on the river side, so we shouldn’t expect any luxuries. Much to our surprise though, we hopped off at another lovely river-side, sandy beach and were immediately greeted by friendly staff and the lovable camp dog, Jerry.  We peeled off our wet suits and safety gear, hanging it on the line, hopefully to be dry by morning and gathered by the riverside for tea, coffee, hot chocolate and popcorn to keep us going until dinner.

We were shown to our nearby tents which were much larger than I had expected. They had a cement floor, a wooden base for the bed, a thin, but sufficient mattress, electricity and a plug in to charge your phone or camera batteries. For a basic camp, it was looking pretty good. Of course there were shared bathrooms, but they were nearby, clean, had toilet paper and western toilets. The shower left a little to be desired with only cold water, but after all, it was a camp, not a hotel.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

The sun went down early as we were hidden in a valley behind some hills, so everyone gathered near the camp fire and they fed us more popcorn, some papadam (local bread), bbq chicken and french fries.  It likely would have been enough food for dinner, but they had a whole other meal prepared for us!

Next up, the locals from a nearby village came to treat us to a small party as it was the end of one of their festivals. There was singing, dancing, lots of hot rum punch and blessings on us all! The red symbol on our forehead is a blessing. It’s made from rice, yogurt and red coloring. It’s quite common to see people all around Nepal with this on their forehead.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal
L-R — Susan Williams, Shari Tucker, Geoff Manchester (co-founder of Intrepid Travel)

Around 6pm we moved from the riverside to the main dining tent where there was a feast of spaghetti, garlic bread and several side dishes. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well by this time, so I didn’t eat much and went to bed early.  I tucked into bed for the night with warm pyjamas and a sweater, hoody and all! It wasn’t really that cold, but it was very damp as the valley we were in was humid and the sun didn’t really reach it for long each day to dry things out.

We had a leisurely next morning. Some of my fellow group members did yoga, stretching and read on the beach. I wandered around and took a few photos. Then we were served up breakfast of pancakes, porridge, eggs and sausage before suiting up for another day on the water.

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

Day two rafting

River Life Camp Trisuli River Nepal

After we wiggled our way into our semi-damp wet suits, put on our wind-resistant jackets and life jackets, we piled into our boats and off we floated! We passed through a couple of fun class one and two rapids and then our guide directed us to a rocky shore where we had to clamour up over some rocks and boulders around a class four rapid. While they did not take us through it, the expert kayakers and supply raft made their way through with ease. None the less, it looked pretty crazy from the shore and I was glad not to be taking a chance with flipping out of the boat in the cold waters and being tossed around by the rapids.

Trisuli River Nepal

We climbed back into our rafts on the other side of the big rapids and meandered our way along the river, having a few good water fights between our boats along the way and riding some pretty good rapids! Along the way, we stopped at a hidden waterfall, enjoyed the great scenery, had lots of laughs and played a dizzying game with our paddles on the beach.

We also had the chance to hop in the water and float several hundred meters down the river. Three people from the other boat were first in, then my roommate, Susan. A few minutes later I decided that I’d probably never get to do this again, so overboard I went and I came up grasping for air. Holy! Cold! Somehow in my debate in my head on whether or not to jump in I had forgotten to weigh in the fact that it was a glacial river, so it was ch-ch-chilly … even in a wet suit. I stayed in for 5 or 10 minutes, where as the others stayed in for longer. You did get used to it and it wasn’t unbearable, just shocking!

Trisuli River Nepal

Trisuli River Rafting Nepal
We bobbed through our last couple of rapids early in the afternoon to our final stop where we had lunch and changed into dry clothes.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I wanted to partake in the rafting as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Even after the guides explained that they were small rapids and it would be unlikely to fall out, I was still skeptical. In the end though, even though I wasn’t feeling well throughout the two days, I am glad that I chose to participate. It was fun and relaxing. It was a totally different experience to have in Nepal than what I expected and I got to float in the glacial waters of Trisuli River!

If you are interested in exploring Nepal and enjoying your own river rafting experience, please get in touch. I’d love to help you find the perfect trip for an unforgettable experience! You can call me at 902 402 7646 or email stucker@tpi.ca.

NOTE: Many of the photos throughout this post were provided by the Rafting Company who photographed and videoed all of our antics for the two days. Thanks Intrepid Travel and Adventure Aves for the photo-memories!

Private Vacation Rental Risks – Cancellation

I know a lot of people who use Air BnB, VRBO and Home Away in their travels. I too, have used Air BnB lots of times, all over the world. My first rental was in Vernazza, Italy. My most recent was here in Wentworth, Nova Scotia. In between there have been many in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bangkok, Thailand, Panama City, Panama, Istanbul, Turkey, Georgetown, Malaysia and many, many others. Most of my experiences have been good, but a couple have been bad.  Now that I’m better educated, I know some of them were also not legal. If you are using private vacation rentals for your travels you need to know the risks, the first one being potential cancellation.

With the recent news about vacation rentals in Oahu, Hawaii shutting down, I think it’s important to address some of the risks you are accepting when you choose to rent from short-term rental sites such as those listed above. You can read the article about Oahu here, for reference (12AUG2019).

While this is just one article about illegal vacation rentals in Hawaii, it is a very real problem that you MUST understand before booking any private rental. This is commonplace in many countries. Private vacation rentals can easily be illegal and still available for booking. It can also be legal and unsafe (not meeting fire code for that country, for example). And of course, it can be legal, safe and wonderful, but how do you know?

Here’s the risk you are taking …

Every time you book a private rental you are taking a risk that they could simply cancel on you with very short notice leaving you in the lurch. In the case of this article about Oahu, huge fines are being enforced as vacation rentals are breaking laws. These are not new laws, as the headline suggests, rather they are old laws, being newly enforced. Due to these fines, vacation rentals are shutting down and cancelling current bookings (on very short notice) in order to avoid HUGE fines which in turn leaves the incoming vacationers in a panic.

Don’t think for a second that even if the rental IS legal that the owner can’t cancel. They can, and they do, regularly. Maybe their septic system needs to be pumped, they have a leaky roof, their fridge went caput, the renters who were there a day before you trashed the place and it needs repairs, or their family is coming to town and they need the place … so they cancel your reservation. Some even list their rental on multiple sites and if someone offers a higher price after you have booked they’ll cancel you to accept the higher bidder from another site.

What are you going to do if your rental cancels the day before you stay there? What if you are in transit and don’t get the notification until you show up and there is no one there to greet you? What if you do get one or two weeks notice, but you can’t find any other rentals in the same price range that are still available? What if everything is sold out because it is high season?

Sure, in most cases you’ll get your money back, but where will you stay for the night and for the rest of your vacation? How much time will it take out of your precious vacation to find a new place? And, how much is that going to cost you on short notice?

Lots of private vacation rentals go perfectly. I’ve had many of those experiences and met many wonderful people around the world! Those are the ones you hear about … the perfect ones. They can be great, but you need to know there are two sides and you need to decide, is the risk worth it for you?

If you’d like to explore vacation rentals that are legal, safe and operated by management companies rather than individuals, get in touch. Sure, they are not quite as cheap, but they do come with more support, more peace of mind and often more charm!

You can reach me by email or by phone at 902 402 7646.

Note: The included photo is of one of my favorite Air BnB rentals in beautiful Buenos Aires when I lived there in 2015.

Sustainable Travel with Wilderness Safaris

I recently spent three weeks traveling in Africa having some of the most amazing and fulfilling sustainable travel experiences of any of my travels to date. Let me share with you a little about why this trip was so different and so special to me.

For the first nine days, I traveled with Wilderness Safaris. They are a conservation company dedicated to protecting and rejuvenating wilderness in Africa, through tourism. What does that really mean? It means that their primary goal is to help restore any damages done to African wilderness through conservation and education efforts. From supporting anti-poaching units, to educating the local communities on harmful hunting practices, to tagging and researching elephants, wild dogs, rhinos and pangolins. To take it even further, they have spear-headed many national and international programs for conservation. They are leaders, not followers.

They have a wide variety of eco-friendly camps throughout Africa, most of which are built with a footprint so light that they could tear down the camps at any time, remove them and you’d never know they existed. I find this absolutely incredible.

When building these camps, every detail has been taken in to consideration from where to place the structures, to the materials that are used, to not cutting trees or driving over delicate areas, to not blocking animal highways, to not putting harmful chemicals into the earth. Every single detail is done with the animals and the environment as top priority. This is amazing!

I traveled with Wilderness Safaris and stayed at four of their eco-camps throughout Zambia & Zimbabwe. I find it hard to put into words what the experience is really like. Here is a quick list of my highlights from an amazing 9 day trip.

  • Walking with endangered rhinos in Zambia
  • Visiting Victoria Falls and exploring the park that surrounds the world’s largest sheet of falling water
  • Traveling in 6 & 12 seat bush planes
  • Staying at small eco-camps where often the number of staff out numbered guests on site. Not only did this lend itself to exceptional service, but also to an extra feeling of remoteness, tranquility and true African bush experience.
  • Meeting, dining with and laughing with the staff, guides, chefs and waiters who were simply the best kind of people. People around the world are generally kind, caring and helpful, but the people of Zimbabwe go far beyond this.
  • Incredible wildlife sightings including the endangered wild dog, hippos at sunset, leopards & cheetahs at the same kill sight, young lions playing in the early morning sun, elephants, elephants & more beautiful elephants!
  • Visiting the Scorpions Anti-Poaching unit. Learning about the importance of their work, the very real dangers of their jobs and their strong mandate to educate the communities to stop illegal poaching practices.
  • Visiting a local community in partnership with Children in the Wilderness where the Chief of the small town was one of the most welcoming, open-minded people I have ever met. He absolutely blew my (incorrect) expectations away.

If this kind of life-changing, perspective-altering trip to Africa is what you are seeking, get in touch to talk about traveling with Wilderness Safaris. You can reach me Monday – Friday by phone at 902 402 7646 or, you can email me at your leisure.

How the 737 Max 8 issues affect travelers

31JUL19
Earlier this year, tragically over 340 people were killed in two separate incidents involving 737 Max 8 planes, one in Kenya and one in Indonesia. While the sudden deaths have undoubtedly taken a toll on the friends and families of the victims, the world of tourism and the multi trillion dollar business of air travel has continued on, albeit with many modifications and changes.

In March 2019, 737 Max 8 planes were grounded worldwide until further information was gathered and until they could be deemed safe to fly.

Were the two crashes related? Was it pilot error? Lack of training? Equipment malfunction?

While every news outlet seemed to have ‘the answer’, somehow, all of ‘the answers’ were different which means, as usual, that while they were reporting on what they call ‘facts’, the real story would not unfold for months later. In fact, the real story is still unfolding and while we have new ‘facts’, the planes are not back in operation, so it seems to me, the story is on going and anyone stating a date when they will be back in operation is speculating.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
As of July 30, 2019,  it has been announced that Air Canada, along with Southwest Airlines and likely various others to follow, have pulled their 737 Max 8s out of rotation until January 2020.  Until today you were able to book a fall flight from Halifax to London, even though it might not exist come fall. Today, they removed that uncertainty and have cancelled or replaced the routes operated by the 737 Max 8s until January, giving passengers some relief and stability in booking their fall / winter travels.

WestJet has pulled 737 Max 8s until at least Nov 4th, 2019.

HOW  DOES THIS AFFECT YOU AS A TRAVELER?

1. Not only do airlines have to reroute passengers, most of them need to do so with fewer planes in rotation, at a time when more people are traveling. In the end, that means that demand for the available number of seats is higher.  More people traveling + fewer planes flying means that you need to book earlier than normal and you need to be prepared for higher prices than what you may have historically paid. This is not a price hike … it is simply that the cheapest seats sell out early and if you are waiting until 1, 2, 3 months in advance to book your flights, then there may not be any of the cheapest seats still available.

This also means that popular routes are more likely to sell out and that more people will be doing advanced seat selection to ensure they get the seats that they want, rather than waiting until check in when it is getting harder and harder to get your choice seats.

2. May of the flights that were previously direct out of Halifax to various parts of Europe no longer exist. The one most people are missing the most is Halifax to London with Air Canada.  Now, you can expect to fly to Toronto or Montreal before heading across the pond to Europe with Air Canada. You can still fly direct from Halifax to Dublin, London Gatwick, Glasgow and Frankfurt. The problem is the routes forward from those locations with partner airlines are not well priced or well connected.

If you’d like to see the extent of Air Canada’s route changes, take a look here.

3. Many routes that had twice daily or daily service have been cut back to once daily and a few times a week. This is in order to free up planes to take over routes that were operated by 737 Max 8s. In turn, this means that those routes are now twice as busy because trust me, none of this has stopped people from traveling.

4. You can now book your fall / winter travel with Air Canada (and other airlines following suit) with better certainty for your flight routing and air craft type.  There may still be time changes and aircraft changes, as there always have been, but it won’t involve you flying on a 737 Max 8 until they are cleared to return to service.

5. If you have a flight booked on a 737 Max 8 route from now until January 2020, such as Halifax to London with Air Canada, your airline or travel agent will be in touch with your new routing, or in most cases you’ll have the option to cancel for a refund. I have already seen changes coming through for clients up until November 2019, so I would anticipate that if you have flights for November / December that were on 737 Max 8s, that those changes will be coming in the next few weeks.

6. Telephone wait times for the airlines are always long, but now they are longer. Grab a tea or coffee, get comfy and try not to lose your mind. The call-centre agents are working through requests as quickly as possible. It’s frustrating for everyone. Try to be kind.

If you are working with a travel agent, they often have access to agent-only lines with special service, however, these wait times can be long as well, so also have patience with your agent. Many days I spend 30 – 45 minutes on hold with airlines, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day.

7. If you’ve booked with a travel agent (give yourself a pat on the back), they are likely already taking care of this for you and you can sit back and relax.  In my case, I advised most of my clients booking in the last couple of months, for this fall, to choose routings that avoided the 737 Max 8 as I did not have confidence that they would be back in rotation any time soon. That doesn’t mean that some of those flights won’t be adjusted though as they have to move aircraft around to cover different routes.

8. If you are booking flights in 2020, pay attention to your assigned aircraft. If you are booking a flight operated with a 737 Max 8, there is no guarantee that it will be operating in January, Febuary, October 2020. We simply don’t know when they will be back in service. Keep an open mind and know that if the planes are fixed and deemed safe, you’ll have the best route. If they are not back in operation, be prepared to be rerouted.

9. Travel Insurance is so very important to protect your travel investment and interruptions that you may encounter along the way. However, it is also important to note, that at this point the issues with the 737 Max 8s are ‘known’ variables and to my knowledge, most insurance policies will not cover you for issues due directly to change of routing / cancellation if you are booked on a 737 Max 8. If you purchased your policy before the flights were grounded, then you are covered. For full details on your policy, you should check directly with your insurance company as they all have different rules.

LOOKING FOR DIRECT FLIGHTS OUT OF HALIFAX?
Right now, your options are limited to other cities in Canada, USA, Dublin, London (Gatwick), Frankfurt and Glasgow. In the winter season, we’ll again have direct flights to several Caribbean options.

While not completely up to date, you can check the Halifax International Airport Authority Website for what we ‘normally’ have for non-stop flights from Halifax.

NOT SURE WHAT TO DO?
When in doubt, book with a travel professional who deals with all of these intricacies day in and day out. You may have to pay a professional fee for their assistance up front, but the time they save you, expertise they have and peace of mind you’ll have in knowing it is done right will be priceless.

If you are looking for a travel agent to give you peace of mind, save you time and take the stress out of planning, I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached by phone, Monday – Friday 9am – 6pm, evenings and weekends by chance, for emergencies or by appointment. You can also reach me by email at your leisure.

Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate

My luggage

In continuation of my Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love, not everything went so well on my journey from Canada to Panama in December 2016.

While being pampered in Air Canada Premium Rouge class with extra snacks and upgraded food, I advised staff that I was supposed to connect to a flight to Panama but that it had likely already departed. They told me there were a few others on the flight with the same connection and that there was no current update, but we could talk to Air Canada staff after we cleared immigration, about any arrangements that needed to be made.

This is where my luck ran out and everything went downhill fast (or maybe slow would be a better description).

I was the third person off the plane and second person in line to go through immigration when we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. The officer checked over my passport, asked me a few questions and asked for my boarding passes. When she discovered that my connecting flight had already departed, that’s where the real ‘fun’ began. She asked me where I would be staying. I explained to her that I needed to find an Air Canada rep in order to find that information out. I also told her that I was told there would be someone to speak to after I picked up my luggage (which was after immigration). She would have nothing to do with it. She told me she couldn’t let me pass until I could tell her where I was staying. I tried to explain my case again but no luck. I told her there were others in the same situation and that I thought they had already passed through, but she stood her ground. She kept my passport even though I pleaded to have it back and sent me to the back of the hall to an information desk where ‘apparently’ I could talk to ‘someone’.

The information desk was unattended, but I hollered ‘hello’ and heard an ‘I’ll be there.’ So, I waited. A nice lady come to the front, but unfortunately I wasn’t my normal chipper self, having just had my passport held and denied entry into the country that I wasn’t even supposed to be staying in. She called an Air Canada rep over the intercom no less than five times. Eventually a lady sauntered over (I’m still not sure if she worked for Air Canada or not). I explained the situation, including that I didn’t have any information on my connecting flight as we were just arriving and Air Canada had not given us any information. Further to that, I couldn’t get past immigration to find out if my flight had already departed or find a rep to discuss my situation. The lady was quiet. Not mean or unhelpful, just not very communicative. She made a couple of calls and told me that Air Canada had arranged for all of us to stay at Pegasus hotel for the night, but that we would have to call Aeroplan (because each of us were flying on points redemptions) to rebook our flights. Apparently we could do that after customs and immigration. She told me to bring my passport and come with her, to which I had to re-explain that the immigration officer held my passport and wouldn’t give it back.

Off the two of us went to the desk to get my passport back and sort this out. Except, the immigration officer didn’t just need where I would be staying, she also wanted to know which flight I would be departing on. Now, I understand that to be let into a country they want to know when you are leaving. This is a fairly standard rule. But, my frustrations were ever compounding because Air Canada had not rebooked my flights or provided any information. At that particular moment in time I was stuck in a country being denied entry, but also not able to make any further arrangements. And, I’m not in possession of my own passport. Of course they wanted me to call Air Canada Reservations right then to get flights sorted. Um no. I was not paying roaming charges from Jamaica to call Air Canada and wait on hold to sort this out. There had to be another solution. After all it wasn’t my fault that the weather was bad, the connections were missed and Air Canada left us to fend for ourselves.

The lady who was trying to help me disappeared without a word (would she return? I didn’t know). I connected with two of the other passengers who were just about to try their luck going through immigration. And then the lady came back, asking us all to come to one specific immigration desk. Except, the immigration officer still wouldn’t give me my passport. I waited for her to finish with the next client and saunter her way over to the other desk. One of the other girls who had been on my flight had actually been sent to a holding room without any information or her passport and she was just rejoining us.

In the end, we all made it through immigration somehow and were told to go to counter 41 after we had our luggage. There we would find a phone and could call the Air Canada rep to come out and talk to us about our hotel, transfer and hopefully our new flights.

You may remember in Part 1 I talked about how much luggage there was for all of the Jamaicans heading home from Canada after Christmas. Passengers had too much carry on luggage that was then put into checked luggage, plus, I’m sure more than half the plane had two bags (or boxes) per person. It was a steady flow of luggage coming along the belt, but it went on for an hour or more before they loaded the last piece. The other passengers that had missed their connection had gathered their luggage about 45 minutes into the process and left to see what they could find out about their flights and transfers. I told them I’d catch up as I suspected my luggage didn’t make the connection in Toronto and I would have to file a lost baggage claim.

My luggage
Last seen when I took this photo in Halifax Dec 29th at 3:45am

I waited for the belt to stop and the remaining bags were removed from the belt. Mine was nowhere to be seen, so off to the baggage counter I went. Go figure, it was unstaffed. I asked another staff member if there was an Air Canada rep around and she said ‘Ya, someone was here,’ and then turned her back to continue her conversation with a colleague. A minute later I approached her again and asked, as politely as I could after all of this, ‘Could you please help me find the Air Canada baggage rep?’ She sighed, started asking a few people and slogged off looking to see if she could track someone down.

When I turned around, there were now four or five others lined up at the Air Canada desk. A few minutes later, I jostled my way back to the counter when the rep finally arrived. I gathered the required paperwork to fill out and quickly returned it to the desk, anxious to get out of there and on to the next obstacle.

Although I was the first person to hand over my paperwork, somehow I was the second last person in the line to have my paperwork completed. Seems as though mine was more difficult, or maybe I had someone new working on my file. After a good 20 – 30 minutes at the counter, I was sent to stand in a line up to go through customs with a piece of paper saying my luggage had been lost. Thankfully they had created a separate line up for us because 100+ Jamaicans were still waiting in the customs line up to have their luggage approved for entry. I’ve seriously never seen so much luggage!

I had no issues at the customs desk, returned the piece of paper to the baggage claim area and made my way out the doors, officially into the heat of Jamaica.  Now the hunt was on for counter 41 where I hoped my fellow displaced passengers would be waiting for me, although I was a little skeptical as I had been well over an hour longer than them in the baggage area. After checking with the info desk, I was directed a few hundred meters away to the departures area where I would find counter 41 and my ‘pals’ waiting for me. Apparently they had come looking for me a couple of times but weren’t allowed back into the baggage area, so they just had to wait for me to appear. They had used the phone and spoken to an Air Canada rep who had told them that we would be staying at a different hotel, the Knutsford Court Hotel and we would all be transferred there as soon as I arrived. They had tried to make arrangements for their flights, but there wasn’t a phone available for use for that purpose, so it would have to wait until we got to the hotel.

Of course, the Air Canada rep had gotten tired of waiting for me (for over an hour) and had gone on break or to do something else and told the others to call through on the phone when I arrived. Because I already told you that the story keeps getting worse, it’ll be no surprise that dialling through on the phone line got nothing but a busy signal for the next 15 – 20 minutes while we continued to wait and had no contact with the rep and no way to call our transfer driver to take us to the hotel.

One of the other passengers went to talk to staff from another airline and ask for help. I asked one of the airport staff to help us and eventually the Air Canada rep appeared again. She called our transfer driver, introduced us to him and as we were about to load our luggage into the vehicle, she realized he wasn’t the right driver, so she re-introduced us to someone else. Gah! Seriously?

The five of us piled into two different vehicles and off we went in what we hoped were the correct vehicles, going to the correct hotel. We had touched down at around 4pm local time and it was now after 7:30pm as we were arriving at the hotel.

Check in at the hotel went smoothly, thank goodness as just about all of us were ready to burst from frustration. The hotel even offered to let us use the business centre phones to call Air Canada to sort out our flights for the next day. Unfortunately Air Canada and Aeroplan 1-800 numbers don’t work from International phone lines and they don’t provide a regular number. One couple had a travel roaming package for their cell phone, but that also wouldn’t help because the 1-800 number still didn’t work from Jamaica. Frustrations mounted even higher. We had really been left in the lurch.

I was slightly less panicked than the rest of the people as I knew I would be able to use Skype to call the 1-800 number. (One of the many useful pieces of information I’ve learned while being a digital nomad.) I told the others, but of course not all of them had Skype, or laptops. I offered for everyone to come to my room and we could try to do all of the changes at once, if the internet connection would hold.

One of the girls dropped by just as I was dialling Aeroplan as we had been advised they were the ones that would have to take care of it for us. We waited on hold for 1 hour, 16 minutes and 12 seconds (Skype shows me these stats). At about 45 minutes, one of the other girls came to visit and said that she had messaged her parents in Toronto. They weren’t able to get through to Aeroplan because of the long wait time, but they had gotten through to Air Canada and her flight was all taken care of for the next day’s departure. She was in the clear. As we continued to wait on hold with Aeroplan, I had the idea to call the travel agent line from Air Canada. Originally I hadn’t thought of it because we were told to call Aeroplan specifically. (Good thing I just did 10+ hours of Air Canada certification training to help my agency keep access to this special service line because it sure came in handy!)

Air Canada Certificate

About 30 minutes later, the staff at our travel agent line had my flight and one of the other girl’s flights all taken care of. There were a couple of glitches, such as the internet cutting out and dropping the call … but in the end, a second call, even with a different agent on the line and everything was sorted.

What a relief, right?

We headed down to have dinner at the hotel restaurant at close to 9pm and the last couple of people still hadn’t found a way to contact Air Canada as the 1-800 numbers weren’t working from Jamaica. I went and ordered my food and then came back to check on them to see if they had found another number. They hadn’t. I called the 1-800 number for them via Skype on my phone and advised there would be quite a wait time. I left them with my cell phone hoping the internet connection would hold and went back to have my dinner.

Unbelievably, an hour later when I was done dinner, the poor lady was still on hold. Actually, she had spoken to someone, gotten nowhere and was back on hold. It was a never-ending story for these folks.

I jumped on Skype on my computer while she continued to hold on my phone. I called the travel agent line again and had it sorted for her in another 20 minutes. Meanwhile she had still gotten nowhere with the phone call she had been on for a total of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 7 seconds.

What a disaster.

Finally, around 11pm, all five of us were sorted with new flights for the next day. Our transfer had been arranged and with any luck, we would arrive in Panama City 24 hours later than planned.

Just when you think the story has a happy ending …

With a good night’s sleep under our belts, we headed to the airport on time and there were no line ups to check in at the Copa desk (one of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners). The first couple checked in with no problem. Done. Ready to go. The other two girls were at separate desks. One agent was asking for the girl’s proof of departure from Panama. At the other counter, the agent was telling the other girl that she could only check one bag and that her second bag would cost $125 USD to check through to Panama. This was after the bags had arrived in Jamaica without any fee. The real kicker on this though was that her second suitcase was full of items that she was planning to donate when she arrived in Panama.

At this point, my lost luggage was actually a blessing in disguise. Imagine! Since I had no luggage to check with me, I was able to check her second bag as my own for no cost. Problem solved … until they had difficulties finding my newly booked flight! Seriously, the complications just don’t stop!

I’ve got to say though, that between all of us being rested and in better state of mind and the Copa Airlines staff who were super helpful, these issues were handled much better than those of the very long day before.

While I’m now checking-in luggage for my new friend and the Copa Airlines staff are trying to get my ticket to appear on their system, the girl at the other counter is stuck with the same problem … her ticket won’t appear on their system. Thankfully the Copa staff were proactive and started talking to the manager, conversing with Air Canada and making sure it got fixed rather than leaving us to sort it out on our own. What should have taken five minutes for us all to check in, took 30+. A big thank you Copa Airlines for doing what it took to find the problems, correct them and get us all on that flight.

Fast forward …

We boarded the flight to Panama on time, it was smooth sailing and we finally arrived in Panama City. I was hoping that my luggage would have been sent on the same flight routing as the day before and that just maybe, it might be on the baggage belt with everyone else’s. No such luck. I waited until the end of the luggage unloading and then went to baggage services just in case they had marked it and pulled it before it went around the belt as it would have been traveling unaccompanied. Again, no luck, but they gave me phone numbers to call and check on the status.

This incredibly long story started on Thursday, Dec 29th, 2016 when I left my sister’s house at 3:15am. Tonight as I’m writing the final few sentences, the fiasco is still living on with me as my luggage is currently MIA. It’s now Monday, January 2nd at 11pm.

I’ve been able to confirm that it was *supposed* to be sent to Kingston, Jamaica on Dec 30th. Not much of a confirmation as no one can tell me if it actually arrived there or not. I’ve been authorized by Air Canada to spend $100 USD on essentials which they will reimburse me for. And, I’ve been advised to call back in 24 hours. Apparently, although they take all of your contact information (at home, in destination, hotel address and phone number, email addresses) they tell me that I will not be contacted with an update on when to expect it to arrive. It’s still my job to continue following up. In fact, the agent’s exact quote was worth noting ‘You’ll definitely be contacted sometime maybe, but you should call back to follow up.’ #CustomerServiceFail

Air Canada and Aeroplan, if you are reading this … all five of the customers (including myself) who have gone through this ordeal deserve an apology, some kind of compensation for the hours of hold time, stress of being at an unplanned destination overnight, being denied entry into the country with little to no assistance and left to rebook flights on our own. So much of this could have been avoided if our flights were proactively rebooked for the next day and the information had been communicated to the staff in Kingston, Jamaica. Since hotels arrangements were made for each of us and that was communicated … I’m left wondering why the flights weren’t?

And, because it’s January 2nd and I’d like to start the year on a positive note, I’m very thankful to be in Panama City (finally) and have met a couple of great new Canadian friends! Although sanity was lost during the process, new friendships have been gained.

Ever had a travel nightmare of your own? Did you file a complaint with the company / companies involved? Did they ever respond? Leave me some comments!

Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love

Air Canada Premium Rouge Menu

Anyone who travels regularly has had the unpleasant experience of delayed flights, lost luggage and bad customer service combining into various kinds of travel nightmares. Sadly, this is just part of the travel world. No matter how much preparation you do, you can’t control the weather, mechanical breakdowns, human error or just plain rudeness. All you can do is try to approach it all with kindness.

Errrrrr … hmmm ….

Great advice right? I tried. Really I did.

I’ve been delayed for flights before. I can recall a time when I was leaving for Asia and my flight was delayed due to fog in Halifax. The flights from the night before hadn’t arrived, so we couldn’t fly out. Mass chaos ensued, but being a travel agent, I managed to get a flight later that day with a different routing. United Airways was telling everyone no flights out of Halifax to anywhere for five days as they were booked solid, but I found the options that they were not willing to look for.

I’ve had flights delayed and ended up staying over in Houston, TX on my way to Belize. I’ve had flights cancelled in The Philippines due to political conferences and had to rebook. I’ve been diverted to Quebec city on the way home from Mexico only seconds before landing in Halifax.

I’ve lost my luggage on the way to Peru, on the way home from Mexico, while traveling to Namibia and most recently, on my way to Panama.

You’d think I’d be an expert at things going wrong. But, let me tell you, no amount of travel experience prepares you for all of those things happening in one day and being met with unsympathetic and unhelpful people.

On Dec 29th, 2016 I woke up at 2:45am to gather my last few things before my 3:15am pick up from the lovely folks at One Stop Limo. Thank goodness they are reliable because it is about the only thing that went right all day long! I arrived, got my luggage tags, checked my luggage which was thankfully under the weight limit and cleared security in a jiffy. All the signs of the beginnings of a great trip!

Flight 603 to Toronto for 5:25am boarded pretty close to on time and pushed back only about 10 minutes late to head for de-icing. All normal for traveling in Canadian winter. The flight was smooth until we started our initial descent into Toronto. The captain had warned us that there was weather moving in and that we might hit a bit of turbulence on the way in to land. We did indeed begin to feel a bit of turbulence, but really quite mild all in all. We took a couple of big turns and just as I was beginning to think that we had done a full circle, sure enough the Captain came over the speaker again to advise that weather had moved into Toronto earlier than expected. Snowfall had accumulated and they were clearing the runways with a backlog of traffic waiting. He went on to explain that we had initially been asked to hold for 20 minutes (hence the couple of big turns we had done) and had just been advised it would be 40 minutes. I really appreciated that he was keeping us up to date on what was going on because otherwise my mind gets extra anxious and wonders if something is wrong with the plane. He said we would continue holding for the next 20 minutes and if we were not cleared to land at that time that we would divert to Montreal because we would not have enough fuel to continue holding.

Errrr … mmmm … Not quite so happy to hear of a lowish fuel situation, but at least we had a plan.

Sure enough, another 20 minutes passed and we had not been cleared to land, so after stalling for nearly an hour in the skies above Toronto, we made another turn and off to Montreal we went. 35 minutes later we touched down turbulence free and taxied in to a fueling stop. We had time to check email and connecting flights. At this point, my connecting flight to Kingston, Jamaica had been delayed until 11:30am … there was still a tiny chance that I might make it.

Snow in Montreal

Another 45 minutes or so passed while we refuelled and then the Captain advised that traffic had started moving at the Toronto Airport again. Up, up and away again for our hour long journey back to Toronto. We were supposed to touch down in Toronto at around 7am local time. Instead, we were arriving at around 11am local time.

The staff on board the plane that day were apologetic about the situation, kept us very well informed and advised that there would be staff and a manager on hand at the gate to help all of us with our connecting flights. This was far more than I expected. Despite all of the delays and difficulties, until this point I actually felt it had been handled as best as it could be.

I waited my turn to disembark from the back of the plane and checked that my connecting flight was still delayed to 11:30am. I jumped the long line up of people (sorry people!) to quickly ask the staff if I should run for my gate or wait in line to be rerouted. With a couple of phone calls and a special note for fast security clearance (just at the doors between terminals), she told me they were waiting for me and sent me running.

The Toronto airport is too damn big! Although I set off running, that didn’t last for long seeing as I hadn’t run for at least eight months, plus I had 20lbs of camera gear and another 10lbs of laptop, paperwork and treats etc with me (Thanks for the M&M’s for Christmas mom!). I did what most people do, run, walk and try to catch my breath, run, catch my breath and then make sure I run to the gate so it looks like I ran the whole way. Come on, you do it too!

I got to the gate, went to the front of the line, panting, and said that I was there for the flight. The guy tells me ‘We just started boarding.’ Ug! I ran for that? I thought they were holding the plane for me. Then he tells me that they removed me from the flight because I wasn’t supposed to make it. And, that the flight is full so he would try to find me a seat but couldn’t guarantee it. Gah! I ran for that?

So, I put some money in a machine for a drink of water and ended up with ice tea. Go figure! Not even the vending machines worked right.

I watched priority boarding trickle through and then the masses of Jamaicans with soooo many kids and sooo many carry ons, form a huge line up for boarding zones 3 and 4. Then, my name was called. They had indeed found room for me. Lucky me, it was with priority boarding and in premium rouge class. I went to the front of the priority boarding line and boarded the plane. I sat my ass down in seat 1C, the very front of the plane. My luck continued as there was also room in my overhead bin for my carry on items. About 10 minutes after I boarded, they were already telling people they could not take their roller bags in cabin as there wasn’t enough room in the bins. People were not happy being told that they would have to check their large carry on items. Of course, many hadn’t packed carefully enough for that, so they were unpacking their roller bags to find medications, insulin, duty free, breakables and valuables that they didn’t want checked. What a mess. In all fairness though, this was not Air Canada’s fault. Let me tell you, people returning home to Jamaica after Christmas had a lot of luggage!

Finally, once everyone was on board and doors were closed, I could breathe a sigh of relief that I was at least getting out of the craziness of Toronto and the Canadian weather!

With a piping hot face cloth served up by the flight attendant, I washed the stickiness from my face from my Olympic sprint through the Toronto airport. I’m sure I should’ve received a medal! We were given tablets for our viewing pleasure, a menu to choose our meal option and our choice of orange juice or water … All before take off!

I went for the omelette with goat cheese and sausage. Let me tell you, the upgraded meal was a pleasant surprise! I’ve been known to skip plane meals all together because they often turn my stomach. This, however was served up in hot plates with lovely cutlery, a cloth napkin and tasted like real food instead of mystery mash.

After lunch, with another round of beverages, we were served warm, salted nuts and a choice of chips or a chocolate bar. I didn’t even crack my own treats while I was on the plane.

It’s hard to decide if the price of flying Premium Rouge is worth the extra cost or not, but for me it was a free upgrade and I truly thought the service was great. Good job on Part 1 Air Canada.

Oh wait. Then my luck ran out. Full Stop.

To be continued in “Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate” – coming soon.

Feel free to share your sympathies and commiserate with me in the comments!

 

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

As soon as I knew I was going to Nairobi, I knew that I wanted to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It is a well-known organization started back in 1977 that rescues abandoned or orphaned elephants (and rhinos), hand raises them and then reintegrates them back into the wild by the age of 10. Many of the elephant’s mothers have been killed by poachers for their ivory. Others have been left behind because they were injured or fell down a hole or well. Without it’s mother, a baby elephant can only live for a very short time. They are dependent on their mother’s milk for the first two years of life. The Sheldricks started rescuing the animals and eventually found a formula to give the babies the milk they needed to grow and thrive.

When the elephants are reintegrated into the wild, they join other past orphaned elephants raised by the Trust and have an extended family. However, they also share the land with wild herds. One of the most exciting things is that they then are able to have families of their own which increases the dwindling population. This is a main part of why the Trust has won world-wide acclaim for it’s Elephant and Rhino orphan project.

When I visited, they had 24 baby elephants (up to 2 years old) at the orphanage and some who were over two, but under 10 years old. While one of the Trust’s employees told visitors about the orphanage and introduced each of the babies, the playful animals coated themselves in the red sand, drank from the water holes and approached the crowd a few times for short opportunities to pet them.

At lunch time, the handlers brought out large bottles of specially formulated milk to feed each of the babies. After their quick meal, a brief call and the elephants followed one of the handlers in single file out of the ring and off to enjoy the rest of their day, while the older ones galloped in to see the onlookers.

There were easily a couple hundred visitors for the hour long viewing that only takes place once per day. Although the presentation is from 11am – 12pm, ensure you arrive early so you can find yourself a spot close to the rope for optimal chance at interacting with the wee ones.

Here are a selection of photos from my time spent with the elephants in October 2016.