Thursday, September 30, 2010

Buy Your Lift Tickets Now, Schuss for Less Later

I know, I know we haven't even hit Halloween and already I'm pushing ski season. But the fact is that many discounts aren't available once the snows actually on the ground. You have early bird it to fly down the slopes affordably.

(Photo by Koko)
That's certainly the case with the discount lift ticket broker Liftopia. On its site it lists discounts to virtually every skiiable mountain in North American and many in other parts of the world, as well. But some of the discounts are already dwindling; and others have early booking deadlines. Head to the Monarch Mountain Resort area of the site (its in Colorado) and you'll find $12 Wednesday lift tickets available with a note that the next day the price is $53. Read closer and you'll find that there are only 3 lift tickets left at the $12 pricetag for the early March date that's on sale.

I'm also seeing $51 tickets at lux Stowe Mountain in early December (a savings of 15%), $19 tickets at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire in December (a savings of 70%) and $40 ski tickets in Lake Tahoe (an 18% discount).

Visit the Liftopia site (see above) to learn more. I've found it to be an excellent resource in the past.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Westerners and Midwesterners Take Note: Frontier Has Just Announced a Darn Good Sale

While the travel world was gaping at the news that Southwest and AirTran were likely soon to be one, still independent and still cheap Frontier Airlines threw a darn good sale for the upcoming months. Travel is for Tuesday and Wednesday flights only but if you can manage that small travel window, the discounts are steep. For example, a flight from Denver to Albuquerque, Tuscon or Salt Lake City is starting at just $39 each way; $49 buys a flight between Omaha and either Milwaukee or Denver.

To those base fares, add fees of about $18. Its still a good value.

To snag the deal, which covers flights through Dec. 15 (7-day advance purchase required), head to the Frontier Airlines website. Tickets must be booked by end of day on October 1. 

Photo by Lostinfog

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

European Rental Cars Discounted For Fall and Early Winter

It's the cherry on top of the cherry when AutoEurope posts a special sale. Why? Because its normal rates are usually the lowest on the market for European car rentals.

Auto Europe keeps its rates reasonable by sending consumers to small, local rental companies rather than the large (and often pricier) multi-national firms. I've personally rented from AutoEurope a number of times and have always been impressed not only by the prices I've gotten, but by the quality of the service and the vehicles. And I know this is starting to sound like a paid endorsement, but please know that I am not in the employ of AutoEurope. I'm just a fan.

I'm also a big fan of GPS devices for travel. When researching guidebooks they've saved me literally days of driving time. Which is why I was so pleased to hear that AutoEurope will be throwing in free, portable Garmin GPS units on rentals for 7 days or more throughout the fall and into the early winter months. I have a Garmin and have used it not only for driving but also walking directions. Its a terrific tool!

AutoEurope is also cutting the costs of rentals in Ireland to as little as $15.99 a day; and cutting prices to other parts of Europe by about 6%. I know the latter doesn't sound all that impressive, but since you don't have to pre-pay on these rentals to get the discount, you can cancel if you find a better rate without penalty.

Luxury models will be cut by 15%, and upgrades thrown in free though I'd ask about the size of the car before I went for either of these "perks". In many cities of Europe, the narrow winding streets of the historic centers are impossible to navigate in large cars and one does better getting something small and cheap. (Gasoline costs are also higher in Europe than in North America).

The promotion ends on September 30, so head to the link above if you're heading to Europe and will need wheels.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wowza Travel News Today

Southwest Gobbles Up Air Tran
The travel world is buzzing, and frantically tweeting, about the elopement of Southwest and AirTran this morning. Seems Southwest has quietly bought AirTran for $1.4 billion in cash and stocks. This will gain Southwest a toe-hold into important markets (such as Atlanta) and transform the carrier into an international airline (when it takes over AirTran's flights to Mexico and the Caribbean).
Photo by AComment

What's up in the air? A lot, actually. Will Southwest start offering first class service, as AirTran does? Will its boarding procedures and fee structures change, to dovetail with those of its mate? Will the Feds approve the merger?

And most importantly, when will airfares start to rise? Because that's the inevitable outcome of this type of consolidation. My condolences go out, particularly, to those who fly out of Dulles. AirTran and Southwest were the #1 and #2 presences there; methinks this is bad news for Washingtonians.

Airline fees up 50% in last year?
That's the juicy headline over at USAToday which has found massive increases in existing fees and an explosion in new types of fees. Believe it or not, it now costs $300 to change an international flight on American Airlines. It seems American's reservationists are so overtaxed by the hissy fits thrown by international travelers, they require a constant supply of champagne and chocolate truffles. Or at least that's what I'm guessing; I can see no other reason why a 10-minute procedure to change a ticket should cost $300 bucks!

General Strike in Spain Set for this Wednesday
This may not be top news for everyone, but it is for me, as I'm scheduled to fly into Barcelona Wednesday morning (gulp!). According to what I've read, concessions have been made by the unions which will allow 40% of the international flights to arrive. I've called Iberia and they say the flights still on, so I'm hoping (praying!) that we're in that 40%. A friend of a friend has kindly offered to whisk me out of the chaos by picking me up at the airport. Now, all I need to do is figure out what kind of elaborate thank you gift is appropriate for this kind gesture. We'll see.

Prices rise for what may be one of the most painfully bad shows at sea
There's much to like about the new Norwegian Epic (its singles cabins, in particular, are a great innovation). But the Cirque Dreams show isn't one of them. I know, I walked out halfway through it (as did many others the night I saw it). NCL is raising the prices because its proved to be their most popular show. And frankly, I'm not surprised at its popularity. When you name something "Cirque" most people are going to assume they're getting a real "Cirque du Soleil" show. They aren't. Take this post as a warning not to waste your money on this overly loud, vulgar, mind-numbingly poor show. NCL: you had the good sense to bring in the real and terrific "Blue Man Group" to perform. Instead of ripping off the Cirque concept, why not give your passengers a taste of the real thing with that as well? It might build more repeat customers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday's Freebies: Three Reminders, Two for this weekend!

Photo by Atomic Taco
Several weeks ago, in this blog, I alerted you to the fact that Southwest Airlines was throwing in a free Dollar car rental with all packages of five nights or more in the United States. Since some of these air-hotel packages are well-priced to begin with, the free car becomes icing on the proverbial cake.

Warning: you must book the package no later than Sept 30. Use the code SepSavings when booking at the Southwest Airlines website.

And do price the package against ones you'll find on other sites. While Southwest's rates are generally good (especially to Las Vegas and Orlando), they're not always unbeatable. So make sure you're really getting a deal before you bite. A lot will depend on which gateway you're flying out of, which is why I can't give definitive advice here.

Free Museums and National Parks

And as I told you last week, tomorrow's the happy day when museums and National Parks across the US will be waiving admission fees. I wish I could say "free and easy" in the case of museums but you must actually download tickets in advance to get in. And the tickets are limited to two per household. Still a bit of a gimme is better than none.

For info on which museums are involved and to get the tickets, click here.

Its easier to get in free to the National Parks. Just show up at the one nearest you. Enjoy!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pico Iyer on the 10 Things Every Traveler Should Do

Photo by Rupert Ganz
Just wanted to point you, friends, in the direction of a new travel article in Real Simple Magazine by one of the world's greatest living travel writers,  Pico Iyer. Frankly, I was surprised by some of the advice in it. (I don't think its a good idea to eat at McDonald's on vacation; and "overview" tours of a destination are usually a waste of time, in my opinion). But on the whole his contemplation of the tools one can use (such as glossy hotel magazines, public buses and more) to improve a trip take the usually cliched top ten list article to a new level. Click on the link above to see the piece.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Canada on sale: 50% Off at Delta Hotels

(Montreal; photo by Abdullah)
Here's one for my Canadian friends (and also for anyone with the good taste to be visiting Canada in the upcoming months): The Delta chain of hotels has announced a sale and its a doozy: up to 50% off. That brings down the nightly price to just $89 in many cases, an excellent price for Montreal, Vancouver and St. John.The vast majority of hotels and resorts involved in this sale are going for less than $140 a night, most for much less. To see the prices and properties, click here. Reservations must be made by Sept 30.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Europe's EasyJet is having a sale. And yes, North Americans should care

When it comes to travel within Europe to secondary cities, the large airfare search engines often come up short.

That's the ugly lesson I learned recently, when I tried--for hours upon hours--to book my husband on a flight from the New York City area to Girona, Spain.

I knew that intra-European flights landed there. I knew that booking him there, rather than to Barcelona, would shave a good two-hours off the time he spent in transit on the ground. But because Ryannair, the airline that most commonly flies into Girona, has no agreements with other airlines, it was impossible to book him there on one ticket, which then made searching for itineraries on Expedia, Kayak, Momondo and the like impossible. (I later learned that I could have searched for a one-way ticket through by disabling a few features, but because I wanted a multi-stop itinerary, one that flew back to the US from Barcelona, DoHop couldn't handle it).

Eventually, I bit the bullet and cobbled together an itinerary myself, flying him into Madrid on one airline and then from there (same airport) to Girona on Ryannair. He flies back from Barcelona on the first airline and the price I got ended up being pretty good.

The process was a reminder of how important it is not to overlook the smaller European carriers for flights within Europe. Heck, if I'd hit the timing better, I might have picked up a 3 euro seat for him on Ryanair. That's the starting rate on a sale that keeps getting extended (fingers crossed), but was supposed to end yesterday.

Rival EasyJet still has its routes on sale for the fall and they're pretty impressive. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

  • Edinburgh to Basel: 26 GBP, including taxes for flights after Dec 3
  • London, Gatwick to Zagreg: 26 GBP, including taxes for flights after Feb 11
  • Amsterdam to Manchester: 28 GBP, including taxes for flights after Nov 10
  • London Gatwick to Barcelona: 31 GBP including taxes, available now
One caution on using Europe's "upstart" airlines: be sure the airport you're flying out of is accessible. Sometimes the secondary airports they use will be quite far from the international airports, so you may want to schedule some time in the city that's the end point on your international flight before moving on to the secondary city you'll be visiting.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Attempting to Celebrate Mexican Independence in Old Town San Diego

September 16th marked the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain,and I thought there'd be no better place to celebrate it in the US than San Diego's Old Town. The State Historic Park echoes with the sound of mariachis from noon to midnight (and often later). Its shops celebrate Day of the Dead year round (see photo above). And most importantly, the area preserves important historic structures from San Diego's founding days, when it was a wholly Mexican town.

Turns out I was wrong.

Apart from some Mexican flag bunting wanly blowing over the entrances to a few doorways, this was a day like any other in Old Town. Celebrations had occurred earlier in the week, it seems, but on the anniversary itself there was nada.

I found this surprising for what is the most popular historic state park in all of California. And frankly, I was a bit surprised it holds that title. Though the historic structures are well-preserved and contain some gems, it seems like the state authorities have leased out the concessions to, well, anyone who can pay for them. Why the heck is there an olive oil tasting concession off a central plaza? Or a "Gepetto's Toy Store", with toys all made in China, across from it? Since these types of concessions make up about half of what there is to see and do here, viewing stores you might find in your local mall is, well, more than a bit dispiriting.

The bottom line: this is where you head when you've exhausted San Diego's more interesting attractions or have a yen for freshly made tortillas and margaritas.

But who am I to dis the place? I've posted some photos below. Make up your own mind. And if you violently disagree with my assesment, I'd love to hear from you.
A small display in a more authentic feeling gift shop commemorates San Diego's founding as a Catholic mission.

Mariachis entertain at one of the restaurants in the historic park.
In the building that once was the home of the San Diego Union Tribune stands an old fashioned printing machine, of the type Guttenburg invented. The current offices of the Union Tribune newspaper are not far from the historic park.

I highly recommend the food at the Mexican Cafe. Handmade tortillas, which are made by women standing in the window of the shop, are the key to its success. At lunchtime, you can buy a package of these wonderfully fresh tortillas to take away with you. The crowds are too big at dinner, however, for them to sell them to passers by. You'll find the cafe down the street from the park itself.

At La Casa de Estudillo, a historic adobe mansion in the historic park, you can see what a tortilla oven would have looked like back in the day.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel, once an important stage coach stop, has been restored to the way it looked in the 1870's.
A costumed docent leads visitors around the interior of the historically accurate Cosmopolitan Hotel. Alas, they went more modern (and blander) in the hotel's courtyard restaurant.
If you're like many visitors to Old Town, you may want to invest $2 in this in-restaurant breathalizer machine before you head to your car. You may find that you need to spend the night at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (see above) which today accepts guests once again, as it did over a century ago.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday's Freebie: Museums Across the US on September 25

I don't know if this is going to be a running feature on this blog, but I'm going to try! So please return here each Friday to learn about a notable freebie in the world of travel.

And this one's a doozie: Museum Day! On September 25th (which is a Saturday conveniently enough), museums across the USA will be opening up their doors for free. Interested parties simply go to the link below to print out a ticket, good for two free admissions per household. Those with families larger than two, will have to pay for the extra people to enter. (Tip: use the ticket for the adults in your party as many of the participating museums offer free or deeply discounted admission to children).

Free tours and other special events will be occurring on the 25th. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, for example, will be teaching guests how to use its solar powered telescope to view the sun.

Many, many museums are participating including some odd and unusual ones like the Oz Museum in Wamego, KS (largest privately owned collection of "Wizard of Oz"memorabilia anywhere); the Farm Toys Museum in Dyersville, IA; the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, TX (dedicated to Texan music); and the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame in Long Beach, WA.

To find a participating museum near you, and get more details, go to the Smithsonian Magazine website.

(Photo: This Day of the Dead piece at the Spanish Cultural Center in Albequerque is a memorial for the women killed along the Texas/Mexico border. Photography by Glen Van Etten)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Round Up: Travel Discounts and Odd Travel News

Drop That Towel!

Photo by Bev Sykes
A woman in Nigeria who stole two towels from the Hilton is facing jail time, USA Today reports I shudder to think what the punishment would have been had she tried to filch a robe!

Tall Order For Starbucks

The mega-java company's nefarious scheme to over-caffeinate drivers has been squelched. Starbucks has announced that it will no longer limit drive-in customers to just the Grande (16 oz.) and Venti (20 oz) sizes for its beverages. "Tall" coffees had been removed from drive-in signs at the end of August, but the outcry was so great, the drinks will be reinstated today. As someone who often has to drive America's highways, I thank Starbucks for this pro-public safety move.

BritRail: Low Season, Low Prices

Yesterday, RailEurope announced that it would be slashing prices on most Britrail passes a good 20%. The discounted passes will work for travel Nov 1-Feb 28.

Guatemala Super Sale

Travel to Guatemala is always affordable--and very worthwhile (see my column on the topic)--but Gate1Travel is dropping package prices to new lows. Currently, its charging just $399 for airfare from New York City, 3 nights in Guatemala City and one-night in Chichicastangenga, some tours, in-country transportation and fuel surcharges. The low price is available on a number of dates through the fall; add-ons from other gateways are available and reasonable. Go to Gate 1's website (see above) for details. 


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

10 Euro Hotel Rooms in Spain, 19 Pound Rooms in the UK, 19 Euro Rooms in Ireland: Thank You Travelodge!

As I've written in this blog before, the UK's Travelodge Chain saved my budget on a trip there two years ago. At the time, the British pound at that time was pounding the dollar (its better now) and we knew we had to cut corners wherever we could. We stumbled upon a sale, one that's being repeated, which allowed vacationers to book rooms for just 19 pounds a night. Sounds like a come-on, right? Not so! Travelodge was (and is) offering hundreds of rooms at these rates. We were able to book stays in several Scottish cities for less than 20 pounds a night.

Photo by Karen Bryan
Beyond the UK, Travelodge is offering rooms in Spain for just 10 euros per night and Ireland for 19 euros. The lowest rates are for those stays booked 21 days in advance. You'll pay either 10 euros or 10 pounds to book just 7-days in. The sale covers stays from Nov 1-Jan 31, with some blackout days.

The hidden extra value of Travelodge is that these rates aren't just for singles and couples, they also apply to families. In each property, many of the rooms are equipped with couches that handily transform into trundle beds, allowing 4 people to share a room comfortably. Travelodge does not charge extra for these rooms, bucking the British trend of sharply hiking prices for quad rooms.

And rooms are darn comfortable. The furnishings are Ikea-esque and well-maintained. Bathrooms are private and yes, small, but well-designed so they don't feel too cramped. There are never amenities like swimming pools or room-service at the hotels, and often the location of the motel is off the highway rather than in the heart of town, but these seem fair trade-offs for a stay this cheap.

For full information, head to the Travelodge site Do so sooner rather than later: the sale lasts only as long as the inventory of discounted rooms does.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Free Car Rentals with Southwest Airlines Vacation Packages

When it comes to Orlando and Las Vegas, the deals offered by the packaging arm of Southwest Airlines  are often unbeatable. To other destinations...its hit or miss. But the hits may be outnumbering the misses this fall, thanks to the company's most recent promotion. 

(Dale Chihuly sculpture at the Bellagio, Las Vegas. Photo by Andrew Morrell)

Southwest is going to be throwing in free Dollar car rentals (economy class, only) on vacations of 5 nights or more throughout the fall and into the winter. This is in addition to a sliding scale of money off depending on how much you pay on the initial package. Travelers must use the code SEPSAVE when booking and make their final payments on their trip by the last day in September. The deal is good for travel between Sept 17 and Dec 31, though there will be some blackout dates (and I'm guessing they'll falling during holiday weeks).

So check it out, and of course price the elements separately to make sure you're getting a deal. As I said earlier, sometimes you will be with SWA's vacation packages, but not always.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Port Calls on Cruises Getting Longer

One of the most common questions we get on the Travel Show is: "I'm interested in visiting destination "X"--should I do it on a cruise or on a land vacation?" It doesn't really matter what the destination is, we almost always reply that if you're traveling to really explore a certain area of the world, you'll get more time in that destination if you do it by land. That cruises are more about the time spent aboard the ship, because the time in port is limited.

Istanbul cruise photo by Jackson Gibbs
We may have to change that stock answer. Yesterday, we had as a guest on our radio show Sherry Laskin, owner of the VacationShoppe and the author of the CruiseMaven blog, and Sherry reported to us that, according to her research, most cruises of 8-days or longer now include at least one overnight port stay. This is true for the mass market ships as well as the more upscale lines.

Some of those 8-nighters (and longer sailings) will also include one or two nights on which the ship leaves the port at midnight. Like overnights, these late-night push-offs allow passengers ample time make long day trips outside of the immediate port area (say Cairo for Alexandria stops or Florence for Civitaveccia).

The one exception to the 8-day rule seems to be Caribbean cruises; no matter how long you sail on those, you're going to push off when the sun sets. Why? I'm guessing that the revenue in the casino on these "fun in the sun" journeys is just too important to the cruise lines' bottom lines to allow the passengers off the ship at night.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Plane vs. Automobile vs. Bus....Sorta

On paper, it sounds like a smart idea for a website: a comparison tool that allows one to quickly and easily compare different transportation options in the United States. But once on the web itself....well, its glitchy. Or at least is, though the site is still wet behind the pixels, so I should cut it some slack.

(Photo by DioMakr)
In my first test drive, I inputted a number of city pairs (see below). The engine was supposed to return the costs for airfares, bus fares and the fuel costs for driving my own car. That's what was promised, but bus fares never made an appearance.

And in reading the fine print, I found that the site was only using Greyhound for its comparisons, a bizarre choice for a site that's trying to find the cheapest fares. In many cities, such up-and-comers as BoltBus, Megabus and the various Chinatown bus companies, are driving circles around Greyhound, price-wise. Is there no way to customize the site to do comparisons from the smartest choice of bus company?


Here were the results I got, for planes and flights (prices are round-trip according to the site):

  • San Francisco to Portland, ME: $281 fly, $453 drive
  • Ithica to NYC: $292 fly, $32 drive
  • Washington-NYC: $99 fly, $40 drive
  • Cleveland-Miami: $331 fly, $181drive
  • Tulsa-Orlando: $250 fly, $166
  • Salt Lake City-Raleigh/Durham: $269 fly, $304 drive
  • Los Angeles, Las Vegas: $119 fly, $37 drive

In every case, the flights were priciest except when the distances were vast.

But are these results accurate? Because the site assigns user a random date, rather than allowing them to input their own, special sales can't be caught. So even though I've seen fares between LA and Sin City, to give one example, dip far below $119 round-trip, those figures likely won't appear at GetSetApp.

As well, the site doesn't take into account the extra meals and hotel rooms that might have to be purchased on lengthy car trips (which certainly can up the cost of road trips). And what about different types of cars? A Prius owner may be able to beat the cost of airfare by a heckuva lot, but would someone driving a gas guzzling Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Not that I want to encourage air over land travel. Obviously, driving (especially bus travel) is a greener way to go. I just wish that this new site was a bit, well, savvier in the way it was making these comparisons. Right now, the results feel a bit less like researched data and more like a general guess.

In the FAQ question the site owners say they hope to add train comparisons soon. That would be a good improvement, as would allowing users to input data on their cars (as does), travel dates and other info that would make the comparison more realistic.

Am I asking too much? Probably. But its an idea I'd like to see succeed. So keep on tweaking, GetSetApp. You might just get there. Good luck!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Important Advice for Travelers with Disabilities On Cruise Vacations

Sticker shock is common when it comes to cruiseline-sponsored shore excursions. They may well be the most over-priced item sold at sea...and that says a lot. My usual advice to travelers is to either travel independently in ports; or use a local agency to help arrange the shore excursion. 

(Photo by The Truth About)

But Candy Harrington, a top expert in accessible travel, just posted a disturbing blog warning that some agents are overcharging people with disabilities on these sorts of excursions. It seems that agents don't make a commission on the rental of accessible vans and other paraphenalia that people with mobility impairments  need. So they either throw these in for free, or add an extra fee to cover their time. Unfortunately, in some cases where agents are adding in a fee, these charges are going through the roof. 

Take a look at Harrington's piece for full details and her sage advice on how to make sure you're not being gouged. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From the Annals of Backward Logic: The US Travel Association's New Fee

Get this: in order to entice, through advertising, more tourists to visit the United States, beginning today all foreigners traveling here not on a tourist visa will have to pay a $14 fee.... to support our travel advertising.

(Those who will be hit with the new fee include most European nationals, along with Japanese visitors, South Koreans, Australians, Kiwis and others--36 nations in total will be affected.  Ten dollars of the fee goes towards the advertising, and $4 to Homeland Security for processing passengers coming into the US.)

Um, dontcha think the visitors are going to notice that they're paying more than they used to and getting, well, nothing in return? Is this really a way to build bridges between our country and others?
In line at the airport; photo by David Morris

Let's be clear here: the problem is not the advertising. That plan is a good one and long overdue. Other western nations have been advertising for years, and their effective marketing strategies (along with the bad rep the US has for harassing visitors at its borders) has led to America losing a significant piece of the tourist pie over the years. According to USTIA stats, the US welcomed 2.4 million fewer visitors last year than it did in 2000. This drop came at a time when the weakness of the US dollar should have been a potent lure for visitors carrying the much-stronger Euro, Pound and Yen.

So the advertising in and of itself, isn't a bad idea. But it boggles my mind that no-one in charge sees the disconnect between taxing the very visitors we want to encourage.

They do note this problem overseas, of course. Bloomberg news quotes Steven Lott of the International Air Transport Association (a Canadian citizen) as calling the tax "counterintuitive", and noting that it will make the US seem less friendly, not more. He goes on to say, smartly I think, that "Ending long waiting lines and revising complicated entry procedures would lure more travelers than ads."

What this all boils down to is another example of how the United States won't learn the lesson that in order to make money, you sometimes have to spend some money. We, as citizens, should be footing the bill for this advertising campaign. It has the potential to create thousands of new jobs. By passing the cost off in this way, we undermine the effectiveness of what we're trying to do.

We're also likely going to make it more difficult for Americans to travel abroad. I have no doubt other nations will retaliate with their own extra fees, targeting US citizens. That's the pattern we saw when we allowed the visa fees for entering the US to balloon. This, in turn, will impact all of those companies in the business of sending Americans abroad.

It reminds me of all of the taxes various municipalities around the US are levying on tourists in an attempt to balance their shrinking budgets without raising taxes on their own constituents. These onerous fees discourage travel, which in turn mean that those who depend on the tourism industry to make a living (1 out of every 11 in the US, by some estimates) lose business, or sometimes even go out of business.

I've obviously oversimplified the argument here, but this passing of the buck is a problem. Just look at what the federal tax cuts have meant for this nation: more sales taxes in many states (which have the heaviest impact on low-income people) and a big loss in services. In Hawaii, to give one example, the school system had to cut 17 days out of its calendar because it couldn't afford to pay teachers for those days. This in a state that already ranked toward the bottom of the nation in its test scores. That's terrible news for the children, who won't be getting the education they deserve; but also for parents who will have to miss work to care for the kids or pay out of pocket for childcare. Likely, the expense of those 17 days for families will far surpass what they supposedly "saved" with federal income tax cuts.

I know that this blog has veered far beyond travel, but hey, its all related. We need to stop thinking short-term, start investing in our future (the only way out of this recession; on this I agree with Paul Krugman) and start taking travel seriously as an engine for creating jobs and economic stability.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An airfare sale, a serious lawsuits and the end of a career for Steven Slater

Lots of interesting bits of news coming out of this long weekend. In no particular order, here's what caught my eye:

JetBlue Throws a Seriously Good Sale
Which can't be said for all JetBlue sales. But this one, which debuted today and is open for bookings until end of day Sept 9th (for travel Sept 15-Dec 5 with holiday blackouts), has some fares that are lower than train rates and possibly cheaper than taking the bus. I'm speaking of JetBlue's fab fares between NYC, Washington, DC and Boston, which start at just $39. The rates between the Big Apple and such key foliage destinations as Burlington, VT and Portland, ME are also darn sweet.

Beyond the east coast are good savings to the Caribbean, various Floridian gateways, and JetBlue's airports in California. For complete info, click here.

He Said, It Said
In more JetBlue news, word came out over the holiday weekend that beer-swilling, slide-slipping steward Steven Slater had been canned. His lawyer huffily contradicted the first reports, saying Slater had quit. Whatever. He leaves his jobs with thousands raised by supporters for his legal defence fund on I'm predicting a stint on Dancing with the Stars next.

TripAdvisor embroiled in a lawsuit
A coalition of 120 British and US hotels is threatening TripAdvisor with a lawsuit for defamation. The hotels claim, through a company called KwikChex (which manages the online reputation of a number of businesses) that though the site allows hoteliers to respond to complaints, it doesn't go far enough in deleting outright falsehoods and damaging statements. According to if TripAdvisor doesn't respond to these complaints, KwikChex will bring a case in a US court. tnooz also reports that more hotels may be joining in the lawsuit.

As a travel writer, I've talked with a LOT of hoteliers about TripAdvisor. Some complain about the extra work it takes to monitor the site and respond to posters there. They've intimated that they'd rather be spending the time attending to their current clients. Some have bragged to me about how they've gamed the system, posting false reviews to promote their property. And though none has ever admitted this to me, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some hotels may be posting false statements to hurt a competitor. Its a rough time for hotels, many of which have very low occupancy rates right now. Playing dirty? I'm sure some have.

The question I guess comes down to: can a site as massive as TripAdvisor adequately monitor its content, to ensure that the opinions expressed are real ones, and not just marketing? And will they be able to make sure that outright falsehoods, ones that could potentially push a hotel out of business, don't appear on the site? It'll be interesting to watch where this all leads.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Its hip, but is it better? A new airfare search engine called "Hipmunk" debuts

Photo by Ma1974
I guess the answer to the question posed in the headline would have to be "yes"... and "no".

Hipmunk, which has as its logo, for no apparent reason, a wide-eyed chipmunk in an aviator cap (note to founders: I'm no biologist but even I know its squirrels who fly, not chipmunks), has a colorful, very intuitive design--a definite strength. Here's how that design should help those who are looking for flights:
  • It color-codes airlines: Meaning that folks who are collecting frequent flyer miles don't have to slog through reams of data. They can quickly identify their airline's options.
  • It allows travelers to search only those airlines which are in the alliances they belong to:  This option is available on the tab on the front page of the site. Another primo innovation for miles collectors.
  • Flights are positioned on a graph, which gives the time both in the departure city and in the arrival city: Love that element! It makes it much clearer, on first glance, just how long the flight is and what kind of jetlag agony one may experience.
  • And speaking of "agony", it uses that term as a rubric for flights: Another terrific touch, reminding us that a flight with a too-short or a too-long layover, or too many stops along the way, may not be worth a small savings.
  • It shows, on the initial chart, the length of layovers: And the city in which they occur. That's usually info one has to dig for and its important. Bravo to Hipmunk for putting it front and center. 
But the search engine, from the brief whirl I gave it, doesn't seem to turn up any unusually good deals, of the sort one will sometimes find at or In fact, I pitted it against on a New York to Dallas routing, and Momondo beat it by $25.

This may be because it is currently only working with Orbitz (to buy any of the fares found on the site, one has to go to I shot out an email to Hipmunkand learned that the company is in talks with other entities (both airlines and other online travel agencies) which should broaden their search capabilities. We'll watch to how that plays out.

I also put Hipmunk to my fiendish "Gerona" test. It involves flying from New York City into that secondary airport and its baffled every search engine that I've tried it on. It is doable: You fly into Madrid and then, with the cushion of a 3-hour layover, switch to a Ryannair flight, which is in the same airport. But Hipmunk couldn't find that routing, though admittedly neither could the search engines I've touted above. According to Hipmunk's founders this problem stems from the fact that Ryanair won't partner with other airlines, meaning that travel agencies would have to issue two tickets for this routing; and should something go awry, it would be harder to rebook. Makes sense, but the search engines of the future (I'm hoping) will still show that this itinerary is doable, albeit potentially problematic.

So Hipmunk, if you're listening: I really like your style and am looking forward to your substance catching up with it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hurricane Earl: Best Resources for Travelers

I wasn't planning on traveling this weekend, but my 11-year-old daughter was supposed to be taking a short trip to Washington, DC with my mother. So like many on the East Coast, I'm on the alert, watching the web to see what the latest predictions are for where and when Earl will strike.

A NASA Photo of Hurricane Earl
I've also been monitoring the changes in travel schedules. For those who need to do the same, here's a short list of helpful links:

  • Amtrak is taking some of its trains going from Virginia out of service. Go to its alert to learn details.
  • A number of cruise itineraries are being affected by the storm. The folks at CruiseCritic seem to be doing the most effective job of keeping up with all the changes in a timely fashion. If you're supposed to cruise in the next few days, or have a loved one aboard a ship, head there for information.
  • Airline websites: There seems to be no central source for updates on airline cancellations across the nation. The best course of action is to surf to the website of the carrier you're supposed to be flying. USAToday reports that AirTran, Continental, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, United, USAirways and Southwest have already posted updated policies on their websites for fliers needing to rebook or cancel travel.
Good luck to us all in the upcoming days!

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    A program note

    For all our radio listeners in the Tri-State area: starting this weekend The Travel Show, with Arthur and Pauline Frommer, will go back to its two-hour format. Deepest thanks to those who wrote in to the stations asking that the full two-hour program be restored.

    Have a question for us? Either email or call 800/544-7070 (at noon on Sunday).

    Happy trails to all!