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

Usually I'm loyal as a labrador. But after years of using to suss out hotel pricing, I've stumbled upon a worthy competitor in (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, 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

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 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 ( 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 (, 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 (, Shore Trips ( and Port Promotions ( 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.