Thursday, May 31, 2012

Federal Government Shuts Down 26 "Chinatown Bus" Companies

It was one of those sultry, DC days. All the passengers huddled inside the tiny, but air conditioned lobby of our cheap bus company, waiting for our ride from Washington's Chinatown to the one in New York City. Suddenly, an angry 50-something man starting yelling in Chinese at the bored-looking 20-something behind the desk. Getting no response, the older man pulled out a gun and continued his harangue, the weapon gripped tightly at his side.

All the passengers froze. After what felt like hours, but was likely just seconds, a mother next to me silently picked up her toddler and walked out to the street. Trying to be inconspicuous, we all filed out after her. When I got around the corner, I called the police.

I would have though that that experience three years ago was the most dangerous these cheap bus lines got. But it turns out I may be wrong.

Today, in the largest crackdown in the history of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Feds shut down 26 bus operators. Of those, 16 were based in New York City, the other 10 in Philadelphia. They covered routes in Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.  Transportation officials, discussing today's actions, cited such safety violations as drivers without valid commercial driver's licenses; buses in need of repair and inspection; and the violation of federally mandate driving time limits by the bus drivers employed by these firms.


Apex Bus, New Century Travel and I-95 Coach were the largest operators among those taken off the highways today. The three owned many of the other companies that were shut down.

According to Bloomberg News, bus travel had been the fastest growing segment of commercial transportation in the United States. A year-long investigation, punctuated by a growing number of fatal crashes, underlay the actions of Federal Transportation officials.

Its important to note that neither BoltBus nor MegaBus were affected by these actions. There's been no implication, whatsoever, that these two larger companies are allowing the same types of violations that the so-called "Chinatown Bus Companies" have.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Uncoupling: The Divorce Hotel

Is this the greatest thing since sliced bread? My divorced friends, who all feel they paid too much for their freedom, think so.

The New York Times is reporting that a Dutch entrepreneur named Jim Halfens has created a quicker, perhaps kinder, way for couples to end their marriages. Over the course of a weekend, couples check into a hotel (separate rooms) and then spend the next two days meeting with independent lawyers and mediators. They check out on Sunday, divorce papers in hand, paying a flat fee of between $3,500 and $10,000. Since most divorces cost twice that amount--and don't include room service--the process has been quite successful in the Netherlands.

So much so that Mr. Halfens is in negotiations to bring the Divorce Hotel to North America. And he may create a reality TV show around these hotels, too. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shoeless Seniors No More and Airborne Family Togetherness

Two quiet but important announcements emerged over the holiday weekend that could significantly affect the flying experience for thousands of travelers in the coming year.

Seniors will kick up their heels at the first one. The TSA has announced that it will no longer be requiring oldsters to remove their shoes when passing through airport security. The ruling won't affect the entire AARP set, but those over the age of 75, those the Daily News calls "Old Soles", will no longer have to go through the line unshod.

“These changes will allow officers to better focus their efforts on passengers who may be more likely to pose a risk to transportation, while expediting the screening process,” says Joseph Terrell, TSA’s security director in Orlando.

The second item is a battle cry issued by New York Senator Chuck Schumer.  Upon reading the recent Associated Press story detailing the problems families are having getting seats together (due to the airlines' expansion of their "premium seats" programs, which reserve a number of seats in economy class for those willing to pay extra), the Senator came up with a common sense proposal. He's asking the airlines to waive premium seat fees for children, to allow families to afford contiguous seating.

He may not have the legal authority to require this action. But Schumer has had success in the past persuading the airlines to do the right thing. Last year, when Spirit added fees for luggage carried onto the plane and stored in overhead bins, Schumer was able to elicit a public pledge from the other major carriers that they wouldn't follow Spirit's lead. So far, only Allegiant Airlines, a minor player, has added this invidious fee.

Schumer has said that if the airlines won't change their policy, he'll ask Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to step in. In Schumer's view (and mine, too) separating families is a safety issue. Because of the act that deregulated airlines some 30-plus years ago, its unclear whether the DOT has the authority to do anything that directly affects pricing.

As a corollary to this story, United Airlines eliminated advance boarding for families. No, let me clarify that. Advance seating is still available, but only to families who pay for premium seats. An ugly move on the carriers part, would you agree?

If you think the expansion of premium seating, a move that has made it impossible for families to sit together without paying extra is wrong, I'd urge you to write to the DOT and share your concerns.
Click here to do so.

It is a real issue; I, myself, ended up paying $39 per person extra recently to sit next to my kids on a flight to Belize. It was a shocking and unforeseen addition to our budget. On the way back we decided to avoid the fee, counting on the kindness of strangers to let us sit together. Alas, we could find only two seats together (my guess: people who pay for the premium seats are much less willing to give them up to help families). My teen had to sit alone. Imagine if there had been an accident and we'd had to deplane. I wouldn't have been able to get off without checking first to make sure my teenage daughter was safe. That would have made following safety procedures tremendously difficult. Parents shouldn't be put in this position!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Hostel and Hotel Nights for the Younger Crowd

STA, the famed student travel agency, has always been an excellent source for deals. But they've taken the savings up a notch with their current free nights program. Available at hostels and hotels around the globe, the program awards those who linger with a free nights' stay. The amount of time one has to remain on property varies widely. At one Thai hotel, the traveler has to stay a full two-weeks to get the freebies. But in most cases, a free night kicks in after three stayed.

The deals are available across STA's price categories (which it divvies up into "simple", "smart" and "stylish" choices) and across the globe (Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America, and Down Under). To learn more, click here.

In a few cases, hotels must be booked before May 31, so head to STA's site soon if you're interested.

And, as always, do compare the price of a stay with the free night with those being offerred by other hotels that are simply charging good rates. "Free" doesn't always mean "deal", so do your due diligence before booking.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Free Trip Anywhere On The Planet (Details From the Gal Who Can Help Make It Happen)

No doubt about it, its fun (and a bit intimidating) to be in the position to make someone's travel dreams come true. But that's where I am, thanks to the generous folks at Intrepid Travel. They will be giving away a trip to ANYWHERE in the world and it ain't just for one person. No, the winner gets to bring along three others. How cool is that?

For a prize this swell, some effort has to be made. The winner is going to have to prove he or she is a worthy traveler. No not just worthy, "intrepid" (makes sense, right?). To prove that, entrants are being asked to post videos, stories, photo albums, what have you, to show they are the perfect ambassador for adventurous travel. The ten entries that get the most votes will then be sent to me and my fellow four judges. Hopefully we can all agree on who is the most intrepid of all.

To see the complete details, and get started on your own entry, click here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hoping to Snag a Real Travel Deal? Book Now, Vacation in the Fall

Sad but true, the very best deals are always for the periods people tend to stay home. And autumn is foremost among them. Who can travel then? The kids are in school! And childless travelers, many of them, have already blown their budget on summer jaunts.

But for those with patience, boy are some of the deals being vetted for autumn amazing. On the cruise front are sailings that dip as low as $36 per person per day. That's the rate on Royal Caribbean's November 7 Grandeur of the Seas sailing from Barcelona to Miami. In all, cruisers will pay just $499 for this 14-night journey. Click here for more on that. Its just one of a number of sailings discounted for autumn.

Most areas of China are far more temperate in fall than in summer, yet its after October that tour prices start to fall. Just take a look at China Focus four-city tours, and you'll see what I mean. Beginning in November, a tour that covers Beijing, Suzhou, Tongli, and Shangai will cost just $1979, including airfare from the US, all taxes, all accommodations, in-country transportation, tours, almost all meals, evening entertainment and more. Here's the link to learn more about that.

I wrote several days ago about fall deals to Iceland; scroll down in this blog to see those.

And Aer Lingus Vacation Store has just come out with a doozy of a deal to the Emerald Isle. It comes in at a dollar under $1000 and covers airfare from the US, all taxes and fees, 6 nights lodging (including one on a genuine castle) and the use of a rental car. Click here to learn more about that one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Will You Need a Magical Wallet to Enjoy the Magic Kingdom this Summer?

Most likely.

This week, it was announced that Disneyland will be upping its admissions prices significantly. The cost for a daily pass to that West Coast park, or its sister property California Adventure, will now be $87, an 8% hike (the most recent rate was $80 per day). Buy a daily Park Hopper pass, which allows one to visit both parks, and get ready to shell out $125, up from $105. Kids ages 3 to 9 pay $119, not much of a discount. And woe betide the Mickey fanatics who buy season passes!  In-state residents will now pay $269, an uptick of 35% over the old cost of $199; out-of-state passholders have a 30% increase to $649. Parking? That's up too, from $99 per year to $129.

DisneyWorld has not announced new pricing, but Mouse-watchers expect that to happen in the fall. "When their Fantasyland expansion is closer to opening, that's probably when they'll hit up folks with an increase," says Robert Niles of ThemeParkInsider.com. "That's supposed to happen around the holidays, so October or November."

"Of course, if Disneyland attendance tanks thanks to this latest increase, they may rethink an increase at DisneyWorld," adds Niles. "But I very much doubt that's going to happen."

And don't hold your breath waiting for seasonal hotel/park packages to alleviate the sticker shock. Ricky Brigante, owner of the Disney discounting site InsideTheMagic.net remarked recently to SmarterMoney that for first time in recent memory the Disney Corporation hasn't released any large, nationwide promotions in several months.

Thankfully, other costs remain low, especially for those heading to Florida. Airfare into Orlando remains among the most affordable of any US gateway (see my blog from last week on airfares) and lodgings deals are still abundant in both Kissimmee and Orlando.

So why the big increase on park admissions? I'd like to blame the screenwriter of "John Carter", Disney's mega-flop of an action flick this winter.

But the real reason may be the escalating battle for supremacy between Disney and Universal Studios. Not only has Universal's Harry Potter attraction drawn a lot of business away from the Mouse, but this Friday, Universal will be unveiling a ride that's sure to garner it even bigger crowds, especially amonth the teen set. Themed after the "Transformers" movies and costing a cool $100 million, the new ride been hailed by advance reviewers such as Niles as the "attraction to beat", a real game changer. It will be in Universal's California park; in Orlando, Universal will be adding a new "Despicable Me" ride as well as increasing the thrills and chills on its already popular Spiderman ride.

Disney is fighting back with its Magic Kingdom expansion (costing the company $425 million) and a new Cars themed attraction at California Adventure (opening on June 15). In addition, it will soon break ground on an Avatar attraction in Orlando that's projected to cost $500 million. And somebody has to pay for those right? Hence the new ticket prices.

But will families continue to be able to afford the parks at these levels? Or has Disney finally outpriced its core audience?

Only time will tell.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Night Lights: Why You'll Want to Visit Iceland This Winter

The planets are aligning in such a way, scientists say, that 2012's Northern Lights will be the brightest and most spectacular since 1958. And where better to see them than Iceland, which is smack dab in the heart of the so-called "Auroreal Zone"?

The discounts are also getting better and brighter, thanks to a current promo from Icelandair which drops the cost of a complete vacation to a level that usually only covers transatlantic airfare.

Beginning November 1 (just around the time the aurora borealis starts) and going through December 17, it will be possible to fly from a number of North American gateways to Reykjavic and stay in two different cities for four nights total for just $899. The package, called "Experience the Arctic North", includes round-trip domestic flights from Reykjavic to Akureyri (the country's second largest city), inter-city bus tickets, breakfasts, spa entries  welcome drinks and a Northern Lights Tour. Gateways on this promotion are New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Seattle, Denver and Toronto.

Wild horses in Iceland
Can't travel then? Other options include:

USA-Iceland Oct 1-31: $937USA-Iceland Jan 6-April 26: $909

Beyond the lights, Reyjavik is known for having some of the most hedonistic nightlife on the planet. There and in Akureyri, its possible to soak away one's cares year-round in geothermal pools (the spa facilities here are top notch). Winter visitors also ski (both downhill and cross-country), go out on horse treks, ice skate, snowmobile and explore the culture and history of this unique nation.

Heck, it beats heading to the in-laws for a long weekend, right? For complete details, click here



Friday, May 18, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free National Park Entry for Military Families

A hearty salute goes out to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for offering a long-overdue perk to the brave men and women of our military.

Beginning tomorrow, all active military and their families, will be eligible for free year-long entry passes to the US' federal lands. These include all of the National Parks (including the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon), plus all the areas that charge fees and are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the US Army Corps and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That's some 2000-plus sites. The pass, called the America the Beautiful Pass, usually sells for $80.
Bryce Canyon National Park

The move comes thanks, in part, to the efforts of our nation's first and second lady, who have been working quite closely with Joining Forces, an organization that supports military family. Speaking of the new freebie, Jill Biden told the Associated Press "Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to our servicemen and women....In recognition of their service, we are so pleased to be putting out the welcome mat for our military families at America's most beautiful and storied sites."

Passes will be available at any national park or wildlife refuge, simply by showing their ID. Family members will also have access to the pass, even if their loved one is currently deployed. The passes allow free entry for the holder and up to three adults at those sights that charge on a per person basis. For those parks that have drive-in entrances, the pass will cover all of the passengers in a car.

For more information, click here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Where in the World Are We Going?

Every year, the World Tourism Organization releases its tally of  travel receipts  from the previous year, ranking, by billions spent, the most popular countries and regions in the world.

For region, Europe was the clear winner in 2011. The United States, however, was #1 nation, finally surpassing the amounts spent in 2008 (which had been the most profitable year on record). Travelers in the US shelled out some $116.3 billion last year,  nearly double the amount of runner-up Spain ($59.9 billion).

Here's the very telling list of the top 15:

1. United States ($116.3 billion)
2. Spain ($59.9 billion)
3. France ($53.8 billion)
4) China ($48.5 billion)
5) Italy ($43 billion)
6) Germany ($38.8)
7) United Kingdom ($35.9)
8) Australia ($31.9)
9) Macao, China (no total listed, and not a country; an odd inclusion)
10) Hong Kong, China ($27.2 billion)
11) Thailand ($26.3 billion)
12) Turkey ($23 billion, it was #11 last year)
13) Austria ($19.9 billion)
14) Malaysia ($18.3 billion)
15) Singapore ($18 billion)

But just who is ponying up all this cash? Do these numbers mean that travel is rebounding across the boards?

Not necessarily. The list above was released the same week three American large studies (by PhoCusWright, TripAdvisor and the US Travel Association) came out, looking at the demographics of who is hitting the road. And just as the rich are getting richer in the US, they're also getting better traveled. Tourists in the highest echelons of society saw the greatest rebound, in terms of time spent vacationing. The rest of us? Not so much. A PhocusWright study showed that 1 in 4 Americans did not purchase a  vacation in the past year. Those aged 45 to 54 ("young boomers") saw the sharpest drop in travel, cutting their time away by 10%. "While it's encouraging to hear travel companies talk about breaking records rather than recuperating from recessionary setbacks, our research demonstrates how the recovery has left a significant part of the population behind,"  Carroll Rheem of PhoCusWright told USA Today.

What's the take away for would be travelers? If you want to avoid crowds, the Americas, outside of the United States itself, will likely be a good option. The same can be said for Africa and the Middle East, and some parts of Asia. Hotel rates, too, should remain reasonable for those booking mid- and lower-priced properties. There's always a silver lining, isn't there?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gaming This Summer's Airfares

When to buy? What to pay? Which airline exec to strangle?

There are more questions than answers when it comes to finding decent airfares this summer.

Chicago Fares Affordable This Summer?
The fact is nobody really knows the answers because so much depends on the volatile cost of fuel. In general, prices on domestic fares are lowest six weeks before a flight. But that may change if the cost of a barrel of gasoline increases.

And what are the ranges of what one should be paying? Well, there are certain travel experts who only look at airfares, bless 'em. Day and night, they're glued to their search engines watching the numbers pop up and down. And two of these single-minded gurus have come out with their predictions today for how much you should be paying this summer.

They approach the problem differently. Rick Seaney, the CEO of search engine FareCompare.com looks at the length of the flight and then gives an estimated cap on how much one should pay on those routes. Here's how his predictions stood in his recent column for USAToday:
  • Flights of Less than 500 miles: Don't pay more than $150 round-trip
  • Flights of 500-1000 miles: Go for anything under $210 round-trip
  • Flights of 1000-1500 miles: Go for anything under $280 round-trip
  • Flights of 1500 or more (domestic only): Anything under $340 is okay
To read all of Seaney's advice, click here

The folks at CheapFlights.com have also gotten busy, releasing a list today of the cheapest airports one can fly into this summer. They are:
  • Chicago: Average round-trip air $218
  • Orlando: Average round-trip air $236
  • New York: Average round-trip air $238
  • Dallas: Average round-trip air $240
  • Denver: Average round-trip air $243
  • Washington, DC Average round-trip air $244
  • Las Vegas: Average round-trip air $244
  • Kansas City: Average round-trip air $245
  • Fort Lauderdale: Average round-trip air $245
  • Boston: Average round-trip air $247
It goes without saying that these averages are for domestic travel only. Do I also need to mention that some on the list are darn expensive cities (like the Big Apple) so savings on air are likely going to be wiped out by accommodations costs.

Still and all, it's good to have some idea of what others are paying for airfare. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now? Virgin Atlantic Introduces In Flight Cell Phone Service

Its the end of the world as we know it!!

OK, not quite.

But flying will become even less pleasant soon---and how is that even possible?--thanks to Virgin Atlantic's decision to allow cellphone calls on flights.

In late 2012, Virgin will partner with AeroMobile to offer cellphone service on Airbus A330 flights between New York City and London. Because of US regulations restricting cellphone use on planes, passengers will have  peace while the plane is in American airspace. Once the plane's 250 miles away, however, the nattering will begin. (My guess for most common opening line of conversation. "Hi Mom! Can you believe it!?! I'm calling you from an airplane!").

The airline has announced it will add 10 additional routes by the end of the year. Cellphone use during take off and landing will still be prohibited.

Virgin joins Qantas, Emirates and Lufthansa in offering this service.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Getting It Wrong: New York City's New Bike Share Program

Joining a growing number of world cities (including Paris, Washington, DC and Portland, OR), New York will be adding stands of robin's egg blue bikes to the cityscape. Underwritten by Citibank and Mastercard, the bicycles will be available to tourists and locals alike, through a self-service system, for a sliding scale of costs (see below). Some 10,000 bikes will be available at 600 spots around the city. On the Citi Bike website,  the organizers tout the bikes as "cheap, easy, efficient and fast", noting that they'll help people get to areas of the city that aren't easily accessible by mass transportation.

So what's my beef? The costs.

Simply to access these  bikes will cost $9.95 per day, $25 per week or $95 per year. That may not sound high until you realize that the cost of a rental bike in Central Park is just $10 an hour. Keep one of these Citi Bikes out for an hour and, with the initiation fee and the time charge, you'll be spending $14. Make the mistake of keeping one of these bikes out for, say, four hours and you'll end up spending $77! That Central Park rental bike? Its $30 for a complete day.

The organizers may be making costs high because the system is envisioned to be one of short rides . If one cycles for 30 minutes or less, the ride incurs no charge above the original initiation fee.

That may work for locals who know the city well. But how many tourists will be able to get from place to place in Manhattan or Brooklyn (the two boroughs where the bikes will be available) in less than half an hour? The traffic in the city can be crazy and intimidating, and tourists often need to stop and ask for directions or consult maps. That 30 minute window will tick away quickly for them. My worry is that, instead of saving visitors money, this new system will prove to be a wallet suck.

I very much hope that the organizers will rethink the costs. With the city's new bike lanes, cycling in New York has never been more pleasant. And, of course, its a wonderfully green way to get around. But 30 minutes to get from here to there when you don't necessarily know where you're going? Come on Citibank, let's be a bit more generous.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Travel...For Prostitutes

I don't know how else to spin the concept behind a new website called Miss Travel, which plays matchmaker between would-be sugar daddies, and hotties with wanderlust (and other types of lust, we'll assume).

Here's how it works. The site divides its users into "Generous" travelers and "Attractive" travelers, and then lets the two groups meet one another. Then, the generous folks will apparently pay for the expenses of the attractive ones and why they're doing so is left to the imagination.

Hmmm....

Frankly, I can think of few activities as dangerous for young women as accepting free trips to destinations where they have no connections, in the company of people they don't know.

Still, the site has gotten publicity from just about every major news organization out there, from CNN to the Today Show. I'm adding to the pile-up, I suppose, but I just had to weigh in on the inadvisability of using this "Travel Dating" site.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Emergency Info Right on Your Phone

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones.

Take ICE 4 Travel. That acronym stands for "In Case of Emergency". This useful app allows users to translate all of their vital information--immunization records, medications, allergies, contact numbers of close family members and more--into seven different languages at the click of a tab.

In a smart move, users can choose info to be publicly accessed. That means if you're unconscious and can't give the password for your phone, anyone who looks at it will still be able to quickly see if you have allergies to a medication or a condition a doctor should know about.

Other neat features:
  •  One touch dialing for emergency contacts
  • The ability to quickly email medical info to contacts through the app
  • Privacy settings which will hide any data you don't want people to see

At this point only Western languages are included (French, Dutch, Spanish, etc.) but lets hope the developers are successful enough to expand the app to Arabic, Chinese and other important tongues.

The app costs $2.99 and works for

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cruise Search, Three Ways


According to a recent study by the travel deals site TravelZoo.com, a third of all cruisers are now booking their shipboard vacations online, a jump of 20% in the last year.

But are they going to the right sites? Truth is, there’s no website that’s always going to be the best for bookings and research. But the following three offer crucial information that many don’t, making them good stops before your port calls.

Cayole: Know that you’d like to go somewhere adventurous in summer and can only spend a certain amount? Head to Cayole.com, a site that simplifies the cruise search process by allowing would-be passengers to input the parameters of what they’re seeking.

For example, a traveler who knows they want to get to Alaska in June for a week, and need to spend less than $750, will find that there are some 38 sailings to choose between, from 7-night Celebrity Jaunt from Vancouver to Seward ($599) to round-trips out of Seattle on Norwegian starting at $699. Customers can shape their search even more specifically by inputting the names of the ports they wish to depart from, which cruise line they wish to sail, even the type of cabin (interior, ocean-view, balcony or suite) they’re hoping to snag.

All in all, Cayole is a superb tool for those at the very beginning of the decision-making process.

CruiseCompete: Cayole.com is run by a cruise agency, and one can book trips through it. The savvier strategy, however, might be to head to the reverse auction site CruiseCompete.com.

CruiseCompete.com works a bit like LendingTree.com: travelers post which cruise they’re hoping to take and on what date. Cruise agencies then compete for their business.

In general, there won’t be much difference in price, on the major lines, from one agency to the next. But each has different contracts with the cruises lines for the perks they can pass along to their clients. So Agency X may be able to offer a free cabin upgrade, while Agency Y may will try to win the bid with $100 of shipboard credit and a promise to cover all shipboard gratuities in the course of the sailing (an average of $14 per person per day). The agencies are not given customer’s information until they get to the booking stage. Instead, they send their “bids” to a mailbox CruiseCompete sets up for customers on its site. Pretty nifty, eh?

ThemeCruiseFinder.com: To misquote Gertrude Stein, a cruise is a cruise is a cruise…except when it’s a “specialty sailing”.

We’ve all heard about the so-called “cougar cruises” which attract men and women of different generations hoping to hook up. But this is just the raunchiest iteration of the specialty cruise, which can range from sailings with special events and discussions for those interested in music or politics, to cruises in which fans of bridge play away the evenings, or fitness buffs sweat off the pounds together. ThemeCruiseFinder.com is the web’s top source for finding these very specific types of cruises.

There are literally dozens of specialty sailings each year, from those geared towards wine lovers, scrapbookers, poker players and gardeners. Participants find that, beyond getting to spend hours on their favorite hobby, they enjoy being surrounded by like-minded people.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Sources of Power....At the Airport

Plug hunting.

Yes, that's what our hunter-gatherer instincts are good for nowadays, finding sources of power at the airport.

Well, if you have enough juice left on whatever device you're using, there's now a website set up to help you find that elusive airport power outlet. Called, appropriately enough, AirportPlugs the site is young, small and limited to just five airports at this time. But hopefully it will grow as its a helpful little bugger, providing photographic images of where one can find outlets in each terminal, as well as in the food courts, check in counters and baggage claim areas. 

Check it out. I'm hoping the more hits it gets, the more motivated its founders will be to expand the database.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Working Your Way Around the World


Travel doesn’t have to be pricey. Thanks to the internet, an entire class of working travelers has emerged, men and women who trade “sweat equity” for free room and board on the road. For short and long periods, they’re heading to destinations around the globe and spending part of the day farming, or answering phones at a hostel, or teaching English, or engaging in some other form of work, in order to do what we all long to do: travel longer on less.

And they get these travel gigs through the following three websites:

WWOOF.org. No, not a site for dog lovers. The acronym stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms and it places eager volunteers in 104 countries currently, from New Zealand to Thailand to France to Madagascar to Canada. Workers and hosts decide together the terms of their arrangement, and they can vary widely from farms where workers will only put in a morning’s worth of work to situations where one will labor a full day for several days a week and then have three or four days off. The various WWOOF organizations—they’re operated on a country to country basis--charge a small administrative fee to support the network. 


Obviously there’s an ideological component here: most of the volunteers are interested in learning more about organic practices and sustainable agriculture. But that’s not a pre-requisite and doing a WWOOF-stay is a marvelous way to experience life in some of the loveliest rural areas on the planet.

Workaway.info. Like WWOOF, Workaway handles many requests from farmers. But it also introduces volunteers to more unusual short-term live-work situations. You might find yourself crewing a yacht in Turkey; or leading English-language tours at a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan; or caring for sled dogs in Vermont. There are opportunities to work in hostels and hotels, ranches, farms and private homes (where volunteers usually help with home repair and child care) and more. The important element to these arrangements is that both parties have a meaningful cultural experience. “They [the volunteers] should be made to feel part of the family,” write the founders of Workaway. “Hosts should interact with visitors as much as they can. Workaway.info is NOT set up to provide cheap labor. It is an exchange in which both parties should benefit.”

Generally, travelers stay a minimum of three weeks and a maximum of three months. By the terms of Workaways policies, they’re expected to work no more than 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, in return for a free, dry room and all meals. Would-be workers pay a fee of 22 euros for a two-year membership.

HelpX.net Very much like Workaway, HelpX is particularly strong on opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, with a similarly robust presence in England, Spain and Germany.  Its website, however, is a bit more cumbersome to search; and it has an odd, double-tiered system for “helpers” (their word for volunteers). Helpers can register free, but cannot reach out to the hosts of their choice unless they become a “premium helper” (for an additional fee that seems to vary). With HelpX, volunteers are expected to bring their own sleeping bags and work from 3-6 hours per day.

One note: long term travel often requires special visas, particularly if you’re considering visiting a country other than your own for longer than three months. In some cases, the types of work-stay arrangements described above also require work visas (it will vary country to country), so make sure to do your research before signing up for one of these types of vacations.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Freebie Friday: A Free Rail Day in Scotland This Summer

The Britrail Freedom of Scotland Railpass usually comes in at $225 for four days. But those who book before May 10 will get a free extra day at that price. Handily, the pass covers not just rail but also ferries and a number of bus links.

As with all rail passes, its important to really think out your travel plans before booking. Sometimes these offers can be an excellent deal (I saved quite a bit with a Polish rail pass last summer), other times you'll end up paying more for the convenience of only having to pack one ticket.

All of the details on the deal (and there's a pricier version that offers a free day too, with more travel days possible), are at this link.

Try some haggis for me if you go!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reality in Reality: TV Venues Become Must-Visit Sightseeing Attractions


“Its like a museum,” boasts Rocco, the heavily tattooed and pierced, one-named pawn broker as he gestures around the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (713 S. Las Vegas Blvd) in Las Vegas. “But it’s better than any museum, because here you can take all the exhibits home with you!”

All around me, the heads of onlookers nod approvingly at his words. To them, this is no ordinary pawn shop, but the realm of Chumlee, the charismatic broker who gilds junk with fairy dust many nights a week on the History Channel’s hit show “Pawn Stars”.  And though Chumlee himself is nowhere to be seen, nobody around me seems to mind, happy to gawk at the assorted gold watches, collector’s edition comic books, memorial poker chips, and other ephemera that crowd the shelves of the very crowded shop.

“We used to get about 50 people a day wandering through,” says Rocco. “Now we get about 2000! Sure, not all of them buy, or they just pick up a ‘Chumlee for President’ t-shirt. But if one in two hundred goes for a watch or one of our fine works of art, we’re doing better than we used to.”

Looking around, I don’t see anything that I think qualifies as “art” but what do I know? Nobody blinks an eye when Rocco points to an etching on the wall and declares it an “original Rembrandt”, or brags that they have “five original Salvador Dali works in shop right now.”  It seems boorish to quibble, when just being here is such a buzzy experience…and getting inside took a good 40-minute wait in line.

World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop is just one of the new breed of reality-spawned tourist attractions that’s delighting tourists across North America.

Near to my office in Hoboken there’s now a line in front of what I always thought of as the bakery with the driest, most tasteless cookies in New Jersey, Carlo’s Bake Shop (95 Washington St.) But because TLC’s “Cake Boss” features the loud-mouthed owner of the shop, those lousy sweets are flying off the shelves. (Tip: to avoid the line, borrow a local’s Hoboken driver’s license; locals get cutsies here.)

Mood (225 West 37th Street), the New York City fabric store featured on Project Runway, has put Gotham’s blighted, ugly Garment District on the map. Its aisles are filled daily with people who’ve never lifted a needle.

And in Los Angeles, a staffer at High Voltage Tattoo (North La Brea Avenue) told the Los Angeles Times that 90% of its customers are fans of their show LA Ink. Many more just come in to watch clients get their tats. Dash (4774 Park Granada, Calabasas) the boutique run by the Kardashian sisters and mom, now also has its place on Southern California’s tourist trail.

Apparently, even venturing into a swamp isn’t too extreme if it might mean catching a glimpse of a reality star. The website Louisiana Destinations (http://www.louisiana-destinations.com/swamp-people.htm) gives advice on where to spy the characters from the History Channel’s popular series “Swamp People”, a show about gator hunters.

Do people get what they want out of the experience? “I came to Las Vegas for a convention, so I didn’t make a special trip to visit the pawn store,” Kim from Milwaukee, told me when I buttonholed her at World Famous Gold and Silver. “But I figured, while I was in town, why not come down and see what its like? I was hoping to see some of the characters, but its just interesting to see what this place looks like in person. And what the heck, it was free!”

For now.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Moment in Jerusalem


Whenever I travel anywhere, I have an interior monologue going that sounds a bit like this: “How should I describe this?” “Is that the hook?” Or “Will this pull it all together for me?” Knowing that I will have to write about a place, I am constantly looking for patterns, for new insights, for odd twists on old stories. 

I came up short in Jerusalem.

The city, with its layers upon layers of history, of politics, of religious philosophies, was simply overwhelming. I kept finding tidbits that seemed like they’d be just the thing, such as the fact that it’s now possible to email and Twitter one’s prayers to the Western Wall (go to www.aish.com).  Or that the mini pizza-like breads sold on the streets of Jerusalem are topped by the herb “za’atar” which comes from the plant that was used as a paintbrush in the Old Testament, to mark the doors of the homes of Jews with blood so that the Angel of Death would pass over (a story recounted at Passover ceremonies).

Both were interesting thoughts, but they didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. I realized I had to get off the tourist trail and, well, onto the light rail. I left the walled Old City to visit Jerusalem’s main market, and as I took my seat I noticed two mothers, each with a young child, opposite me on the tram. Though they clearly didn’t know one another, they looked like twins, each wearing modest skirts that ended mid calf, topped with a lumpy sweater, hair hidden entirely under a scarf. When I looked closer, however, I noticed that the shapes of their headscarves were quite different, and from that realized that one of the mothers was Orthodox Jewish and the other Muslim.

Their sons, too, were like peas in a pod, both about four years old and both eager to get to know one another. Soon they were engaged in a game of who could make the strangest face. They started to giggle loudly, and suddenly all of the passengers—and they ran the gamut of Jerusalem’s religious groups-- turned to smile, their movement like a happy wave down the length of the tram. People started to chat, and make their own faces at the kids. For a moment, we were all united in our delight at the silliness of these two handsome little boys, the happiness they took in their simple game, their musical laughter.

A small moment surely, but one, I think, that speaks of peace. And of a sense of community, in a place where the many sides are often battling one another (and, to be fair, there are conflicts not just between Jews and Muslims but within the different sects of these religions as well as within Christian denominations).

Now, I’m not naïve or simpleminded. I know that there are deeply entrenched conflicts in this region and long-standing hatreds. With the recent turmoil in the Middle East, long-standing relationships are now at risk. And yet. And yet, the moment was a genuine one.

And I thought, once again, about the tremendous power of travel. Usually, the only time one hears about Israel is when bad news occurs—a bombing, a divisive action by one of the factions.

But in Israel I saw with my own eyes groups of people, of different life philosophies, rubbing shoulders. I saw great works of art and architecture, iconic sights that gave life to Biblical passages, and on a less exalted plane, I ate delicious and wildly varied food, in crowds that seemed quite mixed. I saw another side of this storied country, a better and more hopeful side than makes the evening news.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Adventurous Tours At a Steep Discount for Families This Summer

What kid wouldn't want to skate down sand dunes in Namibia? Or get up close and person with orangutans in Borneo? Or take a pizza making class in Italy?

These are just three of the many adventures offerred to families by Australian small group adventure company Intrepid Tours. All of the company's family tours now carry a discount of 25% per child for those who book before the end of May for tours through the end of October.

The discount applies to one child per accompanying adult (so if two parents are traveling with two children, each of those kids will get 25% off the cost of the adventure).

Its a significant amount off, considering these tours are among the most affordable on the market.

And the most "green". All of Intrepid's offerings make use of public transportation to get from place to place (so no gas guzzling motorcoaches) and support the local economy by placing clients in small, locally owned guesthouses and homestays. No tour ever carries more than 12 passengers, allowing the travelers to integrate themselves into local communities in a more natural fashion.

This summer Intrepid will be sponsoring family tours across the United States and Europe, as well as in Asia (Thailand, China, Borneo, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Cambodia) and Africa (Botswana, Namibia, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, South Africa). For more information, click on the link above.