Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Watching Your Waistline During Holiday Travel

It's bad enough that the high sugar and carb holiday treats can reek havoc on our diets, but throw in the stress of traveling this time of year with nearly zero healthy food options in airports and on flights, and we might as well give up now. (That's what New Year's resolutions are for, right?) There is some good news for those eager to stay on track with their weight this year. An Airline Food Survey from DietDetective.com rated 8 of the top airlines on their food and snack selections. This year, United came out on top with a rating of four stars for their healthy snack options, including the Tapas snack box which offers almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta. JetBlue came in second with their inflight options of nuts, animal crackers and a meal box appropriately called Shape Up. Delta and U.S. Airways did not perform particularly well, and Continental fell from its first place position to third.

Even with these airlines offering some decent food options, it is important for travelers to still be conscious of what they're consuming. Also, just because it's food and it's healthy does not mean that you have to eat it. In fact, the biggest problem that JetBlue has is that their snacks are unlimited, so passengers can easily over do it on the nuts.

The bottom line is that the holiday season paired with hectic travel schedules is going to cause many to falter, so it is good to know that airlines are making an effort to provide healthy alternatives to the cookies, candies and salty snacks that many of us are used to eating while on in the air. I don't intend on getting any airline snacks this holiday season, mostly because I refuse to pay, but it is good to know I have some healthy options waiting for me if I change my mind. In all honesty though, I like being a little naughty with my food choices this time of year, so...bring on the cookies!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Celebration Across the Ocean

This year was the third year in a row that I spent Thanksgiving away from home. With work posing scheduling conflicts and my family living so far away that I have to buy an expensive plane ticket, it was too difficult to make the trip. So once again, I ventured to Crystal Lake, Illinois to spend the holiday with my boyfriend's family. I'm not complaining; in fact, it's developing into a nice tradition--that will probably continue as long as things keep progressing with my relationship. But there is still a part of me that aches to be home for Thanksgiving. I miss my mom preparing the turkey, mixing the potatoes and baking pumpkin pie. Sure, I can see that being done anywhere, but it isn't my mom, it isn't my kitchen, it isn't my family. I miss the conversations we have around the dinner table after the plates have been whipped clean of their delicious contents. I miss the way my dog begs for any remaining scraps. I miss how I'm usually the only one--besides my grandpa--who dips into the warm pie, because I always make room for dessert. I've made some incredible memories at home, and I know I'll make many more in the future here in Chicago. And even though I missed home this holiday, my mind kept wandering back to the first Thanksgiving I ever spent away from home back in 2006.

It was during my semester studying abroad in Italy. My friend, Sari, and I decided to fly up to England to visit our friend Emily who was living in London for the semester. We figured since we couldn't be with our families, we might as well surround ourselves with friends. Now, the British do not acknowledge Thanksgiving, so locating all the traditional fixings was a little difficult. We couldn't just walk into a store like in the states and have a Thanksgiving display there with everything we needed. It took a couple trips, some scrounging and some substituting, but we eventually located a turkey, cranberries, potatoes, green beans, stuffing ingredients and, of course, pumpkin pie. The preparations started early, with Emily's roommates clearing the kitchen and making the pre-dinner snacks, our friend Harris taking over turkey duty, and the rest of us selecting various dishes to work on. I peeled the potatoes, while Sari made the stuffing and Emily made the gravy and cranberry sauce. After a long afternoon in the kitchen performing the work our parents usually handle, we pulled the turkey out of the oven, placed all the food in serving plates and laid it all out on the table. Paired with a couple bottles of wine and some fresh bread purchased from the baker down the street, our British Thanksgiving looked pretty impressive. After loading our plates, passing food between all of us, we took a moment to reflect on our hard work and the incredible feast we were about to enjoy. I said a silent prayer, thanking God for giving me the chance to be with friends and have a lovely meal. Then we raised our glasses to our country's holiday and then dug in.

After dinner, as we all unbuttoned our pants just a little, Emily grabbed a candle from her room and lit it. The tradition is, she said, that you pass the candle around the room, and everyone says what they are thankful for this year. Some people's were simple, some humorous, others long-winded, but what everyone said they were thankful for was being in great company. Because that is what Thanksgiving is really all about; being around people you care about and who care about you. So even if you were far away from home this Thanksgiving, I hope you were surrounded by a good group of people.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hotel on the Market

The hotel and hospitality industry has been suffering in the wake of the economic downfall the past two years. Even with the recessions crippling effects, business and leisure travel has been on an upturn, increasing significantly in recent months. Hotels are eager to fill their rooms and keep them booked consistently throughout the rest of the year and the holiday season. Despite increased hotel occupancies and room rates, the hotel investment market is still slow, making investors hesitant to put money into any property. But Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. is crossing its fingers for a risk taker. According to Crain's Business, Starwood's loop property, W Chicago on Adams, is up for purchase, and they are hoping to get over $130 million dollars for the hotel.

Experts say it is a lofty goal, especially after the brand new JW Marriott Chicago opened its right across the street earlier this month. The 610-room hotel will certainly have an impact on what happens with the W, and some industry officials still think it's a worthy investment. Remember, Host Hotels & Resorts Inc. did purchase the Westin River North in August for $165 million, so there is still hope for the W. Although, it may not go for the initial asking price. Starwood may have to settle for less money, but it all depends on the group of investors they try to sell to.

It is promising, however, to know that quality properties like the W Chicago are being considered as worthwhile assets. It would be a real shame to see the hotel shut down entirely, another fallen victim in the hospitality industry's epic battle with the economy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Have A Little Faith

When it comes to hotel brand loyalty, the 2011 forecast does not look good. According to an annual survey by TripAdvisor, there was a severe drop in hotel brand loyalty this last year, the amount of people saying they are loyal to one hotel name dipping from 59 percent to 39 percent. Travel experts and analysts speculate that the economy could be the main reason for the decline, the recession causing more people to question prices even on quality products. Another reason people are changing their tendencies is due to more access to other options. With all the social media and review-based websites out there, people have a wealth of information available to them, which makes it easier to make frugal and savvy decisions.brands-logo

So what is keeping people faithful to their brands? Rewards programs. A huge factor in maintaining client loyalty, hotel reward programs provide quality benefits, upgrades and services that make for a more intimate experience. But no matter what a hotel gives to a client, it all comes down to how the brand interacts with the guest. All the upgrades in the world cannot replace a friendly customer service experience, and guests appreciate personal attention that can make them feel like the only people in the hotel.

One of the biggest mistakes airlines have made is their lack of effort to reach out to travelers and make them loyal customers. Unless someone is a frequent flier on an airline, he or she will probably not receive the kind of treatment that will make them feel appreciated as a client. In fact, the main reason people say they are not loyal to airlines is because the company has not done anything to deserve the loyalty.

I-Prefer-big A hotel brand taking the necessary steps to show its appreciation for its customers is Preferred Hotel Group. Their I Prefer program lets travelers sign up for free and take advantage of special services right away. Where other reward programs require customers to build up points or stay a certain number of nights before cashing in on upgrades, I Prefer gives them automatic benefits at no fee. Who wouldn’t want to get extra amenities or priority check-in or exclusive offers just for becoming a member? The program also offers online booking rewards, like complimentary breakfasts and rounds of golf. There are a number of exclusive hotel deals and partner companies offers that members can take advantage of, all for no cost.

With loyalty rates dropping by 20 percentage points this year, hotel brands need to find ways to make their customers feel special; that their business is greatly appreciated. Every guest is looking for a memorable vacation, and hotels need to go out of their way to provide that. Some people are happy with a few extended amenities, such as 24-hour access to hotel facilities, free coffee in the rooms and the lobby, free wi-fi and complimentary food. Others are looking for better customer service and a welcoming atmosphere. Still others feel that competitive prices and discounts are essential to win their loyalty. When it comes down to it, though, every guest is looking to be amazed with their hotel experience, and even if the smallest gesture can win them over, it’s worth doing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Another Stress for Holiday Travelers

It's crazy enough traveling during the holidays without dealing with the added stress of new security enforcements. But that's what people will be facing at many major airports around the country. Already a nuisance for frequent fliers who spends weeks in airports, new security regulations will soon hit the not-so-frequent holiday fliers. An article in the RedEye this morning detailed the ins and outs of what Chicago travelers can expect this season. Next week, travelers at O'Hare International Airport will face full-body scanners and "enhanced" pat downs, which many have described as highly intrusive and downright offensive. The Transportation Security Administrations new precautions are not being taken lightly, and many are questioning the  appropriateness and the efficiency of these systems.

Whether they really will work is yet to be seen, but people are wondering if its worth the humiliation they are being put through during security check points. The pat downs that are causing such a stir require TSA officers to rub their hands all over a passengers body, including their chests, backsides and genitals. Passengers claim they feel violated and want to file complaints for the invasion. So is this really better than the alternative? Traditional metal detectors are being replaced by full-body scanners, which require a person to stand between two machines that take an x-ray photo of them to reveal any concealed items. If people choose not to go through the scanners, they will have to be patted down.

Security at airports and on planes has been a huge concern and will continue to cause tension during the holidays. With bombs disguised as ink cartridges being shipped by terrorists on jets and various other security breaches occurring in recent months, people are worried about their safety and seem willing to give up privacy and deal with inconveniences for increased security measures. But it appears those once-reasonable souls have reached their tolerance level, especially with long security lines and carry-on restrictions. Travelers have even created "National Opt Out Day," a day where people boycott flying. Thanksgiving Eve is the designated day for this protest, and we will just have to see the impact is has air travel.

For those who do choose to fly that night, they will have to face at least one of the new security systems. But if they do not want to deal with either, they may want to look into other means of transportation. Either that, or fly out of smaller airports like Midway, which has yet to receive body scanners. And travelers should take advantage of that while they can, since the scanners will show up in the near future.

I for one, am fine with going through the body scanners. I'll let you know how they are when I fly out of O'Hare in a couple weeks.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holiday Travel....

...Have you booked your flight yet?

Every year when November first hits and the Christmas music comes on the radio, the initial thought in my head is...where am I going to be for Christmas? I'm usually at home for Christmas, back with the family in good 'ol Denver, Colorado. While I never had to travel home for the holidays before, now I live far enough away that I have to plan my trip well in advance in order to get my vacation days approved and my flights booked. Many people have to go through the same process as me, while others can simply drive or take trains home and still others avoid home all together and opt for a holiday vacation.

Holiday travel can be hectic, and this time of year spurs some of the largest airport crowds ever. It can be tough to find decently priced airfare, or even good dates to fly. Blackout dates plague those trying to use mileage and horrible weather can ground planes for hours, making it impossible to get home on time. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have spent a Christmas Eve or Day stranded at an airport. For all those who find themselves traveling during the holidays, airlines are providing a little relief from the stress. Many major airlines announced reduced holiday prices this week, dropping some costs down by 35%. So if you still haven't purchased your tickets for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, check out travelzoo to find out the cheapest days to fly, and get some helpful tips from some travel experts.

As far as those people who do not have to fly, train travel is certainly an untapped resource for many travelers. This year, Amtrak reported it's on track for a record number of passengers for the fiscal year, which makes sense since train fares are significantly cheaper than airline tickets. Prices for train tickets are relatively consistent, with the possibility of slight peaks during high travel periods, but even with that spike, it's a much more economical choice. The only set back to the train is the length of travel time. Planes, obviously, get you to your destination quicker. So if you have a long distance to go, stick with planes. If you are not traveling across the country, but rather somewhere close, like the next state over, a train might be your best option. It's cheap, convenient, with plenty of space for your bags, and you get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way.

If you choose to drive to your holiday destination, be sure to check road conditions and traffic. While airports can be packed, so can highways, so it might take you longer than expected to get home. Another important thing to keep in mind is gas prices. Now that the Federal Reserve is trying to stimulate the economy by buying bonds, gas prices will inevitably rise. The good news for drivers is that with rising gas prices, airfares will increase. Cars are still the cheaper alternative.

Whether going by train, plane or automobile, the holidays will always be a crazy time to travel. Just remember what is waiting for you when you finally arrive...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Navy Pier Open to Change

One of Chicago's number one tourist attractions, Navy Pier may be experiencing a makeover over the next couple years. The historic pier has been a long-standing entertainment source in Chicago, providing children and adults with activities and dining options. Now, talks of revamping this lakefront staple are starting up and there are some interesting ideas on the table.

First of all, directors and executives want to continue attracting the same crowd, mostly children, families and young adults. The first change people will see is the departure of the Chicago Children's Museum, and with that a a new form of entertainment for kids. They also hope to build a 4,000-seat concert hall and expand the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There are talks of adding an indoor skating rink, more green space, a huge Ferris wheel and a boutique hotel. Along with these additions, Navy Pier officials hope to improve and update the retail and fast-food area and possibly add a brand new restaurant to the mix.

Efforts in the past to upgrade Navy Pier were put on hold due to budget issues and administrative problems, but it looks as if there is enough support and money to get some of these projects launched. While some people may oppose the plans, worrying that these alterations will transform Navy Pier into an all-out theme park, officials say there is no need to fret. Their intention is to keep Navy Pier as real and accessible as it is now, maintaining its appeal as a fun and entertaining attraction for all.

As someone who has only lived in Chicago for a couple years and visited Navy Pier a handful of times, I don't really have a strong opinion about the changes. However, I think that anything that can improve the current state of the place could potentially drive more tourists and visitors to check it out, which means more revenue, for both Navy Pier and the city.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cruise Line Stuck off Coast of Mexico

On Monday, the Carnival Splendor cruise ship stopped in the Pacific Ocean 50 miles west of Punta San Jacinto. The vessel was unable to continue its journey due to an engine room fire that disabled the propulsion system. The luxury liner, which was carrying close to 3,300 passengers and 1,200 crewmembers, received assistance yesterday from a Navy aircraft carrier that brought the stranded vacationers food, water and other provisions. Restaurants, bars and casinos were closed, and many of the inner rooms were pitch black due to a power outage, forcing passengers to prop open their doors to let in air and light. Since the ship was far enough away to be out of cell-phone range, many could not reach their families and friends to let them know what was happening. Unfortunately, the damage to the engine room and power sources was too significant to attempt a repair at sea, so tug boats were dispatched from the Mexican city of Ensenada to tow the ship back to San Diego. It is expected to arrive tomorrow. As far as the guests of the cruise line, Carnival plans on refunding them their money and providing them with vouchers for future cruises.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Travel and Technology

A couple months ago, I was on an anti-technology kick, pushing for people to take relaxing vacations where they left all forms of electronic communication behind. While that is still a great idea, and I encourage at least one trip like that a year, I cannot deny the facts: travel and technology--in this day and age--are practically synonymous. If the numerous travel websites like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and Kayak are not evidence enough, check out all the latest travel apps that are available for smart phones. Technology is making travel easier, less stressful and more accessible, and people are loving every micro-second of it.

While technology can be a distraction on vacations, it can certainly help people get there and get around. I'm not sure where any of us would be without the trusty aid of GPS--what street are we on again?--or quick access to airline reservations--can we switch our flight to tomorrow? But there are so many more websites and apps launching nowadays that it's difficult to know everything that's out there.

On my long commute to work this morning, I was reading the feature story in the RedEye, which talked about all the ways that smart phones can ease the stress of travel. There are a number of different applications you can download related to the many facets of travel, some I had heard of, and others were completely foreign to me. As an avid traveler and someone who looks for anyway to simplify vacations, I felt a lot of these would be extremely convenient to have on a trip. I already have the app for Yelp.com downloaded on my phone, which is extremely helpful when hunger strikes as you are wandering around an unfamiliar city. All you have to do is open the app, select what you want to find (cheap eats, hot dogs, fancy restaurant) and your current location and results instantly pop up, showing hundreds of options located just a few feet away. Google Goggles is a useful app when traveling in a country you are very unfamiliar with. The program can translate a menu into English or can tell you the history of a monument in a flash, all you have to do is snap a picture of the item and the app does the rest. The Currency app is convenient when you are unsure about conversion rates--how much would this Fendi purse cost me in dollars? The app displays the current currency rates and even updates automatically with fresh information, since currency exchange can switch on a daily and hourly basis. Similar to Yelp, Happy Hour is an app that can show you all the great drink deals in the area you are visiting; so if it's five o'clock and you're out and about, this app can show you where to find a cheap watering hole close by.

As far as websites go, there is something out there for every possible travel need from tracking flights and navigating airports to managing travel itineraries and selecting optimal seating on planes.That's right, there is a website completely dedicated to finding the best seat on an aircraft. SeatGuru.com shows the layout for over 100 airlines and their featured planes, color-coding the best and worst places to sit. Reviewers back up these claims with comments about whether the seat is located near the bathrooms or if there is a cup holder. (Yeah, it's that specific.) You can also use the site to check for in-flight amenities. The only problem is that you cannot actually reserve your desired seat through the website, but at least you will know which one to select when choosing seat assignments online.

Some other interesting websites that caught my attention: TripIt.com, a website that inputs all your travel information into an online itinerary and sends you check-in reminders and even alerts you to flight delays and gate changes (you can also add restaurants and activities to the itinerary, but this needs to be done manually); Zicasso.com, a simple way to get travel ideas from a number of different sources all at once, all it takes is filling out a short questionnaire about the trip you want to take and voila, price quotes and suggested itineraries are at your fingertips within a couple days (and you don't have to commit to any of the travel companies that submitted suggestions); Livemocha.com is a site that helps you learn, or freshen up on, a language through flash cards, videos and live conversations with native speakers (but make sure you have a webcam, headphones and a microphone so you can fully learn any of the 35 languages featured).

Just as there is an unlimited amount of places to see in the world, there seems to be an endless array of technical options to get you there. So take advantage of these conveniences, utilize their benefits and make booking your next trip simple and worry-free. But be sure to toss that phone or computer aside momentarily and take in the wonderful environment that surrounds you.

Jump on JetBlue for Last Minute Travel Deals

If you are looking for a last-minute travel deal this weekend, then head right on over to Jetblue.com for their Cheeps: flights for $10 to and from certain cities. This deal is going on for one day only, or until seats run out, so you have to hurry.

You can choose from a variety of different flights, like Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau, Bahamas, or D.C. to Boston. However, there is a catch. You must depart from the predetermined city on Saturday, November 13 and return on either Monday, November 15 or Tuesday, November 16. You also have to book by 6 p.m. Eastern Time today, November 9. There are only 25 seats available on each flight, and they are going fast.

Obviously, not everyone can take full advantage of this travel deal. JetBlue has hubs in New York, Boston and Lonf Beach, so many of the flights depart from those locations, or other airports nearby. For those who do not live close to these locations, it will be difficult to schedule the trip, since getting another flight is necessary.

For those in the general vicinity of the cities selected for this deal--and who have the flex time to dedicate to a last minute trip--should make a bid for these cheap seats. It's not often that an airline is so generous with their fare prices, especially this close to the holidays. Of all the discount airlines, JetBlue certainly has some great offers, such as the month-long travel pass they sold earlier this year that let people purchase one pass for a set price that allowed them to book any flight on JetBlue. This was the second year that the airline featured the pass, and it was definitely a success. These $10 cheap seats are yet another attempt from JetBlue to get people to see the worth of their service. By offering lower fares, more people will fly their airline and get to see what sets JetBlue apart. It's certainly a smart marketing strategy, and I for one am becoming more and more interested in booking a flight with them.

Unfortunately, the Cheeps are not a convenient deal for me, but I encourage others to check it out and book a flight. Because one of the best things about spontaneous travel is that it can catch you by surprise.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Appeal of Small Town Travel

I'm a city girl, always have been, and always will be (given job, relationship and financial status). And while I may not want to live in a smaller town, I am not opposed to visiting them. In fact, they can be a nice escape from the whirlwind of city life. As I was reading through GQ Magazine--yes, I'm broadening my horizons--I came across an article in their travel section about what makes small towns so great to visit. They also profiled a few small towns around the US that have some noteworthy characteristics and attractions for tourists to enjoy. After reading through the article, I got to thinking about what makes a small town special, and what it really boils down to is the overall feel.

Small towns have a homey, welcoming quality to them that is difficult to find in big cities. The sheer size makes large cities seem commercial and flashy, while small towns provide a more personal, intimate environment. And while there may be more to see and do in a city, there is plenty to keep a person busy in smaller towns. And sometimes the less there is to do, the better. I mean, the idea behind a vacation is to relax, right?

Some of the towns mentioned in the article included Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Maine; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have never been to any of these locations, but I have written about Charleston for my freelance travel writing job. I know that I was interested in visiting after researching it for that article, but after hearing more about it, I want to go even more now. Apart from the world-class dining and elite accommodations, it is also incredibly easy to get around the city via bicycle or walking. You can see practically everything in one day, but why would you want to? It's a better idea to stretch things out and dedicate one day to a single attraction, simplifying the whole vacation and allowing you to really absorb everything Charleston has to offer.

Portland and Santa Fe also seemed to have many of the same appealing factors: good food, nice hotels, interesting attractions, all wrapped up in a convenient package. There are plenty of other small towns worth mentioning, including Providence, Rhode Island; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Little Rock, Arkansas. I know there are a lot more that I'm not mentioning, and even more that I don't know anything about. So tell me about some that you know of, or perhaps your own home town. I'd love to hear about places I should visit.

Recovering business travel boosts local hotels-- Compliments of Crain's Business

With the increase in business travel comes the need for hotel rooms. It looks as if the hospitality industry is holding strong for now, and hopefully it will only get better. Check out the story below.
Recovering business travel boosts local hotels | Trend Of The Week | Crain's Chicago Business

While this is exciting news for area hotels, the downside is that room rates are going to rise. So take advantage of the relatively low prices now, before they start to skyrocket next year.