GratiTuesday: Making travel plans in the digital age

My parents were great travelers and encourage us kids to follow in their footsteps. Although I’ve visited many of the places they traveled to—and several they didn’t—I feel as if I’ve just dipped my toe into the deep well of possibilities.

Because they traveled so much, my parents had a close, personal relationship with their travel agent. Helen knew my folks’ likes and dislikes, preferred way to travel, destinations of interest, and budget considerations. Although they seldom encountered any problems while traveling, they knew that they could call Helen if they needed help and she’d work things out.

Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.
Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.

I am currently firming up travel itineraries for two upcoming trips, and making some preliminary plans for a few more that are on our radar. Like most people in today’s digital age, I am not using a travel agent to help me plan and book our trips. The resources available to me online are vast, powerful, accessible, and, sometimes, a little scary.

I can research our destinations using multiple travel websites and helpful blogs. I have reached out to blogging buddies who live in the areas we are visiting for first-hand recommendations (and, hopefully some meet-ups). Using mapping apps, I am able to chart our route and look for points of interest along the way.

Once we know where we will stop on our journey, I can book our hotel rooms (after reading extensive reviews) online. For the first time, we are also going to try Airbnb, whose website is robust and pretty easy to navigate. Tickets for attractions can be purchased in advance and I can often load them to my smartphone so I don’t need to worry about misplacing pieces of paper.

And, of course, any airplane and rental car reservations are completed with a few keystrokes and a credit card.

There are pluses and minuses to planning travel this way, of course. Using a travel agent provided my parents with valuable peace-of-mind and allowed them to tap into Helen’s professional knowledge and years of experience. Since she did most of the work (and, as I remember, the service was provided for no, or very little, cost), my folks didn’t have to spend hours doing research. Helen’s agency was a one (or two)-stop-shop for planning, finalized itinerary, and tickets.

By making our travel plans online, I have a lot of control over our itinerary. I don’t need to rely on someone else’s preferences or affiliations. I can spend time looking at different options and search-out deals and off-the-beaten-path opportunities. Once on the road, we can take advantage of apps that will help us to find places to eat and points of interest to visit. I can read about the history of an area, check out the weather, and even avoid road construction and accidents up ahead.

Although we may not have someone like Helen to provide travel assistance and hand-holding, I am so grateful that the internet has given us the power to design our individual journeys and create our unique adventures.

Tip Creep in the Technology Age

You’ve probably seen them. Perhaps you’ve even purchased an item by swiping your credit card through one. If you’ve bought something from an Apple store, you definitely know what I’m talking about: those apps and accessories that turn smartphones and tablet computers into credit card payment terminals.

When the technology first came out, I thought it was genius. Suddenly, an owner of a small business – such as an artist at a craft fair – could play with the big guys. For a pretty low start-up cost, they were easily able to accept and process credit card purchases. As a customer, I liked the convenience: just swipe and sign. My credit card was never out of my sight and the receipt would instantly show up in my email.

At least I thought it was genius until the terminals began to appear at the sales counters of ice cream parlors, delis, bakeries, and coffee shops. All of a sudden, what first seemed like a convenience now feels like extortion. Technology-aided tip creep has arrived.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a grab-and-go deli to get lunch. Making my way through the line, I picked up a couple of pre-made sandwiches from the refrigerated case. At the sales counter, I showed the cashier the sandwiches, asked him to add two ice teas to my order, and gave him my credit card. He handed me two cups (the sodas and tea were self-serve) and, after entering my order on his tablet/terminal, he swiveled the screen around to face me. There, right in the middle of the screen, I was “conveniently” given the opportunity add a tip to the transaction. I was even given a choice: I could click on 15%, 20%, or, if I was feeling especially generous, 25%. There was also a button labeled Custom Tip if I wanted to calculate another tip amount. Of course, I had the option of clicking the No Tip button, but with the cashier standing right there watching me, that choice felt very uncomfortable. Wimp that I am, I clicked 15%, signed the screen with my finger, and moved on.

Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!
Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!

I usually am a pretty good tipper. I spent time in the trenches working in restaurants as I made my way through school, and a large part of my marketing career was in the food service business. The person who waits on my husband and me at a sit-down restaurant will usually find a good tip when we leave. In the type of establishment where there are tip jars present, I sometimes leave something and sometimes not. If I feel a tip is warranted, though, I’m fairly generous. I am happy to reward good service and I am grateful to be financially able to do so. What I don’t like is the expectation of tips for providing a simple service. And, I don’t like businesses relying on their customers to subsidize their employees’ salaries. Most of all, I don’t like being guilted into leaving a tip.

I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).
I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).

Apparently these new payment systems are having a huge impact on tips received, especially in venues where tipping has never been common. When faced with the three tip percentages, customers often just tap the middle one (20%, in most cases). Tapping the No Tip option is not easy when the employee is watching you and there are people in line behind you. No one wants to feel cheap.

I’m not sure if this train has already left the station and tipping someone for scooping ice cream, ringing up a couple of sodas, or putting a bagel in a bag is now considered “normal” but I know I’m not on it. When I see that one of those devices will be used to ring up my simple transaction, I immediately start to feel uncomfortable. Do I resign myself to this new paradigm and add a tip? Do I take the easy way out and pay with cash (assuming I have enough)? Do I tap Custom Tip and enter what I might have placed in the now-vanished tip jar? Or, do I grow a spine and tap No Tip if that’s the option I would have chosen before?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think I’ll start carrying more cash just in case.

Daze of Our Lives

Last night, my husband and I had an “ah-ha” moment that helped to bring into focus some of the challenges we will face when we are both retired. Fortunately it wasn’t too serious, but it made us realize that we had better start putting a few tools in place that will help us keep our lives organized.

I’ve always been the main “keeper of the calendar” in our relationship. I know when we have social events planned, vacations scheduled, and (usually) due dates we must meet. I am the one who is expected to remember birthdays and anniversaries (both for his family and mine), and remember them enough in advance so cards can be purchased and mailed in time. For the most part, I’m able to keep most things straight by utilizing my Outlook calendar at work. Along with work-related meetings, events, and appointments, I add reminders of personal dates that I need to keep track of. Since I regularly access my calendar while I’m at work, and my cell phone is set up to alert me with reminder notices, this system has worked pretty well for us.

After finishing dinner and settling down to watch a little TV last night, I fired up my iPad to check my email and read a few blogs I follow. Good thing I did, because right there, on one of my favorite financial/political blogs ( was a reminder to “rush to the mail box with your fourth quarterly estimated 2013 tax payment, if you owe one.” Oh, crap.

Normally, this is something my husband might be expected to remember. He’s always been more focused on our financial lives and it’s mostly because he’s retired that we have to pay quarterly taxes in the first place. But, he’s currently taking a pretty intense culinary arts class which includes a fair amount of homework, so lately, he’s more about sheet pans than spreadsheets. In addition, over the past year-and-a-half of his retirement, I can tell that his attention is slowly shifting (as it should) from number-crunching and calculations, to exploring his creative side and spending time doing the things he’s always wanted to do.

Later this year, when I join my husband in retirement, it will be imperative that we have established a reliable and user-friendly way to organize our lives. The tool (or tools) will have to have a paper component because I like to have something physical in front of me as a reminder, and I don’t expect to be on my computer, tablet, or cell phone as often as I am currently. The tool will have to have an alerting function to ping us when pre-established dates and times arrive, and, it will have to be flexible enough to be able to send the alerts to just me, just him, or to both, depending on how each reminder is set up.

With all of the available computer tools, software, and billions of downloadable apps, I’m pretty sure we will have many serviceable options to choose from. I hope it will be just a matter of picking the one that best fits our needs and then setting it up so that it helps keep track of the day-to-day so we can get on with enjoying our journey.

After realizing our mistake last night, we quickly found the required paperwork, made the needed money transfers, and wrote our checks to the state and federal tax agencies. The postmark will be one day late, and we may get dinged, but it was a relatively cheap wake-up call that won’t go un-answered.