Monday, February 28, 2011

A New Hotel Website Makes Its Debut, But Frankly I'm Skeptical As To Its Utility

Longitude and latitude: two extremely important issues for travelers when they're choosing a hotel room, right? 

(Photo by Rich Anderson)
The folks who are behind the new hotel site Room 77 are betting that consumers care deeply. They will have this info, as well as the altitude of rooms, their square footage, whether or not they have connecting doors, how many feet they are from the elevator and more minutia in their new online database.  The site is being billed as the first for rooms in hotels and not just hotels. It will be a "Seat Guru" for accommodations, if you will, with the added bonus that currently rooms are priced at the same levels, if they're in the same category (ie queen-sized bed rooms vs suites or king-sized rooms). 

At this point, the site does not sell rooms, but will instead hand off consumers to their partners at Orbitz or the hotels directly, when it comes time to book. Room77 allows users to input a handful of criteria (view, how far from the elevator, etc.) to choose the appropriate room. To gather its info, the site will rely on crowd-sourcing, floor plans that are already in the public domain, info from the hotel chains directly (they hope they'll verify the info online) and Google Earth views. About a dozen US cities and London are currently represented on the site (and its app), 3-star and up properties only.

Here's why I think that all of this effort will likely come to naught: most people don't actually want this type of information. 

What is REALLY important in a hotel room: 
  That its quiet enough to sleep in (and being near an ice machine or a noisy neighbor will be much more disruptive than a nearby elevator. The thickness of the walls is also key); 
   That the mattress is good; 
   That room smells okay and is clean. 

None of these questions are being addressed by Room77 and I don't know how they could be, without turning it into more of a straightforward review site. 

View will be important to some folks, but you don't need this site to ask for a view! You just tell the hotel before check-in what you want and hopefully a high room, pointing in a scenic direction, will be available. Getting a view ain't rocket science. 

As for the info on room size: except for much older properties, most modern hotels have standard room sizes within each category  and they vary, at most, by a foot or two. In fact, when I was toggling around on the Room77 site, I found there to be NO difference whatsoever in the square footage listed for the room categories I chose. 

Finally, the location of the hotel itself is usually the key decision when looking for accommodations. It trumps all other considerations, in my view.

Sure, there are some super-picky travelers who might like the idea of this site. But I'm guessing that even they will be disappointed by it in the end. These are the folks who make a habit of requesting to see several rooms before they settle. How will they be able to substitute looking at online stats for their own in-depth, on-site snooping? I don't think the experience will be as reassuring for them. 

Who knows? Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. I hope I am as obviously a lot of creative, driven people have poured hours of work into this new site. One can only wish them well. (Even if I can't think of any reason I, personally, would ever use this new site.) 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Freebie Friday: Companion Airfares to the Bahamas Gratis

The view from the Atlantis Resort by Derek Skey
Recently, a colleague of mine at Wiley Publishing (which is the publisher of the Frommer Guides) came by my office to shyly pose a question. She and her new husband were going to be taking their first non-honeymoon trip together and after the long, long winter we've just suffered through, she was thinking of going either to the Caribbean or the Bahamas. She said her interests were culture and cuisine more than beach-time, so I was frank with her steering her towards such Caribbean islands as Puerto Rico, Jamaica and St. John's. I also noted that the Bahamas weren't nearly as far south as the Caribbean, so the weather wasn't as foolproof. Sometimes, just as in Florida, spring days could be downright chilly, not beach weather at all.

She ignored my advice and chose the Bahamas for a very simple reason: the cost. This year, in an attempt to lure visitors, Nassau/Paradise Island are giving away companion airfares for free. Of course, there are a lot of strings attached including:
  • Bookings must be made by Feb 28
  • Travel is good until Dec 23, though the months of April and July are blacked out as is August through the 14th
  • Travelers must purchase their airfare as part of a package and stay a minimum of four nights at one of 17 approved hotels (including the famed Atlantis).
To see all of the details, click here. And you may be able to find out whether its actually "better in the Bahamas" (I think you can tell from my first paragraph where I stand on that slogan).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The "Big Picture" and How It Will Affect Travel

Yesterday, I blogged about the price of gas and how it would impact travel costs in the coming months. Today, the New York Times chimed in on the topic, noting that we've already seen four airfare hikes since the beginning of the year. That compares poorly with last year's record: only three over the course of the entire year. Many airlines are adding peak season surcharges and fuel surcharges.

And just like I did, the Times is predicting the fares will only go higher. They really have no choice: the cost of gas now accounts for 40% of the airlines' expenses. Last year, it was just 30%.

 Yosemite viewing areas could close in March (photo by D.K)
The Upcoming US Government Shutdown

Travelers heading to or staying within the United States may be in for a rude shock if congress is unable to pass the requisite funding measures necessary to keep the government operational after March 4 (the date the current measures expire. The last time the government had to shut down, in 2005 and 2006, National Park employees got a defacto furlough and 386 NPS sites shuttered. According to a report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, some 7 million vacationers had to be turned away.

The New York Times quotes a Park Ranger who was forced to clear out visitors from the campgrounds at the Great Smokey Mountains National Parks, ruining their vacations. ""I was cursed and verbally abused more on that one day then in the rest of my 32-year career," he said. "No one told the public not to come to the most-visited National Park Service area during the fall color season. What they found were no campsites, no visitor centers, no park ranger programs, and most importantly, no restrooms."

And remember: the NPS isn't just in charge of the big parks, like Yellowstone and Yosemite. When the government closes, many very important urban attractions will also have to lock their entrance gates, like the Statue of Liberty, the visitor centers at the memorials on National Mall in Washington, DC and Alcatraz in San Francisco (to name just a few).

Sorry to be the bearer of such bad tidings. But forewarned in this case is forearmed. If you're planning a National Parks vacation for early March, please be sure to also concoct a back-up plan should the park be forced to close down.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


That's the keyword for today, next month, the month after that and likely the year. Its my fervent hope that it won't be for the coming century.

Oil's escalating prices---climbing at double the rate most industry-watchers had predicted, thanks to the current turmoil in the Middle East--are going to drive massive increases in the cost of food, heating, and many of the other necessities of life. Could the energy problem thwart our climb out of this recession? Seems more than likely.

The cost of a barrel is also, not surprisingly, going to have a huge impact on how North Americans travel this year. Already we're seeing airline fares heading skyward. Over the weekend, all of the major carriers added $10 to their base prices. On Monday, American raised its rates by $20 to $60 on last- minute and premium tickets; a number of its competitors followed suit. Fuel surcharges, a hidden cost, are back for many long-distance routes.

And though its early to start talking about summer road trips, a number of local newspapers are printing stories about residents jettisoning plans for the summer already (here's a good one).

So what can you do if you want to travel despite the upticks in cost. Some suggestions:
  • Before your road trip, consult such sites as Created by AAA, it allows car owners to accurately predict how much they'll spend on gas. Users input their itinerary plus the make and model of their car. The site then spits out an estimated gas tally for the trip. With that figure in hand its easier to figure out how much you'll have left over to spend on the other necessities of the trip.
  • When on the road, use (its also available as an app). This volunteer-run service allows drivers to find the cheapest gas stations in the areas they're visiting. Often the differences, from one gas station to the next, can be significant.
  • Book now if you're flying: I think I need to throw out the advice I usually give about never booking more than four months in advance. With the persistent upward creep of fares, it seems the better part of wisdom to book all flights as early as possible this year. The advice to book midweek still holds, however, as most consumers do their shopping on weekends, so the airlines post their highest rates then.
  • Look at air/hotel packages: This holds especially true in such lodgings-saturated areas as Cancun, Las Vegas and Orlando. Hoteliers who sometimes don't want to reveal the real cost of their lodgings often charge a better rate when they can hide it within the context of an air/hotel package.
A sunny spot in all of this? Its my guess that, because of a drop in travelers, hotel prices will remain steady and may even drop in many road-trip destinations. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Sneaky Travel Fees You Don't Have to Pay

Mass in St. Peter's Square (photo by Ruth L)
No doubt about it, the travel agents who are trying to charge pilgrim's a fee to attend Pope John Paul II FREE beatification ceremony, are going to hell.

Though the Vatican can't guarantee that posthumous outcome, it is raising a large hue and cry to ensure the public isn't duped. The beatification mass will take place in St. Peter's Square on May 1, and anyone who shows up is welcome to stay and pray at no charge. Its expected that 2 million of the faithful will show up, so video screens will be set up in neighboring squares to accommodate the overflow. Pope John Paul's remains will be placed in St. Peter's Basilica right after the ceremony where the faithful will be allowed to view the closed coffin (its usually kept under a marble slab). Other beatification events (there will be three days of celebrations) are listed here.

From the Eternal City to Sin City
Purgatory, but not hell, now awaits the Execs at the MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas (I'm assuming, obviously; I don't have the inside track on celestial tracks). Word came at the end of last week that they've removed the $20 a day fee that they were trying to require for guaranteeing a non-smoking room. Let's hope they'll also be refunding the already-charged fees for those folks trying to escape the smoke.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Where Are Today's Backpackers and Honeymooners Heading?

Believe it or not, they're heading to many of the same destinations.

The migratory patterns, so to speak, of these groups of travelers were examined in several, massive 2010 surveys, the results of which were released last week. Booking site drew responses from 15,000 of its users; bridal site garnered 12,000 responses from its couples; and questioned several hundred travel agents on the trends they've noticed. Here are the results:


Exotic seems to be out in these recessionary times. For honeymooners, 30% of the American couples surveyed by TheKnot had decided to stay close to home, picking the continental US for their getaway. Nothing says "romance" better than a pair or mouse ears and small children running all about, apparently, and Orlando was the top draw among those who decided to stay in North America, with Las Vegas a close second. Those booking through travel agents were most likely to choose Hawaii, according to

Donald Duck, Captain of Romance (photo by Bruce Tuten)
Hostelbookers data was drawn primarily from travelers in their 20's and early 30's, with the most respondents from the UK, followed by Australia and the US. What was surprising to me was how cautious these folks seem to be in their choice of destinations. Backpackers used to be known for pioneering new parts of Asia and Africa for tourism. According to the 2010 study, the number one destination for these folks is also the US with France, Spain and the UK trailing by a hair. Non-western destinations don't crack the top ten.

Time Away
As with other groups of travelers vacation time is shrinking. Those honeymooners going outside the US are averaging 8 days away, while those staying closer to home are gone for just 5-6 days on average.

Among the backpackers, 50% of whom self-report as having full-time jobs,  long-term travel seems to be just a dream. One third of these respondents said they traveled for just 4-7 days at a time; another third took 8-14 days off.

Along with shortening their average honeymoon time to save money, a number of newlyweds are choosing cheaper hotels and cutting out the extras (spa treatments, expensive dinners, etc.) to keep costs in line.

The backpackers, not surprisingly, have even tighter budgets: 50% hope to find lodgings for $29 a night or less, and 64% plan to spend less than $40 a day for all their other expenses. I wish best of luck to the 3% who are planning to live on less than $10, and urge them to write me and tell me how they do it!

That would be a given with honeymooners and isn't covered in the surveys. But interestingly, 16% of the hostelers admitted to having sex in hostel dorm rooms (really? Without waking anybody up?!?). And a whopping 73% of respondents said "they'd never tell" which either ups the number of people copulating in public, or speaks to an apparently common hostel fantasy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Museum Entry Across the USA

Chicago Art Institute (photo by David Paul Ohmer)
Ah, but not for everyone.

This freebie is tied to a credit card, but its such a common one, I thought I'd spotlight it. Culture vultures might consider switching to Bank of America, just for this periodic free museum entry.

To help you decide whether you'd like to switch, click here. Bank of America's site lists the dates for the free museum entries (they occur the first full weekend of each month) as well as the names of the 151 participating museums across the United States. And these aren't secondary institutions. The Art Institute of Chicago participates, as do such varied institutions as the National Constitution Center, Seattle Art Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame,  the Phillips Collection, The Great Lakes Science Center, the Houston Zoo, and The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

I can think of sillier reasons to take on a new credit card!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fly between Chicago and Either San Francisco or LA for Just $7 (Book Today)

Today's announcement that Virgin America was going to be adding Chicago's O'Hare airport onto its flight roster came in a highly unusual way: via And I'd say the event marks a coming of for both for the airline and for the world's largest group-buying site.

Photo by Ann Larie Valentine
Its a highly significant move for Virgin, which up until this point had confined itself to the coastal regions of the US (its airports in Mexico and Las Vegas were the exceptions; word has it that the airline will be dumping its hub in Toronto). With mighty Chicago as its latest get, Virgin has put in a claim for the American heartland. I can only assume Chicago will be just the first new midwestern hub it announced in the coming months.

For Groupon, this is its first full-throated foray into the travel sphere. Oh sure, it's posted deals for lift tickets, walking tours and museum, but this partnership with Virgin is at a new scale for the site.

And what a deal! Those who book today will get a ticket between the Windy City and either Los Angeles or San Francisco for just $7. Travelers must purchase the coupon today, but have until May 25 to schedule their travel. The window for flights is from May 25 through Nov 11, 2011.

Move fast as this deal could sell out. For full details, click here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Choose a March Getaway for Your Break This Spring

A "keg stand" on South Padre Island (photo by JD)
Spring break is nearly upon us. Oh, can you hear the kegs sing?

As per usual, Florida, coastal Texas and the Mayan Riviera are predicted to be the top party spots for college-age vacationers, though the decision by MTV to film its annual bash in Las Vegas may lure a number of them to Sin City (despite restrictions that keep anyone under the age of 21 off the casino floors without a chaperon, a major buzz kill).

As for costs, a doom and gloom article in USAToday quotes a number of travel agents warning that the airfares and hotel rates will be higher and crowds will be bigger. Undoubtedly the first prediction is true and barely a prediction at this point, as airfares are already a good 17% higher (by most estimates) than they were a year ago, and hotel rates are inching up, too.

But larger crowds? Not necessarily.

We can thank the christian calendar. This year  Easter will be falling much later than usual (on April 24; last year it was April 4) which will elongate the season. Those without kids will likely take the usual March getaway, but those with elementary and high school children will be given a week or two-week long break around Easter. College students? Their break time is varying from school to school, with some keeping to the usual March schedule, others switching to Easter-time.

The down-low? Flexible vacationers should look to vacation in March, as the majority of people will be taking time off in April.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Delta Says Adios to Expiration Dates for Miles

Delta soars above the competition with its latest move (photo by CPY)
About half an hour ago, Delta Airlines made a lot of flyers very, very happy. An email was sent to all Delta loyalty program members stating that miles accrued on the carrier would no longer have an expiration date. Previously, mileage holders had 24 months in which to use their points before they expired. The new policy is backdated to January 1, 2011.

With this extremely customer-friendly move, Delta becomes the only major carrier in the United States to have loyalty miles with no expiration date.

I, for one, think its a good reason to fly Delta in the near future.

Hey, other carriers, did you hear that? Delta actually earns my loyalty with this move. You may want to try it, too.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine's Day Update on Getting Hitched in Sin City

Barbie has relented and is taking back Ken.

George Bush boo-hooed on The Today Show this morning while reading love notes to Barbara.

Camel's milk chocolates are the must-have for really pretentious couples.

Hotels across North America lured visitors by placing flowers and bottles of cheap champagne in their rooms. 

And in an act of filial love, Prince William has named Harry as best man for his upcoming nuptials.

So that's the day in love, this Valentine's Day.

But the story that I think may be most indicative of the state of coupledom in this country, came from The Associated Press about the crash of the wedding industry in Las Vegas.  According to author Cristina Silva, the city is experiencing a "love recession" with the number of couples marrying falling to fewer than 92,000 (a number not experienced since 1993); and the income to the city for wedding licenses plunging to $5.5 million, down from $7 million in 2004. Las Vegas' troubles reflect a sharp drop in the number of people getting married at all in the US.

So what does all this mean for folks who are still, er, romantic enough to want to get married in Vegas? I'm guessing it'll be a lot easier to play "let's make a deal" for wedding expenses.

Which are already quite low in the city. The average wedding in the US costs upwards of $20,000 according to most bridal sources. In Las Vegas, a quickie drive-through ceremony hovers at just $100 and that includes a rose for the bride!

Of course, everything you add to the basic ceremony--photos, bouquets, Elvis impersonators--also add to the cost. But with the insider info about Vegas' woes, I'm wagering you'll be able to play one chapel off against the next to get a better rate, as all desperately need your business right now. (Plan a midweek wedding to save the most.)

The one exception will be the Viva Las Vegas Chapel, a personal favorite of mine. Run by a former Vegas show dancer who has a flair for dramatic and creative ceremonies, its been able to increase its take in the last year by holding renewal of vow ceremonies and ceremonies for gay couples. Don't try to bargain there, as they'll likely turn you down.

But there are dozens of other places to consider. Here are a few of my favorites (I wrote a book on Vegas called Pauline Frommer's Las Vegas and visited every chapel within the city limits):
  • A Special Memory Wedding Chapel: Maybe the prettiest chapel in the city, designed to look like a classic, clean-lined New England church. Nice staff, too. 
  • Little Church of the West: On the historic register, this is where Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Angelina Jolie, Dudley Moore and Richard Gere all made vows (for marriages that didn't last, but don't let that deter you). It looks like it was lifted right out of the pages of Little House on the Prairie, with redwood walls and Victorian lamps. As close to classy as Vegas gets.
  • Graceland Chapel: Home to the famous Elvis, Elvis, Elvis wedding (in which three Elvi--young, middle aged and fat and old--marry you at once). Lots of rockers, including Jon Bon Jovi, favor this handsome chapel.
All of the major hotels will also perform ceremonies, but apparently, they haven't been as hard-hit by the drop in marriages as the free standing chapels (and likely won't be amenable to haggling).

To all those getting hitched today: best of luck!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Kids Free on Early Season Disney cruises

View of Alaska from the water (by Steve Anderson)
What's Disney famous for today? Princesses, making NFL stars' dreams come tream ("I'm going to Disneyworld!"), keeping Walt on ice, and last, but not least: never EVER discounting. (And I'm talking about true discounts, not the price drops the company rolls out each winter to keep their on-site motels filled at prices that are still a good $30 a night above their equivalent competitors).

Well, Goofy bites Tarzan! It looks like Disney is whistling a different (happy) tune this year. To innaugurate its cruises to Alaska, Disney will be allowing kids to cruise for free if they're accompanied by two parents, and can play hooky by vacationing between May 3 and May 24.

Alas, only deluxe staterooms are covered by the freebie offer, meaning that even with the freebie for kids, you won't be spending less than you would on other ships at this time of year. I just found $600 Alaskan cruises on Royal Caribbean for May, meaning one could get four into a cabin for a hair less than the price of two in a deluxe stateroom on Disney (which starts at $1250 from most sellers). Still, if you want to have the "Disney experience" for your family at a reasonable rate, this sale is as good as it gets.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another New Hotel Fee, Perhaps the Most Insidious of All

Christopher Elliott reported on his blog yesterday that Las Vegas' MGM Grand Resort will now be charging guests a $20 a night fee for guaranteeing a non-smoking room.

Photo by Bruce

I guess you gotta give 'em props for creativity. But its enough reason for me to avoid the MGM Grand. With that fee, and the property's outrageous $20 resort fee, I'd be paying a whopping $40 a night extra just for the privilege of being a sucker. No thanks.

 Its a shame as the MGM is a darn nice property, with an impressive portfolio of restaurants, one of the best pool areas on the Strip (complete with lazy river and water slides) and rooms that are decorated in a plush, neo-Art Deco style that's quite attractive.

But I'm not a smoker. And I'm concerned by recent studies on the effects of so-called "third-hand smoke", the carcinogenic compounds  left behind on a room's furniture and walls long after the original smoke has dissipated. They're the reason that hotel rooms smell of cigarettes days after the smoker has checked out. And they're the reason I choose non-smoking rooms and move if I'm put into one that reeks of cigarettes.

With this disgaceful new fee MGM isnot only hurting its customers pocketbooks, but potentially their health.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just $393 Round-Trip To Europe? No Joke

A Krakow vacation this spring? (Photo by Robin Bazylek)
It sounds like a Polish joke (and I can say that since I'm of Polish ancestry), but those who book today can snag airfare all the way to Europe for as little as $393 round-trip INCLUDING all taxes (and since taxes usually add a good $150 or more on Transatlantic flights, that's quite a steal). Lowest rates seem to be from the New York City area (both Newark and JFK) to Warsaw, though there are also bargains from Toronto  and Chicago. Flights must be booked today for travel between Feb 16 and April 15. See the site for more fine print. And note that discounts may also be available for kids up to age 11 (25% off) and infants (90% off). Click here for full details.

Lufthansa is also holding a sale with a longer booking window (through Feb 15; lowest rate is NYC to Dublin for $198 each way plus tax) as is Aer Lingus ($219 each way is the lead price for flights in early April with bookings by March 3).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Car Sharing" In Lieu of Renting?

Its an ingenious idea: instead of allowing the family car to sit empty and unused when not being driven, owners in the Bay Area of California, in London and in Boston are joining "car sharing" services which match them with short-term renters.

(Photo by Busy Brain)
Both parties come out ahead. The owners make a bit of extra cash from the rental of their vehicle; and the renters pay less than they would with Hertz, Avis or one of the other major rental car brands. Apparently, the swap organizations are working on cellphone apps that would allow for keyless car opening. For now, owners share electronic keys with their renters.

To read a bit more about these services, click on this recent blog penned by Sean O'Neill for the New York Times.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Few More Details On The Obama Administration's New Regulations for Cuban Travel

As I posted in mid-January, the Obama Administration has announced it plans to liberalize travel to Cuba. No, the embargo hasn't been lifted. But it will be significantly easier for Americans who don't have relatives on the island to visit.

Havana Cathedral (photo by Rahi Madatia)
Last Thursday, I spoke to John McAulliff, the coordinator for the Travel Industry Association on Cuba, to learn more details. McAulliff was in Havana at the time, working with ground organizations there to prepare for what most think will be a large influx of American tourists.

According to McAulliff, the Obama Administration has actually gone farther than the Clinton Administration did, with regards to two groups of travelers: students and those traveling for religious purposes.

Any student who can prove that he is getting college credit for his study in Cuba will be allowed to go without having to apply for a special license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This is an unprecedented move, a policy that's much less restrictive than what was allowed under Clinton.

This same exemption will apply to those traveling with religious organizations. And when I was talking to him, McCaullif seemed to slyly suggest that getting a group together and then affiliating it with a local synagogue, church, mosque or temple, might be the best way to go. "The government cannot define what religious activity is as that would be unconsitutional," he told me. "As long as you're affiliated with some religious organization--and 80% of Americans are--your group can go under the auspices of that organization without the hassle of applying for an OFAC license."

Under Clinton, the most common group travel to Cuba was for "cultural purposes". Tour operators are waiting to see how liberal the government is going to be in awarding OFAC licenses to these types of groups. The requirements for obtaining the license haven't changed in a good 18 years, but how the law is enforced can greatly affect the number of licenses given out each year. Under Clinton, thousands of licenses were issued; under Bush, almost none.

The takeaway: If you want to go to Cuba, try praying.

You can hear much of the interview (it was quite long, so we had to edit it down) by clicking on this link which will take you to a podcast of my radio show.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Freebie Friday: Facebook for Free in the Air This February

American Airlines, AirTran, Alaska Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, US Airways and Virgin America have teamed with GoGo Inflight to give away free access to Facebook on most February flights. The promo is being sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.

Alas, its not as generous an offer as the one Delta, Air Tran and Virgin with partner GoogleChrome gave during the holiday season (Nov 20, 2010 through Jan 2, 2011): free access to all internet sites. Internet will be available in February but at the usual prices: $4.95 up to $13 for very long flights.

Still, we can thank Ford for its largess: Facebook access is better than nothing. Though your Facebook friends may wonder why you're updating your status every two minutes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Getting a Refund on Your Egyptian Trip

This weekend my father and I fielded a call, on the radio show we host, from a listener who had booked a trip to Eygpt and was now trying to get her deposit back. The trip was scheduled for September. She'd picked a reputable company and put down a $200 deposit. When she'd called the tour operator on Thursday requesting the $200 back, they'd refused, saying the deposit was non-refundable.

(Luxor, Egypt; photo by John Thomas)
Our advice on Sunday was, and remains, call back in a few days. With the situation escalating so rapidly in Egypt, many of the travel companies who do business there are scrambling to catch up and policies are changing from day to day.

Plus, it is possible that by September Egypt will be calm enough to visit once more. I, for one, sincerely hope it is. Tourism is one of the top industries in Egypt and without the revenue it generates, many Egyptians will go hungry. We can onlypray that this situation resolves itself soon and without further bloodshed. (I strongly urge you to read NBC's Richard Engle's tweets and reports on the situation. His reporting is not only heroic, but tremendously insightful).

In the meantime, Carol Pucci, of the Seattle Times, has written an excellent piece detailing how a number of major tour operators, cruise lines and insurance companies are reacting to the crisis. Most of the tour operators she cites are giving full refunds or credits toward future trips to those booked to vacation in Egypt in February, and in a few cases through March. Cruiselines are cancelling their stops in Egypt without offerring compensation to passengers for the change in itinerary. And those who purchased travel insurance are likely to be woefully disappointed. With the exception of those who booked with American Express, or booked pricey "cancel for any reason" policies, most travelers are finding that their insurance does not cover trip cancellation in cases of civil unrest.

For complete details, click on the link above.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another Fee to Factor In: Fuel Surcharges

They're baaaack!

Last week, JetBlue announced that it would be adding fuel surcharges to the Caribbean. This week, the Associated Press is reporting that a number of other airlines will be adding them as well, the first time these types of fees have been charged since 2008. So be careful when you book American, Delta, Continental and United as these fees may not appear until well down on the booking pages.

Those flying internationally should be aware that Air France is now adding fuel surcharges; and Singapore Airlines and its subsidiary SilkAir recently increased theirs.

This all follows a spike in oil prices which most experts are predicting will go even higher. And with oil so go airfares, so if you're on the fence about buying a ticket for travel in the next three months, now may be the time to plunk down your cash. I, for one, am worried that airfares will just go higher, along with those surcharges.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

TSA Goes to Vegas to Test More Modest Screening Machines

There's some irony in that, ain't there? In a town where pasties are a regular part of some resident's attire, the TSA is testing machines that will help cover folks up. The question becomes: is it crucial to  blur out "sensitive areas" (in this era of underwear bombers) to preserve the dignity of travelers.... or are we putting our modesty before our lives?

Photo by Inha Leex Hale
The back-story: today, at Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, DC, new screening software was unveiled by TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird.  According to the images will be sufficiently generic to protect the privacy of those being screened. In fact, the images will be so unoffensive that other passengers passing the screening area will be able to see them. Apparently, these new machines will be similar to those being used in Europe that were originally deemed not effective enough by TSA officials. Today, Baird said that the agency has been working with manufacturers to improve the technology. The machines are being tested at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas now and will soon be in Atlanta.

Obviously, the testing of even more new machines is a result of the brouhaha that erupted last November over the pictures taken by the old machines; and the "invasiveness" of the new pat downs.

But in the months since, only 132 people---out of the millions who have flown in the US in that time-- have filed complaints about the new security procedures with the TSA, according to the DOT.

Do we want to have those 132 people (and the pundits who saw an opportunity to increase their time in the public eye last November) to decide what we do about security or how we spend our ever-dwindling federal budget? And will flying into Vegas be even more of a gamble now than ever?