Friday, October 29, 2010

Freebie Friday: Cultural Offerings, Free for the Taking, in Florence this November

November 12 through November 20 has been named an "International Week of Culture and Landscape" for the already culture- (and landscape-) rich city of Florence. Befitting the setting the additional cultural offerings sound impressive: a concert in the Municipal conducted by Zubin Mehta, a new scholarly exhibit on Michaelangelo's David (which will roam about town), free admission to all the museums and historic sites off the Piazza del Duomo on November 13, lectures by noted Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and more.

Is it worth a trip? Possibly. To see all the details, head to

(Photo by Benjamin Vander Steen)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Beyond the Derby: The Delights of Louisville, KY

Once a year, Louisville, KY fills our TV screens. Close-ups of women in sherbet-colored hats, mint juleps and cheering crowds flash by, as do the fillies attempting to win the Kentucky Derby.

A visit to Churchill Downs is delightful (even when you lose $40 as I did on my last visit there). But Louisville has so much more to offer visitors than just horse racing. 

I was in Louisville two weeks ago and, as in other visits over the years, I found I didn't have enough time to see and do all the things I wanted to while there. Here's a quick overview of some of the highlights:
  • The Muhammad Ali Center: Not only was Ali one of the greatest prize-fighters of all time, he was an active participant in many of the 20th century's most important social movements. To its credit, the museum doesn't pussyfoot around this history, but tackles it in a smart, opinionated fashion using TV clips, interviews, and cuttings from newspapers to take visitors back in time in a highly-interactive fashion. Fight fans will delight in the opportunity to watch unabridged versions of Ali's matches. And kids, like mine, will love having the opportunity to "shadow box" against the champ, enter a ring and hit a punching bag and create poetry in a section that pays tribute to Mr. "Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee"s way with words. A deeply fun, state-of-the-art museum that even non-fight fans (like me) will find worthwhile.
  • Actor's Theater of Louisville: New plays, fresh voices, smart entertainment: these are the hallmarks of Louisville's premiere theater and many important plays have emerged from the company's yearly Humana Festival. A must for nightlife, you won't be disappointed by the offerings here.
  • Louisville Slugger Museum: You'll recognize this place by the huge bat outside (tallest in the world). A factory-museum par excellance, where you'll get to see Major League bats being produced as well as a lot of iconic baseball items, such as a bat Babe Ruth once used to hit a home run.
  • One of the many terrific new restaurants in town: Locavores rejoice! The restaurant scene in Louisville is proudly local, and takes full advantage of all of the food stuffs being grown and raised in Kentucky, from the freshest of vegetables, to aritisinal cured meats and dairy products. We had a spectacular meal at 732 Social consisting of a fabulous cheese and salami plate, roasted poussin, a plate of duck parts (breast, liver, leg--yum!) and an amazing dessert of fresh-cooked beignets. Other friends raved about their meals at Jack Fry's, The Blind Pig, and Bourbon Bistro.
I'm looking forward to my next visit to Louisville. I've got a long list of other sites I want to see. And I plan to win back that $40 for Churchill Downs!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is TopTable Really Tops? Plus Southwest's Latest Sale

I have a love-hate relationship with restaurant coupons. Sometimes they're handy. More often they steer you to places that desperately need business,  have too-high prices to begin with and that are, frankly, not very good.

So I was skeptical when I stumbled upon the site Top Table. And it has its problems. It claims to cover 1000's of restaurants in 15 countries, but when you look closer, its clear that's more of a wish than a reality. Currently, the vast majority of its deals are in the United Kingdom, with a few sprinkled in other major European capitals (see below) and none in the US (as it claims).

That being said, the deals in the UK are impressive. Not just because they offer a eye-popping array of different types of discounts (50% off wine! free champagne for the ladies! two-lunches-for-the-price-of-one! 25% discount off food!). An entire section is filled with discounts to Michelin-starred joints, and another features restaurants that have earned other stellar reviews. All in all, enough of a recommendation, I think, for using the site to snag a discount.

Beyond the UK, the site seems to have good coverage in Paris, Berlin, and Rome (though not in Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Venice or Munich).

Food can be pricey across the pond, so give it a whirl. You may be able to enjoy a vacation-worthy meal at a good savings.

Southwest Discounts the Period Between the Holidays

$30, $60, $90 and $120--those are the prices being charged by Southwest Airlines for flights of of varying lengths (450 miles or less for the first price, 451-1000 for the second, 1001-1500 for the third and 1500-plus for the last). Overall, these represent a decent savings on many of the featured routes. Tickets must be purchased by end of day 11:59 pm (PT) on October 28 for travel between December 1 and 15 and also from January 4 to February 16. Click on the link above for more information on taxes, routes and regulations.

(Photo: A meal at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, one of the discounted restaurants; by Karen Croby).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New Tours, Lower Prices: Explore Worldwide's Latest Discount

Its hard to describe what 30-year old Explore Worldwide does.

I can tell you what it doesn't do. It doesn't cram 40 people into a tour bus. Or host excursions that only North Americans book. Or charge far more than the expenses on the tour warrant.

I know, I know. That doesn't narrow it down much. Let's try this: Explore is a small group adventure tour company that hosts all manners of creative tours all over the globe for an international clientele. Want to canoe the Amazon with your 10-year-old, or trek through Morocco only in the company of other singles? Explore offers both these options. There are also vacations that combine cultural immersion with volunteer opportunities; boat journeys; rail trips; cycling vacations; safaris; and trips that center around viewing an eclipse, to name just a few options. As I said, this ain't an easy company to pin down.
Tibetan Monks (photo by WonderLane)

Explore is offering 70 new tours in 2011, and in an attempt to fill them, it's giving 20% discounts on them to anyone who books before November 5. Most are quite well-priced even before the discount. Take for example, the company's cycling holiday through the Basque region of both France and Spain. An 8-day trip, including the cycles, rail tickets from Paris, accommodations and the services of a guide is just $1020, a good $300 less than what other companies charge for similar tours. A challenging 17-day trek through Nepal is going for $1910 currently with the discount. That price includes all in-country transportation, all meals, all accommodations and the services of guides and sherpas. For the least expensive tours, click on those listed as "Budget".

For complete information, click on the link at the top of this article. But do it soon! The discount only goes for another week!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A #@&*@ing New Airline Fee, Plus Tourists Frightened Away from NYC

I spent the weekend in the airport. Yes, I went to Dallas to give a speech, but because of thunderstorms in Texas; and traveling with my overzealous father (who wanted to leave for the airport 3 hours before our departing flight), it felt like I and Boingo had become one by the time I finally arrived home late on Saturday night.

I could have spent less time in terminals. There were empty seats on earlier flights heading to Dallas, and my father and I were willing to pay an extra fee to go stand-by. But on American Airlines now, apparently, one must pay an extra $20 fee at the time of purchase for the mere possibility of going stand-by. My father beat me to the punch and posted a witty blog on the absurdity of this new fee. Read it. It'll leave you scratching your head.

A possible drop off in high season travel to New York?

Speaking of "scratching": According to the Associated Press, a fear of bedbugs may be leading to a rash of cancellations for NYC vacations this fall. With reported outbreaks at a number of hotels, in Bloomingdales and at Broadway theaters a number of travelers are calling off long-planned trips to the Big Apple.

I'll be following this story to see if the cancellations are wide-spread enough to cause a dent in hotel pricing. Should be interesting.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Freebie Friday: Free Sicily Excursion and the Chance to Travel with Moi

I've spilled so much virtual ink on this blog writing about other people's travels, yet I'd almost forgotten to mention my own upcoming trip. And its one that you, dear reader, can take with me.

Every other year, or so, I accompany a tour for listeners to my radio show. So that's the impetus for the tour, but, in reality, its open to anyone who wants to join.

Taormina (photo by Gnucx)

My last jaunt was a whirlwind gallop around China. This one should be much, much more relaxing, focusing on La Dolce Vita in a place where living that way has been raised to an art form: Sicily. In the course of the tour, we'll hit all of the island's highpoints with a professional guide. We tour the Greek ruins at Agrigento (as important as any you'd find in Greece), the Byzantine churches and palaces in Palermono, small medieval villages, and the historic churches and buildings of Syracusa and Taormina.

And then we'll do something wonderful: we'll have free days during which we can explore on our own. Its a schedule that I personally think is the best of both worlds. We'll get oriented in each new site with a pro, and then we'll have time to ourselves to adventure on our own, without a big group in tow. Most of the meals are also independent, key for an island with this many great but too-tiny-for-a-busload-of-people Mom-and-Pop restaurants.

The tour runs from March 17-28. And here's where the freebie comes in: If you book before end of day on October 29, you'll receive a free additional excursion for one of the non-touring days. 

For complete information, please click here. Would love to have you join me in beautiful Sicily!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lady Gaga is Postponing Her Trip, Should You? The News from France

The pictures are shocking. Marseilles' streets strewn with garbage (trash hasn't been collected in over a week now); massive lines at gas stations that are running out of fuel (CNN reports that 1000 stations have now had to shutter due to lack of supply); canceled flights and train runs; helmeted police clashing with protesters. And today the BBC is reporting that protesters have a plan to "step up protests" in the coming days, with possible strikes going on until at least November 3.
Strikers in Marseilles; photo by Tony Gab

These problems, combined with the general terror warning issued by the US State Department on October 3 against travel to all of Europe, and most notably France, are, understandably, making North American travelers nervous. I've received several emails in the last few days into our radio show's mailbox from listeners wondering if they should cancel their upcoming trips to France.

If I had a crystal ball I could answer that question definitively. Since I don't, I'll shoot from the gut and say "yes" if you're planning to travel in the next month (and can get your money back) and "no" if your trip is scheduled for later.

Here's my reasoning: the protests are a tactic that disgruntled citizens are using to try and sway an upcoming vote on new austerity measures (the one that's caused the most ire concerns raising the retirement age from 60 to 62). That vote will occur, according to President Sarkozy, by the middle of next week. There may be several more days of protests and strikes after that (as there has been in the past in France and other European countries, after unpopular measures have been passed) but I would be very surprised, looking at recent history, if the actions go into December or beyond.

Nothing can be guaranteed, of course. I was in Barcelona three weeks ago during a general strike (and the ensuing small riots). It was sparked by austerity measures that had already been signed into law. After that one day of chaos, all returned to calm in Spain. The streets were cleaned, graffiti wiped away and it was almost as if the protests hadn't flared up. Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I'm guessing we'll see a similar timeline in France.

On the terrorism front, I speak as a New Yorker who's seen that anything can happen anywhere and at any time. We need to keep living our lives. From what I'm reading the French have considerably upped the amount of security at the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and other tourist sites. There's not much more they can do. Nor can we definitively say we're safer here in the US. I just got back from Spain and felt as safe there, if not more so,  as I do in my hometown of New York City.

So I'll be taking my family to Europe (Sicily in our case) in the coming months and I'd urge you to do the same. Its a huge area; if we stop traveling to Europe well... To use that old, but true, cliche: we've let the terrorists win. And we don't want to do that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jaw-dropping Cruise Bargains in the Coming Weeks and Months

About once every two weeks, I'm invited to speak on a podcast or radio show, and the question is always asked: "What's the best deal in travel right now"? My answer is always the same. I give a plug to our National Parks and then go on to cruising. Really, in terms of costs there are few vacations that can match water-borne ones for value. Some cases in point:
The Norwegian Pearl (photo by Bernard Sieker)
  • Norwegian Sky: Four-night sailing round-trip from Miami to the Bahamas, $129 on November 1 (that's just $33 a day!)
  • Queen Mary 2: 23 day voyage for $1800 between New York and Cape Town, South Africa ($82 a day for one of the most elegant, luxurious ships afloat). Departure January 13
  • Costa Atlantica: Quebec City to Fort Lauderdale, via Bermuda 14 days for $549 on October 24.
  • Norwegian Pearl: Board on Halloween in Miami for a round-trip through the Caribbean costing just $399 for a full week at sea
  • MSC Poesia: 10 days in the Caribbean (boarding and debarking in Fort Lauderdale) for just $299. This price holds for a November 11 sailing.
To find these prices, simply surf the web either to the cruise line sites directly, or the sites of such discounters as VacationsToGo, OnlineVacationCenter or CruisesOnly

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Context Tours Expands Its Offerings to Boston, Istanbul, Madrid and Athens

We were in the Vatican, crowds swirling around us, yet my two young daughters (then aged 6 and 10) stood still and quiet, raptly staring at a small, elaborately carved, stone sarcophagus. It was the coffin of a very young ancient Roman, likely no more than 7 years of age, our guide explained to us. That made the work very, very rare because most well-to-do children from the age of the Caesars wouldn't have lived with their parents until they were over 10. So many young children died in those days, she went on to say, that parents found it easier not to get to know their children until they were of an age when they'd likely survive. So they were farmed out to live with servants until they were older.

This was just one of the fascinating tidbits we learned on Context Travel's family Vatican tour. That its stuck with me for over a year is testament, I think, to what a powerful experience the tour was for our entire family.

Idiosyncratic, engaging and high quality walking tours are the hallmark of Context which, unlike many tour companies, carefully vets all its guides. Instead of using full-time professional tour guide, it turns to the academic community when hiring, letting graduate students and professors earn a bit of extra cash for putting together these intellectual yet entertaining walks.

Rome was the first city Context served, soon adding Venice, Florence, Paris, London, New York and Philadelphia. I was pleased to learn yesterday that the company has now added the four cities in the headline of this piece to its offerings. Among the tours in these city's, I was particularly intrigued by the Goya in Madrid walk (which takes participants to works of the master in situ) and the exploration of the Acropolis in Greece, which is being labeled a "seminar" and is led by a noted archaeologist.

For more info on Context, click on the link above.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hurry! JetBlue's Floating a One Day Sale (Plus a Suggestion for Travelers Headed for France)

Boston (photo by D.P.Ohmer)
Yesterday, when my family flew back home from Louisville, KY on Continental, my 7-year-old, sounding like a commercial, whined as we boarded "Why can't we fly Jetblue?" Yes, such is the power of seat-back TV's and free blue potato chips, at least for the Sponge Bob set.

For adults, the lure comes down to reasonable pricing and those fares have gotten a heckuva lot more reasonable today, thanks to a one-day, nearly system-wide sale. Rates start at a mouthwatering $29 each way, with particularly good fares into and out of Boston. Some examples:

  • Pittsburgh, Baltimore, NYC or Buffalo to or from Boston: $39 each way
  • Fort Lauderdale to/and from Nassau: $29 each way ($39 from Orlando)
  • San Francisco to Austin: $99 each way

These prices are good on flights from Oct 25 through Dec 15, with anything around Thanksgiving, alas, blacked out.

Full details on the sale, can be found by clicking here. Act quickly! This sale disappears at the stroke of midnight, ET.

Bonjour France, bonjour strikes!

Several weeks ago, I flew into Barcelona on the day that general strikes were scheduled to hit. Hearing about the problems in advance, I arranged for a friend to meet me at the airport with a car. Lucky I did: public transportation had ground to a halt. A number of bus drivers who tried to work that day, got their windsheilds smashed.

I was surprised to meet a number of Americans on the plane who had no idea what awaited them on the ground. They hadn't heard about the strike and neither had their travel agents, who'd booked them onto trains upon their arrival in Barcelona.

So, today's blog is a bit of a PSA: If you're planning on flying into France tomorrow (or taking a train into that country or within that country), contact your travel agent, airline or rail line. Strikes are afoot. And the government has just issued a request to the airlines to cancel 50% of their flights tomorrow. There have already been disruptions today thanks to a wildcat strike of the employees who refuel planes.

Vive la France!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Freebie Friday: Free Hotel Nights In London

(Photo by Bruno Girin)
Today's blog is an appreciation for the encore performance of one of the best deals in travel: British Airways pledge to travelers of two free hotel nights at quite decent hotels, with the purchase of a round-trip BA ticket. Travel must take place between October 21 and April 3 (excluding December 21, 22 and 23 though not Christmas or New Years Eve, which is quite unusual). Available gateways are across the United States (codeshare flights on American Airlines are eligible). The two free nights are based on double, triple or quad occupancy of the rooms. Single travelers, alas, get a single night (still better than nothing).

And as always this is an act quick offer. To snag the free hotel room, you MUST pay up by October 26. For complete information, click here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bedbugs, Barcelona and Baby Wipes

Three quick links for a combination of must-read articles and must-book deals.

Don't Let 'Em Bite
One of my favorite travel writers, Andrea Sachs of the Washington Post, has a terrific article out all about the scourge that's keeping hotel managers up nights. I'm talking, of course, about bedbugs, a growing problem across the United States (but particularly in my home town of New York City. Oy!) Obviously, the number of people getting them in hotels is still relatively small, but because people are constantly checking into and out of hotels, they're good breeding ground for the little pests.

In the piece, Andrea has a video and some helpful written advice on how to check one's room and protect your suitcase so you don't accidentally bring the scourge home with you. See the link above for the complete article.

Impressive BCN Deal
Parc Guell Grotto, Barcelona
Sceptre Tours is branching out well beyond its core Ireland business it seems and announced an impressive deal to Barcelona today. It will be charging just $699 plus tax (about $140) for airfare and a six-night stay in the dazzling city of Barcelona for travel between Nov 1 and Feb 28 (with some blackout dates). Lowest rates are from New York City, though there are also deals to be had from Boston, Miami and Chicago. While the "5-star" hotel is quite poorly located (at the top of Tibadao, which means it will have great views but will be a schlep to most of the city's tourist sites) the package as a whole is quite well-priced. Click here for full details. 

One note: the offer gives the option of adding a rental car which seems superfluous in a city with such terrific public transportation. I'd skip that add-on.

Plane Air
My final suggestion today is that you take a look at Barbara Peterson's recent New York Times piece on the non-link between illness and re-circulated air on planes. Seems that scientists are finding that you're no more likely to get germs through circulating air aboard a plane as you would be in an office. The reasons why are detailed in the piece.

Of course, you can get sick from your plane ride. The pressurization, and drieness of the air can give passengers a mild bout of altitude sickness, according to Peterson.

Touch an area on which viruses have taken up residence (your tray table, perhaps or the door to the loo or an overhead compartment) and then touch your fingers to your nose and mouth and you're going to get sick. In fact, I'm guessing that's what may have happened to me on my flight back from Barcelona on Tuesday, so I'm going to sign off now and drink some more throat coat before my plane ride tomorrow (when I guess I can infect someone else in revenge with my germs).

Good night and don't let the bedbugs bite (especially if you're in a hotel!)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Noteworthy Sale on British Bus Fares

Why do so many North Americans head to the UK and then never leave the confines of London itself? Sure, its hard to pry oneself away from the wonder that is London. But you'd think after a long, pricey TransAtlantic one would want to explore just a bit further.

Part of the problem may be the high cost of travel within the British Isles. Rent a car, and you're looking at 55 GBP or more, depending on where you pick up the car per day. Add on to that the high cost of petrol, and tootling around the UK with your own wheels becomes a less appealing option.  Trains are hardly better. In researching the fares between London and Leeds, I couldn't come up with anything better than 27 GBP for a one-way ticket.

But you don't have to pay those rates. If you get lucky, you'll pick up a bus fare for just 1GBP from  National Express Coaches. Its current sale, which covers all of the major cities in the UK and a number of minor ones (London, Cambridge, Exeter, Manchester, Leeds, Chelmsford, etc) is dropping the cost of a seat to as little as 1 GBP, capping the highest one will pay at 10 GBP.

Leeds Castle (photo by Jim Crossley)
Tickets must be purchased by November 10 for travel through December 12 (sorry, no Christmas travel). For full details, head to the link above. Hopefully, this sale will inspire Brit-bound Americans to rove a bit further.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Vagueries of Getting To and From Barcelona's Airport

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
"Why no trains?"
"The rain."
"The trains don't run in the rain?"
"Not in Spain."

This was today's lesson on this, the last day of a two-week trip through Spain.

So, once again, my trip to the airport was derailed. Flying into the country, I accepted the kindness of a stranger (a friend of a friend, actually) who offered me a ride in from the airport since a general strike had severely limited all other options. Today, I got drenched flagging down cabs in the Passeig Gracia.

Ah well. Its a small hassle in what has been a genuinely soul-stirring, two-week adventure in Catalonia. I've blogged a bit about it on my Weight Watchers blog. I'll also be running a series of columns on the experience, which I'll link to from this blog once they appear.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Unusual Source for Estimating Per Diem Costs While On Vacation

Nantucket's Pricey Surf (photo by Miles Gehm)
Let the US government help you figure out how much you're going to spend on vacation. That's the sage advice from Jane Engle of the LA Times in a piece she did recently how the federal government, through the US General Services Administration, decides how much government employees can spend, per day, when they're on the road on official business. The per diem changes by both location and date.

And it turns out federal employees travel very similarly to the way I do. They don't stay at moderately priced hotels (no Ritz Carltons or Four Seasons), and they eat at moderate places, though they aren't expected to really scrimp by eating at chains.

Not surprisingly, the highest per diem in the US is for its most expensive city: New York. But its only king of the hill, top of the heap price-wise in the fall and early winter. In the summer months, the cost of hotels, meals and sundry items is higher in Massachusetts, on the exclusive little island of Nantucket.

To read the complete piece, click on the link above.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Freebie Friday: Free Entrance to United States National Parks on Nov 11

Few values in travel rival those of the United States' national parks. Areas of intense beauty and historic interest, they're also darn cheap, with many of the system's 392 parks allowing free entrance year-round and the rest never charging more than $25 per carload of people per week.

November is a wonderfully temperate time to visit Death Valley National Park (photo by John Bruckman)
To sweeten the pot even further, several times a year every single park in the system drops their entrance fees entirely, and throws in free events to boot (tours, ranger lectures, workshops, kids programs, you name it).

The next free date will be November 11, in honor of Veteran's Day. Several of the outside concessionaires in the parks will be throwing in coupons for discounts on meals and souvenirs, so be sure to keep an eye out for those if you decide to take advantage of this freebie.

To learn more about the free days, including when they'll be happening in 2011, click here. The link will also lead to pages giving general information on all the parks in the system.  When I last checked, 2011's dates had not yet been set, but I'm expecting the information to pop up any minute now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Book for Every Trip: Librarian Nancy Pearl Makes Her Suggestions

My first trip to India wouldn't have been as rich had I not been reading Salmon Rushdie's masterwork "Midnight's Children" on the plane on the way over and at night after exhilarating, exhausting days exploring Delhi, Agra and Udaipur. The book taught me much about the modern history of the country, and help me decipher the complex, utterly foreign scenes I saw in front of me on the streets of these cities every day. Reading the book in conjunction with my trip was, without hyperbole, a transcendent experience.

I feel much the same way about reading "The Sun Also Rises" in Spain, "The Leopard" in Sicily and EB White's "This Is New York" in my hometown.

But finding the right book to read when you go is key. And I'm not just talking guidebooks (you know my last name, so you should know what I'd recommend for those!).  Though many of us no longer have to worry about book weights anymore thanks to the I-Pad and the Kindle (well, I do; I'm a late adapter) taking the wrong book can be a bummer. It wastes your time during a period when your time is precious.

Enter Nancy Pearl, librarian, NPR commentator and awesome speed reader. She's put together a delightful book which recommends literally thousands of other books for every major destination in the world and more than a number of minor ones. Whether you're heading to Paris, Parma or Detroit, you'll find expert recommendations on what books to bring.

Pearl's writing is concise but full of passion and often very personal. In her introduction to books on Spain, for example, she discusses the fact that her father fought in the Spanish Civil War and considered it to be his most important achievement. Her book suggestions heavily weigh towards that war and the continuing  impact it has today on the lives of Spaniards.

Its a personal list, so everyone will have quibbles. I was surprised not to see any books by Hemingway in the Spain section.

For the most part though, she's right on. And when I spoke with her the other day (we interviewed her for our radio show), she assured me that she'd read every single book she recommended. If you see the size of the tome, you'll know what an accomplishment that is.

The book just hit bookstores this week. If you have an avid traveler  among your friends or family, consider it as a gift for them. Its that kind of book.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Have Harley, Will Vacation! A Travel Guide for Bikers

Full disclosure: in college, for one night only, I was that chick in a skirt on the back of a big motorcycle. It was a one-night stand...with the cycle that is (though I didn't go out with the guy again, either). But the motorcycle ride was, by far, the best part of the night (and the week for that matter). It really was like a roller coaster ride; and I understood in a very visceral way, why these big boys are so appealing to, well, big boys.

I hadn't thought much about folks vacationing by motorcycle until I got a chance to interview the charming Gary McKechnie, who's written the definitive guide to biking vacations "Great American Motorcycle Tours". A winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for guidebooks, the book is now in its fourth edition.

(Photo by Biker 650)
The book makes an excellent case for a wide-range of people, even tiny wimps like me (I'm 5'3) to consider hitting the road on a Harley. When Gary describes the experience of being out in the elements, smelling the pine trees and feeling the wind on his face--well, it just makes you want to don something leather and hit the accelerator (or at least it did for me). Along with info on bike tours, Gary gives good advice on safety and training for novice motorcyclists.

Its also a darn good book for people traveling by car, frankly. Though the routes picked are those that would be good for bikers (not too crowded; filled with adrenalin-pumping twists and turns; and morphing from one type of landscape to another), reading the book I thought I'd like to try these in a car, or on bicycle. That may be because Gary introduces the reader to many hidden corners of the United States alive, offering dramatic, often humorous capsule histories for each area he covers. Good advice on affordable accommodations and restaurants is also offerred.

If you've ever wanted to be an "Easy Rider" for a week, a month or a year, this is the essential guide to get. Heck, its even got a preface by Peter Fonda!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Europe's Ferries for a Fair Price

Planes, trains and automobiles are fine and dandy. But savvy travelers to Europe often get where they're going by water. And even savvier ones head first to which has, for the past 21 years, been finding the lowest prices on ferries in all parts of Europe.
One of the ferries that connects the Greek islands to the mainland (photo by Brit Rob)

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I've just discovered the website. It features excellent ferry rates from all parts of the British Isles (the UK and Ireland) to France, Spain, and Italy; as well as impressive pricing to and from the Greek Isles, between Spain and Morocco and on a number of other routes. There's even a special booking engine for groups. Best prices are those sent to the subscribers to their free newsletter, so sign up if you plan to be traveling within Europe by ferry anytime soon.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Not sure what you're likely to spend in Los Angeles, Louisville or Lubbock? Ask the Federal Government!

I once had a libertarian say to me, in the midst of a heated political discussion "Name one good thing the government's ever done." I came up with about 20 on the spot, starting with roads and ending with overseeing food safety (the discussion also ended the friendship with the woman who married this guy; I hear they're now divorced so I have to give her a call!).

Not surprisingly, Vail, Colorado has some of the highest daily costs in the Untied States (photo by Rob Pongsajapan)
Well now, I have a 21st to add, if I ever meet him again. And that 21st item (and of course there really are more) is: the Federal Government is a good source to consult when planning travel and trying to figure out the per diem costs of a day in any of the major cities in the United States.

You see, the General Service Administration sets caps for per diem pay for federal employees and does extensive research to figure out how much each place will cost. The daily rates change seasonally and are based on criterion that most American travelers use when they travel. Federal employees aren't expected to share a bathroom when they travel to cut costs, but they can't book themselves into the Ritz either. Food budget is not based on chain meals, but meals at real restaurants, though not the high-end ones. And all of these costs, broken down by county, are available online to the public.

I first learned of the per diems from an article by Jane Engle in the LA Times. Its an interesting piece that delves into which cities are priciest, and how the per diems are arrived at. Click here to read the whole thing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday's Freebie: Priceline's New Freebie Finder

A hot breakfast, a pass to a local gym or parking lot, activity kits for the kids--these types of giveaways  not only make a hotel stay more pleasant, they can also be serious money savers. Which is why I was happy to see Priceline's new freebie searcher debut three weeks ago. 
A full English Breakfast can keep you full through lunch! Photo by Paul Sapiano

I decided, at that time, not to write it up right away as it was a bit glitchy. A lot of the "freebies" listed were, in reality, just purported discounts off the daily rate (ie not a freebie, and in a number of cases I checked, not that great a deal, either). I'm hoping that these issues will be solved by the time you read this blog.

As with regular bookings on Priceline, users input a city to see a list of options. Here, however, the customer doesn't input dates into the freebie finder which is a bit of a hassle. Once he finds a freebie he likes, he must then hit the calendar to see if its being offered on the dates he's traveling. 

William Shatner, if you're listening: lets reverse the search order. Have users put in dates alongside the names of the city they're searching, then you guys let them know if freebies will be available. That's sort of what does for car rentals (it applies discount codes not freebies, but its the same concept), so the technology must be there. 

Another good source for hotel freebies: It'll be interesting to see whether this little start-up competes with the better known Priceline on this front. They pioneered the freebie search for hotels, but it looks like their thunder's been stolen.