Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles

AFRICA: Go North, East or South

Does the ebola virus outbreak make you nervous about visiting West Africa? That still leaves you with a whole continent to explore and treasure.

A longstanding, widespread ignorance about Africa in the United States predisposes a lot of would-be visitors to a hysterical view of events on the Mother Continent. And when it comes to Africa, mainstream media always stand ready to deliver hysteria in abundance.

The latest example is the current outbreak of the ebola virus that now affects a total of six African nations.

Five are in West AfricaLiberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and most recently, Senegal. The sixth is the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

As a virus that creates deadly infections and has no cure, ebola certainly is no joke, but a little perspective may be in order here.

As of this writing, ebola has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa since the outbreak was first recognized as such in February of this year.

Across the African continent, malaria will have killed more people than that by the end of the day, maybe even before you finish reading this. It’s been that way for centuries.

Yet malaria somehow has never stopped people from traveling to Africa for business, education or leisure.

A little more perspective. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, some say as many as 100 million, more than were killed in World War 1. Did the world stay home after that? I think not.

Ebola is scary. Terrifying, in fact. So if you’d rather wait until West Africa gets the current outbreak in hand before returning the region to your list of must-see destinations, that’s perfectly understandable. And at this point, it’s highly unlikely that the DRC was on your must-visit list, anyway.

Africa flags

Meanwhile, allow me to point out something that mainstream media will not tell you: Africa is a continent of 54 nations, 48 of which are utterly unaffected by ebola.

AFRICA IS A CONTINENT, REMEMBER?
At least nine of those nations are in West Africa, but you’ve written off that entire region for the time being, right? So what does that leave us?

It leaves us the northern, eastern, central and southern regions of the world’s second largest continent to see, explore and treasure.

In North Africa, it leaves Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Yes, Egypt. You remember Egypt, right? Cairo. The pharaohs, the pyramids, ancient history and culture that predate the birth of Christ.

There are no State Department travel alerts or the more dire travel warnings in effect on Egypt. None. Not on Morocco or Tunisia, either.

Most travelers associate the Nile, ones of the world’s great rivers, with Egypt…and only Egypt. In fact, the Nile is not just a river, but a river system shared by 11 African countries — Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

To see where that system begins, and what it means to life in nearly a quarter of the African continent, you’ll have to go south of Egypt and into East Africa.

THE OTHER “GREAT LAKES”
The first thing you’ll find out is that the Nile has more than one source. The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The White Nile has as its mother the far larger Lake Victoria, whose shore is shared by three East African nations — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

This also is where you find out that Lake Victoria is one of the Great Lakes.

That’s right: North America is not the only continent in the world with a Great Lakes region. The North American version has five lakes in all. Africa’s boasts 15.

Cross-border incursions from Somalia by the jihadi terrorists of al Shabab might make some folks a bit nervous about visiting Kenya these days, but Tanzania and Uganda have no such issues.

And no ebola, either.

So what do they have? Start with great natural beauty. Tanzania has 13 national parks, Uganda 10. Thirty percent of Uganda is covered by water, not bad for a country that is 100 percent land-locked.

Tanzania has Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits. In the entire world, there are 700 mountain gorillas; 400 of them live and can be seen in Uganda.

Another good place to see the beauty of nature and the majesty of the mountain gorillas is Rwanda. Indeed, TripAdvisor can show you a list of 62 different things that make Rwanda worth a visit.

NOT JUST IN KENYA
Kenya has worked hard to give the world the impression that all the Maasai people live within their borders, to the point where they’ve practically become a living symbol of the country, a very tall national brand.

But if you’re skittish about visiting Kenya these days, you can still get to know the Maasai in northern Tanzania, one of the 125 different ethnic groups that live in the country.

Uganda, a country no bigger than Oregon, has 56.

(NOTE: You’ll be hearing more — a lot more — about Uganda on IBIT in the coming days and weeks.)

Keep going south and there’s South Africa. Its wildlife. Its cities. Its wine country. Its coastline. Its history. A whole nation still sorting itself out, post-apartheid, post-Nelson Mandela.

But as you look south, you’ll soon realize there’s a lot more to southern Africa and just South Africa.

Angola. Zambia. Malawi. Mozambique. Botswana. Zimbabwe. Namibia. Each with its own charms, its own attractions, its own layered, complex past.

Off the eastern coast of southern Africa, a short cruise or even shorter flight from the mainland, you have the islands — the Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles.

Speaking of islands, there’s a lovely set of them off West Africa, untouched by ebola — the Cape Verde Islands. They even have their own airline that connect to the United States via Boston.

So as you can see from all the above, if you want to visit Africa without exposing yourself to major hazards, be they natural or man-made, it really isn’t all that hard when you’ve got most of a continent to work with.

All you have to do is turn off the hysteria of the mainstream media and do some research of your own.

Then find yourself a good, knowledgeable travel agent and start making plans for journey of a lifetime.

WHERE TO START
Some links to help jump-start your research. Let me emphasize that this is just to get you started. If you encounter a problem with any of these links, leave a comment or send me an email:

North Africa
Egypt
Morocco (in French)
Tunisia

East Africa
Ethiopia
Kenya
Rwanda
Tanzania
Uganda

Southern Africa
Angola
Botswana
Malawi
Mozambique
Namibia
South Africa
Zambia
Zimbabwe

African islands
Cape Verde
Comoros (in French)
Madagascar
Mauritius
Reunion
Seychelles

In addition to guidebooks and Web sites, make a point of seeking out expats from the African countries you wish to visit. Let them know of your interest and ask questions.

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.

BREAKING IT DOWN
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?

THE REASONS WHY
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.

FLYING FOREIGN
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.

NOT EVERYONE KNOWS
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.

NOT EVEN AFRICANS
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.

Comfortably.

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.

UPDATE
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.

DID YOU KNOW?
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.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
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.

Immediately.

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

cropped-Close-jets-e1370205064667.jpg

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.

DID YOU KNOW?
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.

AIRPORTS: Charge up…or else

Airport SWAT

New airport security rules may soon have TSA inspectors checking your personal electronics to see if they power up. If they don’t, there will be drama.

New security rules being implemented by the Transportation Security Administration could complicate your travel with cellphones, laptop computers and other personal electronics.

At certain overseas airports, security screeners now will be checking your personal electronics to see if they actually work.

If they don’t power up, they wont be allowed on the airplane.

The fear behind this new rule is that terrorists might try to use consumer electronic devices to hide bombs. Evidently, you can’t get explosives and normal working mechanisms into a device at the same time.

You can read more specifically about the new rules from the TSA Web site.

Right now, these new rules target airports outside the United States, but it doesn’t take much to envision it eventually being applied to US airports sooner or later.

Probably sooner.

What does this mean for you as a traveler? Simply put, it means you need to be diligent about keeping your gadgets fully charged. Because we all know that what the TSA taketh away, it seldom ever giveth back.

A little charging time before heading for the airport, therefore, can save you a lot of drama, not to mention a lot of expense.

From Film to Flight

Filming n location in China
On location in China

Want to use the locations of your favorite movies or television shows as inspiration for international travel? These sites can save you a lot of search time.

A few years back, I wrote about how you could use your favorite films or TV shows to give you a fresh, exciting list of vacation destinations. It’s still a good idea.

What I neglected to do was give you some online tools to do that quickly and efficiently. It didn’t occur to me back then that such tools would exist. But they do.

That’s right: There’s a Web site for that. Apps, too.

TheMovieMap.com
Most location Web sites are industry-oriented, geared toward helping filmmakers and location scouts rapidly identify prospective sites for new movies, TV shows or commercials. This one specifically identifies the locations of films already produced.

It’s far from being all-inclusive, and its search function seems surprisingly awkward at times, but with scores of films going back into the 1960s, it’s still worth a try.

One search of mine led to a list of film locations in London, England, which in turn produced a list of nearly 100 movies, some of which were shot in other locations as well as in London.

It also comes with an iPhone app that you can download.

You may need a little patience with this site, but the results should make the effort worthwhile.

movie-locations.com
What makes this site intriguing is that it lists locations not only by film title, but my actors’ names. The listings seem to be a work in progress, but there are enough of them completed to include this site in your search process.

filmneworleans.org
In recent years, New Orleans — and to a somewhat lesser extent, the entire state of Louisiana — has become Hollywood South. The combination of picturesque settings, ready workforce and eagerly offered tax breaks is just too good for filmmakers to pass up.

So if the first two site listed above still leave you wondering where to go, just head for The NOLA — and use this Web site to find your favorite New Orleans flick or TV series.

There’s bound to be one.

AIRLINES: New security fees

TSA inspector
TSA inspector

Substantially higher fees to pay for airport security could add $22 or more to the cost of your air travel.

This one case in which the federal government literally gets you coming and going.

In about three weeks, your airfares will be going up again, possibly by a substantial amount, but you can’t point a finger at the airlines.

Blame the TSA.

Yes, your friendly neighborhood Transportation Security Administration is hitting all travelers with increases in security fees which the airlines must automatically add to the cost of your ticket. Here’s how it works:

Until now, the federal government charged a flat $2.50 fee for each segment of a flight, with no more than two segments ($5) for a one-way flight or four segments ($10) for a round-trip flight.

After July 21, that $2.50 fee per flight segment goes up to $5.60 for each leg. Worse, there is no longer a maximum. If you have a layover longer than four hours on a domestic flight or 12 hours on an international flight, the next leg is treated as an extra flight segment — and that means another security fee.

So if you plan a circle trip that takes you to multiple destinations before returning home, the security fee could boost your total airfare by quite a bit. Per person, of course.

Opting out of these fees — for you or the airlines — is not an option. Depending on how their design their itineraries, some air travelers clearly will be hit harder than others.

But nobody gets away.

In its defense, the TSA says it needs the extra revenue to pay for the cost of securing the nation’s air and seaports, which the current fees have never dully covered. The new fees should to bring in nearly $17 billion over a 10-year stretch.

You may end up feeling a bit safer after all this, but your wallet almost certainly won’t.

My own feelings are mixed.

On the one hand, I don’t like the idea of anything that raises airfares, especially given how miserable the whole flying experience has become. I’m also aware, as you are, that airport security accounts for a sizable chunk of that misery.

On the other hand, I also know that TSA inspectors are as under-trained and underpaid as they are under-appreciated — including by me.

There’s a chance that Congress will intervene to reduce or block the imposition of these higher security fees, but there’s no guarantee of that. Meanwhile, there may be ways to avoid at least some of these new fees, but it will be tricky.

The key, obviously, will be to keep the number of legs, or segments, in your flight to a minimum. If you normally begin your trips from a smaller airport, that means traveling by car, bus or train to a larger “hub” airport, where you have a better chance of catching direct or nonstop flights to your destination.

You already see the two problems with that strategy, don’t you? One is the cost of getting to that other airport. The other is that direct and nonstop flights tend to be more expensive.

If you think this strategy can work for you, go for it…but do the math first, and carefully. Make sure the contortions you put your itinerary through don’t end up costing you even more money in the long run than just accepting the fees and forgetting about it.

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