Stricklandia

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Your money: Spirited away

I am continually amazed at the creativity displayed by the airline industry in coming up with new fees. Today, Spirit Airlines announced that it will charge up to $45 each way for a carry-on bag stored in the overhead bin.

Flying truly is becoming a pure à la carte business model. Will this be the fee that broke the customer's back? Or will we keep paying and paying for less and less?


Life vest $15 if purchased online, $25 if purchased on the plane
($100 if purchased after impact)

 

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Interactive urinals and other advertising

Just what is an "Interactive Urinal Communicator," you ask? One of a number of creative ways advertisers are using to engage our eyeballs. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Whether we're peeing, standing in an elevator or pumping gas, we're a captive audience for an apparently valuable part of any given day. And advertisers are increasingly trying to capitalize on that.

Nowhere are we more captive than at 30,000 feet. And advertiser agency Brand in the Hand knows it. They're hoping to earn our goodwill for their clients by hitting us with ads during that brief flash of excitement when the flight attendant hands us a free (for now) bag of peanuts.

But simply slapping ads everywhere isn't the trick. "The challenge for Brand In Hand and any company or marketer entering ambient media is to make sure their brand message is adding value to the consumer," says Andrew Hampp of Advertising Age in the CNN.com article.

I'm a voracious bathroom reader, so I'm looking forward to the day when USA Today sponsors the airplane lavatory and prints the news on each sheet of toilet paper. Talk about adding value....
 

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Southwest's baby steps: "optional" fees

Southwest Airlines has so far made a name for itself staying out of the airline industry's Year of the Fees. Last year, I wrote about their marketing campaign in which they bragged about not charging fees to check baggage. That's still the case, even as they lose millions—and other airlines bring in millions with baggage fees.

But now they're taking baby steps into Fee Land, offering an optional $10 fee to get a priority spot in the boarding queue. For those of you who haven't flown Southwest, they do not assign seats; it's first-come, first-served. So your position in the boarding queue is critical if you don't want to sit in a middle seat.

The more people who take advantage of this new option, the fewer aisle and window seats will be available to those who don't. I predict the tipping point will be reached quickly, and the $10 fee will become all but standard. I also predict this is the beginning of Southwest's journey toward charging the same fees as all the other guys.
 

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Is Arthur Frommer an "Ugly American"?

Arthur Frommer is one of the most well respected voices in the travel industry. He's been writing travel guidebooks for more than 50 years, and has grown the Frommers line into one of the industry's top brands. But, with all due respect, maybe it's time for him to retire.

I'm blogging about old news at this point, but a couple of weeks ago, Frommer wrote fearfully about the presence of firearms at a political demonstration in Arizona, ultimately announcing a boycott of travel to the state. He felt the very presence of guns was de facto intimidation, and called the gun-toting demonstrators—who were law-abiding citizens—"extremists." I'm probably starting to lose those of you who believe in gun control, but please read on; this posting is not about politics.

The best kind of traveler is he or she who respects the culture and values of the place they are visiting. Conversely, the worst kind of traveler does the opposite, tries to impose their own beliefs and expectations on those who live where they are only visiting. Lacking evidence to the contrary, I have always believed Arthur Frommer to be the former; how else does one become a star in the travel industry over a 50-year career?

But Frommer's rant makes me think of the old label "Ugly American," defined by Wikipedia as "a pejorative term for Americans traveling or living abroad who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards." Revising that definition slightly, I'd say the shoe fits: "Pejorative term for American liberals traveling to other states who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American liberal standards."

Arthur Frommer's Best Places to RetireYes, maybe traveling from uptown Manhattan to downtown Phoenix does not constitute foreign travel in a strict geopolitical sense; but culturally, the two places might as well be on different continents. In any case, regardless of one's politics or stance on the Second Amendment, the fact remains that here we have a travel professional boycotting a state just because the citizens of that state have different values than he. That's just plain wrong. In my book, that makes him an "Ugly American."

And if that's the kind of perspective that Arthur Frommer has to offer these days, then I think it's time for him to consult his own reference material (pictured at right), before he ruins the reputation of the brand that bears his name.
 

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Friday, August 14, 2009

AYCJ: An air travel smorgasbord

I have to hand it to my favorite airline, JetBlue, for their creativity. They have just announced the AYCJ (All-You-Can-Jet) pass: fly anywhere you want, as often as you want, from September 8 to October 8. The cost is $599 (domestic taxes and fees included), and you can choose from the more than 50 cities that JetBlue serves. Read the full details here; it really does seem to be as good as it sounds.

But act now; you only have till next Friday—or while supplies last—to buy the AYCJ pass. I'll be picking one up myself. Those friends and family members who live in cities served by JetBlue, better get your couch ready for me!
 

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Continental flight "stranding" may be a good thing

If it were a bad made-for-TV movie, it might be called "The Stranding of Flight 2816."

Last week, a Continental Airlines flight spent nine hours on the tarmac while trying to fly from Houston to Minneapolis. Thunderstorms forced the plane to divert to Rochester, MN, where it sat on the tarmac—full of passengers—overnight until it finally deplaned the passengers after seven hours. The airline then waited another couple of hours, reboarded the passengers and completed the flight to Minneapolis.

That's the thumbnail version of the story. But when you start peeling back the layers, more and more outrageous details emerge.

- The Continental plane had only one lavatory, and at some time during the night, it stopped flushing and began to stink up the cabin.

- The plane was only 85 miles from its final destination, which means the airline could have easily put passengers on a bus instead.

- Continental's regional partner ExpressJet (which operated this flight) claimed that the airport was not staffed or set up appropriately at that time of night to deplane passengers safely. According to the manager of the airport, however, there was plenty of staff on hand—ground handlers from Delta Airlines, in fact, repeatedly volunteered to help—and a secure area in the airport was available, where security re-screening would not have been necessary.

- In fact, a Northwest Airlines flight was diverted to Rochester after the Continental flight, and they were able to deplane—and the airline made the decision to bus the passengers on to Minneapolis (where they arrived at about the same time the Continental passengers were just being let off the plane for the first time).

- Tellingly, the flight crew on the Northwest flight had "timed out"—that is, they had reached the maximum time they were allowed to fly. So, if a timed-out crew can be deplaned, but passengers with a crew that isn't timed out have to endure hours of wailing babies and overflowing toilets, it certainly leaves the impression that airline labor issues are more important than concern for passengers' well being.

As the title of this blog posting suggests, there may actually be some good news out of all this, believe it or not. The Obama administration is investigating the incident to determine if any laws were broken. More importantly, the incident may be the final push needed to pass the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in 2007. Among other things, the legislation would mandate deplaning of passengers after a three-hour wait on the tarmac. (Continental already has a policy for doing so "if it is safe," but this incident clearly shows the judgment of the airline's dispatchers can't be relied upon in all cases.)

Enough is enough.
 

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Friday, June 5, 2009

RyanAir: Pay to pee

A few months back, I reported that RyanAir was considering the implementation of a fee that has long been a standing joke when it comes to airline fees: a charge to use the lavatory. Believe it or not, they are making good on their threat.

Starting sometime in the next year or two, Europe's budget airline will charge passengers to take a pee. Not only that, they're planning to reconfigure their planes to remove two of the three lavatories to make room for more seats.

As one reader opined in a comment to one of the news stories I read, someone should investigate whether it's legal to sell beverages without providing a free lavatory. While they're at it, they should investigate some of the airline's other new or proposed policies, such as doing away with airport check-in counters and forcing passengers to pay to check in online; firing their baggage handlers and making passengers load their own bags onto planes; and perhaps even charging for air sickness bags. (No, I am not making this up.)

One has to wonder when enough is enough....
 

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

$9 nonstop fares - no, really

Do you need to fly between Newark, New Jersey; Melbourne, Florida; South Bend, Indiana; Toledo, Ohio; or Lansing, Michigan? For most of you, the answer is probably "No." But if so, news of America's newest low-fare airline might interest you. Jet America opened for business today, and takes to the skies beginning July 13.

The airline's introductory fares, clearly designed to grab headlines, are priced at $9 each way for the first nine seats on each flight. If you manage to get one of those seats, however, then of course you'll pay more. Based on a sample flight that I looked up, the minimum out-of-pocket cost will be $49 after all taxes and fees. Still, not bad for a nonstop round-trip flight on a 737—if you're traveling between any of the aforementioned cities (which, other than Newark, are not exactly high-in-demand destinations).

From what I've been able to find out, it seems Jet America will follow the RyanAir model of making money off miscellaneous fees, such as a $5 fee (each way) for booking online ($10 for phone reservations), and $10 for a reserved seat assignment.

We're getting closer and closer to that coin-operated lavatory....
 

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Surf the friendly skies

The "World Wide Web" is expanding its reach skyward. This year, a number of airlines are launching GoGo's in-flight WiFi internet service, enabling those of us with WiFi-capable laptops and mobile devices the online access we've been dreaming about. The service is already available on many Virgin America flights, and is rolling out on select American, United, Delta and AirTran routes later this year. (United says the service will be available "in summer" on its JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO routes; I'll be flying the former next month, so I'm eager to see if GoGo is available then.)

Not surprisingly, there will be a fee for access; surprisingly, the fee sounds rather reasonable, at least when you remember how much those Airphone calls cost. For laptops, it costs $9.95 for flights of three hours or less ($12.95 for longer flights), and only $7.95 for those of us using iPhones or other mobile devices. That's a much better deal than $5 for a sandwich that tastes like the cardboard box it comes in. As of now, GoGo will only be available on U.S. domestic flights.

I'm sure this is not welcome news to everyone. But I don't see this changing anything (yet) about the in-flight experience. Laptops are already ubiquitous, and people are well-trained to wear headphones when using them. Browsing the Web is a mostly quiet activity, so I don't see it as any more disruptive as someone watching a DVD on their notebook.

What does worry me, however, is the "gateway drug" nature of offering internet in-flight. It seems inevitable for this to lead to cell phone service in the sky. If that ever happens, then I will suddenly become a Luddite. I would rather fly behind a crying baby or in front of a seat-kicking toddler than next to someone who talks on the phone through the entire flight. (The article I read claimed that Skype would not be available through GoGo.)

Yes, I know that, by my own logic, this won't necessarily change the current in-flight experience, when people are free to talk as much and as loudly as they want to each other. But we've all observed the people who talk loudly on their phones in restaurants, pay more attention to their phones than the road on which they're driving, and bump into you on the street because they're too focused on their phone call to watch where they're walking. Do we really want to fly with those people?

Until then, though, I will happily—and quietly—surf the friendly skies whenever possible.
 

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Friday, April 24, 2009

US Airways dipping into your wallet again

Since I'm flying on US Airways tomorrow and have to check a bag, I looked up their latest charges for checked baggage (which they conveniently list on a page titled "Baggage Policies" instead of "Baggage Fees"). Starting on July 9, they'll dip their hands into your wallet yet again.

After that date, if you check in and pay your baggage fees at the airport, they're going to charge you an extra $5 per bag (making it $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second bag). Sure, you can avoid this charge by checking in online and paying your baggage fees over the internet. And we're all already used to the idea of avoiding extra charges by doing things online (such as purchasing our tickets).

But what about those of us who don't have access to a computer while we're traveling? Many of us don't have or choose not to bring a laptop, and many hotels don't offer public computers. So this extra $5 fee per bag will be mandatory for many of us much of the time. How fair is that? And if you have more than two bags to check, their policies force you to check in at the airport; so they'll not only gouge you for the extra fees for multiple bags, they'll also ding you the extra $5 for each of those bags.

US Airways has led the way in the new era of airline fees. They were the first to charge for the first checked bag, and the first to be bold enough to try to charge $2 for a bottle of water. What new and creative fee will they dream up next?
 

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Southwest Airlines to service LGA

Exciting news today for New York City-based budget travelers like me: Southwest Airlines—the original budget airline—will begin offering flights from New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) beginning June 28. Until now, New Yorkers wanting to fly out of NYC on one of Southwest's cheap flights would have to get out to Long Island's Islip Airport (an inconvenient drive or ride on the Long Island Railroad).

It's too soon to tell if Southwest will offer the cheapest flights out of LGA. A sample roundtrip flight between LGA and San Diego in July came to $456 on Southwest, but $313 on American; a nonstop between LGA and Chicago Midway, however, was less expensive on Southwest ($301) than on Delta ($307), the next cheapest fare. In any case, this is surely good news for Southwest fans and frequent flyers (such as my brother, who now has one less excuse for not visiting).
 

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Travel to Mexico still safe

I've been intending to blog about the safety of travel to Mexico, but this Frommers.com 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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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Twitchhiker

Big hats off to Paul Smith, a.k.a. the Twitchhiker. This creative traveler has taken online social networking to new heights—or should I say, to faraway places. Whatever the proper wording for the metaphor, this guy is my new travel hero.

Harnessing the social power of Twitter, Smith set out to travel from his home in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK to a small island off the coast of New Zealand (the exact opposite side of the globe) within 30 days. The rules for his expedition: he had to travel strictly via free offers of travel and accommodation that he received from other Twitter users; he could only make plans less than three days in advance; and if he received no offers within 48 hours, he would have to return home.

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, it's a microblogging site where users post very brief messages about whatever they're doing at any given moment (as those of you who use Facebook do when you update your status). Smith set out on March 1, and he's already in New Zealand. Simply astounding. And proof positive of the sense of community that social networking sites like Twitter create.

Read more about his story; it's quite impressive.
 

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Check-ins of the future

I've had some interesting hotel check-in experiences. At the W Times Square in New York City, the lobby was not on the ground floor. Instead, I boarded an elevator just inside the ground-floor entrance, went to the seventh floor, and stepped out into a nightclub lounge. Tucked away off in a corner, I eventually found the front desk and checked in.

At the Omni Hotel in San Diego, I had barely stepped into the lobby when a waiting clerk greeted me and asked my name. Before I even reached the front desk, the clerk handed me a key and guided me to a nearby elevator. No lengthy credit card verification or reservation confirmation; just "welcome" and "here's your key."

While those check-in experiences impressed me, I would sure like to try checking in at an Andaz, Hyatt's answer to Starwood's hip W brand. At Andaz, you don't walk up to a check-in counter; you take a seat in a comfortable chair, and they come to you, checking you in via a handheld computer.

Of course, I look forward to the day when embedded chips in my luggage and wallet enable the following check-in scenario: I get out of the taxi and drop my bags at the entrance, where they'll be scanned and automatically routed to my room. As I walk through the entrance, a scanner reads the chip in my wallet and checks me in. I stroll to the elevator, where a scanner detects my chip, displays my room number on a screen, and takes me to my floor. When I reach my room, I wave my wallet against a card reader to open the door. Now that's a fancy check-in.
 

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Friday, March 20, 2009

"Year of the Fees" here to stay

I've blogged aplenty about new airline fees for everything from checked baggage to pillows, even calling 2008 "The Year of the Fees." However you may feel about these fees, get used to them—they're apparently here to stay. This New York Times article outlines ways in which the airline industry is standardizing and codifying these a la carte fees. They wouldn't be doing that if they considered these fees a temporary, stop-gap measure to recoup losses.

So, I hope you've learned some useful skills this past year to avoid these fees—carrying on all your luggage, packing your own snacks, bringing your own pillow—because you'll be using them for the foreseeable future.

Happy flying.
 

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quoted again by Fodors

Fodors likes me. Or at least likes what I have to say. I've been quoted again, this time in the 2009 edition of their Washington, D.C. guidebook. On the intro page to the "Side Trips" chapter, you'll find my recommendation to rent a bike and ride the Mt. Vernon Trail to the home of George Washington (again quoted as "RaymondLuxuryYacht," my handle in the Fodors travel forums).

Now that I think about it, I can't believe I've never written in this blog about the Mt. Vernon Trail, or even posted a Friday Travel Photo from that gorgeous bike trail. It was my favorite thing to do when I lived there, and I'd call it a must-do if you visit our nation's capital. Seeing the National Mall, the Potomac and Mt. Vernon are all common sights to see for most visitors, so why not rent a bike and see them all from the saddle? You can ride along the Mall, stopping to see some of the monuments; cross over Memorial Bridge (which crosses the Potomac between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery); and cruise alongside the river for about 10 miles to Washington's historic plantation home. Along the way, you'll travel through lush green tunnels of trees on a smooth and well-marked bike trail.

In fact, why not pick up a Fodors guidebook now and plan your trip to D.C.? While you're there, maybe you can talk some sense into our leaders, so they'll get our economy back on track.
 

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Quoted in Fodors Paris 2009

I just learned that I was quoted in one of the "Word of Mouth" sidebars in the 2009 edition of the Fodor's Paris travel guide. My quote concerned the Catacombs, a place of darkness that is ironically one of my favorite places in the City of Light. The quote, attributed by Fodors to "RaymondLuxuryYacht" (my Fodors.com handle, with apologies to Monty Python), doesn't offer much info, so I'm not sure what prompted them to select it. By all means, go out and buy a copy of the guide, especially if you have plans to visit Paris, but I also invite you to read my more in-depth impressions (pardon the pun) of the Paris Catacombs.

On an unrelated note, I've put this time away from blogging to good use, and just succeeded in meeting the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I still have to slog through more pages to finish the first draft, but I achieved the necessary word count to be called a "winner" of the "contest."
 

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hurricane Omar brushes Dutch Antilles

Last week, a late-season hurricane named Omar swept through the Caribbean. The election-frenzied American media barely gave it a passing mention, and I didn't pay any attention myself.

So imagine my surprise to learn tonight that the storm brushed Curacao, the island in the Dutch Antilles where I proposed to Cassie last month. I quickly emailed Sunshine, a friend we made down there, who described destructive waves, flooded homes and widespread damages (though fortunately no loss of life).

Back in August, when flooding wreaked havoc on Havasu Falls in Arizona, I posted a before & after set of photos. Sunshine sent me links to pictures of Omar's fury, and I found one that showed waves pounding Playa Lagun. Check out the before & after pics below. I shot the first one during our visit; the second was taken last week. It's no tsunami, but keep in mind that Curacao is supposedly outside the hurricane belt, and the seas are flat 360 days a year.

I'm glad the people are okay. I hope the coral fared as well.




 

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Southwest flies into the red

The hard times in the airline industry in particular, and the broad economy in general, finally hit that bastion of airline profitability, Southwest Airlines. Today, they posted their first loss in 17 years—an amazing streak that has finally come to an end.

It's no surprise. With the crazy economic times we find ourselves in, even a savvy, creative company like Southwest is going to find it challenging to maintain profitability. I'm hardly the poster boy for these hard times—I make a decent living, I'm not a homeowner, and I haven't cut back much on my traveling—but even I am trying to fly less. I abandoned several potential trips earlier this year because the air fares were too high; I'm driving to Buffalo this weekend instead of flying; and we're using a combination of auto and train travel to go to Indianapolis for Christmas.

I'm not sharing anything new when I say that the reasons for flying less are more than economical. In my opinion, the airlines might not be having quite as bad a time if they'd tried to offset higher fares and new fees by increasing the quality of customer service. Any reasonable person understands the business need to raise prices when costs increase. But to do so in a way that negatively affects the service experience ($2 for water?) is just dumb. And to not try to ease peoples' pain by offering better customer service (which costs nothing, except for perhaps additional training) is even dumber. You're already turning people off with the higher prices; why push more of them away with bad service?

So again, it was no surprise to read that Southwest went into the red. The real surprise is going to be the news that an airline posted a profitable quarter. Who knows when that will happen?
 

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Plan for New York airports ready to take off

In case you didn't hear about it yesterday, the Bush administration finalized plans to auction off slots and cap the number of flights at the three major New York City area airports. The Port Authority, airline industry and key members of Congress oppose the plan, saying it won't solve the problems, and that it'll hurt already-hurting airlines.

I have no idea if the plan will work. But the fact is that our three crappy, overcrowded airports are responsible for two-thirds of all the flight delays in the country. Even if you're flying nowhere near New York, chances are good that your flight started its day here, or flew through here. They pack too many flights in here, and when the inevitable weather issues throw a wrench in the gears, the effects ripple all the way through the system.

As usual, the opponents of this plan complained loudly but offered no alternatives. If you don't have a better plan, then sit down and shut up. Maybe this plan won't work, maybe we travelers will pay the price when the airlines pass on the auction costs to us through ticket prices and surcharges. But at least someone's trying something.
 

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Monday, October 6, 2008

My photography in La Jolla

A few weeks ago, a large map was unveiled at Kellogg Park, the public space at La Jolla Shores in San Diego. Made of lithocrete (a mixture of concrete and recycled glass), the map covers some 2,300 square feet of ground, and depicts the La Jolla Underwater Preserve as a way to bring the undersea world to beachgoers who might not realize what lies under the waves.

Accompanying the map is a wall of photos showing the various marine creatures that live in the nearby waters. This fish ID board identifies everything from sheephead and señorita to lobster and octopus. The creators of the lithocrete map solicited the local dive community for images to place on this wall, and as luck would have it, they selected my photo of a white sea bass. I'm not a professional photographer, and this particular photo was hardly my best work, but apparently few images of this shy fish exist. I got this particular shot a couple of years ago, while diving La Jolla's kelp forests on a visit to San Diego. This fish kept following me around, keeping its distance but apparently curious. I snapped a photo unaware of what kind of fish it was—and having no idea the photo would eventually end up on an art installation at nearby La Jolla Shores!

So next time you travel to La Jolla Shores, whether you're a local going for a day at the beach or a tourist visiting San Diego, be sure to stop by Kellogg Park and check out the map and fish ID board. And see if you can find my name!
 

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What will become of Havasu Falls?

I'm stunned.

I heard a news story in passing last weekend about flooding in the Grand Canyon, but I didn't pay it much attention. Come to find out today, it happened in Havasu Canyon, a place where I hiked and camped for several days in 2001. (You can read my account of that trip here.)

The signature natural feature that brings people there is Havasu Falls, one of the most beautiful sights in Arizona. The graceful arc of the cataract, and the aquamarine pool below it, look like they belong in the Hawaiian Islands, not sandwiched between a couple of red rock desert buttes.

Apparently last weekend's flooding not only wreaked havoc for the tourists camping out and the Native Americans living in the nearby village of Supai, but also caused untold damage to the waterfall itself and its surroundings. I can only hope that the damage is not permanent—but the pictures below tell a pretty sad story.

Havasu Falls when I visited in 2001:



Havasu Falls last weekend:

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Travel lessons from small claims court

I didn't expect to find inspiration for today's blog posting at small claims court, but that's where I found it. I was there to lend moral support to a friend, and though his case ultimately got postponed, the proceeding that took place while we waited was quite relevant to my recent blogging about airlines.

Last winter, a JetBlue customer arrived at his flight less than 20 minutes ahead of time, and was denied boarding. Tonight, he had the airline before the judge. To me, it seemed pretty clear-cut; the airline's contract of carriage specified the time frame by which ticketed customers have to check in, and it seemed the airline was within its rights to shut him out. But I was impressed that the judge did not take a by-the-book approach in evaluating the case. He chided the airline representative for letting the flight take off early, instead of letting the one-minute-late customer aboard.

The lesson I took away was to be sure to book your entire itinerary together. This guy had separately booked tickets from Phoenix to Denver, and then from Denver to New York. So when his flight from Phoenix was late, and he thereby arrived at the JetBlue gate with only minutes to spare, JetBlue did not know to expect him, and so he was considered a no-show. Had he booked his entire itinerary through a service like Orbitz or Travelocity, he would have been covered—and he would have saved himself the trouble of taking the airline to small claims court.

If you're wondering how the case turned out, you'll have to remain in as much suspense as I did. The judge told them he'd mail his decision, leaving the rest of us in the dark. Maybe I should sue.
 

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

No more free hot dog

"Customers understand the cost of doing business with these fuel prices," said USAirways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr, quoted in a TIME magazine article. "They don't expect a free hot dog at the ballpark."

So that's where we are. No more free hot dog. Never mind the fact that a typical ticket to a baseball game costs about 10 percent of the average air fare. I guess you don't get a free pillow and blanket at the ballpark either. Or a free soda or bottle of water. You can still pee for free at the ballpark (last time I went, anyway), but don't expect that luxury to remain free in flight forever.

The same USAirways spokeswoman also said the airline expects these new fees to bring in as much as half a billion (with a B) dollars, so you can consider these fees here to stay. Like Congress enjoying the revenue stream from a new tax, the airlines won't cut off this new cash flow without very strong motivation.

JetBlue used to be my favorite airline (now that term is an oxymoron), so I was disappointed to hear about them charging $7 for a pillow and blanket. But if you fly them anytime soon, here's a tip: there may be no free hot dog, but they'll give you as many snacks as you want. Don't settle for just one bag of Terra Blues or Animal Crackers. Eat a pillow-and-blanket's worth. Then you won't want a free hot dog.
 

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Delta takes first place in Year of the Fees

Excuse me while I pick up my jaw—it just hit the floor.

I was all set to write a whimsical posting about my weekend trip to Maine (check back tomorrow), when I happened to log onto CNN.com and learned of the latest indignity in the airlines' Year of the Fees.

It's bad enough that airlines are charging passengers $25 to check a second piece of luggage. To date, US Airways has been the most aggressive with new fees, now even charging $2 for a bottle of water. Now Delta has jumped to the front of the pack, doubling the fee for the second checked bag to $50!

Keep in mind that this charge is for each way. So if you're flying Delta round-trip and checking two bags, you can add $100 to your fare.

I'll reserve the commentary, because the numbers speak for themselves, and are surely enough by themselves to outrage you.
 

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Delta adds nonstop service to Bonaire

This news might be of limited general interest, as it applies mainly to Northeast-based scuba divers. But since many of my readers are Northeast-based scuba divers, I thought it worth reporting.

Starting December 20, Delta will add nonstop service every Saturday between New York's JFK airport and Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles—one of the best diving destinations in the Caribbean.

Better still, the flight schedule seems to have been set with scuba divers in mind:

Departs JFK at 10:35 a.m., arrives Bonaire at 4:25 p.m.
Departs Bonaire at 5:15 p.m., arrives JFK 9:05 p.m.
(Flight time 4:50 each way)

This schedule provides for arrival at a decent hour when traveling to Bonaire, and a reasonably late departure when leaving Bonaire (which allows for extra diving on the second-to-last day).

With all of the flight cutbacks in recent news, I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to report this new service. It probably goes without saying, however, that it's subject to change.
 

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Passport Card goes into production

Do you visit Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean regularly? Don't want to carry your passport with you every time you leave the country? The State Department today announced that they've begun production on the Passport Card, an RFID-enabled card that can be used by frequent visitors to the aforementioned countries/regions in place of a passport for land and sea entry (not for air travel).

The chip embedded in the card contains no personal information, but does have a unique ID number that can be read as you approach the border. This number can pull up your information on a secure government database, so that when you reach the border agent, you can presumably breeze through quickly.

Some people may cry "Big Brother," but for those who commute across the border every day, the Passport Card can probably make life a bit easier.
 

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

No movie for you!

In a bid to save fuel costs, US Air will eliminate in-flight movies from many of its domestic flights later this year. A US Air spokesperson declined to comment on rumors that the airline also plans to eliminate passengers from its flights in a bid to further increase fuel economy (and customer satisfaction).
 

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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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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 Megabus.com. Today, TravelZoo announced that Megabus.com 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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Friday, June 13, 2008

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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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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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Travelocity picking up the slack

Again, I find myself writing about the airline industry. You're probably expecting me to once again draw deeply from the well of negativity and cynicism that the airlines have tapped within me. But today I can spread a little bit of guarded optimism.

While the airline industry has exercised unparalleled creativity in recent months to come up with new fees for just about everything, it's been status quo when it comes to service. So big kudos to Travelocity, who has been equally creative—and proactive—in finding ways to pick up the airlines' slack.

When people book through the online travel site and encounter the air travel problems that seem so commonplace these days, Travelocity often takes the fall for the airlines' failings. To preserve their customer relationships, they're trying to find creative ways to mitigate such problems. What a concept. I wonder if any of the airlines are listening? Probably not... they seem to be expending all of their creativity coming up with new fees.
 

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sitting on the tarmac, but still "on time"

Turns out at least one of my airline conspiracy theories was right on the money: airlines are indeed padding their schedules to account for chronic delays, so they can report those delayed flights as "on time." Watch the eye-opening video on CNN.com, in which a flight sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, yet still managed to arrive a few minutes early.

I guess this is nothing new, however. This practice may seem fraudulent, but I suppose it's no different than advertising that a flight includes a meal and serving an inedible pasty material looks nothing like food. Or selling seats on an overbooked flight, only to routinely bump passengers who didn't expect to spend the night at the airport. When it comes to airlines, truth in advertising seems to be optional.
 

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Year of the Fees continues

As I type this, I'm still having a hard time believing it, but American Airlines will become the first airline to charge for ALL checked baggage. Travelers have only just started getting used to the new fees for a second checked bag (that new rule went into effect earlier this month for many airlines). Now American will charge $15 for the first checked bag. Will the other airlines follow suit, as they did with the second-bag fee? How much do you want to bet?

I've already started calling this the Year of the Fees, but clearly it's much more than that. We're witnessing a sea change in the airline industry, and history will mark 2008 as a radical turning point in how airlines do business—and how travelers fly. It ain't gonna be pretty.
 

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Budget fare on JetBlue: Lavatory Class

First Class offers the best possible seat on an airplane. Business Class is pretty dang good too. Economy Class? Well, it's not the most comfortable seat for those long hauls, but it gets you there. But what about Lavatory Class? I'll take that middle seat in Economy, thank you very much.

"Lavatory Class?" you ask. That's apparently the latest innovation from JetBlue. Manhattanite Gokhan Mutlu boarded a JetBlue flight back in February, and an hour into the flight, the pilot made him give up his seat and sit in the lavatory. Yes, I know it sounds like an urban legend, so go read the full story.

I'm a JetBlue fan, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for litigious people. I also happen to think most airline pilots are very intelligent people. But in this case, I think Mutlu's wallet is going to be significantly fatter in the near future, and I doubt the JetBlue pilot who made him give up his seat has the brains to fly a paper airplane.

As with any lawsuit, I'm sure there's more to this story. But no matter how obnoxious Mutlu might have been, no matter what booking snafu led to his buddy pass being honored on that flight, you just don't make a passenger give up his seat and sit in the lavatory unless you want to significantly increase his net worth.

So on second thought, yes—I'll take that Lavatory Class ticket, thank you very much.
 

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Airlines: The only constant is change

Last week, USA Today reported on the dramatic effects that record-high oil prices (and the consequent effect on jet fuel costs) will likely have on air travel. Many of the things we're so fond of complaining about now could become commonplace: fewer non-stop flights, longer layovers, fuller planes—and, of course, much higher fares.

Perhaps it's anyone's guess what the future of air travel holds, but it's hard to argue with the conclusion that things are going to change pretty radically. According to the article, the airlines' cost for jet fuel will rise a whopping 44% this year. United Airlines alone posted a $537 million loss for the first quarter of this year. Oil futures passed a record $120 per barrel today. How does any airline survive the effects of such numbers?

The hard part is finding that balance between making up losses by raising fares, without raising them so high that people will stop flying. Thus, the creative solutions mentioned above: changing routes, fleets, flights and all the other things that will make air travel suck more than it already does.

So while no one knows exactly how things are going to change, it seems safe to say they ain't gonna change for the better.
 

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Awards

TripAdvisor is one of my favorite travel sites, and I never book a hotel stay without first reading reviews on that site (though I sometimes have to keep a few grains of salt handy while reading).

This week, TripAdvisor published their 2008 Travelers' Choice Destinations Awards (download PDF), in which they named the top 100 world destinations (and the top 25 for every region) based on reviews from their site.

Such lists are always subjective—my own top 100 list would certainly look different (I would not have placed Charlotte Amalie in the #6 spot, for example!). But I still found myself going through the list, counting how many I'd been to (25 of the 100, which I guess is pretty good). And reaching the end, I had mentally added a few new destinations to my "top 100" wish list.

How many of these places have you been to? What destination not on the list should have made the cut?
 

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Virgin Atlantic and BA settle price-fixing lawsuit

If you flew Virgin Atlantic or British Airways between August 11, 2004 and March 23, 2006, you probably have some money coming to you. The two airlines settled a class-action lawsuit that accused them of price-fixing fuel surcharges, a charge that the airlines admitted.

Apparently the Department of Justice has been investigating a variety of such allegations throughout the industry. Airlines fixing prices and colluding with each other? What a shocker!

Here's the full story.
 

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Airlines: The Year of the Fees

Just when you thought the airline ugliness of recent weeks was past, a TIME magazine article suggests there could be more to come this summer. The guy in charge of protecting the airline whistle-blowers hints that there could be more cases of shoddy inspections coming to light this summer, which could lead to more groundings and flight cancellations.

There's also a new airline fee to report: United has increased the change fee to a whopping $150 (up to $250 for some international flights). Yes, we've all gotten used to the fact that we'll have to pay a fee to change our ticket. It started reasonably: a large enough fee to deter needless changes, but not so large that it penalizes people with a valid need. Now, United will charge you a fee so large that you could buy a whole new ticket to some destinations.

Incidentally, Arther Frommer has an excellent blog article that outlines this year's new airline fees, including increased over-the-50-pound-limit fees for that single bag you're allowed to check for free. It's only April, but I think we can safely call this The Year of the Fees.

On the brighter side, I've been seeing lots of air fare sales lately, so you can still get a good deal if you check only one bag, don't change your ticket, are willing to sit in a middle seat, don't mind living in the airport for several days if your flight is cancelled, and can last a six-hour flight without eating. Happy travels!

Delta: Atlanta & NYC on sale
AirTran: Spring/Summer/Fall sale
Continental: Canada for cheap
American: To/from the Southwest
Southwest: Always easy to find low fares
 

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Choice Seats: The latest airline robbery

Every time I get the urge to write a posting about the airlines, I try to resist, because I've been blogging about them far too much, and there are many things about travel that interest me far more than the airlines. But it seems like they provide me with fodder on a near-daily basis.

Case in point: Just as I sat down to write today's posting, I checked my email, and read a press release from US Air. I just about fell out of my seat. As if charging you for a crappy sandwich or checking a bag wasn't insult enough, now they want to make you pay for the privilege of getting a window or aisle seat.

In their own words: "Starting May 7, we'll introduce our new Choice Seats—select aisle and window seats in the first several rows of Coach. You'll have the option to purchase a Choice Seat assignment during Web Check-in. That means aisle and window seats are likely to still be available even for last minute travelers."

I keep wondering where they'll draw the line, and every time I think they've drawn it, they erase it and redraw it a little closer to your pocketbook. Granted, their pay-for-the-privilege "Choice Seats" are in the first several rows of Coach, but even an idiot can predict that this will inevitably lead to a standard extra charge for any window or aisle seat, anywhere on the plane.

So that's where we're heading. Zone 1 boarding? Extra charge. Carrying on a bag? Extra charge. Checking in online? Extra charge. I'm going to throw a party on the day one of these legacy carriers goes bankrupt.
 

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What makes good travel writing?

Great travel writing tells a compelling story, makes you feel like you're right there with the writer. It paints colors with words, pulls you through the pages and into another world. As author Stanley Stewart said, "Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story—narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation."

It seems a certain Lonely Planet guidebook author followed such guidance a little too enthusiastically: his guidebook on Colombia was a work of fiction. What writer Thomas Kohnstamm apparently didn't understand is that Stewart's advice about narrative and characters referred to travel literature, not travel guidebook writing. Kohnstamm, apparently disgruntled about how much Lonely Planet was paying him, wrote his guidebook in San Francisco, without ever visiting Colombia. With the help of his Colombian girlfriend, he plagiarized or made up vast portions of the guidebook.

Now he's about to publish a book about what he did. Which got me thinking: a travel writer is a writer who travels... which means Kohnstamm is not, strictly speaking, a travel writer. But if he writes about his fake travel writing, does that in fact make him a de facto travel writer? Truly a twenty-first century conundrum.
 

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dropping like flies

Perhaps "dropping like flies" is not the most appropriate metaphor to use when talking about airlines, but economic realities seem to be taking their toll on the airline industry. American Airlines is hemorrhaging millions of dollars in the wake of failed safety inspections and consequent flight cancellations. United, Northwest, US Air, Continental and AirTran have all adopted a $25 fee per flight for a second checked bag, ostensibly to cut costs. And now, a number of airlines have begun filing for bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus Airlines went belly-up, and just yesterday, Frontier Airlines (a carrier I flew as recently as last December) followed suit. Unlike the others, Frontier sought protection under Chapter 11 to remain operating, so hopefully they'll be able to follow through with their pledge to keep their planes flying.

What I'm most curious about is whether all of the major legacy carriers will make it through this year. They somehow limped through the post-9/11 slump, but can they get past the triple-whammy of widespread flight cancellations, rising fuel costs and falling demand due to recession?
 

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Flying the painful skies

When I started this travel blog, I figured I'd write about the airlines from time to time by reporting air fare deals, sharing advice on redeeming frequent flier miles, venting the occasional complaint. But lately, it seems like half my postings are about the airlines.

Let's face it: this isn't their year. I'm not sure how long it's been since it was "their year," but the airlines seem to be having an extra hard time of it lately. Fallout from the airplane inspection fiasco has caused more than 1,500 flights to be grounded this week—many with virtually no notice. On last night's news, I saw many travelers who'd already passed through security and made it to their gate, only to find out their flight had been grounded.

Customers of American Airlines are feeling the worst of the pain. Today, the airline grounded nearly half of its flights, leaving as many as 140,000 passengers stranded! My parents flew home last Saturday on American... just in time, apparently. (And I suppose they're lucky they made it home in one piece.)

I can't say I feel the slightest sympathy for the airlines. If they skimped on safety inspections like they have been with their service, then they deserve to suffer a lot more than simply getting flights grounded. Southwest Airlines' $10 million fine is a good start; a criminal investigation would be a great next step.
 

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel

CNN.com 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. FlightStats.com and FlightAware.com 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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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Iceberg, right ahead!

When I first reported on Southwest Airlines' safety inspection violations, I had no idea just what a hornet's nest that would prove to be. First, Southwest grounded some of its planes for which required inspections had not been done. Last week, Delta and American did the same. This week, United has also grounded planes for the same reason.

I have to wonder, is all of this just the tip of a very scary iceberg? The airlines are heavily regulated, so we all assume we're safe when we board a plane. We take for granted that safety inspections and regular maintenance are done. Now it seems that some of the airline maintenance and safety inspection work is no more thorough or exacting as the work your auto mechanic does or the service a local restaurant provides.

Of course, the key difference is that if your auto mechanic has a hangover when he's fixing your car, the worst that will probably happen is that your car will break down on the way home. If your waiter is too indifferent to get your order right, you just have to send it back to the kitchen. But when an airline employee is too lazy or the airline too cheap to pay someone to do required safety inspections, the result might be a plane full of people falling out of the sky.

Let's hope we spotted this iceberg in time.
 

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Even More Legroom™

I don't mean to continue a rant against the airlines, but a couple of items that I read about last night after blogging rubbed me the wrong way, especially in light of yesterday's blog about the airlines.

You may have already heard this, but Delta followed United's and US Air's example, and now also plans to charge $25 for that second checked bag. So consider that charge all but standard now. I'd go on at length about this "airway robbery," but I've already done so here.

This is old news, but in case you didn't know, JetBlue will offer Even More Legroom™ —for a fee of course (yes, they trademarked "Even More Legroom"). While this is as annoying as every nickle-and-dime tactic that the airlines have been exercising recently, what really incenses me is that they charge extra for the "even more legroom" that you get in the exit row.

Fine, charge me an additional $10 or $20 for the extra four inches in one of the forward rows. But the exit row? Hey airlines! We have an unwritten rule that in exchange for the extra legroom in these rows, we'll help your dumbass passengers find their way out the door in the event of an emergency. Now you want to charge us for this privilege? Guess what? If I pay extra to sit in this row, I'll be the first one off your frickin' plane in the event of an emergency.

What's next, you're going to levy a fee for the oxygen masks that might drop in case of a decrease in cabin pressure? Add a credit card slot to recline your seat? Tokens for the lavatory? Tell you what, next time I board one of your planes, I'll pull down my pants and you can pay me $5 to kiss my ass.
 

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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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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. Frommers.com ran a story in their newsletter today that shows "satisfaction guarantees" sometimes offer neither satisfaction nor a guarantee.
 

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Leaving it all behind

CNN.com currently features an article about a middle-aged couple who sold everything and toured the world on bicycles from 2002-2006. The title of the article is "Leaving it all behind." I can't imagine a more warped (yet, admittedly, mainstream) way to characterize their lifestyle change. Instead, I'd call it "Putting it all ahead."

If traversing the well-worn path between home and office every day, sitting in a chair for 40 hours a week, seeing and experiencing the same things day in and day out is "normal," such that breaking out of that cycle and doing something bold means you're "leaving it all behind," then maybe I'm the one with the warped perspective. To me, it seems that escaping the rat race would put the best of what life can offer ahead of—not behind—you.

Contemplating the seductive idea of exploring the world on your own timetable (instead of wedging such journeys into the small box delimited by your company's vacation policy), I imagine how liberating that would feel, how open your lifestyle would become. The phrase "leaving it all behind" contradicts that feeling; it connotes sacrifice, a limitation of options, like you're giving up everything. I think the opposite is true: in choosing such a lifestyle, I think you gain everything.

You acquire the power to define your own life, instead of having it defined for you by the expectations of America's consumerist society. You get the humbling insight of experiencing how the other 98 percent of the world lives, instead of viewing life through the lens of reality TV, celebrity gossip mags and Pottery Barn catalogs. You attain the perspective of seeing just how large this planet is, and how tiny your little place in it is. Perhaps most importantly, you learn what matters most: how much more a new experience adds to your life than does a new pair of trendy shoes.

The critics (my father chief among them) will offer the usual arguments against vagabond living: what about health insurance? retirement savings? financial security? Clearly, these are valid concerns, but they are not reasons NOT to "leave it all behind." If done right, you can live like Pat and Cat Patterson, bicycling around the world—or sailing, or backpacking, or whatever turns you on—and still keep some measure of security. Your 401(k) might not grow as quickly, you might not be able to see a doctor for every sniffle, you will almost certainly have to tighten the belt and live on less. But isn't that the point?

I think we should all take a sabbatical at some point in our lives, whether for only a few months, or for several years, like the Pattersons. It's certainly a notion that I've thought about more than once before. If or when I do it, however, you won't hear me saying I'm "leaving it all behind."
 

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is your plane safe?

Today, CNN reported that Southwest Airlines routinely flew at least 117 planes in violation of mandatory safety checks until as recently as a year ago, when an FAA inspector discovered that the airline had missed dozens of inspection deadlines. According to two FAA inspectors (who, as whistle-blowers, were unnamed in the article), the FAA not only knew about the violations, but also allowed Southwest to fly the planes without inspections to avoid disrupting Southwest's flight schedules. Does that mean it's okay to lose a plane here and there, as long as the rest of us arrive on schedule?

The inspections that Southwest ignored or delayed were intended to inspect for fuselage cracks and rudder control system problems, and were mandated because of past fatal crashes and incidents. To put it more plainly, the lapses meant Southwest was knowingly flying planes that had not been inspected for problems that had previously caused loss of life. What does that do for your confidence in the maintenance of our nation's commercial fleet?

Southwest flew more passengers in the U.S. than any other airline last year, which I suppose can now be interpreted to mean they risked more lives than any other airline last year. But then again, I suspect that where one airline is getting a pass from the FAA, others may also be getting the same treatment.

I'm flying next week, so I hope the discovery of these violations served as a wake-up call to the airlines to get their acts together.
 

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Is Arthur Frommer getting senile?

I saw Arthur Frommer at last weekend's Travel Show. While he's getting up there in years, he seemed mentally sharp as ever. But while browsing the travel blogosphere this morning, I came across something that made me wonder: is Arthur Frommer getting senile?

In his blog, Frommer asks his readership to explain the attraction of travel to Dubai—specifically, why anyone would want to visit: "What reason is there for vacationing in Dubai? ... What does one do there?" He also comments on the restriction of certain freedoms in Dubai, as if to suggest that's reason enough not to visit.

A few lines down, one of his readers offers the brilliant reply "
Ask the editors of 'Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel.' They had a big article on it a couple of years ago." I did a quick Google search, and sure enough, Frommer's magazine published at least two articles on Dubai in the last few years, in 2005 and 2007.

After I stopped laughing, I thought about why Frommer would post such a blog article. He's nearly 80 and is a travel writing superstar, so I can't imagine he has much day-to-day oversight over the travel publications that bear his name. Still, I can't imagine why someone in full possession of their mental faculties would write something that makes themselves look so dumb. It would be like Jim Cramer recommending a specific stock, and then later asking his readers/viewers "Why would anyone own this stock?"

So I ask again: is Arthur Frommer getting senile?
 

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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 Priceline.com 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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Friday, February 29, 2008

New York Times Travel Show this weekend

Gadget geeks drool over the Consumer Electronics Show. Video game fantatics go nuts over E3. This weekend, I'll be going gaga at the New York Times Travel Show.

The weekend-long slate of travel seminars will feature icons like Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer. The "Taste of the World" extravaganza will offer tastings from ancient Rome and a Mexico culinary tour with Rick Bayless. Live entertainment will include performances from Brazil, Lithuania and Indonesia. And so much more!

I don't want to come across like a marketing shill for the show, but suffice to say that I'll be like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
 

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

US Air follows United with $25 fee for second bag

We all knew this was coming. Today, US Air announced that it's following United's lead in charging $25 each way for a second checked bag on all its flights, beginning May 5 (with a few exceptions that don't apply to most passengers). Like dominos, more U.S. carriers are sure to fall in step with this new rule.

When United first announced its rule change a few weeks ago, I debated its fairness via email and in the online travel communities. Interestingly, reaction is mixed amongst travelers. Some applaud the new rule, thinking (naively, in my opinion) that it'll force people to pack better and bring less stuff with them. Others (like me) don't believe the airlines' claim that the change is due to rising fuel costs, and think it's just another way for them to make a buck. Why not give travelers checking only one (or no) bag a $25 discount as incentive to pack light, instead of charging those who check a second bag?

My biggest objection is that it's going to make the boarding process more hellish than it already is. People will try to avoid the extra fee by carrying on bigger bags and more stuff than they already do. Consequently, we'll have to wait even longer for people to stow all their personal items, and overhead compartment space will be ever harder to come by.

This rule also discriminates against parents and certain recreational travelers. People traveling with children are more likely to need to travel with more luggage, and travelers going on golf, ski or scuba vacations have no choice but to check a second bag to carry their sporting gear.

Finally, it just seems like a misguided effort to solve the weight/fuel issue. The fairest solution would be to give every traveler a base weight allowance, with fees applicable for anyone exceeding those allowances. When you get to the airport to check in, you place your carry-on bags, your checked luggage and YOURSELF on the scale.

With a base allowance of 300 pounds, for example, Traveler A—a small woman who weighs 120 pounds—can check two 50-pound suitcases and take a couple of heavy carry-ons, and still stay far under the allowance. Traveler B, a 250-pound ex-linebacker, can check one 40-pound suitcase and have 10 pounds left for carry-ons without paying extra. Traveler C, an obese 340-pound person, will have to pay extra even without checking or carrying on any bags.

Sure, this proposal is not politically correct, but I challenge anyone to tell me it isn't fair. Under US Air's and United's new rule, my slim girlfriend who checks two bags will be penalized for extra weight, while a 300-pound person who checks one bag will not. Which person adds more total net weight to the aircraft's load?

If you feel like I do, voice your objections to US Air and United now. Then start flying another airline.
 

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bon temps, mauvais temps

Two years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the good times have started rolling again in New Orleans, but things are still far from normal. More and more often, I hear how desperately the city needs tourists to return, how critical the restoration of tourism is to the city's recovery, and yet how slow visitors are to come back to the still-struggling city.

A recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's show "No Reservations" focused on the Big Easy (get it on iTunes). Tony was not subtle in exhorting viewers to return to the city and help it get back on its feet by bringing tourist dollars. Even some of the oldest, most well-known restaurants in the French Quarter are fighting simply to stay open.

Yet, in some ways, New Orleans is holding itself back. The crime rate has skyrocketed since Katrina. Someone mentioned to me last night that there have been more shooting deaths in New Orleans so far in 2008 than in Iraq. That seems a little fanciful to me, and a two-month period is a short span of time from which to draw statistics, but such a claim highlights the city's crime problem.

And that problem is a Catch-22 dilemma. Crime has escalated because of the extreme economic effects of Katrina. To turn things around, the New Orleans economy needs businesses and tourists to return. But, in the face of the city's crime rate, businesses and tourists have been reluctant to do so.

Fortunately, le bon temps seem to be rolling again. The city recently had a big influx of tourism dollars, thanks to the Sugar Bowl, NBA All-Star Game and Mardi Gras. Upcoming events like Jazz Fest and the PGA Tournament will bring more visitors. Like Anthony Bourdain, other celebrities are using their fame to encourage people to return.

Hopefully, the city's tourism industry has turned a corner, and New Orleans can move onto the next chapter of the Katrina recovery effort. We can all help N'awlins put le mauvais temps behind it and keep le bon temps rolling. If you're looking for somewhere fun to spend a long weekend, think no further than New Orleans.
 

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

jetBlue now serving LAX

jetBlue has long been serving the Greater Los Angeles area with flights to/from Long Beach Airport, but they just started flying to/from LAX—and are offering some pretty decent fares to promote this new service.

The airline also offers some cool city guides on their website that include crewmember blogs and recommendations for "best" things to do. Currently, they offer guides for New York, Houston, Orlando, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

 

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