Saturday, December 29, 2007

Lithium Battery Restrictions

Several writers have recently mentioned the January 1, 2008 limitations on carrying lithium batteries in checked and carry-on luggage. And several of the news sources seem to have gotten it wrong. Go to safetravel.dot.gov for complete information, but the way we read it you can take a lithium battery attached to a device (camera, cell phone, laptop) plus two spares. But the spares must be in your carry-on bag, not checked luggage. The electronic devices themselves (with battery attached) can be in either or both your carry-on and your checked luggage. As with all things governmental and travel related, there are lots of silly exceptions – if you can get through the mumbo jumbo, you should be able to glean the correct information from the SafeTravel website.

Friday, December 28, 2007

New Year’s Travel Resolutions

Since everybody is getting in the game, we thought we’d play too. Here are our 2008 Travel Resolutions.

  • We will always attempt to travel with only carry-on bags.
  • We’ll keep a food and wine diary – both written and photo.
  • Outside the cities, we will never again depend on foreign public transportation (we’d be happy to never ride a bus again in our lives).
  • We will never intentionally go to Europe (or most anywhere) in summer.
  • We might consider sampling a cruise – a very small one that stops at a lot of interesting ports.
  • We will find an international cell-phone chip that really works.
  • We will not hoard frequent flyer miles, but use them often.
  • Being pescetarians (yea, it’s a word; here’s the Wikipedia definition), we’ll always bring food on the airplane.
  • We will save all boarding passes, receipts, and other travel documents after our travel ends.
Have a great 2008. Painting by Francesca.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

European Cross-Border Travel

Nine more countries have joined the European Schengen Agreement, which essentially eliminates border controls between participating countries. Currently, the countries in Europe which participate in Schengen are Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. (The last nine listed have implemented the land border agreement, but will not implement the agreement for airport arrivals until March 29, 2008.)

Blue areas on this map have implemented Schengen, green areas are set to do so within the next several years. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kayak and SideStep Merge

Two popular travel search websites – Kayak and SideStep – have agreed to a merger. Both sites search many different other travel websites, including airline sites, hotels, and competitive search sites. While some commentators have found value in Kayak’s and SideStep’s searches, we have never found any information that isn’t available elsewhere at the same price, and often more conveniently. We still prefer ITA Software for our first go-to airfare search site, followed by taking a look at route-map sites and individual airline websites.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Arriving In Japan

It seems like Japan has joined the U.S. and Great Britain in the “security as theatre” sweepstakes. According to an email newsletter we received from Continental Airlines, Japan will require foreign nationals arriving at Japanese airports to have fingerprint scans and facial photographs taken. As Continental notes: “Travelers are advised to allow extra time for this new immigration procedure in Japan.”

May your holidays be filled with presents.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Airline Alliances

Under the new Open Skies agreements, airline alliances could become a thing of the past, or they might actually gain some value for travelers. Open Skies goes into effect in March 2008, and only time will tell what the new routes are and how individual airlines will be affected. Here is a wrapup of members of each of the three airline alliances. One thing we would recommend, is that if possible book any multi-leg trips on airlines within one alliance – the process from reservations through frequent-flyer mileage credit will be much more seamless. All three alliance websites (SkyTeam, Star Alliance, oneworld) have a useful routing/flight tool, as well as other good information.

oneworld
American Airlines
British Airways
Cathy Pacific
Finnair
Iberia
Japan Airlines
Lan
Malev
Qantas
Royal Jordanian

Star Alliance
Adria
Air Canada
Air China
Air New Zealand
ANA
Asiana
Austrian
Blue 1
BMI
Croatia Airlines
Lot Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
SAS Scandinavian Airlines
Shanghai Airlines
Singapore Airlines
South African Airways
Spannair
SWISS
TAP Portugal
THAI
Turkish Airlines
United Airlines
US Airways

SkyTeam
Aeroflot
AeroMexico
Air Europa
Air France/KLM
Alitalia
China Southern
Copa Airlines
Continental Airlines
Czech Airlines
Delta Airlines
Kenya Airlines
Korean Air
Northwest Airlines

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Capital One Points System Changes?

If you have – or have considered getting – a Capital One “No Hassle” miles credit card, take a look at the points (fake miles) redemption rates. We’d previously posted that Capital One was a one-cent-per-dollar scheme (1%), with redemptions starting at 15,000 miles/points for a $150 statement credit for air purchases made on the card. The kicker was that the next redemption level was 30,000 points for a $300 credit, but you had no intermediate options (no $225 credit for 22,500 points).

Now, at least on our account, we’ve been notified that at 12,500 points we can get the same $150 statement credit, and at 25,000 points we can receive a $350 credit (1.4%). This is beginning to look like a much better deal. Of course, the “intermediate” redemptions still kick down to the lower level, so you’ll thus have to make sure your purchases match a redemption level that’s in your favor. (In other words, if you have 25,000 points, make sure you purchase a ticket not over $350, or you will have to wait until the next redemption level. And remember that if you have 25,000 points but want to get a credit for a $151 air purchase, it will still “cost” the full 25,000 points. Hold out for that $349 purchase.)

Credit card companies have different terms for different cardholders, so check your Capital One account. We’ve already begun to move our credit card spending to “points” cards rather than airline miles cards (see our previous entry), so this is a welcome change. Capital One has always been our preferred card for international travel, as they don’t add a “service charge” for foreign transactions (which is frequently 1-3% with other cards).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Top 16 (18, 20?) International Travel Tips – Part 1

We’ve all seen innumerable “Top Ten” tips for travelers. As a former magazine editor, I initiated a few too many Top Ten articles myself. Still, most folks enjoy a few bits of timely advice. And what better arena to discuss tips than in the travel realm. So when it’s a slow travel news day (or week), we’re going to post a couple of International Travel Tips until we get tired of doing so. Or until we run out of our Top However Many list. Thus, the first two of our Top International Travel Tips.

Dress Like a Local
In Europe, dress better than you would originally think. Jeans are now totally acceptable, but dress them up with a leather jacket. Do not, not, wear running shoes, shorts (unless you’re in the Caribbean or on the beach), or a fanny pack. Still, don’t try too hard: the Japanese and Chinese wear very western clothes -- you probably shouldn’t wear a kimono in Japan if you’re an Anglo. You’ll probably never really fool a local into thinking you’re another local, but we have been asked (in French and in Dutch, respectively) for directions in Paris and Amsterdam. (Of course, when we said “Parlez-vous anglais?” or “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch” we got an embarrassed laugh and a “never mind.”)

Travel Light (Really, Really Light)
We discussed this in detail in a previous blog entry, but we’ve come to the conclusion that we simply travel with too much STUFF. Try, really try, to travel with only a carry-on bag. This can free you to travel more spontaneously and more comfortably. What do we really need? Unless it’s a “special” trip (diving, skiing, professional photography), we think you can travel anywhere in the world for any amount of time in one bag. That’s what laundry soap was made for.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Europe By Train, Again

We’ve lately come to the conclusion that train travel is back as a way to travel in Europe. It used to be, in the hippie days of wandering around Europe, that a Rail Pass was a budget traveler’s best friend. Then, the low-cost airlines (easyJet and Ryan Air the two best examples) made it more practical for many to just hop on a plane across Europe. Now, with the new French high-speed train; the speeded-up Eurostar from London to Paris; and the soon-to-be-opened Loetschberg tunnel in Switzerland, train travel is reviving. As we noted before, what with luggage restrictions, airport security, and crowded skies, the train makes more and more sense. The new Loetschberg tunnel is said to cut many cross-Switzerland times nearly in half (the trip from Bern to Visp – near Zermatt – is reported to be reduced from 110 minutes to 55).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

We Should Be Embarrassed, Angry, and Depressed

In a November 26 Newsweek article, Fareed Zakaria reports some depressing statistics. During what is probably the world’s largest tourism boom, the U.S. is the only major country which has seen foreign visitation decline.

The article notes that Brits – “people from America’s closest ally, the overwhelming majority...white Anglos with names like Smith and Jones” – have reduced their visits to the U.S. by 11 percent. During the same time frame, the British visitation to India increased 102 percent, to New Zealand 106 percent, and to the Caribbean 31 percent.

Of course, there are many reasons (excuses) for this decline in inbound U.S. tourism, but the prime culprit is the cabal of TSA, Homeland Security, the INS, and a government which wants to keep Americans in fear – fear of the unknown, fear of foreigners, in fear so we will be as docile as sheep when they tap our phones without warrants.

Not only do international visitors enrich us culturally, they contribute greatly to our economy. The article notes that the 17 percent overall decline in tourism since 9/11 represents $94 billion in lost tourism spending, a loss of 200,000 jobs, and $16 billon in lost tax revenues.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Canine Concierge

A new catagory of travel consultant has been breed – the canine companion concierge. With the Internet basically taking charge of the travel business, sending the “travel agent” out to pasture, many former agents are giving themselves a face-lift to fit into this new niche by sniffing out pet-friendly places to go and things to do that owners can enjoy with their animals. And there is no shortage of pet-friendly accommodations, stores, outings and activities in a world where pets are people’s children.

Finding that clientele with a disposable income and a dog on a leash can be outdated travel agent’s return to life. This travel market is catering to baby boomers and empty nesters focused on luxury travel and exotic destinations. The biggest hurdle for the travel consultant in marketing many interesting and fun destinations is getting the group there. Because airlines limit the number of pets allowed onboard each flight (making it virtually impossible to get 30 people and their pets to a destination as a group), tours must depend on travelers making their own plans to get there; group arrangements then take shape when they are all at the destination.

For a group tour to be successful, participating pets have to be well-behaved around people and other pets. Only spayed and neutered pet tourists are accepted, well-groomed with personal canine hygiene a necessity. In recent years, the pet travel industry has overcome huge stumbling blocks, such as allowing pets in airline cabins and eliminating quarantine regulations to England and Europe. Hopefully this trend will continue. A few on-line pet-friendly resources we’ve discovered include: DogFriendly.com; Pets-Allowed-Hotels; Pet Friendly Travel; Pets On The Go; PetsWelcome.com; and TravelPets.

Monday, November 26, 2007

America by Air

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has opened a new $5 million exhibit called America by Air. The exhibit includes a 1918 Curtiss Jenny and the front nose of a 747. All told, there are seven complete aircraft on display. According to an article on Bloomberg News, “U.S. air travel reached its glamour days in the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibit includes a 19th-century globe that Pan American Airways founder Juan Trippe used to plan worldwide routes, as well as some provocative hot pants and miniskirt outfits that flight attendants of the era were forced to wear.” For any fan of the history of travel, this should be a must-see exhibition if you’re in Washington, D.C.

From the back cover of TWA Vacation Guide and World Atlas (1956)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Amazon's Kindle eBook Reader

Amazon has introduced its new Kindle eBook reader, what some are already calling “the iPod for books.” Amazon is initially offering 90,000 different eBooks for the Kindle, priced from $1.99 to $9.99. The books will be delivered to the Kindle device via Sprint’s wireless web access service (with no access charge). Interestingly, the service will include a free web browser for the Kindle reader.

As we wrote some time ago, eBooks could be a great boon for travelers just wishing to read several books but not wanting to take all that weight, but from what we can tell they’re still just electronic versions of a book. Great for reading a novel, but less useful for guidebooks. What we want to see are travel guidebooks created specifically for eBook readers. Some ways we think a real travel eGuidebook should differ from a printed book include:

Content – As much as we’re old-school print journalists, we think travel eGuidebooks should be more of what we call “MTV journalism”: quick bites, top 10 lists, “best of” stories. eGuidebooks also would lend themselves to many more maps, and the maps could be more integrated into text, rather than having to flip to the front or back of the book.

Navigation – Speaking of maps, wouldn’t it be great to read about Leeds Castle and have a quick link that goes directly to a map of how to get there and of the castle itself? Maps could be accessible from anywhere and linked from every reference in the text. Anchor links, just like a “jump link” on a web page that goes to another page of the site, can make this easy. There could also be much more cross referencing, maybe even indexing on every page, as well as the ability to zoom in on maps, or to make type larger for a poorly-lit museum (larger type is apparently available on the Kindle).

Updates – eGuidebooks would lend themselves to updated restaurant reviews, hotel reviews, and cautions or warnings (for example, notifying that a museum is under construction for the next year). And of course only parts of the book would need to be downloaded as updates – maybe publishers would sell a one-time version for $9.99, or an annually updated one for $12.99.

Organization – As with a database, eGuidebooks should allow the ability to reorganize information in many ways. Maybe you might want to list all museums within 5 miles of a train station, or list restaurants by star rating, or simply an alphabetized list of hotels.

Split screens – Tabs, split screens, or partial screens could be very helpful for showing 2 sections of content at the same time. This could be used for comparing 2 restaurant reviews, or showing a museum description on one screen and its map on another.

What we’re really talking about here is an eGuidebook as a sort of mobile website, but with lots more content and without the ads and crap that clutter the web today. (Of course, it probably won’t be long before someone starts selling ads on eBooks. We can see the advertising now: “$9.99 now, or FREE with ads!” Yuck.)

Maybe Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reads our little blog and will discuss with his publishing partners ways to create new content specifically for the Kindle, instead of recycling old printed content. Even currently, though, we can’t wait to get our hands on the new $399 Kindle.

Happy Thanksgiving

Friday, November 16, 2007

Euro Travel Websites

According to David Rowell, The Travel Insider (who produces an excellent newsletter), more than 200 European travel websites may be shut down unless they stop deceptive sales practices, said the European Union's consumer chief. Questionable tactics included:
* The price of the ticket is first indicated without airport taxes and additional fees.
* Offers promising tickets for free or at a low price, but such tickets are unavailable when the consumer wants to buy them.
* Tick (check) boxes for insurance or additional services are ticked "yes" by default, trapping the consumer into buying unwanted items or being included on spam mailing lists.
* General terms of sales are not provided in the language version used by the consumer during the booking procedure, or not available at all in any language.
* No information is given about the rights and procedures of cancellation, transferability and ability to change dates.
We've used European travel websites with success in the past (we lately had good luck with TrailFinders in the UK for a trip to Africa -- their travel insurance was especially well-priced), and have suggested that you explore those possibilities. This news should make any of us exercise caution in our web purchases, from the websites of any country.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Southwest's New Business "Class"

Rightly or wrongly, we’ve never been big fans of Southwest Airlines. We haven't found the fares all that cheap, the schedules not that convenient, and we detest the cattle-call, no-assigned-seating policy. But somehow, they’ve made their formula work, and they satisfy a lot of travelers.
Now, though, Southwest seems to be going (in a very clumsy manner) against what they’re known for. They have instituted special business fares, which seem to be just higher prices to be allowed first in line for boarding (plus a few varying benefits such as refundability, a free drink coupon, and more frequent flyer credits). Of course, Southwest still flies from its same airports, which may not be most business travelers' first choices.
For example: We just booked a trip on Delta (with assigned seating) for $249. Using the same airports and dates, the cheapest fare on Southwest (with one leg a “web only” special and the return their “wanna get away” fare) was $228. Their Business fare was $336 and Business Select was $366.
Boy, are we excited.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It’s the Great Pumpkin (Race)

How would a small town in Nova Scotia, known as the birthplace of giant pumpkin growing, make the most of its unique history? What else, put on an annual “pumpkin boat” race across a lake. The town of Windsor (population 3,700) attracted 10,000 fascinated spectators to the event this year, having grown from 5 entries from the event’s inception to 54 at present.

Competitive pumpkin paddling has become surprisingly common across the U.S. and Canada. As the events grow in status, the more serious racers are looking to bred better-crafted boats. The Atlantic Giant pumpkin is not well shaped for sailing, but when cross-bred with a pink banana squash, a sleeker version can be carved.

“It’s a cranky one this year” believed 72-year old Leo Swinimer, multiple-time race winner, who he prevailed once again this year. Keeping his 600-pound pumpkin on course was a little too tricky, thus talk of his retirement is at hand. “Every year he says it’s the last one,” said his son-in-law, “but as soon as March or April comes up, he’ll be out growing them again.”

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Credit Card Frequent Flyer Miles vs Points

For several years, the “conventional wisdom” was that it was best to accrue miles in a single airline program (by flights and credit-card purchases), as well as to collect airline miles themselves rather than convertible “points” that could be used for a ticket. The thinking was that the Capital One, American Express, Merrill, or other points programs redeemed at lower comparative levels than the assumed 2 cents per mile for airline credit-card expenditures and subsequent redemptions.

Now, at least for us, we’re rethinking that model. For more than 20 years, we have lived near small airports (where the dominant carrier didn't always have the best options) and have often driven to other larger airports for various long-haul flights. Thus, we have miles with United, USAir, Alaska, American, and Continental (plus a few on Northwest, Delta, BA, and KLM). We’re not hoarders – we try to use the miles regularly. But redemptions are getting harder to come by, and some commentators have suggested that the "value" of frequent flyer miles has shrunk to barely 1 cent per mile.

We’ve also played the credit card games, switching cards depending on the offers available. Over the years we’ve build up “points” for flights with Capital One, Merrill, and Amex, and used them when we wanted to fly cheap but couldn’t get a carrier’s frequent flyer seat.

Right now, we’ve decided to concentrate on building points using the Hilton HHonors Amex and American Express FreedomPass credit card programs. Hilton’s Amex card offers us 3-5 points per dollar spent, and at their redemption levels, that gets us anywhere from $450-600 worth of Hilton-chain hotel room stays for the same $25,000 in charges that would get us a hard-to-acquire domestic ticket using a United Visa, for example. The American Express FreedomPass program offers essentially 1-1/4 cents per mile, and the points can be used for air tickets on any airline (it’s a “refund” type point arrangement) as well as for other travel services. (Capital One has had a similar long-time program which offers 1 cent per mile, but redemption levels are less friendly.)

So we now use a regular cash rebate credit card for the categories (gas, groceries, etc.) where we can get 3% cash back (better than the “old” 2-cents-per-mile anyway), and use either the Hilton HHonors Amex or the FreedomPass Amex for all our other charges. We still keep our (no-annual-fee) airline credit cards, and use them once or twice a year to keep the clock ticking on each airline’s frequent flyer account in case we don’t fly that carrier.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Gatwick “Yotel”

Nothing is more troublesome for travelers arriving after a long, uncomfortable overnight flight to Europe than a long layover or the prospect of having to kill the morning wandering around an unfamiliar large city such as London while waiting for their hotel or early evening connecting flight. Now, in London, there is an alternative: a compact cocoon for jet-lagged travelers modeled in part on the Japanese capsule hotel and first-class airplane cabins, the Yotel. Gatwick airport offers a low-budget refuge for those needing a nap, a shower, or a just a little privacy during a long layover (the minimum stay is four hours). The Yotel at Gatwick opened in July, with two other airport Yotels to follow: one at Heathrow airport in early November, a third at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam in early 2008.

Pigeon art in London

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Small Ski Areas; Great Ski Areas – Western North America

There was snow on the high peaks the last couple of weeks, and our minds are already ready for skiing.

We’ve skied many places around Western North America (unfortunately, we haven’t yet skied the East), and have some definite opinions about the ski experience. Before getting into our specific comments, we should tell you our criteria: we prefer great snow, highly varied terrain, and few crowds. Although, sometimes, we do enjoy the mega resorts. So, a few of our choices.

Moonlight Basin, Montana
An incredible area, right next to Big Sky, but with better (though lesser in extent) terrain, better snow, better grooming, and far fewer skiers. It’s still in its “formative” growth stages (a good thing) – where else have you ever seen a parking lot attendant carry a guest’s skis to the base area? Big Sky touts the “best groomed blue run in North America,” but Moonlight’s Meriwether run tops Big Sky’s Elk Park Ridge by far.

Moonlight Basin -- The easy way down is to the left.

Wolf Creek, Colorado
No grooming to speak of, relatively small vertical, but great snow. We’ve honestly found fresh powder tracks five days after a storm. And actually “home-cooked” food (not factory cardboard) in the restaurant. Bring those all-mountain/powder boards, and cash (the restaurant doesn’t take credit cards).

Solitude & Brighton, Utah
These two resorts are one canyon (Big Cottonwood) over from famous Alta and Snowbird (in Little Cottonwood Canyon). The crowds are dramatically less, the snow just as good (or better, since it doesn’t get tracked out by 10 a.m.), and the terrain variety is great. No “town,” little resort lodging or nightlife, but simply great skiing.

Snowmass & Breckenridge, Colorado
Yea, these two are biggies, but still enjoyable. Breck’s terrain is underrated (much like Steamboat’s is overrated), and Snowmass has the best long runs we’ve ever encountered in the U.S. We do love skiing Ajax and Highlands, but feel that Snowmass is the best of the Aspen resorts. The town of Breckenridge has also done a decent job of managing the inevitable Colorado mountain town growth (of which Durango, for instance, is the opposite example).

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
Another big resort, but it doesn’t ski all that crowded. The parking lot may look and feel full, but the mountain spreads the ski traffic out pretty well. Plenty of varied terrain, although snow quality can be iffy and it can get COLD. Banff is the closest cool town, but it’s a 45-minute drive to Louise.

Miscellaneous Notes & Opinions:
We really love the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California – in our opinion the most spectacular mountain range on earth – but we’ve never found great snow, or uncrowded days, at any area in the state.
The “trendy” new ski area of Silverton Mountain in southwest Colorado is overpriced and overrated. You ski there to say you’ve skied there.
The biggest and the baddest (from a marketing standpoint, not with ski terrain) of Colorado – Vail – is a vast mountain. But it’s so overrun that even on a weekday powder morning you’ll be hard-pressed to find good snow after 11 a.m. And Breck grooms better.
We’re planning to explore the Pacific Northwest ski areas of Washington and British Columbia, Canada, this winter. We’ll also be returning to Utah this season to ski the Park City area – Park City, Deer Valley, and the Canyons. We’ll post reports later.

Team Atomic and one badass interloper.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Traveling Light And Shopping

Anyone who’s flown in the last couple of years knows the increasing hassles of weight and size limits for both carry-ons and checked luggage. Not to mention dragging all your stuff through multiple airports; nor the chance that your luggage will be “mishandled” (lost, delayed, damaged, or in Nairobi).

So we have a radical suggestion for certain types of trips: Buy your clothing, cosmetics, personal items and the like at your destination. Just carry one small bag onto the plane, into which you have:

  • In-the-air comfort items – book, headphones, ipod, etc.
  • A few truly essential medications and cosmetics – ibuprofen, hand soap, toothbrush, etc.
  • Your best walking shoes (if you don’t wear them), a spare shirt, a change of socks and underwear.
  • Sunglasses, hat, gloves, guidebooks, maps, camera, other small incidentals.
  • And then wear several layers of extra clothing onto the plane, say both a fleece sweater or vest and a jacket.
What else do we really need for the first day or two of almost any trip? Or for the whole of the trip, for that matter? You can buy an umbrella at the airport when you land. You can pick up shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry soap at a store on the way to your hotel. Beyond that, what do you immediately need? Not much. Then, after you’ve arrived and settled in, go shopping. You’ll probably be flying into a city – anywhere in the world – where you can buy an extra pair of pants or a couple of blouses. Maybe a few more pairs of undies and socks. You can also buy a small extra bag to carry those items in while on your trip, or bring a small, light (very light) folding duffel in your carry-on.

Other benefits include not having to wait for your luggage. Getting to the car-rental counter before everyone else. Being able to check-in online for almost every leg of your trip. Going direct to the gate when you have your online boarding pass. And going shopping for clothes that are made for your destination and which your friends will envy when you get home.

One of our favorite pairs of shoes are clogs from Prague – purchased because we had horrible blisters on our heels and couldn’t wear the shoes we’d brought. We also have purchased scarves perfect for the March weather in Paris, and a swimsuit in Canada (for the hot tub). Every second shop in every town on the planet sells T-shirts. Of course, this costs. But it will be far cheaper than being hit with an over-weight luggage fee. And possibly much “cheaper” than the emotional cost of a piece of lost luggage. By shopping sensibly, you should be able to pick up all the essential “extras” (except for maybe shoes) almost anywhere in the world for under $100. This seems to us a small price to pay. Of course, you can always spend a lot more, too.

What to do with all these extra clothes and bottles on your return flight? Trash or give away the shampoo and such. Ship a box of clothes home slow and cheap. Go to a local post office, purchase a sturdy box, and strap it up with that roll of strapping tape you brought. We shipped a surprisingly large and weighty package from Slovenia to Colorado for about $50. Everything arrived just fine. And if the package doesn’t show up, well, it was just some spare clothing anyway. Or, you could always donate the clothing to a charity before you return home.

Obviously, this idea won’t work if you’re a business traveler who needs more than one suit or several dress shirts. Nor if you’re on a ski trip with boots, skis, poles, etc. Nor if you’re a professional photographer with massive amounts of gear. But how often do most of us travel that way? The other time this strategy won’t work so well is if you’re flying multiple legs to multiple destinations. But then, you’ll be traveling light on those trips anyway (we hope).

Other than ski trips, we could have traveled this way on more than 75 percent of our air trips the last few years. And reduced the stress on both our backs and our nerves.

You may think that there’s some “thing” that will prevent you from traveling this way. Our fly-in-the-ointment is how to carry our Leatherman-type knife/multitool. We’ve only partially solved that one (we take nail clippers and bandage scissors on the plane, and buy a small kitchen knife on arrival) – your individual challenge will probably be different. But you’ll figure it out if you get as fed up with airports as we have.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

International Thanksgiving Travel

Fall is the start of low season in Europe, so it's a great time to head abroad for some noteworthy savings and less crowded environments. Traveling around Thanksgiving in the United States can be quite stressful, so why not take the family overseas for the holidays. Europe in the fall is alive with infinite possibilities of a new season . . . theaters and opera houses unveil their newest productions, museums mount their latest blockbuster exhibitions.

Where to go? Visit Berlin’s art galleries, take a stroll through Madrid’s parks and gardens, feast your eyes on the burnt-orange vistas and rust-colored hills of Tuscany as you enjoy fine cuisine or avant-garde music festivals. Operas fill the Czech capital of Prague, or simply enjoy the gorgeous countryside of Champagne with a little bubbly, just minutes by train from Paris.

Of course, there is the small matter of the turkey, but considering all the hustle & bustle exhaustion of the holidays, the family might be willing to entertain the idea of blending American traditions with European travel. Take a chance with the “when in Rome” approach and celebrate your own special family European Thanksgiving, turkey optional.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

International Cell Phones

Over the past couple of years, we’ve experimented (and “experiment” is often the operative word) with a variety of international cell phone options. We’ve used country-specific chips as well as “international roaming” chips.

First, an overview. Most countries of the world use a type of phone and service called GSM. There are several GSM frequencies, but if you purchase a tri-band or quad-band GSM phone, you’ll be OK almost anywhere in the world. Secondly, these phones use SIM chips – replaceable little memory cards that you purchase from a cell-service provider. Third, the individual cell providers in each country usually offer a “pre-paid” plan (where you buy a chip and phone time, and when the time runs out you buy more) or a typical monthly service plan, as most Americans are familiar with. (Unless you live in or spend long periods in a country, the pre-paid option is the only real choice.) Finally, you can purchase single-country SIM chips (UK, Kenya, etc.) or an “international” chip, which theoretically allows you to roam in many countries.

To summarize our experiences, we’ve tried the 09, Riiing, United, and Mobal “international” chips. In our tests, they work poorly, are very costly, are terribly cumbersome to use (requiring PIN numbers, call-back systems, manually selecting networks, and other awkwardness), or simply don’t work at all. We’ve also tried single-country SIMs (mostly from the UK), and have been pleased with the service. Some roaming costs have been high (sometimes $1-2 per minute), but new EU rules should cut that at least in half.

Currently, our suggestion is to purchase a tri- or quad-band before you leave (we’ve seen many decent phones in the $50-100 range), then go to a local phone shop at your destination and purchase a SIM chip. Make sure when you get the chip that you “enable” or set up international roaming if you plan to use the chip outside its home country. This seems to work well across most of Europe. We even saw several Brits using their UK cell phones with no problems in east Africa. The cell situation in Europe has recently changed, and international roaming costs have been lowered across the EU. This should make this option even more practical. Your new chip will have a “local” number, so you’ll have to call or email your contacts back home with that number. Be sure they know how to dial internationally, and that you understand how to dial out internationally from your phone

If you’re tempted by the international chips: buyer beware. We’ve tossed more useless chips than we care to admit – after paying anywhere from 25-50 Euros each for them. (The Mobal chip has no up-front cost, but their per-minute rates are high, and in our experience their coverage isn’t as widespread as advertised.)

Note also that some U.S. phone services may allow you to set up international roaming. We use Verizon in the U.S., which is a different system from GSM, so not an option for us. T-Mobile and Cingular are GSM operators in the U.S., and they may be able to set you up with international roaming – be sure you know coverage and rates.

The best overview we’ve found for GSM options is the PrePaidGSM website, at http://www.prepaidgsm.net/.

A tri-band flip phone, a quad-band phone, and 4 SIM chips.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

United's Italy Sale: Cheap Fares to Rome, Milan

United Airlines is in the midst of a terrific sale on flights to Rome and Milan. Check out these sample one-way fares based on required roundtrip purchase.

Albuquerque to Milan/$348
Baltimore to Milan/$321
Boston to Rome/$284
Chicago to Rome/$315
Los Angeles to Rome/$354
NYC to Milan/$252
San Francisco to Milan/$354
Seattle to Milan/$361

Book travel by October 10, 2007. Depart between December 1, 2007 and February 29, 2008. Travel is valid Monday-Thursday; a Saturday-night miniumum stay is required, and a 30-day maximum stay is permitted. Fares are subject to availability.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lonely Planet Goes Corporate

Lonely Planet – the quirky company that brought travel guidebooks to the masses and, in part, created the travel boom we have today – has been sold to the BBC Worldwide, according to Internet Travel News.

We’re not sure how this will affect Lonely Planet’s many fans. It may (as the sale press release notes) “strengthen Lonely Planet’s visibility and growth potential, particularly in the digital arena.” Lonely Planet’s web presence has, in our opinion, left much to be desired, and this may be a good move on their part.

We often have complaints with particulars in Lonely Planet’s guidebooks, yet nonetheless own more of theirs than from any other publisher (partly, because, they publish such a huge variety). In general, we prefer to support the little guy, and are often saddened when they sell out to the big boys, but we can’t see too many negatives for this one.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Isolated American

Yesterday, I realized how insulated we are in America. I was looking for a metric tape measure – I knew I had one around as I use it for bike/ski work, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I did, though, find 4 other tape measures and 3 rulers – none of which had a metric scale.
Which, of course, got me wondering how many Americans speak another language (not counting Spanish spoken by new immigrants), how many of us have a clue how many kilometers are in a mile, how few of us can begin to convert Centigrade (Celsius) into Fahrenheit, even how few Americans have passports (at least until the new travel initiatives requiring passports between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Less Boredom in the Air with Air France

If you’re like us, flying is boring. We can only watch so many mindless movies, read so many mindless magazines, and listen to so much crappy music. Never mind trying to concentrate enough to “work.” Sometimes we numb out and watch the little plane flying over the little map of the “flight maps” on our little seatback screens. Or we actually listen to the cockpit conversations when that’s offered.

But now along comes something really fun.

Air France is rolling out a new satellite photo view system. It shows satellite photos (not real-time) of areas the plane is flying over. So far, it’s available on several Air France’s Paris-to-India and Paris-to-Singapore routes, and the airlines says it will eventually expand the service to other routes.

Here’s an image of Mumbai from the European Space Agency, one of the satellite services which provides photos to Air France.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The End of ATM Fees?

We’ve written several times about ways to reduce or avoid foreign ATM fees, since ATMs are far and away the best way to get cash internationally. We don’t know if it could be a harbinger of things to come, but Charles Schwab Bank is touting a new High Yield Investor Checking Account. The account claims (currently) 4.25% APY interest, 1-cent minimum balance, and “all ATM fees automatically refunded, worldwide,” at any Visa ATM machine. If this sets a new precedent for on-line checking accounts, could it really be the death of ATM fees? We’re signing up today. Now, if some more credit card companies would begin killing their onerous foreign-exchange fees....

Saturday, September 08, 2007

More Delta

After just complaining about Delta, we guess we owe them at least one thumb up. The airline is scheduled to begin non-stop Salt Lake City-to-Paris flights in June 2008. There are currently limited Rocky Mountain-region-to-Europe flights (from cities such as Denver and Phoenix) so any addition from that part of the U.S. is appreciated.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Between 2 Worlds: Driving Across China

Having previously lived in Asia, we always felt that China had one foot in the 21st century and the other in, oh, the 14th. In a Wall St. Journal article of August 25, writer Gordon Fairclough buys a Chinese Chery car (we don’t even want to go there with the name) and drives across much of western China. It’s a fascinating read about how China is driving (sorry) toward being a global presence, and a Westernized one.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Alaska Air

We’ve moved to a region where Alaska Airlines is the dominant carrier at the nearest airports, and have thus been fooling with Alaska’s website. We really like the matrix-style price/schedule system that Alaska now offers for booking flights. We’ve already made one reservation for upcoming travel, and were very pleased with the process, fare, and website ease-of-use.

Delta's Silliness

Delta has joined the niche marketing game. The airline has a new “contest” going, where viewers can watch 5 videos and obtain Delta frequent flyer points by voting for their favorites. The niche marketing comes in with the selection of the travelers that Delta chose to feature. There is the gay couple, the elderly couple, the black couple, the young couple, and the too-cool brothers. But despite several attempts, our log-in to vote failed, after sitting through all 5 annoying presentations. Nice try Delta – maybe next time just give us better air service.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pondering Amtrak

We’re not sure what to make of Amtrak. The U.S. “national” rail system has been getting higher marks from passengers, some politicians, and even airlines. Considering the crowded, delayed mess that is air travel today, trains make great sense. Amtrak’s biggest successes have been in the crowded Northeast, with runs such as Boston-New York-Washington often more convenient and shorter than commuter air service. While the vast distances between destinations in the central and western states mean that train travel will never be quicker than air for cross-country travel, we could imagine some shorter routes (Los Angeles-San Francisco?) becoming viable. Ultimately, it would require more high-speed lines and system upgrades. But as Gordon Bethune, the ex-CEO of Continental Airlines told the Wall Street Journal, “If the French can do it, why can’t we?”

Monday, August 06, 2007

Air Sardine Can

It wasn't your imagination. If you flew a U.S. carrier in July, you probably were stressed by full planes, long security lines, and delays. USA Today reports the seven major airlines -- Continental, American, Alaska, Northwest, Southwest, US Air, and AirTran -- all had record numbers of seats filled in July.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Do Not Use TracFone

In our original research for our book and website, How To Travel America, we recommended TracFone as a solution for short-term U.S. cell phone service. After still another terrible customer-service experience with TracFone, we no longer recommend TracFone. We will continue to research possible options, and post updated information about cell phone options as soon as we can confidently recommend a quality provider.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The French-American Connection

The New York Times tells us that new French president Nicolas Sarkozy is spending a summer vacation at Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Since it’s August, and the entire country of France is pretty much on vacation, it seems natural that Sarkozy might choose a U.S. destination.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Favorite Bloggers & Websites

We're in the midst of a pretty big move. Don't expect much from us until the middle of August.
In the interim, for your reading pleasure, here are a few of our other favorite travel bloggers & websites:
Cranky Flier
Upgrade: Travel Better
Today in the Sky
Ellipses
Telegraph (UK)
USA Today Travel
Times Online (UK)
EuroCheapo Blog

Yellowstone National Park parking lot

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fly the (Cough-Cough) Skies

If you haven't heard yet, a new European airline start-up, SMINTair (Smokers International Airline), is planning to begin operations October 28. SMINTair is planning to be an "all smoking" airline. Now that the TSA has so wisely decided to allow lighters on planes (but not water), SMINTair may be even able to fly to the U.S.
We love the SMINTair website so much, we thought we'd quote verbatim the text from the opening page.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

SMINTair is set to be the World's Most Luxurious Airline.
Since April 2005, the SMINTair DEVELOPMENT TEAM has been working on every aspect to set base for launching a successful airline on a long-term perspective. Ideas, some completely new to the airline industry, have been developed and pursued until working perfection.

As SMINTair now enters the final stages leading to its first fligh this year, the TEAM can look back onto two years of meticulous preparation. During this time, SMINTgroup has been established, parent to SMINTair, SMINTcard and SMINThospitality, as well as the future SMINTrail and SMINTexpress, the latter projects are still under development. One can see, many businesses have evolved in the past two years and many roads had to be followed until this point. It is satisfying to see all of the planning finally being put into motion.

Apart from the cutting-edge technology OnBoard Entertainment System and spaceous seating, according to the final floor-plan, SMINTair offers three lounges in every aircraft for the recreation and enjoyment of all guests. Talks have been entered into with the top-ranked producers of luxury goods, worldwide, including cars, couture, jewellery/watches, fine spirits and champagne. The unique setup of SMINTair has been very well received by the industries and first contracts will be finalised within the month of July 2007.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tourism in China

The world’s most populous country, China, is set to become the world’s top tourist destination by 2014.
According to the World Tourism Organization, China was originally expected to take over number one in 2020. China is also now projected to take over number two from Spain by the end of 2010.

Old postcard, China, early 1900s.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Olympic Games

Since the winds of politics, marketing, the media, and geography have created such a brand for the Olympics, events are now awarded far in advance. Olympic fans currently have four different games to look forward to. Each event’s website offers a variety of newsletters that you can subscribe to. If you want to stay on top of everything Olympics, here are the contacts for all four games, as well as for the IOC. (It’s interesting to see the four Olympic logos side-by-side on the IOC home page.)

Beijing, China, Summer 2008 - http://en.beijing2008.cn/

Vancouver, Canada, Winter 2010 - http://www.vancouver2010.com/en

London, England, Summer 2012 - http://main.london2012.com/en

Sochi, Russia, Winter 2014 - http://sochi2014.com/

International Olympic Committee - http://www.olympic.org/uk/index_uk.asp

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Resurgence of Europe Train Travel?

If you’re anywhere near as fed up with air travel as we are, consider taking the train. Obviously, we’re not talking about the U.S. here, but Europe. The Paris-based International Herald Tribune reports that rail operators from the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Belgian are developing a new rail alliance called Railteam.

The system hopes to have an on-line ticketing site available by 2009. The Trib reports that already, “Eurostar, which runs trains from London to Paris and Brussels, said it saw a 39 percent jump in the first three months for tickets that connect to French high-speed services that bring travelers to the Mediterranean and the Alps.”

By 2009, we wouldn’t be surprised to see prices competitive with some European air travel. And after you factor in fewer luggage hassles (you have lots of room and convenience on the trains), scheduling convenience (if you miss one train, just get on the next), lots more personal space (no cramped 31-inch seat pitch), easier terminal access (the train stations are often in or near city centers, not out in the countryside), and simplified security (no hours-long waits), rail may again become the way to travel in Europe.

Take a bottle of wine (try that on a plane), a baguette sandwich, some cheeses. Actually see the countryside you’re traveling through. Have room to get up, walk around, socialize. We wouldn’t be surprised to see overseas air travelers re-configuring their air arrangements so that wherever they land it’s more convenient for making train connections.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Keeping Frequent Flyer Miles Current

As you’ve probably read elsewhere, the airlines are shortening their frequent flyer activity periods. Many are down to 18 months – if you don’t have some sort of activity in your account every 18 months, your mileage balance may disappear. But any activity works – buy a book, send flowers, dine out, stay in a hotel, use an airline-branded credit card. There are hundreds of possibilities with most airlines. If your credit is good, consider getting an airline’s no-fee credit card. You won’t get 1-for-1 miles for dollars spent (usually only 1-for-2), but the cards have no annual fees and all you need to charge is a few dollars. The banks/airlines don’t heavily promote these cards, but we know that US Air, United, and American all have no-annual-fee credit cards. (Others may also. Check Gary Steiger’s FreeFrequentFlyerMiles.com for more information.)

Our suggestion is to simply do a once-a-year checkup. In our case, it’s in November, when we do holiday shopping, we may dine out more often, etc. If we haven’t had activity in a particular program, we do one of the things above. This is especially important for those airlines where you have miles you don’t want to lose, but you no longer regularly fly that airline.

Airlines expiration policies:
United 18 months
Continental 18 months
American 18 months
US Air 18 months
Delta 2 years
Alaska 3 years
Northwest 3 years

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Guest Bloggers

I'm getting really tired of some of my favorite (travel) bloggers associating themselves with "guest bloggers" to do the dirty work while the head honcho is ... on vacation/sick/too tired to write a new post/whatever. I look at blogs for a personal touch, and now it's disappearing in many instances. Relatedly, too many bloggers (at least in the travel world) feel that it's better to say something inane every day than have some insightful and thoughtful comments whenever it happens. I'd rather read real news and information every 2-3 days or every week than crap on a daily basis.

Paris Summer Shutdown

Almost everyone traveling to Europe knows that many city destinations pretty much shut down during August – when most Europeans themselves are on vacation. We saw a short article on Fodor’s website about restaurants in Paris which remain open in mid-summer. Better yet, we discovered a great blog by a Canadian living in Paris.

Monday, July 02, 2007

UK Airport Situation

By now, everyone should know the news about the bombing attempts in London and at Glasgow airport. The UK terror alert levels have been raised, air passengers are being encouraged to only arrive at UK airports by public transportation, and other security measures are in place. On a practical level for most travellers to Europe, this means one simple thing – PLAN MORE TIME. More time to get to the airport, more time at check-in and security, and more time for just about everything associated with air travel.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Trip Advisor's Top 10 Attractions

Some reporters and bloggers are whining about the Grand Canyon only being fourth on Trip Advisor’s latest list of “Top 10 U.S. Attractions.”

Personally, I’m surprised the Grand Canyon made the list at all. Hey, it says “Attractions” – man-made fun, get it? Here’s the complete list:

1. Orlando, Florida (Universal Studios, Sea World, Discovery Cove, and everything Disney)
2. Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas, Nevada
3. Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii
4. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
5. Central Park, New York City
6. Alcatraz, San Francisco, California
7. Top of the Rock Observation Deck, New York,
8. Monterey Bay Aquarium, California
9. Bellagio Fountains, Las Vegas, Nevada
10. San Diego Zoo, California

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

First Report: Camping Trailer Adventures

Before writing about our trip to Washington itself, let’s clear the air about the pop-up camping trailer. Basically, it was (is) a piece of shit. We purchased a Rockwood tent trailer from Bob Scott RV in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the unit totally failed to live up to expectations and what we were told. All systems died within the first two days – electrical, water, propane. We basically had the pleasure of towing an expensive tent for nearly two weeks from Colorado to Washington.

Upon our return, Bob Scott RV completely disregarded our request for a refund, instead offering to “fix” the trailer and “show us how it really worked.” We will never buy or recommend any type of RV from Rockwood and especially from Bob Scott RV.

Our attorney says that, unfortunately, there is no “lemon law” in Colorado for trailers and RVs. So buyer beware – only buy from a reputable dealer, or be like us and figure out how to cut your losses by getting the unit repaired and then selling it.

More about the good aspects of our Washington trip in the next few entries.

Oh Goody: A Hundred People to Help with Passports

The U.S. State Department is asking for up to "two groups of 50" diplomats with "consular experience" to volunteer to help at the National Passport Center in New Hampshire to help deal with the backlog of 3 million passport applications.

Any foreign service diplomats who qualify can spend their summer vacation (July and August) helping the government out of its own mess. Unless my math fails me, that works out to 500 applications per worker per day - including weekends - which means each person would need to process one application per minute.

Our wise government is offering these folks lodging, travel, and a per-diem. Sure seems like a bunch of folks would just jump at this wonderful opportunity. Although New Hampshire is awful pretty in summer.

Travellers, please don't expect your passport to show up any sooner.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

London 2012 Olympic Logo

Well, if it’s not political, it’s not the Olympics. While there are still two Games before it (Beijing Summer 2008 and Vancouver Winter 2010), the London Olympics is already feeling the heat of controversy.The new logo/brand has been revealed, and it seems nobody much likes it. It’s pretty blocky and rather boring to me, but what strikes me most is that it says nothing about London. The logo could be for any city, any place on the planet.

As a former marketing (and occasional branding) consultant, one thing I always stressed to destination or location clients (example) was to have their brand establish or reinforce a sense of their unique place in the world. The 2012 logo isn’t, to me, totally dreadful, but it simply neglects to tie itself to what is arguably the greatest city in the world.

See more on the official London 2012 Olympics website.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Passports for Travel Between U.S. and Canada

As with most things governmental, the recent passport requirements for travel between the U.S. and Canada are taking longer to implement than anticipated. The U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries issued the following statement on June 12.

"WASHINGTON – The U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security announced today that U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda who have applied for but not yet received passports can nevertheless temporarily enter and depart from the United States by air with a government issued photo identification and Department of State official proof of application for a passport through Sept. 30, 2007. The federal government is making this accommodation for air travel due to longer than expected processing times for passport applications in the face of record-breaking demand."

Some bloggers have mentioned a requirement for a birth certificate during this temporary period. We don't see this in the above statement.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Camping Trailer Adventures

We’re trying something new for us over the next two weeks. We’re towing a small pop-up (Francesca calls it the Pop Tart) camping tent trailer from Colorado to Washington. If we can get internet access in the woods of the northwest (unlikely where we’re going and with this trip’s agenda) we’ll post some news and photos. Otherwise, look for a report upon our return.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Another Great International ATM Option

Bank of Internet USA has several checking plans offering an ATM card that can be used anywhere, with no ATM fees from Bank of Internet. In addition, Bank of Internet will reimburse account holders up to $8 per month (depending on account) for ATM fees charged by other banks/ATM owners. ATM withdrawals are limited to $305 per day.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Old Travel Guidebooks

Much has been made recently of this year being the 50th anniversary of the publication of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. It surely was a breakthrough work, but was far from the first travel guidebook. So we thought we’d “review” some old travel guidebooks from our bookshelf (some older than Frommer’s, some newer, some just plain eclectic). First on our list:
TWA Vacation Guide and World Atlas – 1956


This book, “compiled for Trans World Airlines,” presents a fascinating picture of world travel in the mid 1950s. Despite covering nearly the entire globe, Russia is not even mentioned in the book. Yet in the Cuba section, the island’s description begins: “For excellent swimming, exciting deep-sea fishing, or just relaxing in the bright sunshine, no place surpasses it. In addition, there is ... beautiful, gay, sophisticated Havana.” So much has changed in the world, yet the photo of Trinidad, Cuba, in the book could have been taken in 1955, yesterday, or 200 years ago.
The TWA Vacation Guide not only covers the then-already-popular riches of Europe, but also speaks highly of Iran (“Land of Omar Khayyam”) and Iraq (“Land of the Arabian Nights”).
Overall, there is hardly a negative word about any destination in the book. We find it most fascinating in its view of a world sometimes seemingly very far away. Yet in many places, it’s still quite possible to use it as a travel guide – the London section would work decently today. (Although you’d not be able to find the once-famous Simpsons of Piccadilly store, Harrods and Fortnum and Mason’s are still London stalwarts.)
The book doesn’t neglect America, with even the state of Nebraska receiving nearly a full page of coverage. And the maps and photos in this 390-page book are still fascinating and educational.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

U.S. Airlines Near the Bottom of the Pile

Can you say, “unhappy”? In general, U.S. airlines scored lower than all but one of 19 industries in customer satisfaction, according to the University of Michigan. On a scale where 100 was the best, the airline industry scored 63. For comparison, the cable/satellite TV industry scored the worst at 62, and even the IRS managed to beat the airlines with a 65.

Postcard from the S.S. Normandie's inaugural voyage, 1935

Monday, May 07, 2007

New (To Us) Brit Travel Site

We've long been fans of the British (granted, sometimes odd) travel sensibilities and experiences. So we were shocked, shocked I say, to recently discover a travel site we'd never found before.
The Telegraph.co.uk is the on-line home for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. As an example of what's on their travel page, we found articles about the new French high-speed rail service, one about the "Not So Little Green Men," and a great blog with entries about female gondoliers and "Why Don't Single Women travel?"

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Still More Re Foreign Credit-Card Fees

We wrote recently about credit card foreign-exchange fees, touting Capital One and Washington Mutual as the best (lowest fees) in our research.

We just realized that while the American Express Platinum Business “FreedomPass” card carries a 2% foreign-exchange conversion fee, the card’s rewards percentage works out to 1-1/4% ($100 ticket value redemption for 7,500 points, earned at 1 point per $1). This brings the “net” foreign-exchange fee down to 3/4% – better than all but Capital One (0%).

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Responsible Tourism

World Responsible Tourism Day offers a way for businesses (especially travel businesses) to become involved in making tourism more responsible and “local friendly.”

In our personal lives we try to “eat local” – buying foods produced near where we live – and to “shop local” – favoring purchases at independent local stores rather than national big-box chains. So why shouldn’t we support the local economy and environment of the places we visit?

Several good responsible-tourism resources include:
The Responsible Tourism Partnership
Harold Goodwin (Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership)
World Responsible Tourism Day

For our part, we’ve decided that as our way of supporting responsible tourism, now through November 14, 2007 (World Responsible Tourism Day), Travel America LLC will contribute 5 percent of all How To Travel America book sales revenue to art education in Africa.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Europe Travel Tip of the Week

If you’re going to Europe and traveling either to or through the UK (as many U.S.-to-Europe flights do), it’s worth signing up for the BAA WorldPoints program. Kind of like a frequent-shopper program for goods sold at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Edinburgh airports, the program also often offers bonus points for surveys and such. Since you’ll probably buy something (even if just water, a newspaper, and a snack) in a London (or other BAA) airport, you’ll accrue points. Without any exorbitant purchases, we’ve gained points for several half-price Heathrow Express tickets (currently discontinued, unfortunately) and £5 shopping vouchers. Other rewards are also available.

Paris Opera, postcard late 1920s

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Frequent Flier Ticket Availability

Recent research by Ed Perkins at Smarter Travel and Scott McCartney with the Wall Street Journal generally found that, in order, the best airlines for snagging frequent flier seats were:
American – good
United – good
Continental – fair
Northwest – fair
US Air – poor
Delta – none
We’ve recently had fairly good luck with United and American, but haven’t tried any of the other airlines lately.
(The Wall St. Journal original article above requires a paid on-line subscription, but a forum discussing the article is available here for free.)

ADDENDUM: Just tonight, after writing the above, we're trying to book a frequent flier ticket for next Thursday (a week away; domestic). We can't even GET INTO US Air's award booking site, while we found several flights available on United. Nuf said.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Flying Loves & Hates

Everyone has their priorities when it comes to air travel. Some folks want the absolute lowest fare, others want amenities. For us, it’s about two primary things – seat comfort and non-stop flights.

We can’t afford business class (much less first), so we want the best bang for our economy-ticket buck. Which is why we like United’s Economy Plus; why we love SeatGuru; and why we’ll pay a little more for a butt that still has feeling after we deplane. And since we really hate the airport experience part of traveling, we also want the most direct flights possible. We’ll gladly pay a little more to get to Europe from our small-town airport in one stop instead of two.

Some of what we don’t like we have control over (what airline to fly), some we don’t (airports and security).

What we don’t like is unassigned seating (we live three hours from a Southwest airport, yet have only flown them once); not enough counter agents; unexplained delays; criminally high airport parking fees; onerous change fees; unfriendly/unpleasant flight attendants (hey, your job IS customer service, get over it). And, finally, security. The sole purpose of our current security system is to keep us in a constant state of low-grade fear. In Bowling for Columbine, one of Michael Moore’s contentions is that government and some businesses have a vested interest in keeping Americans in a culture of fear. We have seen the future, and airport security is the closest we’ve seen to an Orwellian nightmare.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mostly Ignored: Airline Ticket Fees Benefit Non-commercial Airports

Despite a headline which should have raised a lot of eyebrows (“Airline Passengers Subsidizing Private Aviation”), the travel media mostly ignored another potentially hot issue. A recent Associated Press story, reported on CNN.com last week, raised the issue that many ticket fees airline passengers pay are used for benefits to private aviation airports (which don’t see commercial air traffic, and therefore have no direct benefit for commercial passengers).

The story leads by saying: “The federal government has taken billions of dollars from the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers every time they fly and awarded it to small airports used mainly by private pilots and globe-trotting corporate executives.”

Fees and taxes on airline tickets just keep increasing. Read the full AP article, and if this makes you mad, contact your Senators and Representatives. Congress is currently looking into new ways of financing the FAA (which doles out the money to private airports) before the agency’s funding expires on September 30.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Crap-Free Web Campaign

The web is a wonderful place. But it sometimes seems that it’s going the route of trash TV, and of graffiti vandalism being called art. In the course of our business and life, we look at way too many websites (especially travel sites) on a daily basis. There is so much crap, intrusive crap, annoying crap, and just plain bad crap on websites now. Not that I’ll ever be able to do anything about it, except ignore those sites completely that don’t respect my sensibilities.

Complaint #1 – The “dancing moron” ads. Most of these are from LowerMyBills and ClassesUSA (both Experian companies – yes, the credit agency folks). Maybe I’m not in their target demographic and just don’t get it, but I will never patronize any business which annoys me so much so frequently.

Complaint #2 – “Enter” pages on websites. I don’t want to see your gauzy, too-cool intro pages. I don’t want to wait (even with broadband) until I finally see a “skip intro” button. I just want to see your damn information.

Complaint #3 – Unwanted noise, music, narration on any website, for anything. I like Yakima car racks, but their moronic little narrator “coach” drives me away from their products. Especially when I can’t get him to shut up. Mobal’s world cell-phone site has another very annoying narration with no easy "SHUT-UP" option.

Complaint #4 – Browser pop-up blockers have finally helped control pop-up and pop-under annoyances, but some still get through. The latest are the “floater” or “fly-over” ads, the little boxes which run across your screen too fast to hit the close X (unless you’re a better gamer than I am), and which obstructs the article you really want to read.

Complaint #5 – Spam. Yea, it isn’t directly a website issue, but every website should be conscious of the ways in which it may inadvertently help promote spam. Spammers are the lowest form of life on the planet – another form of vandalism, just like graffiti. If caught, spammers (and graffiti vandals) should have one testicle removed upon first offense, and the second one if caught again. At least that way they can’t breed.

Much of my past professional career was in marketing and advertising. I understand what all the above techniques are trying to accomplish, and certain (questionable) studies show that even annoyances, especially in advertising, create name recognition (the theory that “bad publicity is better than no publicity”). Maybe that once worked for toilet-paper purchases in the grocery store, where you grabbed whatever name first came to mind, not remembering that it was a negative connotation. Maybe I’m in the minority, and annoying web ads, noise, and navigation really do work in today’s sound-bite world. I hope not, because there aren’t many ad-free and noise-free places left in the world. Maybe I’ll start by moving to a state (Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii, last I knew) or community with an anti-billboard law.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The 8 Wonders of ..... Kansas

Kansas wants to be more on the minds of travelers and tourists. The state, through the non-profit Kansas Sampler Foundation, is soliciting nominations for The Eight Wonders of Kansas. To us, Kansas is a state of sweeping vistas, beautiful tall-grass prairies, and, well, more nice stuff.

The Associated Press reports that Caleb Asher, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Commerce, told The Wichita Eagle: “The best places you can find are in those small towns, in some of those family-owned restaurants that fix fried chicken and fresh-baked pies.”

The Eight Wonders campaign is seeking nominations through May 6, when 24 finalists will be selected (we hope they find that many family restaurants serving fresh pie). Voting on the finalists will continue until December 31, and the eight winners will be announced on “Kansas Day,” January 29, 2008.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Whistler's Gigantic Gondola

If you’re a traveler and skier, you’re probably already anticipating the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. And what will be the best way to see the vast slopes of the Alpine ski venues at Whistler? How about a new 2.7-mile-long (4.4 km) gondola which will stretch from the peaks of Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain.

Scheduled for completion in December 2008, the gondola will feature a free span of nearly 1.9 miles (3 km) and will have 28 cabins, each capable of holding 28 passengers. Whistler’s Peak to Peak website has artist’s views and information (just be sure to turn off the obnoxious music on the intro page).

We generally prefer smaller, powder-rich ski areas, and don’t get too excited about BIG ski resorts (and Whistler is the biggest in North America), but we’d love to see the views from this baby.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

American Airlines - Women's site or ....

So is American Airlines’ “women’s” site really about women, or another foray for AA into the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) market? American was just named the official airline of Olivia, a “lesbian-focused travel company” (according to today’s Wall St. Journal). On their Rainbow web page, American boasts that they have the “American Airlines Rainbow TeAAm - The only LGBT Dedicated Sales Team in the industry.” As we said before, it’s all about marketing.

Monday, April 16, 2007

UK Carry-on Reminder

With the high season for travel to Europe soon upon us, we wanted to remind travelers going to or connecting through Britain that you’re allowed only one carry-on bag. You can not have a purse, laptop bag, camera bag, or briefcase in addition, as you can in the U.S. That one bag must not exceed 56x45x25 cm (22x17x10 inches). The same 3-ounce, 1-plastic-bag rule for cosmetics/liquids as in the U.S. is in force, and your plastic baggie must be able to fit within your carry-on. (Note that you can put a purse, camera bag, or at-your-seat bag inside your carry-on, and remove it after you board.) The latest info can be found at www.dft.gov.uk under the “airport security” section.
There is also a wealth of Europe travel information available at How To Travel Europe.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Travel/Destinations in the Movies – Part I

We love films that take us places – intriguing places we desire to visit; nostalgic glimpses of places from the past; or destinations we’re familiar with, which convey a wonderful sense of that specific place. Here are a few of our favorite travel/destination movies.

The Quiet American – Michael Caine in Vietnam in the early 1950s. Atmospheric and edgy. Like most of our favorite travel films, this makes us wonder what it was really like in that time and place.

Casablanca – Rick’s Café, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Morocco. What more is there? If you don’t want to visit North Africa after seeing this, you just don’t have the travel bug.

Havana – This is Robert Redford’s remaking of – and homage to – Casablanca, but set in Cuba just before Fidel’s victory. Much of it was filmed in the Dominican Republic, but the B-unit shots are certainly Havana, and the historical context is wonderfully entertaining.

Under the Tuscan Sun – Diane Lane as “Francesca” (one of us). Francesca saw the movie just before a trip to New Zealand and a friend said to her, “You’re not going to come back, are you?” (She did.) Wonderful sense of a place.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Silly, rude, and wonderful. Too goofy for words, but it “moved” us.

The Out of Towners – The original, not the remake. Who hasn’t been in some sort of similar situation in a big city (in this case, New York)? Plans go awry, flights are missed, lack of sleep – sounds like the typical travel “adventure” to us.

Amelie – The early, cute Audrey Tautou in locations all over Paris. The fun is recognizing sites and attractions. The best evocation of French cafés since Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Notting Hill – For the anglophile in us all. Portobello Road, plus the disgustingly cute Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Loved it nonetheless.

Mindwalk – Deep, talky, and mostly ignored. My Dinner with Andre in France. This still draws Kenneth toward Mont St. Michele.

As we’re movie fans, filmmakers, and travel writers, we’ll add some more to this list again soon. Let us know your faves, too.

Sloppy Joe's Bar, Havana, Cuba, early 1930s

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

American Airlines New Women’s Website – Point/Counterpoint

American Airlines has come out with a new website and (obviously) a new marketing campaign aimed at women travelers (www.aa.com/women). While we applaud almost everything that contributes to the equality of the sexes, we’re not exactly sure what to make of American’s effort. Do women really want or need different booking or destination information? Is there some added value for the female traveler in using a sex-specific website?

Kenneth’s (male) take:
It’s obviously a work-in-progress. Will there be sections of the website that are actually useful for women (those “personal” travel hygiene tips)? Will there be an interactive component of the site, such as a woman-to-woman forum?
Also obviously, the site isn’t designed to offer special discounts just for women – that would be completely discriminatory.
So my take is that it’s simply an American Airlines marketing tool – trying to get more women to fly American. Which, as a former marketing consultant, makes sense to me. Differentiate yourself from the pack, even if it’s with only the sizzle and not the steak.
This is not a knock against American. We’ve generally had good travel experiences on the airline. But my final take is that this is a good marketing gimmick for American, while at this time offering information of questionable value which can probably be found better elsewhere.

Francesca’s (female) take:
I’m sorry, but to me the new women-specific marketing campaign of American Airlines is insulting and offensive to women and men alike. The battle of the sexes was decades ago, and if I recall from my history class, it ended nicely in compromise.
Women have been treated equally and fairly in most walks of life since this treaty’s conception, so why stir up old grumblings now? What inequality is there now while traveling? What “privileges” do men have over women on a plane? Being a very happy, independent, well-traveled, and fulfilled-in-life woman, I feel used like a pawn in the game which big companies play to stay on top.
I’ll be traveling to the shower now to “wash that airline (man) right out of my hair.”

So, are we missing something here? Let us hear your thoughts.

Old postcard 1930s, Luzern (Lucerne), Switzerland

Thursday, April 05, 2007

HSBC Ups Foreign Credit Card Fees

After just praising HSBC in the previous entry for having only a 1% foreign-transaction fee on credit card purchases, today I got in the mail a change of terms and conditions stating the fee will now be 3%. So scratch HSBC off the list. Looks like Capital One (0%) and Washington Mutual (1%) are the last good options.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Our Latest International Credit Card & ATM Research

In the process of planning some upcoming international travel, here’s what we’ve discovered about credit card foreign-exchange fees. This is based on information from the credit card terms-and-conditions literature, the card company’s website, or from talking with customer-service personnel. It may not be correct for your card or your travel situation. It may also not apply to all cards in a company’s lineup. Check with your card company, but this seems to be the latest we could find:

Capital One charges 0% foreign-exchange fees.

HSBC charges 1-3% foreign-exchange fees.

Washington Mutual charges 1% foreign-exchange fees.

America Express charges 2% foreign-exchange fees, but is not as widely accepted internationally.

All other cards we researched charged 3% or more.

Since most “reward” cards (miles, points, cash-back, etc.) generally offer their rewards at roughly equivalent to 1% – and some do not offer rebates/rewards for non-U.S. purchases – the reward would seem generally not enough to offset a higher foreign-exchange fee. Also remember that should you return a purchase while overseas, you’ll get hit with the foreign-exchange fee again for the credit. Finally, don’t ever fall for a merchant’s offer to charge the purchase in U.S. dollars instead of the local currency. Again, you’ll pay dearly in increased fees.

ATM fees are another matter. Most banks (probably yours) charge a fee for use of a “foreign” ATM – but in bank-speak this means any ATM that is not one of theirs. This is usually a fixed amount – we’ve seen most of these fees range from $1.50-$5.00 per ATM withdrawal. Which means, withdraw as much as you think you’ll really need, rather than smaller amounts several times. But... don’t get so much cash that you’ll have to convert it back to dollars, as then you’ll really take a hit. We’re generally really pleased with ourselves if all we have left after our trip is a few dollars worth of coins (which will come in handy for our next trip). ATMs also charge a 1% wholesale exchange commission, on top of the fee above.

Two ways to lower your ATM fees that you might consider:

1 – Get an HSBC ATM card, and hope that you can find an ATM in the wide HSBC network (18,000 locations). A good way to do this is to open a free on-line checking account with HSBC, fund it with only a little more than you think you’ll need in cash for your trip (to limit your potential theft/fraud loss), and get an ATM card linked to that account only.

2 – Get an ATM card from Bank of America. BofA is a member of the Global ATM Alliance, which claims 12,000 ATMs operated by member banks in the U.K., Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France, China, Mexico, and Canada.

Despite the fees, credit cards and ATM cash withdrawals are still better and cheaper than carrying traveler’s checks or exchanging hard dollars for local currency. Still, you might as well pay as little as possible for the convenience and safety of plastic.

Old postcard, Thames Embankment, London, 1928