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E-commerce company wants to make your on-the-ground travel experience smooth as silk





Unique places to stay in Amsterdam

As consumers keep up their quest for more unique — and Instagrammable — travel experiences, hotel operators, innkeepers and private hosts are also upping the ante with memorable and unexpected accommodations.

A boat manoeuvres along a canal lined with 17th-century buildings in central Amsterdam.
A boat manoeuvres along a canal lined with 17th-century buildings in central Amsterdam.  (Brandie Weikle / Special to the Star)

Here’s a range of unforgettable places to stay in Amsterdam.

Bunk on a boat. To visit Amsterdam is to enjoy its canals, and no trip there is complete without at least one boat tour. Guests of the Prinsenboot B&B do one better and sleep in surprisingly luxurious digs right on a canal boat with unforgettable views of the Prinsenboot canal and the 17th-century homes that line its edges.

Visit Hotel Not Hotel. It looks like a standard hotel from the outside, but step through the doors and you’ll find there’s no sign of the standard hotel lobby and hallways. Part art installation, part accommodation, the Hotel Not Hotel offers out-of-the box sleeping quarters of all sorts. Some rooms are stacked on top of one another like buildings within the building, others are disguised behind doors camouflaged as elegant library book shelves, and one is even fashioned out of an old trolley car right in the middle of the main floor.

Sleep in a windmill. If you want to achieve a peak Dutch state on your trip to the Netherlands, you can find it just outside of Amsterdam at the Heerlijck Slaapen B&B in picturesque little village of Zaanse Schans, where a national park preserves a number of historic windmills. Guest rooms are spread over three beautiful buildings, including the windmill itself.

Stay in history. At this five-star hotel, guests are treated to stunning architectural design and beautiful interiors blending Dutch and French Style at the Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam. With roots dating back to a 15th-century convent as well as a royal retreat, this luxurious hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant has a storied history. A daily tour takes guests on a journey through the hotel’s six centuries, highlighting architectural features and its unique art collection. Nestled between two canals, it’s less than five minutes walk from the Nine Streets and Dam Square in the heart of Amsterdam.

Chill in a crane. Win the whose-hotel-was-weirder-game with a stay in a decommissioned crane located in Amsterdam’s NDSM shipyard, which has been transformed into a cultural hot spot. Guests of Crane Hotel Faralda stay in luxuriously appointed little boxes in the sky, each with a different theme. There’s even a hot tub from which you can take in views of the city while you soak.

When you book a vacation online through one of the major travel websites, the interaction with that company usually ends after the payments are made, the itinerary is sent and the tickets and accommodation details land in your inbox.

Buckets of tulips are seen at Amsterdam's unique floating flower market, or Bloemenmarkt, along one of the city's iconic canals.
Buckets of tulips are seen at Amsterdam’s unique floating flower market, or Bloemenmarkt, along one of the city’s iconic canals.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

Sure, there may be a followup email to offer you a car rental or airport transfer, but — unless a flight gets cancelled or something else goes wrong — the relationship with the company that sold you the vacation often ends there.

Executives at, one of the largest e-commerce travel companies in the world, are hoping to change that.

They’re betting that the next frontier in serving the increasingly tech savvy traveller is in helping you get the most out of your trip once you’re on the ground in your new destination. In 79 cities around the world, the company has launched Booking Experiences, an app that makes it easy to find and pay for activities and attractions.

Based in Amsterdam where it has its roots as a small Dutch startup, the company is now part of Booking Holdings, formerly Priceline. More than 1.5 million hotel room nights are booked on the platform each day, which now has 198 offices around the world — including one dedicated entirely to artificial intelligence — and operates in 43 languages.

At the Heerlijck Slaapen B&B in Zaanse Schans, guest rooms are spread over three beautiful buildings, including the windmill itself.
At the Heerlijck Slaapen B&B in Zaanse Schans, guest rooms are spread over three beautiful buildings, including the windmill itself.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

Hoping to do for your experience once you’re settled in at your destination what they’ve done for getting you there, the app allows travellers to peruse through categories such as Museums or Food and Drinks, find their way using built-in maps and pay with a connected credit card simply by showing one QR code on their phone. No surprises about whether a small local vendor takes cash only or is closed on Mondays.

In’s Montreal office, Marco Purificati oversees Booking Experiences for North America.

“We have done research specific to Canadian travellers and we found that — and it’s not a surprise considering the busy lives that we all run — at least one in five Canadians want to have the research done for them, someone to do the hard work in terms of discovering the next destination or what to do on vacation.”

Purificati says the company’s findings also show that Canadian consumers are looking for savings and perks — things like discounted admissions or “skip the line” privileges at the attractions they visit.

I had a chance to give the app a whirl on a recent trip to Amsterdam where journalists toured the headquarters and met with senior leadership.

A sign for the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moco) is pictured during a Banksy exhibit.
A sign for the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moco) is pictured during a Banksy exhibit.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

Utterly charmed by the city’s great bike culture and amazing cycling infrastructure, biking along those pathways and over canal bridges on a Mary Poppins-style ride was my top priority. It’s said that the city of approximately 820,000 has around 900,000 bikes. (About 6,000 of them are fished out of the canals and other waterways each year.)

Luckily, A-Bike Rentals and Tours was just a short walk from where we were staying at Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam Hotel. It has a fleet of more than 1,000 bikes in 15 different styles, including those super Euro cargo bikes that Dutch parents use to cart around their kids, groceries and tulip bulbs.

All I had to do to get myself a set of discounted wheels was show the QR code within the app, then listen to some quick instructions on the bike’s double-locking system to ensure my rented ride wouldn’t get pinched and later meet its fate in a canal.

The only challenge was trying to follow my navigation app’s instructions to “turn right on Binnengasthuisstraat” then “right on Oudezijds Achterburgwal” without causing a traffic jam among my fellow city cyclists.

Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation in Amsterdam. It's said that the city of about 820,000 is home to around 900,000 bicycles.
Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation in Amsterdam. It’s said that the city of about 820,000 is home to around 900,000 bicycles.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

I made my way to Moco Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, delighting first in cycling under the big arches of the Rijksmuseum as I entered the city’s Museum Quarter.

Moco was offering a skip-the-line service for Booking Experiences customers, so I was able to bypass the queue that stretched down the museum’s front steps and immediately start looking around. My timing was particularly good as there were special exhibits by the legendary Banksy as well as Iranian artists ICY and SOT, in addition to the regular collection, which includes offerings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein.

From there I wove my way along more canal-side pathways and through Amsterdam’s floating flower market. Then I met some other members of our group for a cheese tasting experience at one of the shops owned by the cheesemaking family behind Henri Willig. Again, that QR code was all we needed before finding ourselves sitting around a long table in the store’s top floor, sipping wine and tasting a variety of Dutch cheeses.

As the app gathers data on users’ preferences, the recommendations for activities will get more personalized. Knowing I’ve chosen a bike rental in the past, it may recommend one for me when I land in another city, for example. Some goes for other foodie outings.

Booking’s CEO Gillian Tans, one of the globe’s most powerful women in tech, says the company has 2,000 engineers “basically working on that everyday.”

A second generation of the app will account for local weather and recommend indoor or outdoor activities accordingly. “We’re taking the friction out of travel.”

A windmill in the village of Zaanse Schans, just outside of Amsterdam, where the air is perfumed with chocolate from the chocolate factories nearby.
A windmill in the village of Zaanse Schans, just outside of Amsterdam, where the air is perfumed with chocolate from the chocolate factories nearby.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

Tans says the addition of the Experiences app is also fuelled by a major trend in the travel industry. “People more and more are looking for a real local experience,” she says.

Millennials especially are less interested in sticking to a beach resort and more keen to have unique experiences. All the better to differentiate one’s Instagram feed.

One challenge may be perception about whether the Booking Experiences strike discerning customers are far enough off the beaten path.

“The problem with offering experiences is that they can be perceived as commercial,” says Michael Erdman, senior vice president of market research group Longwoods International. “What we know from research is that people want authentic experiences that are not commercial.”

Making it clear that this goes beyond the convenience of buying a city museum pass, for instance, or perks that some may already enjoy through reward programs like American Express that already have line-skipping offerings will be important, he says.

Hotel Not Hotel may look ordinary from the outside, but once inside guests are treated to a surprise with quirky, out-of-the box accommodations that do away with traditional floors and hallways.
Hotel Not Hotel may look ordinary from the outside, but once inside guests are treated to a surprise with quirky, out-of-the box accommodations that do away with traditional floors and hallways.  (Brandie Weikle/Special to the Star)

The idea of using mobile tech to plan activities does seem to fit with some of Longwoods’ research finding about how people aren’t just booking their flights and accommodations and leaving the rest to chance, says Erdman.

“Restaurants are the number one thing being booked online in advance of trips,” he says. “You can do these things now ahead of time. You don’t have to rely on word of mouth when you get to a destination.”

Back in the Montreal office, Marco Purificati answers my questions about the business model for Booking Experiences during a phone interview.

“There is that revenue sharing model with our partners, but what’s most important for us is … the fact that we can make it more of a seamless experience between the accommodation, where we’re already winning in that space, and allowing them to discover attractions and experiences.”

“Of course we are thinking that will bring them back to,” Purificati says.

Erdman says that customer satisfaction is indeed “very predictive of return purchases.”

“But your time window is just until the next guy has the same goods as you.”

Given that has 29 million different places to stay, in 141,000 destinations spread over 230 countries and territories, though, it could be a challenge for other plays to match those same goods anytime soon.


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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)





(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel





(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Travel & Escape

Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!





Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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