Friday, July 30, 2010

Surprising Providence

Recently, a blogger named Nomadic Matt posted a provocative tweet. He asked "What are the places you have no desire to visit?" and he mentioned that he didn't have any desire to go to Saudi Arabia.

Now there are some places I won't visit, such as Myanmar, because people I respect have called for a boycott on travel there. But that doesn't mean I don't wish I could visit.

In fact, I can't think of anyplace I wouldn't want to set foot in, at least once. Long experience has taught me (hello Moline, IL! hello Birmingham, AL!) that whatever preconceptions I've had about a place are going to be turned upside down once I'm there. And that always, always, I'm going to find something in the place that makes the trip worth my while.

Take Providence, RI, where I currently am. Frankly, it wasn't on the top of my list. I'd visited half a dozen times in the past, mostly on business or to see friends. It had been pleasant. But today and last night, I approached the city like a tourist and I have to say it proves my point: look for worthwhile diversions and ye shall find them!

Like the superb Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Not only does the museum house works by some of the big names in art for the last two centuries--Rothko, Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Monet, Manet and more--it also stretches far into the past displaying masterworks from ancient Egypt and Asia. An imposing, serene 9-foot tall Buddha--one of the largest Japanese statues in the United States--takes over all over one large gallery, transforming it into an impromptu temple.

The museum's contemporary art collection is none too shabby, either, and illuminated (as all the areas are, frankly) with wonderfully informative, yet succinct, wall text. If another work of art is referenced by the artists, the curators let you know. If an artist is influenced by some historic event, or using a bit of personal history to inform their work, the wall text connects the dots in a downright dynamic manner. Really, whoever curates this museum has a real talent for making visitors feel like they're being guided through by a very savvy friend, who has a flair for the dramatic detail.

I also enjoyed the way the museum works with the up-and-coming artists at RISD. Currently, there's a lovely exhibit pairing ancient Asian textiles with the textiles and fashion pieces they inspired current students to create.

A final must-see at the museum: its stunning collection of decorative arts. This was the first museum, after all, to dedicate an entire wing to American decorative arts and it has objects you're going to wish were in your own home from Frank Lloyd Wright, Dale Chihuly, Louis Comfort Tiffany and many other less well-known but still copiously talented craftspeople.

One note: the Museum of Art is closed, alas, for the month of August.

I didn't stop at the museum, though. I also made it to the Governor Henry Lippit House Museum (see photos) a Victorian gem of a home, that offers an instructive lesson in faking your way to great design. Throughout the interior are stunning marble walls, precious wood panneling and works of marquetry....all painted on plaster. These works, along with beautifully painted walls meant to evoke the designs of the Alhambra in Spain, give the home a quirky majesty that's really quite compelling. The tour smartly pairs discussion of the interior design and engineering of the house  with information on the tragic history of the family. I don't want to give away the tour's surprises. Go, you'll enjoy it. Open tours takes place every hour on the hour from 11am to 2pm on Fridays, though you can call on other days of the week and they'll usually show you through.

Other cultural treats of the city: strolling through the handsome Brown University Campus and among the boutiques and restaurants of the Down city Arts District. Restaurant and bar hopping in Providence's bustling Italian neighborhood, Federal Hill. Heading to the excellent Trinity Rep for a show.

I look forward to coming back here again, and discovering more.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Arguments Against Vacation Home Ownership

Purchase a vacation home? That's professional suicide for a travel writer who needs to be constantly exploring new places.

But try to explain that to my husband, a country boy living in New York City who longs to get away from concrete and traffic on a regular basis.

Well, it looks like the New York Times has given me a few more weapons in my "argument arsenal". According to the experts they quote, buying a vacation home typically ends up costing thousands of dollars more than purchasers expect. The costs go well beyond the initial price, into yearly maintenance and repair fees. Buyers also don't end up using the place nearly as much as they thought they would. Typical usage of a vacation home is just 30 days per year. The solution for many: renting the  home for part of the year. But becoming a landlord has its own hassles attached. Paul Sullivan, the author of the piece, concludes that simply going to hotels each year for vacation is likely the most relaxing option.

Thank you Paul! Frankly, its not just my career that makes me shy away vacation homes. Its the time suck that ownership of any property entails. And I just don't like the idea of being tied to the same place for vacations year after year. I like to get out in the world, experience new places and peoples. Which may be why I became a travel writer in the first place.

(Photo by DVRO)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Law Passed!! The law passed :(

Just a quick blog to update you all on two travel-related bills that have been working their way into law.

In the good news column, yesterday President Obama signed the Cruise Safety Act into law. Though not a perfect law, it makes significant strides towards protecting passengers on the high seas; ensuring that better records of crimes on cruise ships are kept (and shared with American authorities); and will make it easier to prosecute crimes once they occur. Some of the new requirements for the cruiselines include cameras in more public places and on the sides of ships to capture images should a passenger fall overboard; and a minimum height standard for guard rails. I'll be following this issue to report on how the federal authorities are doing in enforcing these standards.

It'll be quite interesting to see, too, whether the reputation of cruising shifts at all. Up until this point, its been impossible to know just how safe the activity is, since no credible crime statistics have ever been kept. Word of mouth reports on cruising have been good, of course. And I've taken a number of cruises and have always felt safe from crime onboard.

But with this new law, the crimes will have to be reported in a timely and professional manner, and crime scenes will be preserved. Which means there will finally be some hard data for us all to work from, and I'm grateful for that development.

The other law, signed last Friday by Governor Patterson of New York, wipes out an entire industry in New York City. I'm speaking of short term rentals. The new law makes it illegal for any New York City resident to rent their own home for less than 30 days. Those rental agents who played matchmaker between visitors and residents will now be out of business. And the city, in the midst of a terrible budget crisis, will lose the tax revenue that these sorts of stays once generated. Smart move, State Senate and Governor Patterson.

I have no doubt that the many New Yorkers who rent out there apartments to tourists for short time periods will continue to do so. Many need to do so just to make ends meet. As well, visitors want, no, need to have this sort of option. New York City has the highest hotel rates in this hemisphere, partially because, even with all the recent hotel development, there simply aren't enough hotel beds to accommodate all the people who want to visit. These rentals were a necessary part of the lodgings scene. So short-term rentals will continue to exist though they will take place on the black market, which is terrible news for travelers, who'll have many fewer protections when they rent than they did in the past.

A movement is underway to get the law repealed. We'll see where that leads. Sigh.

(Photo by Matt)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A new and effective way to get deep discounts to Broadway shows

I've long been a fan of, the website that shares discount codes for shows in New York City, London, Las Vegas and Orlando (as well as for concert tours). My only quibble with the site has been that often its discounts aren't as deep as those that can be obtained standing at the half-priced ticket booths in the first three cities. I've used BroadwayBox anyway, because having the ability to book tickets in advance (and skip the lines) justifies that uptick in price, at least to my mind.

Well, it looks like I'm going to be able to get the proverbial cake and eat it too, thanks to a new system set up by BroadwayBox. Its called and it offers daily deals, with the steepest discounts on the market (lower even than the half-priced booths, apparently). 

Here's how it works: users register their names and email addresses with the site. In the morning, they receive a deal alert, one per day, giving them access to discounted seats for one particular show. Each morning, the show is different, as is the number of performances on offer. Today, for example, the discount was for just one performances of the musical Chicago tomorrow, but prices were unbeatable at just $66 per seat (a very, very low price for a hit musical on Broadway). Patrons have until 3pm today (or after lunch, hence the name "lunch tix") to book. Yesterday, the discount was also impressive, knocking a substantial chunk off the cost of tickets to the Tony-Award winning musical Memphis for four performances at the end of the month.

At this stage, LunchTix is only available for shows in New York, but when I spoke with the marketing manager of yesterday, he intimated that the site will be expanding to cover other cities soon. 

I think its a terrific tool, not only for people who live in the Big Apple, but for visitors who want to see shows, but don't want to lose precious vacation time standing online (and sweltering!) in Times Square or at the South Street Seaport.  And I'm looking forward to opening my email tomorrow and seeing what  potential goodies it holds!

(Photo by Matt McGee)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Independent Bicycle Trips: A Blog Gives the "How To's"

Look for info on bike trips, and you'll likely stumble upon glossy catalogues featuring pictures of pricey inns, vineyards, 5-star restaurants and large groups of people biking together. It seems like the activity has been overtaken both by luxury travelers; and folks who feel more comfortable in the setting of a guided tour. Helpful information on independent biking vacations is quite, quite difficult to find.

Which is why I was so pleased to stumble upon the writing of Nancy Sathre-Vogel. For the last year and a half, she, her husband and two young sons, have been biking the Americas from Alaska to Argentina. Their experience is set down in her blog Family on Bikes, and while the adventures they've had make for pleasant reading, its the nitty gritty advice, much of which done in articles for the Chicago Examiner (and linked to from the site), that give the blog its power and utility.

How many miles should one bike in a day? Which paniers (basically saddle bags for bikes) are best? Which types of bikes to use for weeklong, or longer, jaunts? What are the pros and cons of bike shorts? These questions, and many more, are answered in a frank, detailed and ultimately comforting fashion. Even novice cyclists, after perusing the blog, should feel like they have the tools to plan their own biking vacation and to plan a successful one at that.

Take a look at the blog. It really does contain some gems.

(Photo by Richard Masoner)

Friday, July 23, 2010

New York City Gives Birth to the Non-Tour Tour

Last night, I walked two long blocks in Brooklyn with my eyes closed. I wrote a group poem on the sands of Brighton Beach with six strangers. And created a collage out of found objects (read garbage) in a playground as nearby teenagers derisively asked if the group I was in was "shrooming".

Believe it or not, I was on a guided tour.

But not the type of once-over-lightly discussion of culture and history one gets on the typical guided tour. This tour was created by Elastic City (; tours $25 for 1.5 hours), an organization of young NYC-based artists, and it felt more like a happening than anything else.

It was also, I have to say, alternately meditative, embarrassing, and exhilarating.

The tour I took--"Brighton Zaum"-- was led by the founder of Elastic City, Todd Shalom, and was an auditory tour of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Yes,  sort of like Hillary Clinton's listening tours, but instead of trying to get elected, we were trying to experience the neighborhood in a new way. After doing an exercise in listening skills (that I won't give away; it was fun), we started to silently stroll around this somewhat exotic area of mostly Russian immigrants, with Shalom instructing us on different ways to listen for sounds.

That may sound dull, but actually it was the most zen, relaxing half hour I've had this week. Eye-opening, too. Not to get too groovy about this, but I started to feel like I was experiencing my body's relationship with the spaces around it in a different way. The air seemed to take on unaccustomed weight (beyond the humidity!), and distances between objects seemed more palpable. We weren't "shrooming", as the teenagers guessed, but the walk had a pleasantly psychedelic feel to it.

The second half of the tour was more active, with the "blind walk" (a partner kept me from crashing into a tree; yes, this was the embarrassing part of the tour), and exercises creating group works of art (exhilarating--we wrote a darn good poem in the sand).

Would I recommend it to visitors to New York City? Absolutely. Elastic City has a provocative list of places it explores, including such tourist powerhouses as Ground Zero and the Brooklyn Bridge. And while you're not going to learn the facts and figures about the places you're visiting (you can read about those later), you will engage in your surroundings in a way few outsiders, or even New Yorkers, do. If you can be open to the experience, I think you'll gain a lot of insights not just about the area you're visiting, but also about yourself.

From now on, I'm going to keep an eye out for artist-led tours in other parts of the world. They're a wonderful way not only to see unusual sides of the destination you're visiting, but also to support young artists (so important in these recessionary times).

(Photo by Meg Zimbeck)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Free bus tickets from Philly to a number of cities (including far-flung Toronto)

I appreciate it when companies try to do the right thing. And I think that's what Megabus tries to do.

This fleet of low-cost busses covering some of the most popular routes in the US and Canada (Montreal to Toronto, NYC to Washington, DC, Chicago to Memphis, etc.) guarantees some $1 seats on every one of their itineraries (and even the more expensive rides rarely exceed $20). Drivers are trained to operate their vehicles in a green fashion, never idling the motors too long and filling up the tires properly, to make the most of the gas on board (in fact, a GPS system and other onboard computers track these issues for the company). And because Megabus runs double decker busses between many destinations, they can carry twice as many folks on the same amount of fuel as the competition.

To celebrate the debut of routes to and from Philadelphia yesterday, Megabus gave away 10,000 free seats. From what I hear, many are still available, particularly on the Philly-Toronto routes. In addition, Megabus will be working with local tour operators in Philly (from walking tour companies to trolly tours) to give discounts to their passengers of 10% to 20%. That new program will be announced next week.

Currently, Megabus has routes in both the US and Canada. For more information on the dozens of routes the company services, go to

(Photo by Fred Camino)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One last chance to save the vacation rental option in New York City

When my older daughter was just a year and a half, we rented our first vacation apartment. It had a little kitchen, a living room with a cot for our daughter and a lovely balcony overlooking a garden which was big enough for a table and four chairs. The roominess of the apartment, its low cost (as compared to local hotels) and the cooking facilities made life for our traveling family very pleasant that week.

The apartment also happened to be in the old Jewish Quarter of Rome, so we got a delightful peek at the real life of Rome. In the evenings, we saluted our neighbors across the way as they ate on their balcony and we fed our daughter and sipped wine. After a few days, the counterpeople in the shops started to treat us like old friends. And we started to feel like we were "home" when we rounded the corner onto our narrow street.

It was a magical experience, the first of many rental vacations for us.

We've been lucky to have been allowed to "live like a local" on vacations. Those who will follow in our footsteps are going to find more and more obstructions in their path.

As I reported on this blog, Paris is now starting to enforce its ban on rentals of less than a year. Similar bans are already in effect in Maui County, Hawaii (Maui, Molokai and Lanai) and Las Vegas.And the Big Apple may be next.

Several weeks ago, a bill passed the state senate in New York, making it illegal to rent out an apartment for less than 30 days in New York City. I had assumed that the bill had been signed into law by Governor Patterson, but it turns out I was wrong. He is expected to sign it tomorrow.

Which is just enough time to launch a protest and, hopefully, get the Governor to look more closely at the bill. A number of rental agents in New York City have put together a petition which will be sent to the Governor, hopefully with many, many signatures on it. I think the arguments they put forward in it are sensible and straightforward. Briefly, they cover the loss of tax revenue to the city (as guests in short term rentals pay the same taxes hotel guests do), the damage to small businesses that cater to these tourists (who may now choose a more affordable destination) and the overreaching of the government on the issue of property rights. One of the stated purposes of the bill, to protect tourists against con artists, will actually be undermined by the new law. If it passes, I have no doubt there will soon be a black market of vacation rentals and that's bad news for everyone.

To view the petition, go to I hope you'll join me in clicking the button and being counted! There's no reason why visitors to the most expensive city in this hemisphere shouldn't be able to take advantage of this lodging option.

(Photo by Josey Showaa)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Intrepid Travel's 21st anniversary sale is worth a look

Okay, it's a bit gimmicky, but I'm going to bite anyway.

Earlier this summer, small-group adventure tour operator Intrepid Travel cut prices on a number of its tours by 20%.

That was then. Earlier this week, these generous Aussies made the deal just an itsy bitsy, teeny tiny bit sweeter by adding (drumroll!) a 1% discount onto the offer.

Okay, so they're saying that they're discounting 21% in honor of the company's 21st anniversary. I'm guessing they need to fill spaces and are looking for some publicity.

Whatever. Intrepid's prices are so terrific to begin with--many tours start at just $45 per person per day--  any extra discounting means jaw-droppingly low rates for vacations.

To get the complete scoop, head over to Intrepid's website. The discount is for trips departing by the end of September.

(Photo of Sabah, Malaysia by Atikah Akeman)

Monday, July 19, 2010

USA Today confirms my call of several weeks ago: Hardly anyone is cruising AK this summer so the deals are delish

I alerted you several weeks ago to the fact that prices were unexpectedly dropping on Alaskan cruises. I say "unexpectedly" because this was supposed to be the year when fares rose. Many of the cruiselines had pulled ships from these icy waters in favor of sailings in the Mediterranean, the Far East and elsewhere; and it was the conventional wisdom that this hefty drop in the number of available AK cabins would serve to increase prices on the remaining ones.

It didn't happen.

And today, USA Today is reporting what I inferred several weeks ago: that nobody seems to want to go to Alaska this year (at least on a cruise ship; land travel there is apparently slightly up).

According to reporter Gene Sloan, 20% fewer cruisers came to the "Great Land" this May than last. This has had a corellary effect on rental cars (down 3%), the Alaskan railroad (ridership down 12%) and the hotel industry (which is predicted to rake in 8% less this year than last).

But what's bad news for Alaska, is good news for procrastinators. If you can rearrange your schedule to jump aboard a ship in the coming weeks there are some darn good sales available. Best prices, as always, are for one-way sailings (so airfare to the ports will be higher), and for September but there are some discounts even for the peak season of August.  Some examples:
  • August 21:  Diamond Princess, Whittier to Vancouver, 7 days for $599
  • August 27: Celebrity Millennium, Seward to Vancouver, 7 days for $599
  • August 27: RCL's Radience of the Seas, Vancouver to Seward, 7 days for $584
  • September 10: Celebrity Millennium, Seward to Vancouver, 7 days for $499
This is just a taste of what's out there. Visit the website of your favorite cruise discounter (and then visit one or two more, just to make sure you're getting the best rates) and you'll see what I mean. Affordable vacations, ripe for the picking!

(Photo by Rob Evans)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Air Sale for the Flexible Traveler from Montreal and Toronto to Istanbul, Athens and Rome

Dontcha wish you were one of those people who could just take off when a good sale fare was announced, even if the window for outbound flights was just four days long? With two kids, and a husband who works in a hospital, I need more flexibility than that.

But for all you real and Canadian jetsetters out there, KLM has a darn good deal for those travelers who can fly out between October 9 and 12. You can fly back anytime in the 12 months following that period (though you must include a Saturday-night stay in your itinerary). Meet those requirements and book by end of day July 19th and you could snag a fare that's a good $300 less than usual.

That fare is $875 round-trip. Period. And it applies to travel from either Montreal and Toronto to either Istanbul, Athens or Rome. For flights from Vancouver or Calgary, add $175 (still a good rate). Those prices include all taxes and fees.

The sale first appeared on Twitter several hours back. I have no idea how many seats are available at this rate, but I'd book it sooner rather than later as those Tweeters can be fast-moving and you don't want to turn your life upside down trying to get time off on those dates, only to find the seats are gone.

KLM also has a decent, less restricted sale going on to such destinations as Cyprus, Switzerland, Egypt, France, the UK and South Africa, so keep an eye peeled for those as well (but be sure to compare prices with other carriers before you purchase). Its round the world passes also may be worth a look, and are currently on 30% sale. Before you go for one of those, however, compare prices to those you'll find through such around the world specialists as

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Freebies at Hotels? Meet the Right People Online and You Could Be Set

Knowing the right people has all sorts of advantages. And now, thanks to the internet, getting to know the right people is getting easier than ever...if you're sneaky about it.

Take the case of my pal Carl. For about 20 years now, Carl has worked in the online world, though not in travel. But he knows enough to spot the pros among the amateurs. Which is just what he did when he started reading online reviews for a certain resort he was thinking of going to on the Mayan Riviera.

After reading through the standard "user reviews", he went onto a message board on which this resort was being discussed. There he noticed that a person who identified herself as a past guest, let's call her "Pearl", kept popping up to offer chipper, and very, very detailed answers to questions and advice. Advice that a mere vacationer likely couldn't have given, simply because she wouldn't have the depth of knowledge Pearl had.

Carl sent a direct message to Pearl with a question, and then mentioned to her that it was a special event trip for him and his family. Would Pearl know how to contact the concierge, Carl asked?  He'd like to ask a question directly, he said.

Boy did she ever. Within a week, Carl had snagged a room at a deep discount, far below what he'd been able to find elsewhere. When he arrived at the resort, he found that he and his family had been upgraded from the one room he thought the four of them were going to share, to a penthouse suite, with a large bedroom for Carl and his wife, and a bedroom each for the kids.  It didn't stop there. Carl and his wife got free bottles of wine in their room and the kids got free beach toys. Wherever they went on the resort, they were greeted by name.

Here's the thing: Carl doesn't twitter, and he may have 100 Facebook friends, if that. He has no influence whatsoever in the travel industry. But because he met Pearl, and let slip at some point that he'd likely write a user-generated review when he returned home, he was treated like Conrad Hilton or Brad Pitt.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article detailing the ways other hotel guests were feted, thanks to social media.

Frankly, I don't know how long the hotels will be able to keep this up. I very much doubt they got much, in tangible terms, from treating Carl in this fashion. (I suppose their reward will be in heaven, as he is a lovely guy and deserves good treatment.)

And once the public starts to realize that potential reviews are being bought in this fashion, will they take these user generated reviews as seriously? It'll be interesting to see where this trend is headed. In the meantime, milk it for all its worth, if you can!

(Photo by Chris Lott)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another Worthy Reason to Bring Your Children to Maine

The third most popular attraction in the state of Maine, after Acadia National Park and the J. Crew Outlet, isn't an amusement park, a national park or a super store. It's a garden, but a garden so well-curated and creatively designed it comes off more like a museum of horticulture. Formal gardens alternate with woodland trails which give way to gardens specifically designed to be experienced with all five senses. Included in the latter are plants that with unusually pleasing fragrances and textures as well as those that can be tasted!

I visited the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay and found the experience to be a delightfully zen, surprisingly intellectual activity (I learned a lot, thanks to the great little plaques next to the plants). When I left several hours after I arrived I felt as refreshed as if I'd taken a great pilates class.

This year, I hope to take my kids to experience their newly opened Children's Garden. It promises to be as innovative as the rest of the facility, with areas where the little ones can plant and tend flowers and other plants; as well as go through a maze, watch insect eating plants trap their prey, climb on whimsical sculptures and into a tree house, explore a recreated native American village and borrow books to read among the roses. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Caribbean Discounting Has Begun! First Up, SuperClubs and Sandals

I have a feeling this blog will just be the first of many on this topic. As the peak of hurricane season closes in on us, we're likely to see more and more Carib discounts, especially if a storm hits and scares everyone.

As for whether or not its wise to travel to the Caribbean during hurricane season, its something I've done in the past with no ill consequences.

The fact is, even during the most volatile seasons, the chances of being in the direct path of a storm are relatively small. The likelihood goes way up if one goes to the Bahamas rather than the Caribbean (the area that's historically gotten the most storms) and drops to virtually nil if you visit such islands as Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao or Margarita, which are considered to sit outside the "hurricane belt". Get insurance as soon as you book and then have a great time. Even better, book at the lowest rates for a November or early December trip, when the peak of hurricane season will have passed, but the hurricane pricing still remains in effect.

Onto the discounts. The first two that have caught my eye are from the "super-inclusive" resort chains of SuperClubs (which includes the Hedonism properties and the Breezes resorts) and the Sandals chain (Beaches, Royal Plantation and Grand Pineapple). At the first, discounts hit 55%, at Sandals the savings go up to 65%. But those figures don't tell the entire story, as SuperClubs is much less expensive to begin with. You might pay as little as $72 a night at a Superclubs property with this deal, while with Sandals you're more likely to pay $165 or more. Prices are based on double occupancy; expect to pay significantly more if you're traveling alone.

At both, a promise is made (and generally kept) that you won't have to open your wallet once you're on vacation. All meals are included, as are gratuities, transfers from the airport, liquor (even top shelf), activities (including the ones that incur extra charges at other resorts) and entertainment. Perhaps most impressively, you can get married for free at these resorts and many choose to do so, saying their vows in the sand, just like the happy couple in this photo.

As I said, this will be my first, but not my last Caribbean blog, so watch this space if this sort of vacation interests you.

(Photo by Rodney Hargnis)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Travel light, travel light, travel light...despite what the "experts" tell you

I just watched a video featuring a travel writer whose work I've greatly admired in the past. Said travel writer (who shall remain nameless), was making suggestions about what to bring aboard a cruise and pulled out from his/her handy bag of tricks:
  1. A huge hanging shoe rack
  2. A massive power strip
  3. A box of post-it notes
Oy, really? The shoe rack was  apparently the place in which you'd organize all the small items your bring and/or pick up on a cruise. Like...I don't know, your earings and jewelry? Or perhaps every seashell you find on the beach? Or souvenir mugs bought to commemorate each port you visit. Unless you plan to travel with a heckuva lot of shoes, I really don't know what needs organizing in this anal fashion on vacation.

The power strip was for the person who needed to have at least 8 gadgets plugged in at all times. So that he can, what? Blow dry his hair while typing on the computer, playing with his DS and talking on the phone (if he can get a signal on a cruise ship--ha!). This advice is for the cruiser who spends the vacation so wired that he never actually leaves the cabin.

The post it notes were for talking with your cabin steward. Okay, those aren't too bulky at least, but you don't think a note on the pillow would work as well? This is the guy who makes the bed in the morning and turns it down in the evenings. Cabin stewards get a lot of pillow time. 

All this leads to the bigger question: why would anyone in-the-know be advocating bringing more and more and more stuff on vacation? With luggage fees through the roof, the smart traveler pares their packing list and brings only the essentials they can fit in a carry-on bag. Cramming everything into a carry-on is tough for a weeklong vacation, but especially for cruises with formal nights. Bulky shoe racks and power strips just don't make the cut in my book.

I appreciate, at least, that these items were not too pricey and possibly might already be in a traveler's home. Too often, travel writers pen columns around the Xmas holidays on "travel gifts"; its an easy topic to sell and one that advertisers like. So they recommend all kinds of weird, specialized travel gadgets that either a) make you look stupid (think bulky "travel clothes" with dozens of extra pockets--yeah, that's a fashion statement) or b) are useful for such a small part of your trip its hard to justify lugging them along for the entire thing (think all of the airplane comfort products).

When I travel, the only "gear" I carry are things I'd carry in my backpack in my daily life. These include my phone (which is a smart phone, so it includes a flashlight and other handy items for the road), my swiss army knife (only road trips, alas) and a good book. Beyond that, its just a camera for me, because I like to have memories of my travels, though soon, who knows, my smart phone may replace that, too. 

I'll repeat it again: travel light, travel light, travel light!

(Photo by Niko Retro)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fall Cruise Deals

I've gone back and forth on this blog about the merits of cruise vacations. What I'd never argue, though, is that cruises can sometimes be insanely cheap. Spot the right deal and you can get a vacation that's on par, in terms of costs, with those involving tents and cookouts.

Below are some of the most jaw-dropping fall deals I've been able to find. They come from the sites of such discounters as, OnlineVacationCenter, and Shop around those, and other, cruise specialty sites before purchasing.
  • Port Canaveral, FL to the Bahamas: Sept 13, 4 nights onboard RCL's Monarch of the Seas for $199
  • Bayonne, NJ to Bermuda: Sept 25, 7 nights onboard RCL's Explorer of the Seas for $485
  • Quebec City to Fort Lauderdale, FL: Oct 6, 10 nights aboard Holland America's Eurodam for $799
  • Miami, FL to the Caribbean: Oct 9, 5 nights aboard the Carnival Destiny for $239
  • Miami to Cozumel and Key West: Oct 11, 4 nights aboard Carnival Imagination, $179
  • New Orleans, LA to Caribbean: Oct 11, 5 nights aboard Carnival Triumph for $239
These are just a few examples I've found and there are also some good deals to be had on summer cruising (though you won't find "hurricane season" pricing then as you do in fall).

(Photo of the Explorer of the Seas by Joe Mazzola)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Okay, FINALLY got through to the Virgin America Site for Its $33 deal

And just in time, too, as the sale ends in a few hours (5pm PDT, to be exact). Use this link to get through.

The sale covers flights from August 25 through October 6, and unusually its based on one-way fares, any day of the week. So it's a mighty flexible sale.

And though the website doesn't list Canadian routes on its sale page, I found that flights from Toronto to Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco were also being cut down to $113 (not bad). In addition to those cities, Virgin America flies to New York, Boston and Fort Lauderdale. Prices for shorter hops are uniformly $33, longer hops $113, with the Seattle to Los Angeles routing coming in at $116.

Hurry if you want to take part. Again, the sale ends at 5pm PDT tonight!

(Photo by Binder.Donedat)

Why You're Going to Want to Keep Your Hotel Bill

Well, I was going to blog today about Virgin America's $33 sale (which ends at 5pm PDT tonight). But since I've spent the last hour not being able to get onto Virgin's site, I'm guessing that eager travelers have so overwhelmed the system that nobody's going to get those cheap flights. I'll keep watching, though, and update this blog if the Virgin website is restored.

In the meantime, Scott Mayerowitz of ABC News Travel has posted a terrific, if sobering, article on the rise in credit card theft at hotels. No, thieves aren't going to sneak into your room and rifle through your wallet. Instead, they're hacking hotel systems, and getting travelers' info from there. Since so many large hotel chains share the same booking system from property to property, one break-in can yield literally thousands of credit card numbers.

The thieves will either then go on a buying spress with your card. Or, more invidiously, they may add fraudulent charges to your hotel bill, redirecting the payments. These obviously will be harder to spot, so it's probably a good idea to keep a paper copy of the bill you get upon check-out so you can prove fraud down the line, should it happen. According to Mayerowitz, some thieves wait months to strike, meaning that hotel bill could be long gone from your mind when the new charges come in.

You can read the complete piece by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New York's City's New Museum, Summer Exhibits: A Review

Before I became a full-time travel editor and writer, I had a much more serious profession. I was a musical theater actress.

Sometimes one profession bleeds into the other. As I'm visiting a historic sight, museum or restaurant, I start hearing music in my head, even before my thoughts form into coherent patterns.

Today, as I toured the summer exhibits of The New Museum in New York City, Marlene Dietrich's insistent purr of a voice kept echoing in my head. "Is that all there is? Is that all there is, my friend?" she plaintively asked, drowning out the drip drop of dozens of water filled buckets hanging from the ceiling and dripping into other buckets.

Art or outmoded plumbing? The viewer decides. And pays a $12 for the privilege.

To be fair, the Brazilian artist behind the buckets, Rivane Neuenschwander, had other, more successful pieces, on display. In the lobby she's set up walls of brightly-colored satin ribbons, each imprinted with a wish; the idea is taken from a gate in front of a famous church in Bahia. Visitors pick the wish that best suits them--"I wish I had the courage to divorce my husband", "I wish we lived in a world without conflict", "I wish I could feel the same joy I felt as a child"-- tie one around their wrists and when they fell off, their wish is apparently granted. The balloon-bright colors of the ribbons mixed with the poignant wishes made for an affecting work of art.

She also had a funny, little piece called "Involuntary Sculptures" which were collections of toothpicks, foil, corks, bottle caps and other pieces of restaurant and bar detritus that other patrons had casually doodled into sculptures while lost in conversation. Cute, if not all that profound.

Neuenschwander was paired with a retrospective of an artist who died some 20 years ago. Yes, an odd choice for a museum that's supposed to be dedicated to "the new".  The reasoning behind the exhibit: Brion Gysin, the artist, was an early pioneer in many of the trends still in vogue today.

And those apparently include maddeningly repetitive works of performance art; the practice of divorcing symbols from their usual meanings; large abstract paintings (that looked to me like pretty, mid-century wallpapers); and words used as part of art through the "cut up" technique he came up with (and then shared with his best buddy, William S. Boroughs).

Gysin also created an intriguing-sounding "dream machine", which the viewer is urged to experience with his eyes shut. Basically a whirling light-bulb inside a cut-out piece of heavy paper, it might be effective in conjunction with a tab of LSD. Alas, I was stone-cold sober, and bored when I knelt before it and tried to access its visionary properties.

All in all, Gysin seems to have had more of a talent for friendship than for art. His ideas were taken up by many other influential artists of all types (Burroughs, Keith Haring, David Bowie, Michael Stipes). The best pieces in the exhibit are his collaborations with Burroughs.

Which brings me back to that $12. For art lovers, who live in New York City, there are a few small gems here to see, possibly making this summer's show worth a visit. But for visitors coming to the city, your money and time will be better spent at the Metropolitan Museum's incredible bamboo roof sculpture or eye-opening costume exhibit on the shaping of the female American identity (admission "pay what you will"--yay!); or the auditory/visual smorgasbord at the Whitney Museum's Christian Marclay exhibit ($18 admission).

(Photo By Laura Manning)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Paris to Crack Down on Vacation Rentals

I'm wondering whether this recent spate of crackdowns on short term rentals is being caused by the recession? Are cash-strapped cities simply looking for new ways to impose fines, and thus bulk up the municipal budget? That certainly could be the case in New York, which passed a law just last week forbidding rentals of Big Apple apartments for less than 30-days.

 New York's not the only world city grappling with this issue. Today, the New York Times reported that the city of Paris in France will start enforcing a little-known, 2005 law which forbids rentals of less than a year. Violators who are caught face fines of 25,000 euros; repeat offenders could pay 1000 euros, per meter per day. Ka-ching!

The police had been originally charged with enforcing the law, but since they haven't been doing so, the Mayor recently turned the matter over to the city's residential housing agency.  So far, 25 cease and desist letters have been sent out and the city's rental agencies, many long-established businesses, are in a panic. They've formed an organization to try and lobby the city to strike down the law, arguing that short-term rentals are important economic engines and serve a social need. To that end, the agents have commissioned a study on the matter, which should be released in the fall.

All in all, its bad news for budget travelers, many of whom were able to significantly trim their vacation costs in the City of Light by renting affordable apartments, shopping in Paris' marvelous food markets and cooking for themselves.

Since the mayor's housing agency only has 5 staffers, I'm guessing that, for now, most rentals will slip through unnoticed. But I hate to think of a tourist showing up in Paris with a stay booked, only to find that they have lost their deposit and will now have to scramble for a hotel because an owner's been caught.

I'm going to follow the issue closely and will inform you of any developments.

(Photo by Walter Watzpatzkowski)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Some thoughts on the new Norwegian Epic, and Cruising in General

Its the thinking parent's dilemma: do you book a vacation that's going to thrill the young 'uns, or pick something that will engage an adult's interest and may have its ups and downs in terms of child friendliness? So often it seems like the types of vacations available to families please either one generation or the other, with very little overlap.

Take cruising's mega ships. My daughter and I just debarked the latest Leviathan, Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic, a 4100 passenger giant, which boasts the tallest water slides at sea. I've posted a photo above of that incredible water park above. It's the part of the ship I got to know best, as my seven-year-old literally camped here for most of the 2-day sailing.

Seeing her mile-wide grin as she conquered the water slides (in every possible sliding position), the climbing wall, the trampoline bungee jump, the massive jungle gym and the weird "ice-skating" rink (plastic sheets covered with oil)....well, it made my heart leap. There's no doubt in my mind that seeing your children enjoy themselves sets off some sort of endorphin surge for the parents.

But did that make up for the low-grade headache I had for most of our two days on the ship, caused by the constant, ceaseless blasts of pop music (there literally was nowhere on the ship one could escape from over-amped versions of the Pina Colada song)? Was it enough to make up for the mediocre food, the often witless nighttime entertainment options (the on board "Cirque" show, no relation to Cirque du Soleil, as anyone watching the rabbis dance out with martini glasses on their hats--no, I'm not making that up--would realize had to be one of the worst shows I've sat through anywhere), the constant crowds?

And really, was I doing my child any favor by exposing her to a small universe where there was no culture but the most obvious forms of pop culture (there wasn't even a library aboard the ship); and where unhealthy excess was celebrated non-stop (tables groaning with food manned by attendants always pushing you to take more of the most caloric options)? We toured the outrageously overpriced, elitist "villa" area of the boat, and my daughter remarked "Wow, it's so much better to be rich isn't it?". Whoops, that is not a lesson I wanted to give to my daughter, who last year in kindergarten wrote that she when she grew up she wanted to be a Salvation Army worker so she could give clothes to people who needed them. 

To my mind, she likely got more out of our spring break visit to Guatemala, where she got to explore a rich, very exotic culture and see great works of architecture and folk art. She saw some examples of extreme poverty there, and I was able to teach her about the conditions that exist in so many parts of the world. (I also felt good about spending my tourist dollars there, since the local economy really needed it).

To think about this from another angle: do I destroy her ability to enjoy vacations to calmer, cultural destinations by taking her on these action-packed cruises? Will she be satisfied with more subtle, intellectual pleasures if she's used to thrill-a-minute vacations? She isn't allowed to watch TV at home and her computer time is limited because I want her to develop the ability to amuse herself, without the crutch of spoon-fed media. But am I teaching the opposite lesson on these vacations? It's a conundrum.

For those traveling without children, the Norwegian Epic does have one terrific innovation that I hope other cruise lines will copy: studio cabins for singles. This will be the only cruise ship anywhere that single travelers can take without having to double their costs with an ugly singles supplement. The studios while tiny are quite cute, with a swinging-singles, Austin-Pendleton vibe (four settings of mood lighting, a groovy padded headboard and a nearby lounge where the solos will mingle).

Friday, July 2, 2010

Listen Up My Canadian Friends: Book Your Cuban Vacation Now Because Those Beaches Are Going to Get Crowded and Prices Are Going to Rise

That's because  it looks like the United States is FINALLY going to ditch its misguided, decades-long ban on travel to Cuba. Yesterday, the House of Representatives Agricultural Committee voted to allow the sale of commodities there as well as remove the restrictions on Americans wanting to tan with a great cigar in their hand. The measure passed 25 to 20, reflecting the general consensus in the United States that citizens of an open democracy should have the right to travel where they wish.(In most polls, over 80% of Americans are in favor of repealing the travel ban).

Yes, this is just a first step, but its a significant one and pundits are predicting that it won't be too long before the ban is history. (The measure will now have to go to a vote in the House and then the Senate). During the Bush Administration, similar steps were taken in the House and Senate, but a threat of a veto by President Bush derailed the attempt. Obama stated very openly during his campaign that he was against the ban. I'd be very surprised, no shocked, were he to veto this.

So ice that Rum and Coke, Cuba as this New York City gringa wants to come visit!

(Photo: Playa Ancon, Cuba by Neil J./Creative Commons)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In the Wee Hours This Morning, Cruising Just Got a Heckuva Lot Safer

How much crime occurs aboard cruise ships? The blunt fact is, nobody knows.

Because cruise lines sail under a number of different flags, there's been no one organization collecting this data, or even requiring that the cruise lines report on board crimes.So while the cruise lines have long contended that cruising is the safest form of travel around, there's no way to verify that bit of PR.

No-one disputes, however, that crimes and serious accidents do occur--rapes, assaults, passengers falling overboard, even murders. Which is why I, for one, am downright relieved that the Cruise Line Safety Act finally passed the US House of Representatives this morning. A near-identical bill has already made it through the Senate, meaning that the bill should be on President Obama's desk soon, to be signed into law.

While the bill isn't perfect, it has some strong measures. And many of its provisions  act promise to make cruising a safer activity not just for US citizens but for anyone who boards a ship that belongs to a cruise line that uses American ports (it won't matter if the ship you're on ports in the USA). That's important as no other country in the world is regulating crime and safety on the high seas in this fashion.

Key provisions of the bill:
  • Stateroom doors will now be equipped with safety latches and peep holes.
  • Room key cards will have "time sensitive" technology installed, to better monitor their use.
  • Ships will be required to use the latest technology to detect passengers falling overboard, including imaging systems. Video surveillance cameras will be required in almost all parts of the ship (beyond private areas), so that when crimes do occur they can be more easily prosecuted.
  • Fire regulations on board the ship will be the same ones approved by the US Coast Guard.
  • Safety rails will now be a minimum of 42 inches above the deck
  • Passengers will receive a pamphlet describing the ships response systems for both medical and criminal issues and letting passengers know what their rights are.
  • Cruise ships will be required to report crimes, missing passengers and suspicious deaths to the US Coast guard and FBI soon after they occur, so they can be more effectively investigated. They will also be required to preserve crime scenes. The information on the types and numbers of crimes at sea will be made available to the public. 
  • Each ship would be required to carry both rape kits and a forensic assault specialist. In the case of rape, on board doctors would be instructed to respect the confidentiality of the victim in these matters. As well, the victim will automatically be given the 800 number of an outside sexual assault organization so they can speak with someone not associated with the cruise ship.
Stiff fines and penalties (including ships not being allowed to enter American waters if they don't comply) will hopefully serve to enforce these new rules.

We can thank the International Cruise Victims Association for these bills finally passing. With minimal funding and much effort, the members of this organization--many relatives of people who disappeared or were assaulted on cruise ships--spent the last 5 years lobbying to bring safety standards to what had been a largely unregulated industry. They're the unsung heroes in this fight and can be proud to know that their struggle was not in vain.

(Photo by Jim G./Creative Commons)