Toolie Travel Blog

A million-mile flyer talks about the life of a business traveler.

Newsletter: Registering Travel with Your Government

Last month I talked about disaster planning for business travelers, in light of the tragic events in Japan. This month I want to address a wise practice that can be beneficial to international travelers.

Travel Registration for International Travelers

The US State Department has a special section in their website devoted to US residents who travel outside the country: There are many resources on this site, such as passport information, travel advisories, visa information, and the locations and addresses of embassies and consulates around the world.

I was going through their website today looking at information about what the US embassies and consulates can do in a crisis such as the earthquake in Japan when I noticed a link to something called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Formerly known as “Travel Registration” or “Registration with Embassies," the STEP program the sends its registrants the most current information they compile about the country or countries where you may be traveling or living. They also send updates including Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts (where appropriate).

For nearly all of my international visits, I looked up the nearest embassy or consulate, but I was never gone long enough to feel like I needed to register my trips. Now that the Internet makes registration much easier, there's no reason not to do so.

Registration in Under 5 Minutes

The registration process at the US State Department website took me less than 5 minutes, once I found my passport. The website requires your passport number, date of issuance, and date of expiration, along with your date of birth and address information.

Who Gets to Know?

Once you reach the summary screen, there's a privacy notice which you must acknowledge. I copied it here for your convenience:

Privacy Act Information

The U.S. Department of State is committed to ensuring that any personal information received by our overseas embassies and consulates pursuant to the STEP process, whether in person or otherwise, is safeguarded against unauthorized disclosure. The data that you provided the U.S. Department of State is subject to the provisions of the Privacy Act (5 USC 552a). This means that the U.S. Department of State will not disclose the information you provide us in your STEP application to any third parties unless you have given us written authorization to do so, or unless the disclosure is otherwise permitted by the Privacy Act.

AUTHORITY: 22 U.S.C. 2715 and 22 U.S.C. 4802(b).

PURPOSE: To notify U.S. citizens in the event of a disaster, emergency or other crisis, and for evacuation coordination, the information solicited on this form may be made available as a routine use to appropriate agencies whether federal, state, local, or foreign, to assist the Department in the evacuation or provision of emergency service to U.S. citizens, or for law enforcement purposes. The information is also made available to private U.S. citizens, known as wardens, designated by U.S. embassies to assist in communicating with the American community in an emergency.

On that screen you can tell the government whether they are allowed to release this information to anyone. Choices included family members, friends, medical and legal representatives, among others. If I find myself in a disaster area while traveling, these are the people I would want to know where I was.

Add Trip Information to the Site

Once you have registered this basic information, you can later add specific travel information. The website says:

This Wizard will guide you through the steps to add a new trip to your account. Please note that you will need the following information to complete the form:

• Itinerary/Residence Information

• Information about anyone who may be traveling with you (if you are adding a trip)

• Information about members of your household (if you are adding a foreign residence) ================================

Once the trip or residency is complete, you can log back into the site and delete the information.

Do Other Countries Have Traveler Registration?

The short answer is YES, they do. Finding the exact websites for other countries was a bit of a challenge, even with my multiple language skills. Thank goodness my Google toolbar includes an amazingly good translation feature. I was in most cases able to find basic information about traveler registration. In some cases, I found the actual registration portal. Some of these URLs are pretty long, so if you click them and they don't work, copy the entire URL into your browser's address bar and press Enter or Return to go to the site.








New Zealand:

Hong Kong:

Have you registered with your government's traveler registry? Have you needed the help of a consulate or embassy on one of your travels? Reply with a comment about your experience.
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Newsletter: Public Transit for Business Travelers

The international events of the last month have been extraordinary. The upheaval in multiple nations in major oil-producing regions of the world mean that prices have increased across the board. I'm not going to get into a discussion of the political events or the world's current dependence on fossil fuels. Instead I'd like to focus on how business travelers can cope with increased costs by using mass transit wherever possible.

Fast Track from the Airport

Much of what determines the use of mass transit from the airport to your chosen destination has to do with timing and proximity. As a business traveler, we're not always able to use mass transit because our business takes us to multiple locations at our destinations. Rental cars become necessary, and we're hit not only with the price of gasoline but also parking fees.

For business travels where we're operating in one location, using the light rail or bus system should be a consideration. Below is a list of cities in the USA and elsewhere that have mass transit and light rail connections directly from the airport to the center of town. This is just a sample of the places with good coverage, most of which I have personally used. I've included links to their mass transit system websites.






New York,


San Francisco


San Diego

Washington DC,


Amsterdam (English page)

Frankfurt (English page)

Hong Kong


Paris (English page)



These links were not difficult to find; all I had to do was to search on Google for the airport, then look for Ground Transportation. Most of the websites whose cities had direct links from the airport had pages devoted to those services. From there, a few clicks led to the descriptions of the pages, and links to the pages with timetables and maps.

Using Transit Passes

When business has kept me in a particular city for 5 days or more, I also look into getting a weekly pass. Most cities have some kind of multi-day, multi-service pass that you can use to move around. It takes a little bit of planning, but in less than an hour you can figure out which stations you need to use, how much walking time is required, and how often the services run. I've saved a lot of money this way, and truly enjoyed the experience of being "a local."

When I know that I will be returning to a particular city multiple times, I'll even buy a reloadable transit card where available. In addition to my local Seattle "ORCA" card, I have one each for Singapore and Hong Kong. In some countries (like Singapore), reloadable transit cards are used not only for trains and busses, but also as payment cards at grocery and convenience stores.

Keep in mind that by using mass transit, you're not only taking your rental car off the road, you're also reducing your company liability, avoiding fuel charges and parking fees, and recapturing time you can use to practice your presentation, make phone calls, and read the paper. You'll also save time because you won't have to try to find a parking space or wait in line to pay at the parking garage exit.

Other Considerations for Using Mass Transit

If your business destination has a choice of hotels, look for the hotel closest to both a mass transit station and your meeting place. The time you save by being within walking distance of both is considerable. You'll need to bring or plan to wear a comfortable pair of shoes, and suitable outwear for inclement weather. These days you can print area (walking) maps from Google Maps or other services, so you don't even need to visit the map store, unless you want a laminated map. Having local currency in small bills is a good idea, even if you buy a transit pass, in case yours gets lost.

Using mass transit is a good investment in time and effort, and a money-saver any way you look at it.
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Friday, 17 February 2012 7:07 AM
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Travel, Technology, and the Passage of Time

This month's newsletter is going to be uncharacteristically short for an appropriate reason: I have only 1 hour before boarding time. I'm in Chicago O'Hare Airport, on my way home from my father's memorial service. Dad passed away January 8th, and we waited to schedule a service when the greatest number of relatives could join us for the celebration of Dad's life.

Travel Then and Travel Now

The first time I remember meeting my father's mother was when I was about 5 years old. My youngest brother was just a baby, and Grandma Frida was pretty old by then. It was a seemingly unending trip in the car; first navigating our way from Rockford IL through Chicago, then across Indiana where our toll card was punched at each end of the state. Next was the trip across Ohio and my version of "are we there yet?" Followed by the twists and turns on the road to Ashtabula. The trip was 10 hours by car, and we made it all in one long stretch because we couldn't afford to stay overnight in motels.

The trip to see Grandma Victoria and Grandpa Anton was similar, though not as long. We took old Route 20 across Illinois and most of the way across Iowa. It only took 7 hours, but again, we made it all in one day.

All of our family trips were made by car; I didn't get on an airplane for the first time until I was 19 years old. It was spring, and the Wheaton College Choir was going on a bus tour of the mid-Atlantic states, but first we had to fly to Washington DC to get to the bus. I remember being both nervous and excited on that first trip. I didn't want to confess that I was such a travel-late-bloomer, but I also didn't know the correct protocols, and was afraid I might embarrass myself.

I didn't travel very much until I started working for Microsoft. Then within any 10 hour period in the air, I could reach most destinations in Europe or Asia. Tack on another 3 hours and I could reach Australia or New Zealand. Not only did my travel horizons increase, so did my world view. Going to Wheaton College gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world; traveling for business gave me the opportunity to see where they lived.

What does this have to do with my father's passing? What I am contemplating in this newsletter is how quickly the world moves now compared to when I was a kid. It's neither all bad or all good; it's just fast. Things have changed a lot in my lifetime; they have changed even more during Dad's lifetime.

Technology Overcoming Obstacles

Despite being almost 94, Dad had been busy and active right up until the last week of his life. When illness overtook him, he slipped away in just 6 days. He never wanted to linger, so despite our sorrow, we were OK with that. My sister who lived nearby was there, and my youngest brother was able to break away and join her as they kept vigil. My other brother and I connected with my sister and brother via Skype's video conferencing service, so even though we couldn't be together, we had regular updates.

After Dad had gone, my siblings and I met every few days for an hour or two to handle preparations for this past weekend. We got a room block for the relatives, organized the service, arranged for a family dinner afterwards, and even began sorting through the precious heirlooms handed down from previous generations. Using webcams, we could see the photographs we wanted to put into the slide show of Dad's life, and we laughed and cried together in a way that wasn't affordable or even barely possible 10 years ago.

Keeping Families Together via Technology

It's hard enough to stay close to your immediate family when you're a business traveler; staying in touch with your own siblings and parents can be even more challenging. I'm glad that my family is tech-enabled enough to stay in touch via email, Skype, and now on Facebook. I hope you'll encourage your siblings to stay in touch as well. Life is precious, and time flies. Make the most of the opportunities you have to reach out to those closest to your heart.
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Newsletter: Online Backup for Busy Travelers

From time to time, I report on useful technology for business travelers. This month I want to talk about data protection while you're on the road.

For years I've carried a small portable drive for handling my nightly backups. Having your own backup drive may be fast and efficient, but with the wide availability of high-speed Internet connections in even the most modest hotels, it's time to take a serious look at using online backup while you're on the road.

Online Backup Programs You've Heard About

There are two big players in the online backup market whose names you've no doubt heard in the media: Mozy and Carbonite. I've used MozyPro, the business version of their software in the past. I registered 3 computers with them and backed up my files incrementally over time. I was paying nearly $60/month at the time, and when one of my older computers failed, I was able to recover the files I had worked on, which was terrific.

I just reviewed the pricing for MozyPro, and it's about the same as it was when I was using a couple of years ago. For the 83 GB of files I would want to back up nightly, I would be paying $41.50 plus the monthly fee of $4.95 for just one computer. For me the price became prohibitive to use online backup for two computers, so I went back to local backups on an external hard drive.

Carbonite is the other service you've heard about, and several of my clients use it and like it very much. Their website offers an unlimited backup for $54.95/year, but they point out that they only back up certain kinds of files for that fee: email, photos, documents, settings, and music. You can also add videos, files over 4GB in size, and executable files. It is not designed to be what is known as a "drive image" backup or snapshot of your entire machine. Restoring your computer would mean reinstalling all of your software and putting these files back where they belonged.

Carbonite works all the time in the background, backing up when your computer is idle. MozyPro can be set to do the same thing. Both services will require you to keep your computer on all the time, and it may take several days to do the initial backup. I remember mine taking 3 days (60 gigabytes, remember?), but after that backups took just an hour or so because it was incrementally backing up only what had changed.

One issue you encounter with both of these services is the retention policy. Typically files are deleted after 30 days, so neither service is good for long-term storage. Most people only keep a few days' worth of backups anyway, so if you're only interested in offline backups, then these services are fine.

The Amazon S3 Alternatives

Amazon S3 is one of the best "cloud storage" options you've never heard of. "S3" stands for Simple Storage Service, and it's used by programmers and Internet Marketers to make their content available to users.

Why do I mention Amazon S3? Because of the extremely low costs involved. Right now I have about 26 GB of files stored on Amazon S3, and my bill hasn't ever reached $5 per month to store them. Amazon charges not only for the storage but for retrieval requests, but the costs are negligible.

Also Amazon S3 can be used for long-term storage, not just for backups. You don't access Amazon S3 using a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) program; you must use a special access tool such as Cloudberry Lab's S3 Explorer (Freeware). What is also special about Amazon S3 is that they use alphanumeric security keys in place of a username and password. These keys are long and difficult/impossible to memorize, and less likely to be hacked by prying eyes.

Amazon S3 by itself does not have backup capability, but here are 2 programs you can consider using to handle the backup functions and storing your backups online.

  • Zmanda Cloud Backup for Windows
    Zmanda uses Amazon S3 for its storage, and lets you configure what is configured when using their desktop software. You can have it back up files locally and then schedule back files to be copied to your Amazon S3 account, or you can back up directly to Amazon S3 You pay a monthly licensing fee to use the software, but you are billed directly by Amazon S3 for the storage fees. Zmanda has a nice cost calculator on their website, so you can figure out in advance approximately how much you'll pay per month to run backups.

  • Cloudberry Lab Online Backup
    Cloudberry Lab's Online Backup has many of the same features, but instead of paying a monthly fee for the software, you buy it outright, (US$29.99) then pay annually for maintenance updates (which they say are 20% of the original price, or US$6.00). This backup software backs up directly to Amazon S3, but it offers "differential" backup, so that you're not backing up all the files every cycle. That keeps your Amazon S3 data in/out costs down.

Getting in the Backup Habit

Whether you choose to bring a backup drive or rely on the online backup alternatives described above, the most important thing is to get in the habit of running backups. If you aren't used to having your laptop on all night, this might take some getting used to. Don't worry; modern laptops are built for nearly continuous operation, and they'll hold up as long as they're well-ventilated.

If you choose an online backup service, you can plug in your laptop at the hotel and leave it running all night so that the backups can make it to your service's storage locations. You also save on baggage weight by having one less thing to carry.

Are you using an online backup service? If so, let me know which one and what your experiences have been by commenting on this newsletter.
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Newsletter: Full-Body Scanning and TSA Security

No doubt you've seen the news, read the horror stories, and wondered about the new security procedures instigated by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently. TSA began applying these procedures after my trip in September, so I have not yet experienced them. Having been "selected for additional screening" in locations around the world, the thought of being patted down on American soil makes me very uncomfortable. As business travelers, we're going to get more than our share of screening as it is, and now having more to endure, I wanted to get some facts pulled together for you.

What My "TSA Scanner" Research Found

Not having been through the procedure myself, I doubted the wisdom of delving into the subject in this newsletter but I decided to at least begin the discussion. So in preparation for writing this newsletter, I got onto the Central Link train and went down to the Seattle- Tacoma International Airport to see what was happening.

It had been a busy day, so by the time I got to the terminal, it was nearly 7 pm. Since I live on the West Coast that time of day is pretty quiet. I was able to stand within visual range of the scanners themselves to see, first of all, what they look like. When I came home, I did a search in Google Images for "TSA Scanner," and only found a small image on a television station website that looks like the ones used here.

There is apparently another version that looks like a Plexiglas phone booth, seen in this photo I found on CNN:

I looked at the scanners at two different checkpoints, and neither were using them at that hour. So I went over to a TSA employee and asked about them. The gentleman was very polite and helpful, but he began by rolling his eyes a bit at my question. No doubt he had been answering this question for all his friends too. Here is what I gleaned of the procedures at this point in time.

1. You're sent to the full-body scanner only if you set off the metal detector. At that point you may be sent to the full body scanner or just sent through the metal detector again.

2. You may be selected for additional screening at any time (he offered no further explanation).

3. You have the option to be patted down instead.

Light Me Up, Please

Personally, I'd go for the scanner. Why? Well here's what I learned about the scanners themselves; the radiation level used is for most people not a threat. There will always be exceptions to that, and your medical professional can advise you. I found this explanation of the radiation levels on

Now About Those Images...

My question is, "who is looking at me?" The director of the TSA, John Pistole, wrote a column on November 24th in USA Today, explaining the procedures and offering facts about the process from their point of view.

Here's what he had to say about the images themselves:

"All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print, or transmit images."

Also, TSA has forbidden their employees from bringing into the viewing area anything that would allow them to capture the image separately from the scanner itself, such as a camera or cell phone, etc. Now you and I know that there will always be people who try to break that rule, but I'm guessing that there's a tremendous amount of pressure on these employees to obey. If they're caught breaking the rule, they get fired.

Implementation Issues

I was scheduled to get on a plane and fly to Las Vegas just 9 days after the events of September 11, 2001 -- just 4 days after planes started flying again. I had paid for my ticket and pre-paid for 3 days of training, so despite my concerns, I was determined to go! We were warned to get to the airport early, and it's a good thing I did. I stood in line for over an hour while private security personnel (remember, no TSA back then) tried to implement hastily ordered procedures with little or no training. It was a nightmare. I made my flight, but just barely.

Without all the facts in front of me, and without having spoken to the offended persons, I am suspecting that some of the horror stories come from similarly randomly applied procedures as this new phase of screening is put in place. That does not make the process any less invasive or offensive. It is my fondest hope that the implementation of pat-down procedures will stabilize, and that TSA will do a better job of seeing to it that their employees are judicious in their application of those procedures. It can't be easy to have the job of screening, no matter how you look at it. But it's also distressing to realize that we have to succumb to this level of screening to protect the flying public.

The Best Advice...

On my way back to the train to go home, I stopped to talk to a couple of airline employees (a man and a woman), and I asked them about the reactions people have had to the new procedures. They both immediately said that the news items had been blown out of proportion, and that "it really wasn't that bad." But the best piece of advice I heard anywhere came from the woman. She said very simply, "Don't beep. Don't do anything that might set off the metal detectors, and you'll most likely be fine." Well, as business travelers, that's where we have an advantage. We have "not beeping" down to a science!

Have you been through full-body screening or a pat-down? If so, share your story by commenting on this blog post below.
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