Exploring the Travel Show
After promising to publish an e-book travel guide to Portugal this year, I spent most of last weekend at The New York Times Travel Expo at the Javits Center in Manhattan. I’d hoped to get ideas for how to organize the book as well as for new destinations to explore when I’m in Portugal this spring and afterward. (I’ve already made one family heritage trip, so I have three more sides of the family to cover.) I came home with two backpacks full of swag (one for each day) as well as notes and contact information for a new direction in my travel writing.
Along with hundreds of exhibits, the expo featured cooking demonstrations, traditional music and dance, presentations by New York Times travel writers, and one-on-one meetings with travel specialists. The presentations were useful for those who don’t read the Times travel section or other online resources religiously, which meant that I could move on to the one-on-one events.
On Saturday, I met with Marco Fernandes of Sagres Vacations, located in Fall River, Massachusetts, but with an office opening in Porto, Portugal. Sagres Travel organizes guided tours throughout Portugal and Spain and has a variety of options for standard and personalized tours. Guided group tours are usually pricier than going it alone, and they tend to focus on the typical and folkloric fare for dining, shopping, and entertainment. However, one doesn’t have the hassle of booking hotels or homestays, getting around via taxis or public transportation, making restaurant reservations when one doesn’t know the language, etc. And many people enjoy the camaraderie of a group tour. In fact, while waiting in line to buy my two-day pass, I read this highly entertaining article about guided group tours to war zones such as North Korea, Chechnya, and South Ossetia. (One of those cases where the author went there, so we don’t have to.)
For my Sunday one-on-one I met Nicole Thibault, the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a specialized travel agency for families with disabled children. Thibault, who has a son on the autism spectrum, works with the Disney Resorts, other family resorts, and cruise lines to facilitate services and prepare all family members for the challenges of an unfamiliar environment. We talked at length, at times incorporating other visitors to the table, and in a few weeks I’ll run an interview with Thibault in which she offers specific advice to parents. In the meantime, you can check out both her site and that of Autismtravel.com, a site geared to parents of autistic children.
I noticed that a lot of the specialized travel sites geared to disabled travelers focus on family travel and travel to all-inclusive resorts. While this makes sense, what about the adult traveler or the independent-minded with unusual and highly focused interests? The unusual, out of the way experiences can be very rewarding, as I discovered when I took the train from Vienna to Bratislava by myself last summer and spent the day in a place where I didn’t know the language (though I picked up a lot quickly) and which isn’t geared to mass tourism. This is a direction I’d like to explore further in my blog, and one thing I was looking for when I visited the various expo booths and collected my brochures.
I’m still sifting through the information I collected and thinking about future posts focused on autistic travelers. One thing that came to mind is friendly places to visit versus places where people are more reserved toward strangers. I noticed some of that in the booths, without even traveling to the state or country. For instance, the people in the United States travel sections were friendly to the point, in some cases, of being intrusive — like the representative from the New Jersey resort who kept talking even though I needed to get to a session.
In contrast, the booth staff of three Central European countries that will go unmentioned (one a heavy tourist destination nonetheless, the other two not, for different reasons) took long breaks and/or did not seem happy to be there. Perhaps, though, these are good places to go if you like to be left alone. Another topic to explore is the group tour — welcome structure or forced conviviality? Most of the exhibits were sponsored by travel agencies that focus on group tours, including a number of ocean and river cruise lines. I have never taken a cruise — or anything bigger than a several-hour canal or river tour through a city — but I know they’re popular, and there are big differences between the ocean liner “floating cities” and river cruise boats capped at 160 passengers.
If there’s anything you’d like me to write about in terms of travel for people with disabilities, or specialized travel in general, please leave your questions and ideas in the comments.