Monday, April 30, 2012

A Bulls Eye Travel Event? Where To Watch The First Solar Eclipse Over the US in 18 Years

"Annular"--that's the description astronomers are giving to the upcoming May 20 eclipse. No need to get out your dictionaries: it means that at its peak, the moon will cover the sun in such a way that it will look like a bull's eye.

But to see that you'll need to be in the right place, which in this case means California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

In particular, you may want to head to a National Park. Not only will their be fewer distractions, in the form of man-made lights and tall buildings, to affect your view. But the National Park Service will have astronomers, NASA staffers and members of local astronomy clubs on hand to give a blow-by-blow of the event, as crowds watch (through special lenses, as this is the type of eclipse that can damage eyes if viewed incorrectly).

The parks that will be in the direct center eclipse's path include:
  • California: Redwoods National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Utah: Zion National Park
  • Arizona: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • New Mexico: Canyon De Chelly National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument

To learn more about the events being offered, go to

But do it soon! Events at Petroglyph National Monument are already sold out.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Hojo Stays...For Dashing, 1960's Ad Executives

Gotta love those commercial tie ins. Its pushed Howard Johnson's to offer the silliest promotion I've heard about in quite some time.

In a Mad Men tribute (the latest episode featured an LSD trip and a Hojo stay--not sure which was more psychadelic), the chain will be giving free stays to anyone who's legal name is the same as the lead on that show: Don Draper. At this stage, 8 Howard Johnson's are participating in such places as Anaheim, Miami, and Portland.

Dapper Dons need to book before May 8, for one night stays anytime this summer.

If your name is Betty, Joan, Pauline or anything else, Howard Johnson will give you a 20% discount on three-night stays if those stays are consecutive. For more information, click here.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Good News on High Speed Rail

And by that I mean not the overall good news, which is that high speed rail is tops for the environment (smaller carbon footprints than either car or airplane travel) and that it's a bulwark against over-congested highways.

No, I'm talking about the short term good news, which is manifold.

Private High Speed Rail Travel for Italy: It's telling that Ferrari's chairman, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, is betting on trains for the future. He and a consortium of private investors have created Europe's first privately owned high speed rail line, set to debut April 28.

As elegant as a Ferrari, the trains will have plush leather seating, free wifi, free first run movies and TV in consoles at the back of each seat and meals by Mario Batali's Eataly served at passengers seats, rather than in a restaurant car. That makes room for 20% more seats than usual, as does the fact that there will be an engine at the bottom of each car, rather than just one big one at the front.

Best of all the trains will be fast. They have the capacity to go 360 km per hour, but are restricted to a 300 km per hour speed because of the track conditions. That means a trip from Rome to Milan can be done in just 3 hours. The trains will also run to Naples, Florence, Padua, Bologna and a number of other top cities.
Morocco Has High Speed Rail? You bet (see above)

California Lowers Budget For Its Coming High Speed Train Network: That's right, the government is expecting to spend less than first predicted under a new business plan released April 2. The original estimate for creating the new network was $98 billion. That's been reduced to $68.4 billion. Construction is expected to start later this month.

If there's any state that could use help in easing the gridlock on its highways, its California. Let's hope that lawsuits don't hold up the start of construction on this vitally important high speed rail line.

Rail Trips Between Chicago and St. Louis About to Get Quicker: Amtrak will be introducing a 20 mile segment, the first of many to be introed over a 5-year-period, on which the trains will get up to speeds of 110 miles per hour. That's nowhere near as fast as Japan's bullet train, but every little extra bit of horsepower helps!

The Treasury Department Has Gotten Behind High Speed Rail: In a report issued on March 23, the Treasury Department urged investment in high speed rail and other forms of public transit. The report points out that doing so will not only relieve car congestion but help protect the economy of the US from the effects of volatile oil prices. In fact, they say that these steps are vital to ensuring the US' long-term competitiveness. You can read the entire report here.

I subscribe to the National Association of Railroad Passengers newsletter, which helps keep me up to date on the state of rail in this country. If you agree with me that this is a vitally important issue, I'd suggest you consider doing the same. Here's a link for that organization.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Last-Minute Air Deals to Europe

Let's thank Air France for these decently priced round-trips. And perhaps if we all do it loudly enough, they'll extend the savings into summer.

For now, one has to fly before May 21 to snag one of these well-priced itineraries. Prices include taxes and all surcharges. Best deals are, oddly enough, not for France but to Turkey and Spain. Here's a sampling:
New York-Istanbul: $664
New York-Barcelona or Madrid: $680 or $682
Pittsburgh-Paris: $774
Dallas-Amsterdam: $890

There are more, so click here to see 'em. Tickets must be purchased 7 days before travel and by May 14 at the latest. Surcharges for weekend travel could add up to $30.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Road Tripping? An Important Safety Reminder from the DOT

It's National Work Zone Awareness Week.

Before yawning, and flipping to another blog, consider this: According to the Department of Transportation 536 road workers were killed on the job in 2010 by errant drivers. Some 37,000 more were injured in crashes. Those are avoidable tragedies, wouldn't you say, fellow travelers?

So do surf over to the DOT's blog on how to drive the nation's highways more safely in these zones.  It's brimming with helpful tips. Really.

As summer approaches we're going to be seeing more and more orange cones, particularly if we're planning road trips. Simple awareness that there are lives at stake can help a lot to cut down on 2012's fatalities.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Flash Central: A New Website Aggregates Info From Jetsetter, Groupon Getaway and More

I have little patience for flash sale sites.

Sure, they can net good deals...sometimes.

But too often, the offers are for places I don't want to visit; or they feature prices that, even with the discount, are too rich for my budget.

But the new site EveryLodge may well bring me back into the flash sale fold. Neatly designed, it places the deals on a handy dandy map (see above) and allows users to filter them by price, a key improvement. There are additional filters for travel dates and sources. Visitors can even take a peek at upcoming sales if nothing in the "ongoing" sales area piques their interest.

The only downside: to purchase anything through EveryLodge, you'll have to get membership at the  company that's holding the sale. (EveryLodge simply shifts you over to the other sites if you show an interest in a travel product). So that means your email will once again be flooded with all sorts of travel deals you don't necessarily want, in order for you to purchase the one that you do. Well, there's always the option to "unsubscribe" after you purchase.

EveryLodge currently covers the travel deals of Living Social, Jetsetter, Groupon Getaways, SniqueAway, and Vacationist.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Freebie Friday: Child Free Flights Are Here

And personally, I'd take one just to get away from the cranks who complain about kids on flights.

Whether you're on my side, or on the side of the kid-haters (ooh, is that too strong a word?), you'll be pleased to hear that Air Malaysia has announced it will be segregating its flights by age. Frankly, its one of the few that could do so logistically, as it flies double-decker planes. The top decks will be child-free zones,  open only to those over the age of 12, while the bottom decks are open to anyone.

The flights will only be available on the airlines A3800 planes. The service is expected to start in July on flights between London and Kuala Lumpur. In September, they'll be adding child-free Sydney-Kuala Lumpur flights.

Want to hear more? Click on this link. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Doobie do? Marijuana Businesses Fight Back Against the New Laws in Holland

Well, nobody expected them to go down without a puff. Er, I mean fight.

Yesterday, a coalition of marijuana-based businesses went to court in Holland to fight the implementation of new access laws. Under these statutes, only those who are members of marijuana clubs will be able to light up legally. Each club will be allowed no more than 2000 members, to restrict access to Holland's visitors, many of whom stream across the borders for quick highs. The new rules go into effect on May 1 in the south of the country and on January 1, 2013 in the rest of the Netherlands (including Amsterdam).

Coffee shops, which have sold marijuana and hashish for decades, are making the case that the new regulations will lead to more petty crime, as marijuana dealing will head to the streets. They're also arguing that its wrong to allow residents their choice os stimulants, but not legal visitors.

Even if the government wins the case, many are skeptical as to whether much will change in Holland. Maastricht coffee shop owners have vowed to flout the law. They'll fight it in court again, should one of them be sanctioned for selling weed to non-members.

And Eberhard van der Laan, the Mayor of Amsterdam, is trying to work out a way for the coffee shops of his city to continue offering stimulants legally. He's trying to make the case that the law was implemented to stop marijuana tourism in the border cities (an issue with neighboring nations where the weed was often illegally resold) and therefor shouldn't apply to Amsterdam. He undoubtedly knows that the ban will cripple Amsterdam's tourism: by most estimates, a third of the visitors who come to the city try hashish or marijuana at some point during their stay.

For more on these legal maneuverings, click here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lost Bags? That's So 2010, Says New Survey

At last! Some good news from the airline industry.

According to a study released today by the Swiss company SITA (an air transport communications specialist), lost luggage is at an all-time low.

Some 2.87 billion humans traveled by air in 2011, and all but 25.8 million arrived to find their bags waiting for them. That means that 91.1% of the bags got where they were supposed to go in 2011. In looking at trends over a five year period, SITA noted that 45% fewer bags were being lost or mishandled. Even the drop from 2010 to 2011 was significant (32. 3 million bags were lost that year).

Nice to read of improvements every once in a while, isn't it? To get the full report, click here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ah, Spa Week! Discounts on Treatments Across the US

Oy, its tax day.

You probably need a nice foot massage right now, right? Or perhaps a destressing, defoliating, de-aging facial?

It won't reduce your taxes or get you a refund, but it might help slow down your heart rate a bit as you file.

Happily, this week these services are more affordable than usual, thanks to Spa Week, a bi-annual event that reduces the cost of pampering at spas across the nation to $50 per treatment. That includes many hotel spas, welcome news for travelers.

For a list of participating spas, simply click on the link above.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Holiday Inn (and Its Brethren) Awards Travelers $50 for Two-Night Stays

The Holiday Inn group comprises one of the largest conglomerates of hotels in the world. Chances are, if you're a business traveler in particular, that your travel agent will book you into one of their brands over the course of the next several months, whether it be a Crowne Plaza, an InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites or one of the variations on Holiday Inn itself.

If that stay comprises two consecutive weeknights, you've got a Benjamin coming your way.

That's because the IHG Group has revived its promo from last year which awards a $50 Mastercard gift card to travelers who stay two nights in-a-row midweek (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday). Travelers must register in advance here, and stay between April 16 and August 2. Other rules apply, all of which are at the website linked to above.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Walking Tours Across Alabama

No word on whether Monroeville's walk will also be a "Zombie Walk", like this one held in the town in 2008
In what may be a first, the civic leaders of 25 communities across the gracious state of Alabama will be offering free walking tours this April. These include jaunts through  such melifluously-named towns as Eufala, Wetumpka, Sylacaula and Tescumbia.

The freebies will be available April 14, 21 and 28 starting promptly at 10am. They are each expected to last for an hour.

For a complete list of participating cities and other information, click here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mary Poppins Flies the Seat Next to Your Child

Well, here's one solution to the much ballyhooed problem of kids misbehaving on planes: get an extra pair of hands to keep the type entertained.

A new site called "Nanny in the Clouds" promises to hook up frazzled parents with experienced childcare workers for the course of an airline flight. The premise is that every plane likely contains such a person--a teacher, a baby-sitter, an experienced mom who'd like to make a couple of extra bucks helping out others. Parents and would-be caregivers register on Nanny in the Clouds, inputting their flight information, backgrounds, salary requirements, etc. The site then acts as a matchmaker between the two.

That doesn't mean that parents are expected to pay for the caregiver's flight. In Nanny in the Cloud's fluffy pink world,  every flight is jam packed with Nanny McFee-types, just dying to make a few extra bucks en route. Its assumed (by Nanny in the Clouds) that several potential babysitters will just happen to be going the same way as struggling families. Parents and nanny work out an appropriate salary for the length of the flight (or from checking to baggage pick up, each arrangement will differ), and voila! A flight all can enjoy


While I admire this "it takes a village" approach to flying, the premise of the site seems far fetched to me. For it to work, it'll need to get a heckuva lot of publicity (I guess I'm helping with that, by writing this blog). And the idea that people on the way to visit their families, or travel for work, or vacation would be willing to go to these lengths to find a job for a few hours seems a tad, well, absurd.

Still, I wish them luck. Anything to get folks to stop complaining about children on planes! (Which I find much more annoying than the children themselves).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hotel Rooms Across the UK, Spain and Ireland From Just 12 Euros (or GBP) Per Night

With the price of airfares to Europe soaring, its nice to know its possible to get deals on the ground. But you're going to have to move fast! Tomorrow, Travelodge's 12 GPB summer sale starts, and as I know from personal experience, the rooms at that price move fast.

As they should: these properties are often quite nice (and often less nice, more on that below) and well-located. The one in Edinburgh, which I've stayed at, is just a block off the Royal Mile with good-sized, well-designed rooms. And, as always, that starting rate of 12 GBP applies to rooms with pullouts couches, big enough for four people, as well as the doubles. In the UK, Ireland and Spain--the areas where you'll find Travelodges--that type of price for a family-sized facility is a rarity.

So on to the negatives: while I've been uniformly pleased with the Travelodge's I've stayed in outside of London, some of the ones in the capital are, well, a bit worn. Just five months ago, we stayed at one not far from the British Library which had a massive hole in the wall of our bedroom (angry guest?) and a shower to dingy looking to take one's shoes off in. That being said, the room itself was clean, if tiny. And later in that visited, we stayed at another Travelodge (this time near The Imperial War Museum) that was absolutely fine. In fact, it was quite spiffy with a great staff. Read the reviews before booking.

One final word: this chain is not related to the Travelodges in the USA. To get to its site (which I'd recommend you do beginning at midnight Greenwich Mean Time, to get the largest selection), click here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

European Cruise Prices Drop Further

USAToday's excellent cruise blog, The Cruise Log, is watching Wall Street today. Apparently UBS released a research note on the state of the cruise industry and the findings were stark. To the Western Mediterranean, in particular, fares are down almost 5% in just the last two weeks.

Facade Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
That may not sound like much, but European cruise fares were already in free fall, selling at well below what they went for in 2010 and before. That's partly because, with sky high airfares to Europe and troubles in the Middle East, far fewer cruisers picked Europe in 2011 than had the year before. Prices, in some case, dropped to levels rarely seen outside of Caribbean and Bahamas sailings (usually the least expensive routes in the industry, along with the Mexican Riviera routes).

So just how low are they going? Not surprisingly, Costa Cruises is a bargain-hunters dream, with 7-day round-trip sailings from Barcelona starting at just $387 this spring.

But its not the only line cutting fares. Royal Caribbean's May 6 sailing of the Navigator of the Seas is going for just $349, again for a seven night cruise, going round-trip from Civitavecchia (the port of Rome). This is notable not just for the price but for the fact that this cut rate isn't meant to make up for the higher airfare costs associated with having to fly into and out of different ports.

I got the prices above from' 90 day ticker. But you'll find similar deals on every other cruise broker's sites. That's just the way European cruises are selling--or more correctly AREN'T selling--this year.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A New Law Would Strip Tax Debtors of Their Passports

The freedom to travel.

Its not a right protected by the US Constitution. If it were, we'd never have had the counter-productive, idiotic, decades-long ban on travel to our neighbor Cuba.

Nor would the Congress be considering a law that would strip citizens of their passports should they owe money to the IRS.

That's right, fall behind on your taxes and you ain't going anywhere, buddy.

Now let me make something clear here: I am not against taxes in general. I've been to countries where the taxes are minimal and consequently so are the government services. Where you can taste the air because there's no agency setting and enforcing pollution standards and drinking the water is a danger for the same reason. Where driving is a white knuckle exercise thanks to massive potholes and un-policed stretches of highway. I know, first hand, that having a strong, central government is a necessity in this complex day and age, and that taxes are necessary to fund such governments.

But the idea of stripping someone of their passport is a wrong one, even though the threshold is high ($50, 000 in back taxes). The tax-debtor would be deprived of their passport even if they aren't charged with tax evasion, or any other sort of tax-related crime.

This law seems to assume that travel is only a frivolous entertainment and that's far from the case. Such an action could stop a legitimate business people from making a living by curtailing their ability to attend international business meetings. With their wings clipped, these debtors will have even less ability to pay back taxes.

The bill has passed the Senate and is on its way to Congress. To read more about it, click here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Expertly Led, Fascinating European and American Tours for Just 5 Dollars or Euros This Spring

I learned an interesting phrase when I was last in Italy: "Dead Man's Shoes". It referred to jobs that one couldn't get until the person in them died.

The local woman I was talking with used the phrase to explain why so many government-licensed, Italian tour guides were, well, less than stellar. They'd been doing the job so long, they could do it in their sleep....and often sounded like they were. And because of the way many group tours operated, it was these folks who led the excursions year after year, whether or not they led a scintillating tour.

But these folks are no longer the only option in Italy, or any of the other European capitals for that matter. A number of companies have popped up in the last decade and a half offering guided tours that use one of the greatest resources in these cities: the academics who have come to these places to study their art, architecture and history.  Its these professors, graduate students, art restorers and other experts who supplement their income by leading tours about their greatest passions. Which is a win-win for both the guides and the tourists.

At the forefront of this new style of guiding is an expanding company called Context Travel. It now offers tours to Rome, Florence, Paris, London, Madrid, Naples and a slew of other cities, not only in Europe but in the United States and China. Their guides are superb and carefully chosen, their itineraries truly creative (you might find yourself learning about the propaganda values of ancient Roman architecture, exploring Barcelona's vibrant markets and food culture or taking in the thriving gallery scene in Berlin). These types of experience tend to cost between 35 and 105 euros per person, less if you can get a group together (maximum of six people).

Thanks to a grant, this spring and fall Context is also offering a host of 5 euro tours to some of the hidden gems in Europe's great capitals. Called "Tours in the Public Interest", these special programs encompass walks, workshops and lectures. They are led by Context's passionate experts and will take participants to places that are usually off-limits to the public in Rome, such as the underground archeological area of St. Maria in Via Lata and the cistern at Trajans Baths. An April 28th walk in Berlin will explore the Nazi history of that city. Similarly fascinating walks are planned for London, New York, Philadelphia and Boston in the coming months.

To learn more, click on the link above, and go to the section of the site marked "Tours in the Public Interest".

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vacations Skipped, New Survey Says

We want more vacation, but we're not taking it.

That's the depressing findings from a new survey released today by Radisson Hotels. Some 1000 Americans were polled, 48% of whom admitted leaving half or all of their vacation days on the table. (That's out of an average of 18 days per year). Fear of overload upon return to work was cited as a major reason.

But despite these findings Americans still want more vacation time. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they'd trade 5% of their salaries for more time to kick back.

USA Today has good coverage of all the results of the study. To see their piece, click here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Allegiant Loses My Allegiance (And Yours Too, I Hope)

I suppose it was only a matter of time before another airline adopted Spirit Airlines' wet, rude, raspberry of a fee: the charge for carry-on bags.

Industry magazine Airline Reporter broke the news yesterday that Allegiant Airlines would now charge $35 for carry-on bags, starting with those who book their tickets this Wednesday. That's the same amount checked bags cost on Allegiant. Small personal items, ones that can fit under the seat, will not be taxed...yet.

The info came from a leaked memo, but was quickly confirmed by official sources. Apparently, there will be a discount for those who pay the baggage fee online first, but the amount of that won't be disclosed until Wednesday.

Never heard of Allegiant? Its not a major player, but it is a profitable one (sigh). Currently Allegiant bases itself in Sin City (where its obviously learned a lot about the sin of Greed), flying also to Fort Lauderdale, Bellingham, Los Angeles, Myrtle Beach, Oakland, Phoenix, Punta Gorda, St. Petersburg and Orlando Sanford.

Far be it from me to tell you all how to spend your money. But you won't see me flying either Spirit or Allegiant anytime soon. I just can't stomach any more nickel-and-diming. Because when one looks at the cost of one's actual journey on these carriers, after all the fees are included, those nickels and dimes balloon into big bucks. And you don't ultimately save, well, a nickel.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Get Taken to See The Sights (And Not Just Taken) With These Alternative Shore Excursions

You board the cruise ship. A guy snaps your photo, and then posts it on a big bulletin board with a price tag attached. Another fellow tries to sell you a special, umbrellaed drink. And the lady in the spa claims she can non-surgically erase the bags under your eyes for only $100.

While cruising remains one of the most affordable types of travel, the prices for all of the stuff they try to sell you once you're captive aboard ship would make a Turkish rug merchant blush. (And I post that as a person who *accidentally* bought a rug on my last visit to Istanbul and has regretted it ever since.)

Most over-priced cruise buy? Shore excursions.

Until today, most passengers gulped, sighed and handed over the money for ship-sponsored shore excursions, using the excuse: "If we get back late, the ship will wait". (Um, ever heard of a watch?). Or they explored on their own, sans guide, either on foot or by taxi. A final alternative: such companies as, or which set up group shore excursion, using vetted local operators. While the quality of the tours offerred by the last three players is high (small groups, creative itineraries), sometimes their prices are as steep as those of the cruiselines themselves.

Enter Viator the international leader in land-based day tours. Today it debuted a nifty new site that guides users to affordable shore excursions. has cruisers to input their ship, cruiseline and date, and then spits out options for every land day of the cruise. The excursions range from guided bus and walking tours; to transfers from the port to the sights; to hop-on, hop-off bus tours. Viator claims their prices are as much as 60% lower than the cruise line prices (it will, of course, vary by itinerary).

Santorini is a favorite Med Port Stop
As an added bonus, Viator is offering 10% off excursions booked before the end of April.

Tours can be booked as late as the night before arrival. At this stage, only the mass market cruise lines (Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Costa, MSC and Norwegian) are covered.

To learn more, click on the link above.