Visitors to Cambodia and Thailand will have an easier time crossing the border in the near future, thanks to a historic agreement by the two nations to cooperate on issuing visas. The announcement this week is the first major tourism-focused cooperation implemented under the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy representing Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The other three nations are not yet participating in the common visa scheme.
Nationals of 35 countries will be able to apply for a single visa at either the Cambodian or Thai embassy and, upon approval, will be permitted access to each country for up to 60 days. That’s an increase over the default of 30 for US citizens as well as those of many other countries.
With just Cambodia and Thailand participating this isn’t a as huge an opportunity as it could be. Visa requirements for Myanmar and Vietnam are much more arduous for US citizens and this sort of cooperative visa could significantly ease that burden. And considering I’m on a plane right now headed that direction having gone through the visa application process I’d certainly appreciate the more streamlined process.
One of the more notable stories in frequent flyer land this week was that award inventory for Korean Air is being published into the GDSes, meaning that it is publicly visible and searchable. Both Gary and Ben mentioned it earlier today and both of them also note that folks can sign up for an ExpertFlyer account to search the inventory and setup email alerts for it. I’m a big fan of ExpertFlyer and I love the access they have to a lot of otherwise private inventory and fare data, but I’m also a big fan of free access to free data, and in the case of Korean Air awards and upgrades, getting the information for free is absolutely possible.
One of my many travel-related projects is the Wandering Aramean Travel Tools website. It includes, among other things, award inventory information for a bunch of airlines. And now that the data is accessible, Korean Air is part of that collection. You can search for award or upgrade inventory for free. And there’s even an email alert function that can be set, allowing you to get a message if the award inventory opens up.
Yes, you have to register to gain access to the data, but it is free and no strings attached.
Here’s a snip of what the search page looks like:
Not particularly pretty, but quite functional. Also of note is that sometimes the system will provide options that don’t quite get you where you’re going, but to an intermediate connecting point instead. On the above Seoul to Singapore search there are two non-stop flights (KE 641 and 643) that are both available, but there is also KE 683 to SGN, from which you might be able to pick up a connection on SkyTeam partner Vietnam Airlines, another of the carriers searchable in the tool collection. Displaying more than just the non-stop options should help folks with flexibility to better find awards that work.
Coach award inventory is not currently available in the system and first class isn’t available to partners, but otherwise the data should be accurate for redemptions.
Give the tools a try and let me know what you think.
Both the SkyTeam and oneworld global alliances have grown their membership ranks this past week. Vietnam Airlines became an official member of SkyTeam effective today. Earlier in the week Indian carrier Kingfisher announced its intentions to join oneworld during a meeting in Germany.
I’ve actually flown on both carriers and enjoyed the service and product. I think that oneworld is getting the better deal here – Kingfisher has a ton of coverage in India and a few long-haul routes, too – but SkyTeam needs to beef up their presence in SE Asia significantly and the addition of Vietnam Airlines definitely helps on that front.
It is hard to pick up top-tier airlines to join a global alliance these days. Most that want to be in an alliance already are and the others that are desirable are either happy going it alone or working slowly towards other options. So it is always interesting to read the announcements of which airlines are joining up. The past couple weeks have seen some announcements out of SkyTeam and, well, they are interesting.
First up is the official word that Vietnam Airlines and Tarom will become members in June 2010. I had the pleasure of flying on Vietnam Airlines for a couple domestic flights a few years ago and they seemed to be a pretty well run organization. They’ve announced orders for four Airbus A380s with expected deliveries in the coming years and they’re expanding their international coverage. Plus the economy in Vietnam seems to be still growing so they seem like a nice addition, especially if there are options for transit visas.
Tarom, on the other hand, is a rather notable question mark. They have one true long route – Bucharest to Dubai at just over 2100 miles. The next farthest destination is London at just over 1300 miles. OK, so they’re a regional player. More options is always a good thing and I’m sure it is great for them to get in the alliance, but it just doesn’t seem all that special to have them joining up. Coverage of Eastern Europe will be phenomenal with both Tarom and Czech Air in the alliance, so that is something. Tarom will be joining as an Associate member of the alliance and will be adopting the FlyingBlue loyalty scheme from Air France as part of this move. That probably isn’t great for their direct customers but it means having the alliance so a fair trade.
The last move – somewhat unexpected to me – is that Garuda has also announced intentions to join SkyTeam. Yup, Garuda, the Indonesian airline that just a couple years ago was blacklisted from flying to Europe because of safety and maintenance concerns. But now they’re back, with service from Jakarta to Amsterdam via Dubai returning in June 2010 and ten Boeing 777s on order to allow for non-stop service in the coming years. So I suppose they are getting better, but they really had nowhere to go but up. Maybe having them in the alliance will force them to continue their improvements.
So there aren’t a whole lot of options out there and SkyTeam is doing the best they can. Their coverage in SE Asia is about to get a serious boost and they own Eastern Europe. I suppose things could be worse.
I have to admit that one of the little luxuries I will treat myself to on occasion is to have a car waiting for me at the airport upon arrival. Especially in a foreign country where negotiating the taxi ranks and negotiating a fare is traditional I just don’t want to have to deal with that sort of situation, especially after a long flight. Plus, there is really something quite wonderful about showing up and having someone waiting there with your name on a sign, even if it is a driver that you’ve paid to do that.
In Bangkok the cold towels and water bottles in the car were a very nice touch. In India I still fondly remember my mother-in-law’s company driver knowing my name and handing me a note with a phone number to call for further instructions. Slightly surreal and very entertaining in retrospect. In Vietnam it was a shoddy van that barely had benches inside, much less seat belts or a decent suspension. I paid $2 extra for that “luxury” but it meant not fighting the taxi driver on the fare or having to explain directions and that was well worth my money.
And then there is the joy of actually being met by someone who you know at the airport. The opening and closing scenes of Love Actually capture the emotion rather well, and I have fond memories of similar events in my life.
But I’ve never gone to an airport to welcome random strangers to their destination. These folks did.
They actually went to the airport with signs, gifts, flowers and balloons and “welcomed home” a bunch of random strangers. They leveraged the NYC black car drivers to get names and then staged impromptu welcome parties for complete strangers. Sure, it is a little creepy to have a group of 20 random strangers welcome you home, especially in NYC, but it also seems like a much better welcome than a grumpy driver. And it makes for a pretty entertaining story to share.
One of my favorite bits of travel is the different dining habits/customs of our destination. When in Spain, dinner is nice and late, following an early round of tapas. Italy has a similar evening/night split for snacks and dining. In Asia, dining on the roadside was very common, either a grab-and-go snack from a vendor or sitting at tiny plastic tables in tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk in Saigon, slurping up pho while trying not to break anything. I love these experiences, partly for the food and partly because we get to see the culture of those places not just from the displays in a museum.
So I was particularly saddened yesterday walking to the subway on my way home from work. It was about 7:30pm and I passed a family walking cross-town. They were headed east from the Times Square area, seemingly back towards their hotel. Laden with the requisite shopping bags I noticed one in the mix that was rather disappointing – leftovers from The Olive Garden. So at 7:30 they were done with dinner, and it was an Olive Garden dinner.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate the Olive Garden. I like the salad and bread sticks (or I did last time I had them, which was probably 8 years ago), and I’m sure that there are places where it is the best option for “Italian” food that is available. But it pains me to see folks choosing that over one of the dozens of local places that are available in NYC that provide a better meal and a much more realistic view of dining in the city.
While in Paris we had a fabulous dinner at a great little restaurant. My wife claims that it is the best meal she’s ever had, and she’s probably right. But our 8:30pm seating had us in with all the other Americans, though we were at least on the later side of that group. Only as we finished up dining did we see some locals start to trickle in around 10pm. The meal was delicious, but I cannot help but think we got shorted a bit on the experience because of the timing. And I think that this family drew the same short straw with their dinner last night, too.
Maybe it is just because I’m obsessed with food, but I think that making the leap to the local dining culture is as important as anything else you do on a trip. And in New York that means no Olive Garden. Oh, and no licking your fingers in India. That’s a good way to end up on the couch/in the bathroom for two days until the Cipro kicks in, but that’s a whole different story…