Wiring Funds to Foreign Travel Vendors: Save, but Safe?

March 31, 2010 at 10:43 am | Posted in consumer travel, travel industry | 1 Comment
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by Max Pesling

wiring money overseasBack in the day, you’d stroll into a travel agency, get face-to-face advice, and leave with an armful of color brochures and a paper ticket. Then the Internet came along, but for a long time consumers were slow to warm up to paying online with a credit card. That’s mostly history now: Most will happily divulge those 16 digits in return for the savings that online competition and the elimination of the travel agent middleman have brought about.

All well and good, for the most part, when it comes to travel vendors in your own country. Increasingly, though, travelers are tempted by overseas companies — now easily found online — which offer more intriguing options or deeper travel discounts. The catch: Many if not most of these vendors charge cardholders around 3 percent for the transaction. As if that weren’t bad enough, cardholders’ banks clobber their customers with another fee of 2 to 3 percent for the foreign currency conversion, pretty much wiping out any savings from booking travel online.

My friend John Lamb, a New York City lawyer, recently faced this very dilemma while planning his upcoming honeymoon, a two-week luxury safari in Tanzania. The itinerary John liked best was sold by a tour operator in South Africa, but the combined 5.7 percent credit card and conversion fees amounted to several hundred dollars, money he’d rather spend elsewhere. The tour operator suggested he wire the funds directly instead (total cost: $35 at John’s bank).

John was tempted, but understandably concerned: Would it be safe to wire what’s essentially cash to an unknown vendor halfway around the world? If something went wrong (e.g., the company went under), would he have any recourse? Racked by doubt, John dashed off an email seeking advice from a trusted travel writer and friend, a.k.a. yours truly.

YT, however, had no surefire answer, never having been in a comparable situation. I could’ve offered general tips to help my pal protect himself, but in the age of the Internet I was able to consult my online brain trust. I posted the question in the Tour Operators group here on Tripatini.com, and within 72 hours had amassed a considerable body of travel advice from experts as far afield as India, Tanzania, and Nebraska. Three top tips to wire funds safely to overseas travel vendors emerged:

  • Check their reputation. John Tavera of North Carolina-based Marnella Tours says, “Do your homework. Check that the company you are sending funds to is legitimate and in good standing with the local or national tourism association.” Nayaz Noor of Safir Tours in India also suggests that you can vet the company with the destination’s tourism office in your country of residence.
  • Ask fellow travelers. Fatema Zavery of Zed Safaris in Tanzania suggests you “check reviews from other travelers who have used [the company’s] services.” Indeed, in the age of user-generated content, it should not be difficult to find enough reviews of just about any travel provider to help answer your doubts.
  • Buy insurance. If doubts are still nagging, buy travel insurance, says Peter Walter of CzechTours.cz. It costs a fraction of the money you’ll save by wiring the funds, and will give you peace of mind, whether the vendor takes flight with your money or goes out of business before your trip — or, more likely perhaps, you get sick and have to cancel.

With the proper precautions, wiring funds directly to an overseas travel vendor can be a safe and effective way to save money – which is exactly why my friend John decided to do it after reading the experts’ advice here on Tripatini. As a final note, I was pleased to see that not a single one of the tour operators who offered advice tried to sell John anything. Several, in fact, outright confirmed that his vendor is a reputable company in great standing. It’s reassuring to see that, at least in some cases, you can find unbiased advice on transparent online travel forums.

And John, by the way, is now happily looking forward to his honeymoon.

photo: iStockphoto

Could Tourism Help Save Haiti?

January 23, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, Haiti, travel industry | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

The brouhaha that’s erupted in the past several days about the “questionable taste” of Royal Caribbean bringing its passengers to a leased beach at Labadee (aka Labadie), on Haiti‘s north coast, is a good example of the inevitable awkwardness in overlaying leisure tourism from generally wealthy countries onto an impoverished and shattered country where people are suffering and starving right outside gated resorts. For example, more than 20 percent of respondents to a CruiseCritic.com poll said that in the wake of the recent catastrophe they felt it was inappropriate to be enjoying themselves on the beach with such devastation and deprivation beyond the fence.

But consider: this juxtaposition is just a particularly extreme and in-our-faces example of the phenomenon already taking place every day of the year in countries from Mexico to Cuba to Senegal to the Philippines. Indeed, just across the border in the Dominican Republic, plenty of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and others prosperous enough to afford an overseas vacation guiltlessly sip piña coladas and frolic in the surf while most Dominicans live lives of, shall we say, great simplicity — and certainly no foreign beach getaways. And yet, these tourists are providing crucial jobs that support a significant chunk of the DR’s population; I doubt most locals would be happy to see them go away.

Most Haitians themselves understand this, and similarly very much want the cruise ships and tourists in general to keep coming. In the meantime, one Cruise Critic respondent even suggested ways on the site’s message board that cruisers can go that extra mile to help while at Labadee, including:

– Add a few bucks to the asking price when buying souvenirs.
– Tip generously.
– Eat a big breakfast on the ship, bring a snack with you, and don’t partake of the lunch
served on the beach — the leftovers will be donated to the locals.
– Go on a shore excursion whose proceeds are earmarked for relief efforts.
– Bring T-shirts and whatever you think appropriate, and leave them for charity.

In addition, in a larger and longer-term sense, the extent of this month’s earthquake devastation has the potential, at long last, to lead to a more concerted and effective effort to move Haiti beyond the dead end in which it’s been stuck for generations — to start again from scratch, as it were.

And in this I do think tourism can play a significant role, because as I discovered first-hand in a visit a dozen years ago, in this area the country has more to offer than many outsiders suspect. And while Port-au-Prince is probably no-go for the foreseeable future, the rest of the country hasn’t been so affected by the quake, and from what I hear is largely still in business.

Like many Caribbean destinations, of course, there are miles and miles of lovely beaches — there’s a good reason why the cruise ships come to Labadee — and even several nice guesthouses and resorts along the western coast. There are colonial forts — the most impressive of which is La Citadelle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site up in the hills south of Cap-Haïtien, a city which itself has some fine old colonial architecture. Go in for some fine hiking and ecotourism in Parc Macaya national park. Sample some of the Caribbean’s finest rum, Barbancourt, and the tasty and distinctive local cuisine. Explore the fascinating world of voudou, which isn’t witchcraft but simply a hybrid of traditional African religions and Catholicism. And despite their poverty, most of the people I recall coming across years ago exhibited admirable dignity and warmth. All in all, that long-ago trip was one of my most memorable travel experiences.

So once the dust settles and the situation becomes a little more secure, I definitely plan to revisit Haiti and explore some of the areas I haven’t seen before. If you yourself don’t want to go that far, there are other ways to support peace and prosperity through travel and tourism — for example by writing to Choice Hotels to encourage the company to follow through on its plans to open two hotels in the charming Victorian south-coast town of Jacmel. This disaster, horrific as it is, can also be a great opportunity to rebuild a beautiful country and culture that has suffered long enough. And as travelers and citizens of the world, we have the opportunity to help in a direct and concrete way.

More info: TravelingHaiti.com.

photo: iStockphoto

International Travel to Recover After Tough 2009

January 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Posted in travel industry | Leave a comment
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Growth returned to international tourism in the last quarter of 2009, contributing to better than expected full-year results, according to the latest edition of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. International tourist arrivals fell by an estimated 4 percent in 2009.

Prospects have also improved with arrivals now forecast to grow between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2010. This outlook is confirmed by the remarkable rise of the UNWTO Panel of Experts’ Confidence Index.

International tourist arrivals for business, leisure, and other purposes are estimated to have declined worldwide by 4 percent in 2009 to 880 million. This represents a slight improvement on the previous estimate as a result of the 2 percent upswing in the last quarter of 2009. In contrast, international tourist arrivals shrank by 10 percent, 7 percent, and 2 percent in the first three quarters respectively.

Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East led the recovery with growth already turning positive in both regions in the second half of 2009.


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