Monday, December 31, 2012

A Perilous Time For Our National Parks

The sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park. The famous face of Yosemite's Half Dome. Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

Beauties all.

But if we go over the so-called "Fiscal Cliff" this week, these wonderful cliffs may become less accessible to the public, as mandatory cuts to the National Parks System go into effect, pulling $200 million from a budget that is already woefully underfunded.

Both the National Parks Conservation Organization and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees have been sending out dire warnings about what additional cuts to the NPS budget could do. The effects range from a loss of interpretive programs to stoppage of necessary maintenance work to out-and-out park closings.

The Chicago Sun Times quoted Cragi Obey,  senior vice president of the NPCA, as saying.  “Our national parks will face a tough decade ahead. They cannot afford additional cuts after two consecutive years of cuts and a budget in today’s dollars that is 15 percent less than it was a decade ago.”

According to the paper, some 9000 seasonal jobs could be lost and 200 park sites closed. 

So what does this mean for the traveler planning park visits in January? It doesn't look like they'll be affected, as most parks operate with limited staff at this time of year anyway.

But if you're thinking of heading to one of the nation's great national parks in spring or summer, when seasonal workers are key, my advice would be to hold off on your plans until this mess is sorted out. With staff gone, you may not be able to camp where you'd like, or have access to the wonderful interpretive programs that so add to a park visit. More importantly, there may not be enough rangers in the coming months to ensure the safety of those who vacation in the parks, a true tragedy.

To read more about the fall-out the fiscal cliff may have, as well as the important role these parks have in our nation's economy, click here.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Another Brit Firm Offers Cheap Sleeps

In the wake of Travelodge's Boxing Day sale, rival DeVere venues has dropped its rates to as little as 19 GBP's per night (around $25). That's for stays between now and Feb 28 at hotels across the UK. For complete information, click here.

With the deal comes free wifi and a kids stay free offer. Not bad!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Messier and Messier: The Latest on Airline Bookings and Ancillary Fees

When did booking an airfare become as complicated as trying to get reimbursed by your insurance company? Mazes upon corporate mazes, fees tumbling after fees, products that used to be part of the experience of flying now separated out in a fashion that confuses even travel agents. It's a mess, and it looks like it will only get worse, before it gets better.

Today, the Associated Press has an excellent piece on the titanic struggle going on between the Obama Administration, the airline lobby and consumer groups over how to regulate the ways consumers pay for airfares. Amidst the mess is a court case wending its way through the system to try and overturn the Department of Transportation logical rule (implemented earlier in 2012) that taxes be advertised as part of the final airfare. Southwest, Spirit Airlines and Frontier are calling fowl on that one.

To read the complete piece, click here.

Travel Weekly is also tackling the issue today, with a story detailing the wacky ways "premium seats" are sold (on one airline, the price for them changes by the time of day of the flight!), the fact that customers often have to get deeply into the booking process before discovering what all the ancillary fees will be.

Together the two pieces paint quite an ugly picture of the airline industry today. Take a read. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A New Year's Treat from the European Travelodge

Attention all travelers headed to the British Isles, Portugal or Spain: the beds are going cheap! At least for those who can book their lodgings tomorrow.

Yup, Travelodge is back with one of its wonder sales, this time dropping nightly rates to as little as 15 GBP. That's for stays between Dec. 28 and Feb 15. At this stage, 50,000 rooms will go at the 15GBP rate, with another 70,000 going for 19 GBP.

If you really want to snag a low-priced room, you may want to hit the sale at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, as that's when the majority of Brit consumers will do so.

As I've noted in the past: I'm a fan of these sales, as I've used them in the past, getting more-than-decent rooms across Scotland and the UK at these low rates. The London Travelodges (which I've also stayed in for cheap) are a bit more hit and miss, so do read the reviews before booking, if you have the choice of several properties.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Guided Hikes at State Parks Around the United States

Is one of your New Year's resolutions to get outside and exercise more this year? You can start with a bang on New Year's Day (January 1, 2013), thanks to a program created by a group called America's State Parks. They'll be sponsoring some 600 guided hikes at State Parks across the US on that day. To find a hike near you, click here.

According to the Associated Press, this is the second year the program is being offered. Last year, some 14,000 people participated in hikes that varied from cross country skiing treks in Alaska to a sunrise hike in Hawaii. Some had a historical focus, and were led by re-enactors in 19th century garb. All of the hikes will be led by  Park Rangers, and most focus on discussions of the local flora, fauna and important sights along the way. Don't worry if you're not fit yet: most of the hikes planned are easy ones and a number are appropriate for people in wheelchairs (as they'll utilize paved paths).

I can't think of a better way to usher in the New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Storms Roll In Just As the Holiday Rush Hits: Some Strategies for Staying Sane

Seems like every year brings not just trees hung with tinsel, and re-mixes of Christmas carols by the latest hip hop sensations, but storms. Ugly, air traffic derailing, storms. And wouldn't you know it, they alway hit just as everyone's heading to the airport to get home for the holidays.

As I write this, flights into and out of Chicago are experiencing two hour delays from winds in advance of what promises to be a massive snow storm. A number have already been cancelled outright, according to USA Today and the Weather Channel. The blizzard is expected to tangle travel across the Midwest, reaching as far east as New York and Philadelphia by Friday.

So what's the holiday flier to do? Some suggestions:
  1. Don't assume your flight's okay just because the day is bright and sunny in your home city. Remember, the airlines have to move planes and flight crews from one area to another, so socked-in conditions in Detroit could derail a flight out of San Francisco.
  2. Go to your airline's website to search for delays and cancellations before heading to the airport. I know folks who've been stuck for several days at socked in airports just because they hoped being on the spot would get them on a plane quicker. It didn't work. Instead, they had to endure crowds, ever-dirtier bathrooms, shortages of food at the airport eateries (as supplies were unable to get in) and worse. There are few worse places to be in a blizzard than at an airport. 
  3. If you're already stuck at the airport, waiting in a long line to speak with a customer rep about rescheduling your flight, take out your smart phone. NOW. And if you're traveling with a partner, have them do the same. One of you should try and work the phone, the other the internet to see if you can get actual help before you get to the front of the line. Don't get off the line though, even if you're able to re-book. At the front of the line may be vouchers for free meals at the airport. That's not a guarantee, as weather is considered an "act of God" by the airlines' contracts of carriage, meaning they don't have to help you. But many will, so do ask.
  4. If you can, bring only carry-ons. When weather situations tangle airline schedules, luggage is more likely to go missing. So pack light!
  5. If your airline reschedules you in a way you don't like, call back in an hour. The seating arrangements are constantly changing as travelers and airlines scramble during episodes like this one. Persistance can pay off!
Best of luck and happy holidays to all those heading home for Christmas and New Years!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The End of Hotel Porn (?), The Start of A New Airline, Lift Discounts and More

Billions in Ancillary Airline Fees
So the Federal Government needs to put on the brakes before we head over the "Fiscal Cliff"? Perhaps our politicians should be taking their cue from the airlines, masters at squeezing every last penny from the people they serve. Boehner and Obama: Take a page from Spirit Airlines and charge a dollar more fee for everyone who brings a bulky backpack onto a public bus or subway. And use their explanation, too: that the other passengers will be much happier not having to deal with those bulky packs. Or how about dividing up families in public places, say restaurants, playgrounds or amusement parks and then have them pay a "priority" fee for the right to watch over their kids? My guess is priority access to the DMV or Post Office would be a big money maker, too.

Heck, the airlines earned $1.6 billion in ancillary fees just in the last 3 months, an uptick of 5% over last year. If its happening in the skies over Washington, DC why not in the capitol itself?

A New Airline With a Name From the World of Makeup
Air Canada must be, er, blushing with pride about the birth of its new, low-cost off-shoot Rouge. How else to explain the odd name? The airline will fly from Canada to vacation destinations in Europe and the Caribbean. Its planning on keeping costs low, according to Reuters, by squeezing more seats on the plane and paying flight attendants and pilots less than Air Canada staffers make. Which doesn't sound like the formula for a very pleasant ride to me (unless one enjoys bruised knees and surly service). But perhaps I'm being too cynical. A touch of rouge on my cheek my distract attention from the worried smirk on my lips.

Liftopia Sale for Christmas Eve and Day
Though Christmas week is often one of the busiest weeks of the year for ski resorts (and the recent dump of snow on the Rockies should add to that), not enough folks hit the slope on the actual holiday, it seems. To remedy that, Liftopia.com  is offering a slew of lift ticket discounts (of up to 67% off) to, well, everywhere there's ski lifts. To snag the savings, click on the link above.

No More Hotel Porn?!?
LodgeNet Interactive Corp, the company that provides in-room movies, Nintendo entertainment, cable TV and more to hundreds of hotels and hospital TVs around the US is probably going to be filing for bankruptcy at the end of December. Likely, it will continue to operate in Chapter 11. For all the financial details, click here

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

$10 Lift Tickets Across New York State, Plus Freebies for Fourth Graders

Do you think your boss will notice if you don't show up for work on January 10? That's the key question because, for folks near New York's ski resorts, it's going to be the cheapest day this year to ski. From now through January 9, some 10,000 $10 lift tickets are being distributed by ISkiNY. That includes lift tickets at the swell Lake Placid resorts, of Olympics fame, where a day's lift ticket usually starts at $84.

Skiing is even cheaper--in fact, it's free--if you're lucky enough to be in fourth grade. New York State, in the hope of turning on more kids to the joys of downhilling, are waiving lift tickets for anyone who can prove he or she is in that grade. 

For complete info on both promos, click on the link above. And be sure to wear sunblock, so you don't arrive back at work after your "sick day" with a skiers burn on your nostrils! 

Monday, December 17, 2012

More Airline Fees and Increased Trouble for the Online Travel Agencies

The ground is shifting. Or perhaps it's more correct to say there's been a change in the direction of the wind, as airline after airline rejiggers its fare and fee structures in time for 2013.

Several weeks ago, I told you of Frontier's plan to bitch-slap passengers who didn't book directly at the airline's website (the punishments:  a combination of ugly fees and the inability to reserve specific seats in advance). Last week, American announced its new "bundling plans", which will divide American economy class pricing into three tiers, the top two carrying some interesting perks. And again, at least at this stage, American's new program can only be booked through the airline's website (or with a travel agent). Click here for the scoop on AA's new pricing policies.

Friday, Southwest, the airline that touts itself as fee-free (or nearly fee free) jumped with both wings in the ancillary revenue race with its announcement that it will be upping the fees it has (for priority boarding and overweight luggage) and adding a new one. Beloved for its no-change fee policy, the airline is now going to punish those who simply don't show up and then expect to be able to change their ticket later. A no-show fee is in the works, though  there's no word yet on how hefty that fee will be.

This last move doesn't hurt the big online travel agents (I'm talking Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, etc.) as much as the other moves have the potential to do, as Southwest never sold tickets through these third-party sites anyway. But American and Frontier's recent moves are big blows, and my guess is more are to follow.

The big agencies are also getting slammed on the hotel front, with the nation of Switzerland investigating alleged price fixing from several sources. This follows on the heels of similar investigations taking place in the US and the UK (scroll through this blog for more on that).

So what does all this mean for travelers? Frankly, I'm worried. With each byzantine fare structure added by the airlines, it will get harder for consumers like you and me to do a simple fare search. Not that everything was clear before, what with all the hidden fees. And these allegations about hotel price fixing certainly are disturbing (another reason to turn to vacation rentals when possible, I suppose).

Stay tuned!


Friday, December 14, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Flights to the Outer Islands of the Bahamas

In the remake of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig, the hero jetted off to the Bahamas to suavely wrestle with bad guys and bed beauties. It was, of course, a postcard perfect island: elegant, serene, white sands, blue skies and not a street vendor in sight. In other words, it wasn't the most visited of the Bahamian Islands, Nassau. Bond--James Bond--went to one of the outer islands--I think it was New Providence--as that was a more appropriate hideaway for the jet setting villain he was pursuing.

Would it also be a more appropriate visit for you, dear reader? Thanks to a swell deal from the Bahamian government it'll be less expensive than usual to find out. It's offering free airfare from Nassau to any of the outer islands for stays between now and October 31. Travelers have until June 31 to book. All you need to do is book a four-day stay at one of 30 participating resorts. Book just three nights and only one member of the couple (the deal is based on double occupancy), gets the free airfare.

The deal is good for stays in Bimini, Eleuthra, Cat Island, Abaco, Andros, Rum Caye, Berry Islands, San Salvador, Long Island, Harbour Island, Exuma and Acklins & Crooked Island.

For complete details, click here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Choices, choices, choices! American Airline Adds Another Wrinkle to the Process of Shopping for Airfares

Goodbye to the days when all economy seats cost the same amount of money. American Airlines is re-writing the rules to input three different classes of fares at the back of the plane, and the price differences have nothing to do with the in-cabin experience (so no extra leg-room for the uptick in price). Instead, passengers will be asked to pay $68 more, per round-trip, to waive a slew of other fees.

Here's how it works: those who choose the new "Choice Essential" fee will have the right to check one bag without paying more (a value of $25 each way, $50 round-trip), will have priority boarding, and will not have to pay the $150 change fee should they need to switch their flight (though they will have to pay any additional cost if the flight is a more expensive one). T

The "Choice Plus" option, which costs an additional $88, will include all of the above, plus 50% more frequent flyer miles accrued per flight and the right to change flights on the day of the flight without penalty. This last perk might be particularly appealing to business travelers, as they'll be able to hop an earlier flight without penalty should their work wrap up earlier than expected. To celebrate this all, the Choice Plus customer will also be offered one "premium" (read: alcoholic) drink onboard the flight.

A final option "Fully Flexible" will allow the passenger to fly the plane to wherever he wishes. KIDDING! No, on this one, which will have a sliding scale in terms of fees, passengers get all the perks of the Choice Plus ticket, plus an additional checked bag included in the rate, and a better shot at getting upgraded. (Technically, this last will work by allowing the passenger to use a 500 mile upgrade certificate, but only after AAdvantageElite status fliers have been assigned their upgrades).

Except for overpackers, I don't see how "Fully Flexible" will be worth the extra outlay (whatever that is). And I should note at this point that these fare classes are only for domestic fares, at this stage.

All this leads to the question: why is American doing this? I have two guesses. First off, they want to encourage folks to book directly at their site, so they can avoid paying commissions to the Travelocitys and Expedias of the world. That being said, some of the online travel agencies do have sophisticated enough booking engines to support these new categories (and likely those that don't will work like crazy to make sure that they do soon. Travel agents will also have access to these different tiers of fares).

More importantly, the airline probably know that the vast majority of passengers never need to change their fares; and an increasing number simply carry their luggage into the cabin (like me). So they're tempting folks to gamble that something will go wrong, knowing that it likely won't. Ah, the house always wins, doesn't it.

For now, I'm going to stick with the so-called "Choice Fare", which is what we're all used to (ie no priority boarding, checked baggage fees, etc.). But I'll be curious to see how popular--or not--these options prove to be. Will the public buy them? Or will they not even bother to research these options, preferring to spend their time on more fun parts of the travel planning process (like restaurant selection). We'll see!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Quick Recap of Some of the Big News in Travel

Delta To Become a Minority Partner in Virgin Atlantic: But sorry folks, there won't be combining their frequent flyer programs, at least not for a while. Instead, this is seen as a move to grab the lion's share of the business at Europe's busiest, and most tightly controlled (in terms of landing space) airportt: London Heathrow. For a full article on the implications of the deal (which, frankly, I find unclear), click here.

London Taxis To Offer Wifi: Now the question becomes, if you stand near a parked one, or drive alongside, will you also be able to pick up a single? (You'd know why I'm asking if you ever sat, with your heart in your mouth, watching the meter in a London taxi cab tick through the roof!). Passengers will have to sit through a 15-second ad every 15 minutes to stay connected. Full information here.

Another delay on the implementation on new TSA rules: Chalk it up to the power of the airline lobby. The TSA has announced it will push off, until May, the implementation of rules that would force airlines to be more transparent about the ancillary fees they're charging. Sigh. Here's the scoop on that.

More to come later!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Another 12 Day of Christmas Sale

Good values outweigh creativity on this one. So let's hand it to Friendly Planet, which is shaving $100 to $300 off its already well-priced tours.

Its also starting closer to Christmas, so this feels a bit more like a gift! And it's putting up all 12 of its sales at once, so no having to check back every day to get a deal.

China, Costa Rica, Dubai, Kenya, Croatia, Havana, Namibia, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Ecuador, Thailand and Japan are all included in the sale (some jointly). To learn more, click here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Sales from 3 Major Airlines

That's because three major airlines have turned their websites into advent calendars, posting a different deals every day for 12 days. Most of these promos have already begun, so move quickly if you want to get in on these sales. Here's a run-down on your options:

  • Tiger Airways: Good for those flying within Australia and within Southeast Asia in the coming months. Its sale ends December 14; click on the link above for complete details.
  • Air Canada: Today's deals seem mostly to be for flights to and from Toronto, plus a good rate to Paris. This promo will have daily changing specials through December 19.
  • AirTran:  Commemorating "Festivus", this sale goes through December 13, with prices as low as $69
Happy holidays to all!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Lift Tickets When You Fly Alaska Air

But hold onto your boarding pass! That becomes your lift ticket with this week's hot deal from the airline. It is offering free lift tickets to passengers heading to Idaho or Oregon resorts this winter (now through Jan 31, with some blackout dates). Here are the details:

Mount Bachelor, Oregon: Book an early flight, because this freebie is only good on the day of arrival. But if you can get to the slopes quickly, you could get in a lot of free shussing. All you'll need to do is present that day's boarding pass for your lift ticket.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort: No need to rush in from the airport on this one. But you will have to stay at the right hotel (either the Selkirk Lodge or the White Pine Lodge) to redeem your freebie. Along with one day's lift ticket, the offer includes daily breakfast and a quick ski clinic. Not bad!

For complete information, click here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Free Bus Seats to 120 Cities

I'd usually hold a freebie for Friday, but because this offer is only good so long as supplies last, I thought I'd better get it out there ASAP.

Megabus has announced it will be giving away 20,000 tickets for travel between January 9 and February 28 and almost all of its routes are on sale. All you'll pay is a .50 cent reservation fee.

In addition to these freebies, Megabus is selling $1 tickets for the first week of service (December 12-19) on its new California routes. These go from both San Francisco and Los Angeles to such cities as Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose and Riverside.

I've taken Megabus a number of times between New York and Washington, DC and have always found the experience to be just fine. Except for traffic related delays which can throw off schedules--can't blame 'em for those--Megabus delivers on what it promises, which are clean buses, wifi, friendly service and decent on-board bathrooms.

For full information and to book (quickly!!!) go to www.megabus.com.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Turkey Trot: 11 Night Tour at a Decidely Decent Price

Amphitheater, Pamukkale, Turkey
I spotted today's deal on TravelZoo, so you'll need to use their code TZTK80 to snag it. And snag it you should, because I can't remember when I've seen a better price for a tour of this length and distance. The standout feature: the $118-a-day rate includes airfare from the United States.

Here's the scoop: this 11-night tour goes to all of Turkey's most famous destinations--Istanbul, the cave city of Cappadocia, Kusadasi (a hopping off point for the exquisite ruins at Ephesus), Canakkale,  Konya, Ankara and Pamukkale. It's a whirlwind of an itinerary, but heck, if you keep moving, you're less likely to buy a rug you don't need. That's the one very real danger of visiting Turkey; other than that, there are few destinations as rewarding thanks to the variety of sites (from great Muslim mosques to Greek and Roman ruins to exquisite beaches, towering cliffs and cities carved out of caves.)

Included in the $1299 price are 11-nights of lodgings, 20 meals (all breakfasts and most dinners), a tour leader, entrance fees to the top sights, aifare from the US and in-country transportation. Lowest rates are from New York City, though reasonable add-on fares are available from other areas. Departure dates are scattered throughout February and March of 2013.

For complete info, click here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Why You'll Want to Visit India in 2013

Kumbh Mela celebrations in Hardiwar
For me, that question could be rephrased: why you'll want to visit India every year. The richness of its culture, the awesome variety of sights, the friendliness of the people, the affordability of in-country travel--how could India NOT be a personal favorite of mine?

But Indian travel in 2013 is going to be especially groovy. Here's why:

-The Indian Government just revised its visa regulations for the better. Now, one no longer has to wait two months before re-entering the country if one ducks across the border into, say, Nepal. That's important since many folks plan multi-country hops when they go to India, to better amortize the high cost of airfare here. Thanks to the new rules, they'll be able to do this kind of trip easily. Here's an article on the new visa regulations.

-The Kumbh Mela festival, which only happens every 12 years, is one of the largest pilgrimages in the world and will be taking place this February in the city of Allahabad. The Hindu worshippers who take part believe that a potent elixir was dropped in the rivers of India, and by bathing at the right times (ie the time of this festival), they'll have the opportunity to rinse away their sins and, perhaps, escape the cycle of death and rebirth. From what I've heard, the rituals surrounding the bathing are awe-inspiring, as is the site of the millions of pilgrims who come here for this celebration.

-India is never expensive. That's especially true if you're savvy enough to stay and eat where the Indians do when they travel (rather than picking the multi-national chains, which peg their prices not to the exchange rate but to the going, international rate for luxury items). This year, the rupee is at near historic lows against the dollar, meaning better value than ever for budget-conscious travelers.

So there you have it. Switch off this blog, and get booking!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Red Hot Air-Hotel Package From JetBlue

Apologies for posting this one a bit late.

But for those who can make up their minds quickly and hit the road suddenly, JetBlue is holding a seriously terrific deal on its vacation getaways. These are packages that combine airfare and hotel, and those who book today will be able to snag a 50% discount off the base airfare. The package must be booked by midnight tonight, and it's based on double occupancy.

The travel window is short: basically you gotta leave before December 19.

JetBlue offers packages in Puerto Rico, Orlando, Cancun, Las Vegas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and many other popular spots. Click on the link above for full information. 


Friday, November 30, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Hotel Room, And On Christmas Eve, No Less

Ah, but there's a catch (isn't there always?).

The freebie is only for couples with those most Christmasy of names: Joseph and Mary.

Still, if you can prove those are your legal names, make a reservation at any of the UK's 500 Travelodge Hotels. The giveaway is good for stays, in a family room, of course, from December 24th through January 5 (the last of the 12 Days of Christmas).

To claim the freebie, send an email to christmas@travelodge.co.uk by December 21. You'll need to show proof that these are your real names.

Oh, and the chain is throwing in a free parking space...for your donkey.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hotel Resort Fees? The Feds Are On The Case

It's one of the ugliest surprises in travel. You're checking out of the cushy resort you chose, eager to be on your way, when suddenly something on your room bill catches your eye. Mysteriously, you're going to be pay $15--or $25 or even $30--more per night than you expected.

The "resort fee" strikes again.

Thankfully, it's not just you and I who thinks this consumer-unfriendly "gotcha" is a bad idea. The Federal Trade Commission announced this week that it had contacted 22 hotel operators to warn them that their websites might be violating the law, by "providing a deceptively low estimate of what consumers can expect to pay for their hotel rooms."

It's a practice the FTC calls "drip pricing"--and that doesn't refer to the "drips" who create these types of deceptions. Instead, it's a practice in which the business only advertises one part of the price every customer will have to pay. "Consumers are entitled to know in advance the total cost of their hotel stays,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.  “So-called ‘drip pricing’ charges, sometimes portrayed as ‘convenience’ or ‘service’ fees, are anything but convenient, and businesses that hide them are doing a huge disservice to American consumers.”

Though the FTC declined to reveal which hotels it has contacted, it's wonderful to know they're on the case. And it provides a means of redress to citizens who feel they've been unfairly charged fees they didn't know were coming. Now, they don't just have to rely on the goodwill of the hotel manager to get the charges reversed. They can contact the feds!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Who Says Cyber Monday Has Passed? More Winter Hotel Deals

As the chilliest days of winter approach, more and more hotel chains seem to be hoping that advance sales will fill their beds in the slow season. Here are some of the deals that caught my eye this week:

Ibis Hotels: A massive chain, with over 700 properties worldwide, it's offering savings of up to 15 eu per night for stays between December 21 and Jan 13, 2013. For all the details, click here.

La Quinta Hotels: Stays at this brand are always kind to the wallet. That's particularly the case for those who book 14 days in advance this winter. Do so and you may be able to score a $45/night bed in Tulsa, or a $49/night steal in Albuquerque. More details here.

DeVere Venues: This often-swank Brit chain has cobbled together packages across the UK to make impromptu getaways more appealing. Among the specials: 99 GBP for dinner, wine and a room to sleep it off at Slaley Hall in Northumberland, Belton Woods in Lincolnshire, Motram Hall in Cheshire or Dunston Hall in Norfolk. At the Devere Village properties, prices drop to as little as 59 GBP per night, including breakfast, at a number of properties. For a full list of deals, simply click here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holiday Airfares Up, A New Name for Booze Cruises and More

Holiday Airfares are up by 5% That's the depressing newsflash from USAToday, which is using stats from booking sites Kayak.com and Orbitz.com. As always, there are some days when the prices will be (slightly) less painful (such as Christmas and New Years days). And the worst days to travel? December 22, 23 and 26.

Cheers! Is the not-so-original new name for the unlimited booze packages offered by the party-hearty Carnival Cruise Lines. With the new name comes an expansion of the program. Now it will be possible to drink until you drop, for one lowish price ($42.95), aboard the Carnival Victory, Carnival Splendor, Carnival Breeze and Carnival Dream. The price covers unlimited servings of cocktails, beer and wine in the $10/glass and less category, and 25% off full bottles and premium cocktails. NCL is offering a similar program on many of its ships.

Hacking hotel key cards: Ruh roh! Turns out it's not at all hard to break into hotel rooms that use key card systems, according to a source that would know, Gizmodo.com. Another good reason to always use the hotel safe when leaving valuables in your room!

Soon we'll be flying the planes! The Economist is reporting that more and more airlines are having their passengers self-tag their bags when they check in. I suppose it's a good way to make sure your luggage gets where it's going, but I worry about all the folks who may be losing their jobs because of this move. For more on the topic, click there.


Monday, November 26, 2012

It's Not Too Late To Snag a Cyber Monday Travel Deal

And in many cases they're far less of a "come on" than the sales taking place around other sorts of products. Here are some of the best still out there:

Rental Cars:
*Priceline.com is giving folks who sign up today and book a rental today, $30 to spend on it. The deal seems fairly straight-forward, though it appears to only be available to folks who've previously rented through the opaque sale giant. For info, click on the link above.

*The always affordable EZ Rent a Car is offering rentals starting at just $5-per-day to those who make their reservations today for rentals before Dec 9. Cheapest rates are for Seattle and Denver ratings, though Las Vegas rentals are only $2 more at $7 per day. Los Angeles is going for $8, various Floridian cities for $9 and Atlanta for $10 a day. For more information, click on the link above.

*Hertz is offering 25% off weekly rentals to those who reserve today, for travel through Jan 15. Use code PC# 176934.

Lodgings
* The chi chi hotel chain Loewe's Hotels and Resorts is offering savings of up to 40% per night for stays all the way through April 30th at a number of property. To snag a deal, book before 3am ET on November 27.

*The New Orleans Collection, a collection of seven swell Big Easy hotels, is offering nightly discounts of up to 40% for the period up to Dec 21. That's a truly swell time to visit NOLA, as there'll be special events galore (scroll down this blog to learn more about New Orleans in December).

*At Omni Hotels, $99 a night constitutes a darn good sale. So if you're traveling before Jan 31, and want a touch of luxury, head over to their site (see above) for their "Click Quick!" sale, to snag a room at that rate in dozens of cities around the globe.

*Use the code "CYBER" at the site of Wyndham Vacation Rentals to snag savings of up to 50% at ski and beach destinations around the world. (Note: these are professionally managed rental properties, not full-service hotels).

Other
* Delta Airlines is allowing for upgrades to Economy Comfort class this week, starting at just $9 above the economy rate you receive. For complete information, click here. The discounted upgrade will be available at airport kiosks for flights this week or online for future flights, though bookings must be made by end of day, Nov 29.

*Friendly Planet Tours are always among the best values on the market, which is why I was surprised to see them offering an additional $100 to $400 off every tour they're running, for those who book before midnight, ET tonight. Details plus the code necessary are at the link above.

A word to the wise: If you DON'T see a sale above on a property or travel product you were hoping to purchase, head to the website today, anyway. A slew of individual resorts and travel providers are offering discounts, simply too many to list here.

Happy shopping!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the holiday, I'll be taking today and tomorrow off.

Safe travels to all those on the road.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Black Friday and Cyber Monday Travel Deals

USA Today has posted an excellent round-up of post Thanksgiving vacay deals. It's mostly hotel deals--no surprise, the author is Barbara DeLollis, the paper's hotel reporter--but they run the gamut, from luxury to budget, domestic to international. Club Med is included, as is the entire island of St. Lucia and many of the hotels sold by Orbitz.

I'll keep my eye out for other sorts of Cyber deals in the coming days and will post them here as they pop!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

British Budget Motel Chain Introduces Noise Meters To Ensure Restful Nights

Shhhhh!
The lollipops bombed.

That was the first strategy British hotel chain Premier Inns tried to keep late night carousers quiet. When these rowdy guests returned to the lobby after a late night at the pubs, they were handed lollys, but apparently that didn't keep them from using their mouths for louder purposes.

So Premier Inn went high tech, installing noise meters in the hallways that cause the lights to flash when guests get too loud.

The executives of Premier Inn told Britain's Daily Mail that the scheme is working. They think it will ultimately be a big money savers for the hotels. Why? The most common reason for refunds are guests being unable to sleep due to noisy neighbors.

The chain has also put double glazing on the windows and springs on the doors so they'll shut more softly.

And with these moves, we travelers have yet another reason not to overpay for hotels. You're in them just to sleep, after all, and if the affordable ones are taking these types of measures to make sure everyone gets their zzz's there's less reason than ever to pay too much just for a bed.

Good on you Premier Inns!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Crescent City Christmas

Don't let the lack of snow deter you! New Orleans is a uniquely "Christmasy" destination (if you like your Yule cool) and therefor a delightful place to visit in December. But because nobody knows it, prices tend to plunge then.

How much? Throughout the coming month, 48 of top city hotels will be shaving up to 30% off their nightly rates. So a stay at the French Quarter Chateau LaMoyne or the Cotton Exchange Hotel will be just $69 a night. The chi chi W Hotel New Orleans (I've stayed there; it's very cushy) is coming in at a mere $99 and the historic Hotel St. Pierre will be but $79. These are just a few of the deals on offer. You can find more by clicking here.

Meals, too, will be slashed in price...if you're willing to try a blow-out Reveillon dinner.  These multi-course, holiday meals are a beloved New Orleans tradition making use of  recipes that are sometimes several centuries old. Ever wanted to try chestnut crusted sweetbirds, wild game cassoulet or roasted local Muscovy duck with cornbread stuffing and pepper jelly glaze? Here's your chance! Among the restaurants participating are some of New Orlean's most celebrated: Commander's Palace, Arnauds, Galatoires and the Court of the Two Sisters.

So you'll sleep and eat cheap, but that's not a reason to go anywhere is it? Happily, NOLA will be offering a slew of holiday entertainments from craft fairs to holiday concerts to caroling in Jackson Square and home tours. For a complete calendar of events, click here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Wifi In San Francisco and New York Until the End of the Year

In celebration of the October 26 launch of Windows 8, Microsoft has partnered with Boingo to provide free wifi in both San Francisco and New York. A limited version of the program started on the day of the Windows 8 debut, but expanded on November 1 to over 200 hotspots across the Big Apple and connectivity at such popular San Francisco hubs as Union Square, UN Plaza, The Financial District, Nob Hill and, of course, Fisherman's Wharf.

And hallelujah! The free wifi will be usable not just on Microsoft products, but with any wifi enabled device.

The only gotcha? You'll have to watch a short commercial for Windows 8 before being allowed to freely surf.

For more on the giveaway, click here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More Booze Cruises Launched (Plus Free Java)

Bottoms up!

Norwegian Cruise Lines has joined Carnival and Royal Caribbean in offering unlimited drink packages, in its case at the cost of $42.95 per day. That covers both potent and er, impotent, potables though only drinks that would cost less than $10 a pop if bought a la carte.

And as with the other lines, the roll-out of the program will be limited to just a portion of the fleet. Beyond determining whether they're paying enough for the pass, I'm hoping the execs who greenlighted this are also studying what kind of effective these passes have on the cruise experience. Are there more raging drunks stumbling about? An uptick in security or safety incidents. More, er, messes to clean up?

To read more about this, click here for the USAToday article on the new programs.

And in unrelated news, if you're reading this at the airport and you need a quick cafeine fix, high thee to the nearest Starbucks! Today through Sunday the coffee giant is offering "buy-one-get-one-free" deals on many of its holiday drinks (including gingerbread latte and peppermint mochas).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Non-Stop vs. Direct Flights

Just wanted to alert you all to a terrific  piece in today's USAToday by FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney. According to the airfare guru, thesavings for itineraries that involve a touch down in the middle will be significant in the winter of 2012-2013: between 20% and 60% on many routings. To read the article, click on the link above.

It's a good reminder with the holidays--and holiday pricing--looming. According to most analysts, it could be as much as 25% pricier this year over last, to get to Grandma's house, if you need to wing it there.

But remember: non-direct flights in winter do carry risk. This is storm season, after all. So when looking at connecting flights, try to connect through southern gateways if possible, avoiding such snow-plagued airports as Denver and Chicago.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Early Season Colorado Ski Deals

When Winter Park resort opens tomorrow, it will do so with a flakey flourish: one foot of natural snow blankets its slopes, thanks to a Colorado-wide storm.

It's a good omen. Fingers--or skis--crossed that this means a white winter is in store for America's ski resorts.

That being said, many skiers who were burned by less-than-optimal conditions last year are waiting to make their vacation plans. Which means that those who lock in their reservations early--and ski early--will be able to snag some unusually good deals on lift tickets and lodgings. Some examples from Colorado:

Arapahoe Basin: Purchase the "Legend's Four Pass" (a 4 day lift ticket, good all season, with no blackout dates) for just $158 before December 12. Normal cost for four days: $280. Learn more at ArapahoeBasin.com.

Ski Cooper: Purchase before November 22, and get a four day pass (and the days can be non-consecutive) for just $99. No blackout dates or restrictions. Buy later, and you'll pay between $119 (if you can get a second early season deal) and $164 (for high season purchases).  Details: SkiCooper.com.

Steamboat: This discount is only good for skiing that occurs before December 22. But if you can vacation that early, you'll get 3 days of skiing and a 20% discount on lodgings for $119. More at Steamboat.com/BoatLaunch

Crested Butte: Free skiing, no strings attached, for opening day (November 21). Click here for more.

Copper Mountain: In honor of its 40th anniversary, the resort is offering $40 lift tickets for the weekend of December 7-9. Those who need to rent equipment can do so for just $40 per couple. And those who need to drink beer will get their brewskies for just .72 cents at Endos. Info at CopperColorado.com.

Aspen/Snowmass: Save 35% on early season lift and rental packages. Dates available at Liftopia.com.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bad for the Environment, Good for Your Wallet: A One-Year Stay For EU Carbon Fees

I have mixed feelings about this one, as you can probably tell from the headline. Having just lived without power for a week, due to a 100-year-storm that came just one year after another 100-year-storm, I'm taking climate change quite seriously.

And I think the European Union's attempt to off-set the use of carbon in planes with the imposition of fees on the airlines (part of an emissions credits trading system) has merit.

But the political pressure on the regulators was too great, it seems. It was announced today that the European Union will hold off on charging these fees to non-EU carriers for a year while the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization considers a global policy. The policy will still apply to flights that hop from one European country to another, just not flights that link Europe with the rest of the world. If the International body can't reach and agreement by April of 2014, the EU will re-institute the carbon caps.

Had they been imposed, the fees would have come to just a few euros per passenger.

Here's an article on the EU's about face.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Wifi In The Air (Plus An Invitation For Texans)

Soon.

And the travelers' benefactor will be the unusually generous JetBlue, which will be offering connectivity in the air gratis beginning in 2013. I haven't been able to find any info on a starting date for that service, but here's a press release touting the coming broadband, which the airline is offering in partnership with ViaSat.

This AND free blue potato chips? JetBlue, I gotta crush on you.

Dallas Travel and Adventure Show!

And I couldn't sign off without issuing an invitation: tomorrow, at 10:45 am, I'll be speaking at the Dallas Travel and Adventure Show.  It should be quite the event! Along with my speech, the ever-charming and currently very pregnant Samantha Brown of the Travel Channel will be appearing. Richard Weise of the ABC show "Born to Explore" is also on the bill. And Tiffany Derry, of Top Chef fame, will be dishing up food at the culinary stage (along with a number of other world chefs)!

Bring the kids! There'll be lots of fun activities for them---climbing walls, huge bubbles to walk in over water, a zipline visits from the critters at the Dallas Zoo and more.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Free B&B Stays for Veterans This Coming Weekend

Up for a last-minute getaway? I know I would be, what with the seemingly never-ending storms in the East.

For the fourth year in a row, B&B owners in the US and Canada, will be thanking veterans by hosting them and members of the active military on the night before Veterans Day (which is this coming Sunday).

Proof of service is required (click here for details). Veterans can bring up to one guest to stay with them in the room, and chow down on a patriotic breakfast on Monday.

It's late in the game to book, but not impossible as more and more B&B's have joined in the giveaway over the past month. For a list of participating B&B's in the US, click here; for those in Canada click here.

And thank you for your service!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Doobie Do: The Dutch Change Their Minds and Legal Toking Comes to the US

Giggle weed is getting the last laugh.

In Holland last week, the incoming government abandoned plans for instituting a national weed pass, which would have effectively barred tourists from lighting up legally in the Netherlands. The government is going to allow individual cities to decide whether or not to bar outsiders from coffee shops and other hashish and marijuana purveyors. In practical terms, this means that the party will go on, unaffected, in Amsterdam, where the local government had been fighting the pass system for over two years.

But weed-loving tourists will no longer have to cross the Atlantic to toke. Yesterday, two little commented-on ballot initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington State, decriminalizing the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana (a similar measure failed in Oregon). Those two states already had passed medical marijuana laws; now they'll be allowing recreational marijuana use, as well.

Or will they? Under federal law, marijuana possession is still a crime, punishable by jail time. Its a conundrum for government officials. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper told USA Today ""The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

But it's an open secret that the Feds haven't done much about medical marijuana purveyors in these states, even when they were very obviously selling their goods for non-medicinal purposes. To my mind, the political will behind a crackdown isn't there. Not only would it raise the hackles of states rights defenders, but it also would anger the 50% of Americans who support the legalization of marijuana (according to the most recent Gallup Poll).

So will tourists soon be getting their "Rocky Mountain High"? Its an issue we'll all be watching.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rental Company HomeAway Works To House the Displaced

Another travel company, the massive rental site HomeAway, is offering shelter to Sandy survivors on the East Coast. It's created a special site for those willing to "rent" their homes for free or for an extremely reduced cost, in the upcoming weeks, to those who lost their homes to the storm.

Some of the properties are near storm ravaged communities, others will require Sandy victims to travel. To see the complete, and ever growing list, click here.

THANK YOU Homeaway for stepping up.

And on an unrelated topic, today is election day. The most important trip you can take is from your home to your polling place. If you're an American citizen you have the duty to vote. Your country needs to hear your voice.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Thank You to Two Travel Companies, In the Wake of Sandy

Apologies that "daily briefings" weren't possible last week. Like many on the East Coast, I was stripped by Sandy of my access to electricity (not to mention school for my kids, heat and hot water). For this return post, I wanted to send a shout out to two travel companies who acted with particular kindness during Hurricane Sandy.

The first is JetBlue, which quietly and with little fanfare, sent food trucks to my powerless neighborhoods which distributed free (and delicious!) bahn mi sandwiches, blue potato chips (of course!) and cookies to anybody who was hungry. I haven't seen any coverage of JetBlue's actions (though I may have missed it, as I've been without power) and wanted to make sure it was acknowledged.

The second company is AirBnB, which waived its booking fees for more than 20,000 listings in Sandy-affected areas. Free booking will continue through November 7. The company also reached out to its members to encourage them to lower nightly prices and even waive them entirely for people in need. No word on how many AirBnBers heeded the call to charity, but as someone who's stayed in quite a few AirBnB apartments, my guess is that a lot did (the hosts tend to be delightful, generous folks).

I'll be on the lookout for other travel companies to praise in the upcoming days.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Today's a Sandy Hiatus

With the kids home from school, my medical husband on duty at the hospital and the storm bearing down, 'tis not the time to talk travel. Hopefully this blog will be back tomorrow. Apologies.

Stay safe, neighbors!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Entrance to our National Parks Over Veteran's Day Weekend

And that freebie is for everyone, not just veterans. Though in honor of the holiday, there will be a number of special events having to do with war history. To quote a letter I got from David Barna, Chief Spokesperson for the National Parks Service:

"To honor veterans, all 398 national parks will offer free admission to everyone for the three day Veterans Day weekend (November 10-12)," he wrote. "Parks across the country, including many battlefields, will hold special events honoring veterans including reenactments, living history encampments, artillery demonstrations, concerts, talks, and tours. The national parks include those magnificent scenic wonders cherished by all Americans. But the system also includes places that honor the sacrifice of veterans throughout our history. Sacred places, like, Gettysburg, Fort McHenry, Andersonville, Valley Forge, Fort Scott, Port Chicago, the USS Arizona, and the monuments to our veterans located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Even the White House, burned by the British in 1814, is a national park."

He went on: "These are the places Americans have fought and died for since the Nation was founded. We also preserve those symbols of our freedom and liberty (like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty) and places that highlight the struggle for civil rights as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

"Many recent veterans are discovering that parks are places to help them to heal and readjust to civilian life. And they are also places to work. More than 15% of our employees are veterans. We have a Wounded Warrior and Operation Guardian liaison who matches veterans with NPS jobs. These veterans are continuing to serve their country by working to protect our nation's treasured places."

Impressive, eh? I can think of no better place to be over that weekend than at a National Park. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Turkey Trot? Now Might Be the Time, Thanks to a Sale on Istanbul Fares

Most (if not all) of Turkey is far enough south for deep winter travel there to still be pleasant. In fact, I'd wager a January trip to Istanbul would be much more comfortable than enduring the 100-plus heat of August there.

One of the many reasons I was so pleased to see this current sale from Turkish Airlines, which lowers round-trip airfares to as little as $629, including taxes. The flights are for December 12 through the end of January, with best rates from Washington, DC. From New York City round-trips start at $646, from Houston $799, from Los Angeles $999. Book by November 11; maximum stay 3 months.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Grab Bag of Travel News

HUGE Savings on UK and Spanish Hotels
Travelodge's quarterly sale is back, reducing room rates across the British Isles and Spain to as little as 15 GBP per night. I've taken advantage of their past sales and while these aren't fancy properties, most are clean, comfy and quite friendly. Plus that remarkably low rate will cover rooms with pull out couches, able to sleep four.

The lowest prices go quickly (they'll be gone by the end of the day today, most likely) so head to the link above ASAP.

Drop That Gelato!
A new law went into effect in Rome earlier this month outlawing picnics near (or on) historic sights. Tourists who were munching on sandwiches at the Trevi Fountain got a stern warning to move on, according to the New York Times. But it could have been worse: eating in off-limits areas can now incur a fine of up to 650 euros!

Sandy Threatens (And So Does Air France)
As I write this, Tropical Storm Sandy is gathering strength and wreaking havoc on cruise and air schedules. Its set to make landfall in Jamaica tomorrow.

 If you're scheduled to fly anywhere in the Caribbean or along the eastern seaboard of the US in the next few days be sure to check in regularly with your travel provider.

Be diligent about checking in, also, if you're scheduled to fly Air France this Friday. A strike has been announced, though the airline has vowed to get its customers where they need to go anyway. Bon chance

 




Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Norwegian Cruise Line Bets on Gamblers

In Las Vegas casinos, the big spenders are called "Whales".

I'm guessing high rollers at sea have a different nickname.

But they're being as closely tracked, as is clear from yesterday's announcement that Norwegian Cruise Lines will be offering special discounts, through travel agencies, to cruisers who have a known-history of hitting the gaming tables and slots.

These discounts had been offered exclusively through Norwegian's "Casinos at Sea" program, but apparently only 1% of passengers join that club, necessitating the move to a travel agency-based model.  NCL will be telling agents which clients to reach out to with special, gaming-based discounts.

Carnival Cruise Line also has a player's club, though I've heard reports its rewards are harder to obtain, and likely to be smaller in scale (free beverages as opposed to free suites). That being said, the rewards earned by gambling on a Carnival cruise ship--and they can include cash rebates on future cruises--can be used at any of the ships in Carnival's fold (Holland America, Princess, Cunard, Costa, Windstar and Seabourne).

Interestingly, the website SlotPlayCoupons.com, which focuses primarily on Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos, has added the slot machines on a number of NCL ships to its roster of "pay $25 for $50 worth of play" coupons.

For information on betting limits, range of games and other information about casinos on the various cruise lines, head to the website www.cruise-casinos.com


Monday, October 22, 2012

Airlines Come Up With MORE Ways To Reward Customers Who Book Directly With Them

In two years, will Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity still be around?

That may sound like a nonsensical question, but these online travel agencies, and the rest, are under increasing attack by both the hotel and the airline industry, neither of which enjoy paying commissions to middle men. If these two forces make it so tempting for consumers to buy from the source, well, these third party sites could be in serious hot water.

The latest salvo in this quiet war comes from the Air Transport Association, which announced, at a meeting in Abu Dhabi last week, what it's calling a "new distribution capability" (according to USA Today). What that means: a number of airlines will be experimenting with ways to customize tickets and fees.

The first step: gathering information from customers. Airlines will ask consumers to register their frequent flyer status, credit cards, and travel history in a special form.

Then they will use that information to customize deals for would-be passengers when they're searching for tickets. A frequent flyer, with say, Delta, might be offered lower bag fees if he books directly with that airline. Or a person who booked directly with United might be offered a seat with extra legroom, all fees waived if she pays directly through the airline site.

The airlines claim they can't offer these sorts of deals to people shopping third party sites because those websites foster anonymity.

It's a canny strategy, and one that I'm sure many consumers will find quite tempting.

But this new way of selling tickets does have serious downsides for the traveler, foremost among them the disappearance of the consumer's "bird's eye view". If customers are searching for flights only on the airline's websites, they won't be able to easily compare-and-contrast ticket prices from one airline to the next. Nor will they be able to see itineraries that use one carrier for the outgoing leg and another for the flight home, cutting costs by mixing and matching. Currently, its these types of searches, and the ability to combine airfare and hotel (and sometimes cars) into money-saving packages, that make the online travel agencies so rightly popular.

I also have to wonder if this sort of strategy will pass muster with the Department of Transportation or if the airlines are getting into anti-trust territory here? The fact that the plan was announced by the Air Transport Association, rather than an individual airline, suggests collusion and that could be seen as being antithetical to free trade, don't you think?

I'd love it if someone with expertise in travel law would chime in!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Freebie Friday: Country Inn and Suites Sleeps

This will take some strategizing, but if you can stay two-consecutive weekday nights at a participating Country Inn and Suites before November 29, you'll be eligible for a free night's stay between Dec 15 and Feb 15. Sound complicated? That's just the tip of the iceberg. You'll have to register for that free stay before Dec 22 and do it in the right way, plus you'll have to figure out which hotels are participating.

Still, a freebies a freebie! Click on this link for full details.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cruising Goes All-Inclusive?

The latest fad in cruising has nothing to do with midnight buffets and hairy chest contests. But more and more lines, particularly the high end ones, have been announcing recently that they want to provide an "all-inclusive" experience for their customers.

What does that mean? Well, Seabourne is testing a model which would include airfare, a nights' hotel stay and land-transfers both before and after the cruise, and credits towards shore excursions. They're calling the program "Advantage Fares"; it also includes all the extras Seabourne is known for (think lots and lots of booze, both with and between meals; plus no gratuities). Apparently this new program is available only for 11 sailings in 2013 and must be booked by the end of October. If it's a success, Seabourne will undoubtedly expand the program.

Azamara Club Cruises, the premium sibling to Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, has gotten quite creative with its new all-inclusive offerings. It is adding complimentary beer, wine and alcohol for its customers (not top shelf, though), but more intriguingly, free nighttime shore excursions and events. According to industry newsletter Travel Weekly these will include such novelties as an opera performance at a Tuscan palazzo and a sherry tasting and equestrian show in Jerez, Portugal. To be fair, Regent Seven Seas has offered night programs in the past. But the expansion of this concept to a line with more reasonable costs (Azamara is "premium" but not "ultra premium) is an innovation.

Speaking of price, Azamara has announced that its rack rates will go up Nov 1 to pay for these extras, adding that those who book before then for 2013 will still have access to the extras at a lesser price. So should you run out to book? Not necessarily. As we all know, very few folks book cruises well in advance these days because they know sales reward those who wait.

Also in the newly generous pack Crystal Cruises which announced at the start of the year that it would be waiving gratuities and pouring lots of free drinks on board (though it, too, makes an exception for the pricey potables). And Thomson Cruises of the UK has announced it will be giving free drinks on its island cruises. What's notable about that is that Thomson is a budget-priced line, unlike the others giving the freebies. Its new policy begins in March of 2013.

This all begs the question: are these inclusions a big enough incentive to book Crystal, Seabourne, Azamara or Thomson?

Obviously not, if you're a teetotaler.

For the rest of us....it depends on taste. Even with these "freebies", one will pay exponentially more on Crystal for a week at sea than on, say, Carnival or Royal Caribbean. For a certain type of luxury lover, that extra outlay is worth it. For those who simply want to hop ports and bask in the sun, probably not (especially since so many of the affordable ships now have terrific amenities nowadays). Still its an intriguing trend for an industry that had seemed more intent on nickle-and-diming passengers recently.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beyond the Vegetarian Option; American Airlines Steps Up Its Catering Choices

Would you want to choose your on-board meal before you took the flight?

I suppose if you were flying First or Business Class, and therefor had the expectation that the meal would be half-way decent, you might (you'll note I qualify the word "decent"; the few times in the last year I've been lucky enough to get an upgrade, I've found the food to be pretty mediocre).

Which may be why American Airlines has recently piloted a program giving this bit of extra choice.

Currently, American is offering the choose-ahead meals on several flights to and from Dallas and Chicago. No word in the Dallas Morning News, which broke the story, if these meals are any better or more foodie-friendly than the usual fare. But it's nice to have some good news to report about American Airlines, isn't it?

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Royal Caribban's 3-Day Sale: Not All Sellers Seem to Be Equal on This One

Does Cruises Only, the largest cruise specialist agency in the US, have a special "in" with Royal Caribbean? Or do they simply have a more competent web master?

It's hard to know for sure, but for the three-day sale that Royal Caribbean has launched (for sailings in both 2012 and 2013), the range of discounts at Cruises Only seems to be much broader than those at rival travel agencies, and frankly, than at the cruise line's own website.

They include air credits, free spa treatments, bookings sans deposits, on-board ship credits of $100 and $200 (depending on the departure date), low military pricing  and what they claim are exclusive discounts. Apparently, the best discounts will be available by phone.

The sale ends on Wednesday, so click over soon if you're considering a Royal Caribbean cruise in the coming months.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Railroaded: Good Discounts and a Source for Inside Information

E.M. Foster once wrote "Railroad termini are the gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine."

There's truth as well as poetry of his sentiments. Traveling by rail, even when the trains are old and the WiFi spotty, has an excitement to it that's hard to match. Or at least that's the way I feel. When I have the choice between plane, train and car, I inevitably go for the clickety clack of the rails.

Finding good prices and information on train travel can be tricky though. One of the sources I frequently consult is the most obvious: Amtrak's website.  On its deals page are inevitably money saving offers, available to anyone who take the time to look. Currently, 71 offers are up, divided by region. Some examples:
  • Buy-One-Get-One-Free: New York or Montreal to Ticonderoga, aboard the Adirondack, purchase by October 28
  • 25% off Northeast Regional service for those who book 14 days in advance
  • 30% off train January trips anywhere on the lines between Dallas and St Louis, book by October 31
  • 25% off train travel to Seattle for those who book by Nov 12; $5 off the King Tut exhibit, too
These are just a few of the current Amtrak sales listed.

For information on train travel to other parts of the globe, I have to thank Seth Kugel, the New York Times' Frugal Travelers columnist for opening my eyes to a terrific site called The Man in Seat Sixty One. It offers helpful links for information and ticket purchases on trains from Armenia to Zambia. The site is a well-spring of information, covering such topics as rail passes, classic rail journeys, and  the difference between first class and economy seating on a number of different train systems. Thinking about booking a sleeper car? The site contains helpful photos of what you're in for if you decide to sleep on the train (and facilities can vary widely from country to country). A very helpful site.

Happy rails to all!


Friday, October 12, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Adventures in Puerto Rico This Fall

How's this for a nice deal? You book four nights at a lovely hotel, one that you'd pick anyway, on the Caribbean Island that is consistently the cheapest to reach from the mainland USA. And in thanks, the government of that country gifts you with a terrific adventure.

That, in a nutshell, is Puerto Rico's current "We Do Adventure Better" promotion. Here are the details:

  • Travelers must book before October 31 and travel before November 16.
  • They must stay a minimum of four nights at such genuinely stellar hotels as the historic El Convento or the beachfront El Conquistador Resort. Altogether 25 properties, in different price ranges, are taking part in the promotion.
  • Among the activities offered free to participants are zip-lining on the tallest course in the world (ToroVerde Adventure Park), a kayak tour through a bioluminesent bay, a round of golf on one of the island's 24 world-class courses, and a bike tour through Old San Juan.
More details are available at this link. 

If you haven't been to Puerto Rico, this is an excellent opportunity to see its highlights for less. It truly is one of the stand-out islands of the Caribbean. Not only can Americans visit it without a passport, but it has a wide, wide variety of sights and activities, from the ones listed above to El Yunque rainforest, historic forts, fabulous spelunking, vibrant nightlife and of course, powder-soft beaches.