Monthly Archives: January 2010

Now Boarding: Thursday Hat deals!

My favorite time of the week… trip deals! Since all I’ve been doing is dreaming about vacation, this week’s focus is on VACATION PACKAGES (with some exceptions).

COSTA RICA package starting $779: This is a spectacular deal, if you’re into tours and packages. Jon and I spent more than that per person when we took off for Costa Rica last year with my severence check and rented an SUV to take us around. This package covers flight and eight nights in San Jose, Tortuguero National Park, Arenal Volcano, and Manuel Antonio National Park. It also covers breakfast and two lunches and two dinners, and tours of each park. It does not include, however, zip-lining through Monteverde or Santa Elena, or visits to the hot springs, or any kind of white-water rafting, all of which are one of those obligatory Costa Rican items (though you could add those to your trip afterwards, probably). This reservation can only be made by phone and must be done by February 2.

Australia from California for $399 one-way:  Qantas Airlines (a great Scrabble word if you are allowed to use proper names) is offering Americans a one-week trip starting at $798 round-trip from California airports. Its Web site even says: “We know time off is valuable for the Americans so a One Week Walkabout in Australia is the perfect answer to that break you’ve been longing for.” Oh, how well those Aussies know us overworked, vacation-starved Americans. Another fun fact: Qantas stands for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. Book by Feb. 1.

Greece Air & 8 nights for $1,299:  Athens, Mykonos and Santorini for 8 nights and airfare, $1,299 out of New York (slightly higher from other US cities)! What an amazing price for an amazing country, particularly as winter continues to slog along and teasing us with one day of 60-degree weather before plunging back down into freezing rain threats. Nothing like some baking in the hot sun, swimming in the azure ocean, hiking through ancient ruins and eating foods made of fried phyllo dough to boost your spirits back up. You can also save $100 with the code on the Web site.

Skiing packages from $778 via Houston or Newark: Continental Airlines is offering some spectacular fly/ski/ stay packages. For $778, you can jet to Steamboat Springs (from Houston) and get four nights, three days of skiing. Includes lift tickets (around $240 value alone!). You can also head to champagne powder country of Banff, in Alberta (yes, that’s a province of Canada) for six nights/ five days of skiing for $1, 275 a person. You can try to sneak in extra people into your hotel room and having them only pay the airfare/ lift tickets, but I’m not sure what kind of discount it will be. You can do the math yourself. Check the link above for expiration dates.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Now Boarding

Cool Tools: AirFareWatchDog.com

Airlines and search engines enjoying sending lots of lists. They are good lists, of course: lists of the lowest airfares and hotels, lists of great vacation packages, that sort of stuff that budget and time-conscious travelers like myself enjoy receiving. But after a while, it is sort of pain to sift through all those lists – and then those airlines and search engines have you on their own lists, and then you start receiving all sorts of other email, “SPAM” if you will; the next you know, you’re receiving e-newsletters for hunting and fishing magazines.

AirFareWatchDog.com is now my new favorite travel list e-newsletter to get, and so far it hasn’t sent any extra SPAM beyond the daily e-mail list of low fares from the three Washington, D.C. area airports. Every day, (or if you choose, every week) you’ll receive a list of low-fare flights departing from the airport you’ve selected. Alternatively, you can also receive lists of fare deals to a specified city, and even cooler, you can get them for city-to-city. So if you’re hunting for a good fare to, say, the Caribbean, and are flexible with your dates, you can check off “Washington to St. Martin” and keep an eye out for a fantastic fare. Not only that, the people at Airfarewatchdog look for fares not necessarily publicized anywhere else.

How it works: Go to www.airfarewatchdog.com and click on “Fare Alerts” on the left column. Then fill out your information. (NOTE: if you live in an area with multiple airports, only choose one! All the airfares from the local airports will be sent in the same newsletter. I first signed up for lists from BWI, DCA (National) and IAD (Dulles)… only to receive three of the same lists a day. I narrowed it down to just BWI, but it still includes DCA and IAD, as well as neighboring Philadelphia, Hagerstown, Md. and some airport in Delaware as well.) You’ll get to select whether you’d like to receive these notices daily, every 2-3 days, or weekly. Start watching your inbox for fares. Book and fly away!

Leave a comment

Filed under Cool Tools

Now Boarding: Monday travel updates

Mondays will now be Travel Hats news and updates in the travel world! Hope everyone on the East & West coast are staying dry.

Super Bowl Travel Scams(and World Cup and other major sporting events): So you would all know better than to respond to a random e-mail or snail mail offering a too-good-t0-be-true promise of cash and two tickets to the Super Bowl. But sometimes the offers are more subtle: two supposedly free tickets and hotel room, but you pay the airfare. Then you show up to a fairly terrible hotel room, paid the airfare, and then…no tickets! Be wary of this kind of incredible package deal for big events and work through reputable travel agents.

Weather to blame for Ethiopian Airlines crash: 23 bodies have been recovered after an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beirut, Lebanon to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Officials investigating said that terrorism was unlikely and noted that the stormy weather conditions probably contributed to the crash. 82 passengers and 8 crew members were on board. Witnesses reported a fireball falling from the sky shortly after takeoff in the early morning hours. While various African airlines have had shaky safety records, Ethiopian Airlines had a fairly safe history.

British Airways Strike revisited?  British Airways cabin crew members are starting the vote again on whether to strike while British Airways ramps up training for new pilots, engineers and baggage handlers to replace those should a strike occur. Workers are upset because financial difficulties with the airline has created a pay freeze, reduction of cabin crew on long-haul flights and switch of 3,000 employees to part-time status. The union, Unite, has promised not to strike during the upcoming Easter holiday.

Airlines increase checked baggage fees: Now that airlines have realized that checked baggage is its most promising revenue, they have began to raise those fees. United, Continental and Delta each raised their fees to $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second. Shipping companies have encouraged passengers to send their luggage by UPS, Fed Ex and the US Post Office to ensure its arrival and without the hassle of paying and hauling it through the airport.

Airlines upsell products: Paying for baggage, drinks, and food already irritating travelers? Soon airlines may begin charging for everything as a luxury measure, including blankets, pillows, gourmet food, entertainment, wireless connection and preferred seating, according to airline experts. Soon, airlines may sell seats at-cost and earn its revenue from upselling products and services on board, including its own version of SkyMall and eliminating the middle man.

China Eastern Airline computer glitch sells tickets for $2.90: Lucky customers who were online at the right time scored dirt-cheap tickets of 20 yuan, or $2.90, due to a computer glitch. That’s less than a cab fare across Beijing. China Eastern will honor the tickets, even though some of them were scheduled during the busiest travel season of the year, during the Chinese New Year.

Japan Airlines files for bankruptcy. Japan’s biggest airline is declaring bankruptcy after months of anticipation. The government plans to keep its planes flying, however, though many cuts will be made to do so. According to BusinessWeek, “the plan calls for about 15,600 job cuts, or a third of JAL’s work force, by March 2013 and will require the airline to halve the number of its subsidiaries which span everything from hotels to credit cards.”

Tax Tip: Donating miles to a charity are not tax-deductible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Now Boarding

Now Boarding: Thursday Hat deals

I’m starting a regular calendar now (New Year’s resolution): Thursdays will be full of great travel deals around the world! After scouring the Internet, I’ll report the ones I think are most worthy for time-and-money-budgeted travelers (to destinations I find worthwhile – I won’t send you to some skeevy cheesy hotel or at least I will try not to).

Virgin America: 14-day advance purchase through March 10 allows for some crazy low fares. $44 one-way SF to Las Vegas! $104 one-way Washington, D.C. (Dulles) to Los Angeles! $84 one-way Seattle to San Diego! From March 10-June 20, the flights increase a whole $10. Virgin has been reported (by fellow travelers) to be one of the coolest airlines around, with personal TVs with on-demand movies, Wifi, and generally makes flying fun.

London for $209 o/w from the US: Once again, Virgin steps in as the dealmaker of the month. Flights to London start at $209 one-way from JFK, $249 from LAX, $219 from Washington Dulles, $319 from Miami, etc. It’ll be chilly, rainy, but tourist-free! Through March 28.

Europe starting $209 o/w: It’s Battle of the Brits! From Washington, D.C. (and other destinations) British Airways is sending Americans to Europe for as little as $209 one-way to Barcelona, $219 to London, Paris for $259, Istanbul for $289, Amsterdam for $269, and Rome for $229. Don’t forget to add taxes (around $170). Tack on a six-night hotel stay package and rates, including air, start at $844. Through March 28.

Caribbean in February: It’s still considered high-season, with maybe a surge over Presidents’ Day weekend, but generally after the New Year it’s that stretch when it’s considerably quieter in paradise and flight prices drop by half, until mid-March (spring break yeah!!). There are minor surges around Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents’ Day, but other than that, you can score yourself a pretty good deal. There’s the three-star Caraibes Beach Hotel in St. Martin (French side) with beach and pool, suites with kitchenettes starting $780 for four nights and airfare. The sunny yellow Reef Resort in the the East End of Grand Cayman is $838 for four nights and airfare. Check Expedia for other deals.

Leave a comment

Filed under Now Boarding

Cool Tools: WhatsOnWhen

Some of the best reasons to travel somewhere is because of the happenings around town. For example – Jon and I planned our trip to the beautiful island UNESCO world heritage site of Visby, Sweden  to coincide with the ridiculously fantastic Medieval Week. We also headed out to Eastern Europe just as the heartwarming Christmas markets, with its lights, decor, mulled wine, fire pits and endless booths of fun crafts and items descended upon square after square.

Enter WhatsOnWhen.com, a site by Frommers dedicated to events around the world. Already in San Sebastien? You might be able to catch the Tamborrada Drum Parade happening today. Going to Bhutan  in March? There’s the Paro Tsechu, “the most spectacular and deeply symbolic of the Buddhist festivals celebrated in Bhutan. Devotees dressed in traditional finery flock to the Paro Dzong monastic fortress to bear witness to their Buddhist faith and receive blessings.” Looking to do a marathon somewhere interesting? Try the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, which takes you through a tour of the impressive city sites. Or perhaps you’re more of a ballet person, in which case the Royal Ballet in London is performing Romeo and Juliet.

Search the site through a number of categories (kids, sports, classical music, arts, gay & lesbian, science & knowledge, festivals, music & nightlife, and weird & wonderful), by location, or by date, or a combination of all. Each listing provides time, location, maps, cost and other information you’ll need. Once you’re there, you’ll probably catch wind of the event from locals and other tourists.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cool Tools

In the Suitcase: Volunteer vacations

Who hasn’t dreamt of living out of a hut in Kenya and playing with orphaned children, helping them read or put on clothes or singing songs together. I mean, what a great romantic cliche many 22-year-old college graduates think they’ll experience as they turn their tassles and march into the Real World (and I mean a third-world version of the MTV show). You’ve seen the pictures: white girl/ guy in her/his early 20’s, wearing some outfit from a Guatamalan market (regardless of whether they’re in Thailand or Russia or Guatamala) and maybe an unshaven face, surrounded by little African or Latino children with big smiles on their faces. Then many are sadly disappointed when they realize how 1. disorganized the operation was, 2. how not-really-needing-their-help the people turned out to be, 3. how unpleasant it can be to take cold showers and be eaten for lunch with mosquitos every day, and 4. how, in fact, boring it turned out to be.

I had the itch after college to go over with the Peace Corps somewhere and single-handedly change the world, one village at a time. Sometimes I still have that itch, which has grown more while planning a trip to Tanzania this summer and while watching the devastation in Haiti. I had volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Paraguay several years ago, helping some families build new homes. Of course, I still had to shell out about $1,600 and ended up playing with three toddlers the whole time anyway, ever since the local bricklayer looked me up and down and decided I wasn’t competent enough to build a house (and rightfully so – I would hate to be responsible for a house caving in).

However, I still believe in volunteer vacations. Why? I think it’s an excellent way to mix in with the locals, which is the best way to see a country. You don’t get to really experience the flavors and sites from an air-conditioned jeep shuttling you around on safari to your next luxury tent with electricity, but you will living in someone’s house and eating the meals with their family and taking their cold showers. And, in theory, you are helping out people who could use the help.

 Questions I’ve run into about volunteer vacations:

Q. Why am I paying to volunteer?

A. Because while your help is appreciated, your money is even more appreciated. Your money can buy supplies and medicines that, unless you are a pharmaceutical company, you as an individual can’t really provide. You are also not really trained in anything useful to them unless you stay for a long time and are hired for that purpose (i.e. nurse, doctor, teacher, systems analyst). Your money also pays for your food and housing during the time you’re volunteering. So, yes, you can also just donate that money and stay home, but at least you get a trip out of it, tax-deductible.

Q. Why do these organizations seem so disorganized?

A. Because many are underfunded and because they are communicating across cultural, language and distance barriers. You might show up at an orphanage ready to show these kids all the love and attention you think they’re missing, only to find that the orphange employees spend most of their time just watching TV with nobody to show you the ropes. When volunteering, a lot of times you’ll have to take the initiative to ask what you can do and even just jump in.

Q: How do I choose a volunteer group?

A: There are so many out there it’s difficult to choose, and depends on what you’d like to do. It helps to check with your local university for the more reputable ones. You also want to find one that is non-profit, rather than for-profit. Habitat for Humanity builds houses around the world. It is a Christian organization, so some leaders will make it a sort of biblical retreat (I almost went to Portugal on a trip that was going to pray before every meal and have bible study, but I ended up on a Paraguayan one where we drank a lot of beer and, well, didn’t pray). Doctors Without Borders look for doctors, nurses, public health professionals and also non-health professionals to help out in countries where medical care is critical. Cross-Cultural Solutions is another organization that provides opportunities for teaching, community development, healthcare and care-giving. Jon worked in a children’s hospital in Ecuador through Experiential Learning International and the kids just adored him and showered him with hand-made gifts. There’s also Global Volunteers, Global Citizens Network, EarthWatch, Partners of the Americas, to name a few other reputable organizations.

Q. How do I know I’ll be safe?

If you are researching online and having a hard time deciding, check www.abroadreviews.com which is a third-party site for various programs. You’ll want to check that an organization is legit and not going to disappear with your deposit, or put your in any danger or abandon you in the middle of a bad situation. HOWEVER, I am still leery of doing anything strictly online, because you’ll never know if the same people involved in the organization are the ones posting fake reviews on these other sites. Apparently, some are also run by corrupt companies with a volunteer facade, or even cults who may try to recruit you into their sect. You should also be aware how well your safety will be kept while you’re abroad, particularly women.

Note about Haiti and similar devastations in other countries: The best thing you can give right now is MONEY. Sure, it would be very nice to go there in person and hand out water bottles to the ravaged, but unless you know how to repair the concrete and asphalts at the sea and airports so aid can come in, you’re much better sending money. The time to go to these areas to help is maybe a year later, when the countries begin rebuilding.

2 Comments

Filed under In The Suitcase

Getting Lost In: San Diego!

Really, there is nothing quite like touching down in 75-degree weather when the rest of the country is experiencing a cold spell, even in Miami (24 degrees?!).  And after staring down from your plane window at miles and miles of white squares across the whole country, it’s no wonder that southern California has its share of tanned airheads – no cold front to bring them back down to earth, even for a short winter.

Not that I’m complaining, as we were thrilled to arrive even into a 50-degree evening into LAX. We took our rental car down the next day to San Diego to visit my friend Josh, who recently moved near La Jolla (the posh part of town).  San Diego is an incredibly beachy town, and the residents move there to surf and play beach volleyball, or because they’re stationed at Camp Pendleton, or because they are doing their residency at UCSD medical school. But visitors come for more than just the beach. Because I haven’t frequented San Diego enough, there’s always something new to see or do in this beautiful weather and town to make a daytrip worthwhile.

Sea World/ San Diego Zoo/ Wild Animal Park. These are San Diego’s staples (next to the beach), good ways to pass an entire day and spend $70 in one place, especially if you have little ones. Sea World is even more interesting just because it has aquatic creatures and you’re near the ocean, so if you’ve never been, it may be worth the visit. Kiddos 3-9 are only $59! The Zoo costs less – $37 for adults, $27 for kids 3-11, and you can get a $70 pass to both Zoo and Wild Animal Park ($50 for kids) or even a combination Zoo-Wild-Sea for $121 ($99). The Wild Animal Park allows you to wander among the animals and pet giraffes who roam freely, while the zoo houses the famous and adorable pandas.

Torrey Pines State Reserve. For some easy and incredibly scenic hikes along the cliffs above the ocean (beware of crashing cliffs!), head to Torrey Pines State Park. Dramatic cliffs, caves and erosion that makes it look like Bryce Canyon line this coastal area, where softball-sized seaweed and smooth rocks dot the beach. The beach is also packed down enough for runners to have a long length of running course. It’s $10 to park inside, but if you park your car in the lot right outside the entrance, you can walk on in for free.

Watching harbor seals on the beach. At Casa Beach in La Jolla, many friendly seals ork their way onto the sandy shores to tan in the sunshine. This area can be roped off in winter when the pups are born, but still visible.

Gas Lamp Quarter. Now here is a wonderful example of a city really pushing its revitalization efforts (San Antonio’s Riverwalk; Culver City, Calif; downtown St. Louis, Missouri). Fortunately, it’s a little less Disney-like than what some other cities have done.  A walkable, slightly touristy, slightly trendy historic neighborhood lets you park your car and roam through the restaurants, bars and shopping scene. There are plenty of fine dining options, but I’d like to plug Acqua Al 2 (322 5th Ave, 619-230-0382) which is famous for its blueberry steak. I have actually only been to its other location in Florence, Italy, and if the food is anything as phenomenal as it was there, then you’re in for a tremendous culinary experience.

Las Americas outlet shopping. It’s home to all your favorite outlet stores, and includes one of few Neiman Marcus Last Call outlets (anyone want a pair of Jimmy Choo for $100?). But what’s mostly fun about this place is its proximity to the Mexican border, where you can see the Mexican flag waving large and proud on the other side. 

Wavehouse. Okay, so the ocean is right across the street, but there’s the Wavehouse at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, featuring the Flow Rider. It’s a wave machine on which you ride either a boogie board or a little skateboard without wheels. There’s also an outdoor bar and dining scene surrounding the Flow Riders, and occasional concerts and parties. I’ve experienced riding one during my days as editor of Aquatics International, and was pretty terrible at it. While you’ll probably wipe out endless times before you get the hang of it, it sure beats riding that rickety wooden roller coaster next door which left me bruised and very sore.

Leave a comment

Filed under Getting Lost In..., North America