AIRLINES: Fall fares falling?

There are forecasts for (slightly) lower airfares this coming fall. I’ll believe it when I see it. But be ready to book, anyway.

One of the writers in the travel industry for whom I have a lot of respect is consumer affairs expert Christopher Elliott. So when Chris says airfares could reach record lows this fall, I pay attention.

Knowing the airlines as we know them, I may be more than a little skeptical about that, but I still pay attention. And you should, too.

The factors behind his forecast are reasonable enough.

First, there’s the usual post-summer falloff in passenger traffic, what travel agents call the “shoulder season” — after Labor Day and before Thanksgiving. Families have wrapped up their summer vacations and the kids are back in school.

Then, there’s the matter of fuel. For once, it’s cheaper. With crude oil prices low and getting lower, the cost of jet fuel has been steadily dropping for the last couple of years.

With jet engines being the inherent gas guzzlers that they are, and airlines steadily replacing older aircraft with newer models sporting more fuel-efficient engines, that’s big.

To those points, now add the one that no one saw coming — a suspicious US Justice Department.

DOJ is investigating the possibility that airlines have colluded to take planes out of service to reduce the total number of available seats — and this artificially keep airfares higher.

Airlines taking older aircraft out of service has been a common occurrence over the last few years. but to the consumer, it just looked as if this was a step being taken by each airline to cut operating costs and keep fares where they are.

Apparently, someone at Justice thinks there’s more to it, specifically that airlines may have quietly conspired to send perfectly good airplanes to the “boneyard” to drive up prices.

Clearly, this is not the time to annoy Washington with higher shoulder-season fares.

So Chris definitely has logic and reason on his side in predicting a drop in airfares this fall.

Why then would IBIT be skeptical?

The airfares we’re talking about here are not total fares, only base fares, the bare minimum you can possibly pay for a flight.

And you already know that US airlines have spent the last five years piling on special fees to all but guarantee that you have to pay more than that.

The airlines made more than $3.5 billion last year in add-on fees alone. If they were serious about lowering your travel costs, they’d be reducing the cost of their add-on fees or even abolishing some of them.

Donald Trump has a better chance of being invited down to Mexico by Chapo Guzman for dinner and drinks.

The airlines will tell you, with some validity, that their expenses and overhead are such that they actually make very little in the way of a profit per flight — and that’s presuming the plane is full.

All of which leads me to believe that expected drop in fall airfares isn’t going to amount to very much in the end.

Still, if your schedule permits shoulder-season travel and Chris Elliott’s predicted price drop happens as expected, you might want to keep your credit card handy.

If you haven’t already done so, you also might want to register on an air travel Web site that will send you email or text message alerts when airfares to your chosen destination reaches a certain price. Three of the better ones are Kayak, Yapta and Airfarewatchdog.

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.


CUBA: The ferries are coming

A Balearia ocean-going ferry operating in the Mediterranean.

Carnival is the first US-based cruise line to win approval to sail to Havana, but any one of several sea-going ferries may beat them to the island. The race is on.

Four years ago, I told you that “lifting the US trade embargo against Cuba would open up a whole new class of cruise travel for Americans — ocean-going ferries. The possibilities are mind-blowing.”

Let the mind-blowing begin.

I was about to blog the announcement that United Caribbean Lines planned to start operating cruise ferries between Miami and Havana as early as this coming fall when I found out that they’re just the latest of a string of ferry operators setting sail from Cuba.

As of this writing, Baja Ferries USA, Havana Ferry Partners, CubaKat and Balearia all have preceded United Caribbean in seeking permission to run ferries between Florida and Cuba.

As today’s generation likes to say: It’s on.

Baja Ferries USA is the US subsidiary of the Mexican company that operates ferries between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland. Balearia is a Spanish shipping firm that already runs ferries between the Spanish mainland the islands in the Mediterranean, as well as between Florida and the Bahamas.
The rest are American start-ups that have yet to put a hull in the water.

Interestingly, while Washington seems to be issuing US-Cuba ferry licenses as fast as they can be printed, it’s the Cuban government that seems to be in no hurry to do the same.

I don’t know if this is a political ploy by Havana or if the Cuban bureaucracy was just caught unprepared for an avalanche of license requests. Either way, the expectation on our side of the Florida Straits is that the go-ahead is coming, and coming soon.

This time next year, if not sooner, travelers may be arriving in Havana harbor in rows of comfortably reclining seats not unlike those of airliners — except that the ferry seats will probably be wider and have a lot more legroom.

For those looking for both comfort and privacy, the larger ferries will come with cabins, available for a surcharge.

Some of the ferry companies plan to use traditional V-hull ocean-going ferries, large enough to carry not only hundreds of passengers, but cars and even 18-wheelers.

Others are talking of making the daily run using high-speed catamarans featuring thin, narrow, wave-piercing twin hulls that permit vessels weighing thousands of tons to cross long stretches of ocean at ludicrous speeds.

At the very least, this means that Americans wanting to visit Cuba will have two cruise options — the full-blown resort-at-sea cruise ship experience with multiple port calls, and the quicker, more direct ferry cruise, with only one destination and fewer frills.

Please note that when it comes to the ferries, I said fewer frills, not none. The larger conventional ferries are likely to feature many of the amenities found on regular cruise ships — bars and restaurants, shopping, even swimming pools and casinos.

And at least one of them is likely to be calling on Havana before Carnival’s new fathom cruise line arrives next year, even though Carnival got Cuba’s go-ahead first.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.


CRUISE: Carnival to Cuba

Havana harbor at sunset.
Havana harbor at sunset.

Washington gives approval to the world’s largest cruise line to begin sailings between Miami and Havana.

Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

It’s being announced today that the US Treasury and Commerce departments have given Carnival Cruise Lines the go-ahead to begin travel to Cuba, starting in May 2016.

There’s no comment so far, official or otherwise, from the Cuban government. Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party central committee, makes no mention of it. But there’s no way that either Carnival or Washington would go public without already having Havana’s blessing in their back pockets.

This deal is done.

You can read the press release here.

The ink has barely dried on last week’s formal reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba, so you know this has been in the works for a while, behind the scenes.

It all ties in with the launch of Carnival’s newest line, fathom, the voluntourism cruise experience we told you about last month.

For Cuba, this makes sense in ways beyond the obvious.

By opening up to US cruise lines with one of Carnival’s smaller ships, they can treat this as a warm-up — a “soft opening,” as they say in business circles — to prepare for the day when more and larger cruise ships start calling on Havana harbor.

And we know those days are coming.

The Caribbean cruise market is perhaps the most ferociously competitive in the world. Its two biggest competitors by far are Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Both have known for years that this day was coming — and although neither side would say so publicly — both have spent years quietly preparing for it.

There’s a certain swag that comes with being first, so Round One definitely goes to Carnival, but this is not over. You can’t tell me that Royal Caribbean spent the last several years building the largest cruise ships afloat, their Oasis class, without having Cuba as part of their thinking.

Carnival may be first, but you can bet your rent money that the competition won’t be far behind. The rush is coming.

Meanwhile, for those of you wanting to get a glimpse of Cuba before mass-market tourism from the States engulfs the island and forever changes the place, you might want to think about moving up your plans a bit.

Either way…got passport?

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.


CRUISE: Voluntourism goes to sea

cruise cruise Adonia
Adonia, flagship of the new fathom cruise line from Carnival.

Carnival launches a boutique cruise line that combines an ocean vacation with cultural immersion and volunteer work for its passengers.

Cruise lines face quandary. Their need for younger travelers is colliding with people’s craving for a more authentic, hands-on travel experience, the kind you don’t get lounging around shipboard bars and sun decks, or crammed into a bus on “canned” sightseeing tours.

For better or worse, that’s the image a lot of millennials — and some older travelers, too — have of cruise vacations. And it doesn’t make them reach for their passports.

Houston — or in this case, Doral, FL, home of industry giant Carnival Cruise Lines — we have a problem.

Various lines are trying varying approaches to attack this. Royal Caribbean is building enormous mega-ships packed with enough onboard amusements to make Las Vegas and Disneyworld equally nervous.

Some, like Oceania, Seabourn and Crystal, are going all-in on all-out luxury, doing their best to replicate 5-star living at sea. Others, like Holland America Line, are making a point to offer shipboard cooking classes and other learning experiences designed to keep passengers engaged instead of amused.

Comes now Carnival with something completely different: fathom — deliberately lower-case, but not necessarily lower key.

And definitely not what one normally associates with the Mickey D’s of cruise lines.

In reality, Carnival is the 800-pound gorilla of the cruise industry, owner of eight different cruise lines in addition to the Carnival flagship brand, each with its own character and personality.

Some of these names you already know — and on some cases, may have already sailed on:

  • AIDA Cruises
  • Costa
  • Cunard
  • Holland America
  • P&O
  • P&O Australia
  • Princess
  • Seabourn

Just this month, Carnival had added a ninth, fathom, which will be sailing the Caribbean out of Miami with a single ship, the Adonia.

In all, Adonia has space for just over 700 passengers, about the size of the original Love Boat.

By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas can accommodate more people than that on one deck.

But by far the biggest different between fathom and a conventional Caribbean cruise may be what happens when you get ashore.

fathom is offering passengers a chance to do work as volunteers for a week in the Dominican Republic. They’re calling this “impact travel:”

“Impact travel with fathom provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact.

“As a fathom™ traveler, you’ll work alongside established impact partners with strong community connections in the northern Dominican Republic. You’ll work alongside the people of those communities, immersing yourself in their culture, harnessing the power of that human connection to make relevant, lasting contributions.”

Passengers will choose from among three fields in they can volunteer in the DR:

  • Environmental
    Making and distributing clay water filters to communities without safe drinking water, or working on reforesting projects.
  • Education
    Tutoring students in English classes.
  • Economic Development
    Working with two women’s cooperatives, one that cultivates organic cacao plants for the production of chocolate, while the other creates marketable arts and crafts from recycled paper.

“…you’ll come home seven days later knowing that, for the people whose lives you’ve just touched, the world has become a little brighter because of you.”

Voluntourism is going to sea. Even their URL is not the customary .com site. It’s an .org.

It’s not all sweat and service. In between the volunteer work will be time spent on pristine beaches, in restaurants, clubs and shops.

Voluntourism itself is hardly new, and as you’ll see from the link in this paragraph, not without controversy. What’s new here is to have a mass-market cruise line offering passengers the chance to get involved in it. In that sense, the cruise industry truly is sailing into uncharted waters.

If it resonates with younger or socially conscious travelers, however, Carnival just might have found a way to give cruise travel a more positive image — and just maybe get more and younger travelers to go to sea.

On a fathom cruise, then, you’re going to get dirty. You’re going to get sweaty. You may even get tired. You’re also going to meet Dominicans, get to know some of them by name, get a taste of what their lives are like.

In short, you’re going to come away with a feeling for a culture you never would’ve got from the inside of that tour bus.

fathom begins operations in April 2016.

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.


TRAVEL: The Road Ahead for 2015

First of two parts

Golicz London

Travel that emphasizes spontaneity, spanning generations and genuine local flavor is what’s trending these days among Americans. Also, economic headaches on the other side of the Atlantic are making Europe a lot more affordable.

You might not recognize the name John Golicz, but if you’ve been to one of the seven Travel & Adventure shows held this winter around the United States, you know his work.

Golicz is the CEO of Unicomm LLC, the company that annually puts on the annual Travel & Adventure Show series across the continental United States, the largest travel trade shows in the country. He makes his living checking the pulse of the American travel industry.

And he took a few minutes this week with IBIT to talk about what’s trending these days with American travelers. Our chat may have been brief, but it was wide-ranging.

One of the biggest trends these days is a passion a genuine experience. Travelers are moving away from the “canned,” pre-packaged trips and looking to “keep it real.”

JG: “Right now, a lot of travelers are looking for experience more than luxury. Baby boomers are very much into cultural mixing right now. It’s all about authenticity, being engaged with the culture of the region more than just staying in a great hotel.

“People like the idea of getting into a new destination and meeting people, eating with the locals. They’re finding pop-ups in people’s home where the serve meals to visitors. You sit down with their families. It’s not free; you’re paying for it, of course. But you’re meeting real people and getting a taste of real life in that place.

“It’s a dynamite experience.”

Something that might be contributing at least indirectly to that quest for true local “flavor” is a willingness to be more spontaneous in their travels than in years past, Golicz says.

Where their elders were more likely carefully pre-plan their travel itineraries well in advance and down to the last detail, millennials armed with smartphones and the hottest in travel and social media apps are turning impulse, last-minute travel in something close to its own niche in the industry.

JG: “The millennials are certainly traveling more at their age than their predecessors did. a lot of their travel is more on-demand. They’re perfectly comfortable just showing up in a train or a plane, open up an app like Hotel tonight to find a room, then booking a ride from Uber to take them there, all without a lot of advanced planning, or any advanced planning at all.”

I’m from that older generation of traveler that likes to have all the trip details nailed down well ahead of time. Even so, I can imagine a certain exhilaration, a certain feeling of urban adventure, in just throwing a few clothes in the backpack duffel, punching in a few codes on a few smartphone apps and seeing where the impulse takes me.

Actually, a lot of us aging Baby Boomers are taking the suitcases out of storage and dusting off those passports. No surprise there. What has been something of a surprise to the travel industry is how many of us are taking our kids and grandkids with us.

It’s happening so often, Golicz says, that it’s now become it own category: multi-generational travel. It’s not just bringing families together around potentially life-changing travel experiences, but it’s also saving them a lot of money.

JG: “It’s really growing fast right — from grandma and grandpa to all the kids and grandkids, rounding everybody up and going somewhere together. Very often, they’re renting homes and villas where everybody can stay together under one room, and it’s very often cheaper than hotel rooms.”

Millennials, boomers, seemingly everybody in between — they’re all traveling. But where are all these going?

Golicz thinks he knows where they should be going. And oddly enough, it’s a destination you might think had grown overly familiar by now: Europe.

The reason is cost. The Old World, he says, is a lot cheaper these days.

JG: “There’s no better time to go to Europe. The value of the euro is almost on a par with the dollar for the first time in nearly a generation. A 4- or 5-star hotel in a European capital is almost than the same level of hotel here in the US, and that’s pretty exciting news.

“Trans-Atlantic airfares are down almost 10 percent. There are more seats flying there than fliers. Also, the fuel savings (due to lower crude oil prices worldwide) are finally hitting the consumers’ tickets. On top of all that, a lot of European economies are going too great, so Europe is a great value right now.”

For first-time visitors to Europe, he also had a suggestion to get the most out of that first visit — a river cruise.

River cruising has been a staple of European travel for decades, but in the last five years, it’s gone ballistic as a half-dozen river cruise lines try to outdo one another in building new ships and adding new itineraries.

Where an ocean cruise line like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or NCL might make a huge deal out of launching a single giant new cruise vessel, companies like Viking, AMA Waterways or Uniworld might launch a half-dozen new river cruisers on the same day.

And while those same lines are taking new river cruisers to South America and Asia, and are even starting to cast covetous eyes on the Mississippi River here at home, there are still plenty of vessels with that new cruise ship smell, plying the rivers of Europe.

And that’s the first-timers’ advantage, Golicz says, since there’s a shore excursion almost every day.

JG:”Don’t be afraid to try a European river cruise, especially along the Danube. You can cover a lot of Old World Europe in one week. Cities like Prague and Budapest have a lot of charm, and you can take notes along your route on the places you want to come back to and spend more time.”

Okay, that’s great for Europe. But does Golicz have any thoughts on the rest of the world? Yes, he does.

And that’s next.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.


Out of Ireland

Want to make your return from Europe a little easier on your body? Route your return flight through Dublin, where you can go through US customs and immigrations checks hours in advance.

If you’re going to Europe, there are lots of good reasons to include Ireland in your itinerary. Vibrant, historic cities like Dublin. Beautiful — and beautifully green — countryside. Lively, friendly people. Guinness.

Now the US government has added another one — a pre-clearance facility.

This is run by US Customs and Border Protection, and it does just what its name suggests. It pre-clears you for entry into, or return to, the United States. All the US immigrations and customs controls you normally would go through at JFK in New York or Chicago or Dallas or LAX, you do all that in Dublin or the smaller Irish city of Shannon.

Which means that when you finally arrive at your home airport after that grueling six-hour — or if you’re a West Coast traveler like me, 11-hour — trans-Atlantic flight, you don’t have to line up to go through customs and immigrations checks.

Just grab your bags and go.

In all, CBP has pre-clearance facilities in 15 airports in six countries around the world, but the two in Ireland are the only ones in Europe. Of the rest, eight are in Canada, two in the Bahamas, and one each in Bermuda, Aruba and Abu Dhabi.

For now, anyway. CBP is negotiating this year with an undisclosed number of other countries to add new ones in more countries. And for this traveler, they can’t come soon enough.

Until then, Washington has given us all an extra reason to let our eyes smile on Ireland.


An ocean of culture

Every four years, the peoples of the Pacific come together for a two-week celebration by and of the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia — and you’re invited.

Next year, while much of the rest of the world will focus on the Olympics and the World Cup, another gathering of nations that only takes place every four years will be convening from across the Pacific.

Thousands of artists, musicians, dancers, master carvers, weavers, jewelers and seafarers from 27 countries will come together on the island of Guam for the 2016 Festival of Pacific Arts.

Nowhere else could you get a taste, literally and figuratively, of all the cultures of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia at the same time. And only the best of every culture and every island nation get the chance to “represent” at this festival.

This will be only the twelfth such festival ever held since 1972. It’s never been held in the same place twice.

Whatever aspect of Pacific life and culture has ever caught your eye or captivated your interest, you’ll find its masters and its experts here.

This is where you find out that Easter island is about more than just monolithic stone carvings, where you meet the seafarers who still navigate the world’s largest ocean without the need of GPS.

And this being held on Guam, you also may find some reasons to return here once the festival is over — gorgeous white-sand beaches and world-class diving, equally unspoiled and relatively uncrowded.

Here, too, history buffs will find living memories of World War 2. Japan invaded Guam three days after Pearl Harbor. Three years later, US soldiers and Marines took it back in three weeks of vicious fighting that saw Guamanians rise up against their Japanese occupiers.

(If you run into Japanese on the island today, they’re more likely to be tourists and shoppers, the latter group zeroing in on the world’s largest Kmart, which happens to be on Guam. Not kidding. Word is, they shop for the larger clothing sizes they can’t find readily back home.)

22 May — 4 June, 2016


Cultural practitioners from:

  • American Samoa
  • Australia
  • Cook Islands
  • Easter Island
  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Fiji
  • French Polynesia
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Kiribati
  • Marshall Islands
  • Nauru
  • New Caledonia
  • New Zealand
  • Niue
  • Norfolk Island
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Palau
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • Samoa
  • Solomon Islands
  • Tokelau
  • Tonga
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu
  • Wallis and Futuna

"Never give a day away." –Camel