Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Its Not Too Late to Get In On These Leap Year Sales

Just a few hours left, but some of the prices are so good I thought I should post about them:

Frontier Airlines: Book by end of day today (11:59 ET), fly by May 5 and you'll snag seats for as little as $60 (between such gateways as Kansas City and Milwaukee or Denver and Albuquerque).

Trump Hotels: Is gold your color? Then you'll be right at home at these determinately swanky hotels. And if you book today, you'll get 29% off (get it?) your room rate for stays between April 1 and June 30. (I just took a look at the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas, and the rooms are actually darn nice, with such thoughtful amenities as mini-kitchens in each room, and unlimited bottled water. The Trumpster also has properties in NYC, Hawaii, Toronto and more).

Kimpton in the Capital: DC-area only deals for this quirky yet elegant chain of hotels. Use the code LEAPYR to snag discounts that drop prices for the three properties to as little as $113 per night for stays between March 1 and April 15.

Southwest Airlines: Discounts on Tuesday and Wednesday travel from March 13 through June 6. Fares start at $69 between such places as Denver and Salt Lake City or Houston and Little Rock.

Virgin America: $54 is the boffo lead price on this sale, applying to flights between San Francisco and Las Vegas. Its one of many discounts applying to flights between April 4 and June 7. Hurry and book!

As always, read the fine print before booking! The nice thing about these sales is that they all include taxes (thanks to the new law).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Last Minute Africa Up to 50% Off!

I gotta say, there are few things that make my heart go pitter pat faster than when an already well-priced, well-respected, just darn good company throws a sale. And that's whats happened today!

Intrepid Travel is slashing prices on a dozen spring departures to Africa. You might find yourself eye-to-eye in the Ngorongoro Crater with the little fellow above. Or at a spice plantation in Zanzibar. Or bargaining for crafts at the market in Mto Wa Mbu.

Actually, I should stop using the word "or" because all three of the experiences above, plus safaris in the Masai Mara, visits to Hwange National Park, the sight of majestic Victoria Falls and more, are available on Intrepid's Vic Falls to Kenya tour. Its selling for just $1458 for a 24 day itinerary, down from $1945 (just $61/day).

This is just one of the possible African adventures currently on sale. To learn more (and see the other options, which include Swaziland, South Africa and Mozambique) click here.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Boatloads of Bad Cruise News

And yes, the Costa Line is involved. In fact, all of the incidents involve members of Carnival's extended family of ship lines.

Lets talk about the most serious incident first. Costa Allegra, sister ship to the Costa Concordia, is currently adrift off the coast of the Seychelle Islands. A 4:30 am fire forced the crew to shut down all the propulsion systems. Tugboats and rescue vessels have been dispatched to help those aboard.

Thankfully nobody was hurt, but my guess is a lot of people, 1000 to be exact, are wondering if they should have their heads examined for vacationing with Costa.

How is Costa going to bounce back from this one? I'm not sure it can. Carnival may well have to rebrand the line or risk losing its investment.

Costa Allegra Sails Into a 2009 Sunset
The next two incidents have less to do with the cruiselines than with international affairs. P&O Lines (flagged in the UK) and Princess (flagged in the Commonwealth nation of Bermuda) were denied landing rights in Argentina. The reason? An Argentinian law passed in September, sparked by long-simmering tensions over the ownership of the Falkland Islands (remember that little dispute?), barring British-owned ships from docking in Argentinian ports. Big disappointment for cruisers who were hoping to see Ushaia

Finishing up this grim round-up: 22 passengers of the Carnival Splendor were held up during a ship-sponsored nature hike outside of Puerta Vallarta in Mexico. As with the Costa Allegra incident nobody was hurt. Carnival reports that its reimbursing passengers for their losses.

Will all this add to the downward trend of cruise pricing? Frankly, I don't see how it can't. Stay tuned....

Friday, February 24, 2012

Freebie Friday: Kids' Club Med Vacays

Time was when Club Med was synonymous with the swinging lifestyle, topless beaches, hedonistic excess.

Not so much anymore.

Now they not only welcome the kiddies, from time to time, they let them come and stay for free. And that time is now. Those who book by the end of February can snag a free vacation for their under-15-year-old offspring for travel between April 14 and June 8. The deal is good at their Punta Cana property, at the Sandpiper Club Med (Florida) and at the Ixtapa Club Med (Mexioc).

And did I mention that the price is also discounted for adults? For complete information, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Safari Sale!

There are few bigger ticket items than African safaris. And for a 10-day one, that includes a good amount of variety, and airfare from the US, $6000 would not be an uncommon price.

Which is why I was intrigued when I heard from specialist 2Afrika that it would be offering a full fortnight long safari, to the Masaii Mara (3 nights), the Shaba National Reserve (2 nights), Lake Nakuru (1 night) and an opening night in Nairobi, for just $2685. That price, to make it clear, includes airfare via KLM from New York City to Nairobi, as well as all land transfers, almost all meals, guides and accommodations. In all, the participants will take part in 12 game viewing drives.

Its a limited deal, available for just one departure date (May 7) but still, such a value, that I wanted to mention it here. For more information, click on the link above. The offer must be booked by the end of February.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Review of Las Vegas' New Mob Museum

The day the new Mob Museum opened started like every other day in Vegas: with a quickie wedding.

But this one was a bit different.

“Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?” asked former Mayor Oscar Goodman of a very tan, tattooed bride in her 50’s, wearing a low-cut gown and a smile so bright it could’ve be seen from space. “Will you love him, be a friend to him and honor him, until death do you part…or until you sleep with the fishes?”

Couples await their wedding ceremony in a museum gallery
Laughter filled the courtroom. She assented, and, in short order, so did the six other couples fanned around her, a group chosen randomly from the 10,000 applicants who wanted to be married as part of the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (aka The Mob Museum).

It was a joyous opening for an ambitious, often disturbing, and indisputably important new American history museum.

And an interesting third act for former Mayor Goodman, who started his career as a lawyer, representing some of Sin City’s most notorious gangsters. As council, he’d claimed that the Mob didn’t actually exist. “Well, I saw the movie “Casino” and realized I’d been wrong,” he replied and winked, when I asked him how a man with his personal history had become the driving force behind a museum of organized crime history.

We were standing in the courtroom where Senator Estes Kefauver held his famous syndicated crime hearings in 1950 and 1951. Watched by 30 million people, the most for any televised event of the time, the trials made it incontrovertibly clear that organized crime did exist in the US.  This beautifully restored courtroom is the centerpiece of the museum and gives heft to the idea that a new museum should open here, in a city where the majority of museums last no longer than mob stooges.

To avoid that fate, the designers and founders have added a healthy dose of razzmatazz to the proceedings: a fascinating 10-minute film on mob movies narrated by Nicholas Pileggi, slot machine-like displays of video testimonials, the opportunity to take part in a line up, fake machine guns to fire. 

But the Mob Museum also has a thought provoking side,  and makes a gripping case for the idea that mob history may actually be the truest history of the United States. “If you go deep enough , you can see the mob’s fingerprints on everything,” one bit of wall text grimly asserts, followed by exhibits on fixed elections, presidential assassinations, labor disputes. It’s a dark vision, enhanced by the unrelenting gore that assaults the visitor (this is NOT a museum for kids), with pictures of blood splattered crime scenes adorning at least half the walls in the place (they start to look like grisly Rorschach Tests after a while).

To its credit, the museum does not glorify crime (as does the prurient “Crime and Punishment Museum in Washington, DC.) That may be because the chairperson of its board, Ellen Knowlton, is the former bureau chief for the Las Vegas division of the FBI. One would assume that its thanks to her that the museum has had access to such artifacts as the hidden mic conversations between John Gotti and his associates that landed him in jail; as well as detailed exhibits on organized crime activity today in Mexico, Russia, China and yes, the US.

But I left thinking that Oscar Goodman’s fingerprints were all over the place, and in a good way. A renowned showman (he makes most of his public appearances flanked by two showgirls), the museum has a glitzy edge to it that will appeal to those who get bored in more traditional venues. Beyond that, Goodman and his colleagues seemed to have known what stories to tell. “The museum embodies the history of the United States, warts and all,” he told me. “This is a way of looking at how immigrants came to the US, at how they got a foothold here, how they gained power. Its an important American story.” 

He's right.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Just a Reminder About Our Possible Rendezvous in France This Spring

Mais Oui!

As I've posted here before, I'll be taking a group of adventurers on the trip of a lifetime to Paris, Provence and the Riviera this May. The trip actually departs on April 30th, and will take us to some of the most beautiful areas of France during the most glorious month of the year there (perfect weather, few crowds, loads of blooming flowers!).

Our journey begins in Nice where we'll stroll Cap Ferrat and tour the fabulous Villa Ephrussi. Those who wish to will head to Monaco that night, for a tour, and perhaps an attempt at the blackjack tables there. Then its on to Cassis for a cruise on the famed calanques (like Scandinavia's fjords, and just as scenic) before heading to Aix en Provence, where we'll tour French Impressionist Cezanne's former studio and home. Roman ruins and Van Gogh's asylum are also on tap for our time in and around Aix.

A visit to France wouldn't be complete without heading to the City of Light, so we'll be hopping a scenic, high-speed train and heading to the capital for the finish of our adventure.

The tour is quite reasonable at just $3369, including all transportation (including air from the US), lovely hotels, breakfasts, guided tours, three dinners and more. Along with my company, we'll have a fabulous tour leader named Linda (who I specially requested having worked with her before).

I hope you'll be able to join us! For complete information, go to

Friday, February 17, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Best Western Stays

Yes, you'll have to sleep around to get this one.

But that shouldn't be too difficult, as Best Western is giving travelers until April 8 to stay at three different Best Westerns. Those who do will earn a voucher good for a free nights' stay at any of the chain's 4000-plus hotels, anywhere in the world. The voucher must be redeemed by June 30, 2012.

Its that simple.

To register for the promo, click here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Europe Now: The Prognosis For Travel

Troubled Athens
No question: European vacations can be enjoyed at a lower costs  today than they could several years ago. With the Euro down in value, and financial difficulties plaguing a number of nations (most notably Greece) the savvy traveler will find bargains.

But she also may encounter hassles in the forms of strikes, protests and other problems. So how to balance the bad with the good?

I interviewed about a dozen experts on the subject to get their advice on the matter. Rather than give their advice away here, I'm going to point you to the completed article, currently running on Bing Travel.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'm On Sale

That's odd, but right. And buying me will give money to a great cause!

Let me explain: several years ago, I wrote a book called Pauline Frommer's New York City (its now in its second edition). One chapter of the book was walking tours, three of them and in order to make sure they worked, I took friends on them. They were such fun, that other friends asked me to do them for their special occasions and I have.

Well, Theaterworks USA, an organization dear to my heart, asked me to donate something to their silent auction, and I decided to donate one of these tours. Its good for up to 8 people, at a mutually agreed upon time. And to make it more fun, I'm going to treat everyone to cocktails at the end. The tour will be either of Harlem or the Financial District of Manhattan and should take between 1.5 and 2 hours.

Its not something I usually do for money, but in this case, the cause was so good, I just had to help out. Theaterworks USA is the largest children's theater company in the US, and gives tens of thousands of schoolchildren their first taste of live theater each year. Its also been very important as an incubator of young talent. Director Jerry Zaks started here, as did Lynne Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (composers of Ragtime and Once on this Island).

To bid on the walk, click this link. The auction is up online until the end of day Monday, Feb 20th.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Keeping Your Heart Safe (Literally) This Valentine's Day

As you read this blog, I'm in the air flying across the US from New York to Las Vegas. But because I don't have a death wish, I won't:
  • Have surgery in the days before the flight
  • Get pregnant over the weekend
  • Sit in the window seat
  • Gain 100 pounds
  • Down some estrogen-laden oral contraceptives.
That's because obesity, pregnancy, just having surgery, taking high doses of estrogen and not moving enough during a flight (because I'm too nervous about disturbing the folks sitting nearer the aisle)--all of these factors raise a person's risk of getting a blood clot in one's leg, according to a just released study by the American College of Chest Physicians. The other risk factors include being elderly and, not surprisingly, having a previous clotting problem.

What I can do? Tipple. 

The doctors are saying that alcohol and dehydration do NOT increase one's risk of getting clots.

So called "economy class syndrome" is also not a factor, according to the Docs. They say you can develop DVT in business class just as readily as in economy class.

Yes, anyone can develop deep vein thrombosis. The risk is there in particular for flights of six hours or longer. So to stay healthy, doctors recommend walking about the plane and doing calf stretches.

Fly safe!

Monday, February 13, 2012

New Cruise Safety Measures Announced

As many of us predicted, the cruise industry has taken steps to standardize muster drill (aka emergency or lifeboat drill)  procedures around the world. A joint announcement by the US-based Cruiselines International Association (CLIA), the Europe Cruise Council and the Passenger Shipping Association (of the UK) was released on Friday.

So now, no matter what cruise line you board (and every single one in the world is participating), you will be attending an emergency drill before your ship leaves port. On the Concordia, because passengers were embarking at different times, many had not been notified where to board lifeboats, or where their life jackets were stored, before the ship hit a rock, creating widespread confusion and panic.

Its a non-controversial step in the right direction. Beyond making a very safe vacation activity even safer, let's hope that it puts to rest some consumer worries about cruising. Though I've bashed the cruiselines in the past for charging too much on the 'three S's'---sodas, spa treatments and shore excursions (oh, and internet access, too, now that I'm thinking about it)--the major cruiselines' safety record over the years has been impressive, considering the number of passengers who vacation on them yearly.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Museums Across the United States....

A Chihuly sculpture at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art
...If you're the proud holder of a Bank of America credit card or debit card. For the 14th year in a row, Bank of America is gifting its users with free entry on the first full weekend of each month.

This year, the list of free museums has gotten even bigger, expanding to included fine museums in New Mexico and and Ohio. In all, 150 institutions are participating from noted children's museums to such powerhouse organizations as the deYoung in San Francisco, the Chicago Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It ain't all paintings either: the freebie extends to such specialty venues as the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland.

For complete information, including a list of participating museums, click here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Deposit-Less Cruise Bookings

Until the end of February, Cruise One and Cruises Inc, two long-established sister agencies, will be anteing up cruise deposits for their customers. The customers will eventually pay the full price (including the deposit), but not until they make the final cruise payment, some 90 days before sailing. So, in effect, the cruise agency is extending a short, no-interest loan to cruisers.

Its an unprecdented move and one that speaks to just how hard it currently is, in the wake of the Costa Concordia disaster, to get vacationers to commit to cruise bookings. However, there's no real risk involved for the two companies (though they will have to pay out millions in deposits): if customers cancel, they can cancel the booking far enough ahead to get their money back.

The deposits are being capped at $500 per cabin with this promotion, which is an average cost for deposits. Travel Weekly quotes Amber Blecker, a Cruise One franchisee, as saying that the promotion should help those who wish to travel, but are still facing mountains of holiday credit card debts.

It'll be interesting to see how many customers bite.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hotel Prices Down in Most Parts of Greece

Beautiful Corfu has seen the sharpest drop in pricing
Thanks to the Toronto Star's Jim Byers and Travel Mole for bringing TripAdvisor's recent survey to my attention. The user review giant also tracks hotel pricing, and has found that from 2011 to 2012, lodging prices in many areas of Greece have plunged.

The dip is deepest in Corfu, where hotels cost a full 20% less than they did last year. Athens is down nearly 8% with an average hotel rate of 74 euros per night (as opposed to last year's rate of 81 euros). In Kos prices dropped nearly 10%, in Kefalonia and Crete the rate is about 7%, and in Rhodes the drop is nearly 6%.

Only the popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos seem to be thriving. Prices are down just .1% in the first and up .7% in Mykonos (the Mamma Mia effect?).

Now TripAdvisor was looking at winter dates for this survey (November through January). Its not clear whether the price drops will be as stark come high summer season.

But they do point up the fact that Greece's economic troubles and near-constant strikes and protests are hurting the country's tourism. My guess is that travel there come summer may well remain more affordable than in years past.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Checked Luggage Tips

The New York Times posted a smart article today about avoiding luggage fees. Instead recommending the totally impractical, expensive tactic of shipping luggage (okay who actually does that? Especially FROM a vacation destination), it lists the following (mostly) helpful tips:
  • Stick with Southwest and JetBlue as neither charges extra for the first bag checked (and Southwest allows two checked bags for free). The article quotes travel writer Eileen Ogintz on the subject. Apparently, she's driven to farther out airports just to fly these two.
  • Apply for an airline-branded credit card. These are not only decent loyalty miles generators, but they usually come with the perk of fee-free baggage check (at least for the first piece of luggage). The article wisely notes that some of these cards carry hefty annual fees, so do your due diligence before going with one of them.
  • Vacuum pack your stuff. Helpful little baggies, created just for squeezing more stuff in smaller spaces with the help for a vacuum cleaner (which sucks out the extra air around the clothes that you've put in your little package) allow one to cram three times as much stuff in a carry-on bag, according to consumer advocate Kate Hanni. But that begs the question: what do you do when you're packing to come home from wherever you are? Most of us DON'T have easy access to vacuum cleaners while on holiday. Hmmmmm....
  • Trenchcoats. This last one always seemed like a desperate measure to me, but some folks are wearing  their extra underwear and bathing suits in multi-pocketed garments created by such companies as Scott E-Vest. Apparently, some of these pockets are capacious enough to fit a lap top computer! But how the heck do you sit down in a garment that's holding a lap top computer and all of your clothes for a week? That's what I've always wondered. And also, does one want to wander around the world in an overstuffed trench coat? Won't people grab their children's hands and move far away from you as possible? Not the best way to "meet the locals", I'd think.
On the political front, it seems the issue of baggage fees has become so hot button that a number of Senators and Congresspeople are taking it up, even proposing rules disallowing airlines from charging for the first bag checked. I wish them luck (but don't have much hope for such legislation passing.)

What the article doesn't go into is my own tactic, which comes down to two words: pack light!

I only own carry-on luggage, so I don't have the option of overpacking. Instead, I pack a few things that I can mix and match and if I know I'll be on the road for longer than a week, I simply plan to do laundry halfway through my trip. My bag is relatively light, I don't have to agonize over what I'm going to wear each day, and I enjoy myself just as much as those wearing different outfits each day.

 I'm probably not the height of fashion while on the road. But travel's about seeing, not being seen--right?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust! Bye Bye Malev

In less than a week and a half, two major European airlines have stopped flying.

First to go, Spanair left some 20,000 passengers stranded across Europe.

The fall-out was slightly less desperate when Hungary's Malev closed shop on Friday, with "only" about 6000 people inconvenienced.

But the two incidents, coming one on top of the other, should cause  travelers to think carefully before booking the other of Europe's financially shaky carriers. And what are those carriers?

Malev's sandwiches are a thing of the past
I guess its time to name names. In past months, there's been a lot of concern about the future viability of Aer Lingus, SAS, LOT Polish Airlines, TAP and Ceske Aerolinie (the Czech airline). Could the nervousness of lenders and debtors, the same companies that stopped supplying Malev with fuel and other necessary supplies last week, pluck a few of these carriers from the skies? And what about the dwindling government subsidies that are propping up all of these airlines? The future doesn't look bright for the carriers named above.

And what should you do if the consumer do if they've already booked on one of these carriers? Get insurance. FAST. Because when (and if) an event occurs that clarifies what their eventual fate may be, one won't be able to buy insurance. And those who purchase insurance within 30 days of their travel purchase are covered for the financial default of the travel provider. Those who purchase later may not be. (So read all fine print CAREFULLY!!).

Forewarned is forearmed!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Freebie Friday: Super Museum Sunday Means Free Attraction Entry in Savannah

What does the Super Bowl have in common with high culture? Absolutely nothing usually (unless you consider Ferris Bueler-esque auto commercials intellectually stimulating).

But for those lucky enough to live in or be visiting handsome Savannah, Georgia on that day, the two are inextricably linked.

That's because the civilized curators in Savannah have decided to celebrate Super Bowl once again by throwing open the doors of the city's top attractions. From noon until 4pm on Feb 8, free entry will be given to the city's historic synagogues, churches and forts; the homes of Juliette Gordon Low and Flannery O'Conner; the SCAD Museum of Art; and a number of other sites. For a complete list, click here.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Boo Hiss! Spirit Airlines Adds Its Most Outrageous Fee Yet

You know you're in trouble when the airline fees start getting metaphysical.

How else to explain Spirit Airlines' new $2 "Department of Transportation Unintended Consequences" fee? The airline is claiming that the DOT's new requirement that airlines allow passengers to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of booking with no penalty will lose them so much money (by forcing them to hold seats for people who may not end up buying them) that they need to charge everyone $2 more to make up for their losses.

Never mind the fact that Delta, and other more consumer-friendly carriers, have been extending this courtesy to travelers for years now, without whining about lost revenue.

"Unintended consequences" fee? I'd call it the "sore losers fee". Shame on you Spirit!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Savings at the Pump

Hotels, car rentals, airfares--those are the elements of a vacation that most travelers budget for carefully. Many overlook the cost of fuel, which is risky because sometimes getting stuck at a pricey pump can mean the difference between having enough of your per diem a nice meal out--or grabbing a cheap burrito at said gas station.

Seth Kugel, the New York Times' Frugal Traveler, hit upon a good way of saving on gas for the next two months. He holds a Chase Freedom credit card and lucky guy, its giving 5% cash back on all fuel purchases. So he remembered to pull out that card when he hit the gas pumps on his recent visit to Texas.

Grocery shopping in the right store can also help at the pump. The Kroger's chain of stores has had a popular "Save on Fuel" program for some time now. Its details vary from region to region, but it rewards shoppers who spend a certain dollar amount on prescriptions or food, with savings at the pump.

Warehouse store members--BJ's, Sam's Club and Costco in particular--also make out well on fuel outlays. They do so buy gassing up at these warehouse stores, which often feature much lower prices for gas, available exclusively to their members.

A final strategy for savings? Use the website and app to find out which gas station will be cheapest in the area you're visiting.