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SITE REVIEW: Hopper

SITE: Hopper

TYPE: Travel planning engine

CAN I BOOK FROM THIS SITE? No

FOUNDERS: Frederic Lalonde, Joost Ouwerkerk

BASE: Boston, Montreal

HOOK: “powered by the world’s largest structured database of travel information.”

COST: Free

How do you make yourself stand out in the midst of a virtual sea of travel? If you’re Hopper, you try to do less than other sites, and do it better.

From its site design to its content and navigation, Hopper keeps it real — real simple. If you called these guys minimalists, they’d probably agree with you.

After shortening it to “min.”

Their home page home page features exactly two navigation links at the top — “Flights” and “Destinations.” Both self-explanatory. Click on the one you’re looking for. Easy. Simple. Quick.

Each page features a relative handful of potentially helpful articles from travel bloggers with tips on flights and destinations, all stacked in a vertical column down the left side of the page. Cool.

But Hopper’s real strength is on the right side of its home page, the side marked “Flight Research Tools.” This is the sharp end of the site, where you will either save yourself some money, or just have a lot of fun looking.

Flight Research Tools has three main components:

  • Flight Deals Map
    You enter either your starting point, labelled “From,” or your destination, marked “To” and then click on “Create Map.” Hopper will immediately start showing you prices from your origin airport to various major destinations around the world, or to your chosen destination from various locations.

    Further, those points on your map are interactive, and clicking on them will bring a wealth of more data, including info on direct flights and flights with one or more stops, as well as alternative airports for departures and arrivals — and the airfare differences for each. It also brings up a calendar showing the cheapest time to go.

  • When to Buy and Fly
    Fill in your departure and destination airports, then click on “Create Report.” Hopper succinctly breaks down what constitutes a good price for your chosen routing, as well as showing that “Cheapest Time to Go” calendar, alternate airports, and which airlines might have the cheapest fares.
  • Airport Report
    Fill in the your chosen airport, click “Create Report” — and brace for the avalanche of data. By far the most detailed of its offerings. Longest routes. Shortest routes. Most popular routes. Cheapest and most expensive routes. Best days to fly. Biggest price drops or price increases.

Click on any of the destinations listed — under Airport Report or anywhere else on the site — and you’ll be routed to a page devoted to that destination. Things to Do. Food & Drink. Places to Stay.

Hopper is all about air travel and destinations, period. If you’re looking for information on cruises or other travel genres, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Some will see that as a shortcoming. I see it as a strength. This is not one of those travel sites that leaves you feeling as if you’re trying to find your way through a maze.

Hopper doesn’t do things that no other travel site out there is doing. It just does its thing in a way that’s easier on the eyes, faster to navigate and more readily focused on exactly what you’re looking for.

If you value your time as much as you value your money, those are qualities you’ll appreciate.

Travel is a risk

IMG_3037

No amount of research can guarantee that you’re going to fall in love with every destination you visit. But that doesn’t mean the trip was a waste.

If you hear someone merge the words “travel” and “risk” into the same sentence, what comes to your mind? Terrorism? Tsunamis? Airliners vanishing without a trace over the Pacific Ocean?

When it comes to travel, there actually is a risk more fundamental than all of those, albeit not necessarily to your health.

Not long ago, I stumbled across a very thoughtful piece from travel blogger Dana Carmel about her visit to Hungary’s capital city, Budapest.

Specifically, it was her written musings on “why I didn’t gel with Budapest.”

Whether for fun or for a living, we pour a lot of time, thought, effort and anxiety into planning our trips, especially in this, the Internet Age. We research destinations with the same zeal with which the Central Intelligence Agency presumably vets its job applicants.

And why not? In terms of both money and time, we’ve got a lot riding on our travel. And the longer, the more distant and more costly the trip, the more we feel we have riding on a successful outcome, even if it’s wholly for the sake of leisure.

How any one of us defines that success is not the point. What counts is being able to return home able to tell one and all: “It was fantastic!” So we do our due diligence, and then some.

We pore over destination guides, in print or online. We study maps until we can navigate the terrain in our sleep — and just might.

We consult friends, family members and total strangers, anyone who’s been to the places we’re thinking about visiting. We devour YouTube videos with a frenzy that would embarrass Jaws.

I mean, we turn into paleontologists when it comes to researching a place, forensic travel investigators. CSI Frommers, jack.

We do all this in the belief that, with enough “prep,” we can guarantee ourselves that our chosen destination will meet all over hopes, expectations and fantasies. It’s not so much research as an act of faith.

Which means that, sooner or later, we will face disappointment.

Gloomy architecture. Gloomy history. Bad weather. Bad smells. Brusque waiters. Unexpected closures. Too big. Too small. Too dirty. Too sterile. Too loud. Too quiet. Too chaotic. Too dull. Too foreign. Too familiar.

Or just some vague, undefined, unrelenting vibe that says, “This place isn’t me.”

Brussels was my Budapest, and I have no real idea why. There were no disasters. no one did or said anything wrong. I just felt somewhat unsettled the entire time I was there.

I’ve had similar feelings in other places, more than a few of them right here in the United States. And I could no more tell you why than I can explain my reaction to Brussels.

Whatever the reason, there will be times when the good ship Expectation sometimes runs aground on a reef of Perception, which may or may not be closely related to a shoal called Reality. It can’t be helped.

What ultimately defines us is how we handle it when that happens.

First, don’t blame the place. Second, don’t blame yourself.

The fact is, regardless of whether it’s urban or rural, tame or adventurous, familiar in its culture or totally alien, every destination is what it is. It’s wonderful when they live up to or even exceed our hopes and our fantasies, but they have no moral obligation to do so.

Which makes every venture we take into the unfamiliar a physical and psychological roll of the dice.

The fact that we don’t click with a particular locale may say a lot about the place, but it probably says even more about ourselves. What do we take from that? What do we learn from that?

Just as our failures sometimes teach us more than our triumphs, so too can the places we don’t fall in love with ultimately teach us more about ourselves. Self-discovery may not always be fun, but it’s always valuable.

Life is a risk, and so is travel. It’s how we learn, and ultimately how we grow.

the IBIT Travel Digest 5.25.14

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

Happy African American Family in Front of Cruise Ship.

MAZATLAN MAKES A COMEBACK
Three years ago, with reports of cruise passengers and crewmembers alike being mugged and assaulted there, the major cruise lines dropped Mazatlan as a port of call faster than the NBA dropped Donald Sterling.

It was a major blow to the cruise lines and the Mexican Riviera in general, and to Mazatlan in particular. The city has worked to win its way back into the good graces of the cruise lines ever since.

It looks as if Mazatlan has succeeded.

Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Azamara Club Cruises already have either resumed calling on Mazatlan or announced plans to do so as of last year. Princess Cruises announced earlier this year its own plans to return in the fall.

Now, the cruise industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Carnival Cruise Lines, says it will return to Mazatlan starting next spring with year-round cruises out of Los Angeles.

Welcome back.

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CUBA BY SEA
And speaking of cruises, it’s a widely held belief that Carnival, Royal Caribbean and the rest of the cruise industry big boys will descend on Cuba in force once the US government finally lifts its long-outdated trade embargo against Havana.

But not everyone is waiting for that.

According to Travel Agent Central, an outfit known as Wilderness Travel is offering an eight-day cruise to Cuba for 48 passengers aboard the three-masted sailing ship Panorama starting Nov. 29.

It’s part of the People-to-People cultural exchange program that Washington allows to take American travelers legally under license to Cuba.

Technically, it is not absolutely forbidden for Americans to travel to the island nation, but the embargo places a blizzard of restrictions on who’s allowed to go and what they can spend there.

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EAST AFRICA: ONE VISA FITS (ALMOST) ALL
The nations of East Africa are taking concrete steps to make the region more attractive for visitors. One of those steps is removing the hassle — and expense — of obtaining a new visa each time you cross from one country to another.

The East African Community, a five-nation economic cooperation group, is now offering the East African Tourist Visa, a single $100 visa that allows the holder multiple entries between countries for 90 days.

No more spending weeks sending your passport back and forth to embassies and consulates to arrange each visa in advance, or hours waiting in lines at border checkpoints and paying a different fee with each new visa. That’s the good news.

The bad news? The new visa covers only three of EAC’s five member countries — Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The two remaining members, Tanzania and Burundi, have yet to come on board.

Perhaps they’re waiting to see how it works out before committing themselves to the process. If it goes as I expect, it shouldn’t take them long to see the advantages. And hopefully, it won’t take long for the rest of the Mother Continent to follow suit.

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ETHIOPIAN AIR’S GROWING STRENGTH
Ethiopian Airlines touts itself these as “Africa’s flagship carrier” — and it looks as if it’s building a fleet to back up that boast.

The second airline in the world to operate the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Ethiopian recently added its seventh Dreamliner to its stable of aircraft, and shows no lack of confidence in the plane.

Dreamliners are gradually taking hold on the world’s international air routes, despite nagging issues with its controversial lithium-ion batteries.

The airline expects to take possession of three more by year’s end, giving it one of the world’s larger 787 fleets and easily the largest Dreamliner fleet of any African carrier.

This matters because the hallmark of the Dreamliner — and its even newer Airbus rival, the A350 — is longer range. It means we American may one day be able to fly directly to the Mother Continent without first having to fly to the East Coast and then change planes.

Of course, that presumes that our FAA eventually decides to grant Ethiopian and other top-tier African airlines the right to connect to airports west of the original 13 colonies.

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

from Yahoo! Travel
Airlines with food you may actually want to eat.

from Reuters
How to get paid — and rather handsomely, at that — for air travel delays. Not only is legal, but it’s the law.

from the Irish Times
The future of air travel will be digitized and customized — especially up front in the high-priced seats.

from The Business Journals
The death of First Class in international air travel, and why that may not be such a bad thing.

LAND

from BBC Travel
The world’s five most affordable cities. Affordable, yes. Livable? You be the judge.

from BBC Travel
Seven of the scariest high-risk roads on the planet — and why people seek them out, anyway.

from AppAdvice.com
Is a luggage tag worth $119? Maybe, if it’s one that calls your iPhone to warn you that someone is stealing your suitcase.

from the Daily Mail (London UK)
Here’s one for “Bizarre” — A train from China to the United States. Eight thousand miles in two days, including a 125-mile-long tunnel under the Bering Sea. Supposedly, China wants to build it.

WATER

from the Sydney Morning Herald
River cruising in the United States must be pretty cool. Tourists are coming all the way from Australia to do them.

from the Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)
In the go-big-or-stay-home world of cruise ships, Italian shipping line MSC is going big with two new mega-ships and an option for a third.

FOOD & DRINK

from the New York Times
Five flavors of France, by region — Alsace, Bouches-du-Rhône, Finistére, Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées.

from The Guardian (London UK)
The Spanish region of Andalucía is taking on Catalunya and the Basque country in a battle of regional cuisines. The most likely winner? Your tastebuds.

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AFRICA

from eTurbo News
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, a major air link between Europe and the United States, also connects Europe to East Africa, especially via Tanzania.

AMERICAS

North
from The Guardian (London UK)
See the USA — as the Brits see it.

from the New York Times
Chicago’s Riverwalk is getting a $100 million makeover in time for summer 2015.

from Travel Weekly
The top tourism destination in the Caribbean — Jamaica? The Bahamas? The Virgin Islands? You’re not even warm. It’s the Dominican Republic.

South
from the New York Times
How to kill a weekend in Montevideo, capital city of Uruguay.

from the New York Times
Heading to Brazil for this year’s World Cup? Tips to keep your budget cup from running over.

ASIA/PACIFIC

from Yahoo! Travel
Japan creates a new national holiday to encourage its work-obsessed population to take some time off. The other 15 holidays apparently weren’t enough.

from BBC Travel
Few cities in the world have their own national park, much less one with leopards. Mumbai does. Here, when you talk about an urban jungle, it’s a real one.

from BBC Travel
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway. That which does not kill you makes for an unforgettable journey.

EUROPE

from The Guardian (London UK)
If the tourist mobs in Barcelona have become too much for you, consider smaller and more bohemian La Coruña in northwest Spain as an alternative.

from BBC Travel
To see a body of art, visit almost any museum. To see the body as art, head for the World Bodypainting Festival next month in Pörtschach, Austria.

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

My other “bucket list”

Coast Starlight 2014

When it comes to the world’s great destinations, regardless of what or where they are, one visit — or ten — may not be enough.

Just about everyone has a so-called “bucket list,” that mental registry of must-see destinations they want to visit someday. Not me. I don’t have one.

I have two.

One is your standard traveler’s wish list of places to go and things to see. The other list is of the places I’ve already been, to which I want to return.

That’s the problem when your traveler’s soul takes over. Even as new destinations beckon, so many of the old ones keep calling you back.

To grow, we need to learn new things, meet new people and go to unfamiliar places. And we will leave a lot of those new places glad that we came, but feeling no real need to return. One and done.

But even as new places await our arrival, there are other places we feel compelled to revisit, again and again.

The reasons for wanting to return to a destination can be as varied as the destinations themselves.

Maybe you didn’t get a chance to experience enough of a place to develop a true “feel” for it. In the world’s mega-cities like New York, London, Shanghai or Mexico City, it’s easy to leave after a week or even a month feeling as if you scarcely penetrated beyond the tourist veneer.

That’s especially true if you’re following a fixed tour itinerary that leaves little or no time to explore on your own, like on all-too-brief day tours in a Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

Sometimes, after an absence of years or even decades from a city like Tokyo or Hong Kong, you feel the need to return to see how the place has changed, and whether for the better or the worse.

You may discover that you have changed more than your destination, but that’s a discovery worth making, no?

It could be that all your senses were so overrun in a place like Beijing or Berlin or Buenos Aires or Senegal or the Gambia or Hong Kong that you feel the need to return, just to put the place in sharper focus in your mind.

Or it could be simply that you fell in love with a place — a San Francisco, a Vancouver, a Paris, a Venice, a Yosemite.

The tug-of-war between old and new destinations can leave you feeling torn, even a little guilty. There’s so much world out there waiting to be experienced, even in the places you’ve been before. So how do you solve this dilemma?

Honestly, that’s easy. You don’t.

You just point yourself in the direction of the call that your traveler’s heart finds the most seductive — and you go. No rationalizing, no self-justifications required.

I have friends who return almost yearly to London and England’s Lake District. They’ve been doing this for about two decades now, to the point that they’re de facto residents. But after all the years and all the visits, they still love them both.

And that’s all that really matters in the end.

When it comes to a destination, you love what you love, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the fiftieth. It’s your journey, no one else’s.

So when you find a place that most loudly and clearly speaks to your soul, be sure to listen to it.

And then…Go. Just go.

URGENT: French pilots poised to strike

French pilots union calls for a rolling month-long work stoppage in May to protest a law that limits the ability of pilots to strike. Disruptions to passengers’ travel plans could be fierce.

You may never have heard of SNPL France ALPA, but if you have a trip to or in France coming up this month, it could seriously impact your life.

That’s the union representing French commercial pilots. It is calling on all its members to strike starting Saturday, May 3 — for the entire month.

The idea is to conduct a kind of rolling work stoppage, a few hours at a time, on certain flights on certain days, every day through May 30.

Even if your particular flight isn’t stuck on the tarmac, the strike figures to send chaos rippling through entire flight schedules — and not just in France.

According to the AnglINFO expat blog, the planned “grève” would affect nearly 30 airlines in France, Europe, the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Several of those airlines, such as Air Tahiti Nui, Corsair, XL Airways and most of all, Air France, fly to and from North America, especially the United States.

According to media reports, the source of the union’s ire is a relatively new French law that effectively limits pilots’ ability…to strike.

Isn’t irony wonderful?

Still, if you’ve got a trip to or from France coming up this month, you might want to have a Plan B handy, including possibly some form of insurance to cover trip interruption or cancellation.

In the spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote so poetically, “a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love.” In France, almost any time of year, it turns to walkouts.

Unlike the US, where unions have largely been beaten into submission, organized labor is strong, vocal and active in France, so much so that the late summer-early fall months are often referred to “strike season.”
And public transportation of any kind is a frequent target.

Rare is the frequent visitor to Paris who has never seen — or had their travel plans altered by — labor protest.

One of my most indelible memories of Paris is slowly pulling out of the Gare de Lyon station aboard the high-speed TGV train bound for Lyon, just ahead of striking railroad workers who came flowing down the platform like a human river, flags and banners flying in the morning breeze.

The good news is that the union and the French government are still talking to each other, and there’s a chance the planned strike could be cancelled.

So stay tuned.

But keep your Plan B ready, anyway.

AIRLINES: No more carrying on?

Frontier Airlines

Frontier joins the ranks of airlines charging passengers for carry-on bags.

If you regularly fly Frontier Airlines, you might want to downsize your backpack.

That’s because Frontier is now charging passengers for each piece of carry-on luggage stored in an overhead bin — $25 per bag if you pay in advance while booking online, $35 on check-in at the airport.

If you wait until you get to the gate, it’s $50.

If you can fit it under the seat in front of you, no charge — but be warned. “Under the seat” means all the way under. If any part of it is sticking out, it won’t count.

Frontier already charges $15 to $25 for your first checked bag.

It’s not exactly precedent-setting to charge for carry-ons. Spirit Airlines broke that ground five years ago. Still, it’s noteworthy.

BIN THERE, DONE THAT
Charging people for carry-ons, the airline’s executives say, mean fewer passengers cramming all manner of cases into the overhead storage, meaning less chaos and competition over the overhead bins.

Anyone who has traveled by air in the United States since the airlines began charging fees to check passenger luggage knows there’s at least a grain of truth in that assertion.

We’ve all known the frustration of arriving on time at the airport and boarding with our assigned group, only to find no room in the bin by the time we board.

It’s also a safety hazard. I’ve been clocked in the head more than once by some pint-sized passenger trying to heft a bale-sized suitcase up into a bin.

So I’d really like to believe Denver-based Frontier when it says it’s doing this for your benefit and mine.

I’d like to…but I don’t.

This has little to do with your convenience, even less to do with your safety…and everything to do with profit margin.

To put it another way: Who among us consumers does it benefit for Frontier to charge $1.99 for a drink of water?

SHELL GAME
That’s right. Frontier charges you one copper coin short of two bucks for an in-flight sip of H2O.

If they ever figure out a way to charge for air per passenger, look out.

(I hope I’m not giving some airline executive ideas).

It’s all part of a financial shell game the airlines are playing, one that’s been going on now for nearly a decade.

On the one hand, they make a great, noisy show of lowering their base airfares. Frontier just cut their cheapest Economy fare by 12 percent. On the other, they bombard you with a laundry list of add-on fees.

What am I talking about? Here’s an example of what you’ll encounter at Frontier:

  • Reserve a specific seat? $3-$8.
  • Want to sit toward the front of plane? $5-$15.
  • Want an extra 5-7 inches of legroom? $15-$50.

You pay that extra legroom fee not per flight, but per flight segment. Meaning that if you have a connecting flight on Frontier, you pay twice. Each way.

Isn’t that cute?

All this comes against a backdrop of fewer flights and fewer seats available across the US on airlines in general, especially in smaller markets.

THE $6 BILLION PLAN
The counterpoint from the airlines is that add-on fees give you, the consumer, more flexibility by allowing you to pay only for those services you want. As the saying goes, there’s no free lunch.

Or in the case of Frontier Airlines, free water.

Lest you think I’m picking on Frontier, the US airline industry is nickel-and-diming passengers to the tune of nearly $6 billion a year in add-on fees.

Spirit Airlines alone has 24 different baggage fees.

The airlines argued that they needed to do this to keep their profits aloft during the recession. All those who believe the add-on fees will disappear once the US economy makes a complete recovery, raise your wallets…uh, I mean your hands.

I fully expect the big players like American, United, Delta and Southwest to follow this trend…but not immediately. I suspect they’ll wait to see how Frontier’s customers react to this change.

CONSUMERS’ OPTIONS
If there’s no major backlash — or loss of business — to Frontier as a result of this carry-on charge, look for one or two of the major carriers to belly up to the fee trough.

If this trend continues, it’s going to:

  1. Prompt travelers to travel a lot lighter, which would actually be a good thing.
  2. Make even more consumers despise air travel even more than they do now, or
  3. Lead more air passengers to use luggage shipping services to transport all their bags. They’ll pay more than the airlines’ baggage fees, but get far better service.

The first two are going to happen for sure. With Amtrak setting new ridership records every year for more than a decade and inter-city bus travel growing in popularity, the second may be happening already. The third will depend on whether enough travelers switch to the luggage shippers to justify lower rates.

The world on display

PassportDC logo

The world’s nations open their Washington DC embassies to the public on consecutive Saturdays. If you’re pondering your first international trip, there’s no better way to start your research.

I’ve already told you about the Around the World Embassy Tour scheduled for Saturday, May 3. At that time, more than 40 countries had plans to hold day-long open houses at their embassies in Washington DC.

Since then, another dozen or so have committed to taking part, bringing the total number on participating embassies to 53.

Each open house will food, music, dance, cultural displays and demonstrations of all sorts from the host country. What’s more, many of these embassies are housed in historic old homes and former mansions that make them attractions in their own right.

And admission to all of these open houses is free. If you buy a souvenir passport for the day, each embassy you visit during the open house will stamp it for you, just like a real one.

But that’s just May 3. As it turns out, there’s going to be a similar one-day open house the following Saturday, May 10, devoted exclusively to 28 countries of the European Union.

Maybe you already your first international destination in mind, or maybe you’re just trying to decide where in the world you’d like to go first. Perhaps you’d like to meet a few people from a certain country, get a taste of their culture and heritage.

When it comes to travel research, you’ll never get a better opportunity than these two Saturdays.

The open house will be running from 10AM to 4PM on both Saturdays. Parking figures to be scarce, so take advantage of DC’s public transportation, especially the Metro.

Also, waiting lines at the more popular embassies can be pretty long, so plan your visits strategically. Make a list of the embassies you want to visit, then set the order in which you want to visit them.

The ones that figure to draw the biggest crowds are probably the ones you should hit first, the better to avoid long waits.

Take it all in. Ask questions. Have fun. Where else can you go around the world on a single Saturday, and without jet lag?

Even that isn’t all. There’s an Embassy Chefs Challenge on Thursday, May 154 and a Fiesta Asia street fair set for Saturday, May 17. For more information, visit the PassportDC Web site or click on the PassportDC logo above.

These nations will be welcoming visitors on May 3:

AFRICA
  • Botswana
  • Chad
  • Republic of Congo
  • Ethiopia
  • Gabon
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Kenya
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • South Africa
  • Uganda
  • Zambia
AMERICAS
  • Argentina
  • Bahamas
  • Belize
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Dominica
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Guatemala
  • Mexico
  • Peru
  • St. Kitts ands Nevis
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Venezuela
ASIA/PACIFIC
  • Australia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bangladesh
  • Fiji
  • Indonesia
  • Japan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Korea
  • Kyrgyz Republic
  • Malaysia
  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Philippines
  • Thailand
EUROPE
  • Ukraine
  • Serbia
MIDDLE EAST
  • League of Arab States
  • Bahrain
  • Iraq
  • Saudi Arabia

These are the European Union countries holding open house on May 10:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom
  • EU Delegation

ALSO CHECK OUT:
Embassy open house

AIRLINES: American puts the U.S. up for sale

aa

American Airlines tries to tempt travelers with some temporarily lower fares on the last of its spring flights in the continental United States.

The folks at Smarter Travel are reporting that American Airlines is offering sale fares this week on 2,600 routes across the United States.

I’m not going to mention the usual “fares as low as” amount, lest it give you the false impression that all or even most of the discounted flights are that cheap. They aren’t. The cross-country flights aren’t even close.

Still, you might be able to score a bargain — if you book by Thursday, April 24. After that, this sale turns into a pumpkin.

As usual, catches apply:

  • You have to book at least 14 days in advance.
  • You have to stay over at least three days or on a Saturday night before returning.
  • Your trip has to be completed by June 7.
  • There are multiple blackout dates on which you won’t be allowed to fly at the sale price, including Fridays, Sundays, the entire Memorial Day holiday weekend and June 6.

Regular IBIT readers know why I’m no longer bullish on fare wars. Technically, however, this is not a fare war, since other airlines are unlikely to match it.

Indeed, it’s the sheer number of routes being discounted that make this worth mentioning at all. Those discounts, however, do not extend outside the US, so don’t start reaching for your passport.

Still, if you can find a fare to your liking to a great destination — and can work your way around all the restrictions — it just might be worth your while.

Airline booking site says, “Take the train!”

CheapAir.com will now let you make reservations on Amtrak, a clear sign that the travel industry is recognizing consumers’ frustrations with air travel.

It’s one thing for Amtrak to let you reserve seats on its own Web site. But when an aggregator that deals with multiple airlines now says, “You can book trains now, too!,” that’s thought-provoking.

And the thought it’s intended to provoke is that the train is a more comfortable, less expensive and definitely less aggravating alternative to flying.

According to USA Today, CheapAir.com is including Amtrak among its listings.

There may be another booking site out there that will let you book flights and rail travel in the United States at the same time, but I haven’t found it yet.

(NOTE: CheapAir.com is NOT to be confused with CheapOair.com, a completely different outfit — although I suspect the two ARE confused several thousand times a day.)

For now, CheapAir.com will only let you book Amtrak tickets on its heavily used and extremely popular Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC.

The company is already planning to do the same on Amtrak routes in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

This link to CheapAir’s blog explains how the new service works.

The fact that it’s being offered at all is eye-opening, especially when you hear the reasoning from CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee:

“For many markets…it does make a lot of sense to consider rail instead of flights, especially when you factor in all the hassles and transport time to and from the airport.

“If you’re coming from out of town and not used to even thinking of rail, all of a sudden, when it’s presented there and you see it’s significantly less expensive and not that much longer…you’ll see a great option you didn’t know existed.”

Klee’s comments get to the heart of what makes this move worth noting, namely the hell that is now air travel if you’re among the masses who can’t afford to fly in the well-heeled classes.

I suspect it’s mainly an effort by CheapAir.com to generate a little buzz and thus distinguish itself from that large and confusing herd of travel booking sites on the Web.

But more importantly for us consumers, it means that the travel industry is not only recognizing, but is now responding, to the growing unpopularity of air travel.

Does this mean that people are going to stop flying en masse? Hardly. But it does show that the industry recognizes that travelers are looking for alternatives, and will make an effort to offer them.

The biggest obstacle to this idea is the CheapAir.com site itself. Visually, it’s very dated, the Web design equivalent of 80s chic. Worse, it doesn’t feature this new Amtrak booking option prominently on its home page, forcing users to hunt for it.

But that’s nothing that a little site makeover can’t fix. The idea itself is definitely sound and don’t be surprised to see at least some of CheapAir’s competitors follow suit.

American rail travel may still be lagging behind the rest of the developed world in speed and efficiency, but if an airline booking site finds it worthwhile to help you reserve train tickets, then Amtrak must be doing something right.

TSA…again

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-tsa-handling-bag-worker-handles-going-security-airport-image34911738

The latest abuse of a traveler by federal airport security may have you wondering if things will ever get better. The answer is not encouraging.

This time, it’s a woman, left mute by a stroke, denied boarding by a TSA inspector at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Phoenix.

Why? Because the inspector couldn’t get the woman to talk.

She had all her proper identification. Her ticket was in order. She had her sister with her to explain the situation.

No matter. Apparently in the mind(?) of this particular TSA gate guardian, if you can’t talk, you can’t fly.

The unfortunate woman did eventually reach Phoenix — after an eight-hour bus ride.

AIRPORT COMEDY
I’m beginning to think the main purpose of the TSA is to provide late-night talk show hosts with comedy material. I certainly hope so, anyway.

It would mean they were actually doing something worthwhile.

The TSA may not be the biggest reason that today’s air travel is such a miserable experience, but it’s usually the first one you encounter at the airport.

Stand a spell. Take your shoes off. Take your wallet out. Take off that faux leather belt and slowly back away from it while we radiate you a bit.

The federal government calls this security. Countries where they really do airport security, like Israel, call it a joke.

And the airport where this latest minor atrocity took place, is a major case in point.

It was only last year that an unemployed mechanic walked into LAX with a military-grade rifle and started shooting TSA inspectors. He shot three, killing one, before being wounded and captured by police.

These guys were there to protect the traveling public, but stalked by a gunman with a rifle and murder on his mind, they couldn’t even protect themselves.

SECURITY THEATER
By its own admission, albeit an unintended one, in papers filed in a federal lawsuit, the TSA itself doesn’t even believe that terrorists are plotting attacks on airliners anymore.

I’ll say it plain: The TSA in reality is little more than air travel theater, created to give travelers the impression — or more accurately, perhaps, the illusion — of airport security.

Where does this all leave the poor TSA inspectors? It leaves them with an important, difficult and largely thankless job, for which they are neither well-prepared nor well-paid.

A starting “Transportation Safety Officer” who graduates from trainee status earns between $29,300 and $44,000 a year. That works out to about $3.30 to $5 an hour.

A supervisor can make between $39,000 and $61,000 a year — or roughly $4.50 to $7 an hour.

Suddenly, flipping burgers at Mickey D’s doesn’t sound like such a bad gig.

Could the United States do better with airport security than the TSA in its current state? Could it attract a higher caliber of candidates as its TSOs? Of course, it could.

WHO WANTS TO PAY?
For that to happen, however, the requirements would have to be a lot tougher. The training would have to be much longer and more extensive. The salaries offered would have to be a lot more attractive.

And someone would have to be willing to pay for all that.

So who wants to step up with their checkbook? Congress? The airlines? The nation’s airports? You?

Let’s be real, shall we?

Washington is in no mood these days to raise spending on much of anything.

The airlines would rather eat tarmac than cut into their profits to pay for better airport security. The same is also true of the airports themselves.

Of course, the airlines always could raise airfares to cover the added security costs, but with travelers already chafing over a laundry list of costly add-on fees, how far do you think that idea would fly, with anybody?

What all this means is that, barring a major change by the feds in their approach to airport security, the TSA will remain what it has always been, a punchline without a laugh track.

CRUISE: Going small on the “Father of Waters”

Grande Mariner
Grande Caribe dining
Grande Caribe
Grande Caribe cabin

While the world’s largest river cruise outfit considers offering cruises on the largest US river, one small-ship operator is already doing it. Chicago to New Orleans, anyone?

Last fall, I told you that Viking River Cruises was exploring the idea of offering cruise vacations on the Mississippi River.

That was big news because Viking is river cruising’s 9,000-pound gorilla. It dominates in Europe, the world’s worldwide biggest river cruise market, is expanding into South America and Asia, and cranking out new ships at a furious pace.

So when an outfit like that starts making noises about bringing one of its sleek, slender river cruisers to the largest and most important river in your country, you pay attention.

What I didn’t know then was that there was a cruise line that was already there, Blount Small Ship Adventures. And when these folks say “small ship,” they’re not kidding.

ON THE MISSISSIPPI
You won’t find its vessels anywhere in Europe, South America or Asia. You’ll find them instead in the Caribbean and Central America, on the our Eastern Seaboard and the Great Lakes.

And you’ll find them on our “Father of Waters.”

Blount offers a 15-day Mississippi River cruise between Chicago and New Orleans — in either direction, nearly 2,000 miles each way. It also does shorter cruises of eight, nine or 12 days on the Mississippi.

Actually,the cruise takes you on portions of seven different rivers flowing into the heart of the country, including the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Tennessee.

But the Mississippi definitely is the star, snaking its way down the Mississippi Valley from Great Lakes country on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

River cruisers like those that Viking operates are a fraction of the size of ocean-going cruise ships, accommodating hundred or so passengers where one of the floating palaces of Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean or NCL would typically number their passengers in the thousands.

SMALL SHIPS, BIG RIVER
Blount’s two river ships are even smaller than that, with a maximum capacity of 88 passengers in 44 cabins.

How’d you like to be on a small ship on a big river?

When you speak of the Mississippi River and its valley, you’re talking about a nation’s agricultural breadbasket, industrial heartland and home to one of the most diverse populations of wildlife on the planet.

It has been witness hundreds of years of human history, traces of which you can see on its shores. Whole nations of native peoples once called it home.

Blount ships aren’t just small. Their shallow draft means they can sail in less than seven feet of water, which means they can take you where larger cruise ships dare not try, and put you directly ashore by means of a built-in bow ramp. No dock required.

They even come with a retractable wheelhouse to sail under the lowest bridges, a truly handy feature when the Mississippi is running high due to heavy rains and winter storm runoff upriver.

Another thing I like about these vessels is that they’re sleek and modern. No faux antebellum Mississippi paddlewheeler.

Disadvantages?

HEFTY PRICE TAG
One is price, the bane of small-ship cruises from the consumers’ point of view. The smaller the ship, the fewer the passengers, thus the greater the cost per person.

In the case of their Chicago-New Orleans cruise, that cost ranges from $312 to $431 per person per day, depending on your choice of cabin. Multiple those costs by 16 days, and you’ll get an answer you probably won’t like.

The cabins themselves will be fairly tight compared with what veteran cruisers see on the ocean-going behemoths, and public spaces will be at a minimum. So don’t come looking for split-level theaters, giant water slides or broad, glitzy promenades lined with shopping.

The star of the show is the river itself, the third longest in North America, and the endlessly changing scene on its banks.

Not everyone would see that as a drawback, however. The Mississippi is more than capable of putting on a show. This is no lazy river.

So while the river cruise industry’s Goliath makes up its mind on whether it wants to take on this river, the industry David is already doing it. Check them out.

TRAINS: Austria’s Railjet

Austria is relatively new to high-speed rail and theirs is not the fastest, but from the look of their Railjet express train, they’re doing a lot of things right.

As an unapologetic fan of rail travel, especially the high-speed variety now common across Europe and much of Asia, I’m always on the lookout for something innovative in train travel.

It looks as if the Austrians have come up with one aboard their national high-speed line, Railjet.

Austria is a relative newcomer to high-speed rail, having launched Railjet in 2008. It runs the length of Austria and connects the country with Germany, Switzerland and Hungary.

A new line later this year will connect to the Czech Republic.

With a top speed of about 140 miles per hour, it’s hardly the fastest high-speed passenger train in the world, or even in Europe. But Austria being a relatively small country, anything much faster probably would be overkill.

Passengers have their choice of three classes — Economy (aka 2nd class), First and Business. I list them in that order because on this train, Business class is their premier service.

All seats come with power outlets and all look to have decent legroom. First and Business Class come with a single-seat side for those traveling solo, really plush-looking leather recliners and more than enough legroom for anyone short of an NBA center.

About the only thing really separating First and Business Class seems to be that in Business, your seats come in a semi-enclosed compartment.

Attendants serve snacks and drinks from carts reminiscent of airliners, but Railjet is one of the few high-speed trains in Europe with a restaurant car.

If you’re sitting in First or Business Class, your drinks and snacks come with your ticket, and you have the option of having restaurant meals served at your seat, albeit for an extra charge.

For most travelers, Economy Class is probably more than adequate, but with the surcharge for a seat upgrade costing only 15 euros, why not treat yourself? Let’s face it, you’ll never pay that little for a First Class seat on an airliner.

Two other things really stand out about Railjet.

One is the lengths to which they’ve gone to accommodate disabled passengers — not only with specially designed spaces to accept wheelchairs on board, but offering 50 percent discounts to disabled or elderly travelers. That’s classy.

But the thing that first hooked my attention in the first place about Railjet — and as it turns out, Austrian inter-city trains in general — are the things they do to keep children entertained.

The end car on Railjet trains has a kids cinema and play area, complete with slides and others things to climb on.

About the only area where Railjet seems to fall a bit short is when it comes to wifi. The train does indeed comes with free wifi, but only while running within Austrian territory. But that really is a very minor quibble.

Comfortable seats. Food and drink that come to you. Power and wifi for the laptop and kids happily playing away at the back of the train — where I can’t hear them. Sounds like the Austrians are doing a lot of things right with their high-speed train.

A little run from Munich to Vienna on Railjet sounds like fun, does it not?

NOTE: The YouTube video above comes from The Man in Seat 61, one of the best Web sites for anyone interested in train travel. Highly recommended.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
What you learn on a train
TRAINS: Bring back the North American Rail Pass
AFRICA: 2 rails, 3 trains, 5 stars

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