Q – We have been debating cancelling our planned trip to South Africa next August. We read the comments from the fellow whose wife is spooked – you advised them to cancel their trip. But I am sure many of your followers would like a simple, up-to-date summary of where the Ebola problem stands in terms of future travel to Africa. We are from Manhattan and we don’t scare easily. And my wife is even more anxious to go than I am.
A – We are not going to give you the same advise we offered to the gentleman whose wife had real concerns about their trip. We think the following summary from Abercrombie & Kent summarizes the situation quite well:
Every situation, every traveler, is unique. The ground operators in Africa will, of course, try to put the best face on it. But the facts speak for themselves. How interesting that Nigeria has eradicated the disease, but we’ve had two cases in the United States. Our problem is that many low-income individuals use local clinics or small rural hospitals in the United States. They are less well-trained in the handling of a serious epidemic than big city hospital centers with close ties to the CDC. People feel they want to run away from “Ebola” to be safe. The fact is that the United States does not qualify for the list of the world’s safest places – not even close. Other than “travel paranoia”, a disease you have not yet caught, we can;’t come up with a single good reason to cancel your upcoming trip.
Q – We were going to sit down with a travel specialist and then we discovered traveltruth. I am Slovenian and I have had a rather charmed corporate life. I want to take my wife, who happens to be from Nicaragua, to Lake Bled, a place my father spoke about for years. I am sad to confess I’ve never been there. Rather than a tour, I would love to go on one of the small group Private Jet trips where everything is included. I do suffer from mild coronary disease and wonder if doctors go along on these trips? Is there anything you can recommend next year that would include Lake Bled.
A – You need to look carefully at TCS Expeditions Eastern Europe and Beyond by Private Jet Program departing from London on September 17th next year and returning to London on October 6th. This tour spends two nights in Ljubjana and you have the opportunity for a full day trip to Lake Bled. This tour visits Prague, Riga, Krakow, Moscow, Kotor, and Baku in Azerbaijan. The price, a relative bargain given the quality of the hotels being used, is $59,950 per person. And, yes, there will be a physician accompanying the group, something that is not automatic on around-the-world-by-private-jet tours. Private jet tours are easy on the body, much easier, than traditional commercial aircraft, train, or bus travel. You will see nine countries in 20 days and your longest flight segment will be two hours and forty-five minutes. Take care of yourself and hope this works out for you.
Q – A co-worker turned me on to this site yesterday and I hope you can help me even though I am not a client. We’re booked with a well-known agency in Los Angeles. Our plans are to go on a safari taking in Kenya the Serengetti and the Masai Mara. We booked with a reputable travel agent through a very well-known tour operator and we are scheduled to leave in less than 90 days.
Our travel agent keeps telling us that travel to Kenya is not a problem and that it is a long way from the West African nations affected by Ebola. What would you do. We have been told we can still get out of it, but our agent insists it is safe. My wife is really worried about this and will be most anxious to read any reply you might provide. I have been pushing her all along to go on this trip. We understand that you are under pressure to say we should not try to get out of it.
A – Actually, we’re not. You don’t see any safari providers advertising on this site. In fact, our feeling is that you should postpone this trip. If you were sitting across from us, that is what we would advise.
Your travel agent is giving you generally correct information. The game parks in Kenya and Tanzania remain free of any Ebola-related dangers. We are advising you not to go for two specific reasons:
First, you are saying that your wife has anxiety and is worried. Case closed. A vacation is supposed to be totally enjoyable. Sure, there is nothing wrong with pushing your limits, but if you both can’t enjoy the pre-trip “high” that should precede any vacation, we think it is time to cancel. Your travel agent can come back and earn her commission another day. When it comes to vacation planning “Happy Wife – Happy Life” takes on some specific meaning. Don’t plan on going anywhere unless your wife is enthusiastic about the choice.
The second reason has less to do with Ebola than it does with some serious security services warnings about imminent danger in Nairobi from anti-western groups related to Al-Queda. This is just not a particularly safe part of the world. We do not have faith in the government’s ability to interrupt planned attacks on western interests or tourists.
Understand that ours is a minority view within the travel community. You might want to solicit other opinions.
Think about changing your itinerary to southern Africa where security is stronger and the game opportunities can be just as rewarding. Look at Botswana and Namibia in addition to South Africa. Travel safe.
Q – We are looking to celebrate my recent retirement from Citibank with a trip that has only one major requirement: We wish to visit the world’s most beautiful beach. There is little interest in visiting the second best beach or the third. We certainly understand the subjective quality of this question but, “Is there a beach that you would recommend that might satisfy our two decade-old obsession?
A – We have our favorites but the beach of your dreams may well be Anse Source d’Argent, a lovely boulder-studded oasis on the lovely island of La Digue in the Seychelles. In terms of credibility, this beach has been named the world’s best by National Geographic in their book “The 10 Best of Everything”.
Closer to home, if you don’t mind about a hundred or so fellow visitors, you might want to check out one of our favorites, the Soggy Dollar Bar on White Bay on the small island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgins. Yacht-owners know it well.
Q – My husband and I are making our second trip to London and we are scheduled to fly a 777 on American. The model is a 300, whatever that means. We have asked for aisle seats across. Our travel agent says this is a great plane but we know that sometimes the information on this site is more accurate. My husband is a large man and 6’4“. Would you spend the extra money for the more leg room economy seats?
A – The 777 is a really comfortable ride, provided you are seated in the front of the aircraft. The 777-300ER holds 304 passengers, 220 of whom are accommodated in coach. The seat pitch is 31″ and the aisles are notoriously narrow. It is virtually impossible for a passing passenger to walk past you without knocking into your arm. The window seats on this aircraft produce a curve that can cause neck pain. The newly designed seats are narrower and less comfortable than some AA seating on other aircraft.
Given the health issues of having your knees pinned back for a protracted period of time, we would certainly recommend that you invest in “Main Cabin Extra”, which will get you additional leg room. If that is unavailable, we would say you should consider springing for Business Class. Follow this strategy when you travel until your husband ages enough so he begins shrinking.
Do consider getting g a credit card that will get you the miles you need to upgrade on your next trip.
Don’t look at Business Class in terms of seat comfort. Look at it as a kind of health insurance when you travel.
Q – Forgive me, but I just don’t get it. My wife wants to bring the grandkids, ages 8-16 on a seven-night Disney cruise. I’ve heard they do some special things but have no sense of the experience. Wouldn’t the family have just as good a time on an adult line like Princess that also offers kid’s programs? I never bought into the mouse and the characters. It all seems so juvenile. If I see a fake pirate running around the ship I’m liable to shove him overboard.
A – But you won’t – because that would be juvenile. Then there’s the matter of “the hook”. If the cruise is really for the grandkids, and you’re not just bringing them along to accompany you on vacation, Disney is as good as it gets.
You will do rotational dining with the same waiter throughout. In Animator’s Palate, you draw characters that come to life onscreen. The Aqua tube is a big hit and it runs efficiently. Every cabin gets use of a cell phone/walkie talkie. You’ll always know where the grandkids are. The electronic wristbands for kids participating in the kids program works well and the staff can pinpoint the location of each child on a screen. The shows are professionally produced and truly memorable. The movies are fun and Disney puts their latest on the ships. The only nudity will be a quick shot of Tinkerbell.
Yes, you have to buy into the concept and yes, there is lots of cross-selling that kids find hard to resist. But Disney is all about families while other lines realize that too many kids will adversely affect the number of adult cruisers they will be able to attract. That is the crucial difference and the reason that we have to rate Disney as the ultimate experience for cruisers whose primary concern is the well being, the joy, and the memories, their children and grandchildren will take away from the experience. Oh, and do remember to bring a suitcase filled with Purell.
Q – We will be making our third trip to Asia, this time Thailand and Laos. I am wondering if I should let the credit card company just work out the exchange rate when they bill us or should we try to exchange at a currency outlet here or abroad? We do have a Capital One Venture Card that does not charge the foreign transaction fees. I hate being ripped off by money changers. Maybe it’s a biblical thing.
A – Generally speaking, you are going to do better by just leaving it to Visa or MasterCard to charge you in US funds based on the conversion rate in effect on the date the charges are entered on your account. Currency offices, biblical or otherwise, charge fees and also make money on the conversion rate.
A – The Pushkar Fair takes place in the fall every year, with the exact dates being determined by the Hindi calendar. This somewhat dusty and frenzied annual five-day gathering brings 100,000 local people together, along with an onslaught of camera-toting tourists, to trade camels and other livestock. While truly memorable, it would require adding 2 days to your travel plans, it is a tremendous experience for those seeking great photo opportunities, to see India’s holy men, and to be up-close and personal with the local culture. As you might imagine, the fair is also very crowded and ‘colorful’. Most of our clients who have attended come home believing that the photo ops were well worth the hassles and travel time. It is as much of a “movie set” panorama as one is likely to encounter during travels in India, perhaps the most colorful country on earth.
A – Try not to ask the owner if he or any member of his family is involved with the Mafia. This could possibly ruin your meal.
The biggest “gaffe” is ordering cappuccino after 12:00 noon. Italians have a deep-seated belief that only infants and morning “Cappo” drinkers should indulge in milk. The proper course of action is to always order an espresso at the end of dinner. This will assure that you remain awake for the following three days.
Do not think about adding Parmesan cheese to your dish after it is served. If it is a good idea, and deemed appropriate, the waiter will offer to grate some atop your dish. Italians tend to like fish relatively unadorned. Don’t add cheese to any fish dish.
Have low expectations for salads in Northern Italy. Rustic Italians aren’t big on salad as a main course.
And, of course, understand that pasta is a mere introduction to the main course, the primo piatti or “first plate”. This is not the same as an appetizer which actually comes before the first plate. The Entrée, which is substantially smaller than portions in our at-home Italian restaurants, features a meat, chicken, or fish preparation.
Italians, as a rule, go to their favorite bar for a stand-up breakfast of cappuccino and a pastry. Only tourists order ham and eggs. To an Italian, breakfast is merely light calisthenics in preparation for lunch.
Never, ever ask for a “doggy bag” for leftovers. Italians think this is a uniquely barbaric American practice. No need to carry food back to your hotel. In Italy, good food will always be available – fear not. The Panini’s at the autostrade rest stops are even memorable. But never eat in your car. No respectable Italian would risk getting crumbs on the leather.
It is considered a bit “American” to order a gelato at the end of a meal. One earns a Gelato by walking in the slow dance through the village or the city that every Italian loves. In the restaurant, it is most appropriate to end the meal with some fresh fruit. Italians at other tables will sometimes stare at you as they find the American tourists inability to properly peel an orange rather entertaining.
Q – Somehow, I know that your team will know the answer to this question. I was doing a quick connection at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and walked past this gourmet-looking chocolate store called Vosges. Any good, worth bringing home, or skipable?
A – We’re not huge fans but it is decent chocolate. The stunner, at the moment, is something called “Mo’s Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar”. You want to grab several of these as they are difficult to track down. Think great dark chocolate with caramel, salt, and deep-seated bacon. If you’re flying American internationally, you might want to grab two or three of these and skip the Vanilla Hagen Daz served at your seat in Business Class. Oh, and thanks for the most useless question of the week.
Q – Call us crazy, but we’re bringing the twins, our eleven year-olds girls, on a Crystal Cruise to the Baltic that will include several days in St. Petersburg, Russia. We want to put together a special day that might include a really nice lunch the entire family can enjoy. Is there anywhere you could recommend where you would trust the food and the atmosphere as child-friendly. Crystal was not very helpful when we called. Thanks so much and best wishes for the long life of this wonderfully helpful web site.
A – Try Lujaika on Aptekarsky Prospekt. The actual theme of this really good Asian restaurant is a child’s imaginary wonderland. The children can fish in a pond next to outdoor dining areas and the restaurant’s pet rabbits roam the grounds. Remember that the ship’s blanket Visa will not cover you for any independent time off the ship.
We might suggest that it is unrealistic to seek out advice from cruise line commissioned sales phone agents. Not only is it highly unlikely they have never been to St. Petersburg; many of them have never actually sailed on a cruise. On the other hand, both Crystal ships have uniquely well-qualified on-board Concierge staff who we would certainly trust with this kind of request. Most cruise lines on-board will only sell you tours, programs, and reservations that are profitable. Five-star lines like Crystal, Seabourn, Sea Dream, Silverseas, and Regent, have some superb people on their respective concierge desks.
Currently, Silverseas and Crystal have the best-qualified and most reliable Concierge desks in the industry.
Q – As we plan a river boat journey, our first, from Basel to Amsterdam next September, we are wondering when it might make the most sense to book. We are looking at Viking River and we know that the boats book up early.
A – Two schools of thought. You may want to book this afternoon. The entire bed count on all of the Viking River fleet (the world’s largest), would fit into Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, with many beds left over, Book as soon as you are committed. Another strategy is to wait until eleven months prior to your scheduled return date. This will allow you to lock in your air arrangements as soon as the flights are available for sale.
Q – We are going to be staying at the Grand Hotel des lles Borromees along the water in Stresa for a week. Flying from LA to Milano, renting an Alfa, and ready for some day trips. Are there any restaurants in the area worth a drive of am hour or so that you could recommend? We hear there are islands near Stresa. Is there a way to get there? We thought this could be a great drive vacation using Stresa as a base. Good idea?
A – Actually, it’s an excellent idea, although your hotel is old world Europe and you may imagine it smells “musty”. The three islands are each lovely, different, and easily accessible from the main pier in Stresa with frequent local boat service. We would suggest that you make reservations on Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island) at Ristoranti CasaBella.
Our favorite drive restaurant is Piccolo Lago in Verbania Fondotoce. You won’t believe the small lake views that surround this tiny hamlet. No one has discovered this restaurant with the exception of several well-disposed Michelin inspectors. Their signature dish of the moment is a beef topped with a goose liver sauce you will never forget.
Q – In the mid-eighties, I spent a semester in Barcelona, studying Spanish and a bit of Architecture. Now, my wife and I, she has never been to Spain, are heading for Barcelona to begin a 12-Day Cruise on Oceania. Because of work, there is just the one day in Barcelona and I am intent to sit with her at one of those wonderful cafes where she can experience the warm churros and Chocolate a la taza. This is just something we need to do. Is there a place you can recommend not far off the tourist route?
A – You might try Granja M. Viader which is on a small street, Carrer d’en Xucia next to the famed La Boqueria market. The Ramblas is right there. This is the perfect place to sample an authentic Spanish mid-morning snack, a habit not yet exported.
Q – Do you think it is practical, to plan a trip to Mexico City that would allow us to take in some of the best local food spots and markets in about a week? My husband just lives for authentic Mexican food but we live just outside of Birmingham and we’re not about to get too adventurous. I wonder how you set something like this up using really good, safe hotels, flights, and tours. I am looking for a foodie tour in depth. My husband made me fly with him to Chicago just to eat at Rick Bayles’ Frontera Grill. We loved it!
A – Our inclination would be to set up the air, hotels, transfers (important in Mexico City) through a local travel agent you trust. Then work on the food tours yourselves contacting companies such as “Mexico Soul and Essence Tours” or “Eat Mexico Culinary Tours.” Urban Adventures is another reputable company. Some of these are companies do walking tours, other use public transportation (really fun), while others do in-home cooking lessons combined with visits to local markets. With these three contacts, you and your husband should be able to construct your own itinerary.
If, on the other hand, you want to have a truly upscale, fully escorted, culinary adventure planned out over a week by experts, have someone put you in touch with Zachary Rabinor at Mexican Journeys.
Q – I think it is fair to say that you have no bigger fans of this site but, sadly, we find little help from you in planning our upcoming cruise with our 8 and 11 year-old boys. I know, for example, that Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are supposed to have the best kids programs at sea but couldn’t find any information about them on your site. Why is this? Just curious and is there anything you can offer that would be helpful about the new Norwegian Getaway? Understand that you write for the upscale traveler but when this family cruise is all over, I think we will have spent close to $10,000 on a one week vacation. This is not a typical blog attack, just an honest question as to why these lines are not covered?
A – And we take it as such. No harm – no foul. We neither sell or recommend ships that carry more than 1,000 passengers. We believe that megaships, with their institutional food, long lines, and constant haranguing of guests to spend more money, are not consistent with a sophisticated, carefully crafted vacation experience. Almost any travel agent is familiar with and can sell the megaships. You are correct, our niche is the upscale traveler. One reason for that is that there are numerous cruise blogs and so-called information sites that plug special deals and discounts on the megaships (almost all of those offers are phony since agents must adhere to price guidelines set by the cruise line) We felt that no one was really providing truthful travel information to more upscale travelers in an online setting coupled with one-on-one professional counseling by award-winning luxury consultants. Hope this makes sense. We don’t include the megaships in our Top Ten Ratings because they are nowhere near the Top Ten when it comes to overall quality and delivery of services.
We like the Getaway for you. Younger kids particularly are drawn to Norwegians partnership with Nickelodeon, the ship has a terrific Aqua Park, kids can learn circus skills from Cirque du Jour and then perform in a show of their own design. They will love it. The same can be true of Royal Caribbean and its incredible menu of kids activities. But the bottom line on kids programs at sea is that no one does it quite as well as Disney. They are totally dedicated to families, where the other mega-ship lines have family components to their programs. When it comes to traveling with kids under the age of sixteen, we recommend you look at Disney first. Really hope this is helpful and thanks so much for your comments.
Q – I thought I would see if traveltruth.com is going to give us the same blank stare we get when we ask a travel agent about cruising West Africa. I mean, Africa is a fairly large continent and, near as I can tell, it has both an East and a West Coast. We would for a nice cruise, particularly on an itinerary that includes Ghana, the land of our ancestors. Is there any decent ship that goes there and are there reasons that you would advise not going at all? I am a historian and my husband is a physician. We have never been to Africa before and we want to do it before children come along. We’re in our late thirties and early forties.
A – West Africa is high on our Bucket List so we are definitely not going to suggest you not go. You are smart enough to know that you will encounter depressing levels of poverty, some health risks in terms of prevalent viruses, and some governments for which the term “unstable” is a gross understatement.
That said, prepared to be amazed and enthralled. The trip you want to do is the 18-Night Voyage to West Africa itinerary from Accra to Casablanca on March 23rd next year, This rather epic sailing aboard the 148-Guest National Geographic Explorer is operated by the world-renowned expedition cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad features some of the best on-board lecturers in the industry and you will not be disappointed in either the boat or the intelligent approach to learning about local cultures. The nine country itinerary includes Senegal. the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Morocco.
You will be among the youngest aboard but this rare itinerary (let’s face it – this is a tough sell for any cruise line), will attract hardy travelers who practice the kind of experiential journeys favored by Lindblad.
Q – I am a pediatrician here in Dallas and an avid reader of this space. Next summer (2015) Patti and I want to take our three children on a real quality cruise up to Alaska that might have children’s programs. I would love to know the best line to do this with and how I should book it since there are five of us (12, 14, 17). I keep getting recommendations from local agents for Princess and Holland America but I know they are not in your Top Ten and we can afford something more inclusive with better food and services, as well as fewer people. Any options that could work well to please every member of our family. Stares from old biddies cause we brought three young-uns with us won’t bother us a bit. (anticipating your response)
A – Well you’ve likely made the best itinerary choice. We would recommend the Crystal Serenity as your best option. They will be doing 7-night Alaska cruises beginning June 19th and then will end the season with several 10-night cruises ending August 6th. Crystal, not known as a line that loves the kiddies, has actually forged an excellent alliance with the National Park Service Ranger service. The trick is to make certain that your consultant verifies there are enough kids booked to operated the program. Crystal won’t offer it if the “biddies” are the only ones onboard.
You will likely need to book a double and adjacent triple. Given the daily temperatures, we don’t feel that a balcony is critical in Alaska. Your wife should be booked with two children in the triple. Once aboard, you can actually sleep with your wife. But the ship’s log must show an adult in each stateroom. This will work well and there’s a good chance everyone will love being aboard the Serenity. The staff will make the kids feel really special because they see so few of them.
Q - I am going to need to be in Singapore in February on business and I am thinking about bringing along my wife for a week of seeing and exploring the city. Some of what I am seeing online makes me feel that this might not be worth five nights or so and the hotels all seem to be city-centered with a business feel. (I will be staying at the Fullerton for the meeting). I won’t get to see much of the place during our meetings. We’re in our mid-fifties and friends would describe us as “foodies”. How do I turn this into a really nice getaway for my wife?
A – Your concerns are valid. Singapore can seem sterile and built for business. But we definitely think you can pull this off. Book yourselves into the Singapore Resort & Spa Sentosa. Sentosa Island has the feel of a tropical paradise yet is only 20 minutes from downtown. There are many great restaurants on the island and they have local food stalls that match what you would find in the center of the city. Singapore is, in our judgement, one of the top three food cities in the world (Tokyo and Paris being tops). Staying at a 27-acre resort with easy access tot he city seems to be the right compromise given your goals.
Q – Our travel agent has set us up with a cruise on the Viking River Line, which I understand is the Cadillac of river cruises. We’re scheduled to leave on June 12th next year but I’ve heard from friends that the rivers sometimes flood preventing a full sailing on the river with days made up by doing a bus tour. This is something my wife and I would not enjoy. In fact I would be furious. My TA says river cruising is extremely popular and I should be more positive. What do you say?
A - We are not particularly pleased with the manner in which river boat lines, in general, have handled this question of water levels and their effect on itineraries. This topic has not been tackled with candor and you are right to be concerned. Just this past week, one company, Viking River, had twelve sailings that were effected by water levels. Guests had to do partial bus tours or switch from one Viking ship to another mid-trip. Last year, dozens of itineraries on all of the major lines were affected and there are hundreds of angry guests who feel they were not given adequate notice or compensation for their troubles.
The problem has to do with both high water, caused by melting snow from the Alps and other mountain ranges, and the low waters in July and August caused by summer draught. In the former, river boats may not be able to fit under bridges. In the latter, river boats may lack a sufficient draft to navigate the waters.
We believe that the need to adjust itineraries, change ships, and alter schedules, happens more often than the public perception. Each company covers itself in the fine print and they have an absolute right, due to weather conditions, to make changes in the name of safety. But we have noticed major differences in the manner in which each company handles these matters, particularly as pertains to guest compensation or options to cancel. Many guests on river boats last year complained online and elsewhere that they were not informed that their boat would not be operating the full itinerary until they landed in Europe.
For additional reporting on this issue – see our companion site www.riverboatratings.com
Q – As we approach the magic day – two weeks from now, retirement will mean that we will be going out to see much of the same world we have been avoiding for the past six decades. We don’t want to see it all – no interest in seeing the Congo or hiking the Himalayas, but we do want o see those places on most everyone’s bucket list. Time and money are factors so we will need to pare it down a bit, which is why we are wondering of there is a list of the world’s most overrated places?
B – That could be a long list. It would also be entirely subjective, heavily influenced by the travel writer’s frame of mind at the time. Leon Logothetis, whose name you might recognize from his work on the Discovery Travel, wrote a piece for the LA Times in which he named his Top Five Most Overrated Destinations. We do not agree with all of his assessments, but we thought you might find his list of interest:
# 5 – ATHENS – Rudeness and a disdain for serving others, particularly Americans. Many of the buildings are unfinished and taxis are sometimes impossible to find. Best to see the Acropolis and leave as soon as you can.
# 4 - DUBAI – astonishing “super-city” sites, the splashiest malls you’ve ever seen, a parade of Mercedes, Bentley’s, and Jaguars and an almost constant demonstration of gold and oil-based wealth. You will be comfortable here. But to understand the Middle East, you can’t be coddled and that is exactly what Dubai does best.
# 3 – PRAGUE – Lots of tourists and surly locals who seem not to want to interact with westerners. The beauty of the city is tainted by the sullenness of the people.
# 2 – MOSCOW -An amazing city that can be vibrant if you are in the company of younger residents like university students. But most tourists pay some of the steepest prices on earth for service levels that are not on a par with international standards of luxury. You have to keep your eyes and your wallet wide open in Moscow.
# 1 – PARIS - (And may we say we are not in agreement with this particular rating) Logothetis faults Paris for the same things that writers have been saying about the city for decades. The Parisians are completely tired of unfashionable tourists, particularly the ill-clothed tourists from the English-speaking world who don’t quite understand why it might be useful to be tri-lingual. At least Paris is, once again, # 1 on a travel list.
Q – My wife and I read travel blogs for fun and we think your sis one of the best. But I’ve been told by two different cruise lines reservations departments that you are not telling the truth when you claim that booking directly with a cruise line is a rip-off. The two lines I spoke to claim that their computers assure the lowest price, something a travel agent can’t do. Are they right?
A – No, you are being fed a sales pitch by a commission-based reservations clerk. If a cruise line offered better pricing to those who call directly, no reputable travel agency would ever sell that line. It just never happens. Most of the top cruise consultants in the nation are completely up-to-date on the best pricing initiatives because they appear in their computer system or in e-mailings from the line. The rip-off is that cruise lines charge you the travel agent commission even when you are not using an agent. They never return it to the consumer, so you are paying for all sorts of services you never receive when you book directly.
When you book directly, the commission salesmen at the cruise line call centers cannot offer you the amenity packages offered by members of the major consortiums. So, in effect, you are paying more for your cruise by booking directly. Cruise line reservations cannot VIP you or make you eligible for special VIP Documentation. Only a professional cruise consultant can do that. Upgrades are more likely available when you are dealing with a consultant with true clout and millions of dollars in past bookings with the lines. When things go south, you really need someone in your corner.
The cubicle dwelling commissioned sales agent at the cruise line cannot help you with pre and post cruise arrangements, which 75% of all cruise guests require. They can only sell their own, usually cost-inflated program. They do not have contacts in the various ports that will help define your vacation.
Cruise line reservations can only offer their own contracted flights and air prices. You are just a group name in a computer system. No one at the line will review your private flight arrangements, only a travel consultant would do that.
Cruise line reservation staff can only recommend and sell the cruise lines party insurance, something we would never recommend you purchase.
And you can have all of the above at zero cost because it is already included in the cruise fare.
We can go on – but we won’t. You decide who is lying.
Q – We will be doing a driving trip from coast to coast later this summer. We’re in our mid-sixties, relatively well-traveled, but we’ve not done a driving vacation in the United States. Our biggest concern is all those meals we will have in strange places and we want to stay healthy. How would you suggest we prepare, research, etc? You could say we are E-coli super-conscious. Which restaurants in these small towns and cities are likely to have kitchens that won’t kill us.
A – There actually is some research in this area. The first thing to point out is that there is not any medical research to back up the fact that urban dwellers with sophisticated palates live longer than their rural cousins. But you could make a case for obesity and less access to the best medical care influences rural lifespan statistics in some major ways.
As far as E-Coli strains, and there are many, we must point out that fast food chains tend to have the healthiest kitchens. Most of their food arrives frozen and there is very little food handling. This is what we want to emphasize to you in the hope that the information is widely disseminated. The best known fast food chains have expensive equipment that sets off alarms or shuts down when the cooking process is shortened. Undercooked meat and poultry is the major cause of gastrointestinal viruses and food poisoning in travelers. It is virtually impossible to find anything undercooked under the golden arches.
White tablecloth restaurants with a strong local following will usually have a chef who has studied health and hygiene at a recognized culinary school. They take careful steps, though not as careful as the Burger Kings, KFC’s, and Taco Bells of the world.
Your biggest risk is eating at local diners and lower-priced local dining outlets that employ staff that has not been trained in proper food preparation.
The last huge beef recall occurred in April of this year. It involved 1.8 million pounds of beef sold in ten states including Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But as the laws now read, the FDA did not have to reveal to consumers exactly what kind of restaurant was getting shipments from Detroit’s Wolverine Packing company. The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does not have to advise consumers that the meat, in this case used in Angus Steak burgers as well as ground beef patties, was shipped to specific restaurants. As you were driving around the country, trying to choose a place to stop for lunch, you would have no way of knowing where you could safely stop for something to eat.
Finally, we advise our clients and our readers to exercise caution when ordering salads on the road. All but the highest category of restaurants depends on bagged salads that have, in the recent past, shown a higher-than-normal propensity to carry food-borne parasites and bacteria.
Q – We are off to Normandy this August with our 19-year-old son who is, of all things, fascinated by Impressionist art. We will tour the battlefields, but the main purpose would be to enroll him in some painting classes where they stress the Impressionist school techniques. Where would you suggest we stay to use as a base? We’re not on a tight budget and we also want to pick the best guide off the internet. How do we do this?
A – You will want to stay at Le Ferme Saint Simeon, a small hotel that was loved by many of the better-known Impressionist painters. Try, if at all possible, to book room # 22, where Monet spend some time. The hotel manager will be able to set your son up for classes in the painting studio. The hotel is owned by the Boelen family.
Do not try to choose Normandy guides off the internet. Many Normandy guides are sub-par. The best are former US military officers with personal knowledge of the region and an understanding of the real role played by this World War Two beachhead. Select an agent who has actual on-site offices in France that are in direct contact with the best guides.
Q – We have strong environmental interests both professionally and privately. We are rather interested in going to Costa Rica to see and enjoy some of the best most eco-friendly resorts and off-the-beaten path experiences. We want to be in the hands of people who will get what we’re about and who won’t be intimidated by our academic credentials. How should we approach doing this? We’re loyal to our travel; agent but she just doesn’t seem to be very up on this kind of thing.
A – Have your agent contact a company called Greenspot, run by Richard and Irene Edwards. They will coordi8nate through your agent and you will be in the best possible hands when you arrive. They devote themselves entirely to sustainable travel in meaningful ways.
Q – We are going to be in Paris later this summer. Our dream is to dine at Guy Savoy’s Restaurant. We tried online but that doesn’t seem to work. I hope this is not an inappropriate question, but is there any secret way to get into a restaurant of that caliber when traveling overseas? All the regular channels just never seem to work.
A – Many tourists make the mistake of trying top contact the chef/owner of a Three-star Michelin restaurant. In fact, every restaurant has a Manager of the Front-of-the-House operations which always includes reservations. In the States, that person is called the General Manager or the Director of Operations. In France, that person is, almost always, the Maitre d’Hotel. At Guy Savoy’s in Paris try contacting Hubert Schwermer, who holds this post. Don’t beg, but point out why the reservation means so much to both of you. There is a second tactic used by sophisticated travelers. Many of our clients will ask us to book them into the “best connected” hotel in a city. This will give you access to the hotel’s Concierge who, very likely, has a personal relationship with some of the city’s leading dining establishments. As the Foodie movement spreads and the Food Network ratings keep climbing, one side effect is that the number of guests seeking reservations at the world’s best restaurants has increased dramatically in the past five years.
Q – My wife and I have planned a trip that includes a number of days in Bangkok through one of the better tour companies in that part of the world. We worked with Pacific Delight directly. We’re under deposit for a trip in August. It may be hot but we’re both school teachers so we have to be back in late August. We’re under deposit and we are starting to get cold feet. Pacific Delight is saying we shouldn’t cancel. Please tell us what you recommend.
A – Well, first
The Thai army declared a military coup on the afternoon of 22 May. The caretaker government has been suspended and leaders of both pro- and anti-government groups have been detained. Military leader General Prayuth claims that the coup is “in order for the country to return to normality quickly, and for society to love and be at peace again”.
Although daily life in the country is largely unaffected, there are some measures that will affect visitors. There is a 10pm curfew in place and reports indicate that this is being strictly enforced, with unwitting tourists being sent back to their hotels after 10pm and local residents being fined or even detained for breaking the curfew.Moving around Bangkok is also an issue, with the BTS and MRT transit systems shutting down at 9pm, and the roads busy as people try to get home before the curfew. Otherwise, the country remains safe for tourists, although these are still early days and we have yet to see what response the various protest groups will make to the new military rule.
We do not think US travelers should be traveling to Bangkok at this time. You need to transfer your booking into the hands of a capable travel agent who can monitor the situation on the ground with updates, such as the one above, from offices with whom they share a working relationship through their consortium membership. You need to have the best available cancellation insurance. Take what the State Department tells you about Thailand with a grain of salt. You will get more accurate information from the Australian and British government travel sites.
Pacific Delight is a respected moderately priced tour operator. But you are paying the agent commission and since you’ve paid it, you ought to use an agent’s services. Interview several agents locally so you can meet face-to-face to transfer the booking.
We have real concerns about the military coup in Thailand. We think things will be clarified and perhaps peaceful by the time you are ready to depart. But you need to assume they may not be.
Finally, re-consider the entire trip. You ought to be visiting Thailand over the Christmas break. August is hot and humid to the extent that it will negatively impact your ability to enjoy this wonderful country.
Q – In late September we’ve booked a great itinerary on the Seabourn Spirit round-trip out of Venice for ten days. The cruise will visit ports in Greece and Croatia that we really want to see but it overnights at the end in Venice. The problem is we’ve been there twice before, once with a wonderful guide named Anna Ferrari. I wonder if you know her? Our question is, given that we feel we’ve seen Venice, is there anyplace nearby, something charming, that might have fewer tourists and would make a great day trip?
A – We don’t know Ms. Ferrari, although we suspect it is an assumed name. Many guides end their touring day making their guests feel like they have become fast friends. Some tourists will try to contact them at home, so some guides use, easy-to-remember, assumed names. If Venetian tour-guide Anna Ferrari exists, we can’t find her.
One of our favorite places to escape the predictable crowds in Venice is a fishing port called Chioggia, on a very small island on the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. There is a wonderful pedestrian street, Corso del Popolo, that runs through the center of town with some interesting small shops, cafes, and restaurants. If you stay overnight, you will love walking this street in the early evening as the locals enjoy their passeggiata. There are Adriatic beaches not far away in the Sottomarina district.
There is a boat service from St. Mark’s Square to Chioggia that runs from June through September, but it will not be operating in October when you arrive in Venice at the end of your cruise. Your best bet will be to use one of the direct buses that operate out of Venice. The rail trip involves several changes and will take two hours.