Monday, January 31, 2011

Protests and Violence in Egypt Affecting Tourism

The riots and protests that broke out last week in Egypt have caused unrest in the country, causing many travelers to cut their trips short or cancel them altogether. But the violence erupting in the country are not only causing social and political problems, but it's also affecting tourism and the economy. According to an article from MSNBC, the event is raising concerns of widespread affects, with problems trickling over into other Middle Eastern countries. It's an understandable concern, since many travelers have decided to cancel their vacations, tour groups are avoiding Egypt, airlines are stopping flights into Cairo and thousands of U.S. citizens are evacuating the country.

It couldn't be happening at a worse time, as this is high season for tourism in Egypt. Tourism is a major industry for Egypt, with 300,000 visitors coming in every year--and that's just from the United States. With more and more Cruises evading Egypt on their routes, and tour groups opting not to visit, investors are growing concerns that it will spread elsewhere. In fact, Dubai's stock market index fell 4% Sunday, while Kuwait fell 2% and Qatar, 3%. With the prospect of the Suez Canal closing, oil prices spiked, causing even more issues for tankers and large boats.

As far as the U.S. tourists, students and residents over in Egypt, many of them are deciding to head home, despite some strong desires to stay. The Today Show spoke to many people who live in the country, and they say that even with their established lives there, it seems smart to leave. Hundreds of tourists were held up in their hotels, nervous to walk the streets. Students studying abroad were less worried about getting hurt than their families at home, which was the main reason for many of them evacuating. At first, there was not much concern for their safety, but over the weekend as things escalated, it seemed the Egyptian government would be unable to protest foreign travelers, as it can barely manage itself. 

The Middle East's troubles have always been an issue, especially with the violence in Egypt occurring after events in Yemen, Lebanon and Tunisia. But even with past terrorist attacks and turmoil, tourism has always managed to bounce back, because people still want to see those parts of the world. No matter what, tourists will continue to venture over to Egypt to see the Pyramids and sail the Nile River.

Since it is unknown, however, how long the political upheaval will last, it's safe to assume that travel to Egypt will take a huge beating over the next few months. Travel agencies across the U.S. are predicting that anyone who has a trip planned there will probably attempt to cancel, and there will be very few inquiries about vacations there this year.

With any luck, the riots and protests will fizzle out over the next couple weeks, the country will figure out a peaceful solution to their problems, and people can return to their lives. I certainly hope that things improve quickly, as Egypt is one of the places on my list I want to visit. Then again, it should all be resolved by the time I have enough money and vacation days to go. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Red Light Winter: A Play

A dramatic, slightly humorous and overwhelmingly powerful story about two companions traveling abroad, and the mysterious and elusive woman they meet along the way. If the title doesn't give it away, the play takes place in Amsterdam, where the lead characters--Matt and Davis--have gone to get away from their lives in New York. Along the way, they encounter Christina, a young woman Davis finds in the Red Light District. Right from the start, Matt develops deep and strange emotions for Christina, while she seems to lean towards Davis with her affections. Upon returning to New York, Davis and Matt return to their normal lives, but the memory of the girl from Amsterdam lingers, if only slightly. But when she shows up at Matt's doorstep inquiring about Davis, everything comes rushing back in one moment of clarity and understanding about who she really is.

Red Light Winter, written by Adam Rapp, is an excellent portrayal of sexual intrigue, obsession and betrayal all wrapped up in a sultry and twisted love triangle. It's also an inspiring investigation into the ways we try to escape the emotions and problems that fill our lives.

I read this play about a month ago when I learned that my brother, Colin, was putting on a production of it in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it out to the West Coast to see it, but I know it will be an incredible show--though I might be a little biased. But considering the material, and the fact that it discusses the effects of travel on our lives, I think I would love this play even if my brother was not starring in it. When I really think about it, plays are a great medium to explore the wonders of travel, and perhaps that will be my next great project--composing a play about a journey. Wish me luck in this endeavor!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Flying Just Another Form of Public Transportation?

Courtesy of
Sure, flying is a way to get a group of people from one place to another, but can you really lump it into the "public transportation" category? According to an article from Travel + Leisure, the days of fancy air travel, well-dressed patrons and prim-and-proper stewardesses are long gone; replaced with cramped seats, low-budget service and socially detached airline personnel. Even though traveling by plane is no longer the elegant event it used to be, I could never classify it the same way as buses, trains and subways. But let's face it, that may be where it's heading, just one more way to get from point A to point B, without any style, flare or social interaction. I mean, isn't that what happened to train travel in this country?

Santa Fe 3751 Excursion
From flickr, by mark_v_socal
Back in the glory days of the locomotive, train cars were outfitted with velvet chairs, white-linen table cloths, immaculate chandeliers, specially carved bars and actual beds. Now, the bar car is a bland box of linoleum, seats face only two directions, tables are attached to the walls, and beds fold down like ironing boards. And what about the train conductors with their three-piece suits, golden stop watches and whistles screaming "all aboard?" They're gone, too. Such is the world of the airplane. Back in the early 40s, planes also had that chic decor and swanky clientele, and a flight was a real enjoyable travel experience. Stewardesses, also referred to as "fly girls," served champagne and full-fledged meals, all while dressed in alluring outfits and adorable hats. Not only did stewardesses wear different clothes than the flight attendants of today, but their dedication to serving the customer was something to be admired. They went out of their way to make sure passengers were comfortable, had everything they wanted and got to their destinations with little to no complaints. They even had conversations with passengers, getting to know the stylish businessmen who were jetting off to their next meeting. Today, it seems like flight attendants just want to get passengers boarded, seated and quiet, and then just as quickly get them off the plane. There's no more panache to air travel.

I find this revelation to be rather sad, because I truly enjoy flying. I love knowing that I am going to be on a plane, traveling somewhere different, or perhaps someplace familiar--it all depends on my travel plans. But the fact is, I still get excited to board a plane, to watch the airport grow smaller as we ascend into the air, to feel the drop in my stomach as the wheels go up and the plane is floating. I still think of it as something special. And yet I know there are few who feel the way I do about having to fly. They look at it as a chore, an obligation to get them to their destination. It's uncomfortable, frustrating, expensive, and they just want it over with as soon as possible. So what can be done?

Virgin America Airbus A320-214
From Flickr, by mark_v_socal
I was discussing this issue with my boyfriend, and he shrewdly observed that airlines need to use this in their favor to gain more business. Then he mentioned Virgin America's plan to make flying a more enjoyable experience for passengers, and it stirred my curiosity. In a recent article from Bloomberg Businessweek, Virgin America's unconventional ways were put to the test to see how they could fare in this competitive industry. Founder and CEO of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, made a remark to employees and press as the first Virgin America flight came into Dallas-Fort Worth Airport: "You can either go on that other carrier and get their kind of service...or you can come on the Virgin carrier and have a blast." The airline has a philosophy known as fun in the skies, and it has shown promise in the last three years. Their Airbus A319 and A320 feature entertainment in every seat-back and have free Wi-Fi internet access. Even though competition is tough and the airline has had its fair share of struggles, Branson believes it has something truly special to offer customers: great service. He says that other airlines do not think of the passengers at all, it's become like a bus service. (Sounds familiar, right?) So Branson has dedicated most of his efforts to improving customer service and design. When they ordered their first line of planes, Virgin wanted to equip them with leather seating, translucent barriers between sections so as to reduce that claustrophobic feel, touchscreen entertainment systems that let passengers select movies and shows on command, and the ability to have food and drinks ordered from the seats whenever it was desired. LED-lighting would also be installed in the cabins to improve ambiance and overall mood.

While these amenities certainly bring back some memories of the early days of air travel when passengers were excited about flying and truly enjoyed their experience on planes, it does not mean that Virgin America will prosper, especially with other airlines doing their best to make sure it fails. But if Virgin's ways cannot get them to the top of the airline industry, they are at least pushing other airlines to instill some of these concepts on their planes. In fact, Delta and United are already starting to install Wi-Fi on their flights, Continental is looking into satellite television and mood-lighting is being put into many of Boeing's new models.

Even if the days of stewardesses, smartly dressed business men, luxury seating and impeccable service are long gone, there is still hope that air travel will not lose its cache. And if airlines like Virgin America continue to keep the passenger as their main focus, we might be welcoming a whole new era of air travel, where--hopefully--the champagne will be flowing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Day Trip to South Bend, Indiana

On a last minute whim--or more accurately, a lucky break--I headed to South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday to watch my Marquette Golden Eagles take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (the outcome of which will not be discussed here). I love college basketball, and no other event other than this would have brought me to this small town. And yet, as we drove through the fields and hills of Indiana, I grew curious as to what made South Bend unique, what truly drew people to the confines of this modest Midwestern city? Apart from the acclaimed college that calls South Bend its home, what else could possibly make people want to visit?

Since the game was the reason my friends and I were in South Bend, I didn't have any time to explore the city. However, I did get a nice glimpse at the St. Joseph River, the main body of water that runs through the city. With the whole area blanketed in snow, it was actually really pretty, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in the neighborhood that sat quaintly by the river. But I digress.

I did a little research on South Bend to learn more about what makes this a desirable tourist destination. The main draw is, of course, the University of Notre Dame. Guests can stop by the Eck's Visitor's Center to view a 20-minute video on the history and tradition of the university. Afterwards, you can either go on a guided student tour or wander the campus on your own. But be sure to take a picture in front of the Golden Dome, one of the main symbols that defines the campus's skyline. The Basilica that sits right next to the Dome is a great place to attend a mass--even if you're not Catholic. For more religious significance, head over to Hesburgh Library to see Touchdown Jesus. The mural on the side of the library can be seen from the football stadium, and Jesus appears to be making the referee symbol for a touchdown right by the endzone--hence the name, Touchdown Jesus.

If you're a fan of cars, head over to the Studebaker National Museum, which features exhibits on the Studebaker family, the local industry and the role of the car during the war. To satisfy that sweet tooth, visit the South Bend Chocolate Company. The collection at the museum is among the largest in the country, featuring classic chocolate boxes, tins, posters, signs, and other memorabilia. You also have the option of going on two tours at the company. One is a behind-the-scenes tour that shows visitors how the chocolate is produced and packaged. The "Inside Scoop" tour gives the basic information on production, but also lets guests try their hand making chocolate covered spoons, and they get a treat and a 10% off coupon.

If you're traveling with kids, head over to Potawatomi Zoo, the oldest zoo in the state. This 23-acre zoo has large cats, primates, and tropical reptiles, as well as a zoo train that the whole family can ride. Another great place for kids is the Healthworks! Kids' Museum, an interactive education center that teaches children how to be healthy, stay active and how the human body functions.

The College Football Hall of Fame has interactive displays and exhibits that display historic photographs and artifacts. There is also a practice field and a 360-degree stadium theater where visitors can experience what it's like to be in the game. Among other attractions are the Morris Performing Arts Center, Military Honor Park, Potato Creek State Park, South Bend Museum of Art and the Spicer Lake Nature Preserve.

Even though I had never been to South Bend before--and had no chance to see any of these attractions mentioned above--it does seem that this city has plenty to offer. I'm sure one day I'll be able to spend more time in South Bend, but for now, at least I can say I have visited this lovely piece of Northern Indiana.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tallinn, Estonia: An Up and Comer

A recent addition to the European Union after accepting the Euro on January 1, Tallinn, Estonia, is quickly becoming a top travel destination. It's rich culture, stunning architecture and historical significance make Tallinn a wonderful place to visit. Winding through the cobble-stone streets lined with colorful buildings, you'll find an untouched world of boutique shops, hip bars and classy restaurants. Not only does Tallinn have an exciting social scene, but it also provides educational stimuli through medieval churches, palaces and towers. It's amazing what you will discover here.

A Little Background...

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and the largest city in the country. Located on the Northern coast on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn has always played a major role in trade and has maintained a strong tie to the sea as a large port city. The city built its infrastructure, culture and economy over the centuries, only to fall under Imperial Russia in 1710. After years of rule, Tallinn and the rest of Estonia declared independence in 1918. The Soviets returned during World War II, and Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union until declaring independence once again in 1991, re-establishing itself as a democratic state.

Since then, Tallinn has evolved into a technologically advanced city. (Skype was invented here.) But even with its reliance on technology, Tallinn still holds strong to its traditions, and much of medieval Tallinn remains, even after Soviet bombing and raids.

What to See

The city is split into three areas: Toompea, or Cathedral Hill; Old Town; and Estonian Town. Each of these sections contain sites that cannot be missed on your trip to Tallinn, Estonia. Among the list of must-see is Freedom Square, completed just a couple years ago. This newly created attraction is a great place to relax, grab a bite to eat and enjoy Tallinn's impressive architecture. In fact, the square displays the epitome of 1930s-era, art-deco buildings. The large pillar on the west side of the square is the monument to the War of Independence, in remembrance of Estonia's hard-fought battle from 1918 to 1920 for freedom. At the northwest corner of the square, visitors can get a glimpse of the city's old foundations by taking a look through a glass panel in the ground that reveals the stairs of the Harju Gate Tower, which stood during the medieval period.

Another modern area of that city is Rotermann Quarter, which underwent a massive revitalization after Estonia gained back independence in 1991. In its early days, Rotermann Quarter was the heart and soul of industrial Tallinn, boasting a sawmill, department store, a wool mill, a distillery and numerous other businesses. But when the Soviet-era hit, the area slowly declined, and required much attention once the Soviets left. Now the Quarter is home to the Rotermann Centre, a trendy shopping center that opened in 2007. Central square hosts open-air food and craft markets during the warmer seasons, and a Christmas market in December.

No trip to Tallinn is complete without visiting the historic homes of past royalty. Kadriorg Palace, an elegant baroque-style structure, was built for Catherine I by her husband, Peter the Great. While the palace's external design is extravagant, the collection of art inside is truly exceptional, especially if you're an art lover. Kadriorg Art Museum has hundreds of paintings from the 16th through the 20th century. While inside, take some time to admire the painting and decoration of the main hall and various other rooms, which are covered in elaborate patterns and stucco.

When visiting Old Town, you must head over to St. Catherine's Passage, easily one of the most traditional and picturesque spots in the neighborhood. The medieval, narrow walkway runs along the back of what used to be St. Catherine's Church. What makes this road unique is that St. Catherine's Guild resides here. This is a collection of craft stores where artists use traditional techniques to make glassware, jewelry, scarves and ceramics. Visitors can watch artists at work, as the workshops are set up in open-studio fashion. So after you see a vase being molded, you can purchase it and take it home.

Get in touch with Tallinn's spiritual heritage by visiting St. Olav's Church and Tower, a 13th Century structure with a 124-meter steeple that has become a symbol for the town. Although the steeple has played a major role in Tallinn's history, it's also fallen on some bad luck over the years, attracting lightning on many occasions and even catching fire three times as a result of storms. Now things have remained relatively calm, and visitors should not fear making the trek to the top of the stone tower, which can be done anytime between April and October. Once at the top, guests will get breathtaking views of Old Town and Toompea Hill. Inside the church, which dates back to 1267 and was dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway, visitors can gaze at the vaulted ceilings and beautiful designs that cover the walls.

Venture over to Toompea Hill to see the main Lutheran church in Tallinn, The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin. Established around 1233, this church has seen many renovations, which have attributed to its varied designs from different time periods. Inside, visitors will find German-influenced features, including funereal coats of arms and the burial stones of some notable figures.

Estonia's Parliament can be found in Toompea Castle, sitting prominently on a cliff overlooking the city. The Pikk Hermann Tower, located at the Southern edge of the castle, is a vital symbol. It is said that whichever nation flies its flag over the tower, rules Estonia. Every day the Estonian flag is raised to the tune of the national anthem. But this happens at sunrise, so get there early if you plan on witnessing this event.

Town Hall
As much as it is a major tourist attraction, Town Hall Square should not be missed. It's colorful houses and packed cafes make it an ideal spot for people watching and picture taking. This is a very social location, home to open-air concerts, markets and fairs. Every year, the square hosts the Tallinn Christmas Tree and the Christmas Market. During the summer, Old Town Days Festival takes place here, a medieval carnival with Middle Age traditions.

Tallinn has an array of eclectic and unique museums that you won't find anywhere else. One of these is the Town Hall Pharmacy, the world's oldest operating pharmacy. There's also the Kiek in de Kok Musuem, which gives visitors access to the 17th century tunnels used defend Tallinn from invaders.

If you feel like shopping, check out any of Tallinn's outdoor markets. The Central Market is the largest food market, and there are many other craft and souvenir markets scattered throughout the city.

Tallinn is an extremely high-tech city--you'll be surprised at where you can get WiFi. Since it is so tech-friendly, Tallinn offers tourists audio-guided walking tours on their Ipods, so guests have a trusty guide right in the palm of their hand.

Getting a Taste of Tallinn

Baltic Sprat
Tallinn has a wide range of cuisines for tourists to sample, but if you're looking for local, traditional dishes, head over to Vanaema Juunes or Kuldse Notsu Korts. There you can try any of the classic Estonian meals, such as jellied pork, stewed sauerkraut, pea soup, marinated eel, blood sausage and Baltic Sprats--a herring-like fish. If none of these sound appealing--and let's face it, some of them don't--then you can enjoy more modern and trendy restaurants that serve up fare from all over the world. (Yes, you can get a plate of pasta in Estonia, I won't tell anybody.)

Marzipan figures
All over the city you will find scrumptious chocolates and Estonian marzipan. Check out the Kalev Marzipan Room to watch artists paint marzipan figurines. After satisfying your sweet tooth, get in on the happy hour action at any local pub or restaurant. Get a pint of a local brew, such as Saku or A. Le Coq, or go for something a bit stronger, like Saaremaa or Viru Valge Vodka.

Why Go to Tallinn

If all the history, attractions and food are not reason enough to go to Tallinn, then perhaps the fact that it was featured on Budget Travel's Top Destinations of 2011 list might be more incentive. Also, Tallinn was named a 2011 European Capitol of Culture, and the city has planned over 7,000 events over the next 12 (well, 11 1/2) months to celebrate the honor. What better time to go then now? Well, maybe not right now, seeing as the winters there are extremely dark and cold. The best time to plan a trip is during late spring or early fall, when the temperatures are decent and the crowds are minimal.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Great Road Reads

Saint Augustine once said:
The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.
While I am determined to read the whole book--cover to cover--that might take more time than I actually have. I know there are destinations on my list that I will make it to, such as India, Japan, China, Peru, and Morocco, but for those other locations around the world that may be too exotic, small or remote, I'll have to rely on other means in order to discover them. Obviously, I could just pick up a guide book from Lonely Planet or Frommer's or Let's Go, but all that would give me are the facts about restaurants, hotels, attractions and transportation. I want something with a little more substance, a more in depth investigation of a place, it's culture, history, people. It's these kinds of characteristics that a traveler learns when actually visiting a location, and if I can't experience it myself, I'd like to read something that can paint a pretty accurate picture.

I have scoured the internet, searching for some of the best travel books around, and I believe I've found a pretty good selection. However, these books will not suite everyone's literary palate, but hopefully they will provide a good foundation when looking for your next great road read.

For the History Buffs

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe is an accurate recount of the famous Portuguese explorer who voyaged to find a route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Author Laurence Bergreen does an exceptional job at describing the landscapes and characters, as well as the lifestyle and customs of the ancient tribes Magellan encounters on his three-year journey. The book even includes maps that show the route taken by Magellan's fleet. This story is great for anyone who appreciates both maritime history and epic adventures of travelers past.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon is another book that ventures back in time to uncover the mysteries of British explorer, Percy Fawcett, and his journey deep into the Amazon to find the Lost City of Z. Writer David Grann attempts to find out what happened to Fawcett and his companions. This brilliant non-fiction book takes us back to the lost days of exploration, and reveals more about the unknown reaches of the Amazon than ever before. It has been named to numerous must-read and notable book lists, and Barnes and Noble even named it the "single best nonfiction book of 2009."

For the Unenlightened

When I say unenlightened, I mean it in the best sense. These books are for those like me, travelers who are curious about places they've never been but hope to one day explore. Travels in Siberia is a wonderful travelogue about post-Soviet Russia, and the author's personal beliefs on the wonders of this country. Ian Frazier becomes fascinated with the sprawling stretch of Siberia, which spans eight time zones from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Through his many trips to the area, Frazier is able to peel away Russia's stoney exterior and reveal something humorous and touching. Perhaps after reading this book, we'll all want to travel to Siberia.

The Places in Between tells the story of Rory Stewart's trek across Afghanistan. The book is full of anecdotes about the cities he visited, the people he encountered, the food he consumed and the stories he heard. Through Stewart's surprising and, at many times, funny encounters, he shows how tradition, beliefs and loyalty shine even in troubled times.

For The Bilingual Traveler

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language follows the long journey of Diane Hales as she attempts to immerse herself completely in Italian culture by learning to speak the language fluently. This story not only takes readers through Hales's personal voyage, but also through the history, art, music, food and lifestyle of the Italians. (Even though I've been to Italy, I would still read this book just because I love the country so much.)

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language is another enlightening story about a woman, Deborah Fallows, and her quest to learn Mandarin. Living in Shanghai and Beijing was more of a struggle than she imagined, but as she slowly picked up the language, she discovered more about the heritage, culture and habits of the people. Picking up certain phrases and words created a window into relationships, humor and love. This book certainly opens up the world of China and its people.

For those in Transition

I realize that amidst the endless places to see in the world, an airport doesn't exactly qualify as a travel destination. But you just might reconsider that idea after reading A Week at the Airport, by Alain de Botton. This funny and insightful writer accurately captures the essence of a place that many of us are too busy to actually see. He is the author of The Art of Travel--a truly wonderful book that you should certainly read if you haven't already.

If You Just Don't Know

If you have a passion for a number of different destinations or book genres, then check out Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers by Nancy Pearl. She recommends books for over 120 destinations around the world, with each place corresponding to a particular book, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. So whether you're planning to physically jetset somewhere, or mentally travel there from your couch, this book provides numerous different options to get you moving.

So the next time you venture out on a trip somewhere, or decide to curl up under a blanket, check out one of these amazing travel books, and get lost in the pages.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Planning Some R & R

All the travel experts are predicting an increase of business travel in 2011, with rates and fares dropping back to John's pics 6prerecession days. There is also agreement across the board that technology will play a huge role in business travel, making life a little easier and more convenient for flyers. While there may or may not be growth in business travel, there is also speculation that leisure travel will gradually edge up. In fact, the U.S. Travel Association predicts a slower rate for business travel, and an uptick on leisure as compared to 2010. As far as who will be going on these laid-back vacations, that’s yet to be seen. But I have a couple ideas.
Family Vacations
Even in this down economy, family travel never declined, it simply changed2010_0628SouthAfricaTrip0079. Traditionally, many families planned a two-week vacation once a year. Then, when the internet made it easier to organize quick trips on the cheap, it switched to three or four shorter trips each year. Now, families are inclined to do both weekend trips and longer getaways, and the next big event to capitalize on is spring break. With most kids having at least a week vacation sometime in March or April, parents are researching all kinds of destination ideas, from warm tropical climates to educational locations. Some of the most popular places for family spring breaks: Florida Panhandle; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Hawaii and New York City. It’s also very common for families to stay close to home—less than 50 miles away—and rent lake houses, visit amusement parks and camp in national parks. Family travel is a major market in the travel industry, so you can count on there being tons of deals and discounts targeting families. And parents on a budget can definitely take advantage, as long as they do their research.
Last-Minute Romantic Getaways
With limited vacation time, tight budgets and high ticket prices, romantic trips with significant others are becoming harder to plan. Weekend trips are the easiest way to get some quality time together, and spontaneity always adds an element of romance. Luckily, waiting until the last minute can work to your Bob's photos 11advantage. A majority of the time, airlines will offer super low rates for on-way flights a couple weeks in advance to places like New York City, San Diego and Miami. If you find something in your price range, snatch it up and make the trip. If flying somewhere isn’t an option, there are plenty of places within driving distance that offer a relaxing, intimate atmosphere. Many hotels will also offer special weekend deals for couples, so check with the accommodations in the city you plan to visit, and see what kind of discounts you can find.
Solo Travel
Barcelona (38)Group travel is a huge industry, with tons of websites dedicated to organizing trips with large numbers of people. But solo travel also deserves some attention. Traveling alone allows a person to go where they want and see what they want on their own agenda. As David Henry Thoreau said:
The man who goes out alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.
Solo travel offers freedom and bargains, and it’s perfect for anyone who feels comfortable enough to go it alone. There are some tours and hotels, however, that charge fees for single travelers, because they base their prices on double occupancy. There are some ways to get around these, and Connecting: Solo Travel Network is a great place to find these helpful tips. A good travel agent who specializes in solo travel can help guide travelers to the best deals. There is a lot of potential for smaller travel agencies to cater to single travelers, especially if they can give them personal attention, negotiable rates and lower fees. There should no longer be penalties for traveling alone, but rather benefits and special deals for those courageous enough to tackle the world alone.
Business travel may increase this year, but leisure travel is right behind it. And for those of us who don’t get to travel for work, a relaxing vacation is the only kind of travel we’re going to experience this year. Currently, I’m trying to plan a spontaneous romantic weekend with my boyfriend, as well as a week-long group trip to South Carolina. With any luck, I can find some low rates and good deals. And, ultimately, I hope to have a nice, fun and enjoyable vacation.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Planning a One-Day Ski Trip in the Midwest

Being from Denver, I'm spoiled when it comes to great ski resorts located just a couple hours away. It certainly makes a day trip to the mountains a lot easier, especially since I've been to many of the resorts and know the slopes. But planning a ski trip in the Midwest is a little more challenging--at least for me. First of all, I have to get over my some what snobby attitude towards Midwest skiing, which is certainly doable, considering there are some relatively nice places to go in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Michigan. (But let's face it, they'll never compare to what I grew up with, I'm sorry, it's just the truth.) But I digress. The second challenge is deciding where exactly to go. Chicago is close to a few ski areas, but it's difficult to know how good they are and if they're worth trying. Some ski resorts, which I've learned about through word of mouth, come highly recommended, but unfortunately take over two hours to get to, and when you only have a day, you want to spend as little time as possible in the car and more time on the hill.

So here are a few options that seem plausible:

  • Wilmot Mountain: It's located just over the border in Wilmot, Wisconsin, only an hour drive from Chicago. It offers 25 runs, a snocross course and four terrain parks.
  • Alpine Ski Resort: A little further north in Wisconsin, but still only an hour and a half from Chicago. It has about 12 runs--though it is unclear from the map on their website--and features two high speed quads and four wonder carpets.
  • The Mountain Top: Located at the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, the mountain features 18 slopes, a terrain park, cross country ski paths and snow shoeing.
    Pricing is a major factor I need to consider, seeing as I'm living on a pretty tight budget right now. I will say one thing, though, the Midwest certainly has more manageable prices for its lift tickets than Colorado, but I guess that means you're paying for what you get. (I know, I can be harsh sometimes.) All of them seem to be in the $40-$50 range, which is definitely manageable.

    Another component I like to think about is the Apres Ski amenities available. Since these resorts are pretty small, the bars and restaurants are limited. However, that doesn't mean they lack in quality. In fact, the Mountain Top is attached to a swanky spa and resort, so there must be great places to grab a drink after a long day of skiing and snowboarding. I must admit, in this aspect, Mountain Top wins out.

    Overall, I think all three would offer a great day of winter fun. But no matter what happens, and no matter how much I might enjoy myself, I still maintain that nothing compares to Colorado.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    A Modern Italian Renaissance

    There seem to be no set driving regulations in Italy; in fact, the concept of lanes and stop lights is completely lost in cities like Rome, Florence and Milan. Hours for stores, museums and attractions are unreliable, with long breaks taken in the middle of the day when cities completely shut down and receiving service is out of the question. Streets are not exactly pedestrian friendly, especially since most are made of cobblestones, and crossing areas are a game of chance. Despite everything, it's easy to get swept up in the chaotic bliss of Italy. The lack of organization and efficiency is shadowed by the carefree, laid back atmosphere of the country, where the Italians live by a "cosi e la vita"--such is life--standard. However, Italy is seeing some changes this year, with general improvements to accommodate tourists and locals alike.

    An article by Rick Steves on highlighted many of the initiatives put in place around Italy to create a more organized, efficient and convenient system when it comes to transportation and tourist attractions. For starters, the crazy long lines and hectic crowds at the Vatican may diminish slightly thanks to the new online reservation system--which seems to be working pretty well, so far. The Vatican Museum has also extended its hours, staying open until 11 p.m. on Friday nights from April to October. The Coliseum will receive some much-needed spring cleaning, and be equipped with permanent lighting, making areas that were once hidden available to explore. A brand new modern train station is being built at Triburtina, and it will welcome high-speed rails sometime this year. As far as shopping goes--and Italy is known for its high-class designers--visitors and fashionistas alike will revel in full-day operations, meaning no more long lunch breaks where many stores would be closed in the middle of the day.

    There are major changes in other Italian cities, too. For anyone whose been to Florence in the last couple years, you know how aggravating construction and renovation can be. While more projects are in the works, others are finally finishing up, including the Galileo Science Museum. Pisa is keeping it's famous tower open late during the busy summer months, and they have also put a new reservation system in place.  Milan is in heavy remodeling mode as it prepares to host the 2015 World's Fair. The Duomo will be closed until then, but this is nothing new for the iconic structure, as it seems to always be under some kind of renovation (it has every time I've been there.) Venice is taking a turn away from the ancient and embracing the modern, at least when it comes to art. A new museum is opening at the end of the Grand Canal that features art pieces from some of today's most talented contemporary artists. Another move into the future for Venice is the installment of a monorail, a shuttle train that transports passengers via a circular cable from the Tronchetto parking lot to the Piazzale Roma. Though this new form of transportation is simple and convenient, I'm sure many people still opt for the water taxis and gondolas as a means of getting into the city. (Unless they decide to walk, then that works, too.)

    It seems that Italy is taking small steps to improve their infrastructure and provide tourists some ease when traveling through the country. But even with these changes, that same lack-of-respect-for-pedestrians and working-when-we-feel-like-it attitude is still prevalent, and, in all honesty, I wouldn't have it any other way.
    It's classic Italian.

    To read more from Rick Steves on the developments going on in Europe, check out this article on Spain and France.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Where Are We Going?

    Imagine going on a vacation...without knowing where you're going. For many, it's unsettling, for others, it's thrilling.

    Mystery vacations are growing in popularity, with hundreds of people planning their own trips or signing up for prearranged ones. Some people will ask spouses, family and friends, to plan a trip without revealing any details to them until it's time to board the plane or hop in the car. Most of the time, people have no idea where they're going or what they'll be doing once they get there. The idea behind this growing trend is to let go, give up complete control of their travel plans...and many are taking the challenge.

    For anyone who loves a surprise--and doesn't mind letting someone else take the reigns--then a mystery vacation might be a great way to mix things up with your travel plans this year. So for that summer getaway you've been thinking about...consider having someone else plan it for you, sending you a suggested packing list the day before (you know, so you're not completely unprepared.) Although, some adventurers go to the extreme of having someone else pack their pack, so everything--even the weather--will be a complete surprise. Stories of successful mystery vacations:
    • A two week road-trip to Colorado, Arizona and Utah, planned by a 70-year-old man's wife. It took her two years to organize the whole thing, ending with a birthday surprise that included their whole family.
    • A father organizing a scavenger hunt like trip through Colorado for his daughter and her husband. He left notes for them throughout the trip letting them know where they would be going next and where they would find the next clue.
    If no one you know is willing to take on the task of planning your next vacation, (come on, if you don't want to plan your own, do you really expect others will want to?) there are companies that offer destination-unknown trips. For a set fee, you can get whisked off to a winery tour, boating excursion or cooking class. Pink Bus Mystery Tours offers vacations for women, charging $200 for a four-person room and surprise adventure.

    While this may seem like an exciting endeavor to some, others are a little less enthused. A number of people like to be in control when they travel, planning every detail down to meal times and bathroom breaks. Giving up that control is difficult, because suddenly you have to rely on someone else. Some people who participated in mystery vacations--not by choice, most of the time--reported unsettling feelings and frustration. Not everyone has a spontaneous, go-with-the-flow attitude, so a surprise trip is probably not the best idea.

    With this trend growing, it seems more companies planning these kinds of vacations will increase, and it's possible that travel agents will even start offering this service. I think it would be great if you could just tell a travel agent your desired trip length, the budget and a theme you're interested in--romance, outdoors, culinary, etc--and they'll take care of the rest. All you need to do is show up at the airport with an open-mind.

    In all honesty, I'm not sure how I would handle a vacation like this. I like planning activities and figuring out accommodations, but there is some appeal in not having to worry about organizing everything. It would be nice to hand it over to someone else, and let them work out the plans. I would gladly go along for the ride--at least once.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Travel Trends and Top Destinations in 2011

    2010 is officially over, and the new year holds pros and cons for the travel industry, as well as some exciting destinations for all of us.

    Last year was turbulent in travel, to say the least. According to statistics, more people flew in 2010, but less flights were available to accommodate this 3% increase from the year before. This meant packed flights and barely any overhead baggage space. This trend will most likely continue into 2011 as airlines are still minimizing their flights to cut costs. Plus, airlines are benefiting from baggage and flight change fees, and they need to make a profit wherever they can. On top of that, travelers can expect to pay higher prices for tickets since oil prices have increased.

    When it comes to purchasing tickets, it may be even more difficult to reserve through online travel agencies with all the disputes with the airlines that want to cut out the middle man. Southwest only posts their ticket prices on their website, forcing fliers to go there in order to buy seats. American Airlines just pulled its flight listings from Orbitz and Expedia due to the high fees to have them on the sites.

    As many of you may have noticed, more flights were canceled in 2010 than in previous years, due mostly to airlines attempting to avoid fees for long tarmac waits, but also because of severe weather conditions and unforeseen natural disasters--a certain volcano comes to mind. It's safe to assume that there will be just as many, if not more, canceled flights in 2011, unless the weather chooses to cooperate--which it never does. The good news is that the same amount of flights arrived on time in 2010 as in 2009, so hopefully this consistency will hold strong. Also, there were far less delays reported last year, a good sign for future travel convenience.

    Social Media will continue to play a large part in travel and tourism. For my loyal readers, you may recall a post I did last year talking about travel apps for smart phones, as well as growing websites designed to aid travelers with a number of different needs. Well, more of those will be popping up all over the place. This year, more people will be using Facebook and Twitter to find information on destination, travel deals, cheap airfare and hotel reviews. As far as airlines, hotels and travel companies go, social media outlets will be used to promote exclusive deals and incentives that can only be accessed through networking sites. 

    Now for the really fun stuff...the hot spots to visit in 2011!

    2011 marks the anniversary of...well...a lot. And industry experts say that's a draw for many travelers. Peru, while always a popular tourist location, will draw even more crowds this year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu  Picchu, an Inca landmark dating back to the 15th century. The organization managing the upkeep of this historic site will be holding events and celebrations all year long to commemorate the gorgeous mountain-top ruins.

    China is also celebrating a milestone this year with the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Republican Revolution, also called the Xinhai Revolution. This moment was a significant event for the Chinese culture in the 20th century, and numerous events are planned in its honor. It's unknown what kind of celebrations will be held, but expect there to be many parades and impressive firework displays.

    Fifty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and travelers are heading to Germany to celebrate this historic event. The city is expected to finish a long-term project this year that marks the wall's old path through Berlin.

    2011 is also a sad reminder of the horrible attacks that occurred ten years ago on September 11. Millions of Americans and foreign travelers will gather around ground zero to view the impressive National September 11 Memorial, consisting of two pools appropriately named "Reflecting Absence." These are a representation of the footprints left by the towers, as well as those who perished. An underground museum will also be featured as part of the memorial. The collection includes artifacts, photographs, memorabilia and recorded testimonies of the event. The main exhibitions are located at bedrock, the heart of the World Trade Center. Visitors will be able to view the Vesey Street Stair remains, also known as the "Survivor's Stairs," as they were used by hundreds to escape the destruction. Guests can see the foundations of the towers and the "Last Column." In the Memorial Plaza, visitors can gaze at the 3,000+ names engraved around the pools honoring all those who died.

    There are many popular locations that are not celebrating an anniversary but are just as noteworthy. After hosting the World Cup last year, South Africa has exploded as a top vacation spot. The great thing about this year is there will not be as many people, so tourists can take full advantage of the renovated facilities left over from the tournament. A number of travel packages are being offered that tour the countries beautiful landscapes and diverse cities, particularly Cape Town and Johannesburg--the two largest cities in South Africa. If you decide to go, look into booking a safari in Kruger National Park, which features 145 different mammals.

    Another country with strong ties to soccer is Brazil. With the World Cup coming in 2014, and the Olympics in 2016, Brazil is using their newly found publicity to promote it's beautiful beach resorts and exotic culture. It still has a few years to boost its infrastructure, but all the sporting attention is sure to draw a crowd.

    With the royal wedding months away, London is certainly getting a lot of attention. The Prince's marriage to long-time sweetheart, Kate Middleton, is causing not only locals to get excited, but tourists as well. Everyone wants to get in on the action. While London may be incredibly busy come April, the wedding is boosting tourism interest for the summer months, too, as more and more people sign-up for tours of the royal buildings and historic sites--not to mention a tour of all the notable locations around the city that are significant to William and Kate's long courtship.

    Other locations of note to visit this year are Stockholm, Sweden--thanks to the overwhelming popularity of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" book series--and Greece--which is celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the original marathon. For even more exciting places to visit in 2011, check out Bing's Top Destinations Slide Show.

    So here's to a new year of exciting travel adventures! Happy trails everyone!