Dear Travel Truth Seeker:

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Sadly, there is a need for truthtelling in this industry. Unfortunately, the vast majority of travel sites do everything possible to insult your intelligence.

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Travel Q&A



WHO REALLY HAS THE BEST AIRLINE FOOD IN FIRST CLASS?

Singapore Airlines First Class Meal 1Q – We’ve started enjoying our retirement and flying to points around the world on our bucket list. We had owned fractional ownership in our own jet but going forward we’re feeling that flying commercially in First makes more sense. Obviously, we fly the airline and the route that works best for us but my wife is very interested in knowing what you all think about airline food and which airline(s) can be depended on to provide the very best cuisine available. Thanks for a most interesting site and hope you can continue without ads or sponsorship. Singapore Airlines First Class Meal 3

A – You will generally find the very best food in First Class on competitive routes that depart from cities with high food standards. This tends to boil down to the Asian carriers with Singapore Airlines generally thought to have the best cuisine overall. But ANA, Japan Airlines, Malaysian, and Cathay Pacific are all worthy competitors. The Middle East carriers have brought in famous chefs to oversee their meal services in First or Business but although they lead in most other areas of service, it is currently felt that the  Asian carriers are still the best when it comes to food served aloft.Singapore Airlines First Class Mean 2

It is still possible for any number of carriers to produce a memorable First Class meal. But true gourmet status is rare at 33,000 feet. We have surrounded your question with some photos of First Class meals taken aboard Singapore flights. Singapore First Class Meal 2

For those really obsessed with airline food in all classes, we would recommend a Dublin-based web site called www.inflightfeed.com The author of the airline foodie blog, Nikos Loukas, has identified the grilled chicken with vegetables and potato mash served in Swiss Airlines Business Class was “among the worst meals I’ve ever had on an aircraft.”

 

DO THE EUROPEANS REQUIRE PIN NUMBERS WITH THOSE CHIP CARDS?

Credit card chip and pinQ –   We will be leaving for Europe in three months  and we’re concerned about whether or not our credit cards will be accepted or do we need a chip? Also wondering about a pin number. It seems we’re  quite a bit ahead of the Euros on this issue as we don’t need the nonsense of all these special cards and numbers. Can we assume they will accept both my Visa and Mastercards?

A –  Actually, we’re quite a bit behind the “Euros” on matters of credit card technologies. You absolutely need chip-embedded credit cards  when you travel. Your older US technology cards will likely not be accepted. Most locations also require a pin number that must be programmed into the swipe machine that reads your chip number.

About two years ago, Visa and Mastercard decided to go-ahead with the less-secure chip and signature technology instead of “chip and pin,” The thinking on this is that Americans are deemed not smart enough to properly handle and remember various pin numbers. The card merchants believe that retail spending would have nose-dived had pin numbers been required.Pin numbers

You will generally have a merchant “sigh” when you indicate you don’t know your pin number. They will then figure out a way to accept your already outdated “chip-only” card.

IS OUR TRAVEL AGENT NUTS?

Vina Vik 2 AQ – We are winos, in the best sense of the word, and all of our recent forays have been to wine destinations like Bordeaux, Tuscany, and a great week in Napa. Our travel agent has planned these well and knows we’re adventurous (early forties and financially comfortable). 

But now she is recommending we go to Chile’s Millahue Valley with a stay at the Vik Hotel. Do you know this place and do you think our agent has gone nuts? 

Vina Vik Hotel Millahue Valley Chile 1A – Actually, we think you may be nuts for not embracing her recommendation. We like her already. The Vina Vik is an incredibly beautiful 22-suite property in a world class setting – it overlooks the 11,000 + acres of prime vineyards in Chile’s Millahue Valley. You will only be about a two-hour drive south from Santiago so air connections are not an issue. Given the fact that you have seen the “Big Three” destinations for wine aficionados, this strikes us as a wonderful recommendation as it will feel nothing like the European vineyards you have visited.

If you can’t get into the Vini Vik – reschedule the trip. Please give your agent a raise – oh wait, you can’t because you likely are receiving her services on a complimentary basis.

IS THERE A STRATEGY TO GET UPGRADED AT A REALLY NICE HOTEL? HOW DO THE PROS DO IT?

Hotel DeskQ – I travel internationally and domestically for both business and pleasure. I have a good corporate agent who seems to get me good rates at the top-end hotels I use. But I wonder if we are missing a strategy that might get me comp upgrades. They just are not happening. You have a nice following in Toronto – so good on that.

A – The best overall way to get an upgrade is to have your travel consultant prepare a well-written short bio which is presented to hotel management in advance with a note suggesting that upgrading you might be in their best interest. It is much better of a third party requests it.

For our readers who handle their own hotel reservations, we suggest a conversation with a member of the management team, the head of sales, or the reservations supervisor, giving them three possible dates for your stay. Ask them which of those dates has the lowest occupancy and then ask “If I came on those dates would you consider upgrading me to “The Churchill Suite”? You will be surprised at how often they say “yes”.

WILL BE TRAVELING MORE OFTEN TO LONDON; HOW DO I GET THROUGH SECURITY AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE?

Heathrow SecurityQ – Good news – I’ve just been given a plum assignment in London that will get me in and around the British Isles. I will be flying back and forth to London quite frequently and am wondering if there is one best way to avoid the lengthy security lines? I’ve been on the internet but it is rather confusing, 

A –  Once you can prove you have visited the U.K. at least four times in the past twelve months, you can apply online to become a “Registered Traveller”. This will get you use of the express entry lane at nine British airports as well as the Eurostar terminals in Brussels, Paris, and Lille. Congratulations and best of luck. Sorry the internet is confusing, We believe that will be fixed soon.

LOOKING FOR ADVICE ABOUT INTERNATIONAL PHONES

international-calls-4Q –  This is written out of frustration. I’ve been on tech boards, researched on my own, and talked to my best high-tech buddies, and no one seems to have a solution to a simple question. I travel internationally all the time and I need to use my phone in the most effective manner. Some of the charges I’ve been getting lately are ridiculous. If you could just break it down to a simple recommendation I would be really appreciative.

A – Can’t do it – too many variables. This includes where you are attempting to use the phone. Advice varies based on continent. You might want to contact a company called Wireless Traveler. They will sell you a phone that works in 65 countries and it is surprisingly  reasonable. You can reach them at 866-700-3883.

If you use Verizon, look into TravelPass which lets you switch elements of your domestic plan to international calls. Learn to us eSkype, WhatsApp, Viber, or Facebook’s Messenger Service. These will allow you to make free calls once you learn the essentials. See which one is most comfortable.

Most savvy travelers leave their phone in airplane mode which turns off those expensive cellular data charges. You can use your phone for next to nothing as long as you are in a Wi-Fi spot. Think of buying a portable Wi-Fi hub.

Wish we could be more helpful. This is not an area where we are qualified to advise you.

DO WE REALLY HATE HIGH-DENSITY VACATIONS?

Royal Caribbean crowdsQ – Don’t wish to slow down the pace of your wonderfully engaging travel Q&A, but, as an architect, the question of density and travel is something I find intriguing. I work on high-rise design.

If you think of places like Monte Carlo, the Indian slum Dharvari, and, perhaps, Hong Kong, we would have several of the highest population densities in the world. Some cities, like New York, solve some of this by building high-rise buildings that almost reach the sky. But travelers in planes and tour buses, on cruise ships, and at major tourist sites in season are experiencing some of the highest human density statistics on earth. I am particularly interested in how you think this works on a cruise ship. In most situations, humans wish there wasn’t so much density but, somehow, cruise ships actually get people to pay for it. 

Royal Caribbean Interior   BA –  This is an interesting question. If we use the squalid slums of Dhavari as an example, we are looking at a population density of about 800,000 per square mile. Sanitation is a major problem and the real world of pollution, crime, and traffic engulfs the area. If we look at Royal Caribbean’s mega-ship, the Allure of the Seas, we can calculate the density rate at approximately 1.2 million per square mile.

But you can make some good arguments that a huge cruise ship eliminates most of the problems people have with density. In fact, it seems to us, people like being around lots of other people in a controlled space where urban problems normally associated with high density are conceptually removed. It is more fun watching a show in a theater with three thousand people than it might be in a cabaret with a hundred or so guests.Royal Caribbean Street View

The Allure, for example, is a high-rise that makes perfect use of its space. It is totally pedestrian – there are no traffic issues so people can move freely from one high-density neighborhood to another interacting with thousands in the same environment but always having the option of closing the door of their cabin to be alone. Anyway, that is our theory. We don’t think that density, by itself, is necessarily a bad thing. Many travelers welcome it.

WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT WHEN THEY CLEAN MY ROOM?

Hotel Maid A XXX Good HousekeepingQ – As a frequent traveler within the USA,  I find my printing business takes me away about three weeks a month. I stay in lots of hotels, never, if I can help it, less than four stars. I read your post about bedding and how often sheets are changed and found it fascinating. But I am also interested in how much of a room is disinfected and what happens with the toiletries. Are they recycled?

A – Well let’s start with “disinfected.” That is a fairly technical term with some specific meaning. Every major quality chain has  a check-list every maid must complete. Their work is checked by senior housekeeping staff. You’ve probably seen them at work. They’re the ones without the carts.

Every policy manual we’ve seen for cleaning a room at a quality property calls for disinfecting remote TV controls (remember to never ask us why) and light switches. But that’s about it.

Toiletries are fairly straightforward. If you opened the bottle it is tossed. Some hotels do donate some of these room amenities to charity and that might include shampoo containers, conditioner, and bars of soap that have received only minimal use.

There are a lot of tricks of the trade when it comes to making the guest think that a room has been hermetically sealed and totally sanitized by a team from NIH in hasmat suits. One of the most widely used in spreading around some baking soda in the carpet every few weeks for that “fresh room smell”.

Some of our readers have been telling is that they have started asking at check-in how often the sheets will be change din their room. The real answer tot his question is that the sheets are changed for every guest and then on an “as needed” basis as determined by the maid.

IS THERE ONE ISLAND IN THE CARIBBEAN THAT IS NICER AND MORE HIGH-END THAN THE OTHERS?

Anguilla 1Q –  Help me – I don’t know how exactly to phrase this but we’re looking for an island in the Caribbean that hasn’t been completely overwhelmed by mass-market, trinket seeking day trippers. We appreciate the finer things in life and we don;t want to give up on the Caribbean but our last several forays were near-disasters. We are seeking high levels of security, elegance, great beaches, and a variety of upper-tier hotels that know how to treat the luxury traveler. And we would prefer that cruise passengers were several hundred miles away in the distance. I know there are semi-private and private islands like Mustique and Necker, but we’re looking for an open island that seems to attract travelers like us who might want to dine around at some fabulous restaurants after a hard day on the beach. Is this an impossible dream unless we just go and buy our own island?

A – It is not that bleak a picture. You can plop your Ralph Lauren shorts down on a nice chaise in a variety of absolutely luxury resorts on the island of Anguilla. Just go to San Juan and hook a right.

Anguilla 2  rum-punch-villa-1The government of Anguilla has devoted its efforts to cultivating the luxury end of the travel spectrum. You might want to look at renting a villa or staying at any one of a number of really fine hotels like the Viceroy Anguilla, CeBlue Villa and Resort, the Cuisinart Hotel and their new project The Reef, and the just opened Zemi Beach House.

The island is growing with a 38% boom in new hotel construction almost all of it geared to luxury travelers. We think this island will meet all of your stated criteria.

DO WE NEED TO GET TO THE AIRPORT THE NIGHT BEFORE OUR FLIGHT SO TSA HAS ADEQUATE TIME TO SEARCH MY PURSE?

TSA ClassQ –  We watched the shots of the huge lines at O’Hare Airport last night and we thought we would ask if there are posted times for international departures out of LAX? What are professional travel experts now recommending for the number of hours early one must now arrive at an airport to assure making a flight to Asia or Europe? We have two such flights coming up later this year.  As an aside, we were also wondering what these TSA agents tend to earn as they seem incapable of moving the lines quickly.

A –  The current advised wait times vary with time of day, date of travel, local airport hiring status, and the specific level of terrorism alert. So there are just too many variables to give the kind of definitive response we know you would prefer. But we have revised upward our recommended airline arrival times at major airports in the US. Here is our current Airport Arrival Advisory for our clients traveling internationally in terms of time you should arrive at the airport prior to your scheduled departure:

ATLANTA –  3 Hours

BOSTON – 3 Hours

CHICAGO O’HARE – 4 Hours

LOS ANGELES – 3 and 1/2 Hours

NEW YORK JFK –  3 and 1/2 Hours

SAN FRANCISCO – 3 and 1/2 Hours

As to your question regarding TSA salary levels: A Transportation Security Officer is an entry-level TSA airport security position. TSOs fall in the D and E pay bands, depending on their skill level and their experience. As of January 2013, D-banded TSOs receive annual salaries of between $25,518 and $38,277, while E-banded officers are paid between $29,302 and $44,007. These salary bands do not include the additional locality pay that TSA employees working in high-cost areas are eligible to receive.

WHICH AIRPORT IS BEST AVOIDED IN EUROPE DO TO POTENTIAL STRIKE ACTION THIS SUMMER?

heathrow192Q – We are doing a cruise on Azamara that will require us to fly into Barcelona this summer. I am going to be doing the air research myself and will, likely, not use my travel agent for the air but will, instead, do it myself. I am, according to the lovely wife, “totally air anal”. So my question really is about strike actions this summer. I will need to connect somewhere major in Europe to get to Barcelona and I am wondering where you think the strikes are most likely to occur. Or, perhaps, you feel strikes are unlikely. Thanks so much for all “the truth”  My fellow “anals” and I appreciate it.

Heathrow Strike TwoA – There will be strikes this summer. The Euros get in a snit when they have to work anything more than a 30-hour week or when they are expected to work extra hard when the airport is packed. It is always hard to gauge who will get in the biggest snit this summer but it always an interesting competition between the Italians working out at Fiumicino, the French at Charles De Gaulle, or the Brits working out of Heathrow.

Based on current reports and the level of discontent among British Airways pilots, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers etc., we are betting that London Heathrow has the most frequent airport closures this summer with the French valiantly maintaining second place. But when the gauntlet is thrown down, never count the Italians out. They have fewer strikes but theirs last longer.

WHY DOESN’T LOWER FUEL COSTS EQUAL LOWER AIR FARES?

Delta Plane Fueled 2Q – I just paid $2.10 a gallon to fill my Lexus with premium gas. I imagine the airlines are seeing similar huge reductions in the price of fuel. So why did I just pay $120 more for a round-trip ticket on Delta to London than I did the same time a year ago.? Is this the nation’s biggest rip-off or is there a plausible reason why airline prices have not nose-dived since these guys are buying fuel for their planes at the lowest prices in years?

A –  Oh these cynical traveltruth readers! You mean to imply that the major airlines in the US would not pass on all of their current savings realized by sharply lower fuel costs? What will you be expecting next, thicker seats and more legroom? Or, perhaps, the airlines should pay us all reparations for past injuries suffered as a result of their blatant disregard for the comfort of those they serve.

The prevailing analysis is that five years ago, fuel took up 30% of the major airline’s operating costs. That number has been halved in the past twelve months and yet airfares have declined by an average of only 3%. Put another way, the nation’s four largest airlines recorded profits of $22 billion last year with the consumer seeing little in the way of price reductions.

Airlines operate is a far less competitive environment than they once did so they see little need to steal customers away from one another with lower prices. Instead, the “majors” have been investing their profits in new aircraft and in stock buybacks, strategies favored by their stockholders. Writing in The Atlantic, aviation reporter Joe Pinsker points out that the five largest Investment Fund Managers own about “17% of both American and Delta.” The current strategy on airfares also tends to keep the regulators at bay since it is harder to prove that airlines are colluding on pricing.

We are presently in an environment where the airlines have little incentive to change much of anything while they stockpile for the future and figure out new ways to incentivize as many components of the flying experience as possible. Sorry, it is all about happy stockholders not happy fliers.

For any other info please read this .

Ticket prices should be 10% lower than they are given current fuel costs.

OK – SAUSAGE IS NICE BUT WON’T WE FREEZE IN GERMANY IN DECEMBER?

DEU , Deutschland , Rothenburg - Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Marktplatz | DEU , Germany, Rothenburg - Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Marktplatz | [ Veroeffentlichung nur gegen Honorar nach MFM und Urhebervermerk: (c) Peter Frischmuth / argus. Belegexemplar an Argus Fotoarchiv GmbH, Sternstr.67, 20357 Hamburg, Germany, Tel.040-433707, e-mail: argus@argus-foto.de, Photographer Portfolio: www.peterfrischmuth.de , Bank: SEB, BLZ 20010111,Kto.1285865200, IBAN: DE27200101111285865200, BIC: ESSEDE5F200 ] Q –  My wife and I are contemplating a river cruise in  November/December 2017 and have a questions: Does it make sense to be on a river cruise for these Christmas markets considering that the outside temperature is going to be lower and might prevent you from fully enjoying the aspects of a river cruise – in other words, we would assume you could not be outside on the deck to enjoy the scenery.

A – Well you can be outside on the upper deck provided you have saved all of the gear you had on the last time you climbed Everest. Yes, central Europe is cold during the Christmas Season – but that is why it feels so much like what Christmas ought to be but often isn’t. The warm mulled Gluewein will surely warm you up so you will be prepared for grilled sausages of the highest caliber. You will be huddled up against the wind, and you will encounter some rain, and it won’t at all be like your last vacation in Jamaica. But, somehow, you will feel a real part of an authentic winter festival that just doesn’t stop. We love the Christmas Market River cruises and we’d do the trip just for the schnitzel.

SHOULD WE PUT OFF OUR TRIP TO EUROPE?

Not Afraid  AXXXQ –  Is this really the right time to be thinking about traveling to Europe? We have some concerns about traveling this summer but we really want to go on our planned cruise. What are you advising and how do you handle this question with your clients?

A – For most travelers, whether or not to travel to any destination is a heady mix of emotion, anticipation, a bit of natural fear, and rational thinking about gain and loss. So we think there is no simple answer and we do not want to be seen as salesmen for the notion that you should always travel no matter what. If your fears reach the point where you find it impossible to truly look forward to your journey, we would suggest considering cancellation. 

We have just had a terrorist event in Brussels at two locations that has resulted in more than 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Yet, the small restaurants that surround the Maelbeerk train station reopened in 24 hours and the streets of Brussels are filled with local residents who refuse to live their lives in fear. The people of Paris held huge banners that said “We are not afraid” immediately after the recent attacks in their city. We think we must never “Be Afraid” If we are, then those who would threaten us out of envy would win. Here is what we think you might consider before deciding “Should I Go or Should I Stay.”

THE FACTS: It is a head/heart thing. The 24-Hour News cycle thrives on tragedy. It gives the terrorists the kind of notoriety they seek. But we are always going to make the best decisions in an atmosphere of calm, using our heads to examine the facts. Here is one worth remembering. Right now, in the world as it exists, you are 1,052 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than you are in a terrorist act while traveling abroad. You are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are by a terrorist act. Your life expectancy actually goes up when you travel in Europe because you are not in the country with one of the highest murder rates in the world and one of the highest rates of fatal automobile accidents.

But some folks want even more specifics. So here are a few worth remembering although there are dozens of others that we could have listed:

  • Your chance of dying in any kind of worldwide terrorist attack is 1 in 9.3 million
  • Your chance of dying from a food poisoning is 1 in 3 million
  • Your chance of dying from a dog bite is 1 in 700,000
  • Your chance of dying from a car accident is 1 in 18,585
  • Your chance of dying in your own bathtub is 1 in 685,000

CONCLUSION: Unless you plan to stay off American roads, not walk in our cities or suburbs, stay away from dogs and refuse to bathe, you might as well take that trip to Europe of wherever else you wish to travel. Staying home really is considerably more dangerous.

PROTECTING YOURSELF WHEN YOU TRAVEL ABROAD: We want you to avoid bad neighborhoods. Every city  has them – well not every city, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are virtually crime-free. You need to have a sense of neighborhood when working with your consultant to book hotels. Inexpensive hotels skimp on security – avoid them. If you are staying in a major city with a threat that concerns you, avoid US chain hotels and select a good five-star locally-owned property.

INSURANCE: You can always take out a “Cancel for Any Reason” top-end policy. The best of these, in our view, is the Maxi-Policy issued by Travelex. But be aware that the premium for such coverage averages 10-11% of the total cost of your trip.

USE A TRAVEL CONSULTANT WHO IS A MEMBER OF ONE OF THE TOP CONSORTIUMS: They will have access to daily security updates from their on-site offices around-the-world. Using one of these consultants is your best chance of receiving updated, accurate information about your destination.

IF YOU WISH TO DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH THINK OF THE AUSSIES: Our own State Department memos and warnings are often over-stated and issued in an attempt to cover all bases. Savvy travelers, instead, look to security announcements online issued by the Australian Foreign Office for their own citizens. They tend to be more accurate than ours. The British Foreign Office also issued worthwhile reports updating local conditions abroad.

DON’T BE AFRAID

CAN WE USE A PASSPORT CARD IN PLACE OF A PASSPORT?

passport_card_01Q –   Our neighbor said his son told him to get a passport card to use in place of an actual passport when he travels outside the States. We went online and it looks like the card is less expensive than a passport and easier to carry. Since we’re planning to do one of these river cruises in Germany later this year, we were wondering if the card will work for us? 

A – No. The Passport Card is only valid for travel between the United States and Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, and Bermuda. Travel to any other country requires a valid US Passport. You do not get “Serious Traveler Qualification Credits” if you only travel to Mexico and the Caribbean in your lifetime. Canada barely qualifies unless, of course, you marry someone from Quebec.

THINKING ABOUT DOING CUBA ON MY STOMACH

CUBA HAVANA  A TauckQ –  My wife and I want to travel on a charter tour to Cuba in early May. We’ve looked into AccessTrips culinary tour to Cuba and it looks good. Do you handle tours to Cuba? If so, would you recommend the AccessTrips tour or any others? Thank you.

A – Access is a company that was launched in 2001. They specialize in one-off culinary programs in a variety of destinations. They do work with travel agents so an agent commission is included their pricing.

The two best ways to see Cuba right now are via Tauck Tours or Abercrombie & Kent. They have the best local guides and governmental relationships. But with that said, I am really impressed with the specific itinerary you are considering. It is unique and, we think, extremely well planned out. Other tour operators have been anxious to do culinary and lifestyle touring in Cuba but they tell us  that they still feel that the tourism infrastructure in the country is not stable and sophisticated enough to provide the kinds of quality land experiences promised in the Access itinerary. So, I suppose, the question would be “How is a small company like Access able to pull this off successfully?”

If you want a culinary-oriented experience we would say you should look at this program closely. If, on the other hand, you want the very best Cuba experience that is not culinary in nature, we would look, instead, at Tauck or A&K. They will have a choice of dates. Meanwhile, we hope this brief “Guide to Cuba” is helpful:

  • Fidel Castro first grew a beard because the US embargo cut off all shipments of razors to the island.
  • The CIA made at least eight attempts to kill or capture Castro. These actions were dubbed “Operation Castration” at the Agency.
  • There is a John Lennon Park in Havana with a bronze statue of John seated on a bench. He’s not doing much – just sitting there. Don’t try to steal his glasses – it’s been attempted before and it will get you prison time.
  • Only 5% of Cubans currently have access too the internet.
  • Be careful – Cross-dressing is illegal on the island but Ballerina’s are more respected than doctors.

SHOULD WE SIGN OFF ON THIS SOUTH AMERICA TOUR?

Machu PicchuQ –  My husband and I usually go on tours with Tauck.  We have really enjoyed all our trips.   This particular trip we are going on is to Peru.   Our travel agent has set us up with Sita Tours.   I am questioning them because my search has not showed that name at all.  My search keeps coming up with Ambercrombie & Kent, Kensington.

Can you please let me know if we should be leaning torward A&K instead.  (or someone else that you recommend) We are going to Peru(LIMA) and we want to go to Cuzco, Arequipa, Machu Picchu, (walk the 8 mile inca trail)  and Valley of the Condor.   The quote we are getting is $5,000 per person, plus internal airfare $610 per person (for flights Lima-Cuzco-Arequipa-Lima)  Of course, insurance will be approx. $500 each  for my husband & I.  

As we have stated we have traveled with Tauck.   You definitely pay for what you get.  However, we are a concerned. My question is that first and foremost, we are not sure about this Sita tour.   We cannot find any reviews on it.  Should we look elsewhere?  We are hoping you can give us any feedback as soon as possible.   Thank you in advance for your recommendations to us for our Bucket List trip!!!

A –  There are dozens of so-called “Worldwide” tour operators and SITA is one of them. They started out in 1933 in California doing student bicycle tours and were purchased by Roger Mahal an accomplished engineer from India in 1982. They have added many destinations since Roger took the helm but their primary strength remains travel to India where they are well-connected to the government and have won numerous awards. Your travel agent has recommended a well-regarded company with a long history of serving the needs of its clients. No fault there.

That said, we would not use SITA for travel within South America. Things can and do go wrong in South America and we prefer to work with top-tier firms in that part of the world who are truly connected on the ground. SITA would, however, offer better pricing than, say, an A&K, a Cox & Kings, or  a top consortium On-Site office.

One of the key questions to ask when you see a company that claims to have worldwide tours is “Exactly where do you have fully-staffed on-site offices and full-time guides?”  There are part sof the world where we would not recommend even the top-rated tour operators because they are just not equally good everywhere in the world. If you get seriously hurt while traveling, we want to be certain that the company in charge of your welfare is fully equipped to handle any emergency.

So our bottom line is that if you are seeking a moderately-priced experience, your travel agent’s recommendation strikes us as fine. SITA is a reputable company. But if you are seeking a more upscale and truly memorable experience, you might want to consider alternatives. We say this because you have mentioned several upscale firms in your question and you don’t seem to be fazed by the high likelihood of significant cost increases to “Do South America Right”. There are three continents where we strongly urge travelers to travel with the very best operators on the ground. South America is one of them.

Given your background with Tauck and your complete satisfaction, we would not take your money for any tour operator we feel may not be able to meet their standards. We have to wonder why this did not occur to your agent unless you indicated budgetary restrictions.

DID I BOOK MY ITALY TOUR IN THE WRONG MONTH

Venice Italy CrowdsQ – We had friends in town visiting who have been to Italy a number of times. They were quite surprised that we were visiting Italy on a tour that has us  going to Venice in late September. They said that visiting Venice at that time is the worst in terms of water levels? And they said the weather wasn’t the best.

We are sure that our agent and the tour company checks on all of this but was wondering if you  have any thoughts on that?

A  – Although  weather patterns in Europe are going through some serious changes, May and September are generally regarded as the very best months to visit. Personally, we like the first two weeks in October. Venice is best enjoyed when most of the tourists have gone and the temps. have cooled off.Venice Italy Crowds 2

Several years ago, the Italian police set up roadblocks at the train station and the airport to prevent tourists from coming into the city in July and August because of severe overcrowding.

Last year, Italy had its hottest summer since records were kept.

Rains can produce flooding in portions of Venice at any time so it is not easy to predict although we try to stay away from bookings guests there from November through February when flooding is most serious.

Many great writers have commented on the fact that Venice is best appreciated in the rain. That is when we like it best because the streets are less crowded in the off season.

The truth is that if we were just going to Venice instead of a comprehensive Italy tour, we would almost  want to push it back a few weeks. The incredible crowds, now including huge numbers of Russian, Chinese, and Indian visitors, makes navigating difficult in the so-called “prime season months” of June, July, and August.

You have not made a mistake. The summer heat is brutal when combined with the crowds.

Veniced Flooding

We have always hoped to be in Venice during a period of major flooding but we’ve not yet achieved that. If we did, we would send the same postcard to all of our friends that the humorist Robert Benchley sent many years ago:

“In Venice. City Sinking. Please Advise.”

“The quality of Venice that accomplishes what religion so often cannot is that Venice has made peace with the waters. It is not merely pleasant that the sea flows through, grasping the city like tendrils of vine, and, depending upon the light, making alleys and avenues of emerald and sapphire, Citi s a brave acceptance of dissolution and an unflinching settlement with death. Though in Venice you may sit in courtyards of stone, and your heels may click up marble stairs, you cannot move without riding upon or crossing the waters that someday will carry you in dissolution to the sea.”
Mark Helprin, The Pacific and Other Stories

HELP WITH MY DAUGHTER’S TRAVELS

Ataturk Airport IstanbulQ –  My daughter travels to northern Thailand in January, then back to the states in May. The bulk of her flights are on Turkish Airlines; you report them to be improved. She has two stops along the way: Istanbul and Bangkok. I see a wide variety of experiences online including the past couple months, that reflect highly negative experiences, the worst of which indicate a pattern of not communicating a change in flight–at the airport or late in the game. Flyers find out the change too late, when attempting to board where they checked in, then have to buy another ticket to actually get a flight out. This would be a disaster for a young woman by herself in a strange airport–and you say communication isn’t good (while online reviewers say English is weak among Turkish Airlines employees). While you’re at it, Thai Airlines looks a touch better–are they? That’s her second airline to northern Thailand.

A –  We would like to help you but without knowing the age of your daughter and a bit about her, specific advice is difficult. We are going to assume she is a well-traveled adult given her itinerary.

Here are the things you can do to assist her – here is what we would do to assist her:

01 – Upgrade her to Business Class. She will then receive transfer preferences and assistance. It will make a nice gift.

02 – Have your travel agent sign you up for comprehensive flight monitoring. They will watch all of your daughter’s flights, communicating with her directly by cell phone. Make certain, by the way, that she has a phone that will definitely work in both Thailand and Turkey. It is important that she is familiar with the details of working the phone. If there is a cancellation, the flight monitoring service will handle the situation, making alternative reservations. She will not have to stand in lines or panic.

3 – Have your agent schedule a meet and greet VIP service at all transfer points.

Turkish Airlines4 – You might want to stop reading online airline reviews. They are only indicative of one single flight experience on one route with one crew. Any single flight is a statistical anomaly. We are not fans of Turkish Airlines economy service/food etc. But their Business Class does win industry awards from time to time. Their long-haul service to and from the U.S. is significantly better than their services within Asia and Europe on shorter flight segments. To put things in perspective, the world’s best regarded airline ratings service gives Turkish a four-star rating. Delta, American, and United are three-star airlines.

Thai Airways is considered one of the world’s top-tier airlines. They do rank above Turkish.

The situations you describe as happening, as reported by self-appointed online critics, sounds to us as though several of the instances have to do with non-transferable internet tickets or a lack of authentic airline ticket stock representing universally accepted tickets. Tickets purchased from the airline directly or an agency representative, rarely have the kinds of difficulties you seem to have uncovered. But that is just our guess. Always remember that there are tickets and there are Online tickets. They are often quite different as are their terms and transfer/change stipulations.

Finally a personal note. If your daughter is as helpless as you are making her seem, why is she alone for several months in a third world country?

IT HAPPENED AGAIN: MINI-BAR OUTRAGE

Empty Mini-BarQ – Like most of the folks on this site, we’re extremely well -traveled and we tend to stay in one of the three best hotels in every city we visit. I love the treatment we receive and the benefits we get from our agent’s consortium group. But one thing just drives me crazy  and it just happened again. We like to take an afternoon nap and we keep getting awakened by calls and knocks on the door (the last time they ignored the “Do Not Disturb Light”) by some knucklehead who wants to “check the mini-bar.” 

When I am spending over $1,000 a night for room, taxes, and incidentals, I hate being ripped off by a refrigerator stocked with overpriced stuff I would never buy on principle. My partner and I both work very long hours and we like to just relax at a really nice hotel. The last two stays, we had to argue with the front desk about the damn mini-bar charges. We never, ever use the mini-bar but we were told “the sensor said you opened the door and took something” For $1,000 + a night shouldn’t we get some privacy and trust that we are not stealing their precious little bottles of booze? 

A – Yes. And it doesn’t really surprise us that five-star hotels are treating you this way. They seem to have a blind-eye when it comes to mini-bar annoyances and we receive numerous complaints about this topic.

The first thing to do is insist that your travel agent require that the mini-bar be emptied at every hotel in the future. This will give you the use of a refrigerator which in many situations, comes in extremely handy. You are entitled to the choice: Their rip-off “we have you captive” pricing for sundries or a nice cold, clean refrigerator to keep whatever you like in your room. Savvy travelers in growing numbers are now demanding that the mini-bar be emptied before arrival. Your agent can handle this for you.

If you are ever interrupted when you have a “Do Not Disturb” sign or light on, immediately ask to speak to the manager on duty. This is a serious breach of hotel manners and etiquette and some adjustment should be made to your bill.

Finally, if the mini-bar doesn’t bother you but the expensive booze it contains does, have your profile updated to say you are recovering from alcohol-related issues and no liquor or beer can be present in your room.

Thanks very much for helping us bring this to everyone’s attention. No one should accept a stocked mini-bar unless they really want one.

LOOKING FOR CHIC, NEW, SMALL AND WELL-LOCATED IN ISTANBUL?

Istanbul   Soho House Hotel BXX TelegraphQ – We have heard that the Four Seasons in central Istanbul is small and quite nice and we’re ready to book. Thought we should run this past you first. We’re from New York, fashionionable and style-minded, we like to explore the latest hotels and restaurants when we travel and we blog for friends only. A sense of authenticity is important and we always like to be centrally located. Should we pull the trigger on the Four Seasons? I will say that my incredible girlfriend is worried about bad dreams at the FS given that the rooms were once prison cells. Looooove the site! 

A – We’re wondering what you were wearing when you sent this e-mail? Trust you are color-coordinated. We are not in the Four Seasons bashing business as they are a brand that always seems to exceed expectations. For this trip, however, we’d suggest you head, instead, to the new Solo House Hotel, sitting handsomely in the Beyoglu section of the city. Instead of a “prison cell” you will be sleeping in the former American Embassy. This small masterpiece feels very much like a private club – we think you will looooooove it! By the way, you are not actually sleeping in a prison cell at the Four Seasons. They did some renovation before they opened.

CONNECTING THROUGH GERMANY: HOW LEGAL IS LEGAL?

Frankfurt Airport ConnectionsQ – My work will be taking me to Germany at least six or seven times in the next year. I missed my connecting flight last time because my nothing on Expedia seems to tell you that the lines for security can be long and that even passengers in transit may have to clear security in Frankfurt or Munich. Any advice would be appreciated as I know there are many business travelers who share my concerns. I had booked a “legal” connection.

Germany Airport SecurityA –  This is a bit of a scam that affects thousands of travelers to Europe. When you book off a computer screen, as corporate agents and Online Travel Agencies do, as well as the airlines when you call them directly, they are looking at a computer screen that tells them what they can book for you as a “legal” connection. That means that, assuming your original flight is on time, you should, under normal conditions, be able to make your connecting flight. They want to sell you a connecting flight because you will be happy that you did not have to waste hour in an airport terminal. Many passengers demand the earliest connecting flight.

The problem is that no human is actually involved in this conversation. The headset making your booking is likely not at all well-traveled and is probably unaware of the current levels of security as German airports including  Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, and Munich. The current security level often requires in-transit passengers to go through additional security lines that may include passport scans.

Cruise passengers frequently miss their assigned “legal” connections because the cruise line’s air department was unaware that their guests are subject to long security lines even when they are in transit.

Here is what we advise you do:

01 – Never book an airline ticket with an online agency. Book with airline directly as you will have direct contact with them should there be a problem. Many online air tickets are non-transferable to other airlines.

02 – Never simply accept a “legal connection”. Discuss it was a knowledgeable travel consultant or research it yourself. Always try to allow at least two-hours between connecting flights at major airports with in-transit security and passport lines.

03 – Think about your luggage. Yes, you will make a tight connection if you do an OJ through the airport (he’s slower now that he has to wear manacles) but your luggage won’t run as fast. Plan your connection time to ensure that your luggage wil join you on the second leg of your trip.

04 – Finally, specific to Germany, get an Easypass, which allows you to skip immigration booths at all major German airports in the future. You apply at  the office of the German Federal Police located in both the Frankfurt and Munich terminals.

Oh, one more thing: German Federal Police Officers and Army Personnel on security duty at Germany’s major airports do not generally possess a well-developed comedic style. Act seriously when interacting with them. German Airport Security 2

WE HAVE A PROBLEM WITH DRYNESS IN HOTELS. WHAT SHOULD OUR EXPECTATIONS BE IN FIVE STAR HOTELS TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?

DehumidifierQ – I am looking forward to a lengthy trip planned by our agent that will take us to Paris, Bordeaux, and Monte Carlo. I have a real problem sleeping in dry rooms and I wonder what I should expect from the top tier hotels we are using to help get some moisture in the room at night? Who should I be contacting at the hotel?

A – It is perfectly reasonable to ask a hotel to provide one or two humidifiers in your room. We do this all the time when open windows are not an option. The better hotels will have high-powered, quiet machinery specifically designed for the hotel industry. Your travel agent should make certain this information appears on your guest profile. We think that in-room humidifiers are a good idea even for those who do not feel they suffer from a lack of moisture in a room.

One way to combat dryness is to fill up the bathtub in your hotel room or cruise ship cabin in the early evening. As the water evaporates it will help to moisturize  the room and your skin.

If you are staying at any of the top-level chains such as Peninsula, Aman, Fairmont, Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Aman, Miontage, Mandarin Oriental and others, your humidifier profile, once added to your profile, will always be available when you check in. If it isn’t, call the front desk or housekeeping. Sleep well and please tell Paris we love her – and always will.

THREE NIGHTS IN VENICE BUT DON’T WANT A HOTEL FILLED WITH TOURISTS

ca-pisani-hotelQ –  We will be in Venice for three nights before taking a cruise for a week. We have only been to Europe twice, once on business but we know enough to know what we don’t like – large hotels that cater to tourist groups on the main drag, which in Venice, I imagine, means near Rialto Square. Can you suggest a boutique neighborhood hotel of high quality that offers charm and a less touristic feel?  A place with character is more important than price as we understand prices in Venice are otherworldly in high season.

A –  There are two small hotels we really like. Our first choice is Ca’ Pisani, a 29-room gem in the artsy Dorsoduro neighborhood. The little-known Palazzinag sits in a 16th century building on the Grand Hotel and only has 22 rooms. You will find “tourists” in any hotel as local residents don’t like to pay for accommodations just a pizza toss from their home.

WHAT DO WE REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ZIKA. WE ARE HEADED TO SAN JUAN FOR A WEEK IN TWO MONTHS FOR A LONG-PLANNED VACATION.

Zika CDC Travel Alert
THE LATEST UPDATE 2.15.16

The Zika virus is spreading rapidly across South America, the Caribbean, and portions of the southern United States. Zika is a mosquito-borne viral infection which is transmitted by the same type of mosquito linked to dengue and chikungunya.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a state of emergency this week and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a travel alert for those traveling to affected regions.

However, please be sure to advise your clients of the following facts, to help them make their travel decisions:

  • Symptoms can include mild fever, rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle or joint pain and general feeling of illness that begins 2-7 days after infection.
  • Four out of five people who are infected have no symptoms at all.
  • Recent studies show there is a correlation between the disease and increased number of cases of  microcephaly (reduced brain size) in unborn babies.
  • If you are not a woman of childbearing age who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant, the Zika virus is unlikely to cause you any serious trouble.
  • Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week. The virus will not affect a baby that is conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood.
  • Zika cannot be transmitted through the air, food or water.
  • There have been no deaths so far attributed to the Zika virus.

Infected persons are advised to  drink water and rest. Hospitalization as a result of Zika is extremely uncommon. In Brazil the current spread of Zika virus is mostly concentrated in the Northeastern states, especially Pernambuco state.

Areas to the south such as Rio and Sao Paulo are currently much less affected. Very few cases have been reported in the Amazon and Foz do Iguaçu.

Nevertheless the precautions for travelling to a region with mosquitoes are important:

  • Use plenty of mosquito repellant.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net.
As of February 10, 2016 – this is the best summary we’ve found of information travelers need to know: (Source: Edward Hospital, Naperville, Illinois)

UPDATE: The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has advised that, while the primary mode of transmission for Zika virus is from the bite of an infected mosquito, there are at least three cases of possible sexual transmission of Zika virus.

According to the CDC:Zika 3

  • Sexual transmission of Zika virus from infected women to sex partners has not been reported.
  • We do not know how long Zika virus remains in semen.
  • Men who live in, or have traveled to, an area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing and who have a pregnant partner should not participate in sexual activity or should consistently and correctly use condoms during sex throughout the pregnancy.
  • At this time, the CDC does not recommend testing men to determine the risk of sexual transmission of Zika virus.
  • The IDPH recommends doctors offer to test pregnant women who are not showing any symptoms of Zika virus infection within 2-12 weeks after they have returned from travel to affected countries.

When a virus with the potential to cause serious complications starts to spread, especially one that’s not familiar, it can be unnerving.

Zika virus is one of those. Most of the time, people contract the virus through mosquito bites. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). People with this illness are not usually very sick, and symptoms disappear after several days to a week.

However, Zika virus may cause some sobering problems, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome and birth defects.

Zika virus has been on the radar for some time. It was first isolated from a monkey in Zika forest in Uganda in 1947. In May 2015, The Pan American Health Organization issued an alert about a Zika infection in Brazil.

Recently, the World Health Organization announced the Zika virus was a public health emergency of international concern. In a statement on its website, the organization said the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus “are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women.”

The American Red Cross has asked people to hold off on donating blood for 28 days if they’ve been to a Zika-infected area.

One thing that isn’t a concern in the Midwest in February: mosquitoes. However, warm weather is coming and knowledge is a powerful prevention tool. Here are some important facts about Zika virus:

Who is at risk for contracting Zika virus? 

Most people in the United States will not come into contact with the Zika virus, as pointed out by CDC Director Tom Frieden in an article by CNN. The people who should be most concerned are people living in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean or Pacific territories, and Central and South America.

Because the Zika virus may cause birth defects, the CDC has warned pregnant women to avoid those areas, and if they’re there, to take steps to prevent mosquito bites. If you are a woman who is planning to conceive and may have recently traveled to the affected areas or plan to travel to the areas, please contact your OB/GYN physician for recommendations.

How do you get Zika virus? 

Mosquitoes are the primary vehicle. While the virus is mainly transmitted by mosquitoes, it can also spread through sexual contact, blood transfusions and (rarely) from mother to child during birth.

How do you protect yourself from Zika virus? 

There is no vaccine available to prevent Zika from infecting us, so protecting yourself from mosquitoes is your best defense. If you’re in a high-alert location, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and insect repellant.

What happens if you contract Zika virus?

The CDC reports that 1 in 5 people who are infected with Zika will get sick. If that happens, you just treat yourself as if you have a flu virus: rest, fluids, pain reliever/fever reducer.

What if I have a vacation planned? 

Think before you book that trip. Check the CDC’s Zika Travel Information.

Now, before you do check, remember that US governmental agencies tend to be ultra-conservative when warning Americans about terrorism or health-related travel.

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