Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Repositioning Cruise Deals for the Taking

It's that time again, cruisers! No, the "hairy chest" competition isn't about to start. I'm talking about "Repositioning Season", the time of year when ships move from their summer to their fall and winter ports. (And cruise lines slash prices to attract customers for the unusually long, skimpy-on-the-port-stop sailings that are necessary to get these big babies into place).

Here's a list of some of the best offers I've seen so far. Before you book any, make sure to research airfares, which may be higher than usual due to the fact that you'll be flying into one destination and out of another.

  • Norwegian Sun (9/20/11), 15 nights Copenhagen to Port Canaveral, $599: Those who book quickly will be gifted with $75 shipboard credit. Along with Copenhagen, cruisers will call in Lisbon, Amsterdam and near Bruges (Belgium). I found this price at VacationsToGo.
  • Norwegian Epic (10/23/11), 13 nights Barcelona to Miami, for $829: For a brand new ship with numerous entertainment options--Blue Man Group, a bowling alley, a Cirque-style dinner show--this deal ain't bad, especially when you consider that it comes with $100 worth of shipboard credit if you book soon with Cruise Club of America.
  • RCL's Voyager of the Seas (10/30/11), 13 nights Barcelona to New Orleans, for $669: Another offer from Vacationstogo (see above).
These are just a few of the deals out there for 2011. If you're interested in 2012 repo cruises, head to CruCon Cruise Outlet which has put those on sale this week. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Virgin America Adds Puerto Vallarta to Its List Of Destinations & Throws a Sale To Celebrate

This story may seem to have nothing to do with the headline, but...

In March of this year, my family adopted two adorable kittens from a shelter in New York City. As we were finishing up the adoption process, one of the shelter workers casually mentioned that the cats had been airlifted from Puerto Rico. The island has a big problem with feral cats, it seems, and very few people willing to adopt, so the overflow of street cats periodically gets sent to the Big, Welcoming Apple.

 California has the same type of problem with Chihuahuas. Too many cute little mutts of that breed yapping around and not enough residents to adopt them. So Virgin America has been helping with airlifts from CA to, you guessed it, New York where it seems residents are more generous in opening their homes.

The airline wins points in my book for supporting animal shelters in that fashion, and also for pledging to donate $25 for every ticket booked to their new destination Puerto Vallarta over the course of the sale period (which ends September 1).

Virgin gets even more karma points for throwing a real sale of tickets which undercut the competition by $50 or more for round-trips between San Francisco or Seattle and Puerto Vallarta. For all the fine print on the "No Chihuahua Left Behind" sale, click here. Though tickets must be booked soon, flights don't start until December 2.

Oh and how are the kittens doing? They go nuts whenever we play salsa!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Goodnight Irene! Assessing Damage in the Wake of the Storm

Roosevelt Island, NY yesterday; photo by Daniel Berg
Like many of my fellow east-coasters, I spent the last few days hunkered down at home. In the days leading up to the storm, my sister-in-law in Vermont offered us what she thought would be a safe haven at her place. It wasn't a feasible plan so we stayed in New York City where we escaped all damage. Poor Cathy has been dealing with floods and power outages ever since.

She's not alone in feeling the fury of Irene in VT. From what I hear, the historic Weston Playhouse (Vermont's oldest theater) has suffered severe damage and has had to cancel performances for now. The internet is teeming with videos of historic bridges being washed away, cars slamming through roaring rivers in Bennington, and slabs of highway falling into the water.

So what will happen to leaf-peeping season, Vermont's most busy tourist period? The trees were not damaged, according to forestry experts, who are noting that Vermont's problems (the state has been named a federal disaster area) have been due to flooding and not high winds. No trees have been stripped of their leaves, and the extra rain, after a slight drought in the area, will help make the colors even more vibrant apparently. Repairing flooded roads by late September, however, and dealing with other sorts of flood damage, will be the greater challenge. Though State officials are trying to put a positive spin on recent events in light of the looming tourist season, it seems too soon to tell, for sure, just what sorts of conditions visitors will experience when they arrive in a month.

Airline travel was also disrupted and is straining to get back to normal. Because of already-crowded planes as we approach Labor Day weekend, travelers trying to re-book flights cancelled over the weekend are facing serious hurdles, according to the New York Times. If you're in this situation, remember that persistence pays off. A huge number of travelers are juggling changed plans right now, which means that a flight you're being told is sold out may experience some last minute cancellations as travelers re-think their plans. Keep the airline on speed dial, don't take no for an answer and make friends with supervisors. Often accommodations can be made if you're persistent.

For those headed to the beach, the news is mostly good. With the exception of a few badly damaged areas in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (and not all: here's a piece on that area), most East Coast beaches have been re-filled with beach blankets and umbrellas, as I type this, according to USAToday. But because so many would-be tourists are dealing with power outages and flood damges at home, many beach areas are reporting last-minute cancellations. This may be the year to score a deal over Labor Day as a result.

But if you're headed to a beachy destination via cruise ship, be ready for some itinerary changes. The Bahamas saw some serious damage with Irene, and most ships are re-routing from calls there. For a current list of changes and other hurricane-related cruise news, head to's "Hurricane Zone."

September and October are the height of the season for hurricanes, and experts are predicting a particularly volatile fall. My guess is that Irene was just the coming attractions. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Caribbean Weddings (Kinda)

Would you take a longer honeymoon to get a free wedding ceremony? Sandals Resorts is hoping that "I would" will translate into a lot of "I Do's". Its offering a free wedding ceremony, its "Beautiful Beginnings" package, to those guests who stay six nights or longer in a "Concierge" level room (or higher).

The package, with accoutrements designed in partnership with wedding guru Martha Stewart, includes a two-tiered cake, the venue, the services of a wedding consultant and officiant, paperwork for the wedding, one photo, sparkling wine and hors d'oerves for the couple and up to two guests after the ceremony, an additional special dinner for two later in the honeymoon, a bouquet for the bride and boutonierre for the groom.

Obviously, this isn't the package for couples hoping to have a big blowout wedding with many guests. But if your plan is to elope effortlessly with your honey, well, this one could do the trick.

The offer is being listed as good for a "limited amount of time" which usually means through hurricane season (my guess: through December 15). For more details, head to the Sandal's website

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warnings, warnings and more travel warnings

As big, bad Irene continues to the menace the US, newspapers are filling with extensive warnings about travel cancellations. What's most important for flyers to realize is that even if your plane isn't flying to or from the zone affected by Irene, you may still experience delays and cancellations. With the airlines stretched so thin (ie fewer planes in the sky), planes grounded by the storm may not make it out of the region in order to fly safer routes. The takeaway: if you're supposed to be flying anywhere from a US airport in the next three days, be in constant contact with your airline.

(Photo by StarMaster)
Bedbugs on the rise again is running a disturbing article on the increasing threat of bed bugs to hotel guests. Worst infestations are apparently in Myrtle Beach, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The best article I've read on what to do if you suspect your hotel room may be buggy ran about a year ago in the Washington Post. Click here to read that informative piece (and view the video on checking your room for bed bugs).

Train Issues in Europe
French workers, in a dispute over pay, are threatening a strike which would impact Chunnel itineraries this weekend. If you're scheduled to travel between France and the UK this weekend, be sure to keep on top of the news, or you may spend more time than you'd like in a train station.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The First Big Hurricane of the Season Is Upon Us! Some Travel Advice

On last weekend's radio show, my father and I got a call from a listener who was nervous about tangoing with Irene. She was set to head to Florida later in the week, and was concerned that she was placing herself in the path of a hurricane.

Reader: we muffed the question. Unlike other call in radio shows on which the hosts know the questions in advance (ahem, Car Talk on NPR!), we have no idea what's going to be thrown at us until minutes before we have to talk (a computer screen displays the callers name, hometown and one sentence on their question).

My father and I told the caller that only she could make the decision about whether or not to go, and that, since Irene's path was still uncertain at the time of the call, we'd probably go ahead with the vacation.

 Here's what I wish we'd said:

    • Get insurance! Of course, you can't buy it once a storm is announced. But if you're ever planning to venture into the hurricane zone during storm season, its a good idea to protect yourself. Know, however, that insurance only works to a certain extent. If, say, the lovely pink sand beach at the hotel you've chosen is swept away by a storm, along with all the sheltering palm trees, but the hotel itself is still standing and operating, you may not be able to get your vacation money back. Insurance doesn't cover the "quality" of the vacation just whether or not its doable. And don't insure your airfare for the reason below.
    • Be in close contact with your airline: They don't want to fly into the path of a storm any more than you do. Inevitably, when storms are announced, airlines allow passengers to change tickets without penalty. Here's a round-up of airline policies regarding Irene. 
    • Choose your island/destination carefully: Historically, the Bahamas have been hit with the most storms over the years and it looks like Irene is going to wallop them once again. Conversely, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Margarita, in the Caribbean, lie outside the storm zone and haven't been hit with a hurricane in decades.
    • Choose a cruise over an island vacation: Mother Nature is not as fast as our modern cruise ships, all of which can outrun storms. Because of this, no major cruiseline has been caught in the eye of a storm for decades. That doesn't, however, mean that they're foolproof at this time of year. Just this week, Royal Caribbean managed to strand 145 passengers in Puerto Rico when it left port 8 hours early to get out of the path of Irene. And don't choose to cruise if you're doing so to hit a particular island: cruise lines change their itineraries when storms materialize, as has happened with Irene
    Last year, was a particularly bad season for hurricanes, the third worst on record. Meteorologists are predicting that 2011 will be just as fierce. Forewarned is forearmed!

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Pre-Vacation, Virtual Friendships for Group Tour Participants?

    Group tours are an indisputably social experience---and that's part of the reason many travelers choose them. But most people wait to make friends until they start the tour...until now, that is.

    (Photo by Karen Blumberg)
    Industry blog Tnooz is reporting that the large, well-established Trafalgar Tours is experimenting with social media tools to allow tour participants to interact before they ever set foot in a motorcoach. During the express check-in process, travelers will have the ability to create an online profile and contact other members of the group they'll be traveling with to exchange information, or perhaps just chat. Only other members of the tour group will be able to see these posts and receive inquiries.

    Apparently, this social media experiment was given a test-run on some of Trafalgar's Italy tours this past summer and will be expanded to other destinations come fall.

    What will be the outcome? Your guess is as good as mine.

    Perhaps it will allow travelers to share rides to the airport and plan activities for the tour's downtime. Or will this become a tool to suss out exactly who the really annoying guy will be on this tour (and there's always one, isn't there)? Though knowing that in advance may not add much to the one's anticipatory enjoyment....

    Ah, the Pandora's Box of social media. It'll be fascinating to see just how this experiment shapes the group tour experience.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    A New Site Helps Travelers Suss Out The Best Hotel Deals For Those Who "Bid Blind" on Priceline

    (Photo by Hobvias Sudoneighm)
    To misquote Gertrude Stein: A bed is a bed is a bed.

    When it comes right down to it, the differences from one hotel to the next can often be quite superficial. One might have cooler decor, another a Starbucks in the lobby and a third a front desk staff that doesn't seem harried when one checks in. But in its essential function, by which I mean as a place to sleep, often a wide range of hotels in each destination serve the traveler equally well.

    Which may be why, which allows travelers to save large amounts by "bidding blindly" on hotel properties, remains a success story in the travel industry. The big bugaboo with the site has always been users nervousness about overbidding. Since its uncertain what the hotel one will get is, how the heck does one know what to offer?

    In the past I'd recommended the site, where users spilled the beans about what they paid on Priceline and which hotel they snagged.

    But it looks like a better site has come along. Not only does let buyers in on the kinds of savings that Priceline is offering, and the hotels its consistently using, but it also manages user's bids. Consumers enter both a "lowball" bid and a "final offer" (these are done with the advice of the site). The site then submits these offers, raising the bid in small implements until its accepted, or the price limit is reached.

    The savings can be tremendous. In New York City, for example, BiddingTraveler is showing that the Sheraton Tribeca was recently snagged for $130/night on Priceline, despite the fact that its retail price on competing, non-blind websites is $217. For Paris jaunts, travelers have been scoring rooms at the Meridien Etoille Hotel on the Right Bank for $118; those who went to other sites paid $183 for those same rooms.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Freebie Friday: A Free Colonoscopy, When You Fly With Us!

    The headline sounds like satire, I know, but its not too far from the truth.

    I read on the Flying with Fish blog this week that Oman Air has partnered, oddly enough, with Piyavate Hospital in Bangkok for a unique new discount program. If passengers show up at Piyavate with a boarding pass from Oman Airways, it will give them a 50% discount on medical check-ups, and a 20% discount on advanced medical procedures.

    This is bizarre on a number of levels, not the least of which is that Oman is nowhere near Bangkok. So the great majority of its passengers would have to take a 6-plus hour flight for that check-up. Fish goes on to note that this isn't the first marketing scheme Piyavate has engaged in; apparently its paired with credit card companies to get its name out (earn loyalty points towards face lifts).

    If you're interested in this sort of extreme medical tourism, head here for more info. The deal is good through the end of 2011 and has a LOT of fine print attached (such as no discounts on doctor's fees).

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    The Holy Grail of Air Travel: Upgrades

    With a middle seat assigned, I knew I needed to take action.

    So, for a flight from New York to Vancouver last year I headed to the check-in counter at Cathay Pacific (my carrier), despite the fact that I'd checked in on-line 10 hours earlier. A Cathay Pacific staffer, noticing my home printed boarding pass told me, in a polite and friendly manner, that I didn't have to wait in the line as I was already checked in. I responded that I'd been placed in a middle seat and was hoping to change that, and then made some silly joke about my assignment being a metaphor for my life.

    We shared a laugh and then he glanced over to the fellow behind the counter and jerked his thumb up in the air.

    Two hours later I was being plied with champagne in my reclinable business class seat.

    Jet Airways Business Class, Photo by Schuey
    The Cathay Pacific attendant didn't know my name and I had no miles whatsoever saved up with this airline. (I think it had been about a decade since I'd last flown it). I have no idea why the Cathay Pacific attendant gave me his kind gift, though I'm guessing it was my stupid joke.

    I tried the strategy on the way back, made someone laugh...and stayed in economy class.

    So is there a sure-fire way to get an upgrade? Perhaps I'm overly cynical, but with the airlines trying to squeeze every penny out of their passengers nowadays, it seems like the only way to do so consistently is to either pay for it (and sometimes you will pay less if you go for the upgrade at the check-in kiosk at the airport); or use miles to obtain.

    Still, other experts disagree with me and since there's a good dose of serendipity to the process, I'll point you to an article that appeared today on snagging the upgrade that suggests such strategies as dressing like a first class passenger (a bizarre concept, I think: as I'm making that march to the back of the plane I've noticed as many people in sweats in biz class as in economy lately).

    To my mind it boils down to luck and money (or miles, which are a form of currency). But who knows, maybe I'm mistaken.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    One More Chance to Buy JetBlue's Popular Pass

    (photo by Rich Moffitt)
    Several weeks ago, I alerted you to the third annual release of JetBlue's highly popular passes. This year's version was a bit different in that it was only available from Boston and Long Beach. You can read my previous blog which analyzes the pros and cons of the new passes by clicking here.

    The most popular pass, The JetBlue Boston AllPass (which allowed travelers to head anywhere JetBlue flew from Beantown for three autumn months) sold out within a week of its announcement. Responding to popular demand, the airline has put that back on sale but just until the end of the day tomorrow.
    The other two passes are also still available, for those who don't mind limiting their travels a bit (these passes are significantly less expensive).

    If this type of non-stop wandering interests you, surf over to JetBlue's website---and do it quickly!

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    Muggles We May Be, But We're Increasingly Living in Harry Potter's World

    The original books were the fastest selling tomes in publishing history. The last movie in the series broke box office records. Theme park experts are tut-tutting about how much ground Disney World has lost to Universal Studios ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened.

    And if that all weren't enough, there will now be two more ways for tourists to enter the world of the boy wizard (and buy souvenir round glasses, wands, striped scarves and many other family-heirlooms to-be).

    Through September 5 only, Harry Potter: The Exhibition will continue to delight New York visitors in Times Square. Full disclosure: I haven't seen it, but both of my daughters (ages 8 and 12) were wowed by the show (one went twice!). Apparently, its quite interactive, filled with impressive memorabilia from the movies and yes, has a neat gift shop. (My Mother's Day gift this year was a horcrux locket. Not quite sure what the symbolism of that is in relation to the holiday).

    After New York, the Exhibition will be moving on to Sydney, Australia where it will open on November 19 (and play through March 18).

    Across the pond, its just been announced that the UK studios where much of the movies were filmed are being transformed into a permanent museum. Beginning in spring of 2012, visitors will be invited to take a "backstage tour" of Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden which will include visits to the sets that served as Dumbledore's Office, the Gryffindor Common Room, and Hagrid's Hut. The animatronic characters featured in the film--basilisk faces, gryphons, dragons, etc--will also be featured. Actor Rupert Grint, Harry's best friend in the films, has been giving interviews promising that visitors will be 'amazed' by the level of detail on the sets.

    Not surprisingly, the folks at Warner Brothers are expecting a mad rush for tickets and so will be putting them on sale a good half year before the opening. They'll be available online starting October 13 at (28 GPB each).

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Drive a Billboard, Get a Rental Discount

    Pretend you're a NASCAR driver in your rental!
    Why not?

    The Associated Press reported last week on a pilot program with the Atlanta outlet of Budget Rent a Car that marries rentals with advertising. Simply put, the company pastes the outside of the car with brightly colored ads hawking one product. Customers who agree to rent that car, are then given significant discounts. A family who recently rented a minivan to drive from Georgia to Florida, saw their cost for the week cut by over two-thirds, from $300 down to $88, simply for agreeing to drive on of these new "ad cars".

    At this point, Budget has just one advertising customer, a maker of 'energy strips'; the campaign will run through November (for Atlanta initiating rentals only). But its actively soliciting other brands to get on-board. 

    Would you drive a billboard? I, for one, have no problem with the concept.

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Freebie Friday: Sofitel's Chic Picnic Offer

    And happily, you get more than a picnic lunch on this one (though that's included, too).

    Those who stay at a Sofitels in LA, London or Paris before the end of the month will get one night free for every three booked, plus a basket (filled with free champagne and gourmet nibbles). There is some fine print--isn't there always?--which will be a turn-off for some (pre-paid bookings only, no cancellations and more) but some might find the deal, well, a picnic.

    Sofitel is also offering seven night stays for the price of five in Egypt, Dubai, Morocco and Mauritius.

    For complete info on both offers, just click here.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Statue of Liberty Closes Just After 9/11 Memorial Opens

    Not permanently, of course. But the Park Service announced this week that the Statue of Liberty would close on October 29th for a year. That date is one day after the Statue's 125th anniversary festivities; Lady Liberty is set to undergo a $27 million renovation. The exterior of the Statue won't be affected, but the Parks Service will be giving the interior of the structure a thorough overhaul.

    USA Today reported that only about 30% of the tourists who head to Liberty Island ever step inside the statue, so ferries to the island will continue unabated. (My guess is it will be a particularly good time to see Ellis Islands, since the crowds who try to see both will be diminished). Alas, you can't sneak in a visit to Lady Liberty before the October deadline: all tickets for statue visits until the closing are sold out.

    A little over a month before the Grand Lady shutters, the long-awaited 9/11 Memorial  will open at Ground Zero. Because it will be in the midst of an active construction site, tickets will have to be obtained in advance, and will be for timed entry.  The powers that be there will also have strict regulations on what visitors can bring to the site with them (all details are at the website I've linked to above). All I know about it, so far, is that there will be a dignified memorial wall, in which all of the names of the victims of the attacks will be engraved. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what else the site will put on display. The Museum is expected to debut in 2012.

    And I just got word of one other 9/11 tribute that will be open in New York City in September. The New Museum will present a work that's lived at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington for quite some time, artist Elena del Rivero's [Swi:t] Home: A Chant.  Ms. del Rivero had lived opposite the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. She was in Spain when the planes hit the World Trade Center and returned to her apartment several minutes later to find it filled with dust and debris from the buildings. After cataloging the memos, and other personal effects, she incorporated them into what is, by all accounts, a moving work of art.

    The New Museum is giving the piece its New York City debut from September 7-26. Admission to the Museum will be free on September 11.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Changes A-Comin' to How Passengers Smoke and Eat at Sea

    Though smokers will complain that their civil rights are being infringed upon, I'd like to applaud Norwegian Cruise Lines decision to disallow smoking in cabins after January of 2011.

    (Photo by Leni Lunatic)
    As the New York Times wrote almost two years ago, researchers now know that the hazardous chemicals contained in cigarettes don't leave the environment once the smoke clears. Carcinogens, heavy metals and even radioactive chemicals are left on the surfaces of a room, particularly the bedding and carpeting. That's why its possible to smell when a smoker inhabited a hotel room, even if they left hours or days before and the room has since been cleaned.

    So bravo to NCL for shielding its passengers from these carcinogens. The line follows Celebrity and Disney Cruise Lines which already have these bans in place. Princess cruise lines has announced a similar ban to begin in January; Cunard will phase in these anti-smoking regulations, starting in March for the Queen Victoria and April from the Queen Mary. Fines will be charged for those who flout the rules (they vary by cruise line).

    Also in cruise news today: Celebrity will be raising the surcharges at its onboard specialty restaurants by $5 to $10 (varying by venue). But there is a loophole! If you book a reservation before September 1, you'll be charged the old rates for the meal. So Celebrity cruisers: if you're traveling in the upcoming months make your plans and reserve now, for a bit of a savings.

    Not that all passengers head to specialty restaurants aboard. This week, Cruise Critic posted an interesting survey of its readers which found that some 39% avoid the specialty restaurants altogether.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    A Crash Course in Russian River Cruising

    St Petersburg, Russia
    One of the perils of being a travel writer is that sometimes you unwillingly morph into a travel agent. Family members, neighbors, friends from third grade---all  call upon me to plan their vacations for them. But in helping them, I add to my knowledge bank.

     My most frequent "client" is my mother, a chronic late decider who never starts thinking about what to do on her summer vacation until August. As a teacher, she only has specific periods she can travel; this year its September 3-19. She decided she'd like to head to either Turkey or Russia, but after seeing how strenuous a Turkey tour might be, she settled on a Russian river cruise. The idea of sailing from Moscow to St. Petersburg captured her imagination (and she also liked the prospect of unpacking only once).

    So I got to work, looking at the offerings of all the usual suspects in the river cruising field--AMA Waterways, Avalon, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld. Three out of four of all the cruises I found were completely sold out, and of those with space left, only the deluxe (read: exorbitant) cabins were available.
    Knowledge bank item #1: Most people book river cruises six months in advance, and September is one of the most popular months for this activity. Waiting too long for that month or the summer months and you may be out of luck. However, the rest of the fall seems more lightly booked so waiting may yield a discount. In surfing through the river cruise sites, I found a lot of great offers for October and November.

    After checking all the alternatives we realized that only one Viking cruise was doable for Mom. But because she'd have to book a deluxe cabin, the cost when totalled up was going to come to nearly $9000. Back to the internet!

    I decided to head to, a discounter site (its a division of that listed a number of possible-looking sailings. I got on the phone, and spoke with an agent who said he'd send me a list of options. But when his list came through, half an hour later, every cruise was marked as "sold out". Whoops, was the reply when I shot back a questioning email to the agent. Then I noticed a Colette Tour that might work, though getting Mom to the port in time would be tricky due to her teaching schedule. I rang the agent again, got his voice mail and then waited for an hour and 15 minutes for a response. Alas, Colette was now closed and he couldn't give me details until the morning. (When he did, he told me that we'd have to put a credit card down to find out availability, and it would be automatically charged if there was availability. He wrote all this to me without revealing the price. Um, I don't think so!)
    Knowledge bank item #2: seems to be understaffed and its agents a bit, um, flighty. Another agency might be a better choice in the future.

    Then I had an epiphany: call a Russian specialist! I quickly found the phone number for East-West Tours and within one minute I was talking with a knowledgable Russian ex-pat about a cruise that would cost Mom half as much as Viking. "Why so cheap?" I grilled the agent, and she cheerfully admitted that the boat would be older and less amenity-laden. But Mom's not picky and with $4000 to be saved, well, she'd take the older boat.
    Knowledge bank item #3: Go to the specialists first! They know all the ins and outs of the destinations they cover and will often be able to get better deals than the generalists.

    Knowledge bank item #4: While talking with the agent, I asked about shore excursions, worried that that important part of the trip wouldn't be as good on the Russian boat. She told me that every boat the plies the Volga uses the same local guides for their tours. So Viking's shore excursions would be identical--same scope, same methods of travel, same guides--to the cheaper cruise's offerings. This shouldn't have surprised me, as this is the practice with many land-tour operators as well.

    I'll let you know, in late-September, how the cruise went!

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    No Refunds and No Retroactive Collections, Say the IRS

    As the patently ridiculous FAA battle came to a close (for now; the Congress will have to take up the matter again in September) the Internal Revenue System was left with a real mess. Did it have to issue refunds to those who paid the FAA tax, but flew during the time the FAA was in shut down? And what about all those millions in uncollected FAA fees during the shut down? Could the agency swoop in and collect those retroactively?

    Rather than create another brouhaha, the IRS has chosen the path of least resistance. Sorry, fliers you ain't getting a refund on your FAA taxes if you flew during the shutdown. Yes, you read that correctly. The IRS has reversed its original plan on this point.

    And terribly, terribly sorry FAA accountants: you're going to have to work doubly hard to balance the books without the $388 million that would have been collected in taxes during the 14 day shutdown. Your job is also going to be complicated by the issue of back pay for furloughed workers, a huge sum which may be paid out (and, in fairness, should be paid to those who unexpectedly lost their paychecks during this fiasco).

    According to the New York Times (see article link above), there are about a dozen issues that must be resolved between the Senate and House versions of the FAA bill come September. So this isn't an issue that will be going away anytime soon. Not to get too high on my horse, but its up to all of us to make sure the FAA doesn't get shutdown once again.

    Last week, I devoted a good hour of my time to writing my two senators and my congressman urging them to not leave on recess before putting a temporary bill into place. I won't claim personal credit for the current compromise, but I have no doubt that my emails, and the emails of dozens of other constituents like me, helped push congress to resolve the matter. We should do the same in September.

    Don't just yack to one another on Twitter. Make your voice heard, and let your representatives know that their constituents are watching.

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Would You Visit Japan Right Now?

    Right about this time, 11 years ago I was packing up to attend a friend's wedding in California. From there I was heading to Japan. My husband and I had decided to use the trip West as an excuse to keep going West, and since our then 10-month-old daughter was in the sand-eating stage, we jettisoned thoughts of Hawaii in favor of Japan. A friend was working on a dissertation there and was happy to play tour guide/translator for us, so it seemed an ideal time to go.

    As we waited in the airport for the plane to San Francisco, we happened to glance up at one of the screens playing CNN and saw that there had been an accident at one of Japan's nuclear reactors. The scenes on TV were chilling: panicked-looking masked people, emergency vehicles, a map with a red throbbing button on it, marking the spot of the leak. Should we still go? Were we uncaring and irresponsible parents for even considering taking our infant into harms way? We started to field calls from frantic relatives, all of whom felt we should stay in the US, and we started researching alternative road trips in the US.
    Heian Jingu Shrine, Kyoto (Photo by Robert Montgomery)

    But after four days of Napa Valley wedding festivities, and another two days in San Francisco, we got itchy feet. We wanted to head out of the country (we hadn't cancelled any reservations and kept a close watch on the news) We called our friend in Japan, as well as other associates who knew the country well, and determined that the nuclear problem was too far from Tokyo and Kyoto (the two main stops on our itinerary) to be a threat to us. And so we headed across the Pacific.

    What followed were 10 sleepless but delightful days as we walked our Ryokans' bamboo matted floors with our alert baby each night (she had a bad habit of falling asleep in her carrier during the day); and hit the streets in the daylight hours for temple-hopping, department store openings (we loved to go early in the morning and see the ritual of all the clerks lined up and bowing to the first customers), castle tours and market strolls. Having our baby daughter with us proved to be a boon; every where we went, we were surrounded by admirers cooing "kawa-ee" (cute) and "genki" (feisty) at our precious bundle. Those who spoke English, came up to us to chat about the baby. We were even invited to a stranger's house for dinner (an unusual event in this usually stand-offish nation). It was a remarkable experience, and one that has made me a lifelong fan of Japan.

    That incident that almost derailed our trip was, of course, just a blip in history, especially compared to Japan's recent crisis. I don't blame those who have been cancelling their trips in the months since the tsunami and nuclear crisis. Too many discrepancies have arisen between what the Japanese government is telling its people (and would-be tourists) and what outside experts and local, unofficial monitors are saying about the scope of the nuclear contamination. A very disturbing article appeared just this week.

    So would I go now? I think I would, though I might not bring my daughter this time as I do have worries about the radiation. Maybe I'm being too cautious though. There are no longer any State Department advisories warning visitors away from the country (and that's not just the case with the US, but also with the governments or Australia and the UK); and prices have never been better, important for this usually pricey country. The New York Times ran a lengthy piece recently about the 50% discounts that are standard in hotels across the island nation.

    And my guess is that traveling there now is probably a bit like heading there with a baby. What I mean is: you're likely going to be greeted with great affection and thanks. Tourism is an important industry in Japan and its taken a beating. Those who are heading to Japan are finding a more gracious and open welcome than usual.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    Some Advice on Using Home Rental Sites in the Future

    The big kahuna in online home rentals, has been gobbling up the competition in the last few years, integrating their properties and technology (in the case of the late Second Porch, which had an innovative social media side to it). So successful has HomeAway been that its rare to find a direct-to-owner site that it doesn't control, TripAdvisor's Flipkey being a notable exception.

    A Homeaway Rental in Mexico
    Its for this reason that I'm getting very "inside baseball" today, writing about a significant changes in policy at Homeaway that will likely have ripple effects across many vacation rental sites.

    What's the change? Its basically a pay to play scheme, or really pay more to play better. Homeaway will be allowing those rentals who pay more to float far higher on the search page than the competition.

    Why should consumers care? For two reasons. First off, the change will mean that those rentals paying more may have to charge more to their customers to make up the difference. Which could mean that the most visible properties will also be the most expensive.

    It also means that the rental agencies that list their properties on HomeAway, VRBO, and other sites in that corporate family, will also have a bigger presence. The agencies, after all, will likely have greater resources for advertising than individual property owners. And agency referred properties tend to be pricier than those rented directly from owners.

    The take away? Scroll. And scroll again. In order to get the best prices on rental homes, you're likely going to want to read the home rental listings from the bottom up from now on.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    The Front Desk Trick

    Just wanted to alert you all to a new travel scam that's becoming quite wide-spread apparently. Here's how it works:

    In the middle of the night, the phone rings in the hotel room. The person at the other end says that they're from the front desk. "We're having difficulty processing your room payment, " he says and then requests that the guest give him his credit card information once again over the phone so that he can check that the hotel has it down correctly. Usually the guest, not wanting to get dressed again to go downstairs (and often half asleep) complies without question.

    As you may have guessed, the phone call isn't from within the hotel. Its an outsider randomly calling rooms, phishing for information.

    What to do if this happens to you:
    • Tell the person that you'll call them back at the front desk, hang up and call downstairs to make sure the call was legit. Often that's all it will take to suss out this scam.
    • Or, better yet, get dressed and head down to the front desk just to make sure that everything's okay. You want to keep your credit card in your sight as much as possible when on vacation, so this may be the better approach.
    Safe travels all!

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    "We Screwed Up" Is the Phrase of the Day: Apologies from Delta and AirBnB, But Not Alas from the US Congress

    Sorry for that book-length headline. But there's so much happening, and I have to pack to catch a plane fairly soon, so today's post will be a bit more breathless than usual. 

    In the "what are they THINKING" category: It seems that the FAA issue is not going to be resolved before the Congress goes out of session later today. Having reached a compromise on the debt ceiling, the poor dears are too pooped to deal with other pressing matters, it seems. So they'll toddle off on their vacations until September 6 leaving the US public to wonder whether their own vacations will be safe in the next few weeks. And that's not hyperbole. Vital repair work cannot be done because of this shutdown and the longer it goes on for, the more problems will crop up.

    As for the taxes usually collected by the FAA: there will be a shortfall in the BILLIONS by the time Congress goes back into session. The FAA is losing $30 million a DAY because of this political wrangling. The vital air service programs (the subsidized airports) are paid for by just a few days worth of those taxes. Instead of simply reauthorizing the agency, our foresight-free senators and congresspeople are letting the matter fester and when they return from holiday, simply finding enough cash to pay the Air Traffic Controllers is going to be pressing issue.

    I just spent the last half hour shooting off emails to my congressperson and senator. I urge you to do the same.

    (Photo by Andrei Dimofte)
    As many of you know, a number of the airlines are profitting from this tax holiday by keeping the taxes themselves and counting it as profit. Well, one carrier has had an attack of conscience and yesterday, Delta Airlines announced that it will refund the taxes collected during the FAA shutdown. It joins Spirit Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, all of which lowered fares to reflect the lack of tax when the FAA shutdown occurred. Delta, do you think you could talk with US Airways, Southwest, American and the rest and get them to do the right thing on this too? Its downright ugly to be making profits off of this situation.

    In other "manning up" news, AirBnB has admitted it acted poorly when members complained that their apartments had been trashed by renters found through the site. I got an email just this morning from AirBnB (as I've been a guest with this service in the past, having rented an apartment in Gdansk and stayed in a room in a home in Cambridge, MA) saying that owners would now have a $50,000 guarantee against serious damages, provided by AirBnB. So good on you, AirBnB. Seems like a good solution to the problem.

    And now, I've got to pack!

    Monday, August 1, 2011

    New York (And Neighboring New Jersey) Flies the Rainbow Flag!

    The Facade of "The Out"
    As a native New Yorker, I'm  mighty proud of my home-state for taking the important human rights stand it did two months ago when it legalized gay marriage.

    Apparently, the city's wedding planners are doing a land office business making plans for the nuptials of hundreds of gay men and women in the coming months. As a service to these hardworking folks, and for my gay readers, I wanted to spread the word about a new hotel opening in midtown this fall. Aptly named "The Out" it will be the city's first gay resort, a boutique hotel of 105 rooms with a massive disco/cabaret, a restaurant and a 5000-square-foot gym/spa. Right on 42nd. Street, this new hotel promises to become a go-to place for gay travelers and locals alike. Here's a link to the fledgling resort's website.

    And all of those same-sex bachelor and bachelorette partiers? They may want to head to Atlantic City, to Prohibition, the country's first gay bar to open in a major casino (in this case the Resorts Casino Hotel, right on the boardwalk). With a roaring 20's decor, a drag show, and muscled servers in wife beater t-shirts, the bar already is drawing a crowd, despite the fact that it debuted only this summer. The New York Times ran a fascinating piece on the genesis of the bar and the attempt to revitalize what had been a sagging old resort with an appeal to the gay market.

    And for any of my gay friends getting married soon: I have two lovely daughters who'd be happy to serve as flower girls. Here's to progress!