A Warm Welcome to The Nation’s Most Respected Travel Q&A Site.

We suspect you are busy and we appreciate your visit:

Here is a fact: The three largest categories of web site visits account for almost 80% of all of the hours spent by Americans on the internet: They are, in order of the number of visits and time spent,  Gambling – Pornography – and Travel Searches. We can’t do anything about the first two, but we can do our best to offer one travel site that does not insult your intelligence. This is a site for educated adults who are tired of years of travel hype aimed at naive budget travelers. 

You don’t want flashing lights and phony “sale” prices all designed to lure you in. You don’t want a song and dance. You don’t want fake content written  PR firms disguised as travel writers or cloying articles that are, essentially, payback for free vacations.  You certainly don’t want some commission-based travel agent bothering you. You don’t want to filter through hours of travel drivel to find a kernel of truth. And you certainly don’t want your travel questions interspersed with meaningless chatter from self-proclaimed “critics” whose credentials you cannot certify, many of them paid marketing shills using e-mail aliases.

You can count on the fact that no one here is trying to sell you anything. You will never receive any unsolicited communication from us. Ever. There is nothing to purchase on this site. There are no links or pop-ups. This is, likely,  the only consumer-driven travel site you have ever visited that will not accept advertising or money from advertisers or suppliers. We think it is impossible for any travel site to really be honest with the consumer if it is accepting payment from the very people it is reviewing.

We’ve been in business for thirty-one years, our phone numbers are unlisted, we’ve won all the awards and accolades that count for anything in this industry. That includes being named the “World’s Best Luxury Cruise Specialists” by Conde Nast Traveler for the past fourteen years. We do not need to use this site to troll for new business. You will, in fact, need to reach out to us and complete a Profile if you ever wish to initiate a long-term relationship with our firm. 

In our current environment, the travel consumer is bombarded by misinformation and outright lies on a daily basis. Bait-and-switch “from $499” ads are the rule – not the exception. A half-inch is defined as “extra legroom” and a moldy hot tub may be a “luxurious spa”. Google virtually any travel-related topic, from hotel properties to destinations and you are smothered in a sea of tens of thousands, perhaps millions of ads disguised as information. No one seems willing to help. Everyone wants your credit card number. Travel does not have to be about lies, hype, or ads that treat you like a child. But a travel site for intelligent adults seeking honest travel advice should not be that hard to find. Travel is not a commodity to be sold at Costco next to the frozen peas. We’re talking about people’s dreams, some of the best experiences of their lives. You are entitled to professional consultation free of bias and always offered on a complimentary basis.

Travel industry marketing is predicated on the assumption that the consumer is not smart enough to figure out that all of the top tier travel agents receive exactly the same pricing on cruises, tours, safaris, and even hotel rooms. The “travel truth” is a rare and precious commodity. The world’s real “top-rated cruise line” is unknown to the vast majority of cruisers because of its limited ad budget. 

 


Our mission is simple: We strive to be the most unadulterated, truthful, and industry knowledgeable travel site in the world.


 

IS ‘VIEW FROM THE WING” A RECOMMENDED SITE?

 

Q – We discovered an interesting web site that has a lot of information about earning miles and using the best credit cards for travel and earning miles. We are wondering if you would recommend “View from the Wing” as a reliable source?

A – Yes, the site’s editor, Gary Leff, is highly respected and one of the nation’s top points experts. Gary is quite open about accepting stipends from some of the credit cards he recommends but we don’t have a problem with that as his rationale is usually quite sound. View also aggregates reports of interest to air consumers. 

There are many mileage oriented sites that we think are excellent. “The Points Guy” is another good source for ways to maximize your points.

These sites are sometimes quite geeky and overly detailed.  But the fact is that the major US airlines are starting to restrict the number of mileage awards they are giving out so a bit of education on this subject is a good thing. 

ARE THEY BEING SERIOUS: WE CAN’T EAT A PANINI IN FLORENCE?

Q – We are planning on spending a fair amount of money, staying at The Savoy, in Florence this coming summer. We’ll be there for six days and are looking forward to walking around on one big self-designed foodie tour. We love street food. 

But now I am hearing that you can’t eat food in Florence in the summer in public unless you are at an outdoor cafe. Is this actually true? Would they bite the hand that feeds them? Sounds crazy. 

A – There are new laws in place during the summer months in several Italian cities including Florence, Rome, and Venice. These new laws are designed at visitors who exhibit poor behavior, munching on food while they walk, or dribbling gelato while the sun beats down. There are specific laws geared toward “bad fountain behavior”. 

Florence, specifically, had over 10 Million visitors last summer. There are now heavy fines for tourists who eat food in the street. The laws are being strictly enforced on four primary streets, Via de’ Neri, Piazzale-degli Uffizi, Piazza del Grano and Via della Ninna. Do not dine on a panini while walking these streets. Try to enjoy your gelato among the other hundred or so tourists standing in the sidewalk line outside Vivoli. The fines range in the $550 USD range. The restrictions are in force during primary dining times (lunch and dinner) – of course, in Italy that could be anytime.

YOU ARE GOING TO THINK MY HUSBAND IS A SAINT

Q – I think I am married to a “saint”. So do my friends. I’ve been working in the Publishing field for the past fourteen years and I have found myself working more and more on health-related publications. I did have a bout with Cancer a few years back and my husband has made up his mind to follow my health-related whims in terms of exercise and what we eat. Now, for a bunch of reasons I won’t go into here, we are ready to start traveling internationally. We have only been to London previously so there is lots of the world to see while we can still do it comfortably. So here is where it gets a bit odd – I have this thing in my head that as long as we can create our own bucket list, why not set a goal of visiting the ten “healthiest” countries on the planet in terms of life expectancy, smoking, obesity, and heart disease, and access to clean water. Also – a healthy diet, of course. Is there any way you might come up with a Bucket List for us of, what you might consider, the “healthiest places in the world”? Or, to stay really healthy, should we just stay in the United States. Thanks so much for this awesome site. 

A – There actually is some hard research on this subject using empirical evidence. The Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index is one of the most credible. To start you off for a few years, let’s look at the Five healthiest places to visit.

# 1 – Spain (Highest Overall Life Expectancy)

# 2 – Italy (Starting to see the value of Olive Oil?)

# 3 – Iceland

# 4 – Japan

# 5 – Switzerland

The United States ranks 35th, behind, among others, Cuba, Malta, Chile, and Slovenia.

There are many ways to construct your own personal bucket list. We think that choosing destinations based on the overall good health of their citizens, is a rather smart way to design your travels. 

JUST STARTING TO PREPARE FOR A GREAT DEAL OF TRAVEL: WHAT PUBLICATIONS SHOULD WE BE READING?

Q – My wife and I have just retired from government service with two very comfortable pensions. We want to be well educated when we travel overseas and we understand how helpful the internet will be. But we are wondering if there are any publications that you think are particularly important if one is to travel as a prepared and educated American?

A – Dear Mr. President, thank you for your question ……….. Oh wait, you’re not the President. Our mistake. Yours is, seriously, one of our favorite recent questions because it seems based on the assumption that you want to be as educated on contemporary affairs and local conditions as possible when you travel. So here are some notes we hope will help you in your preparation:

  • The most widely read travel publication is National Geographic Travel with over 28 million monthly readers.
  • The Week is an extraordinary publication that has no political view and publishes briefing reports on developments of every aspect of life from science, to movies, to health discoveries. The Week publishes the best columns from Europe and all over the world and provides a personal briefing report of the kind you would want if you were President. We think any traveler should be a subscriber.
  • Travel Weekly (admission – we write for them) is the trusted voice of the travel industry. It is easy to read insider information via subscription that will be extremely useful in your travels. It will make you feel like you are a travel pro and no one will know you are a civilian.
  • The New York Times. Our most respected journalistic voice features local and regional reporting that is the best in the business and a travel section that is one of the very few that does not accept complimentary travel for its writers.

YES ON TRAVEL INSURANCE – BUT WHICH COMPANY?

Q – I am coming to traveltruth because I would love to get the bottom line on insurance. I’m a reader, and I organize every aspect of my trip. I’ve been traveling since my wife and I retired eight years ago and it seems that all my plans fall into place until it comes to the travel insurance. The online advice I see tells me I should price compare on sites like squaremouth.com and insuremytrip.com. I’ve tried that but they seem to be sites that rate insurance companies based largely on pricing. Any direction you might provide on this subject would be appreciated. I want good insurance although I hope I never need it. 

A – OK – here is the bottom line:

#1 – Never, ever purchase insurance online. You always want a human advocate for something as personal as insurance coverage. 

# 2 = Never purchase the cheapest policy. This is one product you should never buy on the basis of price. 

# 3 – Ask your travel consultant why they are recommending a particular insurance company or plan.

AND THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION:

# 4 –  Determine if your consultant has the clout to speak directly with the insurance underwriter in a case where you are turned down for a righteous claim. This is the one most consumers miss and it is a critical part of the travel insurance process. 

ARE THERE MONTHS WHEN AMSTERDAM SHOULD BE AVOIDED?

Q – We have read your warnings about travel to southern European countries like Italy and Spain during the summer months. You have pointed out the issues with heat and over-crowding. But what of Northern Europe. We are considering a museum-oriented trip to Amsterdam in August and we were wondering what months to avoid in this portion of Europe? Are the recommendations different? Also, we are thinking about booking our art-focused tours in Amsterdam, and perhaps Paris, through an online company called Context Tours. We were wondering if you recommend them and if they use high-quality guides? Really appreciate this site – we’ve learned so much we had not read elsewhere.

A – Let’s treat this as the two-parter it is. The short answer to part one – Amsterdam has many of the same summer over-crowding issues as its neighbors to the south. You definitely want to avoid July and August. Many of the locals will leave the city during those months because the population grows from just under a million permanent residents to more than 20 million visitors. Like many other cities enduring July/August crowding, Amsterdam is trying to do something about its crowding problems. They are heavily promoting areas outside the city, they have placed restrictions on the number of Airbnb rentals, and they have started limiting the number of shops that serve tourists in the city center. The reality is that Amsterdam is an amazing walking city with more canals than Venice. It is lovely when the tourist mobs have left to return to their studies and the financial support of their parents. You always want to go to Europe when colleges are actually holding classes.

Context Travel is an interesting and quite reliable company. They do walking tours for individuals and small groups led by local scholars and well-educated locals. Their pricing is generally less than one would pay for a certified city guide and driver and they are happy to work with families. They have an office on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Their idea of employing true “scholars and experts” on a subject rather than historically based generalists – which is what most tour guides are – is an approach that we very much endorse. 

WHAT IS THE REAL STORY ON THE BOEING 737 MAX AND SHOULD WE FLY IT THIS SUMMER?

Q – There has been lots in the news about the crashes of the 737 Max version. I think we’re about to be scheduled to fly it by our tour company in August (2019). Can you offer a quick summary of where things stand, what the issues are, how we would know if our pilot knows what he/she is doing, and whether or not there is anything we need to do at this point to change planes? It seems that the problem is only with American Airlines. Is that correct?

A – It is true that American and Southwest have a large number of this new version of the 737 in service or on order. But many airlines all over the world have the aircraft or have it on order. It is a workhorse with high levels of fuel efficiency for short-haul routes. Here are just a few observations we hope will be helpful:

  • No oversight organization is going to rescind the grounding of these aircraft until the software issue is fixed and all pilots are aware of proper procedures. 
  • In fact, it does not appear that pilot error was an issue in the crashes. The issue had to do with the fact that the safety fix software was not installed and the manufacturer did not adequately instruct airlines considering purchase of the aircraft why the safety “extra” was a critical component in an in-flight emergency.
  • The reason it was not installed is that Boeing had made the safety equipment at the center of this issue non-mandatory. It was sold as an add-on and airlines purchasing the aircraft were not informed of potential problems if it was not installed. Just think about that for a moment. Safety-based software that would have prevented sudden dives was offered at an extra-charge – sort of like adding a shot of espresso at Starbucks. That needs to change. But the public seems to have turned away from this issue.
  • American has announced that they are now (April 14, 2019) expecting the planes to be back in service by the third week in August. Meanwhile, American is canceling more than 100 flights per day to try to manage a meaningful schedule. 
  • We recommend waiting until 30-Days prior to your scheduled flight to see what kind of aircraft is scheduled for your flight. We would not have the slightest trepidation flying the 737 Max once it is, again, cleared for take-off. Meanwhile, several of the nation’s largest airlines will not have enough aircraft authorized to fly that can possibly meet the needs of summer travel schedules and weather-related issues that cause flight cancellations in July and August. 

ARE WE READING THIS RIGHT? YOUR READERS ARE DUE REFUNDS!

Q – We’ve been reading this blog and one particular section has really made me angry. We have been booking our own travel for almost twenty years. Yes, there have been glitches, but most of the time things worked out and we’ve had some marvelous times. But we always felt we were getting a deal by bypassing travel agents. Now that we understand how the system works, it seems that we were charged thousands of dollars for services we never received. Since two companies, tour operators, received most of our business, we are thinking we should demand some money back for all the times we traveled and were charged a price that included the travel agent’s fees for stuff we never received. We never, for instance, got any advice about insurance and we got badly burned twice. Again, we never used a travel agent. Is this a complete waste of time and how should we approach it? 

A – It could be a waste of time but it might be worth the effort. You would need to carefully document the money you spent over the years with each company. You would then show that the travel agency commission was built into all of the payments you received. You would next show the types of services an agent would have performed for their built-in fee – and point out you never received those services. You might assume an average built-in commission of 12-15% and demand a refund using specific percentages of what you paid. You can assume that everything you paid always included the commission. 

You have, in our view, been ripped off over the course of many, loyal years. We seriously doubt that any tour company or cruise line will give you back the funds you are due, but they very well may offer a response that, in some way, recognizes their appreciation for your past support. 

CAN WE GO TO EUROPE AND SKIP CUSTOMS COMING HOME?

Q – Friends told us that you can fly home out of Ireland back to the United States without clearing customs as though you are on a domestic flight. True?

A -Not exactly. US Customs staff are in Dublin’s airport and US citizens clear US customs before ever boarding the plane home. This also allows for baggage that can be checked through to final destination.

Why isn’t this being offered in other European countries? The U.S. has offered to expand this service –  so far no takers. 

BUS VERSUS SHIP: JUST CAN’T MAKE UP OUR MINDS

Q – First, thank you for keeping us up last evening. Love your sites and especially the “No Ads” policy. How refreshing. Kept waiting for the magical, annoying boxes to appear – but none ever did.  My husband and I are planning to visit both Australia and New Zealand for up top three weeks but we are unsure as to whether we should do a cruise ship, one of the Top Ten, or an Escorted Tour with one of the firms you recommend. Sad to say, we’ve done neither. This is a big deal for us financially but we have money saved and now we’re just trying to figure out the “how”. We live in Chapel Hill and my husband will be retiring in June after 30 years as a financial planner. Is there anyone in Chapel Hill you would recommend or is there a way to speak to you directly? Love to know your thoughts regarding our quandary. Thanks so much for your expertise, insights, and recommendations. 

A – We would be pleased to speak with you and we will forward some propaganda about our firm and services. If you would prefer working with a neighborhood travel consultant we will help you with that as well. Our feeling, based on the facts at hand, is that you should lean toward the escorted tour. The better ones that cover both countries in some depth are about three weeks long. Water-based touring in Australia and New Zealand includes a fairly high percentage of days at sea when you would essentially be seeing nothing. Given that this would be a “first” for you, we would suggest you save cruising for Europe, Alaska, South America, Antarctica, or Asia. You will love the tour itinerary, it will give you multiple night stays, and you will not feel that you have any “wasted” days at sea. Sure, we love cruising, we love reading a book in a deck chair with nowhere to go. We love not packing and unpacking at sea. But to this part of the world – on your very first experience, we would strongly recommend the land tour. 

TRES CHIC BEACH SCENE OR QUIET INLAND HONEYMOON?

Q – We are wondering if you would recommend some of the beach resorts along the French Riviera such as Cannes or St. Tropez or would we be better off pursuing our French dreams inland, away from the glam coast.  This will be a long-delayed honeymoon for us. She is 56 and I am 65. We have, for various reasons, never been to Europe. We think we will enjoy it all but afternoon reading, cuddling, and dining are what we are all about. Did I say “cuddling”. 

A – Tough to generalize but we think the safest approach would be to plan flying home out of Nice while beginning your trip in Paris or Provence. Depends on length of trip but you might want to end with a few days on the Riviera beachfront before departure.

Here are some basic decisions you should make before consulting your consultant:

  • Number of nights and number of hotel changes (For a honeymoon we think you should become familiar with the bedding and avoid frequent changes.)
  • Is seeing one portion of a country going to be satisfying or will you be frustrated that you didn’t see more?
  • Nights beachfront versus rural village proximity
  • Can you abide by the Honeymoon Travel Rule: No more than one hotel change per week?

A BOURBON SALUTE AND A HOTEL QUESTION FROM MY WIFE

Q –  Greetings whoever y’all are. (May I suggest you tell us who is writing what so we know who to blame?) I have just retired from a Bourbon producing company here in Kentucky and it is time for me to show my wife a bit of the world in the fashion to which, unfortunately, she is accustomed. We love doing travel research but we would love to know which two or three hotels in the world are your favorite. I would also like to know at what point I should be engaging the services of you (hopefully) or some agent you would recommend and just what kind of expenses that might involve over, say, a ten-year period. A tip of my glass to your team. Great site. 

A – Thank you for an impossible question to answer. We love Ballyfin in Ireland, Monasterio Santa Rosa on the Amalfi Coast, and the Aman Resorts almost anywhere but particularly in the isolated mountains of Bhutan.  In Paris, our favorite is a boutique property on the Left Bank called  Esprit de St. Germain. In southern Africa, Singhita Lodges are really special and we love several of the smaller hotels in New Zealand such as the  Huka Lodge. 

Instead of just planning vacations, one at a time, we think you would really benefit from some discussions that would help you prioritize future trips and destinations. If you were to work with us we would discuss/design a Five-year Travel Plan. Once we know you and your specific needs and goals when you travel, we can help you put your plan into action. As you have already retired, it would be wise to begin talking things through as soon as you are comfortable doing so. 

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS AN AIR TAHITI NUI?

Q –  We are strongly considering a cruise on the Paul Gauguin in Tahiti next November, We are extremely excited about this destination but we have friends who flew the airline and said it was extremely uncomfortable in coach. We’re willing to pay for Business Class if you think it would be worth it. The line offers free coach and then an up-charge for business. This is not an airline that is a household word so we’re kind of concerned.

A – Don’t be. Air Tahiti Nui is a household word in the islands. We recommend them but we doi think that the eight and a half-hour flight is best done in Business Class.

There is some good news. Air Tahiti is taking delivery of new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners on this route. You’ll be riding in Rockwell Collins B/E Parallel Diamond seats that are 20.5 inches wide with a 60 inch pitch. They are the same brand-new seats pm the United Airlines Dreamliners. Your seat becomes a lie-flat bed six feet and six inches long (excellent). There are four new planes and these are the ones you want to book. They are designated TOA, MUA, VAA, and NUI.

The new aircraft will depart LA on Tuesday, Fridays and Sundays. Business Class will fill up quickly so get this confirmed tomorrow. Your flight will leave LA at 10:55 pm. unless there is a Leonardo di Caprio sighting in the terminal beforehand. Arrival time is 5:05 in the morning the next day so make sure you have a day room with guaranteed early arrival in Papeete.

The flight back to LA departs at one minute before midnight on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, arriving at 10:10 am. the next morning.

Your flight numbers are TN 191 and 102. Seating is three rows of two across. 

It isn’t a bad way to get to paradise. 

HOW MUCH DO TRAVEL WRITERS GET PAID?

Q – Are all travel writers working part-time and do they always receive free trips? I read several of the travel magazines and love their stories of exotic travel. But I always wonder who is paying for their travels and how the financing works. 

A – Travel writers are often approached by public relations media to travel to a destination to write about it. Most of the features we see in print and on TV were provided to the writer on a complimentary basis. The one major publication we are aware of that does not accept complimentary travel is the New York Times. We understand that the Associated Press and USA Today also have policies that do not permit subsidized travel for writers on assignment. It is assumed that the destination will be treated fairly and in a generally positive manner. Tourist boards, cruise lines, and hotels routinely offer comp. travel to writers affiliated or freelancing for major publications. Airlines are a bit more hesitant to comp writers but it does happen. 

Much of what you read in the consumer travel press is bought and paid for by the destination or product being described, The economics of publishing are such that few publications could afford to send their writers off to the far corners of the earth. Many trips are organized specifically for travel writers and they will travel as a small group. The sponsor can then concentrate on assuring a really spectacular showing.

Travel writers do not enter the profession for the money. They do it for the lifestyle and experiences. Pay varies but is almost consistently low. A payment of $1 per word is not uncommon. It is a better hobby or second job than a neat way to make a lot of money. For examples of some of the best travel writing read anything by Paul Thoreux, Pico Iyer, or the late Anthony Bourdain.

ONE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE FOR OUR EXPLORATION OF JAPAN

Q – I think we are a bit obsessive when we travel. My wife and I, both college professors, one a robotics scientist the other a psychologist, start a handwritten three-ring binder in preparation for every trip we take. The obsessive part, I suppose, is that we start our binder exactly two years to the day prior to our anticipated departure. It has worked well as a system for us although it is clearly not for everyone. Your site is among our favorites as much for the “attitude” as the honesty. Our next trip is going to involve 17 days on our own. (We know you suggest guides in Japan) and we have it fairly well mapped out. We were wondering if there was one major piece of advice you might want to share that might not be in our notes. Not so much looking for places as we are for approach. Anything we should do differently traveling in Japan we might not have done in our previous travels to Nicaragua, Jordan, or Sri Lanka?

A – You know, there is something poetic we love about your approach. You sound fearless – an important characteristic of the best exploration travelers. Allow us two recommendations: As you wander, many of those you encounter will not speak English. Carry a phrase sheet with you so you can can point to what you need. Include emergency assistance. Our primary recommendation is that you schedule specific days to simply get lost. Don’t carry your phone on those days – leave it all to chance and the kindness of those you will meet along the way. If you find your way back to your lodgings in time for dinner – fine. But if you’re late that is OK as well. Go off the tourist track with the express purpose of getting lost and the most amazing things will happen. But do hide some serious cash inside your socks. Getting lost  is the secret sauce in truly memorable travels. 

 

WHEN DO THE GREEK ISLANDS CLEAR OUT?

Q – We are planning a long-delayed trip to see some of the Greek Islands next year. I’ve read some of what you have to say about the crowds on the more popular islands and we are quite comfortable going in the off-season as opposed to the off-off season. I guess our question is, how late in the season can we go to these islands and still find people there operating their businesses and, particularly, their restaurants. We are not cruisers and we would want at least three nights per island. Also wondering about off-season flights. Thanks so much. This is an incredibly informative site. 

A – We would suggest that you travel in mid-October with a plan to return home no later than November 1st. Flight operations in and out of Athens for the islands will be reduced on or around October 1st but some flights still operate for those locals who commute between Athens and the islands. Many shopkeepers live in Athens during the non-summer months. We have a feeling you will have a more interesting and enjoyable stay than those who visit Greece in the midst of the “season”. Do be aware that inter-island air schedules, as well as ferry schedules in Greece, are mere “suggestions”.

WILL I BE DISAPPOINTED IN FIRST CLASS SECTION ON MY EUROPEAN LEG?

Q –  We have arranged our own First Class air for a cruise we are taking from Venice to Athens. In order to get the best price, I have to fly  American to London and then change planes in London Heathrow to then fly on to Venice. We have an hour and forty-five minutes for the connection which American assured me is more than enough time. But then there is the problem with my flight to Venice. It is on British Airways and I understand, from what I have researched online, that the seats in First are small and that the food on BA is nothing to write home about. I bought a coach ticket and used miles to upgrade to First within Europe. How do I assure I get a first class experience flying from London to Venice? 

A – You could try chartering your own jet. Short of that, you will be flying an Airbus 320 or 321 as your flight time is about two hours and five minutes. For short-haul intra-Europe flights, airlines have one class of about six rows of so-called First Class seats. On the airbus models, the middle seat is normally converted to a tray table and the seats are somewhat larger with additional legroom compared to coach. But it is certainly not as true First Class despite the fact that your ticket reads that way. It is, instead, a combined Business Class/First Class section. In other words, had you paid less for Business Class you would have ended up in the same section with the same seat.

As for the food – yes, largely inedible is what you should expect. We recommend buying sandwiches in the terminal. 

The rule is that before you pay for First Class seating, make certain that there is a true, “dedicated” first class section. A good agent would have pointed this out but it sounds as though you placed your trust in an outsourced  airline call center. To give you a bit more bad news, we don’t feel that anything less than two or three hours connecting time is recommended at Heathrow. In-transit passengers are required to go through a security checkpoint with frequently long lines. If your carry-on bag is cited for inspection that process can take close to an hour, depending on the number of passengers waiting and the number of security guards on duty. Heathrow is, in our view, a “Three-Hour Connection” Airport. You will likely make it but do be extra-careful in tagging your luggage in a way that clearly identifies where you will be spending your first night in Venice. Hopefully you have a pre-hotel night built into your itinerary. 

JUST HOW HARD IS IT TO GET A VISA FOR BRAZIL?

Q – We are thinking about visiting Brazil but have heard from friends that a Visa is required and that it is a rather tortuous process.  I understand this is something the Brazilian government is doing in response to Trump and his anti-immigration stance. Taking my wife to Brazil is a dream but I don’t want to wait for weeks or even months to make it happen. 

A – Your friends were right – but now, they’re wrong. This has absolutely nothing to do with Trump. In fact, the number of US tourists headed to Brazil has grown substantially since last November when the country introduced e-visas. You apply online and the entire process takes about 72 hours. Up until this recent change, you would have had to appear in person at a Brazilian Consulate or Visa Center and you may well have been asked to produce personal bank records. Month over month, the number of Americans securing visas to visit Brazil has jumped 46% an astounding increase. Brazil is now being seen as the poster child for simplification of the Visa process. 

WE NEED TO GET RIGHT TO OUR GATE TO TRANSFER AT HEATHROW AND WE ONLY HAVE AN HOUR AND TEN MINUTES. WILL WE MAKE IT?

Q – We are taking only our second trip to Europe, doing a very nice cruise on Azamara. Our air schedule, which our agent handled, gives us an hour and ten minutes to connect at Heathrow  for our flight to Copenhagen. But we can;t find out what gate we’re even flying from. This all sounds stressful. Should we be worried? Our agent says it is a “legal connection”.

A – We hate that term – it was invented by some intern ion the basement of an airline accounting department in the 1970’s. It means that the airline has data that shows that you will likely maker your flight. You might – but there are so many variables involved that we’re going to bet against your making it and so should you. Never schedule anything at Heathrow for less than three hours even if you are scheduling lunch with the cast of “Love Actually”. You will have to pass through the British equivalent of our TSA but theirs take tea breaks! Heathrow normally does not announce connecting gates until about 45 minutes prior to scheduled departure – so you rush to get through the inspection lines and then wait for the big board to finally announced your gate. Then you realize you have to hike over to Wales to board your aircraft. Meanwhile, your assumption that your luggage is actually going to re-connect with you at your final destination involves more faith than science. Nothing wrong with that – it works for most of the world’s religions. Even if you make it in an hour and ten minutes, you may be arriving in Copenhagen with one clean set of underwear and little else. But, as we think about it, that could be enough to enjoy Denmark.  Whenever anyone in travel talks to you about a “legal connection” jump up on the nearest desk and start screaming “liar, liar, pants on fire.” Never try to do Heathrow on less than three hours.

EXACTLY HOW OFTEN ARE LAVS AND TRAY TABLES, NOT TO MENTION SEATS, CLEANED ON THE AVERAGE AIRCRAFT?

Q – Love the fact that you tell the traveltruth about places to avoid when flying due to high bacteria counts etc. I had never even thought that aisle seats were so much more likely to be filthy than window seats. But missing in your information is the cleaning schedules for the airlines.  I fly about two months a year, on average, on all of the major carriers. Would appreciate any specific as to how often things are cleaned on the average aircraft. Also wondering how airports themselves stack up against aircraft when it comes to germ counts and exposure. There are far more people in the terminal than there are on my 737. 

A – The cleaning crews you see waiting on the gangway as you disembark, are primarily there to remove trash bags while also performing a quick wipe-down in the lavatories. That, of course, means that the tray table and your armrest have likely not been touched since the seat was last occupied by Typhoid Mary or one of her relatives. The airlines are proud of their so-called “Deep Cleanings” where the seats are usually shampooed and the entire seat surface is sanitized. The good news is that they actually do this – the bad news is that they normally do it about once a month. Planes arriving on their last leg, ready to spend the night relaxing at the gate until morning, are usually given preferential cleaning – but that is a very relative term. 

We can clearly state, based on several university studies, that airports have higher germ counts than aircraft. Self-check-in screens are the filthiest spot in the airport, rivaled only by the lovely, grey TSA trays where you resat those things that are truly important to you. You should never use the screen or the tray before first wiping it down with anti-bacterial wipes. Yes, people will stare at you, some will laugh, and the guy in the Make America Great Again Hat may think you’re a terrorist. But it’s still a good idea. 

 

ARE THERE ALCOHOL RESTRICTIONS ON FLIGHTS TO TAHITI?

Q – Can you tell me if there are restrictions when bringing alcohol on the flight to Tahiti or between the islands? I just heard that your alcohol must be sealed with a duty free sticker and you can;t bring open bottles on the inter-island flights.

A – Hope you are not serious. Would you want to be seated next to someone who boarded any aircraft with their own open alcohol? Greyhound bus – perhaps – but not aboard an international or inter-island flight. The proper thing to do is to purchase any drinks on-board. That helps the airline make a little profit which helps keep prices lower. It also serves as a way to combat intoxication in the air. 

In fact, Tahiti tends to attract a fairly sophisticated, heavily French crowd that would likely laugh at any sloppy Americans trying to get through check-in with their own open alcohol. Ask your travel consultant for a primer on proper flying etiquette. 

IS TASMANIA A GOOD IDEA FOR HIKERS AND FOODIES?

Q –  We are in our mid-fifties but in quite fine shape as I am actually the owner of a small string of health clubs . We have been to Australia and loved it and we are now heading back to spend some time in Tasmania. Just wondering your thoughts regarding the best month to go and any hotel/resort we shouldn’t miss?  Is the food as good as we had in Sydney and Melbourne and any advice about hiking in the bush. We’ve done Grand Canyon etc. but never got to hike in Australia. 

A – Being a hiker and a foodie you really ought to be looking into some of the excellent programs run by the Canadian company, Butterfield & Robinson. They hike during the day on carefully planned routes and stay at the finest inns while dining on gourmet cuisine. Do check them out. Backroads is another excellent company we recommend though a but downscale of B&R.

We’re all in on this trip. Choose a professional travel consultant with excellent on-site offices in Australia. We think you should do the trip in November or early December. It is springtime, with temperatures in the high sixties and sunny skies. Don;t miss staying at the Islington just outside Hobart. Everything you eat will be farm fresh. They can’t believe the poison we eat here in the States. If you love seafood you will feel you have arrived in heaven. The cheeses and fruit are other-worldly. 

We would urge some caution if you are doing any really long hikes. Know the local weather and where you can stop if you must. You may well be alone for days at end. Tasmania is the best of Australia and New Zealand without the people. The food is memorable as are the vistas. If you were also into photography, this might be the perfect destination.

 

A 13 YEAR OLD POSES A QUESTION TO TRAVELTRUTH

Q – I have traveled quite a bit since my Mom is in the international real estate business. I like your site but it is a bit behind in technology. I am wondering why airlines are still showing movies in seat backs, which is very 1950’s. Wouldn’t it be better if every passenger was given a Virtual Reality headset so they could watch movies and also play games without disturbing the person sitting next to them? The technology already exists. Hope you can answer this. I think you need more younger writers but this is still a cool site. I’ve learned a lot. 

A – Thank you very much and congratulations on your choice of reading. You are certainly right about our need for younger technology writers. We would be pleased to print any additional commentary you might care to provide in the future.

The use of VR is a bit up in the air. The fact is that we will be seeing a great deal of Virtual Reality products taking to the air in the next 36 months. But not necessarily because it is better. The airlines are quite concerned about the cost and particularly the weight of back-of-seat TV technology. The system that must be installed in every seat to operate the program, along with the cost of repairs, makes this a feature airlines can’t wait to remove from their aircraft. The company that is pioneering this technology is called Inflight VR and what they have going for them is that each of their current VR headsets weighs less than a pound. The content, currently being tested on several smaller airlines, can be changed easily to suit the destination. For instance, you might opt to see ten minutes of a Broadway play en route to New York with the option to order tickets at your seat. 

The airlines are mostly concerned about cost and weight of seat back monitors but they also realize that by the time they are installed much of the content and certainly the technology is already outdated. The first step in the elimination of back of seat technology will be the announcement by the three major carriers that they will be eliminating seat back monitors on shorter flights of under three hours. VR will be available as a perk in First Class and should attain at least “break even” status for use in economy. The early studies seem to show that flyers using VR headsets do have a better flight experience. The anticipated occasional motion sickness has not shown up as a problem. One of the things that will be possible with in-seat VR is the ability to feel like you are flying the plane from your seat. This one will really be fun to watch and the airlines are definitely on-board with anything that will help them shed significant weight from the aircraft because of the immediate savings in fuel consumption. Keep reading and tell us what else we’re missing..

YOU ARE DEFINITELY GOING TO LAUGH AT THIS ONE ……………………

Q – I know you are going to have fun with this but I wouldn’t turn to anyone else for help. Have been following your work and advice for many years and am extremely grateful. We live in Arizona, no not Sun City, and I have, with the time of retirement, been getting into Ayurvedic natural medicine and meditation. My husband and I want to plan a holistic-based vacation in an exotic locale that is top quality where the day tour possibilities are in keeping with the spiritual nature of the accommodations. We would want the options of designing our own programs and detox from stress and technology should be part of the program. We have a gizzilion miles we want to use before the US goes on lock down so flying halfway around the world is no issue at all. We’ll be meditating in First Class. But once we arrive, we don;t want to feel that we are being ripped off with pricing that is totally out of whack with the destination. We just want fair pricing. We’d like to try to keep spending under $2,000 per night. Does any place in your radar come to mind for us?

A – We think you might love the 21-acre Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Sri Lanka. It sits on a coconut plantation overlooking the Indian Ocean. The excursions include visits to local artists , cooking classes, and some incredible Buddhist temples, but the main draw is the combination of  bespoke treatments, Ayurvedic cuisine, and meditative detox. And we won;t have “fun” with this at all. We admire you for knowing what you want and for deciding that your vacation will, in many ways, be life-changing.

HEADED TO MEXICO – PERHAPS TO RETIRE

Q – We are headed to Mexico to look around San Miguel de Allende for a possible retirement retreat. The prices just can’t be beat and there is a huge ex-pat American community. Our real estate people have set us up for accommodations but we are wondering if there is a particular restaurant we should designate as our evening headquarters. We’re not all that into trendy – we just like good.

A – We’re not going to suggest that it might be less expensive still to move into the back of a Chipolte. You are correct, San Miguel de Allende is actually the centerpiece for the largest ex-pat American community on earth. It is a lovely area. It sounds as though the restaurant you might really enjoy is Bovine. Great steaks and seafood in buildings that house lovely small boutiques. 

SHOPPING IN MILAN WITHOUT WASTING TIME

Q – We are leaving in two weeks for Milan – a quick three-night addition to a business trip I have planned. My husband will be joining me and, strange as it sounds, he actually loves to shop high-end Italian clothing shops. To save time – please, please tell us where we should shop and where we should stay (hopefully in the same neighborhood).

A – Head to Quadrilatero della Moda which is in the centro-storico district. The two streets you want are Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga.. Do not stay anywhere but the Townhouse at the Galleria..We forbid it.  It is Milan’s best-kept secret and one of Europe’s best properties. Rooms overlook the cafes and shops of Milan’s famed Galleria. Don’t be shocked if you run into a few Hollywood types in hiding – or, perhaps, Michael Cohen.  

HOW OFTEN DO THESE THINGS GET WASHED?

Q – The other day I was about to board a flight to Los Angeles with my husband and he commented on how new it looked. It was not, however, a new plane. It just looked like it had been washed. The paint was gleaming. I am wondering how often the outside of these planes are washed? Are there any rules in place?

A – No hard and fast rules but the wash rotation for major carriers seem to vary from 30 to 60 days of flight time. Singapore Airlines claims its planes are washed on a monthly schedule. United washes its planes every 50 days. The airline has wash facilities worldwide to service its fleet. All of the world’s leading airlines seriously believe that “first impressions matter.”

I AM TRAVELING FOUR TO FIVE DAYS A WEEK AND INTERNATIONALLY 70% OF THE TIME. HOW DO I AVOID JET LAG?

Q – I would never criticize your industry but I hope you won’t mind my suggesting that most of the information I’ve read about Jet Lag is pure nonsense. My new job requires very frequent international travel, primarily to Asia, I love to spend my time at the bungalow sri lanka while being there. Really wondering if there is any way to arrive more refreshed than I do. I have followed all the traditional remedies like no drinking, Melatonin, etc. I just seem to arrive in no shape to conduct business and I am almost always in the front of the plane. What am I missing here? My doctor is stumped and so am I. 

A – Obviously, we don’t have a solution but we do have a suggestion. Instead of concentrating on magic remedies and pills, try concentrating more on the aircraft and just when it left the factory. The fact is that when most people fly in an aircraft they are flying a plane that is pressured to about the comfort you might feel sleeping at an elevation of 8,000 feet. The 767, 707, and older A340’s and 350’s all maintain air pressure at about the same level and it approximates what you would experience spending the night in Bogota, Columbia. Of course, you are having trouble sleeping. 

According to Atas you should use Seatguru.com or flightradar24.com to check the type of aircraft being used on your route. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus 350 XWB are new commercial aircraft types constructed out of carbon fiber reinforced polymer. This is a lighter material that sharply reduces fuel consumption. But there is some serious evidence that suggests they also cut down on some of the major symptoms we see in jet lag. That is because these new materials can handle more interior pressurization that metal which practically produces an in-cabin air atmosphere that is about the same as trying to sleep at an elevation of 6,000 feet. That 25% reduction can help eliminate jet lag which is also known as “mountain sickness” on older model aircraft, The new generation aircraft also maintain a higher humidity level so the air is far less dry. This also helps with sleep. And if that is not enough, be aware that the newest aircraft have much better air filtration systems, higher ceilings, and larger windows. These improvements help contribute to creating better rest on-board and they will likely help you with the jet lag you are experiencing. The really good news for you is that the Asian carriers have been purchasing large numbers of these new-generation aircraft. 

WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO SIT TO AVOID GERMS ON AN AIRPLANE?

Q –  There seems to be a lot of nonsense written about the best places to sit on an aircraft. Some say it is safer in the rear of the aircraft, some say the exit row, some say an aisle up front. I really don’t care about safety or an accident in the air. No worries there.  What my husband and I do care about is contacting e-coli and the best place to sit to avoid the most contact. We take one or two international vacations a year and I am always worried about catching something in that filthy environment. My niece is a flight attendant and she has stories that just curl my hair. Just wondering if there is any evidence on this subject you could share with your followers? Is coach really much worse than Business Class or First? Is Premium Economy better than Economy in terms of germ count? 

A – There really is some hard evidence on this subject. One of the nation’s most prominent researchers in the field of getting sick on an aircraft is Charles Gerba an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Gerba specializes in just how diseases spread through indoor spaces like planes, cruise ships, and casinos. There was an important study about the transmission of viruses aboard commercial aircraft at a recent meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. We have seen some of the research and it is rather complex with many variables in terms of the type of aircraft, cost per ticket, number of passengers aboard, time of year, destination, etc. All the variables you would expect. But we want to answer your question as best we can in layman’s terms and based solely on our understanding of the research, allow us to offer the following summary:

01 – The so-called “two-row” rule is largely a myth. Infectious viruses can easily affect those seated beyond a two-row perimeter of a contaminated person. Movement about the plane is the most critical factor in terms of exposure to e-Coli and other serious bacterial infections.

02 – Aisle seats are generally the worst place to sit in terms of contamination. There are several reasons why. Those in aisle seats tend to get up from their seats more often than those in a window or middle seats. That places them in contact with a higher percentage of the aircraft’s passengers. The crew has a staggering number of close contacts compared to seated passengers so infected crew member can easily spread disease within a confined space. Those in aisle seats have their seat arms and headrests touched by numerous fellow passengers who are going to and from the lavatory, a prime source of infection. 

03 – Tray tables are the single greatest source of contamination, with armrests and seat headrests as other areas of high bacteria concentration. No one should ever be seated on a commercial aircraft without first using sanitizing wipes or liquid to clean all surfaces where one would be eating or placing one’s hands or head. It is important not to touch your eyes when you fly. Use tissues to open and flush lavatory doors. 

04 – Never use airline pillows. They are thrown into the overhead racks which are laden with bacteria from shoes and the bottom portions of luggage. Only use airline blankets to cover your feet. 

05 – Those in window seats face the lowest threat of infection from infectious diseases.

06 – The internal cleaning of airline seats and lavatories is supposed to occur about every 100 hours of flying. But this service is usually outsourced and cleaning crews are under tremendous pressure to clean cabins quickly for a quick turn-around. The practical result is that planes are rarely cleaned. Instead, “cleaners” clean out seat backs and collect garbage. Do not imagine that the seats and the TV screens, along with other surfaces you might touch are cleaned regularly.

07 – For those who are prone to infection for any reason or those who have a concern about cleanliness, it is always recommended that seating in the forward part of the plane be considered. Business and First Class seating is cleaned more often and the air quality is generally far superior.

 And that, ladies and gentleman, is why we have never been asked to create an airline commercial. 

GOING TO IRELAND BUT WE HEAR IT IS CROWDED IN SEASON. SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED?

Q –  After more years than I care to count with the Ford, I am set to begin showing my bride a bit of the world. We want to start in my ancestral home, Ireland and are tentatively thinking about travel in mid-July when it gets rather warm here in Atlanta. We’ve done some business-related travel to Europe but this would be our first in-depth trip and I am thinking of spending about two and a half weeks. I will likely want to stay at nice places and will follow your advice in that regard but I am wondering about timing and crowds and even itinerary. I just read a piece in Bloomberg that indicated that several European destinations are getting seriously crowded, including the roads, in mid-summer. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. And please don’t waste your time suggesting that I rent anything but a Ford product in Europe. Love this site and grateful for the help you provide those who may not be your clients. 

A – In a general sense, American travelers really need to get more creative. In Europe specifically, Europeans are doing much more international travel than their American counterparts and China, Japan, and Russia are sending enough tourists to major destinations to really impact both pricing and availability. It is time that the savvy traveler starts doing more travel to Europe in the off-season and more wandering to sites just to the left of the tourist map. Here are some strategies we would suggest:

  • Avoid traveling in July or August. Change your departure to mid-May or even late April. On the other side, consider “post-tourist” travel in late September or early to mid-October. 
  • Consider actually skipping the big-name Irish sites for alternatives that are just as lovely. This is, after all, a country filled with natural beauty and charm and any wrong turn will likely bring you past colorful villages surrounded by lovely farmland and gently rolling hills. Don’t, for instance, even do the Ring of Kerry. Many experts will tell you that the Beara Peninsula is as beautiful with a lot less traffic.
  • The Americans have not yet discovered what many Europeans know: the city of Belfast is wonderful and only two hours away from Dublin with far fewer tourists. It is the gateway to lovely drives including the incredible Causeway Coast. It is becoming more popular because so many of the scenes from Game of Thrones were filed there. 

IS COLOMBIA A DESTINATON WE SHOULD CONSIDER AT THIS TIME?

Q —  We are in our early and mid-seventies, in great health, and we love adventure. We don’t mind camping out to see great sites but we do have some qualms about safety as we consider a trip to Colombia, every time we decide to camp over there we find ourselves in the need to find the best camping knife on the market. We’ve been big fans of Narcos on Netflix and it does not paint the most beautiful picture of the local crime scene. Any thoughts would be very much appreciated. Our entire community in Scottsdale now follows your Q&A. 

A – The deal is that the FARC rebels made a peace agreement with the present Colombian government in 2016. That opened up major portions of the country including the west coast, which appears in Narcos. It is a land of lovely beaches and underdevelopment. Make certain that you use a really good on-site tour company to handle your arrangements. There are now flights from both Bogata and Medellin to the really quaint towns of Nuqui and Bahia Solano.  You will likely end up staying in eco-lodges. We think this is a safe destination when compared to the average city in the United States. Hard to imagine that when watching Narcos – but true. Do the trip but take out emergency evacuation air insurance with a company like Med-Jet.

DO WE GET BETTER AIRFARES SEARCHING A SITE ONLINE LIKE SKYSCANNER OR KAYAK?

Q –  We are in our mid-forties and, being self-employed, I’ve worked things out so I can get away up to four weeks a year on various vacations. Most last a week but sometimes we do a longer trip. I don’t use an agent because all we are booking are flights and hotels and, quite frankly, sometimes we just arrive in our destination and select a place to stay or we use AirBnB to book a small home or apartment. Yes, we’ve one or two hiccups, but for the most p[art, the freedom to just do our own thing, mostly beaches, is worth it.

My question has to do with strategy. Given our profile should we be using a travel agent and how should we focus that search? I would also like to know whether you would trust Kayak or Skyscanner more in terms of finding the lowest fares? 

A – We really see no reason why you should not continue to make your own travel arrangements. We think that a professional agent with expertise might get in your way. Kayak and Skyscanner are really quite different. Kayak is good at showing you routing, who flies it, and what the airlines are charging on their own sides. It is one-stop for fares and schedules. Skyscanner consolidates data from a number of firms that sell discounted tickets. It also checks them out, to a degree, as discounted international air tickets from third parties is frequently not what it appears to be. The best strategy for air is simple. Search everywhere and everything you want to until you have all of your “information”. Then go to the airline’s actual site and book it directly with them. It is foolish to do otherwise as you have little recourse if there is a change or more serious problem down the runway. 

 

WE ARE CONSIDERING A ONE WEEK TOUR TO THE CANADIAN ARCTIC WITH AN OUTFIT CALLED NATURAL HABITAT ADVENTURES. ARE THEY RECOMMENDED?

Q – We are seriously interested in doing all possible to preserve our fragile environment when we travel. We are interested in spending just over a week touring portions of the Arctic out of Churchill, Manitoba. We are quite serious about not wanting to leave a carbon footprint when we travel, although our aircraft will certainly mess up those plans. We’ve come across a company called Natural Habitat Adventures. Do you recommend them and their program in this region?

A – We think you will be extremely pleased with this company. They really attempt to be a carbon-neutral travel provider and they work in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund. Their seven-night program out of Churchill will include interaction with indigenous people including village elders, tracking polar bears, and a chance to truly understand issues related to geology and climate change. It is a wonderful program and they limit group size. It is priced from $6000-$7000 based on traveling date and specific itinerary. Good work. You have found a “keeper”. But room service will not be 24 hours and that thing on your pillow may not be chocolate. 

WHAT SHOULD A TRAVEL AGENT CHARGE FOR A HOTEL RESERVATION?

Q –  We are now taking three to four vacations a year and we’ve been using a local travel agent here in St. Louis. She seems fine but I’ve started noticing that we’re being charged $25 per hotel for every booking she makes. Since I assume she gets a kickback from the hotel, does it seem outrageous to you that we’re being charged these fees which certainly add up? We tend to use middle-of-the-road smaller hotels and we do a great deal of touring on our own. But we book the car and the airlines through her. She charges something or everything she does, When we went to Australia last year, our fees totaled $600. 

A – Based on the information you have provided, it would appear that your agent is seriously undercharging you. If you asked us to plan a truly memorable vacation in Australia, which we have to assume was in the two to three-week range, our Planning Fee would be $500 Per Person. Charging for hotel reservations is now standard industry practice. Agents don’t get “kickbacks” from hotels but you are paying the travel agency commission in the price of your room. The trouble is that hotels are notoriously slow in paying agents these commissions so there is often a great deal of back-and-forth paperwork. Many agencies now charge $50-$100 per hotel booking for their time and work. 

There is some good news. You have a choice. You can always book your hotels directly and get the best Trisara Promotions online. You can and should demand a refund of the travel agent commission because you booked direct. That way you can save the agent’s booking fee as well as the commission.  If you go on one of the online sites be prepared to be treated as a statistic and know that there is a good likelihood that the best-located rooms are not going to be assigned when you arrive.

You can assume that your travel agent is making next to nothing on your airfare unless you happen to be a First Class flyer, which, we suspect, is not the case. There is a general rule you might want to try to understand: If you book your trip yourself, you should theoretically be saving between 12-15% of the total cost in travel agency fees and commissions. That sounds pretty swell until you realize that the only fees you will actually save are the small fees assessed by your agent. You will still be charged the agency commission by the hotels, the auto-rental firms. and airlines. You can kick and scream but they are going to charge you anyway. So even though you will be devoting a great deal of time into reserving your trip with all details confirmed, you will have saved very little in the big picture since the commission that makes up well over 80% of your costs are still going on your credit card. In the United States of America, you are charged for the services of a travel consultant even when you don’t use one. That appears to still be legal. It is the secret no one wants to tell you because it involves huge profits for billion-dollar corporations. They absolutely want you to book with them directly so they can double and triple their profit on your transaction while giving you nothing in return except a short chat with Harry or Harriet Headset who are clueless about you and your vacation. 

HOW DO I KEEP TRACK OF MY MILES WITH SEVERAL AIRLINES?

Q – This airline business is uniquely frustrating and I am wondering if they make it intentionally tough to cash in miles? I currently have miles and elite status with American, Alaska, and United Airlines. I get e-mails and notifications but it is all very confusing and I tend t just give up and pay whatever they ask me for. Is there some way to make this easier? I do a lot of flying at age 73, but it is now mostly to visit family and friends. Two of my children are studying abroad, one in Milan, Italy and the other in San Paolo, so there is a good bit of traveling. I just hate the idea of leaving miles on the table. This is a well-run site and we have recommended it to our friends. You should advertise a bit. It never hurts. 

A – Well, actually, they do make it complicated so that approximately 20% of all miles are never cashed in. There are a number of strategies but we don;t want to give you a strategy that is too challenging. We can understand why you are traveling overseas frequently – we wouldn’t buy the “study in Italy and Brazil” stories either. You can affiliate with a travel agency that does a lot of business air ticketing. They will have a program where, for a fee, they will keep careful track of your miles. They use computer programs that do this for them, Or, you can do it yourself by using one of the better Apps that manages airline miles. The two best are Awardwallet.com,  and Points.com. Thank you for the advice. This site, as well as our others, is primarily designed to help our own clients navigate the complicated world of travel planning. 

PREPARING FOR ITALY AND NOTICING THEY HAVE DELIS – ARE THEY REALLY DELIS?

Q – We are off on our second trip to Europe, following London last year. We’ve arranged a Collette Tour and we are trying to do some homework. We love Deli food in the US, being New Yorkers I suppose that is not surprising, and we are wondering if the Delis we see listed in Venice and Florence are going to look familiar and have some of the sandwiches we love. We really hate to take the time to eat a sit down lunch – we far prefer take-out Deli food and a stroll in the park.

A – Italy does not do the kind of Deli food you would find in New York  Deli, in the New York sense,  originated in Germany in the mid 1700’s and then spread to the United States where Ashkenazi Jews who had migrated from Germany were served by kosher delicatessens which first opened int he late 1800’s. But the ritual you describe is very Italian and you should seek out shops in Italy bearing titles such as gastronomica, bottega alimentare, and salumeria (a store that features salami). Italian delis are wonderous places and the adventurous traveler will find a wide variety of things to enjoy on a park bench or back in your hotel room. Whether or not you will enjoy sharing your Italian deli products with the pigeons is another story. Better to stick with Katz’s. 

MY WIFE IS A CLEANLINESS NUT AND WE’RE READY TO RETIRE

Q – This is only marginally a travel question. My wife is extremely concerned about the environment and the lack of cleanliness in American cities compared to what we have seen in our travels. America really is a garbage dump in a high percentage of our cities with litter and filth everywhere. We’ve about had it and want to move. We would move to the cleanest city in America if we knew what it was but we’re not averse to moving north or south. The data we’ve examined is mostly biased so we’d love to know because you don’t seem to be in bed with any of the tourist boards, what city you might look at for a reconnaissance visit?

A – We will take this as a serious request, although there are a great many small towns in New England, the Midwest, the South, and the Western States that would seem to be cleaner than the city you are describing. But if you want an itinerary – fly north and go to Ottawa, Canada. There are dozens of programs in the Canadian capital designed to keep the city clean and livable. Our favorite is the annual Spring Cleaning Program that starts every April 15th and lasts a month. Last year, more than 60,000 volunteers showed up to clean the city’s roadways, sidewalks, green spaces, and parks – even though many hardly needed it. 

From Ottawa we’d head to Calgary, which is generally acknowledged to be the cleanest city on the planet. Calgary has a well-planned grid system that reduced traffic and pollution. There is a terrific light rail system and any number of transfer stations that sort through every citizen’s garbage removing recyclable and biodegradable materials. 

Finally, we’d suggest you end your tour by giving one American city a try. Fly to Honolulu, the cleanest large city in America. The city is covered with a transportation system using pollution-free buses that are the envy of city planners from all over the country. 

Or – just get your wife a new vacuum. Let her know that, while we may not be the cleanest country in the world, our Olympic Curling team is really good. 

WE ARE TRAVELING ABROAD AND GOING TO USE OUR AMEX CARD FOR EVERYTHING?

Q –  We are kind of newbies to the idea of travel out of the country. We will be taking our first trip to Europe aboard a Celebrity cruise in July sailing the lower Med to Spain, Italy, and Greece. We couldn’t be more excited. One bit of advice we need concerns credit cards. We took out an American Express card because our travel agent said it was reliable. We also like the way American Express totals everything when you get your bill. Our agent, who works for Celebrity, also said we should pay for everything in dollars as it makes it easier. Also wondering about the dress for this trip. The agent said it might be warm and to bring some summer clothes but not shorts. Any comments about this would be appreciated. As I said, this is all very new to us.

A – You want “comments” – we’re going to give you comments:

01 – No Travel Agent works for Celebrity. Since it would appear that you have only made deposit and not a final payment, take the booking away from Celebrity and sit down with the best local travel agent in your town. Have them take over your booking. You’ve been dealing with a reservations staff member who works on commission and knows nothing about worldwide conditions, credit cards, or much of anything else that will be useful for you to know. The job of someone in reservations is to secure your booking.

02 – You haven’t told us which type of American Express card you took out. There are several different cards and each one carries different benefits and features. It is likely that the one you chose does carry a foreign transaction fee which normally is 3%. This is a total rip-off. You should always travel with a card that has “No foreign transaction fees”.  Amex has some co-branded cards that carry this benefit. We do agree that Amex is “reliable” and they are aggressive about fighting fraud. They are also less readily accepted by merchants abroad than Visa or Mastercard.

03 – You always want to pay in local currency using your US bank credit card. That will assure that the currency conversion is done by your bank utilizing the official rate. This will negate costly commissions and conversion fees abroad.

04 – Finally, your “agent” seems to be underestimating the heat issues. July has seen heat waves with temps reaching 100 degrees for the past two years. You can wear shorts in that weather but it would be better to wear lightweight slacks given the likelihood that you will be touring churches and buildings of historical importance. Discuss this with your real “agent” once you convert the booking.

SHOULD I LET THEM KNOW THAT I POST FREQUENTLY ON TRIPADVISOR?

Q – We recently checked in to a Hilton at the airport in Rome. I was really disappointed with my room and I went to the front desk and reminded them that I had made my reservation with one of the largest online agencies and that I personally post frequently on Facebook, Instagram, and TripAdvisor about my travel experiences.  This did not seem to do a lot of good. Finally, I asked for the manager-on-duty, who explained that they were sold out that night and she could not make a change. I’m not sure if I believed her. It was only for one night so I didn’t pursue it further. How should I deal with this in the future to obtain an upgrade?  I certainly feel that with my postings, I am influencing lots of their potential customers but they do not seem to want to hear about it.

A – When you are shown to a disappointing room you should politely walk back down to the front desk and ask to speak to the Rooms Manager or the Manager-on-duty. Explain why this trip is important to you and keep your tine low and polite so other guests do not hear your conversation. We would suggest you keep your TripAdvisor connection to yourself as hotels are quite tired of hearing about those who expect to get something for free because they have enough time on their hands to type amateur reviews as self-anointed “critics”. Most of the better travel critics we know have years of hard-earned credentials. 

If you belong to Hilton’s Honors Club, your room preferences should be a part of your stored profile. You should not be assigned an inferior room. But you booked on one of the online sites and you were, we would guess, assigned one of the remaining rooms in your category. Hotel chains want bookings to be made via their own sites so they do not have to be paying out commission to third-party web sites. When it is noted that you have been brought to the property by a discount online agency, you should expect less than VIP treatment. If you care about your accommodations, have your travel consultant VIP you or write a short note tot he Hotel Manager in advance explaining why you worthy of upgrade consideration. Never mention that your blog or have online “followers” or billions of “likes”. Travel industry staff are so tired of hearing this from consumers headed their way that it has become an industry joke. The fact that you are celebrating an important anniversary or taking a “second honeymoon” will get you much further than referencing the junk you share online. Most hotel staff have a healthy disdain for opinions posted about their properties online. They realize that the internet has proven itself to be the most perfect vehicle for the dissemination of misinformation ever devised. 

IS THERE A LEGAL WAY TO BRING LIQUOR ON-BOARD A FLIGHT?

Q – I fear I may be ridiculed in your pages, but let me explain that there are certain liquors and tequila that I really prefer to what is offered in Business Class on the airlines I fly. The flight attendants tell me there is no way to legally bring my own liquor on the plane but I just wonder if you guys know of a workaround. I do not have a drinking problem – I suppose my real problem is that I am a snob when it comes to choosing my alcoholic beverages. Am I out of luck?

A – Actually there is a workaround. We’re going to share it with you but we are wondering just how long these flights are that you can’t abide by the drink offerings in Business Class – no less. TSA rules require that any liquids be clearly displayed and carried in small bottles not to exceed 100 mil. Just try to find the mini-size bottles of your favorite brand and keep them in your carry-on next to your hand cream and cologne. They have to be kept in a clear bag for inspection. But they are totally legal.

Now, here’s the thing. You can drink them at your seat but absolutely are not allowed to open the mini-bottles by yourself. Only a flight attendant is allowed to do that.

One more thing. You are permitted to purchase a bottle of liquor from the duty-free airport store and you may request that a flight attendant open it for you aboard the aircraft. But do not attempt to bring the bottle with you when connecting to another flight. It will be confiscated and show up at a TSA Supervisor party weeks later.

IS IT REALLY DANGEROUS TO DRINK COFFEE OR TEA ON A FLIGHT?

Q – I have been reading this material religiously but I keep coming back to one piece of advice you gave some time ago. Wondering if you are still suggesting that it is really dangerous to drink coffee aboard an aircraft. If there was an issue – it would seem like the airlines would have fixed it by now. Are you really suggesting that I bring a cup of Starbucks aboard my future morning flights? 

A – Dangerous may be too strong a term. Let’s just say that those savvy travelers who do their research, stay away from coffee and tea cooked aboard aircraft using tank storage water that has not been properly brought to the boiling point. That makes it possible for storage tank well-documented bacterial content to exist in the water. Our own investigations into this subject have never uncovered a single aircraft where care was taken to boil the water being served to passengers. We have never, for example, encountered an airline that used sealed bottled water to brew coffee in coach.  You drink their coffee and you take your chances! This is very much a budgetary issue. The cost of using bottled water versus the storage tank water filled by airport maintenance crews would be significant. This is a bottom-line issue. So, yes, absolutely board with your own Starbucks.

CAN WE DRIVE A NEW FERRARI FROM SAN FRANCISCO DOWN TO LOS ANGELES WITHOUT PAYING A FORTUNE?

Q – Great site – thinking about renting a Ferrari for a slow drive from the Bay area down to LA. Can this be easily done and any advice?  This is a definite bucket list item I want to complete before my 40th birthday. 

A –  You are breaking the “Bucket List” rule. Bucket lists are not supposed to begin until you are at least fifty years of age. You can certainly rent from a number of companies. The Ferrari California is, of course, the model everyone wants. The standard rental is just around $1,500 plus delivery fees and taxes. But the cars are rarely rented for less than a week. The costs of transportation are just too high. The real cost is when they have to fly out a techie to show you how to use the car. If you can avoid that, the cost is much less. This is one of those situations where you need to know exactly what you want and then call the top three companies in the market for price quotes. And make one of those calls to the exotic car department at Hertz or Avis. We believe that you will find that costs vary tremendously. Make sure to verify that your current auto insurance policy offers coverage for “exotics.”

For starters, try Menlo Park Exotic Car Rentals, Gotham Dream Cars, Italia Rental, or San Francisco Exotic Car Rental by Enterprise. 

 

WHY DID ALASKA AIR PULL OUT OF CUBA?

Q – My husband and I were scheduled to fly our favorite airline, Alaska Air, to Cuba in March. We live in Pasadena and the non-stop flight from LAX was perfect. Now, we have been notified that they are operating their last flight in January. We’re making other plans, but we’re wondering why they would pull out when the flights appeared to be going out full?

A – Actually, business to Cuba is down significantly, Alaska Air says by 80% since the November 9th U.S. government decision to end the people-to-people program. Given the sharp reduction in business, Alaska, along with several other operators, have canceled or reduced their operations to Cuba. 

There are several intertwined issues here one of which is the fact that laws in Cuba currently require heavy percentages of Cuban hotel and tourism industry ownership. This basically means that if you construct a new hotel, there is a likelihood that your partners will be Cuban military and government officials. We have been advising that travel to Cuba should be postponed for 24 months. We now think that a more realistic timetable is five or six years assuming new construction plans with ownership adjustments can be implemented by the current administration. (wasn’t that said nicely?)  

WHAT DO WE BRING TO CUBA: BITCOIN, DOLLARS, PESOS, OR EUROS?

Q –  We are doing a Caribbean cruise that includes several days in Cuba. The information about spending money in their country is a bit contradictory. Do we just bring a bunch of singles, do we use local currency for best results? What is the best strategy? As Cuba is opening up, we think you should increase your coverage of questions related to this destination.

A – Actually, Cuba is closing up last we looked. If you found anyone willing to accept US dollars you would be totally ripped off. Cuba hosts many European tourists. The strategy that is the simplest is bringing in Euros for your shopping and incidentals. They are readily accepted and the exchange rate is quite fair. Leave your dollars in the room safe aboard your ship. 

GOING TO IRAN, CHINA, AND INDIA ON BUSINESS

Q – This is a bit out of your normal range of questions but wondering if  you might help me with a recommendation on an issue of personal security. As I write this it looks like the US is moving the Israeli capital to Jerusalem and I am headed to visit several parts of the middle east, including Iran, where protests could be an issue. I also have to meet with manufacturers in India and China, not always in the best of locations. Any hotels you might avoid and any recommendation as to whether or not I should plan on purchasing a satellite phone just in case internet is disrupted. I worry about that more than anything as I imagine CNN will not always be available. I’m not afraid, and I’m fairly well read on these countries, with some travel experience in India and China, but just wondering what you all would advise. Thanking you in advance.

A – There are several questions here so let us break them down as clearly as possible, point by point:

  • We recommend that you stay in a non-US luxury hotel, preferably one that is locally-owned. Try to ascertain in advance if you will be able to get CNN in your room – in an emergency that could be extremely useful. Avoid hotels that cater to American guests. In times of duress you might actually find that having Wolf Blitzer in your room is comforting – although we can;t really see why. 
  • Start practicing used text messages on your phone. In fact, China and India have outlawed satellite phones so that is not a good option. 
  • Figure out where the safest neighborhood is in each of your scheduled stops and try to choose a hotel located within that area.
  • In all cases – do not make these arrangements on your own. Have your agent use a locally-based on-site office with whom they have a close relationship. That will provide a valuable source of comfort and protection should any situation get out of hand. 
  • As you are no doubt aware, India and China are significantly safer than we are here in the US. Gun violence is extremely rare. Iran does, of course, have parts  of town that are not kosher. Travel safe 

We are leaving in eight days for a vacation in Quebec. How do we get in to Canada without a passport? What’s the “work-around?”

Q –  How do we get in and back out of Canada without a passport. My fiance and I had no idea you needed one and it appears that for certain trips you do. This is just a vacation at a nice hotel we booked using points. Our agent never mentioned that we needed a passport. What should we, could we, do at this point?

A – First, initiate legal proceedings against your travel agent. You are going through a lot of hassle for no reason. Secondly – don;t worry – spring into action. Use one of the better passport and Visa Processing firms like A. Briggs and ask for a 48-hour expedited passport. They will tell you what to do or you can use their web site. Unless you have committed multiple felonies, you should, at a rather steep cost, be able to get passports within eight days on an expedited basis. Tell your fiance we suggested she “reconsider”.

WHICH COUNTRIES HAVE THE MOST UNFRIENDLY RESIDENTS

Q – Really wondering if you might help us. We are starting to do a lot of traveling as we have come into some unexpected inheritance. The obvious start is to begin in Canada and Scandinavia where we keep reading people are actually open and friendly, something that just strikes us as worthy of support. There is no reason for us to explore while having to deal with really obnoxious locals who have no appreciation of the money we are spending to share and understand their culture. But no one ever says where the most unfriendly people are located, “unfriendly” in terms of the manner in which they welcome and treat tourists. We realize this is not scientific but if you could list some of the most unfriendly places we would be appreciative. If this is too subjective – no problem – love the site anyway.

A – There have been studies of very frequent travelers and there is a study of 140 countries called “The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report” that attempts to gauge the “attitude of the local population toward foreign visitors.” (2013)  The results show that these are the three most “Tourist Unfriendly” countries on earth:

#1 – Bolivia

# 2 – Venezuela

# 3 – The Russian Federation

HEADED TO PARIS – IS THERE ANY PLACE I CAN GET NAKED?

Q – My girlfriend and I are vegetarians, world travelers I suppose, fans of modern art, foodies to a degree, and, of late, folks who enjoy nudist activities. We are in our mid- 60’s and keen to take a day or two of our upcoming Parisian vacation to get naked in public without upsetting the gendarmes. Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

A –  Actually, nudists in Paris  have been in a snit over the lack of availability of  proper facilities and gathering places for naturalists. The government has now set aside a reserved space, a grassy space, in a nudist “zone” opened in the city’s Bois de Vincennes park. The government tourist board has been promoting holidays for naturalists and they hope to ensure naked tranquility by placing several warning signs about the designated area so the unsuspecting family might not just wander in to their skin wrinkled encampment. We think you will have a lovely time and the people you will meet in the park will advise of other areas of the city where nudism has the blessings of the authorities.  There are a reported 2.6 million naturism practitioners in France.

WE ARE SCHEDULED TO FLY AMERICAN OVER CHRISTMAS; SHOULD WE TRY TO SWITCH AIRLINES GIVEN THE PILOT SHORTAGE

Q – We’ve been reading stories of American Airlines pilot shortage and the likely inability of the airline to fly many of its flights over the coming Holidays. Is it time to switch to another carrier if we can find space? I really don’t want a “substitute, part-time pilot.”

A – No, this isn’t like elementary school.  American has agreed with the pilots union to pay pilots double what they would normally earn for flights they take on during their previously, and erroneously, scheduled vacation time over the holidays. The initial offer was 150% but AA has agreed to a 200% bonus. This seems to have worked well and it now appears that all flights will be fully piloted. This was all the result of a glitch in the computer program that assigns flights to American’s pilots so there may be an opening in the computer scheduling department.  Nothing at all to worry about at this stage except for the normal Christmas airport chaos. Holiday flying requires “twin reconfirms” – one 24 hours prior to scheduled departure and the second three or four hours prior to departure. If you fail to do this you may be spending your Holidays at a terminal Cinnabon.

HOTEL SITUATION ON ANGUILLA

Q – We love the island of Anguilla and have been going there for years since your firm was kind enough to plan a vacation for our family after Cuisinart opened. We are wondering if you could update us on the status of the best properties since Irma?  Thought we would inquire on this public site as we know there are others interested. 

A –  We do have that information on our Private Client site but happy to update the latest information here:

Belmond Cap Juluca – Had been closed for renovations during storm – scheduled to open late 2018.

Cuisinart and The Reef by Cuisinart – Estimated re-opening is September 2018

Four Seasons and Residences – Currently scheduled to re-open April 2018

Malliouhana – Plans to re-open in April.