The details involved in a big vacation can be so overwhelming. And from determining the best prices on airfare to figuring out when you’re going to arrive at your destination, there’s a ton of math involved. That’s exactly why my family contacted Julie Sturgeon, owner of Curing Cold Feet, to help us plan our trip to the Galapagos Islands several years ago. Julie is just the person you want — detail oriented, always on the lookout for the best deal and very, very careful with your hard-earned cash. She proclaims a distinct fear of math, but she’s managed to turn that around and build a very successful travel agency. She was also kind enough to bare her math soul today.
Can you explain what you do for a living? I research, recommend, and book travel packages for both family vacations and business trips. This involves checking everything from airline schedules and prices to comparing amenities for the price at all-inclusive resorts, cruise lines, and hosted tour packages. I also book hotel rooms and car rentals.
When do you use basic math in your job? Most of my math involves basic adding, subtracting and determining percentages. For instance, if a family wants to go to Walt Disney World for 5 days, but they know nothing more than that, I would prepare charts that show the costs of a value hotel with Hopper passes versus a moderate hotel with Hopper passes versus a deluxe hotel without Hopper passes. The chart would also show what happens to the price if you add any of the three meal plans to this vacation package. This way, families can weigh their values against their budget — at $3,200, for example, would they really need a sit-down meal every day versus a fast food option at their original budget of $2,400? Or should they keep the higher food plan and stay at a less expensive hotel?
Other times, I need to show vacationers why one package is better than another. For instance, a property may be running national commercials on all the cable channels advertising “30% off your stay in July.” A couple wants to take advantage of that deal and calls asking for it specifically. Meanwhile, a supplier has a bulk inventory pricing on the property next door, which actually has higher ratings at Trip Advisor, and that total price comes out $100 less. And the property down the beach always offers rooms at the rate from the nationally advertised brand. I need to be able to explain in simple numbers why the 30% off deal isn’t really a sale in this circumstance, so they aren’t overly impressed with something that is, in fact, ordinary.
The second way I use math is more behind the scenes. Vacation packages require a deposit, with a final payment on a specified date. Just making sure you don’t over- or underpay requires a calculator. And sometimes it can become even more complicated when two people are sharing a room and want to divide the cost into two equal payments across two credit cards. I really have to stay on the numbers ball if they choose to make incremental payments before the final payment on split credit cards!
Do you use any technology to help with this math? I use a calculator as an insurance policy that the numbers come out right. Whenever I need to translate foreign currency quotes to US dollars, I use xe.com, and I use worldtimeserver.com when determining the time difference between two countries.
How do you think math helps you do your job better? It allows me to be an advisor and research assistant as opposed to a salesperson. I am more comfortable — and therefore more effective — in that role.
How comfortable with math do you feel? I am very math phobic. When I was a journalist, I had my engineering husband check any statistics conclusions I had to make, because I didn’t trust myself to choose the right formula to get the right answer. We have a pool table, and everyone in my family tells me the key to winning a game is to use geometric principles. I’ve never won a game. At one point in my life, I thought about getting an MBA but learned I’d need to take the GMAT for my admission application. So I decided to take math lessons, borrowed a seventh grader’s textbook and ended up in tears because I couldn’t understand it. Needless to say, I’ve never taken the GMAT, and I consider an MBA closed to me.
But this feels completely different because it’s about someone’s money. This counting makes sense to me, it feels important, and it really doesn’t stray that far from the basics I learned in grade school.
What kind of math did you take in high school? I was required to take two years of math to graduate, and I enrolled in algebra and geometry. I was allowed to take classes with the word “remedial” in them for the diploma, but my pride wouldn’t let me, since I was in the accelerated track for every other topic. I passed both math classes with a C, although I had to have a tutor to get me to that point, and I spent every in-class study period getting one-on-one help from the math teacher.
Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? I had everything I needed except confidence. That came only when my desire to protect people’s hard-earned money was greater than my fear.
All you need to get comfortable with basic math is a victory. It gets easier from there. Start with balancing your checkbook. Or figuring out how much faster you will be out of debt if you pay X amount more each month on a financial commitment. The fact that it’s worth real money to you is a powerful motivation, and when you get it right, you know you can do it again.
Questions for Julie? Post them in the comments section, and I’ll be sure to let her know they’re here!