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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.