Category Archives: Air travel

The party band DW3 gets things moving at the pool aboard the Holland America Westerdam during the 2013 Soul Train Cruise en route to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. ©IBIT/G. Gross

SHOUT-OUT: Soul Train Cruise 2014

Preparations are underway for the Soul Train Cruse 2014 next month out of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. You’ll find contact information in the IBIT Travel Calendar over in the left sidebar.

If you missed the fall STC 2013 out of San Diego, you won’t want to miss this one. People from as far away as London flew to the West Coast to spend a week aboard the Holland America Westerdam for a week of sun, good times and seemingly non-stop music.

It just might be the best party held at sea.

You’ll find contact information in the IBIT Travel Calendar over in the left sidebar.

AIRFARE ALERT: Southwest puts Christmas on sale

For today only, Southwest Airlines drops one-way fares to $100 for Christmas holiday travel.

Up to now, I’ve avoided the Black Friday-Cyber Monday-Shop Til You Tase Somebody madness. But for this Cyber Monday sale, I couldn’t help but make an exception.

Southwest Airlines is holding a one-day fare sale for travel on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. No sale flight will cost more than $100 each way, or $200 max round-trip.

And some may actually be less.

(A hat tip to the folks at Smarter Travel for spotting this deal.)

If you need a place to stay, Southwest is also pushing a 40 to 60 percent off sale on hotel stays.

There are two catches. The first is that Southwest is not applying this sale price to its entire route system, so there’s no guarantee your destination will qualify for this fare.

The other is that this is a one-day deal only. As in…today. So don’t dawdle.

There’s a chance you can still afford to be home for Christmas.

N E W — the IBIT TRAVEL CALENDAR

If you have a travel agency or organization with trips in the works, you want to get the word out about your trips — and we’re here to help.
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The IBIT TRAVEL CALENDAR is a listing in the sidebar by month and year of upcoming major trips and travel events, with special emphasis on black-oriented travel. Just drop us an email with information, or send a link to your site.

Be sure to put “CALENDAR” in the Subject line.

This service is being provided free while I work out the design kinks. Eventually, that will change, but there will be plenty of advance notice before that happens. In the meantime, why not take advantage of a free service created to get more interested eyes on your events?

So get busy and send us your info!

LUGGAGE: Delivering the goods

Airlines will now deliver your luggage to your destination for you — for a price, of course. Still, it beats paying something for nothing, which is what we’re doing now with airline baggage fees.

© Rebekah Burgess | Dreamstime.com

© Rebekah Burgess | Dreamstime.com

Airline baggage fees. Travelers hate them, and for good reason. You now pay for a service that was free for decades, and you still have to lug your luggage to, through and from the airport yourself. The only thing less popular in airline travel might be sitting in the middle seat.

Between two sumo wrestlers.

Sensing an opportunity among disgruntled travelers, traditional freight companies like UPS and FedEx started shipping luggage. Some entrepreneurs went further and created businesses dedicated solely to delivering luggage and large, odd-shaped or delicate parcels — gold clubs, bicycles, skis.

When you pay these specialized companies, they come to your address and pick up your luggage. You go to your departure airport with only your carry-ons. When you land, you walk off the airplane and out the door. No wasted time playing luggage roulette at the baggage carousel, waiting for your bag to appear.

And when your reach your hotel or cruise ship, it’s already there, waiting for you.

These services cost substantially more than airline baggage fees, but you get a lot more for your money. Travelers are increasingly using these services, partly for the convenience and partly out of disgust with the airlines.

And don’t think the airlines haven’t noticed. They now are getting into the baggage delivery game themselves, hooking up with an outfit called BagsVIP to give your suitcase the door-to-door treatment. American Airlines was the first and others soon followed, the most recent being JetBlue.

To date, these airlines have set up luggage delivery service for their customers via BagsVIP:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American Airlines
  • AirTran
  • Delta
  • JetBlue
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United
  • US Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic

Under this scheme, you bring your bags to the airport on your day of travel and check in per usual. And yes, that includes paying the airline baggage fees. After that, though, you forget about your bags. BagsVIP picks them up at your destination airport and delivers them to your final destination for you, anywhere within 40 miles of the airport and within four hours of picking it up.

The cost: $29.95 for the first bag, $39.95 for two bags and $49.95 for three to eight bags. By comparison, I used Luggage Free to deliver one large rolling duffel to a cruise ship. The cost: $118. And the duffel had to be picked up five days in advance, or it would’ve cost even more.

So the airlines may be on to something here, especially outfits like JetBlue, which charge no fee for your first checked bag.

Likewise, some airline loyalty credit cards also give your your first checked bag gratis, which makes the BagsVIP service even more affordable. Delta is one example of that.

Knowing that the airlines annually are raking in billions of dollars in extra cash with all their add-on fees, it’s unlikely that baggage check-in fees will ever go away. If you’re going to have to pay regardless, you might as well get some extra service out of it.

It’s also safer, for you and your fellow passengers. Why safer? Because every year, people get hurt aboard airliners as a consequence of loading wrestle heavy, over-sized suitcases into overhead bins.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
Battle of the bins
You and your luggage — on different planes?

AIRLINES: Flying with students

Airbus A350

AIRBUS A350 — Airbus Industrie

Is it really necessary for airlines to conduct training flights with paying passengers on board?

The investigation into the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 is in full swing. As much as we’ve learned so far from the National Transportation Safety Board about this incident — and they’ve already told us quite a bit — that investigation is only in its earliest stages, far too early to draw any conclusions about what caused this crash.

Even so, one piece of information has already emerged that should give pause to anyone who flies commercially.

NTSB interviews of the flight crew have confirmed and amplified what Asiana itself has already said, namely that a pilot new to the Boeing 777-200ER was handling the approach to San Francisco International Airport as part of his familiarization with the aircraft.

What the NTSB interviews revealed was that the pilot in charge of his training that day was new to the instructor’s role.

I wonder how many of the 291 passengers aboard Flight 214 knew that as they approached Runway 28-Left at SFO, their lives were in the hands of a student and a freshman teacher?

It’s true that the new instructor was fully qualified on the 77. His trainee, though new to the plane, was hardly a novice pilot, with more than 9,300 hours of flying time to his credit.

Still, one has to ask: Do airlines routinely use regularly scheduled flights, loaded with passengers, to train aircrew? And if so, why?

I put that question to the Air Line Pilots Association and Airlines for America, the industry group representing America’s air carriers.

From the ALPA, I got a press release chastising the NTSB for “prematurely releasing the information from on‐board recording devices.

“The release of individual data points from the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder—without the context of the entire body of factual investigative data— represents a potential detriment to flight safety.”

The response so far from Airlines for America has been a thunderous silence.

When I’ve brought up this point elsewhere, the immediate reply has been, “We don’t know if that’s why the plane crashed.” That’s right. We don’t know.

Nor do I care.

If it’s standard airline industry practice to train pilots aboard planes full of paying passengers — especially during the two most dangerous phases of any flight, takeoff and landing — I do care about that, greatly.

There will always be a need for training flights, especially for large, powerful and complex aircraft such as wide-bodied jet airliners. Classroom study and flight simulators, no matter how thorough the one or realistic the other, can take you only so far up a pilot’s learning curve.

But is it really necessary to train pilots with passengers on board?

You board an airliner under the presumption that the men and women in the cockpit are fully trained, qualified and certified on that aircraft. The Asiana crash suggests this is not always so.

How comfortable and confident would you feel on that transoceanic or transcontinental flight, knowing that class was in session on the other side of that cockpit door?

But that was the situation aboard Asiana Flight 214 — one veteran pilot new to the airplane, another veteran pilot new to teaching…and 291 passengers with no idea.

We still don’t know if the airline industry makes a habit of this. If so, it’s a habit that needs to change.

How safe is your airline?

© Mtoumbev | Dreamstime.com

© Mtoumbev | Dreamstime.com

When it comes to aviation safety, all airlines are not created equal. You can’t fly the plane, but you can arm yourself with information to help you decide who to fly with.

Little by little, the pieces already are falling into place on the events that led up to last weekend’s crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco.

From Asiana, we learn that the guy at the controls was a veteran pilot but inexperienced with the Boeing 777 and was making his first landing attempt at SFO. For him, in effect, this was a training flight.

From the National Transportation Safety Board, we learn this:

  1. The pilot can be heard calling for an approach speed of 137 knots, the proper landing speed for that airplane.
  2. The flight data recorder shows that the actual approach speed was significantly lower — how much lower, the NTSB won’t say yet, but in the words of NTSB chairwoman Debbie Hersman, “we’re not talking about a few knots.”
  3. The throttles controlling the two engines were set to Idle.
  4. Seconds before the crash, an audible alarm sounded and the plane’s two control yokes began to shake, warning that the 777 was about to stall. The throttles were pushed forward for more power.
  5. About 1.5 seconds before impact, someone in the cockpit says, “Go around.” But it was too late.

And from mainstream media, we learn that the Boeing 777 overall has a solid safety record. Asiananot so much.

The investigators have been on the ground only two days, so there’s a lot we don’t know yet, and it may be a year or more before we have the answers.

Meanwhile, you may need to fly somewhere.

First, a little perspective. I flew commercially for the first time in 1964. When an airliner went down back then, it tended to take everyone on board with it.

Now, consider the Asiana crash. A jumbo jet rips off its tail on landing, slams the rest of its 700,000-pound bulk full-force into the ground…and all but two of the 309 souls on board are still alive the next day?

Trust me, that would not have been the case in 1964, at San Francisco or anywhere else. Everything about airline safety — from the design and construction of the planes to flight training, airport readiness and the skill of emergency services — is light years ahead of where it was back then.

Still, if the thought of boarding an airliner makes your knees go silly, you do have some recourse to protect yourself. You may not be able to fly the airplane, but you can take an airline’s safety record into account when booking your flight.

Airlines don’t talk much about their safety records. Actually, they don’t talk publicly about them at all. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t find out.

Here are some online resources for checking US airlines and air accidents in this country:

Checking foreign airlines takes a little more work and is a bit more time-consuming, but you can still do it.

The International Air Transport Association does operational safety audits on its 240 member airlines around the world, and will make that information public. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, they make you work for it. If you want safety audit data on a specific overseas air carrier, you have to:

  1. Go to this IATA page on their Web site
  2. Click on the link that opens their request form.
  3. Fill out the form and then email it to IOSA Team

The European Union’s maintains a list of airlines banned from flying to EU countries, a PDF file that anyone can access, instantly.

Currently, nearly all the airlines listed are relatively small carriers from Africa (Afghanistan and Venezuela being the major exceptions), which you may not find it too useful.

Still it’s comforting to know that it’s there and that the EU keeps tabs on such things.

Armed with the information available to you online, you can decide for yourself which airline you feel comforting flying with.

The IBIT Travel Digest 7.7.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

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THE PERFECT AIRPORT
As travelers, we complain a lot about airports, usually for good reason.

Too big. Too small. Too crowded. Too much distance between gates. Not enough seats in the departure halls. Not enough electric outlets to charge all our personal electronics.

what you ever thought about what you’d really like to see in an airport — other than the dissolution of the TSA, perhaps — that would make your travels easier and more comfortable?

And if you have thought about that question, what would your answer be?

The folks at Skyscanner, which devotes most of its efforts to letting travelers look up cheap flights online, decided to find out. So they surveyed 10,000 travelers and asked them what amenity they most wanted in an airport.

Of their top three answers, a library was third, sleeping pods were second — and the one most often suggested was…a movie theater.

Did you see that one coming? I sure didn’t.

You can see the rest of the results in this ABC News item here.

What would be the top three amenities in YOUR dream airport? Tell us in a comment!

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BUY A BIKE, SAVE A LIFE
The Japanese know a thing or two about strength, versatility and all-around usefulness of bamboo. So do Africans, who are building bicycle frames with it.

So it only makes sense for Zambia’s bamboo bike makers to sell their bikes in Japan — and with the encouragement of the Japanese, they’re doing it.

The Japanese are getting the newest idea in modern bike construction, using a natural, ancient material with which they’re well familiar. The employees at Zambikes are making enough money to feed themselves and their families.

You can read about it in this story from the Japan Daily Press here.

As regular IBIT readers already know, Africa is getting serious about cycling, and has its own small cottage industry going with the production of bamboo bikes. IBIT would love to see this catch on in the United States.

Bamboo just might be the ideal material for bicycle frames — light, very strong, with the stiffness you need to generate power but able to soak up road shocks. And bamboo is a natural, sustainable material.

What’s not to like?

For more of this topic, see “Africa gets her roll on:”
Part 1
Part 2

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CUTTING IN LINE
There are several reasons I tend to avoid major travel in summer, and one of the biggest is having to queue up in long lines.

You know the drill. At the airport to check in. At the major attractions to get in. At your hotel to check out. Here a line, there a line, everywhere a line stretching out the door or halfway to the horizon.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take vacations to exercise my patience. And neither, apparently, do the folks at Smarter Travel.

They’ve come up with a handy list of suggestions for how to jump ahead of the lines — ethically.

In some instances, it’s simply a matter of due diligence,i.e., printing out your boarding passes early or signing up for an airline or rental car loyalty program. In most other cases, you literally will have to pay for the privilege.

Either way, it figures to save you a lot of time, and when you travel, saving time is as important as saving money.

Put it another way: You didn’t spend all that money to fly to Paris to stand in line to see the Louvre, did you?

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LUXURY PARIS HOTEL GOES DARK
Travel Weekly is reporting than the Hotel de Crillon in Paris has closed for a two-year renovation.

If you’ve ever seen the inside of this place in the last ten years or so, you may well wonder what on Earth they need to renovate. The Crillon, sitting on the Place de la Concorde across the street from the US Embassy, has been a 5-star hotel virtually from the day it opened its doors.

Still, when you’re hosting people in a building that first went up in 1758, you need to do a few upgrades now and again.

Fear not, however. The Crillon is due to reopen in 2015. If you happen to be in Paris then, stop by and check it out.

And prepare to be impressed.

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AND FINALLY…
If you’re feeling a fear of flying surging (or resurging) within you following yesterday’s crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco, a little perspective.

I took my first commercial airline flight in 1964. Had this crash occurred back then, we’d be talking about two survivors, not two deaths.

Commercial airliners are vastly better designed and built now than they were “back in the day.” Airports are far better prepared to handle major emergencies. The first responders have much better equipment and training. And mutual aid in a major incident is not a bureaucratic wrangle, but a foregone conclusion.

All of those elements came into play on behalf of Flight 214.

Okay? Now, smoke this over: Yesterday’s crash was the first fatal incident involving an airliner in the United States in 12 years. We can’t go 12 hours in this country without a fatal car crash. You going to give up driving?

Didn’t think so.

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from the Associated Press via Yahoo!
Good news for frequent JetBlue fliers: Your loyalty points will no longer expire.

from Travel Weekly
American Airlines is experimenting with a new boarding procedure: Passengers with no carry-on bags get to board first.

from the Washington Post
Airlines are looking to create custom airfares specifically for you as an individual traveler, based on what the airline knows about you. A good thing or a way to keep you from searching out the best price yourself? Travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott weighs in. Pay attention.

LAND
from BBC Travel
Five cities around the world where you can live large while spending small. Side-by-side comparisons to similar but pricier cities.

from Budget Travel
How to save money when using your cellphone abroad.

from Budget Travel
The world’s ten most visited cities.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships afloat, will take a month’s leave of the Caribbean next year for a month of cruises in European and Mediterranean waters, including two Atlantic crossings, one in each direction.

FOOD & DRINK
from the Los Angeles Times
All aboard the Jose Cuervo Express. Next stop: Tequila.

from the Los Angeles Times
If you don’t have to rush back to work or school right after Labor Day, consider dropping in on a serious food and wine festival in Hawaii.

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AFRICA
from Travel Weekly
When it comes to natural wonders, there’s more to Rwanda than its famed mountain gorillas.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Kenya sets out to lure tourists from Morocco.

from the Tanzania Daily News via allAfrica.com
In the wake of President Barack Obama’s visit, Tanzanian business figures conclude the country needs more high-end hotels.

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
A once-seedy Philadephia street gets a hipster makeover. Out with the check-cashing joints and adult bookstores. In with the restaurants and gelato shops. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London UK)
San Francisco’s best bets for budget lodging. Heavy on hostels, B&B’s and small European-style hotels.

from the Los Angeles Times
Mexico’s beach resort city of Cancun boasts one of the world’s more unusual museums. To visit it, you’ll need a swimsuit and a snorkel.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from the New York Times
It happens every summer of the coast of northern China. A massive bloom of algae turns a stretch of beach the size of Connecticut into something that looks like a floating soccer pitch. Floating…and stinking.

from Travel Weekly
A new generation of cruise ships is taking to the Yangtze River — more spacious and with more amenities. But old-timers who remember the river’s towering cliffs before the building of the controversial Three Gorges Dam will tell you it’s just not the same.

from the Washington Post
The resurgence of tourism in Cambodia could hardly have a more symbolic example than this: A tract of land once sown with landmines by the Khmer Rouge is now the site of new luxury resort.

EUROPE
from the New York Times
These days, there are more reasons to visit Northern Ireland than to satisfy your fan-lust for HBO’s Game of Thrones.

from the Toronto Sun
The good news: A medieval tower offering stunning views of Paris opens to the public for the first time. The bad news: The climb up the stairs may take your breath away before the view does.

Spotted something you’d like to see in the next IBIT Travel Digest? Send me a message using the handy form below:

the IBIT Travel Digest 6.30.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

Angor Wat

© Paop | Dreamstime.com


CREDIT FOR TRAVEL
If you want to travel, especially internationally, you’ll need some plastic. Plan on bringing a couple of good credit cards, one for general use, the other reserved for emergencies.

(And no, I’m sorry, ladies, but a half-off sale at the Christian Louboutin shop in Paris does not constitute an emergency.)

But what constitutes a good credit card for travel? Frequent-flier miles for a particular airline or hotel, miles you can use anywhere with anyone, a percentage of your purchases rebated back to you as cash? Cards with or without an annual fee, cards that don’t charge fees for foreign transactions?

And how do you find them?

Well, there are Web sites for that.

One of the best known is Bankrate.com, a handy reference site for all things banking. Click on the “Credit Cards” link in the navigation bar across the top of the home page, then use the pull-down menu in their “Find a Credit Card” box to select among 16 different categories of plastic.

Bankrate also offers lots of advice on using your cards in travel.

Another really good one is CreditCards.com, which looks specifically at travel and airline credit cards, breaks them down by their features, and lets you determine at a glance which suits you best.

Happy hunting.

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TRAVEL IN THE HOT ZONES
When it comes to traveling, there are two kinds of hot zones in the world. Either the sun’s rays will have you running for shade, or the political climate on the streets will have you running for cover.

Egypt currently appears to qualify on both counts, but it was the latter last week that led to the death of an American citizen.

Andrew Pochter, a 21-year-old college student from Maryland, was watching a clash between pro- and anti-government protestors in the city of Alexandria when one of them stabbed him to death. The US State Department has since issued a travel warning urging Americans to put off non-essential trips to Egypt.

It seems fair to say that the bloom has been off Egypt’s Arab Spring for a good while now. If anything, the country appears to be in danger of sliding into a long winter of discontent.

I bring this up because there’s an ongoing debate among travelers and travel writers over whether it’s a good idea to visit the world’s political hot zones.

It’s true that people in most places will go to great and even extraordinary lengths to help and protect their foreign visitors, but it’s also true that your passport is not bulletproof…and neither are you.

How do YOU see this issue? Better to travel fearlessly, or better safe than sorry? Leave a comment in the handy box at the bottom of this post. Your answers will appear in next week’s IBIT Travel Digest!

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WORLDLY TREASURES
UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — has added 19 new locations to its list of World Heritage sites, bringing the total number of priceless historic sites to 981.

These treasures are scattered across the globe. At least one of them is a globally recognized cultural icon, Japan’s Mt. Fuji — which UNESCO respectfully refers to as “Fujisan.”

At the other end of the recognition scale is a place most of us have never heard of, in a country where it probably never even would’ve occurred to most of us to look — the ancient Kaesong fortress in what is now North Korea.

The rest were mostly in Europe and Asia, with three in Africa and two in North America — one in Canada and the other in Mexico.

To get a look at all 19 sites, go to the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

A site that makes this list is more likely to draw interest from travelers and scholars, and more likely to be protected from damage or development — which often amounts to the same thing.

On the down side, none of the five sites nominated in Ethiopia were even considered this year. When I find out why, you’ll find the answers here at IBIT.

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AND FINALLY…
Regular IBIT readers already know that we Americans get less vacation time and travel less than any other developed nation. A lot of us even go in to work on vacation days.

Now, it turns out that even when we’re on vacation, we’re really not.

A survey shows that a clear majority of us — 64 percent of men and 57 percent of women — work while on vacation.

It seems all those smartphones and tablet computers that were supposed to make our lives easier are actually chaining us invisibly to the workplace. We’re making calls or texting back and forth to the job, checking work-related email, all while we’re supposed to be away from work.

And we wonder why so many of us are so stressed?

It’s official, America: We’ve lost our minds.

And yet, those smart electronic devices can be invaluable for travel, from making reservations to helping us navigate around unfamiliar cities and finding the cool places to eat, drink and entertain ourselves.

What’s an Information Age citizen to do? Maybe ignore email and unload the work-related apps for a few days? I mean, the whole point of a vacation is to get away fro the routines of work and home for a little while.

Isn’t it?

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from the BBC
If you’re flying with British Airways, you no longer have to wait until the aircraft has come to a halt at the gate to use your mobile phone. Once the plane’s off the runway and on the taxiway, you’re good to go.

from CNN Travel
Can you gauge the personalities of air travelers based on whether they choose the window, aisle or middle seat on the airplane?

from the International Business Times
Several Asian and Pacific airlines join forces to ban cargoes of shark fins. Why this is a good thing.

LAND
from Budget Travel
The life, times and travails of a travel nanny. (And no, I didn’t know there was such a thing, either.)

from Yahoo!
And now, for something completely different in a bed-and-breakfast — a refurbished elevated platform in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 feet tall and 25 miles off the North Carolina coast. You can only get there by boat or helicopter. When the owners call this place a getaway, take their word for it.

from The Somerville, MA News
Old travel guides as collector’s items? Their information may no longer be current, but they can make for a fascinating read into a region’s past

SEA
from USA Today
The Vikings are going to sea. Viking River Cruises, one of the world’s largest operator of small, low-draft river cruise vessels in Europe, is building its first ocean-going cruise ship.

from CNN Travel
It’s definitely not all smooth sailing these days for the cruise industry. Overall satisfaction is still good, but nearly 20 percent of cruise passengers in a recent survey reported problems.

from USA Today
Carnival Cruise Lines, battered by multiple mishaps aboard its vessels, starts its comeback by adding more ships in Port Canaveral, FL and bigger ones in New Orleans.

FOOD & DRINK
from CNN Travel
Beijing discovers microbreweries. In a country whose homegrown beer selection currently consists of Tsingtao and a bunch of forgettables, this is good news.

from CNN Travel
Barbecue Brazilian-style. How to navigate your way around a churrascaria in meat-mad Brazil.

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AFRICA
from Africa Review
In the tug-of-war for global influence between the US and China, Africa is now the rope.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Two sites of wilderness beauty near Mt. Kenya named as World Heritage sites by the UN.

from Africa Review
The Next Big Thing on the world cultural scene: African art.

from Capitol FM (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
A tough-talking tourism minister puts her country’s unlicensed tour operators on notice: “Your time is up.”

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
Family visits to New York City — how to tackle the Big Apple with little kids.

from the New York Times
The long-neglected coastal city of Valparaíso in Chile is making a comeback, led by major cultural attractions and a thriving restaurant scene. Having the Pacific Ocean on your doorstep doesn’t hurt, either.

from the Boston Globe
A journalist decides to spend a week in Cuba before the inevitable end of the US trade embargo against the island, the place she calls an “exotic mystery.”

ASIA/PACIFIC
from The Guardian (London UK)
In the same year that UNESCO meets in Cambodia’s capital to add new locations to its list of World Heritage sites, archeologists uncover an enormous ancient lost city near the famed ruins of Angkor Wat, at least seven centuries old.

from CNN Travel
Ten new hotels in Hong Kong, each designed to appeal to a different type of traveler. Which one is your style?

from the Washington Post
When you think of alpine wildflowers, Asia probably is not the first region that comes to mind. The Daxue Mountains in China’s Yunnan province could change that.

EUROPE
from The Guardian (London UK)
Bear watching and booze cruising in Croatia.

from the New York Times
How to enjoy the alternative arts scene in Europe the way the locals do, on the cheap.

AIRFARE ALERT: Fare war for a day

© Mtoumbev | Dreamstime.com

© Mtoumbev | Dreamstime.com

American, Southwest and Air Tran are duking it out on a one-day airfare sale. The usual caveats apply.

When I started writing this blog, I used to get madly excited to learn of a fare war among the domestic airlines, and couldn’t wait to get the word out.

The most recent fare war offers a prime example of why fare wars no longer excite me so much.

The crew at Smarter Travel has detected a one-day, three-way airfare war between American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Air Tran, with one-way fares to some destinations as low as $59. It starts today and it ends tomorrow.

So much for the easy part.

Since Southwest now owns Air Tran, I tend to look at this as really a two-way fare battle between Southwest and American. But from the consumer’s point of view, is this fare fight a fair fight?

First, there’s the reality that these super-low $59 one-way fares aren’t really one-way fares at all, since they don’t qualify for a one-way ticket. The magic words that accompany these prices are invariably the same: “based on a round-trip purchase.”

The low-ball, one-way price is the bait. The round-trip requirement is the switch.

So what, you say, as long as I get a good deal to my destination. That, unfortunately, is the second standard fare war catch. These fares are designed to go fast, but odds are, they’re not going your way.

The airlines have pretty large route maps, with scores of destinations, and the bottommost of those rock-bottom fare war prices are almost never applied to all of them. Which means there’s a good chance that it won’t apply to anyplace you actually want to go.

But just for the heck of it, let’s say that, in this case, it actually does. Now, you have to contend with the blackout dates, those dates on which you and your super-hot airfare deal are not allowed to fly.

And that’s where this one turns a little odd. It’s a summer fare war, selling flights you can’t take in summer.

According to ST, the bargain fares apply only on flights between Aug. 26 and Dec. 18.

You have to wonder about the value of a summer fare war that won’t let you fly until the last full week of summer.

On the other hand, that flight window does cover the Thanksgiving holiday week in November, right? Wrong. That week is blacked out, as are Fridays and Sundays. And whenever you do travel, you have to stay over on a Saturday before you can come back.

Overall, when trying to take advantage of a fare war like this, you’ve got a lot of ducks to form into a row before it’s safe to whip out your credit card. Still, if you can make it all work, you could walk away — or fly away — with some pretty sweet deals.

So if there’s a chance one of these fares might work for you, check your calendar and your finances, and then see if you can round up those ducks. But do it fast. You only have until the end of tomorrow…and the clock is ticking.

The IBIT Travel Digest 6.9.13

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

Yuyuan Bazaar, Shanghai, China

Yuyuan Bazaar, Shanghai, China — ©IBIT/G. Gross

WINNING ON POINTS
There are travelers who have become so adept at using credit-card points, loyalty points and frequent-flier miles that they almost never pay for trips anymore.

One of those people is Brian Kelly, who calls himself The Points Guy. If you want to see how Brian rolls — and flies — check out his site.

Meanwhile, he also recently talked to USA Today about how he does what he does.

TECHNO-TRAVEL
The New York Times has a fascinating — and perhaps somewhat disturbing — piece on the growing use of technology in our travels, especially biometrics.

We’re talking everything from fingerprint and eye scans at airport security checks to a hotel wristband with an embedded sensor chip that automatically lets you update your Facebook status.

And there’s more coming, being used not only with travelers but with employees of hotels of other establishments that serve travelers, sometimes without even their knowledge.

The day is rapidly coming, if it isn’t here already. when we may need to take a vacation as much from our technology as we do from our jobs. From here, it looks as if getting away from the job will be a lot easier.

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BETTER TRAVEL SMARTPHONE TRAVEL PICS
And speaking of technology, are you among that growing number of travelers leaving their cameras at home when they travel and taking pics and videos with their smartphone instead?

The folks at Condé Nast Traveler have produced a truly useful online slideshow with tips on how to get better travel pics with your phone.

Smartphone cameras have a lot of travelers believing that getting great snaps is now just a matter of pointing and shooting, no need to fiddle with settings as you would with a camera. Others believe their phone has no way to adjust for those differences.

Wrong and wrong.

Even if your camera is built into a phone, you still need to understand its powers and its limits. The slideshow shows the kind of results you can get when you work with both.

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AFRICAN AIRLINES: GOING LONG, GOING BIG
Two of the big dogs among Africa’s national airlines — Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways — appear to be going all-in with the newest ultra-lightweight, long-range jumbo jets.

According to the African Aviation Tribune, Ethiopian, the first African airline to acquire Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners, is looking to add more of them to its fleet over next several years.

Its well-reported battery problems notwithstanding, Ethiopian is said to be well pleased with the Dreamliner’s performance and already is planning new routes to take advantage of its added range.

At the tip of the Mother Continent, meanwhile, SAA is eyeing both the Dreamliner and its competitor being developed by Airbus, the A350.

With African airlines having to fly thousands of miles to reach markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas, adding modern aircraft designed to make longer flights without stopping to refuel only makes sense.

While Ethiopian and SAA are going for distance, Zimbabwe, which has been pushing hard to boost its tourism in recent years, is going for size. The country’s national airline, Air Zimbabwe, reportedly is making noises about acquiring the world’s largest civilian airliner, Airbus’ massive double-decked A380.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from CNN
Airline kicks 101 allegedly rowdy high school students off a flight. The school wants to investigate the airline. This is going to get ugly.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
In a moment of apparent sanity, the TSA reverses itself and drops its plans to allow small knives aboard airliners.

LAND
from Budget Travel
If your idea of a cable car is confined to the ones running the streets of San Francisco, you may not be ready for these. No, you definitely aren’t ready for these.

from USA Today
Free things to do in ten of the world’s great cities. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London)
Simon Gandolfi, by his own description, is an out-of-shape Briton who just turned 80. So how does he celebrate eight decades of life? By flying to India and making his way back to London by motorcycle, solo. Rocking chair? What rocking chair?

from The Guardian (London)
Now, this is my idea of a European rail trip — Paris to Sicily, by train. Yes, I know Sicily is an island. And no, it doesn’t matter to the train.

from the New York Times
Bike sharing comes to Manhattan. One user finds it a mixed blessing for tourists.

SEA
from USA Today
Bad news for the cruise industry: A Harris Poll finds that the spate of shipboard fires in the last year is causing travelers to lose confidence in cruising as a travel option.

FOOD & DRINK
from USA Today
Do U know your Q? A regional breakdown of barbecue in the United States. Because unlike men, all BBQ is not created equal.

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AFRICA
from the Times of Zambia
Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park may be unique among the world’s land reserves in that it spends the first four months of the year underwater.

from Associated Press via Yahoo!
A UNESCO survey team finds damage to cultural artifacts done by Islamist rebels in the fabled Mali city of Timbuktu to be fare more extensive than first thought.

from the Seattle Times
Beautiful, diverse, edgy Cape Town.

AMERICAS
from the Washington Post
In San Francisco, the neighborhood known as Dogpatch, once a collection of meatpacking plants, is stepping up in class.

from NBC Travel
Tornado tourism? Yes, people actually pay to go out and look at — and pose for pictures with — tornadoes. A potential killer of a trip.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from Agence France Presse via France 24
A Chinese farmer restores a run-down section of the Great Wall of China on his own time and his own dime…about $800,000 worth of his own dimes.

from France 24
About two hours outside of Beijing, a luxury hotel opens in the birthplace of Confucius.

from France 24
Promoting South Korean tourism…Gangnam style.

EUROPE
from the San Francisco Chronicle
Is tourism in Turkey likely to take the same kind of hit from the current spate of street protests that Egyptian tourism did? In Istanbul, they don’t seem to think so.

from the New York Times
Do you love the fluid, vibrant colors of Claude Monet, the godfather of impressionism? Would you like to explore his country garden from which he drew his inspiration? You can, and without fighting your way through mobs of tourists.

from USA Today
In Europe, spending less for a hotel can actually contribute to a better travel experience. So says European travel guru Rick Steves. Been there, done there. It’s true.

from CNN
Want to chill out and kick back in style, and maybe work in a little exercise at the same time? Consider barge cruising in France. SLIDESHOW

Going long? Get in Travel Shape!

© Baz777 | Dreamstime.com

© Baz777 | Dreamstime.com

New airliners with longer range mean more hours in the air for travelers. Your best chance of reducing the misery? Get yourself ready.

It was the 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who first declared that “life is a journey, not a destination.”

Love your work, Ralph, but you never spent 16 hours in an airline Coach seat.

Hammered by high fuel prices like the rest of us, the airlines are clamoring for passenger jets to fly ever farther on one load of fuel — and Boeing and Airbus have designs in the works to give them exactly what they want.

That means the next generation of passenger jets will be spending more time in the air, which means you will be spending more time in the air.

If you have enough cash or frequent-flier miles, seriously consider buying your way out of Coach — or as I like to call it, Sardine Class. And for those really long international flights, you’d do well to go with a 5-star airline like Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Emirates.

(NOTE: When you need to find a 5-star airline, go to the airline review Web site Skytrax. Don’t worry; there aren’t that many.)

But spending double-digit hours in an aluminum tube at 35,000 feet isn’t much fun, no matter where you sit on the airplane.

So what can we do about all this? Actually, more than you think. Preparation is the key.

Prepare your body
Use the time before your trip to get in shape. Walk. Ride a bike. Swim. Go the gym. Tighten up your diet. You don’t have to train for the Olympics, but being more fit will leave you better equipped to handle all the stresses of travel — not just the flight.

But it’s not just your body that needs some prep.

Know your airplane
Before you book your flight, get to know your airplane. Using the Internet, you can find out:

  • What type of aircraft the airline uses on your specific flight.
  • Get seat information for that plane on that flight — a seat map, leg room (measured in inches and called “seat pitch”), hip room, amenities (electric outlets, etc.), and other factors (whether your seat has storage space underneath, whether your armrests are movable or fixed).
  • In-flight entertainment options. What movies will be shown, what kinds of music and/or games are available.
  • Meal information, including special meals you can order in advance.

Choose your seat according what’s most important to you. Don’t let the airline sit you just anywhere if you can avoid it.

Use the info about the entertainment options on board to determine whether you need to bring your own music and/or reading material, or whether you can get by with what the airline offers.

Eat, drink and be merry
The same is true of meals. In-flight magazines published by airlines sometimes contain menus for your flight, broken down by seat class. Check the online version of the magazine, or ask the airline to mail you a copy.

Also, consider ordering one of the airline’s special meals. They don’t cost extra, are often better than the standard airline fare and you’ll probably be served ahead of your seatmates.

The only catch: The airlines need at least three days’ advance notice if you want a special meal.

Keep yourself hydrated. That means water or juices. Go easy on the alcohol — or better yet, avoid it completely.

Pack wisely, and sparingly
There’s a delicate balancing act when packing for a long flight. The trick is to bring just what you need, and no more. And that’s not something you can work out at the last minute.

Shoes that you can easily slip on and off without laces not only will help speed you through airport security, but make you a lot more comfortable if your feet and ankles swell in flight, which happens often.

Those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows you see some travelers using maybe look bizarre, but they do make it easier to sleep on the plane. The tradeoff: They’re bulky and hard to carry…unless you get a good inflatable kind, which you can find from travel suppliers like REI, Magellans, Travelsmith, Travel Essentials or Le Travel Store here in San Diego.

A lightweight, easily packable jacket or sweater can help for those hours when the cabin’s air conditioning system becomes a little too efficient.

If you can’t afford those pricey noise-canceling headphones, try in-ear headphones to help block out the engine noise. Plain earplugs will help you sleep better.

Do your ears hurt because of pressure changes during takeoffs or landings? There are pressure-equalizing earplugs that can help you with that.

Mind games
While waiting to board your marathon flight, change your watch to the time zone at your destination. The sooner you get your mind and body in synch with the time over there, the less trouble you will have with jet lag when you arrive.

Once you’re airborne, trying dividing your flight hours into manageable chunks of time — say, two to four hours — and plan what you want to do with each segment. Read. Listen to music. Watch a movie. Get up and stretch. Sleep.

Breaking that double-digit flight time into single-digit segments will make you feel a little more in control and a bit less of a prisoner. And if you end up sleeping through a planned segment or two, so much the better.

Whatever you choose to do in those chunks of time, focus on it, concentrate, engross yourself in it — to the point that you don’t think to check your watch or the time on your cell phone. Use the alarm in your watch or cell phone to alert you when you’ve finished one of your segments.

The clock that knows it’s being watched can bring Time to a standstill, on an airplane.

For the same reason, try not to look at that moving map on the in-flight monitor that shows your plane’s position, at least until after you complete a segment.

When you want to sleep for awhile, put your seatbelt on, even if the overhead seatbelt light is off. If the plane hits a little turbulence while you’re snoozing, the flight attendant won’t have to wake you up to have you put your belt on.

There’s not much that’s going to make transoceanic or transcontinental flights a good time, but with a little preparation and a few tricks, you can make it bearable.

The death of Black Atlas

American Airlines’ online attempt to reach out to the black travel market quietly fades away. Was it just a casualty of the airline’s merger with US Airways — or its own scattered focus?

Four years ago, American Airlines brought forth on the Internet Black Atlas, a social media site that boldly proclaimed itself to be “your passport to the black experience.”

That passport has been revoked.

When you try to log onto BlackAtlas.com today, what you will see instead is this:

“Thanks for visiting BlackAtas.com. We’ve got a new flight path…aa.com”

“aa.com” is the default Web site for American Airlines. The message goes on to say that “BlackAtlas.com will become a part of the larger American Airlines travel community, and we hope you will continue to visit.”

Which is fine, except that you can’t visit Black Atlas…at all. It’s gone, history, past tense.

According to American Airlines spokeswoman Dori Alvarez, Black Atlas shut down April 29, but AA execs made the decision to pull the plug on the site late last year.

Ms. Alvarez also said the decision came entirely from within American’s management, not US Airways, American’s new senior airline partner.

“The merger itself did not impact this decision,” she said. “Rather, it is part of American’s new global strategy. We are focusing on more actively engaging all of our customers using American’s own communication channels, including aa.com, email and other digital / social media programs.”

That bit about “using American’s own communication channels” is telling because Black Atlas was not an American Airlines creation. It was put together for the airline by what Ms. Alvarez would describe only as “an outside vendor.”

Right from the jump, Black Atlas seemed to be swaggering through a minefield, from the moment it branded itself as “your passport to the black experience.” If you were born black in America, you’re already living the black experience. Do you need an airline to take you to it?

Probably not.

The goal for Black Atlas, as stated on its home page, was to become “the premiere destination for sophisticated African-American travelers.” Such travelers had little real need for such a site. How does digitally preaching to the proverbial choir grow your share of any market?

In strategic terms, the site seemed unfocused. Was Black Atlas trying to bring in new black travelers, or encourage more trips by its existing ones?

I was especially put off by what came across to me as condescension, as I said in my initial look at Black Atlas:

“At the risk of exposing myself as a less-than-sophisticated African-American traveler, why would I be hunting around Moscow for blues music, or jerk chicken in Milan or injera bread in Oslo? That makes about as much sense as Southern rednecks coming up to Harlem to look for tobacco-chewing contests, or German classical music fans looking for Beethoven concerts in Compton.

Are we really so insecure that we need to seek out reflections of ourselves wherever we go in the world? I’ve said it before on this blog and it bears repeating: If I’m that desperate for a taste of “home” when and wherever I travel, I’ll just stay home.”

When you looked at the site, it was hard to tell what it was trying to accomplish. In the end, it didn’t accomplish enough of anything to ensure its own survival.

The “outside vendor” may have made a mess of Black Atlas, but American itself is hardly blameless. A lot of people never even heard of the site until now.

How much effort did American put into marketing and promoting it to prospective black travelers? How much of its advertising budget went into touting Black Atlas in black newspapers, magazines and Web sites around the country?

Few, if any, of America’s cash-strapped black publications would’ve turned down a steady stream of ads for Black Atlas…and Internet users will view even a bad site at least once.

Still, the fact that you miss a shot doesn’t mean the shot wasn’t worth taking. The black travel market in the United States currently is worth between perhaps $40 billion a year.

As large as that figure may sound, it’s chump change when measured against the total estimated purchasing power of black America: $1.1 trillion.

Being in the business of moving people by air, American could hardly be faulted for wanting a piece of that — especially since, as we now know, the airline was treading in deep financial waters.

The travel industry as a whole — not just AA — has been struggling to find an effective way to reach out to black Americans and get them to travel. Thirteen years into the 21st century, the struggle continues.

You could argue that Black Atlas was a bad idea badly executed — and I’d probably agree with you. But American Airlines’ goal of tapping into the black American travel market was and remains perfectly “legit.”

It’s that goal that should remain the focus, because in a nation whose people are among the least traveled in the developed world, we are among the least traveled of all Americans.

And in the 21st century, that needs to change.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
Attention, black folks: American Airlines likes you! No, really!