Q – Just back from a two-week jaunt around the British Isles. We stayed mostly at the better-known chain hotels but we also found some charming three-star places. I thought they were fine but my wife said she felt “itchy” during our last night in Edinburgh and wanted me to ask how we can tell if the hotel washes the sheets and the covers after each guest stay. I’m sure other people who use this site would like to know about hotel policies on changing the linen after each guest stay. The alternative is just too nasty to contemplate.
A – Well you better contemplate it. Hotel cleanliness and night security are two of the issues that are never addressed in hotel or online hotel sales ads. Here are some generalizations and facts that will help you understand how hotel bedding changes are handled by hotels:
Q – My wife and I really appreciate your approach and so we come to you with a question that’s been on our minds for months. You could say we are frequent world travelers. As COO of a large company based in Boston, I travel overseas an average of two times per month. We take three weeks of vacation every year, always enjoying top grade accommodations and services. I am a seeker of high-end services, hate skimping, but the accountant in me demands that I ask “How exactly do you get the best pricing on a top-end hotel room or suite? What is the secret? Is it online, web site, calling direct etc?
A – The goal of this game is make the consumer feel that he//she has the best rate whenever and wherever they book. In fact, any price that you receive online or from a travel agent is likely to be high because any advertised or available onside pricing is, essentially, being offered to the general public. Hotels do not want their rooms sold online so they routinely require high cancellation policies and assign online bookers some of the worst rooms in their inventory. Hotels want you to book with them directly but they have to offer the same pricing to anyone who contacts them. They cannot offer pricing that will alienate their regular guests.
The bottom line is that anytime anyone quotes you a hotel price, online or offline, you can be pretty certain you are not getting the best price. The best hotel prices are secret, they are never shown to the guest. These room prices are called “Contracted Rates” and tour operators in the country where you hotel is located have negotiated special pricing available through the tour operator or wholesaler. So when you visit Spain and you have arranged a complete itinerary using a Spain-based tour operator, through your travel consultant, you will receive your itinerary with the hotels and it will all have one price. The confidential rates, lower than what you could ever find elsewhere, are incorporated into the itinerary. In that way the hotel fills lots of rooms at the lowest possible price without upsetting the majority of guests who did not book through an in-country wholesaler and, consequently, paid more for their room.
Sorry for the long explanation, but your question required it. Bottom Line: If you actually know the price of your room and have seen it in writing, you are likely paying more than you should.
Q – My wife and I have been following traveltruth for the past eight years. And we always thought we could take anything you said to the bank. But this last story about flying monkeys, horses, and pigs is stretching our credulity. I just can’t believe that any airline is going to let any of these animals into the passenger compartment of an aircraft. And I say this as a certified private pilot. Please retract the story as it demeans the trust we’ve placed in the information that appears here. I’ll grant you this – it’s a good story.
A – Actually, we were being entirely serious and stand by our story. In fact, the photo that accompanies the piece shows a women with a rather hefty pig who was boarded by US Airways at Bradley Field in Connecticut. The pig made a rather huge mess in the aisle soon after boarding and the flight attendants requested that the owner clean the floor before they continued boarding. That resulted in the woman, with her pig, departing the plane. We can’t make this stuff up.
New Department of Transportation regulations instruct airlines to accommodate pre-approved animals that provide “emotional support” to be boarded in the passenger compartment following recommended guidelines.
Q – We will be leaving for London next week flying on United, with a United connecting flight to Lisbon. We just noticed we have four and a half hours between flights. Any suggestions as to where we should eat or shop in the Terminal would be appreciated.
A – You need to get specifics from your travel agent. Our guess is that you are flying British Airways from Heathrow to Lisbon on a code-share with United. That means that BA will actually fly the plane. United flights usually arrive at Terminal 2. We would recommend the new Perfe3ctionists Café which is headed up by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. (Don’t expect to see him in the kitchen. Most celebrity chefs with outposts at an airport limit their appearances to the departure gate)
For shopping we would recommend the new John Lewis store and the boutiques belonging to Cath Kidston and Ted Baker. There are often delays coming into Heathrow. Believe us, the time will pass quickly.
Q – My wife and I have just spent several hours on the phone trying to actually book seats using miles, miles we’ve earned by being loyal customers. I used to fly for my work so I am in a position to see how the damn airlines have cut and cut the seats they allocate to mileage customers. I’ve about had it. I want to find one or two airlines that still have some portion, some molecule of customer service in their DNA. Is there any way to know which airlines we should fly because they still have some integrity in their frequent flyer program.
A – Airlines have integrity. What they don’t have, however, are policies that reflect a proper appreciation of their best customers. Consumer Reports, one of the organizations whose journalistic standards we greatly respect, tried using frequent flyer miles to book seats on the five most popular US routes. They tested nine major airlines over a period of several months. They found major differences between the carriers.
Delta claims it offers more Frequent Flyer seats in its ads. In fact, the Consumer Reports testing indicates that claim is accurate. Southwest was in second place.
The airlines requiring the most miles with the highest fees were Spirit Airlines and US Airways.
Additional advice from Consumer Reports: Book your mileage seats as early as you can. If you can’t find what you want by going online or by speaking with an airlines reservations agent, contact the “Frequent-Flyer Service Desk”. Every major airline has one.
Q – Do you happen to know which country has the most travelers, meaning residents who travel abroad. The question came up over dinner last night and the answers ranged from the United States, France, and England. Also wondering why you no lo longer answer questions about restaurants. We used to find that part of traveltruth really interesting.
A – In the case of England and France, those are good guesses if you are considering the percentage of citizens who leave the country each year on vacation. Given that only 29% of Americans have a passport, we’re near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of overseas travel. The answer is that China now sends more citizens abroad than any other nation. Bloomberg BusinessWeek estimates that a staggering 116 million Chinese tourists will travel abroad this year and they will spend upwards of $155 billion.
Perhaps most amazing is the fact that this represents a one year growth rate of 20% among Chinese who leave the country for vacation, making the Chinese the most significant tourism market on earth.
There has been no deliberate attempt to devote less coverage to worldwide restaurant recommendations. We respond to questions asked of us. We think that some of the better consumer travel magazines such as AFAR, Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler are doing a much better job of late featuring hot, new restaurants within their area of coverage. Some of the best restaurant advice can be curated from the blogs of the better Concierge teams at top-rated hotels.
Q - After only a decade of talking about it, my procrastinating husband has finally agreed to take me on a crossing to or from Europe next year. Wait until he finds out he won’t be able to get ESPN on the ship. We want the best itinerary and ship and we’d love to have as many ports as possible. The world’s champion Pitt fan is retired now, so we can go anytime and we figure we can be away for about two weeks. Is there one particular sailing you would recommend?
A – Our favorite crossing in 2015 is going to be aboard the Crystal Symphony on August 30th from Amsterdam to New York City. This is before the Atlantic hurricane season on a five-star inclusive ship that can handle rough seas well. The 13-Night itinerary includes stops in Edinburgh (overnight), the Shetland Islands, the Farce Islands (Denmark), an overnight in wonderful Reykjavik, Iceland, and Nova Scotia. You can get an outside stateroom at heavily discounted pricing below $5,000 per person.
Q – We were directed to your site by another site. Looking for a ship or a company that supposedly will take you to Antarctica on an actual sailing boat. We can’t seem to find any information on this program and wondering if you could point us in the right direction. My wife and I are in our early fifties, we’re sailors, and we always select the most adventurous way to see a place. I think that doing Drake’s Passage on a sailboat would be just awesome.
A - This is a wild one but it does exist. Have your travel agent contact Natural Habitat Adventures. They have been using the 75-foot Australis, a true sailing vessel that is equipped for polar ice. The 17-Day trip normally goes out with eight passengers from Ushuaia down the Beagle Channel, along the coast of Argentina and then across the Drake Passage to the coast of Antarctica. There will be an on-board biologist and, if weather cooperates, you will be camping on absolutely deserted beaches. They charged $22,995 per person the last time they operated this voyage and that was not for the top accommodation. This is easily a $50,000 + adventure.
Q – We’ve got a situation where I have over a million miles on United and I will lose some of them if I don’t use them. My wife and I are sushi-lovers so we thought we’d do a fast round-trip from LAX for about a week of doing for lunch and dinner. We hope to take an advanced Sushi course so we have a real appreciation of this kind of dining when we return to Santa Monica. You seem tuned in to the best restaurants. What restaurants should we definitely include?
A – Ryugin is terrific and quite a modern take on classic sushi. Sukiyabashi Jiro is an incredible spot in the Ginza district made famous by the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” and we think you should include Sushi Nakamara, considered by many experts to be the best in the city even though it is nearly impossible to find with zero signage.
Q – We’ve been covering your site for some time and readily subscribe to most of your views. But you have been extremely cautious about even mentioning Ebola even though you must know it is on everyone’s mind. The reaction of our hospitals and our government’s confusion about how to protect us at home, must have an influence on Americans traveling abroad. Why haven’t you addressed this? Afraid people won’t travel if you do?
A – Actually, if you truly follow traveltruth you will note that our position has generally been that one should not travel if concerns about your vacation are serious enough to detract from your enjoyment of the trip. The travel industry, to date, reports very few cancellations by Americans traveling abroad. Travel from the US mainland to the west coast of Africa has not been very significant in the best of times.
Much of the news, and we think you might find better sources for your news than this travel site, concerns Americans paranoia regarding Ebola’s arrival in the US and the closing of our borders. One fact we think is worth noting: To date, more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from Ebola. In fact, three times as many.
Q – What a neat site. It’s like talking with a friend, perhaps a friend in the business. We’ve done some nice cruising but we’ve left our 17 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son back home with relatives. We are looking at a Seabourn European cruise to Greece next summer and wondering if we should bring the kids. Is there anything to do aboard the ship, particularly the Quest.
A – Thank you. You make our hearts soar like that of an eagle. We are less worried about the kids than we are about you and Dad. How will you feel when a bunch of rich, retirees, stare at the kids as though aliens have suddenly appeared in the dining room? If your kids are polite and well-behaved, there will be few issues. You are going to be off the ship pretty much all day. If you are traveling in the summer, there could conceivably be other aliens aboard the Quest.
If the kids are willing to dress properly, and if they would enjoy using the water sports marina at the back of the ship, it could be a win-win. But there will be stares. Some grumpy folks go on cruises choosing lines like Seabourn specifically because they offer no kids programs and cater to adults.
It is hard to be more specific without knowing your children well.
Q - If I might put forward a question: when staying in a hotel arranged by the tour operator as part of the itinerary, are personal gratuities to hotel staff employees redundant? We realize that one can never give too much & have been generous, but remain uncertain as to proper & expected protocol. This isn’t a topic addressed by the tour operators themselves.
A – This tour tipping confusion is really quite common and we are very grateful you asked about it. Many tips are not included on upper-end tour programs as really exclusive travel firms like to discuss the fact that “tipping is a truly personal …..” Well that’s nice, but the real point is that the last thing a tour operator wishes to do is tell you about additional fees that are not included.
Tour companies vary in their policies. In terms of hotels, we would recommend that you assume that baggage handling, meaning tips to valet staff that bring bags to your room, is included. All other hotel services are generally not included in the tour price so tipping is advised. Your travel professional should give you a list of recommended tips. This information should be included in your documents. Pay little attention to what the tour operator materials say. Have your personal consultant brief you.
As we’ve mentioned on traveltruth elsewhere, the people who are most overlooked by Americans are those who need your tips the most – the hotel maids who clean the rooms including, ugghh, the TV remotes and the bathroom. An envelope with a note of thanks and a $5 to $10 per night tip in local currency is doing the right thing “traveltruth style”. You will likely be supporting a family that really needs help.
Q – We are booked on a tour that will concentrate on the history of Persia (Iran). Yesterday, my local newspaper announced that several women have been attached by having acid thrown in their face for not dressing in the proper Islamic fundamentalist manner. The trip is in three weeks and we are seriously thinking of cancelling. What does your staff think we should do? Appreciate any help with this.
A – Clearly travel to Iran has its inherent risks. Eight women were harmed in the acid attacks, 1 of them died and several were blinded. They were all in or driving cars and had stopped to make a phone call or drop a friend off and two men came by on a motorcycle and threw the acid.
If it was us, we would still go… but we would stay with the group and keep our wits about us. The risk in and around hotels which cater to westerners and tourist sites are not being targeted. They will be traveling by bus, so the MO of the attackers would not be possible – plus authorities believe they have the assailants in custody.
The US and Australia have not posted travel warnings other than to say stay away from the borders with Afghanistan and Iraq. The UK’s language is stronger, but refers more to UK nationals being arrested in Iran for political reasons.
Likely, these resent attacks are the result of a new piece of legislation coming down on morality police/militias as the new regime tries to move in a more secular direction.
But please note our fundamental (oops sorry – perhaps the wrong term) feeling that if you are truly fearful about a trip you should cancel it immediately. A vacation ought to be something you look forward to, not a game of Survivor.
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.