Friday, April 29, 2011

Freebie Friday: Kids Sail Free on Norwegian Cruise Lines

So, okay, this one is for cruises that fall squarely in the heart of the, well, fall semester. But if you have a tot who can be pulled out of school without too much damage to her GPA; or if you're a homeschooler, this sale may be right up your alley.

(Photo by Bernd Sieker)

Norwegian Cruiselines is waiving the fare for children 17 and under who share a cabin with their parents (up to two per cabin) on sailings in September, October and November of 2011. Pretty much every area the line serves--Europe, Hawaii, Bermuda, the Caribbean, etc (click here for a complete list)--is on the chopping block.

The only apparent gotcha? Bookings must be made next week, so parents don't have much time to consider whether or not  pulling Junior out of school so they can pursue a suntan is a wise move.

For complete information, head to the Norwegian Cruise Lines website. If you decide to book with an agent (always a good idea, as many will pass on perks such as free upgrades and shipboard credit), be sure to use the code "EASYFARE" to get the freebie.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fly for Less Than the Cost of a Chinatown Bus!

Just a quick blog to alert you to JetBlue's one-day wonder sale. Launched to mark new service between Newark Airport and Boston Logan (and covering only flights between those two hubs), the promo drops the cost of flights to just $9 for those who book by midnight tonight for travel between May 4 and June 15. The May date is the first day of the new service.

The sale only covers Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday flights. And that $9 doesn't include taxes and security fees, which should add about $9 to the final fare. Still, $18 is less than you'd likely pay for any other mode of transportation right now.

For all the details or to book, click here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tough Times for Debarking Cruise Passengers

Passengers waiting to board a cruiseship in Hilo
When a mass-market cruise ship disgorges its passengers in a port city the effect can be like that of a piano landing on top of a marshmallow. Said marshmallow might still be edible, but it will also be considerably flattened, much of its original character gone.

How the port areas handle the sudden influx of thousands of visitors (and sometimes tens of thousands, when several ships arrive on the same day) has been shifting recently. In some areas, governmental officials have been trying to make a killing off the influx of business; in others attempts are being made to protect the quality of life of the locals. And then, of course, there are the port areas that are, in actuality, just a non-floating extension of the cruise line.

Whatever the situation, these shifts have been detrimental to the cruising experience. Let's take a closer look at them.

Bermuda to Tourists: Don't Hop on the Bus, Gus!

In what must be a first, the government of Bermuda has decided to openly discriminate against tourists when it comes to public transportation. The island's Royal Gazette is reporting that buses that stop at the ports will be given a limit of how many passengers they can carry, a limit that will be  less than the number of actual seats on the bus. So when the buses arrive at the dockyards, drivers will no longer fill up the buses with all who are waiting.  This new regulation has been imposed because locals have complained that the buses between the dockyards and the city of Hamilton are so jammed with cruisers that drivers haven't been stopping for locals along the route. 

Surely there must have been a better solution. Bermuda derives considerable income from cruise passengers--tourism is the number one industry here, after all. Its surprising the government isn't trying to solve the problem by adding more buses on port days (and they know when those will be a year or so in advance). Yes, governmental budgets have been cut in Bermuda as they have elsewhere in the world. But additional income could likely be "found" with an uptick in fees to the cruiselines. With the number of ships that arrive in Bermuda yearly, its hard to imagine that a tax increase of this sort would raise cruise rates more than a dollar or two per passenger.

For now, tourists are going to have to get to the bus queue as quickly as possible to snag a seat (or head to the pricier high speed ferry). It will be interesting to see how the new measures play out.

Taxi-Free in Victoria

In Canada, tourists are stuck between two warring sides and not going anywhere fast. The city government of Victoria has tried to impose a yearly $200 fee per taxi per season for those that pick up cruise passengers. (The fee buys a special decal allowing the drivers into the port area). In retaliation, the city's drivers have, for the past two weeks, boycotted the port area, stranding dozens of cruise passengers.

Once again it seems odd that the government should intervene and try to control just who is using a mode of public transportation. I'm on the taxi drivers' side on this one. Apparently neither side is budging, so plan your transportation carefully if you're taking a cruise that docks in Victoria (and many do, especially during the Alaskan cruising season).

Don't Forget Phuket

And on April 6, for the second time in the last year, local taxi drivers in Phuket, angered by the fact that so many cruises use chartered buses rather than their services, blockaded the port. Cruise passengers were stuck on the ship until it departed later that afternoon.

In this case, however, it looks like a resolution has been arrived at. The taxi and tuk tuk drivers will be granted 50-50 access to the port and informed, in advance, when groups will be going out mostly by chartered mini-bus, so that they don't waste their day waiting around for non-existent fares.

Private Islands, "Historic" Ports

The ports mentioned above are all classic cruise ports. Increasingly passengers heading to the Caribbean and Mayan Riviera are finding that they're being let off in Neverlands of the cruiselines' creation.  Less than eager to share profits with local entrepreneurs and unable to physically dock many of the behemoth new liners in the traditional ports, the cruiselines have created their own little port stops--Historic Falmouth in Jamaica, Labadee in Haiti, Costa Maya in Mexico (to name but a few). Utterly artificial, teeming with passengers, and outrageously pricey they simply rejigger the life onboard the ship rather than giving passengers a real taste of the area they'd come to see. And the prices! I had the misfortune to spend a day inside the barbed wire fences of Labadee, where a really lame go-cart ride cost $30 and a zipline that was over in less than a minute even more.

So that's the recent news from cruise stops. A bit disheartening, eh (with the exception of Phuket, of course)? Handling large crowds is never an easy matter, of course. But its one of the reasons that I, personally, tend to choose land-based vacations rather than cruises.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hang on a Sec William and Kate, There's Other Important UK News for Travelers Today

Photo by Shawn Carpenter
With the Royal Wedding grabbing all the headlines this week, few have noticed that an significant deadline is upon us.

Today is the last day to enter the initial lottery for tickets to that other big London event: the Olympics.

A total of 650 events across 26 sports are on offer; purchasers will be limited to a maximum of 20 events each to discourage scalpers. The tickets are being distributed by means of an elaborate lottery system; click here for the official explanation and website. Deadline for applications? Tonight, 11:59 PM GMT.

Will this be the last time Olympic tickets are sold? No, and that's been made clear by the Olympic Committee. But those uber-popular events, such as the opening ceremony and the finals in gymnastics, will likely be snatched up in this round, so if they're what interests you, get in the game today!

Its important to realize that you don't need to set up lodgings accommodations now in order to bid. Nor is it necessarily wise to do so. For every Olympics, those who have waited until the last month to book hotel room have generally paid far less for their lodgings than early birds. (I say this from experience; I was in Beijing during the last Olympics and secured my room, at a reasonable rate, just three days before I arrived in Beijing.) That's because all of the international committees hold blocks of rooms for their hundreds of members. Not all of the members make the event, so in the last month and weeks before the Olympics, rooms are released to the general public and prices fall.

In Beijing, I didn't go to a single game (long story), but even without direct participation in the event, being in the city, seeing the athletes at the Forbidden Palace (and other tourist sights), mingling with the giddy crowds, snapping up souvenirs--it really was a thrill. If you have the means and the time, being in the city where an Olympics is taking place is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Are the Floodgates Opening for Chip-and-PIN Credit Cards?

Photo by Thomas Kohler
About a week and a half ago, I alerted you to the fact that several credit unions would be offering chip-and-pin style credit and debit cards to their customers. These cards are widely used throughout Europe (and in many parts of Asia and Latin America), because of their enhanced security features (users must input a PIN number for the card to work). Americans traveling abroad in recent years have had their credit cards rejected by ticket kiosks at rail stations, automatic filling machines at gas stations and other outlets where no human handles the card. (American credit cards, with their identifying strips are still widely accepted in restaurants, stores and hotels.)

At the end of last week, columnist Ed Perkins of USA TODAY that Wells Fargo and Chase Bank would be issuing premium chip-and-pin cards in a few test markets. Why they need to "test market" a technology that's widely used across the globe is a mystery to me, but I agree with Ed that these two banks are likely just the first of many who will adopt the new technology in the coming months.

If you're a frequent traveler, nudge your bank to join Wells Fargo and Chase. Not only will the card allow you wider access to your money when traveling abroad, but the banks themselves will have fewer claims of fraud to contend with once the new cards are adopted.

Hey, its a win-win for all of us. And how often is something that's good for the banks also good for consumers?!?

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Regulations Are Out! Get Ready to Book Your Next Trip to Cuba

(TV commercial captured by Inha Hale)
I'm interrupting my scheduled programming (come back next week for Freebie Friday) to announce that the Treasury Department has finally released its new regulations for travel by Americans to Cuba. This is a step that was announced three-months ago, but without the actual regulations in hand, tour operators were understandably wary of putting together new packages for travel. With these now out, we should see an explosion of options in the coming months.

I mention tour operators because individual travel--except by journalists, business people or doctors (under very strict guidelines), and persons visiting family members in Cuba-- is still verboten under the law. To visit, one will have to go under the auspices of a religious organization (a term very loosely defined for constitutional reasons, so yes, you could likely form your own church and then announce a tour); an educational institution (tellingly, you don't have to be pursuing a degree to take an educational trip); or some volunteer vacation organizations.

To read the legalese put out yesterday by the Department of the Treasury, click here.

Organizations that I expect to see announcements of tours from soon include: Marazul and Cuba Education Tours.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Search for Domestic Airfares

I'm not just a travel writer, but the unofficial travel agent for family members both near and distant. Recently my third cousins Laura and Leslie (whom I adore and think of as first cousins) asked me to help them find a good round-trip fare between Chicago and New York.

It should have been a cinch. But with fares creeping up and their budget tight, I was checking fares daily at, and (hey, I'm thorough) and not finding anything that set my heart a pitter pattering.

It can take many hours at the keyboard to find a good fare! (Image by Zhao)
Which is why I jumped to attention when I got an email this morning from JetBlue announcing fares of 20% off the norm. I zipped over to the J-Blue site, and found that yes indeedy the rates were very, very good. I was about to jump on the phone to the cousins, not trusting email because this is one of those one-day wonder sales (it expires at midnight tonight), when I noticed that the fares were only good for the fall months. Darn! Leslie and Laura wanted to visit in Junes

So it was back to the drawing board, or rather my email, where I found a offer for Southwest Airlines. You pony up $40 in advance and you get $80 to spend on tickets (so basically a $40 discounts). It, too was a rapidly disappearing deal (deadline end of day tomorrow), so I quickly moused over to Southwest's site to see what it'd be charging for the dates in question. That turned out to be $233 which, oddly enough, was the exact same lowest price that American, Delta and United were charging (should I be whispering the words "price fixing" right now?). But with the $40 groupon, the cousins would be paying, well, $40 less than anyone else.


I've alerted them and am hoping they'll be able to get the deal. Frankly, with gas prices rising, I don't think they'll be able to do much better...unless they decide to hitchike.

I blog about it here as a cautionary tail about the twists and turns one must take to get a good airfare nowadays. Oy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An Update on the New DOT Rules

Well, Ray La Hood has finally announced the rules that were leaked in the press last week (see my link to a recent AP article), when I blogged about them. Some regulations are stronger than expected, others significantly weaker.

I was saddened to hear that LaHood and his colleagues had backed away from their plans to have the airlines refund baggage fees when luggage is delayed. Seemed like common-sense to me that when the airlines "mishandled" baggage, they should forfeit the fee that's meant to guarantee that service. But with oil prices continuing to rise, and with these increases the airlines' expenses going up exponentially, perhaps this was a necessary concession to an increasingly beleaguered industry. Still, since airlines do already reimburse passengers when a bag is completely lost, my guess is that most passengers will forget to request the luggage fee back, making this regulation virtually moot.

That 2nd line totally airfares will soon be gone
The 24-hour free and clear period for canceling an airline booking without penalty has also had some limits put on it. One will only be able to do this for tickets booked more than a week before departure, which seems logical to me as in that last week, juggling capacity numbers gets quite tricky.

Where the DOT has gotten tough is on the way fares are advertised. No more will you find come-on fares listing mouthwater airfares, only to find that with the addition of required taxes and fees you're going to be spending several hundred dollars more than expected. Instead, all advertised prices will include government taxes (rather than hiding them in the fine print). As for fees, the DOT has declined to cap those (sigh), but they are requiring that they be clearly visible on the front page of airline websites. Those dreaded luggage fees, in particular, are going to be well spelled out. According to a piece in today's New York Times "The new rules require the airlines and ticket agents to refer passengers to up-to-date information about baggage charges, both before and after a ticket purchase. Airlines must also include bag fees in e-ticket confirmations sent to passengers."

And bumping passengers will get more painful for the airlines, with the reimbursement for involuntary bumping almost doubling to between $800 and $1300 (depending on the amount of the delay).

Last but not least, the government will no longer just be capping the amount of time a plane full of passengers can sit on the runway. Now international flights will have a four-hour limit for this form of involuntary imprisonment.

Surprise, surprise, the airlines and the Air Transport Association are pushing back, claiming these moves will cause more cancellations of flights and higher pricing. The spokesperson from Spirit, in the overblown rhetoric that seems to be the norm at the only domestic carrier that has the gall to charge for carry-on bags (grrr), told the NY Times that the 24-hour cancellation rule would be "“like allowing a customer at a grocery store to take home a carton of milk without charge, leave it out in the sun and then bring back the spoiled milk the next day.” You gotta give 'em points for creativity.

The new rules will go into effect in late August.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Must-Visit Website for Anyone Considering a Trip to a US National Park This Summer

Arches National Park (Photo by James Cameron)
I just spent the last 20 minutes chatting with Kurt Repanshek, the author of several Frommer's guides to the National Parks and the founder of the website National Parks Traveler. What I enjoy most about Kurt is that, while he himself is an accomplished outdoorsman, he understands that other travelers don't necessarily share his skills and inclinations and so does his best to give advice that works for all sorts of Park-bound travelers.

For those who likely won't stray far from their cars, he's warning the the Great Smokey's won't be the top place for a driving vacation this summer, due to a number of roadwork projects which will slow traffic down to a crawl. He's recommending, on the site, a number of alternate routes, all perfect for "windsheild tourists".

On the opposite end of the spectrum are folks eager to go deep into the backcountry. For them, he has an in-depth piece on how to choose the best backcountry guides.

The news pieces Repanshek posts are also a fascinating window into the Parks system, from useful pieces about the current avalanche problems in Grand Teton National Park to reviews of the latest books on the Parks.

Take a look, I think you'll enjoy it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who's To Blame, Legally, When Travel Goes Wrong? In Hawaii, The Answer Might Have Been Guidebook Publishers

(photo by Stephanie Koi)
You're climbing to the top of a famous mountain, you hit a patch of gravel, your foot slips and you plummet 50 feet, breaking your leg. Or you head to a famous restaurant where the food has unfortunately been touched by a sous chef with less-than-acceptable bathroom habits; you're sick for days, your vacation is ruined.

The very American question is: who do you sue? And if one Hawaiian legislator, with a shaky grasp of the US Constitution, had had his way, the answer would have been the publisher who printed the guidebook from which you got your travel suggestions.

Thankfully the latest attack on first amendment rights, Hawaii House Bill 548, has died in committee. It was vigorously opposed by the trade group Media Coalition. After the victory, Publisher's Weekly quoted CEO of the organization as saying "Holding authors and publishers financially liable for the actions of readers and private landowners will have a substantial chilling effect on them. They would inevitably limit what they wrote or what images they included in their guide books or on guide website to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit.” But he also went on to warn that the bill could be resurrected, as the Hawaiian legislator has a two-year session.

Let's hope this particular bill R.I.P.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Checked Bags on Airplanes (Er....When the Carrier Loses Them, That Is)

Photo by Jeremy Foo
Last year, when the government implemented heavy fines for every hour, after three, that an aircraft full of people sat on the tarmac, the airlines cried foul, insisting that the new regulations would lead to mass cancellations of flights and even more inconveniences for travelers.

Instead, the number of passengers trapped in planes for hour after hour dropped to almost zero; there was only a slight increase in the number of canceled flights (which some think may be due to the unusually bad winter weather); and fewer flights were delayed overall.

Now, the government will be implementing a rule that will force airlines to return baggage fees when a bag is lost or delayed. Will this new fine--oh please, oh please!--mean fewer lost bags? We can only hope!

What it does do is a redress a wrong that has long rankled travelers. According to Scott Mayerowitz of the AP, the  airline will be required to return the fee if luggage is not delivered in a "timely" manner. "Timely" in this context remains undefined. But a source Mayerowitz quotes hazards a guess that the standard will be two hours.

Of course, the airlines are pushing back. Air transport spokespeople have that this move could cause the airlines to raise fares. But with such basic fairness at stake (really, airline execs you think the public should pay even if you don't get their bags to them?!?), I think the only logical response to that threat is "Go ahead! Make my day."

Other regulations that my personal hero, DOT Secretary Ray La Hood, will be adding are:
  • Increased compensation for bumped passengers
  • Better disclosure of fees by the airlines
  • And a new rule that would allow passengers to cancel airline reservations within 24 hours without penalty
As I noted earlier, the airline lobby will be fighting against these new rules. If you like them (and I certainly do!), I urge you to write a note to the DOT itself, expressing your support.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Another Reason Travelers Should Consider Switching To Credit Unions

Several months ago, I alerted you to the fact that currency exchange company Travelex would be offering the first "chip and pin"-style ATM card for travelers. Widely used in Europe, these types of cards offer added protections to their holders against theft; in order to use them, users must first type in a PIN number, meaning that a stolen card is useless. While most European stores and restaurants do still accept American-style credit cards, they don't work at many European vending machines (for tickets at rail stations, gas pumps, etc.). Because of this, American travelers can find themselves in sticky situations when they try to use their plastic abroad.

(Photo by William Grotonik)
Travelex offered a partial solution to the problem, in the form of a pre-paid debit card one could load up with cash before a trip. If Travelex had a better exchange rate, I could wholeheartedly endorse its new card.

Alas, it doesn't which is why I was so pleased to hear, via the New York Times, that two small credit unions--The State Employees Credit Union of North Carolina and the United Nations Federal Credit Union of New York--have started offering chip and pin cards. The first has implanted the technology into its debit cards and the second into its credit cards. When interviewed, an officer of the credit union in North Carolina stated they felt the move was important for their customers, particularly since they'd heard that Canada and Mexico would soon be moving to this new technology.

So why aren't the big banks offering these types of smarter cards to their clients? Its a question that the article tackles, and frankly, there doesn't seem to be any answer beyond inertia. Because fraud hasn't been as widespread in the United States; and because the banks have been concentrating on cards that can be simply waived in front of scanners (rather than swiped), nothing has been done to catch the US up to the rest of the world.

Several months ago, I heard a rumor that Mastercard would be introducing a chip-and-pin card. It was supposed to be on the market in December, but that deadline has obviously passed. Let's hope that rumor turns out to be true, and not much more time passes before we're able to easily access this new and better technology.

In the meantime, maybe we should all just switch to Credit Unions. Heck, their fees tend to be lower!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Buy One, Get One Free Deal...On Airfare?!?

(Photo by Concord977)
That's right, although it's of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety of deal. But for the rest of today and tomorrow, Qatar Airlines is giving away one economy class ticket to those who book economy of flights for travel between May 1 and June 14.

So where can one go on Qatar? Well, the sale celebrates the airline adding its 100th destinations, so a lot of places actually, including New York, Houston and Washington, DC in the US. That's in addition to dozens of European cities, hubs across Asia, airports in Australia and of course, numerous gateways in the Middle East.

As you might expect there's a lot of fine print, including the fact that the sale can't be used on any of Qatar's partner airlines (though you can use the miles earned flying on Qatar with them). For all the details, click here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Timed Check Ins (and Outs) for Hotels: Soon to Be a Thing of the Past?

Let guest stay longer & they'll order more room service! (photo by R. Poe)
On my recent tour of Sicily (with listeners to my radio show), I had the good fortune to be in the care of a miracle worker of a tour director. Linda took on dozens of problems--hale soaking the group, a passenger robbed, another passenger putting the wrong name on their air ticket--and yet never lost her cool. She epitomized grace and good will and was without a doubt one of the most impressive people I've met in the travel industry. I know that everyone on that tour was grateful to be traveling with Linda.

Yet, not long ago, Linda was punched in the face by a disgruntled client (and this is why I'm not using her last name). The tour participant arrived earlier than the rest of his group, flying overnight to Europe and arriving at the hotel close to 8 am. Linda had arranged snacks for the man and a place to leave his luggage. But because the official check-in time wasn't until noon, she couldn't get him into his room.

So he socked her.

Yes, that's how angry check in times can make passengers!

I'm sure Linda would be glad to read that many hotels now are reconsidering their time policies. Andrea Petersen writes in the Wall Street Journal that hotels are "increasingly offering guests ways to wriggle out of rigid check-in and check-out policies. These include:
  • Late check-outs (4pm) automatically offered to Amex Centurion and Platinum card holders
  • Check-out time waivers for members of certain hotel loyalty programs
  • A small hotel chain (Capella Hotels and Resorts) that will be getting rid of set check-in and check-out times by employing maids on staggered shifts
And Petersen notes that simply asking nicely will often win guests more leniency (or at least the option of hanging out at the pool for a few extra hours).

Would these policies have save Linda a sore cheek? My guess is this guy was the type of ugly traveler we all dread encountering and would have found some excuse for blowing his stack. But who knows? May angelic Linda (and she really is a peach) would have an easier life if all hotels found a solution to the check-in, check-out timing problem.

To read Petersen's full piece, click on the link above.

Monday, April 11, 2011

China Rises

Adios Spain. China is now the third most popular country in the world for tourists, according to World Tourism Organization. France still tops the list, with the USA again in second, but China has now bumped Spain off its long-held third-place pedestal.

The Shanghai Expo and Asian Games are being cited for the substantive increase in tourism that China saw in 2010 (when the country welcomed 55.66 million visitors, an uptick of nearly 10 percent). But I'm guessing that the Chinese government's policy of purposefully undervaluing its currency is also drawing visitors. Those little tricks the bigwigs play with the exchange rate not only help exports, but help tourists make their travel yuans go a heckuva lot further than they really should.

Independent travel is always the most affordable mode of travel, what with decent hotel rooms in the major cities going for as little as $30-$40 a night. But those nervous about confronting the language barrier are finding that fully guided tours are less expensive here, in general, than in any other country.

Some examples:

Beijing, Xian, Shanghai: $1363
That price includes not only all sightseeing, tours, hotel stays, breakfasts (and lunch and dinner on half the days of the tour), but also flights, both Trans-Pacific and within China. So tour is a ten-nighter, meaning you pay just a bit over $130 a day to see the famed Terra Cotta Warriors (in Xian), the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and much more. For information, go to the website of China Spree Tours. The price I'm quoting here is with a $700 discount, available to those who book by April 15. 

Beijing, Suzhou, Tongli, Shanghai: $999
A cheaper tour because it uses trains and buses for transportation within China rather than planes (though it does cover air from San Francisco) this 9-day trip includes breakfast and lunch on all days but one, guided tours for a wide variety of sites and topnotch hotels. It comes from China Spree's major competitor China Focus Travel. In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that my mother took this tour several years ago and loved it.

Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Yichang, Three Gorges, Yanghuo, Hong Kong: $1699
With this one you'll spend a whopping 18 days in China, seeing the country by train, boat and bus. Airfare is not included on this one, nor are meals, but it remains a value simply because of the breadth of the trip. GAP Adventures is behind this one, and has a number of other itineraries on offer as well. 

These are just a few of the options out there. Also be sure to check out the tours offered by Intrepid Travel, Ritz Tours, Wendy Wus Tours and ChinaTour, especially if you're interested in private or more customized trips.

And if you notice that more of your fellow travelers in all parts of the globe are from China, its not your imagination. There will be more Chinese travelers in 2011 than Germans!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Gas, No Hot Air

Photo by Eric
You need a place to stay when on the road, right? Well, if you'll be loyal to one chain, Choice Hotels, it will pay you off in a substance that's currently more precious than gold: gasoline.

Here's how the deal works: Those who book two-or-more consecutive nights (in most cases) at two different hotels within the Choice stable (see below) will receive a $50 gas card. That card can be redeemed through the end of July.

The offer varies slightly by property and according to what level member you are in the loyalty program (you have to join to get the gas). Full information can be found here.

Hotel chains in the Choice family are: MainStay Suites, Suburban Extended Stay, Econo Lodge, Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Clarion, Quality, Ascend Collection, Cambria Suites, Sleep Inn,  and Rodeway Inn.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Disney Cruise Lines' Expansion Means New Ports and Itineraries

Photo Ops Galore! (Ethan Ableman, photo)
Now you don't have to win the SuperBowl to shout "I'm going to DisneyWorld!". You can hop on a cruise from New York City and have a vacation that ecompasses both the Bahamas and theme-park mecca Orlando. Or skip the theme park altogether in favor of its theme park at sea.

Late yesterday it was announced that as the Disney fleet expands, it will also expand the number of ports it services. New York is being added to the list (which Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicts will bring some 400,000 more visitors to the city), as is Seattle and Galveston (heading to the beleaguered Mayan Riviera--will Disney's magic touch be able to rehab the rep of those ports).

Now, all that's left is to wait and see whether this expansion leads to a drop in pricing. Disney remains the most expensive, mass-market cruising experience afloat and unlike the other lines, it rarely ever discounts.

Still, for those who want to peep out of their fake portholes (on the inner cabins) and watch Tinkerbell flitting around the port; love dining with characters (I'm talking about the costumed ones, not the guy who wins the belly flop competition on Carnival each spring), and want a casino-free ship...well, there's nothing like Disney.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Trio of Deals That I'd Like to Bring to Your Attention

The Amalfi Coast (photo by Jimmy Harris)
Hiking the Amalfi Coast: Nothing on this deluxe Italian coastline comes cheap...usually. But the always affordable GAP Adventures apparently is having trouble filling the April 30 departure of its walking tour of the area and so has shaved a full 25% off the cost. Now this 8-day, fully-guided tour is available for $975. That price includes farmhouse accommodations for 3 nights and hotel accommodations for 4, breakfasts, one dinner, a tour of Pompeii and several days of challenging walks. For more info, head to the GAP site. You'll also find discounts there for other April and May tours to a host of tempting destinations.

Cheap sleeps in the British Isles and Spain: Family friendly (four can share a room with pull-out sofa for the cost of two), clean, well-managed: what's not to like about Europe's Travelodge chain ( Their constant sales make them downright adorable in many traveler's minds, like the one that launches tomorrow morning. It will drop 5000 discounted rooms on the market for stays between Apr 21 and May 4. Prices are being slashed to just 15 GBP, an excellent rate, especially if you use one as a quad. Full information can be found at the Travelodge site.

Its not too late to ski: The pack is still deep, the powder fluffy, in Banff. But not many schusser know that so the the ultra-swank Fairmont is giving away free nights and free lift tickets to keep business steady. For the rest of this month, it will be charging $496 per person for four nights lodging and four days of skiing, a price that shaves off the cost of one day. For a place this cushy, and skiing this rad, its a bargain. To learn more, go to

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Orbitz Odd Man Out As Other Big Travel Companies Kiss and Make Up

It was announced yesterday that American Airlines and Expedia had come to an agreement. Once  again, travelers will be able to purchase tickets on that carrier via the Expedia website. Both players are even making vague noises about special discounts for AA being posted at Expedia, thanks to a change in the way these deals are delivered technologically.

This leaves Orbitz in the dust. Not only is it still not carrying American Airlines seats, but last week it apparently broke with the largest car rental concern in the world, Enterprise (which also controls Alamo), meaning Orbitz customers will have less choice for both airfares and car rentals.

'Tis a shame. Orbitz had (to my mind at least) the most user-friendly interface of the "Big Three" and had been a good site in the past for deals.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cheap Airport Lounge Access in the Near Future?

Groucho Marx once famously said that he'd never want to be in a club that would have him as a member.

You have to wonder if he'd feel the same if he were at the airport today. On a day when necessary mechanical maintenance has forced Southwest Airlines to cancel up to 70 flights, sending hundreds of disgruntled passengers back into the terminal to wait for a way home.

I think even Groucho would be glad to be the holder of a business class ticket; or a member of an elite flying program, just so that he could escape the masses.

But Southwest doesn't have airline lounges, as its a "classless" airline. So Groucho would have been out of luck, right? Not necessarily.

A start-up called Airspace Lounge is hoping to open lounges in 40 airports across the globe this year, open to anyone willing to pay a $17.50,  about a third of what the airlines charge for day passes to their lounges. (That price may fluctuate if the lounge becomes overcrowded).

Singapore Airlines lounge, Changi Airport (photo by R. Moross)
The lounges won't be associated with any particular airline; the first is scheduled to open in May at Baltimore/Washington, DC International Airport.

As in most airline lounges, admission will include complimentary Wifi, access to a business center with computers and the ability to print (for an additional fee), lots of nibbles (though just how much food will be supplied isn't spelled out on the website), access to a full bar (for an additional fee) and the promise of an outlet at every seat, even those at the bar. That last amenity, in particular, may get Airspace a lot of takers.

Would I pay the $17.50 fee to use a lounge? Probably not, but then I don't get that bothered by the hustle and bustle of the terminal. I'm probably in the minority, though. It will be interesting to see whether these new airport facilities "take off". 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Freebie Friday: National Park Week

Bryce Canyon (photo by Ron Lee)
Is there a better spring break destination than our National Parks? Of course not.

Especially this year, as the National Park Service will be waiving entry fees for one full week, April 16 through April 24. Yes, that means free admission to the Statue of Liberty,  Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and all of the other 394 parks across the United States.

The week will also mark several special events.  April 23 is National Junior Ranger day, so many of the parks will host special activities for kids, all involving physical fitness this year (in line with the First Lady's goal of encouraging kids to get active and get outside). The day before that is Earth Day, again a day of unique events and celebrations. But don't discount the rest of the week; it will feature special ranger-led walks in many parks, talks, slide-shows, volunteer opportunities and folk-life demonstrations.

And its not just about getting, one can also give back to our woefully underfunded parks over the course of National Parks Week. Northface has promised to donate $1 (up to $150,000) for every person who downloads the company's app and then checks in, using it, from a National Park.