Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Taking a little vacation

Yes, I'm taking a few days off, meeting a friend of a spa weekend in Mexico.

I can use both the R&R and the girl time. Usually I travel alone or with The Husband. The idea of some wine and bonding seems like just the tonic ... and especially at these prices.

At home I avoid spas for the sheer cost. But this experience at Ixtapan Spa costs $830 for four nights lodging in a single room, a host of spa treatments and all my spa cuisine.

I'll let you know how it goes. And here's to losing a little jeans are stretched to the max.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Buy asap for this fab deal

Spirit Airlines is offering one of it's supercheap deals...36 cents from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport, reports You must purchase by April 30 and travel May 4, 5, 6, 11, 13 or 18.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Surcharges: What do you think?

Given the hyperspeed rise of gasoline prices, it's no surprise that cruise lines and airlines have imposed fuel surcharges. And who can blame them -- especially after Delta Airlines' grim quarterly report of a $6.93 billion loss. Northwest posted a $4.1 billion loss. While both companies took some one-time losses, both said the high fuel costs were part of the problem.

No, it's not the fuel surcharges that have me steamed, it's the way they -- and taxes -- are buried on websites. Whether you're booking a cruise -- Oceania just imposed an $10 per person per day fuel surcharge, following the lead of most other major cruise lines -- ir airline ticket, in most cases, you can't see how those surcharges are affecting the bottom line until you go all the way through the booking process. And that generally applies whether you're booking online or on the phone, I've found.

Worse yet, agree consumer advocates, are hotel surcharges, which rack up a reported $1.6 billion in revenues annually.

You've probably seen them on your bill: "Resort fees'' imposed by resorts, "energy surcharges'' and additional fees for items like in-room safes.

To a traveler, this falls between nickel-and-diming and downright deceit. The hotels have long ago installed both the safes and the resort facilities. In fact, the practice has come under legal fire, and the Wyndham chain is being sued. (Because of pending litigation the company declined to comment.)

Earlier this week I got hit with a $2.50 per night surcharge at a Sleep Inn in Orlando. It was disclosed when I booked on the website as a fee for using the safe. When the woman in front of me asked to have the fee removed at check-out because she didn't use the safe, the clerk refused. And of course, the clerk refused me, too.

That's a no-no, said Rocco Loverro, spokesman for Choice Hotels, which operates Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn, Quality and other brands. And if the hotel refuses, the consumer can contact Choice's corporate headquarter.

Choice recognizes this is a consumer hot-button. Though all of its properties are individually owned, the company is working toward a "seamless billing'' initiative, said Loverro. That means surcharges would be folded into the rate. But there's no timetable for completion.

Have you had a similar experience? What's your view? Click to comment below.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Busch Gardens: Tiger in the Tank

Who knew that tigers like to swim? That orangutans like to paint? Or that there really is a theme park area just for tweeners?

Welcome to Jungala, the new 4-plus acre area at Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa.

The animal exhibits here -- tigers, orangutans, flying foxes -- are all from Asia. And you can get up-close and personal without risking limbs, thanks to some wonderfully inventive see-through barriers and viewing areas that put you right inside the exhibits. (Of course, you can still hear the roller coaster roaring overhead.)

There's a giant rope jungle gym with totaly enclosed byways so kids can't fall through (or get pushed by a sibling), a "zip-line'' ride just for kids and a "surge'' ride that's only 35 feet tall, which is just about right for kids who aren't ready for the 'coaster (and the adults who aren't ready for them either!)

Of all the new attractions I saw this year on my annual dash through the theme parks, Jungala is the one that most captured my imagination. If there's another place you can watch tigers swim just behind a glass, or play tug-of-war with a tiger, I haven't seen it yet.



The Disney report

This year, most of Disney's news happens at the park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios, now called Disney's Hollywood Studios.

No, we're not talking about new park areas or major changes. There is one new ride on the way -- that's the 3D Toy Story Mania! ride through shoot out -- but it doesn't debut until late May. Meanwhile, Studios offers three smaller but energetic additions. Times for each can change daily so you'll need to consult the park schedule when you arrive.

Last December, the megahit High School Musical 2: Schools Out! literally rolled into the park. Think singers and dancers on a stage that glides through the "streets'', stopping at Mickey's Magic Scorcerer Hat. Kids are encouraged to join in, which means every little girl (and a few big ones too) can have her shot at a moment of cheerleadering glory.

New is the musical parade Block Party Bash. Floats decked with characters from Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and other Pixar faves winds through the park, then stops for a high-energy dance party where -- once again -- pint-sized partiers are invited to join the festivities.

For the smallest park visitors, Playhouse Disney Live offers a chance to learn a few of life's lessons (the importance of friends, everyone can play an important role) in the company of Mickey, Minnie, Tigger and Pooh and Roo. The show offer plenty of chances for kids to clap and dance along -- yes, it's a pattern -- so they won't get bored.

At Epcot, Spaceship Earth has been refreshed -- the story line used to end about 1980 -- with the addition of touch-screen interaction and a new voice-over by Dame Judi Dench. But the most fun may come in the "post-show'' at the ride's end called Project Tomorrow, when parkgoers can make postcards based on photos shot during the ride, explore the human body via a 3-D game and find out what happens during an auto accident -- courtesy of technology by Siemens.

Oh, and lest the Disney PR people bang me on the head for forgetting, the annual Epcot Flower & Garden Festival runs through June 1. (Don't miss the topiaries, which are truly amazing.)


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Simpsons hit Universal

Marge, Homer and the gang have made it to Universal Studios.

That's the big news this summer at Universal, both in Orlando and Hollywood. (Both Disney and Universal are opening attractions simultaneously on coasts east and west --- one has to figure it's at least a little more economical.)

Here's the drill: Our old buddy Krusty the Clown is opening a new theme park, and the Simpsons are getting the first ride. Little do they know that the evil Sideshow Bob has sneaked himself into a character suit and is running amok throughout the park with the idea of destroying it all. Trouble ensues -- hey, this is a theme park ride -- but in the end all's well that ends well. (But you knew that.)

The new ride, which debuts late next month, is stationed in the old Back to the Future space (now that Future is past, so to speak.) You'll hardly recognize the place; just about the only things that are the same are the actual massive building and the mechanical pads that the motion simulators sit on. Yup, this is a simulation ride .... though based on our preview, you'll hardly notice you're not actually spinning in the air.

Tomorrow, we'll catch up on Disney!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Aquatica: Cool new water park

The big news in Orlando is Aquatica, the water park opened in March by SeaWorld (and located just across the street.) Aquatica mixes water slides, lazy rivers, falls, wave pools, a wet jungle-gym type area for little kids -- and animal interactions. There's nothing else quite like it, and mom Deborah Poppe from Long Island rated it the best attraction in Orlando for her kids, ages 4 and 5. "It's amazing,'' she said.

Teens, families and young adults all rated the park as a A-plus -- all except one mom, who came up to the park operations manager while we were talking about complained that she'd be searching for 30 minutes and couldn't find a place to sit with her baby and two other children. Aquatica is on the case, said operations manager Bryan Nadreau. He's already added 1,000 chairs since the park opened, and another 500 are on order.

Park officials say the signature attraction is Dolphin Plunge, which allows riders to zip through a tube atop a wooden tower down 250 feet of clear tubes that run through the habitat of four Commerson's dolphins. Lines were long, lasting about 45 minutes. But a few riders we spoke with thought it wasn't worth the wait. "I couldn't see anything,'' said Erin Cottet of Orlando. But the rest of the park got a big thumbs up.

A really great steak

Theme parks aren't known for their culinary prowess, but every now and then you get surprised. Tonight I had a meal at Le Cellar, the steak house in the Canada area of Epcot.

Report: Killer Prince Edward Island mussells in Thai coconut curry sauces, and one of the best filet mignon I've had in a while...even at The Palm.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Report from Theme Park Central

It's a Sunday night in April, and even on insane I-Drive things are (relatively) quiet. It's a perfect time to be Central Florida checking on the newest offerings from the theme parks.

Tomorrow, I'll visit Universal, the new Aquatica water park near SeaWorld and Disney. Look for my report tomorrow night (or if I get really carried away, Tuesday morning!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Europe for cheap...well, cheaper

Experts predicted it, and here it comes: Fixed-dollar rates.

European hotels aching for U.S. business are starting to promise rates fixed in U.S. dollars at a substantial discount over what you'd pay at today's eggregious dollar-euro exchange rate. And British Airways is offering discounts for travelers who book in its World Traveller Plus class (that's Premium Economy, with more leg-room but not all the other biz-class frills.)

A few examples:

  • The Stafford in London promises a fixed rate of $1.80 per 1 pound if you book directly with the hotel by calling 011 44 20 7493 0111. That offer is good throughout 2008.

  • Worldhotels is offering a $1 to 1 euro rate for its European hotels booked from the U.S. through June 30. That means a hotel whose rate is 150 euros will charge only $150 during this period when booked in advance from the U.S.

Travel agent Nancy McLemore at Coral Gables-based TraveLeaders is telling us she's seeing more and more dollar-fixed rates offered to travel agents. Word to the wise: If you're looking for a Europe hotel this year, you might want to call an agent first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The merger: Bad news for travelers?

That's the buzz out in the bloggesphere. The proposed Delta - Northwest merger -- which will create the world's biggest carrier in terms of traffic -- will probably mean a cut in seats on some routes and decreased customer service, reported Travel Mole, an industry report, which wrote:

    The merger was viewed by airline consultant Mike Boggs as a logical one. But he added:

    “For consumers, any time they lose options, that’s not good. Any time competition goes away that’s not good,” Mr Boggs said.

    Skeptics who predicted service would not improve were easy to find. The biggest impact, according to critics, may be the severe toll the merger could take on customer service and competition in the airline industry.

Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott doubts the company spin that the new entity will result in "a stronger, more resilient airline that will be a leader in providing customer service and value.''

On his Today in the Sky blog, USA Today staffer Ben Mutzabaugh reports that a United / Continental merger may be just around the corner.

In these economic times, you have to figure that a merger might be better for consumers than a continuation of the airline shutdowns we saw in recent weeks, when Skybus, ATA and Aloha shut down, and Frontier filed for Chapter 11. But as frequent flier, I can't believe that service will improve.

Free market supporters may argue that the market will win out, but if it does, I'm sorry to suggest that consumers probably won't. If we had a true Open Skies with all airlines around the world competing equally, that might actually happen...but I'm not betting on it. The barriers to entry are simply too high, and some niche markets too small, for a pure "open market'' to yield the kind of service I'd like to see in the skies.

Part of the problem is us. Me. I want cheap fares. And so does most everyone else I know. But I also want reasonable service -- and with consolidation, it's ever-less likely. Which puts me in favor of a basic Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

What about you? Vote at right or click to comment below.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Airline woes will continue

That's the latest from the soothsayers.

The Associated Press is reporting that delays are likely to get worse throughout the summer, though it may not be because of maintenance issues. (New York area airports and those in Chicago (O'Hare) and Minneapolis will be worst hit, they project.)

Randall Travel Marketing, a respected trend watcher, thinks more regional airline carriers may go under in wake of rising fuel costs. They mention a story from Airline Weekly: "Aloha Airlines and Skybus joined ATA in bankruptcy recently. Alitalia is also on the brink of bankruptcy. RTM expects to see this trend continue throughout 2008 due to rising fuel costs and weak management plans. Mostly affected will be smaller, regional carriers."

Get advice and more info from travel advocate Christopher Elliott, columnist for MSNBC.

What to do if you're delayed

Whether you're stuck now in the rash of American Airlines cancellations or plan to travel this summer, chances are good that you'll be stuck at some point.

We've published tips for coping before, but you might not have needed them then. So here they are again:

  • Call ahead to double-check on your flight.

  • Register your cell number with your airline.

  • Bring a cellphone, and keep your airline and/or travel agent's phone number handy. You can usually call ahead to rebook.

  • Have the phone numbers of people you are meeting, hotels where you're staying and car rental agencies, so you can advise them of changes.

  • Book hotels that allow you to cancel. Some online services have 24-hour cancellation policies and will charge you for the first night regardless of the reason for delay.

  • Build in an an extra day between your flight arrival and the departure of your cruise or tour for travel insurance. Compare policies at

  • Keep toys and extra diapers handy.

  • Bring snacks. Airlines rarely offer meals anymore, and airport offerings can be limited at best.

What do you think about air safety?

Is it safe to fly? I have no way of knowing, any more than any other average consumer. But I can tell you that it's not something I worry about.

You can argue all day long about whether the FAA is doing the job it should, whether airlines are trying to cut costs, and whether the current grounding of AA flights is as much about political showmanship -- as some stories have suggested -- as it is safety. If this is like most everything else, there's probably a little bit of truth in all those things.

Personally, I'm more concerned about traffic control in the air and near misses than I am about safety at one publicly-held airline. Market economics have severe limitations, but any airline that doesn't put safety first is going to end up with problems that can wreck the entire company -- and no management team or board of directors is going to be in favor of that.

Will the current mess keep me off planes? Not a chance. While I've had plenty of arguments with AA over the years -- I'm a million miler -- those arguments are related to sometimes surly service, not safety.

For some people, flying evokes a primeval fear, and any turbulence is reason to cling to the ground. Me, I drive regularly in Miami-Dade County. I guarantee you, flying on any U.S. airline is safer.

What do you think? Click to Comment below.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cell phones in the skies?

If you're flying over Europe, you'll soon be able to yammer away on your cell phone. But not in the U.S. -- at least yet.

The European Union has confirmed what many of us have long suspected: the turn-off-your-cell rule isn't a safety issue per se. But it could be a sanity issue.

Europeans use their mobile phones differently from Americans. They tend to text -- much cheaper in Europe than calling -- and talk briefly. Yes, right, fine, thanks, ciao.

Americans, as we all well know, use their phones as an extension of their personal space. A trip to my local grocery is an involuntary expedition into fellow shoppers' health issues, marital distress, love affairs -- and in amazingly graphic detail. It's not unusual to find someone so engrossed in their business negotiation or gossipfest that they stop in mid-aisle or forget to pull out money at the register.

Now, let's take that scenario to the skies. 3B is yelling about the deal that went south, 12C is placing a bet with his bookie, 14D is making a salon appointment, 16A is chattering about last night's hot date, and the teen in 22C is plotting parental revenge. My husband is the guy complaining -- loudly -- that his Bose noise-cancelling earphones aren't protection enough, and whose stupid idea was this cellphone thing anyway?

With those images in mind, I think I'm in favor of keeping the cell switch turned off in-flight.

What about you? Click to comment below and take our poll at right.

We removed the poll to add our most recent question about airline safety. But the cell phone issue was a hot button: 128 people voted the first day, with 20 percent in favor of allowing cell phones in the air and 80 percent against.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Can travel insurance help?

With the recent troubles at three airlines … Aloha, Skybus and ATA … you may be wondering how to protect your vacation. Travel insurance may provide an answer -- but it doesn't always. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Never buy insurance from the travel provider; instead, go with a reputable third-party insurer. You'll find them at Insure My Trip and Quote Wright . Both firms represent highly-rated travel insurance companies.

  • Be sure the policy you are considering covers the conditions that concern you most. Nearly all package policies include trip interruption, baggage loss, medical evacuation, medical care and trip delay. But coverage amounts vary … and so do conditions. One policy may kick in if your mother dies but not your favorite uncle. Look online, then call to be sure.

  • Check to see your travel providers are covered. Some insurance companies only cover travel firms on a pre-approved "white list;" others won't cover companies on their "black list." (Tip: Look under financial default.)

  • Buy insurance immediately after you book your trip to be sure all pre-existing conditions are covered. But know that you can buy trip insurance as late as the day you travel; you'll simply forgo coverage of prexisting conditions.

  • Ask the insurance broker if your trip is covered if you purchased directly with the airline or other travel supplier. A few policies cover you only if you purchased trip elements through a travel agent.

  • Buy enough coverage to be sure you can get home in an emergency. Buying a last-minute ticket in high season can cost several thousand dollars.

  • Doublecheck hurricane policies. Nearly all policies will cover you if a hurricane actually hits … but most will make you leave on a planned trip even if a hurricane warning has been issued for your home city.

  • Few policies cover civil unrest. When turmoil errupted in Kenya early this year, few insurance policies paid for trip cancellations.

  • Look carefully at terrorism definitions. Many policies will cover a cancellation only if terrorism erupts on a city on your itinerary … but not if it hits elsewhere in the country you are visiting.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Airfare wars

Got the money blues? The airlines must, too, because there's a new round of cheap fares out there.

Our friends at SmarterTravel and Hotwire have alerted us to fare wars at American Airlines and Southwest, and British Airways has also announced a sale.

The rub: The fares are fine, but fuel surcharges and taxes can really rack up the final price. And the best fares often limited to schedules that aren't always convenient, usually on Saturdays and mid-week. You know the drill: Book asap or you're toast.

Here are a few samples:


American's sale includes a dozen-plus destinations from Fort Lauderdale and about the same from Miami.

The price from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, for instance, is only $218 roundtrip ... but when you add in taxes, etc., the final cost is $260 (which is still a bargain.)

From Miami, you can fly to New Orleans for a fare of $162 roundtrip -- a total of $175 with taxes and fees.


For this sale, you have to book by April 17 with at least 14-days' advance notice. Lowest fares range from $49 to $99 each way. Locally, Southwest serves Fort Lauderdale.

Sample fare: We were able to find a Lauderdale to Las Vegas fare of $241.50, including all the taxes and fees, but we had to hunt around for days when the cheapest fare was available. Lauderdale to Manchester, N.H. (near Boston) priced out at $183.


Book by April 10 for discounts on travel to Europe through May 25. We aren't talking dirt cheap -- we found a Miami-Madrid fare for May for $860 including taxes -- but BA will throw in a $50 discount if you book car rental or hotel through them with your flight.

Hint: You might do better to buy a cheap flight to New York, then purchase a separate ticket from New York to Europe. Case in point: We found a roundtrip fare from New York to London for $544.61; from Miami the cheapest we could snag was $797. But if you do this, be sure to leave plenty of extra time between your New York and Miami flights; if you miss a leg, you could have to pay full fare.Got the money blues? The airlines must, too, because there's a new round of cheap fares out there.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Is the economy shrinking your vacation?

I'm in Asheville, N.C. (more about that later!) at a conference of the Southeast Tourism Society. One of the questions under discussion: How will the economy affect travel this year?

It's a subject we've reported on at the Miami Herald. Our reporting -- along with the research of some pretty smart people -- tells us that vacation time is sacred. Despite the economic downtown, Americans will continue to take vacations this year. But they may scale back, stay closer to home, eat in less-grand restaurants or downscale their accommodations. And they probably won't be going to Europe.

What are you doing? Answer our poll at right or click below to Comment.


Q: Can a "deal'' such as an extra night free or free gas influence your vacation decision?

  • Definitely: 25 percent
  • Possibly: 43 percent.
  • Unlikely: 30 percent.