Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Finding a good campsite online

When it comes to camping, the internet is a double-edged blade. While it enables you to get lots of detailed information about campgrounds—and even check real-time availability and book campsites via ReserveAmerica—picking a specific site or even a campground is in some ways a shot in the dark.

Much of the joy of camping comes from communing with nature and being in a peaceful, scenic setting. So there's nothing so disappointing as getting stuck in a noisy, crowded campground that looked good on the internet—or a crappy campsite in an otherwise good campground. There's no substitute for driving up to an uncrowded campground, taking a leisurely look around, and picking out the best vacant site. But in the areas within weekend camping reach of New York, booking online ahead of time is a necessity, especially during summertime.

So when Cassie and I made plans to go camping in the Catskills two weeks from now, I searched the internet for any site recommendations as soon as we settled on a campground (Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, New York). While the campground map could display locations of sites, it couldn't show how scenic a given site is, or whether it has ample shade. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed (though the search revealed an unexploited niche that an enterprising, web-savvy travel writer could fill... hmmm).

I'll have to wait until after our visit to publish recommendations for the campground's best sites. Based on a phone call with a park ranger, however, I can report to you and Google's spiders that sites 4, 5 and 6 lack shade of any kind, as does site 49; sites 33 and 35 have no trees in the actual site to which you can lash ropes, though they do have shade from overhanging branches; site 40 has only partial shade; and site 31 has both shade and trees (so I booked it).

Of course, looking at the campground map, you'll note that there are many other sites right along the creek. I'm sure those will make my Top 5, but for the weekend we're going, they were already booked.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

San Diego diving recommendations

A member of my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, solicited questions about scuba diving in San Diego on the club's message board. Being an avid scuba diver and a San Diego native, I didn't hesitate to offer my recommendations. Since my comments could be useful for others interested in San Diego diving, I thought I'd repost them here.

Boat Diving
Generally, there are three areas where dive operators do day trips: Wreck Alley, Point Loma Kelp Beds and Los Coronados. Wreck Alley is a short, 15-minute ride from Mission Bay, where the dive op I've always used in the past (Dive Connections) is located. In Wreck Alley, you'll find the Yukon, a very large Canadian destroyer, as well as several other fun wrecks, including the strawberry anemone-covered Ruby E.

The Point Loma Kelp Beds are an area I am disappointed to admit I've never dived, though I've criss-crossed over the lush and thick beds countless times on boats topside. I've done warm and cold water diving, everything from the fish-filled waters of Bonaire to the murky depths of the Northeast, and my favorite diving hands-down is kelp forest diving. Anyone who went on our Channel Islands trip last fall will describe the kelp forests with glassy-eyed wonder.

If you do only one boat dive in San Diego, Los Coronados is the must-do. You're almost guaranteed to share the water with tens of sea lions, who will buzz you and maybe even take a love nibble on your snorkel. They're very playful, and will keep you company through most of the dive (till they get bored, anyway). Here's a trip report from my first trip out there.

Shore Diving
On thing that San Diego—and SoCal in general—has in abundance is good shore diving. In San Diego, most shore divers find their way to La Jolla. The entire bay around La Jolla is a protected underwater preserve, and there's plenty to see. If you enter in or around La Jolla Cove, the underwater topography consists of reefs covered in eel grass, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore (and the ubiquitous garibaldi). And you can also explore kelp forests (keep your eyes open for giant sea bass) and some shallow caves.

La Jolla Shores, where most Open Water checkout dives are done, is all sandy bottom, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to see. You'll find countless sting rays (and the occasional halibut) on the bottom, and during summertime, you'll see hundreds of leopard sharks and guitarfish in the shallows. There are also vast beds of sand dollars, and you can explore the rim of (and descend partly into, but watch your depth) La Jolla Canyon, an offshoot of Scripps Canyon, both of which go down several thousand feet. Near the rim, you're likely to see bat rays (watch for clouds of silt, as they burrow into the sand looking for food).

Beyond San Diego
If you have the time and inclination, board a boat out of Long Beach (the Sundiver is a good one I've been on several times) and take a day trip out to Catalina. The visibility and marine life offshore will be much better than what you'll see inshore. Or, if you want to stick to shore, there are some great dive spots in Orange County (Shaw's Cove is one of my favorites).

If you're a scuba diver with other San Diego diving suggestions, please post a comment!

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday travel photo

Daisies in Baja California, Mexico (cultivated, not wild, but I thought it made for a pretty shot).

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The return of the travel agent

I'm stating the obvious when I say the internet revolutionized the travel industry. Where previously a large majority of people utilized travel agents to book air travel and hotel accommodations, the internet leveled that playing field. People could now book travel directly, much more cheaply and easily. I still remember using Easy SAABRE to look up flight information for the first time on America Online, back in 1995 (the Precambrian era of the World Wide Web).

Do-it-yourself travel booking sites blossomed in those early days, surviving and even thriving after the dot-com bust: Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity,, Expedia. There seemed to be no trip the web-savvy travel consumer couldn't plan and book herself.

But just when things seemed darkest for the lonely travel agent, fuel prices soared, taking air fares with them. The Year of the Fees began, and soon no tool in the traveler's internet toolbox could locate an affordable air fare. It was like needing to unscrew a flathead screw, and having nothing but Phillips head screwdrivers.

And who's got that flathead screwdriver? The travel agent!

I've wanted to get away for awhile now. I planned a Fourth of July dive trip to the Florida Keys. I worked out a multi-city itinerary for a fall trip to Mexico. I tried to get a last-minute flight to Charleston to hang out with one of Cassie's friends. I'm still trying to make a trip to Curacao a reality. And somehow we're going to have to get out to California for Thanksgiving.

In every case, air fares have been through the roof. As badly as I have needed a vacation, I was ready in every case to pull the trigger, if only I could find a reasonable air fare. To say what I found was unreasonable would be an understatement; the results of my air fare searches made me abandon my plans. Other people have had the same problems; family members and friends have told me of travel plans they've canceled because of out-of-control air fares.

Therefore do I predict the Return of the Travel Agent. People are still going to want to travel, but they'll keep balking at coach fares that seem more like first class fares. More and more people will turn to travel agents, who will have the inside track on cheaper fares via charters, bulk fares, group reservations and the like. Such bulk pricing will likely be the last remaining way to get a halfway reasonable air fare.

So... can anyone recommend a good travel agent?

Carry-on bag buyer's guide

With all the new checked-bag fees, your carry-on bag can not only save you time upon arrival, but now it'll save you more than a little money (assuming, of course, you can find room these days in the overhead bins). just published a great carry-on bag buyer's guide, so check it out if you're ready to upgrade your carry-on.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Low fares - no, really

In this Year of the Fees, you can't comparison-shop for air travel strictly by comparing air fares anymore. Now you also have to compare fees, surcharges and other hidden costs (yes, even inconsequentials—how much will it bother you to pay $2 for a non-alcoholic beverage aboard a US Air flight?).

With that in mind, the promo on Southwest's home page made me wish they flew out of an airport closer than Long Island.


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Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday travel photo

Sea anemones in Roatan
Bay Islands, Honduras, Central America

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Take the bus, redux

Only a week ago, I urged you to "Just Say No" to exorbitant air fares (and ridiculous new fees) by taking the bus whenever possible. One of the bus service providers that I mentioned was Today, TravelZoo announced that is offering promotional fares as low as $1 each way (I assume you might need to plan ahead and play around with dates/times to find these special fares).

And not only that: they are also launching a brand-new double-decker bus for service between NYC and D.C. line, a route I'm very familiar with. The bus will offer video, reclining seats, panoramic views and free WiFi, something you can't get on a plane! If they can just sell snacks and charge for the luggage they store underneath the cabin, then they'll have the airlines beat!

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tips to maximize your carry-on capacity

On Sunday, I watched a piece on the local news talking about American Airlines' $15 fee for the first checked bag going into effect. The segment offered suggestions on how to pack lightly and maximize your carry-on capacity, so as to avoid checking any bags.

Among their tips was a recommendation to utilize "the space in your shoes." I eventually figured out that they meant to put items in your empty shoes that you pack into your bag, not to stick stuff into the shoes you're actually wearing. However, my initial misunderstanding got me thinking about various other ways to carry on as much as possible.

Pants Pockets. This one is obvious. Besides, your wallet, keys and iPod, think what else you can fit into your pants pockets: several pairs of underwear (clean on the outbound flight, dirty on the return), your TSA-approved 1-quart Ziploc bag of toiletries, even a hair dryer (you can holster it in your pocket and pretend you're an air marshal).

Under Your Hat. Depending on the size of the hat you're wearing, you can probably fit some extra socks or a T-shirt or two underneath. Even if all you're wearing is a yarmulke, you can still hide some emergency cash or stash a pair of nail clippers.

Layering. Wear all of the clothes you're bringing with you at once. This not only frees up extra space in your carry-on bag, but will also help keep you warm in the plane's frigid AC when they run out of blankets after giving them out to the first three rows. This same strategy is also useful for scuba divers like me. Rather than be forced to check a bag with all our dive gear, we can just board the plane wearing our wetsuits and buoyancy control vests.

Underclothes. Your pockets aren't the only space within your pants where you can stash some extra belongings. You can pack half your luggage under your blouse and look no different than your large cabin mate who's taking up one and a half seats. Or you can fit a pair or two of socks in your underwear (men, think of the extra female attention).

Body Cavities. I'll leave it mostly up to your imagination, but this extra space could help you sneak on that 3.5-ounce bottle of contact lens solution that's a half-ounce over the TSA-allowed size.

So don't despair! The airlines may be making your travel more inconvenient, but with a little creativity and imagination, you can avoid that $15 fee. What other ideas can you think of?

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Monday, June 16, 2008

My review of local Northeast diving

This past weekend, I decided to give Northeast scuba diving another try. The local diving here has a reputation for being only for the hardcore diver: cold water, murky visibility, deep dives, challenging shipwrecks, occasional currents, sometimes choppy topside conditions.

I'd tried local diving once before, doing a night dive on the wreck of the Stolt Dagali last summer from the dive boat Jeanne II. That experience was almost enough to swear me off Northeast diving, but not because of the diving itself. The seas were flat, the water bearable, the visibility not too bad. The dive operation, however, barely amounted to a "dive taxi"—the only service they provided was a ride to the dive site. Anything else (even drinking water), you're on your own.

I thought it fair to give local diving another try, especially during the day. A spot opened up on the dive boat Garloo last week, so I jumped aboard with some friends from my dive club. I have to say, the diving largely lived up to its reputation: at depth, the water temperature sank to 45 degrees, and visibility barely reached 10 feet. Finding our way around the wreck of the USS San Diego at 90 feet was indeed challenging.

But in terms of service, the Garloo provided an entirely different experience. The cabin was comfortable, and the boat had bunks for sleeping onboard the night before (which is a great alternative to trying to get to the boat before the 6:00 a.m. departure). And the crew was fantastic, bringing your rig to you before the dive, helping you off and back onto the boat, trying to help in any way they could.

I'm still undecided on what I think of local Northeast diving. There is certainly a devoted community of local divers who rave about it, and there's a whole fleet of wrecks off the coasts of Long Island or New Jersey that you can dive on. But yes, it can be cold and murky, so go into it eyes wide open. And hitch a ride on the Garloo. The conditions might not be a sure thing, but at least you'll have a smooth ride and good service.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday travel photo

Oklahoma City National Memorial

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Latest "Year of the Fees" news

United and US Air have announced they're following American in charging for a first checked bag. If you fly one of these carriers, you'll have to pay extra if you check any bags: $15 for the first bag (each way) and $25 for the second bag. That's an extra $80 for a round-trip fare if you check two bags! United starts charging the new fee today for domestic flights; you've got till July 9 to avoid US Air's new fee. You'd better check in early to get first dibs at those overhead bins! [Full story]

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Some great summer scuba diving deals

Having done four big scuba diving trips last year, I find myself in the unhappy position of having no upcoming dive trips planned. We've been trying to put together a short trip to the Florida Keys or a reasonably close Caribbean destination, but haven't been able to plan anything that fits our budget, work commitments and vacation time.

I'm sure we'll eventually be able to make something happen, but in the meantime, here are a few really good deals that I've come across:

Little Cayman Fall Fanta-Sea
This package includes seven nights accommodation (and hotel taxes), six days of 2-tank diving, 3 meals a day, free nitrox and airport transfers. The $1,291 p.p./d.o. price tag is pretty good for expensive Cayman. [More info]

Exumas, Bahamas - "Dive Your Face Off"
Run by my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, this weeklong luxury liveaboard trip onboard the Aqua Cat takes you through the mostly uninhabited Exumas island chain in the Bahamas. The $2,095 price (no single supplement!) includes basically everything (even alcohol!) except air fare. [More info]

And if the preceding specials make you nervous because of hurricane season (buy travel insurance!), here's a deal I wish I could take advantage of, since Curacao lies outside the Caribbean hurricane belt:

Buddy Weeks - Curacao Summer Special
This package includes seven days (pay for six) in a studio apartment, six days of unlimited diving (pay for five), airport transfer, and best of all, your buddy pays half-price for diving when you pay full price! [More info]

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Take the bus

I'm not saying anything revolutionary, original or even surprising when I say "Air travel sucks these days!" Skyrocketing fares have already killed a trip my parents were going to make to the East Coast, and Cassie and I will probably cancel a big fall trip to Mexico that we've been planning. Airlines are nickel-and-diming everyone, and cuts in routes and flights will make cheap flights and on-time service a thing of the past.

It's time for me to say "Take the bus" with a straight face—and time for you to seriously consider it. In the past, if you'd planned to travel anywhere within driving distance, you probably would have driven your own car—until gasoline prices also started bloating. But don't simply stay home now: take the bus!

Before Cassie and I lived in the same city, we would often take one of the so-called "Chinatown buses" to visit each other. The most well-known of these is the Fung Wah bus, but a variety of copycat bus lines operate between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C (GotoBus, Boltbus). Our NYC -D.C. route on Eastern (one of the GotoBuses) only cost about $30 round-trip—far cheaper than actually driving—and provided a perfectly comfortable motor coach experience (and was a lot less stressful than driving).

If you don't live in the Northeast corridor, Megabus services Chicago and other cities in the Midwest, and along with GotoBus, claims to offer service between a variety of other major cities across the U.S. And yes, you might even consider taking the Greyhound. According to Arthur Frommer, the bus line is upgrading some of its buses and terminals.

I previously blogged about the airlines becoming "the new bus." Well, it seems that bus travel may become "the new airline."

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Diving in the "Quaribbean"

Formerly farmland, Dutch Springs began in 1933 as a limestone quarry for use in cement manufacturing. Shortly after mining started, water began to seep into the quarry, and pumping operations became necessary to keep the water out. When the cement company went out of business in the 1970s, the quarry—100 feet deep in some places—flooded and became a lake. In 1980, the property was purchased and converted into one of the nation's largest freshwater scuba diving parks.

But enough with the history lesson.

Last weekend, I joined my my New York City-based dive club, Oceanblue Divers, for the local diving season kick-off event at Dutch Springs (or, as some lovingly call it, the "Quaribbean"). A core group of us camped out and stayed the whole weekend, while most divers came for the day on Sunday. The latter missed most of the fun.

While the city baked under oppressive heat and humidity, we pitched our tents in the cool shade of a grove of trees, and cooled off in the quarry's cold water. In fact, the experience made me think of the trip to Spa Castle a couple of weeks back. There, Cassie and I moved back and forth from hot spas and saunas to iceboxes and cold-water pools. This weekend, we melted in 100-degree/100%-humidity air, then went diving in water that dropped to as low as 44 degrees in some spots. Talk about cooling off....

The diving is about as interesting as a quarry can offer—you can see the usual suspects like a sunken school bus and Cessna, as well as a Sikorsky helicopter suspended in the water column—but for me, it's the camping that adds color to Dutch Springs visits. This time, the colorful moments included Doris leaving her regulator at home... Peter channeling Bob Dylan around the campfire... Chuck channeling MacGyver to grind some coffee beans... Neil sharing s'mores and the stories behind them... Chris taking us behind the scenes of the Alaska Experiment... and last but not least, the staple for any Dutch Springs trip: Cassie's awesome crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

Some divers look down on Dutch Springs in disdain. If you consider a "Dutch Springs experience" strictly in terms of the diving—cold water, kooky wrecks, less-than-stellar visibility—I can understand why. But like any dive trip, camping excursion or any other type of recreational activity, it's the people that make it truly enjoyable. And, from this perspective, it was a great weekend.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday travel photo

Dutch Springs
Bethlehem, PA
A former quarry, now a scuba diving park... where I met Cassie, and where we will be camping and diving this weekend!

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

United to ground planes, cut routes

More evidence that the airline industry landscape a year from now will be radically different: to slow financial hemorrhaging due to fuel costs, United will retire 100 planes and lay off more than 1,400 employees [full story]. The removal of the planes from United's fleet will force a major reduction in routes and a 17% decrease in capacity, which is sure to have a ripple effect throughout the industry—which means, for us consumers, fewer seats and therefore even higher fares.

This and other airline news I've reported is only the beginning. Yesterday, the International Air Transport Association projected a $2.3 billion loss for the airline industry this year, due to soaring fuel costs. They can't recoup that kind of loss by charging $25 for a second checked bag, or even installing coin-operated lavatories. Stay tuned for more big changes in the airline industry.

6/5 UPDATE: Continental quickly followed United in cutting 3,000 jobs and grounding 67 airplanes. [story]

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Wastelands" and other mental travels

I just started reading a new book. It's an anthology called "Wastelands," and the common thread running through all the stories is their setting in a post-apocalyptic world. I confess a certain morbid fascination with this sub-genre, which is often lumped in with general science fiction, but is really a genre-busting theme. As the editor of the anthology notes, one of the most recent examples of this sub-genre, Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," won the Pulitzer Prize.

What does this have to do with travel, you ask? The common thread running through my fascination with this sub-genre and my love of travel is escapism. Reading speculative fiction that imagines a world after societal collapse helps me escape the mundane trappings of everyday life. Conference calls, fluorescent lights, rush hour traffic: I can picture a world where these annoyances don't matter anymore. Similarly, thinking about travel, planning trips, actually traveling... they all provide a real escape from the everyday grind: sometimes for only the span of a daydream, other times for as long as my vacation time allows.

I realize my notions of post-apocalyptic fiction are romanticized fantasies, that the reality of an apocalyptic event like nuclear holocaust or a cosmic collision with an asteroid would be terrible beyond even my own overactive imagination. But, like travel to distant lands in the here and now, such mental travels help me keep the banality of corporate life and the everyday "small stuff" in perspective.

[Editors note: This is my 100th post. Congratulations to me.]


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Havasu Falls: The other "grand" canyon

I've been too busy this weekend facilitating the "travel" of possessions from one apartment to another to write anything in this blog. If you're jonesing for some of my travel writing, however, I invite you to read one of the travel journals on my other travel site, "Travels to Distant [strick]Lands."

For a jumping-off point, take a hike down into Havasu Canyon—the other "grand" canyon—and cool off with a dip in the pool at the base of majestic Havasu Falls.