Thursday, March 31, 2011

Two New Ways to (Possibly) Save on Hotels

And no, they're not "staying with friends instead" or "sleeping on trains" (though both of those do work, and work quite well).

Instead, you may want to turn to two websites that have made their reputation elsewhere but are now plunging full speed ahead into the travel sphere.

Living Social

 The first, LivingSocial is a major "group buying site", which originally was more likely to trade in laser hair removal treatments and ballroom dancing classes than hotels. But according to a piece in yesterday's USA Today the company's "Escapes" section, launched a little over four months ago, is growing at a rapid clip by specializing in "near-cations". What does that new bit of slang mean? Hotel deals within easy driving distance of the user's home. Considering that American's are taking shorter and shorter vacations, concentrating on drive-to destinations seems like a savvy strategy to me.  Many deals  attach amenities such as spa visits, meals or activities. As an example, USA Today cites a 50% off deal at a hotel in Gaitlinburg, TN which also throws in a hiking guide, hiking canes and a lunch for two.

To get the new program off the ground, the company is promising that if you purchase an "escape" and get three friends to also bite, you'll get a free escape in the future.

One of the biggest names on the web, made its mark by selling mass market, department-store items that had been remaindered. It will take the same approach with hotels on its Overstock Vacations site eschewing the boutique properties (which it will leave that to Jetsetter, Vacationist and the other luxe players in this already crowded field) and instead concentrating on big name brands such as Marriott and Crowne Plaza.

Are the deals here good? Frankly, it's hard to tell. Nowhere is the published rate listed on the site, nor does Overstock deign to say what percentage its rates are off the usual rate. As well, prices are listed per person rather than per room, a move that will confuse many users.

Of the two, LivingSocial seems to be offering the better service of the two, but both are quite new and will evolve. I'll keep my eye on them both.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Following the Lead of the Airlines, The World's Largest Car Rental Consortium Dissolves Relationship with One of the Big Three Online Travel Agencies

(Photo by Atomic Taco)
My apologies for that lengthy headline. But I felt it was important to emphasize, up front, the sea change that's taking place in the world of online travel agencies. A change that will drastically affect the way consumers shop for travel online.

It was just announced that negotiations have broken down between Orbitz and Enterprise (which controls Alamo Rent a Car, National and Enterprise, making it the largest renter of cars on the planet). No longer will users of Orbitz, or its sister site, be able to access rentals from any agency in the Enterprise group.

The move mirrors the one American Airlines took against Expedia and Orbitz in late 2010, when it announced that its tickets would no longer be available through those online travel agencies.

And it all may mean a lot more time online for travelers seeking the best deals. Travelers who have "go-to" online agencies for all their travel needs are well-advised to search more broadly. Where should they go now? Well, such sites as and search all car rental agencies, with the first including mom-and-pop local agencies; and the second applying coupon codes for discounts. Sites such as and offer broad searches for airfares, hotels and car rentals though neither sells travel directly, they simply shift users to the actual travel agencies of travel companies.

It will be interesting to see which travel company pulls the rug out from under the "Big Three" next.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Win Two Free Air Tickets to New York City

Just a quick note to let you all know about a current Twitter contest being sponsored by New York City's Visitor's Bureau. The prize is in the headline. The rules are simple: the best tweet that starts "Dear NYC" and is sent to @nycgo will win. Entrants have until 5pm tomorrow (March 30).

Once here, you may want to get tickets to the new hit musical "The Book of Mormon", visit the newly reopened Museum of the Moving Image (see review below), or head up to Harlem for a walking tour and a meal at the hottest new restaurant in Gotham, Red Rooster which has been started by Top Chef Masters champ Marcus Samuelson.

Good luck!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Remembering the Basics in Travel

Sometimes it feels like the advice I’m giving is so old hat, it doesn’t even need to be voiced. But after spending a fortnight on the road on a tour of Sicily (held for the listeners to my radio show), I’ve come to realize, once again, that what I take to be very basic travel strategies are totally unknown to many vacationers. (Just as the basics of orthodontia, or quail shooting, would be totally foreign to me, though I’ve tasted quail, perhaps when I was wearing braces.)

(photo by Jasleen Kaur)
I’m a bit punch drunk (as you can likely tell from that last sentence) having arisen at 2:30 am to catch the plane back from Catania, but thought I’d pound out these few thoughts on the puzzling choices some of the folks on the tour made.

Packing: Massive bags were the norm. Most participants brought a wheeled suitcase onto the plane, and then another bag twice its size to check in. Sure, porterage was included at the hotel, but I can’t imagine it was convenient to be traveling with that amount of stuff (particularly because many of the rooms were on the smaller side.)

Inevitably, some of the luggage was delayed getting to Palermo for the first stop of the tour, and as luck would have it, the owners of two of these bags had packed their prescription drugs in them. The last bag finally arrived after three-nights in transit.

Money exchange: Lugging along wads of cash! That was the bizarre strategy many in our group adopted, and it was a disaster, making them prisoners of the clock. Since they didn’t want to exchange their money at travel agencies or Bureaus du Change (rightly so, due to the high fees and punitive rates), they often had to duck off to the bank during prime sightseeing time; in Sicily, still land of the afternoon off, many museums and other sights, kept only morning and late afternoon hours, a schedule nearly identical to that of the banks (and stores). There were days we’d be gazing at one of the most intact Greek temples in the world, or a church literally glowing with gold-leaf backed mosaics, and I’d hear mutterings behind me about the distance to the bank.

My fellow vacationers had wrongly heard that they wouldn’t be able to use their ATM cards abroad, and so hadn’t brought them along, thus depriving themselves of the ability to access cash any time and at a very competitive rate.  Some even tried to use credit cards in ATM machines, a big no-no as these transactions are counted as loans and incur ugly interest rates. I’m hoping on their next trips, the first item they pack is that ATM card (though some may need to change their PIN number to one of only four digits so that it will work in a large range of machines).

Street safety: On the second day of the trip, a member of our group was robbed. A man on a moped ripped her purse off her shoulder and drove off. She lost her big wad of cash (the main reason one should NEVER travel with huge sums of money—it can’t be replaced) as well as all of her credit cards. Thankfully, she’d left her passport in the hotel safe.

That same day, two other members of our group left the hotel for lunch and wandered, chatting, through Palermo’s twisty alleys, only realizing after lunch, that they had no idea where they were, or even more worryingly the name or address of the hotel. They were lost and scared for several hours, until they happened to stumble back upon the lodging.

No place is Disneyworld…not even Disneyworld! All three of these lovely ladies succumbed to what I call “vacation head”. They abandoned their usual precautions in the interests of having fun, somehow assuming that because they were on a guided tour, they’d be cared for (even though the guide was nowhere to be seen).

I can’t blame the victim for her robbery, of course. But on the first day of the tour, our guide Linda lectured the group on the necessity of divvying up valuables. Her advice, which I endorse: carry a little money in a pocket (or bra, as I do), one credit card in a purse, and leave the rest in the hotel safe. Alas, the robbed lady didn’t strategize her safety, and paid for it the rest of the trip, spending hours on the phone with her home bank and various credit card companies. (If she’d lost her passport, too, she’d have had to miss several days of the tour to hop on a flight to Naples, the nearest consulate).

Water, TV, Electricity and Tips
Its funny how a half-remembered idea can cause panic (or at least anxiety). One member of our group worried that the water in Italy wasn’t drinkable, and so she bought big jugs of bottled water to use for brushing her teeth. When she finally asked my advice on the matter, I was quite surprised that someone would assume that any of the water in Western Europe would be problematic.

Another tourer worried that turning on the TV would incur fees (there were fees for pay-per-view movies, but they required a lot of button pushing and couldn’t be accessed accidentally).  A third fretted that the chambermaid had felt her tip wasn’t good enough, and so had left it on the bureau (she’d neglected to write “grazie” making it clear it was a tip; likely the maid hadn’t wanted to risk her job grabbing small change). And the double usage of room keys for both entry to the room and to turn on the power in the room was new to almost all of the group members, leaving some of them in the dark (quite literally).

All in all, I probably learned as much on this tour as the participants. Not so much about Sicily, but about what type of advice helps. We’ll see how it informs this blog, and my articles from here on in.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Freebie Friday: National Trust's Free Walks in the UK

Flatford Mill (photo by C. Rabchick)
Taking a walk has always been free. Doing so in the company of an experienced guide....well, usually that comes at a premium. But not in the UK, where the National Trust is allowing free downloads of the guided walks its created for beauty-spots all over the kingdom, from areas where nature is paramount, to those with fascinating histories. Some are short and easy, others climb hills and will challenge your calf muscles. The dowloadable leaflet contains info on what you'll see, written out walking directions and a full-color map.

In 2010, some 350,000 would-be trekkers downloaded the walks. The most popular were those that took in the Bath Skyline, with explorations of the woodlands of Chesire and Flatford Mill in Suffolk (a landscape made famous by Constable) a close second and third. All in all the website (see above) offers 240 walks to all parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. By 2012, the Trust hopes to add canoe and bike trails.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spending Money Abroad: The Ethical Quandaries

(photo by Donna Cleveland)
When a panhandler approaches you on the streets of a foreign country, what do you do?

Those and other sticky ethical questions are being thoughtfully handled in a New York Times column by Kevin Salwan entitled "Is there a right way to spend money when traveling?" The author gives a number of tips for how to handle the money issues that arise when you're on the streets of a poorer country. Among his suggestions:
  • Set a weekly or daily budget in advance for how much you can spend
  • If you're going to haggle, do so over the number of goods you're going to buy and not the price of the original item (the idea being that the vendor needs to make a minimal amount of money and if he's charging you too much, it may be less painful for both of you if you make up the difference in value with additional goods).
  • Buy street food and local crafts, let porters help you with your luggage. In short, help create work in the country where you are.
The advice is sage, but it only covers the issues one encounters once one is in the destination. In truth, moral conundrums start well before, during the booking process. And that's true whether you go to a Third World nation, or on a gleaming new cruise ship...staffed by Third World employees. The ability of people in the "First World" to travel affordably is inextricably linked with the fates of the people for whom low wages and long hours are commonplace, not just on cruise ships, but also in resorts, hotels and other travel facilities.

If I were to expand the original column to include booking I'd recommend:
  • Supporting local businesses, such as small guesthouses and family restaurants, rather than depending on the multi-national chains. These types of concerns help keep money within the community and make owners of locals (as opposed to just workers).
  • Avoiding all inclusive resorts. That was the suggestion of Pope John Paul II who was disturbed with how they took potential business away from local communities and kept tourist money firmly in the grip of large outside corporations.
  • Using local transportation rather than renting a car or getting into a tour bus. You travel more greenly this way.
Those are just a few suggestions on a topic I'm sure I'll revisit. If you have any, please post them below.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Museum of the Moving Image in New York City Reopens: A Review

A display of movie posters
 For sheer, unadulterated fun, there’s no museum in New York City that can beat the Museum of the Moving Image  (35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria, Queens). The first museum anywhere to look at TV, film, and video games together (a heretical concept when the museum was opened in 1988), it’s not simply an archive of past shows. Instead, it explores the craft and technology behind these arts with startlingly imaginative interactive exhibits, commissioned art works, video sequences and, of course, artifacts. Just how much fun is all this? Well, Citysearch ranked it the best place in the city for a family outing, and Time Out magazine called the museum the #1 place to go when you’re “baked” (and if that doesn’t hit all the bases, I don’t know what does).

On display: Jim Carrey's Mask from the film of the same name

Its been off the radar for the last two years, as it underwent massive construction which nearly doubled its size (making more room for changing exhibits) and seriously upgrading its main theater. The museum now has a very lovely cafe, useful should your morning visit stretch into the afternoon and evening (many folks think they'll just spend a few hours here and end up staying all day).

Start your visit on the third floor with the museum’s core exhibit, “Behind the Screen,” which explores the many technical issues behind moving images, from explanations of how the eye is tricked into seeing movement in rapidly repeating images, to the intricacies of sound and film editing. You’ll have a chance to dub your own voice into such movies as School of Rock, create original computer animation, transmute the musical score of a famous film scene, and more. Several times a day, working editors, animators, and educators give demonstrations of how these techniques are used on actual productions. Across from this exhibition are changing exhibits. Currently, there's a very cool art piece that places the viewer inside a changing landscape. With the help of sensors, as the viewer moves so does the landscape of the piece.

The stunning new theater
On the second floor the focus shifts from technical issues to design issues, with exhibits devoted to the make-up, costumes, sets, and publicity stills that help create the image the director (or studio) is looking for. So you may see the Freddy mask from Nightmare on Elm Street; or the dazzling costumes from the movie Chicago. Walls and walls of marketing ephemera—lunch boxes of the Fonz, cookie tins with the faces of silent film stars, Muppet memorabilia—complete the floor, along with “Tut’s Fever Movie Palace,” a wacky [']30s-style theater, created by artist Red Grooms; the theater screens classic silent serials. My kids' favorite on this floor: a full wall of classic video games (get tokens when you pay your admission).

On the first floor is the museum’s full-sized movie theater, which offers free screenings of feature films from around the world, often followed by discussions with the artists involved.

And if you're worried about trekking out to Queens, don't be! Its just 3 subway stops from Bloomingdales and extremely easy to get to. Hope to see you next time I'm there!

(All photos by Garret Ziegler)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Farewell Sahara, The Last Of Vegas' Great Rat Pack Casinos

Not even the $100 million renovation the property underwent in the early 00's was enough to save the Sahara, it seems. The storied property lay, alas, on the poor man's end of the Strip, a glitz-free stretch of dingy older casinos and even dingier wedding chapels. It will be closing soon; two of its three hotel towers apparently were shuttered several years ago.

I, for one, will miss the old dame, which still had more than a bit of kick in her. The chandeliers glistened with fine crystals, twins of the original 1952 beauties. The kitschy Arabian carpeting, and Islamic-palace detailing had been restored and while it was far from swank, you got a much better sense here, than at the other older casinos in the area, of just what it might have been like to visit when Americans still thought Jerry Lewis was hilarious. Even the guest rooms were kind of cute, with their camel camel lamps and golden comforters (they were darn clean and quiet, too, I can say as a former guest).

So why's the place being put into its grave? Its no secret that Vegas vacationers have never been big on nostalgia. When it comes to spending their vacation dollars, they go for the new kid on the block (even if that new kid is just another re-tread by Steve Wynn. Is it just me, or does anyone else think all of the gold, the swooping drapes and the massive floral displays is getting a little dull?). 

The management tried to appeal to NASCAR fans. Those areas of the casino that weren't Arabian Nights–themed, were filled with race cars, black checkered flags, and racing memorabilia. But it was a strange fit. I mean, how many NASCAR fans have a secret longing to visit a souk in the Middle East? My guess is not many. They should have been trying to lure the hipsters, those who would have appreciated the Sahara's tattered graces. Ah well. 

Its not too late to visit, though it may be too late to stay at the Sahara, as room rates have reportedly soared above $250 for the casino's last month and a half. According to reports, dealers will throw their final craps on May 16, though its unclear what will happen to the property after that (its the general consensus that the town doesn't need another new casino, what with the recent opening of the massive City Center project). My suggestion? An assisted living community for made men and former show girls. That would be poetic justice.

If you can, head over and put down a bet for me at what have long been among the cheapest and friendliest betting tables on the Strip.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Booze Cruises from Royal Caribbean! But Do They Mean Free Drinks?

Bolero Bar, Voyager Class RCL ships (photo by R. Stowe)
Teetotalers beware: Royal Caribbean may now be stealing the mantle of "party cruise" from Carnival Cruise Lines.

RCL announced this week that it would be testing an "all you can drink" program on three of its ships: the Independence of the Seas, the Legend of the Seas and the Grandeur of the Seas. For $29 per day, passengers can purchase a "Beer and Wine" package which will give them unlimited suds and house wines, plus a 25% discount on all other potent potables. For $39 a day, the tipples are upgraded to beer, house wines, cocktails and a 25% discount on premium liquors. A "Premium Package" includes all of the above, plus wines by the glass that normally cost $10 or more, premium liquors and a 25% discount on bottles of wine and "specialty" liquors.

Why the "largess"? My guess is that the cruise line execs are hoping the guests are too drunk too realize that these packages aren't likely to pay off.

Maybe I'm a cheap date, but even with 3 cocktails over the course of a cruising day (used to blot out the incessant pop music blasting over the speakers), I've never spent more than $20 total onboard a ship for booze. Compared to my hometown of New York City, I've always found the bars on RCL ships to be moderately priced. Maybe I'm naive, but I'd guess most of my other fellow passengers were imbibing roughly the same amount.

As for those who do regularly exceed the pass prices on their bar tabs: um, do you really want to encourage these folks to drink more? Don't we already have enough folks falling off cruise ships?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Freebie Friday: Hostel Nights Across the Globe ALMOST for Free This May

(photo by BC)
We have HostelBookers to thank for this Friday's terrific deal. It is selling off 500 stays at hostels in 10 cities for just .20 euros each (or about 50 cents USD).

 Bookings will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis between March 21 and 25 for travel May 9-13. Participants can book up to two beds each time they call; only those labeled "20 cent beds" are included in this offer. Sorry the offer only works for those ages 18 and older, and you can't change an existing reservation to take advantage of the deal.

The cities and hostels covered in the offer are:

  • Athens: Ionis Hostel
  • Barcelona: Sant Jordi Sagrada Familia
  • Edinburgh: Ashfield House City Centre
  •  Krakow: Mama's Hostel
  • Dublin: West End Hotel
  • Lisbon: Equity Point Liboa
  • London: The Walrus Waterloo
  • Los Angeles: Adventurer Hostel
  •  Melbourne: Space Hotel
  • Rome: MJ Place Hostel
First bookings will be accepted at 16:00 hours GMT on the 21st. Set your watch if you're interested. I have a feeling these beds will go fast.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Late season ski deals

With Easter--and thus spring break--arriving so late this year, we're not seeing the usual glut of impressive late spring ski deals. Still as the weather finally turns balmier, some outlets are preparing for possible puddles on the slopes with the following discounts:

Snowbird, Utah: Book soon and you'll get 3-nights lodging, 2-days of ski passes and a free spa pass for $345 total. The deal is good from March 27 through the end of April. Click here to learn more.

Aspen, Colorado: Kids not only stay free with this promotion, they also stay free and can snag a free lesson (providing a parent ponies up for one). And for pricey Aspen, the nightly lodging cost ain't bad at $79 per night. For complete information, click here. This must be booked by the end of this week, for travel April 1 through 24.

Breckenridge, CO: A 40% discount on combined lodgings and lift tickets, drops the April price to $240 per couple. Click here for full details, as there is a slew of fine print.

Banff-Lake Louise, Canada: The season lasts longer up north, meaning lodgings deals are good well into May. Among those discounting are Banff Aspen Lodge  which is giving away sixth nights free; and Deer Lodge where one free night for every five stayed is the offer.

Big Sky Resort, Montana: Sunset skiing is now on offer, thanks to daylight savings time, as are 30% discounts on many condominium stays. Click here for more information.

Happy schussing to all!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Yet ANOTHER New Player in the Hotel Booking Game

Consider it fall-out from the ever increasing cost of airfares. But this week, announced that it was expanding from being a simple  search engine into one that will also tackle hotel bookings (perhaps the execs there are anticipating a summer of roadtrips, as crowding the family car becomes more affordable than flying?). As part of the Travelocity Partner Network, the site will allow users to either book at Kayak directly or through the other websites that Kayak searches. It will be interesting to see if this new policy leads to a tilting of the results.

I was never a big user of Kayak for hotels, having found the breadth of its search not comparable to what was offerred by This newest move gives me even less confidence in its prowess as a wide-ranging and impartial search engine. I plan to check back in on Kayak in a month or so to see how this change is affecting its search.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Today's the Day! Tickets Go on Sale for the Next Olympic Games

A 2005 celebration of the UK's winning bid for the Olympics
With the upcoming Royal Wedding dominating the headlines, its hard to remember that what the Brits were really excited about a six years ago was winning the right to host the next Olympic games. (Back then, Kate was known as "Waity Katy" for dating the Prince for so long without a ring. Who had the last laugh on that one!) Doubtless once Kate and William have headed off on their honeymoon, the focus will once again shift from romance to sport.

And while nobody was paying much attention, tickets for the games went on sale today, marking the start of a 500-day countdown until the Games themselves.

My advice: if you have any thought of going and you want to see one of the blockbuster events, like the Opening Ceremony or the finals in gymnastics, apply for tickets soon and plan for the travel later. Inevitably, hotel prices drop right before the Games, as the large national contingents that often block off rooms realize that not all their members will attend. So getting rooms at the last minute is almost always the best strategy. But with tickets....well, the red-letter events go off the market quickly. (Want to see archery? You can probably wait to buy.)

Here's how it works: all would-be attendees have until April 26 to apply for the first round of tickets. Those who want tickets for the less popular events will simply get them (and with 3.3 million tickets up for grabs, many events should be quite easy to snag). If demand exceeds supply for the event you wish to purchase, you are automatically entered into a lottery for the tickets. Applicants must use Visa credit cards (the sponsor of the Games) and their cards can not have expiration dates later than August of 2011, or they will not be processed. If you're successful, your credit card will be charged. Tickets range in price from just $32 to well over $1000 for the most coveted events.

 I was lucky enough to be in Beijing during the last Olympic Games, and I have to say it was an exhilarating experience. Through an odd set of circumstances, I never got to attend any of the actual events. But being in the city as the world descended, meeting athletes everywhere and excited strangers from all over the world, hoarding Olympic tissue packs (yes I still have them) and buy souvenirs...well, it was a thrill and an experience I can heartily recommend.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Resources and Updates on Japan

Every hour, it seems, new photos and videos come out detailing the unfolding crisis in Japan. My heart goes out to the people there, and I'd encourage everyone to give what they can to the rescue and rebuilding efforts. The Red Cross is one of the obvious entities to support. If you decide to go with a less well-known name,  look at CharityNavigator first, a site that vets the effectiveness of various charitable organizations.

At this point, the State Department of the United States (as well as the UK's Foreign and Commenwealth Office and Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) is urging all travelers to delay non-essential travel to Japan, even to those areas that have been only minimally affected by the quakes, tsunami and nuclear reactor issues (like Tokyo and Kyoto). Most airlines are allowing passengers to change their tickets for travel in the near future for free, but policies vary, so do check with your airline for complete information.

As for transportation options, the major international airports are now operational again. Trains are running in many areas; an English-language website has been set up by volunteers to help travelers find which ones they can take (click here for that site).

For those trying to locate family, friends and travel companions, Google has set up a "people finder" site. You can click here to read CNN's article on that.

Yesterday on our radio show we interviewed Vikki Corliss of the insurance aggregator site and she assured me that the major insurance agencies have been working diligently to help their clients get out of Japan. All are honoring their policies, according to Corliss, since all travelers have experienced trip interruptions of more than six hours. Those currently in Japan without travel insurance should contact their embassy for assistance of call 0570 000 911, the number the Japanese government has set up to assist foreign nationals.

The picture is less clear for those hoping to cancel their trips to Japan in the coming weeks. Those who purchased "cancel for any reason" insurance policies should be okay. Others should contact the travel agencies or tour operators they've booked with; or their insurance agencies. to find out what their options are. As is usually the case in these disaster situations, policies are being created right now, and seem to be changing on a daily basis in response to events in Japan.

Update: Just a few minutes ago, General Tours announced it would be giving full refunds to any of its passengers scheduled to go to Japan in March. For those traveling in April, General Tours is allowing customers to either rebook Japanese tours for later in the year at no penalty; or switch to a tour to a different destination, again with no penalty.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Freebie Friday: The Ethics of Free Power at the Airport

I'm diverging from my usual Friday Freebie format of highlighting good deals to discuss a freebie we all take for granted, but that may have sticky ethical issues attached: using the often scarce power outlets at airports. The New York Times recently ran an interesting blog on the topic that generated much controversy.

To whit: does the early bird deserve the outlet? The author, after traveling the length of a terminal in vain, could find no available outlets to use for a recharge. This despite the fact that she apparently sent many mournful and meaningful glances towards the power hogs, some of whom had the temerity to be using their laptops not for work, but to watch movies. The author then asked: should there be a limit to the amount of time people are allowed to use the outlets?

 I'd say no, but that may be because I'm in possession of an older MacBook Air that holds its charge about as long as one can hold back a sneeze. I'm one of those people who will sit on the floor to be near an outlet, just so I can work with the power flowing for as long as I can before a flight (and use up none of my precious battery power at the airport). Until I read this blog, I assumed that others thought as I did: those who get to the outlets first are their lord and least until their planes depart.

But others, it seems, are much less greedy than I. A surprising number of people now carry 3-outlet plugs or even full power strips on the road. That way they know they'll always have power, and have the ability to share kindly with others. (I'm guessing these are the same folks who always remembered to bring extra cookies to kindergarten.) While I applaud these forward thinkers, I also worry that it undermines one of the cardinal necessities of traveling comfortably which is to carry as little as possible (especially the full power strip--sheesh!).

Frankly, I'm not sure there is a real solution to this problem, or at least one that's in consumer's hands. Its up to the airport to know that we expect the fees that we pay for airport usage to go towards amenities we all need, like more outlets. Hopefully, blogs like the ones in the New York Times (and perhaps consumer letters) will push the powers-that-be to add more of these helpful holes in the wall.
(photo by Quinn Anya)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Orleans Fetes Tennessee Williams

Not that one ever needs an excuse to head to New Orleans...

But the hundredth birthday celebrations for native son Tennessee Williams, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", sure are a temptation.

The four-day festival, The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 23-27) promises to bring big name stars to Crescent City, including Zoe Caldwell, Armistead Maupin (author of "Tales of the City"), Carroll Baker (who starred in the Williams' movie "Baby Doll") and John Waters (director of the film "Hairspray"). Most will sit on panels, but Caldwell will be performing in a world premier of some of Willims' hitherto unperformed one-act plays. Discussions of other literary topics (such as the future of political journalism with Mary Matalin) are also on the roster.

And if this sounds like too much sitting around in darkened theaters, know that the fest also includes literary walks of New Orleans, special meals and cocktail claches plus an opportunity to stand on the streets of NOLA and bellow "Stella" at the top of your lungs (a contest for the best Stanley yelling for his wife is a highlight of the weekend).

For complete information, click on the link above.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why Getting Bumped May Be Getting Better

Photo of LaHood by Ray Morrow
Would you join the Ray LaHood fan club I'm considering starting?

The crusading head of the US Department of Transportation recently made another sally in the battle for truth, justice and the American way. No, really. The DOT has fined American Airlines $90,000 for using deceptive practices to persuade passengers to give up their seats on overbooked planes.

Its a long overdue move. The agency contends, rightly, that giving out vouchers for being bumped, without disclosing all of the hassles and fees associated with the vouchers, is an unethical business practice.

So what have been those fees and hassles? The inability to use the vouchers to book online; the necessity of mailing in the vouchers three weeks prior to travel; and fees as high as $30 to use the darn things. In effect, American has been getting passengers to help them out of sticky overbooking situations, and then making it very, very difficult for them to collect on their promised rewards.

Let's hope that this move scares the other airlines straight.  Right now, there are far, far too many hidden fees associated with air travel.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Poetry in Hotel Search

(Photo by Jed Scattergood)
Looks like I got it wrong last week when I wrote that two quirky, new hotel sites had debuted. Actually three had. The one I missed is the most eccentric of the pack.

Its called Hotel Haiku, and yes, just three, pearl-like lines of text are used to describe each hotel. These are supplemented by one photo of the hotel and, for those prose-preferrers, a link to the hotel's website (where presumably users can learn actual details of the hotel's amenities, location, price and more). Brevity rules.

I would quote you one or two of the poems--heck, it wouldn't take long--but as I write this, the site is closed to visitors. That's right, it closes at night and on Sundays. In speaking with the website Tnooz, the founder Gerri Rayner explained the hours as being an "attempt to annoy and scupper the content scrapers, copyists and AirBNB." Well, okay then.

Thanks to Tnooz for posting word of this idiosyncratic site.

May it find hotels/
That will appeal to the crowds/
Who sleep on journeys

Monday, March 7, 2011

Airfares Up, Security Wait Times Longer: Welcome to 2011

(photo by Christian Ghe)
In what's becoming an ugly bi-weekly tradition in 2011, at the end of last week the major airlines raised their rates again. That makes it six times this year so far.

According to the Associated Press, American Airlines seems to have started the hike, with an increase of $10 on all its routes in the contiguous United States. It was quickly followed by United, Continental and US Airways. Delta went even further, upping its prices by $10 to $20 per round-trip, varying by the length of the flight.

As I write this, Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran have yet to follow suit. (Stay strong guys, we've got your backs...sorta).

And in the more bad news department, US Homeland Security chief Janet Napoletano is warning that if the Republican budget cuts are adopted, waits at airport security checkpoints could lengthen substantially. In earlier budgets, the number of TSA officers was supposed to increase. That won't happen under the budget currently being discussed.

How can consumers use this news? By shifting their timing. If you're planning to fly later in the year buy now; and add a bit of extra time for getting through the crowds at the airport.

Sorry to start the week on such a sour note. It's a pretty photo, though (dontcha think?).

Update: Southwest joined the party, adding its own $10 uptick in pricing today.

Friday, March 4, 2011

'Go Ahead, Get Ill On Our Dime' Panama Tells Would-Be Tourists

Have an accident swimming in Bocas Del Toro & you'll be covered (photo by Bonere)
Some destinations give away free t-shirts at trade shows or place glossy ads on the web to lure visitors. Panama has taken an even more practical tact: its giving away free emergency medical insurance to those who visit.

The strategy goes beyond getting tourists on the planes. The country apparently hopes this will help convince "medical tourists" (ie folks who might travel outside of the United States to countries with lower medical costs for elective surgeries and other treatments) to consider Panama. "Those who take advantage of the health services in the country will see that Panama is an ideal place for medical tourism with highly trained physicians and hospitals," said Minister of Tourism of Panama and Director of the ATP, Solomon Shamah during his announcement of the freebie.

Travelers will sign up for the insurance at tourist information booths at the Panama City Airport when they arrive. They'll be give a brochure about the program and an identification card.

The coverage last for up to 30 days and covers accidental death as well as hospitalization, dental problems and administrative costs. One can't go to Panama and get too wild, though . If alcohol, drugs or extreme sports are at the root of the medical problem, coverage will be denied. There's more fine print, of course, so be sure to read it all if this giveaway is attractive to you. Full info can be found here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Online Hotel Searching Just Got a Bit Easier

Spring has turned into the season for hotel search engine debuts.

A few days ago, I told you about the debut of Room77, which seems aimed at OCD travelers who want control of their bookings down to the room number. Now Hipmunk has traded the 'agony' for the 'ecstasy' in its new hotel search engine.

Let me explain: in its first iteration as a flight search engine, Hipmunk ranked flights by how much 'agony' they were going to cause you (with too many stops, high prices, etc). With Hipmunk for hotels, the site pulls together information on the hotel's amenities, prices and ratings from past guests for its 'ecstasy' rankings.

Its a smart move. Other sites tend to let users list options either by price, or by the number of stars they attract without ever mixing the two. With this new rubric, users can see, easily, which hotels give the best value for the dollar.

I also like the fact that ratings are tempered by price. So often, very good budget hotels fall to the bottom of the star ratings, simply because they don't have the bells and whistles of the $400-a-night places. This makes them seem less worth worthy than they are. Bravo to Hipmunk for re-working the equation.

The maps Hipmunk uses on its search result pages are also, well, very hip. Not only do they allow users to see quickly where all their hotel options are located, but the site allows for an overlay of these same maps with useful information. Want to know if your hotel is in a good eating area? Click a button and the map displays the "density" of restaurants in each area of the city. Conversely, if you want to avoid seedier areas of town, you can click the "vice" button which will tell you where most of the porn theaters, adult stores and/or casinos are grouped. There are also buttons for shopping areas, nightlife districts and areas of touristic interest.

Best of all (at least in my estimation): Hipmunk doesn't confine itself to searching hotels. It's teamed up with to show users where they can rent apartments, or rooms in locals' apartments and homes. This is a huge boon for budget travelers, as these types of accommodations often cost a fraction of what standard hotels do. As with the hotels, the listings include reviews of the property in question.

The site debuted just this past Tuesday (March 1). It already covers all of the major cities (and many secondary cities) in the US, Canada, and Western Europe as well as many areas of Oceania, Asia and Latin America.

Try it. I think you'll like it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ready, Set, Buy: A Fab Sale on Hotel Rooms in the British Isles and Spain

Travelodge Room (photo by Karen Bryan)
Ten euros or ten GBP is a terrific price to pay for a room that can house up to four people in the UK, Ireland and Spain, even if there are hoops to jump through. So let me tell you about the hoop-holder.

Once again, its mega-chain 
Travelodge which has made a name for itself by creating cheery and affordable motels in many corners of the British Isles and Spain. Some are set off highways, others in the center of cities and right next to major tourist attractions. All are decorated with the same Ikea-esque furniture, bright and utilitarian, with couches that can slide out to comfortably accommodate 2 extra people in most rooms for no extra charge.

The sale starts tomorrow at 6am GST and will only last until all the inventory that's been set aside is gone. Rooms are available from March 6 all the way through mid-October. And I can tell you from personal experience that the sale is a genuine one. Several years ago, my family and I visited several Travelodge's in Scotland, in August, paying just 10 GBP for the privilege.

So set your alarm clock and best of luck!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Alaska's Back"

Hubbard Glacier (photo by R. Keefe)
That was the message that Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of wanted to get out at a recent industry event.

And though she never used the name directly, she implied that Alaska's former governor had a big hand in both the drop in cruising to the 49th state and its return.

Under Governor Palin, the state levied a number of taxes on the cruise industry which so angered executives that they pulled ships from Alaskan waters for two summers. Those have since been rescinded and many of the old ships, plus several new ones (see below) are back. The state hasn't recovered its 2008 numbers, when, according to Jay Clarke of the Miami Herald, there were 1.3 million berths available for AK cruises. But they're doing a bit better than last year (there will be some 900,000 berths available to cruisers over the course of the 2011 season).

Interestingly, it may be Sarah Palin's reality TV show on Alaska that fills all of those cabins, as it has raised such interest in the state. It may also be part of the reason Disney is betting on Alaska this year. It will be sending its new ship, the Disney Wonder to the Inside Passage from May through September. Along with it, two small luxury-cruise companies will be debuting, using ships that were once part of the now-defunct Cruise West company.

So far, I'm not seeing great prices on Alaskan cruises. At their lowest levels (in the off-season months of May and September on Carnival and Royal Caribbean), cruises are currently priced at about $100 to $150 a day. That could change though, as we get closer to the season and if airfares start to peak.I'll be sure to watch the prices, and will report any drops that I see.

I highly recommend Clarke's article for a comprehensive look at all the cruise options in the region. For info on discounts, look at,, OnlineVacationCenter or