Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gotta Talk Airlines Once Again...

Because, just as I feared, Congress may try to strike down the Department of Transportation's sensible new rules (see my earlier blog on what those are).

Score one for the airline lobby! And congratulations to Spirit Airline. Your paranoid email to customers (twisting the new regulations to make them seem like a Big Brotherish attempt to hide taxes, rather than a consumer-friendly measures to curb deceptive advertising practices by the airlines) have been effective. Yesterday, Republican Congressman Tom Graves introduced a bill striking down the requirement that the airlines include taxes in the airfares they advertise.

I'll urge you all, once again, to write to your congress people and senators and let them know you think the DOT rules make sense. That you don't want to have to wade through pages of booking forms before you see what the actual prices are. That you're in favor of luggage fees and other fees being clearly listed. To write to your Congressperson, click here.  For the address of your senator, click here.

And on the European airlines front...

I'd like to draw your attention to an important article by Bloomberg News on Spanair's shaky brethren. The writers call them "Zombie Airlines", carriers that are only flying because of heavy governmental subsidies, subsidies that could well disappear soon. I highly recommend reading the piece if you're planning on flying to Europe in the next several months. It might be a good spur to buy travel insurance...or choose a more financially stable carrier.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chaos at the Airport: The Demise of Spanair

By law, airlines in Spain are not supposed to abruptly cease operations, as Spanair did last Friday.  The Spanish government is suing the defunct airline for stranding some 22,000 passengers over the weekend (lotsa luck with that fellows!). But that will do little to help the thousands of travelers who are still searching for a way to get home (or left with worthless reservations for future travel).

Spanair flies into the sunset
This morning, Spanair released its first real message to those passengers, advising them of their (limited) options.  Apparently, the company is working with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to issue refunds for all those who purchased Spanair tickets through travel agents. Whether or not those refunds materialize is yet to be seen. Those who booked directly with Spanair using credit cards are instructed to apply to their credit card companies for refunds or contact their travel insurance companies for help.

The note further points out that those tickets issued by Spanair for flights on other members of the Star Alliance may no longer be valid. So if you booked in this fashion, be sure to check the status of your reservation as soon as possible. Spanair is listing the numbers of its call center for those seeking help over the phone. They are 900 13 14 15 for those currently in Spain; and from outside Spain: +34 971 916 047.

A number of other airlines, including Spain's flagship carrier Iberia, Air Europa and Veulig will be offering discounted tickets to those stranded.  Finding those discounts on their sites, however, takes some searching. And these tickets are all for previously scheduled flights, many of which may already be full. It does not appear that any of these airlines will be adding to their flight schedule to accommodate former Spanair passengers. Oy.

Spanair had been the fourth largest Spanish carrier, its reach extending beyond the Iberian Peninsula to the Africa and other areas of Europe.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Freebie Friday: Get Hitched In Vegas...On The House

The new Las Vegas Mob Museum is making couples an offer they can't refuse.

To celebrate the opening of the new museum on February 14, seven lucky couples will get to tie the knot or renew their vows in the museum's historic courtroom. Presiding over the weddings will be museum founder, and exuberant ex-Mayor Oscar Goodman.

But that's not all these seven lucky couples get. (And no,, it has nothing to do with cement shoes.) In addition to the ceremony, will receive airfare to Vegas from anywhere in the US, flowers, photography, a champagne brunch, a $250 shopping spree at the Fashion Show Mall and a two-night stay at the just fine El Cortez Hotel (yes, the area its in is seedy, but El Cheapo--as the locals call it--was renovated quite recently, so the guest rooms are as lovely as anything you'd find on the Strip). Not bat at all!

The seven winners will be drawn at random. To get in the game, click here.

 I'll actually be at the opening of the Mob Museum, so I'll chuck some rice your way if you win! Good luck!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

World's Best Tour Guides? Possibly..If You Can Afford Them

Interested in going on safari with a former NFL cheerleader turned PhD, who has won two Emmy's for her TV show "National Geographic Ultimate Explorer"? Or how about taking some ski runs with an Olympic gold medalist in the sport?

It can be arranged.

A new website called Zozi is making a name for itself by pairing world-class athletes and outdoorsmen (and women) with would-be adventurers. Its prices can be high. Book the safari mentioned above with Mireya Mayer and the 20-hour overnighter (its billed as a "Sunset Safari") will cost you a whopping $1500 per person. Learning to kayak from World Record holder Tao Berman will set you back $1200.

Still for some wealthy adventurers, the outlay may be worth it. To learn more, click on the link above. Zozi also arranges less high profile (and pricey) adventures in spots around the globe.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fare Transparency: Good for Consumers, Alarming to Spirit Airlines (and Other Carriers)

The look of airfares is going to change tomorrow.

No, they're not going up. But they may look that way, thanks to a smart new law. The Department of Transportation is now requiring that carriers advertise their fares with taxes included. So no more finding a great fare, and clicking on an ad only to find that with taxes and fees, its out of your price range.

Most consumers are darn pleased about this new fare transparency.

The airline industry? Not so much.

In fact, yesterday Spirit Airlines sent out a warning letter to its customers playing on everyone's most paranoid, big government fears. It read (in big, bold black and red type): "WARNING: New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares." Spirit goes on to say that including the tax in the fare will allow the government to up it without anyone noticing.

Its a rich conceit, especially coming from an airline that's made millions hiding its extra fees from travelers (everything from fees for carrying bags onto planes to fees for getting a ticket printed at the airline counter).

At the end of it, Spirit suggests that travelers contact their Senators and Congressmen to complain about the new regulations. A link is provided to making do so easier.

So do what I did: click on the link and use it to thank Department of Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood for introducing some sanity into the way airfares are advertised. The new regulations are a great improvement and will make booking a vacation a less fraught challenge than it used to be.

Other long-awaited regulations that go into effect tomorrow:
  • Airlines must print, in a prominent place on your reservation, the cost of baggage fees
  • Customers now have the right to cancel fares within 24-hours of purchase with no penalty
  • Baggage rules and fees won't change on code-shared flights from airline to airline if that flight originates or ends in the US
  • After you've paid for your ticket, you can no longer be charged additional fees later for that ticket. Also, the bag fees that were in effect when you booked will be the ones you'll be charged, even if they've gone up in the intervening months.
Hooray for good governance!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Buy Airline Tickets Six Weeks Ahead of Your Flight to Save

I love number crunchers. Especially when they help save me money.

And that's what the lovable geeks at the Airlines Reporting Corp have done.They looked at airfare transactions, millions of them, from the last four years and found that those who booked tickets six weeks ahead of travel paid 6% less than the average fare on that route. Not surprisingly, those who waited until the day of the flight paid a whopping 40% more than the average fare on that route. In fact, if you look at the nifty chart they posted, you'll see that prices start to rise sharply about 7 days before the flight date, and go up each day one waits.

How does ARC have all this data? Its the company that handles transactions between the United States' travel agents and airlines.

Just thought you'd like to know!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ah, Paris in the Springtime! Won't You Join Me There?

For the second year in the row, I'm going to be getting a little friendlier on my travels.

By which I mean, instead of traveling solo (or just with my family), I'm going to be accompanying a group of Travel Show listeners to Paris, Provence and the French Riviera on a GoAhead Tour. We'll be heading out on April 30, arriving in Nice and then spending two nights there, three nights in lovely Aix en Provence, jumping the high speed train to Paris for three nights there.

It should be a hoot! And what a time to go: the tourist crowds won't yet have descended, the weather will be perfect, the sidewalk cafes will be filled, and all the restaurants will be open. Yes, sometimes I really do have quite an enviable job!

I did this sort of tour last year, and I have to say, it went very, very well. A lot of the credit goes to GoAhead Tours who hired the best tour director I've ever met for our joint Sicilian tour. A spitfire of a gal named Linda, she was incredibly witty, friendly and resourceful. Linda dealt with every problem that arose with grace and dignity (and when you travel in groups, problems do arise. The airline lost  baggage, an elderly passenger's purse was snatched, etc., etc). But beyond that, she helped turn our group of strangers into a real little family. I've been invited to several reunions of tour members here in NYC--people who didn't know each other before, but became fast friends in Italy.

I keep writing about the listeners who took last years tour, but in reality, the tour is open to anyone who wants to come, which is why I decided to post the information here. And those who book before the end of this month will get a freebie: an optional "Evening in Paris" excursion, which includes a river cruise and dinner!

For complete information, click here. Prices listed include airfare and all taxes and fees (no surprises!).

Hope to see you in France this spring!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Supporting Tourism to Create New Jobs

The US Government took several important steps this week with the goal of improving access to America's tourist sites.

Cuyahoga Valley (Photo by M. Webb)
The first was a practical measure. The Department of Transportation announced a grant of nearly $41 million to improve transportation to and within our nation's national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. The money will be used not only to improve access roads, but also to set up greener methods of transportation within the parks for visitors.

What does that mean? Well, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway was one of the 58 projects to receive funding. Some $3 million will go towards improving its infrastructure, an important goal as building ridership to the railway will significantly decrease the number of cars clogging the roads in this pristine wilderness area. New and greener busses are also planned for a number of areas, to replace individual cars, and shuttle visitors rapidly around parks.

For a complete list of the projects being supported, click here.

The bureaucratic hurdles to visiting the United States are also going to be addressed. Yesterday, President Obama, in a speech at DisneyWorld, announced that the US State Department would finally be tackling visa delays. Its a problem that has discouraged millions of would-be tourists and business travelers from entering the US ever since stricter measures were enacted after 9/11 in 2001.

The President promised that by the end of 2012, the State Department would accelerate visa processing by 40% in both China and Brazil, two of the fastest growing segments of the international travel market.

He also vowed to work with the State Department to expand the list of countries whose citizens require visas to visit the US, beyond the current 36 nations. That's a huge and important step, and could mean literally millions of new visitors to the US and thousands more tourism-based jobs for our citizens.

In addition, the Global Entry program will be made permanent and expanded. The program grants special status at customs to those who submit to an extensive background checks. They're able to breeze through the airport much faster than their neighbors. Its been an important tool for encouraging repeat visits to the United States.

We live in an era when any governmental "meddling" is seen as suspect, in some quarters. But I have no doubt that the President Obama and Secretary LaHood's pro-active measures will have wholly positive outcomes.

As President Obama said in his speech "“Every year, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America. And the more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. We need to help businesses all across the country grow and create jobs; compete and win. That’s how we’re going to rebuild an economy where hard work pays off, where responsibility is rewarded, and where anyone can make it if they try.”

Inspiring and true words.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Passage To India...Discounted

This may be the first time I've mentioned the company Friendly Planet on this blog. Which is an oversight I'm happy to correct, because the staff here often comes up with some of the best deals in travel.

Fatehpur Sikri's magnificent architecture..and goats
Like their current promotional sale to India, which is offering tours of that country, including airfare, starting at just $1499. That price includes lift from New York City (add $150 from Chicago), six nights' hotel, and tours of Delhi, Agra (home to the Taj Mahal) and Fatepuhr Sikri (a personal favorite of mine, the town was the capital of India for a little more than a dozen years in the 1600's and has some magnificent  buildings as a result). Taxes and fees are included in this price so there are no surprises.

Could one do this itinerary more cheaply if traveling independently? No doubt.

But for a tour, and with the quality of the hotels used by Friendly Planet, this is quite a good value.

For full details, click on the link above. But do it fast, bookings at this price until Jan 24 only (for travel on departures in May and September).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Compendium of Opinions on the Costa Cruises Disaster

A pre-disaster view of the Costa Concordia
The Costa Concordia disaster raises so many questions about cruising, I thought it would be helpful to devote today's blog to a compendium of links. All of the following articles address the tragedy from a different angle, shedding light on both what may have gone wrong; and what would-be cruisers should keep in mind.

How Safe Is Cruising? I wrote this piece. It takes the reader through a brief history of cruise disasters and the regulations that were born from these tragedies, and includes interviews with experts on the overall safety of the cruise experience and what cruisers can do to enhance their safety on board ship.

What You Sign Away When You Buy a Cruise Ticket This article examines cruising's fine print, the contract of carriage every vacationer agrees to before stepping on board a ship. These contracts usually waive passenger's rights to sue where they please (kicking disputes to an arbitrator), as well as taking away other passenger rights (its a surprising list).

I've Booked a Cruise With Costa, Now What? From the site I helped found, Frommers.com, an examination of what will happen to those scheduled to sail on the Costa Concordia in coming months, plus what passengers can and can't get if they want to cancel their upcoming Costa Cruise.

Captain Said He Tripped and Ended Up in a Life Raft You'll get a grim chuckle out of this one: the captain's latest excuse as to why he abandoned the ship. Click from it to the New York Times' other expert, and ongoing, coverage of the salvage mission and investigation.

Cruise Disaster Could Take Toll On Industry USA Today has been focussing on how the disaster will affect the cruise business and other corollary industries (such as the hotel industry).

I'm sure there will be more coverage of this topic in the coming days, as more is learned about the causes of the wreck.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Philly Dilly: Virgin America Adds a Gateway

Virgin's given birth once again! (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

The clubby carrier--purple lights y'all!--will now be making it easier for folks in the "City of Brotherly" love to share that affection with California. Beginning April 4, Virgin America will be flying non-stop between Philadelphia and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

To celebrate the new routes, the carrier is dropping prices to just $129 each way; even with taxes, that's a good $50 less than the competition on most dates.

Though there are some blackout dates, the sale applies to travel between April 4 and June 15. The discounted fares must be booked by January 20, so move fast if this interests you.

To learn more, head to Virgin's website. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Peru Tours...

...When you can convince a friend to come along with you. Or your boss to give you a super-long vacation.

Let me explain. Starting today, innovative small-group adventure company Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) will be giving away one free Peru tour for every one booked between today and March 13, for travel by Sept 30.

Walking stick vendors, Inca Trail (photo by Ian Armstrong)
But Intrepid isn't dissing solo travelers with this giveaway. Those who don't have someone to travel with (and thus earn the freebie), will be allowed to add on another Peru trip free of charge. That's a wonderful gimme, because many of the tours leave immediately after the others end, and hit different areas of this fascinating country.

If the traveler doesn't have time for two tours, no worries: they'll get a 30% discount on their booked Peru tour.

The tours being discounted in this fashion are:
As you might assume, if you're a solo going on two tours you'll pay for the more expensive one. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Long Beach, Here I Come! Would Love To Meet All the Travelers There

Its "Travel Show" season, which means I'm winging my way across the US, to give speeches, sign books and meet avid travelers (the last is the best part of the gig).

This Saturday, January 14, I'll be speechifying in Long Beach, at the Convention Center, on behalf of the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show. My talk is from 10:45 until 11:45 am, which gives me time to sit in on Samantha Brown, Andrew Zimmern and Peter Greenburg, the other headliners that day (an unusual treat for me).

And for readers of this blog, I can offer a discount! Simply click on this link and use the code SPK2 to get into the show for just $7.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ultra-Chic Chicago Hotel Rooms for $1

Famed hotelier Ian Schrager is attempting to work his magic in Chicago, turning what had been a somewhat run down old stalwart (the Ambassador West Hotel) into a cutting edge boutique hotel, Public Chicago, both for travelers and nightlife junkies. The new hotel opened this fall.

A bedroom at the Public Chicago
To that end, he's done up the rooms in his popular "no color color palette" (the hotel's term not mine), which means white upon grayer white upon beiger white upon taupe. I guess the idea is supposed to be that you've landed in heaven, but the lack of color makes me think "hospital room". Still, its all very plush (despite the popcorn ceilings), with good quality bedding and such nice touches as lender computers and free wifi.  And the Pump Room bar downstairs hops most nights with locals, always a good sign.

But the bottom line is: the new hotel seems to be struggling. How else can one explain the fact that its going to be giving away $1 rooms for an unnamed 90-day period? Obviously, management is hoping that those who take the freebie will spread the word about Chicago's latest option to their friends.

So why not take 'em up on it. To get the deal, you enter your email at the Public's website. Staff will then contact you when the $1 rooms go on sale and you'll have 48 hours in which to snag one. Good luck!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

That's the Spirit! New Fees From the Airline Everyone Loves to Hate

You say you got an email announcing $7 fares between one sun-drenched southern US city and another. Hit delete real quick.

That's because the author of the email is likely Spirit Airlines and when one counts up all the extra fees it adds, its rarely the cheapest option. Two more are coming down the pike and will prove my point even more forcefully.

Beginning January 24, Spirit will tack on a fee of $5 for every boarding pass printed by an aiport agent. (And no, these aren't chocolate or gold tickets; I wish!)

No problem you say: I'll just use the check in kiosk. Well, that'll work for now. But starting June 30th, a fee of $2 will be added on for those who print out tickets from there.

You gotta give 'em points for creativity!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rail Sale from Amtrak

When I can, I take the train. Its the greenest method of travel and usually the most efficient as trains arrive in the center of cities, rather than out in the boonies at an airport hub.

Alas, train travel in the US is not always the most cost effective method of transportation. But it may be this spring, thanks to a sale Amtrak is running. Book before January 23, and the rail line will shave 20% off the usual cost of tickets. The sale is good for travel to and from Chicago, New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Portland and Washington, DC. (For a complete list of discounted routes, click here). The auto train is also included in the sale. Travel window for this discount is Jan 17 through Mar 29, though tickets must be purchased at least three days ahead. And up to two kids can travel with one adult for half off the regular, not the sale, fare.

For more info, click on the link above. And let's meet in the dining car for a ginger ale!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Freebie Friday: Free Drinks on Cruises

As onboard extras go, I've never found cruise ship prices for alcohol to be too high. But that may be because I'm not a big drinker, and I live in New York City where drinks regularly cost $15 a pop and up. But I won't deny that the extras of cruising--from shore excursions to internet charges (my particular bete noir) to spa fees--can sink a budget. For many passengers, paying for drinks is what siphons the most cash from their wallets.

Photo by Daniel Pink
So, for them, I'm posting this link to a piece that recently ran on MSNBC and CruiseCritic about how one can snag free tipples at sea. Much of the advice in the article involves upgrading to suites and more expensive cruise lines to get booze gratis--which seems like silly advice to me, as you'll be paying far more than the cost of the drinks to do so. But in the comments section, there are some good tips from cruisers in the know about on-board parties where liquor is liberally poured and given away; as well as ways to foil the cruise lines at their own game. Take a look.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Which Airlines Pleased Passengers Most in 2011? The Answers May Surprise

Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney has done a bang up job in his latest column interpreting the yearly stats put out by both the Department of Transportation and a site called FlightStats.com (it aggregates the information put out by various airports, airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration). The numbers tell a story of customer service, and point out some glaring differences between the carriers. But what's most interesting about the article is that McCartney is able to explain WHY some carriers do so much better reuniting passengers with their luggage and getting their planes where they need to be on time.

Before discussing the why's, here are the rankings:

On Time Arrivals: Alaska ranked first, Delta second. At the bottom of the pack was JetBlue and United.
Excessive Delays: JetBlue fared poorly here, too, though its partner at the bottom this time was American Airline. Once again, Alaska and Delta had the best record on delays.
Baggage Handling: I must assume that JetBlue is having trouble leaving on time because its the very best when it comes to not losing bags. Delta again took second place at the top of the heap. And you may want to do carry on if you're flying American, which had the worst track record followed by Southwest Airlines.
Customer Complaints: Started with a "U" this year, with United getting the most complaints followed by US Airways. Southwest had the fewest complaints, followed by Alaska.
Bumping Passengers: United bumped the most, followed by American. And JetBlue, which makes it a policy not to overbook, had the best record (with Delta again in second place).
Cancelled Flights: American did that most often, followed by JetBlue. On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska and Southwest cancelled the fewest flights.

Overall, Alaska had the best record, not a big surprise: its had the best record of the seven major American carriers for the last several years.

The bigger news is Delta, which surged into second place just a year after scoring pretty dismally in most of these categories. According to McCartney the airline fully reworked its operations in 2010, opening nine maintenance centers in non-hub cities, which helped keep more planes tarmac ready. It also retrained it customer service personnel and put in a new baggage handling system at its hub in Atlanta. Apparently, its efforts are paying off.

Other airlines may want to take a look at what Delta's been doing right, particularly poor, beleaguered, bankrupt American Airlines which had the worse ratings overall. Most worryingly, American's cancellation rate was 70% higher than the industry average.

Zip over to McCartney's full piece. Its an eye-opening read.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Three New Routes for Frontier, Three New Sales For Us

At a time when most of the airlines are cutting flights and sending out smaller planes, little Frontier Airlines is bucking the trend. It just announced it will be adding three new routes and to publicize them, it'll be throwing a darn good sale. The routes are:
  •  Kansas City-Orlando (flights now through April 15 only)
  • Grand Rapids-Washington, DC (Reagan National Airport)
  • Madison-Washington, DC (Reagan National Airport)
For the latter two routes, the sale price is a reasonable $79 each way. Those hoping to get to DisneyWorld (or escape it by fleeing to Kansas City) will pay $109 each. In the case of the routes from Kansas City to Orlando and Madison to DC, Frontier's itinerary is the only non-stop option available to travelers. In terms of savings, passengers are looking at shaving anywhere from $20 to $80 round-trip off the regular costs of these routes (not bad!).

For more, go to http://www.frontierairlines.com/ for more info; there are also gimmes for frequent flyers with this promotion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A "Passport" To Gyms Around the World

I'm a bit late today posting this blog because I had to fulfill one of my New Year's resolutions this morning.

Yup, I worked out.

Not a big deal, as the gym is in my apartment building. Had I been on the road, however, I might have been tempted to skip that sweaty 45-minutes. Just finding a gym can be a problem, and though I do jog, its not my first choice.

Well, I may not have to take to the streets on my next trip, thanks to a website I just stumbled upon. Called HealthClubs.com its putting out a passport to allow people to use gyms around the world at a discount.

Here's how it works: would-be exercisers find out if their home gym is part of HealthClub.com's network. If it is--and a number of major gym chains seem to be--they request a "passport". This allows them to use other in-network gyms when they travel at a serious discount. The only rule: the gyms have to be at least 50 miles apart for the passport to work.

Its a neat idea, don't you think? To learn more about the passport program, click on the link above.