Monday, October 29, 2012

Today's a Sandy Hiatus

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

Stay safe, neighbors!

Friday, October 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 25, 2012

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Grab Bag of Travel News

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Norwegian Cruise Line Bets on Gamblers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Freebie Friday: Country Inn and Suites Sleeps

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cruising Goes All-Inclusive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously not, if you're a teetotaler.

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Railroaded: Good Discounts and a Source for Inside Information

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

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

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

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

Happy rails to all!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Adventures in Puerto Rico This Fall

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Old School Airfares to the Emerald Isle

Its been quite some time since I've seen round-trip airfares to Europe for less than $600. That's the rate Aer Lingus is currently floating, and as per the new DOT regulations, those prices include taxes, so there shouldn't be any ugly surprises.

In order to get these cheap tickets, you'll have to book quickly. When the ghosts and goblins of Halloween disappear, so do these fares. They must be booked before Nov 1, for winter travel. As per usual, the lowest rates are for mid-week travel (Mondays-Thursdays) and from the New York City area. But fares from Boston aren't much higher, starting at $649. From Chicago, the starting rate is a still-decent $699.

Need more info? Click here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Last Minute Mekong River Cruise Discounts

Gotta fill those berths!

Value World Tours, a 20-year-old Vietnam specialist, is cutting prices in half for several upcoming river cruises. The ship is the RV Toum Tiou II, and the dates for the sale are Oct 24, Nov 1, 16 and 29. With the discount, passengers will pay $1299 per person (plus $120 in port charges) for the 7-night sailing, plus two nights hotel in Ho Chi Minh City and three nights in Siem Reap. Most meals are also included as are a host of guided tours and transfers within country.

As for the ship, its relatively new (launched in 2008), and carries just 28 passengers with a crew of 15. Along with meals onboard, there's unlimited alcohol, and entertainment on board.

For complete information, click here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lessons We Can Learn from Club ABC's Bankruptcy

"We departed on a trip to Peru with Club ABC on Oct 4," read the email I just got, from a listener to our radio show. "When we arrived we found out from the local tour company that Club ABC had gone out of business. In order to continue with the trip, the tour company demanded that we pay an additional $700 per person. If we refused then they would take no further action or assistance."

And so began what must have been quite the ordeal for this poor couple, taking what they'd hoped would be a dream vacation to Peru. 

They did one thing right, and one thing wrong.

According to the note, the couple had paid for the trip with their American Express card. So they contacted the credit card company and were offered assistance.  A number of their fellow passengers had paid in cash, in return for a 5% discount and were stuck. Lesson: ALWAYS pay with a credit card for big ticket travel items; the sorts of protections they offer are the very reason people use these cards in the first place.

Unfortunately, the couple had bought trip insurance through Club ABC. The insurance company had never heard of them when they called, leading them to assume that Club ABC simply pocketed the money. I have no evidence that that happened (and in its defense Club ABC had been in business for many, many years without problems such as this). But it points up the importance of going to third parties to purchase insurance. That way, you know that you're covered should anything go wrong. is an excellent clearinghouse for travel insurance information, allowing users to pick the best policy for their upcoming trip (and that will vary trip to trip).

My condolences to all the folks who booked with Club ABC and are now dealing with this mess.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Is Club ABC Tours Defunct?

Sorry to lead this Friday with bad news, but industry magazine Travel Weekly is reporting that the long-running tour operator Club ABC may have gone belly up.

Club ABC was NOT a member of the USTOA (United States Tour Operators Association), nor was it affiliated with the National Tour Association. That means its clientele do not have the same type of insurance (a $1 million bond) that comes from booking tours with organizations affiliated with the two organizations above.

If you have an upcoming Club ABC Tour planned, I'd suggest you contact your credit card company as soon as possible to try and get the charges cancelled. Those who booked through a travel agency, should contact their agents ASAP.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Long Distances, Low Rates: Today's Highlighted Deal Is To the Idyllic Cook Islands

One of the nicest things about attending Travel Shows--besides hearing experts like Ed Salvato and well, me, speak--is that many companies create special deals just for those who show up. But they don't necessarily track the deal back to the show. So if you hear about a deal discussed at one of these shows--say by, well, me--you can still take advantage of it even if you never got near the convention center floor.

Such is the case with the wonderful offers South Pacific specialist GoWay Travel has on tap. Its offering three iterations on air/hotel packages to the Cook Islands, with those staying the longest getting the very best deals (not surprising as the airfare is the priciest component of the package). GoWay will be charging just $1999 per person (based on double occupancy) for a 12-night stay in the Cooks, a round-trip flight on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles (other gateways available for a small uptick in price), on-island transfers to and from your hotel, daily breakfasts and a $100 "Cook Islands Cash Card". The latter is basically mad money for whatever you might want to buy once on vacation.

And there's lots to buy there, particularly if you're into water sports. You might use that $100 towards superb scuba diving or snorkeling, or perhaps a deep sea fishing trip. Or the money could go towards shopping, guided hikes, you name it. There's lots to see and do in the Cooks, though when I asked GoWay manager Tom Ryan how he'd spend his fortenight there, he simply smiled broadly and said "Relaxing!".

For those who can't take a full two weeks away, GoWay has shorter deals as well. Take a look at the Goway site (click on the changing slide that says "Cook Islands Free Cash").

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Finding the Less Crowded Cruise Ports

Though the brochure photos will show idyllic, deserted beaches, one rarely encounters those on cruises. Instead, these mammoth ships dump out thousands of visitors, who flood the streets and sands, changing the character of whatever area they visit.

That's a given. But visiting a port when yours is the only ship in town is infinitely more preferable than getting there when three or more other mega-ships are in port. And now a new online tool can help you avoid the cruises that will be going to crowded ports.

Its called the CruiseWise Port Calculator and its initial page is a map of the world, with bullets for cruise ports. Click on one, and you'll see the average the port gets yearly, as well as the ships that visit that port. The program also allows travelers to key in dates and itineraries, allowing them to see just how many other travelers will be in the ports during the time of his or her proposed cruise. I typed in a sailing of the Celebrity Solstice for mid-February and found that if I were to take that cruise of Australian, I'd encounter no tourists beyond those on my boat. Good to know!

The site has some downsides. It only deals with the 6 largest cruise lines in its itinerary search (so customers of Crystal, Azamara and the other small, luxury brands will be out of luck). And in order to use the tool, you have to agree to receive deals from I have yet to see how much of a flood that will unleash on my inbox!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Turkey Day Approaches! Have You Booked A Flight Home?

Though its not yet time to start collecting stale bread for stuffing, you should be thinking about Thanksgiving right now.

Or so says a slew of airfare experts interviewed by the staff of With less than two months to go to the holiday, and a series of fare hikes already instituted, booking sooner rather than later seems to be the better part of wisdom.

But you'll want to game your booking, if you can. According to, cheapest flights out will be the Monday before Thanksgiving and the day of Thanksgiving itself. To save money on the return, book any day but on the Sunday or Monday after the holiday.

George Hobica, of, recommends getting out your credit card if you see long-haul round-trips for less than $400, mid-range hops for $300 RT, and short flights for $200 RT or less. If prices are higher, he suggests waiting a bit in the hope that they'll drop.

There's more terrific information in the piece itself. Click above to read it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

You'll Never Believe Where NY's Mayor Bloomberg Plans To Place the World's Tallest Ferris Wheel

I'm a native New Yorker, but I've only been to Staten Island 4 times in the 40-plus years I've lived in this city.

Frankly, that's 3 times too many.

Harsh words, I know, but with the exception of a really dull recreated Colonial Village (my kids BEGGED to go home early), the best thing about this borough is its view of the other boroughs. That's not to say it isn't a good place to live. Filled with lawns and clapboard houses and decent pizza parlors, its a good place to raise a family (or so say the many cops and firemen who live in this borough). But for visitors?!? Who wants to see NYC's version of the blandest of suburban neighborhoods.

I guess Mayor Bloomberg thinks seeing that will be better from up high. WAAAY up high. It was announced today that the tallest Ferris Wheel in the world is about to be constructed on Staten Island, for completion in 2015. I can only hope that from the top you get a good view of the more interesting parts of the area. I very much doubt that the mall, restaurants and hotel planned to sprawl at the base of the Ferris Wheel will be much of a draw.

To read about the dimensions of this new planned monster, click here. 

I guess the project gives the folks who take the Staten Island Ferry as a free boat ride somewhere to go, briefly, when they get off.