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,  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

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.