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In our current environment, the travel consumer is bombarded by misinformation and outright lies on a daily basis. Bait-and-switch “from $499” ads are the rule – not the exception. A half-inch is defined as “extra legroom” and a moldy hot tub may be a “luxurious spa”. Google virtually any travel-related topic, from hotel properties to destinations and you are smothered in a sea of tens of thousands, perhaps millions of ads disguised as information. No one seems willing to help. Everyone wants your credit card number. We hope that traveltruth.com is just the first step toward changing that perception. Travel does not have to be about lies, hype, or ads that treat you like a child. Travel is not a commodity to be sold at Costco next to the frozen peas. We’re talking about people’s dreams, some of the best experiences of their lives. You are entitled to professional consultation free of bias and always offered on a complimentary basis.
Our mission is simple: We wish to be the most unadulterated, truthful, and industry knowledgeable travel site in the world.
Q – Are all travel writers working part-time and do they always receive free trips? I read several of the travel magazines and love their stories of exotic travel. But I always wonder who is paying for their travels and how the financing works.
A – Travel writers are often approached by public relations media to travel to a destination to writer about it. Most of the features we see in print and on TV were provided to the writer on a complimentary basis. The only major publication we are aware of that does not accept complimentary travel is the New York Times. It is assumed that the destination will be treated fairly and in a generally positive manner. Tourist boards, cruise lines, and hotels routinely offer comp. travel to writers affiliated or freelancing for major publications. Airlines are a bit more hesitant to comp writers but it does happen.
Much of what you read in the consumer travel press is bought and paid for by the destination of product being described. The economics of publishing are such that few publications could afford top send their writers off to the far corners of the earth. Many trips are organized specifically for travel writers and they will travel as a small group. The sponsor can then concentrate on assuring a really spectacular showing.
Travel writers do not enter the profession for the money. They do it for the lifestyle and the experiences. Pay varies but is almost consistently low. A payment of $1 per words is not uncommon. It is a better hobby or second job than a neat way to make a lot of money. For examples of some of the best travel writing read anything by Paul Thoreux, Pico Iyer, or the late Anthony Bourdain.
Q – I think we are a bit obsessive when we travel. My wife and I, both college professors, one a robotics scientist the other a psychologist, start a handwritten three-ring binder in preparation for every trip we take. The obsessive part, I suppose, is that we start our binder exactly two years to the day prior to our anticipated departure. It has worked well as a system for us although it is clearly not for everyone. Your site is among our favorites as much for the “attitude” as the honesty. Our next trip is going to involve 17 days on our own. (We know you suggest guides in Japan) and we have it fairly well mapped out. We were wondering if there was one major piece of advice you might want to share that might not be in our notes. Not so much looking for places as we are for approach. Anything we should do differently traveling in Japan we might not have done in our previous travels to Nicaragua, Jordan, or Sri Lanka?
A – You know, there is something poetic we love about your approach. You sound fearless – an important characteristic of the best exploration travelers. Allow us two recommendations: As you wander, many of those you encounter will not speak English. Carry a phrase sheet with you so you can can point to what you need. Include emergency assistance. Our primary recommendation is that you schedule specific days to simply get lost. Don’t carry your phone on those days – leave it all to chance and the kindness of those you will meet along the way. If you find your way back to your lodgings in time for dinner – fine. But if you’re late that is OK as well. Go off the tourist track with the express purpose of getting lost and the most amazing things will happen. But do hide some serious cash inside your socks. Getting lost is the secret sauce in truly memorable travels.
Q – We are planning a long-delayed trip to see some of the Greek Islands next year. I’ve read some of what you have to say about the crowds on the more popular islands and we are quite comfortable going in the off-season as opposed to the off-off season. I guess our question is, how late in the season can we go to these islands and still find people there operating their businesses and, particularly, their restaurants. We are not cruisers and we would want at least three nights per island. Also wondering about off-season flights. Thanks so much. This is an incredibly informative site.
A – We would suggest that you travel in mid-October with a plan to return home no later than November 1st. Flight operations in and out of Athens for the islands will be reduced on or around October 1st but some flights still operate for those locals who commute between Athens and the islands. Many shopkeepers live in Athens during the non-summer months. We have a feeling you will have a more interesting and enjoyable stay than those who visit Greece in the midst of the “season”. Do be aware that inter-island air schedules as well as ferry schedules in Greece are merely “suggestions”.
Q – We have arranged our own First Class air for a cruise we are taking from Venice to Athens. In order to get the best price, I have to fly American to London and then change planes in London Heathrow to then fly on to Venice. We have an hour and forty-five minutes for the connection which American assured me is more than enough time. But then there is the problem with my flight to Venice. It is on British Airways and I understand, from what I have researched online, that the seats in First are small and that the food on BA is nothing to write home about. I bought a coach ticket and used miles to upgrade to First within Europe. How do I assure I get a first class experience flying from London to Venice?
A – You could try chartering your own jet. Short of that, you will be flying an Airbus 320 or 321 as your flight time is about two hours and five minutes. For short-haul intra-Europe flights, airlines have one class of about six rows of so-called First Class seats. On the airbus models, the middle seat is normally converted to a tray table and the seats are somewhat larger with additional legroom compared to coach. But it is certainly not as true First Class despite the fact that your ticket reads that way. It is, instead, a combined Business Class/First Class section. In other words, had you paid less for Business Class you would have ended up in the same section with the same seat.
As for the food – yes, largely inedible is what you should expect. We recommend buying sandwiches in the terminal.
The rule is that before you pay for First Class seating, make certain that there is a true, “dedicated” first class section. A good agent would have pointed this out but it sounds as though you placed your trust in an outsourced airline call center. To give you a bit more bad news, we don’t feel that anything less than two or three hours connecting time is recommended at Heathrow. In-transit passengers are required to go through a security checkpoint with frequently long lines. If your carry-on bag is cited for inspection that process can take close to an hour, depending on the number of passengers waiting and the number of security guards on duty. Heathrow is, in our view, a “Three-Hour Connection” Airport. You will likely make it but do be extra-careful in tagging your luggage in a way that clearly identifies where you will be spending your first night in Venice. Hopefully you have a pre-hotel night built into your itinerary.
Q – We are thinking about visiting Brazil but have heard from friends that a Visa is required and that it is a rather tortuous process. I understand this is something the Brazilian government is doing in response to Trump and his anti-immigration stance. Taking my wife to Brazil is a dream but I don’t want to wait weeks or even months to make it happen.
A – Your friends were right – but now, they’re wrong. This has absolutely nothing to do with Trump. In fact, the number of US tourists headed to Brazil has grown substantially since last November when the country introduced e-visas. You apply online and the entire process takes about 72 hours. Up until this recent change, you would have had to appear in person at a Brazilian Consulate or Visa Center and you may well have been asked to produce personal bank records. Month over month, the number of Americans securing visas to visit Brazil has jumped 46% an astounding increase. Brazil is now being seen as the poster child for simplification of the Visa process.
Q – We are taking only our second trip to Europe, doing a very nice cruise on Azamara. Our air schedule, which our agent handled, gives us an hour and ten minutes to connect at Heathrow for our flight to Copenhagen. But we can;t find out what gate we’re even flying from. This all sounds stressful. Should we be worried? Our agent says it is a “legal connection”.
A – We hate that term – it was invented by some intern ion the basement of an airline accounting department in the 1970’s. It means that the airline has data that shows that you will likely maker your flight. You might – but there are so many variables involved that we’re going to bet against your making it and so should you. Never schedule anything at Heathrow for less than three hours even if you are scheduling lunch with the cast of “Love Actually”. You will have to pass through the British equivalent of our TSA but theirs take tea breaks! Heathrow normally does not announce connecting gates until about 45 minutes prior to scheduled departure – so you rush to get through the inspection lines and then wait for the big board to finally announced your gate. Then you realize you have to hike over to Wales to board your aircraft. Meanwhile, your assumption that your luggage is actually going to re-connect with you at your final destination involves more faith than science. Nothing wrong with that – it works for most of the world’s religions. Even if you make it in an hour and ten minutes, you may be arriving in Copenhagen with one clean set of underwear and little else. But, as we think about it, that could be enough to enjoy Denmark. Whenever anyone in travel talks to you about a “legal connection” jump up on the nearest desk and start screaming “liar, liar, pants on fire.” Never try to do Heathrow on less than three hours.
Q – Love the fact that you tell the traveltruth about places to avoid when flying due to high bacteria counts etc. I had never even thought that aisle seats were so much more likely to be filthy than window seats. But missing in your information is the cleaning schedules for the airlines. I fly about two months a year, on average, on all of the major carriers. Would appreciate any specific as to how often things are cleaned on the average aircraft. Also wondering how airports themselves stack up against aircraft when it comes to germ counts and exposure. There are far more people in the terminal than there are on my 737.
A – The cleaning crews you see waiting on the gangway as you disembark, are primarily there to remove trash bags while also performing a quick wipe-down in the lavatories. That, of course, means that the tray table an d your armrest have likely not been touched since the seat was last occupied by Typhoid Mary or one of her relatives. The airline’s are proud of their so-called “Deep Cleanings” where the seats are usually shampooed and the entire seat surface is sanitized. The good news is that they actually do this – the bad news is that they normally do it about once a month. Planes arriving on their last leg, ready to spend the night relaxing at the gate until morning, are usually given preferential cleaning – but that is a very relative term.
We can clearly state, based on several university studies, that airports have higher germ counts than aircraft. Self-check-in screens are the filthiest spot in the airport, rivaled only by the lovely, grey TSA trays where you resat those things that are truly important to you. You should never use the screen or the tray before first wiping it down with anti-bacterial wipes. Yes, people will stare at you, some will laugh, and the guy in the Make America Great Again Hat may think you’re a terrorist. But it’s still a good idea.
Q – Can you tell me if there are restrictions when bringing alcohol on the flight to Tahiti or between the islands? I just heard that your alcohol must be sealed with a duty free sticker and you can;t bring open bottles on the inter-island flights.
A – Hope you are not serious. Would you want to be seated next to someone who boarded any aircraft with their own open alcohol? Greyhound bus – perhaps – but not aboard an international or inter-island flight. The proper thing to do is to purchase any drinks on-board. That helps the airline make a little profit which helps keep prices lower. It also serves as a way to combat intoxication in the air.
In fact, Tahiti tends to attract a fairly sophisticated, heavily French crowd that would likely laugh at any sloppy Americans trying to get through check-in with their own open alcohol. Ask your travel consultant for a primer on proper flying etiquette.
Q – We are in our mid-fifties but in quite fine shape as I am actually the owner of a small string of health clubs . We have been to Australia and loved it and we are now heading back to spend some time in Tasmania. Just wondering your thoughts regarding the best month to go and any hotel/resort we shouldn’t miss? Is the food as good as we had in Sydney and Melbourne and any advice about hiking in the bush. We’ve done Grand Canyon etc. but never got to hike in Australia.
A – Being a hiker and a foodie you really ought to be looking into some of the excellent programs run by the Canadian company, Butterfield & Robinson. They hike during the day on carefully planned routes and stay at the finest inns while dining on gourmet cuisine. Do check them out. Backroads is another excellent company we recommend though a but downscale of B&R.
We’re all in on this trip. Choose a professional travel consultant with excellent on-site offices in Australia. We think you should do the trip in November or early December. It is springtime, with temperatures in the high sixties and sunny skies. Don;t miss staying at the Islington just outside Hobart. Everything you eat will be farm fresh. They can’t believe the poison we eat here in the States. If you love seafood you will feel you have arrived in heaven. The cheeses and fruit are other-worldly.
We would urge some caution if you are doing any really long hikes. Know the local weather and where you can stop if you must. You may well be alone for days at end. Tasmania is the best of Australia and New Zealand without the people. The food is memorable as are the vistas. If you were also into photography, this might be the perfect destination.
Q – I have traveled quite a bit since my Mom is in the international real estate business. I like your site but it is a bit behind in technology. I am wondering why airlines are still showing movies in seat backs, which is very 1950’s. Wouldn’t it be better if every passenger was given a Virtual Reality headset so they could watch movies and also play games without disturbing the person sitting next to them? The technology already exists. Hope you can answer this. I think you need more younger writers but this is still a cool site. I’ve learned a lot.
A – Thank you very much and congratulations on your choice of reading. You are certainly right about our need for younger technology writers. We would be pleased to print any additional commentary you might care to provide in the future.
The use of VR is a bit up in the air. The fact is that we will be seeing a great deal of Virtual Reality products taking to the air in the next 36 months. But not necessarily because it is better. The airlines are quite concerned about the cost and particularly the weight of back-of-seat TV technology. The system that must be installed in every seat to operate the program, along with the cost of repairs, makes this a feature airlines can’t wait to remove from their aircraft. The company that is pioneering this technology is called Inflight VR and what they have going for them is that each of their current VR headsets weighs less than a pound. The content, currently being tested on several smaller airlines, can be changed easily to suit the destination. For instance, you might opt to see ten minutes of a Broadway play en route to New York with the option to order tickets at your seat.
The airlines are mostly concerned about cost and weight of seat back monitors but they also realize that by the time they are installed much of the content and certainly the technology is already outdated. The first step in the elimination of back of seat technology will be the announcement by the three major carriers that they will be eliminating seat back monitors on shorter flights of under three hours. VR will be available as a perk in First Class and should attain at least “break even” status for use in economy. The early studies seem to show that flyers using VR headsets do have a better flight experience. The anticipated occasional motion sickness has not shown up as a problem. One of the things that will be possible with in-seat VR is the ability to feel like you are flying the plane from your seat. This one will really be fun to watch and the airlines are definitely on-board with anything that will help them shed significant weight from the aircraft because of the immediate savings in fuel consumption. Keep reading and tell us what else we’re missing..
Q – We are in the fortunate position of planning two business trips and two pleasure trips to Europe and Asia in the next 12 months. We enjoy the search aspect of planning but we never know exactly when we should be purchasing the ticket to get the best pricing. As you know, prices seem to change by the minute. We keep reading there are certain days of the week when the “savvy” travelers try to make all of their reservations. We would really appreciate any insight you might provide on this topic. And thanks very much for years of entertaining reading.
A – It turns out that there is no simple answer.. There are so many variables that some of the previous “wisdom” on this topic is now being questioned. What we do know is that humans do not have much to do with the setting of fares. There are numerous computer programs using algorithms that instantly react to what a competitor has posted with most sales fares appearing by 10:00 am. on Monday. Many of the pros say that the 2:00 pm. Tuesday loading of new fares (there are millions each day and they are loaded four times in a 24-hour cycle) will present a limited number of “sale matching” fares for purchase by 2:30 pm. on Tuesday. The best window for purchasing tickets at the lowest fare seems to be between 2:30 pm. on Tuesday through 12:00 noon on Wednesday. But that seems to apply specifically to domestic fares. For international fares the best strategy seems to be to concentrate on day of departure. June generally sees the highest fares of the year while September/October has some of the lowest. Thursday and Friday are said to be the days with the best pricing for departures to Europe. Sunday is a day to be avoided in terms of both travel and pricing. But none of this is scientific, really scientific, and note there are likely more than 3 million exceptions to these “rules”.
The best advice is to try to take an average of the fares you find and then, when you see something close to the bottom range on the actual site of the airline you will be flying, book it immediately. In that way you will avoid fees and have the security of having an actual, valid ticket issued directly by the airline. We do not recommend booking your air on a web site call center operated by a so-called “Online Travel Agency”.
Q – I know you are going to have fun with this but I wouldn’t turn to anyone else for help. Have been following your work and advice for many years and am extremely grateful. We live in Arizona, no not Sun City, and I have, with the time of retirement, been getting into Ayurvedic natural medicine and meditation. My husband and I want to plan a holistic-based vacation in an exotic locale that is top quality where the day tour possibilities are in keeping with the spiritual nature of the accommodations. We would want the options of designing our own programs and detox from stress and technology should be part of the program. We have a gizzilion miles we want to use before the US goes on lock down so flying halfway around the world is no issue at all. We’ll be meditating in First Class. But once we arrive, we don;t want to feel that we are being ripped off with pricing that is totally out of whack with the destination. We just want fair pricing. We’d like to try to keep spending under $2,000 per night. Does any place in your radar come to mind for us?
A – We think you might love the 21-acre Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Sri Lanka. It sits on a coconut plantation overlooking the Indian Ocean. The excursions include visits to local artists , cooking classes, and some incredible Buddhist temples, but the main draw is the combination of bespoke treatments, Ayurvedic cuisine, and meditative detox. And we won;t have “fun” with this at all. We admire you for knowing what you want and for deciding that your vacation will, in many ways, be life-changing.
Q – We are headed to Mexico to look around San Miguel de Allende for a possible retirement retreat. The prices just can’t be beat and there is a huge ex-pat American community. Our real estate people have set us up for accommodations but we are wondering of there is a particular restaurant we should designate as our evening headquarters. We’re not all that into trendy – we just like good.
A – We’re not going to suggest that it might be less expensive still to move into the back of a Chipolte. You are correct, San Miguel de Allende is actually the centerpiece for the largest ex-pat American community on earth. It is a lovely area. It sounds as though the restaurant you might really enjoy is Bovine. Great steaks and seafood in buildings that house lovely small boutiques.
Q – We are leaving in two weeks for Milan – a quick three-night addition to a business trip I have planned. My husband will be joining me and, strange as it sounds, he actually loves to shop high-end Italian clothing shops. To save time – please, please tell us where we should shop and where we should stay (hopefully in the same neighborhood).
A – Head to Quadrilatero della Moda which is in the centro-storico district. The two streets you want are Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga.. Do not stay anywhere but the Townhouse at the Galleria..We forbid it. It is Milan’s best-kept secret and one of Europe’s best properties. Rooms overlook the cafes and shops of Milan’s famed Galleria. Don;t be shocked if you run into a few Hollywood types in hiding – or, perhaps, Michael Cohen.
Q – The other day i was about to board a flight to Los Angeles with my husband and he commented on how new it looked. It was not, however, a new plane. It just looked like it had been washed. The paint was gleaming. I am wondering how often the outside of these planes are washed? Are there any rules in place?
A – No hard and fast rules but the wash rotation for major carriers seems to vary from 30 to 60 days of flight time. Singapore Airlines claims its planes are washed on a monthly schedule. United washes its planes every 50 days. The airline has wash facilities worldwide to service its fleet. All of the world’s leading airlines seriously believe that “first impressions matter.”
Q – I would never criticize your industry but I hope you won;t mind my suggesting that most of the information I’ve read about Jet Lag is pure nonsense. My new job requires very frequent international travel, primarily to Asia. Really wondering if there is any way to arrive more refreshed than I do. I have followed all the traditional remedies like no drinking, Melatonin, etc. I just seem to arrive in no shape to conduct business and I am almost always in the front of the plane. What am I missing here? My doctor is stumped and so am I.
A – Obviously, we don’t have a solution but we do have a suggestion. Instead of concentrating on magic remedies and pills, try concentrating more on the aircraft and just when it left the factory. The fact is that when most people fly in an aircraft they are flying a plane that is pressured to about the comfort you might feel sleeping at an elevation of 8,000 feet. The 767, 707, and older A340’s and 350’s all maintain air pressure at about the same level and it approximates what you would experience spending the night in Bogota, Columbia. Of course you are having trouble sleeping.
Use Seatguru.com or flightradar24.com to check the type of aircraft being used on your route. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350 XWB are new commercial aircraft types constructed out of carbon fiber reinforced polymer. This is a lighter material that sharply reduces fuel consumption. But there is some serious evidence that suggests they also cut down on some of the major symptoms we see in jet lag. That is because these new materials can handle more interior pressurization that metal which practically produces an in-cabin air atmosphere that is about the same as trying to sleep at an elevation of 6,000 feet. That 25% reduction can help eliminate jet lag which is also known as “mountain sickness” on older model aircraft, The new generation aircraft also maintain a higher humidity level so the air is far less dry. This also helps with sleep.And if that is not enough, be aware that the newest aircraft have much better air filtration systems, higher ceilings, and larger windows. These improvements help contribute to creating better rest on-board and they will likely help you with the jet lag you are experiencing. The really good news for you is that the Asian carriers have been purchasing large numbers of these new-generation aircraft.
Q – There seems to be a lot of nonsense written about the best places to sit on an aircraft. Some say it is safer in the rear of the aircraft, some say the exit row, some say an aisle up front. I really don’t care about safety or an accident in the air. No worries there. What my husband and I do care about is contacting e-coli and the best place to sit to avoid the most contact. We take one or two international vacations a year and I am always worried about catching something in that filthy environment. My niece is a flight attendant and she has stories that just curl my hair. Just wondering if there is any evidence on this subject you could share with your followers? Is coach really much worse than Business Class or First? Is Premium Economy better than Economy in terms of germ count?
A – There really is some hard evidence on this subject. One of the nation’s most prominent researchers in the field of getting sick on an aircraft is Charles Gerba an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Gerba specializes in just how diseases spread through indoor spaces like planes, cruise ships, and casinos. There was an important study about the transmission of viruses aboard commercial aircraft at a recent meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. We have seen some of the research and it is rather complex with many variables in terms of type of aircraft, cost per ticket, number of passengers aboard, time of year, destination etc. All the variables you would expect. But we want to answer your question as best we can in layman’s terms and based solely on our understanding of the research, allow us to offer the following summary:
01 – The so-called “two row” rule is largely myth. Infectious viruses can easily affect those seated beyond a two row perimeter of a contaminated person. Movement about the plane is the most critical factor in terms of exposure to e-coli and other serious bacterial infections.
02 – Aisle seats are generally the worst place to sit in terms of contamination. There are several reasons why. Those in aisle seats tend to get up from their seats more often than those in window or middle seats. That places them in contact with a higher percentage of the aircraft’s passengers. Crew has a staggering number of close contacts compared to seated passengers so infected crew member can easily spread disease within a confined space. Those in aisle seats have their seat arms and headrests touched by numerous fellow passengers who are going to and from the lavatory, a prime source of infection.
03 – Tray tables are the single greatest source of contamination, with arm rests and seat headrests as other areas of high bacteria concentration. No one should ever be seated on a commercial aircraft without first using sanitizing wipes or liquid to clean all surfaces where one would be eating or placing one’s hands or head. It is important not to touch your eyes when you fly. Use tissues to open and flush lavatory doors.
04 – Never use airline pillows. They are thrown into the overhead racks which are laden with bacteria from shoes and the bottom portions of luggage. Only use airline blankets to cover your feet.
05 – Those in window seats face the lowest threat of infection from infectious diseases.
06 – The internal cleaning of airline seats and lavatories is supposed to occur about every 100 hours of flying. But this service is usually outsourced and cleaning crews are under tremendous pressure to clean cabins quickly for a quick turn-around. The practical result is that planes are rarely cleaned. Instead, “cleaners” clean out seat backs and collect garbage. Do not imagine that the seats and the TV screens, along with other surfaces you might touch are cleaned regularly.
07 – For those who are prone to infection for any reason or those who have a concern about cleanliness, it is always recommended that seating in the forward part of the plane be considered. Business and First Class seating is cleaned more often and the air quality is generally far superior.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is why we have never been asked to create an airline commercial.
Q – After more years than I care to count with the Ford, I am set to begin showing my bride a bit of the world. We want to start in my ancestral home, Ireland and are tentatively thinking about travel in mid-July when it gets rather warm here in Atlanta. We’ve done some business-related travel to Europe but this would be our first in-depth trip and I am thinking of spending about two and a half weeks. I will likely want to stay at nice places and will follow your advice in that regard but I am wondering about timing and crowds and even itinerary. I just read a piece in Bloomberg that indicated that several European destinations are getting seriously crowded, including the roads, in mid-summer. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. And please don’t waste your time suggesting that I rent anything but a Ford product in Europe. Love this site and grateful for the help you provide those who may not be your clients.
A – In a general sense, American travelers really need to get more creative. In Europe specifically, Europeans are doing much more international travel than their American counterparts and China, Japan, and Russia are sending enough tourists to major destinations to really impact both pricing and availability. It is time that the savvy traveler starts doing more travel to Europe in the off-season and more wandering to sites just to the left of the tourist map. Here are some strategies we would suggest:
- Avoid traveling in July or August. Change your departure to mid-May or even late April. On the other side, consider “post-tourist” travel in late September or early to mid-October.
- Consider actually skipping the big-name Irish sites for alternatives that are just as lovely. This is, after all, a country filled with natural beauty and charm and any wrong turn will likely bring you past colorful villages surrounded by lovely farmland and gently rolling hills. Don’t, for instance, even do the Ring of Kerry. Many experts will tell you that the Beara Peninsula is as beautiful with a lot less traffic.
- The Americans have not yet discovered what many European know, the city of Belfast is wonderful and only two hours away from Dublin with far fewer tourists. It is the gateway to lovely drives including the incredible Causeway Coast. It is becoming more popular because so many of the scenes from Game of Thrones were filed there.
Q — We are in our early and mid-seventies, in great health, and we love adventure. We don’t mind camping out to see great sites but we do have some qualms about safety as we consider a trip to Colombia. We’ve been big fans of Narcos on Netflix and it does not paint the most beautiful picture of the local crime scene. Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Our entire community in Scottsdale now follows your Q&A.
A – The deal is that the FARC rebels made a peace agreement with the present Colombian government in 2016. That opened up major portions of the country including the west coast, which appears in Narcos. It is a land of lovely beaches and underdevelopment. Make certain that you use a really good on-site tour company to handle your arrangements. There are now flights from both Bogata and Medellin to the really quaint towns of Nuqui and Bahia Solano. You will likely end up staying in eco-lodges. We think this is a safe destination when compared to the average city in the United States. Hard to imagine that when watching Narcos – but true. Do the trip but take out emergency evacuation air insurance with a company like Med-Jet.
Q – We are in our mid-forties and, being self-employed, I’ve worked things out so I can get away up to four weeks a year on various vacations. Most last a week but sometimes we do a longer trip. I don’t use an agent because all we are booking are flights and hotels and, quite frankly, sometimes we just arrive in our destination and select a place to stay or we use AirBnB to book a small home or apartment. Yes, we’ve one or two hiccups, but for the most p[art, the freedom to just do our own thing, mostly beaches, is worth it.
My question has to do with strategy. Given our profile should we be using a travel agent and how should we focus that search? I would also like to know whether you would trust Kayak or Skyscanner more in terms of finding the lowest fares?
A – We really see no reason why you should not continue to make your own travel arrangements. We think that a professional agent with expertise might get in your way. Kayak and Skyscanner are really quite different. Kayak is good at showing you routing, who flies it, and what the airlines are charging on their own sides. It is one-stop for fares and schedules. Skyscanner consolidates data from a number of firms that sell discounted tickets. It also checks them out, to a degree, as discounted international air tickets from third parties is frequently not what it appears to be. The best strategy for air is simple. Search everywhere and everything you want to until you have all of your “information”. Then go to the airline’s actual site and book it directly with them. It is foolish to do otherwise as you have little recourse if there is a change or more serious problem down the runway.
Q – We are seriously interested in doing all possible to preserve our fragile environment when we travel. We are interested in spending just over a week touring portions of the Arctic out of Churchill, Manitoba. We are quite serious about not wanting to leave a carbon footprint when we travel, although our aircraft will certainly mess up those plans. We’ve come across a company called Natural Habitat Adventures. Do you recommend them and their program in this region?
A – We think you will be extremely pleased with this company. They really attempt to be a carbon-neutral travel provider and they work in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund. Their seven-night program out of Churchill will include interaction with indigenous people including village elders, tracking polar bears, and a chance to truly understand issues related to geology and climate change.It is a wonderful program and they limit group size. It is priced from $6000-$7000 based on traveling date and specific itinerary. Good work. You have found a “keeper”. But room service will not be 24 hours and that thing on your pillow may not be chocolate.
Q – We are now taking three to four vacations a year and we’ve been using a local travel agent here in St. Louis. She seems fine but I’ve started noticing that we’re being charged $25 per hotel for every booking she makes. Since I assume she gets a kickback from the hotel, does it seem outrageous to you that we’re being charged these fees which certainly add up? We tend to use middle-of-the-road smaller hotels and we do a great deal of touring on our own. But we book the car and the airlines through her. She charges something or everything she does, When we went to Australia last year, our fees totaled $600.
A – Based on the information you have provided, it would appear that your agent is seriously undercharging you. If you asked us to plan a truly memorable vacation in Australia, which we have to assume was in the two to three-week range, our Planning Fee would be $500 Per Person. Charging for hotel reservations is now standard industry practice. Agents don’t get “kickbacks” from hotels but you are paying the travel agency commission in the price of your room. The trouble is that hotels are notoriously slow in paying agents these commissions so there is often a great deal of back-and-forth paperwork. Many agencies now charge $50-$100 per hotel booking for their time and work.
There is some good news. You have a choice. You can always book you hotels directly. You can and should demand a refund of the travel agent commission because you booked direct. That way you can save the agent’s booking fee as well as the commission. If you go on one of the online sites be prepared to be treated as a statistic and know that there is a good likelihood that the best-located rooms are not going to be assigned when you arrive.
You can assume that your travel agent is making next to nothing on your airfare unless you happen to be a First Class flyer, which, we suspect, is not the case. There is a general rule you might want to try to understand: If you book your trip yourself, you should theoretically be saving between 12-15% of the total cost in travel agency fees and commissions. That sounds pretty swell until you realize that the only fees you will actually save are the small fees assessed by your agent. You will still be charged the agency commission by the hotels, the auto-rental firms. and the airlines. You can kick and scream but they are going to charge you anyway. So even though you will be devoting a great deal of time into reserving your trip with all details confirmed, you will have saved very little in the big picture since the commission that makes up well over 80% of your costs is still going on your credit card. In the United States of America you are charged for the services of a travel consultant even when you don’t use one. That appears to still be legal. It is the secret no one wants to tell you because it involves huge profits for billion-dollar corporations. They absolutely want you to book with them directly so they can double and triple their profit on your transaction while giving you nothing in return except a short chat with Harry or Harriet Headset who are clueless about you and your vacation.
Q – This airline business is uniquely frustrating and I am wondering if they make it intentionally tough to cash in miles? I currently have miles and elite status with American, Alaska, and United Airlines. I get e-mails and notifications but it is all very confusing and I tend t just give up and pay whatever they ask me for. Is there some way to make this easier? I do a lot of flying at age 73, but it is now mostly to visit family and friends. Two of my children are studying abroad, one in Milan, Italy and the other in San Paolo, so there is a good bit of traveling. I just hate the idea of leaving miles on the table. This is a well-run site and we have recommended it to our friends. You should advertise a bit. It never hurts.
A – Well, actually, they do make it complicated so that approximately 20% of all miles are never cashed in. There are a number of strategies but we don;t want to give you a strategy that is too challenging. We can understand why you are traveling overseas frequently – we wouldn’t buy the “study in Italy and Brazil” stories either. You can affiliate with a travel agency that does a lot of business air ticketing. They will have a program where, for a fee, they will keep careful track of your miles. They use computer programs that do this for them, Or, you can do it yourself by using one of the better Apps that manages airline miles. The two best are Awardwallet.com, and Points.com. Thank you for the advice. This site, as well as our others, is primarily designed to help our own clients navigate the complicated world of travel planning.
Q – We are off on our second trip to Europe, following London last year. We’ve arranged a Collette Tour and we are trying to do some homework. We love Deli food in the US, being New Yorkers I suppose that is not surprising, and we are wondering if the Delis we see listed in Venice and Florence are going to look familiar and have some of the sandwiches we love. We really hate to take the time to eat a sit down lunch – we far prefer take-out Deli food and a stroll in the park.
A – Italy does not do the kind of Deli food you would find in New York Deli, in the New York sense, originated in Germany in the mid 1700’s and then spread to the United States where Ashkenazi Jews who had migrated from Germany were served by kosher delicatessens which first opened int he late 1800’s. But the ritual you describe is very Italian and you should seek out shops in Italy bearing titles such as gastronomica, bottega alimentare, and salumeria (a store that features salami). Italian delis are wonderous places and the adventurous traveler will find a wide variety of things to enjoy on a park bench or back in your hotel room. Whether or not you will enjoy sharing your Italian deli products with the pigeons is another story. Better to stick with Katz’s.
Q – This is only marginally a travel question. My wife is extremely concerned about the environment and the lack of cleanliness in American cities compared to what we have seen in our travels. America really is a garbage dump in a high percentage of our cities with litter and filth everywhere. We’ve about had it and want to move. We would move to the cleanest city in America if we knew what it was but we’re not averse to moving north or south. The data we’ve examined is mostly biased so we’d love to know, because you don’t seem to be in bed with any of the tourist boards, what city you might look at for a reconnaissance visit?
A – We will take this as a serious request, although there are a great many small towns in New England, the Midwest, the South, and the Western States that would seem to be cleaner than the city you are describing. But if you want an itinerary – fly north and go to Ottawa, Canada. There are dozens of programs in the Canadian capital designed to keep the city clean and livable. Our favorite is the annual Spring Cleaning Program that starts every April 15th and lasts a month. Last year, more than 60,000 volunteers showed up to clean the city’s roadways, sidewalks, green spaces, and parks – even though many hardly needed it.
From Ottawa we’d head to Calgary, which is generally acknowledged to be the cleanest city on the planet. Calgary has a well-planned grid system that reduced traffic and pollution. There is a terrific light rail system and any number of transfer stations that sort through every citizens garbage removing recyclable and biodegradable materials.
Finally, we’d suggest you end your tour by giving one American city a try. Fly to Honolulu, the cleanest large city in America. The city is covered with a transportation system using pollution-free buses that are the envy of city planners from all over the country.
Or – just get your wife a new vacuum. Let her know that, while we may not be the cleanest country in the world, our Olympic Curling team is really good.