Thursday, March 28, 2013

Heading to a National Park, But Don't Want to Tent It? Here's What You Need to Know

The lobby at the El Tovar Lounge, Grand Canyon
Last week, an excellent article appeared on USA Today giving the ins and outs of booking rooms at popular lodges in our National Parks. Written by the authors of a Globe Pequot guidebook to the parks, the article offers such pertinent advice as:
  • Look out for fees: Because the National Park Service works with a number of different concessionaires at these lodges, there is no one standard cancellation fee across the park system. That being said, none of these concessionaires charges a reservations fee. If you're asked to pay that, it's likely you're dealing with a third party seller.
  • Persistence is key: Because so many travelers book their lodge stays a year in advance (to ensure availability), many find they need to cancel as the date gets closer. So keep trying back and you may get lucky getting the lodge you want.
  • The point is to be in the parks, not at a particular lodge: So, if you have to accept a second choice, don't let it spoil your mood. Once you get to the parks you'll find that it's less of an issue than you thought it would be.
There's more info in the article, so click on the link above for full details. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

State Department Creates a New Website for LGBT Travelers

And appropriately enough the new LGBT Travel Info kicks off with a quote from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the godmother of this new enterprise. "We realize that "gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights," she's quoted as saying, a splendid opener for this much-needed source of information.

The site's primary asset is its frank, no-nonsense approach to the problems faced by LGBT travelers. That includes information on visa issues, the challenges that confront LGBT couples living abroad, and the illegality of homosexuality in certain countries. I'm hoping that in the near future the site will include country-by-country information on the challenges facing gay travelers. At this stage, it only includes a link to the Human Rights Report (of 2011, not 2012 yet) which includes information on all human rights issues. It would be more helpful if the State Department could break out this information for LGBT travelers.

Still, the very existence of this official site represents a huge step forward. So kudos to the State Department. Long overdue!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Big Discounts on Exciting Tours: Intrepid Travel Celebrates Spring with a Sale

Nothing warms my heart like an already affordable travel company dropping its prices even further!

That's what small group adventure company Intrepid Travel is doing this spring, slashing 20% off the price of assorted European and Moroccan tours for all those who book before April 15 and travel by July 31. The deal includes the companies new and quite popular foodie adventures, as well as tours by sailboat. Use promo code 9730.

As an example of some of the deals:

-Paris to Madrid: A 15-day tour that usually costs $2415 will be slashed by 20%, dropping the rate to $1932 or just $128 per day.

-Morocco Experience:  Another 15-day adventure, this one heads to 11 places in country. After the discount, it will cost $1596 or a hair over $100-a-day.

-Real Food Adventure Spain: This one hits such culinary meccas as Barcelona and San Sebastian over the course of 8 days. Price after the discount: $1433 or about $179 per day, but this one includes lots of meals.

For full information, head to the Intrepid website (link above).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hacking Hotel Guarantees to Get Free Rooms

Here's a snarky, but legal way to save on hotel costs and it comes from a piece on of all places. In a piece about non-stop travel Mike Hrostoski, the website revealed that he gets some $1800 a year in free hotels from Expedia. How? He games the famous travel site's "Best Price guarantee".

First Hrostoski heads to to find "pricing discrepanies" between online booking engines. When he finds a hotel that's charging less on a site other than Expedia, he makes a reservation for that hotel, then files a complaint about the overcharge, receives a $50 coupon for future bookings and cancels his reservation. He then uses those coupons for free hotel stays.

Sneaky, eh?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Which US Cities Offer the Most Bang for the Buck? A Hotwire Study (Purportedly) Has the Answer

Hotwire's annual "Value Travel Index" is out and its first pick is a surprise, at least to me.

Before I get into why, let's look at how the rankings were created. Hotwire partnered with an outside firm to look, statistically, at the costs of airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars (these three elements accounted for 50% of the score) in 50 top destinations. It added to that calculation the amount of discounting done in the destination (for 25% of the value); and entertainment costs (another 25%). After all those factors were taken into account, it came up with the following list of value destinations, in this order (Orlando and Atlanta tied for first place):
  1. Orlando
  2. Atlanta
  3. Tampa
  4. Dallas-Fort Worth
  5. Phoenix
  6. Raleigh
  7. Charleston
  8. Houston
  9. St. Louis 
  10. Sacramento
So why do I disagree with this list? I feel it doesn't take into account the way people actually travel, at least in the case of the winner, Orlando. (And I'm wondering if Hotwire and its statisticians counted Kissimmee separately than Orlando, a mistake as that's where the major theme parks actually are.)

Here's why: though you certainly can find VERY cheap eats, hotels and entertainment in Orlando (especially if you're a fan of mini golf and arcades), the majority of people who come to the area head to DisneyWorld and Universal Studios, two pricey entertainment options. Now, if you weigh those two as two entertainment options among the many, Orlando will look like a very affordable place to go. But as anyone who's taken a family on a Disney vacation, well, costs can add up quickly. In order to reflect the realities on the ground, those two destinations, along with Sea World, have to be given extra weight statistically.

As for the rest of the list: it seems like a helpful tool for deciding where to go next, if budget is your first criterion.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Down Under Discount: Sydney in Spring

Ah the magic of packages!

Airfare alone between Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia usually runs a good $1300-$1500 in spring. But with this offer, you get not just the airfare but a seven night stay in a decent hotel (the Sydney Travelodge) and a city tour.

The package must be booked by March 27. Travel window is May 1-June 8.

And if you wish to extend your stay in Australia so you can see areas beyond Sydney (perhaps "The Rock" and "The Reef"?), that can be done without charge. Sweet.

To read more about this deal, click here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Keep Those Tweens In Sight! Changes at the Disney Parks

The Disney organization has announced stricter regulations for solo kids in the parks, that's undoubtedly going to lead to stricter parenting. Starting this weekend, kids under 14 will be expected to be within shouting distance of their parents and "cast members" will be on the lookout for solo youngsters.

This will undoubtedly be a big deal for yearly passholders, many of whom routinely drop off their youngster at the park while they do other things, according to USAToday. One has to wonder if it will also put a crimp in the style of larger families who split up in order to hit more rides, with the tweens going on the thrill rides, while the parents take younger kids to gentler entertainments.

I know, as a parent of a just-turned 14-year-old, that it was her major goal when she was 12 and 13 to be on her own at amusement parks, something we didn't allow. My guess: we're going to be seeing a lot more screaming fights in the Disney parking lots!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cruising's PR Bruising: What Does It Mean for Would-Be Passengers?

After three Carnival Cruise mishaps in a row, of varying degrees of seriousness, the world outside of the hothouse travel industry is taking notice and taking action:

Senator Chuck Schumer is proposing a "cruise ship bill of rights" to better protect passengers.

Shares of Carnival dropped 2% yesterday on the news that Standard and Poor had downgraded the cruise giant from "stable" to "negative". This follows another drop on Friday, precipitated by Carnival's announcement that it would be spending tens of millions of dollars to check all its ships, rewire some and ensure that all had the necessary redundancies to reduce the chance of them losing power while at sea.

And as you might have guessed, the problems seem to be affecting cruise pricing across a number of brands. I just surfed over to website where I found weeklong cruises for as little as $275 for a weeklong Med cruise (aboard Pullmantour, a round-trip from Genoa). In terms of Carnival Cruises, I've found ones in the $250-$300 range in the Bahamas and Caribbean for four- and five-night sailings.

Will prices go over lower? That's my guess, based on the way these things have gone in the past.

We also got a call from a listener to this weekend's Travel Show asking if the price on her already-booked Carnival Cruise might have dropped. Our response was "probably". We advised her to contact her travel agent, so that she could either get a lower price on the sailing; or at least the types of perks the cruiselines tend to rain on passengers who make some noise (I'm talking free upgrades, on-board ship credits and more).

So should passengers book Carnival after all of its problems. I'd say yes, and here's why. Not only will prices be lower than usual, if you're able to book soon (there's been a reported double-digit slump in bookings, but if they pick up, prices will pick up, too); but staff vigilance will be at fever pitch. Carnival and its employees know that NOTHING can go wrong in the coming months. So traveling with this particular brand will likely be an even better experience than usual right now.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Tolls of the Sequester on Travel Start to Add Up

A Great Blue Heron flies past the dunes of Padre Island National Seashore
 Bloomberg News had an excellent piece last week spelling out some of the tangible results for travelers of the sequester cuts. They're now set to include:
  • Grand Canyon: The visitor's center will be open two fewer hours come summer, back-country permits will take longer to process, and lines at the entrance to the park will stretch longer thanks to fewer staff checking in visitors. In addition, the park has had to trim back on the number of times a day facilities such as restrooms and campgrounds will be cleaned. 
  • Acadia National Park in Maine: Will delay its opening; check the website for new dates
  • Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts: Is planning a delayed opening and/or more limited hours for visitors
  • Padre Island National Seashore, Texas: Will trim the number of patrolmen, which could endanger the sea turtles that lay eggs here (rangers often transfer the eggs to incubators to protect them).
  • Biscayne National Park, Florida: Has cancelled its educational camps through September.
  • Yosemite National Park, California: Fewer ranger led programs are planned than usual, and some may be eliminated altogether. 
  • The National Archives: Will be reducing evening hours.
In addition, the Associated Press is reporting that the sequestration could force the closing of control towers at five, smaller airports in Oregon. That decision is expected later today. These are 5 of the 173 smaller airports that could be shuttered by the sequestration, according to a report in

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Another Carnival Cruise Fiasco Plus My Sequester Watch Continues

Oops! Carnival did it again. And again.

Yesterday came word that the Carnival Dream had experienced power problems which were going to result in the ship aborting its itinerary and flying passengers home from the Caribbean. Thankfully, the Dream was in port when some systems failure occurred. (It was first reported as a power outage, but Carnival is now disputing that and saying that the issue was with back-up generators).

The cruise line's refusal to let passengers off the boat on Wednesday, after the incident occurred, means that those on-board briefly experienced conditions t similar to those the Carnival Triumph passengers endured (mostly overflowing toilets and lack of elevator service, according to press reports ). On Thursday afternoon, passengers were evacuated off the ship to begin the process of flying back home.

The company has said the passengers will receive cash compensation equal to three days of the voyage, plus 50% off future cruises. My guess: that settlement will become more generous as the hue and cry reaches the press.

Today, reports are out that another Carnival ship, the Carnival Legend, is experiencing propulsion problems. Instead of being able to stop in the Cayman Islands, the ship will be staying out at sea so that it can return to Tampa in time. Though I'm sure passengers on board must be disappointed to miss their cruise stop, at least their comfort isn't being compromised (according to news reports).

Wow! Can it get any worse for Carnival, PR-wise?And when one cruise line suffers a blow to its public image, the entire industry suffers.

As I said a month ago: watch cruise pricing. It's inconceivable (to me, at least) that we won't see a dip in the cost of a cruise, thanks to these three events.

At the Airports

Thankfully, the TSA has been able to come up with a better strategy than furloughing staff to deal with budget cuts due to the sequester. But it is still advising passengers to get to airports early. That advice has been backed up by Stacy Bodtmann, a spokesperson for the TSA's union workers. According to Bodtmann, the agency had been making use of overtime to keep lines short. That option was now off the table. And due to a hiring freeze, there will be 1000 open positions by summer (2600 by the end of September), a situation that will also slow down the ability of these agents to process passengers quickly.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sphinx Will Have To Wait: More Bad News for Egyptian (and Bolivian) Tourism

Every year, the illustrious World Economic Forum issues a report on global tourism, assessing how attractive 140 countries are for developers in the travel sector.

Sounds pretty vanilla, right? But contained within the report is also an influential safety ranking. And this year, Egypt dropped precipitously on that list.

In fact, Egypt, according to this trusted, unbiased source, is now more dangerous to visit than Pakistan, Chad and even Yemen.

The rankings were not just based on the on-going protests in Tahrir Square, though those certainly were considered. Other important factors were the number of road accidents in Egypt, the unreliability of its police force, problems with common crime, and, yes, the potential for terrorist acts.

Tourism officials in Egypt told NBC News that they were "shocked" by the report's findings. NBC reporters Atia Abawi and Charlene Gubash also interviewed tourists in Egypt who stated that they felt very safe in country and had experienced no problems.

In Egypt's defense, this is one report among many (though it's considered one of the most important). There is no current State Department Travel Warning for Egypt....though they do exist for Chad, Pakistan and Yemen.

And hey, you'll have a very affordable vacation seeing the ancient wonders of Egypt: according to the World Economic Forum, Egypt is now the fourth cheapest tourist destination in the world.

Least Friendly

Also contained on the list were those countries considered "least friendly" to tourists. Bolivia won that dubious honor, followed by Venezuela, Russia, Kuwait and Latvia. Pakistan also made an appearance on this list (at number 7).

So who shines in the World Economic Forum Rankings

What's a bad report for some, is an A+ for others. Iceland and New Zealand tied for the title of world's friendliest countries. Switzerland, Germany and Austria (in that order) were named the countries with the best touristic infrastructures.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An Introduction to Foodie Rome

As I write this, much of Rome is staring up into the sky, waiting for a smoke signal from the announcing the next Pope. But one of the elements that's always made Rome so extraordinary is closer to ground level. I'm talking of the city's extraordinary food scene--restaurants, bars and food shops.

Happily, all of those are covered in an expert-driven new blog called The Rome Digest. Set up by a group of food-tour leaders and culinary authors--they have 7 wine diplomas and 6 masters degrees among them--the site introduces the visitor to the very best eats Rome has to offer. These can range from budget places (pizza, quick lunches, gelato) to fine dining to stores where one can procure pastries, wines, chocolate and even cooking tools. The last section of the website is devoted to the erudite food tours of the website's founders.

Click on the link above and start salivating!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Aer Lingus Cuts TransAtlantic Fares to Just $699 for Summer

Early summer that is. But heck, it's far better than the cost of flying to the US to anywhere else in Europe.

If you can book before March 20, you may be able to snag a $699 airfare for travel between New York's JFK Airport and Dublin from June 1-15. The second half of June will cost $799 on that route; July and mid-August pricing (July 1-August 22) jumps to $949 round-trip. Then it's back down to $849 for travel in the last part of August.

Other conditions? Fares are for Monday-Thursday flights only and require a Saturday night stayover. The deal is a web only one, available at And the deal is valid for new bookings only.

Head to the link above--quickly--for full information.

Monday, March 11, 2013

New Website Targets Undecided Vacationers: You Choose 2 Destinations, It Picks, You Save

Mind reading.

It's an important element in setting airfares. When airlines think that you, the traveler, MUST go somewhere (ie if you book many months in advance) , they ratchet up prices. When not enough travelers have expressed a interest in a particular locale, prices drop.

Flip the Virtual Coin & End Up in Istanbul
So it should come as no surprise that a travel website, called, has based its model on letting the airlines know that the traveler will go to whichever place the price is cheapest.

Here's how it works. The user keys in a region (say Europe or the Caribbean) or a type of vacation (picks include: beach vacation, NY Times most interesting places for 2013, History and Culture) and dates. The site then shoots back prices for airfares.

In my search, for an April departure from New York City, I was given 10 options with Istanbul coming in the cheapest for airfare (at an impressive $580 round-trip) and Paris the most expensive (at $851). Moscow was an impressively low $605 round-trip, though since I know how high costs are on the ground there, I wouldn't take it as a budget traveler. My other options included: London, Athens, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Milan.

Clicking to Istanbul, I got the itinerary but not the name of the carrier. I then made my second choice London, but in order to get these rates, I have to let the site choose for me where I'll be going.

Its a roll of the dice, but for travelers who just want to get away at the lowest price, this type of gambling may make sense. As with Priceline or Hotwire, I would have to pay before I find out which choice I get, so that's where I stopped.

According to, the site will soon be offering this chancy travel option for hotels, as well.

I'll be keeping my eye on the site to see whether it catches on.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Freebie Friday: Free Hotel Stays in Great Britain with Airfares on British Airways

It's baaaack!

Every year, at this time, British Airways drum up business by offering 2 free hotel nights with the purchase of airfare. As always, the hotels are perfectly fine and quite well located (in short, places you might have booked yourself even without this deal).

This is, what?, the fourth year we've seen this promo.

Not that we're complaining, especially because 2013's offer also includes discounted sightseeing across Great Britain (including two-for-one admissions to the special exhibits at the splendid Imperial War Museum in London).

Travel must take place before May 31, and prices will vary by dates. For full information, go to

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Yin & Yang: More Bad Effects of the Sequester on Travel Plus Unexpected Discounts on River Cruises

So far, it seems like the effects of the sequester vary from place to place, and may not be being fully felt at airports yet, thanks to inclement weather cancelling flights; and furloughs that will start later this week.

Nonetheless, a blogger from Gadling reports that most of his three-hour layover in Houston, on the way from Latin America to another US city took a full three-hours of waiting in line at customs. He called it the longest line he'd ever seen in his life.

DC bound travelers will want to know that tours of the White House have been cancelled until further notice. I'll do my best to post other sequester problems, as they pop up, here in this blog.

Savings for solos

In happier news, two river cruise companies have decided to waive their singles supplements for the near future. AMA Waterways announced Monday that it would allow solos to book double cabins at no additional costs for select cruises along the Danube and Seine. Reservations must be made before March 31.

Rival Grand Circle Cruises announced a similar offer earlier, allowing solo passengers to waive the singles supplement when they book over the phone (the deal is not available online). Solos should call 800-248-3737 and use code TAAT 102 when booking.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Knives on planes? Yes, you can

In a surprising announcement, the TSA has said that it's reversing its policy on not allowing knives onto planes. You won't be allowed to carry a machete or a paper cutter, of course, but pen knives will now be fine, as they have blades less than 2.7 inches long, the new maximum that will be allowed on board (they also have to be less than half an inch in width).

The TSA will also allow the following items carried on:
  • Novelty-sized or toy baseball bats
  • Billiard cues
  • Ski poles
  • Hockey sticks
  • Lacrosse sticks
  • Up to 2 golf clubs
The reason for the change? "This is part of an overall Risk-Based Security approach, "says the TSA website "which allows Transportation Security Officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives.”

Golfers and other sports enthusiasts will obviously be pleased but flight attendants apparently are not. According to the Associated Press, the Transport Workers Union, which reps attendants at Southwest, has issued a statement calling the new policy "dangerous".

The new regulations were the work of an internal TSA group that's been culling data to determine risk strategies. Frankly, I'm happy to hear that they're taking a research-based approach. This seems like a smart way to take some of the pressure of agents, who must scan thousands of items each day, so that they can concentrate on the really dangerous ones. Like bottles of water. (Kidding, kidding!)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Air Travel News: Sequester, Bundling and Frequent Flyer Miles

Yesterday was a busy news day for air travelers. Here's a round-up:

The Sequester Effect: Or is it a non-effect? That's been the big argument, with FOX News crying foul, and Janet Napolitano claiming that lines at customs and TSA security stations are already longer. Politico seems to be playing referee, publishing Napolitano's words, but noting there hasn't been any significant uptick in grumbling on social media about chaos at the airport.

Whatever the truth was about Monday may be moot, because furlough notices won't go out until March 7, apparently and that will DEFINITELY affect air travel for the worst.

So folks, if you're heading to the airport for a flight, get there a bit earlier. You don't want to still be in the security line when the flight takes off. And heed Napolitano's common-sense and kindhearted plea: don't berate the TSA on this one. It's not their fault that the sequester happened and they won't have adequate numbers to keep the lines short. And as a practical matter: pitching a fit will just slow everything down further at the airport. Instead, contact your Senator and Congressperson and let them know you want this sequester ended before too many shoes drop. And I'm not talking the shoes at the security line.

Bundling Airfares: Back in October, I blogged about a worrisome plan put forward by the Air Transport Association to "customize" airfares. What it meant, in a nutshell, was that the major airlines of the world (all members of this group) would start collecting data on passengers and using it to put forward customized airfares for each person (one might get free luggage check, another priority boarding and each at a different price). I opined back then that this would inevitably lead to sharp upticks in the cost of airfares, as it would become much more difficult for consumers to compare one airfare to the next.

The New York Times--a little late on this one--has come to the same conclusion I did, based on that October ATA press release. It's also raising serious questions on privacy issues. To read their take on the issue, click here.

Air Miles Worth Less on Delta: That's the conclusion of an excellent and well-researched report by Gary Stoller in USAToday. According to Stoller, members are abandoning Delta's program in droves because they're finding it so difficult to redeem miles at a base level. When Stoller tried to do so, he found that 42 out of the 50 flights he checked, had no loyalty seats at a decent point level, despite the fact that he was checking on low-season flights. Take a read, it's an eye-opening piece.

Monday, March 4, 2013

More Points for Your Pillow

Well, this will keep some travelers up at night!

CNN Money is reporting that a number of major hotel chains are getting stingier with their loyalty programs. Apparently, Hilton, Marriott and Starwood Hotels (which encompasses St. Regis, W Hotels, Sheraton, Westin, Four Points, Element and Loft Hotels) will be raising the minimum points needed for a nights stay in May.

Hilton will nearly double the points needed for a freebie in peak season (starting at the end of this month) and Starwood will be implementing a minimum that's about 25% higher for most of its brands. Marriott's uptick isn't as extreme but is still significant.

So is it all bad news for point counters? No. Hilton will be adding fifth nights free for Elite Members; and recently Starwood starting partnering with Delta Airlines, so that members could earn points in the air as well as in bed.

The take away: You're going to have to be even more strategic than ever to make these loyalty programs work. So, look at what you're earning as compared to the price you're paying for a night's stay. It may make more sense, in the long run, to book a cheaper, non-loyalty hotel in many cases. Though that will depend on your travel patterns and the amount of time you spend on the road.

Friday, March 1, 2013

XL Airlines Adds Miami to Paris Direct Flights

I've blogged here before about the little-known XL Airline, a carrier that doesn't seem to care much about its North American clientele. How else to explain that it really only advertises in Europe, and doesn't appear on any of the major online travel agency sites such as Expedia or Travelocity.

But its snub can mean great rates, especially on its newer routes. Thanks to Travel Rob, who told me about the $664 round-trips the carrier is selling for travel this summer between Miami and Paris. Probably the best way to snag one is to be flexible with your dates, and use an engine like or, two of the few English-language sites that list this carrier.

A friend flew to France on XL last summer and reported back that though the booking process wasn't easy (I believe she had to try several dates before she found one with a good price for her family of four), the flight itself was absolutely fine. Needless to say she was thrilled with the savings.