Sunday, March 30, 2008

Traveler's Translator

We’ve literally been searching for this for years, but we finally stumbled on the source. One of our favorite international travel tools has been a flip-card that shows icons for transportation, medical conditions, food, lodging, and many other items. It was given to us by the physician’s office which advised us on vaccines for travel to exotic locations. Try as we might, we couldn’t find the source (and the drug company that produced the cards didn’t seem to offer them to the public), or how to get another copy – until now.

These waterproof, foldable cards are made by Kwikpoint. For only 15 bucks, they can be an invaluable resource for travel to any country where it’s likely you won’t know the language. Think villages in South America where they speak neither English nor Spanish. Africa. Pacific islands. Asia has so many different languages. We struggled to ask for ibuprofen in Slovenia (we tried English and Spanish; the pharmacist knew Slovene and Italian).

This is truly a geeky tool, but wonderful nonetheless.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Heathrow Terminal 5

Thanks to a link on Joe Sharkey's blog, here's an incredible article on the fiasco of British Airways and London Heathrow's Terminal 5 opening.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scam Alert: Beware of Travelers Advantage and HSBC

A year or so ago, we got an HSBC MasterCard, specifically for use in Europe as HSBC has a large presence and because the card charged only 1% foreign transaction fees. Within a month or two, we received a notice that HSBC was increasing foreign exchange fees to 3%.

A few weeks ago, we received a “rebate check” from HSBC (just as we do from several other of our rebate credit cards, a frequent occurrence), which turned out to be a scam. Obviously, there was some very fine print even we didn’t notice. By cashing the check, we allegedly signed up for Travelers Advantage, and they wanted to charge us $120 per year in perpetuity.

Needless to say, we disputed with both HSBC and Travelers Advantage. Travelers Advantage has many complaints about them detailed on Ripoff Report. We thought we were savvy consumers, but still got trapped in this unethical and deceptive scam. Stay away from both HSBC and Travelers Advantage.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Blogger Censored by Cuban Authorities

Cuba's all in the news these days, with stories in the Wall St. Journal about Cuban art; speculation about possible legal U.S. travel to the island; and the retirement of Fidel Castro.

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s most popular blogger, reported that Cuban authorities have blocked viewing of her blog, Generacion Y. Sanchez, whose blog received 1.2 million visits in February, said government censors had placed “filters” that delayed viewing of her web page on a server in Germany. Recent attempts to view the site from Cuba met with a notice: “The page cannot be displayed.”

Sanchez, a 32-year-old philology (the study of ancient texts and languages) graduate, has drawn a significant readership by writing about her daily life in Cuba and describing economic hardships and political constraints. As of late, she has criticized Cuba's new leader, Raul Castro, for his vague promises of change and minimal steps to improve the standard of living for Cubans. In a country where the press is controlled by the state and there is no independent media, Sanchez and other Cubans have found in the internet an unregulated vehicle of expression.

The link above to Generacion Y is not blocked or delayed. For a translated version in English of Yaoni Sanchez’s statement concerning censorship, visit this website.

Vinales, Cuba

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cool, Fun, Generally Mindless (and Maybe Useful) Travel Websites

Know how you got there: Great Circle Mapper
How many countries you've been to: Countries Visited
Travel with only a carry-on: One Bag
Travel there quietly: Slow Travel
If you're heading to the North: Aurora Forecast
If you're heading anywhere: World Time Zones
How to figure how far and how much: Metric Conversions
The romance quotient: Moon Phases
If you want to use a cell phone: Pre-paid GSM

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Last Nail in the Coffin of Civility

Dubai-based Emirates airlines has instituted in-flight cell-phone service. As if we needed another reason to avoid most of the Arab world. Good ‘ole irascible Arthur Frommer says it well.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Museum of Weather

Who says that nothing happens in the flyover country of the Midwest? With all the offbeat activity recently going on in Kansas, we’re starting to love the lost-in-the-middle state. First, it was the public voting for and selection of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. Now, the Kansas Museum of History has opened an exhibition about... bad weather.

The Forces of Nature exhibit (running through January 4, 2009) actually sounds rather intriguing. The tornado that swept through The Wizard of Oz was, obviously, in Kansas. The Weather Channel regularly runs features on hurricanes, tornados, floods, and other natural disasters. So if you happen to be visiting any of those 8 Wonders of Kansas, take the time to stop by the museum (6425 SW 6th Ave., Topeka) and marvel at... the weather.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Case for Higher Airfares

Why do travelers feel entitled to cheap airfares? If gasoline prices go up 100 percent over the course of a few years, we can choose to drive less or put up with the price increases. If lattes cost $4.50, we still keep drinking them. Yet raise airfares 50 bucks, and let the screaming begin. The airlines are publicly traded companies (albeit poorly run and generally unprofitable ones), and for some odd reason (their shareholders, for example) feel they should make a profit. The chart at the bottom of this entry shows how unsuccessful that’s been, detailing the two-year price performance of various airline stocks, compared to the S&P 500 (the tan line at 0% on the right-hand scale).

The airlines have set up price expectations in consumers’ minds that equates cheap with good – even if that means service and schedules suffer. I can’t think of another industry that makes nickel-and-dime changes so frequently, nor an industry where every other business follows the herd so quickly. United raises fares $50 (as it recently did) and every other airline follows suit. What a bizarre business model.

A long time ago (until 1978), before most of today’s travelers remember, airlines were federally regulated. You could sometimes fly coast-to-coast with a full row all to yourself – and a “stewardess” who might sit and chat with you because she (they were always women) had little else to do. (This was pretty darn exciting when you were a male in your twenties.) In 1978, a first-class ticket cost 130% the price of a coach seat. (But then, first class wasn’t what it is now. Just a better meal and a bigger seat. Note, too, that it’s now “economy” – meaning cheap – and not “coach,” which to us carried at least a tiny cachet of pleasure.) All tickets were fully refundable. (We found this interesting 2005 article offering one person’s opinion of deregulation.)

Now, thanks quite a bit to Southwest (and to literally dozens of other now-bankrupt discount airlines), air travel has become a commodity. Every sophisticated traveler doing an airfare search uses Southwest as a baseline, even if they won’t travel on Southwest. (Note the gray line on the stock-price chart. Southwest’s share price has also been underwater for two years.) As we’ve said before, ticket price should be only one part of the air travel picture, but somehow Americans (and the rest of the world, judging by Ryanair and easyJet) think that it’s their right to have dirt-cheap air travel. Make your product cheaper and crappier and more folks want it. The airlines are their own worst enemy.

The new Open Skies agreement might begin to re-shape the airfare landscape. Or maybe shareholders of United, American, Continental, et al will begin to clamor for profits instead of bankruptcies. Let the cattle classes have the short-haul discount carriers. In some way, it’s already happening, as the Dinosaur carriers are decreasing domestic (competitive, cheap) capacity and adding more overseas (more profitable) service. Which will put the squeeze on Southwest, as they won’t be able to fulfill all the demand for those cheap domestic tickets (nor will any other discount carrier). So even their prices will have to go up.

And maybe if carriers made money and thus returned to decent customer service, there’d be far less need for a Passengers Bill of Rights, as is now being batted around by legislatures and the media. If tickets cost more, and passenger volume was even slightly reduced, there would probably be fewer (maybe none) flights sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate, or flights running out of food and water because the airline needed to save 48 cents per passenger (and still not make a dent in their profit picture). Airlines aren’t going to become profitable – and therefore provide better services – by adding $25 to check a bag, or by removing blankets and pillows. The only way will be to substantially increase revenues – and that means higher fares.

Flyers, just remember, if “cheap” is what you want, “cheap” is probably what you’ll get – in all aspects of air travel: fares, service, food, baggage handling, routes, schedules, seats, everything. Personally, we don’t want to pay more for air tickets either (or for anything! ever!), but we think increased airfares are inevitable, and we would actually be willing to pay a bit more for a better product.

Two years: Black = USAir, Gray = Southwest, Green = Alaska, Dark gray = Northwest, Yellow = Delta, Orange = American, Purple = Continental, Blue = United, Brown = S&P 500.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Plan Early, Reserve Early, Buy Early

Neither we nor anyone else can know what will happen in the way of airfares, car-rental rates, or hotel availability for this coming summer travel season. But judging by $100-a-barrel oil and by some planning and reservations we’re making for ourselves, we might suggest you plan early, reserve early, and buy early.

It seems like airfares can only continue to rise – except for the occasional fare sale, it’s hard to imagine fares going down. As for lodging, over the last couple of years we’ve been making more reservations in advance – usually the first day or two at each location. But as we’re beginning to plan a September trip to Europe, we’re being told by property owners that places are already getting booked nearly full. Car reservations are generally almost always available, but if you’re price sensitive, shop around, book early (reservations are cancelable at no charge), and then keep an eye on rates as your trip gets closer. (We’ve found some of the best car-rental rates through airline partner offers on the airlines’ websites.)

Obviously, for short-notice or business travel, you’ll simply have to take what’s out there. But for big vacations, we can only reiterate: Plan early, reserve early, buy early.

Not much possibility of that any more.

Monday, March 17, 2008

More EU Countries Seek Visa Waivers

According to an International Herald Tribune/Associated Press article, three more EU nations in eastern Europe are seeking visa-free travel to the U.S. Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff wants air marshals on flights and electronic travel authorization as part of any new visa waiver deals. Of course, EU officials claim the added security measures violate the privacy and restrict the civil rights of air passengers. Chertoff, of course, dismissed those concerns: “We must beat back those people who argue that any time we collect a little information or any time we place a secure document requirement in the law, it is somehow the end of civil liberties. We need to engage that and to make the point that it actually enhances civil liberties.” The unidentified nations which would thus benefit from “enhanced civil liberties” were presumed to be Slovakia, Hungary, and Lithuania.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

London Heathrow Terminal Changes

London Heathrow airport’s new Terminal 5 was ceremoniously inaugurated by the Queen yesterday. Now the fun begins. Many airlines will be switching terminals at Heathrow, so if you travel to London a lot and have become familiar with “your” terminal, be ready for changes. Overall, the changes make sense, in that they will group airline alliance carriers together (unless alliances change in the future).

BCD Travel has a chart of the probable changes, and our friends over at The CrankyFlier also summarize the situation quite well. The changes will not happen all at once, but are spread out over the next year. Bottom line, check with your airline, and be ready for some new experiences.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Does “Competitive” Mean in Tourism-Speak?

According to research from the World Economic Forum and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, the U.S. ranked seventh in “tourism competitiveness.” According to the report, the rankings “are based on a measurement of over 60 variables that impact a country's appeal in developing travel and tourism, including statutory regulations, health and safety, infrastructure, local price levels, and environmental and cultural aspects.”
The most competitive countries (out of 130 possibilities) were:
Great Britain
United States

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The End of Paper Tickets

Just for the record, beginning June 1, all airlines (with a few very minor exceptions) will go exclusively to electronic ticketing, according to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing 240 airlines. Most travelers already use electronic tickets anyway, so this should be a non-event. But for those of us who remember those multi-part forms with red ink "carbons" between copies, it’s a sad passing in the age of travel.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Capital One Cards

Since we’ve been writing this blog, the most frequently searched-for information has been regarding Capital One and ATM cards. Doing some recent research on Capital One cards, we’ve come across two new (to us) products you might want to consider.

First is a Capital One MasterCard “For Professionals.” We’ve noted that Capital One’s reward program basically gives 1.25 “miles” per dollar spent, and it’s a “refund” type reward, where you purchase any ticket from any source, and if you meet the points levels you receive a statement credit. Some folks think that 1.25 miles per dollar is a fine deal; others have noted the redemption limits aren’t always the best; still others think it’s the worst deal around. The new MasterCard now gives 2 miles per dollar, but comes with a $39 annual fee. If you like the miles/points schemes, it might be worth looking into this card, especially if you charge enough to make the annual fee a non-issue. Also note that like other Capital One cards, there are no foreign transaction fees.

The second card is a Capital One Platinum Debit Card. It doesn’t appear to offer any rewards and must be tied to a Capital One on-line checking account. (Capital One’s checking accounts are in line with those from other online banks, currently in the range of 3 to 3.75 percent interest.) Some folks like debit cards, to have a better picture of their spending. Capital One’s card does appear to offer “zero liability” (which has been an issue for debit cards in the past), and it also doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Again, this may be a good possibility for international travel if you prefer a debit card.

Terms and conditions for any of these cards are, typically, long and complicated. Be sure to read everything about rewards, fees, etc. if you’re interested in these products.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Canada, We Like You, We Really Like You

According to a recent Gallup survey, Canada was the most favorably viewed nation by Americans. When we see surveys such as this, we immediately ask the question, “Why?” What’s the point? Is the U.S. government going to alter foreign policy based on the countries Americans “like” or not? Will tourism bureaus in the less-favorite countries begin advertising in Travel + Leisure? Why only 22 countries on the list? We could go on and on. For the record, the top five (in order) were Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Israel. The bottom five were Afghanistan, Iraq, The Palestinian Authority, North Korea, and Iran.

We still have no idea what this means, but Canada, you da best.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Montana Airport Security

There’s a great USA Today article about seven small Montana airports that currently don’t have security screening, but they want it. The TSA says the very small airports don’t justify the cost; Montana says security screening will help build traffic to those airports. We guess that Montana just wants all its citizens to be afraid, which is the only real point of U.S. airport security – to keep our citizens in a constant state of low-grade fear so we’ll be more docile with all aspects of government intervention in our lives. If so, we’d bet that TSA spends the money (said to be $2 million per year) so those 30 passengers a day (average combined from all seven airports) can be just as afraid as the rest of their fellow citizens.

Montana Ski Country

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Art & Museum Travel

As if we didn't already have enough reasons to travel....
According to the newly released annual list of the most popular museums in the world by Art Newspaper, first place goes to the Louvre in Paris. The most popular exhibition during 2007 was at the Tokyo National Museum in Japan. Drawing the most attention at that exhibition was Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Annunciation,” which was on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The top 20 most popular art museums in the world, as compiled by Art Newspaper:

  • Louvre, Paris
  • Centre Pompidou, Paris
  • Tate Modern, London
  • British Museum, London
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington
  • Vatican Museums, Vatican City
  • National Gallery, London
  • Musee d’Orsay, Paris
  • Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
  • National Palace Museum, Taipei
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Field Museum, Chicago
  • Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo
  • CaxiaForum Barcelona, Barcelona
  • Moscow Kremlin Museums, Moscow
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The British Museum, London