Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Travel to Israel? The TV Segment

For this travel reporter, this week has been hard news, all the time. Yesterday, I covered the breaking story of airlines temporarily pulling out of Israel for NewsMax TV. Please forward to 1:33 of the MidPoint program for my segment.

This link goes straight to the segment:

For more background on the state of Israel and travel, click here

Monday, July 21, 2014

Travel to Israel?

Nothing like going on vacation and worrying about where to find gas masks or emergency bomb shelters. But the latest State Department Travel Warning advises travelers to Israel to arm themselves with this information should they opt to go.

The Temple Mount, Jerusalem
The wording of the warning: The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirms the longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip. (I added the bold).

For those who do choose to brave Israel, the warning recommends avoiding Arab towns such as Nazareth. As for Jerusalem:

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

U.S. citizens should be aware of the possibility of isolated street protests, particularly within the Old City and areas around Salah Ed-Din Street, Damascus Gate, Silwan, and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.  Travelers should exercise caution at religious sites on Fridays and on holy days, including during Ramadan.   
Ramadan ends on July 28.

The warning continues: Because of the security situation, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and its annexes are currently operating at reduced staffing and the Consular Section of the Embassy is providing only emergency consular services.  The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem is currently maintaining normal operations, including consular services.

State Department advisories and warnings can be impacted by U.S. relations with the countries in question. Therefore, in order to get the full picture, I always recommend international travelers also check out advisories issued by the British Foreign Office and by the Canadian government as well.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Travel to Russia?

Well, it looks like I won’t be pitching the story of my Trans-Siberian journey through Russia anytime soon. Given the events that have taken place in Ukraine since February, international tourism to Russia has plummeted, as has demand for information about Russian travel.

2013 was a blockbuster year for international tourism to Russia. Rosturizm, the state tourism agency, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying numbers were up nearly four percent, reaching 2.7 million international visitors. Russia was even making headway into the U.S. market, attracting 200,000 Americans (including me) last year. That’s the highest number since 2008.

And it looked like the increases were going to continue, given the impetus provided by the Sochi Olympics. But then, the Ukraine crisis began shortly after the Games ended.  After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the impact on tourism was apparent. Cruise lines and tour operators started cancelling stops in Russia. Ivan Shirkov, Senior Sales Specialist at Travel All Russia, one of the top international inbound tour operators to Russia, reports bookings in March and April were down 200 percent from 2013. Alexander Maklyarovsky, head of incoming tourism at Moscow-based KMP Group, said he expected overall tourism numbers for the summer to be down by 30 percent. SPB Tours, which organizes visits in St. Petersburg (more than 650 miles from Kiev), reported reservations had fallen almost 50 percent by June, compared to the same period last year.

And now, given the international outrage over the downing of Flight 17, even fewer people are opting to travel to Russia. It’s not really a matter of safety, even though the State Department has posted travel warnings. But those focus mainly on the parts of Russia bordering Ukraine.

Instead, people are opting out for political reasons and are boycotting with their pocketbooks. Of course, fall and winter are not prime times for Russian tourism, so the question may become how all of this will impact travel into 2015. Shirkov says it is too soon to tell if the skies will continue to darken. The answer may depend on the continuing political fallout from the latest tragedy.

Developing Coverage: More political implications; interviews with Russian hoteliers and tour operators

Monday, July 14, 2014

Summer Travel Deals and Destinations

I recently sat down with WTOP Radio's Rachel Nania for an extensive interview about summer travel deals. In addition to the on-air segments, Rachel penned this comprehensive piece for the station's website. 

Not too late: Summer travel deals and destinations

Tuesday - 7/8/2014, 6:34am  ET
The deals come out in the dog days of summer. Whether you're looking for an international trip or a weekend getaway, discounted vacation options are aplenty. (AP Photo/WTOP Composite)
WASHINGTON -- If you're without vacation plans this summer but hope to get away during the season's last two months, there are still plenty of deals to be had and plenty of destinations from which to choose.

Laura Powell, a veteran travel journalist and blogger for The Daily Suitcase, has ideas on budget-friendly, last-minute summer vacations, as well as local getaways and trends in travel.

Last-Minute Destinations

To snag a deal in the dog days of summer, Powell says, scout destinations where July and August are considered the off-season. "If you're willing to go to places where it's really hot or where there are threats of hurricanes, those are good options."
Resort prices in the Caribbean and parts of Florida are greatly reduced in the summer, and hotels in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, typically offer major discounts during summer's hottest months. In Arizona, Powell says, a room at a high-end hotel, such as The Four Seasons, may be discounted up to $300 a night.
If the heat during the day is too much, Powell suggests flipping your normal schedule. Stick to the spa or indoor shopping during the day, and enjoy the pool later in the afternoon or golf in the evening.

Cutting Costs When Booking

With so many deal sites out there, booking a vacation on the Internet can be overwhelming. But Powell says a few websites, such as Airfare Watchdog and Kayak, consolidate prices offered from the major online booking sites. "[They] will give you the whole gamut so that you don't have to go to each individual site. That can save you some time for your comparison shopping," Powell says.
If the price of a hotel looks too good to be true, chances are it is. Many have hidden costs that drive up the price of your stay.

Be wary of tax, which, if left off the reduced rate, can add quite a bit to your final cost -- especially in a city such as New York, where taxes are up to 20 percent, Powell says. Parking is another cost to consider; some hotels charge upwards of $40 a day.

If you need access to the Internet on your trip, find out whether Wi-Fi is included in the advertised rate.
"Some hotels -- especially the more expensive hotels -- charge you $20 a day for Wi-Fi," Powell says.
Resort fees -- or an added cost for using resort facilities -- are another hidden fee some travelers encounter. "This is what they do to keep the room price down, but in essence, you're still paying an extra $25 a day for this resort fee," Powell says. "These are the little extras that people may not think about when they see that great deal online and say, ‘Oh yes, I'm going to book that hotel in New York for $199,' but then all of the sudden it becomes more than $300 a night when you factor in all of the other things."

Local Getaways

If you can't get away for an entire week, but still need to squeeze in some fun and relaxation, Powell suggests scouting out a local destination for a few days or a long weekend. Within a few hours of D.C., travelers can access the beach and the mountains. Nearby golf resorts, spas, bed and breakfasts and towns overflow with history. Powell suggests nailing down what you and your travel partner want to see and experience, and then keep an eye out for the deals. Local discount subscriptions, such as Groupon Getaways and Living Social, are great places to start."A lot of times they will run last-minute deals for some of the great hotels in this area, whether it's the Homestead, the Omni Bedford Springs … so if you're not tied to a particular destination, but you just want to get away, going to those sites can be a really good option for saving money," she says.

One of Powell's favorite places to visit for a weekend is Saint Michaels or Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore. If she is limited to a day trip, she heads up to Baltimore. "Even just for a day trip, Baltimore is a very fun change of pace from Washington. A lot of different, quirky museums are up there; it's a totally different vibe from the city and yet it's only about 45 minutes away," she says. And if she wants to venture a little bit farther, Powell says there are beautiful resorts in Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, or great rafting destinations in West Virginia.

Trends in Travel: See the City through a Local's Eyes

Instead of staying in a hotel, more travelers are opting to rent out someone's apartment or book a room in someone's house through Airbnb or a similar site. Powell calls this trend "DIY travel." "I think that goes into the trend of people wanting to meet local people," she says. Many cities offer local travel guides who are experts in a variety of topics -- from history to food. And companies such as Bookalokal allow travelers to reserve a seat at someone's private dinner table, rather than a restaurant. "People are really getting more interested in finding out what makes places tick, and they want to do it by meeting the locals, by staying with the locals, by dining with the locals," Powell says.

International Travel on a Budget

The cost of flying across the world is much greater than a budget road trip to the Eastern Shore, but an international trip doesn't have to completely drain your wallet. Powell says a few international destinations are great deals for American tourists. Her top choice is Greece. "They really need tourism so they are really encouraging tourists by lowering prices," Powell says. Argentina has a good exchange rate against the dollar, and Powell says Turkey is incredibly reasonably priced compared to other counties in the area. "Airfare can be expensive getting to these places, but once you get there on the ground, it's not that expensive," she says. A recent Trip Advisor survey found the cheapest international cities for travelers are Hanoi, Jakarta and Bangkok; the most affordable European cities include Sofia, Budapest and Prague. "Berlin is a place where you can find some really good deals on nice hotels, so Berlin would be one I would add to that list," Powell says.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

9 Top Tips for Saving Money on Summer Travel

For more money-saving tips on summer travel, tune in to WTOP Radio in Washington, DC today.

On the Road

1. Renting a car? Go off-airport. Airport fees and taxes can double the average daily price of your wheels.

2. Try bidding for a budget car on opaque "name your own price" websites. You may not know which brand you are getting until you pay, but one mid-size rental car or minivan is basically the same as another.

3. Forget the car and take local transportation. Most cities with train and bus systems have discounted visitor passes. To get around even more economically and environmentally-consciously, note that many cities offer bike share programs where you can rent a two-wheeler for 30 minutes, three hours or three days.


4. Heading to a hotel? Watch for extra fees. Does your hotel charge for overnight parking, in-room wi-fi, or late check-out?

5. Heading to a resort? Watch out for the dreaded daily resort fee. These fees, which ostensibly are used to cover anything from the coffee in your room to the use of the gym to the morning newspaper, are sneaky ways for properties to advertise lower nightly rates while still billing more. Many properties charge up to $25 a day for the resort fee, which is nearly impossible to opt out of, even if you don’t plan to use the services included.

6. Does the resort have a free kids program?  During the summer, some resorts do offer complimentary kids programs, which can be a big cost-saver and a relief for harried parents looking for a few hours of we time on the golf course or at the spa.

In the Air

7. If you are flying with baggage, and you don’t want to pay the freight, there are two options.

   A. Fly an airline that doesn’t charge for the first checked bag, like Southwest or JetBlue.
   B. If you do fly the Uniteds, Americans or Deltas of this world, get an airline-branded credit card.
If you book on the airline website with its branded card, you will not only get a free checked bag for everyone on the reservation, but you also get to board earlier than most economy passengers. These credit cards can cost about $95 annually, but the first year is often free. If you end up saving more than $95 in baggage fees the first year, cough up the cash for a renewal for continued savings.

8. Find out which new airlines are coming to an airport near you. Oftentimes, carriers new to a market offer extra-low introductory fares.


9. If you are flexible on where you want to go, look at sites like Groupon Getaways and Living Social for money-saving travel packages. Many tour operators offer these sites extra-low prices in order to drive traffic to their own websites. Also, Groupon and LivingSocial are good places to scout out dining and activity deals in cities to which you are traveling.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Where to Save Money on Summer Travel: Part II

St. Lucia Tourist Board
Feel like getting out of the country for a little sand and surf? During the summer, you may get more surf than you bargained for if you hit a Caribbean island at the same time as a hurricane. But because of the threat of storms, resorts in the region offer eye-catching summer deals. 

If you were planning to spend $60,000 for your August-long getaway, I can save you $30,000. Peter Island Resort and Spa’s Summer Villa Rental Program comes with warm Caribbean hospitality, a variety of activities, and savings up to 50% off regular rates. A 28-day stay in a villa housing six guests will “only” set you back $31,640 (less than $5,300 a person), versus the normal $60,000 rental. Such a deal! Rates for a fully staffed villa rental for 28 days with meals for six guests start at $43,400 - also a savings of 50%. Rates are subject to an 18% tax, which in the first case adds nearly $6,000 to the total and in the second, nearly $8000--but still, half off tax, too! The Summer Villa Rental Program is available through October 31.

St. Lucia Tourist Board
For something tastier to most budgets, consider Chocolate Heritage Month in Saint Lucia this August.  Saint Lucia's chocolate legacy dates back to the 1700s. The island's chocolate-making process has hardly changed since that original chocolate boom, solidifying Saint Lucia's reputation as a top quality cocoa producer. Most of the idyllic island’s resorts are offering deals and packages including chocolate-inspired spa treatments, cooking classes, visits to a cocoa plantation, and rooms up to 55% off high-season prices.

If you want to head to the Caribbean without bringing a passport, remember that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are American territories, and therefore do not require extra documentation.

For more summer deals, see Part I of this post.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Where To Save Money on Summer Travel

People are always asking me, “Laura, where can I travel in the summer that won’t cost me an arm and a leg?” I reply with a body of answers, none of which involve the oxymoronic word staycation.

My advice:

1. Head to places where summer is the off-season (like Scottsdale or Dallas)
2. Head to places where it’s hurricane season (notably the Caribbean, Florida, or parts of Mexico)
3. Head to places the dollar has some bite (Vietnam, Thailand, Greece)

Let’s investigate further.

As we all know, it’s hot as the dickens in Arizona in July and August, even accounting for the dry air. When the thermometer is north of 100 degrees, it’s sticky, no matter how arid the air. That said, if you are looking for a real steal on a luxury hotel room, the Scottsdale area is the place to go. To wit:

The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North has summer rates starting at $169 versus $459 in the high season.

The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale has a new package called Aloha Summer. It features a  “buy one, get one free” surfing ride on the resort's wave simulator and a $50 per night dining credit. The package starts at $149 per room versus the regular room-only rate of $400 nightly.

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon is an all-suite property with two golf courses, 12 lighted tennis courts (because you will want to play at night) and a spa. Book the “Beat the Heat” deal, where every additional night you add to an existing reservation is priced at the temperature of the day. The price includes the $24 daily resort fee and the $20 resort credit.  Pray for a record cold snap.

Southwestern cities in general are good places to find hot deals. Business travel slows, so hotels in sweltering metropolises like Phoenix and Dallas often reduce room rates. For those visiting the Big D, check out the historic Warwick Melrose Hotel. It’s celebrating its 90th birthday this year with $90 room rates on select dates. A classic king room, which normally goes for $499 or so, will only set you back 90 bucks most nights in July and August. Whoa, cowboy!

In addition to the hotel deals, summer flights are usually plentiful and cheap to these types of destinations, which largely rely on business and convention travel during the rest of the year.

Next Up: Braving Hurricanes