Thursday, February 28, 2013

Experiencing "Downton Abbey" in America

Donwton Abbey
Fans of the British period drama Downton Abbey are familiar with the beautiful manor where the Crawley family and its live-in help reside. Highclere Castle is located about 60 miles west of London and is owned by the Earl of Carnarvon and his countess, who live there part-time. The manor has a starring role in the show, and admirers of castle and the show have been flocking to the area to get a first-hand look. Ticket prices range from $8 for walk around the garden to $29 for the grand, but bookings can be hard to get, so I recommend reserving spots early. A number of tour operators also offer packages that include tours of the Castle; while hotels havae introducedd Downton Abbey-inspired pacakages with high tea, personalized butlers, and transportation in a Rolls-Royce.

Of course, it is a little more difficult for American fans of the show to get over to England to get the grand tour. Luckily, there are some alternatives closer to home. The mansions of Newport will certainly satisfy Americans' thirst for an inside look at aristocratic society in the early part of the 20th century. The wealthiest families in the country--at the time--built their cottages on the seaside, and would move their households there during the summer months, servants and all.

Many of the mansions have been open to the public for decades, but most of the tours focused on the wealthy families. And while the history of these families is certainly fascinating, Downton has shown us that what happens behind the scenes can be just as scandalous, mysterious, and fascinating. The Newport Preservation Society has been digging into the archives to learn more about the servants of Newport, and have discovered photos, documents and family histories. As a result, many new tours have been created about the help.

The Elms. Source: Newport Discovery Guide
Recently, The Breakers, one of the grandest mansions in the area, started adding some information about the servants who lived there. The new tour at The Elms is dedicated solely to the servants, giving visitors a unique look at unseen parts of the home, such as the kitchen, boiler room, and servants quarters. The rooms, furnished as they would have been at the time, include pictures, journals and other documents. One room has census records that show names, occupations and birth countries. The tour discusses the "kitchen ratchets," parties held in the mansion kitchens, with food, drink and gossip galore.

As someone who is interested in historical tours, and is riveted by the show, I would definitely take a trip to Newport to check out these mansions. And a servant-focused tour would certainly be in order, because, let's face it, that's where the real stories come from.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Introducing Hotel Week, the Next Restaurant Week

Most major cities have some kind of restaurant week where hundreds of restaurants offer a pre-fixed, set-price menu for lunch and dinner, creating a foodies paradise. I have participated in Chicago's restaurant week the last few years, and I am never disappointed, and I usually find a place I would try again. So when the concept of Hotel Week came up, my curiosity naturally took over. What a great way to not only draw in more tourists, but also let locals experience a nice evening at a hotel. Stay-cation anyone?

Baltimore held its inaugural Hotel Week in mid-February (Feb. 8-18), a slow month for tourism in the city. The promotion offered attractive discounts and perks to locals and tourists on less busy days of the week from about 14 hotels. One of the deals from The Holiday Inn Baltimore-Inner Harbor included a one-night package for $101 or a two-night package for $202. The bundle included breakfast for two, a welcome amenity and a split of local wine. Those who booked two nights also received a little bonus: Two adult tickets to top Baltimore attractions.

New York held its second annual Hotel Week in January, following a particularly successful inaugural year. In 2012, New York's promotion featured deals from eight hotels starting at around $100 a night--a sweet price in New York City. In its second year, the promotion expanded to 26 properties offering rates of $100, $200 and $250 a night at hotels that would have originally charged upwards of $500 a night. The most popular hotel was the Maritime Hotel, which booked 225 rooms for the week. Next year's Hotel Week is expected to be even bigger, since hotels get a jolt of extra business at a time when people generally are holding off on spending after the holidays.

Ocean City, Maryland, has been ahead of the game. It will host its third annual hotel week at the end of the summer, a time when people are traditionally packing up to leave and prepare for the upcoming school year. During the week, hotels will be offering free-nights, discounts on multiple-night bookings, among other offers.

Other cities are following suit as a means of gaining some more tourists during non-peak seasons. A hotel week is being planned for the Caribbean in August, usually a slower time for the islands.

I definitely think Chicago needs to get on board with this idea, especially during the miserable winter months when few people want to venture to the Windy City--or even go out around town, if you live here. Most people are hybernating in the winter, but with some incentive--like a super cheap hotel room--people may be persuaded to emerge from their dark caves and enjoy a nice evening away. And they may even check out some local attractions or restaurants, just for the hell of it! I enjoy staying at hotels, and I would not be opposed to spending a nice weekend in downtown chicago at an upscale, out-of-my-price-range establishment. An escape within my city.

Ocean City, Maryland
I also would consider checking out some of these other hotel week promotions in cities I've never been. Ocean City sounds cool, and it's a place I would have never considered visiting before. And the Caribbean would be absolutely beautiful. The only problem there is hotel week is during hurricane season, so I would have to weigh the risks on that one. It could be worth it...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Budget Cuts Could Delay Travel

Federal budget cuts are due to hit airlines and airports in the last week of February, bringing a wave of delays, reduced takeoffs and slower security lines that may only get worse as the year goes on and more government furloughs go into effect.

Basically, the Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, said most of the Federal Aviation Administration's 47,000 employees would face one day of furlough per two weeks, which means about 10% fewer workers on any given day on average. Fewer air traffic controllers means less people to handle all the planes in the system. To manage the shift, the FAA would accept fewer planes in the system, the same strategy used when there's bad weather. This means larger mile gaps between flights, so passengers will be forced to sit on tarmacs of face delays while they wait for planes to leave the gate.

There are also expected furloughs of TSA workers, meaning longer security lines, and deplaning from international flights could be slower because Customs and Border Protection agents are expected to work fewer hours. Waits at security  could increase by up to an hour, and waits of four to five hours might be common for overseas travelers.

All the details are a little fuzzy, but things do not look promising for travelers over the next few months, and into the busy summer months. Especially with gas prices rising again. It is very possible that staycation could become another common trend this year.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

News Update

There has been a lot going on in the travel world as of late, it's been hard to keep up.

Once again, all eyes are on the cruise world, as a stranded Carnival Cruise ship, Triumph, is towed to a port in Mobile, Alabama. The ship has been without power, for the most part, since Sunday when a fire took out the propulsion system, leaving it unable to sail. The sewage system is out, meaning there are no working toilets or showers, and the heating and air-conditioner have malfunctioned, resulting in nearly unbearable heat . The ship was floating in the Gulf of Mexico about 150 miles off the coast of Yucatan, before tug boats began pulling it to shore. Passengers have been sleeping in hallways or on decks to get relief from the heat and stench, and have been forced to wait in lines for hours just to get a small portion of food. Carnival secured buses and over 1,000 hotel rooms in New Orleans for when passengers finally arrive back on shore. They can choose to get on a bus and head to Galveston or Houston, or spend a night in New Orleans and catch a charter plane the next day, Carnival said. The company is covering all travel-related expenses. Passengers will also get a refund, $5000 and a credit toward another cruise--though I'm sure most of the some 4,100 people on board will be avoiding cruises for a while after this horrible experience.

As expected after nearly a year of rumors, discussions, and speculations, US Airways and American Airlines agreed to merge for the hefty price of $11 billion. The deal will create the nation's largest airline. This will allow them to better compete against United and Delta Air Lines, which have both expanded through mergers. The merged airline will be called American Airlines and is expected to be completed in the third quarter of the year. This is most likely the last major consolidation we'll see in the airline industry, at least for a while. So what does this mean for us? Well, we'll have four major airlines from which to choose, as they control about three-quarters of the U.S. market. Customers of the merged airline will have more choices and increased service across a larger network, the airlines said. The new company will have more than 6,700 daily flights to 336 destinations and 56 countries. I know this will affect a lot of people who are frequent fliers of both airlines, and the airline said there will be no changes to those programs at first. I, on the other hand, will continue to book flights on my preferred airlines--Frontier, JetBlue , and UnitedContinental.

For anyone who experienced frustrating delays on a trip last year, you may be surprised by this next little tidbit. Airline on-time rates were at a nine-year high in 2012. Airlines also reported a record low in the number of mishandles bags. Carriers ended 2012 with an on-time performance rate of 81.9%, making the year one of the best three years out of the last 18. Long tarmac delays also dropped, as only 42 that exceeded three hours were reported, down from 50 in 2011. The overall flight cancellation rate remained stagnant, averaging 1.29%. Despite the positives seen in airline performance, consumers complaints still went up slightly--I guess it takes a lot to please us.

Next time you want to upgrade, why not opt for a luxury car rental? This segment of the car rental industry is on the rise, and many people can do it without spending that much more than they would for a full-size sedan. Enterprise expanded its "Exotic Car Collection" to 13 locations in six states; while Hertz said rentals of luxury vehicles grew 15% in 2012. As a result, the company added the Porsche Panamera to its fleet in certain locations. A new company, called Silvercar, entered the mix, renting only silver Audi A4s with customized technology. Rates to rent these cars run the gamut from under $100 to nearly $1,000 a day, and many companies will offer special discounts or promotions, since these rentals are less frequent. Personally, I'd go for the Bentley GTC for $800 a day.

And now another update from Boeing--because we haven't heard enough about this. Boeing conducted two test flights of its 787 Dreamliner as it looked for the cause of the battery problems that grounded the planes. The company said it examined microscopic crystals, called dendrites, can cause lithium-ion batteries to short-circuit and fail, but they are not the main focus of the investigation. Officials are also examining whether a manufacturing defect, the charging process or the battery design could have led to the initial fire.

This week, people around the world celebrated Mardi Gras, with bright costumes, colorful beads, spectacular parties and parades, and, of course, delicious food and plenty of libations. Obviously, the party cities of New Orleans and Rio De Janeiro were the place to be on Fat Tuesday. While thousands of people flocked to these cities over the weekend, there were plenty of other locations holding their own celebrations.

And finally guys, this is for you. If you are tired of having to buy gifts and flowers for your girlfriend on Valentine's Day and take her out for a nice dinner, then perhaps you should live in South Korea. Here, Valentine's Day is when women shower men with gifts. It is also just one of the many romantic days in a series of calendar-dictated holidays in the country. Next is March 14, called White Day, when men gift women with candy. And on April 14, Black Day, singles who did not receive any gifts head to local restaurants to enjoy some jjajyangmyeon, or "black noodles."

So there you go, a quick update of some of the big--and not so big--news stories.

On a more personal news-worthy note, my trip to Australia/New Zealand is 21 days away! I cannot wait! Please know that I will update with stories and pictures as much as possible while I am gone, but most of the recap will occur upon my return. Please send me gift requests prior to March 8. (No guarantees you'll get exactly what you want, but at least I offered.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Travel For...You

There are a million reasons to take a trip. To visit family or friends. To spend quality time with a loved one. To see a place you've never seen. To get away and relax. To learn about another culture. But one reason that should definitely be on the you.

When traveling, make yourself a priority.

This concept can often get lost in the hustle and bustle of life, especially when organizing a vacation with other people. Everyone has their own ideas about where and when to go, what to do on arrival, how much to pay for accommodations or activities, etc. But travel should not just be about the group, but about individuals, too.

Seattle, Washington
For example, my group of long-time friends is trying to put together a summer trip. The original plan was Seattle some weekend in June, which seemed to work for everyone. But before we even had a chance to look at ticket prices, calendar limitations started popping up. One girl had a bridal shower in June, while another had a possible family vacation, and another had a potential freelance gig. Suddenly dates as early as April and as late as September were being thrown into the mix; people were offering to take inconvenient flights to make certain dates work; but every other month was nearly impossible, and eventually plans for the trip fell to the wayside.

Girlfriend Getaway.
The problem is that we want everyone to be able to go, but the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to get seven people in the same place at one time. Especially considering the crazy lives we all lead, and the fact that we're spread out across the country, and weekend trips are not super easy to organize. So far, there is one weekend that six of us can do, but people are reluctant to pull the trigger, because one person cannot make it. As sad as that is, I am a firm believer in traveling for yourself. If you want to go somewhere...go! No one else's schedule should stop you. I understand, in this case, it's a group trip, and that I have to succumb to various agendas. But the fact is that there is a date that works for the majority of the group, and I'm a realist. We may not be able to find a time when everyone can go.

Even if this whole trip falls apart, I fully intend to go to Seattle this year, either by myself or with a couple of the other girls that can still make it happen. Because the truth is, why should anyone sacrifice a wonderful vacation because of someone else? I probably sound like a horrible person, and that's fine--I know I'm not. In fact, I already have plans to see all these girls at some point this year, because the fact is that good friends make it happen. It doesn't necessarily have to be all at one time--though that makes it easier and less expensive--and taking multiple trips gives me the chance to go different places and experience new things.

I am not encouraging selfish, egotistical behavior, by any means. I am simply saying that make sure you take yourself into account when traveling. Never give up what you really want to do just because someone else doesn't want to do it or can't do it. Never limit yourself on account of another person. Because, let's face it, sometimes going it alone is the best idea.

Travel for you!

Solo Travel;