Can technology help you turn the tables on your car rental company?

If you’re tired of technology being used against you — and how can you not be after the the latest NSA spying allegations — then you’ll probably appreciate this man-bites-dog story.

It comes to us by way of Bryan Lawver, who recently rented a car in Florence, Italy. When he returned the vehicle, an associate told him he was “one minute” past the grace period and would be charged an extra day.

“The agent refused to give us a return receipt, but rather penciled info on our original rental agreement,” says Lawver, who works for the federal government in Livermore, Calif. “I found that peculiar, but I lacked the language skills to explain my complaint.”

Fortunately, Lawver had a more high-tech answer. He used his Sony DSC HX10v, which has built-in GPS and resets its clock to local time, to take a timestamped photo of the car — which, by the way, is always a good idea.
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The travel industry moves to preempt customer complaints

When Jason Plott’s Western Caribbean cruise was delayed because of dense fog in Galveston, Tex., earlier this year, Carnival offered two possible resolutions before casting off: Either a full refund or an abridged cruise, which included an onboard credit and a discount off a future vacation.

Plott didn’t like either choice.

“It wasn’t enough,” says Plott, a director at a Lubbock, Tex., software firm. His family couldn’t return home early without incurring an airline change fee. And the shortened cruise skipped their favorite ports of call and the offer meant that they’d have to take another Carnival cruise — something they were reluctant to do.

Travelers are faced with decisions like Plott’s every day. Something goes wrong — a flight is delayed, a hotel room is flooded or a rental car breaks down — and they’re made an offer that they have to accept or reject on the spot.

Increasingly, those offers are being generated with the help of technology, either directly or indirectly. Carnival relied on external technologies such as its Twitter account to keep passengers updated, as well as internal systems to proactively deliver a set of identical offers to every passenger on Plott’s cruise before they boarded, according to Aly Bello, a company spokeswoman. “Most of the guests chose the option of sailing on the modified voyage,” she says.
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What happens when a million iPhone 3Gs units hit the road?

You get this: Video uploads to YouTube from mobile phones jumped 400 percent in a week. The mobile video revolution has begun. And no one will be more affected than travelers.

133988-iphone3gAllow me an “I-told-you-so” moment. A few weeks ago, I predicted the new iPhone would mark a turning point in the way we get our information about travel and the way we share our travel experiences. But in order to do that, video use on the iPhone would first have to become ubiquitous. With a million iPhones sold in the first week, and YouTube being overloaded with iPhone-generated clips, I’d say we’re well on our way.

I bought an iPhone last week and took it through the paces, and I’m impressed by what I found. And I mean that in both ways: positively and negatively.

First, the cost. Although the new iPhone’s margins seem thin — it costs $179 to build and sells for $199, a profit of just $20 — Apple charged me far more to upgrade from my iPhone 3G. By the time I had paid all the extra fees, I was looking at close to $500. That’s ridiculous. It turns out that AT&T, the wireless network on which the iPhone runs in the United States, refuses to subsidize the new handsets.

I think the final barrier to the video revolution won’t be technology, but corporate greed. When the iPhone can run on any network — indeed, when a device with the same functionality of the iPhone is available without any of the restrictions Apple currently imposes on this gadget — then there’s no stopping this migration to video.

I’m disappointed that the 3Gs can only shoot standard definition video. But wait! It can shoot HD, according to those who have peeked under the hood. But HD has been disabled, presumably to spare the iPhone’s battery. Please!

But that’s where my disappointment ends. Shooting video on iPhone is as easy as taking picture. You have to remember to hold the phone correctly — horizontally, not vertically — otherwise the image is clipped when you try to edit it. Another caveat: Watch your fingers. On several occasions, I obscured the tiny lens, rendering the video unusable.

Image stabilization is as good as any I’ve experienced on a conventional video camera. The sound quality is decent enough for a video postcard and works well with the VGA-resolution video.

Here’s a little clip I shot this weekend of our trip to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fla.

The rudimentary built-in editing features allow you to shorten a clip and then post it to YouTube. If you want more, you’ll have to switch to iMovie, Final Cut, or another video editor.

And that brings me to importing. For now, iPhoto is the best way to pull the clips on to your computer. My iTunes player all but ignores the video I take, which is really annoying. I’m sure a fix is imminent.

What’s really needed is better program for importing, editing and compressing video and then exporting it to YouTube or one of the other video sites I discussed in my last post. Apple also needs to figure out how to make the iPhone zoom, and it needs to make it easier to attach this new camera to a tripod.

Patience, my friends. I’m sure all of those features are on the way.

Here’s a clever way around pricey hotel wireless charges

Unless you’re a frequent business traveler and own an expensive wireless mobile broadband aircard with a two-year plan, there’s no way around a hotel’s $9.95 per day wireless fee. If you want to stay connected when you’re away, the resort’s got you over a barrel.

But a new company called Rovair promises to add another connectivity option. Instead of signing a contract with a wireless carrier or being bilked by a hotel, you can rent a mobile aircard by the day.

I don’t travel enough to own an aircard. (In fact, I really hate traveling — but that’s another story.)

If I wanted one, I’d have to pay $60 a month to Sprint, Verizon or AT&T. That’s way too much for someone who’s on the road every other week.

I tested Rovair, which costs as little as $5.95 a day according to its site, on a recent trip to New Orleans. It took about five minutes to order the card from the company’s site and it arrived by UPS the next morning. Installing the Spring SmartView application took another five minutes.

The Sierra Wireless AirCard plugged into one of my laptop’s USB ports without any trouble. The card is a little bulky, but after some fiddling I managed to lock it in the upright position, where it stayed out of my way.

In terms of performance, the card worked flawlessly every time and offered a lighting-fast connection. I Skyped my family using video, and there were no noticeable delays. One of the things I really liked about the card is that it worked anywhere — in the hotel, the cab to the airport, at the airport. Really, anywhere I could open my laptop, I could connect.

I would recommend Rovair for any occasional traveler with a need to connect.

Before signing up, do a little math. Price the Rovair card option against the daily connect fee at your property, and if you’re going to be a guest at the hotel for a longer amount of time, see if it can waive or reduce the connection charge. If the resort insists on billing you $9.95 a day, Rovair is a good bet.

Certainly, it’s a more flexible one.