Solitude Challenge-Can I survive?

No music, no Netflix to binge watch, no phone to look at messages, no technology – is that kind of a challenge worth trying? Can I put them all away for an entire day? I wanted this challlenge to be a real test for me. I  have no problem being away from technology for a short period of time, but I wanted to find out if I can sustain it for a longer time, an entire day.

That was the challenge I decided to self-impose when I en-route to Aruba: a proper solitude challenge, not one I was forced to take while on the flight. In all earnestness,  I discounted the flight time and prepared myself to take the challenge on the 2nd day of our vacation. I also made my husband take it with me! We turned off all data/voice connectivity on our devices and used them merely as a camera.

Cool breeze and swaying palm trees-great way to start a beach vacation
Cool breeze and swaying palm trees-great way to start a beach vacation

The entire day, we spent on the beach, both had books to read and whenever we needed a distraction, we hit the water, pretending to swim. I was surprised how time passed without me having the urge to check my phone every 5 minutes.  We talked amongst ourselves a bit, but mainly people watched. It was so relaxing! I did not have to peck madly away at my laptop or stare at my phone. By the time evening rolled in, my husband was getting testy because of technology withdrawal and he switched his phone. As for me, I was happy to still keep my phone away even though I was itching to send the pictures we clicked to friends and family.

At the end of the day, I cannot really claim that there were profound thoughts that were running through my head as I went through this challenge. Maybe the beach was a perfect distraction! I came out though realizing how refreshing it was to just unplug from all the dramas in life, be able to enjoy a charming, quiet sun set over the beautiful Caribbean sea.

Caribbean sunset
Caribbean sunset

That’s it. I am taking a break.

*Mild Spoiler Alert*

I am taking a break from blogging travel posts. The reason- I just had to post my thoughts on a movie.

This weekend, I watched Mockingjay part 1 (as Jimmy Fallon said- the rare 4 part trilogy). I loved it.

Coming out of the theatre I was reminded of the other similar themed movie I recently watched in Netflix- Divergent. I was idly thinking to myself why Divergent did not make that much of an impact on me. My husband, who in general, sleeps his way through movies had the exact same thought. Surprised, that the movie has made this big an impression on my normally indifferent husband, I decided to explore my thoughts further.

Both movies after all are set in the same dystopian world set sometime in the future. The world has undergone a rebellion and the government creates order by the “divide and conquer rule” by creating factions. This allows them all to live peacefully if not contently. Divergent and Hunger Games have kick-ass female protagonists and are ready to take on the dictatorial government. They also have to play life or death games as part of their lives. With all these similarities, why then is the impact more powerful with the Hunger Games? For a fair comparison, I am only equating Divergent to Hunger Games, the first movie.

Is it because of the love triangle in Hunger Games that is more powerful? The love triangle certainly has added more depth (even though the 2 actors, as a movie reviewer described it, was like choosing between dry wheat toast and dry multigrain toast– I completely agree with her) but is that all? Or is it more of the powerful emotions that are evoked watching the tender interactions between Rue and Katniss and ultimately how Rue’s death is the catalyst for the disquiet slowly arising among the people? Why is it that I simply did not care about Divergent’ s protagonist but I was deeply invested in Katniss?

I think the answer is simple-  emotion. Whether its passion, angst, desperation, sorrow, emotions in all different nuances is what makes us invested in the outcome. Hunger Games has it in spades.

Scoring a sweet travel deal using influencers

For Thanksgiving , we headed to Aruba for a bit of R&R.

While researching for flights and hotel options, being a point and miles holder,  I had my point converter hat on, sniffing for opportunities to score deals through award miles and hotel points. As a rookie in the point-conversion game, I was eager for ideas to improve my game. That’s when I looked at the influencers in this industry.

To give an idea who the influencers are, on one end of the spectrum of influencers are the airlines and hotels rewards program. A lure of these loyalty programs is that once you start earning points and start building that base you would not want to lose that by traveling or staying in competing airlines or hotels.  Being a priority member in some of airline and hotels reward programs, I look at their deals and promotions to see how I can leverage them which is how these programs thrive.

The other spectrum of influencers are bloggers and online experts on websites that offer beginners and experts alike tips and tricks to make the maximum use of the travel loyalty programs. These are the people who travel either for work  or leisure and have learned how to use the system best. The hotels and airlines tend to keep an eye out for these influencers as they have thousands of followers and influencers can sway the travelers decisions to fly their airline or stay in their hotels. It also depends on the sector of travelers they are catering to.

There are those who cater to the high end of this industry, the luxury influencers. They look at redeeming their miles and points only for business class flights and 5 star hotels. Then there is other subset, who are more mid or low tier redeemers. They look at economy/coach seats and at decent 3-4 star hotels.

When I was doing my research I found it useful to get all of the influencers ideas and make an informed decision. I was able to get my flight through miles and was able to get 3 nights hotel stay using points. My husband’s flight and one night hotel stay, we paid. I love a good deal – I went into vacation happy befitting Aruba’s theme, The Happy Island!

Sunset in Palm Beach
Sunset in Palm Beach
Perfect beach vacation
Perfect beach vacation

Airlines, Pizzas and Customer Experience

Let me be clear, I am rookie with social media, tweeting, blogging etc. etc. etc. Being in the class I am taking at Harvard has given me the motivation to push myself beyond what I am comfortable with.

Imagine my surprise when over the weekend I got to experience two diverse customer experiences on social media, even as a novice user, that had an impact well beyond getting a reply to my tweet.

Recently I had posted my musings on how I will be thanking the airline personnel for efficiently taking care of delayed flight passengers that included myself. Over this weekend, I tweeted to US Airways thanking them.  I posted my tweet and forgot all about it. 45 minutes later, I get a reply back from US Airways, personally acknowledging my tweet! Honestly, for a few minutes I felt on top of the world. Granted it was a “thank you” tweet and I am sure brands are always happy to hear about them but still to get a big brand to acknowledge an individual’s tweet and respond/validate my point was pretty awesome!

Fast forward many hours later and I am waiting for a pizza from Papa Johns to be delivered. There was a total snafu and 2 hours later, my pizza had still not arrived! With my new found power through social media, I blasted a tweet out to Papa Johns.  15 minutes later I got a tweet from a random person in Kentucky, he was  waiting as well for a Papa John’s pizza. I was thinking in my naivety that Mr. Papa would respond. But, 2 days later, I still have not received a reply back. Yes, I got a pizza for free which was 2.5 hours late, but still….

Thinking back over the course of 24 hours, I had two different customer experience. It’s amazing how social media has made business to customer very personal. Showing that US Airways cares by replying quickly has made a positive experience for me as the customer and I will be letting my friends and family know about the experience I had with the airline. On the other hand, I am ambivalent about Papa John’s customer experience. Yes, they did not respond to the tweet and yes, I got a free pizza.  I question what drove a different (lack of), response from Mr. Papa. Is it because they don’t care enough or don’t have the man power or they don’t want to acknowledge and highlight what might be a fairly regular issue for them? What are the consequences if there is an avalanche of negative tweets about late deliveries? When is it too late?

Flight delays and missed opportunities in social media

I am writing this post 30,000 miles above the ground, flying over Utah on my way to Colorado for work. I chose to fly out from a smaller airport that’s much closer to home, knowing fully well that my decision would come with a transit.  To catch my early morning flight at 6:30 AM, I had to be up by 3:15 AM. So paranoid that I will not wake up, I set 2 alarms on the phone and  even asked my friend in California to call me before he goes to bed. With all this anxiety, guess what? I ended up not sleeping at all!

Bleary-eyed I check in at the airport and board my flight. I briefly nap and when I get up 30 minutes later, we are still on the runway! The pilot informs us that there is a small maintenance issue and we should be cleared quickly. Another 10 minutes go by.

With this unexpected delay, I know I am going to miss my connecting flight.

Then the captain’s makes a follow-up announcement; everyone has to deplane and we will be rerouted to other airports (so much for me choosing a small airport that’s much closer to home for my early morning/midnight drive)!

Next thing you know, there is a mad scramble to get back to the terminal counter. Thankfully being much more closer to the plane exit, I scrambled to be in front of this line. The gate agent was extremely helpful and she put me on another plane (thankfully non-stop) from La-Guardia.

After the furor died down, I was able to breathe and pondered: how could I have used social media in this situation? Could it have helped?

I was skeptical of how Pinterest and Google+ could have helped me  but believed Facebook and Twitter could have made a difference. Then again, in the heat of the moment, when you are running with bags, trying to get the earliest flight in so that you don’t miss your clients meetings, can one really take time to log into Facebook and Twitter and ask how the airlines can help? Most times, in these situations, at least today, isn’t social media a form to vent after the event is over?

On another note, now that I am more social media conscious, I plan to send a Twitter and FB post, thanking the ground personnel for smoothly and calmly helping irate passengers safely reach their destinations! Social Media, I have realized is a powerful medium to express my thanks in such situations which would not have been so easily possible 10 years ago.

Isolation vs technology overload: # Movie Challenge

For a long time I resisted seeing both the movies but for different reasons. Cast Away because, really,  do I want to see Tom Hanks, however good an actor, talk to himself for 2 hours? Social Network on the other hand, I was thinking it will be more of a story of Zuckerberg building a program and nothing else. I must say I was pleasantly surprised after watching them.  The two movies kept me entertained and was thought provoking.

They are opposite extremes; one hand you have Tom Hanks surviving for 4 years on the island with washed up FedEx cargo that he tries to salvage with no human contact and absolutely no technology. Survival in its purest sense. On the other hand, Mark Zuckerberg (to be politically correct its Jesse Eisenberg) feverishly working and collaborating to make as many contacts as possible through technology.

I had a pretty startling revelation. Both characters had to invent/improvise a method to connect with people; Hanks through his basketball  “friend” and Zuckerberg through the internet.  For Tom it was survival and way to keep his sanity. For Zuckerberg, what started as concept of socializing for the Ivy League schools became a phenomenon resounding  across the world.

So can we ever say technology overload is better than isolation or vice versa? In small doses and at appropriate times, one probably would be more beneficial than the other. Nevertheless what these movies have made me realize is that I need to be thankful to have friends/family around me  (not just online) and appreciate the world around me.

Travel Rewards at a price- is it worth it?

So I have been sharing a little bit about the great travel perks in this industry if you leverage the right travel rewards credit cards, loyalty programs etc.

All these perks/freebies though come at a price sometimes. An uncomfortable price.

Case in point: a major US airline carrier, had a promotion wherein if you “like” that airline in FB and share your travel details, it will throw in bonus miles in your account. In addition, if you are willing to share your FB contacts details so that this promotion can target them as well, the rewards are even greater. Now, if you want to understand the specifics of this promotion, good luck! The airline directs you to the terms and conditions link which is ,of course,  pages and pages of small print details.  Go figure. Who has the time to read through them all?

So what do you do then?

Option 1: Spam your wall and riddle it with trivia as well as other personal details. Invite your friends to participate in the challenge and plaster your personal wins for all to see.

Option 2: You are willing to give up those extra miles as it’s not worth the hassle of spamming your friends and/or peppering them with all your wins.

I chose option 2 because I know how much I respect my privacy and how mad I would get if my friends are willing to share my  personal details. But I am sure there are lots of people out there who unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, have given information of friends and family to the airline in order to fulfill the challenge and earn the extra miles.

Is that acceptable? I don’t know. In this internet and social media age, maybe a lot of people are fine with it and don’t see a problem. But what about those pockets of individuals who still like to have their privacy?

How serendipity struck

8 years ago, almost fresh out of grad school, I embarked to Milwaukee, WI for my first work assignment. Fortunately, I was provided accommodation at the local Residence Inn Marriott for the period of my work.  Upon registering at the front desk, I can still vividly recall the first question asked to me by the hotel front desk agent: “Would you like to join the Marriott rewards club program?” Being totally green about hotel programs, I just nodded mutely. I was there almost 5 months and not once I paid attention to the points being accumulated.  Fast forward 4 years, I still did not know how reward programs worked. I was traveling back and forth at least once a year to India and each time I was elated when I landed a cheap deal. Little did I know what I was missing back then; that longer mileage travel would rack up points faster.

And then one day, serendipity struck.  I was googling for some last minute trip ideas to New Hampshire. I found out that Marriott Rewards members don’t have blackout dates. Vaguely remembering that I do have a Marriott number and after scrambling to get my username and password, I not only found out that there were no blackout dates but also there were some hotels in the nearby area which offered stays for fewer points. Which we were totally flexible with.

From that moment, after getting a terrific deal with my accommodation that made our trip sweeter, I was officially hooked to the travel industry rewards. I also realized the many thousands of miles that went down the drain that I could have so put to good use.

To me, it appears that the travel industry has come a long way in building its brand with regards to loyalty programs.

When I started, I remember only searching travel sites like Expedia, Travelocity, the hotel or airline pages. The process felt transactional and not customer centric, focused on selling products.  I used to get emails from my hotel and airline programs advertising some specials and if there was an issue, to contact customer support. They used to have very slow response times.  There was no relationship-building between customers. It seemed  like a one way street with very little engagement from my end. It felt more like a push than a pull.

But now you cannot escape social media. Through tweets expressed by dissatisfied customer to best travel deals culled, travel updates and promotions seem instantaneous and are out there for the entire world to see. Before,  you could express your displeasure through customer support, and no one else knew. Now,  billions of potential and current customers know immediately if someone is unhappy about cancelled flights or bad hotel rooms. That new dynamic, shifts some of the power in favor of the customer.

Social strategies have helped establish new relationships while reducing costs. Take for example, a referral bonus system of a hotel program. If I refer 5 friends or family who I know will like this program, not only do they get points, I get 2000 points for every stay they make. So I have just made Marriott stronger by adding 5 members with me doing all the marketing for them. That’s absolute genius. Isn’t it?

Now the travel industry has further evolved with cross-industry partnerships. Hotels and airlines have become partners and share customers. Last year I got an offer: if I join Hilton program and complete 5 stays in a period of 4 months, I get 25,000 miles in my American Airlines. Not only that, I get upgraded to Hilton gold program for a year which will get my family upgrades, free breakfast and free wifi  (these are free within US but not outside). I was able to take a few work related trips and made up the rest with leisure and got my AA 25K and gold status in Hilton. In the process, I strengthened my existing relationship with American while showing that I am willing to pay on Hilton’s behalf.

Montreal Mont Royal made possible by Hilton
Montreal Mont Royal made possible by Hilton
Spending Christmas in Old Montreal
Spending Christmas in Old Montreal

I have come quite a ways from being a passive observer to an active participant/customer. There’s constant learning though; as relationship between travel industry and social media evolves, as a customer, I need to understand the trends and learn to adapt and see how to best utilize them.

That moment of planned serendipity has forever changed my outlook. Earlier, I spent a lot of time planning for trips and hoped I will get lucky when buying airfare or reserving accommodations.  Now I look at my travel options and see how I can get most value of my reward programs. Planning my luck one step at a time.

*These opinions expressed are strictly mine in course of my observations.

Planning Serendipity

Welcome to my blog!

My name is Anusha Vishwanathan.  I come from a place where the seasons are best described as hot, hotter, hottest..well you get the idea! Now I live in a place where 4 seasons are defined, though these past few years it looks like winter is taking over fall and spring.

I work in the medical device sector, love to read books from Tintin to Jack Higgins to Lee Iacocca, have 20 GB of music (no space pretty much for anything else in my laptop) and like to cook experimental food (only caveat- it should be less than 25 minutes).

And I love to travel. Very much.

As my mother always says, “Anusha, first thing you held was a book in your hand ”. Well, that is still the case.  Books were what transported me to locales both beautiful and stark and gave me the wanderlust.I have been meaning to start a  blog for some time now for the budget traveler.

You may very well ask, there are tons of travel blog sites, how is yours different?

Though I love to travel, I am a junkie when it comes to seeing how to score good deals. A 9 day trip to France and Belgium with my husband, we paid only for the flights and attractions.  Our lodging was taking care by our combined points from loyalty programs. We are modest travelers, we don’t travel extensively for work and we don’t stay in 5 star hotels.

Idyllic -Eiffel Tower
Idyllic -Eiffel Tower
Twilight River Seine
Twilight River Seine

What I am attempting is to create for those travelers like me who want to travel but are afraid to break the bank, show how it is still possible to travel to Ireland and spend $250 total for a weekend of fun (excluding flight costs).

In the coming days, I’ll be covering  topics on what to look out for in both hotel and airline loyalty programs, tips on how to maximize points and score a sweet deal. In the process, I would like to share my trips with you and show you my amateur photography skills. And other random musings along the way…

Come on in!