Friday, February 29, 2008

Too Bad GPS Doesn’t Work Indoors

China has opened the world’s largest airport terminal in Beijing. The new Terminal 3 opened today with the arrival of a British Airways flight. The terminal has 10 million feet of space, is nearly 2 miles long, and includes 64 restaurants and 84 retail shops. For comparison, the terminal is larger than all five London Heathrow terminals combined.

Photo copyright Tom van Dillen

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Credit Card Foreign Exchange Fee Refunds

Nearly every traveler has used a credit card overseas. If you did so between 1996 and 2006, you’re probably due a refund. Visa, MasterCard, and Diners settled a class-action lawsuit that accused them of not disclosing foreign-exchange transaction fees. There are several refund options, all detailed at The simple route is if you don’t have receipts and took only a couple of trips overseas, spending less than $2,500, you can file for the flat $25 refund. Option two asks the number of days you traveled internationally during the time period. The third option, only good for obsessive record-keepers, is to submit receipts for all your travels.

Of course, today, the fees are mostly still there (see our previous posts here and here), but now they’re upfront. There are options for reducing those percentages, most specifically by using a Capital One card. Some Capital One cards (“No Hassle” miles) are even reward/mileage cards, so you can get a little something extra still (even if it’s not the best reward card program) by using those cards.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

International Travel Tips - Part III

Here are another two more international travel tips in our ongoing series. (Previous tips here and here.)

Make Lodging Reservations in Advance
Ten years ago, the “conventional wisdom” was that unless you were planning on staying in the Ritz hotel, you could find good and plentiful lodging upon your arrival in most countries (especially in Europe) relatively on the spur of the moment. Then things began to change. Just a couple of years ago, we recommended on our How To Travel Europe website that you make your first night’s lodging reservations at any new destination in advance. Now, we take that ever farther and suggest you book at least your first two nights lodging in advance, for every destination you plan to visit. Europe (especially) has gotten busy and crowded year-round, and two nights gives you time to scope out the lay of the land and also enough time to plan the following two days (either in a new destination; at the same place you’re staying now; or a different hotel in the same city). It is no fun – none – to wander around marginal neighborhoods for three hours dragging your too-many bags in a big city in a foreign country knocking on doors and trying to find a room.

Learn Some of the Language
Not only will you be more easily understood, you’ll gain friends by attempting to speak – however badly – the local language (yes, even in France). Learn the following words and phrases: Hello, goodbye, thank you, please, where is, how much is, hotel, bathroom, please, restaurant, beer/wine, sorry, what time does the train leave, numbers (if possible, sometimes difficult), a few menu items, and similar phrases. We’ve connected with folks in New Zealand when we tried to speak a few words of Maori; we had a great semi-understood conversation with a woman in Cuba as we used our very rusty Spanish. And despite the effort it took for us to learn the useful phrases in Slovene and Czech, it opened a few doors and made us a few friends.

In Slovenia

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rick Steves on What's New Europe 2008

We really enjoy Rick Steves’ weekly columns in the Seattle Times, as well as his travel guidebooks. Recently, he’s been discussing some of what’s in store for Europe in 2008. Here is a highly condensed summary of information regarding travel changes on the continent for 2008.

Rome – The Vatican museum will offer extended hours to accommodate more tourists.
Florence – Reserve tickets to the Uffizi Gallery at least a month in advance.
Venice – The dome of La Salute Church will likely be covered with scaffolding during a renovation.
Milan – The Duomo Museum is under renovation and may be closed for the first part of 2008, as well as the train station.

London – The transport museum has reopened. The British Museum will undergo remodeling, and several items (including the Magna Carta) will not be on display. There will be no organ recitals at St. Paul's Cathedral in 2008 or 2009 during its restoration.
Stonehenge – This iconic monument is undergoing construction of a new visitors center, and traffic patterns may change.
Stratford-upon-Avon – The Royal Shakespeare Company has closed its Globe and Swan theaters for renovation and is using the Courtyard Theater as its main stage.

Galway – The Siamsa folk theater, which featured the step dancing popularized by Riverdance, will be closed in 2008.

Versailles – The Royal Opera House will likely be closed in 2008.
Paris – The new Quai Branly Museum is loaded with Primitive Art from Africa, Polynesia, Asia, and America. The renovated Petit Palais (and its Musee des Beaux-Arts) has art from Courbet, Monet, and other 19th-century painters. At the Louvre, the Venus de Milo has moved to the Sully wing. Charles de Gaulle Airport continues major renovations.
Nice – The city is finally getting some relief after being a construction mess for years. The first of three new light-rail lines (Le Tramway) is now fully operational.
Grotte de Font-de-Gaume – You can now reserve tickets to see France's best cave for original Cro-Magnon paintings by e-mail.
Chamonix – You can book tickets online in advance for France’s most famous mountain lift, the Aiguille du Midi.

Berlin – The building that formerly housed the Egyptian Museum (which moved to the city’s Museum Island) reopens this spring as the Scharf-Gerstenberg Museum, featuring Surrealist art.

Copenhagen – The helpful Use-It tourist information center is closing, leaving visitors at the mercy of the for-profit “Copenhagen Right Now” franchise.

Oslo – The new Opera House will open in 2008, across from the main train station. The Holmenkollen Ski Jump will close for part of 2008 and be rebuilt in preparation for the 2011 World Ski Jump championship, but the adjacent Ski Museum should remain open.

Stockholm – Entrance fees have been reinstated at state-run museums in, making the Stockholm Card a good value for visitors. The Museum of Medieval Stockholm will be closed through the fall of 2009 for renovation.

Zurich and Bern – These 2 cites (as well as others) will host the Euro 2008 soccer championships in June. Be prepared for large crowds.

Barcelona – The Palau Guell should reopen in 2008, offering the public a chance to see one of the finest interiors designed by the city's most famous architect, Antonio Gaudi.
Madrid – The Prado Museum’s expansion continues through 2008 and may rearrange the museum’s layout.
Toledo – The El Greco Museum will likely be closed for renovation through 2008, but its 20 El Greco paintings will be on display at the nearby Victorio Macho Museum.
Seville – The town’s grand boulevard – the Avenida de la Constitucion – is now a pedestrian-only thoroughfare.

Lisbon – The remodeled Rossio train station still hasn’t reopened, due to construction of a massive tunnel under a nearby roundabout.
Fatima – The Church of the Holy Trinity finally opened this past fall.

Prague – Renovation of the Charles Bridge continues, but remains open (and crossable) during construction.

Ljubljana – A new funicular zips visitors up from the riverside market to the castle above town.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Visiting Cuba

Cuban president Fidel Castro has resigned, and handed power to his brother Raul. Some political commentators are suggesting that not only will Raul be more amenable to open relations with the U.S., but that most of our presidential hopefuls may have a global, compassionate attitude toward the country. Plus, Fidel was hated by the politically powerful Miami Cubans, and now the symbolism of his power is gone. What this seems to mean to us is ... a guess only, here ... that Americans may be able to legally visit this fascinating country again. We’d put odds on 2009 as the year.

Monday, February 18, 2008

“Good & Bad” Airline Travel News

Much has been made of the Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and Europe. It seems that a similar agreement has been reached between the U.S. and Australia, which theoretically would increase options for consumers.

Air France and KLM have decided to cram an extra seat into each economy row of their B777 planes. The new 10-across seating is another reason to try to use your frequent flyer miles for upgrades out of economy.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Charging Overweight Passengers

Southwest Airlines has apparently begun more strict enforcement of its policy of charging overweight passengers who can’t fit into a standard seat for a second seat. Sounds great to us, but all the civil libertarians are coming out and claiming discrimination against the obese. So why, when hotels ban smoking (Sheraton and Four Points recently joined that club), is it seen as a wonderful thing, yet when Southwest institutes its new policy, it’s deemed discriminatory? We’ve not been big fans of Southwest, but this is great, and other airlines should do the same. (The situation in Canada is different, and the government’s transportation agency has banned the practice of charging overweight passengers more.) Air travel is miserable enough already, and yet you can bet that no airline is going to put in a few wider economy seats reserved for the overweight (which they could charge more for anyway).

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Travel Websites

We’re going to be traveling for a week away from computers, and we aren’t going to even think about posting until we return February 17. For your travel reading until then....

Here are some of our current favorite and most useful travel websites.

Seat Guru – Get the best seats possible; nearly every airline and every airplane.
USA Today – Travel news, tips, destinations.
Free Frequent Flyer Miles – Ways to maximize your miles accumulation.
Trip Advisor – Quirky, but good reviews and opinions.
Telegraph Travel and Sunday Times Travel – The Brit take on travel.
Airline Route Maps – The best single source for airline flight maps.
International Herald Tribune – World news, including a good travel section.
ITA software – Our favorite “first-reference” airfare tool.

Old postcard, Venice, early 1900s

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Choosing Frequent Flyer Programs

A couple of bloggers we regularly read and enjoy (View from the Wing and Smarter Travel) have recently discussed variations on the theme: “What Frequent Flyer Program To Choose.” A lot of words are spent on this versus that. To us, unless you are truly a “frequent” flyer, where you are aiming for elite status with its upgrades and other perks, the point is moot. You really don’t have to “choose” a preferred program, just join the FF program of any airline you fly – it costs you nothing, and it really isn’t hard to keep miles up-to-date with other activities (sending flowers, dining out, shopping, etc.).

Admittedly, the more miles you dump into the fewest number of programs, the better chance you have for reward flights and upgrades, but we think your airline travel preferences should be routing (non-stop), destinations, convenience (times of day, etc.), price, aircraft configuration/seating, and only then the airline’s FF program (especially with frequent-flyer seats notoriously hard to snag on many airlines). If you do fly a lot, you probably already know a lot about airlines and their FF programs, and then choosing an airline by its FF plan might make sense.

All that said, if you’re savvy enough to know every airline’s other airline partners, you are probably best off trying to consolidate miles in one program. In the View from the Wing article, the example is used of a hypothetical Houston passenger who would normally choose Continental’s FF program, yet who might be better off in Alaska’s program – even if flying Continental he can use an Alaska FF number and accumulate AK miles, which then could be used for FF tix on Alaska’s partners such as Continental, Delta, Northwest, Air France, or KLM. But then, I wonder if most travelers are sophisticated enough to even know which airlines partner with which others. We in the travel biz can get pretty focused on little details that the average traveler just isn’t aware of.

Monday, February 04, 2008

8 Wonders of Kansas

The nominations were opened, the votes were cast, the numbers tallied, and the winners of the 8 Wonders of Kansas are....

  • Big Well, Greensburg
  • Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Barton and Stafford counties
  • Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene
  • Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Hutchinson
  • Kansas Underground Salt Museum, Hutchinson
  • Monument Rocks and Castle Rock, Gove County
  • St. Fidelis Catholic Church (Cathedral of the Plains), Victoria
  • Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Chase County
According to the organizers, more than 24,000 people from all 50 states cast votes. The only place on the list that we’ve been to is the Tallgrass Prairie, and it truly is a spectacular landscape, in a subtly beautiful way. We were a little disappointed that the World’s Largest Ball of Twine (one of the finalists) didn’t make the winner’s circle. Maybe it was the fact that several other claimants think they have the world’s largest ball.

Tallgrass Prairie, National Park Service/Wikipedia

Saturday, February 02, 2008

TSA’s New Blog

This is really hard for us to take with a straight face, but....
The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has started a new blog, where readers are actually able to comment (and receive responses).
In our opinion, airport security in the U.S. (and in a few other countries such as the UK) is more about theater than actual security. So we applaud the theatrics of the TSA blog tagline:
“Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play A Part.”

Friday, February 01, 2008

Europe Train Travel Website

We’ve often commented how “U.S.-centric” Americans are, and that often goes for the travel blogs, web resources, and travel publications we read.
We enjoy most UK travel magazines (see our archives), and have found several internet resources that, for some reason, Americans just don’t seem aware of – despite the breadth and reach of the web.
If you travel to Europe, and prefer train travel (an option we’ve suggested frequently – see our Train archives), take a look at The Man in Seat Sixty-One. The site offers a lot of great information about European train travel, and even some tips for travel around the rest of the world.