Select All of Your Travel Partners Wisely

Academic Travel blogThe story of how travel was disrupted in Europe because of the erupting Icelandic volcano is almost a thing of the past now. Most travelers have made it home and transatlantic air travel is pretty much back to normal.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal posed the question, “Is Travel Insurance Worth the Cost?” ( read more here )

This is a timely question, as American travelers are now assessing the unexpected additional costs they incurred. If they were traveling with a group, they are also assessing how their tour provider cared for them while they waited in limbo for the skies to clear and the runways to reopen.

For its part, Academic Travel Abroad kept its tour staff in place in two countries to ride out the delay with travelers, even though the tours had ended. ATA and its partners picked up the cost of some additional hotel nights, meals and additional activities. Travelers, understanding that they would also need to contribute to the costs, made the most of their additional days in London and Amsterdam.

Izabella Van Raalte, a long time ATA tour manager, summed up her feelings in a recent e-mail to Senior Program Manager Emma Impavido, who coordinated the company’s response and efforts to re-book travelers quickly with the help of Whitney Kulesz, Director of Travel Services:

“Thank you very much for being such a wonderful support on my recent tour. At all times I felt that I could bank on you 100 % and that you would come through which indeed you did. I looked forward to your daily “check in” phone call. ATA’s response to my request for help in getting hotel rooms at the eleventh hour was amazing. As I already told you it gave me great pleasure to be able to announce that ATA had managed to procure hotel rooms so quickly.

Emma, could you please also thank the whole team involved in back stopping for the great job they did. It takes a team to make a tour a success and I certainly felt as part of one and a great one at that.”

Academic Travel Abroad and its partner organizations actively promote the benefits of travel insurance to customers to protect their investment when the unexpected happens. Those travelers who purchased trip cancellation and delay coverage for their tours will be able to make substantial claims for reimbursement.

While none of us ever imagines ourselves the victim of a travel delay or mishap, the volcanic ash situation has reminded travelers how important it is to pick all of their travel partners wisely—from the tour company that makes the safety and well being of it customers its top priority, to the insurance company that stands by its coverage, and to the travel agent who swiftly and efficiently re-books passengers while airline websites and help lines crash through overuse.

Academic Travel Abroad

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Travel: Rising from the Ashes

Flight delaysIn normal times, the travel industry is often rocked by volatile forces—world unrest, health threats, or economic conditions. We anticipate the adrenalin rush when faced with an unexpected situation, and drop everything when a crisis hits in order to respond to travelers comfort, safety and welfare.

The last week has been a test for all of us who had passengers stranded by the volcanic ash covering much of Europe’s skies. Tour operators and travel agents have been working around the clock to get passengers home as quickly as possible. ATA staff and our trusted partner, Premiere Travel, have been working to bring home groups in London and Amsterdam. Our passengers are among the first who departed Europe once the skies cleared.

Katie Schwartzstein, an ATA Tour Manager, gave us a sense of how the Smithsonian Journeys’ Tudor Tapestry group was spending its extra days in London:

“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we fly.” That’s how I opened Tuesday’s dinner at the Ebury Wine Bar Restaurant (before I knew airspace was reopening), and my message was that we should have fun during our extra time in London and that we would likely be home before long. The evening was a great morale boost and we enjoyed the company of two of Smithsonian Journeys Tudor Tapestry’s historians. One of them, Siobhan Clarke, gave us a wonderful talk at the Banqueting House yesterday morning–her idea, a generous and thoughtful gesture. Participant reactions to being stranded in London varied as days passed, and depended upon how anxious they were about work or missing husbands, children or pets. The Rubens Hotel has been great. Now our numbers are down by more than half, and the saga is coming to a close.”

We believe the silver lining in this otherwise unfortunate situation will be that travelers will appreciate the value in working with travel professionals (vs. internet booking sites) when the unexpected happens. It is a prudent investment to have a skilled advocate working tirelessly for you when loved ones are depending on your timely return from a vacation.

Academic Travel Abroad

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Berlin 40 Years On…

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate by Thomas Wolfe

Two weeks ago I was in Berlin just a week before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help but remember my very first trip to Berlin in 1970 when I led a group of American experts, professors and students on a study tour of Urban European Development.

We had traveled from Amsterdam to West Berlin on the overnight train and after two days studying the revival of West Berlin, we crossed into East Berlin.  The Wall had been quickly erected in 1961 and East Berliners could not longer cross into West Berlin while we, as international travelers, could cross only on the S-Bahn (elevated City Railroad) or by car at Checkpoint Charlie.

After touring a revitalized West Berlin we boarded the S-Bahn at the Zoologischer Garten Station and crossed the border into East Berlin.  From the train one could easily see the Wall and the “dead zone” with the East German guard towers.  At Friedrichstrasse Station we got off and passed through East German customs where we were required to exchange 25 West German Deutsche Marks for 25 East German Marks.  Of course the real value was nowhere near one to one but it didn’t matter for there was little one could buy.

We walked from the Friedrichstrasse Station down side streets towards the Brandenburg Gate.  The contrast with West Berlin was striking for the shops were few and their windows had little to offer.  Unter den Linden, once the great ceremonial boulevard of Imperial Berlin, had been rebuilt in a uniform sterile Soviet architectural style.  We did have a look at the famous Museum Island which had housed the impressive Prussian Museums but was bombed out in World War II.  Little did we know that it would be almost another 40 years until the last of the museums would be rebuilt.  So, after walking around a bit longer we scurried back to the S-Bahn and the bright lights of West Berlin.

Over the next 40 years I must have visited Berlin a least a dozen times often for the ITB tourism exhibition.  After the fall of the wall in 1989 it took a while for the momentum of change to grow.  Susan and I recall emerging from the U-Bahn Station at Potsdamer Platz in 1993 to find that the cleared open area “dead zone” by the wall was still there.  But all of this changed quickly and today Potsdamer Platz’s with its dynamic modern skyscrapers is the symbol of the New Berlin.

The newly reopened Neues Museum in Berlin

This recent visit just prior to the 20th anniversary was a striking contrast.  The Neues Museum, the last museum on Museum Island to be rebuilt, had just re-opened after years of reconstruction and we quickly obtained tickets to view its great Egyptian and Roman collections.  Stunningly displayed within the ruins of the old 19th century building was the bust of Nefertiti and other amazing items from the collections.

But the even more amazing was that East Berlin has once again become the true heart of the united Berlin.  While the former West Berlin is still lovely and full of life, the surge of development in the Mitte District in just 20 years has created scores of offices, hotels, restaurant and shops and the once sterile Unter den Linden is again thronged with scores of people night and day.  And the artistic and cultural revival is equally dynamic.  Perhaps Berlin is today Europe’s most exciting capital city.

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ATA staff member remembers D-Day

Yale D-Day 125

The bleach white crosses in Normandy

A few weeks ago, I joined the ranks of 18 Yale Alumni for what we subsequently described as a pilgrimage. We started our voyage in London, retracing the steps taken by so many some 65 years ago as they embarked in England and crossed the frigid waters of the English Channel, only to land in the turbulent cold waters of the hard sandy beaches of Normandy. From the Cabinet War Rooms and adjoining Churchill Museum, to Bletchley Park, Southwick House, and the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, we learned of Churchill, Britain at War, and the intricate preparations for what remains today the largest and most successful beach landing in history.

From Portsmouth we then boarded a ferry and crossed the English Channel. Though our crossing was significantly more comfortable than that of “the boys” on the night of June 5th and the early hours of June 6th 1944, we none-the-less carried with us the weight of their journey.

In Normandy, we viewed the colorful stained glass windows in the small town church of Sainte Mère Eglise honoring members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions who parachuted into town in the night of June 5, and explored the adjoining Paratrooper Museum. We walked the hallowed sand at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach where many American lives were lost and decisive beach-heads secured, and viewed the towering cliffs scaled by intrepid Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. We paid our respects at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and at the British Cemetery in Bayeux. We were reminded that war affects all sides of the conflict, and that the soldiers our young forces were fighting against were no less boys, and no less human than our own as we walked the grounds of the German cemetery at La Cambe. We gained knowledge and perspective regarding the Mulberry harbors at Arromanches (and all the material and troops which came through the artificial port) and the continued campaign that was the battle of Normandy which raged on for weeks after the June 6th landings. We were challenged along the way to respect those who died, respect those who fought, yet also to resist the temptation of glorifying war…

Among the many highlights of the trip – three stand out for me. The first, in England, at Bletchley Park. One of our travelers had done research prior to the trip and had discovered that among the 30,000 men and women who worked tirelessly to decipher the Enigma Code, 300 were Americans. And among those 300 Americans were 6 “Yalies.” As a result of this discovery, a plaque was made and as we started our visit at Bletchley we had the honor of presenting it to the Bletchley Trust, commemorating the work, sacrifice and commitment of those 6 men and the part they played in gathering intelligence which shortened the war and saved lives.

Our friend the Scot.

Our friend the Scot.

The second occurred in Normandy, on Omaha Beach. We were approached by an older woman who asked us if we were Americans. When we responded affirmatively, she said “I’m here with my husband. He is a Scott, but he served with the Americans and landed here. This is his first time back. Can you please come speak with him?” It was an incredibly touching act and many were moved both by what this veteran had to share, and by his wife’s seeking us out. Our group thanked him for his sacrifice and courage.

And finally, for me personally – Sainte Mère Eglise. Our first official stop in Normandy was Sainte Mère Eglise. As we pulled into the town square, we were surprised to see it was market day. Having grown up in Normandy, I was thrilled by the unexpected treat of walking through this small market, with all its familiar colors, sounds, smells and yes – tastes! My soul was fed, my spirits reborn! Some of our travelers purchased aged Calvados and shared the delicious treat with the rest of the group at the end of a long, emotion-filled day. How perfect.


Senior Tour Manager

Academic Travel Abroad

Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mt. Vesuvius


Karl Brullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-33)

Karl Brullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-33)

In just two short days the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum lay in ruins and partially covers in a thick layer of volcanic ash.  In AD 79 Mt. Vesuvius erupted and caught the citizens of both by complete surprise.  Now excavated and a remarkable sight to behold, one can envision the likes of what these cities might have been in their prime.   Bustling city-towns of trade, large agoras and markets, amphitheaters, forums and baths where frescos and unique tile work still remain today.

The area today stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has become one of the most visited location in Italy.  The region around Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, is dotted with quaint pastel colored villages that scale volcanic cliffs and are surrounded by turquoise seas.  Positano and Amalfi are two of the areas fascinating towns, situated along the beautiful Mediterranean waters.  Sorrento is yet another seaside gem which was once a cherished retreat of poets like Byron and Keats.

Ruins of a forum in Pompeii

Ruins of a forum in Pompeii

Smithsonian Journeys offers a unique tour to this area that is unmatched.  Tour the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum and witness their story, walk the sun drenched streets of seaside towns, take a tour of Naples and its inner old city, and take in a wealth of information from Study Leader Federico Poole, an archeologist who has worked on a variety of sites in the Campania region.  Stay in four-star accommodations in Naples with views of the Castel dell’Ovo and the Mediterranean.


To find out more about this tour, please visit Smithsonian Journeys website for full itinerary, accommodations and tour pricing here

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Paths we’ve travelled

With the turning of another new year, the Auld Lang Syne asks us,

“Should old acquaintances be forgotten?”  

With the passing of time and the predictions of what the future may bring, we all tend to reflect on past memories and long-standing friendships as foundations for how we define ourselves and the paths we’ve travelled.  We look to our family, friends and peers to grasp a measure of who we are and how to preceed.

Academic Travel Abroad has been very fortunate to have had developed such a solid path since beginning in 1950 and understands the value of building further on the future of strong relationships within the staff and among it’s valued partners.  We now operate tours for many industry leaders in the world of educational travel such as; National Geographic, the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Brookings Institute, Yale and so many more and can’t help feel a certain level of privilege in this.

2009 is a new year and we look forward to working with our partners and sharing in all of our travelers unique experiences abroad.  With a strong focus on our three primary goals of providing unique destinations, luxury travel accommodations and most importantly – quality service – we look forward to the new year and what lasting memories it will bring to all of our travelers.

Even in an unpredictable economy, we are still seeing that people understand travel opportunities as real investments in their personal “stock” and are still choosing to commit to discovering new places and unique destinations across the globe.  

One of our recent travelers mentioned that the added benefit of having a “tour expert” on the trip was something they truly underestimated and concluded that the added insights rendered tangible value that they would not have experienced by touring on their own.  Another traveler recently mentioned that they not only met new people on one of our tours, but made life long friends with people that shared a mutual passion and expressed that this also would have been difficult to find on their own.

So venture into this new year with solid foundations of past memories, but seek to create new ones while traveling to hidden corners of the world and developing new life-long friendships.

Best wishes, and safe travels in the New Year!

Academic Travel Abroad

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Academic Travel Abroad and The Wonders of Ancient Greece.

Kalimera!  (“good day” in Greek)

Our group and the Parthenon

I recently had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Athens and the Cycladic Islands as a representative for Academic Travel Abroad with travelers from the Association of Yale Alumni and Smithsonian Journeys.  If you’ve never been to Greece or the picturesque Cycladic Islands, this is the trip to take!  We were accompanied by Eleni Zachariou, our Greek historian and local expert who added real value and distinct character to all the sights by giving us the historical background at each location.

Our tour started in Athens, where we visited the sights of the acclaimed Acropolis with the majestic Parthenon and Erechtheum temples and enjoyed a lecture by Elani which told the story of this location’s turbulent history through Greek, Persian and Mycenaean influences.  We then proceeded to the famous Greek Agora site where we were introduced to the extravagant complex that was once a thriving Greek marketplace where trade, entertainment and politics were daily cultural activities.

Chapel on Santorini

A picturesque chapel on Santorini

We were also treated to some excellent traditionally local meals throughout the small back streets of Athens while enjoying some time to shop and see more elusive sites along the way.  This was a chance to feel the very tangible energy that Athens has.  It was amazing.

On the third day, we drove to the port of Piraeus where we boarded our ship, the S.V. Panorama and set sail for the much-anticipated Cycladic Islands. 

Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, was an amazing landscape of ruins from 2000 -1500 B.C.  Mykonos was an island of quaint villages and amazing vistas of the Aegean Sea with tiny streets filled with friendly locals and enticing shops.  Naxos, the largest of the Cylcades islands, was covered in breath-taking views of mountainous landscapes and we had a unique opportunity to visit one of Elani’s friends who has refurbished a beautiful historical home on the hillside looking down over the island’s harbor.  Santorini is simply amazing.  An ancient volcanic caldera forms a partial ring of islands on which three beautiful towns line the cliff-tops and offer a photographers dream for finding that dramatic shot.  We rode the mules up the caldera’s rim and enjoyed a day of sites and shopping while basking in the warm Greek sunlight.

Our ship - the S.V. Panorama

The glories of modern and ancient Greece were  truly magnificent.  Between our boat staff, Elani Zacharriou – our tour expert and Marty Gane – our tour manager, we were professionally immersed into a culture and civilization that astounded us all.  The memories, experiences and friendships we all came away with from this tour will be something we will keep with us for a lifetime.

To see my slideshow from this tour, CLICK HERE.

Steve Muth
Creative Manager
Academic Travel Abroad 

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