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Travel Q&A



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.

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.

IS THERE A NON-TOURISTY TEMPLE OF GASTRONOMY IN VENICE, ITALY?

Osteria Alle Testiere 2Q – Love the site but really wish you would include more unbiased recommendations for restaurants. I am not sure that some of the “critics” are willing to pay for fine dining on vacation.

We will be in Venice in July. We’re working with a fine agent but she does not seem to have any interest in recommending an excellent restaurant in the city. Can you point us in the right direction for a non-tourist restaurant that might result in a truly memorable meal? Also wondering best way to book it. Do we just go online?

Venice Osteria Alle Testiere 1A –  Venice is a tough food city because it is so easy for the owners/chefs to simply cater to tourists and fill their seats each night. But there are several excellent restaurants, some of them new, that cater to locals as well as the sizeable number of Italians from “the provinces.”

The current best restaurant in Venice is Osteria Alle Testiere on Calle Del Mondo Novo.  There are only nice tables and two seatings each night. Chef Bruno Gavagnin’s fresh local fare has impressed food critics worldwide – at least those that can score a table.

Venice All ArcoThe best way to get a reservation at a top-level restaurant is to have your agent use her On-Site Italy office, the same ones doing your trip operations, to secure the reservation. Local offices in Italy that work with the major consortiums have local contacts that can get you otherwise impossible reservations. Do note that, as a rule, most gourmet restaurants in Europe have little interest in increasing their number of American diners.

Venice La Zucca  AXLet us recommended several other top tables in Venice. We swear by each of these:

La Zucca

Da Ivo

Da Fiore

All Arco

ANY HOTEL RECOMMENDATION IN INDIA’S GOLDEN TRIANGLE?

India  ITC Grand Bharat Hotel   BQ –  We’re planning a getaway to India and want to stay for a few days in the area of the Golden Triangle so we can take day trips to both Agra and Jaipur. From there, we really want to do one, or possibly two, of the best luxury trains within the country. Can you please recommend a hotel for us in the Triangle and one or two of your personal favorite train experiences in-country?  Thank you in advance. This is rapidly becoming our favorite travel site and so nice that we are not bombarded with phony deals and come-ons.

A – Have your agent book you into the ITC Grand Bharat, a 100-room masterpiece located in Gurgaon, just between both Agra and Jaipur. THis is an elegant resort with fine services and our general philosophy when it comes to India hotels is “always book the most expensive property.” The rates are high only when they can be justified and demand is great. Don’t do four-star in India. Given all that, you can still book a room here for under $400 per night.

In terms of trains, there are several excellent options. Make certain that your consultants works with one of the two or three top Indian train specialists on earth, hopefully someone based in London or India.

India Palace-On-WheelsThe Palace on Wheels has 14 salons named after the provinces of Rajasthan and is considered one of the world’s top five luxury trains. It features two restaurants, a spa,internet, live music, and good security. It travels cross-country so you may not find matching dates and a trip length and suits your needs.

India The-Maharajas-ExpressThe Maharajas Express is the most expensive, most costly, and, some would say, the most luxurious of India’s top trains. It offers several itineraries including a hugely popular trip between Delhi and Mumbai. Think direct dial TV, internet, individual temperature controls that actually work, and in-suite bathrooms.

You might also consider the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels a luxury train that visits important destinations in Rajasthan and Agra.

India The-Golden-Chariot

These luxury trains offer one week programs to India’s southern provinces round-trip out of Bangalore. We do want to caution you about trying to do this kind of trip without having a travel advocate to coordinate.

WHO DO I CALL TO DO A TOP-TIER FAMILY TRIP TO MEXICO WITH OUR TWO BOYS?

Mexico Cenotes 2Q – We are committed to taking our two boys, ages 11 and 13, on a family tour that will take us from Mexico City to the Mexican Riviera with a fair amount of time in central Mexico. We certainly would not drive and we would want to be in the hands of the best drivers and guides. We’re looking for something private – not interested in group tours at all. I’ve been all over the internet and ended up more confused than enlightened. How do we go about getting this done so it is an incredible experience. Could you help us?

A – We can – but so can any of the better professional travel consultants located in your area. There is a great deal in Mexico that appeals to high-end families who have the good sense to bring their kids to the country. Think about the kids swimming in cenotes, or natural wells, or the family doing a private boat ride through the Celestun Biosphere Reserve. In Mexico city, kids love to be taken to one or two of the better churros shops.

Work through your travel consultant. They may have a relationship with Journey Mexico or Artisans of Leisure. These excellent companies specialize in working with your consultant to create truly customized vacation programs. Our feeling is that these are the only two options you should consider – they are that good. We might also suggest that you re-think including the Mexican Riviera. The boys can always go to a resort on another trip – seek out the hidden Mexico and you may well have your expectations exceeded. Interview your consultant before committing to work with them to make certain they are aware of one or both of these Mexico specialists.

YOU’VE SCARED US: SHOULD WE AVOID THE CARIBBEAN

Q –   This Zika thing is scary, especially since we’re scheduled to spend the week  at the Four Seasons Nevis, one of our favorite resorts, a place we’ve enjoyed a half dozen times in the past. My wife and I are in our fifties and forties (you can guess which is which) and, unless I am totally clueless, I don’t think my wife wants to go beyond our current three children. If she is pregnant, our marriage is in trouble.  Given all of that should we still give pause? Any updates since your initial entry on this subject? 

A –  The update would be that while the disease is approaching epidemic proportions, the risk factors are clearly limited to pregnant women and those who intend to become pregnant. The vast majority of travelers who are bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus will feel a bit off but will recover quickly. They will then be immune from catching the virus again. Given your profile, we certainly think you should do this vacation. The Four Seasons Nevis is a perfect spot for gofers, tennis players, and lovers. Nevis, as you know, is accessible by boat from St. Kitts and the small island is home to some lovely people and small hotels that were once main houses on the former sugar plantations. This is the island where Lady Di went to hide out when things with Charles were not going well.

Sunshine's Shack BXAs a “regular” you must be familiar with Sunshine’s Shack, on the beach just off resort property. The spiny lobster and grilled shrimp served by Mr. Sunshine, and the infectious reggae music make this a favorite hang-out for those wishing to break away from the 4S poshness in favor of something authentically Caribbean.

INTRIGUING DINNER CONVERSATION ABOUT BEST COUNTRY ON PLANET

Germany Castle  AXQ – We were out to dinner last night with two couples at Nomad.PDX here in Portland and a fascinating topic came up that I wanted to share with traveltruth. Our friend, the radiologist, asked us how we would respond to  the question “What is the Best Country in the World”. That led to a conversation that lasted almost two hours. It was a 15-course tasting menu so we had lots of time to talk. I promised I would ask you to answer the same question.

A – We would answer New Zealand – for the people, the values, and the incredible scenery. Australia, Italy, and France would follow closely.

But ours is apparently a minority opinion. In fact, The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has recently tackled this question in a joint study between the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, RAV Consulting, and US News & World Report. They asked the question of over 16,200 business leaders and frequent world travelers. The Top Three were:

# 1 – GERMANY

# 2 – CANADA

# 3 – THE UNITED KINGDOM

But no worries – Trump is going to fix the order of things when he gets in and he knows “the guys from Wharton.” Look for the US to be at the top of the list next year. Except what do we do about Norway and Sweden?

PLANNING VACATION TO CARIBBEAN BUT MY GIRLFRIEND IS AFRAID OF ZIKA

Zika Virus 1Q – I am just hearing about this Zika virus on the news. It sounds pretty bad and absolutely awful for pregnant women. We’ve booked a vacation in Puerto Rico in 30 days and I have some concerns as I suppose my girlfriend, and soon to be fiance, is in the “pre-pregnancy” stage of our relationship. Is there anything we should do to prepare or should we seriously consider another destination? We know you are not doctors so pointing us in the right information direction would be most appreciated. Can we get our money back at this stage?

A – We are getting many questions about the Zika virus. Your travel consultant should be discussing this with you in terms of specific recommendations to get a refund should you cancel. Your travel insurance may cover your expenses.

Puerto Rico is certainly an area that pregnant women and “women who are trying to become pregnant” should avoid right now. We think that there are serious questions involving ports in the Caribbean, travel to East Africa, and portions of Mexico. For the best information and latest updates you should be in touch with your physician or the closest tropical medicine clinic.

The disease is not treatable and is spread by mosquitos. You will need to wear some protective clothing and use deet-based mosquito repellent. While we don’t advocate that everyone cancel travel to the Caribbean, we do think that a knowledge of the disease and how it is spread, as well as protective measures to take, should be required of all travelers planning to visit Brazil and those countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where the Center for Disease Control is reporting outbreaks.

Take this threat seriously even though the odds of contracting the virus are still low. Do not trust the information you get on this subject from folks like us or anyone connected with .selling travel for a living. Last week the New York Times contacted three major cruise lines to inquire about any port changes or policy changes in reaction to this outbreak., The Times reported that not one of the spokesmen for any of the three lines had ever heard of Zika.

We think you should seriously consider putting off this vacation unless you can seek expert medical advice within the week. Why go on a beach vacation if you have to constantly be watching out for attacking mosquitos? Try Iceland.

CAN YOU RECOMMEND A SMALL, WELL-LOCATED HOTEL ON PARIS’ LEFT BANK?

Le Relais ChristineQ –     Since the attacks in Paris, we’ve changed our vacation plans from Ireland to France, our token measure of support for the French. We’d like to see if we could spend no more than $600 per night at a boutique property on the Left Bank that will put us close to the city’s best cafes and bakeries. A recommendation would be appreciated. The internet reviews are all over the place and we suspect  you have a favorite or two.                                                                                            

A – Try Le Relais Christine, a former small monastery located on a quiet side street in the high-timed St.-Germaine-Des-Pres area. Lots of nearby cafes and interesting boutiques and you are just across the Seine from the Louvre.

Hotel Espirit Saint Germaine ParisOur personal favorite is the Hotel Espirit Saint Germain, our home away from home in Paris. Think 28 rooms, perfect location, cozy fireplace, and a really warm welcome. Just keep this one to yourself. Oh, and right around the corner is the emporium of Gerard Mulot, the reigning king of macaroons. Enjoy them with a complimentary glass of something in the hotel’s living room.             

IS THERE GENERAL AGREEMENT IN THE INDUSTRY AS TO WHICH OF THE WORLD’S AIRLINES IS THE VERY BEST?

eTIHADQ – Interesting discussion with friends last night about which of the world’s airlines is considered to be the best within the travel industry. Realizing this is subjective, wondering if you might care to shed some light on this? Appreciate your approach. Lots of food for thought – and dinner conversation! 

Etihad First ClassA – Surprisingly, there is s real consensus regarding the top three or four airlines in the world and one of them is generally considered to be the best of the best. That would be Etihad, based in Abu Dhabi. Three of the remaining four are also airlines based in the Middle East.

Airline ratings are less subjective than you might imagine. Careful records and analysis are kept regarding every aspect of an airline’s operations. This includes passenger service, seating/comfort, safety, cleanliness, food, schedules, aircraft conditions, home airport, partnerships, and financial stability.

We are working on producing an up-to-date ratings list of the world’s best airlines in all classes of service that will be specifically dedicated to non-business travelers. When completed, these ratings will appear on traveltruth.com

There are concerns among many of the world’s airlines that certain carriers are being heavily subsidized by their governments in the United Arab Emirates corridor. This is clearly reflected in the ratings but it would be a mistake to assume that service ratings are simply a reflection of financial strength.

RESTAURANT GIFT FOR MY WORLDLY HUBBY

NomaQ – My husband is an excellent chef and a real foodie – but only a few of our friends in Manhattan really know this. He will turn 60 in February and I want to arrange to fly him to the best restaurant in the world. I really don’t care about favorable weather as this will just be a long weekend, somewhere on the planet, dining in the world’s top dining room. So how do I set this up and where will it be?

A – Right now, that would be NOMA in Copenhagen. But you will need to hurry up as NOMA will be permanently closing at the end of 2016 so Chef  Rene Redzepi can open a new, somewhat larger “urban farm” in 2017. Have your travel agent book the entire stay in Copenhagen, stay at the best hotel;, and have the On-Site, together with the hotel concierge, figure out how to get you in. These are sime of the toughest restaurant seats in the world to book so get started on it right away and don’t commit to air or hotel until NOMA is confirmed.

VISITING WARSAW – HATE HIGHRISE, LARGE HOTELS

WQarsaw H15 Boutique HotelQ – Visiting relatives in Warsaw in spring. Is there a small, boutique hotel that is well-located and has less than 50 rooms? We can’t stand the chains or the larger hotels. 

A – Try to book the H15 Boutique Hotel on Poznanska 15. This new property just went through a five year renovation. It was formerly the Soviet Embassy and the Nazi Party Headquarters. Pleasant dreams.

I LOST YOU AT ‘BEST WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR HOTEL RATE”

Hotel Check-in BQ – Y’all lost me a few weeks back. My wife and I have been huge fans of both this site and the information you provide for the past five years. We’ve used your information in our travels and passed it on to friends. But you just about lost us with the idea that anyone who actually knows what a hotel room costs is paying “too much.” Can you just touch on that one again?

Hotels Booked OnlineA – Sure. And thanks very much for your time on traveltruth. It is good having you visit from time to time. When you look for the best rate for a hotel you are looking at three possible sources: A so-called OTA (online travel agency) like Expedia, a travel agent, or, perhaps, the hotel on its own site. In most cases, they are working under rather strict rules that mean that you will find the same pricing from all three sources. Certainly, no hotel in its right mind is going to allow an internet site to charge less than it is charging on its own web site and then turn around and pay the OTA a commission as well.

But there is a fourth way to book a hotel and that is the method that will get you the lowest rate virtually each and every time. Hotels in major cities and locations around-the-world are willing to offer special, lower-cost, contracted rates to key travel agencies and tour planners within their own country. These rates are highly confidential and may only be used when they are included in an itinerary. Your travel agent will work with an On-Site office wherever you are traveling abroad who will be able to package hotel rates that are simply unobtainable online or in the States. The price is not broken down as that would reveal the confidential tariff. So, the way to get the lowest rate is to have it be a part of other services you are receiving where the lower hotel rate can be included in one lump sum. It is absolutely true that if you know what you have paid for a hotel room you have not received anything like the best rate. Hope this helps. It is a bit counter-intuitive.

Continue for more Q&A