Tag Archives: Spain

Un-Spanish Spain

Barcelona skyline panorama at night
Barcelona skyline panorama at night

If you’re boning up on your Spanish for a visit to the capital of Catalunya, you may be wasting your time. The people of Barcelona, are proudly, happily and defiantly Catalan.

Barcelona is a city my soul could comfortably settle into, for a lot of reasons.

It’s Spain’s second largest city with a population of not quite 2 million people, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming in the manner of, say, New York or Tokyo or Mexico City. You feel at home in your first five minutes.

Broad boulevards link clusters of neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with storefront shops, cafes, bars. It’s also right on the Mediterranean, with a modernized, people-friendly shoreline and marina. When you’ve lived all your life on or near water as I have, that’s automatic bonus points.

It’s also one of the biggest cruise ports in Europe, with luxurious cruise ships and basic-but-comfortable sea ferries plying both sides of the Med as far east as Greece, Israel and Turkey.

A diverse, cosmopolitan, highly educated population. Young, energetic and sexy. An extensive network of subways, buses and taxis that makes it ridiculously easy to get around. Great food from all over the region and beyond. Nightlife that will drink and dance you under the table, and then drag you back out for more.

One of the world’s great soccer teams, FC Barcelona, plays here in their globally famous stadium, Camp Nou. More on the rivalry part later.


If you’ve got an eye for architecture, Barcelona may wear you out. Centuries’ worth of history is represented in the grim stones of the Barre Gotic. Modern Barcelona may be best represented by the Torre Agbar, a massive, multi-hued, bullet-shaped high-rise overlooking the city shoreline, with an unrivaled 360-degree view of the city and the Med.

But don’t start getting ideas. It’s strictly an office tower. No condos. What a shame.

In truth, though, Barcelona is all but a shrine to Antoni Gaudí. He left seven of his buildings standing in or near this city, and every one of them is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If that’s not a record for a single individual architect, he’s got to be a member of a very small graduating class.

His grand master work, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is Gaudí’s signature in stone on the skyline of Barcelona.

Gaudí had a way of blending nature, religion and architecture like no one else. No photo or video can truly convey the size, scale or grandeur of this place.

You’ll have to endure non-stop mobs and you’ll have to pay to get in, but it’s worth it, if only for the people-watching, because people from everywhere come to see this church.

So Barcelona’s got just about everything you could ask for in a European destination. But it’s also got something extra: Attitude.


This city officially is a part of Spain. Just try not to say that out loud to anybody while you’re here. Most Barcelona residents are Catalan first and Spanish second. A very distant second. They live, breathe and speak Catalan. But you’re in Spain and you speak Spanish, so you’re good, right?

Maybe not. Folks here prefer to speak Catalan. They also speak Spanish; they’re just very good at politely pretending that they don’t.

They will gladly communicate with you in English, or French, or Arabic, or Mandarin, maybe even Martian. Almost anything, it seems, except Spanish. Some bitter history explains why. There have been several attempts over the ages to grind Catalan culture into the dust.

The worst was probably after the Spanish Civil War. Catalunya had held out the longest against the fascist general Francisco Franco. When he finally won, he all but made being Catalan illegal, even to the point of banning the christening of babies with Catalan names. For 40 years, anyone who openly “repped” their Catalan heritage risked arrest, imprisonment and much, much worse.

The locals had to take their traditions underground to maintain them, but maintain them they did. Franco eventually died. The Catalan way of life did not.

And here in Barcelona, they’ve been flaunting it ever since, a kind “in your face” to the rest of Spain.

That ongoing antagonism between Spain and Catalunya gets played out every year when two of the world’s best soccer teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, face off in an ongoing series known simply as El Clásico.

This rivalry has so many moving parts that the sporting side of it almost takes a backseat. It’s regional. It’s political. It’s cultural. Spanish nationalism versus Catalan pride. This is not a game. This is a war based on a round ball and a couple of nets. Prisoners will not be taken.

But for sheer, passionate spectacle, a matchup between these two at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium is hard to top.

Spain has an almost endless number of fun, beautiful, historic destinations, but if you’re a first-timer to España, I’d recommend Barcelona.

Even if you feel you’re only marginally in Spain.

Barcelona is well served from North America by air. Once in Europe, you can easily reach the city by air, road, rail or cruise ship.

From the US, you can fly directly into Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN), or fly into Paris and then spin a lovely 6-hour ride via high-speed train through French and Spanish countryside down to Barcelona. You could do it as an “open-jaw” trip, flying into Paris and out of Barcelona, or vice versa.

Lodging ranges from airbnb-cheap to 5-star luxury. Don’t expect bargains during Barcelona’s hot, humid and tourist-packed summers.

Between the extensive subway and bus system and the plentiful black-and-yellow taxis that often seem to be waiting on every street corner, you’ll have little trouble getting around. Also, a lot of people ride bikes here, many taking advantage of the city’s Bicing program, which lets residents borrow a red-and-white bicycle. Return it in 30 minutes or less and it’s free.

Locals will warn you about pickpockets. Heed the warnings, particularly in summer, when dense packs of tourists make easy targets for the light-fingered set. You’ll see a lot of locals and veteran visitors walking around with small messenger bags slung over their shoulders, kept closed and in front of them. A good example to follow.

One of the world’s major Christian pilgrimage sites, Montserrat, is an easy, spectacular ride away by light rail.

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


the IBIT Travel Digest 1.25.15

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

The Roaming Gnome has crossed the road, and gone over to the other side…sort of.

The online booking site Expedia has bought up its rival, Travelocity, for $280 million in cash, part of a buying spree that has Expedia looking to become the alpha dog of the online travel world.

Expedia already owns 11 other online travel bookers, including Hotels.com, CarRentals.com, Hotwire,Venere and Trivago, as well as Egencia, a giant firm specializing in corporate travel and China’s hotel booking site eLong.

It looked liked all these various online booking sites were fierce competitors, didn’t it? Sorry, they’re not.

If you’re a longtime user of either Expedia or Travelocity, you probably won’t notice a difference. Expedia has been powering Travelocity’s Web sites in the US and Canada for the last two years, among other services. So in that sense, this purchase just finalizes a merger that was already a reality in all but name.

Microsoft created Expedia in 1996 as an airline booking engine, and later spun it off as an independent company. It since has expanded to include hotels, rental cars, cruises and resorts.

Travelocity originally was the creation of Sabre, world’s first computerized airline reservation system, which was in turn created by American Airlines.

Expedia’s real rival these days is Priceline, owner of Kayak, agoda.com, Booking.com, rentalcars.com and OpenTable.

What does this all mean for the consumer? More on that in a later edition of IBIT. Watch for it!


Remember those reports that the Marriott hotel chain was seeking the US government’s blessing to block wi-fi signals from providers other than its own? It was a bad idea, silly, shortsighted and just plain wrong.

And now — at least for now — it’s history.

According to multiple media reports, including Travel Weekly, Marriott has announced it will no longer seek to block non-Marriott wi-fi signals in its meeting rooms and convention halls.

It says it never really did want to block guests’ personal wi-fi.

Had the Federal Communications Commission given them the go-ahead to do this to meetings and conventions in their hotels, you know they would’ve been going after hotel guests next.

But presuming it’s true that they only wanted to block meeting and convention wi-fi — and for the record, I don’t believe that for a minute — the idea was even sillier than I thought. Nice way to send your business/meetings clients to your competitors.

Honestly, who thinks of this stuff?


And now, here’s The Digest:


from the Associated Press
Are the airlines saving billions of dollars in lower fuel costs these days? Absolutely. Does that mean you can look forward to lower airfares? Don’t bet on it.

from MarketWired
Cathay Pacific is expanding service between San Francisco and Hong Kong.

from the New York Times
JetBlue’s Mint versus Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select: Which offers the greater creature comforts in return for your pricier ticket?

from the Washington Post
Ever wonder what happens to all those Swiss Army knives and other banned objects the TSA confiscates in US airports? Wonder no more.


from the New York Times
The NYT’s list of 52 must-see places for 2015.

from USA Today
Lodging with attitude. Some of the quirkiest hotels in the United States.


from Travel Weekly
An IMAX theater? A nearly full-scale amusement park ride? Its own craft beers? Cabins with hammocks? Say ahoy to Carnival’s newest mega-ship, the Carnival Vista. But if you want to be among the first to sail aboard her, you’ll have to go to Europe.

from the New York Times
Exploring Mexico’s Sea of Cortez on a historic — and very small — cruise ship.

from USA Today
Bring your own wine and do your own laundry. Two of the tips for saving money aboard a cruise ship.

from Travel Weekly
What do river cruise ships in France, Germany and the Netherlands have in common with drivers in Manhattan and San Francisco? ANSWER: They all have a helluva time finding a place to park.


from USA Today
If coffee and chocolate are uppermost on your list of basic food groups, your destination is Turin, Italy.

from USA Today
On the trail of Mexico’s liquid cultural icon, tequila.



from allAfrica.com
In the works, a single plan to allow travelers to visit 15 central and southern African countries on a single visa. It’s called UNI-visa, and it can’t come soon enough.

from allAfrica.com
Defying the downturn in African tourism driven by ebola hysteria, a lakeside city in Ethiopia is beating the odds and drawing visitors — not with safaris, but with urban attractions.


from the New York Times
Q&A: Sorting out the new realities of Cuba travel.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Some top-end vacation apartments and villas in Cuba.


from the Washington Post
Want to get a feel for the cultural heart of Japan, and maybe lower your stress level at the same time? Forgo the ultra-modern high-rise hotel and stay in a ryokan.

from the Japan Times
A city the size of Tokyo has hundreds of neighborhoods worth exploring. One of them is Sarugakucho.


from The Guardian (London UK)
In Pamplona, Spain, they’re hoping that an ultra-modern new art gallery by a prizewinning architect will give visitors reasons to stick around after the bulls have run their rowdy, dangerous course.

from BBC Travel
One of the most horrific battles of World War 1 took place in Slovenia. But with Slovenia behind the Iron Curtain for so long, few here in the States ever knew of tha horror — nor of the spectacular beauty that has long since replaced it.

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 5.25.14

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

Happy African American Family in Front of Cruise Ship.

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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

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.


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.


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:


CRUISE: Go repo

[portfolio_slideshow id=404712]

If you can swing the schedule — and don’t mind not having a window 24/7 — you can swing some jaw-dropping cruise deals right now.

Last weekend, a friend of mine in New Orleans asked about the possibility of a Bahamas cruise getaway, so I started looking up Bahamas cruises out of the Crescent City.

That search led me to some of the most ridiculously cheap cruise fares I’ve ever seen.

Define “ridiculous,” you say? Smoke this over:

A 16-night cruise from New Orleans to Barcelona, Spain aboard Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas, departing April 21. Port calls in St. Maarten, Tenerife, Malaga and Cartagena, Spain. Cost for an inside cabin: $479 per person.

That was on Expedia and not too shabby. I then went to VacationstoGo.com, my go-to Web site for cruise deals, and found it for $50 cheaper.

Here’s another one to Barcelona, this time from Ft. Lauderdale, FL for 14 days aboard Holland America’s Noordam. Port calls in the Portuguese island of Ponta Delgada, then the Spanish cities of Cadiz, Malaga and Cartagena. Their inside cabins start at $499.

Celebrity Cruises has a 14-day Atlantic cruise out of Miami, with stops in New York City, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Cork, Ireland before terminating in Harwich, England. Cheapest cabin: $499.

Are your eyes watering yet? At these prices, of course, you’re looking at inside cabins. If you want a window, a balcony or a suite, you’ll have to pay more.

Even so, you’ll still be paying perhaps 75 percent less than you normally would.

The standard formula in cruise economics is to divide the cost of the cabin by the total number of days of the cruise. Anything that works out to $100 a day or less is usually considered a good deal.

Do the math on the trips above…and prepare to be amazed.

These are repositioning cruises, conducted when a cruise line wants to transfer one of its vessels from one region to another with the change of seasons. It’s a bit like moving chess pieces around on a watery chessboard.

Come winter, cruise ships working the coast of Alaska and British Columbia head south for the Mexican Riviera or the Caribbean, the latter throwing in a crossing of the Panama Canal as a bonus.

Other vessels that had been plying Caribbean waters will head across the Atlantic to spend spring and summer cruising in the Mediterranean or off Northern Europe.

But with a little research, you can find repositioning cruises almost anywhere. Not all of them are this cheap, but enough of them are to make “repo” cruises worth keeping in the back of your mind.

On board, won’t notice much difference from a regular cruise. Same cabins. Same food. Same entertainment. Same gyms, spas, stage shows.

The major difference is that you tend to get a lot more of all that, along with a lot more days at sea, for a lot less money than if you were taking this same cruise during, say, Spring Break, summer or Christmastime.

By now, you may be aching for me to cut to the proverbial chase — or more accurately, the catch. There are three of them:

  1. These are strictly one-way cruises, meaning you’ll have to make your own way home when it’s over.
  2. They usually take place during “shoulder seasons,” those periods on the calendar that fall between peak holiday travel times.
  3. Since they often involve trans-Atlantic crossings, they tend to be at least two weeks long.

The money you save on a “repo” cruise compared with a conventional sailing can more than cover the expense of your return flight. The real issue is time.

Can you get the time off to go on vacation when most of your co-workers are back on the job? Having kids in school raises another complication. Also,

But if you can swing the time, you can cruise the world’s oceans for a fraction of what vacationers usually pay.

Introducing: the Cruise Travel page
CRUISE: Soul Train at sea


WINE, Part 1 — The Undiscovered Countries

First of a two-part series

Pursuit of great wine is as good a reason as any to travel. That pursuit can take you to places you might not expect, or even believe.

Not long ago, I was skimming through a catalog of university extension classes when I came across a course about competition in the world wine market, focusing on four countries — France, Italy, the United States and Australia.

Seeing that course description made two things instantly clear:

  1. Wine is a great reason to travel the world.
  2. If you’re looking at only four countries, whether as a traveler or as a winemaker, you are NOT ready for what awaits you in the world of wines.

The reality is that most of the world’s nations produce wines. Some are as far away as Kazakhstan, others as close as Canada and Mexico.

Baja California’s wine country, less than an hour’s drive from the port city of Ensenada, is turning out some truly world-class wines. Canada, meanwhile, produces something truly unique — ice wine, made from grapes frozen on the vines.

In Europe, it’s easier finding countries that don’t make wine. Indeed, you can find a truly world-class wine almost in any corner of the world, including several that might not occur to you when you’re thinking of a wine vacation.

As the video above shows, a journey to begin discovery to the world’s undiscovered wine countries doesn’t even require a passport, just a road map.

Yes, California, Virginia is also wine country. As are New York, Washington, Oregon, Michigan — in all, at least 35 of the 50 United States. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why this country is the world’s fourth largest wine producer, behind France, Italy and Spain.

So who holds down the fifth spot, behind the US? That would be Argentina, which I can tell you from my experience produces some spectacular red wines. As does rival Chile. But both those South American nations now qualify as “usual suspects” in the wine world.

Where are the others? Believe me, there are lots. The Wine Institute lists at least 58 countries in the world that produce wine.

Mention Germany and we automatically think of beer, but Deutschland also happens to be the world’s tenth largest maker of wine. Right behind GermanyRussia. Yes, the land world-famous for its vodka also makes wine.

We know about Portugal because of its famed port wines. So given its cultural connection on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Portuguese-speaking Brazil is right behind them on the list of winemaking nations.

Greece is on that list. So is Turkey. So is China. So, too, are places like Moldova and Morocco, Uruguay and Paraguay, Uzbekistan and Japan.

Britain — yes, Britain!has a wine country. So does Ethiopia.

You want to really get crazy with this? Saudi Arabia makes wines.

All the world’s wines won’t be of the same variety or quality, but that’s not the point. Travel gives you a chance to experience things you can’t find at home, and you never know where you might find a liquid gem in a country flying under the world’s winemaking radar.

Nor is that concept limited to wines.

On a trip to the Dominican Republic to attend the Serie del Caribe, the Caribbean World Series, a seaside restaurant in Santo Domingo polished off our dinner with a shot of Guavaberry, the national liqueur from the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, made from the fruit of the same name.

I would spend the rest of that week stalking liquor stores in the DR, looking for a bottle of it to bring home. In vain. Turns out that Guavaberry is made nowhere else in the world, and they don’t export it. There are only two ways to get it, order it online or go to St. Maarten.

The traveler in you will want to pick Door Number Two.

So when you head out to see the world, try to leave enough room in your suitcase for at least one bottle of good drink. Odds are, wherever you are, you’ll have a chance to bring something back.

NEXT: The world’s black winemakers


AIRLINES: A new African bird

Airbus A319 of Gambia Bird
Airbus A319 of Gambia Bird

The Gambia has a new national airline linking together West Africa, just in time for this year’s International Roots Festival. But its implications for West African travel extend far beyond that.

There’s a new bird in the skies over West Africa — a Gambia Bird.

From its hub in the Gambian capital city of Banjul, the airline first took to the skies last November with a paired of leased Airbus A319s.

Gambia Bird’s primarily flies to West African countries belonging to ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. However, it also connects the Gambia to Europe via London Gatwick and Barcelona, Spain.

One small airline for West Africa. One big step for West African tourism.

The airline’s name itself is a clever play on Gambian tourism. Birdwatching is huge in the Gambia, and people come from all over to get a glimpse of some of the nearly 600 species of birds — some of which are flirting with extinction.

Its startup comes just in time for the 2013 International Roots Festival. But its importance to the Gambia and the rest of West Africa extends far beyond that one event.

gambia bird route map

Prior to this, few African airlines and even fewer non-African carriers served the Gambia, Africa’s smallest country. That left most travelers either having to reach the Gambia via Senegal Airlines from Dakar or traveling overland from one of the Gambia’s neighbors.

Road travel is seldom a comfortable option in Africa. If anything, driving for hours or days over beat-up, overtaxed and under-maintained African roads should be reserved for those who find value in suffering.

Gambia Bird not only gives West Africa a fresh set of airline connections, but also makes it easier for Europeans to fly directly to “the smiling coast of Africa,” as the Gambia is known. It’s also another option for Americans wishing to visit the Gambia, since there are no direct flights as yet to the Gambia from the United States.

Gambia Bird represents another European venture into the African airline market. It was founded by the German low-fare airline Germania, which offers some seriously cheap airfares within the European continent.

At reported in the IBIT Travel Digest, Britain’s low-fare easyJet already has set up shop in East Africa and is looking to expand.

Little by litte, with a push from European airlines exploiting an open market, Africa’s frayed web of airline travel is slowly being stitched together.

If Gambia Bird succeeds, don’t be surprised to see new hotels follow on the heels — or the wingtips — of this new airline.


the IBIT Travel Digest 2.3.13

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


When you’ve finished overdosing on Super Bowl hype, chips and dip, come refresh your mind with a peek at what’s happening in the world of travel

We are soon to find out, because according to Travel Weekly, the Federal Trade Commission has signed off on Priceline’s bid to buy the popular travel search engine for $1.8 billion.

That pretty much makes the sale a done deal, which could go down as soon as next month.

Snapping up Kayak gives Priceline a powerful search tool to tie in with its existing travel sales service. Less clear is how this marriage will benefit the traveling consumer.

On the other hand, Priceline has said that Kayak will to function as an independent entity, so we’ll see what happens.


You know that a new way of doing things really works when the big, old-line corporations start diving into it. That’s what has happened with car sharing.

Car sharing is kind of the automotive version of couchsurfing. It got its start in Switzerland in 1948 and took hold in the rest of Europe in the 1970s.

Once you become a member of a car-sharing service, you can rent a car for an entire day, a few hours or even a few minutes, if that’s all you need. You pick up the car in town, use it around town, drop it off in town. Cheaper and often more convenient than conventional car rentals, more flexibility and independence than taxis.

The concept doesn’t appeal only to travelers. Some people who don’t need a car full-time every day are actually getting rid of their own wheels (and the costs that go with them) and resorting to car sharing instead.

It’s also a good way to get a real-world feel for operating an unfamiliar vehicle type, whether it’s a pick-up truck or an electric car — without having to put up with a car salesman.

One of the pioneers in this field has been Zipcar, available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Ontario and Vancouver in Canada, as well as Barcelona, Spain and five cities in the United Kingdom.

How well does this concept work? Well enough for some of the rental car industry’s biggest players to take notice.

Hertz is answering its challenge by creating a car-sharing service of its own which it calls Hertz On-Demand. Enterprise followed suit with what they call WeCar. Even U-Haul has jumped into this game with U Car Share.

Avis, too, is buying the Zipcar concept. It’s also buying Zipcar…for $500 million.


At this point, I’m not sure if the cruise industry’s shipbuilding binge is entering its second decade or its third. The one thing I do know: It’s not stopping.

Royal Caribbean, locked in mortal combat with Carnival for the dominant share of the market, is showing every sign of both expanding and updating its fleet super-sized cruisers.

They’re already moving to trademark the names of six new Oasis-class vessels that haven’t even been built yet.

The Oasis-class — led by its namesake, the Oasis of the Seas — is currently the largest cruise ship afloat, maxing out at 5,400 passengers.

But Royal Caribbean isn’t stopping there. The line also is working on a new, slightly downsized cruise ship, the Sunshine-class, designed to transport and entertain a mere 4,100 passengers at a time.

This ship is so new, the first one hasn’t been named yet, much less built. But according to Travel Weekly, Royal Caribbean has already committed to building a second one.

I have no idea how the folks at Carnival will respond to this, but you know that they will be respond. It’s like an arms race, only with oceanview suites, water slides and Bahama Mamas.


If you were (or perhaps still are) a regular viewer of the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H, you might vaguely recall lots of occasional references to some mythical town or village whose name sounded like “Wee-John-Boo.”

Well, it turns out that Uijeongbu is no myth. It’s a real place, where the real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital operated during the Korean War. And in South Korea, its legacy extends far beyond film and television.

The people of Uijeongbu, desperately hungry during the war, made meals of whatever they could get their hands on. The result was a dish the locals called budaejjigae, Korean for “army base stew.”

Basically, it combined traditional Korean ingredients with whatever leftovers the locals could scrounge or smuggle from U.S. Army mess tents.

The shooting eventually stopped (the Korean War has never formally ended), but “army base stew” remained a staple of Uijeongbu — and Julie Wan of the Washington Post took advantage of a visit to her family in Seoul to seek out this most unconventional dish in its birthplace.

And as you’ll see when you read her story, she found it.

If you know the origins of things like gumbo, barbecue or fried chicken, you can relate to budaejjigae. Cookbooks today are full of dishes devised by poor, hungry people who tossed anything and everything into a stew pot and used a slow fire, a lot of spices and their imaginations to create something unforgettable.

If I ever find myself in South Korea, I may need to make a small side trip to Uijeongbu.


And now, here’s The Digest:

from Travel Weekly
JetBlue experimenting with an expedited security service that could — maybe — speed you past regular airport security lines. For a fee, of course.

from Smarter Travel
Visual advice on how to dress for air travel. Aimed mainly at women, but the fellas can learn a few things from this, too. SLIDESHOW

from Smarter Travel
The TSA shuts down an airport terminal in Atlanta because of an unattended…toothbrush? You can’t make this stuff up. I mean, those Colgate bombs can be deadly…

from Smarter Travel
Did you know that fresh oranges, in addition to being healthy for you on the ground, can help keep you hydrated in the air? These and other healthy food tips for air travelers.

from Travel Weekly
Hertz now letting its Gold Plus Rewards members upgrade their rental cars via their smartphone app.

from Travel Weekly
Carnival cancels Belize port calls for two of its biggest ships through 2013. The cruise line says the port is overcrowded with ships.


from Tanzania Daily News (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Serengeti National Park, already a UN World Heritage Site, wins a prestigious international tourism award.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
The German cruise ship MV Astor makes a historic port call at Lamu, setting aside fears of kidnappings by Somali bandits.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Are British Army units training in East Africa arming and equipping poachers?

from CNN Travel
Today’s Super Bowl is more than just a battle between two pro football teams. It’s also a tale of two cities, Baltimore and San Francisco, and how they play. SLIDESHOW

from NBC News
New York City’s Grand Central Terminal celebrated its centennial last Friday. The Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty may be great monuments, but if you want to locate New York’s beating heart, you’ll find it here.

from the New York Times
Yes, you can send an email to the Bahamas, but a mail boat can send you there.

from Travel Weekly
Haiti officially protests the latest U.S. State Department travel advisory on visiting the island nation, which reads in art: “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age.” State denies trying to discourage Haitian tourism.

from Yomiuri Shimbun
Deep in a forest, well away from the mad urban bustle of Tokyo, a village of Japanese craftsmen hand-builds elegant wood furniture with skills honed over 15 centuries.

from France 24
Missed out on the New Year’s Day festivities Jan. 1? Well, there’s still Chinese New Year coming up on Feb. 10, and the place to party is Hong Kong.

from CNTV
A small lake fishing village in China’s Yunnan province becomes a hidden tourist gem.

from the New York Times
Feel yourself choking on mobs of tourists in Venice? Find a way to go eat with some of the locals.

from Lonely Planet
Is this the world’s most beautiful train ride? It’s in Norway.

from Travel Weekly
The Waldorf-Astoria hotel chain is making a serious move on Europe. With hotels already in London, Rome and Versailles, the luxury brand is now opening a Waldorf-Astoria in Berlin. And they’re not done. SLIDESHOW


RANT: Does America need a tourism czar?


Our haphazard, unfocused, uncoordinated efforts to sell America to the world’s tourists won’t cut it in the 21st century. We have to do better.

President Barack Obama last year signed an executive order creating a task force to design a National Travel & Tourism Strategy. It was a follow-up to his 2010 signing of the Travel Promotion Act of 2009.

Believe it or not, it’s the first time in our history that the US government has set promoting foreign travel to America as a national priority, something that most of the world’s nations, from the poorest to the richest, have been doing for decades.

To American ears, the title “tourism minister” has a quaint, even comic ring to it. To the rest of the world, however, it’s no joke, and here’s why:

Some time last month, a man or woman packed a bag and boarded a plane, train, bus or a ship to travel from one country to another, maybe for business but more likely for pleasure. That person was the one billionth traveler of 2012, the first time the world has ever seen that many people traveling in one year.

Tourism worldwide generates about $1 trillion and hundreds of millions of jobs annually. It’s growing almost in defiance of the recession. Just about every nation on Earth wants as big a piece of that action as it can get, and they’re all working very hard at getting it.

The world’s top ten tourism destinations, in order, are France, the United States, China, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, Mexico and Malaysia. The US is the only one of the ten that doesn’t have a Cabinet-level official devoted to promoting tourism.

Some may argue that America has done well enough at attracting tourists without needing one. “We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!” What’s the problem with that? Let me count the ways.

  1. Our Economy American unemployment is unacceptably high. This country has been bleeding manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs for decades and those jobs are not coming back. At the same time, you will be hard-pressed to find another industry in the world generating more new business and new cash flow than tourism. Think this economy could use some new jobs?
  2. Our Pride Since when were Americans content to be Number Two in anything?

And yet we sort of muddle our way through the business of attracting more visitors — and their money — to this country.

New York City is America’s top travel destination, and last year, the Big Apple drew a record 52 million visitors. The fact that the City of New York runs 18 tourism offices around the world probably had something to do with that.

It’s great that New York can afford to run its own overseas promotional campaign, but why should it have to? And what about all our other great cities that can’t afford to run their own foreign offices?

The Travel Promotion Act of 2009 created something called the Office of Travel Promotion within the US Commerce Department. Show of digital hands: How many of you out there ever heard of the Office of Travel Promotion before this moment?

If I dig long and hard enough, I can probably find out who runs this office and what it’s doing on behalf of American tourism — but why should I have to? Why should anyone have to?

I could easily tell you who’s in charge of tourism in Denmark, Brazil, Singapore, Botswana, or more than a hundred other countries. All the government’s efforts to bring in more visitors flow with a single, concentrated focus through that person’s office.

Who holds that responsibility in the United States? Who is the face of American tourism in Washington? Thirteen years into the 21st century, I have no idea — and I’m betting you don’t, either.

The federal government’s attempts to push American tourism abroad hasn’t even taxied to the head of the runway yet and already, it’s a hot, disjointed mess — a board here, an office there, a task force over in the corner.

Who’s running this?

Somebody needs to take charge here, a Cabinet-level official with the clout to pull all these scattered efforts together, and a profile that guarantees direct access to the President and Congress when necessary.

A tourism secretary. A tourism minister. A tourism czar. The title itself doesn’t matter, but the need for it does. Because the global competition for those $1 trillion is heating up, and the rest of the world is not waiting around for Washington to get its act together.


the IBIT Travel Digest 12.23.12

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

Tongli, China's ancient Venice | ©IBIT/G. Gross
Tongli, China’s ancient Venice | ©IBIT/G. Gross

River cruising has long been a travel staple in Europe and shows little sign of slowing down. But cruise lines and tour companies increasingly are looking to Asia as the Next Big Thing in cruising.

According to USA Today, Viking River Cruises, one of the biggest names in European river cruising, has already announced plans to offer river cruises in Myanmar and Thailand, starting in 2014.

Others aren’t waiting that long. Travel Daily News.Asia is reporting that Travel Indochina is already adding Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Laos to a river cruise itinerary that already includes Vietnam, Cambodia and Yangtze River cruises in China.

With increasing world interest in Asia and growing middle classes in Asian countries with money to spend and a desire to see more of their own homelands, Asian river cruising could be a hot market for years to come.


So far, this is one of life’s ailments that has mercifully passed me by. But there are plenty of people who suffer with this — and “suffer” is the operative term.

At the least, it can seriously interfere with your ability to enjoy travel. At its worst, it may prevent you from traveling altogether.

We’ve all had our share of laughs about motion sickness. Even Hollywood films and cartoons have gotten in on the levity. But every time I see the airsickness bag on the airplane or see folks on cruise ships with that little scopolamine patch on their necks, I’m reminded that motion sickness is no joke.

It’s a physical misunderstanding. Your inner ear tells your brain, “We’re moving!” Your eyes are saying, “No, we’re not!” Your stomach wishes they’d both shut the hell up.

There’s no real cure for motion sickness, but there are ways you can deal with this, and the New York Times breaks it all down at length in this article.

Their suggestions may not rid you of this curse, but they might make life a little easier for you, or your kids.


A lot of us travel with a lot of electronic gear — smartphones, iPods, tablets. They make us productive during those long flights, or at least keep us from dying of boredom.

But even if they’re fully charged when we leave for the airport, their batteries may be no match for that 10-hour or 12-hour transcontinental flight. And finding an available electrical outlet in a crowded terminal during an unexpected delay can be…well…challenging.

Which is why the Summit 3000 battery pack caught my attention. As Smarter Travel points out, it’s neither very light or really cheap, but if you need to keep your devices running in places where a plug isn’t handy, you may be glad you have this.

One especially cool feature is that it’s dual-voltage, which means you can use it overseas with no hassle; all you need is a plug adaptor for the country you’re in. And if you travel with electronic gear, odds are you already have some of those.

Still, it isn’t powerful enough to charge a laptop, which leaves my black MacBook feeling neglected and resentful.


Traveling with pets is always tricky, especially if the pet is a cat. It’s tough enough on the sensitive little critters, even without having to deal with the TSA — which actually lost one traveler’s cat in New York JFK airport.

There’s nothing we can do about the TSA, but there are things cat owners can do to make travel easier on their beloved felines, and the folks at Smarter Traveler lay out their suggestions in this slideshow.


If your Boeing and you want to test how well in-flight wifi works aboard your aircraft, what sort of exotic, sophisticated, state-of-the-art testing equipment do you use?

Why, potatoes, of course — 20,000 pounds of potatoes, right on the passenger seats.

And as proof that I’m neither crazy nor making this stuff up, check out this CNN story on Boeing’s wifi tests.

And please, no mashup jokes.

And now, here’s The Digest:

from Travel Weekly
Don’t look now, but your already miserable experience getting through airport security could get a lot worse two weeks into 2013. It’s all about your driver’s license and an eight-year-old federal law that gone unenforced — until now. IBIT will be exploring this in depth shortly.

from the Washington Post
Spas. Yoga. Luxury food. Fine dining. An international resort? You’ll increasingly find these high-end amenities in the last place you’d look for them — American airports.

from Christopher Elliot
Is the TSA doomed? A respected consumer writer says the powers that be have heard the traveling public’s gripes — and they’re paying attention.

from Smarter Travel
Seven ways to avoid airline baggage fees. SLIDESHOW

from the New York Times
Have you ever longed to explore ancient historic sites, without having to contend with mobs of tourists? Here are five spots around the world where your wish may come true…for now, anyway.

from Gadling
Cruise travel is rebounding from a rough year.

from Travel Weekly
Are the Viking River Cruises people building a navy or what? Already with ten new cruise ships on order for next year, they’ve already committed to eight more in 2014. That makes 24 new river cruisers in three years. But given Viking’s interest in Asia (see above), it makes perfect sense.


from The New Times (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
The national airlines of Kenya and Rwanda hook up in a strategic partnership that eventually could stremaline regional air travel between eastern and central Africa.

from The Point (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
A village on a pristine coastal stretch of the Gambia becomes the anchor point of an ambitious experiment in ecotourism.

from Vanguard (Nigeria) via allAfrica.com
A state government in Nigeria wants to turn the site of the country’s first recorded plane crash into a tourist attraction. Uhhh…

from The Guardian (London UK)
We think of New Orleans mostly as a grown-ups’ playground, but come Christmastime, it becomes a magical place for kids.

from SFGate.com
Good news from Mexico: There’s a hotel building boom underway in Cancun.

from the Washington Post
A foodie’s tour of Peru. SLIDESHOW

from the Sacramento Bee
Hollywood has its stars, but in California’s Anza-Borrego Desert, you’ll get an unrestricted view of the real ones.

from CNNgo
Riding waves of modernization, gentrification and newly made Chinese money, there’s never been a better time to visit Hong Kong. An insider’s look at one of the world’s perpetually energized destinations.

from CCTV (China)
China and Nepal sign a commitment to promote tourism between the two countries.

from the Jakarta Post (Indonesia)
Have you ever poured Thousand Island dressing on your salad and wondered if such a place actually exists? It does. It’s in Indonesia, and the governor of the nation’s capital, Jakarta, would love to see the Thousand Islands region become a tourist attraction.

from the New York Times
Walk through history in the ancient city of Toledo, a city holy to Catholics in Spain. Its religious importance saw it escape multiple wars almost untouched.

from The Guardian (London UK)
How Vienna waltzes through Christmas.

from The Guardian (London UK)
The world’s oldest monument was discovered only about a decade ago. It’s 11,000 years old. And it’s in Turkey.

from the Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette (IL)
For most travelers interested in Europe, Slovenia doesn’t register as a worthwhile destination. And that’s kind of a shame.


CRUISE TRENDS 2013: The heat is on

Carnival Inspiration off Catalina Island
Carnival Inspiration off Catalina Island | ©IBIT/G. Gross

New ships, new packages, new excursions, targeted discounts and new rules on shipboard alcohol all point to ferocious competition for your vacation time and money.

In large ways and small, the high-seas battle among the world’s cruise lines looks to be headed toward yet another all-out brawl in 2013. This $36 billion market may not be growing as fast as it was back in the heady days of the 1990s and the 2000s, but is still growing.

On the surface, it may not seem like much of a fight, since the industry’s 9,000-pound gorilla, Carnival Cruise Lines, currently owns nine of its erstwhile rivals. Its chief competitor these days is Royal Caribbean Cruises, which boasts the largest cruise ships in the world and owns five lines itself.

Between them, they take in nearly 72 percent of all the money generated by the entire cruise industry. (SOURCE: Cruise Market Watch) And 2013 figures to be no different.

The other cruise lines may be battling over Carnival’s and Royal Caribbean’s crumbs, comparatively speaking, but when those leftovers are seven, eight or nine digits large, the competitors take them seriously.

How competitive is the cruise business? We’re not fully done with 2012 yet, but Norwegian Cruise Lines is already touting its cruise packages for 2014-15.

Here’s another example from earlier this year. Celebrity, one of the lines owned by Royal Caribbean, was so jazzed about its shipboard cuisine that it hosted a special event just to highlight its food.

In San Francisco…on land.

So what does all this mean for you, the cruise traveler?

It means new ships, new shipboard features and new rules, all designed to literally get you on board. It also will likely mean continued deep discounts on Caribbean cruises and opportunities to experience new cruise destinations — provided you’re willing to fly a long way to meet your ship.

The cruise industry’s shipbuilding binge of the last two decades is still going. Between 2009-2015, you can expect to see a total of 25 new vessels vying for your cruise vacation dollars. (SOURCE: AMEM Communnications)

As usual, these ships are being assembled in Western European shipyards — Germany, Italy and Finland. (What about the United States, you ask? Don’t ask.)

Starting this year, though, there’s a new player at the table — South Korea. The folks who ran Japan out of the supertanker business are now looking to build cruise ships. If I’m a shipyard worker in Hamburg, Rome or Helsinki, I’m a little nervous right now.

Anyway, here are the six due out next year and the markets where you’ll find them:

  • Royal Princess (Europe/Caribbean)
  • MSC Preziosa (Europe)
  • Europa 2 (World)
  • Le Solèal (World)
  • AIDAstella (Europe)
  • Norwegian Breakaway (Caribbean)

Meanwhile, the orders for new ships are still coming in. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line all have new mega-cruisers on order or in the works through 2016.

The one being built for NCL will be the largest they’ve ever sailed.

Unsettled world economy or not, the driving philosophy in the cruise industry still seems to be “go big or stay home.”

Half these new liners coming out next year are slated for European waters at a time when European cruise sales are virtually dead in the water.

For the major US-based cruise lines especially, it’s a case of bad timing. Seeing American cruise sales to the Caribbean leveling off, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, among others, started looking increasingly to Europe in the last couple of years to offset the impact of our recession.

So what happened?

The European Union’s own financial crisis happened, especially in Greece and Spain. The political unrest of the Arab Spring happened, which took a bite out of Mediterranean cruises. The Costa Concordia happened, which gave prospective new cruise travelers second thoughts about their safety at sea.

And yet, Norwegian Cruise Lines — best known these days for their Hawaii cruises — recently announced plans to hook up with Gate 1 Travel top offer combination cruise-land tour packages in Europe, starting with Italy.

Still, with the European market now deemed shaky, don’t be surprised to see a lot of these new cruise ships with homeports in places like Singapore and Shanghai and…South Korea, which is planning new cruise ship terminals at Incheon and Yeosu.

Europe is the river cruise capital of the world. Calm, scenic rivers winding through multiple countries, seen from low-slung vessels that count their passengers in dozens rather than thousands. And every cabin gets a view.

Here are the new river cruisers due to hit the water next year:

  • Scenic Jewel
  • Viking Tor
  • Viking Var
  • Viking Bragi
  • Viking Skadi
  • Viking Forseti
  • Viking Rinda
  • Viking Jarl
  • Viking Alta
  • Ama Prima
  • Ama Vida
  • Avalon Artistry II
  • Avalon Expression

Between this flotilla of new river vessels and the half-dozen new ocean liners coming on line, cruise enthusiasts will have plenty of chances to experience that new-cruise-ship-smell in 2013.

Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean are experimenting with “all-you-can-drink” packages. For a fixed price — say $50 per adult passenger per day — you can drink as many beers, wines, cocktails and sodas as you can handle.

Now, Royal Caribbean is upping the booze ante again.

Many cruise newcomers have fantasies about opening a bottle of their favorite wine or champagne in their cabin, only to learn that cruise lines don’t allow passengers to bring their own booze on board with them, neither from home nor during the cruise. If you buy wines or other alcohol while in port, ship’s security takes custody of it until the cruise is over.

It’s pure economics. Cruise lines make a lot of money on selling liquor aboard ship.

Now, Royal Caribbean is changing the game. You can now bring two 750ml bottles of wine into your cabin, without having purchased it aboard ship.

And there’s no extra charge for this privilege — as long as you confine your bring-your-own-wine drinking to your cabin. Take it anywhere else aboard ship, and there’s a $25 fee.

You can bet your life preserver that the rest of the cruise industry will be watching to see how Royal Caribbean passengers respond to this. Don’t be surprised if other lines adopt a similar policy within the next year or so.

NCL, meanwhile, is offering Casino at Sea discounts for cruise travelers who like to spend big at the on-board casinos. And if the line is to be believed, you don’t have to be a true “high-roller” to qualify. You’ll need to ask a travel agent about getting the discount.

Has this ever happened to you? You search and wait and search and wait, trying to get the best possible price on a cruise booking, only to have the cruise line drop the price on your cabin just after you booked it?

The luxury cruise line Silversea is taking pity on you. As of November, if this happens to you, they will let you rebook at the lower rate — and give you four choices on what to do with the money you save.

Starting next year, the freaks will be coming out at night. Cruise freaks, that is.

Azmara Club Cruise Lines is breaking with the industry tradition that shore excursions have to be daylight-only affairs.

Azmara now plans to offer a series of night-time excursions, 52 in all, from all of its ships, starting in March in Spain.

Given the Spanish reputation for partying into the dawn, it’s hard to imagine a better choice to start things off.

Another luxury line, Seabourn, will be experimenting with all-inclusive cruise packages next year. The packages will include things like airfare for flights to meet the ship, overnight hotel stays before and/or after the cruise and as much as $2,000 in shipboard credits.

All for an added fee, of course. The idea is to enhance Seabourn’s reputation as a line that gives you value for your dollar.

Edited by P.A.Rice


the IBIT Travel Digest 11.25.12

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

Strasbourg Christmas lights stand
Shopping for Christmas lights, Strasbourg, France | @copy;IBIT/G. Gross


The so-called “Arab Spring” may have brought political change to North Africa and the Middle East, but it’s bringing little good cheer to the travel industry. The ongoing turmoil in that part of the world continues to make it — justly or unjustly — a no-go zone in the eyes of many travelers.

Travel Weekly reports that between now and next April, Norwegian Cruise Line is dropping Egypt from its 10- and 11-day cruises, scheduling port calls in Istanbul, Crete and Naples in its place.

And NCL came to that decision before Egypt’s new president got involved in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and then tangled with his own nation’s judiciary over sweeping new powers he claimed…for himself.

Bottom line: Many of the countries now being avoided by travelers and travel companies alike may be perfectly safe to visit, but it may be a good while yet before the traveling public perceives them that way.


Anyone who tells you Americans don’t take trains hasn’t been to a train station lately. IBIT has and I can tell you, they’re busy.

Amtrak’s business year officially closed out on Sept. 30, and it closed on all high notes, starting with this one: 31.2 million passengers for fiscal 2012.

Two things make that number important. First, it’s the highest ridership for Amtrak since it came into being in 1971. Second, it’s the ninth year in a row that Amtrak has set a new ridership mark.

While you’re at it, smoke this over: Between 2000 and 2012, Amtrak ridership has risen by 49 percent.

You’ll find the rest of Amtrak’s glowing figures in the corporation’s press release here.

A lot of airline CEOs would kill for numbers like these. Then again, the misery that is present-day air travel in the United States is a big reason why more people are turning to trains in the first place.


You know those customer-satisfaction surveys by J.D. Power & Associates, the ones that companies always tout in TV commercials to show how wonderful they are? Here’s one you won’t be seeing anytime soon, from anybody.

With hotel business picking up, J.D. Power decided to survey hotel guests. Those guests put the hotel industry on blast. Low-end, high-end, no one was spared:

“Satisfaction with check-in/check-out; food and beverage; hotel services; and hotel facilities are at new lows since the 2006 study and satisfaction with guest room has declined within one point of its lowest level in the past seven years.”

If I’m that guy at Motel 6 and I hear that, I’m leaving the light on because I can’t sleep. How did this happen?

Here’s a clue, courtesy of Travel Weekly’s Arnie Weissmann: Most of the top hotels in the country aren’t owned by real “hotel people” anymore.

They’re owned by private equity companies, which specialize in boosting profits by cutting costs — mainly by cutting staff and lowering service levels — before selling off the business to someone else.

That may be necessary when you’ve got hotels full of empty rooms at the height of a recession, but to keep doing it after your customers start coming back? Not smart, as J.D. Power vice-president Stuart Greif gently points out:

“Hoteliers need to get back to the fundamentals and improve the overall guest experience. Charging guests more and providing less is not a winning combination.”


And now, here’s The Digest:

from Travel Weekly
Qatar Airways joins oneworld, the world’s number two airline alliance. QA joins Malaysia Airlines and SriLankan Airlines as members-elect. It’s a big deal for Asian air travel and a big boost for oneworld, but the announcement is overshadowed by the ongoing beef between American Airines and its pilots.

from Travel Weekly
The Middle East may still be too hot politically for some travelers, but that’s not stopping three major Persian Gulf airlines from building alliances with European carriers.

from Travel Weekly
Southwest Airlines will start flying this spring from Florida to Puerto Rico. Officially, it’s a simple takeover of existing service from AirTran, which Southwest bought. But as its first air service outside the continental United States, it’s a big step.

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pickpockets in Spain, gypsy cabs in Rome and other avoidadable travel scams.

from Travel Weekly
JW Marriott opens the world’s tallest hotel in Dubai. How tall? About eight stories shorter than the Empire State Building in New York. Yep, that’s tall, all right.

from Independent Traveler.com
Lots of folks have tips on how best to travel with kids — but what about traveling with grandkids?

from NBC News
Honeymoons…with friends? Really? Yes, really.

from Cruise Critic
Cruising for grown-ups. Seven options for sailing without the kids.

from Travel Weekly
Norwegian Cruise Line is going all Grinch on Hawai’i. Seeing strong demand for its Hawaiian cruises, NCL is raising its Hawai’i cruise prices 10 percent starting Jan 1, 2013. Merry Christmas…

from Gadling
Travel insurance is one purchase a lot of cruise travelers try to do without. Don’t. But have a clear understanding of what travel insurance will and won’t do for you.


from the Ethiopian Press Agency via allAfrica.com
Addis Ababa starting to become a destination for conference travel.

from The Herald (Zimbabwe) via allAfrica.com
The justly famed Victoria Falls are starting to get some serious competition as a tourist attraction from the Mana Pools. Chinese tourists in particular just love this spot.

from allAfrica.com
Citizen of Vietnam caught in Mozambique with a half-dozen rhino horns in his possession. Wonder how to say “You in a heap ‘a trouble, boy!” in Vietnamese?

from Inform Africa
An African looks at our Thanksgiving tradition, and wonders why African-Americans find anything to celebrate.

from Travel Weekly
If you’re used to paying $51 in airport fees when flying into and out of Antigua, get ready to go a little deeper into your wallet from now on.

from the Los Angeles Times
The Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe in Santa Fe, NM walks a fine line between respecting an impoverished local culture and providing a successful escape for its visitors.

from USA Today
If you’ve been frightened away from Mexico over the last several years, you can at least think about returning now. The most recent State Department travelers warning about Mexico exempts most of that country’s traditional tourist destinations.

from the New York Times
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, is obsessed with good food. For a traveler, that could be a very good thing, indeed.

from the New York Times
A short but worthwhile visit in the city we used to know as Calcutta. Nowadays, it goes by Kolkata.

from The Guardian (London UK)
With a sleek new mountain eco-resort not far from Shanghai in Zhejiang province, China hopes to lure environmentally conscious tourists — and perhaps simultaneously clean up its international image as one of the world’s major polluters.

from France 24
Are the people of Singapore real-world Vulcans a la Star Trek, utterly lacking in emotions (as well as pointy ears)? A US Gallup poll says yes. Even worse, a fair number of Singaporeans seem to agree. It seems they’re too busy making a living to have a life.

from The Guardian (London UK)
A look at the town of Vicenza, one of northern Italy’s under-appreciated jewels, and the creation of one of its most famous architects. A UN World Heritage Site that still manages to slip below the tourist radar.

Edited by P.A.Rice



Sahara Desert caravan
The Sahara Desert. Think you could survive here? | ©Simone Matteo Giuseppe Manzoni — Dreamstime.com

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

This edition of the IBIT Travel Digest is dedicated to my editor, P.A. Rice, whose name you’ll often see at the bottom of my blog posts. In addition to being a fine writer in her own right and a good friend of many years, she loves — I mean LOVES! — the desert.

Having been born in Louisiana and spent most of my life in coastal California, I’ve never been a desert person. Too much sand, too little shade, too many things that stick or bite you.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s usually hotter than all Hell? Unless, of course, it’s freezing cold.

But when she’s in the desert, she sees — or more accurately, feels — something different. Something profound. Something wondrous. And if you try looking at it through her eyes, you may start to see the desert in the same way.

It’s a land that makes you accept it on its own terms. But if you can do that, it will treat you to breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, night skies overflowing with stars and enough solitude to let you have meaningful conversations with your own soul.

I’ve seen sunlight and clouds combine over the Imperial Valley of California in ways that that I’ve seen nowhere else on Earth.

And as evidenced by this story in the London newspaper, The Guardian, she’s not alone in her appreciation of the world’s driest places.

The article lists incredible deserts all over the world — and tours to let you explore them. Deserts in Arizona, North Africa, Mongolia, and countries you may not even think of in terms of deserts.

Like Spain.

Don’t worry…it’s a DRY heat.


easyJet is Britain’s largest airline and one of the principal low-fare airlines in Europe. It’s orange-and-white Airbus A319s and A320s are a common slight all over the continent.

Now, according to The Guardian, easyJet’s Greek founder is bringing the low-fare airline concept to the Mother Continent.

Fastjet has taken off, literally, in Tanzania.

The implications of this are huge. Africa is one of the largest and most populous of all the world’s continents — and also by far the one most under-served by the world’s airlines.

If Fastjet succeeds, spreads and inspires the rise of competitors, it could revolutionize African air travel.

Stay tuned.


If it’s been awhile since you took a cross-country road trip — and at today’s gasoline prices, who could blame you? — you will be forgiven if you go slack-jawed when you see what’s happening to highway rest stops these days.

I got my own inkling of that a couple of weeks ago on Interstate 5 in Southern California, heading back to San Diego.

There’s long been a rest stop overlooking the coast within the boundaries of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, but I hadn’t stopped there in years. Small, nondescript, nothing special.

My, how things have changed. Two buildings are now three. Multiple large, clean restrooms, snack and soft-drink vending machines that actually work. And I didn’t check, but it might even have wifi now.

But as you’ll see in this Washington Post travel story, that’s nothing.

America’s rest stops are going upscale, so much so that some are on the verge of becoming destinations themselves. Check it out.


And as long as we’re toying with the idea of hitting the road again, the financial magazine Kiplinger offers up this list of its 10 cheapest American cities for a good vacation.

The first thing you’ll notice about this list is that only two of its top 10 cities are anywhere west of the Mississippi River. One of them is Phoenix, AZ.

Desert. It figures.

But that’s not as amazing as the city that appears at the top of the Kiplinger list, the Number 1 destination for a cheap American vacation.

Drum roll, please…Riverside, CA.

When I first saw this, my initial reaction was “really?” Then I recalled my several drives through Riverside with my family enroute to and from family visits in Texas and Louisiana, not to mention my stops there on the train.

After thinking it all over, my reconsidered thought was…REALLY???

If you think you can make a compelling case that the Kiplinger folks are right, drop me a comment here on the blog or send an email to greg@imblacknitravel.com. I’m willing to be persuaded.

Just be prepared to work at it.


And now, here’s the Digest:

from Travel Weekly
American Airlines adds service to Europe, Asia and Latin America from its hubs in Dallas and Chicago. The flights themselves don’t begin til next year, but you can start booking them now.

from the Huffington Post
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about the skies of the beholder? Would you fly in airplanes as ugly as these? SLIDESHOW

from CNN
The A350-AXWB is the lightweight, long-range airline that Airbus intends to compete with Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner. Will it catch on with the world’s airlines…and more importantly, their passengers?

from The Daily Beast
Where to find some of the world’s tastiest cheap eats. No surprise, most of them are in Asia.

from AARP
Airline etiquette — how to deal with rude passengers in-flight.

from USA Today
Is a steady regimen of business travel hazardous to your health?

from USA Today
NCL joins rival Carnival in selling all-you-can-drink packages aboard its cruise ships.


from allAfrica.com
British travelers vote their favorite city in the world. New York? Toronto? Paris? Surprise…it’s Capetown, South Africa.

from the Daily Observer (Gambia) via allAfrica.com
For foreign tourists, visiting the Gambia often means getting bum-rushed by “bumsters.” Mostly, they’re just a nuisance, but they can be a BIG nuisance.

from allAfrica.com
An unlikely alliance of US environmentalists, herdsmen from Somalia and financiers from China is joining forces in Kenya to save the rarest antelope in Africa. The hirola is closer to extinction than giant pandas, mountain gorillas or rhinos…and cannot survive in zoos.

from CNN
How to survive in the Sahara with the world’s original desert survival experts, the Tuareg.

from the New York Times
Atlantic City refuses to bow down to Superstorm Sandy.

from Travel Weekly
And speaking of Sandy, resorts in the Caribbean are still reeling from its impact, these days in the form of widespread cancellations from US travelers. Good time to swoop in and negotiate a bargain, perhaps?

from the New York Times
Seth Kugel loves São Paulo. He wants you to love it, too. WARNING: You may have to work at it.

from the Washington Post
Have a thing for ghost towns? Then check out a pair of abandoned mining towns in Chile. SLIDESHOW

from the Huffington Post
For all the gloom-and-doom talk in the mainstream media about the demise of American manufacturing, there are a lot of local factories still making their own products — and making money doing it. Some of them will let you come in and watch. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London UK)
Want to see where The Hobbit lives…at least on film? Head for New Zealand. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” hits theaters next month. Check out the incredibly beautiful land where it was shot.

from CNN
The Hello Kitty restaurant in Beijing. The pink ambiance will make you smile. The food will not.

from Travel Weekly
Greece is pining for more US tourists.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Some of the lesser known but no less worthy attractions of St. Petersburg, Russia.

from the New York Times
The Prague that hides in plain sight.

from the Washington Post
Here in the States, writers joke about tree-hugging hippies who think they can sing their way to revolution and freeom. In the scenic Baltic republic of Estonia, the people there actually did.