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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ho-Ho-Holiday Travel Tips

Let's make a list and check it twice. It will have nothing to do with who's naughty and nice, however. Rather, said list is designed to help you, dear reader, get through your holiday travels with the greatest of ease.

Tip #1: Stay home and have everyone come to you. Sure, you may have to pick people up at the airport (depending on the time they are arriving, it may be easier to pick them up from the departures area than at arrivals--chew on that for a minute), but you never have to actually step foot in the airport.

Tip #2: If you are flying, check in on line. Getting your seat assignment and boarding pass ahead of time will ease your journey through the airport.

Tip #3: Don't wrap gifts. Most people know not to wrap gifts being tucked into carry-on bags. But wrapped gifts in your checked bags may also send off warning signals to security officials. Forget the gift wrap and just use gift bags. Or...

Tip #4: Send those gifts ahead of time. The cheapest way to do so--order goodies on line and have the e-commerce site send the gifts directly to the recipient. Look for sites offering free holiday shipping to save even more.

Tip #5: You've probably already booked your flights. If you haven't, what are you waiting for? Christmas? But if you haven't, look for non-stop flights leaving from "alternative" airports (Chicago Midway, Burbank) early in the day. If you have to connect, consider the hub carefully. Flights through Chicago are more likely to be delayed by winter weather snafus than those through Dallas or Atlanta. Also, consider flying on the holidays themselves. Planes are less crowded and I have found that everyone, from the flight staff to your fellow passengers, is nicer.
Ho, ho, ho.

Tip #6: You want to stay healthy during the holidays, right? If so, I recommend three things. First, wash your hands constantly (you'll need to carry body lotion to re-moisturize). Second, bring along an anti-bacterial product in a three-ounce bottle. Third, I love Emergen-C. This elixir of the gods, as I like to call it, contains super-high doses of Vitamin C and other essential nutrients, all of which help give the immune system a much needed boost. And who couldn't use a little more energy, particularly when dealing with holiday travel?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum: Part VII

As you book your tickets for the holidays this month, don't forget about those darned fees. If you are going to be traveling with gifts (which I recommend you don't do), you may need to carry extra baggage. But remember, in most cases, every additional piece of luggage is going to cost you.

Of course, all fees are not created equal. Therefore, even if the actual ticket charge is less on Airline A than Airline B, Airline A's higher baggage fees may render the cost differential meaningless.

Let's do some comparison shopping among real airlines.

American: First bag is $15. Second bag is $25. Third bag is $100. Oversized bags are $150 each.

United: First bag is $15. Second bag is $25. Third bag is $125. Oversized are $175.

Delta and Northwest: First bag is $15. Second bag is $25. Third bag is $125. Oversized are $175.

Continental and US Airways: First bag is $15. Second bag is $25. Third is $100. Oversized are $100.

Southwest: Free for first and second bag. Third bag is $25. Oversized are $50. And the tickets are usually cheaper to boot. This is your best deal.

JetBlue: Free for first bag. Second bag is $20. Third bag is $75. Oversized are $75.
AirTran. First bag is $15. Second bag is $25. Third bag is $50. Oversized are $39.

For those prices, it really makes more sense to ship gifts ahead of time. Better yet, order on-line at sites offering free delivery anywhere in the country. That way, you can arrive at your holiday destination lighter, richer and less stressed.

Friday, November 14, 2008


The election of Barack Obama is causing a tourism boomlet in such diverse places as Indonesia, Kenya, Japan (home of a town called Obama), and the United States. In conjunction with Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism is launching a three-day presidential tour route. Details are still being finalized, but it's guaranteed the tour will take in Chicago's Hyde Park, home of the new "Western White House."

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, despite sky-high prices, hotels are almost completely sold out for the Inauguration festivities. Among the few things still available are the most undemocratic high-end packages being offered by the city's five-star hotels. But those will be going soon.

For Obamaniacs still looking for a place to stay in the DC area, there's always CraigsList. But even there, "hosts" are driving hard bargains. One owner of a one-bedroom condo in the suburbs (albeit near a Metro station) wants $1500 a night. Don't do it, readers. Meantime, the owner of a two-bedroom house in a toney DC neighborhood wants to trade a three-night stay at his house during Inauguration Week for a two-week stay at a European villa this summer. Meanwhile, a ranch owner in Wyoming is asking for a four-day Inauguration stay in DC in return for a two-week summer vacation for a family on his spread.

I'll keep you posted on what's being offered on CraigsList, and will offer other insider tips on visiting DC during the Inaugural. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Marriage in the Skies

Yes, Delta and Northwest are finally man and wife. The United States Department of Justice approved the marriage this week. Once the deal is consummated, Delta will become the world's largest airline. The happy couple will establish a home base in Atlanta.

Passengers will start to see evidence of the union early next year. By spring, Northwest flight attendants will don those snazzy Delta outfits designed by Richard Tyler. By summer, flight schedules and frequent flyer programs are likely to be fully merged.

However, during a honeymoon period of several months, the two airlines will continue to operate as singles, with independent websites and separate check-in areas at airports. But as the marriage develops, Northwest will lose its identity and become fully integrated into the Delta family.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Batter Up!

Talk about home field advantage. While members of the Philadelphia Phillies weathered a 40-hour World Series rain delay (which started Monday night) in the comforts of their homes, the Tampa Bay Rays were booted out of their hotel on Tuesday morning and relocated to another state. Because no Philadelphia hotel worthy of hosting the American League champions had 85 rooms available on Tuesday night, the Rays had to move 25 miles out of town. Of course, they did get to stay at the historic Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware. But the upheaval obviously didn't help, as the Phillies quickly disposed of their Florida foes when play resumed on Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Europe's on Sale (and so is Australia)

In a previous post, I discussed the growing strength of the U.S. dollar against the Icelandic krona. Well, the greenback is also gaining ground in other countries. So, between off peak rates and the strengthening dollar, this winter will be the cheapest time to travel overseas in quite awhile.

Let's play the exchange game. The dollar has strengthened nearly 50 percent against the Icelandic krona since a year ago. It's gone up nearly 20 percent against the British pound during the same time period. In Romania, the dollar will buy you 15 percent more lei than a year ago. Most European countries, of course, are in the Euro zone. Since last October, the dollar has increased 10 percent in value against the Euro.

While the dollar will buy more in Europe this winter, it's still cold on the Continent. If you are hankering for a bit of sun and fun, head to Australia, where December through March is summertime. The U.S. dollar is 20 percent stronger against the Aussie dollar than one year ago, so it might be a fine time to go Down Under.

One other factor in the winter traveler's favor this winter--soft demand. Airlines, cruise operators and hotels are predicting low numbers for the upcoming quarter. To entice travelers, plenty of good deals on overseas airfares and tour packages are likely to be on offer.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sky High Fuel Surcharges Mean Profits for Airlines

If anyone doubts that the airlines are making money on fuel surcharges, take a gander at an article on international travel in the October 3 issue of USA Today's Money section.

The article quotes aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who says at $94 a barrel, about $80,000 of fuel is consumed on a one-way flight on a Boeing 777 from Newark to Shanghai. Now, given that a 777 can carry around 400 passengers, a $200 per passenger fee would completely cover the cost of filling up. So how can a carrier possibly justify a fee upwards of $200? And why should passengers cover the entire "tankful", anyway? After all, fuel surcharges were designed to have passengers cover the extra cost of fuel, given recent price increases. So, in reality, the fee shouldn't cover the entire fuel bill--just the additional expense created during this last year of price increases.

Fuel surcharges vary (randomly) by destination. FareCompare.com has compiled a chart of average international fuel surcharges based on data from nearly 620,000 round-trip airfares between the USA and foreign cities.

According to FareCompare.com, the highest average round-trip fuel charge from the U.S. to an international destination is $500 to Tel Aviv, Israel. Next on the list is Tokyo ($474), Hong Kong ($465), Sydney ($448), Dubai ($440) and Beijing ($409). Fuel surcharges for most European destinations fall within the $330 to $360 range.

Given the discrepancies in fuel surcharges among international carriers (American's fuel surcharges vary on each route depending on flight length and competition, while Air France has a standard $165 fee and Lufthansa has a standard $105 fee on one-way flights to the U.S.), it's important to consider more than the base fee when comparing the cost of international tickets.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum Part VII

Oh, Canada. American airlines could learn so much from you. Here's why.

As of this week, Canada's two major airlines have adjusted their baggage fees and fuel surcharges to reflect the recent drop in oil prices. Air Canada has dropped its $25 fee to check a second bag on North American flights (there was never a charge for a first bag). Canada's largest carrier has also reduced its excess baggage fees for oversized and overweight pieces.

Meantime, West Jet has stopped assessing fuel surcharges on its North American flights. Those fees had ranged between $20 and $45 for a one-way flight.

How very Canadian to be fair about all of this. After all, there's logic in the idea that if airlines impose surcharges when costs go up, they should drop them when costs go down. But somehow, I doubt American carriers will take a cue from their Northern neighbors. Instead, after having used the fuel price increases of the summer as an excuse to tack on extra fees, the U.S. airlines will somehow find justification in continuing those fees, even after fuel prices have dropped.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Seeing Stars in Hollywood: Olympian Tips for Conquering Jet Lag

I was in Hollywood yesterday for a series of interviews, via satellite, about planning vacations during hard economic times. More on that in another post. This post is about that favorite Hollywood activity--star-spotting.

After my seven-hour (2 AM to 9 AM) gig in the studio, I was chatting with some people in the green room when Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin wandered in. Given my prospensity for play-by-play sports commentary (I was a sports broadcasting major back in college), I noted her mount (as they would say in the gymnastics world) by saying, "An Olympic champion has entered into our midst." No sooner did the words come out of my mouth (while shaking her hand) then a second gold medalist, the perky Shawn Johnson, appeared on the scene. Both young ladies are composed (as one might expect from girls who can fling themselves high into the air and still land straight up on a four-inch balance beam), well-mannered, and cute as can be.

Being quick-witted, I immediately donned my journalistic hat to ask the girls a few questions. You see, I have written several stories on how top athletes, from tennis players to baseball stars, deal with jet lag during their respective seasons. After all, if world-class athletes can perform at top levels while circling the country or the globe, the average person might be able to pick up a good tip or two for conquering jet lag.

And so I asked how the two teenagers managed to overcome jet lag. Liukin immediately asked the question with one word. "Water," she said declaratively (meaning drinking lots of it--as opposed to swimming in it, a la Michael Phelps). Johnson concurred, while also stressing the importance of setting one's watch and mindset to local time right away, and then putting in a full work day starting on Day One. Being able to arrive in Beijing ten days before the gymnastics competition was also crucial to achieving peak performance levels.

So, while most of us will never win an Olympic medal, nor take a spin on the uneven parallel bars (heck, I can't even manage to hoist myself to the upper bar), we can certainly learn the lessons of international top performance from the two Olympic champions. Whether you are heading overseas for work or pleasure, drink lots of water and adapt yourself to local time ASAP. You won't win a gold medal for your efforts, but you will likely find it easier to maintain your equilibrium on the road.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum: Part VI

United Airlines has a very special present for its passengers, right in time for the holiday travel season. Just when people are most likely to be loaded down with baggage, the airline is doubling its fee for checking a second bag. The $50 one-way charge kicks in November 10. The fee applies to coach passengers traveling within the U.S. or to Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Passengers who purchased tickets prior to September 15 may be exempt from the charge.

But here's some good news for United customers. The airline has decided that feeding the masses is a good idea after all. The airline has backed off of its much-criticized plan to stop serving free meals for transatlantic coach passengers. But United continues to tinker with its onboard menu. Starting October 1, business class customers flying on any of the airline's domestic routes with three-cabin service will find there's no longer a free hot meal. Instead, business class customers will be treated with a tasty box lunch. Upgrading to a hot meal, even for a price, will not be an option. As for those in the back of the bus, cold box lunches will be available only for those willing to pay cold cash.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Read Me

Greetings one and all. It's back to school time. For me, it's back in print time.

Check out my special Going Green section in The Washington Post on September 3. It's filled with interesting eco-information and all sorts of ways you can save money on energy bills while reducing your carbon footprint.

In the October issue of National Geographic Traveler, look for my brief on Albania.

And if you are in the mood for a chuckle, check out the Jane Air archives at www.wyndhamworldwide.com/women_on-their_way/jane-air/archives. The most recent post deals with how hotel guests can green their stay. Sense a theme here?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Term Limits

Thank goodness summer vacation is over. Maybe it means that I won't have to endlessly hear two of the most obnoxious marketing terms the travel industry has ever come up with. The two terms that have me vocabularily vexed are "stay-cation" and "girlfriend getaways." IMHO, stay-cation is simply an oxymoron of the most annoying sort, while girlfriend getaways just sounds so darn condescending.

Hear me out. Let's start with girlfriend getaways. Admittedly, sometimes girlfriends do travel together. In fact, they do so in far greater numbers than male friends. There is, by the way, a term for the latter as well. It is man-cations. Somehow, that term hasn't caught on like its female equivalent, perhaps because it sounds too much like man-scaping, and well, much as metrosexuals may partake in said ritual, it's unlikely they enjoy it. Equating vacationing with getting a chest wax--well, I can understand why my male friends haven't bought into the man-cation concept.

But I digress. I can't exactly put my well-manicured finger on it, but girlfriend getaways just irks me. Perhaps it's because, even though some women do refer to their gal pals as "girlfriends," for the travel industry to refer to female friends as such sounds demeaning. After all, we are not girls. We are women, hear us roar. (Even the recently-evolved Chris Matthews would agree. When Pat Buchanan was rambling on about what a great "gal" and "girl" Sarah Palin was, the verbose Hardball host interrupted to remind Pat that the term for a 44-year-old female was "woman"). But I digress. The point is, women have money to spend, grown-up thoughts in our mind (even as we seek fun vacation destinations), and, by golly, we deserve to be treated with respect. The industry doesn't call vacations for men "boyfriend getaways" (can you imagine?) or "boy-cations." Why are women getting the diminutive treatment?

Stay-cation, on the other hand, is simply, as previously noted, an oxymoron. One goes on vacation to get away from the stresses of everyday life. Yes, one can hang out at home and have fun. But staying at home is not a vacation. Vacation = to vacate, no? Indeed, a vacation is the chance to leave behind the hum-drum of daily existence. If you are surrounded by your stuff, if your regular grocery store and dry cleaner and bank are all within striking distance, if your home office is footsteps away, how can you truly get into the vacation mindset? After all, if you are at home, there's always an errand to be run, a desk to be dusted, a meal to cook, an e-mail to send.

So, girlfriends and all others, no stay-cations for you this year. And if your fall vacation plans do include going away with your buddies, please boycott the term "girlfriend getaways." It's just not womanly.

*The original version of this post can be found at www.wyndhamworldwide.com/women_on_their_way.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Apropos of Nothing But Skinny Politicians

The Wall Street Journal recently graced its front page with an article asking if Senator Barack Obama is too skinny to be president. Actually, the premise was that Joe and Jody American, who are likely to be out of shape or hefty (the article notes a statistic that 66% of the voting-age population is overweight), are unlikely to vote for a beanpole. Anecdotal evidence might suggest, absurd as it may seem, that the article isn't far off the mark. After all, the last rail-thin dude to be elected president was one Abraham Lincoln, circa 1860.

But I wonder what would happen if the politician running to be leader of the pack were a woman? Would tall and skinny, the hallmark of success in Hollywood, work? Well, judging from the bulk of the females who are world leaders these days, when it comes to politics, there is not a gender double-standard when it comes to weight. Tall and skinny--definitely not in vogue among men or women politicians.

Being in vogue when it comes to fashion is also not stylish among female politicians. Look at Germany's Angela Merkel, who, when it comes to fashion, could be dubbed Fraulein Frumpy. IMHO, even though they've been made over, Hillary Clinton and Condolezza Rice lack in sartorial splendor. The president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, is best known in this country for being the doppelganger of Conan O'Brien, complete with a similar hair-do. Not the stuff of high fashion.

recently published a piece about stylish women in politics. Other than a few Italian and French (naturally) parliamentary ministers, the writer was hard-pressed to find chic politicians. He ended up citing French First Lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy, who is Italian by birth and a supermodel by trade. So of course she's stylish. But she's not a politician. She's just married to one. And certainly, there is no shortage when it comes to fashionable first ladies. Look at Jordan, where Queen Rania follows in the fashionable footsteps of her predecessor, Queen Noor. The wife of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is heavily involved in fashion, promoting Russian designers around the world. Potential first ladies Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama are both striking women.

Why is it that being stylish and/or tall and skinny is fine for a first lady, but is anathema for a politician? Would it be impossible for a modelesque woman to become a successful politician? Underneath it all, do we believe that someone who can do style surely must lack substance? Please weigh in with your thoughts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's Up in Albania

If you are interested in reading about how tourism is developing in Albania, please check out my article at National Geographic Traveler's blog. The address is www.intelligenttravel.typepad.com. The entry was posted July 16, 2008.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Boarding Pass or Billboard?

Can a boarding pass be a billboard? Apparently, it is so, according to cash-starved airline executives. You have gotta love the creative twists and turns airline executives are taking as they scheme up new ways to make money. The latest twist in the revenue ramp-up is the addition of ads on the boarding passes that passengers print up at home. That's right--valuable printer ink will now get consumed publishing advertising for the airlines.

Of course, the airlines would have us believe that new policy is merely a service for passengers. For the boarding pass that's printed will be highlighted with targeted ads, coupons, and shopping and dining recommendations based on where passengers are going. People can opt out of printing the ads. On the other hand, they can also choose to provide the participating airlines (Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) with a host of information in order to get ads that are specially personalized. Of course, this option is also likely to get people bombarded with unwelcome e-mail blasts as well.

The five participating airlines have minority stakes in Sojern, the Nebraska-based start-up that's behind this venture. While revenues will be split among the concerned parties, the potential size of the purse is unknown. Sojern figures 40 percent of 700 million annual flight check-ins are conducted online, leading to 280 million blank billboards. Methinks Sojern overestimates that percentage, and neglects to take into account those who will opt out of the game. Time will tell if this commercial scheme goes the way of advertising on airsickness bags.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mr. Bill: Priceless

Apropos of nothing, kudos to MasterCard for bringing back Mr. Bill. Oh no, I'm showing my age, but Mr. Bill was one of my favorite Saturday Night Live bits way back when. For those who don't remember Mr. Bill, he was a little clay figure who was regularly subjected to humiliation, torture and angst at the hands of Mr. Hand. As he gamely endured his trials and tribulations, he would wail "Oh, noooooooooooo" in falsetto exclamation.

It's interesting that MasterCard has chosen to revive Mr. Bill for this summer's version of its "Priceless" ad campaign. After all, Mr. Bill's catchphrase seems to be a mantra for this year of economic woes. What current day consumer can't relate when Mr. Bill is scalded by hot coffee ("coffee-$2")*; hit by a briefcase ("briefcase-$120); and sent out an office window to find himself splat on a windshield of a city bus. Just as Mr. Bill comments, "Hey, the bus is right on schedule," the windshield wipers go into gear. Oh, noooo. Still, for Mr. Bill, what's priceless is making it through the day.

I wonder if MasterCard first pondered a Mr. Bill scenario where he's going to take a flight. After all, doesn't every airline traveler feel a bit like Mr. Bill these days, with the airlines playing the role of Mr. Hand? Baggage check--$25. Fuel surcharge--$50. Bottled water on the plane--$2. Finally, getting to your destination with your sanity intact--priceless.

To watch this priceless ad, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxMqDxtjw1U

*Two dollars? Clearly, Mr. Hand is not getting his caffeine fix at Starbucks.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum II

Nearly every day, American airline companies seem to be adding fees, cutting flights, firing staff, and generally making things unpleasant for their employees and for the innocent traveler. We are all now too familiar with the baggage fee that nearly every domestic carrier (except Southwest) is charging. But did you hear the one about the frequent flyer fee? Yep, on Delta and US Airways, there's no such thing as a free ticket, anymore. Redeem your frequent flyer miles on Delta and you'll pay $25 for domestic flights and $50 for international journeys. Delta is calling the fee a fuel surcharge, but whatever. The move follows on the heels of US Airways, which was first to announce a $25 fee on U.S. and Canadian frequent flyer flights. Free flights to Mexico and the Caribbean now cost $35 on that airline, and international tickets frequent flyer tickets cost $50.

In setting up their frequent flyer fee structures, these airlines are proving to be a bit geographically challenged. Delta includes Canada on its list of domestic destinations, which would make any Canuck say "Oh, Canada?" On the other hand, Delta considers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to be international destinations. Last time I checked, both were still U.S. territories. They do, after all, get to vote for president. But Delta would have the islands seceding from the Union, which, I guess, isn't extraordinary considering the airline is based in Atlanta.

But I digress. US Airways, in its infinite wisdom, counts Hawaii as an international destination. That's lei-ing it on a bit thick, don't you think?

Interestingly, while Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii count as international destinations when it comes to frequent flyer fees, when it comes to baggage fees, they do not. This is relevant, because Americans flying to international destinations are not charged for their first two bags. In other words, a passenger who redeems frequent flyer points for a trip to Hawaii will pay $50 for the "international" ticket, but will also have to pay $15 to check the first bag and $25 for the second, per US Airways' domestic baggage policy. Got that?

By the way, American Airlines, our friends who came up with the brilliant idea of charging for the first bag checked, is currently only charging a $5 processing fee for folks redeeming frequent flyer miles. But stayed tuned--that's likely to change any day now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Laura's Getting Around

And I'm not talking about my month in Europe, which I will report on in upcoming posts. No, the title of this entry refers to recent appearances all around the media landscape.

Radio: For everything you ever wanted to know about Albania, listen to my report on Around the World Radio. The program aired live in California on June 19. But you can listen to it in perpetuity at www.aroundtheworldradio.com. Click on Archives and go to the June 19 show.

Magazines: Head's up. In the June/July issue of Destinations , I write about brewery tours across America. If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive theme for a summer vacation (and you are older than 18), this article might get you hopping.

Online Columns: More than 10 years ago, I was one of the first travel bloggers. Under the name of Jane Air, I wrote a weekly column for the Women on Their Way website. I am happy to report that, after a lengthy hiatus, Jane is back. Read her humorous take on travel at www.wyndhamworld.com/women_on_their_way/jane-air/archives

E-Zines: Here's a link to Pink, which recently quoted me in a story about reading while traveling. www.pinkmagazine/exclusives/julyaugust2008/airport_amenities.html

Television: Stay tuned. I'm scheduled for some on-air appearances in the Washington, DC area in July.

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Airline Wedding...Or Are They Just Co-Habitating?

United and Continental are uniting. Mind you, they aren't merging. But the two U.S. carriers are going to hook up their global networks. What does this mean? First and foremost, the partnership will include new frequent flier reciprocity so that points can be earned and redeemed on both airlines. Travel on either carrier will count toward earning elite status. And members of either airline's airport lounge program will have access to both Continental's Presidents Clubs and United's Red
Carpet Club lounges.

In the U.S., United and Continental will develop an extensive code-share system. This means that both airlines can continue with plans to reduce the number of jets they each fly, while still providing fairly comprehensive domestic service. For flights that may involve a transfer from a United plane to a Continental plane, there will be a (theoretically) seamless process for ticketing, check-in, flight connections and baggage transfer.

Internationally, Continental will join the Star Alliance, thereby allowing code shares not only with United, but with international partners such as Lufthansa, Thai, and SAS.

Islands in the Stream

It's not a good time to be an island. The tourism industries of both Hawaii and the Caribbean are quaking in their boots given recent developments in the airline industry. With fuel prices skyrocketing, and with carriers cutting back on service to vacation destinations, islands, which can't depend on a drive market to pick up the tourism slack, are left treading water.

American Airlines recently announced plans to cut flights to the Caribbean by about one-third. The cuts go into effect in early September. Given that American is the chief source of air traffic to the Caribbean, this development has the potential to create a swath of economic destruction across the tourism-dependent region. The biggest cutbacks are taking place in Puerto Rico, American's Caribbean hub. Daily flights to San Juan from the mainland are being cut from 38 to 18. Among the routes being cut entirely--San Juan-Washington Dulles, San Juan-BWI, and San Juan-Newark. Meanwhile, American Eagle flights out of Puerto Rico to other islands are being shaved to 33 from 55.

Some of the Caribbean islands are trying to fight back. Creating a regional strategy will be on the agenda at the inaugural Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit in Washington, DC from June 21-24. Additionally, individual countries are getting proactive. Tourism concerns in the U.S. Virgin Islands are banding together to intensify marketing in the effort to increase demand for flights. By doing so, they hope to negotiate with low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue and Southwest to bring service to the area.

There is one shot of good news, if you want to call it that, for the U.S. Virgin Islands. It looks like American Airlines will agree to exempt boxes of duty-free liquor from the new checked baggage charge. Woo-hoo.

State of the Union

Hawaii has its own challenges. Even though it's a state, Hawaii often is considered foreign territory in the airline world. You need to redeem more frequent flyer points to get there than to any other U.S. destination. US Airways is lumping Hawaii in with international destinations when it comes to charging fees for frequent flyer point redemption (see 6/16 post). There's been some cutback in service from mainland carriers and the state has suffered heavily from the bankruptcies of Aloha and ATA. Furthermore, Hawaii, which already has the most expensive gasoline prices in the nation, has the highest airline fuel surcharges as well. Hawaiian Airlines just increased its round-trip surcharge to $120 on flights from the West Coast (the surcharge charged by most carriers on mainland routes is $20).

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau has launched a $3 million marketing campaign to entice North Americans to take their summer vacations in the state. Airfare-inclusive packages, with savings from $200 to $1000, have been created. Visit www.gohawaii.com for details. Still, whether that will be enough to convince cash-pinched travelers to say Aloha to Hawaii is a big question mark.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So you've figured out how to get all of your stuff in a carry-on bag to avoid the new checked luggage fees. You've brought your own nibbles to prevent the need to buy on board. You've even booked your flight months in advance to avoid fuel surcharges. Guess what, dude? You're still going to have to reach into your wallet as airlines come up with increasingly annoying ways to nickel and dime you.

To wit, US Airways is going to charge two bucks a pop for soda and other non-alcoholic beverages starting August 1. As to not offend the teetotalers, alcoholic drinks will go up from $5 to $7. US Airways is coming up with other creative ways to make money (sure to be followed by the other carriers). Starting August 6, the airline will charge a new "award redemption processing fee" for all frequent-flyer tickets. Mileage tickets in the continental United States and Canada will cost $25. Flights to Mexico and the Caribbean will cost $35, and flights to Hawaii or to international destinations outside of North America will cost $50. But at least there's some egalitarianism in US Airways' policy. The carrier will no longer award bonus miles on paid flights flown by its elite frequent-flier members.

Complain about fees now, but be warned. There will be more of them, and ticket prices are likely to go sky-high after Labor Day. That's when high-demand, non-discretionary business travel makes a comeback, and when the airlines start paring their fleets. As any student of Economics knows, when supply and demand are going in opposite directions, something's got to give. And that something is low airline ticket prices.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Exchange Game

To follow up on a previous post regarding exchanging money overseas...

I just received my latest bank and credit card statements from my monthlong trip to Europe. My credit card company charged a three percent "exchange transaction" fee on every charge. Meantime, Bank of America charged $5.00 for every ATM withdrawal. The banks whose ATMs I used in Scandinavia and Hungary charged about $1 per withdrawal, while the Albanian bank charged nothing.

So, depending on the amount I withdrew from the ATM, my overall transaction fee ranged from three to eight percent. However, given BOA's new policy, starting June 1, that an additional three percent fee (based on the dollar amount withdrawn) will be charged makes ATM withdrawals exponentially more expensive. My advice: Stick to credit card transactions whenever possible, and look for both credit card companies and banks that offer low international transaction fees.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Europe on a Budget?

Europe is expensive. No doubt about it. I recently returned from a monthlong stay on the Continent and have some thoughts about how you can actually make your puny dollar stretch a bit further.

First off, ponder the place you will visit. I went to four countries. Alphabetically, they were Albania, Denmark, Hungary and Sweden. Expense-wise, from cheapest to most expensive, the order changes to Albania, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark.

Yep, if you want to do Europe cheap, visit Albania. No, it's not inexpensive to get to, but once you're there, accommodations (such as they are) and food, are cheap. Of course, it's not easy to get around the country, and getting to the places that are of major interest (Butrint, Saranda, Gjirokastra) is nearly impossible. But accommodations and food are cheap. For a country that's a bit more accessible, albeit a bit more expensive, there's Hungary. A stay at the charming Hotel Gerlozcy in the heart of the city, just footsteps from Vorosmarty Square, runs about $125 a night. The Mercure Metropol, located on one of the city's main boulevards, is only $108 per night, with a full breakfast included. With a Budapest Card ($41 for two days; $50 for three days), most major sights and public transportation are free. And food can be had for reasonable prices.

Not so in Scandinavia. Everything is out of sight in Denmark and Sweden. A few years ago, one dollar bought 13 Swedish kroner. Now, it buys six. In Denmark, the exchange is five Danish kroner to the dollar. What does five kroner buy you? Maybe a stale Danish at the low-cost Netto grocery store.

But don't give up on the Continent. Aside from lower-cost destinations like Albania, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria, there are other ways to save, no matter what country you are visiting.

1. Friend-hop. If you have friends living in Europe, now is the time to visit them. Don't have friends on the Continent? Get some. There are several homestay organizations that arrange for overnight visits (of course, you have to be willing to reciprocate). Two of the biggies are The Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) and SERVAS (www.servas.org).

2. Find lodging that includes breakfast. Eat a lot. Then, have lunch later in the afternoon and make it your main meal of the day. Restaurants often charge much less for lunch than for dinner.

3. Stay at a place that has a kitchen, or, at the very least, an in-room fridge. Then, go grocery shopping. Stock up on snacks and items like bread, cheese, and yogurt that can serve as mini-meals.

4. Buy a multi-day or multi-ride pass for public transportation. In Denmark, a single ride on the Metro cost $5.00. Buying a card for 10 passes brought the per ride cost down to $2.50. Almost every city that has a subway system offers special passes.

5. Similarly, if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, check to see if the local tourism bureau offers a special pass. In Denmark, the Copenhagen Card provides free entrance to scores of attractions, plus free rides on all public transportation, and restaurant discounts. It's $42 for one day and $88 for three days. In Sweden, the Stockholm Card offers free entry to 75 attractions, free travel by public transport, free sightseeing by boat, and other goodies. A one-day pass costs approximately $55. Two days cost $77 and three $97. Both cards offer discounted rates for children.

6. Looking for the best exchange rate? Use plastic. Your credit card will give you the most for your money. I used to recommend use of the ATM as the best way to get cash. Certainly, the commission rates changed at Bureaux de Change are a rip-off. And changing money at banks can be inconvenient and laborious. But I've got to tell you, while convenient, the money-saving appeal of the ATM is diminishing. Banks just keep adding on fees on ATM transactions. There's the fee you are charged by your bank to use an out-of-network ATM. That can be $5 a pop. There's the fee charged by the local bank. That's wrapped up in the exchange rate, so you never quite know what that is. Just this month, Bank of America has decided to charge an extra three percent of all foreign transactions. So, in addition to the ATM usage fee, you will pay another $3 for a $100 withdrawal; $15 for a $500 withdrawal. Nice, huh?

7. Check into Europe's low-cost carriers. There are some good ones. Of course, Ryanair nickel and dimes you for everything from beverages to bag, but the base fee is worth it. Scandinavia's Sterling is a real gem. If you book far enough out, it's really cheap. A one-way trip from Copenhagen to Stockholm booked 30 days out costs $52. And that includes the extra two percent charge Danish companies and websites charge for using non-Denmark issued credit cards. I'll admit, the first time I booked on Sterling, I was confused by the extra charge to book a seat. After all, one would expect that when you buy a ticket, you buy a seat. My confusion was cleared up the second time I booked on Sterling. You can buy a seat with extra legroom or you can buy a regular seat or, for free, you can leave seat selection to chance. I did the latter on the return flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen and was quite happy with my free window seat near the front of the plane.

8. Wait. What goes up must come down. And at some point, the dollar will regain its strength. In the meantime, if you are hankering to go elsewhere overseas for cheap, consider destinations in South America and Asia

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Model Behavior

Were it not for the fact that a certain lovely, leggy supermodel is known for her regular outbursts at underlings and others, some might be sympathetic to the recent case of one Ms. Naomi Campbell. The tempestuous beauty, you see, was arrested last week when her luggage, checked in for a flight out of the now equally-infamous Heathrow Terminal 5, went AWOL. Apparently, she threw a fit with airline staff upon learning one of her fashion-filled bags failed to make it onto an L.A.-bound plane. Who among us wouldn't have loved to throw a similar fit? Anyway, the long and short of it--police officers had to board the plane to quell the disturbance. At that point, Ms. Campbell allegedly spit on the officers and had a nasty word or two to share. Okay, most among us wouldn't do that. Soon thereafter, she was led away sporting that popular fashion accessory--a set of silvery handcuffs.

Given that thousands of passengers have now experienced the same fate (missed baggage, not the ability to strut down the catwalk to the tune of millions of dollars), one might say Ms. Campbell's rant gave a public face to the feelings of many. However, given Ms. Campbell's ego and her police record (she recently spent five days mopping floors in New York as part of a community service sentence after throwing a cell phone at her housekeeper during an argument over a pair of jeans), it is more likely that she thought she could get away with such behavior....unlike the thousands of other peons who would liked to have yelled or thrown a cell phone at someone...but somehow managed, in a very British way....to restrain themselves.

Speaking of models behaving badly, let's talk Kate Moss for a minute. No, she hasn't caused any ruckuses that I know of, nor has she snorted any cocaine lately....well, at least not on tape. Not that the latter has turned out to be a bad career move. Even though a couple of advertisers dropped her after said tape became public, she appears to be doing better than ever. Ms. Moss is featured on at least 20 of the first 50 pages of every fashion magazine I pick up these days. And men, just so you know, the first 50 pages are usually devoted to ads. The table of contents doesn't even show up in a September issue of Vogue, for example, until page 100 or so. What, are there no other models available to peddle fashion wares? Granted, Naomi Campbell might be in jail when an advertiser is planning a shoot, but surely, there are other choices. How about some of the castoffs from America's Next Top Model? Good thing supermodels are not role models. Oops, except that they are to many young girls--witness anorexia and the behavior of the girls on ANTM. Anyway, my point is, what is it about Kate Moss that advertisers and photographers find so appealing? Perhaps it is the fact that, since she is so frail, she doesn't have the strength to cause any harm should she decide to hurl a cell phone their way.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Headaches at Heathrow

The much touted Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport is off to a shaky start. During its first four days of operation, British Airways (the sole tenant of the new facility) has cancelled 245 flights. More cancellations would have been necessary had BA not continued to operate most of its long haul flights from an older terminal.

Part of the appeal of the new terminal was its state of the art baggage handling system. But during the last few days, more than 15,000 bags have gone AWOL. BA has had to call in volunteers to help reunite bags with owners.

In addition to luggage problems, there have been complaints among passengers about the check-in process, confusing road signs, problems when paying at the parking garage, and a broken down escalator. BA admits to problems in the staff security screening process and in getting its staff familiar with the new facility.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trouble in Tibet

As violent protests against Chinese rule continue, tourists are being urged to avoid Tibet. With many companies now postponing tours through the end of April, the question is, how long will this last? High season in Tibet starts in May. Given tourism's economic impact on the country--$390 million flowed in during 2006--the continued protests may have significant short-term economic effects. The longer-term question may be how the escalating protests will impact tourism to the Beijing Olympics in August. The violence in Tibet erupted just two weeks before Olympic celebrations kick off with the start of the torch relay.

On the government front, the granting of travel permits required for visitors to Tibet has been temporarily discontinued by China. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert, advising Americans to defer travel to Tibet at this time. For those already in the country, the alert advises the avoidance of "areas where demonstrations are taking place. U.S. citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors to the extent possible." It is interesting that the State Department has not gone the more definitive route of issuing a travel warning, which the Canadian government has done. Those who say that State's travel alert/travel warning system can be rather political in nature may have more fodder here.

Even before the travel alert came out, many U.S.-based tour operators started canceling upcoming trips to the region. High-end tour operator Travcoa canceled its Tibet-focused trip departing on April 21. Pacific Delight Tours has notified customers going to Tibet this month that trips are being postponed. SITA World Tours says its Beijing office has advised against sending tours into Tibet until the end of April.

This brings up a very important matter to travelers. If a tour operator cancels a trip, the consumer may not necessarily get his or her money back. Refunds may depend on the specific situation or the specific tour operator. I was surprised to learn that some high-end operators do not refund money for trips they cancel due to political events. Instead, some companies will only apply monies paid to other trips. Travcoa, however, has a policy that is more generous. According to Louise Shumbris, vice president of product development, "we try to be as liberal as we can regarding our refund policy." In the case of the April Tibet cancellation, Travcoa has offered full refunds to consumers. It did the same after canceling trips to Kenya last month.

--The number of visitors to Tibet reached four million in 2007, compared with about 2.5 million the previous year. Most of the visitors are Chinese. In recent years, fewer than 200,000 foreigners have visited annually.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

There's Something About Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein is a country that is rarely in the news. And the principality likes it that way. But now, this secretive Alpine bastion is in the center of a controversy involving rich Germans, hidden bank accounts and tax evasion. Furthermore, the United States may be jumping on the bandwagon. Senator Carl Levin has announced he is opening a Congressional investigation into whether American citizens are hiding assets in Liechtenstein's banks in order to evade taxes.

It's nasty business for this idyllic Lilliputian Eden wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Yet, the recent scandal surrounding the country's banking practices is no surprise to me. Not that I have any inside information, mind you. Nor do I have a bank account there (after all, I'm a journalist, not a supermodel). But each succeeding time I have visited the country (I've been there, done that three times), I have had growing suspicions that all is not as it seems.

My first visit to Liechtenstein was back in the day when I was doing my student Eurail tour of Europe. Frankly, I merely stopped in Liechtenstein for a day in order to add another stamp to my passport. Despite the rather hokey touristic nature of the capital city of Vaduz, I was somehow charmed by the tiny principality (smaller in area than the District of Columbia). Therefore, I licked my lips when, during my year as a graduate student in England, I once again found myself in this postage-stamp-sized country.

That visit included some one-on-one time with the locals, who invited me to go skiing and to eat out. They did not, however, invite me into their homes. There was definitely a wall between recreation and reality. The graffiti on said wall said, "Outsider, keep out." Nevertheless, what struck me during that visit was that everyone did seem quite rich and happy. While other parts of Europe were in turmoil at the time, Liechtenstein was a parapet of the good life.

But during a five-day stay in Liechtenstein three years ago, things struck me a bit differently. Perhaps the change of viewpoint developed from age and wisdom, or perhaps cynicism. First off, I stayed at a four-star business-oriented hotel in downtown Vaduz. At breakfast, I noticed a motley group of polyglots. These businesspeople were from all over the map. Their languages were all over the map. When various people broke into English every now and then (seemingly the common second language of the gang), it was heavily-accented. I later learned that some of the people were German, others Russian, and others from various points in Eastern Europe. While such international groupings are not uncommon in European business hotels, the fact is, this group didn't look cohesive. People dressed differently (even accounting for the differences in nationalities), they comported themselves differently, and if you didn't see them all sitting together at meals, you wouldn't know they were together. Naturally, my mind starting novelizing the situation. Was this a cartel of European mafia members? Was it a coterie of ne'er-do'wells? Or was it merely a bevy of badly-dressed (for the most part), suspicious-looking people who were having some kind of annual reunion in Vaduz?

Another day, as I was driving around the countryside of Liechtenstein (yes, there is more to Liechtenstein than Vaduz...in fact, there are 10 other towns and plenty of open space), my guide mentioned that the country has an open lottery for citizenship. I thought that this merited further investigation. After all, who wouldn't want to live in a fairytale land, where a courtly prince reigned and where everything was clean and everyone was rich? Granted, my lack of German-speaking ability and a real reason for needing to live there would be strikes against me. Still, going through the application process would be an entertaining exercise. However, my dreams of a Liechtensteinian lifestyle were quickly quashed. When I asked the country's press representative about the application process, an agitated look appeared on her face and her words, dismissing the topic as bunkum, were expressed with consternation. From her mien and tone, I got the feeling that this citizenship lottery was a big bean that had accidentally been spilled to me. Perhaps her response might have been different were I am German multi-millionaire.

Most countries want overnight visitors for the hotel and restaurant revenues they leave behind. But during my three times in Liechtenstein, I noticed that Liechtenstein seems to want touristic riff-raff to come in, get passports stamped (for a fee), buy some stamps, and then leave...quickly. In light of the recent relevations regarding Liechtenstein's seamier side, and the profits it may be making from fishy banking practices, there's really no need to reel in loads of tourists.

Interesting Facts about Liechtenstein

-Liechtenstein is one of two doubly-landlocked countries (the other is Uzbekistan) in the world
-Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world
-Liechtenstein has more registered companies (approximately 74,000) than citizens (approximately 35,000)
-Only about 60% of Liechtenstein's population has citizenship
-Financial services account for 30 percent of the country's GDP
-The manufacturing of false teeth takes a big bite out of the country's economic pie chart

Monday, February 18, 2008


Dear Reader: Let's celebrate Presidents Day with some weird, wacky Americana.

Amusing Museums

The Louvre has Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The Rijksmuseum has Rembrandt's The Nightwatch. The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) has Lucy in the Field with Flowers, painted by Unknown (or someone who prefers to remain so). MOBA is the world's only museum dedicated to the collection (often out of trash bins), preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms. The museum is located in the basement of the Dedham, Massachusetts community theater building. The collection is lit by one large, humming fluorescent light fixture, so visitors can use flash. Admission is free, and, as they say, it's worth every penny.

If that doesn’t leave you flush with excitement, how about a visit to a gallery devoted to sinks, tubs and other plumbing items? The Kohler Design Center in Kohler, Wisconsin is truly the couture house of plumbing. Why, Kohler even contributed toilets to New York's Fashion Week this year. The Kohler Design Center is a three-level showcase of innovative product design and technology. A large gallery traces the 130-year history of Kohler Company products. It’s good stuff. The proof is in the plumbing.

Don't leave Wisconsin without visiting the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. This museum features more than 4300 containers of the tangy condiment. Every so often, the museum hosts a Mustard Family Reunion, when those so named can "ketchup" with each other. This year, however, Colonel Mustard and kin will have to settle for getting together during National Mustard Day, celebrated this year the first Saturday of August.

Ketchup and mayonnaise seem to have been squeezed out of the museum business, but vinegar stakes its claim to fame in Roslyn, South Dakota. At the International Vinegar Museum, you can see vinegar from around the world and learn how the stuff is made. There's also an International Vinegar Festival held here in June.

Ice Cream, You Scream

Le Mars, Iowa may claim to be the world capital of ice cream, but those in St. Louis might have a cone to pick with that idea. After all, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair gave birth to the ice cream cone. Now, 101 years later, visitors to the Gateway City can still grab a cone in Forest Park, the location of the World's Fair. Currently, the park is home to the St. Louis Zoo, the concession stands of which all feature giant-sized drumstick cones reminiscent of days gone by.

But the place for a frosty treat in St. Louis these days is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. This Route 66 icon is noted for its "concrete" ice cream shakes—so thick you can turn them upside down and the liquid stays in the cup. Also on the St. Louis ice cream must-eat list is Crown Candy Kitchen, an old-fashioned soda fountain serving handmade ice cream and massive "World's Fair Sundaes."

For ice cream with a bit of 1960s flavor, head off to Waterbury, Vermont, home of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant. After taking in the New England scenery, visitors can take a guided 30-minute tour where they can learn all about how ice cream (and frozen yogurt) is made. The last stop on the tour is the "FlavoRoom," where there are free samples from the day’s batches.

And More Sweet Treats

Travelers to Eli's Cheesecake World in Chicago can visit a 62,000 square foot cheesecake factory and then enjoy a slice in the cafĂ© overlooking the Research & Development section of the bakery. More than 30 types of cheesecake (made with 3 million pounds of cream cheese annually) are cooked up here. Eli’s Cheesecake World offers tours during the week for those who call ahead and say cheese.

Another popular All-American dessert item is Jell-O. The Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York tells the tale of America’s love affair with the gelatinous concoction. The museum allows visitors to take an interactive walk through more than 100 years of Jell-O, starting in 1897. Visitors learn how the history of Jell-O parallels the history of America. There are wartime recipe booklets (during World War I, Jell-O was touted as a low-cost dessert alternative) and photos from Ellis Island, where the wobbly stuff literally became the first taste of America for many immigrants.

The Capital of Giant Things

...has to be Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also the land of dozens of giant statues. There's the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Smokey the Bear in International Falls, the Happy Chef in Mankato, Paul Bunyan, who shows up in both Akeley and Bedmidji, and the State Fair Gopher in St. Paul. And that's just for starters.

If you are looking for a colossal Bob’s Big Boy, he still shows up in several places around the country. Next time you’re in Hollywood, stop by the Toluca Lake/Burbank Bob’s Big Boy, where the larger than life icon reigns supreme. And speaking of classic restaurant icons, if you are in the Chicago area, stop by Des Plaines. That’s where you can find an original Golden Arch, featuring Speedee, outside of a re-creation of America’s first McDonald’s. The sign, built in 1955, in its neon elegance, promotes the 15 cent hamburger.

A Belated Valentine from Roger Clemens to his Lovely Wife

With all of the hoopla surrounding the circus that was Clemens v. Congress, I have yet to notice anyone bring up a very salient point. For upon reading the evidence, it would appear that Roger Clemens was ready to hurl his wife under the bus in order to remain undiscovered in his HGH usage. Hear me out. Roger Clemens is asked to pose with his bikini-clad wife for the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Roger wants his wife to look really striking. After all, the hotter she looks, the more the average male reader will think, "Wow, Roger, 350-plus wins and a smokin' wife to boot. You da man."

Now, I would imagine most husbands might suggest diet and exercise to achieve the hot bod. Who on earth would recommend Human Growth Hormone, except someone with familiarity with it?

Perhaps I "misunderstand" how Debbie managed to access HGH from none other than Roger's personal trainer Brian McNamee, especially without Roger's knowledge. But I doubt it. Anyway, let's go back in time for a moment. Debbie takes a shot (although how only one shot helps, who knows. One report said it would do swell things for her boobs). The night of the injection, she has a bad circulatory reaction to the shot. Most loving husbands, especially those for whom health care costs are not an issue, would run their wives to an emergency room, or call the family doctor to make a housecall (methinks the Clemens' probably have the clout to do that). Instead, from reports I have read, Roger tells his wife to wait the reaction out, or something to that effect. Now, this suggests two things. Number one, perhaps Roger has had the same foul reaction in the past, so he knows it's a minor league problem. Or consider this scenario. Debbie goes to Dallas, or whatever Texas city where her doctor resides, and gets treated. Suddenly, questions will arise about her use of Human Growth Hormone. These questions are likely to toss the issue right back into hubby's ample lap, just as the whole steroids in baseball issue is starting to come to light.

My guess is that maybe, just maybe, Roger thought it best to keep Debbie at home, not for her own good, but to save his own hide. Imagine what would have happened if Debbie's circulatory reaction wasn't just a minor deal. What if, days after the injection, she had the same symptoms. Would Roger have continued to keep her away from doctors at the risk of her health and his potential exposure?

Mind you, Debbie doesn't appear to be much of a prize herself. First, a delightful quote from her website: "The laws of life and fitness, as I call them, are to plan ahead, be practical and use common sense. Eat healthy; be dedicated to workout, recognizing life’s necessities that serve you well." Obviously, taking Human Growth Hormone to make your boobs look bigger in a photo shoot is both commonsensical and one of life's necessities for the Debster. Again from her website, a recounting of the SI incident: "Roger came to me one day and told me that we had been asked to do a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. I had major anxiety! I was a 39-year-old mother of 4! Once I realized that this WAS going to be a reality, I decided I had to give it everything I had. I am not a risk taker, but have since learned that with great risk, sometimes comes great reward." Hey, Deb, what was the risk of which you were speaking?

Now, a few quotes from Debbie in the wake of the hearing. "I stand by Roger 110%," she reportedly said with Hillary tears. "I only wish that--like him--I could have just said no." Or my personal favorite: "It was wrong, and I apologize, especially to all those little girls out there who are just strapping on their first training bras." Yes, I am sure that multitudes of tweens are taking time away from Hannah Montana to dwell on the bare-breasted implications of Debbie doing drugs.

Anyway, dear reader, I am aware that this is a travel blog, and that this column has absolutely nothing to do with that topic. But as a life-long basefall fan (Go, Cubs!), I just had to get this off my non-Human Growth Hormane-enhanced chest.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Separate But Equal?

In this day and age when we have both a woman and an African-American courting the presidency, one still can ponder the state of equality in this country. Back in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown V. Board of Education, that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. But now, in the effort to court new business, some hotels are espousing the theory of separate but equal in the area of hospitality. In the fall of 2007, a new Marriott hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan was hailing its revolutionary women's only floor. After a rash of publicity (and all publicity is good publicity, right?), the negatives outweighed the positives and the women's floor idea was put to bed.

But is separating the sexes at a hotel discrimination or good business?

The handful of hotels hosting female-friendly floors make the claim that women feel more comfortable and safer on such floors. Regarding the latter argument, one wonders, shouldn't a hotel be safe for all guests, not just for women? Furthermore, in spite of all security issues, wouldn't an all-female floor potentially be a greater target for ne'er-do-wells? For guests who want an extra sense of security--well, let them all pay extra and get restricted access to co-ed club floors. Let all guests be able to ask for an escort to their rooms, or their parking spaces, regardless of gender. After all, men want to be safe, too.

Maybe some hotels are promoting female-friendly floors, not from a sense of loyalty to its female friends, but out of loyalty to the almighty dollar. The Marriott was going to charge $30 extra a night for a room on its women's only floor, for the privilege of comforting amenities such as special hair dryers, upgraded toiletries, and chenille throws. Shouldn't comfort just be included in the regular price?

Even more offensive...in 2005, a Washington, DC hotel promoted its female-only floor by noting it was stocking its rooms with "items of special appeal" to females. Among said items--paperback novels by Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, magazines such as Bazaar, and potpourri in the bathroom. Well, I don't know about you, dear reader, but I have never deigned to read chick trash, preferring instead classic literature and current non-fiction. As a business traveler, I would far prefer a copy of The Economist or Forbes in my room. And potpourri, IMHO, should solely show up as a category on "Jeopardy." And I'm curious as to the gender of the "decider" who selected Danielle Steel as the author of choice for the high-powered businesswomen who visit the nation's capital. Serving up such stereotypical girly amenities is insulting and sexist.

Feminista attorney Gloria Allred goes a step further. The existence of women-only floors and lounges in hotels are simply discrimination, she says. "What women (sic) want are equal rights," says Allred. "Not more rights, not less rights, but equal rights." I have to agree. Women have come far too far in the business world to take a giant step backward.

What if a hotel offered a male-only floor? After all, given that nearly 60 percent of all business travelers are men, wouldn't it be fab (and profitable) if hotels had special floors devoted to a majority of their market? Features could include a special room-service menu made up of brats and beer, magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Playboy (for the interviews), and a musky scent emanating through the hallways. After all, all men like that stuff, right? Just like women like frilly scents and mindless magazines and books. And certainly, a separate floor for male business travelers wouldn't be considered discriminatory in our politically correct world, would it?

It's hard enough as it is to be accepted as an equal in the business world. The concept of a women only floor simply caters to the stereotype of females as the weaker sex, fragile fillies who need to be protected and cosseted. It's balderdash. If women want equality with men in the workplace, it means being on their turf, regarding of whether it's a home game or a road game. Women don't need to be put in "our place" on female-only floors. Separate is not equal.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Travel Trends to Watch For: 2008

On the Map

What are the hot destinations of 2008? Well, with the dollar as weak as the early incarnation of Charles Atlas, it looks like a lot of Americans will be staying home. For those folks, national parks, Hawaii, California and Nevada will be hot spots. For those who look to venture further afield, the U.S. Tour Operators Association says Italy is numero uno among overseas destination for Americans. England is a distant second, according to the USTOA survey. In Europe, places like Croatia and Slovenia are among the hottest up and comers.

Travel by U.S. residents in the first nine months of 2007 was up eight percent to Central America and 7.6 percent to South America, according to the Commerce Department. I see both areas coming on strong, as they are both places where the U.S. dollar still buys something. Costa Rica, Belize and Panama are popular among eco-tourists, while Argentina and Chile are great alternatives for the person who loves Europe. Both offer sophisticated cities, great food and wine, diverse climates (from desert to mountain to seaside) and huge shopping bargains.

Where else in the world will Americans be traveling in 2008? For one, China, host of the Summer Olympics. For two, Quebec City. Despite the loony decline of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian loonie, the 400th anniversary of North America's oldest city will be worth a trip across the border. Off the beaten track places that are looking to grow tourism numbers include Greenland (view the glaciers before they melt), Indonesia and Vietnam (see Komodo dragons and Siamese crocodiles, respectively, before they go extinct), and Madagascar and Mozambique (where vacationers can volunteer to help conserve wildlife).

Top Travel Trends

It's easy being green when it comes to travel. More and more tour companies and hotel outlets are hanging out their green shingles. Whether claims are just that, claims, or whether companies are truly offering travelers a chance to travel with a light footprint--well, that is the question. While visitors may want to head to the Galapagos or Greenland to see nature in pristine form, they should be aware that their very vacations to such places may end up harming them.

Medical tourism--traveling to Singapore or South America for procedures ranging from open heart surgery to boob jobs--is definitely on the upswing. With insurance limits on what, or how much, is covered, Americans are opting to travel abroad to get better care at lower prices.

Living on the Edge: Okay, maybe Americans aren't ready to head to Iraq's Green Zone, but interest in exotic escapes like hanging with the remote tribes of Angola or the Amazon is definitely happening.

In the Air

After a year filled with extreme delays, stranded passengers and plenty of airline and security woes, travel in 2008 promises to have a few more bright spots -- but plenty of turbulence, too.
A weak economy and high fuel prices may end up reducing delays, if a lessening demand for seats and an increasing cost of petrol combine to cause airlines to cut schedule cuts.
Watch for demand on both federal and state levels for legislation designed to provide discomforted travelers during airline delays.

Going into Labor
: 2008 could be striking for labor issues at the airlines. Trouble may be brewing at American, US Airways, and United, to name a few.

Low Cost Carriers are about one-third of the U.S. industry. Their impact is even greater in places like Europe and Southeast Asia. The new carriers also have raised customer-service pressure on existing carriers -- some new entrants offer more in-flight entertainment, fewer ticketing restrictions and penalties, friendlier service and non-stop options not previously available. They've also introduced the idea of ala carte services, meaning passengers pay for reserving specific seats or checking bags. Mainstream carriers may opt to increase revenue by doing the same, albeit to a lesser degree (initially).

It's All Business: That's where the profit is and that's why airlines are looking to increase business and first-class offerings. In fact, there are now three carriers flying business-class only flights between the U.S. and Europe: Eos Airlines, Silverjet and L'Avion. A fourth, MaxJet, recently went belly up, but that does not necessarily bode badly for the others. With the Open Skies agreement in place between the U.S. and Europe (see below), the business class wars are likely to heat up. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have announced plans for all-business-class services across the pond.

Merger Mania: Will Delta be united to United? Or will the fickle flyer finagle with Northwest? Stay tuned to the latest airline merger soap opera. Even airlines that choose to stand alone are likely to sell off assets and spin off subsidiaries like regional airlines and frequent flier programs.
Wi-Fi Sky High: Airlines are looking into in-flight WiFi with voice capabilities blocked so you don't have to listen to a seat mate negotiate a deal or argue with a spouse. Tests are under way at several airlines. American says it will have WiFi service this year (for a price) on most of its transcontinental flights.

The Skies Are Open: Treaty restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Europe will elapse at the end of March, meaning the skies over the Atlantic will be a free for all. A new Open Skies agreement will allow any European or U.S. airline to fly any route between any city in the EU and any city in the United States. Currently, European carriers are only allowed to fly to the U.S. on flights originating from their home country (Lufthansa/Germany; Alitalia/Italy and so forth).

There will also be more choices on flights to London, as the agreement allows a half-dozen carriers to add direct flights to Heathrow from Atlanta, JFK, Houston, Newark, Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles. Heathrow accounts for 40 percent of transatlantic flights from Europe, but is only served by four airlines (United Airlines, American Airlines, BA and Virgin Atlantic). Even though slots remain scarce, opening up that venue to new competition could ultimately bring down prices.

What will the impact of Open Skies be? The agreement should increase translantic traffic and competition. Experts say traffic could increase by 26 million passengers per year, leading to a fare decrease of up to 15 percent. However, environmentalists on the European side of the pond are concerned about the extra traffic and increased emissions. Expect some protests.
The new Open Skies agreement effectively does away with the old European system of national flag carriers. As a result, EU airlines are likely to merge. With the termination of restrictive bilateral air service agreements between European national carriers and the U.S., airlines can merge without worries about losing access to the lucrative U.S. market. Weaker airlines like Iberia and Alitalia may be among the first to be snapped up by players like BA, KLM or Air France.

The US has retained two important concessions: EU airlines are not able to operate internal US flights and EU companies cannot purchase more than 25 percent of a US airline. The perceived one-sidedness of the agreement may be a topic for discussion during the next round of negotiations.

European Union spokespeople say new economic, social and cultural relationships -- in services, tourism and various products exchanged by the two regions -- will now open up, leading to the creation, in Europe, of 80,000 new jobs, and economic benefits worth 12 billion euros.

Passports/Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

The State Department issued a record 18.4 million passports in fiscal year 2007, compared to 12.1 million in 2006. Thirty percent of Americans now hold passports, up from 27 percent.
The increase was spurred by new rules requiring passports for air travel to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada. Mandates for passports for cruise and car travelers were supposed to be enacted this year. However, it looks like Congress will delay putting that requirement in place for another year. However, starting January 31, all U.S. and Canadian citizens must have more identification to cross the international border.Under a new U.S. law, all travelers, including children, who don't have passports must show proof of their citizenship at land and sea border crossings — a birth certificate or naturalization certificate — to re-enter the United States from Canada.

The land/sea passport requirement of the requirement of the Western Hemispheres Travel Initiative will now likely begin in June 2009. The birth-certificate/photo-ID requirement that begins at the end of the month is merely an interim measure. Passports were due to be required for all cross-border travel starting in June, including by land and sea, but that has been delayed a year after congressional and industry protests. Those were spurred by the lengthy delays last year in issuing passports, due to the increased demand after the air-travel passport requirement kicked in.