Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NYC May Be Doing Away With Short-Term Rentals For Visitors: What You Should Do If You're Planning to Visit the Big Apple in the Next Six Months

I've seen it happen in Las Vegas. I've seen it happen in Maui County (Hawaii). And now, it seems, New York City is about to make the same mistake. As in those areas, local government is planning to eliminate short-term rentals, kowtowing, no doubt, to the powerful hotel lobby (and I mean "political lobby", not the place where you wait to check-in). The New York State Senate is currently considering a new regulation which will make it illegal for private owners and renters to rent out their homes to short-term visitors for periods of less than 30 days.

Looking at the other two destinations, here's what I'm predicting will be the outcome of this foolish move.

Rising prices, decreased capacity: Maui County consists not only of the island of Maui, but also of Molokai and Lanai. There's no shortage of  lodgings on Maui, but the other two islands have relatively little and the ban on  short term rentals literally meant the islands had to turn away tourists--there was nowhere for them to sleep. That in turn hurt local restaurants, stores, tour companies and many other businesses. As well, prices rose, as the stock of lodging decreased after the regulation.

While I doubt there will be a lack of housing for visitors in hotel-laden New York City, there  won't be enough at the bottom end of the price-scale. Affordable, well-maintained hotels are few and far between in the Big Apple. Without the options of rentals (almost always cheaper than hotels), visitors will have far fewer options; and the cheaper hotels, with less competition, will raise their prices. The outcome:  more tourists will opt to stay in nearby New Jersey (uggh--commuting on vacation!); and those businesses that rely on budget travelers--small delis, cheaper restaurants, discount stores of all sorts--will suffer.

A less-regulated, underground economy for rentals: One of the reasons the New York State government has said it will undertake the ban is to stop visitors from being scammed by unscrupulous renters or con men posing as renters. Problem is, the law will have the opposite effect.

Currently, New York City is blessed with a number of reputable, well-established businesses that help visitors find apartments to rent (see below), shielding their customers from harm. If the law is passed, these organizations will go out of business and the situation will be akin to what we find in Las Vegas, which has only a black market of condo rentals. The activity is  totally unregulated.Those visitors who get taken have little recourse for would-be renters who get taken. There have been some problems with visitors coming to NYC, and being scammed on CraigsList. Those visitors, however, who deal with legitimate agencies rarely have problems.

Here's my advice, based on the assumption that the law will pass:

  • If you want to rent an apartment, do it now: You should be fine if you make your reservation before the law is changed. That's because these companies simply act as middlemen between you and the homeowner you'll be renting from. Be sure to get all the information on your rental before you give your deposit. Use a reputable company such as Affordable New York City, City Sonnet or New York Habitat.  
  • Also book soon if you're considering a hotel stay: Try such aggregator sites as and to search for the best deals.
  • If you can't afford Manhattan, look to one of the other boroughs. Brooklyn and Queens in particular are more pleasant and character-filled than the New Jersey communities within commuting distance of New York (better restaurants, too). You can find outer borough hotels fully reviewed in many guidebooks, including mine (Pauline Frommer's New York City). Avoid the hotels that are near airports, however, as those tend to be really grungy. I'd also avoid Staten Island as the commute will be tough. 

I write this post with a sad heart. I'm hoping the law won't pass but it seems like its being rammed through quickly. If you have friends in New York City, urge them to write to their State Senators urging them to vote against the measure.

(Photo by Tony)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A New Guidebook Just for Stoners

Can one get a "contact high" from reading a book? Well, I'm feeling a bit buzzy right now, after leafing through the beautifully-designed, intelligently-written "Cannabis Trips" by Bill Weinberg. And a bit paranoid, too. I'm writing this blog post from a Starbucks and I had the urge to hide the book from the three cops who just came in for their java.

Despite that heart-stopping moment (okay, it's fine guys, they've now left the store), I have to give a hearty, green thumbs up to this latest addition to the ever-growing ranks of specialty guidebooks. For its readers, who the author calls "ambassadors for the herb", Cannabis Trips promises to become the go-to resource for trip planning and inspiration. Handsome as a coffee table book, its jam-packed with down-to-earth, often humorously-written information on which cities are best to light up in, which hemp and "alternative lifestyle" festivals are worth the trip, and what the law is in each place, so your one-week vacation doesn't turn into a 10-year prison sentence. Though there's little-to-no info on restaurants or hotels (hey, there are other guidebooks for that), single-minded stoners will learn which buds are the best buy in each destination and the etiquette for partying (in India, you're looked down on if you smoke the stuff, rather than ingesting a bhang lassi; in Jamaica, you're supposed to take it slow, mahn).

But the book is more than just a simple guidebook. In many ways, it tells the history of the world from a stoner's point of view. Who knew that Napoleon's troops had to be reprimanded for getting high in front of Egypt's pyramids? Or that some scholars feel that marijuana is mentioned in the bible (the words kana and kanah bosom translated as sweet cane may actually be cannabis)?

A delightful read and one that you won't have to fire-up your bong to enjoy.

(Photo by Tomas de Aquino)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Efficient, convenient and now, just a bit cheaper, Porter Airlines extends its 20% off sale

Yes, the "little airline that could" is discounting for just a bit longer. Its promising 20% off any Porter Airlines flight to anyone who inputs the code JUNE20 when booking. Though travelers must book by end of day June 30th (this Wednesday), the discount applies on flights through December 15.

With the discount, the rates are darn competitive, though not always lowest in the market (I priced out a late October, early December jaunt from Toronto round-trip to NYC which came out about $15 less expensive on Air Canada). So before booking, check out such airfare aggregator sites as and (Though frankly, if you're traveling from downtown Toronto, a difference of a few dollars may be made up by the convenience of traveling from Billy Bishop Airport.)

Porter flies from Toronto to Boston, Chicago, New York City and Myrtle Beach in the USA; Halifax, Moncton, Montreal, Mont Tremblant, Ottawa, Quebec City, St. John's, Sudbury, and Thunder Bay in Canada.

(Photo by Tom Purves)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Strange But True Aviation News

Model's breast implant explodes on plane!

42 pilots censured for flying drunk!

Lady Gaga pulled aside for additional security screening as the studs on her jumpsuit set off every alarm at Heathrow Airport!

Headlines ripped from the most sensationalistic of supermarket tabloid, right? Actually no. These stories come from the usually staid, well-respected Aviation News. Seems they have a sense of humor over there, and the staff is collecting the most outrageous aviation stories each month into their "Things with Wings" blog.

Many of the posts are unsettling. I, for one, am going to think twice about flying within India now that I know that 42 pilots have been cited less than 6-months into 2010 for flying while intoxicated. In other "Oh no! Pilots are doing that!" news: an Australian Jetstar pilot was caught texting while trying to land his plane (he was doing a lousy job, which is why he got caught).

And you just gotta wonder what the guy who stowed away in the landing gear of a jet flying from Vienna to London was thinking. He survived the trip, but was so badly chilled he couldn't move once the plane landed and therefor was spotted by crew upon arrival and arrested.

 In the "It Was Bound To Happen Sooner or Later" category: a woman was arrested after attacking the child who'd been kicking her seat over the course of a long flight.

You can read other weird but true flight news at the link above. Just don't read any of this on a plane!

(Photo be Save vs. Death/Creative Commons)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cycling Vacations, Take 2: More Tips, This Time from Readers

Seems like I missed a couple of great companies and destinations in my recent article on Bike Travel for the Toronto Star. Mea culpa! Here are a few of the suggestions I've received since its publication:

(Photo: A cyclist on the streets of Ottawa. Photo by John Talbott) A reader named Sheldon wrote "Adventure Cycling is an awesome resource for bike travel. They make really great bike touring maps, but they also offer lots of other wonderful information."

It certainly is an organization that's crossed my radar in the past-. Founded in 1974, Adventure Cycling now has close to 45,000 members worldwide, along with a route network of more than 40,000 miles (hey, that's almost a mile per member).

In addition, Adventure Cycling sponsors some 40 trips a year in North America, most fairly rugged in nature (you sleep in tents and may share cooking duties with others in your group) and thus reasonably priced at an average of $100/day for everything but airfare to the starting point. Beyond trips that visit beauty spots are special interest tours for those who want to go wine tasting in California as they cycle, vacation with their children or take a historic trail (like the USA's Underground Railway that led slaves to freedom).

-The country of Slovenia: Who knew? Well, according to Marilyn J. many Slovenian hotels, hostels and tourist farms are rated by how cyclist-friendly they are. Those that get "4 or 5 bikes" are able to help cyclists with repairs, and will transport luggage to the next bike friendly hotel on your route. The Slovenian Alps are particularly suited to cycling with over 1000 km of trails, some underground!. For more information on Slovenian cycling vacations, pick up a good guidebook or go to

-The city of Ottowa: Sheila G.H. recommends the 170 miles of trails in Ottawa, which she thinks is Canada's most bike friendly city. For a good overview of the cycling possibilities in and around the city, surf to

-The Confederacy of Cruisers, New Orleans: "A really great bike tour" according to Mike E., who took friend's on a two-wheeled tour of the city with the company as one of his bachelor party events. The 3-hour tours explore a number of the city's neighborhoods (including the 9th Ward, on request), with a focus on the NOLA's history, culture and oddities. Tours cost $45 per person and go with a minimum of 2, maximum of 8. See

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Become a "Mayor" on FourSquare and Earn Free Hotel Stays?

I tried Foursquare for the first time on May 16.

I was forced to.

Attending the Society of American Travel Writer's Editors Council, all of the participants went on a "social media" walk, with each of us assigned a different task (tweeting, posting photos, etc.). My job was to check in with FourSquare when we got to the destination we'd be exploring, the Ace Hotel.

We got to the hotel and I logged that info into FourSquare. It acknowledged I was there and I was done. And pretty bored. The entire exercise seemed pointless. Though I will acknowledge that had I been a 20-something bar hopper, hoping to meet up with friends, but unwilling just to call them--which seems something that generation considers a no-no--Foursquare might have some value for me.

I'm obviously in the minority on this. These types of sites are wildly popular, so popular in fact that corporate concerns are trying to get into bed with them. And this may be where they actually become helpful for travelers.

Barbara de Lollis, in her hotel column for, reports that  a new website called Topguest  will reward those folks who post "check ins" online with points towards freebies at the properties in question.

The preview site for Topguest launched last week with one corporate partner: the Standard Hotels. When users visit one of the Standard Properties, whether for a stay or a drink at the bar, and then log in either to FourSquare or Gowalla (or tweet about the experience, or post on GoogleLatitude, Yelp or Loopt), they'll receive points towards free stays. Topguest claims that the Standard is just the first of many more partners it has waiting in the wings.

If this actually works as promised, maybe I'll give FourSquare another shot. If not, I think I'll avoid it and instead head to the site which alerts users to the dangers of oversharing on social media sites.

(Photo: The Standard Hotel in NYC by Laura Manning)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

More Small Group Adventure Tours on the Chopping Block for Summer

Just about a week and a half ago, I told you about small group adventure tour operator GAP Adventures' surprising summer sale. Well, things must be shaky in the world of adventure travel as GAP's primary rival, the Australian company Intrepid Travel, has just announced a similar promotion.

 (Photo: Shaman outside of the central Cathedral in Mexico City; taken by Doctor Who/Creative Commons)

As with GAP, Intrepid runs tours to some of the more exotic corners of the earth and does so in a distinctly "green" fashion. Instead of cramming passengers into private busses, it uses only local transportation to get its clients from point A to point B. The company supports the local economy by booking passengers only into locally-owned properties, small guest houses, primarily, but also private homes, tented accommodations and inns. As with GAP, groups are limited to 15 people, and often go out with fewer. And also, as with its rival, prices are among the lowest in the industry--which makes a sale especially noteworthy from either company.

Intrepid's last-minute sale slashes 20% off the price of a number of tours. Here are some of the best deals:
  •  Unforgettable India Tour (Delhi, Agra, Panna National Park): 15-day tour for $928 (formerly $1160)
  • Mexico Unplugged (Mexico City, San Cristobal de las Casas, Playa del Carmen, Oaxaca, Chichen Itza): 15 days for $792 (formerly $990)
  • Family Adventure in China (Beijing, Xian, Yangshuo, Hong Kong): 14 days for $1616 (formerly $2020)
  • Magical Morocco (Casablanca, Fes, Chefchaouen, Rabat, Meknes, Marrakesh): 9 days for $880 (formerly $1100)
Rates are based on double occupancy and don't include airfare. On many tours an additional, reasonble payment is given to local operators.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Harry's Home! Critics Weigh In on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The butterbeer is flowing,  crowds are sweating through their commemorative t-shirts and the most anticipated new theme park (or really, theme park section) to open since Epcot, has now officially flung wide its gates.

Here's what the critics I trust are saying about Island of Adventure's latest draw, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Spoiler alert: the reviews do give away a lot of the surprises of the rides):

From Jason Cochran of (see his video reports on that site):

"The new theme park addition is a pitch-perfect evocation of the Hollywood version of the beloved J.K. Rowling book series.

(Photo: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey from the outside of the ride. Photo by Jeff Kern)

'...Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the epic new ride created for the park...[is] unlike anything you've ever ridden. You don't need 3D glasses to enjoy it. The ride takes you high off the ground and there are both enveloping animated film portions (it turns out the Harry Potter appearance in the Super Bowl ad was a sneak peek at ride animation) and some really large, really in-your-face segments featuring dragons, spiders, the Whomping Willow and the Dementors.

It's so big you can only be agog and what they've accomplished, even if the effect can feel like the most expensive haunted house ever created. The queue itself, which ride creators will only call "the Castle tour," renders the inevitable wait period as painlessly as possible, with lots of pre-ride entertainment such as talking oil paintings (is that Dawn French?)."

From Liz Izack of

"Mostly the crowd was gawking at the unbelievable Hogwarts castle, which rises up at the end of the 20-acre World like something, well, right out of the books. The attention to every Potter detail is truly mind-blowing, as is the ride that everyone's been waiting for -- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey!...You’re sitting in what is essentially the hand of a big robotic arm, which has the ability to turn you every which way. Over the next four minutes you’ll join Harry on broomstick -- twisting, turning and diving as he flies over Hogwarts -- you will lose your stomach and, if you’re wearing flip flops, you will be very worried that you’ll lose those, too. If you’ve been to Epcot, this part of the ride is similar to the Soarin’ experience, except way, way more intense.

'I was struck by how close the action around you happens. It seems like you barely make the clearance under the attacking arm of the Whomping Willow, and the biggest compliment I can pay the attraction is that I literally turned my head a few times thinking we were going to hit something or that the fire from the dragon would scorch us. It’s a ride you’re going to want to do again a minute after you disembark, Potter fan or not. It sets the bar for all rides in the future."

From Travis Reed, of the Associated Press:

"Past a stone archway and the steam-belching Hogwarts Express, the fictitious city of Hogsmeade unfolds amid snowcapped, dingy rooftops and storefronts packed like row houses with shops straight from the books and movies. Zonko's joke shop offers Sneakoscopes and extendable ears. The confectionary Honeydukes has chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans (literally ranging from pear to fish). At the Owl Post, guests can stamp mail with a genuine Hogsmeade postmark. Towering over it all is Hogwarts, a perfect reproduction of the imposing, many-spired castle where Harry and his magician friends are students.

'Park construction was overseen by the production manager from the Potter movies, and as Warner Bros. filmed the series' sixth movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," scenes were shot for the park's crown jewel, a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

'The cutting-edge ride seamlessly combines the sensation of flight with tactile experiences like smoke and drops of water as it takes guests through a hodgepodge of encounters in Potter's chaotic life, from the Quidditch field to the mouths of giant spiders and dragons. The ride queue stars lifelike projections of film characters like Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore."

I saw the park from a distance this past January, when I visited Islands of Adventure. Though I wasn't allowed in (it was still under construction), the scope of the site and the majesty of Hogwarts Castle was impressive, even from afar. I'm very much looking forward to bringing my daughters, both Potter fans, to see the park once the weather cools down.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Airline Fees of the Future! Hint: They Ain't Gonna Be Pretty

Just when you thought, or at least I thought, the airlines wouldn't be able to come up with another annoying fee, news comes yesterday that American Airlines would be charging $9 to $19 to passengers to get onto the plane early in the boarding process. Not first mind you--that privilege is still reserved for first class folks and elite flyers--but early enough for them to place their carry-on wherever they darn please in economy. And have the pleasure of smirking at the later passengers as they struggle aboard, desperately looking for a free space in which to store their stuff. (It's not exactly a new move: Southwest, an airline with no assigned seats, allows passengers to head to the front of the line for $10. Ryanair and US Airways have similar priority boarding fees.)

I gotta hand it to the airline execs. Thinking up all these new fees can't be easy. Since I'm a generous person, I thought I'd hand these overworked Einsteins a couple more they might try springing on the public:
  • A fee to get off the plane: Seat belts will no longer be controlled by passengers. Instead, they'll go into lock down as the plane begins its descent and passengers will have to swipe their credit cards to get off. Have a business meeting to get to? A reasonable $35 fee will ensure you're first off the plane. A more frugal traveler? Those who wait 5 minutes pay just $20 to debark. Unwilling to pay at all for the privilege of freeing yourself from the seat? You'll be ejected down a special chute and come out on the luggage belt. Smile: a picture of you barreling down the belt is being posted to your Facebook account!
  • Noise fines: Are you a snorer? Did you make the mistake of not drugging your baby before bringing him aboard and allowing him to cry? Are those noise-cancelling earphones leaking Lady Gaga into the aisle? Not allowed. In an effort to make flying pleasant for everyone, the airline has installed sound detectors in the arm of your seat. It automatically adds a charge of $10 to your credit card for every unexpected noise you emit. Whoops! Did you drool in your sleep? Sorry, that'll be a $20 fine--offending your seat mate's sensibilities carries even stiffer penalties.
  • A fee to use the seat back pocket in front of you (or read the magazine): Thanks to the  advances made in mini-bar technology, the airlines now have the ability to charge you should anything in your seat back pocket be shifted. Placing your belongings in the seat back pocket will incur a fee of $7.50, reading the magazine will be $3 (a $1 rebate if someone's already done the Sudoku). Oh no! Your leg accidentally brushed against the seat back pocket? Terribly sorry, you'll have to contact customer service to get that charge removed.
  • A fee to bring to place carry-on bags in the overhead rack.....Oh silly me! The geniuses at Spirit Airlines have already thought of that one.
So much for the "friendly skies".

(Photo by Luis Argerich)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Unplug" Your Home to Save Big Bucks While on Vacation

When budgeting for a vacation don't just look at the costs of travel--lodging, transportation, meals. Remember to also calculate the costs of your life into the equation, such as cat sitters and dog kennels, overtime you might be missing at work, and other cash drains.

And then there are the expenses you might be incurring accidentally. Mark Williams of the Associated Press recently published a useful article on all the money that can be wasted when one forgets to unplug appliances, turn off the air-conditioning, shut off your water heater or take other steps to save on electricity.

You can read this helpful little piece, by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Java Jive: Starbucks Will No Longer Charge For WiFi

If you're a sad sack like me, your laptop computer is your most constant travel companion. And the search for a wifi signal, preferably a free one, likely exceeds the amount of time you spend swimming, hitting museums or otherwise enjoying your vacation.

That pathetic state of affairs is going to change on July 1, the date Starbucks frees up its signal. Its service will still be operated by AT&T, but thanks to a partnership with Yahoo (which will donate content to a bells-and- whistles-heavy Starbucks website...and hopefully gain a lot of new users in the process) there no longer will be a charge for WiFi usage.

Having paid on average $4 at Starbucks all over the world to use their WiFi, and up to $13 when I've bitten the bullet and paid outrageous hotel rates to use my laptop from my room, I'm guessing that I, personally, will save about $250 a year thanks to this development.

So hold the tall mocha, I'll have a grande next time, thank you very much! Cheers to you, Starbucks!
(Photo by Steven Wu)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Do You Trust Your Friends' Advice When It Comes To Travel?

The headline is a question I posed in a recent column for The Toronto Star on the uses of social media for gathering travel advice. In that piece, I profiled the sites Traxo and TripIt, each of which makes it possible for friends to share travel advice and itineraries with friends.

I guess it was only a matter of time before the giant names in the industry also got involved in friend-to-friend travel advice. Just yesterday, the massive (34 million users per month) launched a new program in affiliation with mega-site (400 million active users) called TripFriends. The program will tap into Facebook's "Cities I've Visited" app, allowing users to see which of their friends have gone to the places they're about to visit. They can then contact those friends, either through direct messages or by posting a message to a group of friends. Then, apparently, their friends will deluge them with perfect advice, based on their recent travels and knowledge of their peccadilloes.

The system sounds like an improvement on TripAdvisor's regular one, which has been widely infiltrated by PR and marketing folks posting phony reviews for the hotels, restaurants and attractions they represent (to read more about that, see this Associated Press article on the topic)

On a personal note, I can't tell you how many times hoteliers have bragged to me that they've gamed TripAdvisor's data base, by posting fake reviews themselves, or pushing guests to post (sometimes with rewards attached to that action). Negative reviews on TripAdvisor are getting harder to trust as well, as business people anonymously skewer their competitors.

At least with TripFriends, you'll have good assurance that your friend's advice hasn't been bought, in some fashion.

But let me play devil's advocate here: will your friend give the best advice? I'd say sometimes yes, sometimes no.

When it comes to hotels, frankly, there's no way a casual visitor will be able to give as good advice as a professional guidebook writer (and I write that knowing that it sounds self-serving).

Why? Because a guidebook writer will have visited every hotel in the vicinity and will be able to compare and contrast. Your buddy will have stayed at exactly one hotel and will have no idea, say, that the place up the road has better bedding, a larger pool and lower rates. 

The same could be said of restaurant recommendations, tours, attractions, etc. Likely your pal will have been to the destination once, for a maximum of a week. So his recommendations will be based on the places he made it to while there. Some will undoubtedly be terrific recommendations, especially if your friend shares your tastes (not always a given, at least with my wide group of Facebook friends). But others will likely be misses, not hits.

This is a long way of saying: don't give up on the pros! "Citizen journalism" has its place and can be helpful. But casual travelers rarely have the stamina or the time to investigate a destination as thoroughly as professional travel writers do. Balance what you hear from your friend with advice that's been thoroughly researched. I guarantee by doing your homework thoroughly in this fashion, you'll have a better vacation in the end.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Will the Euro Hit Parity with the Dollar and the Loonie in 2010?

Crystal ball gazing is a tricky art. Especially when it comes to the volatile currency markets, which have had a bumpier ride this year than the stock market. As I write this, the euro is trading at $1.25 against the Canadian dollar and $1.21 against the American dollar. But people in the know think the exchange rate will go even further in North America's favor and will do so by the end of 2010.

A neighbor of mine (and good friend), who works as a currency trader here in New York City for a major European bank, told me that her company is basing its long-term strategies on the forecast that the dollar and the euro will be at parity by the end of 2010. She feels that there's no possible way that the Euro could strengthen, and will likely weaken, due to the ongoing financial crises on the continent.

She told me what she did off the record. But major economists are starting to come public with their predictions, and few are good for the Euro. The Brussels blog of the Wall Street Journal quotes Marie Diron, senior economist for Oxford Economics (it runs forecasts for Ernst and Young), as saying "We expect further depreciation with the euro going close to parity.” Chin Loo, senior economist for the bank BNP Parribas said on CNBC that she expects the euro to drop to 1.16 against the dollar very soon, further remarking that it could come close to parity by the end of the year.

Which is all great news for North American travelers. Not only will shopping, restaurants and attractions be much cheaper for us, with stronger dollars in hand, but the combined weakness of the currency and drop-off in business travel (a trend we've seen in Ireland and Greece recently) could mean unusually low hotel rates.

Obviously, there's no way to predict 100% that this parity will come to pass. But since I'm a betting gal, I'm currently pricing airfares for a fall trip across the pond.

(Photo from Creative Commons)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Test Drive: 50% Off Sales from Two Major Hotel Chains

Two good-sized chains are looking to generate both publicity and business by slashing their nightly rates 50% for the summer months. But are these promotions actually deals or simply PR? I did the searches and crunched the numbers so you don't have to. Here's what I found.

Accor Hotels

The Accor Group of hotels, which comprises Novotel, Mercure, and Sofitel, says it's halving prices at 800 participating properties (you'll find them in Burkina Faso, Guadeloupe, Fiji, Italy, Canada, you name it). But they're making customers jump through hoops to get at the discounts. A ticking clock on their website reminds visitors they must book stays no later than June 16 (for travel between July 8 and September 6.) And better be sure of your plans: to get the discounts, you'll have to pay in advance and give up your right to change or cancel your reservation in this way.

So is it worth locking yourself in, in this fashion? Not necessarily. I tested the sale, searching for hotel rooms in 4 French-speaking destinations, for the dates of July 21 through 24. I compared what I found at the Mercure website to the offers on one of my favorite hotel search engines, Here are the results:
  • Novotel Montreal Center: $113 per night with Mercure's sale, $75 per night if purchased through Travelocity
  • Novotel Paris Tour Eiffel Paris: $122.45 through Mercure,  $119 with and
  • Residence Mercure Diamant, Martinique: $72 through Mercure, $71 though
  • Ibis Brussels Off the Grand Place: $85 with Mercure, $94 with, and
Not a great record for the Mercure sale, eh? 

My conclusion: Though the sale offers some genuine values, be sure to check other sites before purchasing, especially if you worry your plans may change.

Coast Hotels

This one seems to be a winner, discounting properties throughout British Columbia and Alberta. Again, the promise is 50% off the published rates for travel now through Sept 30 or Oct 21. Act quickly: you must book by tomorrow (Saturday, June 12) to get the discount. Be aware that there are long lists of blackout days including some properties where the discounts are available only for weekday stays. You'll need to use code TZO to get the discount.

Here's a sampling of the searches I did, this time for stays between July 25 and 27:
  • Coast Victoria Harborside Hotel and Marina, Victoria: $129 through Coast, $146 through
  • Pyramid Lake Resort, Jasper: $139 through Coast, $206 through
  • Coast Blackcomb Suites at Whistler: $79 through Coast, $99 through itself
My conclusion: Jump on this one if you plan to travel in BC or Alberta this summer.

(Photo of Jasper by Richard Taylor)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Small Group Summer Tours with GAP Adventures, Discounted by a Fifth

Every once in a while, a press release will come across my screen announcing $100, $200, $500 savings off the original price of this or that tour or cruise. I immediately hit delete. Though the discounts sound impressive, inevitably they're for products that were so outrageously and egregiously overpriced to begin with that even with this chunk of change gone, they're still to pricey for any mere mortal to afford.

When a discount is announced for a product that's already well-priced, I sit up and take notice. Case in point: GAP Adventure tours summer sale, which will drop the rates of their already sensibly-priced tours by a good 20% to 25%. Yowza!

As is often the case with these promotions, the travel being discounted is last-minute (you must book and depart before July 31) and alas, the discount is not retroactive. If you've already put money down on one of their early summer, small group adventures, you won't be seeing a refund. (Take solace from the fact that you likely paid less for your airfare than those booking at the last minute will).

Here are some of the deals you might snag:
  • Costa Rica: 16 days for $1039: Saturday and Monday departures through June and July. Price includes some meals, a boat tours, excursions (including horseback riding) and 7 different destinations within the country. An 8-day budget tour of Costa Rica is also being discounted to just $399.
  • South Africa: A "World Cup" overland tour, 8 days for just $630, departing June 15
  • Turkey: An 8-day tour, discounted to $719, Saturday departures in July
Those are just three of the many, many options available.  For full information, go to The discounted is in bold letters on the front of the site, along with discounts on Arctic sailings.

(Photo: A monkey in Monteverde, Costa Rica taken by Arturo Sotillo)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An unexpected drop in the price of high-season, Alaskan cruises

In 2009, after an abysmally slow Alaskan cruise season, executives at the various cruise lines made the decision to pull approximately 20% of the fleets that usually sail through Alaskan waters and re-assign them, mostly to the Mediterranean. With this big shift, it seemed discounting to Alaska was at an end, at least for 2010. Advance pricing on these May through September sailings was higher than usual (especially for May, normally the discount season) and it looked, for a time, like the cuts in capacity had worked in the cruise lines favor.

It doesn't look that way any more. Recently, with no fanfare whatsoever,  almost all of the major cruise lines have started making serious cuts to high-season pricing for Alaskan sailings. "They're dropping prices quietly this year, without putting out the usual press releases," says Carolyn Spencer Brown of the cruise news website "Instead, it looks like they're going to their preferred travel agencies and asking them to alert their clients of these deals. It really is surprising to see such low prices for peak sailings."

Just how low are the prices? On certain premium lines, on round-trip sailings (often Seattle to Seattle), the prices have dropped to the $600, sometime $700 range for July and August sailings--terrific values. For last-minute, one-way sailings (usually between Seward and Vancouver, but occasionally between Vancouver and Whittier), rates have hit jaw-dropping lows. Here are a few examples, all of seven-night sailings:
  •  Holland America's Statendam: $299 (June 13, 20, 27, July 4)
  • Holland America's Ryndam: $349 mostly, $449 in July (June 13, 20, 27, July 4, 11)
  • Celebrity Millennium: $399  (June 11, 18, 25, July 9)
  • Diamond Princess: $399 on first sailing, $549 or $599  after (June 12, 19, 26, July 3, 10, 17, 31, Aug 7)
I found these rates through cruise discounter sites and (as well as, though it didn't match these prices in all cases). When I went to other cruise discounting sites (I visited 6 altogether) and the cruise line sites directly, I got mostly higher quotes on these sailings. Which leads me to guess that the cruise lines, in the case of Alaska at least, may be giving preferred pricing to certain agencies (a way of doing business the lines publicly moved away from about five years ago). It's either that, or these other sites have added mark-ups, to make their profit-margins higher.

So, are glaciers, eagles and bears eliciting yawns rather than bookings? I hope not and would lay the blame instead on higher airfares, a factor that will be particularly painful for one-way sailings (as passengers have to fly into and out of different gateways, always a pricier proposition). If you decide to take advantage of one of these last-minute deals, be sure to check what your air costs will be first. In most cases, you're still going to come out ahead, but not in all. 

But even if you just break even, I'd urge you go to Alaska sooner rather than later.  Global climate change is drastically remaking this land. While the climate has gone up 1.36 degrees globally since the 19th century, in Alaska the increase is three times that at 3.6. degrees This has led to glaciers losing mass at a rate of 1.8 meters a year, double the rate of just a decade ago. An outbreak of spruce bark beetles, that scientists are blaming on higher temperatures, are decimating large tracts of forest. Brown bears, eagles, human communities: all are being impacted, leading the newspaper USA Today to dub Alaska "The Poster State for Global Warming". See it before much of what makes this region so glorious is gone.

(Photo: A view from the cruise ship by Kevin Tostado)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One-Way RV Rentals, Slashed Prices

While researching a column on RV travel (that will likely run in the Toronto Star's travel section in a few weeks), I came across a what I can only call a "repositioning discount"  from mega RV-rental agency Cruise Canada. It seems that Cruise Canada needs to move a number of standard and large-sized motorhomes from Calgary and Vancouver to either Toronto or Montreal. To entice drivers, the company is waiving the one-way fee (logical as the drivers will be doing the company a favor), throwing in 5000 free miles and charging a reasonable $24 a day. That price includes insurance and is a significant markdown off the usual $160 per day summer rate that the company charges for large units (plus about $350 for 1500 miles).

The deal is only good for travel between tomorrow and July 6. For full information, click here.

(Photo: A Lego campground with motorhomes and tents, by Bill Ward)

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Real Rail Discount in Europe This Summer

Gone are the days when Europe's backpacker trail led over railway ties. Ryanair, EasyJet and the rest of Europe's low cost airlines, along with the budget buses that now criss-cross the Continent, have become the de facto mode of transportation for students and other cheapskates. Still, there's something magical about riding Europe's efficient, fast, super-clean railway system. The landscape sweeps by in alternately majestic and proletarian vistas, riders chat strike up friendly conversations with strangers much more frequently than they do aboard planes and for those with a rail pass, a serendipitous type of travel takes place. If the bearer sees an intriguing-looking town, she can stop for the night. If not she sweeps onward with no penalty. 

With that in mind, I'd like to tell you about a nice discount that RailEurope ( is offering to groups traveling with Eurail passes. Instead of the usual $365 per person pass for visits to up to 5 adjoining countries,traveling 5 full days over the course of two months, the cost will be $714 split among 3 travelers. Have 4 in your group? Your quartet will pay $1068 total. Fivesomes pay $1425. Children pay less.

Complete details on travel dates, length of validity and more can be found on the Rail Europe site (see above). 

As someone who engaged in this fancy-free type of travel when I was in my fancy-free early 20's I can heartily recommend it. True, it may not end up being the dirt-dog cheapest option nowadays, but it remains the one with the most history and, dare I say it, charm. Try it, you'll like it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

I wouldn't tease ya about Tunisia: A terrific, but limited fare, sale to North Africa from Canada

Now that Sex and the City 2 is officially a critical flop, I'm guessing that the expected surge in tourism to North Africa ain't going to happen. (Though the film is set in Abu Dhabi, it was actually shot mostly in Morocco.) That's good news for all the folks wanting to visit this storied corner of the globe without fighting their way through crowds of Cosmopolitan-sipping, Mahnolo Blahnik wearing, would-be Carrie Bradshaws.

Enter Air France which has just made it much less expensive to head to North Africa this fall. Its charging a reasonable $595 round-trip, including all taxes and fees, for travel to Algiers, Tunis and Casablanca between September 10 and December 10. Those prices will hold for those who fly from Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal, include a Saturday night in their stay and travel for a minimum of three nights. Oh, and you gotta make up your mind quickly; the sale will be withdrawn at the end of the business day on June 7th.

For complete details, head to the Air France website.

(Photo: Oasis di Montagna, Tunisia. By Francesco Sgroi)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

New transparency and regulation for the USA's airline industry is good news for all

Yesterday, the United State's Department of Transportation's proposed a mini-blizzard of new regulations. The move is a welcome, and long overdue, step not just for American travelers but for anyone flying into US Airports or using US carriers. At long last, consumers will be able to easily tell what a final airfare will be; they'll have a better guarantee that if they purchase a seat, that seat will actually be there for them on the plane; and they won't have to worry about being imprisoned on the tarmac for hours upon hours.

Here's a brief summary of the new proposed rules:
  • Pricing: Once an airfare is purchased, there can be no increase to the price (so no surprise fuel surcharges months after you bought the ticket). All fees must be included in the price that is initially shown to consumers not only on airline sites, but also on travel agency sites. Deceptive advertising practices, such as touting a low fare which then turns out to be only one leg of a round-trip ticket, will be banned. Baggage fees must be prominently displayed on the airline's home page. 
  • A new 24 hour rule for purchases: Passengers will be able to cancel a ticket they bought without penalty, within 24-hours of purchase. 
  •  Refunds of baggage fees when luggage is lost: Justice! This seems like the least the airlines could do in these cases.
  • Tarmac delays: Now, not only domestic flights but all international flights will be allowed a maximum of three hours on the runway. After that point, they'll have to turn back to the gate. The only exception to this rule will be planes carrying fewer than 30 passengers.
  • Bumping: Higher penalties will make it costlier for the airlines to bump passengers involuntarily off planes. Those passengers delayed for one-hour will now get $650 (previously it was $400); a two-hour or more delay will cost the airlines $1300 (as opposed to $800). In addition, a new rule mandates that bumped passengers be "verbally" offered a check or cash compensation (a much better compensation than a "free ticket" voucher, which puts the passenger into the same bucket as all the frequent flyer members. As you may know, it's now near impossible to redeem frequent flyer miles on many US carriers). Compensation will be offered even if the passenger is flying on a frequent flyer ticket.
  • Customer Service: All customer service rules will have to be put into the carrier's "contract of carriage" which will make them legally binding. Carriers are also being pushed to be more prompt in informing passengers when their planes are delayed or canceled.
The DOT has a 60-day comment period before it officially adopts these rules (which would then be adopted 180 days from now).

I have no doubt that the airlines will have a lot to comment about. They will likely warn that these rules will cause them to have to increase fares (as they'll no longer be able to as easily oversell cabin space) and cancel more flights (due to tarmac delays).

I say, let 'em pout! For too long, the USA's aviation industry has been a wild west in which the airlines could treat passengers any way they pleased with little consequence. These rules seem to inject some logic into a chaotic system, and I'm hoping that consumer rights organizations and ordinary citizens make their voices heard in favor of these proposed regulations. In particular, the transparent pricing rules are a huge improvement, and should be adopted by other countries, as well (are you listening Canada?).

(Photo from Creative Commons)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A visit to Coney Island's newly opened amusement park Luna Park

Call someone a "freak" in Coney Island and you're paying them a compliment...and possibly sending some business their way. The "freaks" have the had run of the place for the last several decades and proudly mount a yearly "Freak Show" where talented folks drive nails up their noses, display all sorts of fetuses in jars, and pretzel their tattooed bodies into positions that would make a Chinese acrobat jealous. This daytime sideshow competes with wild nightime burlesque shows where women of all shapes, sizes and aesthetic sensibilities strip in front of all-nude bands (some nights) or perform ecdysiastic tributes to Kurt Weill. Those who come here seeking a more interactive experience can "Shoot the Freak"; just off the boardwalk, a man in body armor serves as a moving target for anyone who'll pony up $3 to load a gun with five paint pellets and take aim (see photo below).  Above all this madness, looms the mascot of Coney Island, a cartoon of a man with a malicious-looking wide grin, who clearly wants to lift your wallet...or worse.

(Photo by Pauline Frommer: The "Freak" taunts shooters)

In a city that's become more and more sanitized, Coney Island is a throwback to New York's grittier days. This year, that is. Next year, well, gentrification is coming to this corner of the Big Apple and the new Luna Park amusement park is just one harbinger of change. It has co-opted the freaky guy symbol for its new roller coaster "The Tickler", but that's about as outre as this shiny new park gets.

My family and I visited Luna Park this past weekend and frankly, we were underwhelmed. True, not all the rides are yet open (one that supposedly imitates the feeling of being on the space shuttle has yet to debut), but what we saw seemed like the same-old, same-old,  but with an unchipped coat of paint. Basically, the park boasts the type of carnival rides that have always been featured in Coney Island with few touches of whimsy or over-the-top thrills. The one exception is the "Brooklyn Flyer" ride (see photo), one of those whirling swings that goes far higher than any other such ride I've seen. (We were up about as high as the famous Cyclone coaster in the park next door. My seven-year-old kept repeating over and over as we whipped through the air "This is the best ride I've ever been on! This is the best ride I've ever been on!"). Beyond that stellar ride, the park is poorly laid out, with an unwieldy credit-card system for the rides, and a staff that already looked bored with their jobs, even though this was the opening weekend.

A shame, since many hoped that Luna Park would bring back some of the razz ma tazz to Coney Island, and save it from the condo-ization that's planned for 2011. As we speak, developers are planning to blanket the place with standard-issue malls and beachfront condos, razing entire blocks of historic buildings in the process (you can read about the struggle to preserve these landmark buildings at Already, large swatches of beach are barricaded behind wire fences as construction crews start their initial work.

(Photo: The cluttered entrance to Luna Park).
Still and all, I was glad I spent Memorial Day at Coney Island. I always enjoy the mix of people from all over the world, the dizzying rides (at Dino's Wonderwheel Park, in particular) and the bawdy game booths, where every sentence out of the barker's mouths are double-entendres. As a native New Yorker, the happy sordidness of it all brings me back to my youth in 70's NYC, when the city was dirtier and more dangerous yes, but also more soulful. 

The takeaway: if you want to see the real Coney Island, visit this summer. Next year, signs are it'll be like just another trip to the mall.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Eye Popping Scenery. Free Photography Workshops Taught by Pros. Free Loaner Cameras. Need More of an Excuse for a Vacation? I Didn't Think So

Those landscape beauty queens--Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon and Acadia National Park (in Maine)--are getting ready for their close-ups. And their freebies. 

Beginning June 7 and running through August 27, Cannon is going to be sponsoring free photography workshops at all of these parks, usually 3 times a day, and sometimes including video workshops. Workshops will be limited to 35 participants and run for two-hours each.

Don't have a camera? No worries, Cannon will lend you brand-new, top-of-the-line equipment (they have that stuff lying around). The teachers are going to be top-of-the-line, too, professional photographers vetted for their work in landscape photography. 

Here's the schedule:
  • Yosemite: June 7-28, usually three sessions daily
  • The Grand Canyon: July 4-24, three sessions daily except for the 24th (two sessions then)
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming: July 29 and 30, video workshops, twice daily
  • Yellowstone: August 1-7, three times daily
  • Acadia: August 16-22, three photography workshops; August 23 and 24 two video workshops daily
For complete information, including where to go within the parks for the workshops and their exact times, go to the Cannon Photography in the Parks website. Most of the website is devoted to a photography contest the company is also sponsoring (alas, that's only open to US residents), but if you click on "workshops", you'll get to a page with a full schedule.