Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TransAtlantic Sailings and Airfares South of the Border Go On Sale

Not everyone's on vacation this week. The folks at Cunard, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Virgin America have been busy posting pretty remarkable sales for fall and winter travel. Here's the scoop:
The Queen Mary 2 (Photo by Dawn Endico)

Remarkable rates on Transatlantic Cruises:When the Queen Mary 2 debuted last year, it was hailed as the ship that would bring back old-time glamor and elegance to cruising. The QM2, the first in 35 years to be custom-designed for Transatlantic sails, featured dazzling restaurants, serious educational programs, an overstuffed library and other fine amenities designed to keep passengers happy for long sea voyages. Prices were high, but that's what most people expected for an experience this upscale.

Or that's what people expected last year. And in this fast-paced travel world, a cruise ship can become yesterday's news in less than a year. How else to explain the remarkable prices being charged on 4 transatlantic sailings this fall, between New York City and Southhampton, England (and vice-versa)? On these 7-night/8-day sailings (Oct 1 and 12 and Nov 1 and 10) the rate on inside cabins have dropped to a remarkable $699. On certain dates, outside cabins are plunging to $749.

This is a "Flash Sale" which means it could be gone soon. I've seen these prices listed at the following sites: CruiseMaven, Vacations to Go, and Online Vacation Center though other cruise brokers may have it as well.

For a less splashy ship, but at even lower rates, there's the remarkable repositioning cruise of the Norwegian Gem on Oct 30. It will be sailing from Venice to New York, making stops along the way at several Spanish and Portuguese ports. The 14-day voyage is being discounted to just $499 (!), or just $35 a day, through some of the agencies above and others.

New Low Airfares to Mexico:

Timing is everything and today, with news that a bar in Cancun was hit by a molotov cocktail, the timing couldn't be worse. Nonetheless, if you're determined to go to Mexico in early 2011, now that Mexicana Airlines is gone, Virgin Atlantic may be your best bet. Its holding a 3-day sale in honor of its new service from both San Francisco and LA to either Cancun or Cabo, with prices starting at just $129 each way.

Virgin has also entered into a partnership with the app developer Loopt and for its users, who call today between 11am and 3pm, it will give away one free companion ticket for every one purchased on those routes.

The sale doesn't stop with Mexico. Virgin's discounting other city pairs, too, though tickets must be purchased by end of day on Sept 2. Go to www.virginamerica.com for more information.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Travel That Inspires: Guatemala

Woman in Antigua; photo by Brian Sigler
Recently, I was asked to speak about the most inspiring places I have ever visited for Guidepost magazine/website. I mentioned a few, but went off on a long tangent about Guatemala, a country I visited for the first time last spring and one which truly captured both my imagination and my heart.

Well, Guidepost ditched the other places I discussed, but put together a wonderful video about Guatemala in which they intersperse photos (some of which I, my husband or my daughter took) with the interview. I think it gives a good argument for why one should visit Guatemala. You can see the complete interview by clicking here.

For more information about the costs of visiting Guatemala, you can see an article I wrote on that by clicking here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Quick! Activities for free around the USA, but you have to sign up today

Sorry to be getting this item out so late (just found it). But a new website called Zozi is entering the market with a splash--a $50,000 splash actually. That's what its spending in freebies to give away on its site today.

Zozi wants to be the "Groupon" of travel activities. Here's how it works: folks sign up for email alerts which tell them of a coupon being offered for some type of activity. If enough people sign up for the coupon, it gets sold. Prices on these coupons tend to be steeply discounted. (I once got a NYC tour on Groupon for $22; the regular rate was $45). The activities can range from inner-tubing trips to horse-back riding to tours to sailing lessons. It will vary greatly by the area you're searching.

Head to Zozi right now to get in on the freebies! It seems that new ones are going up every half-hour or so!

(Photo by Marada)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Club Med's "WOW" Deals for Fall Just Got, Well...More "Wow"-worthy

I reported several weeks ago on Club Med's current fall sale (read: hurricane season sale). My guess is not enough travelers have bitten, because the mother-of-all-all-inclusives has now thrown a few goodies into the mix that it rarely gives away.

Club Med, Punta Cana
Best news may be that the single's supplement has gone bye bye for the months of September and October. That's a big deal, as it nearly doubles the cost of the all-inclusive stay for solos.

Club Med also seems to have lowered rates a bit, with 3-night stays starting at $399 (though the longer you stay, the less you'll pay per day. I priced out a 7-night stay at the Cancun Club Med and it came to $860 per adult, or just $122 a day).

Free massages and excursions are being thrown in on stays that involve a deluxe room or a stay in a suite. Before going for that freebie, however, I'd price out the cost of simply getting a massage or excursion.

Not all of Club Med's 80 properties are on sale. "Wow" covers resorts in Cancun, Ixtapa, Punta Cana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Bahamas, and Florida. The booking deadline is August 30; complete details at the Club Med website.

(Photo by Ed Yourdon)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Top Selling Point: Hotels That Lend Their Guests Bikes, Free of Charge

Photo by Gordon Gordon

I spent several hours at the Jane Hotel today, in New York City. Which makes me a really cool person, as it truly is a hipster's paradise. A very French cafe peddles croissants and glamor off the lobby. The bar area  is drop-dead gorgeous and delightfully louche with a gay 90's look, velvet couches, nude paintings and stuffed everything on the walls. Plus it has the best room rates in Manhattan, starting at $99 year round for a miniscule (50 square feet), but quite nice, single room.

But what really made me want to check in (which I didn't do, since I live in NYC) was the free bike rentals. Any guest who stays there can peddle off for the day, absolutely gratis. How nice is that. (They were good-looking rides, too.)

Of course, the Jane isn't the pioneer in bike loans. Its something many small B&B's have been doing for years. And recently a number of hotel chains have gotten into the act, too. These include:
  • The Fairmont Hotels: Bikes are available to guests across Canada and at the chain's US locations.
  • The Kimpton Hotels: Ask early in the day. I've found that these hotels usually keep less than 10 on hand and sometimes they all get snapped up.
  • The Ace Hotels: A small chain with properties in NY, Portland (OR), Seattle and Palm Springs. I know it offers bikes in Portland, and have heard that service will be coming soon to its other properties.
I also have to mention a kooky/wonderful new program at the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers, in Denmark, that's going to reward guests for generating electricity. It will have a fleet of energy-generating exercise bikes in the gym, hooked into the hotels power grid. According to the Guardian Newspaper, the hotel will be rewarding those exercisers who can 10 watt hours or more with a free meal. As the article notes, its surprisingly easy to get to that threshold: most cyclists should be able to rack up a free meal in just 10 minutes or less. The program is a test, but if its successful, 21 Crowne Plaza hotels in the UK may adopt the scheme as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Outrageous Cost of Visiting Manhattan This Fall (And How to Alleviate It)

Sometimes numbers tell a heckuva story.

According to hotel expert Bjorn Hanson the average hotel room in the United States is 325 square feet.

Rockefeller Center (photo by F Diez)
In Manhattan, by my calculations (and I spent several hours today looking up the square footage of 100 hotel rooms--yeah, its a glamorous job), the average hotel room is 250 square feet, a full 23% smaller.

But it gets worse. Recently, Smith Travel Research announced that the average cost for a hotel room in the United States was $55.

Manhattan rates vary wildly by season, but looking at October prices (high season), I found the average hotel rate on this island to be a whopping $380.

That means that visitors to Manhattan (and I restricted my research to Manhattan, since its the borough most visitors want to stay in; and the one that, arguably, has the most tourist attractions) are paying an average of $1.51 per square foot per night. Compare that to visitors elsewhere in the US, who pay just 16 cents per square foot at their much-better-value hotel rooms.


Even as a native New Yorker, one who should be used to the inflated costs on our tiny island, I find these prices shocking. But they explain what I'm seeing on my hometown's streets. My city is literally teeming with visitors from countries with stronger currencies than ours. French tourists are eating at my local diner, and Japanese folks at the pizzeria. Brits are crowded aboard the hop-on, hop-off busses and frighteningly polite Germans stop me for directions on the street.

North American tourists? I'm not seeing as many of those. And that makes me sad. So, very briefly, here's some advice for my fellow residents on this continent on how to afford Manhattan, without resigning themselves to a stay in Jersey (heaven forbid!):
  • Head to the outer boroughs: Hotels like the Pan American in Queens and the Sofia Inn in Brooklyn are darn nice, yet cost much less than equivalent hotels would in Manhattan. These are just two of the ones I'd have no hesitation sending relatives to. And by staying in New York City (rather than in Jersey), you have much better transportation options as you can take city buses and taxis. Plus you'll be in neighborhoods that are interesting in their own right.
  • Choose a hotel in which guestrooms share bathrooms: Some are lovely, set in historic buildings that simply don't have the plumbing to support numerous bathrooms.  Most are in the $150-range, or lower, in high season. Faves include: The Chelsea Lodge, Chelsea Pines, the Larchmont, the Gershwin Hotel, The Pod Hotel, The Jane, East Village Bed and Coffee,  or the Carlton Arms.
  • Go monastic: Such religious hotels as the Leo House, various YMCA's, the Seafarers and International House and others, offer plain, but clean rooms at very low nightly rates.
  • Get a temporary roommate: Such services as AirBnB.com and AffordableNewYorkCity.com will place you in your own room, in the home of a local, for a third of what you'd pay to stay in a hotel. And you usually get breakfast, too.
  • Barter and shmooze: Home exchanges (where you swap your digs with someone else) and hospitality exchanges (where you stay with folks who just like to host strangers) are great ways to make NYC affordable. Heck, you're staying for free. To learn more, go to www.homeexchange.com, www.couchsurfers.org, or www.globalfreeloaders.org.
 I guess today's blog is my personal "mea culpa". We like visitors here, we really do. Sorry that we're pricing out so many!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Turbulent Air News: Fare War for Hawaii, Mexicana Is Saved and a Hotel Chain Steps In On Luggage Fees

The coastline of Maui (photo by MS Taik)
First the Hawaiian fare war: I just got of the phone with Jeff Tucker of BeatofHawaii.com and though I have no current plans to go to Hawaii, it kinda seems silly not to when the round-trip airfare from New York City is dropping to an astonishing $459! That's the rate from United Airlines for travel Sept 1-Dec 3. Along with NYC, that sale rate is good from Miami, St. Louis, Dallas and Houston.

Since all good things come to an end, and usually do so rather abruptly, Jeff is urging travelers to book these fares quickly. There's apparently no end date on the sale, but he's guessing its going to be a quick one.

Jeff also has a premonition--and since he's usually right, I'll quote him on it--that fares from the West Coast to Hawaii are going to dip below $100 each way soon. And while inter-island airfare has been high recently (in fact, on some flights you'll pay more to fly between Kauai and Maui than you would between NYC and Oahu on the sale above), there are a couple of $34 fares out there, for the taking. These are being offered by Island Air in a deal that will likely expire by tomorrow night (so far, competing airlines aren't matching these rates).

In other good news, it seems that Mexicana will not be going belly-up after all. Its found a buyer. Well, two actually. The pilots will own 5% of the airline and the other 95% will be owned by an investment group.

And in the "what menches!" category: Intercontinental Hotels, Holiday Inn and others in the IHG group are going to be picking up your luggage fees when you stay at one of their properties. There are some catches--aren't there always?--but they don't seem too egregious. Only those who stay 2 nights or more get the luggage-fee rebate. And you're going to have to pull out a VISA card when you're paying your bill (Ask for the "Check It Free" promotion; you'll need to download forms on the website. More details are there). The give back is occurring from Sept 1-Dec. 30.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Free Labor Day Visits to the Most Important Museum Exhibit You May See This Year


That may sound like an unusual theme for an exhibition on modern design, but its at the beating heart of the Cooper Hewitt Museum's stupendous "Design Triennial: Why Design Now."

Proving that design means a lot more than matching hats to dresses on "Project Runway", this whirlwind exhibit highlights the best designs of the last three-years, shining a spotlight on the architects, engineers and designers who are trying to solve the world's biggest problems.

Worries about energy usage are addressed with a lamp that runs entirely on soil (the energy created by the microorganisms in the dirt are enough to keep the lightbulb lit!); and an interactive exhibit on a city that's being built outside Abu Dhabi that will run entirely on renewable energy sources and will be car-free. Clean water issues are tackled with an easily-carried water-can, its sides  made of solar-panels, its interior high tech, so that water of iffy quality can be purified on the walk home from the village well. (See photo on the left). Urban unrest and deteriorating cities are addressed through the example of Medallin, Columbia which was able to turn its fortunes around thanks, in large part, to a massive public initiative to build parks, new schools, libraries, and other public spaces for the people of the city to use (the story of the transformation of the city, which is told through photographs and wall text, is  particularly moving part of the exhibit).

Improved prosthetic limbs are on display, as are gorgeous fabrics made of waste materials (such as plastic and sheep poo). Canes for the blind, containing GPS systems are placed near stoplights set on poles that collapse when a car hits them (apparently, many people are killed each year when stoplights plow into their cars). And on, and on...The exhibit seemingly touches upon every major problem human beings are currently facing. Its that rare museum show that is at one and the same time intellectually challenging and highly emotionally charged.

You have until January 9th to see the show, and I have to say, I think simply seeing it is reason enough to plan a trip to New York City.Come Labor Day weekend and you'll get to see the exhibit, and attend special lectures and workshops, for free. The usual $15 will be waived.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Iceland Express Briefly Becomes the Price Leader on Hops Across the Pond

Well hello there!

In a valiant effort to establish itself in the crowded market, Iceland Express has launched a super-sale to Europe for early fall that's certainly caught my attention. How could it not? This little airline is undercutting the competition by hundreds of dollars.

Iceland Express is charging just $399 round-trip and including almost all taxes and fees, for flights from Newark Airport in New Jersey to 11 important European cities (Reyjavik, London, Oslo, Gothenburg, Aalborg, Copenhagen, Billund, Warsaw, Krakow, Berlin and Luxembourg). The only catch? You need to get where you're going via Iceland. Still, at this price, that seems like a small inconvenience.

Tickets must be booked by Monday, August 23 and are good for travel from now through September 30. Not all flights are being discounted, so if you can be flexible, you have a better chance of snagging the sale price. Good luck!
The Blue Lagoon in Icleand (Photo by Gunna)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Primo Deal for December Caribbean Cruises

Yes, there are a lot of great cruise bargains out there. But I love it when not only are the rates unbeatable, but one price covers every possible need the traveler may have.

Take the current offer from Online Vacation Center for the elegant, well-reviewed Celebrity Millennium. For the December 3rd sailing its charging just $1124 for 10 nights in a veranda cabin, plus $100 of shipboard credit and round-trip airfare from New York City to the starting point, San Juan, Puerto Rico. As I said, before everything's tied up in a neat bow: you get airfare, a room with a view and some spending cash for all the temptations aboard ship. Online Vacation Center is also discounting the December 13th sailing, an 11-nighter going for $1274, again including air and shipboard credits.

The itinerary on these sailings go to some of the hot spots of the Southern Caribbean including St. Kitts, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, Grenada, Curacao and Aruba.

Though at this point the competition doesn't seem to be matching Online Vacation Center's prices, do shop around as its always best to see what options are out there before you book (and who knows? Maybe another cruise discounter will match or beat 'em).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fly Anywhere (Almost) Anytime on JetBlue From September 7 Through October 6 For One Low Price

It's baaaaaack!

Yes, the airline that brought us seat-back TV's and slip-sliding air stewards (hello Steven Slater) has revived one of its most popular promotions: the unlimited (and almost unlimited, see below) flight pass. If history is any guide, interested travelers should snap this offer up ASAP. Last time, it sold out two days before the sale was officially supposed to end. So head to the JetBlue site now; the sale officially ends Friday, but could disappear at any time.

The All You Can Jet Pass comes in two iterations this time. One is good for travel any day of the week and costs $699 (AYCJ-7); the other excludes travel on Fridays and Sundays (AYCJ-5), but is just $499. While domestic fees and taxes are included in the pass price (!), they are extra on international flights and those heading to Puerto Rico. Jetblue's site (see above for link) also lists a number of fees and regulations covering minors traveling, cancellations and changes, and initial bookings.

JetBlue flies to 67 gateways in the United States, plus about a dozen in the Caribbean, Bogota in Columbia and San Jose in Costa Rica.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Caribbean travel, hurricane season: Part 2 (More deals!)

Are you feeling lucky? You don't have to be Clint Eastwood to ask that question about Caribbean vacations during hurricane season. Sure, the vast majority of travelers who head to the Caribbean in the peak storm months of September and October never encounter a problem (I was on a Caribbean cruise last October, and the only time I got wet was when I jumped in the pool). But there's always the possibility--and let's be real, the floods in Pakistan and record heat in Russia have shown this to be a particularly volatile year, weather-wise--that you could get stuck in a storm.
Watersports in Punta Cana (photo by Ed Yourdon)

Or you could score an amazing deal. As I noted in an earlier blog, all of the major chain hotels are throwing impressive sales for the fall months (you can scroll down in this blog to read about those). As expected, travel packagers, those companies that bundle together airfares and hotels at discounted rates, are also getting in on the act.

One of the best promotions I've seen so far is the The Early Fall Sale from Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.com). Covering the cheaper destinations in the Caribbean (Cancun, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica) and a handful of pricier islands (Aruba, Grand Cayman) the sale is good for the months of September and October, and includes a number of all-inclusive resorts in its offerings. Some examples of its deals. Please note that taxes are extra, and prices are per person based on double occupancy (single occupancy rates will be higher):
  • Allegro Playacar, Mayan Riviera: An all-inclusive resort, right on the beach, with two pools, tennis , courts, a kids club and more. Rates start at $338 for airfare, 6 nights hotel, all meals and drinks, and many activities. That low price is from Miami, but there are good deals from other gateways including Toronto ($522), Dallas/Fort Worth ($460), Chicago ($430).
  • Bavaro Princess All Suites, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic: A bit more of a deluxe all-inclusive, with seven on-site restaurants to pick from and an all-suite layout, the Princess is still affordable in fall. A six-night stay with airfare goes from as little as $506 from Miami, $572 from Toronto, $588 from Chicago and New York City, $704 from San Francisco.
Those are just two of the many, many promotions they're currently featuring. Head to the website (link above) for a complete list. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

A New Website Demystifies Travel Safety and Health Issues

I was a bit worried, when I heard about Trip.USTIA.org, the brand new site from the US Travel Insurance Association, that taking advice from this site would be a little like consulting wolves on the care of chickens.

Photo by Tessa Watson
Cynical me. In fact, the site offers well-researched, impartial information on a host of travel safety and health issues. That's the case even when its dealing with when insurance will help and when it may be useless. In a piece on whether or not regular health insurance covers travelers abroad, the site notes that a good 50% of Medicare recipients will not have their health issues covered when abroad, a good heads up for those who might assume otherwise. But then it further points out, pretty bluntly, that some of these folks may not be eligible for travel health insurance if they're looking to cover pre-existing conditions.

Other topics covered on the site include hotel safety, protecting checked luggage from thefts, tips for navigating civil unrest, how the US State Department can and can't help you and more.

Take a look at the site; its a nice new addition to the growing library of useful travel information on the web.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Real Las Vegas: Still Cheap

In the most recent edition of the New Yorker is an article that, if I hadn't known better, I would have assumed was written 3 years ago. Called "The Truffle Kid" it follows the exploits of an exotic foods purveyor as he peddles saffron, caviar, truffles, foie gras, jamon and other pricey delicacies in Las Vegas. What follows are tales of meals costing $5000 (plus an additional wine tab) and offhand notes that rhubarb as thin as "three pencil leads" is being flown into Sin City daily from Ohio. In short, its a chronicle of such excess and high times, one would assume it came from pre-foreclosure crisis, pre-recessionary Las Vegas.
The facade of New York, New York (photo by Bert K)

I guess that's at the basis of the fantasy of Las Vegas. Alongside hundreds of restaurants that are couponing for dear life, are 5 of the top 10 highest grossing restaurants in the US, and another 50 or so that are competing to join those ranks.

So, yes, for some Las Vegas remains the glam money pit it used to be.

For the rest of us, though, the city is a bargain hunter's paradise. Head to BroadwayBox.com (or better yet, to the Tix4Tonight booths on the Strip), and you'll find that most of the pricey Cirque du Soleil shows are being discounted, as are the towns headliners (including Donny and Marie, Penn & Teller, Barry Manilow and Carrot Top) and Broadway shows (Jersey Boys, Lion King, Phantom of the Opera).

Couples looking to tie the knot, can find chapels on LasVegasWeddings.com  that will marry them for $75 total (including music and a red rose). Those who simply head to one of the drive-through chapels pay even less....and have a better story at their divorce trial.

For hotels....well, the discounts are pretty near endless. Here are just a few that I've stumbled upon recently, with my own capsule review of each, based on my visits:

El Cortez: $14/night
Upside: The hotel formerly known as "El Cheapo" is newly renovated, meaning that guestrooms are quite pleasant, clean and feature high quality bedding, flat screen TVs and soothing color schemes.
Downside: On-site restaurants are not recommended, the casino is smoky with claustrophobically low ceilings in spots and the neighborhood is a bit hairy, two long blocks from the bright lights of the Fremont Street Experience.
Best rates: From Travelocity.com, Hotels.com and HotelClub.com
Overall: Very good value on the room itself, but only for those who don't mind staying downtown and going outside the hotel for entertainment and meals

The Sahara: $21/night
Upside: Despite the fetishization of NASCAR in one section, the casino here has been buffed up, but not reworked, so it still has the delightful swagger and over-the-top decor of the Rat Pack-era. Other perks: table minimums here are among the lowest on the Strip and the in-lounge entertainers are a cut above the norm. As for the rooms, they've been redone in the past 5 years and are tidy and quite comfortable if a bit faceless in their decor.
Downside: Yes, you're on the Strip, but the less exciting end of it, so you'll likely need a car (or patience to wait for the bus or in taxi lines) to see the areas of the Strip most tourists want to visit. The restaurants on site can't be recommended.
Best rates: From EasyClickTravel.com
Overall: I've enjoyed my recent stays at the Sahara and hope the management keeps its decor intact, as it really is a delightful throwback (The same can't be said of the parking garage, which is a wreck). I'd have no qualms sending a friend here to stay.

Riviera Hotel: $34/night plus 2 free comedy show tickets
Upside: Like the other hotels mentioned in this piece, money was poured into the property just before the recession hit, meaning room decor is up-to-date and quite comfortable, with most rooms done in a palette of classy beige's and whites, and featuring thick duvets on the beds and flat screen TVs. The shows on-site are often quite good (including the comedy shows) and the on site restaurants are slightly better than at the Sahara or the Cortez.
Downside: Again, this is the dowdy end of the Strip, though you're in better walking distance for interesting casinos here than you are at the Sahara.
Best Rates: From DealBase.com
Overall: I've slept well at the Riviera, and despite its maze like layout, generally enjoy my time here.

New York, New York: $54/night plus a free city tour, two complimentary welcome cocktails, 1 free breakfast, 1 complimentary entry to the gym/spa, 1 complimentary roller coaster ride
Upside: Location, location, location! It just doesn't get any better than this center Strip property. And if you're a fan of nightlife and you like it rowdy, you'll enjoy the bar scene here. The property also boasts a wide assortment of restaurants and fast-food style eateries, in all price ranges (I'm a fan of Jody Maroni sausages).
Downsides: While rooms have a dignified, Art Deco look, they tend to be on the smaller side, especially at the lower-end of the price range. I also find the casino here to be one of the most frenetic on the Strip.
Best rates: From DealBase.com
Overall: All of the freebies here make this an excellent deal. Without them, I might look at other similar properties as I tend to find the atmosphere a bit grating (but I'm a native New Yorker, so that may be due to my dislike of their portrayal of the city, inside the casino; the facade is terrific).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Fees Go Up, The Fees Go Away

Seems like all the chatter this week is about travel fees.

Well, that and the JetBlue employee who fulfilled every disgruntled employees fantasies by cursing out a passenger over the loudspeaker, grabbing two beers and then escaping via the inflatable slide. (I'm guessing Steve Slater's life story will soon be the fodder for some type of Butch Cassidy-like adventure film; I hope he's got a good agent.)

But back to fees, where the news is less Hollywood blockbuster-worthy. Industry magazine Travel Weekly recently reported that airfare experts are stymied about how to report pricing. Everyone knows that overall costs are going up. But because the actual increases tend to be in corollary fees, its become very difficult for the trackers to, well, track. The article points out that the one nearly fee-free carrier, Southwest (bravo to you Southwest, by the way) has been raising rates; its average one-way fare has inched from $110 to $112 to $132 recently, the clearest indication that consumer costs are rising.

Paris Las Vegas (Photo by Thierry)
But in terms of airfares the advice for consumers must be: add in ALL fees before booking a fare, especially if you must check bags. Very, very often the airline that seems cheaper on first glance will turn out to be the price loser in the end.

As well, a number of new fees will be added to the bills of those traveling to Europe. Travelers heading from the UK to the USA will pay a passenger duty of 96 GBP (about $100) to fly out in economy class, 120 GPB in premium classes (including premium economy). This additional fee goes into effect in November. Ireland will be imposing a similar duty of 10 euros (about $14) and Germany 26 euros ($36).

So that's the bad news for travelers. In a happy development, the Harrah's Properties in Las Vegas (Harrah's, The Flamingo, Caesars Palace, Bally's, Imperial Palace, Planet Hollywood, Rio, Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon, Paris Las Vegas) have announced they will be ditching their resort fees, meaning its going to be easier to figure out how much you'll spend on that upcoming Sin City vacation. Well, if you can avoid the slot machines, that is.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Virgin America Adds a New Gateway and Throws a Sale

Photo by Marc Smith
Ya gotta love an airline with a sense of humor. So kudos to Virgin Atlantic not only for the prices of its recent sales, but for its "Virgin America Does Dallas" campaign, introducing this growing airlines latest destination. Fares are darn decent not only to Texas, but also between San Francisco or Los Angeles and Toronto. Some examples of one-way fares: 

Dallas to or from either LA or San Francisco: $129 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays flights (up to $149 on Fridays and Saturdays). 
Toronto to Los Angeles: $179 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
San Francisco to either Las Vegas, San Diego or Los Angeles: $44 on Tuesdays,  Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Fort Lauderdale of Washington, DC to either LA or San Francisco: $119 on Tuesdays,  Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays

Flights must be booked by midnight PDT on August 12. For complete details, including other destinations available via the sale, go to Virgin's website.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pampering Yourself with Spa Deals

Yesterday, my seven-year-old asked me why there were no spas for kids. I was surprised by the question as I wasn't aware she even knew what went on in spas. I asked her why she'd want to go and she replied, with a world-weary roll of the eyes. "Mom, I could really use a good massage."
Photo by Thomas Wanhoff

I know how she feels. So in honor of Trixie, I'm going to pass along three of the best deals I could find this week for spa getaways. Note that all prices are per person based on double occupancy (single rates are available, but higher):
  •  Tennessee Fitness Spa: The "Walk Into Winter" special, from Nov 14-Dec 4 lowers the rate to just $395 for a three-night stay, including one beauty treatment. Bookings must be for Wednesday to Saturday or Sunday through Wednesday stays. All packages at the Spa include meals, all fitness classes and a fitness assessment, so once you pay the initial amount you should be set. Leading up to this period are various types of 10% discounts, all listed at the website of the spa.
  • Spa at Grand Lake: That would be Grand Lake in Connecticut, where the discount on three day stays drops the total price to $479 per person.  All meals and fitness classes are included. This offer is available not through the spa's website, but through the popular SpaFinder site and it covers weekend stays through the end of October.
  • Green Valley Spa: Set in one of the most spectacular hiking areas of the United States (in St. George, Utah), this is not a cheap spa, though a discount of 35% a night does help matters, especially if you like beauty treatments (which are being discounted 25%). With the discount, you'll pay $277 a night through the end of the year. As in Tennessee, that rate includes all meals, all fitness classes and lectures on fitness and nutrition. Learn more by clicking here.
Now, I've got to go and give Trixie her needed massage!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Chicago Restricts Vacation Rentals. Other Cities Likely to Follow Its Lead

Let me share a bit of personal history. About two years ago, when I was researching the second edition of Pauline Frommer's Hawaii, I jetted over to Maui County, going first to the island of Molokai. What I found there was, in a word, devastating. Vacation rentals had recently been outlawed, despite the fact the Molokai did not have nearly enough hotels to house those who wanted to visit. At a recent massive hula event, considered the most important in the islands, as Molokai is believed to be the birthplace of hula, so many attendants couldn't find places to stay that they had to camp out on the beach. Several months after I visited, the one luxury resort on the island shut down, due to a protracted legal battle on the use of some of its lands which sapped its finances.

All of Hawaii depends on tourism. Its the lifeblood of that community. And without it, little Molokai was literally withering away. Restaurants, tour operators and other businesses were shuttering, unemployment was far above the national average and many residents were living subsistence existences, fishing and scavenging for food to survive. No, I do not exaggerate.

A beach in Molokai by Chuck 55
This on a breathtakingly lovely island, with important historic sites to tour, idyllic beaches (see above) and wonderful hiking trails. An island, in short, that should have had a flourishing tourism industry, and would have had a better chance at it, if vacation rentals were legal. But because the hotel industry on the nearby island of Maui didn't want competition from vacation rentals (that's not proved, mind you, but its my theory), the island of Molokai was (and is still) suffering.

I've written in this blog about the foolish new law New York state has put into place banning rentals of less than 30 days beginning in May of 2011. I just learned, in a piece by Laura Bly in USA Today, that
Chicago recently enacted an ordinance restricting rentals of under 30 days. Bly quotes a member of the Chicago Vacation Rentals Association predicting that the 700-or-so currently legal vacation rentals in the city will be sliced by 40% to 70% when the new rule kicks in January 1.

Bly goes on to note that, according to the Vacation Rental Managers Association, similar laws are being considered in Sonoma County, Calif.,New Braunfels, Texas, and Isle of Palms, S.C.

What the heck is going on? Yes, I realize that sometimes renters cause problems for residents. But as a person who's lived in apartment buildings all her life, I'd guess actual neighbors cause just as many hassles over the years. (Who hasn't lived next to a neighbor from hell?)

Is this a case of "not in my backyard" syndrome? Or is it the case that the existence of rentals makes housing prices rise, as the backers of these laws content? Perhaps a bit. But from my own personal experience in New York City, I know literally dozens of locals who couldn't get along without the income they occassionally get by renting out their homes while they travel. They're able to afford their homes because they can rent them from time to time.

Do I expect all vacation rentals to actually disappear in these places. No. Many will go onto the black market. Meaning tourists will lose the protections they had when renting them. And the government will lose the tax revenue they once received on these rentals.There will certainly be fewer rentals in these places, which will hit the pocketbooks of the local restaurants and stores who rely on the visitors who may choose to spend their vacation dollars in more affordable areas (ie those that allow these cost-effective rentals).

I'd like to urge the residents of Maui County, New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Paris, Sonoma County, New Braufels and Isle of Palms to think long and hard about whether these laws are really benefiting the people. Or are they simply lining the pockets of the well-organized, lobby-happy hotel industry?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

More and more and more city bike programs

London is the latest in a line of major metropolises adding bike rental kiosks to their cityscapes this summer. Eventually, some 6000 renatable cycles will be parked at 400 kiosks scattered around the central city of London and in parts of 8 boroughs. Right now, there are closer to 5000 bikes up for grabs, each with a distinctive bright blue shield over the back tire. Though eventually they'll be usable by visitors, right now the website isn't set up for "casual visitors". Hopefully that's just a short-term glitch. Officials have stated that, for now, those who don't sign up for long-term memberships will have to register their credit card info online. In the near but undated future, visitors will be able to simply run their credit cards at the kiosks themselves.

Rental costs are, for the most part, quite modest. Pedal for less than half an hour, and you'll do it for free. Hour long rentals come to $1.50 at the current exchange rate, thought that price jumps sharply to $6 if you keep the bike out for 90 minutes. How often visitors will actually bike for 90 minutes or more is questionable, as most of the major sites in London are less than an hour apart by bike. Full info on the new program is available at the link above.

Other cities that have debuted these wonderfully green, bike-rental programs just in the last few months include:
  • Minneapolis: $5 per half hour or $60 per year-long membershipe
  • Denver: Free for 30 minutes or less, $1.10 for 31-60 minutes, $3.30 for 61-90 minutes, $5 for 24 hours, $20 for 7 days
  • Melbourne: First 30 minutes free, $2 Australian or up to an hour, $5 for up to 90 minutes, then down to $2.50 per day (so if you think you'll be out for a long ride, go with the daily option).
Happy cycling all!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Thank you, sir! May I have another? Two oddball pieces of travel news

 Tweeting for a cab in London

Yes, you no longer have to suffer the indignity of exposing your armpits when hailing down one of London's cabs. The Guardian reports that 100 cabbies are now on the service "@tweetalondoncab", and some 7000 riders are following them on Twitter.

Which leads me to ask the pertinent question the Guardian missed: should one actually ride with a tweeting cabbie? I, for one, will not be using this service as I'd be damn worried about my cabbie's ability to navigate London's heavy traffic while tweeting. (Not that I take cabs in London anyway. Just too expensive.)

You Like Them! You Really Like Carry-On Bag Fees!

 Okay, so it seems that I was wrong to presume that passengers would be rioting in the terminal in protest of Spirit Airlines' new fee. The dumbfounding headline on Ben Metzbaugh's terrific Today in the Sky blog reads "Spirit: Customers like carry-on fee".

Metzbaugh quotes a Spirit spokesperson Misty Pinson as saying that "reporters had to work hard to find disgruntled customers to interview."

Of course, that's what you'd expect this poor, beleaguered employee to say (and I use the term 'beleaguered' with some good cause. Not only did the carry-on fees hit over the weekend, yesterday the CEO Ben Baldanza of Spirit announced that he was mulling over another fee to talk with a human being at the airport. Yup, a fee to speak to someone should something be going desperately wrong, such as not being able to locate the gate or one's luggage. I would lose my faith in humanity if Pinson didn't have to field a LOT of reporters calls about that statement).

But some of the reporters at the airport have backed her up, saying that passengers are so grateful for Spirit's low rates, that they'll willingly put up with any additional fees.

Really? Really?!? I have to wonder if these happy flyers have to ability to do addition. When you add in all the fees, the vaunted low fares of Spirit usually come in at par or even above competing airlines.

Since nothing is black and white when it comes to flying, I'll note that a number of reporters were able to find passengers grumbling loudly and vowing never to fly Spirit again.

I'd be among them, although I vowed to never fly Spirit again after enduring a middle-seat flight last fall, because I refused to pay the extra fee for choosing my seat.

(Photo by Neovain)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What do Bikini Atoll, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long-Hanoi Have in Common?

If you guessed that they're UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you get a gold star. These are just 3 of the 21 newest inductees, and I, for one, am thrilled to see that the choices are much less Euro-centric than usual.

(Photo of Everglades National Park by Sarah and Jason)

The biggest winners are China, France, Iran and Mexico, each with two new sites (and I say 'winners' without hyperbole; the UNESCO designation is a powerful marketing tool and often leads to a marked increase in the number of visitors to a destination). Several sites were added that I would have guessed were already on the list including Bikini Atoll of nuclear bomb fame, in the Marshall Islands; and the canals of Amsterdam.

And, of course, there has been some controversy. Aborigine leaders in Australia are complaining there should be no more "white" Australian sites added to the list (11 penal colony sites had been minted) until an Aboroginal site is included. They may have a point.

Another much discussed move: the removal of the Galapagos Islands from the endangered sites list. Many conservationist are upset at the message they worry this action sends.

Five new inductees with the dubious honor of being considered endangered include Everglades National Park in Florida, Agrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery (Georgia), the Rainforests of Atsinanana (Madagascar),the Tombs of Buganda Kings (Uganda). They join 31 other "sites in danger".  Let's hope the negative exposure helps spur some sort of conservation efforts in the countries on this list.

To see the entire list (and perhaps add some new destinations to your bucket list), visit the UNESCO site. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Hodge Podge of Travel News and Speculation

Play a game online, win a free trip

One of my favorite travel writers Jen Leo posted an item today about an addictive-sounding new website called Wazzamba.com. A gaming site, with avatars, complicated plots, quizzes and more, it rewards the player who racks up the most points with travel (according to Jen prizes have included trips to Australia, Costa Rica and Hawaii).  Which is a nice twist, because you'd assume that the people who play these games obsessively enough to actually accrue a lot of points probably never leave their homes. I'd file this under travel site/social experiment.

Carry-On Baggage Fees Now a Reality
So far, there have been no news flashes about riots breaking out at airport terminals. Seems travelers are so inured to the indignities of air travel that they took Spirit's carry-on fees ($30 online in advance; $45 at the gate) with nary a whimper. They went into effect yesterday, August 1. (A day that will live in infamy! Well, kinda....).

Chelsea Clinton's Honeymoon

 As the world now knows, Chelsea Clinton wore a sparkly-waisted Vera Wang gown at her Hudson Valley wedding this past Saturday. What most don't know is that that night her groom apparently told her where she'd be going on their honeymoon. Yes, it was such a well-guarded secret that even the bride was informed only on a need-to-know basis.

Obviously, the venue will have to be a bit of a fortress, as Clinton has shown herself to be paparazzi-averse over the years (during the campaign she caused a mini-scandal by refusing to speak with a 9-year-old reporter who was on the job for Scholastic). So where will she end up? Here's comes the speculative part of this blog.

Necker Island, the private isle owned by Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson might have made the short list, simply because its, well, a private island. But I'm guessing the lack of intellectually-stimulating pursuits there probably sunk that choice (she's a well-known brainiac, holding two masters degrees.)

Another guess: maybe George Clooney came to the rescue and offered his Italian villa to the couple. He's been doing that so often this summer, I'm guessing he might be considering opening up a B&B.

They likely wouldn't have dared go to the UK, where the paparrazzi is arguably even more aggressive than it is in the USA. But one of Ireland's castle hotels might do the trick. It should be one with enough acreage to keep out the press. Clinton wrote her thesis in college on Irish politics, so my guess is she may still have a soft spot for the Emerald Isle. Or maybe I'm just projecting: I personally would love an Irish honeymoon.If I weren't already married, that is (ahem).

(Photo by Bob B. Brown)