Friday, December 30, 2011

Should Old Acquaintence Be Forgot...New Ones Will Arrive

As 2011 draws to a close I'm thinking not of old acquaintances but of the new friends I made while traveling in 2011.

So here's to Elzbieta who made our time in Poland so delightful. An English teacher who'd lived in the US for several years, she graciously volunteered to help translate when we went back to my grandmother's small town. We enjoyed each other's company so much, my daughter and I ended up going to her house in Bialystok for tea the day after our trip to little Lomsa, so we could chat some more. Our talks were wide ranging, covering everything from Polish literature to child rearing to the alleged Russian conspiracy to cover up the real circumstances behind Polish Presiden Lech Kaczynski's death (a topic I discussed with a number of other Poles while in country; all suspected Putin of engineering the plane crash).

And cheers to Mike, the Israeli friend of my friend Mark. We met for a walk and tea in Jaffa on the last day of my trip Israel andhad a conversation that was the cherry on top of the trip. I was, at that point in the trip, obsessed with the question of why so much hatred had been showered on the Jews, my ancestors, for centuries. Together we tussled with that thorny question, also talking about his personal history (which included a move from the US to Israel), the roots of the contemporary Jewish state, religion and so much more. It felt like one of those talks I had late into the night in college with friends, as we tried to sort out what our places in the world were going to be in the future. Mike: I very much hope our paths cross again. Next time, our children and spouses will have to hang out together, too.

And a toast to the delightful codger I met in a pub in Cushendall, Northern Ireland. The family was at the beach, and I went in to ask for directions, staying for a cider when this gentleman, whose name I never got, started to regale me with suggestions of all the places we must go in the vicinity. Sir: we took your advice and had a wonderful time! But most memorable to me was hearing about your experiences during "The Troubles" and your wishes for the future.

These are just a few of the wonderful people I met in 2011, a year that took me to Moab, Mesa Verde, Dallas, the John C. Campbell Folk School (in North Carolina), Los Angeles, a number of towns in Sicily, Vancouver, Whistler, Rome, London, Abergaveny, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow, Bialystok, Dublin, Derry, Cushendall, Lake Placid, Burlington, Stowe, North Hero, Toronto...and I know I'm missing some, but don't feel like looking back at my calendar.

Sometimes I feel like I fling myself around with too much abandon. But its the wonderful people I meet that keep me grounded...and ultimately make all the travel worth it.

My best wishes for a happy, healthy, and travel-filled New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tips for Rail Savings

(Photo by J.E.Theriot)
I just stumbled upon an excellent blog by a Rail Europe staffer named Benjamin Harman. No surprise: its about train travel.

But what is surprising is how impartial the advice is. It'll work whether or not you decide to use the service's of Mr. Harman's company.

Among the many tips he gives for affordable train travel, the most useful are:
  • Take an overnight train to save on the cost of a hotel room. When I was in college and traveling around by rail pass, I spent several nights snoozing on the train. Not only did I save this way, it was a kick to go to sleep in one country and awake in the next, ready for a new adventure.
  • Compare the costs of a pass vs. point-to-point tickets. The pass won't always be the cheaper option. Harman points out that this may be particularly true for itineraries that include chunnel trips, as the reservation fee is higher than normal for those.
  • Travel with friends. Many passes offer group discounts and a group can be just two people. But there are restrictions, sometimes, with these sorts of discounted passes Harman writes. In some cases, all the names will be printed on a single pass, so if one of the group decides to take a day trip alone, the rest of his group will lose a rail day.
  • Make a stopover along the way. This is a particularly good idea on long rail trips. Instead of spending all day on the train, stop for a few hours in a town or city along the way. If you're traveling on a pass, you'll have unlimited time on the train within a 24-hour period, so jumping on and off the train in a day won't cost a cent more. 
  • Use the discounts that come with many passes. These can include savings on ferry travel, museum admissions, and even hotels and restaurants.
You can read Harman's complete blog by clicking here

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Darn! Japan Ditches Its Big Airfare Giveaway

(By Trodei)
Well, it made for excellent daydreams didn't it? Unfortunately, fantasies of free airfare to Japan won't become a reality. Japan has announced that it will NOT be giving away 10,000 free flights to the island nation this spring.

The government has stated that the funds needed to give away free flights are better spent rebuilding areas damaged by the tsunami. Its hard to argue with that logic.

Here's hoping that Japan recovers its tourist industry in 2012, even without the freebie. There are few destinations as intriguing, and it certainly deserves our visitor dollars.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Try It, You'll Like It: Hotel Finder Trivago.com

Usually I'm loyal as a labrador. But after years of using HotelsCombined.com to suss out hotel pricing, I've stumbled upon a worthy competitor in Trivago.com. (It will be interesting to see whether Google's new hotel finder, which is still in development, will soon knock these two off their pedestals).

True, Trivago isn't all that different than HotelsCombined; both are "aggregator" sites, meaning that they aggregate prices from a number of online travel agencies, as well as from the hotels chains directly, displaying broad overviews of what the market has to offer.

Which finds the lowest rates? That's an open question. In the searches I did (looking at three American cities: NYC, Las Vegas and Minneapolis), Trivago came out cheapest (by just a dollar in each case) in 3 out of the 7 searches I did. HotelsCombined won in the other cases, though again, only by $1-$2 a night.

Trivago seems the clear winner, however, when it comes to design. Neatly boxed information, set in two columns, is the norm here. And Trivago allows users to slice and dice their info in a number of innovative ways. Looking for pet-friendly spa hotels with connecting rooms, cosmetic mirrors, and indoor swimming pools? Trivago can find that for you, and it seamlessly compartmentalizes those searches into areas for "room features", "hotel features", "sports facilities", "hotel type". It will also narrow the search to the hotels that are best for "party people", "families", "honeymooners", etc.

To be fair, HotelsCombined.com has all those search features--and it even allows users to search only for hotels with pillowtop mattresses, raising the level of finicky searches a notch higher than Trivago. But it displays the information in unweildy columns, as opposed to nicely broken up little boxes, making it a hair less easy to navigate.

Will I dump HotelsCombined altogether? No way, not when its clearly the price leader in many destinations. But I will add Trivago to my list of go to sites in the future, which also includes Hipmunk (a site with a wonderful interface, in terms of location, which uses HotelsCombined results for its pricing--or so I've been told).

Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry, Merry, Happy, Happy

Taking the day off from blogging so I can drive safely from Vermont to NYC. Hoping everyone else is having a safe and happy holiday! See ya tomorrow.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Weddings/Vacations in Jamaica...But You'd Better Do Your Sit Ups!

Would you strip down to your birthday suit, in public and on TV, in return for a free wedding and a four- night Caribbean honeymoon?

Guests at Hedonism II
Or perhaps the more pertinent question is: would you want to be at a resort where dozens of couples will likely be doing just that this coming Valentine's Day?

Take this blog as either an incentive or a warning. But Hedonism II, the party hearty Negril resort in question, is accepting applications from engaged couples who'd be willing to get married naked during a TV broadcast. (Word is private parts will be blurred out on camera. But your great aunt Betty, the one who came all the way to Jamaica to watch you get hitched? Well, she's going to be able to see, up-close-and-personal, what a big boy you've become.) Ten couples will be chosen for this "honor" and will not only participate in the nude wedding but will do interviews with the documentary filmmakers covering this seminal moment in the history of western civilization.

To learn more, click here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Upcoming Travel Shows and Appearances

Late winter and spring are always a busy time for my father and me, as we spend a lot of time flying around the country appearing at different travel shows. Since we'd love to meet you, dear reader, I thought I'd post a calendar here of all the upcoming appearances:

January 14: Pauline at the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show (in Long Beach)
January 29: Arthur at the LA Times Travel Show (Los Angeles)
March 3: Pauline and Arthur at the New York Times Travel Show (Javits Center, NYC)
February 11: Boston Globe Travel Show (Boston)
June 15: Community Library, Ketchum, Idaho

I believe that's all of them. Hope to meet you all there!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Free Holiday Airport Wifi Thanks To Skype

Starting today, Skype is gifting travelers with an hour of free wifi at some 50 airports across the US. These will include New York's very busy JFK Airport, Chicago O'Hare and San Francisco International; for a complete list of hubs, click here.

The free WiFi is available to PC and Mac users, as well as those with smart phones, though one has to have pre-loaded the device with Skype for Windows, Skype for Mac or the Skype App before hitting the road. That will allow the computer's operating system to search to see if its near a Skype enabled hot spot.

And as always with Skype, video and regular phone calls will be part of the options, meaning you can give a shout out to Grandma at the airport and let her know you're on your way.

The free WiFi period continues through December 27.

For free WiFi in the air, you'll need to be flying Delta (see my earlier blog on that give away).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fair Warning: Patrols for Drunk Drivers To Be Stepped Up Across the US This Holiday Season

Though Thanksgiving is the day of the year that sees the most fatalities from drunk driving, New Years Eve ain't far behind, with much of December--with its endless holiday parties--also high on the scale. So the activist chief of the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, has decided to address the problem.

Last week, standing alongside David Strickland (of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and Jan Winthers (President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving), he announced that there will be a crackdown on drunk driving from December 16 through January 2. Thousands of law enforcement officials across the US have pledged to help in these measures, which will be advertised with a new compaign called "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over".

In a bold new strategy, the officers won't just be pulling over people who are driving erratically. They'll also be posted in plain clothes in nightlife areas and will issue sobriety tests to people who show the signs of being impaired, as they get into their cars, in an effort to pre-empt them from breaking the law (and endangering other drivers). A sobering statistic--pun intended--one out of every three Americans will be involved in a drunk-driving related accident, either as the perpetrator or as the victim, in the course of their lifetime.

For the DOT's announcement of the new campaign, please click here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Artisinal Alcohol Tourism With Beer, Not Wine, As the Starring Player

Wine tasting vacations? Been there, done that.

With the rise of craft beers in the last decade, many foodies are now going to tasting rooms that feature bubbles and hops. Just as with wines, the quality of soil, mineral content in water, and the expertise of the brewmaster combine to make brews that can vary widely from region to region and brewery to brewery. And many of the best local brews are only available at or near their place of origin, meaning that afficionados need to travel to try the best and newest ales available.

Finding where to go, and creating vacations around beer tasting, is now an easier task thanks to a well-researched, thorough book by Christian DeBenedetti called "The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lovers Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation."

If you have a beer lover in your family, this helpful guide may just be the perfect stocking stuffer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Surfing While Flying

Flying for the holidays? You'll be able to tweet that fact to the world for free this year, if you're flying Delta. The airline has teamed with both eBay and Gogo Inflight to offer 30 minutes of free wifi on all wifi enabled planes through January 2. That means free wifi on all domestic flights, though not on all international ones.

A nice holiday gesture, I think. If I were flying Delta this season (I'll be driving), I might consider tweeting a thank you to the all the parties involved. Safe travels all!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good News For Cruisers: Noroviruses Seem To Be On The Decline

The Carnival Dream (photo by Kathy Pryn)
If you've been on a cruise lately you know that the most common site on board ship aren't bikinis, umbreallaed drinks or sunburns. Its hand sanitizer. Little dispensers of the stuff are strategically placed at every main portal and many minor ones. Often stationed next to them will be crew members urging their use. The cruiselines have taken the tactic that one can't be too careful when it comes to the spread of disease onboard these cities at sea.

Happily, it looks like their strategy is working. The outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness aboard cruise ships hit a several year low in 2011, according to the CDC which monitors illness on the ships that port in the US. Just 11 outbreaks were reported, a steep decline from just 5 years ago, when the tally was 30 for that year.

What's even more notable is this decline is occurring at a time when more people are cruising than ever, on even larger ships. Special kudos to Carnival which is the industries largest fleet (with 23 ships), yet had no outbreaks this year.

For all the facts and figures, click here to read USA Today's blog on the news.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Latest--Oddest?--Use for Social Media: Meet Your Potential Seatmate Before You Board the Plane

When it comes to seatmates on airlines, I have one main concern: knees.

I've gotten a kneeful on several recent flights, having been seated in front of or beside men who are simply too tall for the seats on most planes. I don't say a word when their knees give my back an unwitting massage through the chair; or I have to give up some of my leg space to their splayed legs. I don't blame these tall fellows; its the airlines who are trying to squeeze too many sardines into these flying cans. 
Photo Andrew Mason


But the airlines don't seem to think that space and body size are passengers' main concern when sizing up potential seatmates. They believe, or at least KLM does, that we're looking for potential soulmates.

How else to explain the downright bizarre plan that KLM has put forward to allow passengers to link their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts with check-in information. The reasoning, apparently, is that passengers will want to suss out others on the flight so they can sit next to the ones they'll have the most in common with.

Frankly, if anyone sat next to me based on my social media profile, well, I'd try to move to get away from them.

Whatever happened to just reading quietly and enjoying the time in the clouds?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ride Free: Pay Nothing For Your Seat on Megabus' Newest Routes

Every time Megabus expands--and the company has been kudzu-esque in its rapid growth--it gives away free seats. Lots and lots of free seats. We saw that this fall when it gifted travelers with some 20,000 rides to and from Atlanta. And now Megabus has decided to link Toronto with its neighbors in the States again giving away 20,000 freebies. 
Use your bus savings on the Royal Ontario Museum
The free seat promo is for travel between January 4 and March 1. Simply use the code "GOFREE" when booking a ticket.

And that's not all that's free: Wifi is usually available at no charge. (Frankly, its either available for free or not available at all. I've been on some buses where it works, and others where it hasn't).

 Megabus will be connecting Toronto with a number of US cities. For the complete list, and to book, go to Megabus.com.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chip and Pin Finally Here in North America

Sounds like a form of wrestling, or a new Hip Hop act, right? But what I'm referring to are the credit cards that folks in Europe have been using for nearly a decade now, which require PIN numbers to work (a security improvement).

Well, the news has just broken that these sorts of cards are now going to be available in the US. The issuing bank is Chase. Its partnering with British Airway on the new credit cards. The cards will have a dual usage, having both a strip (for use in the USA); and a chip, allowing them to be used abroad.

I'm actually writing this blog at JFK Airport on my way to Europe for the sixth time this year. And I've gone without having a chip and pin card and have NEVER encountered a single problem. However, travelers have reported that lack of a "chip and pin" card is a problem when it comes to unattended, credit card taking machines, such as gas pumps and metro ticket vending machines.

Ed Perkin's broke the news of the new card in his blog on SmarterTravel.com. You can read more about it, and whether or not accruing miles on British Airways makes sense, by clicking here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Straight from the Baggage Handlers Mouth...

It's one of the greatest mysteries in travel.

No, not how ancient peoples transported the huge rocks that formed Stonehenge. (That was done by extraterrestrials, of course).

I'm talking about what happens behind the plastic flaps the lead onto the luggage return belt. I can't be the only one who's wondered just what my bag's been through during the hours it was out of my possession.

The answer turns out to be a heckuva lot. Thanks to a terrific piece on Airfare Watchdog, the ins and outs of baggage handling are explained by a frank and very insightful airport handler. And some of what he has to say is useful for passengers to know, including:
  • Larger aircraft (747, 767, 777, 787, etc.) are loaded by conveyor belts so the luggage gets thrown around less than on smaller planes. On the smaller one, bags are often tossed a good 50 feet and then stacked "tetris style" in the hold. It's one reason why bags on smaller planes may get damaged more.
  • Bags on which the handle is sewn on are more likely to lose said handle (riveted handles last longer). Wheels are also often cracked or broken off in the loading process. The exception are bags with four wheels that spin, as these can be easily glided onto and off the plane and so are less likely to be thrown.
  • Fragile stickers are often ignored or overlooked (surprise, surprise!)
  • Though the interviewed handler hasn't personally seen thefts from bags, when he travels he uses a TSA approved lock. 'Nuf said on that, I think.
If you're interested in hearing more and learning why you probably don't want to work as a baggage handler yourself, click on the link above. As I said, its a fascinating piece.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If the Shoe Fits, Head to the Museum

For bound feet in China. They're tiny
One of my weekly rituals is reading the New Yorker. An extraordinary magazine, it employs writers who have that near magical ability of taking topics that seems limited on first brush--the career of a man who creates fonts, the life of movie dog Rin Tin Tin--and finding the human condition, in its many and varied shades, contained in them.

A one-topic museum can have that same surprising power when its as well curated as the Bata Shoe Museum (www.batashoemuseum.ca) in Toronto is. Having grown out of a collection of unusual footwear started by a family that manufactures shoes, it manages to reveal interesting tidbits about a number of cultural and historic trends.

For example, when the Anasazi Indians of the Southwest learned how to make pottery, not everything improved in their lives. They stopped making baskets to carry food, lost those weaving skills and their woven footwear became shoddier.

In the 16th century Europe, high heels came into vogue for the first time because they were a way for that era's 1% to say "Look how powerful I am! I'm wearing shoes that are utterly impractical and hobble my movement because I don't have to do any labor!" The more powerful the Lord or Lady, the higher their shoes (it also meant that women had to use more fabrics to allow their gowns to hit the floor, another way to prove one's wealth). Looking at the shoes--and they're reminiscent of something a Jersey Shore gal would wear--and learning about their history you start to wonder (or at least I did), why are we still hobbling ourselves with heels today? What the heck are we trying to prove?

Chestnut crushers!
The shoes are fascinating and often exquisite objects, in and of themselves. A pair with massive, curved talon-like spikes turns out to be a chestnut shelling device from 19th century France (see right).

Another case displays the shoes Roman Catholic Cardinals wear at different times of the year.

And the very first shoe shown is a reproduction of the the first known shoe, found on a frozen body and dating back 5300 years. It looks a bit like a birds nest stuck into a gourd. The wall text thoughtfully explains that scientists recreated the shoes and, as an experiment wore them for several days. You'll be happy to hear that no blisters were formed in the name of anthropology! The shoes were comfy and warm.

In addition to its permanent exhibition on the history of footwear, the museum also has fun exhibits on shoes from the roaring 1920's (most are extraordinarily beautiful) and the moccasins of the Southwestern US and Mexico. For those who like pop culture, the sneakers choices (primarily) of Canada's musical elite--Avril Lavigne, Anne Murray, Michael Buble, Nickleback, the Bare Naked Ladies, and more--are also given the glass case treatment.

Expect to spend a good hour at the Bata to see it all. And it will be a good hour. No, a great one! I promise.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Buy The Goods, Visit the People: A New Type of Volunteer Vacation

From The Village's website
I travel to about a dozen Travel Shows each year, and after a while the booths start to blur together--stacks of brochures, perhaps a guy in native dress, piles of candy to lure passers by.

But the Village Experience (www.experiencethevillage.com), which I've been noticing for the first time this year,  seems different. It may be because they're not just promoting a tour or destination, but selling actual , and often exquisite, products created in some of the most remote areas on earth.

Intrigued, I went up to chat with the folks running the booth and came away impressed by their creativity. The Village is taking a two-pronged approach to what's commonly caused "Voluntourism". They not only take would-be do-gooders to places in need around the globe (from Haiti to Kenya to Guatemala), but they create programs allowing folks in these places to create goods, fair trade products that can then be sold elsewhere to bring money back into the community.

These two sides of the organization are then apparently merged on the trips. The voluntourists head to the partner villages on trips that give back to the community by using only locally owned and operated tour guides, transportation facilities and accommodations. They see a lot that's in the country and they also meet the artisans and craftspeople who are making the beautiful goods The Village is selling. They may work with them on these crafts or do other types of volunteer work.

From The Village's website
In 2012, The Village is offering several trips to Haiti (3 in March and 1 in May), each of which has a slightly different focus. Over the course of one, participants spent time in a rural orphanage and school project. An earlier tour focuses on earthquake reconstruction, still another is geared around fair trade product development and the last involves volunteering in the tent cities.

Similar tours are offered to Thailand, parts of the Middle East Kenya and Guatemala in 2012. I haven't yet met a participant in one of their trips, nor can I vouch for their offerings from personal experience. But, as I said earlier, I have been impressed by their staff and wish them well.

Have any of you taken one of their trips? I'd love to hear about your experience below in the comments section.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Shore Excursion Solution

One of the most frequent questions we get from listeners to our radio show is: should I take the shore excursions the cruise line are offering when I sail the Mediterranean, or to Alaska, or the Caribbean?

Our usual response is that many of these excursions can be done independently for far less money (and allowing for far greater freedom). But in some cases one does need local help-- the major sites are difficult to get to from the port or the most interesting activities require a guide (dog sledding in Alaska, perhaps or scuba diving in the Caribbean).

In those cases, one has several options. The first is to simply pick up a good guidebook, look up local tour operators and make your own arrangements. This will likely be the most cost effective option.

Or you can employ a company that specializes in creating unique, intimate and often cheaper shore excursions. I know of three that do this: Port Compass (www.portcompass.com), Shore Trips (www.shoretrips.com) and Port Promotions (www.portpromotions.com). These companies offer excursions accommodating a dozen people or less (as opposed to the 40-people-in-a-motorcoach excursions the cruiselines tend to offer); and because their groups are smaller, they often have time to fit in more adventures in a day, since time isn't wasted shepherding large crowds of travelers.

Snorkeling with sting rays is a popular shore excursion in Grand Cayman
What's the difference between these companies? Some have better coverage in certain areas than others. But other than that these three seem to have the same modus operandi. Their owners head to the ports themselves and test out tours in order to recommend only the most professionally run and interesting of the lot.

Will one save money with these companies? The answer is yes, definitely, if you're traveling with a group of six or more people. In those cases, the per person cost will be far less than what the cruise line is charging.

When couples book these trips, the savings can be negligible. A lot will depend on how many other cruisers also bite (the more who book, the lower the cost for each).

But even with higher costs (which tend to equal rather than surpass the cruiseline's prices in those cases when these tours don't save travelers money) these sorts of shore excursions may be the better experience, for the reasons enumerated above.

The only reason NOT to go it alone, or use an outside community? If you don't own a watch.

With the cruiseline-sponsored shore excursions the ship will wait if the bus is delayed getting back to port. No such courtesy is extended to those who go it on their own. Still, for sensible folks with a good sense of timing, this shouldn't be too much of an issue.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free WiFi in Barbados

Barbados (Photo by Derek Hatfield)
In a savvy move, a major Barbadian organization called the "Entrepreneurs Forum" has asked all business owners on the island--and that includes hotels, restaurants and shops--to open their WiFi networks to the public, free of charge. The goal is to become the first free wifi nation in the world.

If Barbadian businesses comply, the island could shoot to the head of the pack of fun in the sun getaways. Why? Let's face it, for many of us vacation means only slightly less time away from email and the internet than usual. Barbados may just become the getaway of choice for 9-to-9ers.

On second thought, that may be the reason to avoid the island in the future. Laptop toters on the sands? Perhaps not the most intriguing beach companions.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Conversation on Air Travel

Last week, I had the pleasure, and the honor, of appearing with Jacki Lyden on the NPR radio show "On Point". Two serious aviation experts were the other guests, and the conversation (which included calls from listeners) covered a lot of ground. Since it was recorded before Thanksgiving, there was a bit about the holiday rush. But much more had to do with airline fees, when to book, tricks for getting the best prices and what needed to be done about the state of air travel in general.

I think (hope) you'll enjoy the conversation. To listen, please click here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

American Airlines' Bankruptcy

First things first: no planes are going to fall out of the sky.

Weren't worried about that? Well, then let me address the number one traveler fear about American Airline's announcement yesterday of its Chapter 11 filing: AA frequent flyer miles didn't go up in smoke either. The airline announced those will remain unchanged for now. And even if American Airlines does go out of business completely (which wouldn't happen anytime soon, by the by), frequent flyer miles would likely be transferred to another airline, if history is any guide. In the article above, Miles Maven Tim Winship talks about what's happened to loyalty programs in the past when these types of situations arise.

I was speaking with George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog yesterday and his best guess on how the bankruptcy filing will affect travelers I'll call "sticky tray table syndrome". Superficial maintenance issues on the planes may suffer. Bluntly put: the planes are going to get grungier. And flight attendants are less likely to be smiling as they try to sell you your dinner. The filing was made, after all, to control labor costs. That means everyone you encounter at American for the next several months is going to be fretting over pay cuts and even possible job losses. So it won't be the happiest of work environments.

American has also said that its going to use the filing to get out of some of its leasing arrangements. Currently the Airline leases 29% of its fleet, which means that we'll be seeing significant changes in flights schedules, with a flights to less profitable gateways more likely to be dropped. At least in the near future. American has ordered a lot of more fuel efficient planes and it plans to accept delivery of those.

One final outcome of this situation? A possible marriage proposal. Industry watchers expect to see a merger between American and US Airways, to make it--like the other recent airline mergers--a super airline that's possibly "too big to fail".  Or at least too big to discount. Because whenever airline's merge redundant routes are eliminated and (often) prices rise.

So don't believe anybody who tells you this latest bit of bad travel news will have no affect on passengers. It will, but the changes will creep up on us, like a receding hairline. Always good to have something to look forward to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Flying Down to Rio? LAN Has a Sale You'll Want to Catch

Ipanema (Mike Vondran photo)
Thanks to the tweeps at LAN Airlines for sending me a direct message (through Twitter) alerting me to their latest sale. Its being called--without hyperbole, I'll add-- "The Big Deal of the Year" and the prices are truly spectacular. Feast your eyes on  $149 round-trip between Miami and Punta Cana!

Since we're living in an upside down world, the taxes on that ticket are nearly as high as the fare itself ($139), but even with that additional expense, $288 for a round-trip to the Dominican Republic is a darn good offer.

LAN is also advertising round-trips between the US and Colombia, Venezuela or Ecuador for just $299 (again, pre-tax); and $699, before taxes, for Argentina, Brazil or Chile.

You can't travel right away with this sale (the prices are for flights beginning March 1) but you must book before Dec 12 to get in on the deals.

For complete information, click here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Give a Little, Get a Lot: Free IPads At Sea

Last week, Royal Caribbean announced that it would be equipping its 1800-passenger Splendour of the Seas with IPads in every stateroom. They would be available to passengers in the cabin or to carry around the ship and were to be used to access daily schedules, order rooms service, view restaurant menus, book shore excursions, watch movies and oh yes, access the internet.

Schooner Lounge (A Dombrowski photo)
So, in one savvy swoop, Royal Caribbean has gotten rid of the considerable expense of printing daily itinerary sheets (one would assume), and put into place what will undoubtedly be a huge income generator. I'm speaking of the internet access on these handy tablets. Unlike the shipboard functions for the I-Pads (preloaded ship maps, the ability to book restaurant reservations, etc.) Wifi will not be free. Far from it. As anybody who's ever had the unpleasant obligation of having to work remotely while at sea, the internet fees will remain killer. On its site, RCL lists internet access fees as being $35 for 60 minutes and $55 for 100 minutes (here's the complete list).

Xince the majority of passengers don't travel with their laptops and don't end up using the on-board computers that much, these outrageous fees haven't been as much of an issue as they could be. With the temptation of an I-Pod in every cabin, well, sticker shock on this front is going to explode.

And Wifi is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Think of all the videos and photos people will take on those IPads. Fees haven't been announced for the download of those, but my guess is they'll be substantial.

Royal Caribbean will be equipping its five other "Vision Class" ships with IPads within the next two years. So alongside your bikini, pack your willpower folks. Cause cruising's extra costs are about to get exponentially higher.

Friday, November 25, 2011

One Final Black Friday Sale (Just in Time)

Viking River Cruises has joined the Black Friday party! It will be offering two-for-the-price-of-one sailings on three vessels in the coming month. But that's just the beginning of the offer: those who book Friday will also receive discounted airfare ($500 off) and a shipboard credit of $100 per couple.

The sailings are:
  • The Passage to Eastern Europe: Budapest to Bucharest, 11 days, November 2012 sailings 
  • Danube Waltz: Passau to Budapest, 8 days, 1 November sailing
  • Cities of Light: Paris to Prague, 12 days, 1 November sailing
For complete pricing details, click here

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Another Nice Promo from Intrepid Travel

Let's not discount serendipity. Instead, let's use it to find discounts!

A cryptic start to today's blog, I know, but I'm feeling a bit giggly because, after reading another serious (and seriously depressing) New York Times editorial, I happened to look up to the top of the page and serendipitously, there was a voucher for $150 off an Intrepid Travel vacation! Bingo!

Considering that Intrepid Travel's prices are usually among the most reasonable in the business, I thought this was an excellent promotion. The rules are pretty easy: travelers must book their trip through this page before the end of 2011, and the trip booked must commence before the end of June, 2012. That's about it.

For those who've never heard of Intrepid, its and Australian company that runs "small group adventure tours" to all corners of the globe. Groups are never more than 12 in number, and, being a socially-conscious company, Intrepid places travelers in locally-owned guesthouses, takes them on public transportation (rather than gas guzzling private busses) and includes lots of free time in their itineraries for personal exploration. The idea is to keep as much money in the communities visited as possible.

As for the word "adventure", well, some tours are quite adventurous, including opportunities for rafting, climbing, camping out and the like. The companies other tours are adventurous in that they take people to some of the less-visited parts of the globe (such as a number of countries in Africa and South America), but nobody's going to make you bungee jump if you don't want to. Intrepid also offers programs for families traveling with children.

The company also has a contest going, giving away free trips. Learn more about that, and about Intrepid itself, by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

More Black Friday and Cyber Monday Deals

The glowing mirrors at Affinia Hotels are quite popular
I KNEW there'd be more. Some additional reasons to fire up your computer this Friday and Monday:
  •  Shell Vacations Hospitality: Not an off-shoot of the gas stations, this classy resort conglomerate (I've been to the Shell property in Las Vegas and its quite nice) will be offering discounts of up to 50% off per night at resorts in the Napa Valley, Anaheim, Hawaii, Las Vegas and others. The sale begins Thursday at midnight and goes through the end of day on Friday. Click here for full details.
  • IHG: Parent brand to Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites and Hotel Indigo, wants to give you $100...if you're willing to jump through a heckuva lot of hoops. First, you must follow @IHG_Deals on Twitter. Then, you have to find the "Gotta Get 100" link and register there by Nov 28. But you're not done yet! After registering, you must book two consecutive weekend night stays at one of the company's hotels before the end of April. Do all of that and the hotel group will pay $100 of your airfare to any destination.
  • Affinia Hotels: I like these hotels a lot. They tend to have excellent gyms and comfortable beds--a winning combo. That's the only reason I'm including a 10% off deal (which I usually consider to paltry a percentage to mention). In this case, the 10% is off best available rates, so price drops to as low as $109/night for some of the properties, a good rate for hotels of this caliber. The deal's taking place in Washington, DC, New York and Chicago; Cyber Monday is when the savings will go live. Click here for more details and use code "Cyber 1".
  • Jetsetter: A group buying discount site (like Groupon or Yuupon--which I mentioned last week), its promising hourly sales from 9am to 9pm on Monday, featuring discounts of 40%-50% off hotels and air/hotel packages. And one lucky shopper will get their trip gratis, compliments of Jetsetter.
To read the deals I featured last week, please scroll backwards on this blog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Guns at the Airport

Raise your hand if you didn't know guns were forbidden on planes.

Anyone? Anyone?

So why are more and more passengers getting caught at airport security check-points with firearms in their carry-ons?

That's the alarming question posed by Joe Sharkey in his New York Times column last week, which he aptly titled "Knuckleheads or Worse, Bringing Guns in Carry Ons". 

Apparently, the number of passengers making this "mistake" is on the rise and the TSA is snagging 4 to 5 passengers each day who are trying to pack pistols. Some claim they forgot they had the gun in their bag, others have clearly tried to hide their guns from detection.

Both types of gunslingers are idiots.

The first because, as Sharkey rightly points out, not knowing where your guns are goes against basic gun safety protocol. And a good number of the guns confiscated are fully loaded!

The second type of passenger, the one who's trying to hide the gun, is more worrisome. Most probably aren't terrorists. Just the kind of jerks who feel they are above the law; or that the law governing guns on planes is wrong and should be flouted. After all, in the past decade, laws have changed in many communities allowing concealed weapons to be carried in restaurants, theaters and a number of other formerly off-limit places. Why should planes be any different?

I'm not going to get into the issue of gun control here. This is a travel column, after all. But I'd love for those who are on the NRA's side of this argument to take up the cause of public safety and remind their members that carrying guns on planes is not a safe or smart idea. Just the loss of cabin pressure, if one or more bullets were to pierce the plane's fuselage, could be very, very dangerous for passengers (read more on that here). The gun owners will listen to you, more than to me. Do this for all of our safety.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Wifi All Over London

(Photo by Jim Trodel)
Its only a trial run, but this November Nokia, in partnership with the city of London, rolled out 26 hot spots around the city. Free to use, they're located primarily on Oxford Street and in train stations. If the program is successful, it will be expanded in 2012.


Now, you won't be able to hang out next to a hotspot and stream movies on your I-Pad. The hot spots will work for all wifi accepting devices, but each user will be limited to 1mbps. But that's more than enough to tweet "Hey, I just got free WiFi in London" to your friends back home.

You'll find more information in this article from The Telegraph (click here).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black Friday & Cyber Monday Travel Deals

The countdown has begun!

No, not to Thanksgiving. I'm talking about Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And, as in years past, these dates should offer as many travel deals as two-for-the-price-of-one Pashmina shawls sales. So get ready to surf the web, and shine up those credit cards.

Here are the deals I've spotted so far:
  • Gate 1 Travel What I like about this one is that Gate 1's air-hotel packages are always good values, whether they be to Asia, Europe or Latin America. With this deal, folks who book on November 25 will get additional money back, depending on how much they spend. Spend $500 or more and receive $50 off with the promo code BLKFR50; spend $1000 or more for $100 off (promor code BLKFR100); at $2000 the giveback is $250 (BLKFR250); and those who pony up $4000 or more get $500 off (BLKFR500). More details at the Gate 1 site (link above). And unlike last year's sale, these deals will also apply to cruise purchases.
  • Viceroy Hotels: This deals a bit more complicated. Would be travelers will have to "like" the hotel chain first on Facebook. Then on Nov 27 and 28, "friends" of the hotel group will receive discount codes good for half off the best rate or more. (They're advertising that discounted rooms could go for as little as $75 a night; darn good for rooms that normally sell in the $200's. Viceroy has hotels all over the world from Turkey to the Caribbean to California and Florida. 
  • Yuupon: A group-buying discount site, but with a twist: if you realize you won't be able to use your travel purchase, you can get your money back! Its putting out that its Black Friday sale will include savings of up to 90% on Las Vegas shows, air tickets and gas cards and $17 hotel rooms. Click here to read my father's complete blog on the sale.
  • Kula Hulanda Resorts, Curacao: Want to look tan in the Xmas photos? Head first to the Caribbean then. This resort is offering a third-night free deal (basically a 33% discount) for stays through mid-December (alas, the Christmas holidays are blacked out on this offer). Request the "Black Friday Special".
  • St Kitts Marriott Resort and Royal Beach Casino: Another "fun in the sun" offer, this one available through December 21. Book 7 nights and get the 5th, 6th and 7th free, an upgrade and free breakfasts for up to two adults and two children. The promo code is ZJL.
Consider these few sales just an amuse bouche. I'll serve up some more "Black and Cyber" travel savings next week! Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Travel Scams Circulating This Holiday Season

Part of the speech I give at travel shows around the country involves all of the legitimate travel freebies one can scoop up nowadays. So I may be one of the people to blame for folks out there thinking they can get something for nothing.

Alas, in the case of free flights with Southwest Airlines, there's no such thing as a free ride.

But hackers would have us think otherwise.

I was alerted to the scam when a Facebook friend posted a cheery "I love Southwest!" with a link below it to a site one had to click on for the free coupons, good for flights anywhere. The giveaway that this was a fraud: the claim that Southwest would be giving away 3000 coupons for free flights. In this economy, with the cost of fuel as it is? Fuggedabout it.

I then scanned the internet and found this useful blog about what to do if you do fall for this scam, and have your information "phished".

Apparently, recent scams have claimed that JetBlue and Delta are also giving away free tickets.

Sigh. If only....

Fraudulent Check-In Scam
And that ain't the end of it, folks. Apparently devious scammers have been sending out confirmations for a flight Thanksgiving week between New York and Los Angeles. When unsuspecting victims click on any part of the email, a harmful virus gets unleashed.

Unfortunately, a number of Delta customers have gotten the email. Here's a complete article on the ruse, and what one should do if you click first and think second.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Getting Into the "Spirit" of Nickle-And-Diming Travelers

Is this woman protecting herself from the stink of high fees? (Photo by B. Brown)
Several years ago, my esteemed colleague Jason Cochran wrote a piece on the fact that, even with their awesomely low fares, the extra fees at Spirit Airlines usually wiped out any difference in price between them and their competitors. It took a lot of math, but that was the researched conclusion. (Sorry, I've looked, but I can't seem to find the article online; I remember it because I edited it.)

My guess is that, with the fee upticks announced yesterday, travelers will likely now pay MORE to fly Spirit than its competition. Because except for those few time-rich souls willing to go to the airport and purchase a ticket at the counter there, all passengers will be charged $34 per round-trip flight for the "privilege" of booking online. That's no typo: $34 (!!) to book online.

That come to double the old fee. The Huffington Post points out that this new fee, in a number of cases, will work out to a additional 40% of the ticket price.

And, taking a page from Ryanair, those who don't print their own tickets at home will have to cough up $5 at the airport to get them.

Wonder if they'll be next announcing the sale of porn on their flights, like Ryanair? Wouldn't put it past 'em.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blockbuster Museum Show a Potent Reason to Get to Dallas Soon

Last spring, the hottest ticket in New York City wasn't to the Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon" (though that remains super popular). Instead, lines several blocks long formed outside the Metropolitan Museum of people eager to see the Costume Institute's Alexander McQueen show. People waited for upwards of seven hours to get in....and left happy.

After the preview I saw on Friday of the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit I have no doubt that kind of lightening is about to strike Dallas.

"The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk" is the boffo new show at the Dallas Museum of Art, and it is, without hyperbole, one of the top five museum shows I've ever seen. Part of me wished I could extend my stay in Texas just so I could walk through it again.

And as anyone knows who's ever seen me in person, I'm the farthest thing from a fashionista (I'm typing this blog in a velour "Mesa Verde" souvenir sweatshirt, for heavens sake!).

But the technical bravura of the show, the beauty of the clothes, the interplay of history with culture and creativity--it truly bowls the viewer over.

Let's start with the gee whiz factor. In a brilliant move, meant to make the clothes seem more part of the living world, many of the mannequins have faces that move and speak in the most eerie fashion. These are not Disney-World-esque puppets. Instead, Gaultier and his favorite models were filmed talking. Those images are projected onto the face of the mannequins.

And boy do they have a lot to say. I stood mesmerized before one haughty lady who spit out one witticism after another. My favorite was a comment on the show itself: "Its all too French," she purred. "So many ideas! Too, too many ideas."

Yes, its an overflow of ideas, but that's why it deserves to be in a museum. Some of the clothes are, without hyperbole, great works of art. In one room, ex votos beautiful in and of themselves formed a spectacular, breast-plated evening gown. In another the viewer sees male mannequins dressed in skirts and even elaborate feathers, yet the effect is testosterone charged and makes the viewer rethink their ideas about what's appropriate for each gender.

For pop culture fans there's Madonna's iconic pointy bra bustier, oxidized with her sweat. There are also clothes inspired by the Red Light district in Amsterdam, by world cultures (I'm craving that Eskimo coat), by famous films. Often the mannequins revolve, so one can see the clothes from all angles.

A final savvy move: the show plays up the effort and artistry that goes into creating these sorts of objects. On the wall panels next to each article of clothing is a small note stating how long it took to create. 50 to 70 hours seemed to be the norm.

Even if you think you have no interest in fashion: go. It may well be the most fun you'll ever have in an art museum.

(Note: The show is in Dallas through February 10 and then moves to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Whistler a Happy Tune: Primo Early Booking Ski Discounts

In two weeks, ski season begins at the resort Ski Magazine has annually named best in North America. Don't wait until ski bunnies are racing down the mountain. The folks at Whistler recently announced that those who book before Nov 15, will score a 36% discount off both lodgings and lift ticket. This discount will hold for the entire season.That means that even when holiday rates are in effect, those who book soon will be able to shave a full third off the overall cost.

In terms of numbers, a low season five night lodgings/four day ski pass package will start at $443 per person. The deal is bonzanza for families the discount goest to 100% for the wee ones.  Kids stay, eat, ski and ride the shuttle for free with this early booking offer! To see all the variables and fine print, click here.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the "Great Lebowski-esque" contest the resort is currently running.  One lucky winner will win a "winter sabbatical" at Whistler. That means, airfare,  a full month's lodging, lift tickets, and adventure passes a number of adrenaline pumping activities. If that sounds appealing Dude (sorry, I have to call you "Dude" if it does), just click here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I'll Be Speaking in Dallas This Saturday and Would Love to Meet You!

Dallas Skyline (Photo by Steve Johnson)
Yes, its another travel show for me! Very excited to be back in Texas, as last year's appearance there was attended by a group of avid travelers. It was delightful to meet them.

This year, I'll be speaking at 10:45 am and 1:45pm. The first chat is "When to Splurge and When to Scrimp on Travel". My second speech is more of a slide show on exciting destinations one should consider.

The Dallas Travel and Adventure Show will be held at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau (650 South Griffin Street). Also on the bill is the delightful Samantha Brown.

Hope to see you all there!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ouch! Holiday Airfares Up Again

I've spent much of the last week trying to convince you, dear reader, not to head home to see the family this Thanksgiving.

Well, it seems the airlines have joined my "cause", though their methods are likely more persuasive than the simple keyboard I weild. In short, the airlines are going to stick it to those who try to fly over both the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holiday period, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Reporter Hugo Martin, backed up by a number of industry muckymucks, has found that fares for these periods will be 6% to 12% higher than last year.

If you can get them, that is. Because of decreased capacity, many flights are sold out or near sold out.

In fairness to the airlines, they're raising prices because they have to, having had losses 7 out of the last 10 quarters. The surging price of fuel, up 40% in the last year according to Martin, doesn't help either.

So are the prices horrific? I actually have some first-hand experience in this topic, because last night I helped my mother book a round-trip from New York to Chicago. As I've complained here before, she's a last-minute decider, and mistakes me for a travel agent, so I spend a fair amount of time trying to fix the messes her lack of planning cause.

In this case, she decided to attend a family gathering the weekend before Thanksgiving, flying out that Saturday and back on the Tuesday before Turkey day. We huddled around my computer and finally found a flight on Delta into O'Hare (she didn't want to go to Midway because it was too far from her cousin's house) for $243. It would have been less had she been willing to accept an early morning flight, but she's not only a late-decider, she's a late-sleeper, so that was out of the question.

Frankly, I didn't think $243 for that week was too bad. But when I went to pick her seat, I saw how lucky we'd been that she hadn't procrastinated any longer. On the first flight, there were only 5 middle seats left. On Tuesday's return she had a choice of 7 middle seats.

This is all a long way of saying: don't emulate Mom! If you're thinking of traveling this holiday season, make your bookings now. Its only going to get uglier.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spend Thanksgiving in New Orleans and Then Sail The Caribbean

Jazz in Crescent City (photo by Linda Duchain)
So yesterday, I counseled how to escape one's family on Turkey Day by running off to the United Kingdom. Today, I've got a land/cruise deal that may make it even more enticing to ditch the once-a-year cousin fest.

And boy is it a whopper! A 7-night cruise for $529 would be impressive on its own. Add to that 3 nights in a New Orleans' hotel and hotel-to-port transfers, and you have a real steal.

The offer is the brainchild of tour operator Gate 1 Travel and must be booked by Nov 14, for a vacation starting on Nov 23 in NOLA. The sailing is aboard Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas and it ports in Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

Believe it or not, the offer will be revived for slightly more later in the year, so contact Gate 1 if you can't travel this month.

And in case you're wondering, I won't be off to exotic locales for Thanksgiving (sigh). I've been roped into making the potatoes au gratin. So take the trip for me. Oh, and does anyone have a mandolin they can lend?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Free UK Hotel Rooms for the Taking

Skip Turkey Day This Year!
Its as much of an autumn tradition as roasting pumpkin seeds and getting lost in corn mazes (call 911!). Yes, British Airway's annual room give away is back, and this year its expanded. Instead of just tacking on two free hotel nights in London, with a round-trip airfare from the US, BA is also including stays in Edinburgh and Manchester this year.

As always, the deal is based on double occupancy and the taxes involved can come close to the cost of one of the flight legs. Still, the hotels are decent as are the fares, so why the heck not?

For complete information, head to the British Airways website. Reservations must be made before November 15 for travel between tomorrow and December 16.

Hey, this could inspire a new tradition: Thanksgiving across the pond, away from all your pesky relatives.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Freebie Friday: More Free Wifi on Trains

Three cheers for Amtrak! It announced this week that it will be expanding its free Wifi program, previously only available on Acela trains and the Pacific-Cascades lines. With this move, some 60% of the rail lines passengers will be able to connect.
The routes that will now have Wifi are:
  • The Empire Service (New York-Albany-Buffalo)
  • Northeast Regional (Boston to Virginia)
  • Keystone Service (New York-Philadelphia-Harrisburg)
  • Carolinian (New York-Raleigh/Cary, NC)
  • Downeaster (Boston-Portland, ME)
  • Ethan Allen Express (New York-Rutland, VT)
  • Vermonter (Washington-St. Albans)
  • The New Haven-Springfield shuttle
  • Adirondack (New York-Montreal)
  • Maple Leaf (New York-Toronto)
  • Palmetto (New York-Savannah, GA)
  • Pennsylvanian (New York-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh)
On those last four routes, the Wifi will only be available in certain cars (due to technical constraints) so get to the station early to get into the right car. They'll be marked by stickers on the windows.

Photo by Gene Bowker
In addition to Wifi, Amtrak is hoping to offer faster 4G speeds in the near future.

Amtrak further announced that it will be expanding Wifi In California by the end of the year. That will increase the percentage of passengers able to update their Facebook pages on the train to 75%.

Just a few more reasons to ditch the car and plane in favor of the train in the coming months. Green, pleasant and now connected--let's all take ride the rails!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A New Budget Airline Debuts in Asia

This is a blog as birth announcement.

I am thrilled to announce that a bouncing baby airline has just entered the world. Proud single parent Singapore Airlines has named the tot Scoot. Like all doting Moms, Singapore Airlines hopes her kid will be loved. To ensure that, Scoot's going to be a budget carrier, reportedly lopping 40% off the usual prices for its initial flights to China and Australia. Scoot will start flying when she becomes a toddler, some time in mid-2012.

The move is a startling one from an airline known for its luxury amenities. Sinapore Air has been named, in survey after survey, as one of the best airlines in the world, prized for its high quality service (particularly in First and Business Class). Let's hope this Singapore off-shoot is able to keep its standards high and its prices low.

By the way, Scoot will have some buddies to pal around with: four upstart, budget airlines are being planned for launch in Asia in 2012.

Cigars for everyone!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Carnival Raises Its Per Day Tipping Minimum

Towel animals don't appear by magic!
Its my knee-jerk reaction to rail against and and all price increases. I want us all to be able to travel more, after all, and for that the affordability of travel is key.

But Carnival Cruise Lines recent per-day, per person tip increase from $10 to $11.50 seems like a justifiable one to me. Cruise passengers get remarkable value for their money, what with the cost of all meals, lodgings and transportation coming, in many cases, to as little as $50 per person per day (especially on Carnival, which is known for its affordable pricing). With the exception of camping, there's no other type of vacation as cheap.

Part of the reason the cruise lines can charge this little is their relatively low staffing costs. A cleaner or a busboy could be making as little as $900 per month. Considering that most of these men and women work 12-hour days, often with no days off for weeks at a time, the hourly rate works out to a pittance.

And if you've ever cruised, you know that the people who work aboard these ships are gems. Tireless, friendly and efficient, these men and women from the Philipines, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, work harder than most in the travel industry. Many are supporting extended families back home with their wages. If anyone deserves good tips, its cruise workers.

Which is why I personally always tip above the required amount when I cruise. And I'm glad, very glad, that that required minimum is going up. The move is the first tip increase for Carnival since 2001. It will bring the fleet in line with what rivals such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines. Beyond that, it will improve the lives for many, many good people.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

European Airfares Dip--Briefly! Here's How You Can Take Advantage

Its been a long time since I've seen airfares to Europe for less than $500 dollars. Wait, scratch that: I have seen sale fares advertised at  that price. But when taxes and fuel surcharges have been added in, the end amount has nearly doubled.

Lufthansa is taking a non-opaque tack with its current sale (applaud them for that!). Its leading price of just $438 for round-trips between New York and Dublin includes everything but the proverbial kitchen sink (and a few times today, I've seen that price drop even lower).

Other excellent Lufthansa fares (again, round-trip and including all taxes, surcharges and fees):
  • New York-Krakow: $610
  • Boston-Barcelona: $648
  • Dallas/Fort Worth-Zagreb: $757
  • Washington, DC-Budapest: $736
  • Los Angeles-Istanbul: $744
Now, there are no additional taxes on these fares, but there are some restrictions associated with them. First and foremost, they must be booked by end of day tomorrow (Nov 2) for departures between Nov 8 and Mar 26 (returns can occur well into May). A Saturday-night stay-over is required, and if you fly on the weekend a $60 surcharge will be added. As you might expect, holiday fares are NOT included in this sale (sorry!).

One more perk of flying Lufthansa: its new thinner seats. That might sound like a downside, but travelers are reporting they're quite comfortable. And because they take up less room, there's more seat pitch (ie room between the end of your knees and the seat in front of you).

For more information, click here.

Alas, I missed posting a one-day sale that Aer Lingus ran yesterday, also dropping fares to this level. Its current sale is nearly as good as Lufthansa's (click here) though the German carrier seems to beat Aer Lingus in a number of key markets. My guess: we'll see another one day super sale soon (the economic crisis in Ireland has put a big dent in business travel there, meaning the national carrier has a lot of seats to fill). To catch it, consider following Aer Lingus on Twitter or signing up for its fare alerts.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Fliers Face Tricks Not Treats This Past Weekend. What To Do When The Planes Aren't Flying

With a freak snowstorm delaying and/or cancelling flights into New York City, Philadelphia and other East Coast gateways; and strikes at Air France and Quantas stranding passengers abroad, it was, to put it politely a #%@% up weekend to fly.

What could travelers have done to make their travels more efficient? Very little frankly. With the scope of the disruptions no amount of fuming at airport counters would have helped. That's not to say there's nothing to do when these types of incidents occur. Some advice:
  • Try, try again: Passengers who need to reschedule flights after cancelled flights should realize that the first option they're offered is usually not the only option. With so many passengers to rebook, the situation will be a fluid one, with fliers sometimes opting to drive to get to their destination or cancelling altogether. So if you get re-booked on a lousy flight, say "Thanks so much" to the airline worker, hang up and call back in 40 minutes. It may take several tries, but persistent travelers often get the flights they want in the end.
  • Be in contact with your airline before you head to the airport: Better to be stranded at home than in a drafty terminal, right? If the "mother of all storms" is heading towards your gateway, do yourself a favor and see if you can wait it out at home.
  • Look to your airline's partners: This can be especially useful when traveling abroad. If the airline you're booked on is engaged in a labor dispute, see if you can transfer your ticket to one of its partner airlines.
  • Be nice: Though you'll often get faster service over the internet or on the phone, being pleasant to the harried folks behind the counter may bring rewards. Ask nicely and you may receive food vouchers for airport snacks, and even special consideration when it comes to re-booking.
Finally, its a good idea to consider weather patterns when buying tickets. Google Flights now has a widget allowing those considering flights with transfers to eliminate certain airports (like snowy Denver) from consideration. Hey, we just got hit with a massive snowstorm in October--might be a good idea to take weather into account this winter!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Bus Trips

There may be no Santa Claus, Virginia, but there is definitely such a thing as a free ride!

Once again, the mighty Megabus is launching new routes and supporting the announcement with a massive giveaway: some 10,000 free seats to and from Atlanta.

Travelers who use the discount code ATL10K will get the freebie for travel between Nov 15 and December 16 between Atlanta and the following southern cities: Birmingham, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Gainsville, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville, and Orlando.

Head quickly to Megabus site, as these giveaways do disappear quickly.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playing Chicken at the Rental Car Counter

(Image by Torley)
I'm one of those over-prepared geeks who knows that I'll be getting useable insurance from both my credit card and my personal auto insurance when I rent a car. (Yes, I've read the fine print). But I still get nervous turning down the collision damage waiver, especially after the clerk fixes me with a beady stare and says "Are you absolutely sure? You realize if you get into an accident, you could be on the hook for the lost revenue from the car while its being repaired."

Okay, am I sure?

What I'm sure about is that its the clerks job to frighten me into buying insurance that I don't need. That act can add a whopping $30 a day to the cost of the rental car. So its a major source of profit for those car rental companies.

But on the other hand, the agent is right to ask because sometimes, sometimes, travelers think they're covered when they're not. And today eminent travel expert Ed Perkins has posted a darn good piece on which card covers what (and which leave travelers on the hook).

The most invidious gotcha? You rent a car with your credit card, but then add on something small--maybe the rental of a GPS unit--and pay for it in cash. And that action nullifies the coverage you got with your credit credit card because you didn't pay for the entire rental with the credit card.

I won't give away more of Ed's tips. Instead, click here to read this most helpful article.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Safaris--And Other African Adventures--Within Reach

A "perfect storm" of circumstances converged this month making trips to Africa more affordable, and more convenient, than they have been in quite some time.

Airfare
Beginning tonight at midnight, South African Airways will be throwing a jaw-dropper of a sale with round-trip flights to a number of African gateways starting at just $550. Alas, you'll pay almost double that once fuel surcharges and taxes are factored in, but still its much less than you would have paid just a week ago. Here's how it breaks down:
  • $1034--New York (JFK) to Johannesburg
  • $1071--JFK to Cape Town
  • $1111--JFK to Dakar (Senegal)
  • $1151--JFK to Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth
  • $1342--JFK to Nairobi (Kenya)
  • $1376--JFK to Livingstone (Zambia)
  • $1381--JFK to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
  • $1396--JFK to Entebbe (Uganda)
  • $1384--JFK to Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania)
Tickets must be purchased by Nov 15 for travel between  Nov 1 and Dec 9; and Jan 15 through Mar 31, 2012. Sorry, there are no add-on fares from other US cities, but these prices are so low, it may well make sense to fly into New York on another airline to snag them here. Flights are in the morning, so a red eye would work. And happily, these flights get into Johannesburg in the morning (a new development), meaning that folks flying to other parts of Africa won't have to spend the night in Jo'Burg, as they had to do in the past when flying in from the States. Service from JFK to Johannesburg is now non-stop--another big plus.

I was alerted to these flights by Ken Heiber of 2Afrika and he told me that travelers can book these fares through him, with no additional commission charged (or one can go directly to the airline).

Safaris/Vacation Packages

Heiber is using the announcement of these flights to launch some new, and very well-priced, vacation packages to Africa. A South African expert, he has a deep knowledge of the market; over the years, I've only heard good reports of his programs. Among his many offerings, here are two that caught my eye:
  • 6 Nights in Cape Town for $1799: This package includes flights, 6-nights at a nice waterfront hotel, daily breakfasts, transfers to and from the airport in Cape Town and all taxes and surcharges.
  • 6 Night Kenyan Safari for $2999: Again, the flight from the US is included as well as all in-country transportation, all lodgings, eight safari game drives, and 18 meals. An additional tax of $195 is added to this one. Places visited include Mt. Kenya Forest, Shaba National Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park, Maasai Mara National Reserve
Traveling Independently in Africa
In just the past three months, the South African rand has fallen some 18% against the dollar, making costs on the ground significantly cheaper in that country. Even before that happened hotels were having trouble filling their rooms, thanks to the hotel building boom that preceded the World Cup last year. This is now a destination that is saturated with beds, so watch out for 3-for-the-price-of-2-night sales and other discount promotions whenever you're booking hotels.

Recent violence against European tourists is also scaring many visitors away from Kenya and depressing the prices there. It should be noted that the assaults occurred in resort areas nowhere near the Maasai Mara and the other safari parks mentioned in this piece (its a good half-day drive to get from the trouble areas to these wilderness areas). But, as always in these cases, do your own research before booking. I'd recommend looking at the consular travel advisory sites for the US State Department, as well as the travel warnings of the British Government.

Another Resource
The New York Times recently covered the topic of dropping prices in Africa, and while I was confused by their focus on only the most expensive of safaris (ones costing $400/day and up without airfare), there's still some valuable information in the piece. Click here to read it.