Q – Now that the Iranians have promised not to build nukes and the Syrians are dismantling their nerve gas depots, it is time for a family cruise to Israel we’ve been putting off for close to 20 years. We’re not worried, if you’re not worried, about taking our teens, 15 and 17, to Israel on a cruise this summer. Before we start our search, please tell us what we should be looking for in terms of ports in Israel. It appears there are several places a ship can stop and we want to see as much as possible.
So first, would you bring your children to Israel right now and what port is the best for a family that wants the best bang for the buck?
A - Actually, you might want to consider taking your kids to Israel and leaving them there for a few years. They will find an absolutely lovely country carved out of the desert, with history, great schools, a serious culinary environment, and a people dedicated to squeezing every moment out of each sun-drenched day. Of course you should go – you should not have waited this long. Travel in Israel is far safer than in many areas of the US and the Israelis are better drivers. As driving accidents are the most serious danger in virtually any country you visit, the statistics on Israel are quite good. By the way, Tel Aviv, is a hip, beautiful city, with an incredible night life that attracts travelers from all over the world.
There really are two major ports in Israel. Ashdod is on the West Coast, in the middle of the country within driving distance of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea on the eastern border. Tel Aviv is north of the port, along the coast.
The second port in Israel is Haifa which is in the northern portion of the west coast. The Golan Heights are due east on the other coast. Haifa is an easy ride to Nazareth.
The bottom line is that Ashdod is the preferred port.
Q – We are really excited to be going on one of the first scheduled tours to Cuba. We just signed up but we had two immediate questions. Will our iPhone work in Cuba and what do we do with our Passport? Will we be carrying it with us?
A – You will be able to use your iPhone and you will not need a converter. Service people in the hotel or even in restaurants will be able to charge the hone for you, if necessary, Carry at least one full copy of the picture pages of your passport with you, including photos copies stored on your phone. You will leave your passport in the hotel safe. All Cuba “People to People” Tour Operators provide full documentation as your departure approaches. No worries. Just expect a more-or-less regimented tour experience led by a “true believer.” One important cultural note: Duck Dynasty is now quite popular in Cuba, and if you get cable in your hotel, highly likely, you will be able to watch Uncle Si dubbed in Spanish.
Q - We are going to be attending a conference in London next month and we’re trying to figure out whether we should be booking our air on American or United out of Chicago. The seating in Business Class is really important to us and we are wondering which of these has beds that will allow us to stretch out? It looks like we will be flying a 777 on United or a 767 on American. Are the beds all the same?
A – We were in a great mood here until you asked about airline seating. It is a rather upsetting topic because they are definitely not the same. There are no industry rules or even “norms”. Airlines buy a “shell aircraft” and then customize it with seating that meets their needs. Financial needs almost always come ahead of aesthetic needs. When flying, you can analyze exactly what your seating options are going to be. We keep a book on our desks that we constantly update with seating stats on every aircraft operated by every one of the world’s important airlines. It is currently 47 pages.
The American 767-300 offers a seat width of only 18.5 inches. We would expect that in coach – not Business Class. The aircraft does not have lie flat beds. American has equipped this aircraft with Angle Lie Flat beds. That is a big difference. On any flight over five hours, we think you should look for true, 360 degree horizontal, lie-flat seats. Frequent travelers report that angled beds that do not allow them to lie flat, as you would at home, are far less desirable than true “Lie flats”. Airline marketing lingo tries to confuse the consumer as each seat has “Lie Flat” in its nomenclature. The question you need to ask is “true lie flat or angled lie flat seat?”
The United 777 200 Series will give you true Lie-flat beds plus 20 inches of seat width. But beware, one version of the United 777, the V3 model, has Recliner Seats in Business and doesn’t even have beds. On your routing, however, you will have better seating on United in Business Class.
One caveat. If you are flying American overseas on a 777-300 ER Series aircraft, you will have true Lie-flat seats as well as 26 inches of seat width, clearly preferable to United’s configuration. So it all boils down to the exact type of aircraft you are flying.
One more – final caveat. Our experience tells us that airline reservation agents are not always a good source of accurate information about seating details. Do not try to get comparative seating statistics directly from the airlines.
Q – Our family of five is booked on a Crystal Cruise to New England and Canada in top suites in Mid-October. We booked this cruise largely based on the traveltruth ratings, the most honest we’ve found. But given our substantial investment for two doubles and a single all upper decks, I am concerned about my lack of ability to cancel close in should a hurricane be forecast. Two questions – how likely is this possibility during mid-October and how do I best protect my investment?
A – Long-term weather prognostication is a dying art. There are just too many exceptions to the old weather rules since we’ve started to see the effects of major weather pattern changes (our conspiracy nutjob readers hate it when we say “global warming”) Theoretically you should be safe cruising the coast of the Atlantic in Mid-October. But storms are possible. You can protect your investment by taking out one of the “cancel for any reason” riders offered through your consultant from Travelex or TravelGuard, two of the better travel insurers.
Q – My boyfriend and I are professionals in the fashion industry in New York and we are in dire need of a Caribbean getaway sometime in December, perhaps over the Holidays. We like hip resorts with progressive food and rooms with modern design touches. We also have rather high expectations about service, a rare commodity, from what we understand, on the islands. I’m a Vegan, if that makes any difference. We’d be bringing along some work, but mostly, this is a vacation for soaking up the sun and relaxing with a little Buddha music in the background. Any suggestions?
A – First, do this so you are home by the 18th of December. You will save a great deal of money, more than enough to pay for a second vacation, and you may actually be able to get some seats on an aircraft. The resorts we are recommending are either sold out or close to it for the Holiday period.
We think you should concentrate your search on Parrot Cay or Gransevoort in the Turks & Caicos. Check out Jade Mountain or Ladera on St. Lucia. Finally, you might love the vibe at the Eden Rock on St. Barts. Have your consultant get you the actual hotel inspection reports of each of these properties so you can make an educated decision. And please, be back by the 18th. The “amateurs” start arriving on the islands that afternoon.
They have vegetables in the Caribbean. In fact, Bob Marley used to smoke them. No worries.
Q – My husband and I have just returned from a week in Paris. We were rather amazed at the number of homeless people on the streets. We had been there in 1994 and it was nothing like this. The smell of urine is everywhere and people are just setting up cots on the sidewalks all over the city. You should tell your readers about this as it really impacted our memories of Paris on this trip. You go to Paris for the perfume – not this! Any idea why this is happening?
A – It is a problem, but we still rank Paris as one of the planet’s most beautiful cities. The fact is that homelessness in France has doubled in the past decade, the result of a shrinking economy and an influx of poor immigrants who can’t find work. Our experience is that most of the homeless are in the main tourist areas looking for handouts. Part of the explanation as to why this is more of a problem in Paris than it is, say, in London has to do with cultural attitudes toward begging and homelessness. Under London law, you cannot stay in one place in the street all day and sleep there in a tent etc. It is against the law. There is no criminalization of homelessness in Paris. In fact, studies in Europe have shown that the French are the most tolerant of the down and out because they have this deep-seated feeling that it could, one day, happen to them.
Q – Hi – I have spent some time on your site, and I have to thank you for the effort you put in, and the advice that you provide – it is a great resource. I have seen a couple of comments or recommendations in regards to cruise vacations that I would like you to expand on, if you could.
The first is that for ‘air-fare included’ cruise lines, a client would be better advised take the credit and book their airline tickets directly. Can you really do better than the cruise line (and is the credit they offer really enough to let a client do so?) The second is that a client should deal through a travel agency, rather than booking directly with the cruise line. Why – especially with the “miracle pricing” you have alluded to – isn’t that only available when you deal direct?
A – Thank you for visiting www.traveltruth.com We have been gratified with the response worldwide given that we have never sent out a press release announcing the site. You asked two questions that would require lengthy responses. But for now, we hope this suffices:
01 – The question regarding air is “It Depends”. Every cruise line air department operates differently and each negotiates its air contracts differently. The top lines normally negotiate better fares than are available online. But they may negotiate these fares more than a year in advance of your actual cruise date so they have no way of knowing of their offer will be “average”, “outstanding”, or “terrible”. They can only guess. We’ve seen, for instance, round-trip Business Class airfare offered for $1990 per person. That s a savings of more than $2,000 off the prices we are currently seeing on most European routes. For coach fares, most studies have shown that internet sites are actually higher than the airlines own corporate sites. Air strategy is something you always need to discuss with your consultant. There are a great many variables and every air scenario is totally unique.
02 – There are numerous reasons why you never want to book directly. When you book a cruise directly with the cruise line you are always charged the travel agent commission even though you are not using a travel agent and you are not receiving the services implied in the fee. You receive nothing for it. In fact, you specifically do not receive the consortium benefits offered to member agencies.
Personally, we don’t much care to pay for something we do not receive. In that sense, charging direct booking clients the travel agent commission is, in our view, gross misrepresentation.
As to your point about miracle pricing – no, in our 31 years in this industry, we’ve never seen a price offered to a client by a direct sales heatset at a cruise line that was not available to any professional travel agent. It just never happens. If a line did that, they would likely lose the support of the agency community they depend on.
There are lots of other reasons involving advocacy if there is a problem etc. But let’s leave it at that.
Q – We will shortly be taking our first cruise aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. Do you like and recommend this ship and Celebrity generally? Also, we read on the internet that you are supposed to bring a set of magnets on a cruise but we have no idea why nor does our travel agent. Any advice would be appreciated.
A – You should love it. Have modest expectations as Celebrity, despite its advertising, is not a Five-Star inclusive experience. However, we believe that the Celebrity brand provides the overall best big ship, pay-as-you-go experience currently available. You are going on one of their newest ships with all manner of bells and whistles. Do dine in the additional charge restaurants and you will have some memorable meals as well as service similar to that you would receive on a higher-rated line. For a first cruise, we don’t think your travel agent could have made a better recommendation.
Your question about the magnets made us smile. This is a sort of insider tip known to experienced cruisers. Cruise cabins are most metal, as opposed to being built using cement walls. If you bring some magnets with you, you can stick any invitations you receive up on the walls. Some cruisers feel this is a great way to keep track of their special classes and activities. We prefer our iPad mini.
Q – We are heading to Jamaica for a vacation that will involve a great music festival in Kingston. We’re foodies but know little about dining in Kingston. Any recommendations would be appreciated. Our air fare and hotels are set. Know you will provide trustworthy advice.
A – While Jerk Chicken is everywhere, we would suggest you seek out locally caught fish. The best restaurant in Kingston is Norma’s on the Terrace, a place that will give you a contemporary take on classic seafood preparation.
But we want you to be very careful about your transportation to and from Norma’s or anywhere else you go in Kingston at night. Kingston, Montego Bay, and several other popular tourist destinations ion Jamaica have serious crime problems and they carry a stern State Department Warning. Naïve Americans walking about at night in search of a restaurant or a taxi are potential targets. You can enjoy some wonderful nightlife and some really good Caribbean cuisine, but we’d feel better knowing that you had arranged secure transportation through the Hotel Concierge. For the record, we do not send our clients to Kingston under any circumstances.
Q – Wondering whether one of your editors can tell me who is operating the longest passenger flight these days. For the ultimate getaway, I might be tempted to take it and let that be the degree to which I do itinerary planning. Is there any advantage to using a travel agent once I decide to do the trip?
A - Well right now Singapore Airlines 19-hour flight from Singapore into Newark is the world’s longest flight. But Singapore will be ending non-stop service from the States. The Qantas flight from Dallas to Sydney at 7,454 nautical miles will, for a time, be the world’s longest flight.
But all that changes when Turkish Airlines begins flying from Istanbul to Sydney next year, a distance of 8,076 miles. This flight, when it finally operates, will be a game changer. Turkish Air has said it will be using Boeing 777-300′s for the route.
Q – My husband and I read traveltruth on our iPad in bed. So thanks for that. Despite the time devoted to your excellent site, we have managed to have two kids and we’re all scheduled to do an Azamara Cruise next summer that will spend two days in Barcelona. Our perfectly behaved angels are four and five and they have assured us that they will be ready for this cruise. But I wonder about issues of safety. You have indicated there is a crime issue in some areas of the city and then I’ve been reading about secession from Spain. Are we likely to encounter riots and street actions or am I just being an overprotective mother?
A – Yes, we think you are. Despite the street gatherings and rock throwing in Barcelona and other portions of Catalonia, most protesters demanding independence paused to take a nice lunch. Yes, there is a street crime issue in the city but that pertains to certain ports of the city core at night, like the Barri Gotic. We’ve heard that there are even portions of some cities in America where it is not entirely safe to do the stroll at night.
Absolutely do the trip. But we do think you might experience some serious demonstrations as the independence movement is quite serious and this coming summer will mark the 300th anniversary of the annexation of Catalonia.
Remember what happened in Catalonia this year. To protest the region’s defeat in the 1714 in the War of Spanish Succession, on million residents of Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia formed a human chain that actually stretched from the edge of the region north to the Pyrenees Mountains. That happened in a province of seven a half million residents. It appears that the independence movement is real and is supported by a majority, tired of being the economic engine that is driving much of the Spanish economy. There will be demonstrations but, once again, we think they will pause for lunch.
Q – We are seriously considering joining friends from work on the January 15th sailing of Silverseas from Barbados to South America. We’ve never cruised this line but the combination of the Caribbean and South America intrigues us. Is $5650 a great deal for a window suite? We’ve been working with an agent but were wondering what you might give us if we booked with you?
A – We’d give you directions back to the agent who has put in time trying to assist you. No matter what the ads and the hype might tell you, all of the better cruise consultants receive exactly the same pricing. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t book the lines.
So now that you know we are not going to take you on, let us address your primary question. This is what is known as a “repositioning voyage”. You can expect discounts to be deeper on this kind of “one off” itinerary. Your cruise is coming out at about $460 per person per day on the new Spirit, Silversea’s flagship. Silverseas has moved up in our ratings of late and you should expect a Four Seasons at Sea type inclusive experience. Generally speaking, Five-star lines should come out, on a cruise-only basis, at between $500-$700 per person, per day. So we would say this is a good offer but not a great offer. You may be unaware that this is also a special Relais & Chateaux culinary sailing, a definite plus for foodies. Be prepared for some rough water in the Atlantic but not rough enough to cause us to advise you avoid the itinerary or the date.
Q – We are taking our 16-Year old on a dream trip to Italy this coming spring. Our highlights will be Venice, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast. Our tentative schedule puts us in Rome Easter week flying home after the Holiday. But we don’t know how insane Rome will be that weekend. We had wanted to do Sorrento last but now we’re thinking about doing the trip Venice-Sorrento-Rome to avoid having to commute to Rome from Sorrento on departure day. Are our concerns about Easter week justified and how would you recommend we do the trip?
A - Your concerns about Easter crowds in Rome, tied-up traffic, possible protests, and gridlock stress are all justified. You might consider staying in a hotel away from the center core, perhaps something just across the river in Trastevere like the Dei Mellini. You might want to re-think Sorrento, perhaps using Positano as a base. If your flight home is after 1:00 pm. we would recommend that you end the trip on the Amalfi Coast and use a private driver to go straight to the airport. Driving to far-out Fiumcino Airport during Easter week will inevitably involve heavy traffic and there is some advantage to avoiding the city center on departure day. If you have an earlier departure, it does make sense to end the trip in Rome as you are proposing but not that driving to Naples, catching the train, then getting to your hotel from the central station which toting your luggage is bound to be a bit of a hassle.
Q – Your site was recommended to help us answer a question about my personal bucket list. Can you actually do the Silk Road through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazahkstan by train. I want to see it all, and my wife will indulge me, from the Karakum and Kysilkum deserts to the Tien Shan Mountains. We’re rather well-traveled, much of it on our own. We need private facilities but, other than that, we have minimal expectations although we would want the best accommodations on the train that they have – assuming a train exists. I would have no way to know if this is something two sixty-three year old retirees in good health can actually book, we’d love to know how. Thanks to your staff for the most credible travel site we’ve found.
A – Love your idea and we would never discourage you from this amazing adventure. The good news is that there is a program called “The Legendary Silk Road by Private Train”. The two-week journey is operated by Europe-based Lernidee, which pioneered worldwide private train charters, beginning with programs on the Trans-Siberian Express. The name of the train on this route is the Orient Silk Road Express. But think three-star not the Hollywood version. Most of the travelers will be in compartments with toilets and a shower at the end of the car. You would have a preponderance of Brits on this journey with a fair share of Aussies, Germans, and Europeans who are not interested in remaining home and tossing rocks at their local parliament building. The trip begins in Ashgabar and ends in Almaty so you may not be able to fly non-stop on Southwest. You will want one of the Kalif Suites at $9,635 per person. Next year, they are operating this journey in April and October.
This trip will, in our view, require serious consultation with a travel clinic. Be aware that the air-conditioning is turned off when the train is not moving. We highly recommend that you have your flights planned and monitored by the Cranky Concierge as there will be cancellations and changes. We also recommend that you take a film-making course before this trip. If you do this trip we are going to send you a button that reads “Traveler Not Tourist”.
Q – Like many traveltruth fans, we have always wanted to go to Cuba. Now, it seems, things are opening up and we noticed that Tauck Tours is offering programs there next year. Can we book this and do you recommend this. Does Tauck have a decent reputation?
A – Tauck is, in our view, the world’s best First-Class Tour Operator. That is very different than being the world’s best “Deluxe” operator but for most upscale clients, Tauck is the most reliable, best organized, tour operator for sophisticated travelers who don’t need the top suite in the best hotel but welcome a company that does away with the stereotypical trappings of group travel such as name tags, guides hoisting umbrellas in the air to be followed, and trips to stores that pay kickbacks tot he company or the guide.
But Cuba is a different animal. The rules on “Exchange Programs” haven’t really been changed so the eight-day program Tauck runs in Cuba includes six days of “people-to-people” educational exchanges. You will be exposed to Cuban music and you will meet professionals and students. There is an exposure to Cuban art and an interesting series of insights into Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba. This is a tour that is different because portions of what you will see and do are directed by the government of Cuba, anxious to put its best foot forward. Expect your group to average 20-30 travelers and plan on one night in Miami followed by six nights at the Melia Habana Hotel.
It is always good to remember that American tourists are often a secondary factor when it comes to number of visitors. Cuba has been open to tourism for many years and so there is some local infrastructure. It is the Americans who have chosen to boycott the country and place limitations on the ability of its citizens to travel within the country unrestricted.
So, with that said, we think you should go. There is still space on several 2014 dates.
Q – We are really worried about a cruise we have booked for next year on Silverseas Cruises Shadow, This will be our third cruise, first on this line, but we are now quite worried because our daughter-in-law was checking the ship out online and tells us it just failed its health test. There also was a big problem with the crew hiding food like steaks in their pants and stuff and taking it to their cabins. Would you consider cancelling and trying o book something else?
A – Well, we hope the chef wasn’t cooking sausage and peppers. Let’s try to set the facts straight on this.
In its last surprise sanitation inspection, the Silverseas Shadow received its first ever failings score, an 84 out of a possible 100. The inspection, done in Skagway, Alaska, uncovered the fact that some galley crew were so discombobulated by the presence of CDC inspectors that they took some of the food carts and hid them in crew quarters. Inspectors were not happy about finding food meant for passengers sitting in an unrefrigerated state in crew cabins.
Silverseas, one of the world’s great lines, quickly instituted new crew training procedures and vowed this will never happen again. Given the negative press this incident received, you probably will find tighter food control standards on Silverseas these days than the industry standard. There were no reports of crew hiding food in their clothing. There was no evidence that the crew had even touched the food. They just sort of “hid” some of the preparation by moving it to crew quarters.
Surprise inspections are often traumatic for any crew. One of our Editors was on a Five-Star ship ion Bergen, Norway when a surprise inspection by Norwegian customs uncovered marijuana in the cabins of several of the entertainers. They were detained and there were no production shows for the remainder of the voyage.
Q – We are thinking about doing a trip to Great Britain with a family whose daughter attends grade school with my son. The parents get along well and so do the kids. My friend is recommending the Disney Tour company and says they actually provide two escorts. Is this really true and is this a concept you folks would recommend?
A – Given the level of mediocrity in the travel industry, we tend to recommend anything with Disney’s name on it although we would bring a few of the half ton bottles of Purell along on any of the trips.
You will receive a well-rehearsed, well acted, Disney experience on any program or cruise the company operates and they do nothing below the Four-Star level of service. They are an extremely trustworthy brand. So what if they are a cult with a rodent leader who has a sort of wife but no actual genitalia.
It sounds like you are considering their excellent “Adventures by Disney” Tour offering. These tours use both a full-time Disney Guide as well as local guides. Parents can go off on a more in-depth exploration a site or region with the local guide, while the specially trained Disney Guide creates adventures that are less detailed but more interesting to kids. It is, in our view, a potent concept that usually works well unless mid to upper-age teens are involved. They tend to hate touring, hate Europe, and they definitely hate Disney. But, of course, there are exceptions and that makes it all worthwhile.
Q – Quite frankly, we are disappointed that traveltruth does not have more questions about smoking on cruise ships. The vast majority of us are non-smokers and we feel that the last thing we need is to be exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke. We understand that smokers have rights, but we would choose a luxury cruise company based, in large part, on their smoking policy. Is there one of the top lines that is best for non-smokers, or, put another way, is there a line we should avoid. We love balcony cabins but we would never put up with someone smoking on the balcony next to ours.
A – We have had a sharp increase in questions about smoking aboard ships. Ironically, the mass market lines, which appeal primarily to Americans, have had strict anti-smoking policies in place for a while. Some of the deluxe lines, which appeal to more of an international clientele, allow smoking in various venues and one or two are still allowing smoking on stateroom or suite balconies.
We have a strong bias on this issue so let us state it openly. We believe that smoking on a balcony or an open deck is a serious fire hazard. We further believe that when it comes to the issue of second-hand smoke, smokers have no rights. Smoking is an act of self-loathing with dire health consequences. Second hand smoke is just as deadly as first-hand smoke and so, in our view, it represents a form of assault on another person. When children onboard a ship are exposed to second hand smoke, the issue becomes even more serious.
That stated, Crystal, Paul Gauguin, Sea Dream, Regent Seven Seas, and Silverseas do not permit smoking ion any guest stateroom or balcony. Regent Seven Seas has the strongest anti-smoking policy stating that guests who do not comply with their non-smoking policies “will be asked to disembark the ship without any credit or refund for the unused portion of their cruise.” Regent has rigorously enforced this policy.
The luxury line that does allow for limited balcony smoking is Seabourn. Their new smoking policy allows guests in upper-level suites the right to smoke on their verandas. This is a change from Seabourn’s previous policy which allowed all guests to smoke on their balconies and in their cabins. Smokers will still be permitted to light up in portions of the Observation Bar, the Sky Bar, and the Club on the Seabourn Odyssey, Quest, and Sojourn.
Q – I am a retired Officer who would love to visit some of the sites of the Second World War Pacific Theater with my wife. I have the time and the means to do it right and was wondering if there is a cruise that might make us happy in terms of a focus on the major battlegrounds like Pearl Harbor and Okinawa?
A – Yes Sir – there is one cruise that would be the best for your needs. But we must advise you that it is heavily booked. Crystal Cruises will be sailing from Los Angeles in mid-January on a 22-Day sailing on the Serenity that will call at Hilo and Honolulu, Guam, Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Okinawa, and the port of Yokohama. Crystal has invited an impressive group of guest lecturers including four-star generals and historians like James Bradley, author of “Flags of Our Fathers.” Work with someone on booking this who you feel has the clout to move you up on a VIP Wait-List.
There are all sorts of ways to visit WW ll sites in Europe, particularly the Normandy Battlefields. But the War in the Pacific was much more spread out and land tours are difficult. This Crystal itinerary is the best we’ve seen in recent years. Best of luck – and thank you so much for your service.
Q – My buddy and I will stop trading commodities for a few days, hope the markets can withstand our absence, and we’re off to Sydney for a few days of rest, relaxation, and some sailing. We’re getting conflicting advice about the need for an Australian Visa and we were wondering if getting one is really necessary. We live in downtown Chicago so the offices are right there. It just sounds like a hassle.
A – As you will soon discover, the Aussies don’t believe in hassles. They make visa purchases quite easy. You can do it all online for a $20.00 fee. Just go to https://www.eta.immi.gov.au/ETA/etas.jsp Have your passport in front of you. You will receive a “code” number that you just carry with you on your travels. The entire process takes no more than five minutes.
Do note that to properly fit in with the Aussie lifestyle, men are expected to wear flip-flops for all but the most formal occasions.
Q – Both my husband and I have just finished the three Scandinavian detective thrillers in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series. We know Mr. Larsson passed away but we would really like to enjoy a visit to Stockholm to try to trace the steps of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salendar, the wonderful tattooed computer hacker and kicker of butts. Is there an organized tour for this sort of thing?
A – Actually, the Stockholm City Museum offers a nifty “Millenium Trilogy” walking tour. We’re big fans of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as well. If you want to visit on your own, try visiting:
Fiskargatan 9 – It is here at this upscale address with a view over Djurgården and Old Town that Lisbeth Salander buys a 21-room apartment. But she lived in only three of the rooms. The name on the door is “V. Kulla,” in a nod to the children’s book character Pippi Longstocking’s house “Villa Villerkulla.”
Bellmansgatan 1 – Mikael Blomkvist’s home address. The apartment is located on the hills of the historic Söder district. Several key scenes are set here.
Mellqvists Kaffebar, Hornsgatan 78 – Mikael Blomkvist’s regular café – and Stieg Larsson’s in real life – is on Södermalm. This is where Stieg Larsson used to hang out when his magazine Expo had its offices on the floor above. It may have been right here that he sat and came up with the plots of the novels.
Q – In your reviews of the Top Ten Cruise Lines, we notice that you say very little about the cost these lines are charging for their shore excursions. We’ve done one previous cruise on MSC and we’re trying Oceania in Europe next May. But we notice that they are charging up to twice as much as we can pay for the same tour booking it ourselves online. We like the private tours, my wife tends to get bus sick. Why are these tours such a rip-off? I hate to think about planning a vacation while worrying about being taken for a ride. And believe me, we can well afford to pay what they are asking – it’s just the principle.
A - This is a complicated topic and we don’t want to over-analyze it. Let’s begin by saying that the tour departments of all of the cruise lines are, essentially, set up as independent profit centers. There are mark-ups of a certain percentage on every tour sold. Pricing is determined in negotiation with the tour operator in each port, often with the help of the cruise line’s port agent who represents their interests in each destination.
Safety, reliability, driver training, and the condition of the automobile or van are cost considerations. Remember, driving in someone’s car, bus, or van is the single most dangerous thing you can do abroad. It is far more dangerous than the risk of terrorism, for instance. The best companies tend not to solicit online – they don’t have to. There is a finite number of top-guides and vehicles, and they tend to be booked up by the top cruise specialists months in advance. If a guide or driver is hanging out in chat rooms or online, you have to wonder why they have in-season availability. You also have to ask yourself a very important question: “If there is a serious problem does this company have an office in the States where I can initiate legal action”? If the answer is no, avoid the company.
Finally, as regards private drivers of merit, you should find that the better travel agents will work with the most reliable companies and they can deliver private driver/guide services at about a 20% discount versus what the cruise line is charging.
Oceania is an excellent value overall. It appears that you have booked your cruise directly with the company, a major mistake. If you are sailing next May you have just paid deposit which means you can still turn the booking over to a qualified Cruise Specialist. We recommend that you do this immediately and then review each of the ports with your consultant to determine where it makes sense to do private touring. And remember, the point is not to have someone silently driving you around. The only reason to justify the high cost of private driver arrangements is that they can be totally designed around your specific interests. Most clients do not fully take advantage of this.
Q – My girlfriend and I visited the hilltop town of Eze in the south of France on a recent cruise and we fell in love with it. Now, I want to go back and spend a few days so I can propose in a beautiful setting. Where should I book and how should I book? Love the site, know you don’t take ads, so wondering if there is a place to send donations to keep it going?
A – There are two really nice, upscale hotels in Eze. For your purposes, we want you to stay at Chateau Eza which has a bit more warmth than Chevre d’or and only 12 rooms. But do a dinner, or two, at Chevre. Book your hotel with a member of one of the leading consortium groups and ask specifically if the Chateau Eza is “in your network”. If it is, you will receive exclusive amenities that are worth real money. This is always the best way to book the higher end hotels. If possible, you always want to avoid booking a hotel online because that is the best way to assure that you will be assigned the worst available rooms. That is standard operating procedure in the hotel industry since online budget-seeking bookers tend not to be repeat, high-end guests.
Thank you, but we are fine, our company is quite profitable, and we offer our web sites on a complimentary basis. No donations are accepted.
Q – We are thinking about a trip to Cabo San Lucas but were wondering if you are sending people there and if you feel it is generally safe? We’re rather high-end travelers, I suppose, fans of Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental, but my wife is worried about traveling where drug cartels are ruling the streets. Thinking about a February trip. Does Cabo have any high end hotels? By the way, if we go, will we be the only ones there?
A - Most of the hotels/resorts in Mexico are reporting that their numbers are increasing by about 25% year over year. Part of this resurgence is the growth of the Australian market which has traditionally supported Hawaii. Drug cartels are not a problem in Cabo and you should go with confidence, albeit our ongoing concerns about Mexico which center around the uncertainty of travel in a country where the police are corrupt.
Two of the highest rated hotels on the North American Continent, One & Only Palmilla and Las Ventanas are located in Cabo. Each is a relative steal at current prices. Mexico has vastly improved in terms of its restaurant scene.
It is still a country where we do not recommend self-drive programs and local taxis have to be chosen with care. But given your ability to experience upscale accommodations, we would not try to talk you out of this trip.
Q – We just returned from a cruise on Crystal to the Baltic and loved the experience. We’re already signed up for another trip next year. But being retired, we can cruise on short notice. We’ve read what you’ve recommended about the benefits of being among the first 20% to book. But now, we’re wondering about being in the last 20% to book. Are there any truly great deals on for those of us who can travel in the next several months on the world’s top-rated lines?
A – Up until very recently, the answer would have been no. But your question is timed well since we are just starting to see the advent of a new phenon we call ”Miraculous Cruise Pricing”. As we’ve indicated, the southern Mediterranean is extremely weak this year. At last count, fourteen US cruise ships will be pulled from European waters next year. Many of the sailings of the very top lines are currently at or near 50% occupancy.
This has created a new pricing model that is resulting in pricing that goes way below the former “two-for-one” discounts. We seen non-published pricing on a dozen upcoming sailings that are so low that we can’t name the cruise line or put the pricing in print. But we can say this:
01 – The fares on available on some of the world’s top-rated inclusive cruise lines.
02 – Air is not included and Miraculous Pricing may not be combined with any previous discounts.
03 – Guests currently booked are not eligible. The cruise line will not allow “re-bookings”.
These “secret” fares were designed to enable in-house commission sales reps to have something they could use to close the sale for those looking for a true last-minute deal. The fares are so secretive that they are normally given code words within the reservation department. Since callers will not know the coded fare name, sales reps will try to sell them at the higher price. The Miraculous Pricing Fares are normally shared with a handful of the cruise line’s top-producers but most travel agents will never hear about them. Discretion is important since the better cruise lines want to avoid the perception that they are doing last-minute discounting. This could seriously alienate their loyal, booked guests and their agents.
In summary, what is new is that some of the five-star cruise lines are now so desperate to fill their small ships, that they are providing a limited number of in-house sales staff and agents with secret and rather miraculous last-minute pricing. But, again, you have to know the code to ask for the correct fare.
Q – My entire family of seven is scheduled to fly from Houston to Denver in October and we are currently bo0ked on the new Boeing 787. First we had the battery issues and now it seems that there are more issues with the airplane. We do not fly often and we are a little nervous. We know you will give us an honest answer so thanking you in advance.
A – We have seen some issues with United Airlines newly acquired 787 fleet since they returned to service. Bloomberg News reports that the UA’s 787 flights are cancelled four times more often than the rest of its current fleet. On that basis, and because you have anxiety about your flight, we recommend that you change your flight times and use a different aircraft. Your travel agent should be able to help you with this and we would expect that United will be sympathetic to your request.
We don’t really know all of the reasons for United’s spate of 787 cancellations. We do know that other 787 equipped airlines, such as Japan Airlines and ANA cancelled 787 flights due to computer failure and some difficulties with their anti-icing system.
Would we put our family on a 787? Absolutely. In a heartbeat. This wonderful aircraft has onboard diagnostics that are far more sophisticated than that found aboard any other type of commercial aircraft. The system even helps ground crews prepare for maintenance while the plane is still airborne. Any new aircraft model tends to have some growing pains. True, the 787′s battery problems were not at all typical. But we think this aircraft is safe to fly and, from every report, it offers the very best in-cabin experience of any current commercial jet.
Q – We are working with a travel agent we’ve known for years. Last week, I brought her a tour put out by General Tours that really looked interesting. But she quickly tried to turn things around trying to get us to book a Viking River Cruise in Russia instead. I’m just wondering about how your industry works in terms of which of these two options would be more profitable for the agent. I hate being hustled for a few extra bucks.
A – It is unlikely that is what happened. Generally, travel agencies receive a commission of the sale, the more expensive the trip, the more they earn. But given your two examples, it is doubtful that the agent would risk losing your goodwill for the difference in earnings.
Travel agents earn commission on the cost of any brochure program that you book with virtually any company. If you book directly, the commission goes back to the company as extra profit. Now, that said, there are more than a few travel agents who will recommend products based on the extra commission they may earn on certain products. Some firms have strict management policies requiring agent-sellers to push certain more profitable products. This is particularly common at the large online and franchise travel outlets. If your current agent has never raised your suspicions before, we think you should share your feelings with her but give her the benefit of the doubt this time.
Q – Our friends from Portland recently joined us on a custom arranged vacation that took in portions of Switzerland, northern Italy, and almost ten days in Germany. We loved this vacation and being with our friends of twenty-five or so years, was terrific. But we ran into one problem that we just didn’t understand. Our practice has always been to just split the dinner bill equally. We figure that it all comes out in the end. But every time we tried to do that in a German restaurant it seemed to cause consternation and confusion. In one or two cases, there were raised voices. We never did find out the cause. What had we done wrong?
A – You did nothing wrong. But your experience can really shed some light on the German position vis-a-vis the debt of some of its neighbors like Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. You ran into a cultural characteristic – Germans hate to be in anyone’s debt. They never wish to feel that they owe anyone anything. It is a “pay-as-you-go” mindset. You were doing something that no German would do. You probably noticed that the wait staff was wearing little pocketbooks to make exact change. The Germans feel that people should only pay for exactly what they have eaten – no more – no less. And, for what it’s worth, they believe that if everyone was as fastidious as they are about paying their bills to the penny, the world would be a better place.