Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Friday, February 29, 2008

New York Times Travel Show this weekend

Gadget geeks drool over the Consumer Electronics Show. Video game fantatics go nuts over E3. This weekend, I'll be going gaga at the New York Times Travel Show.

The weekend-long slate of travel seminars will feature icons like Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer. The "Taste of the World" extravaganza will offer tastings from ancient Rome and a Mexico culinary tour with Rick Bayless. Live entertainment will include performances from Brazil, Lithuania and Indonesia. And so much more!

I don't want to come across like a marketing shill for the show, but suffice to say that I'll be like the proverbial kid in a candy store.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where I'd like to go

Much of my travel in the past couple of years has centered around scuba diving, and has taken me to such places as Cozumel (Mexico), Roatan (Honduras) and Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles). While there are many other dive destinations I'd like to visit, my travel wish list includes many non-diving destinations.

Here's a list of some of the places I'd like to visit, along with a brief explanation of why.

Spain. No city in particular, but perhaps Barcelona and the Balearic Islands for starters. I've wanted to visit Spain since my high school Spanish class, and this desire led me to apply to the American Field Service in my junior year. AFS sent me to Honduras instead, so I still haven't made it to Spain.

Scandinavia. I could probably spend several weeks traveling through Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland and never have to pay for a hotel room. My father made many friends in Norway during his years in international business, and I have a number of friends scattered throughout the rest of the region. Someday soon, I need to take advantage of these connections.

New Zealand. I am a Lord of the Rings fan, but the country's scenery appeals more to my outdoor adventure sensibilities than to the nerd within. From friends who have gone and TV programs I've seen, I know I'd love exploring that beautiful country.

South Pacific. From what I've heard and read, comparing the scuba diving in the Caribbean to that of the South Pacific is like comparing the amusement park section of your county fair to Six Flags. The only thing that has held me back before now is the cost. I feel a trip like that needs at least two weeks (costly in terms of vacation time), and the air fare itself is very pricey. So for now, places like Palau, Fiji and Papua New Guinea will stay on the wish list.

Antarctica. Like the South Pacific, this one will likely stay on the wish list for awhile (unless I win the lottery). I've already been face-to-face (more like beak-to-knee) with Emperor penguins, thanks to my time working as a diver at Sea World. But someday I'd like to set foot on this continent and see its otherworldly landscape in person. (And, yes, I want to go diving here too.)

Where would you like to go? And why?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

US Air follows United with $25 fee for second bag

We all knew this was coming. Today, US Air announced that it's following United's lead in charging $25 each way for a second checked bag on all its flights, beginning May 5 (with a few exceptions that don't apply to most passengers). Like dominos, more U.S. carriers are sure to fall in step with this new rule.

When United first announced its rule change a few weeks ago, I debated its fairness via email and in the online travel communities. Interestingly, reaction is mixed amongst travelers. Some applaud the new rule, thinking (naively, in my opinion) that it'll force people to pack better and bring less stuff with them. Others (like me) don't believe the airlines' claim that the change is due to rising fuel costs, and think it's just another way for them to make a buck. Why not give travelers checking only one (or no) bag a $25 discount as incentive to pack light, instead of charging those who check a second bag?

My biggest objection is that it's going to make the boarding process more hellish than it already is. People will try to avoid the extra fee by carrying on bigger bags and more stuff than they already do. Consequently, we'll have to wait even longer for people to stow all their personal items, and overhead compartment space will be ever harder to come by.

This rule also discriminates against parents and certain recreational travelers. People traveling with children are more likely to need to travel with more luggage, and travelers going on golf, ski or scuba vacations have no choice but to check a second bag to carry their sporting gear.

Finally, it just seems like a misguided effort to solve the weight/fuel issue. The fairest solution would be to give every traveler a base weight allowance, with fees applicable for anyone exceeding those allowances. When you get to the airport to check in, you place your carry-on bags, your checked luggage and YOURSELF on the scale.

With a base allowance of 300 pounds, for example, Traveler A—a small woman who weighs 120 pounds—can check two 50-pound suitcases and take a couple of heavy carry-ons, and still stay far under the allowance. Traveler B, a 250-pound ex-linebacker, can check one 40-pound suitcase and have 10 pounds left for carry-ons without paying extra. Traveler C, an obese 340-pound person, will have to pay extra even without checking or carrying on any bags.

Sure, this proposal is not politically correct, but I challenge anyone to tell me it isn't fair. Under US Air's and United's new rule, my slim girlfriend who checks two bags will be penalized for extra weight, while a 300-pound person who checks one bag will not. Which person adds more total net weight to the aircraft's load?

If you feel like I do, voice your objections to US Air and United now. Then start flying another airline.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ask before you go (or while you're going)

If you're planning a trip, solicit suggestions from friends and family. Okay, so that's a no-brainer. If they've been to where you're going, their tips on what to do/see/eat can be invaluable. Even if they haven't been, they might have heard a thing or two that you haven't. The angle that I hadn't considered, and what I'm offering now, is to solicit recommendations even if you're going for a day trip or if you think no one you know would have any tips to share.

Case in point: As I wrote yesterday, we spent the day exploring Connecticut on Sunday. Because it was a short and somewhat spontaneous trip, I didn't think to mention it to anyone. Come to find out, if I'd talked to my parents (we had plenty of drive time during which I could have called them), I would have found out that I am a direct descendant of some of the founders of the town of Milford, Connecticut, and there is apparently a memorial bridge in town inscribed with their names. Wouldn't searching out those inscriptions have been a fun quest for a Sunday afternoon?

Next time, I'll remember: no trip is too short, no destination too close, to solicit recommendations from others who might know more than you.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Exploring Connecticut

There are days when the claustrophobia of New York skyscraper canyons and underground subway tunnels get too much for me, and on those days, I have to escape the city. Yesterday was one of those days, so we hopped in the car and set off to explore Connecticut. Our goal was Mystic, a place I'd always imagined to be a quaint, historic port town. Upon arrival, however, my expectations proved a little larger than life.

True, I could see some old sailing ships across the water in $15-per-person Mystic Seaport (we chose to waste our money in other ways, as you'll read below), and we spent some time in some fun crafts shops—but it was no Annapolis. We did manage to live the cliche, having lunch at Mystic Pizza (of Julia Roberts filmography fame).

More picturesque was the little town of Guilford, off the beaten path between New Haven and New London. Guilford was settled way back in 1639, and features the oldest house in the state. Also scenic was Westerly, Rhode Island, just over the state line. With lots of old buildings, as well as shops and bars galore, the place seemed to have plenty of day and night life. We didn't spend much time in either place, but if you go, I'd recommend passing Mystic right on by and visiting one of these towns.

At the end of the day, we circled by what Cassie called a "ghost town": Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a hibernating New England beach resort. For someone like me who grew up on southern California's coastline, it was strange to see snow on the beach. The bay's numerous moorings all bobbed in the water, empty. The cabanas sat behind chain link fence, boarded up. The many shops along the main strip were all closed. No tumbleweeds rolled by, but the wind did whistle in our ears. As desolate as it was, I can only imagine the crowds six months from now.

On our return to the city, I exhibited poor judgment and suggested a stop at Foxwoods Casino. The place was impressive—Wikipedia just told me it's the largest casino in the world in terms of square footage for gambling, and they're expanding this summer—but their slot machines were stingy. We got plenty of exercise walking through the resort's 4.7 million square feet, but it was our wallets that lost weight.

Gambling losses and high expectations aside, we had a fun day of exploration. And I can now cross off two more of our United States from the list of states I have not yet visited.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bon temps, mauvais temps

Two years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the good times have started rolling again in New Orleans, but things are still far from normal. More and more often, I hear how desperately the city needs tourists to return, how critical the restoration of tourism is to the city's recovery, and yet how slow visitors are to come back to the still-struggling city.

A recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's show "No Reservations" focused on the Big Easy (get it on iTunes). Tony was not subtle in exhorting viewers to return to the city and help it get back on its feet by bringing tourist dollars. Even some of the oldest, most well-known restaurants in the French Quarter are fighting simply to stay open.

Yet, in some ways, New Orleans is holding itself back. The crime rate has skyrocketed since Katrina. Someone mentioned to me last night that there have been more shooting deaths in New Orleans so far in 2008 than in Iraq. That seems a little fanciful to me, and a two-month period is a short span of time from which to draw statistics, but such a claim highlights the city's crime problem.

And that problem is a Catch-22 dilemma. Crime has escalated because of the extreme economic effects of Katrina. To turn things around, the New Orleans economy needs businesses and tourists to return. But, in the face of the city's crime rate, businesses and tourists have been reluctant to do so.

Fortunately, le bon temps seem to be rolling again. The city recently had a big influx of tourism dollars, thanks to the Sugar Bowl, NBA All-Star Game and Mardi Gras. Upcoming events like Jazz Fest and the PGA Tournament will bring more visitors. Like Anthony Bourdain, other celebrities are using their fame to encourage people to return.

Hopefully, the city's tourism industry has turned a corner, and New Orleans can move onto the next chapter of the Katrina recovery effort. We can all help N'awlins put le mauvais temps behind it and keep le bon temps rolling. If you're looking for somewhere fun to spend a long weekend, think no further than New Orleans.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday travel photo

An idyllic view of the Pacific from a beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cheap dive packages to Cozumel

For those like me who love to scuba dive, I wanted to share this awesome deal I found for dive travel to Cozumel, thanks to Sport Diver magazine. Both Hotel Cozumel and Fiesta Americana are offering some really inexpensive specials for 3-, 5- and 7-night stay-and-dive packages this summer and fall. You can find all the pricing here, but a sample 3-night/2-dive-day package at Hotel Cozumel (perfect for a long weekend getaway) during the summer is only $296 (p.p./d.o.). Upgrade to all-inclusive (all meals and alcohol) for only $353.

I'm not going to get in the habit of posting just any great deal I come across, but this one's so good that I'm probably going to take advantage of it myself. I stayed and dived at Hotel Cozumel last year, so I know it's a decent place to stay. My girlfriend Cassie did her first night dive right off the dock there, seeing such cool critters as a free-swimming octopus and eel, a school of squid, a wandering lobster and much more.

The only dive trip I've got planned for the rest of 2008 is a weekend in Dutch Springs (a quarry in Pennsylvania), so I'd better get busy planning something!


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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Great deals @ Travelzoo

Okay, today I'm giving a free plug to Travelzoo. The company finds amazing travel deals, and publishes them on their website and in their weekly Top 20 email newsletter. I've been a subscriber to the latter for several years now, and am always amazed by some of the deals they manage to find. I've even taken advantage of a few of them myself.

So with a nod of thanks, I figure they've earned a freebie. Go sign up for their Top 20 newsletter.



Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Watch your weight

If you're flying, traveling can be stressful. Arriving to the airport on time (especially if your flight departs at the crack of dawn), negotiating the check-in process, slogging through long security lines with travelers who don't know what "3-1-1" means.... It can sometimes be enough to make you want to turn around and go home.

And nothing compounds this stress like putting your luggage on the scale and finding out it's overweight. As a scuba diver whose bags of dive gear sometimes push the limit, I know what it's like to do the "underwear shuffle," moving stuff between bags at the check-in counter to get under the weight limit. It sucks—though not as much as paying the overweight fee (up to $125 per overweight bag on some airlines).

Here are some practical tips for "watching your weight":

Know the weight limits. First of all, you have to know how much is too much. For many domestic carriers, you're allowed two checked bags of 50 lbs each, free of charge, with a fee if your bag goes over. That's hardly a blanket rule, however. United just announced new rules that allow you to check only one bag for free (the second bag will cost you $25 each way). Some small commuter planes have a "hard" limit at 50 lbs per bag (you can't exceed the limit, even by paying a fee), and the space for carry-ons in the cabin is minimal. And if you're traveling outside the U.S., the international norm is a 20 kg limit (about 44 lbs).

Take an extra empty bag. If you don't have a scale at home, and you're concerned you might be close to the limit, take along a lightweight collapsible bag, empty plastic bag or pillowcase. That way, if you have to do the "underwear shuffle," you can quickly stuff items into the extra bag and carry it on, rather than try to move things between suitcases.

Choose luggage carefully. Do you always find yourself close to the weight limit? Maybe it's your luggage. Pick a bag that's not going to steal 20 percent of your weight allowance before you even a pair of socks in it.

Do you really need it? Of course, the weight of your luggage is directly related to how much crap you bring. The site 43 Folders makes some very obvious but practical observations: the amount of stuff you think you need is directly proportional to the size of your suitcase (i.e. fake yourself out by using a smaller bag); there's little difference between packing for a week and packing for a month; and, a tip I've come across many times: rip out the pages that you'll need from your guidebook, instead of taking the whole 5-lb Europe 2008 book (guidebooks don't have a long shelf life anyway, so don't worry about ruining it).

Lastly, here's a handy chart from USA Today that details U.S. airlines' charges for overweight bags. Watch your weight!


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Monday, February 18, 2008

What does travel mean to you?

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to travel. I can't recall exactly when this wanderlust took a hold of me, but it was a desire to start seeing this great big world of ours that inspired me to participate in a study-abroad program in high school. If I wasn't hooked on travel then, I surely was after spending a year in a foreign country during my formative teenage years.

I don't know if this vagabond sensibility is acquired, or if it's in my blood. Possibly the latter—my uncle was a drifter, exploring much of Europe (including the prisons of East Germany) before sailing across the Atlantic on a boat appropriately named "Tumbleweed" and settling in Puerto Rico. One thing I know for sure: a great many people share this love of travel with me.

This fact was recently reinforced by an ad I saw on the subway that theorized why people prefer Jameson Irish whiskey: "Perhaps the ship on our label reminds people of travel. And who doesn't like to travel?" I know that a man who seeks wisdom from a bottle of whiskey will probably meet a bad end, but in this case, the wisdom is obvious. People love to travel.

And the beauty of the "Why"—why people love to travel—is because "travel" means so many different things to different people. Travel can be an exploration of the unknown; it can be a well-deserved vacation from work; it can be a reunion with family and loved ones; it can be an opportunity for new business deals or a new life; it can even be a tearful goodbye to one who has passed. Travel brings us closer, whether to those we know or those we haven't met yet. It (hopefully) reminds us that although the world is large, we are all one people.

What does travel mean to you?



Sunday, February 17, 2008

Travel podcasts

Podcasts—digital programs (typically audio) made available online for free download to your computer or iPod, usually by syndication/subscription—are nothing new. But it wasn't until recently that I started checking out the many travel podcasts available on the internet. Now I spend my time on the subway exploring the world.

You can find hundreds (thousands?) of hours of free programming on just about any travel topic or destination. Here are my brief impressions of some of the more popular podcasts: podcasts consists of in-studio interviews with experts, and you'll get the same quality of information you can expect from their guidebooks. What I've found most useful about these podcasts is the range of topics they cover; rather than focus on profiling destinations, the programs discuss the latest travel news and issues, which is a great way to stay informed.

By comparison, most Lonely Planet podcasts feature profiles of travel destinations, and most are recorded on location. The mix of on-the-scene interviews and polished sound effects adds so much color that you almost feel like you're watching instead of just listening. Check these out if you've got a trip planned and want some in-depth info on your destination.

Europe-on-a-shoestring expert Rick Steves offers several types of podcasts. As the Europe expert that he is, his Italy and France walking tours podcasts are the highlight: you can download these programs to your iPod and take Rick along as a virtual guide. He also podcasts his radio show, and recent programs cover such non-Europe destinations as Nicaragua, South Africa and Afghanistan. Like podcasts, the format typically features interviews of experts.

Rough Guides podcasts mostly feature interviews of guidebook authors, and provide additional information about the topic of the authors' books. While these can be valuable if you're interested in that particular destination or topic, they can sometimes be a bit dry.

Finally, if you're looking for a podcast that will virtually take you away to a destination, Travel in 10 does just that. These 10-minute podcasts are recorded as if you're right there with the host, and provide a wealth of information on a particular destination. It's almost too much information; I sometimes found myself disoriented, wanting to see what the host was talking about.

Travel podcasts mentioned in this posting: | Lonely Planet | Rick Steves | Rough Guides | Travel in 10


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Saturday, February 16, 2008

jetBlue now serving LAX

jetBlue has long been serving the Greater Los Angeles area with flights to/from Long Beach Airport, but they just started flying to/from LAX—and are offering some pretty decent fares to promote this new service.

The airline also offers some cool city guides on their website that include crewmember blogs and recommendations for "best" things to do. Currently, they offer guides for New York, Houston, Orlando, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.


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Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday travel photo

Each Friday, I'll post a picture from my past travels. This week's photo is the Battistero di Parma, the 800-year-old baptistery in Parma, Italy.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

U.S. Airways changes frequent flyer program

Today, US Airways announced changes to Dividend Miles, their frequent flyer program. Considered without context, the changes themselves are minor: they are eliminating the 500-mile minimum award (you'll receive credit for actual miles flown if your flight is shorter than 500 miles), and you'll now pay a $50 fee to book award travel less than two weeks in advance. But when you think about these changes in the larger context of frequent flyer award travel, they become more rocks on the ever-growing pile you have to climb over to get a free award ticket.

It's not easy to get a free award ticket where and when you want from any of the airlines' mileage programs, but in my experience, US Airways' program seems to be one of the most difficult. Several times last year, I tried to use my miles on several planned trips, without success. I then looked up places I've wanted to visit, to see if I could plan a trip based on availability of a free ticket. Even looking up to a year into the future, I only found a single award flight per day (always a red eye), unless I wanted to use double the number of miles (50,000) for a domestic round-trip ticket. It wasn't until I decided to visit a friend in Mississippi that I found a free 25,000-mile round-trip fare to Jackson (which—no offense to my friend—is hardly a highly-sought-after travel destination).

Mileage programs have historically been one of the greatest tools for airlines to engender customer loyalty. But the more difficult they make it for travelers to redeem their miles for tickets to places they actually want to go, the less value these programs will offer—and therefore, the less loyalty customers will show to any given airline.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm already there: I now purchase air fares based almost solely on price and schedule, without regard to which airline I have miles with. It's no longer worth it to pay even a little bit more, just to be able to accumulate miles I'll never be able to use.

What's your experience? Do you have a mileage award horror story? Or praise for a particular airline's program that you want to share?


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A week in Roatan, Honduras

Last month, I returned to Honduras for a week of scuba diving in Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía). I didn't make it to the mainland, nor was I able to reunite with anyone from my Honduran "family" while I was there, but it's always nice to go back to a country I've often considered a second homeland. Cassie doesn't have the same connection I do to the country where I spent a year during my formative teenage years, but she still fell in love with the lush landscape and laid-back atmosphere (and the flavorful baleadas).

The diving was as spectacular as the last time I dived there, even though the dive operation we used was run by the Keystone Kops. And, by traveling with such a fun group from our dive club, our spirits were not dampened by lingering showers from the tail end of the rainy season. Cassie and I spent much of our first week back home surfing Roatán blogs and checking out vacation property listings.

I've updated my travel journaling site, Travels to Distant [strick]Lands, with a journal and pictures from the trip.


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