RichardTurenThe headline "Couple aims to beat travel agents at their own game" in a British business journal caught my eye. It refers to a new company, Monster Travel, headed by a former Thomson Holidays executive and based in Newcastle.

What is different about this upstart firm is its reliance on new technology designed by NewVoiceMedia that is said to create "intelligent telephony."

What Monster Travel is trying to do is to change the call pattern from the "who's next" approach to a more human connection with one's agent, directly and without interference, a sort of "personalized" approach to call center technology. The system recognizes the caller, then immediately passes him or her on to the agent. In the seconds it takes to do this, the caller's travel history and profile appear on the agent's screen, so that the conversation can begin, "So, Rodney, was the Guinness sufficiently tepid during your weekend in Tuftsbury?"

It remains to be seen if the call center can replicate the personal consultant model. But one thing we know for certain is that the technology is getting a lot better.

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Kate Hanni, a former real estate agent, found a new career beckoning after sitting on an aircraft for nine hours without actually going anywhere. She founded the nonprofit Coalition for Airline Passengers Bill of Rights (Flyersrights.com) and in the process has become one of the country's most influential consumer rights travel advocates.

Hanni uses some strong analogies to make her point. In her introductory remarks to a congressional committee, for example, she asserted: "Airlines can hold you indefinitely right now, and they don't have to give you anything to eat or drink. That's less rights than a prisoner of war has under the Geneva Conventions."

I had heard that Flyers Rights has a telephone number for passengers and airline employees who wish to report passenger rights violations: (877) 359-3776. If you call the number, you get a recording suggesting that you dial 911 for a Bruce Willis kind of emergency.

But if you are on a plane and feel your rights are being violated or you are in "trouble," Ms. Hanni's voice recording directs you to (707) 337-0328, where real humans answer the phone and do all possible to assist. This is a great number to save. Clients will appreciate having it available in the "emergency contact list" that consultants provide. The recording ends with: "We're here for you even when the airlines aren't." These days, those are words that every flyer wants to hear.

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Past guests of Abercrombie & Kent who enrolled in its Marco Polo Club are being invited to the Hermit Kingdom, as North Korea is known, in September.

The journey begins in Beijing but quickly moves on to Pyongyang. On arrival night, tour members will attend the Arirang Mass Games in the Rungrado May Day Stadium. This is an extraordinary event, previously closed to Westerners, in which as many as 100,000 acrobats perform synchronized gymnastics. The audience takes part by turning puzzle-piece placards in unison to form pixels in "pictures of national pride."

The May Day Stadium is a place I want to see. The world's largest sports stadium, completed in 1989, it accommodates 150,000 fans and has hosted some of Kim Jong Il's most fantastic, self-adulating birthday parties.

The stadium is, apparently, multipurpose in the extreme. In addition to beating the drums of war, it served up its largest audience ever for a performance by professional wrestlers from Japan and the U.S.

Those who find the stadium wrestling program too violent might fondly recall the early '90s, when Kim arranged for crowds to witness the burning alive of some of his least-favorite army generals.

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While many bemoan the impact of the weakened dollar on U.S. tourists visiting Europe this summer, not much has been said about the effect on all those college students who have been planning to study abroad in Italy, France or the U.K.

It turns out there's been a chilling effect on the desire of U.S. students to visit Europe this year.

In March, Baylor University's Lariat newspaper cited statistics from the Forum on Education Abroad and from a recent report by the Institute of International Education indicating that the number of Americans traveling to Europe to study grew by only 4% last year. This compares with an increase of 31% among students from the Middle East, 26% for students from Asia and 20% for students from Africa.

Some experts say the actual purchasing power of the dollar in Western Europe is hovering around 50% lower than it is here. This hits students especially hard, and the buzz on many campuses is about study programs in places where the cost of living is manageable.

Universities like Baylor are resorting to purchasing "large amounts of euros and pounds" to keep their overseas programs running.

Perhaps the outcome of the shift in destinations for study abroad is that some of our future leaders might actually visit more remote destinations -- maybe Canada or Mexico.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].

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