Traveltruth Responds to Your Travel Questions
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- STILL WAITING FOR EBOLA UPDATE
Q - We have been debating cancelling our planned trip to South Africa next August. We read the comments from the fellow whose wife is spooked - you advised them to cancel their trip. But I am sure many of your followers would like a simple, up-to-date summary of where the Ebola problem stands in terms of future travel to Africa. We are from Manhattan and we don't scare easily. And my wife is even more anxious to go than I am.
A - We are not going to give you the same advise we offered to the gentleman whose wife had real concerns about their trip. We think the following summary from Abercrombie & Kent summarizes the situation quite well:
- Africa is a vast continent. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is thousands of miles from safari destinations in East and Southern Africa and there are no direct links by land.
- Commercial flights between West Africa and East Africa, and West Africa and South Africa have been suspended.
- Major European carriers – including British Airways and Air France -- have suspended flights to West Africa so their planes are not picking up travelers from the region.
- East African and Southern African countries have introduced restrictions on entry for those who have passed through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
- There have been no cases of Ebola in East or Southern Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
- Senegal and Nigeria have been declared by World Health Organization as free of Ebola virus transmission. Both countries had victims in the current outbreak of Ebola, but vigorous quarantine and contact tracing proved successful in halting the spread of the disease.
- Dakar, Senegal, is closer to New York (3,818 miles) than it is to Nairobi (3,865 miles) and Cape Town (4,100 miles).
- It’s important to keep in mind that Ebola is not transmitted through casual contact, but by direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
Every situation, every traveler, is unique. The ground operators in Africa will, of course, try to put the best face on it. But the facts speak for themselves. How interesting that Nigeria has eradicated the disease, but we've had two cases in the United States. Our problem is that many low-income individuals use local clinics or small rural hospitals in the United States. They are less well-trained in the handling of a serious epidemic than big city hospital centers with close ties to the CDC. People feel they want to run away from "Ebola" to be safe. The fact is that the United States does not qualify for the list of the world's safest places - not even close. Other than "travel paranoia", a disease you have not yet caught, we can;'t come up with a single good reason to cancel your upcoming trip.
- LAKE BLED BEFORE I DIE
Q - We were going to sit down with a travel specialist and then we discovered traveltruth. I am Slovenian and I have had a rather charmed corporate life. I want to take my wife, who happens to be from Nicaragua, to Lake Bled, a place my father spoke about for years. I am sad to confess I've never been there. Rather than a tour, I would love to go on one of the small group Private Jet trips where everything is included. I do suffer from mild coronary disease and wonder if doctors go along on these trips? Is there anything you can recommend next year that would include Lake Bled.
A - You need to look carefully at TCS Expeditions Eastern Europe and Beyond by Private Jet Program departing from London on September 17th next year and returning to London on October 6th. This tour spends two nights in Ljubjana and you have the opportunity for a full day trip to Lake Bled. This tour visits Prague, Riga, Krakow, Moscow, Kotor, and Baku in Azerbaijan. The price, a relative bargain given the quality of the hotels being used, is $59,950 per person. And, yes, there will be a physician accompanying the group, something that is not automatic on around-the-world-by-private-jet tours. Private jet tours are easy on the body, much easier, than traditional commercial aircraft, train, or bus travel. You will see nine countries in 20 days and your longest flight segment will be two hours and forty-five minutes. Take care of yourself and hope this works out for you.
- NEED SOME HELP: DO WE GO ON SCHEDULED SAFARI?
Q - A co-worker turned me on to this site yesterday and I hope you can help me even though I am not a client. We're booked with a well-known agency in Los Angeles. Our plans are to go on a safari taking in Kenya the Serengetti and the Masai Mara. We booked with a reputable travel agent through a very well-known tour operator and we are scheduled to leave in less than 90 days.
Our travel agent keeps telling us that travel to Kenya is not a problem and that it is a long way from the West African nations affected by Ebola. What would you do. We have been told we can still get out of it, but our agent insists it is safe. My wife is really worried about this and will be most anxious to read any reply you might provide. I have been pushing her all along to go on this trip. We understand that you are under pressure to say we should not try to get out of it.
A - Actually, we're not. You don't see any safari providers advertising on this site. In fact, our feeling is that you should postpone this trip. If you were sitting across from us, that is what we would advise.
Your travel agent is giving you generally correct information. The game parks in Kenya and Tanzania remain free of any Ebola-related dangers. We are advising you not to go for two specific reasons:
First, you are saying that your wife has anxiety and is worried. Case closed. A vacation is supposed to be totally enjoyable. Sure, there is nothing wrong with pushing your limits, but if you both can't enjoy the pre-trip "high" that should precede any vacation, we think it is time to cancel. Your travel agent can come back and earn her commission another day. When it comes to vacation planning "Happy Wife - Happy Life" takes on some specific meaning. Don't plan on going anywhere unless your wife is enthusiastic about the choice.
The second reason has less to do with Ebola than it does with some serious security services warnings about imminent danger in Nairobi from anti-western groups related to Al-Queda. This is just not a particularly safe part of the world. We do not have faith in the government's ability to interrupt planned attacks on western interests or tourists.
Understand that ours is a minority view within the travel community. You might want to solicit other opinions.
Think about changing your itinerary to southern Africa where security is stronger and the game opportunities can be just as rewarding. Look at Botswana and Namibia in addition to South Africa. Travel safe.
- SEEKING THE 'WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACH" NO MATTER HOW FAR
Q - We are looking to celebrate my recent retirement from Citibank with a trip that has only one major requirement: We wish to visit the world's most beautiful beach. There is little interest in visiting the second best beach or the third. We certainly understand the subjective quality of this question but, "Is there a beach that you would recommend that might satisfy our two decade-old obsession?
A - We have our favorites but the beach of your dreams may well be Anse Source d'Argent, a lovely boulder-studded oasis on the lovely island of La Digue in the Seychelles. In terms of credibility, this beach has been named the world's best by National Geographic in their book "The 10 Best of Everything".
Closer to home, if you don't mind about a hundred or so fellow visitors, you might want to check out one of our favorites, the Soggy Dollar Bar on White Bay on the small island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgins. Yacht-owners know it well.
- WOULD YOU RECOMMEND COACH ON AN AMERICAN AIRLINES 777-300?
Q - My husband and I are making our second trip to London and we are scheduled to fly a 777 on American. The model is a 300, whatever that means. We have asked for aisle seats across. Our travel agent says this is a great plane but we know that sometimes the information on this site is more accurate. My husband is a large man and 6'4". Would you spend the extra money for the more leg room economy seats?
A - The 777 is a really comfortable ride, provided you are seated in the front of the aircraft. The 777-300ER holds 304 passengers, 220 of whom are accommodated in coach. The seat pitch is 31" and the aisles are notoriously narrow. It is virtually impossible for a passing passenger to walk past you without knocking into your arm. The window seats on this aircraft produce a curve that can cause neck pain. The newly designed seats are narrower and less comfortable than some AA seating on other aircraft.
Given the health issues of having your knees pinned back for a protracted period of time, we would certainly recommend that you invest in "Main Cabin Extra", which will get you additional leg room. If that is unavailable, we would say you should consider springing for Business Class. Follow this strategy when you travel until your husband ages enough so he begins shrinking.
Do consider getting g a credit card that will get you the miles you need to upgrade on your next trip.
Don't look at Business Class in terms of seat comfort. Look at it as a kind of health insurance when you travel.
- WHAT MAKES DISNEY S0 SPECIAL FOR YOUNG KIDS AND FAMILIES?
Q - Forgive me, but I just don't get it. My wife wants to bring the grandkids, ages 8-16 on a seven-night Disney cruise. I've heard they do some special things but have no sense of the experience. Wouldn't the family have just as good a time on an adult line like Princess that also offers kid's programs? I never bought into the mouse and the characters. It all seems so juvenile. If I see a fake pirate running around the ship I'm liable to shove him overboard.
A - But you won't - because that would be juvenile. Then there's the matter of "the hook". If the cruise is really for the grandkids, and you're not just bringing them along to accompany you on vacation, Disney is as good as it gets.
You will do rotational dining with the same waiter throughout. In Animator's Palate, you draw characters that come to life onscreen. The Aqua tube is a big hit and it runs efficiently. Every cabin gets use of a cell phone/walkie talkie. You'll always know where the grandkids are. The electronic wristbands for kids participating in the kids program works well and the staff can pinpoint the location of each child on a screen. The shows are professionally produced and truly memorable. The movies are fun and Disney puts their latest on the ships. The only nudity will be a quick shot of Tinkerbell.
Yes, you have to buy into the concept and yes, there is lots of cross-selling that kids find hard to resist. But Disney is all about families while other lines realize that too many kids will adversely affect the number of adult cruisers they will be able to attract. That is the crucial difference and the reason that we have to rate Disney as the ultimate experience for cruisers whose primary concern is the well being, the joy, and the memories, their children and grandchildren will take away from the experience. Oh, and do remember to bring a suitcase filled with Purell.
- IS IT BETTER TO USE CURRENCY EXCHANGE OR CREDIT CARD?
Q - We will be making our third trip to Asia, this time Thailand and Laos. I am wondering if I should let the credit card company just work out the exchange rate when they bill us or should we try to exchange at a currency outlet here or abroad? We do have a Capital One Venture Card that does not charge the foreign transaction fees. I hate being ripped off by money changers. Maybe it's a biblical thing.
A - Generally speaking, you are going to do better by just leaving it to Visa or MasterCard to charge you in US funds based on the conversion rate in effect on the date the charges are entered on your account. Currency offices, biblical or otherwise, charge fees and also make money on the conversion rate.
- WOULD YOU PUSH FOR THE PUSHKAR FAIR?
A - The Pushkar Fair takes place in the fall every year, with the exact dates being determined by the Hindi calendar. This somewhat dusty and frenzied annual five-day gathering brings 100,000 local people together, along with an onslaught of camera-toting tourists, to trade camels and other livestock. While truly memorable, it would require adding 2 days to your travel plans, it is a tremendous experience for those seeking great photo opportunities, to see India’s holy men, and to be up-close and personal with the local culture. As you might imagine, the fair is also very crowded and ‘colorful’. Most of our clients who have attended come home believing that the photo ops were well worth the hassles and travel time. It is as much of a "movie set" panorama as one is likely to encounter during travels in India, perhaps the most colorful country on earth.
- ITALIAN RESTAURANT MANNERS 101
A - Try not to ask the owner if he or any member of his family is involved with the Mafia. This could possibly ruin your meal.
The biggest "gaffe" is ordering cappuccino after 12:00 noon. Italians have a deep-seated belief that only infants and morning "Cappo" drinkers should indulge in milk. The proper course of action is to always order an espresso at the end of dinner. This will assure that you remain awake for the following three days.
Do not think about adding Parmesan cheese to your dish after it is served. If it is a good idea, and deemed appropriate, the waiter will offer to grate some atop your dish. Italians tend to like fish relatively unadorned. Don't add cheese to any fish dish.
Have low expectations for salads in Northern Italy. Rustic Italians aren't big on salad as a main course.
And, of course, understand that pasta is a mere introduction to the main course, the primo piatti or "first plate". This is not the same as an appetizer which actually comes before the first plate. The Entrée, which is substantially smaller than portions in our at-home Italian restaurants, features a meat, chicken, or fish preparation.
Italians, as a rule, go to their favorite bar for a stand-up breakfast of cappuccino and a pastry. Only tourists order ham and eggs. To an Italian, breakfast is merely light calisthenics in preparation for lunch.
Never, ever ask for a "doggy bag" for leftovers. Italians think this is a uniquely barbaric American practice. No need to carry food back to your hotel. In Italy, good food will always be available - fear not. The Panini's at the autostrade rest stops are even memorable. But never eat in your car. No respectable Italian would risk getting crumbs on the leather.
It is considered a bit "American" to order a gelato at the end of a meal. One earns a Gelato by walking in the slow dance through the village or the city that every Italian loves. In the restaurant, it is most appropriate to end the meal with some fresh fruit. Italians at other tables will sometimes stare at you as they find the American tourists inability to properly peel an orange rather entertaining.
- PASSING THROUGH O'HARE PAUSING FOR CHOCOLATE
Q - Somehow, I know that your team will know the answer to this question. I was doing a quick connection at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and walked past this gourmet-looking chocolate store called Vosges. Any good, worth bringing home, or skipable?
A - We're not huge fans but it is decent chocolate. The stunner, at the moment, is something called "Mo's Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar". You want to grab several of these as they are difficult to track down. Think great dark chocolate with caramel, salt, and deep-seated bacon. If you're flying American internationally, you might want to grab two or three of these and skip the Vanilla Hagen Daz served at your seat in Business Class. Oh, and thanks for the most useless question of the week.
- CHILD FRIENDLY DINING IN ST. PETERSBURG
Q - Call us crazy, but we're bringing the twins, our eleven year-olds girls, on a Crystal Cruise to the Baltic that will include several days in St. Petersburg, Russia. We want to put together a special day that might include a really nice lunch the entire family can enjoy. Is there anywhere you could recommend where you would trust the food and the atmosphere as child-friendly. Crystal was not very helpful when we called. Thanks so much and best wishes for the long life of this wonderfully helpful web site.
A - Try Lujaika on Aptekarsky Prospekt. The actual theme of this really good Asian restaurant is a child's imaginary wonderland. The children can fish in a pond next to outdoor dining areas and the restaurant's pet rabbits roam the grounds. Remember that the ship's blanket Visa will not cover you for any independent time off the ship.
We might suggest that it is unrealistic to seek out advice from cruise line commissioned sales phone agents. Not only is it highly unlikely they have never been to St. Petersburg; many of them have never actually sailed on a cruise. On the other hand, both Crystal ships have uniquely well-qualified on-board Concierge staff who we would certainly trust with this kind of request. Most cruise lines on-board will only sell you tours, programs, and reservations that are profitable. Five-star lines like Crystal, Seabourn, Sea Dream, Silverseas, and Regent, have some superb people on their respective concierge desks.
Currently, Silverseas and Crystal have the best-qualified and most reliable Concierge desks in the industry.
- WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO BOOK A EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISE
Q - As we plan a river boat journey, our first, from Basel to Amsterdam next September, we are wondering when it might make the most sense to book. We are looking at Viking River and we know that the boats book up early.
A - Two schools of thought. You may want to book this afternoon. The entire bed count on all of the Viking River fleet (the world's largest), would fit into Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, with many beds left over, Book as soon as you are committed. Another strategy is to wait until eleven months prior to your scheduled return date. This will allow you to lock in your air arrangements as soon as the flights are available for sale.
- DAY TRIP DINING NEAR STRESA
Q - We are going to be staying at the Grand Hotel des lles Borromees along the water in Stresa for a week. Flying from LA to Milano, renting an Alfa, and ready for some day trips. Are there any restaurants in the area worth a drive of am hour or so that you could recommend? We hear there are islands near Stresa. Is there a way to get there? We thought this could be a great drive vacation using Stresa as a base. Good idea?
A - Actually, it's an excellent idea, although your hotel is old world Europe and you may imagine it smells "musty". The three islands are each lovely, different, and easily accessible from the main pier in Stresa with frequent local boat service. We would suggest that you make reservations on Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman's Island) at Ristoranti CasaBella.
Our favorite drive restaurant is Piccolo Lago in Verbania Fondotoce. You won't believe the small lake views that surround this tiny hamlet. No one has discovered this restaurant with the exception of several well-disposed Michelin inspectors. Their signature dish of the moment is a beef topped with a goose liver sauce you will never forget.
- BARCELONA CHURROS: WHERE ARE THEY BEST?
Q - In the mid-eighties, I spent a semester in Barcelona, studying Spanish and a bit of Architecture. Now, my wife and I, she has never been to Spain, are heading for Barcelona to begin a 12-Day Cruise on Oceania. Because of work, there is just the one day in Barcelona and I am intent to sit with her at one of those wonderful cafes where she can experience the warm churros and Chocolate a la taza. This is just something we need to do. Is there a place you can recommend not far off the tourist route?
A - You might try Granja M. Viader which is on a small street, Carrer d'en Xucia next to the famed La Boqueria market. The Ramblas is right there. This is the perfect place to sample an authentic Spanish mid-morning snack, a habit not yet exported.
- CAN YOU HELP MY HUSBAND FIND THE TACO OF HIS DREAMS?
Q - Do you think it is practical, to plan a trip to Mexico City that would allow us to take in some of the best local food spots and markets in about a week? My husband just lives for authentic Mexican food but we live just outside of Birmingham and we're not about to get too adventurous. I wonder how you set something like this up using really good, safe hotels, flights, and tours. I am looking for a foodie tour in depth. My husband made me fly with him to Chicago just to eat at Rick Bayles' Frontera Grill. We loved it!
A - Our inclination would be to set up the air, hotels, transfers (important in Mexico City) through a local travel agent you trust. Then work on the food tours yourselves contacting companies such as "Mexico Soul and Essence Tours" or "Eat Mexico Culinary Tours." Urban Adventures is another reputable company. Some of these are companies do walking tours, other use public transportation (really fun), while others do in-home cooking lessons combined with visits to local markets. With these three contacts, you and your husband should be able to construct your own itinerary.
If, on the other hand, you want to have a truly upscale, fully escorted, culinary adventure planned out over a week by experts, have someone put you in touch with Zachary Rabinor at Mexican Journeys.
- IS NORWEGIAN RIGHT FOR MY FAMILY AND WHY DON'T YOU RATE THEM
Q - I think it is fair to say that you have no bigger fans of this site but, sadly, we find little help from you in planning our upcoming cruise with our 8 and 11 year-old boys. I know, for example, that Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are supposed to have the best kids programs at sea but couldn't find any information about them on your site. Why is this? Just curious and is there anything you can offer that would be helpful about the new Norwegian Getaway? Understand that you write for the upscale traveler but when this family cruise is all over, I think we will have spent close to $10,000 on a one week vacation. This is not a typical blog attack, just an honest question as to why these lines are not covered?
A - And we take it as such. No harm - no foul. We neither sell or recommend ships that carry more than 1,000 passengers. We believe that megaships, with their institutional food, long lines, and constant haranguing of guests to spend more money, are not consistent with a sophisticated, carefully crafted vacation experience. Almost any travel agent is familiar with and can sell the megaships. You are correct, our niche is the upscale traveler. One reason for that is that there are numerous cruise blogs and so-called information sites that plug special deals and discounts on the megaships (almost all of those offers are phony since agents must adhere to price guidelines set by the cruise line) We felt that no one was really providing truthful travel information to more upscale travelers in an online setting coupled with one-on-one professional counseling by award-winning luxury consultants. Hope this makes sense. We don't include the megaships in our Top Ten Ratings because they are nowhere near the Top Ten when it comes to overall quality and delivery of services.
We like the Getaway for you. Younger kids particularly are drawn to Norwegians partnership with Nickelodeon, the ship has a terrific Aqua Park, kids can learn circus skills from Cirque du Jour and then perform in a show of their own design. They will love it. The same can be true of Royal Caribbean and its incredible menu of kids activities. But the bottom line on kids programs at sea is that no one does it quite as well as Disney. They are totally dedicated to families, where the other mega-ship lines have family components to their programs. When it comes to traveling with kids under the age of sixteen, we recommend you look at Disney first. Really hope this is helpful and thanks so much for your comments.
- GETTING BLANK STARES ABOUT A CRUISE THAT INCLUDES WEST AFRICA
Q - I thought I would see if traveltruth.com is going to give us the same blank stare we get when we ask a travel agent about cruising West Africa. I mean, Africa is a fairly large continent and, near as I can tell, it has both an East and a West Coast. We would for a nice cruise, particularly on an itinerary that includes Ghana, the land of our ancestors. Is there any decent ship that goes there and are there reasons that you would advise not going at all? I am a historian and my husband is a physician. We have never been to Africa before and we want to do it before children come along. We're in our late thirties and early forties.
A - West Africa is high on our Bucket List so we are definitely not going to suggest you not go. You are smart enough to know that you will encounter depressing levels of poverty, some health risks in terms of prevalent viruses, and some governments for which the term "unstable" is a gross understatement.
That said, prepared to be amazed and enthralled. The trip you want to do is the 18-Night Voyage to West Africa itinerary from Accra to Casablanca on March 23rd next year, This rather epic sailing aboard the 148-Guest National Geographic Explorer is operated by the world-renowned expedition cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad features some of the best on-board lecturers in the industry and you will not be disappointed in either the boat or the intelligent approach to learning about local cultures. The nine country itinerary includes Senegal. the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Morocco.
You will be among the youngest aboard but this rare itinerary (let's face it - this is a tough sell for any cruise line), will attract hardy travelers who practice the kind of experiential journeys favored by Lindblad.
- BEST CRUISE WITH KIDS NEXT SUMMER
Q - I am a pediatrician here in Dallas and an avid reader of this space. Next summer (2015) Patti and I want to take our three children on a real quality cruise up to Alaska that might have children's programs. I would love to know the best line to do this with and how I should book it since there are five of us (12, 14, 17). I keep getting recommendations from local agents for Princess and Holland America but I know they are not in your Top Ten and we can afford something more inclusive with better food and services, as well as fewer people. Any options that could work well to please every member of our family. Stares from old biddies cause we brought three young-uns with us won't bother us a bit. (anticipating your response)
A - Well you've likely made the best itinerary choice. We would recommend the Crystal Serenity as your best option. They will be doing 7-night Alaska cruises beginning June 19th and then will end the season with several 10-night cruises ending August 6th. Crystal, not known as a line that loves the kiddies, has actually forged an excellent alliance with the National Park Service Ranger service. The trick is to make certain that your consultant verifies there are enough kids booked to operated the program. Crystal won't offer it if the "biddies" are the only ones onboard.
You will likely need to book a double and adjacent triple. Given the daily temperatures, we don't feel that a balcony is critical in Alaska. Your wife should be booked with two children in the triple. Once aboard, you can actually sleep with your wife. But the ship's log must show an adult in each stateroom. This will work well and there's a good chance everyone will love being aboard the Serenity. The staff will make the kids feel really special because they see so few of them.
- IS SINGAPORE REALLY RIGHT FOR US THIS WINTER?
Q - I am going to need to be in Singapore in February on business and I am thinking about bringing along my wife for a week of seeing and exploring the city. Some of what I am seeing online makes me feel that this might not be worth five nights or so and the hotels all seem to be city-centered with a business feel. (I will be staying at the Fullerton for the meeting). I won't get to see much of the place during our meetings. We're in our mid-fifties and friends would describe us as "foodies". How do I turn this into a really nice getaway for my wife?
A - Your concerns are valid. Singapore can seem sterile and built for business. But we definitely think you can pull this off. Book yourselves into the Singapore Resort & Spa Sentosa. Sentosa Island has the feel of a tropical paradise yet is only 20 minutes from downtown. There are many great restaurants on the island and they have local food stalls that match what you would find in the center of the city. Singapore is, in our judgement, one of the top three food cities in the world (Tokyo and Paris being tops). Staying at a 27-acre resort with easy access tot he city seems to be the right compromise given your goals.
- HOW LIKELY THAT MY RIVER BOAT CRUISE WILL TURN INTO A BUS TOUR?
Q - Our travel agent has set us up with a cruise on the Viking River Line, which I understand is the Cadillac of river cruises. We're scheduled to leave on June 12th next year but I've heard from friends that the rivers sometimes flood preventing a full sailing on the river with days made up by doing a bus tour. This is something my wife and I would not enjoy. In fact I would be furious. My TA says river cruising is extremely popular and I should be more positive. What do you say?
A - We are not particularly pleased with the manner in which river boat lines, in general, have handled this question of water levels and their effect on itineraries. This topic has not been tackled with candor and you are right to be concerned. Just this past week, one company, Viking River, had twelve sailings that were effected by water levels. Guests had to do partial bus tours or switch from one Viking ship to another mid-trip. Last year, dozens of itineraries on all of the major lines were affected and there are hundreds of angry guests who feel they were not given adequate notice or compensation for their troubles.
The problem has to do with both high water, caused by melting snow from the Alps and other mountain ranges, and the low waters in July and August caused by summer draught. In the former, river boats may not be able to fit under bridges. In the latter, river boats may lack a sufficient draft to navigate the waters.
We believe that the need to adjust itineraries, change ships, and alter schedules, happens more often than the public perception. Each company covers itself in the fine print and they have an absolute right, due to weather conditions, to make changes in the name of safety. But we have noticed major differences in the manner in which each company handles these matters, particularly as pertains to guest compensation or options to cancel. Many guests on river boats last year complained online and elsewhere that they were not informed that their boat would not be operating the full itinerary until they landed in Europe.
For additional reporting on this issue - see our companion site www.riverboatratings.com
- IS THERE A LIST OF THE WORLD'S MOST OVERRATED PLACES?
Q - As we approach the magic day - two weeks from now, retirement will mean that we will be going out to see much of the same world we have been avoiding for the past six decades. We don't want to see it all - no interest in seeing the Congo or hiking the Himalayas, but we do want o see those places on most everyone's bucket list. Time and money are factors so we will need to pare it down a bit, which is why we are wondering of there is a list of the world's most overrated places?
B - That could be a long list. It would also be entirely subjective, heavily influenced by the travel writer's frame of mind at the time. Leon Logothetis, whose name you might recognize from his work on the Discovery Travel, wrote a piece for the LA Times in which he named his Top Five Most Overrated Destinations. We do not agree with all of his assessments, but we thought you might find his list of interest:
# 5 - ATHENS - Rudeness and a disdain for serving others, particularly Americans. Many of the buildings are unfinished and taxis are sometimes impossible to find. Best to see the Acropolis and leave as soon as you can.
# 4 - DUBAI - astonishing "super-city" sites, the splashiest malls you've ever seen, a parade of Mercedes, Bentley's, and Jaguars and an almost constant demonstration of gold and oil-based wealth. You will be comfortable here. But to understand the Middle East, you can't be coddled and that is exactly what Dubai does best.
# 3 - PRAGUE - Lots of tourists and surly locals who seem not to want to interact with westerners. The beauty of the city is tainted by the sullenness of the people.
# 2 - MOSCOW -An amazing city that can be vibrant if you are in the company of younger residents like university students. But most tourists pay some of the steepest prices on earth for service levels that are not on a par with international standards of luxury. You have to keep your eyes and your wallet wide open in Moscow.
# 1 - PARIS - (And may we say we are not in agreement with this particular rating) Logothetis faults Paris for the same things that writers have been saying about the city for decades. The Parisians are completely tired of unfashionable tourists, particularly the ill-clothed tourists from the English-speaking world who don't quite understand why it might be useful to be tri-lingual. At least Paris is, once again, # 1 on a travel list.
- AM I BEING RIPPED OFF: WHO'S LYING?
Q - My wife and I read travel blogs for fun and we think your sis one of the best. But I've been told by two different cruise lines reservations departments that you are not telling the truth when you claim that booking directly with a cruise line is a rip-off. The two lines I spoke to claim that their computers assure the lowest price, something a travel agent can't do. Are they right?
A - No, you are being fed a sales pitch by a commission-based reservations clerk. If a cruise line offered better pricing to those who call directly, no reputable travel agency would ever sell that line. It just never happens. Most of the top cruise consultants in the nation are completely up-to-date on the best pricing initiatives because they appear in their computer system or in e-mailings from the line. The rip-off is that cruise lines charge you the travel agent commission even when you are not using an agent. They never return it to the consumer, so you are paying for all sorts of services you never receive when you book directly.
When you book directly, the commission salesmen at the cruise line call centers cannot offer you the amenity packages offered by members of the major consortiums. So, in effect, you are paying more for your cruise by booking directly. Cruise line reservations cannot VIP you or make you eligible for special VIP Documentation. Only a professional cruise consultant can do that. Upgrades are more likely available when you are dealing with a consultant with true clout and millions of dollars in past bookings with the lines. When things go south, you really need someone in your corner.
The cubicle dwelling commissioned sales agent at the cruise line cannot help you with pre and post cruise arrangements, which 75% of all cruise guests require. They can only sell their own, usually cost-inflated program. They do not have contacts in the various ports that will help define your vacation.
Cruise line reservations can only offer their own contracted flights and air prices. You are just a group name in a computer system. No one at the line will review your private flight arrangements, only a travel consultant would do that.
Cruise line reservation staff can only recommend and sell the cruise lines party insurance, something we would never recommend you purchase.
And you can have all of the above at zero cost because it is already included in the cruise fare.
We can go on - but we won't. You decide who is lying.
- WHICH KINDS OF RESTAURANTS ARE MOST DANGEROUS FOR E-COLI CONTAMINATION?
Q - We will be doing a driving trip from coast to coast later this summer. We're in our mid-sixties, relatively well-traveled, but we've not done a driving vacation in the United States. Our biggest concern is all those meals we will have in strange places and we want to stay healthy. How would you suggest we prepare, research, etc? You could say we are E-coli super-conscious. Which restaurants in these small towns and cities are likely to have kitchens that won't kill us.
A - There actually is some research in this area. The first thing to point out is that there is not any medical research to back up the fact that urban dwellers with sophisticated palates live longer than their rural cousins. But you could make a case for obesity and less access to the best medical care influences rural lifespan statistics in some major ways.
As far as E-Coli strains, and there are many, we must point out that fast food chains tend to have the healthiest kitchens. Most of their food arrives frozen and there is very little food handling. This is what we want to emphasize to you in the hope that the information is widely disseminated. The best known fast food chains have expensive equipment that sets off alarms or shuts down when the cooking process is shortened. Undercooked meat and poultry is the major cause of gastrointestinal viruses and food poisoning in travelers. It is virtually impossible to find anything undercooked under the golden arches.
White tablecloth restaurants with a strong local following will usually have a chef who has studied health and hygiene at a recognized culinary school. They take careful steps, though not as careful as the Burger Kings, KFC's, and Taco Bells of the world.
Your biggest risk is eating at local diners and lower-priced local dining outlets that employ staff that has not been trained in proper food preparation.
The last huge beef recall occurred in April of this year. It involved 1.8 million pounds of beef sold in ten states including Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But as the laws now read, the FDA did not have to reveal to consumers exactly what kind of restaurant was getting shipments from Detroit's Wolverine Packing company. The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service does not have to advise consumers that the meat, in this case used in Angus Steak burgers as well as ground beef patties, was shipped to specific restaurants. As you were driving around the country, trying to choose a place to stop for lunch, you would have no way of knowing where you could safely stop for something to eat.
Finally, we advise our clients and our readers to exercise caution when ordering salads on the road. All but the highest category of restaurants depends on bagged salads that have, in the recent past, shown a higher-than-normal propensity to carry food-borne parasites and bacteria.
- NORMANDY BOUND, BUT NOT FOR THE BATTLEFIELDS
Q - We are off to Normandy this August with our 19-year-old son who is, of all things, fascinated by Impressionist art. We will tour the battlefields, but the main purpose would be to enroll him in some painting classes where they stress the Impressionist school techniques. Where would you suggest we stay to use as a base? We're not on a tight budget and we also want to pick the best guide off the internet. How do we do this?
A - You will want to stay at Le Ferme Saint Simeon, a small hotel that was loved by many of the better-known Impressionist painters. Try, if at all possible, to book room # 22, where Monet spend some time. The hotel manager will be able to set your son up for classes in the painting studio. The hotel is owned by the Boelen family.
Do not try to choose Normandy guides off the internet. Many Normandy guides are sub-par. The best are former US military officers with personal knowledge of the region and an understanding of the real role played by this World War Two beachhead. Select an agent who has actual on-site offices in France that are in direct contact with the best guides.
- WHO IS THE BEST PERSON TO PLAN AN ECO FRIENDLY, ENVIRONMENTAL TOUR OF COSTA RICA?
Q - We have strong environmental interests both professionally and privately. We are rather interested in going to Costa Rica to see and enjoy some of the best most eco-friendly resorts and off-the-beaten path experiences. We want to be in the hands of people who will get what we're about and who won't be intimidated by our academic credentials. How should we approach doing this? We're loyal to our travel; agent but she just doesn't seem to be very up on this kind of thing.
A - Have your agent contact a company called Greenspot, run by Richard and Irene Edwards. They will coordi8nate through your agent and you will be in the best possible hands when you arrive. They devote themselves entirely to sustainable travel in meaningful ways.
- ANY WAY TO GET US INTO RESTAURANT GUY SAVOY IN PARIS?
Q - We are going to be in Paris later this summer. Our dream is to dine at Guy Savoy's Restaurant. We tried online but that doesn't seem to work. I hope this is not an inappropriate question, but is there any secret way to get into a restaurant of that caliber when traveling overseas? All the regular channels just never seem to work.
A - Many tourists make the mistake of trying top contact the chef/owner of a Three-star Michelin restaurant. In fact, every restaurant has a Manager of the Front-of-the-House operations which always includes reservations. In the States, that person is called the General Manager or the Director of Operations. In France, that person is, almost always, the Maitre d'Hotel. At Guy Savoy's in Paris try contacting Hubert Schwermer, who holds this post. Don't beg, but point out why the reservation means so much to both of you. There is a second tactic used by sophisticated travelers. Many of our clients will ask us to book them into the "best connected" hotel in a city. This will give you access to the hotel's Concierge who, very likely, has a personal relationship with some of the city's leading dining establishments. As the Foodie movement spreads and the Food Network ratings keep climbing, one side effect is that the number of guests seeking reservations at the world's best restaurants has increased dramatically in the past five years.
- I AM BOOKED FOR BANGKOK - NOW WHAT?
Q - My wife and I have planned a trip that includes a number of days in Bangkok through one of the better tour companies in that part of the world. We worked with Pacific Delight directly. We're under deposit for a trip in August. It may be hot but we're both school teachers so we have to be back in late August. We're under deposit and we are starting to get cold feet. Pacific Delight is saying we shouldn't cancel. Please tell us what you recommend.
A - Well, first
Martial Law Becomes Full Coup, Curfew in Place
The Thai army declared a military coup on the afternoon of 22 May. The caretaker government has been suspended and leaders of both pro- and anti-government groups have been detained. Military leader General Prayuth claims that the coup is "in order for the country to return to normality quickly, and for society to love and be at peace again".
Although daily life in the country is largely unaffected, there are some measures that will affect visitors. There is a 10pm curfew in place and reports indicate that this is being strictly enforced, with unwitting tourists being sent back to their hotels after 10pm and local residents being fined or even detained for breaking the curfew.Moving around Bangkok is also an issue, with the BTS and MRT transit systems shutting down at 9pm, and the roads busy as people try to get home before the curfew. Otherwise, the country remains safe for tourists, although these are still early days and we have yet to see what response the various protest groups will make to the new military rule.
We do not think US travelers should be traveling to Bangkok at this time. You need to transfer your booking into the hands of a capable travel agent who can monitor the situation on the ground with updates, such as the one above, from offices with whom they share a working relationship through their consortium membership. You need to have the best available cancellation insurance. Take what the State Department tells you about Thailand with a grain of salt. You will get more accurate information from the Australian and British government travel sites.
Pacific Delight is a respected moderately priced tour operator. But you are paying the agent commission and since you've paid it, you ought to use an agent's services. Interview several agents locally so you can meet face-to-face to transfer the booking.
We have real concerns about the military coup in Thailand. We think things will be clarified and perhaps peaceful by the time you are ready to depart. But you need to assume they may not be.
Finally, re-consider the entire trip. You ought to be visiting Thailand over the Christmas break. August is hot and humid to the extent that it will negatively impact your ability to enjoy this wonderful country.
- ANY PLACE WORTH SEEING NEAR BUT OUTSIDE VENICE?
Q - In late September we've booked a great itinerary on the Seabourn Spirit round-trip out of Venice for ten days. The cruise will visit ports in Greece and Croatia that we really want to see but it overnights at the end in Venice. The problem is we've been there twice before, once with a wonderful guide named Anna Ferrari. I wonder if you know her? Our question is, given that we feel we've seen Venice, is there anyplace nearby, something charming, that might have fewer tourists and would make a great day trip?
A - We don't know Ms. Ferrari, although we suspect it is an assumed name. Many guides end their touring day making their guests feel like they have become fast friends. Some tourists will try to contact them at home, so some guides use, easy-to-remember, assumed names. If Venetian tour-guide Anna Ferrari exists, we can't find her.
One of our favorite places to escape the predictable crowds in Venice is a fishing port called Chioggia, on a very small island on the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. There is a wonderful pedestrian street, Corso del Popolo, that runs through the center of town with some interesting small shops, cafes, and restaurants. If you stay overnight, you will love walking this street in the early evening as the locals enjoy their passeggiata. There are Adriatic beaches not far away in the Sottomarina district.
There is a boat service from St. Mark's Square to Chioggia that runs from June through September, but it will not be operating in October when you arrive in Venice at the end of your cruise. Your best bet will be to use one of the direct buses that operate out of Venice. The rail trip involves several changes and will take two hours.
- WHERE CAN WE FIND THE CHEAPEST TRAVEL INSURANCE?
Q - We will be leaving in three months for a two-week cruise to Greece and Turkey with Sea Dream 1. Picking the cruise was easy, the ship only has 50 cabins and 100 people. But choosing insurance is tougher. How do we find the best deals on travel insurance?
A - We're not going to tell you because you are asking the wrong question. If this were the Mayo Clinic site would you be asking us to direct you to the cheapest heart surgeon? You don't normally want the "cheapest" anything when it comes to vacation planning, a reality that applies in spades when looking at comprehensive travel insurance. In fact, the most expensive policy is often, usually, the one that will actually protect you in an emergency. There are several good insurance companies with very similar rates. Your insurance discussion should be held with the consultant who sold you your trip - knowing about insurance options is an important part of every travel consultant's job. Travel consultants are constantly updated on travel policies and they normally have vast experience dealing with issues related to insurance. You would need to know, for instance, which insurance companies are most active in fighting on your behalf and which firms will do a comprehensive review of a "coverage declined" decision at the request of a consultant. Look for two things upfront: Can you get the pre-existing condition waived? (Absolutely necessary for most travelers) and know exactly what amount of emergency evacuation is included. We would never recommend a policy that gave you a penny less than $50,000 of medical evacuation, the most likely serious expense travelers encounter.
As a general rule, although there are specific travel product exceptions, you want to avoid any policy sold by the tour operator or cruise line. You want to be represented by an independent insurance firm with solid long-term financial stability. That really narrows the field.
How many people fly the "cheapest" airline without ever considering the salaries paid to that airline's pilots or the condition of the equipment they fly. This notion of "cheapest" is popular with the media but it is a silly way to approach something as serious as planning the best moments of your life - or insuring them.
- CAN YOU FIND US THE ULTIMATE RETIREMENT TRIP?
Q - We would very much like to have your help with planning our ultimate trip, a celebration of my retirement from the financial world with a month-long journey that might include as much wildlife as possible in Africa as well as, if at all possible, the Amazon. We're open to what else we might see but we really prefer the exotic. Our budget would be in the neighborhood of $250,000 but we'd like everything included and handled. We don't mind traveling with a small group but we could never handle a long cruise or a typical group tour. We need this to be absolutely top-drawer. Our schedule is that we can go anytime in 2015. We want six months, at the very least, to thoroughly plan for this journey. We dread the long flights/delays etc. But that is, I suppose, something one must endure. Can you help us and do you have any initial thoughts?
A - The best approach for a trip of this sort is to have a number of conversations with the goal of knowing you well, your likes and dislikes, and then moving on to specific destinations and a recommended timeline. When we have created the perfect trip, we then get into some of the specifics of each day as in (full day or half day sightseeing, dinner reservations this evening (and what type of restaurant) etc. The next step is a First Itinerary. We then review, make changes, and design the final itinerary which you have approved.
But you may want to look at a specific trip that appears, to us, to meet a great many of your bucket list requirements. We would recommend that you talk to us about a new Around-The-World by Private Jet Tour being offered by Abercrombie & Kent next October that will include a luxury safari in Kenya, time on the Amazon River on a luxury cruiser, Easter Island, Papua New Guinea, the islands of Indonesia and Madagascar and all sorts of special touches such as breakfast with A&K's owner at his home in Monaco. You won't have the airport delays, all flights will be true First Class in your private jet with a hand-picked crew, and you will come out, in the long run under budget at $108,000 per person for 26-days. Custom arrangements can be done in virtually every part of the world but the travel convenience of these private jet programs is making them increasingly popular and most sell out quite quickly.
- USING MY PHONE ON A CRUISE TO SOUTH AMERICA
Q - We leave for a cruise to South America this winter and we're already looking forward to it - except for the communications part. Is there any way to cut down on the cost of making a call while still using my regular phone (Android)?
A - There is one rather new technique that will save you big bucks. It is called data compression technology and it will save you money on the cost to download data as well as the high roaming charges involved in making overseas calls. The best of these programs is called Onavo Extend. You can download it to your phone for free.
- WHICH AIRLINES HAVE THE LOWEST FARES TO EUROPE?
Q - We love reading this site even though it is clearly aimed at the upscale traveler. I suppose we are about fifty-fifty upscale. But we just hate spending money we don't have to for another inch of chair for eight or nice hours. For a 5-star hotel at the other end yes - but we just don't think airlines that charge 50% more than their competitors are worth it. Can you tell us if there are certain airlines you would recommend for those seeking the very lowest Business Class or coach seats from New York to Europe?
A - There are more than a dozen so-called "budget"carriers across the Atlantic. We wouldn't fly most of them. Here are the Top Five "True Value" airlines across the pond:
THE TOP FIVE "TRUE VALUE" AIRLINES FLYING TO EUROPE
Icelandair - The upside is that you get a free stopover in Reykjavik. Service is professional - these folks have been doing this for years. But Rejkjavik is sooo worth the stopover. It is, in many ways, way cooler than many other cities in Europe. The downside is that Icelandair uses older 757's. The best deals are in their upgraded Saga class eats. Bring your own food aboard.
Aer Lingus - The national carrier of Ireland has been beating the competition price-wise for years. Their advantage over Icelandair and other rivals, is the fact that they do fly wide body aircraft including the 767.
Air Berlin - They fly A-330's with a tight pitch. But business class to Berlin or Dusseldorf is not bad with decent service and flat-bed seats. Both cities provide good transfer options. We like Air Berlin but they have limited routes from the US. Chicago/Miami/Ft. Myers/Los Angeles and New York are their current gateways.
Norwegian - This ten year-old budget carrier is unique and of major concern to the legacy carriers that ply the Atlantic routes. Norwegian is already one of Europe's largest airlines. They use new Boeing 787 Dreamliners and provide some of the best service in the "True Value" category. They are able to achieve this by working with non-union crew. This has led most of the legacy carriers to oppose their entry into the US market at every turn. Current prices include a $204 fare to Copenhagen each way (includes all taxes/one way). This is the airline to watch. If they succeed in the US, the pricing guidelines for trans-Atlantic travel may well head downward. The best current value is premium economy at just under $2,000 per person to London and the Scandinavian capitals.
XL Airways France - This True Value carrier is owned by a French tour company flies A330's to CDG Paris from Las Vegas, Miami, New York, and San Francisco. XL has also introdu7ced the only non-stop from the US to the gateway of Provence, Marseilles out of New York. As you might expect, these aircraft were designed to provide extremely tight seating for budget holiday package travelers. Expect extremely uncomfortable seating in exchange for your savings.
- LOOKING FOR A CHICKEN IN PARIS
Q - Don't know if you can help with this, but would appreciate it if you can help. I am not a vegetarian but my fiancé and I do not eat meat. We do eat chicken and fish. We will be in Paris for six days in August and we would love to know that we have sampled at least one really good restaurant that could accommodate our needs. Fancy white tablecloths are not necessary - just great food. If you help us we'll write you back a report on how nice the French treated us. We're in our thirties, fairly comfortable financially, and, our parents, say, rather demanding.
A - No need to do the report. We've called the French and told them about you. We know how you will be treated. We think the restaurant you will really enjoy is Le Coq Rico which is modern French and totally devoted to interpretations of pedigree poultry. If you want to have the best chicken dish of your life, order the whole roasted Bresse hen. As almost an aside, one well regarded Parisian critic ha said that the side dish French fries are the best he has ever eaten. For dessert, you'll want the ile flottante, a heavenly meringue that is sleeping on crème anglaise. The address is 98 Rue Lepic.
- HOW DO WE LOSE SEATS THAT WERE CONFIRMED SIX MONTHS AGO?
Q - We will be leaving for a European Cruise booked through Regent Seven Seas in three weeks. We booked the air/sea program and paid extra for an air deviation. We were flying United Airline on a flight from Atlanta that is actually going to be operated by Lufthansa. We have a connection in Frankfurt to Istanbul, also on Lufthansa with a United flight number on a code-share.
Yesterday, we were advised that our seats had been taken away and re-assigned. We are now seated in different rows in middle seats. We had everything confirmed in writing and are furious about this. How could it happen and what can we do about it? We are being told to wait until the day of departure when something may open up. I just don't think that customers realize that this sort of thing can happen.
A - You're right - flyers think a confirmed seat means it is "confirmed" when, in fact, it doesn't. . For those booked in economy seating, this sort of thing happens with some regularity. It almost never occurs in Business or First. Here is what likely happened:
Almost all seat changes occur for one of two reasons: They may have needed the seats you were holding for elite status flyers. Or, there may have been a change of equipment, a different type of aircraft or version of the aircraft assigned to your flight. When that happens the computers take over and rather haphazardly assign open seats.
Your flight is currently on airport lockdown. That means that the flight is showing full and no airline employee can get into the seating chart to make changes until 24-hours prior to departure. Lufthansa tells us that on transatlantic flights involving the Airbus 443, which we believe is your assigned aircraft, 30% of all seats remain unassigned until the day of departure. If you try calling 24 hours, to the minute, prior to your scheduled departure you will likely be able to change your seats to two together. If that fails, get to the airport at least two and a half hours prior to departure for early check-in. We would expect that your seats would be changed at that time.
This does not strike us as a problem caused in any way by Regent. Cruise lines. But Regent should be following up with their contacts at Lufthansa to see if they can get this cleared for you prior to departure.
- WHICH IRAN TOUR SHOULD WE BOOK?
Q - We have read that Iran is a great destination with friendly people and a great deal to see. Wonder if you agree? We've been looking at Travcoa and Mir Tours. They each seem to be operating two departures this year. Which of the two passes your "legitimate Tour Operator" Test? Really enjoying the site but wish there were more on the various tour operators and the programs they offer. That would be great consumer information if accurate and professional ratings could be included.
A - Both Travcoa and Mir pass our tests with flying colors. Each has been around for a long time. Mir specializes in Eastern and central Europe. Travcoa is a more deluxe tour operator who we recommend highly. But Travcoa is quite expensive given what is included and the category of accommodations used.
Unfortunately, both companies have sold out their departures this year. All four dates are fully booked. Too bad, because we are in agreement that the personal contacts you would have on this journey might well make up for any pre-trip fear factor you might experience. Iran would be a fascinating destination for those with an open mind. It also might be a good idea to visit before they fully develop a nuclear delivery system. Just a suggestion.
We have not rated specific tours because we think it would be far too subjective. The assigned Tour Director and the make-up of the group might change the review of the tour from one departure to another. But we truly appreciate your feedback.
- ARE ONLINE FLIGHT SEARCHES RIGGED?
Q - Over a period of about 24 months, we've noticed that when we start planning our flights for vacation it seems that the prices have always gone up when we are ready to book, often just a day or two later. It happens too often to be a coincidence. Any recommendations or are we just plain nuts?
A - Actually, you have made a fairly sophisticated and little-known discovery. Airlines have developed software that will insert cookies on your hard drive. It alerts the airline that you are interested in particular flights and the software is programmed to raise the price when you finally go to book. It is our understanding that this is not, currently, illegal, Your behavior online is carefully monitored and stored and it can and will affect the price of items, like an airfare, that have been the subject of a previous search. The solution is to disable your "cookies" just prior to initiating an online fare search.
- DO I NEED A VISA FOR TRAVEL TO ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Q - We have a rather unusual situation. We are traveling with friends on a Baltic cruise this July that includes three full days in St. Petersburg. My mother is quite ill and there is the remote possibility that I could be called during the cruise with the need to fly out of Russia in a hurry. Our travel consultant has set us up with a full itinerary of specially created tours. The Visa will be included. Is there any reason why I need to apply for a separate visa in addition to the one being provided?
A - Yes, in your specific set of circumstances you will need a separate visa. The documents issued by your consultant's ground operator in Russia will cover you as long as you stick to the proscribed sightseeing program. But you are not covered for independent travel to the airport or, for that matter, for flights out of Russia. Your visa from the tour operator will only cover you for arrival and departure by ship. So, in the unlikely event that you get the call and have to fly out immediately, we do want you to have an independent visa covering such an eventuality.
- HOW MANY COOTIES ARE LIVING ON MY BUSINESS CLASS BLANKET?
Q - Realize yours is not an airline site but I always wonder about the cleanliness of the blankets I find all wrapped up, nice and tidy, on my seat when I am flying Business Class internationally. I'd love to know how often those blankets are actually cleaned? I start itching just thinking about it.
A - It turns out that blankets used by airlines are far more sanitary than the blankets that adorn your hotel room bed. Our favorite frequent flyer web site, Viewfromthewing.com recently tackled this subject. In the case of American Airlines, blankets are not put back into cellophane. The blankets are collected and sent off to cleaning contractors in major hubs who clean them and then repackage them. It is safe to assume that any airline blanket sealed in cellophane has not been used by other passengers. Hope that helps with the itching.
- ONE QUESTION YOU NEED TO ANSWER
Q - We've been following traveltruth for the past two years and we love every bit of it - but there is one question I don't think you've ever addressed. When is the best time to get awful assigned seats changed to something better? Whenever we call the airlines they say the seating is "closed".
A - Airlines, bless their hearts, close their seating down when their computer software tells them that just about all of their sucker seats are gone. This means regular folks coach seating. But every airline holds some seats for their most preferred elite status flyers. So the trick is to try to get those seats when they are released. This is what the pros do:
Set the airline on speed dial and sit down with a watch that is accurate. At exactly 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds prior to your departure time, hit speed dial. Better yet, use two phones. Seats are released for general sale at precisely 24 hours prior to scheduled departure from the gate. By the way, this call will also serve to reconfirm your flight, not a bad idea when the airlines operate under rules that allow them to take your seats and offer them to an Elite Status flyer. Always ask for an e-mail confirmation of anything promised to you in airlines reservations. It turns out the ad about "The Friendly Skies" was, alas, just an ad, not a statement of policy and practice.
- CAN WE USE CRUISE CREDITS TO REDUCE THE PRICE OF OUR CRUISE?
Q - We will need to make a payment to Celebrity Cruises for our final payment for a two-week cruise to the Mediterranean. We booked it directly with Celebrity and there seems to be some confusion about the credits we were given when we booked with their agent, Joseph. I think we should be allowed to take the credit off the price but Celebrity is trying to get us to pay the full rate. Who can I turn to for help with this? Can I still get another travel agent involved with final payment only three weeks away?
A - You have made a direct booking with a commissioned salesman in a cubicle whose job is to maximize revenue for his employer. Celebrity will charge you the commission meant to compensate your travel agent. That's the bad news. You've been suckered. The good news is that you may still be able to turn this reservation over to a professional cruise consultant since you have not yet made final payment. Since the travel consultant commission is built into all cruise pricing, it is unlikely you will have to pay anything for professional services.
There are two kinds of credits. If a cruise line mails you a credit because something happened on your last sailing, you can take the amount of the credit off your final price. But if you have received an "On-Board Credit" you may not deduct the value from your cruise price. The on-board credit, which we suspect you have, is simply applied to your final expense account aboard the ship. It is deducted from the amount to be charged to your credit card for on-board activities, drinks, medical treatment, spa services, gift shops etc. Hope this is helpful. Probably best to never book directly again. You should always have an advocate when purchasing travel services - things can and do go wrong.
- WHICH COUNTRIES HAVE REALLY GREAT CREDIT RATINGS?
Q - We were at a friends house last night doing some Pinot Noir blind tastings accompanied by s'mores when the subject of credit ratings for countries came up. A Wall Street player in our group said that he believed that credit agencies that rate businesses also rate countries. I'd really be interested in which countries get the highest ratings if you could chase that down. If you do, we'll invite you to our next party, "Chardonnay and Cannolis." We're up in Westport.
A - We really like your themes. Well done. It sounds like no one in the neighborhood appreciate a fine cheese selection.
Your friend is correct. Several major ratings agencies have identified a select group of nations that have achieved the highest financial health ratings form the three major agencies. They are: Canada, Finland, Germany, Luxemburg, Australia, Singapore, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Denmark.
These countries could, in our view, form the basis for a travel bucket list of countries you need to get to know better. Each has excellent healthcare, low or non-existent poverty, and high level accommodations and cuisine. It is also interesting to note that none of these countries has a serious pollution or crime problems so travel is intrinsically safer than staying at home.
- WILL THE COAST OF NORWAY BE A BOREWAY?
Q - As frequent cruisers, we have to make our minds up quickly about a 16-Day voyage on Regent Seven Seas between Oslo and Copenhagen. This is a cruise pretty much limited to the coast of Norway and St. Petersburg, which we've previously visited, is not on the itinerary. Wondering of you would recommend this specific itinerary?
A - In fact, you've picked one of our favorites all-time cruise experiences. The North Cape cruises are only offered once or twice each summer by a few of the top lines. It is an ideal itinerary but rather expensive for the lines to operate since Norway is not particularly interested in attracting day visitors and port charges and docking fees are unusually high.
This particular itinerary is outstanding and we highly recommend it. Here are a few specific reasons why:
01 – Absolutely beautiful small towns and villages. The fjords form a magnificent backdrop.
02 – The days at sea sometimes feature views of land.
03– There is no crime or poverty. It is really uplifting in many ways.
04 – It is a great way to beat the summer heat.
05 – There are not many ships doing this route. Towns are not crowded.
06 – Most North Cape Cruises are 10-12 days. The length of this cruise seems to us to be ideal.
- GREEK FAMILY SPECTACULAR
Q - We have a rather large, tightly-knit Greek family (so what else is new) and we're planning to go to the islands in 2016 for a two-week spectacular trip. We thought it best to start now. Of course we'll have all age groups and some will want to do their own thing. We have some decent financial reserves for this trip and were wondering if you could provide a few ideas we may not have thought of that we could bring to our travel agent.? We will likely number 23.
A - Sure. We've planned numerous family gatherings of this kind and we have some specific suggestions: Start with these and have your agent think about including them in your itinerary:
Rent a yacht, preferably in the Cyclades island group, and spend six nights touring the best islands. Nothing will bring the family closer together, the per person cost will be manageable, and the crew will do all the work.
Try to get the family to an authentic wine village where they can join the locals in the harvest celebration while stopping their bare feet to crush grapes for next years wine.
Have the younger folks hike the Samaria Gorge on Crete. The hiking is memorable and the scenery is fantastic.
As a great finish, before flying home from Athens, charter a few helicopters and fly the family above the suspended in air" monasteries in the rock pinnacles of Meteora. Four of these impossible to get to structures still house small, monastic communities.
Do remember that you will want to carefully consider taking over entire restaurants for a party each night of your trip. That will involve a good deal of planning but the results will be well worth it.
You should start planning this trip fourteen months prior to departure.
- CAN WE DO A CUSTOM BEEMER TOUR?
Q - We have three BMW's in the garage. For our next trip to Europe, we'd love to have a custom trip arranged where we might drive a Beemer on some of Germany's best roads, with frequent stops for beer and Brotzeit. We know what we want - we just don't know how to begin. Awesome site unlike anything we've seen on the internet before.
A - Start your vacation in Munich. We would suggest that you, first, fortify yourself at the Hofbrauhaus with a private insider's tour, then rent a late-model, high-performance BMW and drive some of the great back roads of Bavaria and then head up into the foothills of the Swiss Alps. The scenery will blow you away. And please drive responsibly, which, in Germany, means keep it under 90 on the straightaways.
In terms of beginning, find a travel consultant, not a travel agent, you can trust and inquire about their affiliated offices in Germany. If they don't have one - move on.
- A PHOTOGRAPHER'S DREAM TRIP
Q - Please don't use my name but you can say that I am a fairly well-known amateur photographer whose work has appeared in several major publications including AFAR and National Geographic. But I have a day job that finances our photographic journeys. My dream is to take some great photos of Japan's Mt. Fuji. It seems there are some wonderful lights in the distance if you choose the right spot. Is there any way you might advise us as to where we might go to get the best shot and who we ought to be booking this with to go exactly where we need to go?
A - Nice to meet you. We've got several photographers on staff whose work appears on Instagram and Pinterest. We did not know the answer to your question but we have contacts with the best travel specialists in Japan. They recommend that you try to take your pictures from Lake Ashi in Hakone. They promise amazing views with the lighting background we think you are seeking. We would suggest that you plan the trip with someone who is part of one of the best consortium groups such as Virtuoso, Signature, or Ensemble. Inquire about their offices in Japan.
- CAN WE TURN JAMAICA INTO A MEMORABLE VACATION?
Q - We're really into traveltruth but we feel you seriously shortchange the Caribbean. There isn't much objective information about the islands online - they all use the term "paradise" interchangeably. In three months, we're off to Jamaica on a corporate reward trip including accommodations at Rose Hall. But we keep hearing negatives about the island. How we spin this trip so it is awesome?
A - You could go out to Bob Marley's house and just inhale for a half hour. But better to play one of Jamaica's excellent golf courses, go horseback riding on the beach, get set up for a few hours with a picnic lunch on a deserted beach, and definitely go for a ride on the "Country Bus" to meet the real Jamaica. Stay away from anything touristic and make contact with a great travel specialist or the Head Concierge at Rose Hall. Watch yourself at night if going "off-campus" but do dine-around. Here are some recommendations for dinner:
- Sugar Mill Restaurant (Montego Bay; tel. 876/953-2314):
- Norma's on the Beach at Sea Splash (Negril; tel. 876/957-4041):
- Rockhouse Restaurant (Negril; tel. 876/957-4373
- Bloomfield Great House (Mandeville; tel. 876/962-7130):
- SHOULD I LET MY DAUGHTER GO ON A CRUISE?
Q - Thank you for the information you give about some of the things you need to be careful about on some of these cruise ships. My 17 year-old daughter has asked me to let her go with a friend on a three-night Royal Caribbean Bahamas cruise. Her friends mother will be going, but she has three other children and is traveling with other family members, so I just don't see how she would have time to watch out for my daughter. She really wants to go and I am leaning toward letting her. Can I assume the crew will keep an eye on any young people who seem unsupervised? No one in our family has cruised. Please respond as soon as possible.
A - The cruise industry has not, for rather obvious reasons, been interested in discussing crime, particularly crimes of a sexual nature, that take place on the high seas. Crimes aboard cruise ships include rapes of passengers by crew members. An attorney who represents many of the victims of on-board crime, reports that there were 959 crimes at sea reported to the FBI during one 18-month period in 2011 and 2012. Specific allegations regarding NCL, Holland America, and Royal Caribbean and others can be examined on the web site www.cruiselawnews.com.
We urge you, in the strongest terms, not to allow your daughter to travel on a mass market mega-ship unless you, or a member of your immediate family you can trust, accompanies her and provides full-time supervision. Ships with thousands of guests, none of whom has to go through any background screening, serviced by a largely transient crew that is denied basic rights under US labor laws, is a recipe for disaster. The fact that these ships operate in international waters under phony out-of-country registrations of convenience, is even more cause for concern.
It is true that the vast majority of cruises are incident-free. But it is also true that the industry has done everything possible to hide the facts of on-board crime from the public. We just don't see any travel agent or cruise sites discussing these issues in-depth. Somehow, consumers feel that "you get what you pay for" does not apply to cruise vacations. It does, particularly as concerns crew background, training, and crimes against passengers.
- BIG MOVES TO EUROPE
Q - We have always had a desire to sail the world's largest ship for a week or so. I've heard Royal Caribbean and Carnival ships are huge but we literally want to sail the biggest next summer. Can you tell us which ship that would be?
A - The Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas is, by two inches, the largest vessel currently afloat. She is 225,000 gross tons.
In a rather surprising announcement, Royal Caribbean announced that it is taking the Allure out of the Caribbean next summer and basing the ship in Europe in 2015. This is a hedge bet that they can fill the ship with a mix of guests from the US and Europe. You will be able to do a seven-night itinerary between Civitavecchia (Rome) and Barcelona.
It will be an intimate experience you will share with 5,398 fellow guests. But we suggest you do not walk into a bar and shout "drinks for everyone."
- WILL WE BE ABLE TO GET AWAY ON AMERICAN CHRISTMAS 2017?
Q - With all the problems we've been reading about involving American Airline's bankruptcy and this pending deal with US Airways, we are wondering if keeping miles in our Advantage account for a planned major Christmas trip in 2017 is a good idea?
A - The merger with US Air went through last year and American Airlines profits are soaring based on higher ticket prices and relatively low fuel costs. The new AA made profits of $436 million in the 4th quarter of 2013 compared to a loss of $42 million a year earlier. So don't bet against American.
As to your mileage bank. We recommend storing your miles in one of the better credit card depositories, preferably one that give you a bonus when miles are cashed in. Choose a credit card that allows you to accumulate miles and then, whenever you choose, to have them applied to any major airline. In other words, you only tap into your mileage and transfer miles to the airline when you are about to purchase a mileage ticket. Never let miles languish in an airline frequent flyer account.
By the way, it is highly unlikely you will be able to purchase mileage awards on American for travel over the Christmas Holiday in 2017 or any other year.
- WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO GET UPDATED GATE INFORMATION ON MY iPHONE?
Q - I know the airlines can notify you of an assigned gate or change, but is there any single source I can use all of the time to get information without having to trust my airline to update me?
A - There are two apps that are quite good and both have a basic version free. Try Iflyairportguide or gateguru. They will give you security checkpoint times as well as gate assignment at all major domestic and hundreds of airports around the world. If you fly frequently, we would recommend the "Pro" version.
- SHOULD WE CANCEL OUR ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE?
Q - We've been listening to the horrific news reports about the virus that got everyone sick on the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. We have never cruised and are scheduled to take our first stab at cruising this October with two other couples from our church. As luck would have it, we're booked on the same ship. My husband and I can't fathom what it must be like to be sick at sea like those poor people and we are thinking about cancelling our cruise. Just how high is the risk of it happening on our cruise? We booked directly with the cruise line and the agent handling our reservation seemed to downplay the incident. We can use a little travel truth.
A - Well, first of all, every traveler is entitled to an honest and straightforward response as regards issues of personal safety and hygiene. When that doesn't happen, it makes our blood boil.
The 600 or so guests and 95 crew on the Explorer of the Seas were suffering from a "Norovirus". A norovirus can be passed through contact with a person who has it. It can be passed by drinking or eating an item that is contaminated. It is also possible to get it by just touching an area that has been tainted.
Norovirus outbreaks are common and generally unreported when they happen off cruise ships. They occur in office buildings, stadiums, concert venues, movie theaters, and shopping malls. An outbreak can be triggered by a single carrier and the disease can infect and spread rapidly. The illness usually passes in a few days but it is debilitating and serious when it occurs.
The percentage of norovirus outbreaks is significantly higher on larger cruise lines, particularly those that cater to a mid-range and budget travelers. When you are on a ship carrying several thousand guests, each of whom paid an average of $150 per day for their cruise, logic would dictate that on-board services do not rival those provided aboard ships costing three and four times that amount per day. Personally, when we travel with our families, we avoid mega-liners with thousands of guests. Of course, when we are working on a story or inspecting one of the large ships for our client reports, we try to pack a few quarts of Purell, sani-wipes, and we wash our hands twenty times a day.
If you believe that a budget cruise line provides the same levels of cleanliness and vigorous safety inspections found on a smaller, more expensive, luxury vessel, you are being naïve. But this is an extremely complex subject because it is likely that the virus on the Explorer and most of the other viruses reported on other lines such as Carnival, Princess, and NCL. were brought onboard by guests. So, one could argue, how hard the crew works to keep the ship clean and sanitized is largely irrelevant if an infected guest is coming onboard.
We think you should cancel your cruise. We do not say this because we think you will get ill. In fact, Royal Caribbean has a fairly good record when it comes to issues of sanitation and hygiene. We think you should cancel because you are already experiencing anxiety about a vacation you should be looking forward to with great anticipation. Instead of a floating mini-city, try to find something more intimate and refined for your first cruise experience.
By the way, for the record, we've experienced more than 130 cruises and we have far more concerns when visiting indoor shopping malls and movie theaters.
- A 'PUT YOU ON THE SPOT" QUESTION
Q - Over the past two years, you have kind of spoiled us with the candor of your responses in the Q&A section of your site. So let me pose a question that may put you on the spot. I have to fly rather frequently to Europe where my company has several factories and storage facilities. Sometimes I fly United, sometimes American, etc. I have no loyalty and earn miles with everyone. But I'm wondering which of the major US airlines now has the best overall service in Business Class across the pond? If you don't wish to answer we'll still follow traveltruth.
A -No worries. Delta has the best current overseas onboard service to Europe in Business Class of the three major US carriers. But we would advise that you not make too much of the service variations, instead, it would be wise to concentrate on the type of aircraft and whether or not the beds are true Lie-flats. The 777 is a far better comfort option than the 767.
- I AM A TRAVELING CFO. WHAT IS BEST WAY TO COMMUNICATE WITH OFFICE BACK HOME?
Q - Interesting and honest responses to other questions lead me to ask you if you know of any services that will make my life easier as I travel the world and frequently have to call in from abroad? I would also like to video conference from time to time. As a CFO in the pharmacology field, I need to set an example in terms of frugality so Io guess I'm asking what is the best way to keep in touch on the cheap? But it has to work.
A - There are now multiple options for keeping in touch on a wide variety of platforms. But here is a quick summary you may wish to discuss with your IT people:
01 - If you spend time in a single country, a separate cell phone with a local sim card works best.
02 - If you travel all over there are services such as Telestial.com that deliver a phone package that works in more than 100 countries at substantially lower rates than you would pay with an American carrier.
03 - Don't discount SKYPE. It keeps getting better because WIFI is available nearly everywhere and you can video conference for an amazingly low price.
- VACATION.COM VERSUS VIRTUOSO, VERSUS SIGNATURE
Q - We worked with an agent who was in the Virtuoso Consortium for many years. We now have a new agent who is in something called Signature. Meanwhile, our best friends use someone connected to Vacations.com who just got them a wonderful upgrade at the Hyatt in New York. Each of these groups seems to get their members hotel upgrades and cruise deals etc. What are the real, if any, differences? It is all pretty confusing and I understand it has something to do with commissions.
A - Each of these organizations is respected and each strives to design amenities for its guests. Signature and Virtuoso tend to do more high-end business than Vacation.com, which is the largest agent consortium. Signature is owned by its agent members, Virtuoso is a privately held for-profit corporation. Generally speaking, we would say stay with your Signature agent if you are happy. Working with a top-flight professional is likely to be a more significant choice than which consortium they personally support. Every one of the more than a dozen major consortium groups tries to secure the best commissions for their members.
There is one caveat. If you do high-end, private touring, and you rely on working with the very best overseas office contacts through your agent, Virtuoso and Signature are the better choices.
- DO WE REALLY NEED AN INDIAN VISA?
Q - We are on a Crystal cruise to Malaysia and Singapore that stops for the day at Port Blair, in the Andaman Islands, which technically belong to India. We just learned it will cost is $334 and a whole lot of paperwork, plus sending our passports to the Indian embassy, in order to get cleared to go ashore. Is it worth it?
A - No.
- THE OCEANIA MARINA SAYS IT HAS GREAT FOOD. DOES IT?
Q - We are mid-town Manhattan Foodies, quite used to choosing from America's best restaurants, many with world-famous chefs. We are considering our first experience at sea and friends tell us they've read that Oceania has the best food. We shop at Zabar's and we dine at Le Bernadin at least once a month, if that tells you anything. Will we be disappointed if we choose to sail on the Marina?
A - Well, since you're from New York City, we are going to assume you may be disappointed in everything. But putting that cultural characteristic aside, we think you might be able to squeeze out a fine experience aboard the Marina. Jacques Pepin is the line's supervising chef. His namesake restaurant features Coquilles St. Jacques and a delicate Dover Sole. La Reserve serves small group chef's choice dinners with course-by-course wine pairings. And Red Ginger does relatively authentic Pan-Asian with an emphasis on Malaysian cuisine such as Penang Beef Curry. So yes, you can dine quite well on an Oceania ship.
Do they have the best food at sea? On any given night the answer can be yes but we would rate Crystal higher. But the Marina or the Riviera are the proper choice for foodies, partially because the ship features a dedicated Culinary Center with 24 work stations, countertop grills, and gas burners. Guests can take featured culinary shore excursions, purchase goods ashore, and come back to cook them onboard.
But you may find that getting in to one of Manhattan's top restaurants is a tad easier than assuring yourself dining reservations at the Marina's smallish specialty restaurants. Make certain you are able to deal with this frustration before you sign up, along with some other lifestyle sacrifices you will need to make when you cruise. Is it all worth it? Just remember that 94.6% of first-time cruisers repeat the experience within 24 months.
- WHERE DO YOU FIND THE BEST TOUR GUIDES, ON ESCORTRED TOURS OR BOOKING PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS?
Q - Having just received my retirement "papers", my wife and I are off to see the world for the next twenty years. That is of fate, my knee joints, and arthritis, all permit it. The few trips that we've done abroad were a mixed bag, and we found that so much is determined by the quality of the guide. Love this site and but we've never heard you address this issue. Do you get better guides on escorted tours or when you pay for more deluxe private arrangements.
A - Excellent question. Generally speaking, you will get the very best guides on a higher-end escorted group tour. Here's why: Almost all guides are contracted. If they can secure work with a well-known tour operator who is going to be doing multiple departures of the same tour, they can depend on a full season of work. Most of the better guides prefer looking after groups because the tips they receive from a happy bus load of guests can be many times greater than the tips they would receive from just one couple.
There is, of course, another view. Some of the better tour guides think it is below them to escort groups of folks and to play to an "audience". It is sort of like bragging to your friends that you just had a great dinner at Applebee's. Guides love to brag to other guides that they just showed Justin Timberlake around the Medina. They prefer customizing their commentary and really getting to know one or two couples at a time. The best guides can receive both salary and tips and the very best book up months in advance and can get you around crowds and bureaucracy.
If you would like the best possible, genial overview, we think one of the guides associated with one of the Top Ten rated escorted tour firms will best meet your needs. If you detest crowds and have a particular sightseeing agenda, private guides can absolutely make a trip exceed your expectations. o note that every escorted tour member evaluates their guide in writing. The bad ones are quickly weeded out, a comforting thought given your investment. Have a wonderful retirement.
- WHICH PORTS IN ISRAEL ARE BEST FOR CRUISE PASSENGERS?
Q - Now that the Iranians have promised not to build nukes and the Syrians are dismantling their nerve gas depots, it is time for a family cruise to Israel we've been putting off for close to 20 years. We're not worried, if you're not worried, about taking our teens, 15 and 17, to Israel on a cruise this summer. Before we start our search, please tell us what we should be looking for in terms of ports in Israel. It appears there are several places a ship can stop and we want to see as much as possible.
So first, would you bring your children to Israel right now and what port is the best for a family that wants the best bang for the buck?
A - Actually, you might want to consider taking your kids to Israel and leaving them there for a few years. They will find an absolutely lovely country carved out of the desert, with history, great schools, a serious culinary environment, and a people dedicated to squeezing every moment out of each sun-drenched day. Of course you should go - you should not have waited this long. Travel in Israel is far safer than in many areas of the US and the Israelis are better drivers. As driving accidents are the most serious danger in virtually any country you visit, the statistics on Israel are quite good. By the way, Tel Aviv, is a hip, beautiful city, with an incredible night life that attracts travelers from all over the world.
There really are two major ports in Israel. Ashdod is on the West Coast, in the middle of the country within driving distance of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea on the eastern border. Tel Aviv is north of the port, along the coast.
The second port in Israel is Haifa which is in the northern portion of the west coast. The Golan Heights are due east on the other coast. Haifa is an easy ride to Nazareth.
The bottom line is that Ashdod is the preferred port.
- iPHONES AND PASSPORTS IN CUBA
Q - We are really excited to be going on one of the first scheduled tours to Cuba. We just signed up but we had two immediate questions. Will our iPhone work in Cuba and what do we do with our Passport? Will we be carrying it with us?
A - You will be able to use your iPhone and you will not need a converter. Service people in the hotel or even in restaurants will be able to charge the hone for you, if necessary, Carry at least one full copy of the picture pages of your passport with you, including photos copies stored on your phone. You will leave your passport in the hotel safe. All Cuba "People to People" Tour Operators provide full documentation as your departure approaches. No worries. Just expect a more-or-less regimented tour experience led by a "true believer." One important cultural note: Duck Dynasty is now quite popular in Cuba, and if you get cable in your hotel, highly likely, you will be able to watch Uncle Si dubbed in Spanish.
- AMERICAN VERSUS UNITED TO LONDON
Q - We are going to be attending a conference in London next month and we're trying to figure out whether we should be booking our air on American or United out of Chicago. The seating in Business Class is really important to us and we are wondering which of these has beds that will allow us to stretch out? It looks like we will be flying a 777 on United or a 767 on American. Are the beds all the same?
A - We were in a great mood here until you asked about airline seating. It is a rather upsetting topic because they are definitely not the same. There are no industry rules or even "norms". Airlines buy a "shell aircraft" and then customize it with seating that meets their needs. Financial needs almost always come ahead of aesthetic needs. When flying, you can analyze exactly what your seating options are going to be. We keep a book on our desks that we constantly update with seating stats on every aircraft operated by every one of the world's important airlines. It is currently 47 pages.
The American 767-300 offers a seat width of only 18.5 inches. We would expect that in coach - not Business Class. The aircraft does not have lie flat beds. American has equipped this aircraft with Angle Lie Flat beds. That is a big difference. On any flight over five hours, we think you should look for true, 360 degree horizontal, lie-flat seats. Frequent travelers report that angled beds that do not allow them to lie flat, as you would at home, are far less desirable than true "Lie flats". Airline marketing lingo tries to confuse the consumer as each seat has "Lie Flat" in its nomenclature. The question you need to ask is "true lie flat or angled lie flat seat?"
The United 777 200 Series will give you true Lie-flat beds plus 20 inches of seat width. But beware, one version of the United 777, the V3 model, has Recliner Seats in Business and doesn't even have beds. On your routing, however, you will have better seating on United in Business Class.
One caveat. If you are flying American overseas on a 777-300 ER Series aircraft, you will have true Lie-flat seats as well as 26 inches of seat width, clearly preferable to United's configuration. So it all boils down to the exact type of aircraft you are flying.
One more - final caveat. Our experience tells us that airline reservation agents are not always a good source of accurate information about seating details. Do not try to get comparative seating statistics directly from the airlines.
- WILL AN ATLANTIC HURRICAINE BANKRUPT OUR VACATION?
Q - Our family of five is booked on a Crystal Cruise to New England and Canada in top suites in Mid-October. We booked this cruise largely based on the traveltruth ratings, the most honest we've found. But given our substantial investment for two doubles and a single all upper decks, I am concerned about my lack of ability to cancel close in should a hurricane be forecast. Two questions - how likely is this possibility during mid-October and how do I best protect my investment?
A - Long-term weather prognostication is a dying art. There are just too many exceptions to the old weather rules since we've started to see the effects of major weather pattern changes (our conspiracy nutjob readers hate it when we say "global warming") Theoretically you should be safe cruising the coast of the Atlantic in Mid-October. But storms are possible. You can protect your investment by taking out one of the "cancel for any reason" riders offered through your consultant from Travelex or TravelGuard, two of the better travel insurers.
- ANYTHING COOL AND HIP IN THE CARIBBEAN?
Q - My boyfriend and I are professionals in the fashion industry in New York and we are in dire need of a Caribbean getaway sometime in December, perhaps over the Holidays. We like hip resorts with progressive food and rooms with modern design touches. We also have rather high expectations about service, a rare commodity, from what we understand, on the islands. I'm a Vegan, if that makes any difference. We'd be bringing along some work, but mostly, this is a vacation for soaking up the sun and relaxing with a little Buddha music in the background. Any suggestions?
A - First, do this so you are home by the 18th of December. You will save a great deal of money, more than enough to pay for a second vacation, and you may actually be able to get some seats on an aircraft. The resorts we are recommending are either sold out or close to it for the Holiday period.
We think you should concentrate your search on Parrot Cay or Gransevoort in the Turks & Caicos. Check out Jade Mountain or Ladera on St. Lucia. Finally, you might love the vibe at the Eden Rock on St. Barts. Have your consultant get you the actual hotel inspection reports of each of these properties so you can make an educated decision. And please, be back by the 18th. The "amateurs" start arriving on the islands that afternoon.
They have vegetables in the Caribbean. In fact, Bob Marley used to smoke them. No worries.
- WHY NO REPORTING ON THE REAL SCENT OF PARIS - URINE?
Q - My husband and I have just returned from a week in Paris. We were rather amazed at the number of homeless people on the streets. We had been there in 1994 and it was nothing like this. The smell of urine is everywhere and people are just setting up cots on the sidewalks all over the city. You should tell your readers about this as it really impacted our memories of Paris on this trip. You go to Paris for the perfume - not this! Any idea why this is happening?
A - It is a problem, but we still rank Paris as one of the planet's most beautiful cities. The fact is that homelessness in France has doubled in the past decade, the result of a shrinking economy and an influx of poor immigrants who can't find work. Our experience is that most of the homeless are in the main tourist areas looking for handouts. Part of the explanation as to why this is more of a problem in Paris than it is, say, in London has to do with cultural attitudes toward begging and homelessness. Under London law, you cannot stay in one place in the street all day and sleep there in a tent etc. It is against the law. There is no criminalization of homelessness in Paris. In fact, studies in Europe have shown that the French are the most tolerant of the down and out because they have this deep-seated feeling that it could, one day, happen to them.
- TWO QUESTIONS REGARDING FREE AIR AND USING AN AGENT VERSUS BOOKING DIRECT
Q - Hi - I have spent some time on your site, and I have to thank you for the effort you put in, and the advice that you provide - it is a great resource. I have seen a couple of comments or recommendations in regards to cruise vacations that I would like you to expand on, if you could.
The first is that for 'air-fare included' cruise lines, a client would be better advised take the credit and book their airline tickets directly. Can you really do better than the cruise line (and is the credit they offer really enough to let a client do so?) The second is that a client should deal through a travel agency, rather than booking directly with the cruise line. Why - especially with the "miracle pricing" you have alluded to - isn't that only available when you deal direct?
A - Thank you for visiting www.traveltruth.com We have been gratified with the response worldwide given that we have never sent out a press release announcing the site. You asked two questions that would require lengthy responses. But for now, we hope this suffices:
01 – The question regarding air is “It Depends”. Every cruise line air department operates differently and each negotiates its air contracts differently. The top lines normally negotiate better fares than are available online. But they may negotiate these fares more than a year in advance of your actual cruise date so they have no way of knowing of their offer will be "average", "outstanding", or "terrible". They can only guess. We've seen, for instance, round-trip Business Class airfare offered for $1990 per person. That s a savings of more than $2,000 off the prices we are currently seeing on most European routes. For coach fares, most studies have shown that internet sites are actually higher than the airlines own corporate sites. Air strategy is something you always need to discuss with your consultant. There are a great many variables and every air scenario is totally unique.
02 – There are numerous reasons why you never want to book directly. When you book a cruise directly with the cruise line you are always charged the travel agent commission even though you are not using a travel agent and you are not receiving the services implied in the fee. You receive nothing for it. In fact, you specifically do not receive the consortium benefits offered to member agencies.
Personally, we don’t much care to pay for something we do not receive. In that sense, charging direct booking clients the travel agent commission is, in our view, gross misrepresentation.
As to your point about miracle pricing - no, in our 31 years in this industry, we've never seen a price offered to a client by a direct sales heatset at a cruise line that was not available to any professional travel agent. It just never happens. If a line did that, they would likely lose the support of the agency community they depend on.
There are lots of other reasons involving advocacy if there is a problem etc. But let’s leave it at that.
- SHOULD WE BRING MAGNETS ON OUR CRUISE?
Q - We will shortly be taking our first cruise aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. Do you like and recommend this ship and Celebrity generally? Also, we read on the internet that you are supposed to bring a set of magnets on a cruise but we have no idea why nor does our travel agent. Any advice would be appreciated.
A - You should love it. Have modest expectations as Celebrity, despite its advertising, is not a Five-Star inclusive experience. However, we believe that the Celebrity brand provides the overall best big ship, pay-as-you-go experience currently available. You are going on one of their newest ships with all manner of bells and whistles. Do dine in the additional charge restaurants and you will have some memorable meals as well as service similar to that you would receive on a higher-rated line. For a first cruise, we don't think your travel agent could have made a better recommendation.
Your question about the magnets made us smile. This is a sort of insider tip known to experienced cruisers. Cruise cabins are most metal, as opposed to being built using cement walls. If you bring some magnets with you, you can stick any invitations you receive up on the walls. Some cruisers feel this is a great way to keep track of their special classes and activities. We prefer our iPad mini.
- GOING TO KINGSTON MON, AND NEED GREAT FOOD
Q - We are heading to Jamaica for a vacation that will involve a great music festival in Kingston. We're foodies but know little about dining in Kingston. Any recommendations would be appreciated. Our air fare and hotels are set. Know you will provide trustworthy advice.
A - While Jerk Chicken is everywhere, we would suggest you seek out locally caught fish. The best restaurant in Kingston is Norma's on the Terrace, a place that will give you a contemporary take on classic seafood preparation.
But we want you to be very careful about your transportation to and from Norma's or anywhere else you go in Kingston at night. Kingston, Montego Bay, and several other popular tourist destinations ion Jamaica have serious crime problems and they carry a stern State Department Warning. Naïve Americans walking about at night in search of a restaurant or a taxi are potential targets. You can enjoy some wonderful nightlife and some really good Caribbean cuisine, but we'd feel better knowing that you had arranged secure transportation through the Hotel Concierge. For the record, we do not send our clients to Kingston under any circumstances.
- HOW FAR CAN I GO ON A NON-STOP FLIGHT?
Q - Wondering whether one of your editors can tell me who is operating the longest passenger flight these days. For the ultimate getaway, I might be tempted to take it and let that be the degree to which I do itinerary planning. Is there any advantage to using a travel agent once I decide to do the trip?
A - Well right now Singapore Airlines 19-hour flight from Singapore into Newark is the world's longest flight. But Singapore will be ending non-stop service from the States. The Qantas flight from Dallas to Sydney at 7,454 nautical miles will, for a time, be the world's longest flight.
But all that changes when Turkish Airlines begins flying from Istanbul to Sydney next year, a distance of 8,076 miles. This flight, when it finally operates, will be a game changer. Turkish Air has said it will be using Boeing 777-300's for the route.
- BARCELONA IN JULY - ANY DANGER?
Q - My husband and I read traveltruth on our iPad in bed. So thanks for that. Despite the time devoted to your excellent site, we have managed to have two kids and we're all scheduled to do an Azamara Cruise next summer that will spend two days in Barcelona. Our perfectly behaved angels are four and five and they have assured us that they will be ready for this cruise. But I wonder about issues of safety. You have indicated there is a crime issue in some areas of the city and then I've been reading about secession from Spain. Are we likely to encounter riots and street actions or am I just being an overprotective mother?
A - Yes, we think you are. Despite the street gatherings and rock throwing in Barcelona and other portions of Catalonia, most protesters demanding independence paused to take a nice lunch. Yes, there is a street crime issue in the city but that pertains to certain ports of the city core at night, like the Barri Gotic. We've heard that there are even portions of some cities in America where it is not entirely safe to do the stroll at night.
Absolutely do the trip. But we do think you might experience some serious demonstrations as the independence movement is quite serious and this coming summer will mark the 300th anniversary of the annexation of Catalonia.
Remember what happened in Catalonia this year. To protest the region's defeat in the 1714 in the War of Spanish Succession, on million residents of Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia formed a human chain that actually stretched from the edge of the region north to the Pyrenees Mountains. That happened in a province of seven a half million residents. It appears that the independence movement is real and is supported by a majority, tired of being the economic engine that is driving much of the Spanish economy. There will be demonstrations but, once again, we think they will pause for lunch.
- BARBADOS TO RIO: SHOULD WE SPLURGE?
Q - We are seriously considering joining friends from work on the January 15th sailing of Silverseas from Barbados to South America. We've never cruised this line but the combination of the Caribbean and South America intrigues us. Is $5650 a great deal for a window suite? We've been working with an agent but were wondering what you might give us if we booked with you?
A - We'd give you directions back to the agent who has put in time trying to assist you. No matter what the ads and the hype might tell you, all of the better cruise consultants receive exactly the same pricing. If we didn't, we wouldn't book the lines.
So now that you know we are not going to take you on, let us address your primary question. This is what is known as a "repositioning voyage". You can expect discounts to be deeper on this kind of "one off" itinerary. Your cruise is coming out at about $460 per person per day on the new Spirit, Silversea's flagship. Silverseas has moved up in our ratings of late and you should expect a Four Seasons at Sea type inclusive experience. Generally speaking, Five-star lines should come out, on a cruise-only basis, at between $500-$700 per person, per day. So we would say this is a good offer but not a great offer. You may be unaware that this is also a special Relais & Chateaux culinary sailing, a definite plus for foodies. Be prepared for some rough water in the Atlantic but not rough enough to cause us to advise you avoid the itinerary or the date.
- ROME DURING EASTER WEEK?
Q - We are taking our 16-Year old on a dream trip to Italy this coming spring. Our highlights will be Venice, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast. Our tentative schedule puts us in Rome Easter week flying home after the Holiday. But we don't know how insane Rome will be that weekend. We had wanted to do Sorrento last but now we're thinking about doing the trip Venice-Sorrento-Rome to avoid having to commute to Rome from Sorrento on departure day. Are our concerns about Easter week justified and how would you recommend we do the trip?
A - Your concerns about Easter crowds in Rome, tied-up traffic, possible protests, and gridlock stress are all justified. You might consider staying in a hotel away from the center core, perhaps something just across the river in Trastevere like the Dei Mellini. You might want to re-think Sorrento, perhaps using Positano as a base. If your flight home is after 1:00 pm. we would recommend that you end the trip on the Amalfi Coast and use a private driver to go straight to the airport. Driving to far-out Fiumcino Airport during Easter week will inevitably involve heavy traffic and there is some advantage to avoiding the city center on departure day. If you have an earlier departure, it does make sense to end the trip in Rome as you are proposing but not that driving to Naples, catching the train, then getting to your hotel from the central station which toting your luggage is bound to be a bit of a hassle.
- ANY WAY TO DO THE SILK ROAD BY TRAIN?
Q - Your site was recommended to help us answer a question about my personal bucket list. Can you actually do the Silk Road through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazahkstan by train. I want to see it all, and my wife will indulge me, from the Karakum and Kysilkum deserts to the Tien Shan Mountains. We're rather well-traveled, much of it on our own. We need private facilities but, other than that, we have minimal expectations although we would want the best accommodations on the train that they have - assuming a train exists. I would have no way to know if this is something two sixty-three year old retirees in good health can actually book, we'd love to know how. Thanks to your staff for the most credible travel site we've found.
A - Love your idea and we would never discourage you from this amazing adventure. The good news is that there is a program called "The Legendary Silk Road by Private Train". The two-week journey is operated by Europe-based Lernidee, which pioneered worldwide private train charters, beginning with programs on the Trans-Siberian Express. The name of the train on this route is the Orient Silk Road Express. But think three-star not the Hollywood version. Most of the travelers will be in compartments with toilets and a shower at the end of the car. You would have a preponderance of Brits on this journey with a fair share of Aussies, Germans, and Europeans who are not interested in remaining home and tossing rocks at their local parliament building. The trip begins in Ashgabar and ends in Almaty so you may not be able to fly non-stop on Southwest. You will want one of the Kalif Suites at $9,635 per person. Next year, they are operating this journey in April and October.
This trip will, in our view, require serious consultation with a travel clinic. Be aware that the air-conditioning is turned off when the train is not moving. We highly recommend that you have your flights planned and monitored by the Cranky Concierge as there will be cancellations and changes. We also recommend that you take a film-making course before this trip. If you do this trip we are going to send you a button that reads "Traveler Not Tourist".
- CUBA NOW - SI OR NO?
Q - Like many traveltruth fans, we have always wanted to go to Cuba. Now, it seems, things are opening up and we noticed that Tauck Tours is offering programs there next year. Can we book this and do you recommend this. Does Tauck have a decent reputation?
A - Tauck is, in our view, the world's best First-Class Tour Operator. That is very different than being the world's best "Deluxe" operator but for most upscale clients, Tauck is the most reliable, best organized, tour operator for sophisticated travelers who don't need the top suite in the best hotel but welcome a company that does away with the stereotypical trappings of group travel such as name tags, guides hoisting umbrellas in the air to be followed, and trips to stores that pay kickbacks tot he company or the guide.
But Cuba is a different animal. The rules on "Exchange Programs" haven't really been changed so the eight-day program Tauck runs in Cuba includes six days of "people-to-people" educational exchanges. You will be exposed to Cuban music and you will meet professionals and students. There is an exposure to Cuban art and an interesting series of insights into Ernest Hemingway's Cuba. This is a tour that is different because portions of what you will see and do are directed by the government of Cuba, anxious to put its best foot forward. Expect your group to average 20-30 travelers and plan on one night in Miami followed by six nights at the Melia Habana Hotel.
It is always good to remember that American tourists are often a secondary factor when it comes to number of visitors. Cuba has been open to tourism for many years and so there is some local infrastructure. It is the Americans who have chosen to boycott the country and place limitations on the ability of its citizens to travel within the country unrestricted.
So, with that said, we think you should go. There is still space on several 2014 dates.
- WE ARE BOOKED ON A SHIP THAT JUST FAILED ITS HEALTH INSPECTION
Q - We are really worried about a cruise we have booked for next year on Silverseas Cruises Shadow, This will be our third cruise, first on this line, but we are now quite worried because our daughter-in-law was checking the ship out online and tells us it just failed its health test. There also was a big problem with the crew hiding food like steaks in their pants and stuff and taking it to their cabins. Would you consider cancelling and trying o book something else?
A - Well, we hope the chef wasn't cooking sausage and peppers. Let's try to set the facts straight on this.
In its last surprise sanitation inspection, the Silverseas Shadow received its first ever failings score, an 84 out of a possible 100. The inspection, done in Skagway, Alaska, uncovered the fact that some galley crew were so discombobulated by the presence of CDC inspectors that they took some of the food carts and hid them in crew quarters. Inspectors were not happy about finding food meant for passengers sitting in an unrefrigerated state in crew cabins.
Silverseas, one of the world's great lines, quickly instituted new crew training procedures and vowed this will never happen again. Given the negative press this incident received, you probably will find tighter food control standards on Silverseas these days than the industry standard. There were no reports of crew hiding food in their clothing. There was no evidence that the crew had even touched the food. They just sort of "hid" some of the preparation by moving it to crew quarters.
Surprise inspections are often traumatic for any crew. One of our Editors was on a Five-Star ship ion Bergen, Norway when a surprise inspection by Norwegian customs uncovered marijuana in the cabins of several of the entertainers. They were detained and there were no production shows for the remainder of the voyage.
- DOES DISNEY REALLY DOUBLE ESCORT THEIR TOURS IN EUROPE AND SOUTH AMERICA?
Q - We are thinking about doing a trip to Great Britain with a family whose daughter attends grade school with my son. The parents get along well and so do the kids. My friend is recommending the Disney Tour company and says they actually provide two escorts. Is this really true and is this a concept you folks would recommend?
A - Given the level of mediocrity in the travel industry, we tend to recommend anything with Disney's name on it although we would bring a few of the half ton bottles of Purell along on any of the trips.
You will receive a well-rehearsed, well acted, Disney experience on any program or cruise the company operates and they do nothing below the Four-Star level of service. They are an extremely trustworthy brand. So what if they are a cult with a rodent leader who has a sort of wife but no actual genitalia.
It sounds like you are considering their excellent "Adventures by Disney" Tour offering. These tours use both a full-time Disney Guide as well as local guides. Parents can go off on a more in-depth exploration a site or region with the local guide, while the specially trained Disney Guide creates adventures that are less detailed but more interesting to kids. It is, in our view, a potent concept that usually works well unless mid to upper-age teens are involved. They tend to hate touring, hate Europe, and they definitely hate Disney. But, of course, there are exceptions and that makes it all worthwhile.
- BEST FIVE-STAR CRUISE OPTIONS FOR NON-SMOKERS
Q - Quite frankly, we are disappointed that traveltruth does not have more questions about smoking on cruise ships. The vast majority of us are non-smokers and we feel that the last thing we need is to be exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke. We understand that smokers have rights, but we would choose a luxury cruise company based, in large part, on their smoking policy. Is there one of the top lines that is best for non-smokers, or, put another way, is there a line we should avoid. We love balcony cabins but we would never put up with someone smoking on the balcony next to ours.
A - We have had a sharp increase in questions about smoking aboard ships. Ironically, the mass market lines, which appeal primarily to Americans, have had strict anti-smoking policies in place for a while. Some of the deluxe lines, which appeal to more of an international clientele, allow smoking in various venues and one or two are still allowing smoking on stateroom or suite balconies.
We have a strong bias on this issue so let us state it openly. We believe that smoking on a balcony or an open deck is a serious fire hazard. We further believe that when it comes to the issue of second-hand smoke, smokers have no rights. Smoking is an act of self-loathing with dire health consequences. Second hand smoke is just as deadly as first-hand smoke and so, in our view, it represents a form of assault on another person. When children onboard a ship are exposed to second hand smoke, the issue becomes even more serious.
That stated, Crystal, Paul Gauguin, Sea Dream, Regent Seven Seas, and Silverseas do not permit smoking ion any guest stateroom or balcony. Regent Seven Seas has the strongest anti-smoking policy stating that guests who do not comply with their non-smoking policies "will be asked to disembark the ship without any credit or refund for the unused portion of their cruise." Regent has rigorously enforced this policy.
The luxury line that does allow for limited balcony smoking is Seabourn. Their new smoking policy allows guests in upper-level suites the right to smoke on their verandas. This is a change from Seabourn's previous policy which allowed all guests to smoke on their balconies and in their cabins. Smokers will still be permitted to light up in portions of the Observation Bar, the Sky Bar, and the Club on the Seabourn Odyssey, Quest, and Sojourn.
- CRUISING TO WORLD WAR TWO PACIFIC BATTLE SITES
Q - I am a retired Officer who would love to visit some of the sites of the Second World War Pacific Theater with my wife. I have the time and the means to do it right and was wondering if there is a cruise that might make us happy in terms of a focus on the major battlegrounds like Pearl Harbor and Okinawa?
A - Yes Sir - there is one cruise that would be the best for your needs. But we must advise you that it is heavily booked. Crystal Cruises will be sailing from Los Angeles in mid-January on a 22-Day sailing on the Serenity that will call at Hilo and Honolulu, Guam, Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Okinawa, and the port of Yokohama. Crystal has invited an impressive group of guest lecturers including four-star generals and historians like James Bradley, author of "Flags of Our Fathers." Work with someone on booking this who you feel has the clout to move you up on a VIP Wait-List.
There are all sorts of ways to visit WW ll sites in Europe, particularly the Normandy Battlefields. But the War in the Pacific was much more spread out and land tours are difficult. This Crystal itinerary is the best we've seen in recent years. Best of luck - and thank you so much for your service.
- DO I NEED PAPERS TO GET INTO AUSTRALIA?
Q - My buddy and I will stop trading commodities for a few days, hope the markets can withstand our absence, and we're off to Sydney for a few days of rest, relaxation, and some sailing. We're getting conflicting advice about the need for an Australian Visa and we were wondering if getting one is really necessary. We live in downtown Chicago so the offices are right there. It just sounds like a hassle.
A - As you will soon discover, the Aussies don't believe in hassles. They make visa purchases quite easy. You can do it all online for a $20.00 fee. Just go to https://www.eta.immi.gov.au/ETA/etas.jsp Have your passport in front of you. You will receive a "code" number that you just carry with you on your travels. The entire process takes no more than five minutes.
Do note that to properly fit in with the Aussie lifestyle, men are expected to wear flip-flops for all but the most formal occasions.
- TRYING TO FIND LISBETH SALANDAR?
Q - Both my husband and I have just finished the three Scandinavian detective thrillers in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" series. We know Mr. Larsson passed away but we would really like to enjoy a visit to Stockholm to try to trace the steps of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salendar, the wonderful tattooed computer hacker and kicker of butts. Is there an organized tour for this sort of thing?
A - Actually, the Stockholm City Museum offers a nifty "Millenium Trilogy" walking tour. We're big fans of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" as well. If you want to visit on your own, try visiting:
Fiskargatan 9 – It is here at this upscale address with a view over Djurgården and Old Town that Lisbeth Salander buys a 21-room apartment. But she lived in only three of the rooms. The name on the door is “V. Kulla,” in a nod to the children’s book character Pippi Longstocking’s house “Villa Villerkulla.”
Bellmansgatan 1 – Mikael Blomkvist’s home address. The apartment is located on the hills of the historic Söder district. Several key scenes are set here.
Mellqvists Kaffebar, Hornsgatan 78 – Mikael Blomkvist’s regular café - and Stieg Larsson’s in real life – is on Södermalm. This is where Stieg Larsson used to hang out when his magazine Expo had its offices on the floor above. It may have been right here that he sat and came up with the plots of the novels.
- REALLY GETTING ANNOYED ABOUT SHORE EXCURSIONS
Q - In your reviews of the Top Ten Cruise Lines, we notice that you say very little about the cost these lines are charging for their shore excursions. We've done one previous cruise on MSC and we're trying Oceania in Europe next May. But we notice that they are charging up to twice as much as we can pay for the same tour booking it ourselves online. We like the private tours, my wife tends to get bus sick. Why are these tours such a rip-off? I hate to think about planning a vacation while worrying about being taken for a ride. And believe me, we can well afford to pay what they are asking - it's just the principle.
A - This is a complicated topic and we don't want to over-analyze it. Let's begin by saying that the tour departments of all of the cruise lines are, essentially, set up as independent profit centers. There are mark-ups of a certain percentage on every tour sold. Pricing is determined in negotiation with the tour operator in each port, often with the help of the cruise line's port agent who represents their interests in each destination.
Safety, reliability, driver training, and the condition of the automobile or van are cost considerations. Remember, driving in someone's car, bus, or van is the single most dangerous thing you can do abroad. It is far more dangerous than the risk of terrorism, for instance. The best companies tend not to solicit online - they don't have to. There is a finite number of top-guides and vehicles, and they tend to be booked up by the top cruise specialists months in advance. If a guide or driver is hanging out in chat rooms or online, you have to wonder why they have in-season availability. You also have to ask yourself a very important question: "If there is a serious problem does this company have an office in the States where I can initiate legal action"? If the answer is no, avoid the company.
Finally, as regards private drivers of merit, you should find that the better travel agents will work with the most reliable companies and they can deliver private driver/guide services at about a 20% discount versus what the cruise line is charging.
Oceania is an excellent value overall. It appears that you have booked your cruise directly with the company, a major mistake. If you are sailing next May you have just paid deposit which means you can still turn the booking over to a qualified Cruise Specialist. We recommend that you do this immediately and then review each of the ports with your consultant to determine where it makes sense to do private touring. And remember, the point is not to have someone silently driving you around. The only reason to justify the high cost of private driver arrangements is that they can be totally designed around your specific interests. Most clients do not fully take advantage of this.
- GOING TO PROPOSE IN EZE AND NEED HELP
Q - My girlfriend and I visited the hilltop town of Eze in the south of France on a recent cruise and we fell in love with it. Now, I want to go back and spend a few days so I can propose in a beautiful setting. Where should I book and how should I book? Love the site, know you don't take ads, so wondering if there is a place to send donations to keep it going?
A - There are two really nice, upscale hotels in Eze. For your purposes, we want you to stay at Chateau Eza which has a bit more warmth than Chevre d'or and only 12 rooms. But do a dinner, or two, at Chevre. Book your hotel with a member of one of the leading consortium groups and ask specifically if the Chateau Eza is "in your network". If it is, you will receive exclusive amenities that are worth real money. This is always the best way to book the higher end hotels. If possible, you always want to avoid booking a hotel online because that is the best way to assure that you will be assigned the worst available rooms. That is standard operating procedure in the hotel industry since online budget-seeking bookers tend not to be repeat, high-end guests.
Thank you, but we are fine, our company is quite profitable, and we offer our web sites on a complimentary basis. No donations are accepted.
- ARE YOU FOLKS RECOMMENDING TRAVEL TO MEXICO?
Q - We are thinking about a trip to Cabo San Lucas but were wondering if you are sending people there and if you feel it is generally safe? We're rather high-end travelers, I suppose, fans of Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental, but my wife is worried about traveling where drug cartels are ruling the streets. Thinking about a February trip. Does Cabo have any high end hotels? By the way, if we go, will we be the only ones there?
A - Most of the hotels/resorts in Mexico are reporting that their numbers are increasing by about 25% year over year. Part of this resurgence is the growth of the Australian market which has traditionally supported Hawaii. Drug cartels are not a problem in Cabo and you should go with confidence, albeit our ongoing concerns about Mexico which center around the uncertainty of travel in a country where the police are corrupt.
Two of the highest rated hotels on the North American Continent, One & Only Palmilla and Las Ventanas are located in Cabo. Each is a relative steal at current prices. Mexico has vastly improved in terms of its restaurant scene.
It is still a country where we do not recommend self-drive programs and local taxis have to be chosen with care. But given your ability to experience upscale accommodations, we would not try to talk you out of this trip.
- ARE THERE REAL LAST-MINUTE CRUISE DEALS ON THE TOP CRUISE LINES?
Q - We just returned from a cruise on Crystal to the Baltic and loved the experience. We're already signed up for another trip next year. But being retired, we can cruise on short notice. We've read what you've recommended about the benefits of being among the first 20% to book. But now, we're wondering about being in the last 20% to book. Are there any truly great deals on for those of us who can travel in the next several months on the world's top-rated lines?
A - Up until very recently, the answer would have been no. But your question is timed well since we are just starting to see the advent of a new phenon we call "Miraculous Cruise Pricing". As we've indicated, the southern Mediterranean is extremely weak this year. At last count, fourteen US cruise ships will be pulled from European waters next year. Many of the sailings of the very top lines are currently at or near 50% occupancy.
This has created a new pricing model that is resulting in pricing that goes way below the former "two-for-one" discounts. We seen non-published pricing on a dozen upcoming sailings that are so low that we can't name the cruise line or put the pricing in print. But we can say this:
01 - The fares on available on some of the world's top-rated inclusive cruise lines.
02 - Air is not included and Miraculous Pricing may not be combined with any previous discounts.
03 - Guests currently booked are not eligible. The cruise line will not allow "re-bookings".
These "secret" fares were designed to enable in-house commission sales reps to have something they could use to close the sale for those looking for a true last-minute deal. The fares are so secretive that they are normally given code words within the reservation department. Since callers will not know the coded fare name, sales reps will try to sell them at the higher price. The Miraculous Pricing Fares are normally shared with a handful of the cruise line's top-producers but most travel agents will never hear about them. Discretion is important since the better cruise lines want to avoid the perception that they are doing last-minute discounting. This could seriously alienate their loyal, booked guests and their agents.
In summary, what is new is that some of the five-star cruise lines are now so desperate to fill their small ships, that they are providing a limited number of in-house sales staff and agents with secret and rather miraculous last-minute pricing. But, again, you have to know the code to ask for the correct fare.
- 787 UPDATE: IS THIS PLANE SAFE?
Q - My entire family of seven is scheduled to fly from Houston to Denver in October and we are currently bo0ked on the new Boeing 787. First we had the battery issues and now it seems that there are more issues with the airplane. We do not fly often and we are a little nervous. We know you will give us an honest answer so thanking you in advance.
A - We have seen some issues with United Airlines newly acquired 787 fleet since they returned to service. Bloomberg News reports that the UA's 787 flights are cancelled four times more often than the rest of its current fleet. On that basis, and because you have anxiety about your flight, we recommend that you change your flight times and use a different aircraft. Your travel agent should be able to help you with this and we would expect that United will be sympathetic to your request.
We don't really know all of the reasons for United's spate of 787 cancellations. We do know that other 787 equipped airlines, such as Japan Airlines and ANA cancelled 787 flights due to computer failure and some difficulties with their anti-icing system.
Would we put our family on a 787? Absolutely. In a heartbeat. This wonderful aircraft has onboard diagnostics that are far more sophisticated than that found aboard any other type of commercial aircraft. The system even helps ground crews prepare for maintenance while the plane is still airborne. Any new aircraft model tends to have some growing pains. True, the 787's battery problems were not at all typical. But we think this aircraft is safe to fly and, from every report, it offers the very best in-cabin experience of any current commercial jet.
- AM I GETTING HUSTLED ABOUT RUSSIA?
Q - We are working with a travel agent we've known for years. Last week, I brought her a tour put out by General Tours that really looked interesting. But she quickly tried to turn things around trying to get us to book a Viking River Cruise in Russia instead. I'm just wondering about how your industry works in terms of which of these two options would be more profitable for the agent. I hate being hustled for a few extra bucks.
A - It is unlikely that is what happened. Generally, travel agencies receive a commission of the sale, the more expensive the trip, the more they earn. But given your two examples, it is doubtful that the agent would risk losing your goodwill for the difference in earnings.
Travel agents earn commission on the cost of any brochure program that you book with virtually any company. If you book directly, the commission goes back to the company as extra profit. Now, that said, there are more than a few travel agents who will recommend products based on the extra commission they may earn on certain products. Some firms have strict management policies requiring agent-sellers to push certain more profitable products. This is particularly common at the large online and franchise travel outlets. If your current agent has never raised your suspicions before, we think you should share your feelings with her but give her the benefit of the doubt this time.
- MATH CHAOS IN GERMANY'S RESTAURANTS
Q - Our friends from Portland recently joined us on a custom arranged vacation that took in portions of Switzerland, northern Italy, and almost ten days in Germany. We loved this vacation and being with our friends of twenty-five or so years, was terrific. But we ran into one problem that we just didn't understand. Our practice has always been to just split the dinner bill equally. We figure that it all comes out in the end. But every time we tried to do that in a German restaurant it seemed to cause consternation and confusion. In one or two cases, there were raised voices. We never did find out the cause. What had we done wrong?
A - You did nothing wrong. But your experience can really shed some light on the German position vis-a-vis the debt of some of its neighbors like Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. You ran into a cultural characteristic - Germans hate to be in anyone's debt. They never wish to feel that they owe anyone anything. It is a "pay-as-you-go" mindset. You were doing something that no German would do. You probably noticed that the wait staff was wearing little pocketbooks to make exact change. The Germans feel that people should only pay for exactly what they have eaten - no more - no less. And, for what it's worth, they believe that if everyone was as fastidious as they are about paying their bills to the penny, the world would be a better place.
- FLYING FOR FREE WITH A MERCEDES CARD
Q - I've been getting mailings about a new credit card called the Mercedes-Benz Platinum. In terms of travel benefits, is this one of the better cards. Given the cost of my Mercedes, I'd love to feel that I can get a few free international tickets out of my purchase.
A - This is one of the better cards but it is not our favorite. They have had an offer of $50,000 Amex Reward Points for new members. There are no foreign transaction fees and you can transfer points to major airlines. You also get airline lounge access, a benefit that can be worth the price of the card if you are a frequent Delta, US Airways, or American flyer. Best of all, whenever you spend $1.00 at your dealership. Mercedes will give you 5 points.
The down sides would be that there is a $475 annual fee and some airlines, including United and American, are not part of their Reward points transfer program. Our bottom line is that this is the best possible credit card for Mercedes owners who fly Delta.
- CAN YOU MAKE MY HUSBAND AN OFFER HE CAN'T REFUSE?
Q - My husband smokes cigars continually, has an eight handicap, runs a five million dollar auto-supply business and knows about 75% of the dialogue from the original Godfather movie. He's big, loud, obnoxious, and a sort of typical Jersey guy. He's a sweetie and I want to take him to Sicily as a surprise for his sixtieth Birthday. I don't think he'd sit still for a tour or even a private guide, so I'd love it if traveltruth could just tell me one or two villages where filming was done that he would immediately recognize. I'll see if I can find him a big black Buick to rent over there. By the way - is it safe?
A - It is safe but we would recommend that your husband not stand in the middle of the village square demanding that all "Mafioso" identify themselves. Start him out in Savoca, a town that Francis Ford Coppola loved. Many scenes that made it onscreen were filmed here. You have to stop at the Bar Vitelli. Your husband will recognize it and he will respect the patrons - he better. By the way, do not order a cappuccino. The drink of choice is a granite Siciliana. Then, we want you to go to a really old village called Forza d'Agro. The main square will be familiar.
To make all of this happen, try to stay at the Grand Hotel Timeo or Villa Sant'Andrea. They are both excellent Orient Express Hotels. Use our name.
OK? Now, we assume you know where to send the cannoli.
- THE BEST OVERALL CRUISE LINE
Q - OK, we've read your entire site, or 90% of it, and, wow! Congratulations. So the one question we're dying to know the truth about. All in, which cruise line is really the best in the world. And don't be concerned about naming names - we won't tell any of the other lines you work with.
A - No problem and thanks for agreeing to keep it to yourself. The best line overall is Hapag-Lloyd and their two ships, Europe 1 and Europa 2. In terms of service standards, luxury in every aspect of the cruise experience, and fine dining, they are the best at sea. We don't think that asking you to learn to speak fluent German before selling you a cruise on this line is unreasonable. When it comes to cruising, as with automobile manufacturing, it boils down to the Germans and whoever is in second place.
- DO YOU RECOMMEND INTERNET-BASED SHORE EXCURSION FIRMS?
Q - My husband and I, as well as our best friends, are all working with a great travel agent here in Pittsburgh on a cruise to Europe with Windstar. She has recommended several private shore excursions through her connections with the group she belongs to. They all seem wonderful but pricey. Our friends have gone online, and found similar sounding tours for about half the price. Is this something you think we should pursue?
A - Perhaps. Booking with someone you don't know from an overseas office who may or not have drivers or guides under contract can be extremely risky. To protect yourselves, we would recommend that you be extremely specific as to the kind of guide you require, the kinds of experiences you will want, and the quality of the vehicle and driver who will take you around. It is also quite appropriate to request local references. A guide in Seville knows he or she will likely not see you again. It is generally best to search out arrangements where long-term relationships exist.
If saving money is an important concern, consider using public transportation or taxis to get into town and where you can do one of the many excellent walking tours organized by a company called Context Travel. That will assure you a comprehensive tour at a reasonable priced without any of the transportation mark-ups associated with private shore excursions. But we recommend this strategy only if you are seriously on a budget. Otherwise, stick with your agent because she has a vested interest in keeping you all entirely happy. And that is no little thing.
- 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".
- KEEPING UP ON TURKISH NEWS PRIOR TO VISIT
Q - I have one, hopefully, simple question. How are people supposed to keep up with events in a country abroad they are going to be visiting in the near future? Sure there is lots of info on the internet but it all seems uneducated or anecdotal. Travel agents don;t seem very good at describing current conditions and, according to CNN and FOX, every country on earth is in turmoil. We depart for Ankara and Istanbul in two weeks. How should we prep?
A - Fair enough. First, consider using one of the better security sites.The one we like is ASIgroup.com These folks are in the business of analyzing security threats for prominent individuals and corporations. They will send you a summary report that will cover Turkey and it will be up-to-date. But the best thing you can do is scan the local papers in English before you travel abroad. Just go to ipresscenter.com for a list of worldwide newspapers in English. They will link you to the site and you're off. You will know more about the current situation in Turkey then some of the licensed guides.
- WHAT AIRLINES SELDOM TELL YOU ABOUT PRICING
Q - We just saved about $400 by paying no attention to what a US Air agent told us on the phone and doing our own online research. It turns out that we were able to save considerably by departing Philly for the West coast on the early morning flight and leaving LA around dinner time. Just wondering if this was a fluke and why we weren't told this by airline reservations. Our departure and return flights were pretty close to the ones they quoted so why didn't they tell us about the lower fares if we just changed our times?
A - Thanks for a great question because you have put your finger on a pricing anomaly that makes the airlines millions upon millions of additional dollars per year. If you give them your desired flight times, they will, most often, not go the extra step to inform you that you could have saved $200 each by coming home later or departing LA earlier. The fact is that the first flight out, the 6:00 am or so departure, is usually the lowest priced flight of the day because it means that business people would have to awaken at three or four in the morning to make it to the airport on time. No one wants to do business in that condition. Coming back from LA, to use your example, you lose hours so a flight that leaves around 5:00 pm. will not get you into Philly much before Midnight. No business person wants to arrive home that late. So that's the trick. Choose the flights you would never select if you were flying on business and had to put in a full day at work soon after your arrival. Work around those times demanded by business travelers. That is the best way to secure the lowest fares on domestic flights.
- TOKYO BOUND FOODIES
Q - Thanks to Japan Airlines mileage desk, and a business trip, my wife and I are headed to Tokyo for two weeks on the company. But, unfortunately, that does not extend to the six days we are on our own for a short vacation. We live in Denver where there is some good Japanese food but we are anxious, really anxious to try the real thing. Where should we splurge and how can we learn the most while dining well for the few days we have in the city?
A - We never minimize the challenges of Tokyo. But the rewards are beyond measure as the starting point for everything is so different. Two approaches we recommend. Find someone at your company based in Tokyo who is willing to take you to one or two food markets. Have them explain what is being sold and how it is used in traditional Japanese dishes. Along with this experience, try to hit some of the better restaurants for lunch instead of dinner. You will have fewer courses and prices will be half of what you pay in the evening. Finally, for a splurge, we would recommend the chef of the moment, Yoshihiro Narisawa who is making culinary history at Les Creations de Narisawa. Figure dinner at between $225-$250 per person with wine.
- 40 Somethings on Ibiza
Q - OK, we're in our forties, about three decades younger then your average blogger on this site. My goodness, if they are so afraid of getting robbed, hurt, or sick, why don't they just stay and go to Starbucks for entertainment? But we trust your advice so put on your party hats and advise, if you only had one night on Ibiza, where would you party?
A - Actually, we don;t go to Starbucks because it is filled with 40 something's starring vapidly at their computer screens. Our generations prefer places where people actually converse. You are not a very good prognosticator of demographics - but that said, The Blue Marlin is where you want to head. It sits right ont he beach, has great music, and they spritz you with water instead of air conditioning. Pardon us if we don't join you.
- Water on Delta
Q - Living in Atlanta, I get to fly Delta quite a bit on business and for pleasure. I've always wondered about something. About a month ago, I returned from overseas and got a bad case of something that seemed food-related. I kept reviewing what I ate and then it hit me that I had been drinking a ton of water on the return flight and it did not appear to be out of any bottle. Could this be the cause of my stomach upset?
A - Well we blame the airlines for everything else - why not a bout of food poisoning. Actually, it wouldn;t surprise me if it was the water. Commercial jets have water storage tanks that are not, as far as we can determine, under any federal inspection controls. Once in a while, those water tanks are supposed to be "cleansed" with some soft detergents. I have read accusations that this "tank" water is often tainted and, at the very least, stale and crawling with contaminants. You'll notice that the crew won; touch it - so avoid it in the future. Evian is a mystical word at 33,000 feet.
- Following The BeastsQ - We keep hearing about this "follow the great migration" thing in Africa and it is really confusing. We think we want to see it but when should we go and where? Any thoughts on this? Have gotten several contradictory answers including one gen from a Kenyan tourism official. A -