Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Europe deals, prices

Next month, I'll spend two weeks in Europe, finding out just how expensive everything really is.

Already I'm getting a hint, and I'd say that things aren't as bad as I'd feared.

Granted, winter is Europe's least expensive season; prices typically go up in spring, and by June 1 they go through the roof. But if you want to go to Europe before the end of April, you might be surprised.

An excellent hotel in Rome, the Bettoja, is charging $160 per night on Hotels.com for late February. (I'm staying in cheaper digs at Hotel des Artistes for $105 per night, also booked through Hotels.com) While a rental car through Orbitz is pricing out at $400 per week including the taxes, I'm finding the tab about 40 percent less if I prepay the car through Kemwel, and even less through Economy Car Rentals. (Yes, that's for a manual: Thanks, Daddy, for teaching me to drive stick!)

The U.K. is unbelievably expensive...but not as bad as I'd feared. A rental car for five days costs $100 -- yes, that's in dollars. And though hotel prices seem truly staggering, I snagged a rate of about 40 percent less on the hotel I wanted at Lastminute. (The double room, including tax, will cost $120 per night.)

You can follow the daily tab here on my blog once I start my trip, on Feb. 24. Meanwhile, I'll be keeping my eyes open for deals and passing them along.

Here's one worth considering:

  • Tourcrafters is offering a six-night package to Sicily including air from New York or Boston for $929 per person, double occupancy. The package includes airfare, hotel and car rental ... making it a seriously good deal. Prices are good through March 20.


AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Great fares to the Carib

Want to head for the islands? Book by Jan. 28 and you can snag flights for $49 each way from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean on American Airlines.

That hot deal comes from Travelzoo. You can sign up for deals from them or just check daily deals from Travelzoo, Airfarewatchdog and Farecompare at our website; check under Just In!

The skinny on this island deal: Not every flight is as cheap as $49, and seats are limited (what's new?) Some samples, provided by Travelzoo:

- Ft. Lauderdale-Nassau ... $49
- Miami-Montego Bay ... $74
- Ft. Lauderdale-San Juan ... $84

For details, click here

Friday, January 18, 2008

Booking a flight online? Change your browser!

Travel experts -- and many of us who book air tickets online -- have long suspected that least some airline websites insert "cookies'' when you visit...which means your "fare'' can rise when you check back a few minutes later.

Case in point: You go online to an airline site, find a round-trip fare of $200 to New York. Then you shop around a bit and come back a few minutes later...only to find the fare has jumped by $75.

What happened? A number of possibilities. One is that the flight could have been booked in the interim by several other people. The automatic "yield management'' programs of the airline push the remaining inventory up a notch pricewise. So the only seats left are more expensive ones.

Another possibilities is the cookies scenario: The airline's computer recognizes your computer and nudges the price north.

How to cope? The easy answer is to open a different browser. (I keep both Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox on my computers for just this reason.) So if I went in on Mozilla the first time, I go in on Exlorer the next. (Another option is to go onto a colleague's computer.)

But what if the seats really have been snagged?

Well, listen to what happened to me this morning. Yesterday, I booked an itinerary for Miami - Rome - London, price of $646. Rather than purchasing the flight, I held it to be sure my husband -- who will meet me for a family wedding in London -- could get the same return flight.

When I went back to purchase the flight this morning, the price had kicked up to $2,100 plus! No way!

So I opened another browser and put in the search dates again. My original itinerary cost a mint, but there were a ton of other options at my same happy $646 price. And since the exact itinerary details aren't that important to me, I was prepared to make a change.

But...I did like the original itinerary, because it gives me lunch time in NYC on a Sunday, so I can catch up with a friend. So I killed the original itinerary that I had on hold, waited 5 minutes and repriced the trip. Sure enough, releasing the original seat knocked the price back down, and I got my original itinerary for $646.

A hassle? Yeah, somewhat. But when it comes to booking airline seats, I'm happy to beat the airlines at their own game.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

More on Windjammer woes

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises has been in trouble since last fall. Our last report, from my Miami Herald colleague Patrick Danner on Dec. 11, indicated that Windjammer's ship Legacy was slated to resume service Jan. 5.

That date has come and gone -- and all January sailings have been cancelled, according to a company announcement at Coconut Telegraph, posted on Dec. 21.

Refund and re-booking requests should be faxed to 305-531-1805, according to the posting.


From The Miami Herald



Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' troubles appear to be worsening, casting further doubt on whether it will sail any of its four tall ships again.

The financially ailing Miami Beach company had planned to resume sailing one of the ships this past weekend, but canceled after it failed to "overcome the vast difficulties and roadblocks that have hampered [its] operation of late, " the company said on an online message board popular with Windjammer aficionados.

It's the fifth time a sailing on the Legacy has been canceled since a son of Windjammer's legendary founder Mike Burke announced the cruise line would restart on Nov. 3.

The company has set a Jan. 5 target date to resume sailing the Legacy, but it's not supposed to sell trips because its state license has expired. More than 100 customer complaints have been filed with Florida agencies.

Meanwhile, Windjammer's vessels still are detained in various Caribbean ports, encumbered by liens.

The vessels have fallen into disrepair while they've been idle, said Anthony Bellmar, a maritime official in Grenada, where three of Windjammer's vessels are registered.

"Ships deteriorate quickly if you don't pay attention to their needs, " Bellmar said. "The longer they wait, the more expenses to bring the ships back to standard. Sailing would be difficult."

Joey Burke, who has been trying to revive the business started by his father 60 years ago, said he had been advised by an attorney for the family trust that now owns Windjammer not to say anything because there is a reorganization in the works that involves outside investors.

Previous attempts to land investors, however, have not panned out.

One purported investor has even sued Windjammer, accusing it of "double-dealing" by negotiating with other parties.

The U.K.-based lawyer for the trust didn't respond to a message.

The string of canceled cruises has alienated many Windjammer customers. More than 100 complaints have been registered with the state Attorney General's office and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since August.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general said it is "conducting a preliminary review." The Department of Agriculture is investigating Windjammer primarily to make sure it isn't selling travel while it's not licensed by the state.

Windjammer's license to sell travel expired Nov. 9. Windjammer applied for renewal on Nov. 20, but was denied because it didn't post a $25,000 surety bond. The state is requiring the bond so that if Windjammer fails to honor sales, customers have an avenue to obtain refunds, said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Burke said Windjammer is in the process of getting the bond.

Greg Nelson of Somerset, Wis., had planned a week's vacation beginning Nov. 11 from St. Lucia on the Windjammer's Polynesia vessel. The trip was canceled and he has been fighting ever since to get a refund for the cost of the trip -- about $2,700 -- from either Windjammer or his credit card company.

"It's a good thing we're separated by a few states because I'm so angry, " Nelson said Friday. Later that day, he received an e-mail from Burke.

"I have a negative balance in our account right now so I can't send a refund right away, " Burke wrote in the e-mail, which he confirmed sending. "We should have some money by the 18th from the sale of some assets. Can you please contact me then?"

Miami Herald business writer Bridget Carey contributed to this report.

Queen Victoria is short on drawers

This report comes from Jay Clarke, our correspondent currently aboard the new Queen Victoria, and photographer Robert Koltun of El Nuevo Herald. (The photo above was shot in New York earlier this week by AP photographer Don Emmert.) You can contact Jay at jclarke@MiamiHerald.com:


Drawers are the hot topic on the world's newest cruise ship, Cunard's Queen Victoria. Not the kind you wear, but the kind you put things in.

The issue? There aren't enough drawers in passenger staterooms on this, the newest of Cunard's legendary ''Queens,'' and passengers are not happy about it. In the most numerous staterooms, for instance, there are four shelves in the closet, but two of them are occupied by a safe and pillows. Each of the two night tables has a drawer and an open space above, and that's it.

Even Capt. Paul Wright took note of passenger ire over the drawer situation.

''I'm supposed to get a big room,'' he told guests at the captain's reception, with tongue in cheek, ''but they gave me this small room. And it's full of drawers. Drawers everywhere.''

When you're embarked on a 106-night world cruise, that's not much space to put your belongings. So some passengers are improvising.

''When we get to Los Angeles, friends are meeting us,'' said passenger Judy Duvall. ''They're going to take us to Wal-Mart so we can buy plastic boxes.'' She and her friend Sue Moore, both from Hawaii, are traveling on the entire cruise, so they'll need the boxes.

The Queen Victoria got off to a rousing start last Sunday in New York, when all three of Cunard's Queens -- the Queen Elizabeth 2, the Queen Mary 2 and this new ship -- rendezvoused in New York harbor to a spectacular display of fireworks. It was the first and only time the three Queens would be in the same place at the same time. The QE2 has been sold and will become a permanently moored hotel in Dubai this fall.

After its stop in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday, the QV is continuing on a world cruise that will take it through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and back to Southampton, where she began this maiden global odyssey.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Got compassion? Rate your airline

How would you rate your airline? Right now mine is getting a big fat goose egg.


The call came about 8:30 at night. My mom, a stroke, hospitalized. Siblings out of pocket. We decided I’d fly up as soon as possible.

I checked online; American Airlines seemed to have seats, then they didn’t, then the prices changed with every log-in. I called them; many experts suspect that the airlines use cookies to push up the price when you check the same routing for the same doubt repeatedly through the same web browser, so you either have to move to another browser or make the call.

If you follow this blog, you know I’m a long-time premium frequent flier. But while AA was perfectly happy to take the revenue associated with the 50,074 miles I flew on them in 2007 and the 971,296 miles I’ve flown with them over my lifetime, they didn’t seem to have the same interest in me when my mother was striken.

The premium agent didn’t seem to care much; OK, maybe she’d had a thumper of a day herself. But her fares didn’t show much compassion, either. Since I didn’t know when I was returning, she checked one-way fares. To fly to Raleigh, N.C., the one-way fare would be $1,000-plus, and the first flight she could find would put me there 24 hours later….less efficient than what I was finding myself on American’s website.

“I’m having trouble remembering why I flew 50,000 miles on your airline last year,’’ I told her, thinking to myself “but I doubt I’ll have a lot of trouble figuring out whether to give the miles to your airline next year.’’


Compassion fares, you see, are all but a thing of the past on all airlines. American, I was told, limits the number of compassion fares per day -- the implication being that if you’re going to have a family emergency, you better schedule it wisely.

Alternatively, I was told I could use “anytime’’ miles to get a ticket -- a whomping 50,000 miles rather than the “regular’’ tariff of 25,000 miles. Like the compassion fares, the “regular’’ FF tickets were gone.

Before I go off on a rant about any number of things American could do to better serve their long-time loyal clients in such unhappy circumstance – and if you read far enough, you’re gonna get to that rant – let’s talk about other airlines.


Yes, legacy carriers have faced a tough financial picture in recent years. But travel has rebounded like a roundball that’s been slammed by D-Wade. Yet most U.S. airlines still treat passengers like cattle rather than people paying hard-earned money for a service. Yes, a service. Airline seats are now a commodity, and so, apparently, are those of us who fill them.

Consider the report this week from Florida's Attorney General's office that said travel-related complaints rank No. 2 among Florida consumers, just behind the dreaded violators of the Do Not Call list, and just above communication providers (that's the cable guy and the phone companies.) Granted, many of those travel complaints relate to billing and scams, but some have to do with ... you got it ... service.

Case in point: Former Miamian Karyn Herterich called the other day with a sadly familiar tale about her son, a Delta flight to Miami to catch a cruise, lost luggage. Her complaint was less about the lost luggage than poor service by the Delta representatives handling the matter. A dozen calls to Delta's offshore call center left her furious. You know the drill; someone who speaks English by language but whose cultural orientation leaves him/her completely unprepared to deal with American expectations, habits, idioms, even geography. (One agent even suggested they’d send the luggage to her son’s next shore call at a port in S.C., not geographically adept enough to understand that his next call was at a town by that same name – in the Caribbean.)

Herterich has an advantage: she serves on a national board with a top Delta executive and has shared the details with his executive assistant. “But what about normal people?’’ she says.

Good question. “Normal’’ people are likely in a rough ride. And apparently, being a platinum flier doesn’t mean a darn thing, either.


So let’s get to the part where we talk about the common-sense steps airlines could implement that would make them seem like they care about something besides $$ (like, say, brand loyalty).

A few ideas:

  • In emergency cases, airlines could put supervisors on the phone, who could check the long-time loyal flier’s record and find out if they’re a habitual “dog-ate-my-homework, my 25th-grandfather-died’’ abuser, or if they’re really what they claim to be: a flier with a lifetime mileage total of 971,000 miles whose family has suffered a crisis.

  • They could authorize supervisors to waive the “anytime’’ double mileage requirement in favor of the regular requirement but require some sort of verification letter from a doctor or hospital.

  • At the very least, they could train their personnel to act like they’ve got hearts, even if they can’t do a lot to help soften the pain of a stupidly costly airline ticket.

    Or they could actually have reasonable fares.

As for Herterich's off-shore call problem, let's just say that I vote with my feet. If I can't get reasonable service most of the time for ANY reason -- from my airline, bank, drugstore, mechanic -- I vote with my feet. And I do what Herterich is doing: I let them know why I'm voting with my feet. Enough people do that, and whatever ridiculous practice of the moment sometimes gets changed. (Yup, I'm Pollyanna.)


Before I tell you how this story ended, I want to take a moment for fairness.

Like any big company, American does have some wonderful employees. Like Keith, the purser on my New Year’s Eve flight from Boston to Miami. We were delayed by mechanical failure; Keith was cheery, helpful – even let me use his cell phone to call reservations. And he had a sense of humor.

And Bill, the purser who works First Class on the Miami-Dallas run. Sure, it’s First Class (I snag the occasional FF upgrade) but he’s still nicer, more attentive, than any other First Class server I’ve seen on any AA flight.

The problem is that for every noticeably positive experience I’ve had on AA, I’ve had a noticeably unpleasant one. Let’s call that a 50 percent average. That’s isn’t so bad in baseball, but on a math test, it would earn you an F.


Yes, I did get to Raleigh.

Southwest, the airline of humor and reason, had several flights available at acceptable pricing. I snagged one for early the next morning. Yes, I had to drive to Lauderdale when I live 15 minutes from MIA, but it was worth it.

When I got here, I explained to the agent, Karen, at Alamo that I wasn’t sure how long I’d need the car. “If you need to stay longer, just call us. There’s a $10 fee for extending the rental, but I’ll make a note, and we’ll waive it.’’

Now that’s compassion.


How’s your airline? Share your stories, good and bad; just CLICK TO COMMENT below.

Kenya: Is it safe?

Is it safe to go to Kenya following recent political unrest?

Local experts are advising travelers to wait and see.

"If you haven't booked anything yet, I'd wait two weeks and see what happens," said Sylvia Berman,owner of Post Haste Travel in Hollywood.

"Anyone who has plans in Kenya in the next four weeks, I've advised not to go," said Norman Pieters, owner of Miami-based Karell's African Dream Vacations.

The situation does seem to be improving slowly, says Fred Ngoga Gateretse, Africa specialist for iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, which advises individual travelers and corporations on safety. "In the tourist areas, the government has reinforced security," he says.

The most significant risk for tourists is when entering Kenya via the capital of Nairobi, said Bruce McIndoe, iJET president.

Several locally-based Africa travel specialists said they knew of no serious inci-
dents involving tourists save for some short-term disruptions to domestic air travel and gas shortages in late December. Major tour operators are whisking travelers away from Nairobi, Berman said. African Travel Inc. told The Washington Post it did not feel it was necessary to cancel any tours but was allowing clients to cancel trips booked for this month.

Travelers who have booked tours are at the mercy of their agent and operator.
Most travel insurance policies do not allow travelers to cancel because of "civil unrest," said Dan McGinnity, spokesman for AIG Travel Guard.

The Kenya Tourist Board's releases as of press time indicated that violence had been limited to areas far from the tourist track and that public transport, banks and offices in Nairobi had returned to business "as usual."

The U.S. State Department has issued an update that advises travelers "to consider carefully the risks of travel to Kenya at this time and updates information on safety and security concerns."


Monday, January 07, 2008

Back from the snowy north

One of the questions I'm asked most frequently is where I go on vacation. After all, if you travel the globe for work, people might rightly figure that when I'm not working, I might stay home.

No way.

Many travel editors do stay home when they've got time off, but I'm not one of them.

Last year, The Husband and I headed to Cameroon, in West Africa. It was a fascinating but in many ways grueling trip...limited food (we're talking Laughing Cow cheese for lunch, every day), AK47-toting guards along the muddy lanes that pass for highways, and bribe-demanding officials throughout the airport.

This year we opted to stick closer to home, spending our days reading, eating, sleeping and tromping through the snow drifts in Maine, Quebec City and Vermont. We slipped down the toboggan run in front of Quebec's Chateau Frontenac, chowed on pork at Buck's Naked BBQ in Freeport, Maine (home of the 24/7 L.L. Bean store) and went snowshoeing through the virgin powder in Greensboro, Vt.

I wouldn't want to live in snow, but it surely was nice to visit it.

A few scenes: