Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Spots Have Opened Up on Pauline Frommer's October Tour to Taiwan!

You know what they say about best laid plans....

We purposefully decided to limit the number of guests on my upcoming tour of Taiwan to 15 or less. But I just learned 15 minutes ago that a member of the tour has fallen ill. So he, and the three family members he was supposed to travel with, have had to cancel. Which means there's now room for you, dear reader to join me on what should be the adventure of a lifetime.

A few details:

1) The tour departs on October 4 and is 10 days long. We chose to travel in early October as it means we'll be in Taiwan over National Day, one of their most important and festive national holidays. It should be a wonderful time to be in Taiwan.

2) The tour is being administered by Pacific Delight Tours (800/221-7179 or http://www.pacificdelighttours.com/wor-taiwan), who will supply expert local guides, though I'll be hosting, which means I'll be adding commentary, bringing in special guests and have picked some of my favorite restaurants for us to dine in.

3) We'll be seeing all of the highlights of this fascinating country from beautiful Taroko Gorge National Park to Longshan Temple to the wood-carving village of Sanyl. And of course we'll be visitng the Palace Museum which holds the top treasures from mainland China's Forbidden City (brought here by Chiang Kai Shek).

The cost of the tour is $3499 with airfare to Taiwan (less if you'd like to supply your own air transport, using miles perhaps).

Taiwan is a truly special place, with a fascinating history, unusually friendly people and widely varied sights from the second tallest building in the world to bustling night markets (we'll eat at one!) to places of great natural beauty. There's a reason the Portuguese named this Ilha Formosa (or beautifual island)!

We expect to fill the vacancies by Friday so call ASAP if you're interested.
And to see some videos I made on the wonders of Taiwan, please go to www.wor710.com/taiwan

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

More on Taiwan

“Bu yao!”

An ugly Mandarin phrase, it translates roughly to “I don’t want it” or “go away”.  And like most visitors to mainland China, I learned it on my first visit there and had to use it often on that visit, and subsequent ones, simply to walk from place to place though the aggressive trinket sellers who dog tourist’s steps in the People’s Republic of China.

But in Taiwan, where I was mid-February? “Xie xie” (thank you) passed my lips the most, followed by “hen hao chi” (that was delicious!). I had no need, ever, to ask for space, or sidestep persistent street vendors, or wonder why I was being summarily shoved to the side on crowded sidewalks or in front of elevator doors. Instead I found myself relaxing as we went from place to place. I felt safe and welcomed.

Taiwan is most definitely a kinder, gentler China.

Of course, no-one travels to a place just because the people smile at you in the loving way your grandmother once did (they really do!). But because this island nation offers such an intriguing mixture of classic Chinese culture, lush natural beauty and quirky Taiwanese history, the caring greeting visitors get becomes the cherry on top of the sundae—or in this case, that zesty bit of scallion atop the pillowy dumpling.

And with that metaphor, let’s start with the foods of Taiwan, which are travel-worthy in and of themselves. The island’s cuisine has a crazy quilt of culinary influences; it boasts 17 indigenous tribes, early settlers from southern China, Chinese Civil War refugees from across mainland China and a heritage of Japanese gastronomy left over from the half-century Japanese occupation of the island. That means that each meal can be totally different from the next…and yet still authentically Taiwanese.

To give some specifics, one evening I dined outdoors at a night market, inhaling a creamy oyster omelet smothered in sesame sauce and thickened with tapioca (for about $2); for dessert, it was a wispy mochi ball (50 cents) stuffed with bean paste, far more delicate than those you get in Japan. The next night brought excellent Shanghai-style soup dumpling at the famous Din Tai Fung (about $3, Taipei is where the multinational chain began and where its best outlets are).

Even the foods that scared the pants off me turned out to be swoony: at another night market I had a $1.50 bowl of pork liver soup, and though it obviously wasn’t kosher, it tasted like two great Jewish classics melded blissfully together: matzoh ball soup, with chopped liver replacing the matzoh ball.

The sites of Taiwan are equally as delish. Taipei is home, after all, to the Palace Museum, which holds all the top treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City, spirited away by Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops at the close of the Chinese Civil War. A collection spanning some 5000 years, it ranges from austere Ming vases to objects that might be at home in the most high falutin’ of carnival sideshows, like an olive pit carved into an exquisite replica of a boat, complete with 8 rowers and doors that can open and shut to this day (you peer at it, and the other wondrous miniatures of the collection, through magnifying glasses set in the cases).

Nearby is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, an impressive shrine to the now-controversial leader, featuring a precision, high kicking changing of the guards on the hour that would impress the Rockettes. That display takes place in front of a massive, seated statue of the former president, a dead ringer for Washington DC’s Lincoln Monument.  And for high tech sights, Taipei boasts the second tallest skyscraper in the world, created in the shape of a bamboo plant and featuring the fastest elevator anywhere (according to the Guiness Book of World records; my still popping ears will also attest to its speed).

Taiwan was nicknamed “Ilha Formosa” (beautiful island) by the Portuguese, and you’ll see why when you head out of the cities. Dotted with pristine national parks and sweeping beaches, its mountains so green they’d make Kermit blush, it’s one unusually pretty island. The government, playing on its strengths, has recently created a nationwide system of bike paths, meaning one can now pedal by the thousand-foot marble-sided gorges of Taroko National Park or to the exotic, Salvador Dali-esque rock formations of Nanya.

But it was the temples of Taiwan that caught my heart. Here in Taiwan, worship is calisthenic in its intensity, widely varied and tangibly joyful. Unlike on mainland China, where the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of many temples and habits of ritual, here people have practiced their religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and a myriad of animist religions associated with the island’s indigenous groups) undisturbed for centuries. Visitors are warmly welcomed at the temples and even aided if they decide to ask the Gods for an answer to a pressing question, using the temple’s kau cim sticks (you shake a bucket, then randomly pick one and it leads you to a proverb for guidance). Go even if you have no desire to throw out a prayer to one of the thousands of thousands of deities that populate these temples in elaborately carved and painted effigies (often sprouting real hair for beards and head gear). These brilliantly painted houses of worship, with their large urns for incense, turning prayer wheels (in some) and intense devotees are a sight to see, and get to the very marrow of the Taiwanese soul.

I promise, you’ll utter a hearty “xie xie” for having chosen little-visited Taiwan for your next adventure.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Won't You Join Me on an Exciting Trip to Taiwan This Fall?

I usually travel alone or just with my family. But once a year, on behalf of the radio network my father and I work with, I host  a tour somewhere in the world. Last year it was Paris and the French Riviera, the year before that we went to Sicily and before that I took a group to China.
And you know what? It's usually one of my favorite trips of the year.

That's because the listeners to The Travel Show all have something in common: they're avid travelers. Which makes them fascinating to travel with as a group, because they bring such a breadth and depth of experience to whatever we're seeing. The conversations over dinner are fascinating, and members of the group make life-long friendships. (A group of women who traveled on the Sicily trip call themselves the "Sicily Sisters" and have traveled together since, as well as going out periodically for lunch in New York City.

You'll notice that I very carefully write that I'm hosting these tours. That's because being a tour guide is a very specialized skill (one that I don't possess!), and so along with the group, will also be professional, Taiwanese guides. However, I did visit Taiwan just this past February, so I've had a good amount of say in shaping the trip, picking some of my favorite restaurants there for the group to experience, and shaping the sightseeing. I'm also hoping to bring in special guests to talk with the group, and thus make the experience a more culturally rich one.

In preparation for the trip, I created a series of videos so that people can see a bit what Taiwan is like. I hope to soon have them up on Frommers.com. But in the meantime, you can see them at www.wor710.com/taiwan.

On that page, too, is information on the itinerary (October 4, for 10 days); our host company (the well-respected Pacific Delight Tours); and more. If you'd prefer to chat with someone about the trip, call 800/221-7179. Another website for information is: http://www.pacificdelighttours.com/wor-taiwan

One final way to learn more: come and speak with me personally! I'll be at the Broadway in Bryant Park event in New York City, this Thursday from noon-2pm, talking with folks at the Taiwan booth. So please drop by and say Hi!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Etiquette in the Air: The Importance of Manners In Flight

In the hopes of restoring some decorum to air travel I decided to interview “Mister Manners”, Thomas Farley. Farley is the author of “Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces” and helms the website whatmannersmost.com. After an appropriately gracious greeting, I grilled him with the following questions.

Pauline Frommer: Why are manners particularly important when we fly?

Thomas Farley: Manners, at their most basic level, involve kindness, consideration, and following the ‘golden rule’. You’ll feel better if you act well to the people around you because you’ll get that behavior back at you. And that’s especially crucial when you’re in a place as stressful as the airport.

Frommer: I’ve found that power outlets in airports have become hubs of incivility, as people jockey for a place for their plug.

Farley: I’ve noticed that, too—some people camp out and take over four or five outlets to charge their cellphones, their laptops, their IPads, what have you! So don’t be a power glutton. If you see people circling, do some triage with your devices to see which one most needs the juice and share. Even better: arrive at the airport with your devices fully charged so you can be the good guy.

Frommer: But what do you do if you’re one of the people circling the outlet?

Farley: If there are none others free, it’s perfectly acceptable to go up and say, “I’m sorry, but I see you’re using three plugs and my phone is almost dead. Would it be okay if I used just one?” Most people want to be helpful and will comply. And if they’re not, well, you know you’ve been the better person; you’ve been polite.

Frommer: Let’s move to the plane itself. Who gets the armrest?

Farley: The poor person in the middle seat, no question. Each passenger has the right to one, and the person in the middle, who’s squeezed, gets two. If someone feels that strongly about getting two armrests, and you’re sitting in the middle, see if they’ll switch with you for the middle seat. That should change their mind quickly!

Frommer: What’s the etiquette for reclining your seat?

Farley: This is a big one for me, because I’ve got long legs so I’m aware of the pain that can ensue when someone treats their seat as a barcalounger and slams his seat down! Before you recline, take in the size of the person behind you. If it’s a small child, it won’t be a problem. If it’s a 6-foot-tall senior citizen, I’d choose not recline. And if you must recline, do it slowly so that you don’t catch the person off-guard. Don’t do it during meal service, obviously.

Frommer: Should you ask the permission of the person behind you before you recline?

Farley: It’s not common practice but it’s a lovely thing to do. Remember, you might get a “no” if you ask, which will leave you with no options. But if you want to ask permission, you get a gold star from me!

Frommer: What’s your advice on issues involving carry-on luggage?

Farley: Don’t take too much! The overhead bin is designated, usually, for no more than three seats to share. If you’re using it all, you’re taking up too much space. And don’t plop your baggage in the first available bin as you board the plane. That’s very rude. Keep it as close as possible to where you’re sitting. If you’re an able person, help out others who are less able.

Frommer: Any final words of flying wisdom?

Farley: Remember that the flight crews, the people at security, the gate agents are all people, too. They’re dealing with every type of personality, and they’re often not paid well. Let them do their job without giving them attitude, and that way they’ll be able to do their job better and speed you through.

We’re approaching the busiest travel times of the year, and the most harried, as the cancellations increase because of bad weather.  Good manners are the best survival tool a traveler can have in the holiday season.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Spirit Airlines Quietly Ditches Its 800 Number, Domestic Airfares Down to Many Popular Destinations This Summer and More Airline News

What's the difference between 800 and 801? The first is a toll-free call, and the second is an area code in Utah. Which does Spirit Airlines use for its reservations number? The one that has customers footing the bill, of course.

I have to give thanks for that bit of intel to a Florida reader who alerted me the change. (I don't know when it happened). And you have to give chutzpah points to Spirit, the airline that seems to have mastered the art of squeezing every last penny from customers.

Prices down for summer?
In better news, Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal is reporting that airfares to a number of domestic destinations are down, and down steeply, in the coming months. Deepest drop is to and from Chicago; passengers will 18% less than last summer, according to Orbitz. Other cities that have also seen price drops include Honolulu, New York City, Tampa, Denver and Washington, DC. 

When I interviewed McCartney for our radio show, he attributed the declines to an increase in bookings to the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe over the same time period.

Will the fares remain low domestically? That's anybody's guess, so the advice is: book now if you're thinking of flying this summer. A sudden hitch in gas prices, or a late-booking spree, could easily up the fares.

The drinks are on Southwest
And here's a bit of odd-ball news: Southwest Airlines is soon going to owe millions of passengers free cocktails.

The back story: Southwest Airlines used to gift its 'premium ticket' passengers with drink coupons for alcoholic beverages. Problem was, a lot of passengers started photo-copying the vouchers, and so, in 2010, the airline abruptly stopped honoring them. That led to a class action suit against the Southwest (since the vouchers had no expiration date) and just this week the airline settled. Which means it could be on the hook for $29 million dollars worth of beer, wine and high balls. Here's Business Insider's take on the settlement, and how consumers can potentially belly up to the sky bar.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Holiday Inn Pays Guests To Stay At Its Properties....Sort Of

Holiday Inn will be giving a minimum of $25 in gift cards for either gasoline, train discounts or air discounts to those who stay for two-nights between now and June 30th. Stay 3 nights, and the chain will reward you with a $50 gift card, 4 nights nets $75 and if you can bed down for 5 nights, you'll be eligible for a $100 card.

Does that make this a great deal? Not necessarily. Before you spring, do your due diligence and make sure that area hotels of similar quality aren't undercutting HI's rates.

But heck, if you're a loyalty point collector (and you need to be for this program, though joining is free), why not snag a gift card?

To read all the details, go to http://www.ihg.com/holidayinnresorts/hotels/us/en/global/offers/offers/planes-trains-automobiles

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pay Just $110 Per Night for a Lovely, Manhattan Hotel This Spring (No That's Not a Misprint)

Views of the Hudson river (from some rooms), fluffy duvets, larger-than-normal rooms, a primo location, free wifi, a useable gym and a genuinely friendly staff--these are the elements that make the Belleclaire Hotel in NYC a top pick, even during the periods that it's charging $239-and-up for its rooms.

Yes, it's an older property but in this case that's going to work in travelers' favor. To celebrate the hotels 110th anniversary, it will be charging just $110 a night for its rooms for stays between April 19th and Labor Day.

The catch? You have to get old-fashioned and use the phone. But those who call the hotel at 877-468-3522 between the noon on April 19 and midnight on April 20th, mentioning the "Belleclaire birthday promotion" are in for some lovely, and cheap, sleeps.

My advice: Call early in the afternoon on the 19th. I'm guessing this one's going to sell out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Change Fees Waived by Airlines for Those Flying Into or Out of Boston

This is just a quick blog to point you towards a helpful article by USAToday. In light of yesterday's horrific attack in Boston, all of the major carriers have waived change fees for those scheduled to fly into or out of the city in the next few days. They're doing this not because service is being disrupted--it isn't--but because they know that many people's plans have probably changed.

For full details, please click on the link above.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Buckle Up, It's Going to Be a Bumpy Flight...Literally! The Effects of Pollution on Air Turbulence Plus More Bad Sequester News

I'm sorry that this blog has become a parade of lousy news lately, but here comes some more. Scientists are predicting that as carbon dioxide levels rise, so will air turbulence for transatlantic flights. The bumpiness will have to do with the jet stream moving ever farther north. Scientists, in a study published by the journal Nature Climate Change, are saying that both the frequency of turbulence and its strength will increase significantly in coming years. To read the Associated Press account of the study, please click here.

Those bumps in the, er, road will be coming in the coming years. But the sequester is happening now, and we're starting to see more and more fallout from it. In the latest news, the Navy has announced it will be cancelling Fleet Week this year. So, no well-deserved break for our men and women in dress-white uniforms this year; much less business for restaurants and night spots in those cities that host this yearly event (most notably New York City); and civilians won't have that once-yearly (and pretty thrilling) opportunity to tour working naval vessels. 'Tis a shame.

Apparently, the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron have been forced to cancel all their appearances at air shows in 2013. 

Even worse (arguably) has been the rash of vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park. The Park Service has been forced to close several of the park's most popular hiking trails because vandals have defaced 17 areas of the canyon with graffiti. Most are blaming social media for the increase in vandalism. Apparently, the perpetrators have been posting photos of their hits, spurring others to do the same. But one has to wonder if the decrease in ranger patrols--something that's happening at strapped National Parks around the country--was also a factor.

And that's the news from country woebegone. Hopefully I'll have some happier news for you soon.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lessons to Take Away from Yesterday's Pickpocket-Inspired Shut Down of the Louvre in Paris

Last May, I hosted a tour of France for the listeners to my radio show. We had days of touring together, and days when we set off on our own. On one of the free days, a group within our group headed to Versailles. Though they came back raving about the grounds, and the hall of mirrors, they also had some serious negatives to report about the experience, on two topics: pickpockets and crowds.

The two are, of course, inextricably linked. Where there are crowds, there often are pickpockets. Our group felt they had two close calls at the museum, dealing with men who were obviously tailing them and at one point, shoved a member of the group into another stranger. Thankfully, nothing was taken from that person, but they were shaken up. Constant announcements, by guides, about looking out for pickpockets, also made the experience a less-than-relaxing one.

The problem isn't confined to Versailles. Yesterday, the staff of the Louvre expressed their worries about pickpockets at that institution in a highly European way: they went on strike! Would-be visitors to the Louvre were told that the staff had walked out, forcing the museum to close, an extraordinary turn of events (and  that must have been intensely frustrating for the visitors). A union representative for the staff told the Guardian newspaper that workers were afraid of the organized gangs of thieves in the museum, many of whom used children as distractions (children enter free). Staff members had reportedly been spat upon and insulted when they tried to intervene.

So, a new spotlight on the age-old problem of pickpockets at tourist sites. But it's an issue that Bruce McIndoe, founder of the travel security firm I-Jet, feels has gotten more serious in recent years thanks to worsening economic conditions in Europe.

Obviously, travelers shouldn't skip the Louvre or any of the other crowded-but-important sights of Europe. But they should take precautions. Here are a few suggestions, from McIndoe:
  • Keep your passport, the majority of your cash and other important documents, in a safe at your hotel when you can.
  • When you have to carry a large amount of money, do so either in a money belt or in a wallet that can hang from your neck and tuck under a shirt. Keep a small amount of money in your pocket so you don't have to dig into your hidden stash in public.
  • Men who don't want to wear one of these devices should keep their wallet in their front, not back, pocket. They also are advised to put a thick rubber band around it, which will make the wallet much more difficult to extract from the pocket.
  • If you feel like someone is barging into your personal space, heed the red lights that sets off. Generally pickpockets work in small gangs, with one or two people distracting the victim while another lifts their valuables. So keep a zone of space around yourself when you can, and if you think someone's approaching you for a phony reason, walk away.
  • Be careful about flaunting your cell phone in public. Pickpockets are increasingly grabbing those. 
Travel safe, friends!

By the way, the Louvre re-opened today.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Airline Complaints Soaring

Did your latest flight arrive early? Mine did and that's not necessarily a good thing. As an analysis in USAToday showed, just about two months ago, that airlines are padding their flight times to improve on-time stats.

That means on-time and early arrivals, yes, but also more time spent just sitting on the darn plane. In fact, the paper found that 93% of flights are now longer than they were in 1995. 

Combine that increased time with the fact that planes are flying much fuller than they were a decade ago, and with more seats crammed on to them, to boot,  and what do you get? Complaints. A massive surge in complaints.

According to the Associated Press, complaints are up by a full 20% from a year ago. It's basing its reporting on statistics just released by the Department of Transportation.

An additional source of friction has been the increase in involuntary bumping (with fewer planes in the sky, fewer passengers are volunteering to wait for the next plane when flights are overbooked than in the past. Why? Does so could mean getting to one's destination days rather than hours late).

It's all an ugly brew, and frankly, there's not much to do. But forewarned is forearmed right?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Flying From Abroad into a US Airport? Bring a Book...and Lots of Patience

The sequester's effects have been sneaking up on travelers, slowly but surely.

I've blogged here before about this governmental snafu's potentially devastating effect on our National Parks--their staffing, services and programming.

Happily another travel crisis has been averted...for now. The Department of Transportation has decided to put off shutting down air control towers until June, citing safety concerns. Summer should also be when security lines slow down, due to a hiring freeze at the TSA.

But for those flying  into the country, the ugliness has already set in. According to USA Today, understaffing at customs has slowed down entry into the US to a crawl. New York's JFK has it worst, with passengers waiting up to three hours to get into the US. (Note for travelers: lines are the worst in the morning. From personal experience, I can tell you that they don't seem to be too awful in the evening. We waited just half an hour last week when coming back from Morocco). Miami has also seen 3-hour plus waits, according to the newspaper, while at Los Angeles Airport, officials have held passengers aboard planes for a full hour because the customs area has gotten dangerously crowded. Sadly, Washington Dulles, which just added a third more customs booths (at the cost of $180 million), has seen its wait time increase by half an hour or more, despite the expanded facilities.

Cuts to employee overtime are the reason behind the increased waits.

What a sad welcome for foreign visitors coming to the United States! Heaven knows we can use their tourism dollars. According to the White House, foreign tourists spent $14 billion in the United States in 2012, an increase of 8% from 2011. That translates into tens of thousands of jobs at hotels,  attractions, airports, restaurants and other sorts of facilities that cater to tourists.

Tourism has been a bright spot in an economy that seems to be getting better only in fits and spurts. With the sequester, and its devastating impact on the comfort of our visitors (and on their options, should they be coming to visit our national parks), we could see that increase in visitor numbers evaporate in 2014. The US has a good amount of competitions when it comes to travel.

So what to do? Remind your legislator that you haven't forgotten about the sequester and you realize these inconveniences--some serious ones--are the direct result of their inaction. Travel cuts are just one small part of the impact of the sequester (my heart goes out to all those whose unemployment benefits have been slashed). It's time to kick up a ruckus! Email your Congressperson, email your Senator and tell them we expect them to do their jobs, now, not later!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Freebie Friday: Intercontinental to Offer Free Wifi to All Its Loyalty Program Members

In 2014. The clubs elite members have it already. But hey, it's a step in the right direction.

Along with the Intercontinental Brand, the company owns the following chains: Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites. And yes, free wifi will be available at all at the turn of the year.

For complete info, click here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Quick! A 48-Hour Sale on British Hotel Rooms For High Season Stays

Just a quick post to let you know about a great deal: beds across Britain for just 10 GBP. And those ain't hostel beds. DeVere Venues are all proper, often pretty, hotels scattered across the UK. The sale holds for travel between June 28 and September 9, for those who can book by end of day tomorrow. Need more info? Go to http://www.deverevenues.co.uk/offers.html. But do it quick! Some dates will sell out.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Your Browser History Affecting the Travel Prices You're Shown? A Terrific Article from Veteran Journalist Bill McGee

I'll be interviewing Bill McGee for our radio show tomorrow about a provocative article he posted in USA Today on whether travel deals change based on your browsing history. Though all of the major travel sites have long claimed this idea is sheer paranoia, McGee tested his hypothesis, using different computers in the search for airfares. His conclusion: travel providers are tracking consumer purchases, and raising the prices on those who spend most.

So what does one do with this bit of intel? McGee's advice may be a bit unwieldy for many, but he recommends using more than one browser and even switching computers when possible. Shopping around is also key, he writes, as is using sites that don't respect your privacy. Towards that last point, always make sure the site you're about to use has a privacy policy posted and don't use sites that say your information will be "held", "shared" or "sold".

Alas, McGee (and I) think this situation is about to become worse, thanks to the airline's stated intention to start customizing fares for their passengers (click here for my blog on that). This will require passengers store past travel purchase history with the airlines in order to be eligible for specialized "discounts".

Hey, any of you potential airline customers in the market for a bridge? I have just the one to sell you.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Soon It Will Be Easier for Visitors to Use NYC's Subways

As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I can tell you that some New Yorkers used to take a kind of mischievous delight in the fact that visitors had trouble using our subways. Hey, it cut down on the crowding! Very often, stations would have no maps posted on the platforms; and those maps that did exist were so defaced with graffiti, nobody could see where Times Square was, or how to get to the Statue of Liberty.

That was the bad old days. Welcome to kindler, gentler Gotham! A Big Apple in which Times Square means Disney musicals not hard core porn, and the FBI touts our crime stats as a model for the rest of the country (no joke: NYC is now the US' safest big city). And down in our subways, there will now be touchscreen maps, designed to make sure no tourist ever accidentally ends up in the Bronx again. According to ABC News, there will be up to 90 of these helpful devices scattered around the city in the near future.

Tourists should be very pleased.

As for locals: they'll likely grouse about the new additions. Subway fares just went up after all, and they already know where they need to get off.

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 NBCNews.com 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 bestrateguarantee.blogspot.com 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 VacationsToGo.com 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 Consumerist.com.

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 http://www.aerlingus.com/termsandconditions-ustoireland/. 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 GetGoing.com, 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 ABCNews.com, 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 www.ba.com/bigbritishinvite.

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 Momondo.com or CheapoAir.com, 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.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Sequester And How Our National Parks Will Cope: An Internal Memorandum

A source of mine sent me a memorandum that was distributed to National Park Service Employees today. Its directives are stark. The consequences of these actions for Americans planning to vacation in our National Parks this summer will be painful--fewer days, limited staff and services, more dangerous conditions. And most importantly, less staff on hand to protect these national treasures for future generations.

Please, after you read this memorandum contact your representatives and beg them to do the right thing. This upcoming sequester is a disaster in so many ways and will have a devastating impact on the parks in particular.

Here's the memorandum:

From: Director /s/ Jonathan B. Jarvis

Subject: Update on Preparations for Potential Sequestration

While there is a slim possibility that Congress will reach an agreement that eliminates the need for sequestration and the senseless, across-the-board budget cuts that it will impose, with the March 1 deadline only days away we must finalize our plans, be ready to implement them, and prepare for the resulting impacts on our visitors, our partners, our parks and programs, and on each and every employee.

Sequestration requires the National Park Service to take a five percent – $134 million – reduction in the funds we expected, and it must happen in the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. We have few options and even less flexibility. No park or program is immune, and each was required to submit a plan of how the cut would be taken and the impacts that would result. This was a tough assignment and I appreciate everyone stepping up to get it done. A review of the plans Service-wide offers a grim reality of how we will have to reduce the level of direct services we provide to the American people in parks and communities across the country. There will be wide-ranging and long-term consequences. And there will be – and already have been – negative impacts across our entire workforce. While plans are still be finalized, we expect the following to happen:

All 25,000 National Park Service employees will face challenges in performing your job. Because we are just as dedicated to the proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars as we are to the stewardship of their parks, we have been prudent about spending since the start of the fiscal year. Since October 1, we have delayed filling many vacant permanent jobs and reduced travel and other expenses. Secretary Salazar has implemented a Department-wide hiring freeze as well as given direction to reduce overtime, travel, training, contracts, cooperative agreements, and grants and eliminate conference attendance. I want to emphasize to you that keeping positions vacant is not a sustainable strategy; it cripples our ability to meet mission responsibilities – from providing education programs to kids, to coordinating wildlife research, to managing museum collections – and it increases the burden on remaining staff that take on additional critical work that cannot go undone.

Furloughs of Permanent Employees. We are still finalizing our plans and assessing whether furloughs of NPS permanent employees will be required. Across the Department of the Interior, it is expected that thousands of permanent employees will be furloughed for up to 22 work days. In the
unfortunate event it comes to furloughs, all affected employees will be provided at least 30 days notice or in accordance with the designated representative collective bargaining agreement, as appropriate. We continue to engage in discussions with employee unions to ensure that any furloughs are applied in an appropriate manner meeting agency mission requirements. If you have questions on this issue, I encourage you to go to the Office of Personnel Management website, which has helpful information and answers to frequently asked questions regarding furloughs (found at www.opm.gov/furlough, under the “administrative furlough” section).

Seasonal employees will be furloughed, have delayed starts, shortened employment periods, or will not be hired at all. We lose our utility infielders. Our seasonal workforce is the “bench” we turn to when fires break out, search and rescue operations are underway, and every other collateral duty in the world needs doing. Many of these folks return year after year; they are the repositories of amazing institutional knowledge for the park…and our visitors. The sequestration will hit just as many parks are gearing up to hire seasonals. In some parks, like Yellowstone, the impact has already started; those who would normally be getting ready to plow roads for the spring season are on hold and the opening of the park could be delayed up to a month. All seasonal employees that are furloughed will be provided at least 30 days notice.

We will be unable to hire the number of students that we had planned –halting the progress on youth hiring of the last four years. Students are a vital part of our workforce today and integral to the National Park workforce of tomorrow. Sequestration will mean that we will be unable to
meet our youth hiring goals. We also expect significant reductions to cooperative agreements with partners that fund youth work crews and are the foundation for our vision of a 21st Century Conservation Corps. Our inability to hire students and enter into cooperative agreements will have
lasting impacts as these young people are forced to find work elsewhere and ultimately may make different career choices.

Sequestration will have long-term and wide-ranging effects.

1. Economic. Reduced services and access will make families planning summer vacations think twice about coming to a national park. A drop in visitation could have devastating effects on the economies of gateway communities who depend on visitor spending and shut down park lodging,
food, and other services provided by concessioners who support 25,000 jobs. Just today we announced that visitor spending in 2011 pumped $30 billion into the national economy that supported 252,000 jobs.

2. Unfunded Community Projects. Our commitment to states and communities will be jeopardized by $2.4 million in cuts to NPS grants to states to support local recreation, $1.9 million to support historic preservation, and $500,000 in technical assistance offered by RTCA.

3. Resources at Risk. Our capacity to respond to new threats from invasive species will be cut in half and previous investments in eradication will be endangered; at Yosemite, more than $2.5 million spent in recent years to remove/control aggressive species as yellow star thistle, Italian thistle and Himalayan blackberry will be wasted if those plants reestablish their hold and increase their threat to native ecosystems. Water quality testing will be reduced in as many as 55 parks. At Redwood, the inability to fill the park’s hydrologic technician position will lead to a degradation of the park’s long-term hydrologic record. The park will be unable to collect water quality data that supports Clean Water Act Section 303(d) monitoring and directives from Congress contained in the 1978 Redwood Act. Ford’s Theatre will lack the curatorial capacity to manage its collection of over 14,000 artifacts relating to President Lincoln and the management, preservation, and documentation of these objects and documents would be jeopardized.

If sequestration happens, I want you to know that I will be doing everything possible to mitigate its effects on our mission and on you and your families. Over the next several days it may be difficult to sort through what is fact and what is rumor. Your entire National Park Service leadership team in Washington, in the regions, and in parks, is committed to making sure that you have accurate and timely information as we know it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Brilliant Airfare Tip From Rick Seaney of FareCompare

This appeared yesterday in USAToday and it's such a pearl, I had to direct your attention to it.

In short, Seaney notes that airfares can rise when you buy more than one at a time. Why? Because reservations that include multiple seats will always have the same price. If the airline is releasing, say, 2 seats at a lower price, and you're booking 5, you'll only get the higher price for all your seats.

His method of searching for group fares involves first looking for the number of fares in your group (say 5), getting a price and then clicking away. DON'T BUY at this stage. You then do another search for just one ticket, and if it comes out at a lower price, you add passengers until the price jumps up again. Then you buy some of the seats at the lower rate and some at the higher. Overall, your group saves. Pretty nifty eh? According to Seaney, it also works with groups as small as two.

To read Rick's original piece, click on the link above.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Low Cost, High Speed Rail Debuts in France

In Europe, as here in the US, it's not at all odd to find airfares that are significantly more affordable than train fares on the same route. Its an odd quirk since, obviously, airplanes should be far costlier to run than trains.

Well, in France, at least, that situation is about to change. A new rail line, called (cutely enough) Ouigo is being launched on April 1 by France's national railroad monopoly SNCF and it will be charging just 10 euros for routes that normally run 60 to 80 euros. Que des économies! And that price isn't for the old, clunker engines, it's for high speed rail lines, some 62 in all across the country. The 10 euro price will hold until 400,000 seats are sold, and then rates will rise a bit. Children traveling with adults pay 5 euros on any route. A number of seats will also go for less than 25 euros, still a bargain.

There are some drawbacks to the service, foremost among them being that the rail-line doesn't go into the center of many cities, using suburban stops instead. For example, it doesn't serve Paris. Instead, would-be riders will have to trek out to the nearest Ouigo station, which is Marne-le-Valle. But that may not be a problem for everyone as it is next to French Disneyland, and a quick 30-minute RER ride from central Paris. For Lyon, passengers will be dropped at the airport station.

Drip-pricing also erases some of the sheen from this new rail line. There will be charges for extra luggage (as on many airlines you'll be allowed one suitcase and one handbag free) and for the use of electrical outlets onboard. 

A final bummer: no cafe car. That allows the rail line to add extra seats, and give these sorts of discounts. 

For complete info and to book (do it quickly as this will sell out), go to www.ouigo.com/fr.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Frontier Breaks with Expedia

In yet another salvo in the ongoing war between air carriers and third party booking engines, Frontier Airlines announced today that it would no longer accept bookings through Expedia. Apparently, contract negotiations broke down, leading Frontier to go its own way.

Will it last? Well, when American Airlines decided it would no longer sell through Orbitz in 2010, that online travel agency retaliated and, due to a judge's order, American fares returned to the Orbitz site in 2011.

This is all part of a larger strategy, on the part of Frontier, to cut out the middle man (and his fees). In fall of 2012, the airline announced that only passengers who booked directly on the Frontier website would be allowed to choose their seats in advance (the airline also attached ugly, additional fees to change fees and other services, for those who didn't book direct). This latest move can be seen, I think, as the next move on the chess board.

Who's hurt in all this? Expedia, obviously (Frontier fares will still appear on Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity). But  the consumer is also a loser here, as it will be more difficult for potential flyers to suss out what the costs should be on the routes Frontier flies.