Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Snow Shoe In, Bike Out: Great Deals in Whistler

Taken today (snow is in the foreground)
Here in Whistler, Canada (where I am currently), the seasons don't change gradually. They slam up against one another with the fury of a black bear defending her cubs (more on black bears tomorrow).

This is particularly true this year, as 2011 has been Whistler's third snowiest season on record. So the people around me are dressing and behaving in what can only be called a schizophrenic fashion. Those heading to the top of the mountains are dressed in hats and windbreakers, eager to take advantage of the still quite viable late season snowshoeing. At the middle to the bottom of the mountain, shorts and t-shirts reigned today, as avid mountain
bikers, hikers, zip-liners and shoppers headed out in the mild weather (in the sun it's a good 75 degrees Fahrenheit)  to enjoy Whistler's primo summer sports.

The yin yang nature of the season will be celebrated this Saturday with the ironically titled "Crud to Mud" festival, a yearly event in which hundreds of sportos ski down the slopes until they hit dirt, at which point they grab mountain bikes and barrel the rest of the way down.

So there's a heckuva a lot more potential fun for the money in May and June and that's not a theoretical statement. Restaurants here, through a springtime "Dine Whistler" program offer prix fixe menus for prices well below their high season rates (I had a superb prix fixe at Alta Bistro last night--charcuterie plate, goat cheese salad and rainbow trout for CAD$19).

Hotel rates are also significantly lower with ten very nice properties in ten going for CAD$100 or less--several of them are in the 80's for the night. I'm staying at a very cozy place called the Coast Blackcomb Suites where the beds are comfy, the decor is right on for the venue (think lots of wood and trim of big, cut stones) and the price right now starts at just CAD$101 per night. Come July, the Coast will cost $130 a night or more with similar upticks in the prices for other area hotels.

According to the folks I've quizzed, these prices should stay in place through the end of June, as will the snow which is mounded up even towards the base of the slopes, thanks to the furious winter this area just endured.

And there are few more eye-poppingly gorgeous places on earth. So far, my time here has been well night idyllic.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Freebie Friday:Free Museum Visits for Military Families This Summer

The Getty Museum of Los Angeles is participating

Once again, the National Endowment for the Arts has partnered with Blue Star Families to offer free museum visits to the immediate families of the brave men and women who are serving in our military. Happily the number of institutions participating this year has ballooned to over 1300 museums in all 50 States, Puerto Rico and American Samoa.

The range of museums participating is impressive and spans the nation's top art museums, children's museum and those that cover sports, history and hobbies. Included on the list this year are the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Museum (Galveston, TX), the Museo de Los Americos (Denver), the National Navy-UDT SEAL Museum (Fort Pierce, FL) and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia, PA).

Sorry, the offer does not apply to veterans. Family members must be either the spouse or the child of a current member of the U.S. military. The freebie runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day; military families can go to an unlimited number of museums during that period. For complete information, click here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How To: Attend the Dedication Ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC This August

Thanks to Larry Bleiberg's excellent website CivilRightsTravel I learned about the mechanisms that have been put in place to distribute tickets to the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Memorial on the Washington Mall on August 28 (the 48th anniversary of Dr. King's famous speech on the Mall). An online lottery has been established to give out the free, reserved tickets for entry. Each participant can request up to six tickets. Tickets are non-transferable, so don't apply for more than you need (Dr. King wouldn't approve of that sort of behavior!)

Deadlines are important on this one, as there's bound to be a lot of competition. To apply you must input your information at DedicatetheDream.org no later than 11:59 pm ET on May 31. Those folks who don't have email addresses can call 202.777.8401 to be entered. The committee has promised that selections will be random, giving no preference to those who applied early, so it ain't too late to do this folks!

Winners will be notified by June 15, giving them more than enough time to get their travel plans in place. Good luck to all!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

An Affordable Way to Hop Around Brazil (and the Rest of South America)

Photo by Simona Colombo
If you're like me, seeing the recent samba-soaked, animated film "Rio" made you want to take off tomorrow for that splendid city. But with the cost of the Brazilian visa so high, it makes much more sense for Americans to hop around Brazil for several weeks rather than just visiting Rio. (Or at least that's what this travel writer would do, as I think there are few countries anywhere as richly deserving a long stay as this multi-faceted, friendly, sometimes heartbreaking, always stimulating country).

Brazil is, of course, HUGE, but its possible to hop from city to city inexpensively thanks to air passes. Currently, the website BROL.com, one of the leading online specialists to South America, is offering the following passes not only to Brazil, but to other countries in the region:
  • TAM Brazil Air Pass: From $532, plus tax,  for flights to 33 Brazilian cities—including Rio,  Sao Paulo, Iguassu Falls,  Salvador and Manaus.  Up to nine flights can be booked with this pass.
  • GOL Brazil Air Pass: From $532,  plus  tax, for  flights on that airline. An even better 34 Brazilian cities are being offerred, but again just nine flights can be booked.
  • GOL Northeast Brazil Air Pass: Starts at $390, plus tax, for flights to 13 cities in Northeast Brazil, including Salvador and Recife.  Up to six flights can be booked on this cheaper option.
  • South America Air Passes (from both carriers): Head outside of Brazil with these to up to 37 cities, including Asuncion, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Montevideo, Punta del Este, Santiago and major cities in Brazil.  The TAM price is based on mileage, the GOL price on the number of flights.
  • Argentina Air Pass: From $390, plus tax, for flights on Aerolineas Argentinas to 37 cities in Argentina and Uruguay, including Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, Mendoza, Bariloche, Salta and Punta del Este. Six flights is the maximum with this pass.
Head to the website linked above for more information. If you add up the cost of several flights, you'll find that the passes can save travelers hundreds of dollars (the more you fly, the more you save).

And hey, you don't have to worry about Icelandic volcano ash when you travel south!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Antarctic Explorations: End of the Earth and End of Your Budget?

Heading to Antarctica requires fortitude. The Drake Passage, which all boats must pass through, is notorious for its heaving waves and frequent storms. And for many travelers, the cost of Antarctic travel requires years of saving up. Prices for these cruises are measured in the thousands, and that's before airfares are factored in.

So how can one do it affordably? One can't.

But there are ways to shave prices considerably. Currently, the Canadian small group adventure company GAP Adventures--which made the news in 2007 when its antarctic boat hit an iceberg and sank (thankfully the crew and passengers were all saved)-- is offering travelers an excellent discount on its new ship. For the first two sailings of the season (November 7 and 18) GAP will be shaving $1000 off the regular cost of its 13 day trip, dropping the price to $3399 on the first sailing, and $4799 on the second. (The discount requires the code: early_season_ant_2011_1000). Called the "Antarctica Classic In Depth" tour, participants explore both the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Leopard seals, penguins and bragging rights are the reward.

Can't make the trip in November? Check out GAP's later sailings and those of rival operators, such as Quark Expeditions which offers 11 or 12 day expeditions starting at $4890; and Kumuka Tours which offers 11 day trips for around the same amount.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Iceland Says Kiss My Ash Once Again. What Travelers Should Do

Ash plume from last year's Iceland eruption (photo by NASA)
Okay, maybe that was a little vulgar. But, alas, history is repeating itself, with the eruption of yet another Icelandic volcano. This time its the Grimsvotn volcano (and isn't that the most appropriate volcano name ever??) that's having a historic eruption, its biggest in 100 years, which is causing ash, smoke and steam to shoot up 12 miles up into the atmosphere.

Europe-bound vacationers need to construct some Plan B's and quickly.

I'm writing this post Sunday evening, and the latest news is unsettling. Though the ash has so far only shuttered the Reyjavik Airline, experts are predicting that the cloud could darken the skies over Great Britain by Monday (with Scotland effected first). Airlines that service the continent of Europe have been warned the ash cloud could disrupt service to the continent (Spain and Britain first, in this case) later this week. Click here for a detail-rich article on the current eruption.

On the positive side, officials are saying they expect fewer airport closings this time, noting that the winds aren't nearly as strong as they were during the last eruption. This, hopefully, will mean that the ash doesn't spread as broadly.

Still, I'd be worried if I were visiting Europe right now; or planning to visit over the course of this week. Those who need to fly in and out and can be flexible with their schedules may want to get on the phone with their airlines and see if they can switch to an earlier flight. This will likely incur a hefty change fee--sorry, I don't know any way around that--but the peace of mind this could bring may be worth it.

Susan Stellin wrote an excellent piece of the New York Times in the wake of the last eruption on what lessons travelers should take away from that episode. In it, she gives good advice on passenger rights; the different policies governing those who booked directly with the airlines vs. through third party websites; and the strategies travelers employed to get home. Rather than repeat her findings, I'll suggest you click on this link to read the piece.

Let's all keep our fingers crossed that this eruption is less disruptive than the last.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Just a Quick Invitation: Speaking in Hartford, CT Tomorrow

If Judgement Day doesn't come tomorrow--and I'm certainly hoping it doesn't because I've worked hard on this speech!--I'll be presenting at the Hartford Summer Funfest. My speech is entitled "When to Splurge and When to Save on Travel"
and as you can probably tell, it has nothing to do with the end of days. The venue is the Connecticut Expo Center, 265 Reverend Moody Overpass in Hartford. I hit the stage at 1pm.

The event is broadly focused on summer activities, including travel, food, home decor, gardening, outdoor, and kid's activities. So it should be a little more broad ranging than the usual travel shows. Oh and Jim Steers from the TV show "The Doctors" will also be speaking, and I'm sure he'll be happy to answer questions about any, er, burning sensations you may be feeling. Have I made this event sound tempting enough?

To learn more, go to http://www.ctfunfest.com./

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Reason to Drunk Text Your Ex? The Museum of Broken Relationships Comes to Houston

(photo by Satish Krishnamurthy)
My high school boyfriend broke up with me a week before the prom in two sentences. The second one was "I have to go, Star Wars is on TV tonight." Though much has happened in my life since that moment of teen bathos, it still rings out as one of my clearest memories. There's something about break-ups, about the destruction of human relationships, that has an undeniable power.

Oddly, not much visual art had been devoted to the topic. Until recently with the debut of the Museum of Broken Relationships, created by artist Drazin Grubisic and film producer Olinka Vistica--formerly a couple. It was their own break up, and the dividing up their possessions, that convinced them that objects related to the end of love might have some poignancy and interest even to those not involved in the love affair.

So they started collecting objects and statements about them, gathering the first batch into a collection in 2006. Garden gnomes that were hurled in anger, sexy lingerie that went unworn, even a pair of suspenders were displayed, each with a short paragraph about their meaning. The exhibit toured until it found a permanent space in Zagreb, Croatia. Now part of it will be touring once again, heading to the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston beginning this Saturday through June 4. After that it heads to London, England to the Tristan Bates Theater (Aug 15-Sept. 4).

Hey, I can think of worse reasons to give one's ex a call....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Discounts and Dilemas in European Cruising

To borrow an overused phrase from Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times...for would-be European cruisers.

On the upside, Mediterranean and even Baltic cruise prices are bottoming out, price-wise. Some examples, culled from such sites as VacationsToGo.com and CruiseCritic.com:
  • June 26 sailing of Holland America's Ryndam: A full week for just $599 for a roundtrip from Rotterdam with port stops in Sweden, Norway and Denmark
  • May 28 or June 11 sailings of the Norwegian Jade: Round-trip from Venice for a week's tour of the Greek islands for $449
  • July 15th sailing of the Seabourn Sojourn: Down 76% from its list price of $12,425 to $2999 for this deluxe Baltic sailing (Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Talinn, Visby, Copenhagen)
  • May 28 or June 4 on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas: Roundtrip from Barcelona to Koper, Ravenna, Bari and Dubrovnik just $399
I picked weeklong itineraries as those are the cheapest, but there are similarly discounted rates for longer sailings as well, and on every brand. 

So for those looking to snag a savings on ocean cruising this summer in Europe, the pickings are ripe.

Look in fall and winter, however, and the landscape shifts.

Simply put, more and more cruise line are pulling unprofitable boats from the Med. Just in the past week, Norwegian Cruise Lines has announced it will be canceling the Jade's Mediterranean and Holy Land cruises for a stint in dry dock and then a move to Canary Islands itineraries. Royal Caribbean has said it will be repositioning the Navigator of the Seas to the Caribbean. Who knows which ship will be yanked next?

So why the drop in popularity for cruises that were last fall and summer's hottest ticket? Most are citing the unrest in North Africa, a situation that's making Americans leery of not only Mediterranean cruises but also those heading to the Baltic (which may be a sign of how geographically challenged many American cruisers are!).

I'd add that the high fuel surcharges being added to TransAtlantic flights (and thus upping the overall cost of getting to Europe significantly) are also a big factor this year. So before you book a discounted cruise, make sure the airfare cost doesn't wipe out your savings.
Danube River View (photo by J Showa)

River Cruise Woes
A lack of bookings doesn't seem to be affecting river cruises of Europe, but a lack of water certainly will. In another mark of how climate change is reshaping our world, the Rhine River is well, drying up (or at least getting much shallower). The water levels have already affected barge shipping on the river, meaning that necessary supplies of gas, grain and other goods aren't getting to their ports, according to Bloomberg News.  

While river cruise operators haven't yet altered their itineraries, most must be now considering contingency plans. In the past when there have been water level problems (both too high and too low), some itineraries have been transformed from boat to motorcoach tours; others have involved moving passengers from one boat to the next. 

The take away? The Volga and Danube are darn nice rivers, too (and may be wetter this summer!)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Case for Traveling on Friday the 13th

(Photo by Gabriel Pinto)

(Note from Pauline: This blog was supposed to run last Friday, but due to glitches at Blogger--bad luck?--I had to schedule it for today).

It’s quiet around me as I write this, though I’m sitting at the heart of the gleaming, modern Tampa Airport. But the check in line was nil, and the TSA agents seemed glad for the company when I walked up.

Why such a peaceful travel experience? Because I’m not superstitious. You see, its Friday the 13th, so those who cross the street when they see a black cat are also making darn sure not to board a plane today. According to a recent study by Kayak UK, prices on airfares drop by as much as 20% on this date.

It’s a good thing to keep in mind, as Friday the 13th occurs three times most calendar years. Alas, this is the only one in 2011. Looking for a discount? Fly when everyone else is too scared to do so!

Monday, May 16, 2011

DirectAir, Direct to the Mouse (And With a Sale To Launch)

The new kid on the runway, at least for Lakeland, FL, is start-up airline DirectAir. Its launching with a bang by throwing a half-off sale through end of day tomorrow. Book by end of day and use the promo code MAYFARE for 50% off all flights. In some cases, that will lower the cost of a ticket to just $49 (plus taxes).

That's big news for Disney and Harry Potter fans as Lakeland, Florida, where DirectAir starts service on June 23, is quite close to Orlando. DirectAir will be offering service to Lakeland from a number of gateways that don't have direct service into this area including Myrtle Beach, Springfield (IL), Niagara Falls,  and Hagerstown. On November 19 it adds San Juan, Puerto Rico and Plattsburg to that list.

Never heard of DirectAir? Well, the company started offering charter flights to the public in spring of 2007. It also flies to Allentown, Chicago, Columbus, Fort Myers, Kalamazoo, Melbourne, Newark, Pittsburgh, Toledo, West Palm Beach, Worcester and Nassau in the Bahamas.

For complete details, click on the link above.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Freebie Friday: Greeters Tours in Moscow

Moscow metro (photo by John Brennan)
Hurray! Another city has been added to the Greeters network. And triple cheers because its Moscow, one of the priciest cities on the planet.

Starting in November of 2010 (though I'm just hearing about it now), volunteers in Moscow started offering free tours of their fair city to visitors. As with Greeters programs in other destinations, guides are all volunteers. According to the website, most of the current crew are foreign language students, professors and retired teachers. They  take guests on highly personal jaunts through their Moscow, introducing guests to neighborhoods and cultural touchstones most tourists never see.

I've now done Greeters tours in both New York City and Jamaica, and I can promise you the tour will be a highlight of your vacation.

The Moscow Greeters are requesting that would be participants contact the organization a minimum of two weeks before they arrive in the city. Because the organization is so new, they cannot yet guarantee that they will be able to match up all visitors with a guide. A maximum of six tourers per group.

For full information, go to the English-language website of the new Moscow Greeters

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Its Not Too Late to Get a Deal on An Early Season Pass To Your Local Amusement Park

Kennywood (photo by Alan)
Yes, some discounts have now expired. But if you're looking to go to a Six Flags park, and several others, the deals are still out there. The scoop:

  • Six Flags: Six Flags has no expirations date on its early season pass deals, though I've heard from those in the know that one should expect them to disappear by the end of May. Right now, the cheapest are $49 passes, available at some parks but usable at all 13 owned by this conglomerate. Alas, you can't just buy the cheapest pass and use it at your local park; it must be validated first at the pass for which its flagged. But if you're traveling into an area with a Six Flags, and want a day of coasters, it might be a good idea to see if the one you'll be near will be cheaper than the one in your area (at least where passes are concerned).
  • Kings Island, Ohio: It takes three visits to pay off a $99 season pass here, but as that pass also comes with parking (a $39.99 a day cost), unless you're planning to hitchike, the savings will come sooner. The Gold VIP pass cited above, also includes days when one can bring a friend at a discount; and the ability to skip lines at some of the more popular attractions. The deadline for purchasing this pass is May 31.
  • Kings Dominion, VA: On this one, the deadline is May 31 and you have to go VIP (for $20 more) to get the free parking. Still, this season pass will pay off in just two visits. If you plan to visit just once, its still worth heading to the website soon (no exact cut off date is given), as adults are being sold tickets at kids rates (a savings of $10) when purchased in advance online.
  • Kennywood, PA: Season passes here pay off in 3 visits, but holders get to bring their buddies on certain dates for just $10. 
Do you know of a discount I'm missing? If so post here. I've also seen a lot of good offers at Retailmenot.com

Here's to summer thrills!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Honeymoon Secret Is Out: Kate and William Chose the Seychelles Islands

And if it wasn't high on the list for most honeymooning couples, it now will be, thanks to this royal pair. (London's Guardian newspaper spilled the beans, and the government of the Seychelles confirmed.)

(Photo by Duffy)
The Seychelle Islands aren't well known to North Americans, as travel ain't easy from here. But from Europe there are a number of direct flights, allowing easy access to the pristine beaches and well...er...beaches that have made this collection of islands (115 in all) popular among romantics. Pretty much all water sports are available though some stay on land to enjoy cushy spas, cycling and primo bird watching (spotting giant tortoises is another favorite activity here).

And though Kate and William are thought to be at an ultra-exclusive and very expensive resort (which one gets to by helicopter), there are a number of inexpensive guesthouses and self-catering accommodations available to the hoi polloi on the larger islands.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to price out how much a week-long jaunt to the Seychelles would cost from Chicago. It ain't pretty (at least at Expedia's prices): almost $4000 for air and the cheapest hotel they book.

On second thought, maybe brides will knock off the dress but not the honeymoon.

If only they'd headed to Punta Cana.....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Foolish Florida Decision Makes a Slew of Other States Quite Happy: Big News on the Railroad Tracks

I don't mean to sound flippant, but lately its felt like terrorists take America's train system much more seriously than Americans do. It was, apparently, the next Al Quaeda target to mark the anniversary of 9/11.

I have to wonder if such foes of Amtrak and high-speed rail as U.S. Representative John Mica (of Florida) would have seen rail attacks as giving some legitimacy to the system they constantly denigrate. To hear Mica and his co-horts, you'd think that these trains are running empty, their conductors simply partying the day away on government money.

In truth of fact, Amtrak has experienced record ridership for the last three years running. And Americans, when polled, overwhelmingly support, indeed, love the idea of train travel.

Well, Mica doesn't like to look at numbers, which may be why he and the rest of the folks in his state recently turned down $2 billion in stimulus funding for the creation of high speed rail. That money was redistributed on Monday as follows:
  • Michigan, Missouri and Illinois states will share a total of $404.1 million to upgrade track between Chicago and Detroit and Chicago and St. Louis(the upgrades will reduce travel time by 30 minutes on the first run);
  • Minnesota has been awarded an additional $5 million for work on a high speed corridor that will eventurally link Duluth and Minneapolis
  • California and five Midwest states are getting $336.2 million towards the purchase new locomotives and rail cars
  • California will receive another $300 million to extend construction on an initial 110-mile high-speed segment in the Central Valley by 20 miles. What has people in my neck of the woods crowing is the $795 million that the northeast corridor will be getting which will increase train speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph on "critical" areas of the track between Boston, New York and Washington, DC.
  • North Carolina got $4 million towards extending high speed rail service there
  • Texas took $15 million to help fund a plan to link Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston with high speed rail
  • Washington, Oregon, Maine and Connecticut were also given varying amounts of money for state rail projects
Cheers to those states and for all the jobs that will be created (1000 in California alone).

On Sunday, my senator Chuck Schumer put forward a proposal to create a "no ride" list to help protect the trains against terrorist attack. He said at the time that he'd be pushing for additional funding to support security on the trains.

While I want to support Schumer, I worry that money for this program could be syphoned away from the high speed rail projects.

And make no mistake these are projects we desperately need. We simply cannot rely entirely on a system that relies on gasoline, both for environmental and for geo-political reasons. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the U.S. transportation system is 96% petroleum dependent, accounts for 71% of the country’s oil use, and consumes 25% of the world’s net output. Trains by contrast are highly fuel efficient (as much as 30.2% than cars per passenger, according to NARP). With the ever-increasing size of our population its imperative that we take steps NOW to create infrastructures that are green, safe and efficient for our children and grandchildren.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Clearing Your Caches to Get Better Airfares: Good Practice or Digital Paranoia?

On this weekend's Travel Show, I interviewed Scott McCartney, Middle Seat Columnist for the Wall Street Journal, on his recent piece about one of the most annoying glitches in the travel booking process: airfares that jump just as you're about to book them. His explanation, and one that I've read from other's who have researched this (including Christopher Elliott), is that this is not a bait-and-switch move on the part of the airlines (or online travel agencies), but a simple case of older fares being "cached" and displayed to consumers, even though airfares have actually risen. One arm is, in effect, moving faster than the other.

Which raised the question: are the airlines and agencies looking at the caches of information on our computers and raising their prices for travelers who have done a number of searches (and thus are likely customers)? Does it pay to clear your caches before you start searching for pricing to ensure you get a more reasonable rate?

Though it wasn't in his current piece, McCartney said its an issue that both he and the federal government have studied. His conclusion: he doesn't think this sort of snooping is common practice, and neither do the federal agencies who investigate these matters. So clearing your caches is likely an unnecessary hassle.

But there are strategies one can follow that aid in airfare search:

  • Ignore the calendars given by some sites of cheaper and more expensive dates for flying your particular route. These are often based on historic data and guesses and often have little to do with the current pricing reality.
  • When searching for fares, compare apples to apples by clicking through to the last pricing screen. This ensures you're seeing the cost of the flight with all taxes and fees added in.
  • Search a number of sites. Often the prices will vary greatly from one to the next.
The DOT recently enacted new rules, which will go into effect at the end of August, to clear up some of the confusion on pricing. Among them are stipulations that airlines include all taxes in the prices they advertise to the public, and show fees on the first (rather than the interior) pages of their websites. Hopefully this move will make rule #2 (above) unnecessary. For now: search thoroughly before purchasing!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Eats at Disneyworld This Fall

Photo by Chester Dumont
Whenever I peruse Disney packages, I take out my calculator. "Mickey" rhymes with "tricky" for a reason. Not all of the Mouse's 'discounts add up to real savings .

I'm happy to report that the "New Memories Vacation Package", however, is the real deal. It starts at $1605 for a five-night, six-day vacation but that includes digs at one of the All Star Resorts, theme park tickets, and a quick-service dining plan (two meals and two snacks per day). As icing on the Princess-cake, you also get a photo album and a mug, that can be refilled free of charge at your resort.

Since the park tickets and motel stay alone would cost a hair more than $1605 (according to my calculations), the free meals tips the scales in this deals favor.

Is there anything Goofy about the offer? Of course. Here's a list of negatives:
  • Its only available for select days between August 28 and September 24, which means you may have to be flexible with your travel plans to make sure all your dates are covered under the plan. Also, your kids are going to have to miss some school, which may not be a good idea during the crucial "getting to know you" phase of the first few weeks of a new year.
  • Unless you're willing to upgrade to a more expensive hotel, you can't use the dining plan at any of the waitered service restaurants. (An upgraded version of the deal starts at $2047). So no character breakfasts for your little ones unless you're will to pay out of pocket.
  • The All Star Resorts aren't the most charming of Disney properties and are a long shuttle ride from most of the actual theme parks. Still, they're servicable and have some cute theming.
  • No "Park Hopper" pass on this deal, so you won't be able to hop from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot over the course of one day.
The biggest negative? That the plan, obviously, doesn't include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, since that's at rival Universal Studios. My guess is many folks will use this plan, but then squander a day of it (in terms of meals and theme park tix) at Universal.

If you'd like to learn more, click here. Bookings must be made by Aug 28.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Canary in a Coal Mine or Outright Greed? Cost of Fuel from Rental Car Companies Hits $9

Crucial step: After setting the rear view mirrors, checking your maps and heading out of the rental car parking lot, you must--I repeat MUST-- look for the nearest gas station. While you'll likely want to gas up further from the airport (to get a better price) when you return the car, things can go wrong, schedules shift and many drivers forget to fuel up, and so leave it up to the car rental company to do.

But no more.

With rental car rates for fuel reaching $9 a gallon, not even Warren Buffet can afford to leave the re-fueling to Hertz (which now charges $9.29/gallon according to USAToday) or Enterprise or Thrifty ($8.99 each).

Should one take the option of pre-paying gas? Hard to say, but probably not.

In the same article, USAToday reports that of the 102 prepay options available to consumers from the various companies, 54  turned out to be cheaper than refilling the car oneself at nearby gas stations, the others not. But that estimate was based on refilling an empty tank, which is what you pay for when you pre-pay. Most renters have half a tank or more of gas left in their cars when it comes time to turn them in.

So is the greed, or a preview of what's to come for all drivers? I'm coming down on the side of outrageous, unmitigated greed. There's no way the rental car execs can know, definitively, which way the cost of gas is heading. They're taking advantage of the current problems to line the company's pockets.
Don't let 'em do it! Fill 'er up!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Best Deal to China Ever? This One Certainly Comes Close

Photo by Mitch Altman
In this time of ever-rising airfares, its surprising, to put it mildly, to hear of flight that hops across the Pacific for just $799. But when that price also includes six-nights in a fine hotel, transfers into Beijing from the airport, 3-days worth of guided sightseeing, all breakfasts and three lunches, I start to wonder if my leg is being pulled. Right out of its socket.

Doesn't seem to be the case, as the reputable China Spree Travel is behind this extraordinary offer. They've created similar miracles in the past; listeners who've traveled with the company have called in to our radio show to rave (in a good way) about the experience.

In this case, the super deal is six night package to Beijing, with departures throughout January and February of 2012, as well as for two dates in November at this starting price. Lowest overall costs are for those flying out of San Francisco, though there are reasonably priced add-ons from other cities. An additional $79 in taxes and fees will be added to the final price. Included sightseeing tours cover the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, Tiannamen Square, the Bird's Nest Stadium and a number of other top sites. Click on "Winter Specials" when you go to the China Spree site.

I had the good fortune to spend a full week in Beijing two summers ago (I'd visited in the past, but only for briefer stays) so I can say from experience that its a city--like Paris, London or New York--that repays those who linger. From its marble clad malls, to art galleries where contemporary artists bravely skewer the government, to ancient temples of all sorts, Beijing will turn out to be nothing like you expected. And much better than you'd hoped. One of my favorite destinations and at this price...well, how could you go wrong?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Introducing Woodlawn in the Bronx

While its not a must for first-time visitors, for residents and returnees who want to discover the Celtic side of New York, a wander through the extraordinary Woodlawn Cemetery (allot a good 3 hours; its that big) followed by a meal with live music at one of the pubs here, is a primo experience. 
Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863 in a rural area of gently sloping hills just outside the limits of New York City. It soon attracted as many live souls as dead ones. A goodly number of recently-immigrated, Irish stone carvers moved into the area to create tombstones, mausoleums and monuments for the graveyard, bringing old world skills to bear in the service of some of the finest architects of the day. McKim, Mead and White, John Russel Pope, Carrier & Hastings, Cass Gilbert and other extraordinary talents devoted their energies to beautifying the final resting places of New York's biggest names. This was, and remains, the place to be buried. As you wander through, you'll find tombstone here for a number of musical luminaries (Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Miles Davis, Victor Herbert, WC Handy, Oscar Hammerstein, and recently Celia Cruz), great literary and theatrical names (Countee Cullen, Damon Runyan, Nellie Bly, Otto Preminger, Barbara Hutton, Marilyn Miller) and business tycoons and millionaires (Joseph Pulitzer, Gertrude Vanderbuilt Whitney, Franklin Winfield Woolworth, Samuel Henry Kress).

What I find notable is that black and white, Christian and Jewish, all were buried here in this cemetery. As unusual, the neighborhood started out entirely Irish and has remained that way, its newest residents almost entirely Irish immigrants. 

Visiting here, as I did recently with my daughter (for a second grade project on different ethnic neighborhoods in New York City), is a hoot. Order a Guiness in a pub, and a woman with the lilting accent of Cork, serves it up. Along with the finest shepard's pie I've had on this side of the Atlantic. For those two items, head to the Rambling House;  its just one of a dozen authentic pubs the neighborhood houses. Gift shops carry Irish linens and glasses; the deli's are stocked with Flake chocolates and a wide variety of Irish meat sauces; and almost every sign, whether it be for the cleaners or a dentist, sports a shamrock.

The best way to get to Woodlawn from midtown Manhattan is on the Harlem line from Grand Central Station (hop off at the Woodlawn Station). You can get here on the subway, but to get to the heart of the neighborhood is a good mile walk from that stop.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Worldwide Travel Advisory Issued

In the wake of yesterday's announcement that Osama Bin Laden has been killed, the State Department has issued a world-wide travel alert. In particular citizens traveling to, or living in, areas where there's been recent anti-American violence are being urged to stay close to home and avoid large demonstrations. They are also warning that US Embassies, in order to reassess their security protocols, may close temporarily in the next few days. To ease the strain on embassies abroad, they're asking travelers and expats to keep in frequent contact with loved ones at home.

I've spoken with security consultants in the past about travel safety and have the following tips to pass along:
  • Consider registering your travel whereabouts with the government. After all, they can't find and help you if they don't know you're in country. Here's a link for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program; you can file your travel plans with the State Department there. 
  • Let several friends or family members know your exact itinerary before you leave. This should include the landline telephone numbers of the hotels you'll be staying in, as sometimes they're more reliable than cellphones.
  • Stay aware of where you are at all times. Should something happen that shifts the landscape--a bomb or earthquake, say--having some sense of where you are should help you find your way to safety more easily. Having a mapping program on your smartphone can also help.
  • Keep your cellphone charged: If its out of juice, it will be of no use to you (obviously).
  • Rely on texting: Sometimes in emergency situations, cellphone coverage can be spotty. But texts use less power/bandwidth and so can sometimes get through when cellphone calls can't.
  • If you're reliant on medications, carry some with you at all times. You wouldn't want to get stuck somewhere without a small supply. Its also a good idea to travel with a swiss army knife (when you can) and keep a bottle of water with you.
Probably all will be fine for travelers, but its smarter to be prepared for the worse.

The State Department will revisit its travel alert on August 11 and is asking citizens traveling to remain vigilant until then.