© Americanspirit | Dreamstime.com - Air Force One Pavilion Photo

LOS ANGELES: The wings of fantasy

The Los Angeles area has some grown-up attractions to let your imagination — and those of your kids — take flight. And I’m not talking about the rides at Disneyland.

Ever notice how often our rhetoric connects imagination with flying? We speak of it as if it has wings. We talk of letting our imagination “take flight,” of letting it “soar.”

There are lots of travel destinations that will let your imagination take wing, or that of your kids.

The Smithsonian Institution has two great museums in the Washington DC area devoted to flight. The US Air Force has one of its own in Dayton, OH. And you can find spectacular air shows all over the world, far too many to list here.

But the place I have in mind is one you might not expect: Los Angeles.

LA will never be a sentimental favorite destination of mine in the manner of, say, San Francisco or New Orleans or Vancouver or Paris. Too big, too sprawling, not enough green, too much concrete, have to drive just about everywhere.

But that doesn’t mean that the place doesn’t have more than its share of cool things to check out. And when it comes to aviation and air travel, here are a few of the best.

A flight-oriented tour of Los Angeles begins at the city’s international airport, LAX, in the airport’s Theme Building. It’s been designated a cultural and historic landmark of the city, and you’ll have no trouble finding it.

It’s that ultra-futuristic, flying saucer-like, George Jetson-looking structure squarely in the middle of the facility.

Short of the old TWA terminal at JFK International Airport in New York City, there’s really nothing else like it.

The restaurant, sadly, is closed, but the observation deck remains open on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can watch the steady stream of jumbo jets landing on LAX’s two pairs of parallel runways from all over the world.

And who knows? The building itself could just might inspire dreams in your kids of designing iconic landmarks for a living.

The California Science Center is close to the old LA Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park, so it’s easy to find. It works to make science and technology a hands-on experience, so kids and adults alike can get something out a visit here. And admission is free.

It’s got some fascinating exhibits, everything from an old-school Douglas DC-8 jetliner to a Gemini space capsule and robotic probes sent to distant planets.

But the star of the center, easily, is the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

This is not a mock-up, like the Enterprise shuttle. This one flew 25 missions into orbit around the Earth. Endeavour also has a sometimes overlooked emotional importance: She was the shuttle built to replace the ill-fated Challenger, which blew up on launch in 1986.

If seeing a Space Shuttle up close doesn’t ignite your imagination, you may not have one.

Just getting this ship to her new home at the center was a show in itself, from her arrival at LAX on the back of a Boeing 747 to the creeping procession over city streets to Exposition Park. Traffic had to be detoured for hours around the route and some 400 trees cut down along the way. Even then, it was still a tight fit.

The trek covered 12 miles, and took two days.

California Science Center
700 Exposition Park Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90037
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s
Parking: $10 cars, $25 oversized vehicles. Cash only.
Phone: (323)-SCIENCE (323-724-3623)

NOTE: As long as you’re in Exposition Park, especially if you’re there on a Tuesday through Sunday, why not stop by the California African American Museum right nearby. Plenty of exhibits, plenty of history, much if not most of which, you will not have been taught in school. And like the science center, admission is free.

After a day at the science center, let the kids chill out with pizza and video games on the hotel TV. This one’s for the grown-ups — a tasty, pricey trip back in time.

You’re probably all too familiar by now with the cattle-car feel of today’s air travel. But there was a time when flying on an airliner wasn’t just an experience. It was an occasion, something to dress up for, to look forward to. That was especially true back in the 1970s, when the Boeing 747 introduced the jumbo jet era.

And the airline that most epitomized that era was Pan American World Airways. Just hearing the name “Pan Am” was enough to send images of glamorous, romantic globetrotting flying around in your head.

Pan Am is long gone, but Air Hollywood, a film studio that specializes in building airport terminal sets and aircraft mockups for movies and television, has created an exact replica of the First Class section of a Pan Am 747 interior — complete with its signature upper-deck lounge.

There, you can watch movies and be served a gourmet dinner, on real china with real glassware, by waitresses dressed as 1970 Pan Am stewardesses. A tour of actual film production sets and aircraft mock-ups is part of the package.

It definitely is not cheap — $267 for dinner in the First Class main cabin downstairs and $297 for the upstairs lounge — and yes, those prices are per person. On the other hand, not even Disneyland can take you back in time like this, and have you seen what Disneyland costs lately?

These dinner tours are conducted only a few evenings a month, you have to reserve this dinner at least a week in advance, and despite the high price tag, October and November are already sold out.

Air Hollywood
13240 Weidner Street
Pacoima, CA 91331
Phone: 818.890.0444
Fax: 818.890.7041

NOTE: If you have autistic children, Air Hollywood has a special simulation program designed to acclimate them to the process of air travel, from getting through airport security to boarding to a simulated flight and leaving the airplane. It’s called Open Sky for Autism. Seating is limited, but it’s free. Lunch is included.

For this one, you’ll need to drive out to Simi Valley to the Reagan Presidential Library.

If Ronald Reagan was one of your favorite presidents, you’ll enjoy the entire exhibit, but try to save the best of it for last. If he wasn’t, skip the rest and go straight to the star of this show.

To my knowledge, there are only two places in the world where an ordinary citizen can tour the inside of Air Force One, a President’s flying White House. The US Force Museum in Dayton, OH is one. The Reagan Library is the other.

Like its Dayton counterpart, the Reagan Air Force One is a Boeing 707, painted in the now-familiar Presidential livery and specially equipped and fitted out inside to accommodate the President and First Lady, top staff members and White House press corps. And like the one in Dayton, it’s not a mock-up.

It’s the actual Presidential aircraft that Reagan flew during his two Presidential terms, including the flight to Berlin in 1987, where he famously challenged then-Soviet secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

(The citizens of Berlin, East and West, did it for him two years later.)

You’ll also get a close-up look at the vehicles used in a Presidential motorcade, including an actual Presidential limo, as well as Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, though you won’t allowed inside either of those.

Take your kids on board and let them imagine what it might be like to travel as the President of the United States.

Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library
40 Presidential Dr
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s
Phone: (805) 522-2977

Air Force One is really just a designation. Any US Air Force plane on which a President of the United States sets foot — whether a fully fitted-out jumbo jet or the tiniest, most basic Cessna — automatically becomes Air Force One. No aircraft can use that call sign, not even the jets officially built for the White House, unless the President is actually on board.

Band playing traditional music in Old Havana

CUBA: Endangered species?

People and skyline of La Habana, Cuba, at sunset

If you want to experience this Caribbean island and its culture while both are still authentic, don’t wait for Washington to drop its anachronistic embargo. Go now.

After 54 years, a US embargo designed in part to discourage Americans from traveling to Cuba still clings to life, defiant in the face of logic, failure and common sense.

Still, it seems inevitable that this foreign-policy T-Rex will go the way of all dinosaurs. And when it does, Americans will be able to visit Havana as easily as they now can visit Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or the capital of any other nation whose policies have Washington “throwing shade.”

It’s just a matter of time.

There is a school of thought, however, that says you shouldn’t wait for that. Especially if you want to see Cuba in her most authentic form.

For all our love of travel, we understand that mass-market tourism can have dramatic — and not always positive — impacts on the culture of a nation, on its atmosphere, its “vibe,” if you will.

And ultimately, on its authenticity.

There are still people in Mexico who can tell you what places like Acapulco, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Huatulco or Manzanillo were like before the sprawling resorts, high-rise hotels, upscale restaurants and trendy nightspots swept over the landscape.

It’s all lovely, comfy, glitzy, sexy and fun — but is it real? This is an ongoing discussion, even argument, within the travel industry.

Mass-market tourism has an unfortunate way of turning wonderful destinations, especially the tropical locations with long coastlines, into over-sized cultural theme parks. Disneyland with booze and beach towels.

What’s worse, says this school of thought, is that as the landscape changes under the influence of mass-market tourism, so do the people. As mass-market tourism changes their world, they pour into the service jobs that tourism generates.

In many case, that means putting on a sort of cultural “show” for the masses of tourists. It all feels artificial, less a cultural experience than a mercenary exercise.

And sometimes, as they deal with ever larger numbers of tourists, genuine local warmth and hospitality become casualties.

Mass-market tourism is not a villain. Nobody intends for these things to happen. But happen they do, quite often.

And I’ve met more than a few people anxious to see Cuba before it all happens there.

Some, like JoAnn Bell of the Road Scholar educational travel company, will tell you that it’s already started.

But I promise you, the changes she’s seeing already are only a forestaste of what’s in store.

Now, it’s not as if nobody visits Cuba today because of the embargo. The country has had substantial numbers of visitors from around the world for many years.

But those numbers will pale to insignificance when Washington lifts its embargo against Havana.

American visitors will descend on the island like a human tsunami,a replay of the Oklahoma Land Rush, only with airliners, cruise ships and pleasure boats instead of covered wagons.

Some impacts, like the ones elsewhere that we’ve mentioned above, are easy to anticipate. Others are beyond imagination. All will be profound. Both for better and perhaps worse, pre-embargo Cuba will neither look or feel like post-embargo Cuba.

So if you have any desire to see what Cuba is like before that tsunami arrives, you might want to seriously consider planning a visit in the near future.

If you want to do that legally, there are licensed travel organizations in the United States offering cultural “people-to-people” visits and tours to Cuba.

If you’d rather thumb your nose at the embargo, there are travel outlets in Mexico and Canada that will help you do that, too. And thousands of Americans do that every year.

Either way, if it’s a culturally unspoiled Cuba you want to experience, time may not be on your side. Because the moment the embargo comes down, that Cuba is likely to become an endangered species.

Cuba Trips.org
Cuba Explorer
Globus Journeys
Road Scholar

Interior of airplane with people inside

Reclining airline seats:
Do (not) unto others

Rather than pricey seat-blocking gadgets or juvenile, combative behavior, try this old-school alternative when you fly: courtesy. Works every time.

The buzz in the airline industry these days is about passengers apparently losing their minds when the passenger in front of them reclines their seat.

Airline travelers of a certain age will remember when there was enough space between each row of seats for every passenger to recline in comfort. No need to worry about bruising someone’s knees or maybe breaking their laptop…or their nose.

To put it mildly, things have changed.

The airlines’ determination to squeeze every possible dollar out of every flight has seen them cram extra rows of seats into their aircraft.

That’s how it is in Economy, anyway.

The farther you go toward the front of the airplane, and the more money you pay for your seat, the more legroom you get. Which makes all this a non-issue in First or Business class.

Back in Sardine Class, unfortunately, “it’s on!” Instead of Star Wars, we now have Seat Wars.

Nowadays, when we recline our seats, or the passenger in front of us reclines theirs, it’s increasingly becoming a cue for airline drama. Passengers are defending their precious few inches of “seat pitch” as if they were the Alamo, and the entire Mexican army were occupying the seat in front of them.

Complaints to flight attendants. Foul language. Kicking the back of the offender’s seat. In some instances, fights have broken out — three in the last week or so.

Some passengers are even resorting to using expensive gadgets designed to block the seat in front of them from reclining, leading to yet more drama.

The result: Flights having to be diverted due to disturbances on board. Passengers have been kicked off airplanes, even arrested after unleashing their inner brat at 35,000 feet.

(NOTE: Some airlines prohibit the use of seat-blocking devices. In some cases, breaking them out will automatically get you in trouble.)

Seriously, people, is this the 21st century? Are we grown-ups? Air travel isn’t already miserable enough?

IBIT has a solution to stop this madness. It’s simple. It’s been around forever. Best of all, it’s free.

It’s called “courtesy.”

If you want to recline your seat, ask the passenger behind you. If they object, don’t recline.

As soon as you can, even before the plane takes off, politely ask the passenger in front of you to give you a heads-up when they want to recline their seat. Or even more politely ask them not to.

Anything beyond that, explain the situation to a flight attendant and leave it with them.

I’m reluctant to call this “common courtesy” because, frankly, it no longer seems all that common, if it ever really was. But I’m convinced it still works, especially if we all commit to using it.

And there’s no better time to break out a courtesy jihad than when encapsulated in an aluminum tube moving at not quite the speed of sound seven miles above the ground.

We paying passengers may not have created this situation, but taking our frustration and discomfort out on one another is unlikely to make any of it better.

We’re all in this misery together; we might as well cut one another some slack and make the best of it until we reach our destination, yes?

© Illuminativisual | Dreamstime.com - Ethiopian Airlines Photo

AFRICA: Ethiopian and United hook up

United logo

The new codeshare agreement between Africa’s largest airline and North America’s third largest promises smoother connections for air travelers between the United States and nearly the whole of Africa.

Little by little, the handful of Africa’s transcontinental airlines are reaching toward the US market. And America’s airlines, slowly and quietly, are reaching back.

The latest gesture came last month, when Ethiopian Airlines signed a codesharing agreement with United Airlines.

Ethiopian is the largest airline in Africa and has a solid reputation among international airlines. United is one of largest airlines in the world, one of the few remaining “legacy airlines” in the United States, and one of only two us airlines flying to Africa (Delta being the other).

Both already were members of the Star Alliance when they signed the agreement.

When two or more airlines agree to codeshare, they are agreeing to let the other airline(s) in the agreement list flights in the name(s) of the other airlines(s).

Essentially, my airline actually makes the flight in your name, under your flight number, while your airline pockets the airfare. And vice versa.

This enables United to sell tickets to African destinations without having to use its own aircraft and flight crews. Ethiopian can do the same for its customers wanting to fly to more US destinations than Ethiopian is now allowed to serve.

(As we’ve talked about before here on IBIT, our FAA allows African airlines access to extremely few US airports. As of this writing, only one of them, Los Angeles, is west of the Mississippi River.)

The new agreement means that Ethiopian will run flights on behalf of United between Washington Dulles (IAD) and a dozen African destinations, from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar.

United, in return, will operate flights for Ethiopian between IAD and 22 US cities, nearly half of which are in Midwest or western states — all the way to Honolulu.

So what’s in it for you as a traveler?

For one thing, it gives you seamless connections between your home airport and your African destinations. It also means that the frequent-flier miles you amass on either airline will be good on both, as well as many, if not all, of the other Star Alliance airlines.

And the Star Alliance just happens to be the world’s largest airline alliance, with 27 member airlines serving 192 countries.

Short form: This is a good thing.

AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 1
AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 2

AIRLINES: Anatomy of an airfare

Airbus A330 in Turkish Airlines livery.
Turkish Airlines A330. Image courtesy of Turkish Airlines.

Why does international air travel cost so much? A breakdown of a single transcontinental flight reveals just how much you pay in taxes and fees — and why.

If you’re like me, you dream of seeing the world. You read travel magazines, watch travel shows on television. The destinations are breathtaking. You want to go.

The you start pricing airline flights to some of those far-flung destinations. The airfares, it turns out, are just as breathtaking, and not in a good way.

To borrow from a rhetorical riff made famous by New York’s Jimmy MacMillan, the airfares are too damn high.

The airlines cry foul when they hear such complaints, arguing that airfares, often, are lower now than they’ve ever been, thanks in no small part to the many jumbo jets moving enormous numbers of passengers around the world every day.

So who’s right?

Welcome to Tax & Fee World, ladies and gentlemen. Wish I could tell you to enjoy the ride.

To see just how ugly it can get, let’s break down a typical international airfare.

Turkey, a living bridge of history and culture between Europe and Asia, is one of the destinations on my list of must-see countries. So let’s look at a round-trip airfare for two from Los Angeles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.

I also chose Premium Economy seats over Economy (or as I like to call it, Sardine Class) because LAX-IST is a 13-hour flight, I’m not a small guy and I don’t feel like suffering for 13 non-stop hours.

The fare that I found on Turkish Airlines came to $3,811.20 for two people, or $1,905.60 per person. But the base fare for that flight is $1,488 per person, or $2,976 for two. For a flight of that distance on an upscaled seating class, that’s not bad.

But what accounts for that extra $835 and change?

This Turkish Airlines fare comes with nine added taxes and fees, each charged per passenger. Seven of these are levied by the United States government:

  • An international departure tax and an international arrival tax. That’s $17.50 four times: $70.
  • A 9/11 security fee of $5.60. Multiply by two: $11.20
  • A passenger facility charge of $4.50, which goes to LAX for airport improvements. Again, multiply by two: $9.
  • A $5.50 Customs fee, twice: $11
  • A $7 Immigration inspection fee, times two: $14
  • This one’s for animal and plant health inspectors, the folks who keep destructive non-native plant and insect pests out of the US. Five dollars per passenger: $10.

Added together, that’s a hefty $125.20. That alone would be bad enough. But we’re not done. Two of those nine added taxes and fees are from the Turkish end of this trip.

There’s the international airport service charge of $15. Again, multiply by two. That’s another $30. So we’re now up to $155.20 in taxes and fees.

But I’ve saved the “best” for last, the fuel surcharge imposed by Turkish Airlines — $340. Yes, per person.

Drum roll, please: $680. And that’s before you’ve paid a dime in baggage fees.

(NOTE: Airlines have a more generous baggage allowance on international than on domestic flights, so as long as you don’t overpack, you should be able to get by without paying to check your bags.)

It all adds up to $835 in added taxes and fees. For that amount of money, you could fly round-trip between LAX and Miami. Twice. With enough cash left over to pay for a day or two’s worth of car rental.

So why should we have to pay all that?

First, note that by far the largest add-on goes to neither the US nor the Turkish government. It goes to Turkish Airlines to help cover their fuel bill.

All those who have no clue about the high cost of fuel these days, raise your hand — as you board your bus.

Two of those fees go to the airports at either end of the flight. Airports, especially international airports, cost money to run, and even more to upgrade. Should at least some of that money come from the travelers using that airport 24/7?

Four of the charges go purely to security — passenger control, customs checks, immigration checks and agricultural inspections. None of that is what you could call frivolous.

Only the arrival and departure taxes ultimately wind up in Uncle Sam’s general fund.

So the next time somebody agonizes aloud over the high cost of international air travel, you’ll be able to break it down for them. It won’t make paying it all any less painful, but at least you’ll know the reasoning behind it.

If you’ve never flown internationally before, you might wonder why I would choose a foreign national carrier like Turkish Airlines over a US-based airline to fly all the way across North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.

The reasons have nothing to do with bargain fares, since all international airlines charge pretty similar rates these days.

When traveling to a different part of the world for the first time, I’ve found that using that country’s national airline can serve as a nice introduction to that country and its culture.

It’s perhaps the most comfortable way to take that first step out of your cultural comfort zone.

Pride also enters into it. National “flag carriers,” as they’re known in the airline industry, are representing their countries to the rest of the world, and they take that seriously. As such, they work hard to make the best possible impression on their passengers, especially those from abroad.

So when air passengers polled by the British airline rating site Skytrax rate Turkish not only higher than almost any US airline, but also the best in Europe, it wasn’t a total shock. The in-flight service on major foreign airlines is often better, sometimes markedly better, than that of their US counterparts.

If you’re going to spend a half-day or longer flying halfway around the world, you want to do that with people who take your comfort seriously.

Traveling While Black: Hold Your Fire

We often assume that certain reactions to “us” from people in other countries are based on racism, when it’s really about not knowing. Better to hold your fire until you’re sure.

As Black Americans contemplating venturing beyond North America for the first time, we fret a lot over how we’re going to be seen — and treated — by the rest of the world.

Once on the journey, we’re alert for even the most minor of slights, which we often take as being deliberate disrespect, motivated by racial prejudice. Reaction is almost a reflex.

At the very least, it can ruin a carefully planned and very expensive vacation. The worst-case possibilities, you don’t even want to contemplate.

A lot of this has its roots in an assumption that, since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the rest of the world is intimately familiar with what it means to be Black in the United States.

The assumption is wrong.

Does this mean there are no anti-black attitudes anywhere outside the US? Absolutely not. But every uncomfortable encounter is not necessarily what it seems.

A lot of our experienced Black travelers have understood that for a long time, and make allowances for it. As a result, they seldom run into problems when they’re trotting the globe.

Me? I had to go all the way to China to learn that.

Throughout my China trip, I saw more Chinese tourists than foreign ones. Many were from the vastness of rural China, undoubtedly seeing big cities for the first time in their lives.

For them, a city the size of Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong is a seemingly endless series of mysteries, not the least of which may be the sight of a dark-skinned foreign tourist.

I later learned that their relative lack of sophistication earns them contempt, and sometimes abuse, from their more urbanized countrymen. What’s more, the Chinese government for decades has imposed restrictions on their ability to move to the big cities for education, work, even health care.

It would be as if an Iowa high school graduate needed an internal passport to attend the University of California, Berkeley, or go to Arizona for specialized cancer treatment.

If they know so little about urban life in their own country, is it fair to expect them to know all about “us,” half a world away?

Probably not.

This is hardly limited to China. In many places, all they know of “us” is what they read in a magazine or see in a film or a video.

It’s not that other nationalities are inherently racist, or hostile to Black Americans. They just don’t know.

This is often true even among Africans, whose cultural conditioning puts them much closer to Europeans than to us.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, even thought our numbers are gradually growing, Black Americans travel relatively little outside the United States. So a lot of people in a lot of other places don’t see us, don’t meet us, and as a result, don’t know all that much about our culture or our lives in the States.

Should we automatically condemn folks for not knowing? Should people elsewhere automatically “down” you and me for the things about other cultures that we’re clueless about?

If so, we could be in line for a lot of grief. Presuming that the rest of the world knows more about “us” than it actually does can lead to misunderstandings when we travel.

The last thing you need 10,000 miles from home is a lot of unnecessary drama.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to expect the rest of the world to know everything about our country, even to the point of expecting everyone to speak English wherever we go.

Whether traveling ourselves or encountering other travelers at home, we all need to cut one another some slack. Let’s get to know the world, and give the world a chance to know us.

When in doubt, especially in someone else’s country and dealing with an unfamiliar culture, it’s better to keep calm and hold your fire until you’re sure.

And even then, it’s still probably better to just keep calm and travel on.

The biggest little nation on Earth

Rome also is home to the world’s smallest sovereign state. Blink and you could miss it. But this tiny country does big things on the world’s behalf.

Next time you’re in Rome, just for grins, you should check out the world’s smallest country. It should only take about 30 seconds, just long enough to snap a couple of “here I am” selfies in front of it.

Officially, Vatican City, nestled within the urban footprint of Rome, is the world’s smallest sovereign state. Technically, however, there is one even smaller.

Much smaller.

This country doesn’t have a capital. It has a street address: Via Condotti, 68. That’s because the entire country consists of one building.

If your kitchen table has four chairs, you could have the entire population nation over for dinner. That’s because officially, this “nation” has only three citizens.

This country goes by several names. One of the better known — and shorter — of them is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, aka the Knights of Malta.

It’s a Roman Catholic Church order that claims the status of a sovereign entity — and is officially recognized as such.

This sovereign state actually has two buildings. The other, fittingly enough, is on the island of Malta.

If you put this entire sovereign state together in one spot, with all its citizens and associates, you could probably fit it all inside a single Walmart.


As with many other institutions you’ll find within the walls of “the Eternal City,” the Order of Malta, which includes many more than three people, maintains a lot of traditional pomp and ceremony. If you’re into European antiquity, you’ll no doubt find some of that fascinating.

But what hooked my attention was what these modern-day knights are up to in today’s world. These folks, who tend to be either rich or super-rich, have made “giving back” their life’s work.

Hospitals for the poor. Disaster relief. Refugee aid. Services for the elderly and disabled. Training for first responders and emergency service workers.

And they do all that in 120 countries.

They don’t care where you come from, what you look like, whether you’re Christian, Muslim or something else. They don’t care about your politics.

And they say they’ve been rolling this way for more than 900 years.

So if your rambles around Rome puts you in the vicinity of the Knights of Malta, pause for a moment and check it out.

And if anyone ever asks you where to find the world’s smallest country, you not only can tell them, but you can give them the address.

How to enjoy the world’s great cities

Shinjuku district, Tokyo
Shinjuku district, Tokyo / © Perati Komson | Dreamstime.com

Want to get the most out of the world’s big cities, without being overwhelmed? Think like a sushi chef.

You know the great cities of the world. Places like New York, London and Paris. Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo and Hong Kong. Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi.

Different continents, different cultures, different vibes, but all of them equally, mind-numbingly enormous. Within five minutes of arriving in this massive jumble of unfamiliar buildings, street and teeming crowds, you feel engulfed, overwhelmed.

Jet lag only makes it all worse.

Some of these cities boast an urban footprint so wide that it could take you an hour to fly across it. Some have neighborhoods whose populations exceed a million people.

It’s easy for mega-cities to intimidate a first-time visitor, especially when you don’t speak the language. But even a native-born American hitting Manhattan for the first time can feel lost amid the sheer density, intensity and enormity of the place.

Still, there are too many attractions in the world’s great cities — not the least of which are the cities themselves and the creative energy of their people — to kick them off your bucket list.

So how do you get the best out of a big city, without returning home physically drained and mentally steamrolled?

Start by letting go of unrealistic expectations. Fully getting to know one of these cities could take years, maybe a lifetime. You’ve got what, a week, ten days? It’s not going to happen, so don’t worry about it.

How, then, do you approach one of these mega-cities?

Think tapas, sushi, Szechuan. Tasty meals served up in small bites. You can handle the big cities the same way. Break them up into smaller, manageable chunks. Slice and dice your visit.

The reality is that every city, no matter how big, is still a cluster of communities, a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, its own personality.

So just go mentally Benihana on the place.

Most cities are already split into sections and districts — New York and its boroughs, Paris and its arrondissements for instance. Such divisions all serve to subdivide the world’s gigantic cities into smaller bits that a resident — or a traveler — can cope with.

Within each of these urban sub-units, you’ll find neighborhoods. Look for one that holds major interest for you. It could be anything — food, music, fashion, art, architecture, shopping, night life, whatever.

When you find the one that hooks your interest, find a hotel there and make that your base. Even better, find a vacation rental or short-stay apartment and become a temporary “local” yourself.

Turn a block or two off even the largest, most crowded, pulsating boulevards of the world’s biggest cities and you can suddenly find yourself in a small residential neighborhood, an island of calm and quiet, where you can encounter people as individuals and not a churning river of faces.

Walk around. Visit the local shops, eateries. Take advantage of public transportation. Look for excuses to strike up conversations with others locals.

Even if your visit takes you to other parts of the city, make sure you spend a part of each day making yourself familiar with some fresh aspect of “your” neighborhood.

When you return home, you’ll be telling people about your visit to Rome or Rio or Shanghai, but you’ll feel more like you lived there, if only for a short time. You will have mastered a little of one of the world’s great cities, instead of it mastering you.

And believe me, that’s a great feeling.

URGENT: US airlines drop Israel

Delta Airlines flight landing at Lindbergh Field, San Diego | ©Greg Gross
Delta Airlines flight landing at Lindbergh Field, San Diego | ©Greg Gross

Delta and US Airways pull the plug on their Tel Aviv flights after a rocket lands near the airport there. No word on what American and United plan to do.

The fighting now raging in the Gaza Strip between the Israeli Defense Force and Hamas militants just scored a direct hit on travel to the Holy Land.

News media worldwide are reporting that both Delta Air Lines and US Airways have cancelled all of their flights to Israel indefinitely after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (TLV).

They were later joined by Air France and Germany’s national flag carrier, Lufthansa.

American and United also fly to TLV. No word yet on what they intend to do.

The FAA has banned all US airlines from flying to Tel Aviv for 24 hours.

This comes on the heels of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Fight MH17 over Ukraine. The main difference between the two incidents centers on intent.

The Malaysian jumbo jet was struck down by an advanced weapons system that “acquired” the doomed plane on radar, tracked it in flight and guided a sizable surface-to-air missile to the kill. There’s no question that it was a deliberate act.

Most of Hamas’ small Qassam rockets have no guidance at all. They just fire them in the general direction of Israeli territory and they hit what they hit.

In any case, the close call at Ben Gurion was enough for Delta and US Air to pull the plug on their Israel flights until further notice. A Delta flight already en route to Israel has been diverted to Paris.

US Air had planes on the ground at TLV; they have been moved. A US Air flight to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles was ordered to land in Philadelphia.

This announcement effectively trashes the travel plans of thousands of travelers, especially students and religious groups that conduct trips to sites important to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

What would you do if it happened to you? What are your rights and what are your options? If your travel plans gets shot down, can you deal with it? More on that later.

LAX to Africa?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner of Ethiopian Airlines
Imagine courtesy of Boeing

Ethiopian Airlines could become the first African air carrier to connect the Mother Continent to the US West Coast.

This time next year, you may be able to fly to Africa from the West Coast of the United States — on an African airline.

Ethiopian Airlines has announced plans to begin flying out of Los Angeles (LAX) to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (ADD).

The LAX-ADD flight would make a European stopover in Dublin, Ireland (DUB).

This is not just huge. It’s historic.

Currently, the FAA allows only six African airlines to fly to and from the United States. Ethiopian will be the first to touch down anywhere west of the Mississippi.

The airline already flies to ADD out of Washington Dulles (IAD).

It’s but one in a series of ambitious moves signaling the intent of Ethiopian to be recognized as a major player in the air travel industry.

(NOTE: Skytrax, the British airline rating Web site, gives the airline three stars out of a possible five, putting it on a level at least equal to that of most US-based airlines. The highest rated African airline flying to the US is South African Airways, with four stars.)

Ethiopian already is Africa’s largest airline.

For the last several years, it’s been expanding its route map to Europe and Asia, and gone to Boeing for jumbo jets with extended range, including its new state-of-the-art 787 Dreamliner.

In 2017, another long-range specialist, the Airbus A350-900, will join Ethiopian’s fleet.

Its arrival at LAX will definitely raise its profile among international travelers, especially in the US, and could pave the way for the arrival of other African air carriers to the US.

But they aren’t stopping there.

The airline also is looking to open new routes to Madrid and Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.

Clearly, these guys are serious about taking the Ethiopian Airlines brand — and by extension, Ethiopia’s national identity — to almost every corner of the world.

When Boeing was catching hell for the teething pains of its new 787, from being three years late on its first deliveries to a series of problems with its lithium-ion batteries, Ethiopian Airlines stood strong behind both Boeing and the Dreamliner, even as other airlines delayed or cancelled their orders. That loyalty may have helped save the Dreamliner program.

A Dreamliner of Africa
AFRICA — The air game changes
The “Wings of Nigeria” reach the US
AIRLINES: Africa extends her reach

Movable luxury

Four Seasons Jet

If you want to go big, luxury resorts, cruises and even flights will lavish you with all the creature comforts you can stand — for a price.

Do you ever dream of seeing the world in style and comfort — especially comfort? Well, if you’re going to dream big travel dreams, you might as well start with a few dreamy details.

WARNING: Hide your wallet. The dollar signs are about to get scary.

Open Skies
If there is such a thing as a “boutique airline,” this subsidiary of British Airways just might qualify.

Open Skies flies Boeing 757s between the East Coast of the United States and ten gateway cities in France, starting with Paris.

Open Skies Prem class seats

Think of a 757 and you envision a big narrow-body airplane with 180-230 seats, a single-aisle with six seats across. Surely not the most comfortable way to fly to Europe.

Only that’s not how Open Skies rolls. At least, not entirely.

It does come with 60 Economy Class seats (they call them “Eco Class”) in the back of the aircraft — with the usual 31-inch seat pitch, 17.5-inch width and the middle seat that everyone hates.

However, that Eco Class seat also comes with leather upholstery. Your in-flight entertainment comes from an iPad that goes with your seat, pre-loaded with 70 hours of personal entertainment — movies, music, games, the works.

From New York (JFK) or Newark (EWR), your Open Skies flight to France will take a max of maybe ten hours. You’re good.

At the very front of the plane is their Business Class section. When you want to sleep, your seat converts into a fully flat “Biz Bed,” complete with Egyptian cotton duvet, a full-size pillow and your own pajamas.

Your gourmet French meals come with real china and silverware, along with some equally real French wines.

But the section that gets my attention is their premium economy section, which they’ve cutely labeled “Prem Plus.”

Prem Plus is actually similar to what Economy looked like in the early days of the Jet Age. Two spacious, plushly padded leather seats that recline 130 degrees, with an eye-watering 47-inch seat pitch.

Are these lie-flat seats? Obviously not. Will you care? Probably not.

The same iPad as in Eco class, the same classy French cuisine as in Biz class, along with priority check-in and fast-track security screening.

Overall, Open Skies reduces the number of seats to 105 total, meaning more space and comfort for everybody.

All this luxury, even in the relatively minimal Eco section at the back, comes at prices higher than regular airlines. Whether it’s worth the price depends on how much you value — or miss — your comfort when you fly.

Four Seasons Private Jet Experience
The upscale Four Seasons hotel chain is reaching for the skies these days, flying you to their private hotels and resorts around the world in their own — in effect, your own — private jet.

They call it the Four Seasons Private Jet Experience.

The resorts are all 5-star, but you may not want to get off the airplane — 52 seats total, all of them comfy lie-flats.

What else do you get? Plush carpet, leather seats, global wi-fi, gourmet meals.

I’m not sure what an in-flight concierge does, but it might be fun to watch.

(For some, the all-black Four Seasons Jet will remind them of the Big Bunny, the DC-9 jetliner that Playboy magazine magnate Hugh Hefner had converted into his own winged limo back in the 1970s.)

This jet can take you to any one of Four Seasons’ upscale resorts in Europe and Asia. But if you really want to go all-in, they’ve got a round-the-world package, which includes all your flights on this ultimate bird.

Cost? A cool $119,000. That’s a house in the Bible Belt, or a one-car garage in California.

As I always say, small dreams are a waste of sleep.

Luxury Cruise Lines
There are several cruise lines that qualify for 5-star status — with prices to match. This, however, may be the ultimate example of “You Get What You Pay For.”

Silversea luxury

And what do you get when you pay their eye-watering cabin prices? In a word, everything…and less.

Okay, so that’s two words. Stay with me here.

Luxury cruise lines are big on all-inclusive cruises. Once you pay for your cabin, everything’s covered.

Take Regent Seven Seas Cruises as an example. They list the following items as free:

  • Roundtrip airfare to and from the ship
  • RT Business Class airfare on European cruises.
  • Transfers between airport and ship/
  • Shore excursions (unlimited)
  • Specialty restaurants
  • Drinks, including alcohol
  • Open Bars, lounges and your in-cabin mini-bar.
  • Pre-paid gratuities for cabin and dining room staff.
  • Shipboard wi-fi

Of course, none of these items are actually gratis. They’re covered in the cost of your cabin or suite.

But when you all the out-of-pocket costs during a typical mass-market cruise — shore excursions, spa access, specialty restaurants, drink plans, and shipboard wi-fi — you may find that your champagne cruise tastes and your beer budget aren’t as far apart as you thought.

Other luxury lines that offer similar all-inclusive cruises include:

The “less” aspect involves the number of passengers on board. About 600-700 is usually the max. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships house more than that on one deck.

Fewer passengers means no long waits or long lines, either aboard ship or embarking and debarking.

It also means the ratio of crew to passengers is closer to one-to-one. So there’s always somebody waiting to tend to your every wish or whim.


None of this comes cheaply, so start saving. But hey, don’t you deserve a little self-pampering once in your life?

AIRLINES: Go international


If you’re considering your first real international trip, don’t be afraid to choose a non-US airline to start your journey. It could be your best flight ever.

More than a few Americans, when planning a vacation or business trip beyond North American shores, wouldn’t think of traveling on anything other than an airline based in the United States.

The idea of entrusting their trip to a foreign-flag carrier has them envisioning sharing a cabin with ducks and chickens while being fed strange, inedible substances by stern-looking stewardesses speaking some indecipherable tongue.

Or maybe it just scares them to death.

Such folks usually have one thing on common: They’re utterly new to international air travel. Believe me, the veterans know better.

That includes the writers over at Smarter Travel, who recently posted a list of seven airlines “that will make you love flying again.”

Of the seven airlines listed, only two — Virgin America and JetBlue — were US-based. AnD Virgin America is actually a US subsidiary of a British airline, Virgin Atlantic.

The other five chosen by Smarter Travel were:

  • Turkish Airlines
  • Emirates
  • Porter Airlines (Canada)
  • Open Skies
  • Asiana

Americans may have invented the airline, but when it comes to creating comfortable cabins and warm, efficient service with lots of amenities, America’s airlines find themselves in the jetwash of more than a few of their non-US counterparts.

The first two non-american carriers I ever few on were in Asia. Japan Air Lines took me from LAX to Tokyo, while Cathay Pacific shuttled me between Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

The JAL flight was aboard what was then a still relatively new Boeing 747, so the airline was going all-out to make a good impression, and it did. The flight attendants made you feel you were being cared for and the in-flight entertainment was state-of-the-art for its time.

That flight also served as my introduction to Japanese food, which was surprisingly good. One stewardess even patiently showed me how to deal with chopsticks (although I’m sure she had a great laugh about it later).

Good as that experience was, however, the legs flown by Cathay Pacific, aboard already tired Boeing 707s stuffed with Economy Class seats for charter flights, were unforgettable.

Multilingual flight attendants who were so attentive, they almost seemed to be mind readers. Incredible meals and drinks, served with real silverware. Great in-flight music and movies.

It was the first time I could ever recall feeling sad to leave an airplane.

JAL has since slipped a bit in the eyes of air travelers, but Cathay Pacific maintains its place as one of the world’s most respected airlines for the caliber of its in-flight service.

So says Skytrax, which ranks airlines and airports based on reviews by passengers.

Since then, I’ve flown national flag carrier lines from Europe, Latin America and Africa. Nearly all of them could go wingtip-to-wingtip with any airline in the United States in terms of their reliability, comfort and their treatment of passengers.

And more than a few of them, frankly but sad to say, leave their US counterparts behind. Sometimes, in the case of outfits like Emirates or Cathay Pacific, far behind.

Often, these foreign airlines actually represent their countries abroad — hence the term “national flag carriers” — so their crews and staff are highly motivated.

None of this means that all foreign airlines automatically are created equal, or are equally great. You need to do your due diligence when selecting any airline, domestic or not.

So talk to your friends or family members who have flown overseas. Check out the reviews on some of the many Web sites that feature airline reviews. Here are a few:

Indeed, flying to a foreign country on that country’s official national airline can be one way of starting your international adventure the moment you leave the ground.

The United States used to have a national flag carrier of its own. It was known as Pan American World Airways — Pan Am for short — and for 64 years, its blue globe logo was synonymous with worldwide air travel.

Indeed, it was one of the pioneers of the international airline industry, flying between the continents on propeller-driven flying boats known as Clippers that took off from and landed on water.

It was among the first to computerize airline reservations and ticketing, use jets for transoceanic flights. It built terminals at New York’s JFK international airport that were architectural wonders.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, when you thought (or dreaming) of traveling the world, you envisioned doing it aboard a Pan Am flight.

Eventually, time and international competition caught up with Pan Am and it faded away in 1991. Today, other US airlines fly the skies of the world, but none of them captures the imagination, or symbolizes American air travel, way Pan Am did.

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius