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, 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

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.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Freebie Friday: Near Free Stays at Red Roof Inns

Everybody stays at the Red Roof Inn
And yes, this one is a long-shot.

But IF you're turning 40 this year, and IF you'll be traveling on your birthday, Red Roof Inns will allow you to stay at one of their many properties for just $19.73 per night.

That's because Red Roof Inns is itself celebrating its 40th year.

For full details, click here. The deal is good through the end of the year.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More Sequester Travel Casualties

I've discussed before in this blog how the shenanigans in Congress could damage our national parks. (Brief bit of advice: if the sequester happens and you're planning a spring National Park vacation, double check the website to make sure the park you were planning to visit will be open on your dates; many will have to curtail their schedules).

But the damage to tourism could go well beyond our park system. As USAToday is pointing out, air travel could become a hellish mess is cuts are instituted, because of the drastic slashing in personnel that will be required. I'm talking both TSA employees and air traffic controllers. If you thought delays at the airport were bad now, wait until April. Unless the Congress gets its act together (unlikely, they're on recess!) and fixes this mess before the sequesters automatic cuts go through.

If you think, like I do, that budgeting should be done in a sensible fashion, a manner in which services that affect safety--like air traffic control and food safety inspections--should be excused from the discussions, writer your representative today and let them know now is not the time for a vacation. They need to do the people's business and get this sequester off the table.

If they don't, should know who to curse out next time your plane is delayed for 3 hours because of lack of staff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Delta and Starwood Create a Loyalty Partnership

Recently, we had Brian Kelly (aka The Points Guy) on our radio show to talk about Loyalty Programs. Though what he said was complex, it can be boiled down to one phrase: "Don't just rely on airline trips to accumulate miles." Instead, Kelly makes a big play for using the right credit cards and accumulating loyalty points at hotels. You can read his advice at the website linked to above.

A Westin Resort Lobby in Greece
Dovetailing this advice, is the recent announcement that Delta has Partnered with Starwood Hotels (which comprises the brands Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, W and Meridien). Starting March 1, those who stay in a Sheraton will earn points on Delta (above and beyond the points they earn by flying). And conversely, booking a ticket on Delta will earn "Gold Tier" members of Starwood's loyalty program points for every dollar spent on Delta. That's significant: its dollars not miles that earn points towards free hotel stays.

Only time will tell how well the program works out for consumers. But for users of each brand it seems like a no-brainer to give the new system a try.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

UK The Cheap Way: 19GBP Private Hotel Rooms This Spring

A map of England using county flags (by Paul Callan)
Traveling to the UK this spring? You could snag a 19 GBP bed. And you WON'T be staying in a hostel.

That's right, a private room with private bath for just 19GBP. In London, you'll pay just 25 GBP for the privilege.

So how are these rooms? Well, they're available from Travelodge from March 22 through May 17. The chain has put some 50,000 rooms on sale. I've stayed in Travelodges in the past and have found them to be more than adequate. By which I mean clean, with comfortable beds, decent showers and nice people at the front desk. They're not the most stylish of places, but heck, at these prices do you want style, too?

To get the deal--and move quickly as it will sell out--head to


Friday, February 15, 2013

Freebie Friday: Would You Pay Extra To Sit In A Kid-Free Zone on the Plane?

That's the question raised by the debut last week of Air AsiaX (the long-haul arm of Air Asia) new "Quiet Zone". The first 7 rows of its economy class are strictly for those over the age of 12. For some reason, that translates to "quiet" in the minds of airline execs and some passengers. (Ha! Wait until a drunken passenger or a chatty Kathy books one of those seats. But I digress...).

For the privilege of sitting in the youngster-free area, passengers pay an additional $11 to $35 (the variance has to do with the amount of leg room offered.)

Now, I can see how booking the first three or four rows of this section might make sense to particularly sensitive travelers. But in the seventh row? Well, you're just as likely to have a kid kicking the back of your chair as you are in the cheap seats.

It'll be interesting to see if this experiment works out for the airline.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Valentine's Day Round-Up of News

Which must start with news of consummation. Yes, US Airways and American Airlines are officially one as of Valentine's Day. Their boards announced today that they'd come to an agreement.

So what will the $11 billion dollar deal mean to travelers? I posted about that topic earlier this week, but other travel experts have also weighed in on such topics on what will happen with miles, how the integration of the two will affect customer service and whether or not ticket prices will go up (most agree with me that they will). To read a nice summary of a lot of other articles on this topic, click here.

Carnival Triumph Still At Sea
No reports on whether those on shore can smell the arriving vessel yet. Oy, what a fiasco. My heart goes out to all the folks trapped on that boat. See my article from earlier in the week on the ramifications of this disaster for cruise pricing. And if you're scheduled on the Triumph for a cruise before mid-April, contact your travel agent as the line has cancelled all of the ship's voyages until then.

Have you ever had a "vacationship"?
I discussed that very topic with the delightful Andrea Syrtash and turned our talk into an article that the Toronto Star is featuring today. It goes into the safety issues involved with meeting someone on the road, the best destinations to find an, er, vacation playmate (and which places to avoid) and why vacations can make your dating life better even if you don't meeting someone on the road. Click here to read the piece.

Improve Your Sex Life: Take a Vacation!
Or so says the US Tour Operators Association. Um, well, what would you expect them to say? But they've backed up this assertion with a study on traveler's love lives. Click here for more on that.   

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Flying Down to Rio..For Less

Carnival's over, and believers have replaced the fun with ashy foreheads and Lenten self-sacrifice. But heck, it's ALWAYS fun to be in Rio, even when the biggest party of the year has just ended.

That's why I was so intrigued to see the headline from The Flight Deal that it had found round-trips from a number of gateways to Brazil's capital of fun for around $600. That's a darn good fare for a flight this long. Apparently it holds for fares through June.

For full information, click on the link above.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Will the Carnival Triumph's Problems Affect Overall Cruise Pricing Going Forward?

My friend, Carolyn Spencer Brown, cruise expert extraordinaire and Editor in Chief of Cruise Critic, has a theory as to why cruises have exploded in popularity this past decade. She points out that if you look at cruise ads, you rarely see the water. Instead, you're introduced to a resort that has everything you could want on a vacation. There's little, if any, reference to maritime pleasures, the lure of the ocean or anything else to remind would-be vacationers that they'll be afloat.

Pretty easy to see why: anything that floats can potentially sink. Or get jostled around. So the cruise industry has been very savvy about uncoupling the image of cruising from the vicissitudes of life at sea.

This type of marketing works until disaster strikes. Both the Costa Concordia tragedy and this week's Carnival Triumph fiasco (the ship had a fire in the engine room, is hobbled and powerless and is being slowly pulled back to port) make people think twice about cruise vacations, especially those who've never cruised before. How could they not, when USA Today is running the headline: Odor on Disabled Ship 'So Bad People Are Getting Sick'. This disaster comes close on the heels of a fatal accident aboard a Thomson Cruise in which 5 crew members were killed.

This is a long build-up to the answer to the question I posed in the headline and the answer is: undoubtedly.

The cruise lines had been making noise about incrementally raising the base prices of cruises in 2013. But if bookings drop precipitously--and history shows us that they will after a well-publicized incident like the one aboard the Carnival Triumph--I very much doubt we'll see higher prices overall in 2013 than we did in 2012.

So what's should the vacationer who's still interested in cruising do? Monitor the prices and wait a bit.
 It will take a few weeks for the sellers to register that a booking drop has occurred and start the discounting process.

In fact, it's always a good idea to wait, unless you have very specific cruise needs (say 10 cabins all on one hallway for a family reunion). Right now is "Wave Season", the time of year that the industry attempts to get consumers to book by throwing a few gimmes their way (free cabin upgrades are common). Truth is: the discounts and gimmes are usually better later on, in the 2 months leading up to the cruise itself. You rarely gain anything (except, perhaps, peace of mind) by booking months and months in advance.

One final thought: I must give some kudos to Carnival. They've done the right thing by offering all the inconvenienced passengers their full money back, plus money they spent on the cruise (for everything but the casino and spa, apparently). Usually they just offer a discount off the next sailing. Carnival is offering that on top of the full refund, which is quite a classy move.

Let's hope the poor passengers and crew aboard the Triumph get home soon, safe and sound.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Will the US Airways/American Merger Mean to You?

Appropriately enough, American and US Air have until Valentine's Day to decide whether they'll be wed. On April 15, the agreement between the two carrier allowing them to share information, during merger talks, expires.

Sure it can be extended (and who doesn't like more foreplay?), but it seems clear that the two will soon be one. Which would leave the United States with four super-carriers operating 80% of the flights around the United States.

Remember "too big to fail" in the banking world? Meet its skyborn equivalent.

Merger fatigue has set in among the pundits, and most are saying that this latest consolidation will have little to no effect on consumers.

Um, really?

Sure prices haven't skyrocketed since the last merger. But there's been a steady creep upward. And many more changes are on the horizon.

Significant changes, actually. American and Frontier both have introduced "bundling" schemes which tie all sorts of extras (luggage fees, priority boarding, cancellation fee waivers, etc.) to the base cost . Click on my links for details on how those programs will befuddle the consumer and hogtie such flight search engines as Kayak and Momondo. In short, it's going to be very, very difficult in the near future to compare one flight to the next, since each will be customized based on your past flying history. The ultimate result? When the ability to compare flight prices evaporates (and it may soon) and consumers are given even fewer options of airlines, I have no doubt the cost of flying will surge upward in 2013.

And let's not forget about the corrallary airline fees, which just keep morphing and increasing. According to a recent study, 36 airline fees were increased in 2006 and another 16 redefined. While there seems to be less of a direct causation between the mergers and that trend, well, who the heck knows.

Remember: less choice is...well, LESS CHOICE!

Finally, did you hear that Pope Benedict will become the first Pope to resign since 1415? I blame Delta Airlines.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Show Must Go On! An Invitation to the Boston Globe Travel Show Tomorrow

That's right! It hasn't been cancelled, though the opening will be delayed. And I'm typing this blog on the train to Boston, so I'll be doing my speeches come blizzard or Noreaster!

BUT there has been one significant change: instead of starting at 10am tomorrow, the show is now scheduled to start at noon and run until 8pm. Frankly, I don't know when I'll be doing my two speeches (I believe one is now at 4pm and the other at 2pm, but I'll have to double check that). What I do know is it'll be warm and cozy inside Boston's World Trade Convention Center and the focus will be on places you can go to escape the chilly blasts of winter. Plus my speech (and the speeches of my fellow travel experts) may turn into an intimate seminar, so if you've ever wanted to get lots of personal advice about your travels, well, this will be the show to go to. I'm HOPING we get good attendance, but frankly, it seems unlikely. So if you show up, we'll be thrilled to see you!

For more information on the show, please click here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Triple Play! Rome, Florence and Venice from $1399 Including Air from the USA

Pretty darn good, dontcha think?

The deal comes through the aptly named Go Today and it holds for the month of March, when days will be temperate (a blessing in Rome, a city that will broil you alive in summer) and the tourist crowds manageable. Travel later (select dates in April, May, August, September and October) and the price hits a still-reasonable-for-Italy $1599.

What do you get for your money? A heckuva lot actually. The package includes airfare from New York City (into Rome and out of Venice; other areas are available for a slight increase in cost), train travel between the cities in question, four nights hotel in Rome, three nights in Florence and two in Venice, breakfasts and all air taxes. You're on your own when it comes to meals and sightseeing, but frankly, that's a plus in Italy. It means you'll get to explore some of the lesser known sites and eat in the terrific, tiny Mom-and-Pop joints.

For complete details, click on the link above.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Raft of Discounts and Perks for Students Willing to Spend Spring Break in Bermuda

Who would have guessed that an island that's best known for modest shorts and high tea has been secretly hoping to get the keggers and "Girls Gone Wild" crowd?

Yes, sniffy, buttoned-up Bermuda wants to know "Where the Boys Are?" (and the girls, too) this February and March. For students who can travel to the island between February 16-24 and March 2-22, it will be offering a host of savings and freebies. These include:
  • Rooms for as low as $80 per night (now the question becomes how many co-eds can squeeze into one of them without anybody noticing?)
  • Free ferry and bus service around the island
  • Free entry to 9 events aimed at the spring breakers, which will range from cruises round the island to pool parties to something they're titling a "Pajama Pub Crawl". Oh, and the kids will get free food at these events, too.
  • Drink discounts. (Um, is that wise Bermuda?)
  • Discounts at restaurants and attractions
To learn more, click on this link which will take you to a page featuring the kind of tourist they're hoping to attract.

Bermuda, I gotta say, you're full of surprises!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Superb Sales from Hawaiian Airlines and Turkish Airlines

On January 15, I posted a blog about Turkish Airline's darn good sale. Well, it's been kicked up a notch, with airfares from Washington, DC to Istanbul falling to a jaw-dropping $399 round-trip. That includes all the ugly fees and taxes. Thanks to Johnny Jet for alerting us all to this sale. Here's his coverage of it, which deals with the parameters of the deal.

For those planning a tropical getaway, Hawaiian Airlines is also having a whopper of a sale. Just now, when I input March dates for New York City to Oahu, I got back a round-trip of less than $400 (it was $396 to be exact). To get the best prices, you'll need to be flexible with your dates. According to that site, airfares from the West Coast are starting at just $255 round-trip! Here's a link for that website.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Club Med on Sale for Spring Into Summer Getaways

At a recent travel show, I had a long talk with a Club Med official. As I'd read in a recent New Yorker article, the organization that pioneered the all-inclusive resort concept was now having a problem distinguishing itself from the many imitators that have emerged over the decades. Club Med has been hoping to regain its status as a leader in the market by expanding and upgrading. In fact, the company has spent $1 billion in the last decade (according to the official I interviewed) opening new resorts and upgrading the old ones.

And currently, it seems to be trying to get a leg up on its rivals by throwing a sale. It has slashed rates on 60 resorts, and will be allowing kids 4 and under to stay for free (beginning April 27).

For resorts in the Caribbean and North America, for example, rates will be starting at $949 for 7-nights all-inclusive. This is for travel through August 23, for those who book by March 5 at the Sandpiper Resort in Florida, as well as resorts in Ixtapa and Cancun (Mexico), Columbus Isle (The Bahamas), Punta Cana (the Dominican Republic). Other Club Meds in the region seem to be starting at $999 during that period. Those prices include all food, drinks (even alcoholic ones), kids, babies and teen programs, all activities and nightlife offerings.

In Europe and Turkey, resorts are being discounted by 10%; 20% is the discount in Asia and Latin America; and prices at ski resorts are being cut by up to 30%.

For complete information, click here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Freebie Friday: Win a Free Trip To Norway

Edvard Munch made four versions of his famous work "The Scream". So it seems appropriate that the Norwegian Tourist Board ( should be giving away multiple prizes to acknowledge the seminal works 150th birthday. The best is an all-inclusive trip to Norway, but the other prizes are nothing to turn your nose up: gift cards of up to $5000 (which would go a long way towards creating your own Scandinavian holiday).

To enter, you'll need to create a video of yourself screaming. The citizens of Norway--perhaps because it gets pretty dark there this time of year--are hoping to create the world's longest virtual scream by compiling all the videos.

For all the details, click on the link above.