Thursday, March 31, 2011

Extra Fees Will Deter Traveling on Some Airlines

I read an article about Spirit Airlines adding new luggage fees, which increased the amount passengers had to pay for checked and carry-on baggage. That's right, carry-on bags, too. Spirit is the first airline to implement such fees on luggage that people stow in the overhead bins, and I am hoping it is the only one that does it. The airline already has set fees it charges for checking bags, but the new regulations are bumping that number up slightly. Under the new fees, passengers who wait to pay for their bags within 24 hours of flying will be charged an extra $5 to pay online and $10 over the phone. Those who pay at least 24 hours in advance receive the "Early Bird Discount," which means they have to pay the original fee--not much of a special if you ask me.

When I read these stories about airlines hiking fees for the smallest things, I cannot help but wonder if any sane person would continue to fly with them. I have never flown on Spirit Airlines, and I can tell you confidently, I never will. I mean, it is bad enough that every other airline--except Southwest--is charging for checking bags, but to have the audacity to charge a fee for carry-ons is beyond absurd. To play devil's advocate--which I hate to do--the additional fee may prevent people from carrying on large pieces of baggage and taking up all the room in the overhead bins. If they are charged a fee no matter what, they may just opt to check the bag, leaving more space. Still, I fail to see how charging this fee is going to help, because even though that extra money may help to compensate rising gas and commodity costs, it could force people to look elsewhere for flights.

It's move like this one that make me angry with the travel industry, because it has already suffered so much and it pains me to see it continue to struggle. I long for the days when traveling was fun, exciting and almost carefree. You arrived at the airport, checked in your luggage, breezed through quick security lines without taking off your shoes, arrived at your gate, boarded the plane knowing you would have room to store all your personal items, sat down in a roomy seat and waited for your complimentary drink and bag of pretzels. Now, check-ins are bombarded with angry fliers trying to check as few bags as possible or lighten the ones that are too heavy, security lines are epically long and frustrating, boarding is a rat race to get to your seat first and snag precious overhead bin space, seats are cramped, and while that drink option is still there, the pretzels are long gone.

It's a sad world we live in when airlines are so scrapped for money that they have to take away the free pretzels.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A No-Kid Section

I am sure that title will put many of you off, but hear me out before you click away to another screen.

How many times have you been sitting on an airplane, trying to fall asleep after a long business trip or vacation when suddenly the back of your seat is forcefully kicked by a five-year-old who needs to go to the bathroom or has to have a toy? How many people have experienced a flight where a baby screamed and cried the entire time? I know I have, and it can be infuriating. I have nothing against children, but there are definitely times where I wish they were not around, and on a plane is one of them. So when I read an article about possibly implementing separate seating that designates certain areas for children, I thought it sounded like a decent idea.

Child screaming on plane. www.nydailynews.com
According to polls from both Skyscanner, a travel search site, and Britain's Business Travel & Meetings Show, a majority of travelers want sections set aside for families or cabins that are for adults only. Some passengers believe there should be designated areas for taller, heavier or disabled passengers. While some of these requests may seem a bit outlandish, when it comes down to it, it's all about being comfortable.

Traveling today is already stressful and hectic, and the amount of room one gets on a plane is cramped due to airlines trying to boost capacity. Add an unruly child or larger seat-mate to the mix, and you are in for a very unpleasant trip. Think about the extra fees people are paying to get a little more comfort: extra legroom, a seat that reclines further, even seating that lets you cuddle with your travel buddy. It is possible that people would pay to not sit next to a child.

I even think families could benefit from the arrangement. I have seen more than one mother or father apologize to people because of their child's noise level or inability to sit still, it can be embarrassing. If families had their own space, their kids could be free to make a little extra noise or move around without bothering others.

Once again, I would like to emphasize that this idea is not about not liking children, but rather about finding a way to coexist in close quarters, possibly making everyone's trip a little more enjoyable. But it is just a thought, and people are free to disagree with it. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Royal Vacation


In a little over a month, the world will turn its eyes to London and the much anticipated nuptials that will take place between Prince William and Kate Middleton. As for me, I have every intention of tuning in on April 29 to watch every second of the Royal Wedding, gazing in awe and wonder as Kate steps out in front of Westminster Abbey in her wedding gown, preparing to walk down the aisle to meet her prince. It almost sounds like a fairy tale; a fairy tale I would love to witness in person. While I know I would not be able to make it into the church for the ceremony, I would enjoy seeing the streets of London transform into an elegant processional for the future princess as she rides through the city. As someone who adores London, I would love to capture how the city changes from its bustling, fast-paced nature into an entranced ocean of locals and guests all connected by one event. I think the energy and excitement of the city during the royal wedding will be epic, and I would be honored to write about that experience.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Making Summer Travel Plans

The thaw of winter is still in effect, with little promise for a warm up any time soon, and yet I am already preparing myself for summer. This past week was packed with much freelance writing and travel planning, so I apologize for my absence. The good news is that I have officially booked two vacations this summer: one week-long trip with a few friends to Myrtle Beach where we'll be staying in a nice, three bedroom house right near the beach; and a Fourth of July weekend trip to Boston to visit my best friend.

Myrtle Beach. www.playle.com
I always get excited for summer trips far in advance, and I find myself planning daily excursions, restaurant options, and recreational activities months before I actually need to. But half the fun of summer vacation is preparing for it, researching the area, learning about the best places to visit, the signature dish I just have to try, and all the exciting things I'll get to do. I even go as far as planning my outfits--but that's mostly to help myself pack more efficiently.

I have never been to Myrtle Beach, and it has been over a decade since I have been back to South Carolina. (My family used to vacation in Hilton Head every year during spring break.) Needless to say, I am extremely excited to go on this trip. Not only is it a brand new place to explore, but it is an opportunity to relax and spend time with my good friends from Milwaukee who I do not get to see on a regular basis. Plus, it will be a nice break from everything going on in my life--work, work and more work. My week in Myrtle Beach will be a welcome escape from it all, a chance to hit the refresh button.

While I have visited Boston once before, it was during the cold month of October, and the weather was not always the best. However, it was a real treat to see the leaves changing in Boston Common, certainly an experience I can check off my bucket list. What really excites me about this trip, apart from seeing me best friend, is that I will be celebrating our nation's birthday in one of the oldest cities in the country, the place where the revolution began, where our freedom was fought and won. I must admit I'm a bit of a history nerd, and I love hearing epic stories and interesting facts about landmarks, and let's face it, Boston is rife with them.

As of right now, those are the only two vacations planned for the summer. And while I would love to travel more, I feel those two trips are sufficient enough. One long relaxing week on the beach, and one quick weekend jam packed with barbecues, fireworks and loads of history. Sounds perfect to me.

I will keep you posted on whether any more trips are in the works. And expect exciting blogs about my summer trips when I return.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where Will You Retire?

The thought of retirement is far in the future for me, considering I have only just entered the workforce and have not even reached a quarter of a century in age. However, my parents are very close to that stage in their life, and knowing they will have the freedom to go wherever and do whatever makes me a little jealous. Then I read an article saying that more and more Americans are retiring abroad, and it made me wonder if my folks would ever make the move.

They have talked about buying a villa in Tuscany and living out the rest of their days sipping wine and speaking Italian. To no one's amazement, I would be absolutely ecstatic if they did, but I am not so sure that plan will pan out. They still have so many responsibilities here in the states and a lot to handle after retirement. I am not so sure they could leave it all behind. However, many retirees have packed their bags to spend their golden years overseas. There is not an exact number, but it is estimated that nearly half a million American seniors have moved abroad to retire. According to the Social Security Administration, Americans receiving benefits overseas has jumped 32 percent since 2002. And retirees seem to have no common destination. In fact, they have spanned the global, venturing everywhere from Caribbean islands to the French countryside, from the jungles of Panama to the gated communities in Thailand or Malaysia.

This trend has bolstered an entire industry that makes its profit off selling the good life overseas. The retire-abroad business includes everything from real estate agents, investment advisers and transition specialists, all trying to attract the retired demographic to various shores around the world. Companies like International Living and Escape Artist have magazines and websites that  promote good property deals and give advice on how to make the move.

It is understandable why so many people choose to retire outside of the United States, especially in a down economy. The cost of living is much more appealing, and, let's face it, the environment and landscape of many locations far exceeds what anyone could find in America. If nothing else, it certainly stirs up a sense of adventure that many retirement-age folks may have subdued during all their years in the work force.

I already know that when I retire, it will be in Italy, on a lovely vineyard in Tuscany. I will spend my days reading, writing, exploring the country, cooking, shopping and drinking wine. It is my ideal golden years scenario. So where will you retire?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Forging a Wine Trail

Wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma Valley has become somewhat of a cliche, not because everyone does it, but because of how they do it. Drive to a vineyard, taste any number of reds or whites, contemplate why they taste different, then jump back in the car, head to another vineyard, and repeat. It has become monotonous, and potentially dangerous depending on how much you actually drink. I have never gone wine tasting in Northern California--though I am dying to go--but I read an interesting story about a guy who decided to switch things up on his wine tasting experience, exploring each vineyard by foot.

Daniel Duane found that walking tours are much more popular in Europe, and he cannot see why. "There is no more meaningful way to connect with a place than by exploring it, literally, one step at a time," said Duane. So he set out to forge a new trail through Sonoma County, with a focus on its southeast corner. He initially wanted to explore Napa, but found it was not the ideal setting for walking. In Sonoma, near the base of the Carneros Hills, there are quiet lanes, bike paths and footpaths. Also, Sonoma's diverse landscape and geographic features made for a few more surprises in the wine selection. It is known for producing great chardonnays and pinot noirs, but it also can throw a few curveballs.

Duane made Les Petites Maisons, small rental cottages operated by a store called Sonoma's Best, his base for the trip due to its central location.

Since there are no designated walking routes between wineries, Duane had to create his own. In the days leading up to his trip, he spent hours looking over trail maps and satellite images from Google. In the end, he came up with two walking tours that never required him to walk further than 30 minutes between each stop.

The first stop was Ravenswood Winery, where he received a glass of gew├╝rztraminer upon arrival. (This is learned is a white wine grape that produces off-dry wines with flowery and passion fruit aromas, and is one of the few wines that goes well with Asian cuisine.) After a few other samples, Duane headed over to Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, which took a little bit of backtracking and extra walking. This vineyard is one of the oldest in the United States, and was founded back in 1904. To Duane's disappointment--and mine,-- the area outside the cobblestone building was packed with tour buses, filled with all those tourists who decided to wine taste the typical way. After ordering a seven-wine sample, Duane headed down the Sonoma Bike Path, which conveniently ran past the winery. Along the route, he stumbled upon an organic farm called The Patch, a quaint treasure easily missed when driving in a car.

Duane's second day started at Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the first winery built west of the Mississippi. There he sampled a "silky" pinot noir and what he claims to be the best chardonnay of the whole trip. Since he was walking, he was able to take a small footpath--which someone at Les Petites Maisons had told him about--to his next destination, Bartholomew Park Winery. The path ran through a hidden garden , leading him through lawns with picnic tables and eventually to the door of the vineyard. As he sipped the winery's notable cabernet sauvignons, the owner told him all about the trails that surrounded the property. After departing his last winery, he found an old railway easement that weaved through tall pine trees to lead him right back to his cottage. A perfect little secret, just waiting to be found.

A walk through wine country can clearly yield tremendous benefits, including stumbling upon places one would have missed otherwise. I find it remarkable how much his tale of exploring Sonoma by foot is similar to wine tasting itself. We come across something, take a sip, and discover a wonderful array of flavors, aromas and textures. Sometimes it can be comforting, sometimes surprising, but it's always an adventure.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Check in at Your Hotel at the Airport

Wouldn't it be nice to avoid the check-in line at the hotel? Wouldn't it be nice to avoid the baggage claim at the airport? Wouldn't it be nice to head straight to your room when you arrive where your bags are already waiting for you? Sounds like a dream, right? Well, one new airline is making it happen.

LV Air, a new luxury airline based in Las Vegas, is launching a route from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to America's playground. So far, that is the only route the carrier has announced, but it does plan on providing more service, once it gets going.

Caesar's Palace in Vegas
So what makes this airline different? First of all, it offers a worry-free baggage service. Basically, when travelers check-in for their flight at the airport, they will check their bags onto the plane and into their hotel. Not only will they get to avoid the baggage claim, but their bags will be transported to the hotel for them. Also, when passengers get their boarding pass, they will also be handed their hotel room key. That's right, the airline automatically checks you into both the flight and hotel at the same time. LV Air will work with Las Vegas hotels to offer attractive packages for customers. Some benefits could include buffet meals, show tickets and nightclub access. Customers will get elite transportation service, with a limo taking them from the airport to their hotel. There will also be special smartphone apps that let the front desk at the hotel, limo service and club hosts know when customers are within 100 feet of the location, which helps to improve service.

There is also speculation about how the cabin of LV Air will be designed. The 18-seat first-class cabin will have fully reclining seats, and the decor will be created by casinos who will sponsor the airline. The main cabin will have wireless iPads, inter-seat texting and video, Wi-Fi access, club music and mood lighting. Safety briefings will not be done by flight attendants, but instead by holographic images of celebrities, alive or dead.

This certainly seems like a product of Las Vegas.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Renting a Vacation Home

Spring is upon us (even though the weather suggests otherwise) and people are looking to get away. I am in the midst of planning a week-long summer trip with my friends, and I cannot wait to get a break from Chicago and relax on the beach. Lucky for me, one of my friends has a condo where we will be staying, no cramped hotel room, no expensive meals, and no charge. For many spring and summer travelers, a hotel seems like the best option. However, if you are planning a long trip with a large group of people, you might want to consider a vacation house. Think about it: coming home to a spacious living room and a nice kitchen where you can prepare your meals for a lot less than if you went to eat at the hotel restaurant. Sounds nice, right? And if you think this fabulous vacation home is going to cost you a fortune, well, you would be wrong. Many of these places run a decent price, especially if you are splitting the cost among 10 friends. So how do you go about renting one of these places?

This is a great time to utilize the internet and browse the many travel sites dedicated to renting vacation homes. One of the best sites to visit is HomeAway.com. (You may remember it from the somewhat controversial Super Bowl ad it aired where a baby doll was hurled towards a glass wall.) It has more than 500,000 rentals located all over the world. Value is a major selling point for these vacation homes, especially in a tough economy where people want the most for their money.

When booking vacation homes, it is important to make sure you are getting the best option. If you are only planning a weekend trip, then opt for the hotel, it will be much cheaper. If you are staying somewhere for a week or longer, a vacation home is probably the best idea, especially if you have a large group that requires a lot of rooms. These accommodations offer more space, kitchen areas and lounging areas, so you can ultimately save more on food and enjoy a nice relaxing environment at the end of the day.

To make sure you get everything you want, be sure to ask lots of questions when working with vacation-home renters. Many people make the mistake of believing everything in an online ad, and book the location without asking about size or amenities. Make sure you ask about heating and air conditioning, cooking space, laundry, nearby shops and restaurants, privacy and noise level.

Vacation homes can be great accommodations for you and your travel group, but just make sure you ask all the necessary questions, and get everything in writing.


For more on vacation rentals, check out this article.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Travel for a Child

I was reading a couple articles in the Chicago Tribune, each talking about family travel, the best places to go and how to make the trip enjoyable for kids. One of the pieces discussed a family trip to Rome, where the writer's 13-year-old daughter had most wanted to visit. She provided a couple tips on what worked and what did not when traveling with a teenager. And while the advice certainly seemed helpful to a parent, I found myself thinking about the kid's reaction.

I traveled a lot when I was younger, mostly because my father is from England and my mom, New York, so we would go on vacations to visit our extended family a lot. I consider myself very lucky to have left the country at a young age, of course many of those early trips I cannot remember at all. And in all honesty, what was there to remember, being so young, nothing has much of an impact on you. However, it was when I started grasping the importance and significance of places I was visiting that travel became a real experience for me. And I give my parents credit for their methodically planned vacations, it made for a more enjoyable trip. But as everyone knows, pre-teens and teenagers can be some of the most difficult people to travel with. I had my fair share of selfish moments, temper tantrums and rebellious comments, despite my parents' efforts. So when I read about this woman worrying about keeping her daughter happy and entertained, I felt sympathetic for her. Because many parents have the same concerns, the fear that their children will not have a good time, or, God forbid, get bored. It happens, it's inevitable. But there are ways to avoid perpetual whining, complaining or sulking.

I agreed with ideas from the article, in fact, some of them I wish my parents had adopted as protocol for our numerous family trips. But I digress. The first thing she mentioned was the rooming situation. Since it was just her husband, her and her daughter, they opted for a suite-style, which gave the girl space of her own to sleep, relax and steal away from her parents--if only for a couple minutes. This was smart, because 13 is usually the age where kids still like being around their parents and rely on them, but they begin to seek independence, too. And let's face it, sometimes parents can just get annoying.

Another part of the trip she talked about was getting a special visitors pass to skip many of the long lines at popular tourist attractions, because what kills a child's spirit and enthusiasm more than having to wait for hours in a line? On top of that, she said they decided not to get a guide or sign up for tours--the one they did do was horrible. I was a little mixed on this, mostly because I enjoy taking tours. I feel that a tour guide can provide you more insight on a place than some brochure or automated tape can. In fact, I have learned a lot of fascinating things about places through a guide's anecdotes. I realize that not all tour guides are great, and sometimes you get one that sounds like he or she would rather be eating cardboard than talking to you. However, if you are lucky enough to land a guide that has passion and vigor for what they are talking about, you will get so much more out of a place. Where I do agree with her is the fact that her daughter is young, and sometimes teenagers compare a guide to a teacher, and they do not need to be lectured while on vacation. They would much rather look at things on their own and saunter from one artifact to the next at their own leisure.

One final point I want to mention from her article was the fact that they allowed time to just wander, no agenda, no schedule. That is one of the best things you can do when traveling with a child or teenager, because it gives them the ability to call the shots once and a while. If they want to go right instead of left, they can; and if they feel inclined to step into a store, they can. Most of the time, my parents had things planned out for us, whether it was a tour or a visit to a certain museum. But, they also left whole mornings or afternoons open for us to do whatever we wanted: shop, explore, relax, eat, etc. Having every single moment scheduled can make a vacation feel like a chore, which no child likes. Plus, when you give yourself time to just walk around a city, you might just stumble upon something unexpected, something not mentioned in a guide book.

I know many parents worry about making sure their kids have a good time on vacation, and it is a legitimate concern, especially with teenagers. But just think about how you were as a child, what you would have liked to do or see while traveling. If you imagine yourself in you kid's shoes, just for a moment, you will realize that it is the simple things--giving them their own room/sleeping space, avoiding circumstances that will cause them to complain--that will make the trip enjoyable for everyone in the family.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Airline Wine? I'll Pass

When the airplane reaches 30,000 feet and the captain has turned off the fasten seat belt sign, it is time for the drink cart to come down the aisle and serve up beverages for all the passengers. But if you want something with a little more kick, you have to pay for it, unless you fly first or business class. I am not one to spend money on an alcoholic drink on flights, but if I ever decided I absolutely needed a glass of wine, I want to know it is worth $5.

Unfortunately, most airlines do not have the best wine selection. According to wine experts, most U.S. airlines are pretty cheap with their wine and have been for over 40 years. Basically, if it is passable, they will serve it. There are two reasons for this, according to sommeliers and wine lovers alike, the first is that airlines tend to serve wine from quarter size bottles that could sit around for months at a time, and removing oxygen from planes is difficult, leading to wine spoiling much quicker. The second reason is that wineries will save their least desirable batches for those small bottles, meaning that airlines can purchase them at a very low cost, and then charge you an arm and a leg for low quality wine. Now, if you happen to be sitting in business or first class, the wine selection is a lot better. But the majority of people fly coach, so they get the cheap stuff to sip on.

Business Traveller magazine recently held its annual Cellars in the Sky competition--which analyzes wine served in business and first class on airlines around the world. American Airlines was the only U.S. carrier to receive an award: First place in the "Business Class White" category. All other top honors went to non-U.S. airlines, with Quantas and Air New Zealand leading the way. (I guess they know how wine is done down under.) Wine experts say that European, Australian and Asian airlines understand about quality, and consider it a point of pride.

Some airlines are making an effort to improve the wine selection on flights. Like JetBlue. It does not have a business- or first-class cabin, so everyone flies coach. In an effort to keep its customers happy, it serve one white and one red at a time, switching brands every six months or so. The wines are purchased from a wide variety of locations, which is something many airlines avoid, and JetBlue likes to keep things fresh and new for travelers.

For many travelers, having a glass of wine on a flight is not a necessity, and many just choose one of the free options, like water, tea, coffee or soda. However, there are some who would enjoy a drink while soaring thousands of miles in the air--it certainly helps to calm the nerves a bit, or provide a nice buzz after a stressful business trip. It seems only right that those select few should be able to drink something a little more palatable than the remaining 4-ounces of liquid from the bottom of the barrel. I think it is definitely an area of customer service that should be improved on by the U.S. airlines.

So, for now, maybe you should forgo that alcoholic beverage for something free and tasty. If nothing else, just order a beer, you know that is usually a safe bet.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Spring Break Countdown

March has arrived and with it the infamous Spring Break. This is the second installment of my Spring Break posts, and this time I'll be covering the exciting places you can go on your trip. There are hundreds of places where college students can go to celebrate their week-long hiatus from classes, but there are select locations that are the most commonly visited during this time of year. The most popular Spring Break destinations:

Panama City Beach, Florida: After the oil spill last year, many hotel owners and businesses along the panhandle worried about how many students would come to Panama City Beach for Spring Break. Luckily for them, it looks like that catastrophe has not deterred people from coming to the city. With some of the best beaches in the country, exciting bars and entertaining concerts, Panama City is a great stateside destination for Spring Break. All hotels are student friendly, which means guests can expect non-stop activities. Most of the clubs are 18 and up, so even students who are not of age can still go out and party. Covers can be pretty steep, anywhere from $10 to $30, so be prepared to dish out some cash. You can purchase a Panamaniac Card, which will get you into all the clubs, without having to pay the cover. Panama City Beach has plenty of great restaurants, stores and attractions for students to enjoy. It's also one of the more affordable Spring Break destinations.

Daytona Beach: Another relatively inexpensive location for some Spring Break fun, Daytona Beach has tons of student-friendly hotels. They have a lot of daytime activities, plus areas around for some lounging and relaxation, cause Spring Break is a time to take it easy. But it's also time to let lose, and Daytona has an exciting nightlife with clubs and DJs and bars for all personalities.

South Padre Island: Just off the Gulf Coast of Texas sits Padre, one of the best Spring Break locales. All the hotels are conveniently located along the beach, as well as within walking distance of the nightlife action. Head over to Louie's Backyard for some non-stop dancing and crazy contests. Clubs here are also pretty expensive to be get into, anywhere from $25 to $60, so you might want to look into some party packages or expect to carry around a lot of extra cash.

Cancun, Mexico: Known as the place for non-stop Spring Break partying, Cancun is a guaranteed good time. Unless you are looking for some quiet time, a majority of the hotels are located right in the center of the action, so don't expect a lot of time to rest, or sleep. Cancun is full of swanky clubs, casual bars and endless dance parties. As much fun as lounging on the beach, drinking and dancing can be, sometimes you need to experience something else. Cancun has a number of historical sites located away from the beach that you can visit for something different.

Las Vegas: This is a better destination for college students over 21, because, let's face it, you'll want to gamble just a little bit and enjoy a cocktail while you're at it. There are some reasonably priced hotels, and many of them are offering great deals for Spring Break. Also, many accommodations have all-you-can-eat buffets, which is perfect for hungry college students. The nightlife is super crazy and thrilling, but lines outside the clubs can get very long and covers are pretty expensive, so be prepared to get there early or wait a while.

Negril, Jamaica: While partying on Spring Break is expected, some students are looking for something a little more relaxing. Negril caters to those who want a little bit of both. There are a number of open-air bars where students can go to mingle, and hundreds of restaurants to grab a bite. The scenery offers more than something beautiful to look at, it also gives you some exciting excursions to go on, including canopy tours and river rafting.

So whether you head to an international location, or stay in the U.S., you will find some amazing places to go to celebrate your spring break. Just remember, stay safe and have fun!