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

Friday, March 27, 2009

Travel to Mexico still safe

I've been intending to blog about the safety of travel to Mexico, but this editorial pretty much covers what I would have said. My friend Francisco Ussel, a Tijuana resident and business owner, has told me the same things that the Rosarito Beach mayor says in the editorial: that the violence, while serious, is largely taking place between rival drug gangs, and that tourists are not targets. Yet media reports and the general perceptions of Mexico by Americans have been tremendously damaging to Mexico's tourism industry.

Let's be honest: it has never been 100% safe to travel to Mexico. The federal police, or federales, have a well-earned reputation for corruption. The current problems with drug gangs have highlighted the reasons: they can stay uncorrupted, earn $5,000 a year, and get killed by the gangs; or they can work with the gangs, make more money, and stay alive. There are systemic things behind the corruption that need to change. But it has never been 100% safe to travel anywhere.

The same rules of travel that apply elsewhere (even to travel within the U.S.) apply to Mexico as well: Stay alert, be aware of what's going on around you, try to blend in as much as possible. And if you're going to Baja, try to avoid driving after dark (common sense advice that applied long before the drug violence erupted last year). Put things in perspective: as the Frommers article points out, New Orleans had far more murders per capita than any city in Mexico last year.

I'm not necessarily advocating travel to the border towns of Tijuana (sorry, Francisco) or Ciudad Juarez, but if I lived in San Diego again, I'd still spend the occasional weekend driving through Tijuana for points further south. There's just too much natural beauty, great food and adventure to be had, and by all accounts that I trust, it's as safe as it ever was.

Overlooking the bay of La Bufadora, near Ensenada

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Airline fees and other useful charts

Awhile back, I posted a chart outlining the various fees that airlines charge for taking your pet aboard your flight. Today, I came across a treasure trove of other useful charts on Bookmark this page as a jumping-off point to these charts when planning your air travel, as AirfareWatchdog appears to be updating these charts on a regular basis.

Frequent flyer fees. How much will that "free" ticket really cost you?

Baggage fees. These new fees change so often it's hard to keep up with them.

Miscellaneous fees. When it comes to finding new ways to steal your money, the airlines are more creative than Congress.

Shipping luggage vs. checking fees. Yes, Virginia, sometimes it really is cheaper to ship your suitcase.

Rule 240 comparison chart. Which airlines follow a post-deregulation version of Rule 240 to get you on another flight (even on a competing airline) at no charge if they screw up?

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who rewards your loyalty?

Who rewards your travel loyalty? And, the corollary to that question, Who deserves your loyalty? Airline mileage loyalty programs are nothing new—American Airlines started the first of such programs back in 1981, and other major airlines quickly followed suit. Next came airline-branded credit cards that earn you airline miles for each dollar spent. Now, many credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles that can ostensibly be used on many different airlines.

But just how useful or valuable are such rewards? The answer: their value and usefulness are going down the toilet. In 2008, the Year of the Fees, major airlines have instituted new fees and increased existing ones for redeeming your airline miles. That airline mileage program pioneer, American Airlines, will begin charging a minimum fee of $50 for mileage upgrades. US Airways charges $25 for you to redeem miles. Nickel-and-diming Continental won't even give you a minimum of 500 mileage miles for flights shorter than 500 miles (now, you'll just get actual miles flown).

All of the above assumes, of course, that you're even able to redeem your miles for an award. I won't waste words talking about what a fantasy that is. So I ask you again: who rewards your loyalty? Are all of your airline miles a real reward if you can't use them?

A few years back, I discovered the Starwood Preferred Guest program. It basically works the same as an airline loyalty program, but you typically use your points for free hotel stays at Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W, Le Meridien, St. Regis). The key difference: no blackout dates. If they have a room available, it's yours. They also offer a branded American Express card, which lets you earn Starpoints just like those airline credit cards earn you miles.

And the SPG program just got even better with the debut of SPG Flights. Now, members can redeem their Starpoints for flights on most airlines the same way they do for hotel stays: that is, no blackout dates—even during holidays or last-minute travel. If there's a seat available, it's yours.

So I'll ask you one more time: who rewards your loyalty? An airline that places so many restrictions on the redemption of loyalty points that it's nearly impossible to use them, and then charges you for the privilege when you can? Or a program that lets you redeem your points whenever and however you want, for a hotel stay at a huge network of excellent properties or a free flight on just about any airline?

And lest you pose a question to me, since this reads like an infomercial: no, I am not affiliated with Starwood in any way. I'm just one satisfied member.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Six hours in San Diego

I occasionally enjoy reading the New York Times, and their Travel section in particular is typically well worth a read. One of the more interesting regular features is their "36 Hours" column, which offers up a sample 36-hour itinerary for a given destination.

Their most recent "36 Hours in San Diego" feature, however (published in tomorrow's newspaper, but available online now), showed sufficient lack of "insider knowledge" that I'd guess it was written based on a 6-hour layover reading travel brochures, not a 36-hour visit talking to locals.

Go read the article now, and then come back here to read the locals-only tips the Times missed.

1) EASE ON DOWN. Good: Walk on the Embarcadero. Better: Avoid Seaport Village. What the Times missed: "Free" concerts in Embarcadero Marina Park. The concert venue is not free, but the music is amply audible in the park right outside the fence, so bring a blanket and cooler and enjoy some free live music.

2) GASLAMP GLAMOUR. Good: Avoid the hipper-than-thou W. Better: The abundance of frat bars is "depressing." True dat. What the Times missed: The Ivy?? Recommending an L.A. icon's San Diego satellite as the place to go is beyond lame. The bolder choice would have been to warn people away from the overcrowded and overrated Gaslamp to begin with. Or at least recommend a true San Diego Gaslamp original like Croce's or Cafe Sevilla.

3) CULTURE CLASH. The Casbah is a good rec, but if you're really musically adventurous, go to Brick by Brick, a 10-minute drive away in the seedy Morena Blvd. district. Alanis Morrissette would get her ass kicked there.

4) GREENSWARD GIANT. Good: "No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park." Better: The recommendation to take a walk or drive, probably the best way to sample this large park in a very brief 36-hour trip. What the Times missed: Um, everything? They can be forgiven here, though, because you could spend your entire 36-hour stay in Balboa Park alone and still miss a lot. But, as worldly as the Times likes to think of itself, you'd think they would have at least mentioned the International Cottages in passing.

5) CALIFORNIA PAST. Good: Mention of the Old Town Mexican Cafe where, contrary to their advice, the food is decent. Better: Mention of the "tortilla ladies" at same. What the Times missed: No mention of the Whaley House, San Diego's famous haunted house? Or the Presidio and site of the very first Spanish settlement in 1769? That is why they call it Old Town.

6) TACO TREAT. Sigh. The Times just shouldn't have gone there. New Yorkers don't know tacos. Okay, if you're already in Old Town, grab a bite at the rebranded "Plaza del Pasado" (I'll always know it as Bazaar del Mundo, but the business people behind Plaza del Pasado were willing to pay more when the lease came up for renewal). If you want the best tacos in San Diego, go to Robertos. Or Albertos. Or Aibertos. Or any hole-in-the-wall taco shop with the suffix "-ertos," named by the many Robertos imposters. Better yet, get in your car in Old Town and drive 5 minutes away to Jimmy Carter's Mexican Cafe for the best Mexican food in the whole city.

7) BEACH BUM. Good: Recommending O.B. over one of the other, more frat-boyish beach communities. Better: The Antique Mall, several blocks' worth of antique stores, something even some locals don't know about O.B. What the Times missed: When you talked about tacos in the previous paragraph, how can you possibly not mention the uber-famous fish tacos at O.B.'s South Beach Bar & Grill, just a short stroll from those antique shops?

8) SALTY SEA AIR. Good: Sunset Cliffs, along with La Jolla is indeed one of the jewels in San Diego's coastline crown. Better: Brief mention of tidepooling, one of the best ways for those not familiar with the sea to get up close and personal with the ocean and its denizens without getting anything more than their hands and feet wet. What the Times missed: Cruising the streets above Sunset Cliffs to see some amazing, multi-million-dollar homes, and then keep driving a bit further to the crest of Point Loma and the million-dollar views of the city.

9) DINNER AT A DINER. Good: Recommending some casual dining, which better suits San Diego's personality. Better: Corvette Diner is a lot of fun. What the Times missed: Corvette's burger with peanut butter. To those adventurous enough to try it, you'll never stop talking about it. Yum.

10) THE FOX ROCKS. Good: Mentioning a quality dive bar, of which San Diego has many. Better: The Red Fox is one of the best. What the Times missed: Ould Saud, the Lamplighter, the Alibi, NuNu's, the Morena Club, to name a few.

11) IF THEY BUILD IT. I'm sure Legoland appreciates the nod. The place needs all the buzz it can get. There's a reason why it's not crowded, though as the Times mentions, it's worth a visit if you have kids. But a "hot and dusty" snub of the deservedly "world famous" San Diego Zoo? Three letters: WTF? Well, okay. If you're a New Yorker, then I guess all that open space and nature can get on your nerves real fast. Maybe one of the monkeys threw poo at the writer.

If you've got more than six hours to spend in San Diego, I hope these tips help you enjoy your stay.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Travel insurance: protect against the unknown

Some people I know are planning to spend next week on a liveaboard dive trip in the Bahamas, and now their trip is in jeopardy. Hurricane Hanna (now a tropical storm) blew through the Bahamas today, and Tropical Storm Ike, expected to strengthen in the coming days, could hit the Bahamas Saturday (the day they're scheduled to arrive).

Needless to say, this sucks for them. It also underscores the risk of planning a trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. More often than not, you'll enjoy great weather and off-season rates. But if you're unlucky, you could lose a lot of money—if you don't buy travel insurance.

So I guess you can also say my friends' experience also underscores the importance of purchasing travel insurance. It's not just a good idea when planning a dive trip to the Caribbean during hurricane season. It's an all-around smart thing to do when booking any travel that's more than you can afford to lose.

Many things besides hurricanes can interrupt a trip: illness (yours or a loved one's) that prevents you from even going on the trip; flight delays or cancellations that the airline blames on weather (and therefore may not be liable for), lost luggage and belongings that you need to replace at your own expense; an accident or illness while away that requires expensive medical evacuation (your U.S. medical insurance may not cover you outside the U.S.); and many other scenarios.

As with other forms of insurance, you have to weigh the potential risk against your investment and make the decision based on your own personal risk tolerance. There certainly may be some vacations you don't want to insure.

One of the great attractions of travel is an exploration of the unknown. When you travel, you want to ponder questions like "will I meet someone special on the cruise ship?" or "will I see a whale shark on one of my dives?" With travel insurance, you won't have to wonder "will I lose thousands of dollars if something unexpected happens on this trip?"

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sometimes a picture is worth only a few words

As I was paging through Scuba Diving magazine, an ad for Mexico caught my eye. It showed two people strolling along a beach underneath the distinctive arch in Cabo San Lucas, much like the photo pictured below. Such a picture is possible only once or twice a year, during an extreme low tide. The rest of the year, it looks like this.

This got me thinking generally about misleading travel photos. How many times have you been awed by glossy tourism shots of a destination, only to find the real thing is not the same? Sometimes, it's an image showing a place in a state you're not likely to see it—such as the Cabo shot mentioned above, for example, or a scenic panorama of the Forum in Rome without a single person to be seen.

Other times, it's the things a picture can't reveal, such as a shot of a pristine beach, which you find is infested with sand fleas or near a smelly storm drain outflow. Or a photo showing a relaxing hammock strung between two palm trees at a resort, which turns out to be located next to a noisy construction site.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that you should distrust every travel photo you see, or complain to management when reality fails to meet your expectations. Quite the opposite. Instead of letting such photos set your expectations, use these photos for what they are: fuel for your imagination, inspiration for making plans, building blocks for realizing your travel dreams.

And when you get to your destination and things don't quite match up with those glossy tourism photos, enjoy what you're experiencing instead of missing what you expected. In my case, there was no beach at Land's End, so I swam through the arch instead of walking—which was much more exciting.



Monday, August 4, 2008

Here for the Beer: A tour I'd like to take

A 6-night "Beer Journey Through the Czech Republic." Sign me up!

More info


Sunday, July 6, 2008

You can still check luggage for free

If you follow this blog, you know I've said plenty about the new airline fees that are cropping up like weeds this year, even calling 2008 the "Year of the Fees." So when I booked plane tickets to Curacao late last week on Air Jamaica, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the airline still allows two pieces of checked luggage per person (I'm hoping they still serve complimentary champagne too).

That got me wondering what other airlines commonly serving U.S. travelers are still fee-free when it comes to checked baggage. Here's what I found:

No charge for first TWO checked bags under weight limits:
Aer Lingus
Air France
Air Jamaica
British Airways

No charge for first checked bag under weight limits (fee for second bag):
Air Canada
Virgin America

If you don't see your preferred carrier here, they have probably partnered with Nickel-n-Dime Airlines.

Note: The new baggage fee policies have many exemptions, not all of which apply only to elite mileage club members (for example, you get a greater baggage allowance for international flights on some airlines). Be sure to check the policy of your specific carrier.

And, if there's one thing the Year of the Fees has taught us, all of the foregoing is subject to change.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Staycation: it's not a "vacation" if you "stay"

A story yesterday discussed the (over)use of the buzzword "staycation" (a "vacation" that you take by visiting places close to home), arguing that it's an annoying philosophy and a marketing term empty of any real meaning. I have to agree. As the article duly notes, if you don't stay overnight, it's a "day trip," not a "vacation."

While I have recommended traveling vicariously in your own town by hosting a visitor, that's not the same as taking a "staycation." And while I heartily agree with the idea of seeing the sights in your own backyard, I don't advocate doing that in place of real travel. Like the Frommers article says, that's recreation—and something we should all be doing regularly anyway.

There's no question that air fares have gotten out of control, and that gasoline prices are making automobile travel expensive as well. But there are still ways to take an affordable vacation. While it's hard to save on the transportation expenses, you can still cut costs at your destination.

As I've recommended before, you can stay for free by visiting family or friends. Or you can go somewhere and camp out instead of staying in a hotel (don't think this limits you to wilderness areas; you can camp out in Avalon on Catalina Island in southern California, and on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands). Or you can save on meal expenses by renting a hotel room or apartment that has a kitchenette.

Times may be tough, and leisure budgets might get tighter, but that doesn't mean you have to stay home. Just Say No to Staycations!


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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Thursday, June 26, 2008

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 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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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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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travel cheap: Visit a friend or family member

Okay, travel is becoming almost ridiculous this year, thanks to economic factors. The sagging dollar makes European travel crazy-expensive. Record oil prices have caused fuel costs—and therefore air fares—to skyrocket, making domestic travel cost-prohibitive. Those same fuel costs are even pushing local travel—to destinations within driving distance—out of reach, as gasoline prices also hit record levels. Factor in the lackluster economy ("recession," as some call it, though I think the R word is unwarranted), and it's making it hard to travel this year.

So, short of exploring our own backyards, how do we get away affordably? That's easy: visit family and friends. Let's call it "The Year of the Air Mattress" or "The Year of Calling in Favors." Think of how much you can save by sleeping on a friend's couch or crashing on your brother's pull-out bed. Sure, the Sheraton "Heavenly Bed" or a suite at the Marriott would make a more comfortable getaway, but don't let the lack of a concierge and daily maid service keep you from traveling this year.

My brother is planning a trip to New York City for a family of three, and is trying to stick to a budget of $500 or less. Sacrificing a little comfort and using some creativity, they can use Southwest rewards to fly free into Long Island, take the Long Island Railroad to Brooklyn, sleep on an air mattress in my one-bedroom apartment and visit museums for free thanks to my corporate connections.

If you too apply a little creativity and resourcefulness, I'm sure you can think of friends who owe you a favor, family you'd like to visit, or friends-of-friends who'd love to host you and show you around. It may be hard to get around the expense of air fare, but if you can save big by staying with a local (and perhaps even eating in part of the time, for additional savings) and finding free stuff to do, you can still travel in these economic hard times.

Think about it: you can get free room service (your sister-in-law making breakfast); an always-available concierge (your friend answering your 20 questions about what to see and where to go); and complimentary cocktails (your cousin offering you a glass of wine when you return from the day's sightseeing). Maybe you'll have to make your own bed, but how hard is it to roll up a sleeping bag?

Better yet, kick-start this idea of goodwill travel by calling up a friend or family member you haven't seen in a long time and inviting him or her to visit you. If you get the ball rolling, people will start paying it forward by inviting their friends and family to visit, and before you know it, we'll all be traveling on the cheap this year!

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fodors travel forums: pure online travel gold

The Fodors travel forums are a gem among online travel references. The site offers different forums for every major region in the world, and the community that visits and communicates in these forums is huge, active and vocal. If you have a question on virtually any travel-related topic, you can either find an answer with a quick and easy search of the forums, or you can post your question and get 10 answers in as many minutes. It's like having thousands of knowledgeable friends at your disposal at any hour to answer whatever question you may have.

But watch yourself: these "Fodorites" aren't just overflowing with knowledge—they're also full of opinions, and they aren't bashful about sharing them. Nor are they shy about putting you in your place, whether or not you're deserving of their frequent scoldings. They'll just as soon tell you that your itinerary is all wrong or that you should have searched the site instead of posting a frequently asked question as they will offer advice or help you find that cheap hotel or great restaurant.

No matter the idiosyncrasies of some of the Fodorites, though, the forums are pure gold when it comes to travel research. Just take care in how you present yourself and what you say—which I suppose is good advice for any traveler in a strange land.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

A treasure trove of business travel tips

While I frequently visit for the latest news headlines, I rarely check that site for travel information. However, they just published a great feature chock-full of travel tips from business travelers, so I highly recommend checking it out.

Here's a peek at what you'll find:

> A report on the new Diamond Lanes program, an "express lane" for those airport security checkpoints.

> "Confessions of an Airline Agent," an enlightening look behind the airline counter.

> Tips on tipping internationally: if you're in a restaurant in Fiji, Malaysia or South Korea, should you leave a tip?

> Four scams from rental car companies, including the apparently widespread gas gauge scam.

And much more... including the common sense business traveler tip I never would have thought of: When you arrive starving at your destination because your airline didn't serve a meal on that cross-country flight, call ahead to your hotel and place a room service order to be waiting in your room for you.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My 10 tips for greener travel

It's April, which means Earth Day. Environmentalism has gone mainstream, and everywhere you look, you see the adjective "Green" applied to everything from water bottles to SUVs. If you're not eco-friendly, you're not hip.

Fodors jumped on the "green" bandwagon, recently publishing "10 Tips for Greener Travel." I love Mother Earth as much as the next guy, but enough already with this "green" fad. So here's my take on Fodor's 10 tips for greener travel:

Beware of Green Washing. If you're traveling for an extended period and need to wash your clothes, watch out for those laundromats that advertise "green washing"—unless, of course, you're a leprechaun, and all of your clothing is already green.

Ask about the company's green philosophies. Do they recycle toilet paper? Do they test their piña coladas on laboratory animals? Do they employ workers who eat only organic foods and wear hemp clothing? Do they wash the sheets more than once a year, and if so, do they use harsh, eco-unfriendly soap? These are all important questions, so you should be sure to get satisfactory answers before flying to your destination in a greenhouse gas-spewing jet airplane.

Look into offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. The concept of carbon offsetting is brilliant: Let a company that pollutes go right on polluting, as long as they invest in practices that "offset" their carbon footprint. That makes as much sense as allowing a drug dealer to continue selling drugs, as long as he spends some of those drug profits to support a drug treatment center. So go right ahead, invest in a company that dumps iron dust into the ocean. Or spend $39 for feel-good bragging rights to call yourself "carbon-neutral." Or, better still, offset your carbon footprint by purchasing some carbon credits from ChuckieD.

Be Sensitive to Cultures and Customs. Okay, sure. I'm down with avoiding the "Ugly American" stereotype. But I don't understand what possible connection this tip has with ecology. What if I'm a visitor to consumerist U.S.A.? I'm supposed to "be sensitive" to our consumption culture and use-it-once-throw-it-away customs? How is that helping me to be "green"?

Never litter. Unless you're a smoker. Because cigarette butts apparently get an exemption from litter laws. Smokers who are otherwise law-abiding citizens toss their butts on the ground or out their car window without even thinking, and I've never heard of any of them getting a citation, so cigarette butts must not qualify as "litter." Unless you're doing a beach cleanup, when cigarette butts will be the most common item of litter that you'll pick up.

Think small. That's right, think small. Forget about global warming, "local warming" is the real problem.

Purchase local products whenever possible. This is one I have no problem with: in Honduras, I purchased a lot of local beer; in the Virgin Islands, I bought plenty of local rum; in fact, purchasing local fermented products whenever possible was an unofficial rule I followed throughout the travels of my Navy career.

Conserve resources. Stated another way, don't consume unnecessarily. From this principle comes practices like taking a canvas bag to the supermarket to avoid using plastic bags. Or using a reusable water bottle instead of adding yet another plastic water bottle to the local landfill. Or—my favorite example, from a public event I recently attended—packaging an ecology-focused fad book called "101 Green Travel Tips" in individual plastic bags (not).

Do not feed wild animals. Yes, this applies even in Cancun, where you'll commonly encounter 18-year-old bipedal mammals wearing USC ball caps and fraternity T-shirts that hoot like howler monkeys. They may look well-fed, but you still might feel compelled to feed them. Just don't do it.

If you are camping, don't leave anything behind but your footprint. Yes, you read that right. You have to "hold it." Just because the wild animals (that you aren't going to feed) have the right to poop in the woods doesn't mean you can too. "Don't leave anything behind but your footprint" means just that.

Now go hug a tree.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Paying duty on something you already owned?

Picture this: You go on a trip to Japan, and since you'll be staying in a technologically sophisticated country for a couple of weeks, you decide to take your laptop along with you. Upon your return to the U.S., the Customs agent makes you pay duty on the computer, because you can't prove you didn't buy it in Japan.

Sound far fetched? I'm afraid not. I travel quite a bit, but I wasn't aware that CBP (Customs & Border Protection) can make you pay duty on something you took with you on your trip—if you don't have proof that you bought it in the U.S. and took it with you.

The anecdotes I've heard from people who've been questioned by CBP suggest you're most likely to be hassled when returning from a country where your big-ticket item is commonly sold at a price lower than you'd pay in the U.S. (for example, if you bring your expensive Canon digital SLR camera to Japan).

These people managed to talk their way out of paying duty, but to avoid potential hassles, CBP recommends registering your items before you take them out of the country. To me, this seems like going through one hassle to avoid other hassles, but it might be worth the effort, depending on what you own and where you're going.

Other common-sense ideas suggested that a pre-existing insurance policy on your items, or a photograph of you holding your items in an obviously American location, should be enough to prove you owned your items before your current travel. But it's never wise to think common sense will prevail where the government is concerned, so you might want to consider getting that Form 4457 before your next trip.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel published a useful article today that included advice on ways to minimize the pain of air travel. I recommend reading it, but here's a quick summary:

Flight stats. We all know to check our flight's status before going to the airport, but checking its historical on-time performance before booking a flight can help you avoid a flight that is chronically late. and are two sites where you can find such data.

Fly in the morning. I've learned this one firsthand over the past two years that I've lived and flown on the East Coast. The earlier in the day you fly, the less you're likely to be affected by delays elsewhere in the system—and the better your chances of getting on another flight if your own flight gets canceled. This is especially important during the summer months, when thunderstorms play a bigger role in flight delays. Which is more painful: getting up early for that 6:00 a.m. flight, or sitting in the airport for several hours (or worse) because of delays?

Carry-on. This one's a no-brainer. I think everyone knows by now that carrying on your bags will eliminate the possibility of losing your bags—and is an especially appropriate tip, now that many U.S. airlines charge $25 per flight for checking a second bag.

Know your rights. Or, more specifically, know what you're not entitled to. If the airline cancels your flight because of their own mistake, they have to put you up in a hotel. If it's out of their control (for example, weather delays), you'll be sleeping in the airport. Read your Contract of Carriage.

As air travel becomes ever more painful, my best advice to you is to seek out alternatives whenever possible. While the price of gasoline might not make driving all that attractive either, check out trains and buses where feasible. Having ridden both on a number of occasions in the past year, I can highly recommend them as a relaxing leisurely transportation alternative.
[video clip from my Amtrak window last December, passing San Clemente]

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My airline conspiracy theories

I've made no secret of my growing disgust with the airline industry. Fares skyrocket while service plummets. Miles are impossible to redeem, as I've commented on before. Michael Craig called air travel "the new bus," but the more I fly, the more I miss riding that D.C. to New York Chinatown bus.

Here are a few of my airline conspiracy theories, secret ways in which I suspect the airlines might be giving it to us without our knowledge:

Misleading departure times. They craftily publish departure times that reflect when the aircraft pushes back from the gate, not when it actually takes off, so that when you wait in a queue on the tarmac for more than half an hour, the flight is still considered "on time." And when they say they'll "make up" delays in the air, you know that means they padded the arrival time to account for such delays.

Arcane mileage programs. It's a great concept to accrue miles for traveling with an airline, and then redeem those miles for free travel. Just don't try to turn the concept into reality. The airlines have created a deeply arcane system designed to make you give up long before you ever find that free mileage award flight. Unless you want to fly a red-eye. Fourteen months from now. Between Charlotte and Paducah.

Bait and switch. More than once, I've checked fares on an airline website, found a good fare, gone to other sites to compare fares, then come back to the first site, only to find out that fare is gone. Sure, you snooze, you lose. But often, that fare reappears later. It's almost as if their website is logging my IP address and what routes I'm looking up, then jacking up the fare the longer I spend searching.

Fuel surcharge. Okay, the price of crude is at an all-time high, fuel costs are rising, airplanes burn a lot of fuel. I get it. But don't raise your fares to recoup these costs, and then also tack on a "fuel surcharge."

If you're as fed up as I am, read about Charis Atlas Heelan's experiences trying to get a decent fare on the common route New York to Paris. The article won't make you feel better, but you'll know you're not alone—and the article contains links to some useful air fare websites that I didn't know about.

Happy Flying!

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Europe on $128 a day?

When I went to Europe in 2001, the euro hadn't debuted yet. I paid with francs in Paris and lira in Rome. When the euro hit the market not long after, it was roughly equal to the U.S. dollar. Today, it's worth more than US$1.50. Or, stated another way, things in Europe will cost you one and a half times what they do in the U.S. (Unless you're going to Great Britain, where they're twice as much.)

Add to that situation the rising cost of air fare and fuel surcharges, and you'll be nearly broke before you can even change your dollars into euros. It doesn't take an economist to figure out that U.S. tourism to Europe is falling in lockstep with the value of the dollar.

What I find interesting is watching how travel marketing and information providers deal with this situation. Europe has always been an extremely popular travel destination for Americans, yet it's receding out of reach for more and more of us. Companies like Fodors and Lonely Planet cover global destinations, so they can compensate by suggesting travel to bargains like Central America and Africa. What I'm really wondering is how Rick Steves is coping. His business model is virtually exclusive to European travel.

On that trip back in 2001, my Bible was Frommer's "Europe on $70 a Day." Inflation drove that book's title to "Europe on $85 a Day" in 2004 (the latest year an edition was published). If you factor in the current state of the currency market, that's more like $128 a day that you'll need to get by—and I still have a hard time believing that's possible.

Then again, Arthur Frommer recently suggested camping as a way to afford a European vacation (yeah, I'm sure he researched that article personally). So there you have it: Europe on $128 a day, sleeping bag not included.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Travel vicariously: host a visitor

I love to travel. Why else would I update this blog on a near-daily basis, when I could be watching the TV shows stacked up on my DVR or getting to bed at a decent hour? But the responsibilities of my current life (namely, work) keep me from traveling more often (though I guess one could argue that I'd travel less if I weren't earning money).

But there's one fun way to travel without going anywhere: hosting visitors. When people come visit, you can see your town through their eyes, pretending like you too are traveling and seeing things for the first time. And if you're like many of us, there are probably a lot of sights in your own town that you haven't even seen yourself.

That's just what I've done this weekend: I've been vicariously traveling to New York City by hosting my friend Sirpa from Finland (by way of San Diego). We walked across Brooklyn Bridge (pictured), ate New York pizza at Lombardi's (America's first pizzeria), saw as much of the Met as our feet and legs could handle, and had a cocktail overlooking Grand Central Terminal.

Her visit will end all too soon tomorrow, but I will get the chance to vicariously travel to New York City again next week, when my parents arrive for a visit.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How to get upgraded to business class

I'm not a frequent business class traveler (in fact, I've only done so once, flying from L.A. to Paris). But I came across an interesting tip for getting business class upgrades during the busy holiday flying season, courtesy of Matthew Bennett's site

Because business travel is down during the holidays, business class fares also come down. In fact, according to Bennett, if you time it right, you can sometimes find business class fares near coach prices. The best time to shop for these fares is between September and November.

It used to be easy to get free upgrades by using mileage, but now the airlines have arcane hierarchies to determine who they upgrade. American Airlines, for example, doesn't allow you to use their miles for business class upgrades. The secret is creativity: Bennett says that American will allow you to upgrade even the lowest American fares by using Cathay Pacific miles.

Not a Cathy Pacific flyer? Me neither. But you can easily transfer Starwood Starpoints into Cathy Pacific's program, and you're good to go!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Home away from home

When we travel, hotels become our homes away from home. Because we typically pay a lot of money for the privilege, we expect the room and amenities to be to our satisfaction. When that isn't the case, we expect problems to be remedied immediately. Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, that doesn't always happen.

My stay at the Universal City Sheraton this past weekend was not without issues. The hotel is under renovation, and on Saturday morning, the hammering began. The staff was responsive, however, and soon switched me to another room.

We all have our hotel horror stories, and not all of them end well. My problems were not significant, but could have been worse. Sometimes the hotel staff just doesn't care. ran a story in their newsletter today that shows "satisfaction guarantees" sometimes offer neither satisfaction nor a guarantee.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Group travel: save a buck and make a friend

Last weekend, I went skiing in Vermont with a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club. In January, I spent a week diving in Honduras with a group from scuba club Oceanblue Divers. Before moving to the East Coast, I frequently traveled on weekend camping excursions with adventure club Total Escape. Come to think of it, many of my travels over the years have been with groups. Why is that?

Save. You can save time, hassle and money. For people like me, researching new destinations and planning a trip is part of the fun. But it takes time, and sometimes it's a hassle. Booking a spot on a group trip makes it as easy as point, click, buy and travel. Typically, group trips also build in an economy of scale, bringing the cost down lower than if you booked individually. And if you're a solo traveler, you avoid those pesky single supplements.

Do. You can do things you might not be able to do as an individual. On some of my dive trips, we've done optional activities like shark dives. Often, such excursions require a minimum number of people, so if you're on your own, you might not be able to make them happen. The leader of a group trip might also be able to make special arrangements to see sights that aren't typically open to individual travelers.

Meet. For me, meeting new people and making new friends has always been the best reason for group travel. In 2002, I moved back to my hometown of San Diego after an extended absence. In 2005, I relocated again, this time to the East Coast. In both instances, I had to recreate my circle of friends, so I did it the quickest way possible: finding clubs and organizations that catered to my hobbies, and signing up for their group trips. Show me a group of strangers who travel together—even just for a weekend getaway—and I'll show you a group of fast friends. Many of my closest friends (and even my girlfriend) are people I've met on group trips.

Sometimes, traveling solo gives you a great deal of freedom and flexibility to get the most out of your trip. I'm overdue myself for such independent travel. But if you just want to go have some fun without breaking the bank or spending a lot of time planning, or if you are new to your area or want to make some new friends, go on a group trip!

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Travel Show: Day Two

Okay, today I did get a little burned out. Not by the travel seminars and other cool stuff, but by the droves of people. It got old trying to navigate through the hordes, especially when people stopped in the middle of the aisle when something caught their attention. And since I get to deal with such crowds on a daily basis, commuting via subway here in New York City, it was easy to lose patience with that aspect of the show.

Nevertheless, Rick Steves once again proved to be the highlight. While he's a great speaker and writer, he focuses on Europe, so you'd think I wouldn't be such a big fan. After all, there are so many non-European destinations I'd like to visit, and scuba diving has become a big part of my traveling. But I guess it's because I identify so much with his travel philosophy: finding the "back doors" and lesser-known places, avoiding the crowded tourist sites and package tours, getting to know the locals and their way of life. And I confess I envy his lifestyle—he's spent four months of every year traveling for the past 25 years!

And once again, we availed ourselves of the tasting opportunities. Chef Daisy Martinez shared some Puerto Rican delicacies, and wine critic Eric Asimov poured wines from "rare wine destinations" like Greece, Austria and Slovenia (pictured: Cassie trying the latter). We also tried "Pyrat" rum from Anguilla while we waited (in vain) to see if we won a free trip.

The last seminar of the day—and of the show—took us to colonial Mexico. We looked forward to this one, because we're planning a trip to Oaxaca and Mexico City for this fall. And after learning more about the other colonial cities of Mexico, we're going to have to plan a follow-up trip to Guanajuato, Zacatecas and San Miguel de Allende.

The show is over, and it's Sunday night, which means tomorrow is another workday spent dreaming about my next travel experience!

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Travel Show: Day One

Day One of the Travel Show was even better than I expected. We spent eight hours there today, and don't feel the slightest bit burned out—just a wee bit tired, considering how late we stayed up last night hosting a wine and cheese fondue party. The show kept our interest all day long, though, with just the right mix of seminars, exhibitor booths and food tastings.

I enjoyed the first seminar the best. Rick Steves talked about his latest Europe travel tips, such as noting that ruined castles are hard to find because they're free, and therefore not promoted; that Dublin is a great destination for families with teenagers; and that there's a great system of trails in the Swiss Alps with mountaineering huts spaced at intervals of a day's hike. Most enjoyable were the many excellent travel photos that accompanied his comments.

Old-timer Arthur Frommer and his daughter Pauline named the latest bargain destinations, which include China, Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras. They also named some bargain places in countries that are otherwise not bargains: Molokai in Hawaii, and Apulia in Italy, for example. And while it's often impractical to use for getting a cheap air fare, they recommended trying it for getting really cheap 5-star hotel rooms.

Cassie's favorite part of the day (and my second-favorite, after Rick Steves' seminar) was a presentation by celebrity chef Rick Bayless. He talked about his specialty (Mexico and its cuisine) and prepared an amazing green mole shrimp dish (camarones en pipián, recipe here), which we all got to sample. Yum!

More travel fun tomorrow, including more from Rick Steves, and food tasting from Puerto Rico!

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ask before you go (or while you're going)

If you're planning a trip, solicit suggestions from friends and family. Okay, so that's a no-brainer. If they've been to where you're going, their tips on what to do/see/eat can be invaluable. Even if they haven't been, they might have heard a thing or two that you haven't. The angle that I hadn't considered, and what I'm offering now, is to solicit recommendations even if you're going for a day trip or if you think no one you know would have any tips to share.

Case in point: As I wrote yesterday, we spent the day exploring Connecticut on Sunday. Because it was a short and somewhat spontaneous trip, I didn't think to mention it to anyone. Come to find out, if I'd talked to my parents (we had plenty of drive time during which I could have called them), I would have found out that I am a direct descendant of some of the founders of the town of Milford, Connecticut, and there is apparently a memorial bridge in town inscribed with their names. Wouldn't searching out those inscriptions have been a fun quest for a Sunday afternoon?

Next time, I'll remember: no trip is too short, no destination too close, to solicit recommendations from others who might know more than you.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Watch your weight

If you're flying, traveling can be stressful. Arriving to the airport on time (especially if your flight departs at the crack of dawn), negotiating the check-in process, slogging through long security lines with travelers who don't know what "3-1-1" means.... It can sometimes be enough to make you want to turn around and go home.

And nothing compounds this stress like putting your luggage on the scale and finding out it's overweight. As a scuba diver whose bags of dive gear sometimes push the limit, I know what it's like to do the "underwear shuffle," moving stuff between bags at the check-in counter to get under the weight limit. It sucks—though not as much as paying the overweight fee (up to $125 per overweight bag on some airlines).

Here are some practical tips for "watching your weight":

Know the weight limits. First of all, you have to know how much is too much. For many domestic carriers, you're allowed two checked bags of 50 lbs each, free of charge, with a fee if your bag goes over. That's hardly a blanket rule, however. United just announced new rules that allow you to check only one bag for free (the second bag will cost you $25 each way). Some small commuter planes have a "hard" limit at 50 lbs per bag (you can't exceed the limit, even by paying a fee), and the space for carry-ons in the cabin is minimal. And if you're traveling outside the U.S., the international norm is a 20 kg limit (about 44 lbs).

Take an extra empty bag. If you don't have a scale at home, and you're concerned you might be close to the limit, take along a lightweight collapsible bag, empty plastic bag or pillowcase. That way, if you have to do the "underwear shuffle," you can quickly stuff items into the extra bag and carry it on, rather than try to move things between suitcases.

Choose luggage carefully. Do you always find yourself close to the weight limit? Maybe it's your luggage. Pick a bag that's not going to steal 20 percent of your weight allowance before you even a pair of socks in it.

Do you really need it? Of course, the weight of your luggage is directly related to how much crap you bring. The site 43 Folders makes some very obvious but practical observations: the amount of stuff you think you need is directly proportional to the size of your suitcase (i.e. fake yourself out by using a smaller bag); there's little difference between packing for a week and packing for a month; and, a tip I've come across many times: rip out the pages that you'll need from your guidebook, instead of taking the whole 5-lb Europe 2008 book (guidebooks don't have a long shelf life anyway, so don't worry about ruining it).

Lastly, here's a handy chart from USA Today that details U.S. airlines' charges for overweight bags. Watch your weight!


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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Travel podcasts

Podcasts—digital programs (typically audio) made available online for free download to your computer or iPod, usually by syndication/subscription—are nothing new. But it wasn't until recently that I started checking out the many travel podcasts available on the internet. Now I spend my time on the subway exploring the world.

You can find hundreds (thousands?) of hours of free programming on just about any travel topic or destination. Here are my brief impressions of some of the more popular podcasts: podcasts consists of in-studio interviews with experts, and you'll get the same quality of information you can expect from their guidebooks. What I've found most useful about these podcasts is the range of topics they cover; rather than focus on profiling destinations, the programs discuss the latest travel news and issues, which is a great way to stay informed.

By comparison, most Lonely Planet podcasts feature profiles of travel destinations, and most are recorded on location. The mix of on-the-scene interviews and polished sound effects adds so much color that you almost feel like you're watching instead of just listening. Check these out if you've got a trip planned and want some in-depth info on your destination.

Europe-on-a-shoestring expert Rick Steves offers several types of podcasts. As the Europe expert that he is, his Italy and France walking tours podcasts are the highlight: you can download these programs to your iPod and take Rick along as a virtual guide. He also podcasts his radio show, and recent programs cover such non-Europe destinations as Nicaragua, South Africa and Afghanistan. Like podcasts, the format typically features interviews of experts.

Rough Guides podcasts mostly feature interviews of guidebook authors, and provide additional information about the topic of the authors' books. While these can be valuable if you're interested in that particular destination or topic, they can sometimes be a bit dry.

Finally, if you're looking for a podcast that will virtually take you away to a destination, Travel in 10 does just that. These 10-minute podcasts are recorded as if you're right there with the host, and provide a wealth of information on a particular destination. It's almost too much information; I sometimes found myself disoriented, wanting to see what the host was talking about.

Travel podcasts mentioned in this posting: | Lonely Planet | Rick Steves | Rough Guides | Travel in 10


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