Traveltruth Responds to Your Travel Questions
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- OK, I'M IN MY HOTEL ROOM. WHAT DO I CLEAN FIRST?
Q - There is all this media coverage of dirty hotel rooms, bed bugs, lousy security etc. But I am most concerned about touching something in my hotel room that will make me sick. Yuck. What do I Purell first and how do you know which hotels are the cleanest?
A - Start with the light switches and the Television remote. Then wash the water glasses you will be using in very hot water. Other than that, just know that there is a strong correlation between the average room rate and carefully monitored health and safety matters. You would be correct in assuming that a five-star hotel is going to spend more on room cleanliness and on hotel security. They are also going to be able to provide more savvy, better trained staff. The average travel consumer still thinks that, somehow, hotel rates and cruise prices are exempt from the general rule that you usually get what you pay for. We think that room cleanliness and security issues, as well as guest demographics, are all reasons to use a top-rated property rather than a three or four-star "deal."
- WHO SHOULD WE USE TO SHIP LUGGAGE?
Q - I know you are going to say it is extremely expensive, but my wife and I have decided that we are not going to be traveling with luggage when we connect with our Absolute Asia itinerary in Hong Kong. Could you give us the one or two best luggage firms to contact? Thanks so much - awesome site! If you were on Facebook we'd give you twenty "likes".
A - Well we're not, so save your thumbs. We prefer talking to human beings instead of clicking like apes in a language lab at MIT. Luggage forward services are fairly new so these firms do not have extensive track records and, yes, the marketshare is still so low that prices haven;t come down vcry much. That said, the two best firms seem to be "Luggage Forward" and "Luggage Free".
- WHY CAN'T I GET REGENT'S FREE HOTEL NIGHT?
Q - Just can't fathom the way these cruise lines give and then take away. For the past year we've been getting mailers from Regent Seven Seas offering a Free Hotel Night before each of their cruises. Now, our agent tells us that she can't get us the free night for our planned cruise on the Navigator to Alaska this July. Should we work with someone else - like your firm?
A - No, stick with your agent. She is giving you the correct information. Regent has had a change of heart and the Free Hotel night offer ends prior to the summer cruise season. The new policy is that only guests booked in Concierge level cabins and suites will continue to receive a complimentary pre-cruise stay. The changeover policy takes effect on the following start dates:
Mariner - April 7 with Free Hotel beginning in Category E
Navigator - May 21 with Free Hotel beginning Category D
Voyager - June 2 with Free Air beginning Category E
On all sailings prior to those dates, the old program, meaning Free Hotel night in all categories, will still apply. You should, however, be aware that this program was never really "Free". Regent guests have the option of taking a $500 credit off the price of their cruise if they do not use the "Free" Hotel night. Do factor in that the hotel night was a package that included baggage handling, transfers, breakfast, and all taxes so, in most of the areas where Regent sails, it was and remains a good value.
In Europe, particularly, simply securing the hotel space would be challenging for any cruise line. A little more than 50% of Regent guests have been using the program which means a minimum of accommodations for 350 guests per ship in the same property. This is a logistical nightmare that has kept other lines from imitating this extremely popular Regent innovation.
- DO I REALLY NEED TO IRON MY MONEY?
Q - We have have heard that people who travel out of the United States should carry clean, or fresh money. A friend of mine in Concord, says she literally irons her larger bills before going to Europe so they look more legitimate. This just sounds crazy to us. What's the truth?
A - This is far less an issue in Europe than it is in Japan, China, and other parts of Asia. It isn't that a rumpled twenty is not worth twenty dollars, it is more an issue of pride and cleanliness. Money that has been handled by many people is germ-ridden and it is never, ever cleaned. In fact, dollar bills are generally the most toxic thing you will touch all day unless you work in the septic business or the state legislature.
The real issue is that paper bills that are soiled, tattered-looking, or just dirty, cannot be given as change to other customers in many parts of Asia. So they do not like to accept it. If you are running off to Europe for a week or two, we wouldn't worry about it. But for longer trips, particularly those to the Middle East or Asia, we do advise our clients to request "new bills" from your bank when taking out cash for a trip abroad. Your bank will be happy to comply and, shockingly, they have not yet figured out a way to charge for this extra service.
- CHINA FOR FIRST-TIMERS ON A BIT OF A BUDGET
Q - My husband just retired three weeks ago and I can already tell you, I want out of this house. Wer're going to start doing some long term travel planning and we are wondering if you are talking on new clients or if you would be willing to recommend someone in the Little Rock area? My first question has to do with China. What is the best way to see the most for the least amount of money. We want to tale it all in in about two or three weeks at the most. But we don't want to travel deluxe, just moderately with nice, clean hotels. We're in good health - I know you will ask about our health., I am a little hard of hearing. You'll like us if you give us a try. We need some hand holding cause we don't have passports yet and have never been out of the good old USA.
A - You have to be careful in China because there is not much in the mid-range category that we can recommend. Local tour guides are often not paid anything, living on kickbacks from local stores they include in their touring. In the mid-price range we would suggest Pacific Delight Tours as a place to begin. But our response to your question is that we would strongly urge you to avoid a group bus tour in China in favor of a land cruise combination of the type offered by Viking River Cruises in China.
Viking's China product rates higher than its European fleet and they have created a series of excellent land and Yangtze River cruise tours that will enable you to see and experience all of the major sites plus many along the river that will provide insight into rural life. The down side is that that comprehensive sightseeing in included and you will be exhausted at the end of the trip. In terms of your hearing, it is important to inquire as to whether or not the tour guides used by the company you are booking use individual headphone amplification. Many firms now do so that everyone in a group can hear what the tour guide is saying. Some of them have volume adjustments. We don't mean that the guide speaks through an amplification system. We want you in a group where every tour member has their own headset with volume adjustments.
We have had a full house for the past decade, generally accepting new clients exclusively by referral from our nationwide roster of current clients. But we really want to help you start off on the best foot so we've forwarded a New Client Application for your use. If you prefer walking in to sit down with someone locally, we will be pleased to recommend the best person to help you in Little Rock. Tell your hubby we said "Congratulations on retirement." We'll figure out the best way to get you both out of the house from time to time.
- ORDERING; ONE OF THE GREATEST MEALS OF OUR LIVES IN VERONA
Q - OK, we're going to trust you with the most important portion of our October trip to Italy. On the last night of the trip, we are going to be staying in Verona, after a few days in Venice. This is a honeymoon of sorts and, if all goes well, we may actually consider getting married next year. White tablecloths and violins are not necessarily our thing. We're all about the food. We will have a car. Where in Verona should we dine? Please help us with this. We will do whatever you recommend.
A - Thank you, we think, for the responsibility. We don;t want you to stay in Verona. Just about a half hour away, southwest, is the small village of Mantua and a wonderful family-run restaurant called Dal Pescatore. There are three generations of the family running this establishment and it was awarded its third Michelin Star in 1996. Nadia Santini, the chef, is the first female chef in Italy to achieve such distinction. I want you to call them immediately to secure a reservation and ask for the Tasting Menu. If you think of it, order a little extra Tortelli stuffed with pumpkin, amaretto, Parmesan, and Mostarda. Just ship the leftovers to us in dry ice.
- HEADED FOR CUZCO - WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
Q - Our agent booked us into Cuzco for two nights before taking the train to Machu Picchu, where we will have a private guide for two full days. We are really excited about the history and the views that lie ahead. Any suggestions on what we should do with our time in Cuzco. This is a wonderful site but I think we're among the last to discover it.
A - Hmmm. You have nothing to do in Cuzco but you have a private guide fror two days in Machu Picchu. That just sounds off to us. We would suggest you cancel the guide for one of the days in MP. Take the money and hire a private guide, instead, for part of your time in Cuzco.
We can recommend all sorts of ways to spend your time. But we want you to have "getting acclimated to the elevation" your primary goal. If you are young enough and strong enough to deal with that, we would suggest that you consider preparing for Machu Picchu by visiting one or two of the Inca ruins that are accessible from the city. The two most interesting are Sacsayhuaman and Quenko.
If no one has mentioned it, this is a trip you run by your personal physician before departing. There are a number of medications that do not get on well with the higher elevations. This trip will mean a great deal more to you if you put some readings about the Inca's on your pre-departure schedule.
- A VILLA IN SPAIN: WHERE DO WE BEGIN?
Q - My travel agent can get me the best airfare to Ft. Lauderdale or Chicago, but she knows very little about Villas (trust me - I've tried to engage her on the topic). Some of the magazines like Travel + leisure now list Villa Agencies. Is this the best way or do we contact the embassy, use the internet, find a different travel agent, contact Villa owners directly or try to read the ads in the back of National Geographic? We are looking for a three bedroom for four adults and three children and we want to keep the price at under $20,000 per week for a two-week stay. At that price, we would expect to have a private cook included on staff.
A - The fact that your long-time agent does not personally know Villas well is not particularly disturbing. But if she does not have good connections in the Villa Rental world and has no idea how to proceed, you need to be working with another professional. The best procedure is to have your travel agent place you in direct contact with the best Villa specialists with operations in Spain. Villas of Distinction is one company your agent may want to use. All final negotiations are best done through your agent who will have yiour best interests at heart. Commissions are almost always included in the price so using your agent and then working through her/him witht he right Villa company will normally cost you nothing and it will provide you a number of complimentary services.
Your budget seems reasonable but the cost of a full-time chef, along with the other "staff" your question implies, could well take you over your budget. You must, ultimately, design a list of those things, such as a swimming pool, location near a village of charm, etc. that form your requirements. The Travel + Lesiure Villa List seems to be copied from the Annual Conde Nast List of Villa Specialists. Since Cinde Nast is independent and T + L is owned by American Express, your agent will likely use someone on the CNT List.
- ROME'S LEAST-KNOWN NEW HOTELS
Q - We go to Rome every six months or so. We love the energy, the food, and the southern Italian "attitude." We've always done the Hassler or your recommended Hotel De Russie, but now we're looking for some new recommendations in the city, We would prefer to stay under $1200 USD per night.
A - There are two new properties we think you may like. J.K. Place Rome will be open for the summer. This is the newest branch of the chic chain with properties on Capri and in Florence. Margutta 54 is a great new option featuring beautiful suites
- DO CERTAIN AIRLINES CHARGE LESS FOR FLIGHTS TO EUROPE?Q - Don't think anyone has ever asked you this before - "Are there airlines that routinely offer lower air fares to Europe?" My feeling is that, once I'm over there, I can connect anywhere I need to go. A - You may want to look at the schedules and pricing on one of the Frugal Fab Four. They are Air Berlin, Air Lingus (Ireland's carrier), TAP (Portugal), and Iberia (flies into Madrid). Not one of these airlines ranks among our Top Recommended Airlines for service but you will, normally, find lower fares than those available on the "Majors".
- DO WE NEED TO GO 5-STAR IN THE CARIBBEAN?
Q - Our frrinds in Aiken keep wanting us to join them on a Caribbean cruise. They tend to go with Princess or Holland America. We've done our last two cruises on Sea Dream Yachts and Seabourn, so we're reluctant to get on any boat that doesn't have "Sea" in its name. But then again, pennies always count in our house and we're wondering if paying two or three times more is really a good idea or even necessary in the Caribbean. We all follow this site religiously and we're good Baptists!
A - There are so many ways to respond to this question. Let us summarize some of our staff's primary responses:
Your pricing assumptions are not really correct. We've done the analysis, and when you figure in Seabourn's free air, gratuities, drinks, one or two shore excursions, the price per day for similar accommodations after all discounts are applied, may well turn out to be less than $100 per day per guest. Now for some folks, that is a lot of money. But in the scheme of things, we definitely feel that you will feel you get what you are paying for.
We would normally say join your friends. The fact that you will all be traveling together, makes it possible to pre-arrange some of your own shore excursions. You may, for example, work with a consultant who can get you in to some of the region's most exclusive resorts. Your feeling that the Caribbean may be the place to step down a grade or two makes sense if you are prepared for the realities. Those realities on mass market lines now include large influxes of non-English speaking guests and an increasingly higher percentage of blue-collar, budget conscious travelers.
Our primary concern is that you have been to the mountaintop. Sea Dream Yachts, for instance, do not normally sail out of Florida. They begin and end their itineraries in the Caribbean avoiding the, sometimes rough waters, between the islands and the Florida Straits. Given their small size, Sea Dream can take you to islands or private berths that the bigger ships can only visit in their dreams.
Before committing to Holland America or Princess, determine what the real per Diem's will be for the level of suite you may need to keep you in one of the nicer areas of the ship. Think about thousands of fellow travelers and how you will feel about that. Imagine being nickel and dimed continually. The value will have to be significant to decide that you are willing to put up with that. But who knows - your friend's company may be well worth these relative "sacrifices". If you do go with your friends, pre-negotiate that they will pick up your drinks. Explain you are not in the habit of having to pay for them.
- WHAT IS THE SMARTEST WAY FOR A FAMILY OF FIVE TO SAIL MICKEY?
Q - We want to take our family of five on the Disney Magic. What would you recommend as the best cabin strategy?
A - Do a deck 8 Veranda. They have a queen or twin beds and three singles that pull out from the wall. There is a divider between the sitting area and the master bath. Enjoy.
- HELP IN COZUMEL
Q - I don't know if you all give advice but I guess it's worth a shot given my situation. I'm young (mid twenties) petite female who just booked a solo trip to Cozumel for five days in May. Given that I've been there before, albeit with a companion, I thought that I chose a safe place to travel. Now, however, I am finding disturbing reports such as the gang rape of a young woman in a "cruise-line recommended shop" in broad daylight. I am becoming seriously worried. All I want is a quiet vacation to Cozumel so I can rest on the beaches/read do a bit of shopping/scuba diving and visit the Bob Marley Bar so I can watch the waves. I even got an all-inclusive option at my hotel so I don;t have to venture out for food at night. But I did plan to visit restaurants, shops, and beaches during the day. Other than avoiding inebriation, how can I minimize risk of assault/etc. when apparently even shops in well-lit areas can be dangerous?
Sidelight: I also apparently look Latin American so every time I end up in the Caribbean/South America or LA I feel like I receive more attention from the local lotharios than my lighjter-skinned, blonde friends do. I've also never traveled alone before. I don;t have the option of having this trip refunded and none of my friends can join me due to work commitments. Your advice is greatly appreciated.
A - A vacation ought to be something you anticipate - not fear. Discuss this with your travel agent. Given what has been happening in Cozumel, your agent may be able to work something out. Here are some observations:
Most people go to Cozumel without incident
We would not allow our own family to travel to Mexico alone oif they were your age.
You may be underestimating the chances that someone will slip something in your drink. This is getting to be quite common.
The one thing that most bothers us about your scenario is that the police in Mexico are often, very often, corrupt. This is a game-changer and we would never book a trip of this kind for someone your age traveling alone.
It isn't all about money. Cancel the trip.
- NEWS FROM THE STATE OF PARANOIA
Q - If you really want to be "truthful" you may want to tell your readers that the Chinese are already waging cyberwarfare against the United States and our entire air traffic control system can be brought down while thousands of planes are in the air causing who knows what level of chaos. I know you will not print this, but Americans better wake up. Are the airlines aware that this is going on and are they doing anything about it? Until you start dealing with political realities, your site will just be another travel dead zone.
A - Thanks for the charming update. There is, actually, some truth in what you say to the extent that any of our major grids such as those that regulate gas pipelines or chemical plants, as well as government facilities are vulnerable. In a truly important speech, outgoing Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta said that we are in a "Pre 9-11 Moment" with hackers testing our defenses daily in a great many areas, including transportation hubs.
This is not something we worry a great deal about when we are ordering off the dinner menu on Singapore or Emirates or any of the world's great airlines. But since you brought it up, here is what we see as a greater threat. Hackers in China and, to a lesser extent, the Russians, North Koreans, and Iranians, are testing our vulnerabilities on a daily basis. Our reading of the threats makes us believe that the greatest danger is a coordinated series of hacking attacks on the computer systems that store the financial records of our largest banks. The theory of experts in this field is that rather than just wipe these computers clean, a cyberattack would more likely change and reallocate the data rather than completely eliminating it for maximum chaotic effect. It would take years, esxperts believe, for the country to make a full recovery.
Last year, Congress failed to pass the comprehensive Cybersecurity Act favored by Panetta because major business lobbyists felt the costs of the new regulations governing computer security would be too high. Meanwhile, data has already been stolen from more than 140 major American Corporations including Apple, Google, and a wide number of government agencies, law firms, and think tanks. We would hope that the Washington Post and the New York Times would be vigilant in terms of this threat. They are among the 140 corporations already attacked.
So stay in your closet and don't go anywhere near an airport. We'll let you know when it is safe to come out.
- WHY AREN'T CRUISE LINES FLYING THE US FLAG?
Q - Reading about these cruise lines that register out of the United States and pay no taxes? Are they really non-American companies and why are we supporting them with our business. What is really going on here?
A - If you look at the five largest cruise lines operating in the United States, you will find that they are all registered in foreign countries including the Bahamas, Panama, and Liberia. By "foreign-flagging", cruise lines avoid paying the kinds of taxes they would pay if they were US-based corporations. They also do not have to observe our labor laws or even many of our domestic safety requirements. The practice is referred to as "flags of convenience."
The hard truth is that cruise labor is much like migrant labor - unless it continues, prices for the product will soar. The Hotel and Tour industries wonder why their major competitor is allowed to skirt so many US laws in order to maintain the present pricing levels. James Walker, a prominent maritime attorney, writing for CNN.com, claims that cleaners aboard Royal Caribbean ships are paid "as little as $156.25 a week with no prospect of tips". If the larger cruise ships were registered in the United States, employed unionized labor, and followed current US labor laws, the entire pricing model of the cruise industry would collapse and, it is likely, so would large portions of the industry.
- I HATE O'HARE - OPTIONS?
Q - Spent several hours on this site last night and had to drop you a line. Great stuff. Here's my specific question. I am a consultant in the chemical industry and I fly, out of my home in Denver all over Europe. I work alone, with a part-time secretary and we do all of our own air arrangements. I have had numerous flight cancellations and delays at O'Hare and I just want to try avoiding it if I can. If you were me, which airports that have non-stop flights to Europe would be best for connections? Wish you had more on airline strategies and less on cruise line ratings.
A - Thanks for the advice. We won't take it, but thanks anyway. Your question does, we think, have a specific answer. Our air people feel that you might limit your connections to three "first-choice" options, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Charlotte, and Detroit. All three have enviable connection stats.
- FLYING IN APRIL - HOW EARLY DO I NEED TO GET TO THE AIRPORT?
Q - My husband and I are going overseas for the first time this April on a tour arranged through our church in Boise. It is a group tour and we have to get to New York on our own to get on a Delta Airlines flight. My question is how much time do you think we need between flights. Our travel agent says two hours and we found a flight that gives us a little less, one hour and fifty minutes. Our agent wants to book it but we thought we should run it past you first. Any advice would be appreciated. I just want everything to go right.
A - We disagree with your agent. Do not book the flight. With the current sequestration budget cuts, TSA staff at a number of US Airports, but most particularly New York's JFK, O'Hare, and Atlanta, will be cut by as much as 30%. We are now advising all of our clients to allow a minimum outbound international connection time in those three airports of three hours.
We want everything to go right also. While you are waiting, have a Nathan's Hot Dog in the terminal. You probably can't get one in Boise. Have a terrific trip and make sure to carry copies of the picture page of your passport along with a sheet that has photocopies of the front and back sides of your credit card. Be safe.
- SHOULD WE REALLY CONSIDER A CRUISE AFTER THIS?
Q - After watching CNN and other interviews with the poor folks getting off the Carnival Triumph, I really wonder if we ever will take that first cruise. So let's see why travel "truth" is still, as far as I can see, recommending cruising. Given the honesty of your answers to other questions, I wonder how you respond to your bread and butter? This is not meant in any mean-spirited way. We read the site, enjoy it, and are really curious.
A - Fair enough. We don't recommend "cruising" we recommend the top ten-rated cruise lines. We don't recommend "hotels", we recommend certain hotels that meet our stringest standards. We have never booked guests on a Carnival Cruise. The one essential rule that the consumer somehow thinks does not apply to travel is "you get what you pay for". This is a critical mistake. We don't sell Holiday Inn or Motel 6.
When you book the most budget of budget lines, on a short cruise, you can expect fun, sun, crowds, and a party atmosphere. For sophistication and elegance you will need to look elsewhere.
Travel sellers need to be defined by what they refuse to sell as well as by those companies they enthusiastically endorse.
- DOES TEN DAYS ON THE AMALFI COAST MAKE SENSE?
Q - We work full time and have just nine or ten nights to spend in Italy. We love hiking, exploring, and really good food. Could the Amalfi Coast work in that time frame and how would we set it up in terms of hotels and air. We are in our fifties and we like good hotels that are romantic. Will our travel agent make dinner reservations for us and can her recommendations be trusted?
A - There is a lot of question there. We would fly into Rome and then train down to Naples. You would be met in Naples and then brought to your hotel. Our recommendation for ten days is to stay in two hotels. You should look first at Le Siranuse in Positano and the Hotel Caruso in Ravello. Both are truly memorable. There is some public transportation and the hotels can arrange for a private driver when necessary. Try not to do this trip between June 15th and the 20th of September. Late May and the first week in October are great times to go. We think there is enough of interest to fill ten days and you can hike the lesser-known villages in the crux of the hills. We have discussed these in response to a previous question. Finally, you might want to check out the travel agent's culinary creds before committing to her recommendations. There is a simple test to find out how much your travel consultant knows about food. Ask them the difference between an Osteria, a Trattoria, and a Ristoranti. Follow that up by asking them to name the best restaurant in the best hotel in Hong Kong.(Gaddi's in the Peninsula) This was once a question we would pose to those interviewing for a position at our firm.
It is a bit much to expect your agent to have personal knowledge of the best new restaurants worldwide. If you work with an agency that is a member of one of the major consortiums they will have on-site offices in Italy. The On-site office will be able to handle reservations for dinner through the agent. The best agents trend to be affiliated with one of the following consortium groups: American Express, Ensemble, Signature, and Virtuoso.
- WOULD YOU PUT YOUR FAMILY ON THE DREAMLINER WHEN THEY CLEAR IT?
Q - We have been following the story, now on the New York Times second and third page, of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I am writing this on February 8th and I wonder what the status is. We are supposed to fly the plane in April on United. You all seem to be honest journalists so let me ask you a personal question. Would you allow your family to board this aircraft?
A - Yes, if it was parked on the tarmac with the engines turned off. Here is the thing: No one, as of this date, has been able to determine the cause of the on board battery fire and the severe overheating issues. Progress is going extremely slowly because the battery maker, in Japan, thought to be the culprit, has come out of this with few scars.
Believe it or not, this is a major technological mystery. Now, it is thought that it may be at least a month before the cause of the problems is pinpointed and required fixes are made. It may involve complete re-engineering of portions of the electrical power system.
United has announced it is cancelling scheduled 787 flights through most of February. We would want this aircraft to be flying worldwide for at least six months and be incident-free, before we would consider flying her. And we're among the Dreamliner's biggest fans.
- DOES ANYONE STILL OFFER AROUND THE WORLD CRUISES?
Q - In this day and age of less ostentatious travel, I wonder if cruise lines are still offering Around the World type cruises?
A - This year, we count nine lines offering ATW Cruises, six of which will literally circumnavigate the globe. Three of these lines, Holland America, Seabourn, and Silverseas, compete with identical length, 115 day, itineraries.
Crystal does its World Cruise on the 960-Guest Serenity. Reports from the line are that approximately 400 of their guests have signed on for the full journey while the rest of the guests purchase one or more segments of the sailing. Although generally less profitable for cruise lines than shorter sailings that use less fuel and offer fewer days at sea, world cruises are in demand and Crystal is currently taking reservations for its 25th Anniversary sailing in 2015 that will be a 108-day circumnavigation. Bookings are, we are told, robust.
This all started in England in the 20's. Travel Weekly reports that the Lanconia of Cunard Line went out in 1923 for 130 days with stops in 22 ports. This year, two Cunard ships and three P&O liners departed Southampton for full, ATW journeys, almost all of which sail just after the New Year.
Our on staff Around-The-World Expert, recommends bookings be made 16-24 months prior to departure to avoid disappointment. Five characteristics of ATW Cruises:
- Shore Excursions are often one-of-a-kind designed specifically for one sailing.
- On board lectures surpass anything generally available at sea
- The average age of ATW cruisers is going down but is still just north of 65.
- Menus are rarely repeated.
- Significant discounts and amenities are offered to full World Cruisers
- WHERE IS ICE CREAM STREET?
Q - We've been searching for a really strange destination and thought your staff might be able to help. We will soon be opening an ice cream parlor in Sonoma, California. I've taken early retirement and before getting back to the hard work ahead in launching a labor intensive business, my wife and I want to travel a bit to discover the best, most interesting ice cream and flavors available anywhere. We've heard that there is a street filled with ice cream shops of high quality, one after another. But we don't know where it is. Have you ever heard of Ice Cream Street? Where would you go to sample the most interesting, and best, ice cream and gelato on the planet?
A - We think you may have the name wrong. The closest we can come is Ice Cream City which is located inside an amusement park in the Sunshine City shopping center in Tokyo. There are several dozen ice cream stands competing with one another for the most intense and outrageous flavors and both Italian and American styles are available. We know that you will be able to get ell-flavored ice cream, along with soy chicken, but the varieties are endless. Best of all, you can enjoy the wonders of Tokyo, where prices have been falling to reverse the tourist decline of the past five years.
After that, we would head to Florence, Italy to taste every flavor at our personal favorite, the iconic Vivoli. But Florentine friends are telling is that they think that Perche No!, near the Duomo, is as good. Try the Honeydew Melon at Vivoli. Simply amazing. Both establishments have been around for decades and their formulas remain state secrets.
As far as the States are concerned, we will assume you have tried, arguably the best ice cream purveyor in the United States - Capogiro in Philadelphia. That is where the bar is set at the moment.
- CRUISING THE AMAZON WITHOUT BINGO
Q - We find your site rather confusing. On the one hand, it purports to be a cruise site, but we notice lots of information that seems way off topic. If you wish to have people use the site, you might want to think about sticking to one thing and doing it well. Our question has to do with Amazon River Cruising. We know that several of the deluxe lines like Silversea, Seabourn, and Crystal do Amazon itineraries but we are really interested in more of a comfortable, high quality expedition cruise experience with fewer people than a large cruise ship. Are there companies you might recommend?
A - Thank you for the advice. We won't follow it because traveltruth.com is not a cruise web site. We deal exclusively with First Class and Deluxe vacation planning worldwide. There are many parts of the world where it is impossible or makes little sense to travel by ship. Our efforts are geared toward the upscale traveler who wants advice that is not tainted by sales pressure or advertising concerns.
There are several companies we think you ought to explore with your travel consultant. They are: Abercrombie & Kent, Aqua Expeditions, International Expeditions, and Voyages of Discovery.
Of those, we would rate Aqua # 1 and A&K # 2.
- I WANT MORE THAN I PAID FOR
Q - These hotels really get me angry. They always pretend they are full when I ask for an upgrade. Meanwhile, I know from online availability, that they have suites available. I am just constantly being turned down for upgrades and I know others are getting them. I dress quite well, I'm a decent looking guy, and I have a good job, so what am I doing wrong? I just want more than I paid for and I see nothing wrong with that.
A - Do you think it might have something to do with your attitiude when you arrive? Try this: Never ask for an upgrade. Ask for a corner room or "a room with a nice sitting area where I can get some work done". Be as nice as you can be. Do not address the desk clerk by the first name on their tag.
If there was a past problem with your behavior at one of the chain's hotels, it is perfectly possible that you have a RAH next to your profile. We will leave it to you to figure out what those letters represent. Your profile designation will follow you around and you may never be upgraded. If you suspect that is the case, schedule a meeting with hotel management and explain your feelings and ask if there is anything on your profile that is preventing you from being offered an upgrade. They may possibly respond honestly. Finally, use a credit card that allows for automatic upgrades based on points.
The real trick is to never shout how important you are, in word or deed. Just be the nicest guy the desk staff has met that day and you will be surprised at what may happen.
- TOUGHING IT OUT ON THE AMALFI COAST
Q - My boss just informed me that I've won a two week trip to Italy that will include three nights in Sorrento, along the Amalfi Coast. My wife wants us to rent a car and do some driving. Do you think that's a safe idea? Any tips on the towns nearby that are "must-see's". We're really excited and would appreciate any advice. We tell everyone we know about this site. Keep up the good work.
A - We're OK with you driving in Italy. The Italians, along with the Dutch, are Europe's best drivers. You will hardly get lost, just stay on Strada Statale 163 or, as the uninitiated call it, the Amalfi Drive. This incredible two land road hugs the edge of the cliffs for twenty-five miles, passing some of Italy's most beautiful views.
We would suggest you swim in the Grota dello Smeraldo, visit the lovely town of Amalfi, and definitely go a bit out of your way to see the small fishing village of Atrani, poff the main tourist track. Unfortunately, many casual visitors to the Amalfi coast fail to see Ravello, a wonderful town with more incredible views and an artistic past. When you know Ravello, you know the Amalfi coast. Positano is lovely but the single street, Viale Pasitea will be filled with tourists, many of them just off the cruise ships for the day.
If you really want to feel like an Amalfi insider, visit some of the smaller villages in the hills, far above the sea. Try Montepertuso and Nocelle for starters.
- OK, ANDY GRIFFITH HAS PASSED, SO WAS MAYBERRY REAL?
Q - With great sadness, my husband and I read of the passing of Andy Griffith, a wonderful role model and, I think, a true southern gentleman. My husband suggested we just "drive to Mayberry". Is there such a place and how would we get there? Hope this request is not sounding silly.
A - Not not at all. We all loved Andy though some viewers had a stronger attachment to Barney and they bear watching. There is no Mayberry but the show was truly inspired by a place in North Carolina named Mt. Airy, that Andy knew well. There's an Andy Griffith Miuseum and every September there's a celebration called "Mayberry Days".
It's all a bit touristic these days but you can still get a glimpse of small town life and there are numerous small towns within driving distance that have no tourists. You can actually tour Mt. Airy in a vintage sheriff's car.
- BORDEAUX'S BEST WINES
Q - I am a country club wine drinker but I do keep the Wine Bible next tot he remote and I am slowly getting into French red, particularly Bordeaux's. We're headed to France to do some tasting with another couple who thinks that the Trader Joe's label is really prestigious. But I do want us to go to the very best vineyards. If you could let us know which Bordeaux's are considered the very best, I'd be eternally grateful.
A - Well this is a bit tricky as there are tens of thousands of wine connoisseurs who wish to taste the best Bordeaux's. To get into the very best vineyards, you need to know someone and, even then, it is extremely difficult to get to the Premier Grand Cru First Growth estates. We suggest that you work with your consultant to make all arrangements through one of the world's top wine experts specializing in the top-level French production. Even then, you may be disappointed. Work at least a year in advance to have any chance at all. There are the wines you should target - they are the best of the current crop of Grand Cru's:
Chateau Lafite Rothschild Medoc (Pauillac)
Chateaux Margaux Medoc (Margaux)
Chateau Latour Medoc (Pauillac)
Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognam
Chateau Mouton-Rothchild Medoc (Pauillac)
- NEGOTIATING WITH A HOTEL AT THE FRONT DESK
Q - I am a software gun for hire and I travel about 80% of the time. I know that there are often great deals online at the hotels I'm staying at but I just don't have the time to check it all out on a daily basis. Is there any way to get the same rate as the internet when you're at the check-in desk? Very cool site but wish you had more for the business traveler. Not all of us can be on a perpetual vacation.
A - Some experts suggest the "let's be realistic" approach at the front desk. You might try pointing out that the average online site is getting close to 30% in commission from the hotels they are selling. So suggest that if the hotel will give you 20-25% off the online price, they will still be making a profit on your stay. But be careful how you handle this as it could easily backfire.
We'll never be a site for business travelers. Dealing with the vacations in people's lives that really matter is our narrow focus. Trust you understand.
- ARE WE GOING TO BE ABLE TO GET INTO COPENHAGEN'S BLUE PLANET?
Q - Very cool site but we wish you would have more on food and restaurants. It would be great if we could get all kinds of restaurant information mixed in with your highly valuable travel insights.
My husband and I will be in Copenhagen at the end of June, having just ended a cruise. My husband mentioned there is supposed to be a terrific new site in Copenhagen called Blue Planet and he was thinking about adding a day to our trip so we could spend some time there. Do you know anything about this and would it be worth the extra day?
A - Well it looks like you are in luck. Copenhagen's absolutely stunning new aquarium, Blue Planet, is scheduled to open on March 22nd in time for the summer tourist season. We expect this to quickly become one of the two or three leading tourist attractions in Scandinavia. There will be almost 500 species and just over 20,000 animals housed in a building that is already being nominated for major architectural awards. Copenhagen design firm, 3XN has created a building that resembles moving water and the aquarium's rooftop will swirl, resembling the world's largest whirlpool. Guests flying into or out of Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport will have the best some amazing views of this new complex.
Absolutely spend an extra night and get your tickets in advance. This one will open to spectacular reviews.
We'll try to do more on food and restaurants. Thanks for sharing that.
- HOW DO WE GET AROUND BUS TOURS IN ISTANBUL?
Q - We have a little but of a dilemma. We are doing a land tour that begins in Istanbul and includes two nights in the city with sightseeing. But to use frequent flyer miles with US Air, we had to add on three additional nights to make our upgrades work. So we now have three nights in a Muslim country with the sightseeing of all the major places already included in our tour. Your site mentions "Lifestyle Touring" for people who don't want or need historical bus tours. I suppose that's us. Any suggestions?
A - You can have your agent arrange private sightseeing or you can contact the Concierge at your hotel to arrange the kind of sightseeing you really want. But very few guides are prepared to really take you inside the daily lives of the residents. The best program for you would be the Istanbul Lifestyle Touring Program designed through our sister company, A Taste of Life Ashore. Just go to www.atasteoflifeashore.com and you will see the options in Istanbul.
- DO YOU RECOMMEND THE PAUL GAUGUIN?
Q - We are thinking about taking a cruise on the Paul Gauguin in Tahiti. We are looking at an 11-Day sailing out of Papeete to the Society Islands. We are casual people, we don't like dress up nights but we're ready to try some quality after our last disappointing cruise on one of the mega-ships. I guess we need to know if this is a good time to go, if the line is reputable, and about what we should expect to pay after their advertised two-for-one and Free Air deal.
A - The Paul Gauguin is owned by an American based in Tahiti, is well-funded, and is highly reputable. It is, in our view, the very best way to experience the islands in the South Pacific and the ship is elegant but casual. Dress is about the same as it might be in a nice Hawaii-based hotel. For men, slacks and a Hawaiian shirt are fine.
There is a bit of a rainy season that hits the island sin mid-winter but most travelers think the risk is well worth it. The Free air is available non-stop from Los Angeles - not from your hometown. The line is currently offering two-for-one pricing which can bring the price of a picture window cabin down to $5595 per person inclusive of air. That is a per diem price, without air, that is in the $400-$450 range, an exceptional price for a fivbe-star rated experience. The balcony cabins start at $7045 plus port charges inclusive of air. The Gauguin gets high marks from traveltruth in terms of its on board service and food. We applaud the line for being able to capture some of the essence of the islands it visits by being upscale without being uptight. All in all, an excellent choice and, we believe, a far better experience than anything on the water in the Caribbean.
As to down sides: It is an eight and a half hour flight and you would probably want to upgrade to Business Class, a costly move. The islands you will visiut are small, often having just one primary circular road. This is not an itinerary for historians, shoppers, or drinkers. It is an itinerary for dreamers, lovers, and those seeking to break away from mainstream cruising.
- DIRTY RESTAURANT STORIES
Q - My wife and I were curious if your restaurant writers saw the 20-20 on ABC TV about food and restaurant contamination (November 16th)? What did you think about it?
A - Yes, we saw it. It struck us as a combo platter of light investigative reporting that really didn't take on the corporate entities that are selling our kids on corn syrup, salt, and chemically modified foods. But anything on this subject is helpful so we won't be too critical.
The commentary on fish reflected some information we reported here several years ago. One expert said that virtually no one who orders Red Snapper in a restaurant is eating Red Snapper. Those who order "white tuna" on a sushi menu should know there is no such fish. They are really being served Escobar, a fish that causes diarrhea.
The reporting on airline food contamination was interesting because it showed that the problem is not ion the galley but in the food catering kitchens that serve the airlines. It was nice to know that First Class and Business Class passengers are just as likely to get Salmonella poisoning as coach passengers, a bit of democracy at 30,000 feet.
Some of the blue light/bacteria smear reporting was interesting. 20-20 claims that the single most likely source of contamination in the average restaurant, the place to pick up e-coli and his cousins, is your seat. They recommend that diners get up and wash their hands after they are seated. But, then again, aren't you returning to the same seat. It turns out that restaurant seats, in all price ranges, are rarely disinfected.
Also surprising was the fact that the actual menu, along with salt and pepper shakers were found to be far more filthy than bathroom fixtures, sinks, handles etc.
Lessons: When dining out, bring a cover for your chair, never touch the menu, and never touch the salt and pepper shakers. Or just wear gloves when dining out.
- IS THERE REALLY ANY SUCH THING?
Q - My golfing partner thinks he read somewhere that you can do a safari in the Arctic. Any truth to this and how would we go about getting additional information? Is there really such any such thing?
A - Well it's a bit of a marketing ploy but you can actually see wildlife like the elusive narwhals and search for polar bears in their native habitat. The Arctic is big and beautiful and one of the experiences you will never forget is hot air ballooning over a massive iceberg, The company that we like for this sort of soft adventure is Arctic Kingdom. Try to plan your trip eleven months prior to your favorite departure date as the air needs to be planned surgically.
- SANTORINI RESTAURANT RECOMMENDATION
Q - The family, six of us, are headed for two nights on Santorini as part of a Greek islands itinerary planned with Isram Travel in New York. Is there a particular restaurant on Santorini that you think we should go out of our way to try? Will the cruise ship hordes ruin our time on the island?
A - We're getting excellent reports from the Nichteri Restaurant in Kamari. Make sure your driver waits and offer to buy him dinner. The vast majority of cruise guests will be gone before sunset. That is rather interesting since one of the primary reasons to go to Santorini, and particularly the village of Oia, is to watch the sunset.
- IS THIS ITINERARY WORTH $20,000 FOR TWO?
Q - Don't know if you folks are allowed to do this but I would love your opinion on a 33-Day Voyage on the Oceania Marina in April of 2014 from Tahiti to New York via Easter island, Peru, Ecuador, the Panama Canal, some of the Caribbean and even a day in Charleston before heading to New York. We're in our early seventies and have just started traveling seriously. I'm not a jogger but we get around OK. We've done two previous cruises on Holland America. And what cabin should we get?
A - Look up and down this page. No Ads. We can do and say anything here, so no worries. We absolutely love this itinerary. You'll see the best of Polynesia, Machu Picchu, Easter island, the Pitcairn islands, and that's not even half the itinerary. We say do it and try to get a Penthouse level cabin for that number of days. You will hit a bit of rough water and the Marina, one of our favorite ships, is a bit top-heavy. One third of your cruise will be spent at sea so you don't want a ship any smaller than the Mariner. Port or Starboard is irrelevant, choose your cabin based on the best available mid-ship location on deck 10. This is one of the very best laid out itineraries we've ever seen and it is a steal based on current discounts. May we congratulate you on your "good eye"?
- SHOCKED BY TREATMENT BY RIVER BOAT OPERATORS
Q - My husband and I were planning our first cruise on a Danube River Boat Cruise. We've read so many wonderful things about these cruises on this site and others. We didn't use a travel agent and tried booking the cruise ourselves with Tauck, Viking River, and Grand Circle. I am rather shocked to say that we were turned down by each line because my husband uses a scooter to get around in port. He has enough mobility to do some limited walking around the ship but I don't see why they would not agree to help one of their own guests on or off the boat so he could use his scooter. Any light you can shed on this will be appreciated. I really got the impression they don't want our business.
A - Well they don't. The average scooter that you are referring to weighs between 130-140 pounds. Crew cannot be held responsible to lift that much equipment, at some personal risk, on and off the boat in every port. River boats have extremely limited storage space. There is just not enough room in the average cabin to keep a piece of equipment that size. If you could make do with a collapsible wheelchair, each of the lines you mention would be happy to assist you.
We think you ought to be dealing with a travel professional who specializes in dealing with clients with disabilities. This is an important and specialized area of travel and it requires specific training and experience. Try Flying Wheels Travel in Minnesota.
- CRUISE CREW SALARIES EXPOSED
Q - We've just returned from a cruise on the Oasis of the Seas and some friends we had dinner with told us that they had gotten friendly with their cabin attendant who told them that crew is paid next to nothing and really survives on tips. In this day and age and with minimum wage laws, I wonder if this could be true? Do you have any information on this?
A - Workers aboard cruise ships are not protected by US laws as they are classified as foreign workers aboard ships that are not registered in the United States. They lack the same Minimum Wage, Health Care, and Working Conditions rights that you and I enjoy as citizens. By every measure they are exploited labor. Janitorial and cleaning staff average about $500 per month. A waiter can make $1,000 per month. They usually work seven days a week. They sleep below decks in bunk bed accommodations but the major cruis elines are good advertisers so we see little int he way of investigative reporting on this issue.
On the other side of the Atlantic, London's Channel 4 sent a reporter undercover to work for five weeks aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. Celebrity, it should be noted, is the most upscale of the mass market lines and the Eclipse is a new generation ship, so conditions are marginally better than what crew might face on less upscale competitors.
The on-air expose reported that the lowest paid on board workers were receiving about $600 per month or about $2.00 per hour with no gratuities. Most crew members were working seven days a week for six or eight months. Workers are often forced, it was reported, to pay "expensive fees" to the recruitment agencies in their home country that allowed them to obtain their job.
But what about the reporter on this story? What was he paid?
Over five weeks, he earned $375 an hour and he was expected to work sixteen hours each day. This was less than the recruitment agency he used had promised. A story in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that he was charges $700 by the recruitment agency to buy his uniform, get a visa, and take out compulsory medical coverage. He started his work heavily in debt.
The documentary report pointed out, in some detail, exactly why cruise ships flag their ships in certain countries. The Celebrity Eclipse is registered in Malta. There can be no other justification for such registry other than the fact that neither US or British Employment laws apply in Malta. Cruise ships flag their ships to evade minimum wage requirements and other forms of worker protections.
There were areas the story did not have time to investigate. The treatment of workers who are injured ont he job, for example, and their access to US hospitals. Cruise lines will often require that an injured worker be flown home rather than arrange for the best possible treatment available.
And what do the cruise lines respond. They respond in much the same way that Mitt Romney responds to questions about his tax dodges in Grand Cayman and other tax havens. It is all technically within the law.
For a great many consumers, apparently, that is quite good enough.
- SUNDAY: IS IT THE BEST DAY TO BOOK FLIGHTS?
Q - Having just retired from Duke Power after twenty years, my wife and I are ready to do some traveling. We'll do some overseas cruises but we really want to travel within the US at least four or five times annually. I've heard that I should go online on Sunday evening to get the best deals. Just checking to see if that is right. Enjoy the site immensely and appreciate the honesty.
A - No, Sunday is not the day. The current best advice about airline purchases holds that an airline almost always is going to announce a fare sale on Monday evening. The other airlines scamper about on Tuesday morning and by noon on Tuesday, they have matched the fare sale offer. So the best time to book domestic air travel seems to be around noon, California time on Tuesdays. If this is of interest to you, you may want to read the posts at www.farecompare.com
- POSITANO SECONDS
Q - We have a problem that is, admittedly, in light of real world problems, insignificant. So we thought we would turn to your editors. We have a full day in Positano while visiting Sorrento off a Holland America ship. We've been there before and walked the streets of Positano which we loved. We wish to go back to Positano but we're looking for something a bit different since shopping is not our thing, which is to say it is not my thing but since my wife is not writing to you, I feel I can speak for her. Also notice that you do not list Holland America in your Top Ten, an omission I must chalk up to elitism. Feel free to defend your lack of consideration for the Dutch.
A - Yes, we are the masters of "insignificance". Thank you.
We suggest two approaches in Positano. You might want to head down to Spiaggia Grande, the main beach, and hire a private water taxi to take you five minutes away to one of the water-accessible only small coves that are hidden along the coastline. This can turn an ordinary day into something really special providing you are actually picked up for the return trip. Our other suggestion is that you look away from the water and head up into the hills to visit the smaller towns of Nocelle or Montepertuso. The local bus will get you up there and you will experience a world away from the tourists.
Holland America is the oldest cruise line still operating with a proud maritime tradition. But it is, after all is said and done, a mass market line that does not have pretensions of offering five-star service. Actually, they don't appear on our list of the top fifteen.
As for the Dutch, we have an extremely high regard for their country and its inhabitants. It is a quiet little place and it would surprise most Americans, we think, to know that the Dutch own a larger share of American businesses than any other nation. Two weeks traversing the Netherlands is a vacation option we think too many travelers overlook.
- HOW DO WE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF REGENT CRUISE LINES FREE BUSINESS AIR OFFER?
Q - Read about your site in one of the travel magazines and would like to know a bit about the "Free Business Airfare Offer" they have at Regent Cruises. We are looking at a cruise in South America on the Seven Seas Mariner next December 8th that starts in Rio de Janeiro and ends in Buenos Aires. We'll be booking the Free Air deal but we really want to get into Business Class. If I pick the right agent is there a chance of an upgrade? Can you tell us how to make sure we get the best seats and the best flights out of Oklahoma City? Wer're thinking of booking category F. o you recommend that category and are there any cabins to avoid
A - Regent's Free Air Offer is an effective marketing ploy but we are unaware of any cruise line that has ever really given consumers "Free" Airfare. What the ads do not explain is that you can get a much better price by booking on a cruise-only basis.
Regent's Air Department is one of the few that receives an "A" rating. They will work with your consultant to get you the best possible schedule using their contracted carriers. The Business Class upgrade on your sailing is $2598 per person. But that is not the real price since you are adding that "add-on" to the "Free Air" price which is higher than the cruise only price.
When your consultant does the math, you will see that the real cost of your business air is approaching $4,000 per person. You may want to do your own air. Remember that you will need to wait until January 8th of 2013 to make any reservations. Do be aware that cruise lines are not really quoting an airfare. They are, instead, quoting an air package that includes transfers and baggage handling as well as some rather pricey taxes.
No travel agent can get a cruise line to waive its Business Class upgrade costs. You will need to pay to sit up front with the boys and girls in nice shoes.
Here is our advice, given that this is a South America sailing beginning in Rio. We do think you should book at least one-night in Rio prior to the ship's departure. You may want to consider flying Business class to Rio but doing coach on the return since that will involve flying in daylight. Have your consultant do the $150 per person air deviation fee to enable you to get prompt confirmation eleven months prior to sailing and seat assignments.
In category F you want to avoid cabins 800-810 and 801-811 as well as 876-886 and 877-887 on deck 8. Also avoid the two handicap cabins, # 828 and 829. Avoid all of the F's on deck 9.
- CHINA NEXT YEAR: WHEN SHOULD WE GO?
Q - We are thinking about doing China next year, using one of the better tour companies like Trafalgar, Abercrombie and Kent, or the Tauck Tours. We are wondering which of these you would recommend for the best overall experience? We would also like to know exactly when we should do this trip for optimum weather. We're hearing conflicting opinions. Also, how do we avoid the pollution and the smog?
A - Trafalgar is a moderate to budget priced mass market tour operator. They are not appropriate for your needs. Tauck does First Class touring while A & K is the premier luxury tour operator. But each tour firm that tries to operate worldwide has geographical strengths and weaknesses. In China, we would clearly recommend A&K as they have the best local offic es and operations staff. They do not outsource their guides or their touring components.
You are getting some contradictory advice about the best time to visit because China's provinces cover vast distances and the weather in Shanghai, for instance, does not mirror the weather in Beijing.
Overall, the best months to visit are April and ay and November and December. This will give you cooler temperatures and less humidity and pollution. Personally, we like the month of April with November a close second. In Beijing, for instance, average daytime temperatures are in the upper sixties, there is low humidity, very little rain, and far fewer tourists. We still love "April in Paris" but "April in Beijing" also has a nice ring to it.
- GOING TO THE MIDDLE EAST IN MARCH, WHAT TO DO?
Q - Love this site. Like sitting down with our doctor or attorney - but for free. This March we're headed on a voyage that will include several ports in the Middle East including Egypt. We booked through the cruise line for the savings but we're not getting any updates on the itinerary changes that might occur given the events of this weekend. We've called the line and they said they don;t know anything "yet" and we should just "sit tight." This trip is costing us close to thirty thousand dollars and I am not a "sit tight" kind of person. Any advice would be sincerely appreciated.
A - First, you've been suckered into dealing directly with the cruise line - always a mistake. Always. They are charging you the commission that would buy you professional services, additional amenities, and caring oversight of your total cruise experience (assuming you have a really knowledgeable agent). They take the commission and simply pocket it. When you call the cruise line, you are speaking to a commission-based sales person who is instructed to do all possible to keep your reservation "in house". There is no such thing as an offer available by a cruise line that is not also available through a consultant who regularly works with the line.
When you were told by the sales agent that you should sit tight, that was probably what they were told to say. But a connected travel consultant can go to the operations people at the line and get a good feel for any pending itinerary changes that are likely. You will also be provided with updated security information.
Cruise Lines do not publicize the fact, for obvious reasons, that even after you have made your reservation and paid a deposit, you can move your reservation over to a travel consultant on a no-fee basis as long as you do it prior to your final payment. You will come out ahead if you do this on several levels.
Finally, we think that ports in Egypt are likely not to be cancelled and your itinerary, which is six months away, will likely operate as currently scheduled. Final decisions on itinerary changes are normally made 21 days prior to a scheduled departure in order to allow enough time for alternative port calls to be confirmed.
- DO WE REALLY NEED TO DO THE WORK OF OUR TRAVEL AGENT?
Q - We've been going on three major trips a year for the past five years, using a travel agent with whom we feel we have a good relationship. But she is always telling us that we should reconfirm our reservations at hotels even though she has made the bookings. We're rather tech savvy so no big deal but we were wondering if we're doing her job?
A - If you are arriving at a five-star resort or hotel property, your agent should be making the reservations through personal contacts. In that case there is no need for you to personally reconfirm. If your reservations are, on the other hand, being made by a traditional travel agent using an airline computer system (GDS), then it is a good idea for your to reconfirm the morning prior to your arrival or the morning of your arrival. This is a particularly good idea if you are requesting a unique position, corner room, next to elevator, etc., or if you have very specific bedding needs. Many properties, for example, routinely overbook King-size beds. Unless you remind the property of what you want, your agent's original request could go unnoticed or get lost in the hotel shuffle.
So then, it really depends on how you were booked and who booked you. If you booked online or through a travel agent using an airline computer, reconfirming is a good idea.
- BEST SINGLE WAY TO CUT AIR COSTS DOMESTICALLY
Q - My husband and I love reading about luxurious travel options on your site. But with two pre-teens, our primary goal at the moment is planning three and four day vacations within the United States. Other than using low-cost airlines like JetBlue and Southwest, is there one single strategy that you could recommend to save on the cost of four tickets?
A - Since you live in Portland, your options are somewhat limited. But we've been to Portland and we know you won't move, so let's deal with what we've got. The best single strategy would be to arrange your vacation to depart on Saturday with a return on Tuesday or Wednesday. Fares on Fridays and Sundays are always going to be higher based on demand.
- HOW DO WE BOOK THE NEW DREAMLINER FOR A CROSS COUNTRY FLIGHT?
Q - How do we actually book a flight on the new Boeing Dreamliner? We hear such great things about the plane but I don't see any ads for it and I don't know how to go about getting on board this year or, if necessary, next year. It is likely we would want to fly her from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.
A - We're anxious to fly the Dreamliner as well. There are larger windows with a button that controls the "dimmers", the luggage bins are larger and do not cut into headroom, the pressurization system is significantly advanced over older aircraft and should help passengers avoid in-flight headaches, and it is less expensive to fly because it is made of lightweight composite materials.
As to your question: United will be years ahead of its domestic competition. They have 50 Dreamliners on order and the first will arrive at the end of this month. The first flight will take off on November 4th from Houston to Chicago and we know the aircraft will be flying routes that include Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark, and Denver.
Plans for early next year include international service on United to Amsterdam, Tokyo, Beijing, Lagos, and London.
You can book your flight through the United Web site or through youjr local travel agent. You will avoid fees by booking directly on the United site.
- BOTTOM LINE: SHOULD MY DAUGHTER DO THIS TRIP?
Q - My daughter, my only daughter, has come to me asking permission to join two girlfriends on a cruise aboard Royal Caribbean next Spring. There may be an older sister on board who is twenty-two if the line requires it. Her girlfriend's parents have given their consent, feeling that a cruise ship is as safe a place as our kids can be during Spring Break. We are being told that they have good security aboard. The kids will want to enjoy the ports, particularly those in Mexico and they've promised us they won't be drinking. Just thought we would run this past you before giving the go ahead. Are we being naive?
A - "Naive" doesn't even cover it. This is just irresponsible on your part. Here are a few facts and observations that might help you and other parents of potential unaccompanied, youthful Caribbean cruisers understand the risks:
01 - First our advice. Do not send your daughter on a cruise if you will not be there to go ashore with her and provide high levels of adult supervision.
02 - There are no police aboard these cruise ships. They have their own security personnel on board because they are needed. Why do some cruise lines cost a lot less than others? Do you think it could, in part, have something to do with who is employed aboard the ships, what they are paid, and the degrees to which they are subjected to background checks?
03 - Royal Caribbean will require an adult in the cabin over the age of 21. They make every attempt to enforce the drinking age aboard ship.
04 - The ship is less your concern, and ours, than the ports, areas where your cruise line has no policing power of any kind.
05 - The number of alleged cruise passenger rape victims on certain islands in the Caribbean is alarming. Cozumel has one of the worst records in this regard. A passenger was allegedly raped in an area near a recommended shopping center downtown after disembarking the Oasis of the Seas. Royal Caribbean argued it was not responsible since it could not document where previous rapes had taken place and thus could not warn its guests with any specificity about areas to avoid. The court in Miami agreed and tossed the case. Another Royal Caribbean passenger is alleging that she was raped at Senor's Frog's, a gathering place for young drinkers off cruise ships. The local press in Cozumel has reported that there were seven cases of rape in the past six months involving tourists.
06 - There is a State Department Advisory that refers to rape and sexual assault in Cozumel as "a serious problem" in resort areas. Date-rape drugs are used in bars and nightclubs throughout the Caribbean but the problem seems particularly widespread in Puerta Vallarta Mazatlan, and Cozumel.
All parents who are even considering travel on a mass market cruise line with teens to ports in the Western Caribbean and Mexico would do well to review the blog of Maritime attorney James Walker at www.cruiselawnews.com
- WINTER IN THE FURIOUS FIFTIES; POSSIBLE? RECOMMENDED?
Q - We are writing about our desire to do something really different next year, exploring the sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand, the Antipodes. We know the seas are rough but we wonder if there is anything in these waters we might consider? We're thinking of, perhaps, seeing Campbell Island and the Bounty Islands, perhaps Macquarie. We're in our mid-fifties, in good shape, and we've done four or five adventure trips and photography jaunts since my retirement as an international consultant.
A - It would be inaccurate to say that the Antipodes are hot right now, but they are slowly gaining interest among photographers, and particularly birders as islands with really amazing populations of large numbers of species. You will probably want to look first at Orion Expedition Cruises, a wonderful company that has just made our coveted listing of The World's Top Ten Rated Cruise Lines. There is one sailing, on December 20th next year, that goes from Auckland to Dunedin, that will take you where you want to go.
Of course, we suspect you are aware that this area is known as "the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties", a reference to their stormy latitudes. But if you are into both birds and nature photography, and you don;t mind traveling in five-star luxury, this is a uniquely wonderful opportunity. These islands were granted World Heritage Site status in 1998. But remember, you will be aboard 4,000 gross ton yacht with a capacity of 106 guests. You will be tossed around a bit, but we think the ride will be more than worth it. And the cocktail party bragging meter scores this trip a rare 100.
- CRYSTAL OR SILVERSEAS: IS THERE REALLY A DIFFERENCE?
Q - My wife and I are looking to take a Baltic Cruise next year. Given the current offers, we'd prefer booking now rather than wait. But we are rather new to cruising and not really sure about the differences between Crystal and Silverseas. Any light you might shed on the differences? We understand they are both rated five stars.
A - A good first step to understanding the major differences between these two lines would be to carefully go over our Ratings which you can reach from our home page. In our Ratings, we rate and evaluate the world's top ten rated lines in descending order. Crystal is currently ranked higher than Silverseas.
We think it likely you would have a thoroughly enjoyable experience on either line and any of their ships. But here are a few recommendations and points of differentiation we think you should consider:
01 - We would look carefully at the time you will spend in St. Petersburg. We recommend three full days - not two, as offered on most itineraries. St. Petersburg is always the highlight of any Baltic cruise and we think you should maximize your time there.
02 - Silverseas has smaller ships and they are permitted to dock in the inner harbor, directly across from the Hermitage in the center of the city. The larger (940 Guest) Crystal ships normally dock on Vasilyevsky Island using one of the Sea Facade berths, along with other larger ships. This is going to mean that you are about a 20 minute taxi ride from the pier to central St. Petersburg. This becomes somewhat less of an issue given that you will likely be on tour rather than wandering about the city on your own but it definitely adds driving time.
03 - Silverseas is a more elegant experience, with one or two dressy nights one each cruise and an international clientele. Crystal will have a majority of American guests, while Silverseas is more likely to have about a 50-50 mix of international guests and Americans. Crystal guests are predominantly from four States, Florida, New York, Texas, and California.
04 - We believe that the entertainment, lectures, and on board options are far superior on Crystal.
05 - Crystal staff is warmer and more likely to provide personalized service. But some guests are annoyed by, what they view as, insincere friendliness. Silverseas service is more classically European and reserved.
06 - Crystal provides a greater degree of options in its sightseeing program in the Baltic. But Silverseas provides a number of excellent, but pricey, unique experiences.
07 - Both ships are inclusive in the sense that they include drinks, wines, and gratuities. Premium wines are available at an additional cost.
08 - Crystal has more dining options and, we believe, superior cuisine. Our reviewers have felt that Silverseas has, in the past, exercised portion controls in their main dining venues. That doess not mean that one cannot dine extremely well on any Silverseas ship. Crystal, however, is unique among the top-level cruise lines for the variety and overall quality of its dining choices.
09 - Silverseas feels much more like a Four Seasons Hotel. Crystal feels like a well-run mid-size cruise ship.
10 - Cabins on Silverseas are superior. Some guests complain that smoking in portions of the Silverseas dining room is an ongoing problem. Smoking is tolorated in some sections of the ship as a means of accommodating the large proportion of guests from Europe. Silverseas has, however, recently taken steps to address this issue and it is less of as problem than it once was.
There now, that should thoroughly confuse you. But we hope it also sheds some light.
- WHO REALLY HAS THE LARGEST SUITES AT SEA?
Q - The stuff on the internet is really confusing. I am trying to find out which cruise line has the largest cabins, or should I say suites? My wife and I like lots of space and there is a possibility that we will bring our family of six along with us. I've looked at Silverseas and Seabourn and nothing is really that large so I'm wondering if some of the really big ships have the kind of multi-bedroom suites I might want?
A - Right now, the largest suites at sea, they are actually called Villas, will be found on the Norwegian Pearl. This is a 2400 mass market ship but the Haven Garden Villas are three-bedrooms and measure 4,252 square feet. Norwegian Cruise Line will allow up to eight guests in one suite and the total fare for a week for everyone will hover around $20,000. You will have access to a deck, pool, and a restaurant exclsuively for suite guests. This is a kind of pampered segregation as many Villa guests, such as celebrities, rarely come in contact with Norwegian's re3gular mix of guests.
If you crave something more upscale consider a two-bedroom configured Owner's Suite on the 540 Guest Silverseas Spirit. One week in this 1668 square foot suite will run you about $25,000 for two for a week in Europe. There are significant extra charges for a third and fourth passenger. But then again, Silverseas is deluxe and inclusive. And you might actually want to socialize with the other guests.
- WHY YOU WANT TO LEAVE PARIS SOON AFTER ARRIVAL
Q - My seventeen year-old daughter, her best friend, and I are off to Paris in six weeks for a shopping splurge the likes of which Westport, Connecticut has never seen. Wondering if you could give us your best tip to really take advantage of the best designs at the best prices. We'll have ten days in the city. My husband and I refer to your Q and A frequently and hope that you all just keep doing what you're doing. You're helping lots of us make better travel decisions.
A - Our best advice is to take one complete day and get out of Paris. You will want to do as Parisian insiders do, grboard one of the the three daily buses that depart from just near the Louvre to La Vallee Village, a part of the Chic Outlet Shopping empire of nine discount outlets within Europe. Here, just off the A4 to the east of Paris, about forty-five minutes away, is the small village of Serris, home to France's top designer-centric, deluxe discount shopping mall. If you've heard of a famed rench designer back home, chances are they are represented here in an outlet store with some rather amazing saviongs. You can plan on saving a minimum of one-third off current Paris prices. But you will also be able to save 19.6% VAT on most items.
Unlike discount centers in the States, the items you see are the same materials and styles sold in Paris' best boutiques. The French factories do not make cheaper "for discount malls only" product lines. So there are no issues with authenticity. And before you take the late afternoon bus back to Paris, you will even have time to experience your best-ever shopping mall lunch.
- ARE THERE ANY BRAINIACS ON THE VOLGA?
Q - My wife and I are rather astounded at the lack of intellectually interesting river boat options available in Russia. We have a deep and abiding interest ion the fine arts and we were wondering if there is anything like a program along some of Russia's rivers that might cater to Americans who wish to expand on their knowledge of both Russian history and Art? Like the site a great deal but wish you would direct those on a budget elsewhere. There are plenty of web sites that cater to the tee shirts and bingo crowd.
A - You are probably taking advantage of the fact that we protect the identities of our visitors. We think you may find cultural nirvana aboard the Volga Dream's Russian itinerary sponsored by Academic Arrangements Abroad. These are river cruises for those with a serious interest in the arts and they are sponsored by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But be careful, you might spot a tee shirt inside one of the Russian collections.
- WHEN ARE INTERNET CONNECTIONS GOING TO IMPROVE ON CRUISE SHIPS?
Q - As an IT Professional, I am rather appalled at the sorry state of internet service as evidenced by recent cruises on MSC, NCL, and Holland America. I was just wondering who provides internet to ships at sea and when is it going to get to the point when I can search the web in a lounge chair by the pool bar?
A - Well you do realize that sensitive communications equipment needs to stay as far away from sun and water as possible. Be mindful that your Bahama Mama does not tip over onto your keyboard.
Internet service began showing up on ships in 2000. The leading Satellite provider has been a company called MTM Satellite Communications. That technology is now being eclipsed by Harris Rock Cap, a company whose O3b name stands for "other 3 billion." O3b technology will provide more broadband aboard ships than the current standards. The ships you sailed were essentially sending data to stationary satellites 23,000 miles above the earth. The packets of information then had to be sent back down to a ground station and then back up, again, to the satellite. As Travel Weekly recently reported in a cover story on current satellite communication, the current journey when you type in a message on a moving cruise ship is about 100,000 miles from start to finish.
O3b satellites will be beaming broadband from points directly over the equator which will allow them to reach points from Nova Scotia to Santa Cruz, Argentina. Faster broadband will be available on ships sailing the Mediterranean Sea, as well as virtually all of Africa, Asia and large portions of South America. The current satellite blank spots seem to be centered in the Baltic region and Alaska.
Eight of the twelve new satellites being built in France for 03b will be launched out of French Guiana next year. Four more will be launched in 2014.
Royal Caribbean has announced that the new, higher-speed broadband will make its first appearance on the Oasis of the Seas in June of 2013.
- SHOULD WE CRUISE TO MEXICO OR JUST GO TO A MEXICAN RESTAURANT?
Q - The little woman and I are interested in sailing down to Mexico, perhaps getting off or on in Acapulco. But we're fairly cautious people and if there is crime we'd just as soon go to one of the Mexican restaurants here in Denver, sip a few Margaritas, and pretend we're out to sea. We are in our mid-sixties and my wife walks a little slow. I'm no gymnast either. Do you recommend these Mexican cruises?
A - The statistical truth is that crime is an issue in certain ports in Mexico including Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan which has seen something of an outbreak in the past twenty-four months. It has reached the point where Holland America and Princess Cruises have said they will not be doing their normal full schedule of sailings to Mexico in 2013.
Inclusive resorts in Mexico appeal to a wide variety of travelers and there are upscale options that represent real value. We'd rather see you doing a great inclusive resort than wandering around port areas off a ship at the present time. The tourism officials in Mexico are adept at keeping bad news about attacks on tourists out of the news, but within the travel trade, it is a fact of life. Still, it needs to be emphasized that most port calls in Mexico by those ships still operating there, occur without incident.
- WHY AREN'T THERE MORE CRUISES TO SCANDINAVIA?
Q - We've been looking into cruises to Norway and the Fjords next summer on one of the better lines. We're just amazed at how few there are and we wonder why the demand isn't greater. It seems that Seabourn, Crystal, Regent, and Silversea will do one, possibly two of these itineraries each summer yet they have multiple departures to the Greek islands or the Baltic and Russia. It all makes us think that the itineraries are lousy so demand is low. Is that the bottom line?
A - No, you're far off course but we understand how you got there. Cruise lines could generate marketing interest and increase the number of Norwegian coastal voyages if they felt they had a shot at full ships. But apart from the fact that most Americans just don't know how beautiful the Norwegian fjords really are, we suspect the real reason that you don't see more itineraries in the region has to do with the cost of operations in Scandinavian waters. Port services, docking fees, fuel, and labor costs are all significantly higher than what the lines have to pay to operate in the Baltic or the Med. In fact, pilots who guide cruise ships into port are paid higher salaries in Norway than virtually anywhere else in the world.
The cruise lines must maintain a fairly even keel when it comes to per diem costs to their customers. So many of the Scandinavian port charges come right off the bottom line. This is more an economic issue than anything else. It is an absolutely wonderful itinerary for experienced cruisers looking for something different.
- 48 HOURS IN LISBON: WHERE DO WE WALK?
Q - Where will soon be leaving for Europe. At the end of our trip, we have two full days in Lisbon. We're walkers, we love to go where the tourists don't, we love discovering where the people live and play. We have little interest in museums or historic sites. Where would you head if you had two days to explore the real Lisbon on foot?
A - You might want to start out with three neighborhoods, Baixa, Chiado, and Alcantara. This will get you into the oldest, the hippest, the most stylish, and the most recently discovered sections of this difficult to know, but totally rewarding city. Use the trams, go to a real deal Fado Club at least once, and do seafood along the waterfront.
- CAN MY WIFE AND I SLEEP OVERNIGHT IN HARROD'S?
Q - Greetings from Cape Town where Traveltruth is not yet a household word. But my husband and I love you so that's all that matters. We've just read somewhere that it is now possible to sleep in Harrod's Department Store in London. We're headed back to London soon after the Olympics and we were wondering how you would book this sort of overnight? I would be quite tickled to spend the night camped out in Harrod's Food Hall, particularly that area of the Hall devoted to fine wines and cheeses. Any truth to this or are we starting a rumor?
A - Well of course you are but it is a rather intriguing concept and one that probably could be arranged by our contacts in London for a phenomenal price.
But we think we have this one figured out. It is true that the Qatari owners of Harrod's under the name Qatar Holding, has announced plans to build Harrod's hotels in London, New York, Paris and Kuala Lumpur. You may be aware that the former owner of Harrod's, Mohamed Al Fayed, sold Harrod's two years ago for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion USD. We have to assume that the sale price included the store's stash of wines and cheeses. Sorry.
- SEABOURN VERSUS TIES AND GOWNS
Q - The wife and I are seriously considering a Seabourn Cruise that will explore Japan and some of Korea next year. We've been on one cruise, a Windstar, which we enjoyed. There is lots on the internet about Seabourn but the criticisms you always read are that they are way too formal and they are owned by Carnival, not a very good line from what we hear. What do your editors think about these criticisms?
A - Not much. This is kind of typical of the cruise prattle that litters the internet.
Let's look at dress first. There is only one dress up night aboard Seabourn on a one week cruise and even that event does not require any more than a sports jacket. There are alternative restaurants that are always country club casual. There is absolutely no reason to pack a suit, sports jacket, or ties unless you want to in preparation for a Seabourn cruise.
We think that Carnival's ownership of Seabourn is a net plus. Carnival has extremely deep pockets and is committed to the Seabourn brand. Five years from today, Seabourn will still be sailing and our guess is that you will see a new fleet comprised entirely of Odyssey-Class new builds. Seabourn's competitors, meanwhile, may be wondering where their next ship is coming from. There are no new ship builds announced for Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, or Silverseas at the present time.
We think you should ignore the prattle and proceed.
- WE'RE SPEADING THE NEWS . . . .
Q - My husband will be annoyed that I wrote to you. First, feel free not to print this but, if you do, I trust you will not use my name. My husband and I have traveled on ten or eleven tours and about twelve cruises. Over the years we have been struck by how unpleasant an experience it can be finding oneself stuck on a bus or aboard a ship with a herd of New Yorkers. People are people, but I find the New York travelers, or at least a certain class of them, to be rude and obnoxious to the point of really impacting our vacation. I don't expect you to agree with this, but I was wondering if there are cruise lines that carry a nice mix of people from all over the country as opposed to being "New York centric." Am I the only one who has ever raised this point?
A - Actually, yours is a question that, in one form or another, is posed quite frequently. Each sailing seems to have its own personality and that is dictated, in part, by the geographic mix of guests aboard the ship.
If you feel like giving in to your bias, you might want to look at sailings that depart from Hawaii, Mexico, or Los Angeles as well as those that sail in the Orient. Ships that sail from ports in the south like Galveston, have a high proportion of car-drive guests who hail from local areas.
The press has generally not dealt with this topic but we've been surprised by the relatively high proportion of cruisers who wish to know how many New Yorkers are likely to be on a sailing they are considering.
You might find it of interest that while consumers from various parts of the country seem intrigued by the "NewYorkishness" of certain travel products, most industry executives see New Yorkers as preferred customers who know quality and know what they like. Off the record, many hoteliers will tell you that their most challenging guests tend to come from southern California. This has a great deal to do with concerns about "positioning".
- SLEEPING IN ROME'S CITY CENTER AFFORDABLY
Q - We will be visiting Rome in the Fall and we were wondering of there is a really nice, really well-located, hotel you might recommend that will cost less than the Excelsior or the Eden? We like to avoid hotels that are small and so hip and modern that it requires an engineering degree to control the lights.
A - We think you might like the rather low-key and largely unknown Rome Garden Palace, which is just around the corner from the Excelsior. If it is booked, and we do our best to fill it, try The Fortyseven or Capo d' Africa, both are well regarded four-star properties of modest proportions.
- IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE TO TAUCK IN EUROPE?
Q - Although we suffered from a bit of sticker shock when our agent showed us a Tauck Tour brochure last year, we thoroughly enjoyed it and we felt the quality was well worth the extra cost. What a difference between the way they handle things and the way our previous tour was managed, with all of the "up charges" and shop visits etc. So now we want nothing less than Tauck quality but we were wondering what other companies we should look at in that price range. Is there any other company as good?
A - Only a few birds soar in the upper reaches of the tour stratosphere. We would rank both Abercrombioe and Kent as well as Travcoa above Tauck in terms of quality. But companies are truly upper-end deluxe. Many consumers are unaware that Abercrombie and Kent offers tours in their brochure that are generally priced in line with Tauck. But Tauck may put as many as 38-40 guests on a motorcoach while A&K limits group size in its "Discovery Series" to just 24 guests. A and K's more expensive programs are limited to just 16 guests. The more affordable Discovery series uses 5-Star grade hotels but guests are assigned standard rooms rather than the top end deluxe or junior suites that are featured in the company's more expensive tour series. We think you would be wise to compare Tauck with the A&K Discovery Tour Programs.
- UNITED CANCELLED OUR FLIGHT: STRATEGIES IF THIS HAPPENS AGAIN?
Q - We were scheduled to fly out of Jacksonville to connect to a flight to Europe on United's partner, Lufthansa. There was one United employee working the desk at the airport when our flight out was cancelled and she could do little to help us with our missed connections. After hours of work and hold time, we finally got it sorted out but who knows how many years we've lost because of the aggravation. Is there a strategy we can use next time to make sure this doesn;t happen again?
A - The best strategy for international travelers these days is to have all of your flights professionally monitored by people who do nothing but watch over you and your needs. The cost is minimal based on the peace of mind you get in return. No travel agent really has the time or means to do this properly. There are firms that specialize in getting you where you need to go when there are problems related to cancellations. The best of these is a company called Cranky Concierge.
- ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BARCELONA DINING?
Q - We will be leaving in two weeks for Barcelona, where we intend to spend three days before joining a cruise. We really appreciate great food and were wondering if you have any tips?
A - You will be visiting one of the world's most vital and important restaurant cities. Barcelona's culinary influences have not spread worldwide, so we are taking your question quite seriously. No one should visit Barcelona without first laying out a culinary map with most meals planned in advance. The world's most important food movement led by the world's most respected chef are all centered in Barcelona and Madrid. To go to Barcelona and not dine well would be like going to India and failing to see the Taj Mahal. And now that the dollar has recovered nicely against the Euro, all the more reason to splurge.
You should definitely make a reservation at Cinc Sentits, the best restaurant currently for Catalan cuisine. It is in the Eixample neighborhood. Order the Tasting Menu.
Another fine restaurant, more experimental, in the same neighborhood is Restaurant Embat. This is a where the best chefs in the world try to have lunch.
The hottest restaurant, this week, is Dos Plillos in the off-center Ravel neighborhood. You walk in through a Tapas bar where patrons have thrown napkins on the floor, along wioth toothpicks, as is the custom. But walk through tot he back where El Bulli's former chef du cuisine Albert Raurich is in charge, and you will be offered the kinds of contemporary gastronomic fare that made El Bulli the "World's Best Restaurant: four years running. (It has since closed because the Chef/Owner Ferran Adria got tired of turning friends away).
Only rank tourists fail to eat at least once perched atop a stool at Barcelona's famed Boqueria Market. The stalls here are filled with some of the world's finest produce and locals know that there is nothing fresher than dining at one of the stalls for as drink and some small plates. Do try the Serrano ham. There are several great food stalls but we are partial to Pinoxto. True Foodies head to Laurene Petras' mushroom stall in the back of the market.
Another "insiders only" must do stop is Cal Pep in El Born. This is the freshest Mediterranean seafood tapas available anywhere and it is also an authentic Catalon experience. Sit at the long counter with the locals.
Gersca in L'Eixample, is a great choice for lunch because the menu is entirely based on what looked best in the market that morning.
We love Fonda, a new French Brasserie from chef of the moment,Carles Gaig. This is modern Catalan cuisine and it is rather approachable for Americans. Highly recommended.
Arola in the Hotel Arts us run by Adria disciple Sergio Arola and, despite its high cost, diners love the incredible tapas served in a sophisticated and beautiful setting by a superb staff. If you are staying at the Hotel Arts this is a no-brainer.
Comerc 24 is a winner in the Born-Ribera neighborhood. Another famed Adria disciple, Carles Abellan, creates molecular miracles and amazing tapas in a modern setting.
That should be sufficient for three days.
- ARE AMERICANS GOING TO EUROPE THIS SUMMER?
Q - We are based in Wales and very much enjoy the information and the insights. Quite frankly, we learn a lot about Americans going over the Q and A. That leads to a query regarding travel to Europe this summer. We are wondering what trends are being noted in terms of cruises and tours. What appears to be hot and what areas are suffering as a result of Euro-zone challenges?
A - Welcome. We are, quite frankly, rather surprised at the scope of our international readership, and we especially welcome visitors from abroad.
Virtually every major five-star cruise line and tour operator is reporting that sales to the Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain, Greece, and even Italy are down by anywhere from 5-30%. In contrast, Baltic Cruises and tours to Great Britain and Scandinavia, along with the Alpine Region, are up substantially. Several lines wish they had reassigned an additional vessel to the North of Europe to handle the demand.
There are some notable exceptions to these trends. European River Cruises are still on a growth spurt with no sign of ending. Cruises to Croatia, if you can find one, are extremely popular.
It is not that Americans do not want to cruise the Med. In fact, there is little evidence that potential cruise travelers are concerned about ports in Italy, Greece or Spain. The problems have more to do with pre/post cruise extensions and the feeling, among a significant number of Americans, that the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Athens, or even, Venice, may be filled with rioters 'as a result of government-imposed austerity programs. But Greece is the primary recipient of negative press in the States and pre/post programs in Athens are becoming problematical for many Americans.
It would be easy to exaggerate American concerns about the future of the Euro and the impact it might have on public behavior as they tour Europe. We think that a more plausible explanation for the slowdown in bookings to southern Europe this summer has to do with a "been there done that" trend. Most cruise itineraries in the Med haven't really changed in the past two decades. Americans with the means to travel are seeking more exotic less touristy destinations.
Perhaps some would like to visit you in Wales.
- DO BOUTIQUE LUXURY HOTELS EXIST IN ATHENS?
Q - We are going to be staying in Athens prior to an upcoming cruise of the Greek islands and Turkey. Having been to Athens before, we understand that there are surprisingly few boutique hotel options. The King George and the Grand Bretagne have great locations on Syntagma Square, but we prefer something on a side street with fewer rooms in a different neighborhood. Any recommendations would really be appreciated. Great site.
A - Athens likely had more operating hotels in the days of Pericles than it does now. Construction costs are quite high and then there is the problem of actually finishing the construction work. But there are three boutique hotels that we recommend. But please note these are less expensive four star properties - they do not compete with the King George or her big sister across the square:
The small Fresh Hotel has a nice bar and swimming pool on its upper floor. There are nine floors and 133 rooms that are rather minimalist and modern. It is located in the fashionable Psiri District about half a mile from the Plaka. But do be aware that the hotel borders a red light district that can get dicey at night.
The 65 room Classical Baby Grand is located across Kotzia Square.Ten international artists have transformed this property into a statement of modern art and graffiti. You enter through an impressive "art garden" and the check-in desk is a Mini Cooper that drives you to your room. Those who appreciate Urban Art and a younger vibe will like this property. Traditionalists will hate it. Again, this is not the best neighborhood and night walkers may bump into ladies jogging in mini-skirts.
The two best choices would be:
The New Hotel. Not far from Syntygma Square, this property is modern but not over the top and it would seem to meet the needs of travelers to Athens seeking a comfortable alternative to the five-star alternatives. It is generally regarded as the best of the new hotels in Athens and it has a name that is east to remember.
Periscope is a sixteen room find in the heart of the Kolonaki District. It is minimalist in design and the rooms are small. But the staff is cordial, the rooms are nicely decorated, and the upscale neighborhood is Greek Chic with lots of interesting shopping and dining options.
- CAN YOU ENCOURAGE A RETIREE TO BECOME A TRAVEL AGENT?
Q - I am a recently retired consulting engineer in the field of water collection methodologies. We have done some traveling and would like to do more. I think I would be the perfect part-time employee. I'd really appreciate a quick overview of the industry in terms of the issue of survival. I'd want to keep working from five to ten years. Does your firm have any openings? Hope I am not asking too much but this is the only place where I know I'll get a straight answer.
A - In the mid-nineties, there were 35,m000 travel; agency locations in the United States. In some areas they were as prevalent as gun shops. Today, that number has shrunk down to about 15,000 travel agencies.That would seem to be bad news, but it is just the opposite. The result of the closing of so many agencies is that most of the finks, frogs, and phonies are now running tanning bed salons. They've left the business. Those who have remained, tend to be the better agents with real followings and niche specializations. Travel agents, who essentially, by definition, do airline ticketing and serve as "agents" of the airlines, are fast disappearing. They are being replaced by a new breed of consultant. The US travel market is currently generating about $285 billion annually. Travel agents and consultants generate about a third of that. According to a recent piece in the New York Times, agencies in the United States have posted two solid years of strong growth and good agents are very much in demand. Some actually have a waiting list for new clients. Part of this has to do with the fact that travel agents tend to be a mature bunch and members of the profession are dropping like flies with no one to replace their accumulated expertise. But what is really driving the growth in agency production is the growing tendency, as the Times points out, for travelers to seek personalized professional recommendations. Online searching is just so much blah for many and Internet stats for booking travel are actually down as a percentage and have been for 24 months. The fact is that few trust the web enough to purchase travel there.
We don't hire based on openings. When we find an extraordinary applicant we try to create a job for them based on their personal preferences and our current needs.
- ARE MY AA ADVANTAGE MILES SAFE IN MY ACCOUNT?
Q - We've been following your responses to questions about American Airlines bankruptcy carefully. Just wondering if anything has changed or if you remain confident we face no danger in letting our miles grow in the account. We're approaching 500,000 miles. Please try to do less cruise reporting and more on the airlines. We all fly, only a handful of us cruise.
A - The situation at American is changing rapidly since the company petitioned a federal judge to say yes to its plan to make all current labor contracts null and void while also terminating 13,000 jobs. American's management feels that is what it will take for the airline to emerge from bankruptcy in a position to survive. A dramatic spike in fuel prices would be disastrous for American at this stage.
At this stage, we would recommend that you take 50% of your miles and convert them into a travel certificate which will be good for one year from date of purchase. That will assure that at least half of your miles are protected.
What has changed our mind? In a defiant and unusual move, American's pilots, flight attendants, and transport workers actually signed a deal with rival US Airways that would secure certain pay raises and protect some job losses if the two airlines merge. The industry is filled with rumors of a pending US Airways and American merger but American is vehemently denying them.
The situation is fluid enough that we think you should take protective steps to insure your miles don't head skyward.
As to your last point. Close to 12% of the adult population of the US has cruised. Ours is not a consumer cruise site but we are cruise-centric. We estimate, based on the responses we receive, that somewhere between 80-85% of our site guests have cruised, the vast majority on one or more of the Top Ten Rated lines. We'll try to keep you posted on important consumer developments but there are much better sites out there that are totally devoted to airline news and information.
- CAN WE TIE THE KNOT AND AVOID THE CARIBBEAN?
Q - We are frequent visitors to your site. In fact, we decided to get married and ask you about our honeymoon four days ago. Here is our dilemma. We are planning a June 2013 wedding date and we'd love to be legally married aboard a nice cruise ship. But we just don't want to spend our cruise time on the Caribbean islands. Been there - done that. We've got about two weeks. Ideally, some of the immediate family would be with us for a week and the wedding. But what do we do then - throw them overboard? We realize we are early to make arrangements but we wonder what you might suggest. We can't seem to find anything.
A - For this one we went to our on-staff honeymoon specialist, named "World's Best" by Conde Nast Traveler. She recommends that you look at a new program unveiled by Cunard Line. Beginning this summer, their Captains can perform legally sanctioned weddings on the New York to Southampton crossings of their "Queens". So here is the plan: Have the family join you for the six night crossing, the ships are larger enough to hide from them, and have them disembark at the end of six days, flying home from London. This will give you seven or eight nights to enjoy London, Paris or a combination of the two. June in Paris is not a bad way to begin a lifelong friendship.
- CAN Y0U BUY CRYSTAL FOR $2305?
Q - We have friends in Portland who claim to have booked a Crystal Cruise for $2305 per person. They've been bragging about the great deal they got but we wonder if this is really the rate. I don't know exactly where they are going but I think they are traveling in April or May. My wife and I find this amazing because we've always heard that Crystal was one of the top lines. Can you shed any light on this? Cruise pricing is just one dark tunnel as far as I'm concerned.
A - We know. The best way to handle pricing issues is to understand that cruise lines just don't go around to different top-producing travel agencies with different price offers. Cruise pricing is a surprisingly level playing field. All of the top agencies get exactly the same rates for their clients. If they didn't, they would refuse to represent the line.
Your friend was telling you the truth - but not the whole truth. They did find a fare of $2305 in an obstructed view cabin on the Crystal Symphony sailing from Vancouver to on April 29th. That is a truly amazing price for a seven-night inclusive cruise on one of our highest-ranked lines. But there is a little piece of the puzzle missing. This is a cruise that is repositioning the ship from Japan to Los Angeles. The seven-night segment your friends have booked sails from Vancouver to Los Angeles, far from the ideal time to be spending a week in the Pacific Ocean trying to hug the shoreline.
A much better deal can be had in late October when you can book a 12-Day cruise on the Crystal Serenity from Venice to Istanbul for less than $4,000 per person. That means you get a five-star inclusive experience at $334 per day. It should cost between $500-$700 per day. When the consumer media claims that "cruise prices have never been lower", this is the kind of offer they have in mind.
- WILL MIAMI START TO SMELL LIKE AN ASHTRAY?
Q - My wife and I like to gamble and we go on upscale gambling vacations twice a year. We've heard that there is something coming to Miami to be built by the Chinese that will be the largest casino in the States. Is there any truth to this? As a suggestion, your coverage of gambling destinations is really inadequate.
A - There are kernels of truth in the rumor but this is by no means a done deal. The problem any major gambling enterprise faces in Florida is that the current Chamber of Commerce Chairman is a top Disney executive. And the Mouse does not approve of gambling.
The project you refer to is the 30-acre Resorts World Miami. This is a design by a Malaysian company called the Gerting Company. Their plans call for 800,000 square feet of gambling space, 5,000 hotel rooms, and 50 restaurants and bars.
We think that the gaming industry is going to be fascinating to watch in the next 24 months as strapped for cash municipalities, wrestle with the temptations to generate cash. Currently twenty-two states have legalized gambling. Miami may be looking at Clark County, home to Las Vegas. 2011 gambling revenues in Clark reached $9.2 billion last year.
If you feel our coverage of gambling issues is "inadequate" we'll give you your money back. Oh, wait a moment, you didn't pay us anything.
- WHAT HAPPENED TO CRUISES OUT OF MEXICO?
Q - My husband and I and our two children were looking forward to booking a cruise to the Mexican Riviera this year. But when we spoke to our agent, she told us that there just aren't any cruises that would suit our needs and she suggested we look, instead, at the Western Caribbean. What is really going on here. I can't believe that the economy is so bad that people can't afford a one week cruise to Mexico.
A - If you look in any travel-related publication or web site, you will likely see significant advertising by the Mexico Tourism Board. As one of the industry's largest single advertisers, they have the ability to influence public opinion and they are currently enmeshed in a verbal battle with some of the major cruise lines that have home-ported in Mexico in the past.
The view of the MTB seems to be that the cruise lines have pulled out of ports in Mexico as a result of Califronia's recession. The cruise lines still offer a restricted number of cruises that call in Mexico but certain ports are being eliminated from current and projected itineraries. As Travel Weekly pointed out in their March 26th issue, the cruise lines clearly feel that they have pulled out of Mazatlan for security reasons, citing specific incidents in the port and current US State Department warnings.
The Tourism Board contention is that Mazatlan is being eliminated because it costs about $17,000 for a ship to use its docking facilities. When a ship uses Cabo San Lucas instead, there is no docking fee because passengers are tendered.
Disney, Carnival, Princess, and Holland America have all cancelled or curtailed port calls in Mazatlan. Last month, a shore excursion group in Puerto Vallarta on a Carnival Cruise Lines hiking excursion was robbed at gunpoint.
Given cruise line's current view that Mazatlan poses too many risks, Mexican officials are trying to get the lines to consider calling at Guaymas, which is also located along the Sea of Cortez.
You can do a cruise to the Mexican Riviera. Your travel should have known that but we think her advice to consider the Western Caribbean has merit.
- ARE WE SAFE UP THERE?
Q - I am desperate to take my wife to see relatives in County Clare, Ireland next summer. But she is absolutely afraid to fly. Any facts you might provide to help me convince her it is safe would be much appreciated.
A - We're not sure she will care much about our "facts" but we're here to help. The years 1994-1998 were relatively safe years in terms of air fatalities in the US. But the last five years have seen a 93% decline even in those rates. This translates to a US aircraft having a 1 in 49 million chance of being in an accident that results in fatalities. You literally are safer flying or cruising than you would be had you remained in your house with all of the doors double-locked. Our advice would be to drug her and drag her over.
- HOW MANY MORE CRUISE BERTHS ARE BEING BUILT?
Q - I am just wondering about the state of the US Cruise industry. With the economy, and all, are new ships going to be launched in the next several years or are they holding off?
A - Cruise brands based in North America have firm contracts to launch 10 new cruise ships between now and 2015 accommodating a total of 33,744 guests. The largest of these ships, accommodating 4100 each, will be launched by Royal Caribbean in 2014 and 2015. Norwegian Cruise Line will launch the 4,000 passenger Breakaway in 2013, followed by her sister, the Getaway, in 2014.
- CAN WE ACTUALLY WALTZ IN THE NEW YEAR?
Q - A quick question about a lifelong dream. I have always wanted to surprise my wife with a lavish New Year Ball celebration, where we can waltz in the New Year in Vienna. Is this even possible? I know that it will not be inexpensive.
A - Yes, you can attend any one of a series of almost 300 Balls held in Austria's Capital New Years Eve and through Ash Wednesday. The best of these are the famed Opera Ball held in the lovely Vienna State Opera House and the strangely named Ball of the Viennese Coffee House Owners which is held in the Imperial Palace. The best way to book your dance is to arrange a custom vacation through a travel firm associated with an on-site office in Vienna. They will have access to tickets that a US-based travel agent may find challenging to obtain. Live the Dream!
- BED BUGS AT SEA: HOW SERIOUS A PROBLEM?
Q - We're turning to traveltruth with a serious concern. We are being urged by family members to join them on a Spring Break cruise next year on Norwegian Cruises Line. But my husband and I have real concerns about bed bugs which we understand is a real problem on cruise ships. How serious a problem is it and what can we do to prevent it - if anything. It really is holding us back from booking. Our travel agent is saying there was a problem on one or two of the ships in the past but the cruise lines are now using pesticides that prevents the problem. Is this true?
A - We are going to try to answer this question as clearly as possible since it has been raised by a number of visitors to our site. Bed bugs are a growing problem in the United States. You are far more likely to get bed bugs in a hotel room than a cruise ship cabin. This has a lot to do with twice-daily crew cleaning practices, use of safe pesticides, and the changing of beds and mattresses on a scheduled basis during dry dock. But it would be dishonest to say that cruise lines have "prevented" the problem. The fact is that the vast majority of bed bug infestations have been reported on four cruise lines, basically the four largest cruise lines and the most familiar names. Now, you could say that they have far more cases than smaller ships because they carry more people. But we suspect that is not the case.
The fact is that price dictates many things including what a cruise line is able to spend on housekeeping and maintenance. Price also reflects the kind of people who are hired to do housekeeping and it impacts training. There have been isolated cases of bed bug bites on the World's Top Ten Cruise Lines but when these are carefully investigated, it almost always turns out that the bugs were brought aboard by guests, usually via their luggage. The mass market lines have, however, had several dozen bed bug outbreaks since 2000. But, in the scheme of things, that is still not a particularly high or worrisome number.
The fact is that bed bugs are an increasing problem in our own country. Most experts say this is connected to the restrictions on the use of several high powered pesticides. In addition to hotel rooms, bed bugs are appearing in apartment buildings, health care facilities, shelters, schools, and furniture rental outlets. Perhaps the most prevalent growth in bed bugs has been in movie theaters and in the seats of aircraft.
The most common form of bed bug is Cimex lectularius, often mistaken for ticks or cockroaches. The females lay several eggs each day, which stick to surfaces. We doubt that any cruise line has eliminated the problem. Aristotle mentioned bed bugs in his writings, so they may be with us for a while. Here is some general advice for any traveler:
- Bed bugs are a more serious problem in the United States than they are in many other parts of the world with the exception of Africa, Eastern Europe, and portions of Asia. Learn to spot bed bugs and always check mattresses and head rests before getting into bed while traveling.
- The problem is more prevalent in hotel rooms with thick carpeting than in rooms with wooden or marble floors. Leaving the lights on or using insect repellents will not work. Learn to look for nests which are characterized by "dark spotting".
- Never leave your luggage under the bed on a cruise ship or in a hotel room. Ask that staff place your empty luggage is a "clean storage area."
- Never unpack your suitcases on a carpet at home. It is best not to bring luggage inside the house.
- Some dry cleaners can sanitize luggage after travel. Always do this after traveling in areas of high risk.
Finally, we would advise you to go on your cruise. The odds are with you and who is to say you would not run into bed bugs in the waiting room upholstery at your doctor's office? Remember, your life expectancy increases whenever you travel outside the United States, literally. So relax and have a good time.
- THE INEVITABLE HARRY POTTER QUESTION
Q - I read this site all the time now and I know you are not particularly child-centered. But please help us. We've got eleven year-old Natalie and thirteen year-old George, Muggles one and all. They are begging us to take them to Universal for a week of Harry Potterizing. Has anyone on your staff been there and is it worth it. We can afford to spend more than most but we want our kids to have the best possible adventure and experience so just wondering what you think. We'd stay at a really nice hotel - I figure my husband and I will need it at the end of seven or eight very long days. If you don't have an opinion, we'll still be loyal fans and readers.
A - We have an opinion on rice. No worries. We don't think you should go to Universal in Orlando, despite the fact that they have done an outstanding job creating "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter." Instead, we suspect your kids might appreciate the ultimate adventure in the northwest suburbs of London. It may take a few hours longer to fly to London than Orlando but, ahh, the wonders that await.
Casual American visitors often miss the opportunity because it requires public bus transportation. Pre-book the tour, about $132 USD for a family of four, by going to www.wbstudiotour.co.uk When you set off on your visit make your way to the Watford Junction station in central London and take the bus Northeast to "Harry's". Everyone at the station will know the right bus. You'll be dropped off twenty minutes later.
The studio tour is brand new and features the original sets and props and special effects used in all eight movies. So you get to actually enter Hogwart's Hall, spend a few moments in the "Defense Against the Dark Arts" classroom, and seek wisdom in Dumbledore's Office. The actual make-up studio and prop rooms are fascinating and any any true Potter fan will salivate at the notion of strolling down Diagon Allen.You can even make a deposit in the Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
So, our advice is to get thee to London. The kids can visit Florida when they're in their nineties.
- OUR BEST BALTIC BET
Q - I have avoided cruises for most of my adult life, not wishing to attend any party I would be unable to leave at my choosing. In February, my wife and I accepted an invitation to join her tennis group and their spouses on what seems to have been a stereotypical cruise of the Caribbean aboard what I would categorize as a "mass market" line. The overall experience was good, despite the constant attempts to sell us wine tastings, overpriced aperitifs, gold and silver chains by the inch, photographs of every imaginable type and marked down tee shirts. The important outcome was that we grasped the concept far more positively than anticipated. We very much enjoyed the relaxation, the comfort, the unpacking and packing but once, and would like to expand upon it. Over the last few years we have planned vacations using travel agents from the Wendy Perrin list and were quite pleased. At least one of them was affiliated with Virtuoso. As we consider another cruise opportunity, it makes sense to follow suit, hence this email.
We are interested in a 2013 Baltic cruise utilizing one of the smaller ship cruise lines. Of particular interest are Copenhagen, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg food, comfort and unobtrusive service in a moderately casual setting are important factors, along with excellent shore excursions and compatible people. We enjoy fine dining but don't feel compelled to dress formally for the experience. It is our hope that friends with whom we've traveled for over thirty years will join us. We are very much open to your suggestions.
A - Well you've written a fairly accurate description of the hazards of mass market ships. They turn many sophisticated travelers off to the notion of cruising but you, to your credit, have picked up on the infinite possibilities of a vacation at sea ensconced in the bosom of a five star ship and crew. Based on your desire for quality, emphasis on relaxed dress, and our belief that any Baltic cruise ought to properly afford you three full days to enjoy the cultural treasures of St. Petersburg, all arrows in our quiver are pointing in the direction of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
We should probably add one caveat. Cruise lines, even the better ones, almost never operate shore excursions. They contract with local operators in each port, a function of the Port Agent who represents their interests in each port. Port agents usually work for several cruise lines. They negotiate and help select shore excursion offerings based on the criteria of each cruise line's Shore Excursion Department. But if there is only one bus company in a city with the number of air-conditioned buses and suitable guides to handle hundreds of guests at one time, that is the company the cruise line must use. So in many situations their hands are tied and it ends up that many cruise lines will offer the same basic history tours and overviews. The secret of enjoying a Baltic cruise is to have your days in St. Petersburg handled by a company that really knows what it is doing. We would suggest that you choose a cruise consultant for this particular cruise who is fully capable of making your time in Russia truly memorable.
- PONDERING SOUTH AFRICA ON A RIVER CRUISE
Q - We have found a sixteen-day tour to South Africa run by AMA Waterways. I've never heard of them or the river cruise boat they are using, a boat called the MS Zambezi Queen. South Africa has been a dream of ours for a very long time. On this trip you get to see Cape Town, then you do a safari cruise through the Okavango Delta and you stay for two nights each in two safari camps. The trip ends with two nights in Victoria Falls. At $12,000 per person not including airfare, this is a considerable investment. Since we've never heard of these companies we were wondering what you think we should do? Is this really a smart way to see South Africa and is the boat really reliable. It really looks nice. Can't wait for your response. Oh, I should add that we're in our mid-sixties, we live in Tampa, and, sad to say, we're not as well traveled as many of the people who ask questions on this site. Our doctor says we're in good shape but what the hell does he know?
A - We really think you have walked or, rather, stumbled into one of the exciting new programs in South Africa. We absolutely love this new itinerary and, as safari programs go, the price is really quite reasonable given that it includes internal flights and some extremely good camps. WE think you should do it with one important caveat. But, first, let's clear up any confusion about the company involved. AMA Waterways is highly respected but they have made their name primarily as operators of river boats in Europe. They place extremely high in our ratings, ahead of well-known brands such as Viking River and Avalon. But South Africa is a bit new for them. They are actually selling space on the Zambezi Queen. This boat was built in 2009. She is absolutely beautiful with a modern design that allows for maximum viewing of the sight's along the Chobe River in Botswana. Botswana is considered the best game-viewing location in all of southern Africa. The smallest cabin on the boat is over 200 square feet, larger than most European river boat standard cabins. The itinerary is masterful - you fly into Cape Town, then go to two different safari camps, then a four night cruise, followed by two nights in Victoria. Falls. This is a wonderful collection of experiences.
But we said there was a caveat. The cabins on the Queen are not air-conditioned. Only the public areas are air conditioned. So guests sleep under ceiling fans in their room. This can work well but you need to know this fact. Would we do this program - do we recommend it? Enthusiastically.
- IDEAL TIMES TO VISIT CHINA AND THE SILK ROAD
Q - We're recently retired from the financial sector where, I suppose you could say, quoting that famous Saturday Night Sketch, "we've done berry, berry well." So now it's time to see the rest of the world excluding Europe, a continent we know well. Our first thoughts are to do, perhaps, two trips to China, one to see the highlights, and the second to do the Silk Road and Tibet. Should we pay to use a travel agent and when should we plan on going. There seems to be conflicting information about the best time to see China. Finally, how do we find an agent who will work with us for our next decade of travel. We're in our early sixties and anxious to get started. Congratulations on the site. It is wonderful.
A - The sheer size of China makes it somewhat difficult to certify the best months to visit but there certainly are some guidelines. We would suggest you visit in April, May, September, October, or the first half of November for optimum weather. But the northern extremes of the country, including portions of the Silk Road, as well as Tibet are best seen in June, July, and August.
Given the amount of travel you are planning in the next ten years or so, it would be wise to establish a relationship with a nationally-recognized worldwide consultant. That is quite different than a travel agent. A travel agent's primary job is selling airlines tickets. You need a worldwide vacation planner with worldwide contacts. Interview the firm under consideration. See if there is a comfort and a confidence level. Then, it might be wise to set up an appointment and review your desires and specific needs which will result in the formulation of a five-year Travel Plan, not unlike what financial planners do for their clients. Do not limit yourself to working with someone in the immediate neighborhood or even your own State. The best person for you may be out-of-state but that would still enable you to have Skype, I Chat, or telephone conferences. A good vacation consultant will help you prioritize your travels, an often daunting task. There are definitely, for instance, going to be some destinations you will need to do first because they will require greater stamina. Tibet is such a destination. Thank you berry much.
- SO HOW MUCH DID MY BAKED ALASKA REALLY COST?
Q - We've sailed on NCL twice and Royal Caribbean three times, the last time on the Oasis of the Seas. On our last cruise we shared a table with a couple from Arizona and another from Philadelphia. The fellow from Philly owned a restaurant and we talked quite a but about the food on board, which we thought was pretty good. We got around to asking about how much these lines actually spend per person for food. I imagine NCL spends more than NCL but I don't know by how much. No one on board, of course, would tell us, but we thought you folks might know. The next time we cruise, I can assure you that everyone within the sound of my voice will know about traveltruth.
A - Actually, food costs are a matter of public record since the three cruise lines that control about 83% of all US-based cruise inventory are publicly traded companies. Based on the figures for 2011, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise have quite similar food costs per passenger per day. They all spend somewhere between $9.30 and $9.45. Carnival is the highest, by a small margin. But those figures are somewhat misleading since crew food costs per day are averaged in. Do note that food services are purchased on a bid-contract basis and when you are bidding on food supplies for 20,000 or so guests per week, you can get favorable pricing. One of the key cost components are the on board buffets and the type of clientele. Mass market lines are far more likely to attract those who overeat to realize a return on their investment. . On the other hand, the five-star lines have guests require smaller portions but require top-grade beef, caviar, and world class cuisine. But for purposes of conversation, it is fair to say that the mass market cruise lines are feeding guests at a cost of less than $10.00 per day.
By comparison, the top-rated lines in our traveltruth ratings spend between $35 - $55 per day on food for each guest. . Residensea and Crystal are at the high end of these figures. If you lean back and look at these figures you have to take into account the fact that the smaller, more deluxe lines do not have the buying power of the larger lines. Despite that, however, the difference in per passenger food costs between the mega-liner mass market ships and the Top Ten Lines is rather impressive.
- CAN WE DO OUR DREAM HONEYMOON FOR $10,000?
Q - We have this dream that we can do an over-the-water bungalow honeymoon for no more than $10,000 including economy airfare from New York. Is this in any way possible and how or where do we begin?
A - Difficult but not really impossible. The trick will be to use an agent who works with a major package wholesaler such as Classic Vacations. Get an air-inclusive package to Tahiti and seriously consider that your honeymoon may need to be limited to five nights to come in under budget. You didn't mention your dates, but avoid December through March. Even though rates are highest during this period, torrential rains are also a possibility during the height of the winter season from the 18th of December through the end of January. The Paul Gauguin Cruises are really excellent for honeymooners who want to experience several of the islands. It might be over your stated budget by a bit, but since meals and drinks are included, and they have some "Free" air programs, you might be able to do a seven-night cruise that will be a significantly better honeymoon option then a shorter stay at a single resort - even if you can spot fish from the glassed in floor panel in your suite.
- DO WE WANT THE CRUISE LINE'S INSURANCE?
Q - We will be taking our two teenage girls on a Christmas Cruise aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. Our travel agent wants us to take Celebrity's insurance but has been less than helpful in educating us on this fairly important component of our trip. One of the girls has, what I think would be, a "pre-existing" condition. Do you agree with our agent?
A - No, not at all. Private insurance is generally more comprehensive. Celebrity's insurance is outsourced to BerkeleyCare, a New York based insurance firm used by most of the major lines. Their policies are not age-based so you will be sharing in the premium costs of older onboard guests.
We think you should take out an independent policy from one of the better independent firms like Travelex. Your policy will be age=based and you can have the pre-exisiting condition exclusion waived if you take out the policy within two weeks of your initial cruise deposit payment. If your agent cannot discuss insurance options intelligently - suggest that she take up real estate.
- IS THE PAUL GAUGUIN GETTING A SISTER?
Q - We had an extraordinary time on the Paul Gauguin sailing the Society Islands last May. Since then, we've heard rumors that there will be a Gauguin # 2. Any truth to the rumor? Wonder how they rate currently and when the 2012 Revised Cruise Line Ratings will be finalized? I hate to be the bearer of bad news - but we're well into 2012.
A - We had some real concerns about the Paul Gauguin when the company was sold to Grand Circle. But the ship was sold again in late 2009 by Beachcomber Croisieres, a company managed by American hotelier, Richard Bailey. The Paul Gauguin is back to, and in our view currently exceeds, its former glory when it was operated by Regent Seven Seas. It will place well in our soon-to-be-completed 2012 Updated Top Ten Cruise Line Ratings.
The rumors of a second ship arfe true. Gauguin has acquired the 45 stateroom former Le Levant, a French-crewed yacht, from Compagnie du Ponant. This company's luxury yachts are chartered out to company's such as Abercrombie and Kent and Tauck Tours for seasonal programs. What is most interesting about the purchase of the 3,500 GRT Le Levant is that it will not initially be based in Tahiti even though it is being named Tere Moana.
Those who like small ships with excellent food, in a luxurious yacht-like setting may want to start exploring the new vessel's 2013 schedule of cruises out of St, Martin to ports in the Caribbean as well as central and South America. The ship will then move tot he Mediterranean for seven-night cruises between April and November.
What this means in practical terms, is that the small ship lines of fewer than 200 guests, Sea Dream Yacht Club and Windstar, now have a new competitor in their back yard. And look for more than a few French nationals on board and, hopefully, a few of them will be found in the kitchen.
- DOES DISNEY DISCOUNT FOR EX-MILITARY?Q - Don't know if anyone ever just says "thank you" for this site, but we feel like we ought to. I am ex-military and my son is currently based at Ft. Hood. One of my neighbors told us that Walt Disney World actually has a resort for the military with sharply reduced rates. Any information would be appreciated.
A - You are likely referring to the Shades of Green Resort at the Disney Resort in Orlando. The resort is actually operated by the Army in support of all military branches. This Armed Forces Recreation Center was built with soldier dollars and no congressional support. It is available to military and Department of Defense personnel and arriving guests must possess a valid military or DOD ID as well as a current leave and earnings statement. Thank you, and your entire family, for your service.
- EXPLORING AMAZON RAINFOREST WITHOUT POISON DARTS
Q - We are going to be turning the corner on seventy and we are starting to think we ought to move on some of our bucket list exotics. We're really anxious to get into the Peruvian Amazon to see as much as possible off a safe, comfortable expedition boat. Any company we should be looking at first?
A - We think you ought to start with a company called International Expeditions using a boat called Aquamarina. Try to choose a journey that gets you into the protected Pacaya-Samina Reserve. This is an area just filled with off the charts wildlife. Try to do some birding research before you go. A knowledge of what you might see if you're lucky will really enhance this travel experience.
- HIDDEN BELT OR FANNY PACK?
Q - In a few months we'll be off to Europe for the first time, visiting primarily Italy with some France. As we walk around, we were wondering if we should buy one of those hidden money belts or a fanny pack for our valuables?
A - The money belts and fanny packs are not as impervious to a pickpocket with a sharp knife as one would imagine. Fanny packs are the worst place to store your money and credit cards. They also identify you as a tourist who will soon be leaving town. The safest technique seems to be the passport size zippered case that you wear around your neck and tuck inside your shirt. If someone wants to cut the cord they will have to remove your entire head and in Europe they seem to feel that is somewhat extreme. It isn't hard to know exactly where pickpockets work the crowds. The like to work right where the tour buses let off their passengers. There is one gang that works Rome's Trevi Fountain exclusively.
- HOW DO WE AVOID BANQUET QUALITY RIVER BOAT FOOD?
Q - It is our 40th anniversary and first European trip. We are looking at river cruises. Outstanding food is a concern with any cruise or all-inclusive tour. We'd hate to be in Europe for two weeks eating buffet or banquet style food. Any advice would be appreciated.
A - Since you used the term "outstanding" to describe your culinary goal, we would have to say that we seriously doubt that any of the current crop of river cruise lines will meet your expectations. The food aboard many of the river cruise ships, particularly, Tauck, AMA Watrerways, and Uniworld, is often quite good. But these boats have small kitchens, rather limited menus, and food budgets that just don't match those of some of their five-star cruise line competitors.
If you are seeking truly memorable cuisine during your stay in Europe we would recommend that you narrow your search to one of the top-rated traveltruth cruise lines. Crystal currently rates highest in this category. Food lovers rave about the cuisine on Sea Dream. The Oceania Marina has excellent food at a lower price point.
Finally, we would suggest that you look at the possibility of a river barge rather than a river boat. Some of the barges that ply the waterways in the south of France do employ talented chefs who shop at local markets each morning and produce truly "outstanding: meals.
As a general rule, never expect truly outstanding cuisine on anything that floats with pricing per diems under $500.
- WILL OUR FELLOW TOUR MEMBERS BELIEVE THE EARTH IS FLAT?
Q - No one has ever asked traveltruth a really important question. My wife and I are off to China on our first ever escorted tour. We are extremely nervous about this trip as we really have no sense of who our fellow guests will be. The tour company is Gate1 and the feedback we get from the company is that they attract "really nice people." But how sophisticated are they or do we risk being placed in a group that thinks only snobs go on to college How does the consumer find out who one's fellow travelers might be on these tours.
A - Well you know the obvious answer is to use a travel consultant who can describe the differences. But the best you can do as a consumer is to read the marketing copy and pay close attention to the "real" per diem, per person cost. By "real" we mean excluding airfare and insurance. Calculate the number of room nights and divide by the total tour cost. In China, anything under $500 per day should be considered budget to moderate. The top tour operators are going to have per diem costs in China that average $700. Each destination is different. China has some wonderful hotels. The problem is that there is a severe shortage of top-quality, English-speaking guides.
But we're not sure that we want to take the path you're on. Cost does not automatically equate to sophistication these days. You may find that the sophisticates on a pricey tour believe in the value of a college education, but they also may believe that global warming is a hoax and that women who use contraception are of dubious character. You might even come upon some tour participants who actually believe that Jonah lived inside a whale.
Spend a few minutes reading the brochure. The wording and the specific carrots used to tempt a purchaser are rather telling about the sophistication and educational levels of that company's clientele.
Gate1 is a well-established company that operates tours in the value and moderate price ranges.
- URGENTLY NEED MEDICAL TEST RESULTS FROM CRUISE
Q - Thank you for FINALLY telling the truth, the whole truth, the cruise truth! I hope you can answer the question I have. My Mother just disembarked from Singaport on a flight to Dallas Texas after a 52 day segment of the Seabourn's world cruise ( Seabourn Quest). She was taken from the airport to the emergency room where she was admitted with a severe case of double lobe pneumonia. The culture shows it is not due to the pneumoccoxis (sp?) organism, but is something else they haven't been able to determine. Is there any way to find out what organism has been found aboard the ship-that might have caused this illness? My parents are in their late 80's and spent the last month in their stateroom, unable to leave due to my mother's illness on board ship. The ship's doctor apparently only administered 3 days of antibiotics and then did nothing more to make sure that Mom's condition was improving. She should never have remained on board untreated. Frankly, I don't know how she made it home from Singapore. Any insight you can give me is sincerely appreciated.
A - We are all so sorry to hear about your mother’s condition and trust she will have a quick recovery.Here is what to do:
01 – Call your travel consultant immediately – today, at home, if at all possible. This is a medical emergency. Have your agent contact Seabourn as soon as they open and get in touch with the Director of On board Medical Services. Your agent should explain that this is a medical emergency and that the results of any on board testing and diagnoses is being immediately requested by your Mom’s doctors.
02 – If the response is not immediate and helpful, have your agent trace the Director of Guest Services and ask that you be contacted immediately. This should all happen before noon tomorrow.
03 – If your agent does not get you the information you are seeking we think you should call Seabourn personally. Document the call and keep records of all conversations/times. If this fails, your attorney needs to contact the line's Chief Executive.
In cases like this, it is important to understand that the ship's on board medical team does not work for the cruise line. That would create potential mountains of liability. Doctors on cruise ships are independent contractors and they are often hired by the "entertainment" department. It may take a while for your Mom's medical record to be retrieved from the ships Medical Officer. Keep careful records including any treatment records your mother retained while aboard her cruise. We do not expect that you will need to get personally involved as your agent made a significant commission on a 52-day sailing and should be quite pleased to work on your mother’s behalf. Please let us know how this turns out.
- MY CRUISE WAS LIKE A BAD WEDDING RECEPTION
Q - Dear Traveltruth - Greetings from Australia. I know that Aussies have a reputation for telling the truth in a direct manner. Hence these comments and question. I found your site by accident on the internet. But I sense I will get a truthful response.
My dear husband who is now in a wheelchair and I took the chance to see what cruising was like from Melbourne to New Zealand on the Dawn Princess a couple of weeks ago and were quite shocked by the experience. Everyone said how great it was for them and how great it would be for us and we are left amazed that others see us as people who would like over salted food reminiscent of someones rather poor wedding reception; overzealous crew who push you daily to spend more than your pay packet would allow and elderly fellow passengers using more wheelie frames than I saw in all my 15 years working in aged care.
Your excellent travel site doesn't mention Princess Cruises, and I gathered there must be a reason. I have since looked up a myriad of Cruise sites including an American complaints site and I have realised that not only are we not alone in our perceptions, but that many, many more travellers have had worse experiences. I got really sick with a chest infection mid cruise and therefore could not drink as much as I wanted, I am no alcoholic, only we discovered it was the only way to cope with the lack of any activities of interest to us. We are professionals in our mid 50's, so carpet bowls, Barry Manilow concert movies and bingo are of no interest. However, we were very much alone and I can see that this crusieline must be making millions on the retirees of southern Australia. They all loved it! Our stateroom was good and clean and we had a balcony. We ate at every port and survived on the bread rolls on board which weren't bad. I see that things could have been much worse. However, we were hassled by the waitering staff for the misdemeanour of complaining that we disliked the food, to the point of being followed! ( Yes, I realise that's paranoid)
It seems from my reading and this experience that there is a lot of disparity between cruise lines and even within their cruise ships, however we also feel really ripped off by our travel agent who basically lied to us about the cruise to make the sale. Does anyone ever get any response other than to thank you for the feedback? Its not that we are money hungry, its just that awful sinking feeling of being taken for a ride (no pun intended). Are there any cruise lines who actually have great food and good wines and don't charge an arm and a leg extra to enjoy them? Do they all cater for the elderly or the children whatever population is the biggest?
A - So sorry your first cruise experience was a net negative. This happens more often than you might imagine as the mindset seems to be "let's sample cruising and not spend a lot to see if we really like it." That leads to travel agent misdiagnosis, an industry problem of biblical proportions. Your case is a bit different because it sounds as though you were given the werong information from the beginning.
You are correct, there is not much mention of Princess Cruises on this site. We see traveltruth as a voice for the upscale consumer and we deal exclusively with the world's top ten rated lines. Princess is not one of them, nor is Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Costa, MSC, or Norwegian Cruise Lines. Sadly, had you sailed one of the lines on our "World's Top Ten Cruise Lines" list, you would have had a totally different kind of experience including beautifully prepared foods using fresh, local ingredients, a nice variety of alternative dining options, and a collection of chefs with true skills and the desire to cook each dish to order. Your cruise on the Dawn Princess was designed to be affordable and to appeal to a very mid-range cruiser with mass market expectations. In the States we would say it was a "blue collar cruise".
If you write to Princess you may get some sympathy and a future cruise credit. We doubt that is what you want. You ought to share your feelings in writing with your travel agent but we doubt seriously that you will receive any financial compensation. We like your characterization of "complaint sites" related to cruising. There are a great many of them but virtually all of them have been seriously infiltrated by those with a vested interest in the outcome of their comments. For the future, we would recommend that you work exclusively with an Australian member of the Virtuoso or Signature travel networks. Their consultants work with a very high-end clientele and should be familiar with characteristics of the five-star fleet. Unfortunately, travel agents are unlicensed opinion givers whose advice can easily ruin a vacation experience. But if you ask the right questions, you will find a true,professional consultant fully capable of turning your travel dreams into reality.
The average three-four star mass market cruise line is charging about $150 per day for an outside cabin without air. The Top Ten Cruise Lines, rated Five-Stars, are normally going to come in at $500-$700 per person, per day. You get what you pay for despite all the marketing hype and phony deals designed to make you think otherwise. If you wish to stick to mass market pricing, you will find better food on Celebrity.
There is a compromise. Try looking at Oceania Cruises, particularly their Marina and Riviera. They are not inclusive but the ships, Riviera has not been launched yet, are high-level four stars with some excellent dining options. The age of one's fellow passengers is more determined by the length of the cruise. The crowd on a ten-night or longer sailingmay average as much as ten years older than the same ship doing a seven-night sailing. Many of those still working cannot or will not take off more than a week for vacation.
The reality for you is that you would need to spend about double what you spent on your cruise to experience the level of service and food quality that we think you really desire - and deserve. We would urge you to cruise again on Crystal, Seabourn, or Regent Seven Seas. But for the very best food, you may want to look at the Europa.
- ROMANTIC BEACHES AND A GOOD DINNER
Q - OK here's the deal. We're in our mid-thirties, not all that well traveled, but we have a week and want to do a Caribbean island that has a nice variety of beaches. We are willing to spend up to $1200 a night for a great beach and we'd love a restaurant recommendation on the island for something romantic. Where should we stay and where should we set up dinner?
A - There are several options but you sound right for Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos. It is a gorgeous property on one of the Caribbean's best stretches of beach. Grace Bay Beach is also lovely. For a romantic dinner consider Parallel 23 in the Regent Palms Resort.
- IS MY TRAVEL AGENT PARANOID ABOUT SOUTH AMERICA?Q - We are headed off to Brazil in October for a two week custom-planned vacation. Our travel agent is recommending that we take out a new credit card just for this trip because she is concerned that the card could be compromised during our stay. Do you think she is being just a little bit paranoid on this issue? A - No.
- HELP SUPPORT THESE BOOBIES
Q - We were referred to you by a serious world traveler friend. My husband and I are planning a trip to the Galapagos but we're not sure that the Celebrity Expedition Cruise is the way to go. There are land trips and other sailing vessels but we feel like the blue foot boobies. Help! We love adventurous travel and we want to sail with a company that caters to those seeking a real adventure not a cruise that just happens to take place in the Galapagos. Hope this question makes sense. Absolutely entrall
A - The Galapagos can be a tough call. The Celebrity product is somewhat downscale from some of the other options but the ships are beautiful. Celebrity attracts a fairly high percentage of its guests from the Celebrity cruise brand. They are larger 100-Guest ships and that is something to factor in as you make your decision. We think the guides and expedition leaders are key to the experience and for that reason we recommend Lindblad Expeditions first, then Abercrombie and Kent, followed by Tauck Tours.
- WHY DON'T YOU WRITE ABOUT ROYAL CARIBBEAN, CARNIVAL, OR NORWEGIAN?
Q - We are going to devote a portion of this weekend reading this site, but so far, we can't find anything much about the Splendour of the Seas, the Enchantment, the Norway, or the Celebration. We've sailed all of them and wonder why these cruise lines, which I believe are the largest, seem to be ignored. I am sure that you are turning off large numbers of potential visitors to your site. We would like to meet others who may be going on our next Caribbean adventure.
A - There are literally hundreds of cruise sites that devote themselves to discussion of the largest, mass-market, cruise lines. Many of them enjoy advertising support from one or more of the lines. We are not a cruise site. But when covering the cruise portion of the industry, we devote 100% of our time to reporting information related to the World's Top Ten Rated Cruise Lines. So yes, we would be of limited interest to those seeking information about the lines you reference.
- SEEKING COLLETTE VACATIONS RATINGS
Q - We are members of Marriott's Vacation Club and we are thinking of going to Italy with them. They use a company called Collette Vacations and we've been trying to find ratings of the company. Any advice would be appreciated.
A - Collette Vacations is a highly reputable company that is family-owned and has been in business for ninety-three years. They are based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The company operated it's first tour in 1918, a three-week trip from Boston to Florida that was sold for $61.50 per person. Collette is very much mass market, offering affordable tours in the low middle range. They are extremely active in the "clubs" and "organizations" market where they set up complete travel programs in coutnries around the globe. If you are upscale travelers you may well be disappointed at the choice of hotels and the travel backgrounds of your fellow travelers. If you are seeking good value you can travel with Collette in confidence. The company is so spread out geographically that a downturn in one area of the world, Egypt for example, would not dramatically impact the company's financial strength. But let's be honest - Marriott chose them, in part, because of the price.
- SHOULD WE DO EGYPT IN OCTOBER?
Q - We are considering joining our church group for a tour our Minister is leading to Egyot and the Holy Land. As part of the trip, we'll be spending nine nights in Egypt and we're a little nervous. We've never been to Europe or the Middle East so this is kind of a big deal for us. We're in our thirties and in great shape. It's more the political situation that causes us, particularly my husband, to be nervous about this. We do need to make a decision as the deposit is due this coming week so a prompt response would be appreciated. Thanking you in advance for all you do. Please do not use my name.
A - As you may have noticed, we protect the names of anyone who participates in our Q and A. The fact is that no one knows what the political situation will be in Egypt in six months. You have already failed our "Anxiety Meter" test and, on that basis alone, we would suggest you not do the trip. There are lots of places you can go to do humanitarian work or practice the involvement of you faith without placing yourself in an uncomfortable situation.
In the most recent parliamentary elections, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has made some significant gains. No one in Egypt is expecting the strict enforcement of Muslim Law but there are political figures who are gaining favor in Egypt who believe that bikinis, alcohol, and anything else that smacks of vice, should be eliminated. The up side is that one out of every eight jobs in Egypt is tourism-related so we really think there will be a compromise as it affects rules governing tourist behavior. Tour groups are entering the country at the moment but we are wondering how experienced your Minister is at handling emergencies in the far corners of the world. Who, we wonder, is actually operating the tour and how tuned in are they to local disturbances on the ground? We do encourage the non-timid to continue travel to Egypt but only if they are aware of potential difficulties and only if they are being looked after by the best possible ground staff. Church groups, sorry, have a dismal track record when it comes to intelligent selection of on-site affiliates, and often choose tour operators based solely on cost.
- FORGIVE US - WE'RE NOT ON FACEBOOK - YET
Q - Cool site but we I wish you could tell us where we can find you on Facebook. We've tried several searches and we can't seem to find anything.
A - Well first you have to sign in to Facebook. Then put our name, Churchill and Turen Ltd., or our web site name, www.traveltruth.com in the space before the slashmark. Then search. You will, of course, discover that we are not there. It isn't so much the privacy issues, although they are rather serious, it isn't so much that we are against enriching Mark Zuckerberg even further so he has a nice little nest egg for his digital retirement, it isn't that we are afraid we would attract new "friends", even though they are not really friends because our friends have to do more than click a finger on the word "like". No, we're not on Facebook because we think most of what we see there is silly and juvenile and, largely, a form of social masturbation.
You will note that we have Facebook links and you can push any of our stuff into cyberspace to be read by "friends". But we like you to push the buttons and initiate the action. We're too shy to do it ourselves. We're extremely comfortable just chatting with folks who call us on the telephone or write to us in this space. We don't need to see your wall, know where you went to high school, or see pictures of what you ate for lunch. We just want to share some of what we think may help you travel more efficiently, more ntelligently, and more safely.
And yes, we do see the hypocrisy of our stance. We know this site is a form of social media. And we may have to go on Facebook at some point if enough of our "fans" insist. But for now, please allow us to stick with "95% of it is just silly."
- HEADED FOR LISBON AND NEED ADVICE
Q - My 18 year-old son and I will be spending a week in Lisbon as part of his graduation present. We're pretty much set but were wondering if you had sources that could direct us toward a shop that sells the best hand-painted tiles in the city. We hear they are beautiful. My son is into photography. We'll be staying at the Four Seasons and we have sightseeing planned but we were wondering if there is anything like a Photography tour of the city?
A - There are several excellent tile shops in Lisbon but the best is currently thought to be Fabrica Sant'Anna. We would suggest that you contact the Hotel Concierge, Luis Miguel, and have him set your son up with a motorcycle sidecar photo tour. He should absolutely love it.
- USING OUR 4G PHONE IN GERMANYQ - I wonder if you can advise me if I can be assured that my new Verizon 4G LTE phone will work on an upcoming trip to Germany and Austria. The salesman in the Verizon store said it would but he was all of eighteen and told me he had never been to Europe.
A - Well he probably has spent virtual time there. Our guess is that you will encounter problems. If you absolutely need to have a phone that works in any particular country, you need to have a local sim card and a phone that connects to the local wireless network. 4G technology is an improvement but the fact is that a smartphone that is going to work on a 700MHz in this country, will probably not work in Germany which uses a different radio frequency combination. That is the part they don't normally bother to explain when you are purchasing a smartphone two-year plan. There are going to be tons of roaming issues because carriers in various parts of Europe are using LTE as the next-gen operating system but they have been slow to build the new networks after committing a lot of money to the old 3G system. While 4G LTE is the new standard, there are relatively few networks using the technology that have yet been deployed. Easy roaming in Europe is, we believe, as much as a decade away. Thankfully, there are some immediate alternatives to connectivity including so-called international universal sim card phones, satellite phones, which always work must must be used outdoors to get proper signals, or Skype and other cloud-based technologies. You can get hooked up anywhere with the right equipment. But walking into AT&T or Verizon and plunking down a few hundred dollars for a phone that "easily roams Europe" is putting your faith into a portion of the business world that does has done little to earn your trust.
- SEA DREAM VERSUS REGENT SEVEN SEAS - AND THE WINNER IS ...
Q - I just happened upon your site and am so happy that I did ...what a concept, telling the truth! My husband and I love to travel and will be taking a first cruise on Sea Dream 1 in November. The reviews I have read on those "other" sites (before I found yours, of course) are mostly positive but now that I have found you, I would love to have some honest feedback. How would you compare Sea Dream to Regent, which we have traveled on several times. Keep up the great work! This will now be added to my "favorites" and I will be checking back on a daily basis.
A - Well please don't come back daily - that would make us work even longer hours than we are at the moment. Sea Dream's two old yachts, let's be honest, that's what they are, will not make a great first impression. Sea Dream 1 carries just 100 guests. It is extremely laid back even compared to the comparatively low key Regent experience. The Sea Dream cabins are bound to disappoint., They are smallish and the bathrooms are, shall we say, more "yacht-like" than you may be expecting. The Regent ships, by comparison, offer the largest standard cabins in the luxury category and the two larger ships int he fleet carry 700 guests. So you will be traveling with 700 fewer people with fewer facilities on an older ship with smaller than normal size cabins.
But here's the thing. We love Sea Dream and so will you if you just make a little extra effort to get your hands around the concept. Sea Dream is not meant to compete with lines like Crystal, Silverseas, or Regent. It is in a class totally by itself. The old Sea Goddess line ships are really yachts and about 70% of the on board guests either own their own boats or have rich friends who do. The food on Sea Dream is as good as the food on Regent although less formal. On Regent ships there is a restaurant called Signatures that is actually operated by Le Cordon Bleu. But although they do not advertise it, we have found French chefs in the dining room on our last three Sea Dream yachts. The difference is that on Sea Dream you may very well be dining outside under the stars on a lovely starlit evening. The service on Sea Dream is better and more personalized. The lecture programs, on board dining options, casino facilities on Regent, and the luxurious accommodations are all superior to what you will find on Sea Dream. But the staff will know your name on Sea Dream by the second day and the chef will prepare virtually anything you would like if you ask him nicely.
Many of the under 1,000 guest five-star lines advertise that they "go to ports that the big ships can;t reach". The truth is that, for the most part, they don't. The ports are very much same old with the exception of certain ports in southern Italy and the Greek islands. But Sea Dream really does do exquisite itineraries. Their port selection is nearly always superior to their larger sisters in the luxury category.
It looks as though you will be sailing out of Barbados. We hope it is toward the latter part of the month. So no cocktail dresses, no ties, and prepare to enjoy the elegantly casual yachting lifestyle with minimal expectations on the size of your cabin. In the right set of circumstances, Sea Dream is one of our most treasured cruising experiences. We hope you feel the same. We trust these positive comments do not make you suspect we are loosing our credibility.
- SEEING AUTHENTIC AFRICA WITH A CAMERA
Q - We're in our late fifties, still quite active, and we travel from our home in Southern California about three times a year. We'll spend somewhere between $15,000 - $20,000 on average per trip. Our problem is that we've done most of the destinations that our travel agent has been to and we are looking for something in, say, Africa that is really different. I own my own company and I can get away for up to three weeks at a time. We love seeing authentic peoples and we love to line our walls with blow-up prints of our travels. In fact we actually have a room thst is a complete travel photo gsllery. My agent suggested we visit traveltruth and I wonder if anything comes to mind that might be different than South Africa, done two safaris, or Kenya and Tanzania, where we've been before?
A - The good news is that you will never be able to visit the places you should see in your lifetime. Exciting, off-the-tourist-track destinations exist all over the world. There is just no justification for boredom. We are seriously thinking about getting a hotel room near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. during Election Weekend, just to watch the anxiety on the faces of the locals as America votes. But that is not what we will recommend to you.
Look into a new, and fascinating discovery tour called "The Great Empires of West Africa" operated by luxury tour operator Travcoa. This 19-Day tour includes Bamako, Timbuktu, Mopti, Dogon Country, Kumasi, the Cape Coast, Accra, Lome, Ouidah and Cotonou. You can see a rare presentation of the Dogon Mask Dance and watch a war dance performed for the King ofr Abomey in his palace. If you think the shopping is good on Melrose Avenue, try walking the voodoo market in Benin. There are opportunities to dine in the homes of locals and you will get to ride across Saharan sand dunes on a camel en route to meet the Tuareg, the nomadic "blue men" of the desert. Have you done all of those already?
- IS THIS AIR DEAL FOR REAL?
Q - Wow, fascinating site with great information. Yesterday, we received a mailer from Tauck Tours, a firm that does quite well in your ratings, that was announcing a new air deal to Europe. If we are reading it right, and my bifocals are not failing me, Tauck will fly us up and back to Europe from Cleveland for $1290 per person and $3290 if we want to spring for business class. I've checked, and when you add in the taxes and the transfers, the air deal would seem to be saving me a lot of money. Are there restrictions and are we missing something here. Keep upo the good work.
A - Congratulations. You've actually found one of the few legitimate deals from a top quality supplier. It should save you in the neighborhood of $1,000 in total. There are only a few restrictions. You have to travel between March 1st and August 31st this year on any of Tauck's many programs within Europe. You have to book the package this month (February) Finally, you have to fly out of a major gateway city. Cleveland certainly qualifies. This deal can be used in conjunction wioth Tauck's land tours as well as the company's highly rated River Boat programs. Generally speaking, you will find that Tour Operators are much more honest in their advertising claims than cruise lines. "Free Cruise Air" is just one example.
- IS THE TITANIC CRUISE LEGIT?
Q - After spending two weekends reading everything on this site, (it goes nicely with Red Bull), we thought we would ask about the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic Cruise sailing out of New York on April 10th. Is this thing legitimate? Do we have to worry about the Captain. I've never heard of Azamara and we are justifiably nervous but also fascinated. Is this a scam? Is it safe?
A - Yee of little faith. You must be a follower of Geraldo Rivera. Azamara is a newly-named cruise line that uses mid-size ships that were originally built by the, now defunct, Renaissance Cruises. We rate Azamara at 4.5 Stars and it delivers a high level of personal service, excellent food, and some rather port-intensive itineraries. The line's President, Larry Pimenthal, is someone we admire a great deal. He was formally CEO of Seabourn and Sea Dream. You would be in safe, caring hands.
The ships sails round-trip out of New York on April 10th, returning on the 18th. At 2:20 am. on April 15th, passengers on the Titanic Memorial cruise will be in the exact location where the Titanic hit an iceberg one hundred years earlier.
The cruise has been chartered and designed by a British Travel Agency named Miles Morgan. The only port is Halifax and you should consider that the Atlantic, as we have all come to know, can be rough in April. Other than a potentially bumpy ride, we see no reason not to join this historic journey. Azamara has made the cut as one of the "World's Top Ten Cruise Lines".
- WHOLE FOODS AT SEAQ - Do you know of any cruise line that likes to cook and serve organic food.?
A - Well we can't imagine any cruise line would actually "enjoy" serving organic food given the cost. But cruise line marketing people understand that this segment of the market is growing and virtually every upscale cruise line now offers spa menus and a selection of some organic dishes. The next step, and plans are already underway, involves the opening of an actual alternative health food restaurant aboard ship. Oceania and Regent Seven Seas currently offer selections from Canyon Ranch Spa. One of the biggest misconceptions about cruising is that you are going to be fat and lazy for a week while lined up at the lunchtime buffet. In fact, the perpetually lazy tend to favor all-inclusive resorts. There is just too much walking about a ship and required mobility for full days in port to make a cruise attractive to couch potatoes. But sitting near a swimming pool or beach in a lounge chair just minutes from the all-you-can-eat buffet, now that's resort living at its finest.
Generally speaking, the tirelessly healthy are quite pleased with the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables available on the Top Ten Cruise Lines. If there is any criticism of current cruise line menus, it seems to center around the paucity of fresh fish.
- MORE ON BIG SHIPS AND SAFETY
Q - We had dinner with friends last night from St. Louis who have joined us on a number of cruises. The entire evening was spent discussing the Costa Concordia situation. We were somewhat surprised by the advice you have offered to some folks who expressed concern about sailing a mega-ship in the future. We appreciate the honesty but we were curious if you are seriously advising people not to go on ships that carry several thousand guests and crew? Do you really think they are dangerous.
A - If we thought that, we'd probably work in plastics. No, the mega-ships are certainly not dangerous. But we would like to be as clear as possible in responding to your question:
We advise those who have serious anxiety about boarding a large ship to delay their vacation. We feel that a a vacation ought to involve several important stages and anticipation is one of them. We do not think you ought to travel on a ship that scares you.
Of course there is the question of whether or not a mega-ship is safe. We know the massive PR cruise machine will try to convince cruisers that there is no danger. And they are probably right but we do feel there are questions to which the industry has never provided satisfactory responses.
What kind of experiences dealing with large-scale emergencies at sea makes us feel that a low budget, international crew speaking a wide variety of languages, with little sophisticated safety training, can be relied upon to remain on ship to professionally assist passengers in dire straits?
We would hope that the owners of the mega-ships, the world's largest cruise lines, would admit that they have been less than clear about their overall plans to successfully evacuate several thousand passengers and crew from a ship that is taking on water and starting to list. This is information that consumers will now be demanding. It was never talked about much because it is such a "negative".
There are, we believe, construction issues as ships are growing top heavy to accommodate more revenue-producing venues. Ships are being built with lower drafts so they do not have to use tenders as much.
The end story will be "human error" . But we think it may go way beyond that. It is clear, very clear, that there can be another Titanic. The Costa Concordia was at sea with no weather issues, close to land. All systems were operating efficiently. It should have been a calm evening.
- CRUISE PRICES AND THE COSTA TRAGEDY?
Q - We are seriously considering a cruise for our family sometime this year. We read what you had to say about school vacation time and the impact on cruise pricing so we were wondering when might be the best time to cruise in 2012. Simply put, when are the best prices? We're not cheap but we may end up paying for as many as fourteen family members so cost is an issue. We are thinking about a ship that is large enough to have good facilities and small enough to evacuate in an emergency. Any guidance would be appreciated.
A - We are anticipating that you will see a general decline in cruise prices between the months of October through mid-December. This is not related to the Costa tragedy but is closely related to the fact that this is a Presidential Election year. History shows that people just do not like to travel during the two months leading up to a National Election and the month following the election. Travel executives chalk it up to a general malaise and feelings of uncertainty. You are going to see some excellent pricing opportunities in November. Our view is somewhat contrary. We think that this election may get so repugnant that a significant number of potential cruisers will decide to leave the country for a short spell. Therre may be a mad scramble to get away from our TV's by late October.
- SHOULD WE CANCEL OUR PLANNED CRUISE?
Q - We are just so upset about the tragedy in Italy and the way the Captain of a luuxury cruise ship would just walk away. My husband and I are taking our two daughters on a cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale to the Caribbean on Norwegian Cruise Line and we are seriously thinking of cancelling. Our travel agent says we should just let time pass, but I just cant look forward to a cruise four months away without thinking of what could go wrong. These poor people were just having dinner the first night out and look what hapopened. I guess my question has to do with all we are hearing on the news about big ships. Are they too big? If you were us, what would you do? We have not made final payment yet.
A - We have received a number of similar questions and we will try to be as specific as possible in our response. There is now little doubt that something went terribly wrong aboard the bridge on the Costa Concordia. We suspect that the conclusion of the inquiries will be that the Captain did not follow his computerized routing and decided to do a "pass by" to please someone on shore. We know that this has happened on other lines. In one incident, several years ago, a well known British Captain had his wife on board. He got a little too close to the rocks during the departure from Acapulco because he wanted to show his wife the Cliff Divers. He ran the ship aground.
But this is different. It is different because the evacuation procedures failed so miserably. This does raise some serious questions about the about of mega-ships to properly handle a real emergency at sea. The loss of life is tragic and we grieve for the victims and their families. There will be several major investigations that grow out of this event and we hope that crew training and preparation is at the forefront of those investigations. Yes, the Captain exercised poor , and now it seems, criminal judgement. But that will happen again. It is the crew's lack of preparation that should be the primary focus of the investigation. We already know that some Captains like to do close-in "cruise bys" to show off to friends ashore or crew with ties to the port. But there are legitimate concerns about the sourcing and training of low-cost mega-ship lines. And make no mistake about it, Costa is a budget line. They have beautiful ships but consumers, such as yourself, have to ask how it is that some cruise lines are able to come in at prices that are 200%-$400 lower then the lines lines in our "Top Ten Cruise Lines" Ratings.
The public will not believe that a low-priced bargain cruise may have implications regarding the quality of the crew, their background, and their training. Consumers believe that, when it comes to cruise vacations, the adage that "you get what you pay for" somehow does not apply. But ships have to make cuts somewhere to come in under $300 per person per day. Food is an obvious area of cuts. But attention to detail and safety may also be important components of price. We hope the inquiries focus on this area.
As to your specific question. We do think you should cancel your scheduled cruise. The fact that you are already concerned enough to write to us would indicate that you have anxiety about this trip. A vacation, we believe, ought to begin with the planning and anticipation stages of the journey. You should never begin a vacation unless you are comfortable. Think about waiting until you are comfortable with the notion of cruising. You might also want to consider a rule that seems to apply to virtually every ship at sea. Space ratios matter. Look at a low density, under 1000 guests ship operated by a company with a distinguished operations history.
- DOES ANYONE OUT THERE CARE ABOUT OUR LUNGS?
Q - I am writing on behalf of my parents who, in their early seventies, are going to be visiting Europe for the first time. My brother and I want to send them on a nice seven-to-ten day cruise in Europe. They have never been, so we were thinking of a cruise that does the British Isles. My Dad's folks come from Wales. Here's the problem. My folks are rabid non-smokers. The smell of tobacco literally makes them sick. So we've been looking at one of the small, upscale ships that does not allow smoking. So far, our Internet search is telling us that all of these ships allow smoking in various areas and some of them allow smoking in their cabins and balconies. Yet, when a new passenger boards the ship, like our folks, we would have no way of knowing if they had a no-smoking cabin. Friends turned us on to this web site and said you were honest. So please, tell us -honestly, what should we do?
A - Well based on your needs and the current tolerance among the luxury toward on board smokers, we don't think any of them deserves your business. Our view is that smokers ought not be accommodated on any mode of transportation where it is not easy or safe to smoke outside. It is simply not safe to smoke on a cruise ship and it is especially dangerous to allow smoking on an outdoor balcony as winds can carry ashes back on to the decks.
Smokers, in our view, have no rights, when it comes to inflicting harm to others through noxious second-hand smoke. And since smokers are, essentially, suicidal, it might be best if they vacationed off on some smoking island of their own where they could inhale to their heart's, dare we say, content. As a matter of fact, we seriously believe that separated vacation destinations for smokers are going to be trend in this country. For now, smokers can just pack up and head for China.
Here is what you are up against. A weak economy has made several cruise lines lean toward accepting a higher percentage of non-American guests. That increases the need for the various lines to allow more smoking then they would be inclined to do with an all-American clientele. The best cruise line for non-smokers is Regent Seven Seas, which does not allow any smoking in cabins, balconies, or entertainment venues. They do not even allow smoking in their casinos. But there are sections of some lounges where smoking is permitted.
As to our recommendation: We do not think you should support the cruise industry's current smoking policies. Instead, we would suggest that you look carefully at buying your folks one of the better escorted tour programs from one of the firms recommended in our ratings. They will not allow any smoking on their motor coaches or indoor venues.
- IMPLICATIONS OF COSTA CATASTROPHE
Q - We are scheduled to take a cruise on a line called Azamara this coming August. It was to do the coastline of Italy near the area where the Luxury Liner went down. My husband wants to just cancel, saying the port pilots obviously do not know what they were doing. What is your take on this?
A - It is a bit early for us to have a take that is worth very much. The news is still just hours old and this is clearly a black mark for an industry that has an enviable safety record. If you cancel your cruise, we don't know where you might go since staying at home is statistically far more dangerous. Flying in an airplane and cruising at sea are about the safest places you can be on this planet of ours.
The reporting in the early hours has been interesting because it refers to Costa's Concordia, built in 2006 as a "luxury" vessel. In fact, it is a lovely vessel with modern interior design that appeals to it's core Italian customers. But Costa, once an independent company, is now a brand in the Carnival Cruise Lines stable. In addition to Costa, Carnival owns well known brands Holland America, Princess Cruises, and the luxury line, Seabourn among other lines. Carnival is the largest cruise company in the world by a rather large margin. Costa is generally regarded as a budget or entry-level product with prices to match. Costa provides an "Italian Experience at Sea" and the ships feature Italian officers and cuisine. Costa markets heavily to Americans when their ships are in the Caribbean, but they are normally considered very much a Euro-centered product. The Concordia had very few Americans on board, and most of its 3200 passengers on this Med cruise were from Italy with about 500 Germans and a smattering of other nationalities. It is too early to know to what degree a local pilot was involved as the ship sailed close to land near Guglio, a small port not very far from the lush Tuscan landscape. One of the most important questions to be addressed in the next several days will center around the issue of just who was responsible for notifying the Captain of rocky reefs off shore. Of serious concern to us are the stated reports that the crew refused to launch lifeboats when it appeared that were severely needed and the general lack of information provided to passenge3rs based on reports we have seen. More specifically, a number of guests who boarded an early segment of the cruise on January 8t, were reportedly on board the Concordia for several days without being asked to attend a lifeboat drill. If these initial reports are true, and they are often not accurate when it comes to other transportation related events, It would appear, that this accident could cause some serious financial harm to the parent company. However, Italian law is not the same as US law in matters of gross negligence and the fact that Costa is a treasured Italian name could potentially be helpful. It does not appear that very many passengers purchased their tickets for this cruise int the US.
With that said, there are some general points we would make since we have received a number of questions related to this tragedy. In a general sense, consumers need to ask themselves what sort of things are being cut when they consider a mass market ship carrying thousands of guests at a price that is, perhapos, one quarter of the cost of one of the World's Top Ten Cruise lInes. Exactly where are the cuts being made? Food is an obvious response, but what about crew and where and how they are sourced. What about educational requirements for crew? What about the amount of crew training time that goes into crew safety trraining? Who is operating the ship in the form of senior staff? Cruise passenegers have somehow swallowed the Kool Aid - they believe that the cruise lines are a great exception to the rule that "You Get What You Pay For." They are not.
- THE ULTIMATE WALL STREET BLACKBERRY BREAK
Q - OK, here's the deal. My boyfriend is head of research at a Wall Street hedge fund. We're both in our thirties and we both work long hours. I want to surprise him with a vacation he'll never forget, taking him to a place where his Blackberry won't function. We're both into climbing and we've done some high altitude stuff in the States. If at all possible, we'd like to keep the vacation under $10,000 for both is us, not including airfare or expenses. But is has to be absolutely awesome. Just found this site and thought you might be able to make a recommendation.
A - Well, first understand that the last time we did something adventurous it involved flying Premier Economy instead of Business Class on United. But we think you ought to look closely at a new program in Abercrombie and Kent's "Extreme Adventures". "Mount Kilimanjaro: The Roof of Africa by the Umbwe Route" involves a climb up one of Kilimanjaro's most challenging and direct routes to the summit. But you will encounter mountain forests,alpine desert, and then and ice-covered summit. You will encounter few trekkers and be rewarded with one of the planet's most incredible views, assuming you can see anything at all when you reach the peak. The one week trip has departures throughout the year and is priced at just under $3500 per person. The Expedition Guide will be Dismass Mariki, a registered "Head Guide" who has climbed to thre peak 176 times. The trip begins in Arusha, moves on to the Umbwe Caves witht he ascent from Barranco Camp. You then climb to Karanga and then Barafu Camp. Or, you could just go to Sandals.
- WILL THERE EVER BE ANOTHER AIRLINE REALITY SHOW?
Q - Since traveltruth is a not-so-guilty pleasure and you don't list names, I can ask a couch potato question. We loved that reality show that took you behind the scenes at Southwest. Are any other airlines going to do a reality series?
A - No, but the good news is that there will be a second Southwest Reality series premiering on the TLC Network. Travel Weekly reports that the series will be taped at Baltimore-Washington and Denver airports.The original show "Airline" ran from 2004-2005 then went into reruns. In all there were 70 episodes. Southwest has a commitment for 13 of the new shows and the airline is promising that viewers will get to see inside operations in a way that has never previously been shown on television. For those of us who fly often, we're not sure that seeing how Southwest cooks up its particularly brand of stew is a good thing. We have an image of our pilots and our mechanics and we want to keep it that way.
- CROSSING THE POND THIS CHRISTMAS
Q - Hope this gets answered on traveltruth or via e-mail. We're in our early fifties and both my wife and I work long hours as programmers and data consultants. In the last ten years of our marriage, we've gone away for the Holidays to the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico seven time over Christmas. (cancelled or seriously delayed flights five of the seven times). This year, we want to get out of bed and do something a little more challenging like going to Europe in the off-season. We know the weather will be cold but we were wondering which European city might be the most interesting during Christmas or New Year? Is this at all a good idea? Love the site. There's nothing else like it.
A - Anything that offers you an escape from the Dominican Republic is probably a good idea. Why pay top dollar for a beach when you can get Donatello at a discount? We think this is a wonderful idea and, when you find the ideal European city, we would make it an annual affair, and we mean that quite literally. Were it us, we would want to visit a truly charming alternative to a huge European metropolis. The key requirement would be to visit a place that is overrun with tourists during the height of the season and relatively empty during the winter. For us, that would be Venice. Walking the streets or doing the canals wrapped in the warmth of a horsehair blanket, is a wonderful alternative to mass tourism and tush-to-tush beaches. We also love Munich during the Holidays. Barcelona is wonderful without crowds and there is always the Left Bank of Paris. But for this first experiment - do Venice and live like a Venetian!
- WHY DO CRUISE LINES HATE SINGLES?
Q - I am an attractive guy in his late sixties, ok, early seventies, and, believe it or not, I've never been married. I like to play the field and I like to meet and dance with all the widows on cruises. But I am on a fixed income and I wonder why single supplements on cruises are so high. Don't they realize how many single travelers there are out there? I call it highway robbery. I've been asking this question for years and no one seems to have the answer.
A - It all has to do with yield per guest. Cruise ships are always designed to maximize the number of guests to increase the yield, or profit, on cabins, shore excursions, and onboard spending. If a cruise line sells you a cabin designed for two, they are diluting their yield by 50% in most areas of the ships operation. That has been the problem. Singles are housed in doubles.
There are a few exception. The Cunard liners have single cabins as does the new ship design, the Breakaway, owned by NCL. But 99% of all current cruise berths are doubles, triples, or quads. This is a particular problem these days for cruise lines. They have added to the number of on board lecturers and entertainers each year. Most often, these entertainers, including clergy, are berthed in standard double cabins. This results is a serious dilution in potential on board revenue and it also effects the budget of the yield management staff.
Consumers do not generally realize that it is not at all difficult to fill a cruise ship. There are travel agents, writers, public relations types, and trade-out partners to fill empty cabins. Cruise Lines will trade out cabins for some of the things they need like company cars for their sales staff. The lines can also fill cabins quickly by localized special offers or strategic radio advertising. They can also open weak sailings with empty cabins to sale by their international sales agents. So filling berths is not difficult. What is a challenge is the loss of revenue when a sailing has a large number of "entertainment" staff who must be accommodated as singles in a double cabin.
The fact is that cruise line executives are just starting to realize that future ship designs will have to incorporate sufficient space for "single berthed guests" of the entertainment division.
So, the reason you are not getting an answer is that, for the most part, cruise lines do not want to be particularly attractive to single travelers because they dilute revenue. That is the real reason prices for singles are so high.
- BARCELONA'S MOST DESIRABLE RESERVATION
Q - We are heading out to Barcelona in June for a long-delayed second honeymoon. We'll be staying at the Hotel Arts, which we hope you will agree is the best hotel in the city. Our question has to do with one memorable meal. We have established a relationship with a member of the Concierge staff at the Arts who we think will help us book the hottest restaurant in the city. Is there one place we absolutely must try and where should we sit?
A - The Hotel Arts is very Ritzish and modern. But it does not have the city's best location. You will need to take a taxi to get tot he Ramblas and the heart of the action. The restaurant of the moment in Barcelona is simply called "Tickets". When El Bulli was closed earlier this year, Spain lost the world's top-rated restaurant. Now, former El Bulli Chef/Owner Ferran Adria and his brother Albert, have opened an inexpensive and unusually playful tapas restaurant. There is a really futuristic bar, six dining areas, and a desert area that resembles a culinary amusement park complete with cotton candy and ice cream carts. But be warned, this is about the "toughest ticket" in town.. By the way, the place is named after its location, in Barcelona's rather intimate theater district. The hottest section in the restaurant is a small area called "the Marx Brothers Cabin", a well-located spot where the owners can mingle with their friends and fellow chefs. We wonder if Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo would find it amusing that their "style" has been invoked in such a trendy manner in 2012.
Is this one of those restaurants where paying someone to get you in make sense? Yes. But remember, the Adria's do not like games. They hate saying no. That is, ultimately, why they closed El Bulli. It became too successful.
- INDIA: WHEN AND WHERE
Q - Well we are going to finally do a real trip and head off to India in 2012. We know that you have advocated travel to India and we're going to do it. We've started our searches and it seems as though there are two primary questions to ask right away? Should we do Northern India, Southern India, or a combination of the two. We would stay about twelve days. Secondly, when should we go. we assume some months are better than others. My wife and I are in our mid-fifties, reasonably well traveled, and, except for Diabetes ,I'm in good shape. Thanks for the opportunity to pose these questions in such an uncluttered atmosphere.
A - Our pleasure. Do Northern India on your first trip. You don't have the time to do both justice and seeing the palaces and the forts is not to be missed. The sights, sounds, and colors will amaze you. We want you to do the trip between October and February, but if you plan on seeing Varanasi, and you must, it is best to avoid the second half of December and the month of January as there can be substantial fog in the area. The absolute best two months are October and February. The southern part of India is lush, green, much more laid back with a wonderful rural feel. You will also be able to get away from the severe overcrowding you will experience in the north. So do the north first and go south when you're a bit older.
- CRUISE LINE SNOBBERY INDEX
Q - We read your "Cruise Line Sophistication Index" with a great deal of interest. But we're less afraid of being at sea with sophisticates then we are locked up for a week or two with "snobs." Any chance you would help out any number of traveltruth readers who feel like we do by listing those lines most apt to attract passengers with a need to show off their jewelry and their wealth. I know which of the lines are the top-rated but I have no idea how comfortable we would be with the on-board crowd.
A - Our first impression is that you probably should not be thinking about going on a top-rate line if you are worried that some of your fellow guests may be affluent in the extreme. Clearly some will fit that category. We would not attempt to create a snob index because that would portray some very nice, kind, and generous guests in an unfairly negative manner. So let's compromise a bit. Let us offer you our estimate of the net worth index, pointing out those lines with the most affluent guests:# 5 - Regent Seven Seas # 4 - Seabourn # 3 - Crystal # 2 - Silverseas # 1 - Residensea
- US AIR VS. LUFTHANSA VS. AMERICAN
Q - We have a rather specific question. We can fly to Barcelona from Philadelphia or JFK in New York. We've found three airfares similarly-priced, with decent availability, US Air, Lufthansa, and American. We'll probably end up flying coach. Which of these airlines has the best seating and the best food?
A - In your scenario, we would look at the aircraft and choose between Lufthansa or American. If at all possible, fly the 777 on American and have your agent select two seats on the side. Check with Seat Guru to make certain there is nothing wrong with your seat location. Lufthansa is the best of the three airlines in terms of overall passenger satisfaction and you likely will be flying an Airbus 340 or a 747. US Air is the lowqest ranking of the three. We would advise you to go to ITAsoftware.com to review the actual time of your trip with connections.
You should either order a special dinner from your airline such as "Seafood" , Kosher, or "Vegetarian". There is no extra charge and you will be eating far better food than the regular fare. But when it comes to international coach, we always advise that you wait until you have passed the final security checkpoint and then put together a nice picnic dinner from the best available food outlets to bring on board. Technically, you can bring food from a restaurant or home through a security checkpoint. Just do drinks and, possibly, dessert aboard an aircraft and never drink the water unless you know for certain that it came out of a bottle. To make for a lovely dinner hour, we suggest a paper tanlecloth and a nice plastic flower folded in your carry-on. Other travelers will be filled with envy at your intelligent preparation.
- WHO HAS THE BEST SERVICE LEVELS AT SEA?Q - What an odd site - you people have obviously never been to business school. You could be making a lot of money if you featured advertising and, quite frankly, ads wouldn't bother me a bit. Anyway, I come to you with a question no one seems willing to address. It's simple - my wife and I love great service. If good people are taking care of us, we're happy and in a great mood. We're about to go on our first cruise, probably somewhere in Europe during July or August. Which Cruise Line has the best overall service? A - It would bother us. We do not believe you can review travel products honestly while accepting payment from them for advertising. This is something we learned while earning our MBA. The best current overall service levels among the five-star ships will be found on Crystal Cruises.
- WE HAVE AMERICAN AIRLINES ADVANTAGE MILES - NOW WHAT?
Q - We were just reading about American Airlines going bankrupt and it sent shivers down my spine. My husband and I been saving Advantage Miles for years and we're planning on using the 250,000 miles we've accumulated for several trips we have planned in the next 24 months. We're in our seventies and not very familiar with how these things work. Our travel agent says we should just "stay calm" but the news doesn't sound too good. We have good credit scores so we will take your advice about getting those certain American Express or Visa cards. But what if we were planning on using miles to fly American next June. Couldn't they just change the rules and make it harder to get seats using the miles? Or, they could end the program all together.What should we do, this is really getting us frustrated. Any advice would really be appreciated..
A - Your travel agent's advice to remain calm is sound. But there are some steps you ought to take to protect yourself while remaining in a state of calm. You can use some of your miles to cash in for an open ticket coupon that will have a one year validity. You might also consider using your miles for one or two domestic vacations on American. We do think, as regards flights to Europe, that American will be making it harder to cash in mileage for upgrades and free flights given the anticipated decline in availability. There will be route reductions and some routes may be served with smaller aircraft. Unprofitable routes will be eliminated. This all adds up, in our opinion, to a reduction of between 15-20% in available overseas mileage seats on American flights in 2012. But that is nothing more than an educated guess. No one knows what will come out of this bankruptcy. The vast majority of aviation analysts take the view that this is really what American needed to do to remain competitive going into the future. And don't rule out a potential merger. So, get rid of 50% of your American miles, enroll in one of the mileage credit cards we've recommended that allow you to transfer miles from your account to several major airline, join at least one other airline mileage club program, and request your mileage seats 11 months to the day prior to your scheduled flight. Do all of those things and you will be fine and, by the way, so will American. Watch American's web site, AA.com for some significant new offers we expect to be available on January 2nd.
- TACOS ON THE RUNS
Q - My girlfriend and I are off to Cancun in three weeks. We've never been to Mexico and I was really looking forward to trying the tacos made on the street. I was wondering if street food or food from food trucks, if they have such a thing, is safe in Cancun or other parts of Mexico?
A - Safe in an interesting word. Will you die from street food or the delights served in the shacks along the beach? Probably not. Will you get really sick? There is a high probability. It has a great deal to do with your bodies tolerance of certain microbes in the food. If you have not been there, you have not built up an immunity. Locals will not get ill. We're betting you will. Travel sophisticates and those who need to remain in the good graces of the Mexican Tourism Board will claim that Motezuma's Revenge is an out-of-date stereotype. To a certain degree it is since health and hygiene standards have improved dramatically in tourist areas of Mexico. But it still occurs often enough that first-time travelers are entitled to some cautionary advice.
- HOW TO GET A POWER SHOWER, AN UPGRADE AND A RESCUE LADDER
Q - My wife and I watched Peter Greenberg on The Early Show this morning and we heard several things that were rather new to us. He said that you should never stay above the eighth floor in a high-rise hotel, that you should only ask for rooms that have a booster of some sort, and that it is never a good idea to book a hotel with anyone but the Manager of the hotel. I know he has written several books but I was wondering what you thought of this advice and if it makes sense for travelers like us who go abroad on vacation twice a year? I guess we're also asking if Peter Greenberg is someone we ought to be listening to regarding travel advice?
A - Peter has been at this for a long time and he recently joined CBS after serving as the Travel Editor for the Today Show on NBC. He does have a sense of the dramatic but, look, when you are on live TV they expect you to be dramatic. Peter has strong consumer travel credentials and we think his advice is always well-intentioned, if a tad overblown. The issues of water pressure boosters and the safest floors in a high-rise hotel are subjects we have covered previously on traveltruth.
Rooms do not have boosters, but entire floors do at high-rise hotels. Peter is correct in recommending that guests request a floor that has a "water booster system". These boosters are used every three or four floors. The water pressure from your shower on a floor with the booster system will definitely get you significantly more water pressure. That is rather important to some folks. We have heard Peter reference the fire safety issue concerning rooms above the eighth floor. He is absolutely correct in suggesting that most fire departments do not have the capability of rescuing guests from their rooms above this height. High rise hotel managers cringe when he raises the subject but we give him a great deal of credit for doing so. Ideally, we recommend that our clients seek the fifth through the eighth floor to avoid street noises and banquet rooms. But, of course, every hotel is different. Finally, if Peter suggested that you make your hotel reservations through the Hotel Manager we would, respectfully, disagree. You never want to book a hotel online, because you will be assigned the worst room. If you use a hotel's own 800 number you will likely be outsourced or handled by reservations staff that lacks the authority to throw in upgrades or amenities that actually mean something. The best way to book a hotel is to do it through a travel agent who gives the hotel a lot of business and who has a personal relationship with management. If your agent belongs to one of the better consortium groups such as Virtuoso, Signature, or Ensemble, it is possible that guaranteed amenities and upgrade programs are already in place. But don;t expect your travel agent to have any clout with Holiday Inn. Clout only really works at the upper end of the hotel scale. If you choose to pay the hotel the built-in travel agent commission but you prefer to book directly, try dealing with tthe Rooms Manager or the Director of Reservations. Peter's books including "The Travel Detective" are filled with advice that is tough to find elsewhere. His style requires the reader to be rather confrontational but, then again, Peter lives in New York. Yes, you ought to be listening to Peter's advice. He's forgotten more than most travel commentators know.
- ANY WAY TO AVOID AMALFI COAST HOTEL RIP-OFFS?
Q - We are headed to Italy this summer and have every aspect of our trip planned with the exception of four nights along the Amalfi Coast. From reading the information on traveltruth and speaking with friends who have been there, it sounds as though we need to be in Positano. But the hotels that everyone recommends, Le Siranuse and San Pietro are coming in at about $800 per night and up in June. We were thinking more like half of that. We like nice things and we also like nice values. Is Positano right for us (first-time in Italy) and is there any hotel you might recommend that borders on wonderfulness at a much more favorable price?
A - We think that Poistano, though packed with day-trippers during June through October, is still the right place to stay. Its hillside charms and stunning harbor views more than make up for any inconveniences. The place you should try first is Buca di Bacco. It is family-owned, has a great restaurant, it is just a few moments from the beach and it offers prices for many of its 53 rooms that begin under $400 per night. But do remember that Italy has 18% VAT plus some local taxes and food is expensive. A very close second is the Hotel Poseidon with 48 rooms and a staff that seems to enjoy serving guests. The pool setting and the views couldn't be better and you are, again, looking at rates that oiught to come in under $500 USD.
We should add that many visitors to Italy this coming summer will be surprised at prices that approach $1,000 USD per night at most of the five-star properties along the Amalfi Coast, in Venice, Florence, and in Rome. It is a matter of the weak dollar, a very high level of VAT taxes, and demand far exceeding availability.
- TRIPADVISOR HAS SERVED ME WELL
Q - We just had to comment on your recent posting about TripAdvisor. Whilst we understand your leanings toward the upwardly mobile user, many of us just don't fancy freu-freu accommodations when we travel. And there are millions of us out there who would never take an escorted tour, a cruise, or even think about having a private guide to lead us by the hand. A clean room, a loo, and a safe location - those are the things we need in a hotel. So please tell us why you are so arrogant when it comes to those of us, millions of us, who rely on TripAdvisor? I wonder what your reasoning is and why I should turn to the hotel inspection reports you describe? Do you really think I would ever spend more than 150 Pounds on a hotel room for the night? Your site is clever and well done but it is clearly written for Americans. You might consider that the Internet is global? I don't expect this to be printed but trust you will find a way to respond?
A - Your question is fair and well stated so we are pleased to answer. You are correct. For your needs, it sounds as though Internet searches, including the steaming piles of user feedback, will serve you well. The hotels you are using would not, we believe, even be included in the ratings service we referenced. You are also correct, our site is oriented toward the American, and Canadian, traveler. As you are aware, large numbers of TripAdvisor opinions are written by users worldwide. They do not, therefore, reflect accurately the cultural hotel preferences of the average American traveler. As a result, many of the "top-rated" accommodations do not include the best properties in a location. TripAdvisor has taken some recent steps to clean up its act but the fact is that "Buzz Marketingt" is real. That is a new form of advertising that uses internet feedback to get good things said about your product while denigrating the products of your competitors. Many marketing departments maintain numerous fake e-mail addresses that they use to respond to popular sites. So what you see on the Internet is often tainted information placed there by savvy marketers who know that they have to camouflage product endorsements int the form of reader feedback or reviews. In order to accurately rate a hotel, one must have a very solid background in the industry and be able to place the property in the context of others in the same area.
Again, the only generally accurate reviews of hotels worldwide, are those that appear in the ABC Reports. They are the industry standard. They specify which floors and room types are best along with notations on a great many areas of service. They also address the expectations of the guest, informing the travel professional as to exactly what kind of client might find the property most appropriate. And, they travel incognito. The hotels never know they are being professionally reviewed. There are many sources from which you can glean information. Certainly there are some wonderful blogs and the leading consumer magazines in the States. Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure offer tremendously helpful recommendations and updated reviews. But, for the person doing careful planning, it is, in our view, always best to have the actual official hotel inspection reports in your hand before making a hotel decision.
- TRIPADVISOR: DO I WANT THEM ADVISING ME ON MY TRIP?
Q - I've noticed that traveltruth.com and other professional sites seem to take a dim view of TripAdvisor. I like to book my own hotels for business and pleasure but I know their reviews are often way off the mark. Does your staff use TA and, if so, how do you get the most out of it? I'm really curious as I just don't know of any alternatives. How, for instance, would I really be able to learn the truth about the three best properties on St. Lucia without TripAdvisor? Love this site but wish you'd have more about hotels and less about cruises and airlines.
A - You are correct, TripAdvisor is immensely popular. It has 50 million visitors per month on its sites in 30 countries. That is the epitome of travel clout. TripAdvisor comments can lead to hotel closings or sudden bursts of new business. The company is now operational in China at www.daodao.com Expedia is spinning off TripAdvisor and it will shortly become a publicly-traded compamny. Expedia.com also owns Hotels.com, and Hotwirfe.com. It is a huge media corporation with 18 seperate travel brands virtually allof which are internet-based.
To answer you directly, we are not aware of any serious travel professional or journalist who takes the opinions, reviews, hatchet jobs or blatant self-promotion on TripAdvisor seriously. We would never pass on information gathered from that source to clients or to traveltruth visitors. That is not to say that you can't dig up valuable information on the site. The company claims that there are currently 50 million "reviews and opinions" that can be accessed. But exactly who is writing them? Clearly, hotel executives are upset enough with some of the inaccuracies to begin posting in defense of their properties.
One of the best ways to use the feedback on TripAdvisor is to look for comments by the General Managers of the hotels mentioned. We are seeing this more and more and this presents an opportunity originally identified by Wendy Perrin in Conde Nast Traveler. She recommends you look over a posting from the GM at the property you plan to book. You now have the General Manager's e-mail address, often their private e-mail address. Send them a note and explain how much you enjoyed their post. Ask them to assist with your reservation. You might even want to ask if an upgrade will be possible. They may well be concerned enough about your next posting on TravelAdvisor to really look after you.
Which brings us to your most important question. How do you really get honest information about the hotels you are considering. Where on the web can you go? The answer is, up to this point, nowhere. Every hotel site we've seen accepts advertising from hotels and avoids hard-hitting specifics. The only place you will really know about the relative quality of a hotel, anywhere in the world, is to use a travel consultant who has access to the ABC Reports, a subscription to regularly updated reviews of every major worldwide hotel. The ABC Reports are written by professional hotel inspectors for the use of travel agents. There is no advertising and the evaluations are specific and professional. They are very specific and are the only truly reliable reviews we've seen. Hotels do not know they are being inspected and the company does not accept advertising. You need to work with a travel agent who will supply you with these reports before you make a hotel decision. Agents normally do not charge for this service.
Finally, if you want to explore tripadvisor in a bit more detail, you may want to visit this, no-holds barred attack on their alleged practices. http://
- THE BEST HOTEL VALUE IN BARCELONA
Q - It isn't that we're cheap, but I suppose you could say we're thrifty. We know the Meridian and the Hotel Arts are two of the best hotels in Barcelona, but we're looking for something smaller and, if at all possible, under $350 a night. We love that we know who is giving advice on this site and we trust you to set us straight. We're from Oregon, my wife is a lawyer and I'm a school teacher. We're doing two weeks in Spain in May with five nights in Barcelona. Any help would be appreciated. But we don;t want dives so if we have to spend more we'll understand.
A - No, what you want is realistic. Try the 22-room Neri Hotel and Restaurant. It's a stylish 18th Century Palace in the Bari Gotic Quarter. Be a little careful, walking the area at night. This is a small, quiet hideaway. Certain iconic movie types like to stay here so don't be surprised if Woody Allen is checking in just ahead of you.
The Ohia Hotel is a 74-room boutique hotel in the commercial district. But it is a well-known secret that this hotel features a Michelin-star restaurant called Sauc and the property has a really mellow rooftop pool frequented by smart fashionistas.
Rates at both of these properties will start at just around $300 USD.
- WILL ITALY BE SAFE NEXT SUMMER?
Q - We have just heard that Italy's Prime Minister, Berlusconi, iks resigning. Italy's debt crisis dwarfs that of Greece. We're doing a cruise out of Rome in July on Celebrity Cruises , booked with Celebrity, and we are both extremely worried about possible riots related to the new cuts the new government will have to impose. Are our fears justified and what would you advise we do? Should we change to a Baltic Cruise?
A - We do believe that the potential exists for widespread protests, even violent protests, in Italy during the next six to eight months. But the fact is that there have already been numerous street demonstrations and even some riots in every major Italian city. You know, kind of like what we saw in our own Oakland. Our feeling about your cruise is that you should change nothing. Austerity measures in this country and certainly in Europe will produce some civil discord. But at least in Italy you can dine well while watching the demonstrations.
You have some options. Note that Civitavecchia, where the ship actually docks, is some 90 minutes away from Roma Centrale. So you can skip Rome. This is nothing we would recommend. If Rome was burning and Emperor Nero came back to run the city, we would still be tempted to go to the Eternal city just for the crispy cured pork cheeks and pasta served at Glass Hosteria in Trastevere. But, OK, you're not us and you have concerns. Rome resident anarchists seem to be a rather mobile lot but they also like cameras. Look for demonstrations to center around the Campo di Fiore, the Piazza Navona or somewhere near base of the Spanish Steps. Choose a hotel that is away from these areas.
As to just how much Celebrity will update you on the political situation in Italy - we can only say, dream on. You have, unfortunately, paid the travel agent commission by booking directly but you will receive none of the counseling services represented by that fee. You have made an extra "donation" to Celebrity's bottom line. You are going to have to do your own research and be your own consultant for this trip. But we'll do all we can to help in this space. Always remember, "Italy is too big to fail - at feeding you extremely well".
- WHAT IF MY TAIL ICES OVER?
Q - We are scheduled to go on a wonderful South America trip on February 2nd planned by our travel agent in Rochester (New York). But we have real concerns about a snowstorm or ice on the wings or any number of winter problems that could ruin our departure and put us days behind. My question concerns "who do you call" if you find out your flight is cancelled or your airport is closed. My agent works part-time and I am not certain I could reach her in an emergency or even that she would be able to help me out in an emergency. Is there any service or number you can call in a winter emergency?
A - We are proud of you for not suggesting a call to the airline. The closest thing to a service is www.crankyconcierge.comThese folks, for a fee, will monitor your status and help you find alternative transportation in a weather or other emergency. Brett Snyder is the owner and operates a popular blog called crankyflyer.com This concierge service is still rather new but, given your scenario, we would suggest you give it a try. Remember to program your cell phone with all relevant contact numbers before you leave the house. And be grateful. We here Rochester weather is delightful between September 25th and 29th.
- WHERE CAN WE FIND JIMMY BUFFET'S CARIBBEAN?
Q - We've beent here and done that, from Sandals to Sandy Lane. and my lady and I have decided that we're done with big hotels, cruisers, and packaged tourists. Now, we're looking for a few secret spots, just a few cottages on a beach where Jimmy Buffet might be lounging in the hammock. We're big fans and we just like to chill out on vacation. Part of that, I suppose has to do with the fact that we live in Connecticut so Cheeseburgers in Paradise are still important to us. Laid back simple luxury. Do these places still exist in the Caribbean or do we have to start considering Mexico?
A - They do exist but Jimmy B. will not likely be in any hammock where you can find him. More likely it will be an insurance salesman from New Jersey. Actually you are most likely to find Jimmy in Palm Beach then the Caribbean. He did frequent the islands in the 80's when he owned a home on St. Bart's. So Jimmy's idea of "Paradise" might be an island with French cuisine rather than hamburgers. although Le Select on St. Bart's has certainly benefitted from the association. Don't give up on the Caribbean. You have a lifetime of small pleasures ahead. First, try the Caves in Negril, Jamaica. Think of a dozen cottagesd that are up on cliffs overlooking the water. There is a good Spa, a nice sprinkling of Hollywood B-listers, and all-inclusive rates so you don't need to leave campus. We also want you to try The Rock House out on Harbour Island in the Bahamas. A tad challenging to get to but you are just a few minutes from a great beach. Harbour is a wonderful out island and "The House" only has ten suites so there is never a crowd. We like Buffet's music and we like a new policy he adopted several years ago. He only works onTuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Any real Parrothead would, we think, have to follow that policy.
- DO WE USE CRUISE LINE'S AIR PROGRAM?
Q - We are set to take our second cruise sailing out of Venice next summer. This is a "Free Air" sailing, one of the reasons we picked it. We will be flying out of Miami and we are worried about the air route Holland America might give us. Our agent feels the fact that the air is included is worth waiting for. We won't know our flights until two months prior to our departure from home. My husband is not a good flyer and I am concerned about being assigned a bad airline and bad routing since the air is included. Any advice would be appreciated.
A - You, like many other cruisers, have purchased an illusion. Airfare is almost never really free. Cruise lines, even those rated much higher than Holland America, get to promote Free Air even though you are clearly paying for it. You could have received a significantly lower "cruise only" fare. At this point, we would suggest that you have your agent get you an air quote with good routing. Out of Miami, you will have good connections on a number of airlines but look closely at Delta and Lufthansa.You can still cancel Holland America's air program. Finally, make certain that you fully understand your options when it comes to doing an "air deviation." Every passenger using a cruise line's air program should be aware that, for a fee, the airline will design a custom air program for you with a schedule available within days of the request. But there are down sides involving transfers and the limitations cruise lines have when doing ticketing exclusively on those airlines with whom they have a contractual relationship. There may actually be a fully legitimate "Free Air" offer out there. It's just that we've never seen one.
- DO I NEED TO TAKE OUT A LOAN TO SLEEP IN ROME?
Q - We just discovered this site and we can't stop reading. But it is clearly built around the needs of the 1% who demand five-star accommodations. We are returning to Rome for the second time and we stayed at the Hassler on our first trip. Our room nightly bill could have bought us a nice 50-inch Plasma and we vowed "never again". We're not on a really strict budget and we don't want a two-star, a bad neighborhood, a tiny room, anything dirty etc. You know, we're typical Americans who don't need a five-star in this economy. Where should we stay this time around?
A - You actually stayed at a hotel that has been ranked among the most overrated hotels in Europe. It isn't that the Hassler is not an absolutely lovely property - it is just that the US Dollar and the 18% VAT Tax have conspired to create some astronomical room rates for those willing to pay them. We suggest you look at the 41-room Barocco Hotel on Piazza Barberini. It was rennovated earlier this year and the rooms are quite nice. Be sure to ask for one of the more modern new rooms. Your agent should be able to get you rate that comes in under $400 per night inclusive.
- ON OUR OWN WITH THE KIDS IN ST. PETERSBURG
Q - Our family of four will be visiting St. Petersburg on a cruise operated by Celebrity. We hear it is one of the very top lines. Hope you agree. We will be bringing our 12 and 14 year old girls and wonder if there is a really good restaurant they might enjoy as we wander around St. Petersburg. We're not the tour type and we love getting lost and going off the beaten track.
A - Your e-mail makes us a tad uneasy. First of all, Celebrity is not, by any measure, one of the very top lines. It is the very best line among the mainstream cruise lines that utilize larger ships. For the money, Celebrity offers real value and there are spots on their ships that are truly elegant and even understated. They have better food then their primary competitors, Holland America and Princess, but do not assume that you will have anything like a gourmet experience. Expect to be nickel and dimed for nearly everything. We do not feel that you ought to be exploring St. Petersburg without a guide. If you do not take this advice, make certain that you have obtained visas for everyone in your family. You will need one to wander off the ship without a pre-arranged tour.Now, with that said, do try the wonderful, new Lujaika on Aptekarsky Prospekt. They actually have a fishing pond for children and the restaurant has its own pet rabbits that roam the property.
- DOES SIZE REALLY MATTER WHEN IT COMES TO AIRLINE SAFETY
Q - Love the site, and forgive you your occasional spelling errors .I wonder if you can answer a question I've never seen addressed by travel folks. Are some aircraft safer than others? Are 747's more dangerous, for example, then smaller. more maneuverable planes? Aren't larger planes, like the 747, more likely to head into bad weather while small planes generally go around it? Just wondering of there are is any information out there on this subject. We fly a lot and we'll keep flying, no matter what, but I like to know if I should go smaller or bigger if given the chance.
A - You are far off base on the 747. Based on miles actually flown, this is one of the safest auircraft in aviation history. Where the statistics become meaningful is when you look at really smaller jets and prop planes. The fact is that aircraft that carry thirty or fewer passengers have a fatality rate that is about three times that of larger jets.Now, when we look at the safety records of the most popular jet types used commercially, the big boys, we find very insignificant safety discrepencies based on aircraft type. Two of the safest airlines on record, for instamce, are Quantas, which now flies the 380 and the 747, and Southwest which flies the considerably smaller 737 exclusively. Some of us who write about this stuff have been surprised that the public did not react at all when smaller twin engine aircraft like the 767 and the 777 started flying long distance Atlantic and Pacific routes. But the fact is that safety experts now rate the new engines so highly that thefre is little appreciable difference between crossing the ocean in a four-engine versus a two-engine aircraft from a safety point of view. The spelling errors are deliberate - we want to be sure you are following us and we like to remind you that this site is maintained by humans.
- VEGAS ODDS
Q - We have just started going to Las Vegas two or three times a year for a little gambling and some great food. We were wondering if you have ever seen the payout percentage for the casinos and how it might compare to our former home town of Philadelphia where we were regulars at Atlantic City? Just wondering if this kind of information is readily available to people in the hospitality or travel industries and if you might share it?
A - Yes, every Monday a large black limo pulls up to our office and a guy named Guido gets out and hands us the actual slot machine payout statistics. Some of the details of his last visit are sketchy, but in general it is our understanding that the payout in Las Vegas is between 92-97%. The older casinos on Fremont street and off the main drags have higher payouts. The highest payouts afre going to be in casinos that cater to locals such as Sam's Town, the Gold Coast, and the Santa Fe. Our sense is that the payout rate in Atlantic City has started at around 85% and is rarely set above 92% or 93%. These are, of course, closely held secrets but you can bet on the fact that the more local oldtimers on the casino floor the better the payout. Please consider upgrading your lifestyle by playing the real Monte Carlo.
- GOING TO EGYPT AND I'VE BEEN TO ISRAEL - OOPS
Q - We love the lack of garbage on this web site. Congratulations. It is so nice not to have to get past ads to get a questions answered. We're headed to Egypt and then, possibly Syria, if things cool down. We've been to Israel twice. But my job requires a good deal of international travel and I anticipate really being hampered by my Israeli stamps. Any long-term solution to this? I know you can ask the Israelis not to stamp your passport.
A - We think the permanent fix for you is going to be one of the State Department's best kept secrets - Americans are not necessarily limited to one passport. You can get a second passport. It looks exactly like your first passport and it has been designed exactly for the situations you describe. It is an extra fee and it will be issued for a limited period of time but it will help you avoid any future unpleasantness.
- CAN WE VACATION AT DAVID COPPERFIELD'S PLACE?
Q - We are serious luxury level travelers and we've heard that the magician David Copperfield made a lot of money in Las Vegas and set up a beautiful resort in the Caribbean. Your recommendations would be appreciated. We have no problem with rates in the $1500 a night range for something memorable.
A - Well, we're afraid that $1500 won't quite cut it. David has built a lovely resort in the Bahmian out-island group, the Exunas. His place is called Musha Cay. There are five lovely cottages and any number of small boats for exploring the two dozen or so islands in the immediate vicinity. Copperfield has tried to spread the word that the waters in this area have life-prolonging minerals. Some of the super-rich have bought into this. Currently, Musha Cay is only sold to groups of up to 12 at an all-inclusive price of $37,500. That is a daily rate, of course.
- DO YOU KNOW THIS SEAFOOD JOINT ON ARUBA?
Q - I turn everyone on to this amazing site. You guys should really link up with the big boys to get more hits. If you don't know the site's name you can't find it. So you owe me. A simple question. We're going to Aruba in two weeks and we heard there is this incredible seafood place that has the best sunsets but it's way out. I just can't find it when I Google it. Any ideas?
A - We think you are probably thinking about one of the Yachties favorites - the Flying Fishbone. It is way out there on the edge of the water but the local taxi drivers all know it. Huge platters of seafood that was caught by the boats next door. If you call them in advance to let them know you are headed their way, ask for one of the tables that actually sits in the water.
- BERMUDA VACATION IN MAY
Q - We are thinking about getting away next May to Bermuda. We've found some rates that are almost too good to be true. Any thoughts?
A - Other than pass - not really. Bermuda visitors are just often unaware of it's location. The Visitors Bureau may not like it when we point it out, but the island is in the Atlantic Ocean not the Caribbean. Mid-summer is the time to visit for the best beach time. Remember, you are talking about an island that is, essentially, off the coast of North Carolina.
- BEACHING IN ST. BARTS
Q - Really interesting web site. Much appreciate the specifics. So, we're off, for the first time to St. Bart's, a rather silly place for two Brits to go - but that's another story. We want to find a beach or two to call our own. Where do/would you go?
A - The insider's choice is the "slight effort to get to" Grand Saline. But if you want to be around the seen and be seen crowd Baie de St. Jean is tres chic and steps away from otherworldly dining.
- GETTING NAKED WITH CLASS
Q - I hope this question is appropriate but we are in shape and we enjoy nude beaches. It seems like most of what we read about beaches where you can go topless or even nude is licentious .We're not into anything kinky it's just that my husband and I can go to a beach near our home. When we think Caribbean we think of unwinding and being able to take off our suits without creating a small riot. We are rather upscale travelers and were wondering which islands or cruise ports are suited to our preferences? If any?
A - No problem at all. Nude or clothing optional beaches are becoming more and more popular. There are even some serious "clothing optional" tour operators who include nude beaches on their worldwide itineraries. In the Caribbean, we would recommend, first and foremost, the island of St. Bart's. The two best options for you are Anse du Gouverneur or the more crowded Grande Saline. Probably the most famous clothing optional beach in the Caribbean in orient on the French side of St. Martin. But you do get gawkers from the States expressing their sexual repression and Freudian underpinnings. Hawksbill Bay is hard to get to on Antigua, an island that claims to have 365 beaches, but the taxi drivers know how to get you there. You will need to walk a way. Finally, consider Pointe Tarare on Guadeloupe. If you see a trend here it is only that the French are just more adult about all of this.
- ARE WE NUTS FOR GOING TO QUEBEC?
Q - Instead of going to Paris, we've been there five times, we've chosen, much to the consternation of our very local, she lives next door, travel agent, Quebec this coming August. We've asked about hotels and she recommended the Chateau Frontenac. But it seems huge and huge is not something we generally like unless we're at some kind of buffet. We don't mind spending up to $500 per night for something nice. Should we go with her recommendation?Love the site but I wonder if we're the first dummies who ever considered a vacation in Quebec? None of my friends have been there.
A - We actually think that you are far ahead of the travel curve. Combining Montreal and Quebec is an ideal alternative to crossing the pond and you will find some of the best neighborhoods along with world class cuisine if you prepare adequately for the trip. We are big fans of the Fairmont group but for your trip we will, instead, recommend the 94 room Auberge Saint-Antonio. This hotel has antique character but aspects of modern design. It is located on an absolutely wonderful street filled with restaurants, antique stores, and small boutiques. If it is not available, try the smaller Hotel Dominion 1912. It is a short walk away from major sites but restaurants abound in the area. The hotel has a cool, modern vibe. They serve breakfast - but that's it. Ask your travel agent for a copy of the Hotel Inspection reports for all three properties. If she doesn't know what you are talking about, keep her as a neighbor but lose her as an adviser.
- COSTA RICA HOTEL IN GUANACASTE
Q - Trying to pin down a hotel. My husband is a golfer, I love the sun. We're headed to Guanacaste on Costa Rica's west coast and have been looking at both the Hotel Punta Islita and the Four Seasons. Any bottom line opinions you might share?
A - See if you can get golf privileges through the Punta Islita. Their on-property restaurant is somewhat overrated but we love the location in a stretch of forrest. But the golf at FS Peninsula Papagayo is so memorable, that unless you could use the course staying elsewhere, we would recommend you stay at the Four Seasons. This is one of our favorite golf recommendations and the food matches the views.
- ARE THERE ANY FLYING STRATEGIES FOR LONG WEEKENDS?Q - My husband and I decided, well more I decided and I let him know, that we will, in the next 36 months, be taking long weekend vacations instead of longer trips abroad. After that, we'll return to our travel addiction but, for now, we want to cut the travel budget a bit. For a long weekend, are there certain days we should be traveling rather than others? A - Actually we do have a rule of sorts for long weekends. Try to depart on Saturday instead of Thursday or Friday and try to return on a Tuesday or Wednesday instead of Monday. Days to avoid, in order of level of price difficulty, are Friday, Sunday, and Monday.
- DOING SORRENTO AND POSITANO WITHOUT PRIVATE DRIVERS
Q - Enjoy your site but you have to know that most of your visitors can't afford to get around by taxi or private drivers. A lot of us use public transportation and your site is not very good at telling us how to get around on the cheap. Right now, we are getting ready for a trip to Italy and the Amalfi Coastal. My specific question is how do I get from Sorrento, where we're staying, to Positano, which we hear is a cool village. Hope you will improve your site to include more stuff for folks like me.
A - We want to assure you that we won't. But it is always nice to hear from an escapee from TripAdvisor.See here's the thing. Some adults have enough money to travel well. There aren't many places for them to go in cyberspace to get unbiased travel advice. Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of travel sites devoted to travel on the cheap. Because we are polite and we appreciate your visit, and also because even rich people sometimes like using public transportation to get a true sense of place, here is what you need to know: SITA is Italy's largest bus company. There is a public Sita bus route from Circumvesuviana in Sorrento right to Positano. You buy your ticket at any tobacco shop and then stamp your ticket in the machine next to the driver. It's really easy but the bus can get crowded. Just go down to Sorrento Marina Piccolo. You can catch the ferry right where you get the ticket. The ferry will drop you off at Positano's tiny harbor in the center of town. If you are staying at one of the hotels at the top of the small hill, the bus stop will be closer.
- IS CRYSTAL MORE EXPENSIVE THAN ITS COMPETITORS?
Q - We are thinking of going on a Crystal Cruise to Europe in 2012. But friends tell us that they read on the internet that Crystal is more expensive then some of the smaller ships. Price won;t be the main issue in our decision, but we were wondering if Crystal is generally more expensive then its competitors?
A - Actually, when you do cost-by-cost comparisons, Crystal is often less then many of the smaller luxury vessels. With 940 guests, Crystal has some economy of scale. There has always been a fair bit of misinformation about Crystal pricing because, during the past several years, it has sort of been a pricing anomaly in the luxury category, charging for drinks and gratuities and not touting its "inclusiveness." That will change early next year when Crystal goes inclusive with drinks and gratuities included for all guests. You are correct to avoid the price trap that dictates which vacation choice is really best for you. Consider Crystal if you like evening entertainment, a wonderful guest lecture program, and more options then you would find on a more yacht-like vessel. And assume that the service is as good or better then its smaller sisters seated at the five star bar.
- WHO SHOULD WE USE IN ANTARCTICA?
Q - Really grateful for this site and your willingness to help. We are about to plunk down a fistful of cash to see Antarctica, the trip of our dreams. We don't necessarily care about having the largest cabin etc., but we want to see as much as possible. Our agent is saying Le Boreal is the way to go. I know you have had some nice things to say about it and was wondering if I should pull the trigger? Anything I should bring with me?
A - Le Boreal is the newest yacht-like vessel built by a French company with a French crew. The ship has lovely accommodations and is billed as the best luxury product in Antarctic waters. At this point, you should be aware that there have been major problems with this vessel and one long sailing had to be cancelled. The ship is chartered by Abercrombie and Kent and that is how your agent will book it. At this point, we have serious doubts about whether or not this is an appropriate vessel for Antarctic waters. There are also onboard service issues. You will be better served by having your agent look into Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic program in Antarctica. The one critical piece of equipment to bring is the best pair of binoculars you can afford. Do not rely on the binocculars provided aboard ship.
- IS SEABOURN GOING DOWNHILL?
Q - We are currently booked on a Greek Islands cruise on Seabourn this summer. We just read about the changes at the line on traveltruth and we're concerned. Should we change our plans given that the ship is now going to be run by Carnival Cruises? We booked directly with Seabourn so they are not going to be very forthcoming with advice.
A - The Carnival Corporation owns many cruise lines. Carnival ownership is a good thing because it carries with it a great deal of management expertise and unusually strong financial backing. Seabourn had been operated as an independent division. It will now be moved to Holland America headquarters in Seattle. You should not notice any differences until a forthcoming announcement that will outline management's plans to upgrade the Seabourn product. We see absolulutely no reason to change your plans to sail Seabourn. However, since you have not yet made your final payment, we would recommend that you transfer your current booking to a consultant who is familiar with the Seabourn product. Seabourn charges the travel agent commission to those who book with them directly. So it makes sense to take advantage of the many benefits you will receive by working with an informed consultant. This will also keep you in the loop regarding any changes at Seabourn.
- VENICE HOTEL CHOICES
Q - We are making a return trip to Venice before embarking on a cruise. We have one night to spend before the cruise and we are looking at Ca' Segredo, the Hotel Cipriani, or the Hilton Stuckey. We like our comfort and appreciate hotels that have safety procedures in place and no bed bugs. Where should we stay?
A - In order to answer you properly we would need some particulars. But since we don't have them, we'll answer improperly. The Hotel Cipriani is not appropriate for one night. You need to thin k of convenience in terms of an airport transfer as well as a water taxi tot he ship the enxt day. The Hilton Stuckey is out near trhe edge of the lagoon and is a nice addition to the Venetian skyline. But it is very much a group hotel. To feel like you are staying in Venice and for its location on the Grand Canal between the Ca D'Oro and the Rialto Bridge, we recommend Ca'Segredo. Do plan on walking the Rialto neighborhood on the morning following your arrival.
- AMERICAN OR CATHAY PACIFIC
Q - We are going to be flying to Hong Kong in May to begin a lovely trip to China. How many nights should we stay in Hong Kong and should we do it before or after the trip? Also, I went online and it looks like I can fly American or Cathay. Which one has a better business class?
A - We think that Hong Kong is a three-night minimum city with an extra night for time zone change adaptation. We'd like to see you do one night on arrival before flying out to China and then three nights at the end of your trip before flying home. Hong Kong is an extremely rewarding city on many levels. There are great hotels, both Kowloon and Central to explore, shopping, world class dining, not to mention sunset cruises through a waterway that intersects one of the world's most beautiful skylines.
The American flight you are looking at is a code share with Cathay. Cathay is one of the top-rated international airlines and their Business Class is highly recommended. Flight 883/884 are normally 777 equipment.
- INTRODUCING MY WIFE - AND HER JEWELRY
Q - Don' know if you can answer this - wondering if I can win anything for stumping you. The wifey and I are off to Monte Carlo for a nine-night First Class cruise on one of the best lines out there. She is looking forward to dressing up and showing off her jewelry. She wants to put it in our luggage since "we're insured" if the airlines lose her bag. If she looses the family jewels, will I actually be able to get replacement value when I file a claim?
A - Packing expensive jewelry in your luggage is a dumb idea. "Wifey" will just have to pack it in her carry on. You are bound by each airline's "Contract of Carriage." In the United States, airlines have a maximum total liability, seldom utilized, of $3,300. But the contract of carriage always states that the airline does not accept any liability for lost luggage. Here's a wild idea - when visiting other countries and trying to fit in with their culture and customs, showing off one's acquisitions is not the best way to be seen in a positive light.
- WILL MY HOLLAND AMERICA CRUISE PRICE COME DOWN?
Q - My family is booked on a Holland America cruise to the Caribbean in January. We've sailed with them before and we have not yet made final payment. How are we notified if the price goes down? I've booked with some travel agents where cruise pricing was automatically adjusted. How does the system really work?
A - Like most policies in Travelworld, it really depends on the supplier. When it comes to cruise pricing stability, the bottom line is that the larger, mass market lines have none. They want to train consumers to use their web sites so they will often suggest that booked guests check "for lowered prices.". In reality, most consumers are now aware that those who book the first half of almost any ship get the best pricing offer. The primary difference between cruise lines is really the difference between the top-ten rated lines on traveltruth and the lines that are not in this category such as Holland America. Princess, Holland America, Costa, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean do not offer full price protection. The cost could go down and neither you or your travel agent would ever know it. These lines place the onus on the consumer to constantly check for lowered rates. However, even if you found a lower rate, you might discover that it is only available for new bookings. That would mean that you have to cancel your reservation and then re-book. When cancellations are made, someone else could easily be assigned the cabin you intend to re-book. The computer system fills cabins automatically off a wait-list. So canceling a reservation to get a lower rate is a tad risky and not advised.
The luxury lines do not treat their guests in this manner. Normally, the agent is advised if there is a rate decrease and most of the better lines will protect their guests. There are, of course, exceptions to nearly every travel generalization but you should proceed on the basis that a ship with over 1,000 guests assumes that guest A will not run into Guest B who got a better rate. So rates do vary based on a number of circumstances. But the quality lines with fewer than 1,000 guests make the opposite assumption. They assume that guests will meet and talk to one another and they are increasingly cautious about offending anyone who has paid a premium to sail their line - particularly the suite dwellers.
So how do you know what's really going on and how do you protect yourself? Read the ads in the Sunday Travel Section and work with an agency that automatically does a "final price review" before calling in your final payment. A good cruise consultant will have special VIP access to reservations inventory and will be able to give you the current state of reservations and pricing on any specific sailing. Always ask your consultant "if the price goes down, am I going to be protected?"
- PRICE OF GUIDE SERVICES IN ITALY
Q - We are pretty much convinced that guides can make or break a trip. We are planning a 20th Anniversary with a vacation taking in Florence, Assisi, Bologna and Rome. We are staving at really nice hotels with amenities provided by our travel agent but we haven't pulled the trigger yet on guide services for a September trip. We do not want a guide who is simply cheap. Can you give us some guidelines as to what a guide in these Italian cities should cost if we give the agent the go-ahead.
A - We really agree that the guides you select will largely influence the experiences you have in these cities. Prices will be less in Assisi and Bologna, but not by much. Here is what a really excellent guide and a certified and safe driver will cost in Florence and Rome:
Guide for Half-Day Walking Tour: 300 - 350 Euros.
Guide and Driver for Half Day Touring 550 - 650 Euros
Guide and Driver for a full Eight-Hour Day - 1100-1300 Euros (as of this writing, Euro = $1.23)
The prices above are based on 2010/2011 tariffs and are per couple - not per person.
Remember, that the better drivers must pass rigorous tests, along with their vehicle. Guides are registered professionals with advanced degrees in history and or art. The best guides book up months in advance and if you book last-minute, you could get the guide that no one else wants to use. Guides charge for their time. The guide must earn about the same to escort two people as he/she would earnfor a group of forty. That is one reason that the better escorted tour programs in Europe are relative values. It might also be helpful to note that official guides in Italy must reside in the city where they lead tours and they are not permitted to lead tours within most other locations in Italy. In the interest of safe driving practices, most of the better Italian tour firms require a separate guide and driver. Drivers who do narration are not always paying attention to the road. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, Italians are among the best drivers in Europe, far more skilled and less likely to kill you then their American taxi driving counterparts. You will rarely see a traffic accident during your travels in Italy.
Finally, a personal note. We want to congratulate you for including Bologna in your travels. It is an often-missed gem and is considered by many to have Italy's best pasta. Among the better restaurants
are Pappagallo, Biagi alla Grada, and Gianni. But if you really want to know the Bolognese secret head to the Gelateria Da Gianni. This gelato emporium justifies, on its own, a visit to Bologna. One of the exotic flavors is called "Purgatorio".