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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Claims to fame

A little while back, I read an article about Abu Dhabi that called the capital of the United Arab Emirates "the richest city in the world." I spent several days of R&R in that city back in 1991, after serving in the first Gulf War onboard the USS Ranger. My chief memories of that visit are the difficulty of finding a place to serve us alcohol (it was Ramadan), and spending a day snorkeling around an offshore island.

When I read that I'd been to "the richest city in the world," it got me wondering... What are some of the other claims to fame of places that I've visited? Thanks to Google, it wasn't hard to find some answers.

World's Most Expensive City: Tokyo (CNN)
Admittedly, this claim is several years old; the latest surveys name Moscow as the priciest city in the world. But having lived south of Tokyo for two years, trying to make a sailor's meager salary stretch beyond its capacity, I felt this outdated claim deserved mention. (London is the current #2 on this list, another claim my wallet is painfully acquainted with.)

World's Densest City: Manila (
I didn't spend any significant amount of time in Manila, but what I saw when passing through on my way to Pagsanjan Falls (where part of "Apocalypse Now" was filmed) makes this claim easy to believe. That was a long time ago, but I remember it seeming to take forever to get through the city.

World's Most Courteous Big City: New York (Reader's Digest)
While I've only lived here in the Big Apple since last summer, I find this one hard to believe. By no means does New York City deserve its historic reputation for rudeness, but I wouldn't say the pendulum has swung all the way over to the other side.

World's Most Popular City for Tourists: Paris (Ask Yahoo)
Based on my own personal experience with Paris, I'd venture to say you could award many other titles to the City of Light. Most Romantic, Most Beautiful, Most Sophisticated, to name a few. The sci-fi nerd in me has always thought that if Planet Earth ever becomes part of a greater galactic civilization, necessitating the need for a "planetary capital city," I think Paris would deserve to be that capital.

World's Longest Cave System: Mammoth Cave National Park (NPS)
Mammoth Cave is largely a "dry cave"—it was created by underground rivers, not by the percolation of water through strata. So it lacks many of the dramatic mineral formations of places like Carlsbad Caverns. Nevertheless, its sheer size and depth inspired awe, and it deserves its claim as the world's longest cave system.

Best City Skyline in the World: Hong Kong (
I had the fortune to enter Hong Kong by water, rather than by air, so I had an excellent vantage point from which to see that amazing skyline for the first time. The contrast of the endless skyscrapers against the green hills beyond, with the boat-filled harbor in the foreground, was simply stunning. Of all the places I visited in Asia, this was my favorite.

World's Smallest Country: Vatican City (
When I visited the Vatican (in the heart of Rome), I followed the advice of my guidebook and sent a postcard home from the Vatican Post Office. My father received it within a week. About the same time, I sent another postcard home from a Roman post office. That one didn't make it to its addressee for another nine months. So, if nothing else, the world's smallest country has a very efficient postal service.

What are some of the claims to fame of places you've visited?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Finding a good air fare can be taxing

When Cassie and I debated whether or not to go to London over Thanksgiving last year (we did), our indecision continually wavered as we searched for reasonable air fares. Time and again, we kept coming across $99 one-way fare specials between New York and London, but we never seemed to be able to find flights that offered that fare.

Or so we thought.

The reasonable person would expect a $99 one-way fare to come out somewhere in the low $200s after taxes. So when we kept getting final after-tax fares closer to $500, we thought we just weren't getting the special fares. But when we looked more closely, we were. The $198 base round-trip fare came out to about $450 when all the taxes, fees and surcharges got factored in.

At first, we couldn't believe it. Could all of the miscellaneous fees really add up to more than the actual fare? The answer was a bitter "yes." I had to dig like a 49er looking for a nugget of gold to find an itemization of the fees, but what I found didn't explain why there were so many different fees.

On a whim, I just checked Virgin Atlantic's site for its current air fares, and I found a $189 one-way fare special (with an asterisk, of course). At least they've gotten a bit more transparent: in the fine print on the very same page, they state that "all passengers must pay the applicable airport taxes, air passenger duties and the September 11th security charges of approximately $250.00." So that $378 fare will actually cost me about $628. I'm no economist, but that calculates out to taxes and miscellaneous fees of 66%.

I think I'm better off just going to the bookstore and buying a book about London. At least I'll only be taxed at a relatively inconsequential 8.375% rate.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Making contact with the Very Large Array

As I crossed the mountains of western New Mexico, I came over a rise and plunged into a wide valley. There, lined up like white tin soldiers, stood the 27 antennas of the Very Large Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. With each dish measuring over 80 feet in diameter and weighing 230 tons, the VLA presented a very impressive sight, even from miles away.

That's what I wrote back in 2003 after visiting the VLA, made famous in popular imagination by the Jodie Foster movie "Contact." After driving for miles upon miles through deserted landscape full of nothing but scrub brush and blue sky, the sight of the VLA's antennas seemed as out of place as a fleet of UFOs. The sight was more reminiscent of an installation by artist Christo than a scientific facility.

If you're driving between Phoenix and Albuquerque, you're more likely to take I-40 than the more rural Highway 60 (even though the latter is a more direct route, as the crow flies). Nevertheless, if you want a weird and random sight at the halfway point, then take that back way through the mountains—and keep your ears tuned for an alien reply from the heavens.


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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Via ferrata

This video clip, depicting a nail-biting hike along El Chorro's Camino del Rey in Spain, seems to be making the rounds via email. If you haven't seen it yet, take six minutes out of your day to watch it—but make sure you're sitting down, especially if you're afraid of heights!

My father sent me the link, along with the comment that I should add the location to my travel plans. I couldn't tell if he was joking, but if I found myself in the vicinity, I would definitely want to hike this trail! Sure, it looks dangerous as hell (according to Wikipedia, "many" people have died hiking it), but you can clearly see the guide wire onto which you can harness yourself as you go.

Which reminds me of a place in West Virginia I never got around to visiting when I lived in Virginia: Nelson Rocks. There, they have a "via ferrata," a so-called "iron way" that is common in Europe: a system of iron footholds, ladders and lines (and a harness) to make even the most challenging rock-climbing faces accessible to the average person [photo].

Now that the weather is warming up again, Cassie and I are casting about for potential camping destinations, so maybe we'll get our chance to check out the "via ferrata" this summer.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Virgin Atlantic and BA settle price-fixing lawsuit

If you flew Virgin Atlantic or British Airways between August 11, 2004 and March 23, 2006, you probably have some money coming to you. The two airlines settled a class-action lawsuit that accused them of price-fixing fuel surcharges, a charge that the airlines admitted.

Apparently the Department of Justice has been investigating a variety of such allegations throughout the industry. Airlines fixing prices and colluding with each other? What a shocker!

Here's the full story.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday travel photo

Stray dog sleeping in the doorway of an art gallery
Rosarito Beach, Baja California, Mexico

[To answer a common question, yes, I shot this and all other "Friday travel photos"]

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My 10 tips for greener travel

It's April, which means Earth Day. Environmentalism has gone mainstream, and everywhere you look, you see the adjective "Green" applied to everything from water bottles to SUVs. If you're not eco-friendly, you're not hip.

Fodors jumped on the "green" bandwagon, recently publishing "10 Tips for Greener Travel." I love Mother Earth as much as the next guy, but enough already with this "green" fad. So here's my take on Fodor's 10 tips for greener travel:

Beware of Green Washing. If you're traveling for an extended period and need to wash your clothes, watch out for those laundromats that advertise "green washing"—unless, of course, you're a leprechaun, and all of your clothing is already green.

Ask about the company's green philosophies. Do they recycle toilet paper? Do they test their piña coladas on laboratory animals? Do they employ workers who eat only organic foods and wear hemp clothing? Do they wash the sheets more than once a year, and if so, do they use harsh, eco-unfriendly soap? These are all important questions, so you should be sure to get satisfactory answers before flying to your destination in a greenhouse gas-spewing jet airplane.

Look into offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. The concept of carbon offsetting is brilliant: Let a company that pollutes go right on polluting, as long as they invest in practices that "offset" their carbon footprint. That makes as much sense as allowing a drug dealer to continue selling drugs, as long as he spends some of those drug profits to support a drug treatment center. So go right ahead, invest in a company that dumps iron dust into the ocean. Or spend $39 for feel-good bragging rights to call yourself "carbon-neutral." Or, better still, offset your carbon footprint by purchasing some carbon credits from ChuckieD.

Be Sensitive to Cultures and Customs. Okay, sure. I'm down with avoiding the "Ugly American" stereotype. But I don't understand what possible connection this tip has with ecology. What if I'm a visitor to consumerist U.S.A.? I'm supposed to "be sensitive" to our consumption culture and use-it-once-throw-it-away customs? How is that helping me to be "green"?

Never litter. Unless you're a smoker. Because cigarette butts apparently get an exemption from litter laws. Smokers who are otherwise law-abiding citizens toss their butts on the ground or out their car window without even thinking, and I've never heard of any of them getting a citation, so cigarette butts must not qualify as "litter." Unless you're doing a beach cleanup, when cigarette butts will be the most common item of litter that you'll pick up.

Think small. That's right, think small. Forget about global warming, "local warming" is the real problem.

Purchase local products whenever possible. This is one I have no problem with: in Honduras, I purchased a lot of local beer; in the Virgin Islands, I bought plenty of local rum; in fact, purchasing local fermented products whenever possible was an unofficial rule I followed throughout the travels of my Navy career.

Conserve resources. Stated another way, don't consume unnecessarily. From this principle comes practices like taking a canvas bag to the supermarket to avoid using plastic bags. Or using a reusable water bottle instead of adding yet another plastic water bottle to the local landfill. Or—my favorite example, from a public event I recently attended—packaging an ecology-focused fad book called "101 Green Travel Tips" in individual plastic bags (not).

Do not feed wild animals. Yes, this applies even in Cancun, where you'll commonly encounter 18-year-old bipedal mammals wearing USC ball caps and fraternity T-shirts that hoot like howler monkeys. They may look well-fed, but you still might feel compelled to feed them. Just don't do it.

If you are camping, don't leave anything behind but your footprint. Yes, you read that right. You have to "hold it." Just because the wild animals (that you aren't going to feed) have the right to poop in the woods doesn't mean you can too. "Don't leave anything behind but your footprint" means just that.

Now go hug a tree.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Airlines: The Year of the Fees

Just when you thought the airline ugliness of recent weeks was past, a TIME magazine article suggests there could be more to come this summer. The guy in charge of protecting the airline whistle-blowers hints that there could be more cases of shoddy inspections coming to light this summer, which could lead to more groundings and flight cancellations.

There's also a new airline fee to report: United has increased the change fee to a whopping $150 (up to $250 for some international flights). Yes, we've all gotten used to the fact that we'll have to pay a fee to change our ticket. It started reasonably: a large enough fee to deter needless changes, but not so large that it penalizes people with a valid need. Now, United will charge you a fee so large that you could buy a whole new ticket to some destinations.

Incidentally, Arther Frommer has an excellent blog article that outlines this year's new airline fees, including increased over-the-50-pound-limit fees for that single bag you're allowed to check for free. It's only April, but I think we can safely call this The Year of the Fees.

On the brighter side, I've been seeing lots of air fare sales lately, so you can still get a good deal if you check only one bag, don't change your ticket, are willing to sit in a middle seat, don't mind living in the airport for several days if your flight is cancelled, and can last a six-hour flight without eating. Happy travels!

Delta: Atlanta & NYC on sale
AirTran: Spring/Summer/Fall sale
Continental: Canada for cheap
American: To/from the Southwest
Southwest: Always easy to find low fares

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No, really: What does travel mean to you?

A couple of months ago, I posed the question "What does travel mean to you?" Even though only one of you responded, I know there are as many answers to that question as there are people considering it.

More, in fact.

I myself would probably offer many different answers depending on my mood, the time of year, or what I'm thinking about at any given moment.

Today, for instance, "travel" means escape. Forget exploration, education, edification. Never mind adventure, excitement, adrenaline. You can keep your new culture, people, ideas. All I crave right now is an escape from the mundane.

Give me a palapa on a deserted beach, an isolated rock on top of a mountain, a boat to sail upon a wide ocean. Just get my keys off this keyboard, my eyes off this computer screen, my body out from under these fluorescent lights.

I'll give you another chance to answer the question: what does travel mean to you?


Monday, April 21, 2008

Weird Rome: The Capuchin Crypt

When I spent a week in Rome back in 2001, I had a lot of time to myself to explore the Eternal City. I found priceless Caravaggios hidden away in unassuming chapels, I ate a panino on the steps of the Trevi Fountain, I even stayed in a hotel situated in a wing of a 15th century palazzo. But the most memorable sight—for its weirdness—was probably the Capuchin Crypt.

Beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Via Veneto, near Piazza Barberini), you'll find the mortal remains of over 4,000 Capuchin monks. They aren't neatly buried in a church cemetery; the bones are out in the open, on display for all to see.

But wait: this isn't like the Catacombs of Paris. You won't find simple piles of human bones here. No, you'll witness the most bizarre, macabre artwork you've ever seen in your life. Bones nailed to the walls and ceilings in intricate designs. Whole skeletons assembled into forbidding poses. Functioning light fixtures made of bones.

My guidebook made only the slightest of mention of this attraction, but having a morbid interest in such things, I made it a point to visit the crypt. I had low expectations, and suspected a tourist trap with a few bones scattered about. But the warped imagination on display turned out to be as impressive as the artistic genius splashed across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Make no bones about it: the Capuchin Crypt is a must-see for any visitor to Rome.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

A weekend as a New York City tourist

One great thing about living in New York City is the ability to play tourist at will. With a city this large, so full of cultural and recreational opportunities, one need not travel any further than home to explore new places. And, since I've lived here less than a year, many New Yorkers would probably still call me a tourist anyway.

Friday night, Cassie and I threw our names into the "Wicked" lottery. Each evening, two hours before showtime, the box office holds a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets. We'd tried unsuccessfully a few times, but Friday was our lucky night. They drew our names, and two hours later, we were sitting front-row center for this tremendously popular Broadway show.

Saturday dawned warm and sunny, one of the first of such weekends this year. We wasted no time hopping on our bikes for a ride up the New York City Greenway (map). Starting from home in Brooklyn, we crossed over the Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown and navigated the cross-town traffic (an adventure in itself). Finally making it to the west side, we joined the Greenway, a 32-mile route that winds all the way around the island of Manhattan.

On the west side, the Greenway travels along the edge of the Hudson river, offering an abundance of scenic views. Springtime dusted the icing on the cake with blossoms covering every tree. Even a flat tire didn't dampen our spirits for long.

Along the way, we met up with Simon and Nicole, friends from our recent scuba diving trip to Roatan, Honduras. The four of us toured north on the Greenway, all the way to the Henry Hudson Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan. Sights along the way included the George Washington Bridge (pictured above), the Cloisters (where the Met houses its Medieval art) and the Grecian Temple.

On the way back, we made a pit stop at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a well-known BBQ joint in Harlem (that I, the newbie, naturally hadn't heard of). The original restaurant was opened in Syracuse in 1983 by three bikers, which perhaps explains the presence of a pack of deafening Harleys during our visit. The food was good and abundant, and we left fat and happy.

Today, I'm feeling yesterday's 35+ miles. But I'm excited that it marked the beginning of a season full of outdoor activities. As a southern California native, I still haven't gotten used to the winter hibernation that forces a hiatus from such outdoor fun. But I suppose it also makes me appreciate it all the more.

[Photos by Cassie Craig]


Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday travel photo

Sunrise on Moose Pond, Maine

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

My favorite place on Earth

Back in 2001, I had the good fortune to be able to spend six weeks traveling throughout Italy. During that trip, I visited a place that to this day remains my favorite of all the places I've visited on this planet. That place is the island of Capri.

I had always dreamed of swimming in the Mediterranean, and this trip helped me make that dream come true. The island offered so much: dramatic geology, crystal clear blue water, quaint village life, priceless views... and, of course, limoncello.

If I asked you right now where you'd live if you had to choose one place to spend the rest of your life, what would you answer? I know where I'd live.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Choice Seats: The latest airline robbery

Every time I get the urge to write a posting about the airlines, I try to resist, because I've been blogging about them far too much, and there are many things about travel that interest me far more than the airlines. But it seems like they provide me with fodder on a near-daily basis.

Case in point: Just as I sat down to write today's posting, I checked my email, and read a press release from US Air. I just about fell out of my seat. As if charging you for a crappy sandwich or checking a bag wasn't insult enough, now they want to make you pay for the privilege of getting a window or aisle seat.

In their own words: "Starting May 7, we'll introduce our new Choice Seats—select aisle and window seats in the first several rows of Coach. You'll have the option to purchase a Choice Seat assignment during Web Check-in. That means aisle and window seats are likely to still be available even for last minute travelers."

I keep wondering where they'll draw the line, and every time I think they've drawn it, they erase it and redraw it a little closer to your pocketbook. Granted, their pay-for-the-privilege "Choice Seats" are in the first several rows of Coach, but even an idiot can predict that this will inevitably lead to a standard extra charge for any window or aisle seat, anywhere on the plane.

So that's where we're heading. Zone 1 boarding? Extra charge. Carrying on a bag? Extra charge. Checking in online? Extra charge. I'm going to throw a party on the day one of these legacy carriers goes bankrupt.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What makes good travel writing?

Great travel writing tells a compelling story, makes you feel like you're right there with the writer. It paints colors with words, pulls you through the pages and into another world. As author Stanley Stewart said, "Good travel writing needs much the same ingredients as any good story—narrative, drive, characters, dialogue, atmosphere, revelation."

It seems a certain Lonely Planet guidebook author followed such guidance a little too enthusiastically: his guidebook on Colombia was a work of fiction. What writer Thomas Kohnstamm apparently didn't understand is that Stewart's advice about narrative and characters referred to travel literature, not travel guidebook writing. Kohnstamm, apparently disgruntled about how much Lonely Planet was paying him, wrote his guidebook in San Francisco, without ever visiting Colombia. With the help of his Colombian girlfriend, he plagiarized or made up vast portions of the guidebook.

Now he's about to publish a book about what he did. Which got me thinking: a travel writer is a writer who travels... which means Kohnstamm is not, strictly speaking, a travel writer. But if he writes about his fake travel writing, does that in fact make him a de facto travel writer? Truly a twenty-first century conundrum.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Nemo33: Now that's a swimming pool

What is it about those wacky Europeans? Last Monday, I debuted a new weekly feature to showcase weird and wacky travel, and my first selection was "Tropical Islands," a gargantuan aquatic playground south of Berlin, by way of the Caribbean. This week, we go next door to Belgium, to another monolithic waterworld reminiscent of never-subtle Las Vegas.

Nemo33 is a "swimming pool," kind of like the White House is a "house." The facility, located just outside Brussels, is a playground for scuba divers who can't escape to open water. It features several platforms for training, as well as the eponymous 33-meter pit for deep dives.

Being a diver living in the Northeast, lacking what I'd call desirable diving close-at-hand (though I have friends who'd argue that), I have no trouble understanding what would drive otherwise reasonable adults to spend a day playing in a 100-foot-deep swimming pool. I myself have wasted more than one day diving in flooded quarries, where the water temperature peaked at 42 degrees and the visibility extended to a whopping 3 feet.

There's truth in the adage, "The worst day diving is better than the best day working." So when it comes to scuba diving in weird and wacky places, the Belgians don't corner the market. Though I have to admit they do it with a lot more style.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Paying duty on something you already owned?

Picture this: You go on a trip to Japan, and since you'll be staying in a technologically sophisticated country for a couple of weeks, you decide to take your laptop along with you. Upon your return to the U.S., the Customs agent makes you pay duty on the computer, because you can't prove you didn't buy it in Japan.

Sound far fetched? I'm afraid not. I travel quite a bit, but I wasn't aware that CBP (Customs & Border Protection) can make you pay duty on something you took with you on your trip—if you don't have proof that you bought it in the U.S. and took it with you.

The anecdotes I've heard from people who've been questioned by CBP suggest you're most likely to be hassled when returning from a country where your big-ticket item is commonly sold at a price lower than you'd pay in the U.S. (for example, if you bring your expensive Canon digital SLR camera to Japan).

These people managed to talk their way out of paying duty, but to avoid potential hassles, CBP recommends registering your items before you take them out of the country. To me, this seems like going through one hassle to avoid other hassles, but it might be worth the effort, depending on what you own and where you're going.

Other common-sense ideas suggested that a pre-existing insurance policy on your items, or a photograph of you holding your items in an obviously American location, should be enough to prove you owned your items before your current travel. But it's never wise to think common sense will prevail where the government is concerned, so you might want to consider getting that Form 4457 before your next trip.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dropping like flies

Perhaps "dropping like flies" is not the most appropriate metaphor to use when talking about airlines, but economic realities seem to be taking their toll on the airline industry. American Airlines is hemorrhaging millions of dollars in the wake of failed safety inspections and consequent flight cancellations. United, Northwest, US Air, Continental and AirTran have all adopted a $25 fee per flight for a second checked bag, ostensibly to cut costs. And now, a number of airlines have begun filing for bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus Airlines went belly-up, and just yesterday, Frontier Airlines (a carrier I flew as recently as last December) followed suit. Unlike the others, Frontier sought protection under Chapter 11 to remain operating, so hopefully they'll be able to follow through with their pledge to keep their planes flying.

What I'm most curious about is whether all of the major legacy carriers will make it through this year. They somehow limped through the post-9/11 slump, but can they get past the triple-whammy of widespread flight cancellations, rising fuel costs and falling demand due to recession?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday travel photo

Dusk at Nemacolin Resort, Pennsylvania

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baja California: San Diego's playground

In spite of the increasing violence in Baja California (largely driven by drug gangs, from what I've heard), I still have fond memories of one specific aspect of life in San Diego: the proximity of Baja. For someone like me who loves to travel, it's priceless having a foreign country only a 20-minute drive away. As I wrote a few years ago, "a two-hour drive south can take you much further—both culturally and financially—than a two-hour drive north."

For me, Baja fueled not only my passion for travel, but also my fondness for camping and adventure. It was easy to just hop across the border, spend the weekend camping out and then returning home Sunday night (with a stop for street tacos before crossing the border, of course).

Looking back, my favorite destination was probably Guadalupe Canyon, a hidden oasis of hot springs and palm trees accessible only by an hour of off-roading across a dry lake bed. Though the owners of the property knew what a jewel they had—and charged accordingly—the place offered both hot tub relaxation and hiking & bouldering adventure. And getting there was half the fun!

San Felipe and Laguna Hanson also provided loads of weekend fun and excitement. I visited each place only once before moving to the East Coast, but that was enough to build plenty of memories.

We camped right on the beach in San Felipe, and ate fresh seafood like kings in the village. Laguna Hanson seemed an anachronism, as you hardly expect to find a pine forest in arid Baja. There, like Guadalupe Canyon, driving there was an adventure. I'd only recently bought my Xterra when we went there, and I definitely put it through its paces.

And, also just before moving, I got acquainted with Baja scuba diving. It definitely proved to be edgier than the diving north of the border. We had to help launch the panga boats right from the beach, and the accommodations were a communal bunkhouse (though, after the rattlesnake tequila, I slept like a baby). The underwater scenery was also a bit more on the wild side: sea anemones grew to the size of dinner plates, and the kelp forests were more like kelp jungles.

San Diego's nickname is "America's Finest City," but as far as I'm concerned, it's the city's southern neighbor that makes it all the more fun to live there.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Flying the painful skies

When I started this travel blog, I figured I'd write about the airlines from time to time by reporting air fare deals, sharing advice on redeeming frequent flier miles, venting the occasional complaint. But lately, it seems like half my postings are about the airlines.

Let's face it: this isn't their year. I'm not sure how long it's been since it was "their year," but the airlines seem to be having an extra hard time of it lately. Fallout from the airplane inspection fiasco has caused more than 1,500 flights to be grounded this week—many with virtually no notice. On last night's news, I saw many travelers who'd already passed through security and made it to their gate, only to find out their flight had been grounded.

Customers of American Airlines are feeling the worst of the pain. Today, the airline grounded nearly half of its flights, leaving as many as 140,000 passengers stranded! My parents flew home last Saturday on American... just in time, apparently. (And I suppose they're lucky they made it home in one piece.)

I can't say I feel the slightest sympathy for the airlines. If they skimped on safety inspections like they have been with their service, then they deserve to suffer a lot more than simply getting flights grounded. Southwest Airlines' $10 million fine is a good start; a criminal investigation would be a great next step.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel published a useful article today that included advice on ways to minimize the pain of air travel. I recommend reading it, but here's a quick summary:

Flight stats. We all know to check our flight's status before going to the airport, but checking its historical on-time performance before booking a flight can help you avoid a flight that is chronically late. and are two sites where you can find such data.

Fly in the morning. I've learned this one firsthand over the past two years that I've lived and flown on the East Coast. The earlier in the day you fly, the less you're likely to be affected by delays elsewhere in the system—and the better your chances of getting on another flight if your own flight gets canceled. This is especially important during the summer months, when thunderstorms play a bigger role in flight delays. Which is more painful: getting up early for that 6:00 a.m. flight, or sitting in the airport for several hours (or worse) because of delays?

Carry-on. This one's a no-brainer. I think everyone knows by now that carrying on your bags will eliminate the possibility of losing your bags—and is an especially appropriate tip, now that many U.S. airlines charge $25 per flight for checking a second bag.

Know your rights. Or, more specifically, know what you're not entitled to. If the airline cancels your flight because of their own mistake, they have to put you up in a hotel. If it's out of their control (for example, weather delays), you'll be sleeping in the airport. Read your Contract of Carriage.

As air travel becomes ever more painful, my best advice to you is to seek out alternatives whenever possible. While the price of gasoline might not make driving all that attractive either, check out trains and buses where feasible. Having ridden both on a number of occasions in the past year, I can highly recommend them as a relaxing leisurely transportation alternative.
[video clip from my Amtrak window last December, passing San Clemente]

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Monday means weird and wacky travel

For many of us, Monday means back to work, a day on which we need an escape more than most days. So what better day to launch a new weekly feature that showcases the weird and the wacky side of travel? Each Monday, I'll find a person, place or thing guaranteed to make you say "Wow!", "No way!" or simply "Huh?"

And where do I start? A man who has walked around the Earth 17 times? A gadget that will shrink any suitcase down to carry-on size? (I wish.) No, we're setting off to explore Tropical Islands.

Okay, we're not actually going to the tropics, nor will we even find ourselves on an island. We don't even need sunscreen, because there's a roof over our heads. Welcome to Tropical Islands in Brand, Germany, an abomination that more rightly belongs in Dubai or Las Vegas.

About 40 miles south of Berlin, would you expect to find a rainforest with 30,000 trees? Authentic buildings from Bali, Borneo and Samoa? A sandy beach with a "tropical sea" where you can go snorkeling? Well, that's what you'll find, all packed inside the world's largest free-standing dome that could house both the Eiffel Tower (lying down) and the Statue of Liberty (standing up).

Until I saw pictures of the indoor ski slope in Dubai, I never would have imagined something like Tropical Islands could exist outside a science fiction novel. But then again, this is the 21st century. Soon, you won't even have to leave your house to "travel."


Sunday, April 6, 2008

33 of the best dive sites in the world

I recently came across an online collection of "33 of the best diving sites in the world." Of course, as most seasoned divers know, any list that claims to feature the "best" dive sites should be served with a grain of sea salt. Such claims are subjective, and the "best" dives are almost always made memorable by the marine life that you see—which is never the same from dive to dive. (Though I was gratified to see that Catalina Island made the list.)

Nevertheless, this list serves as a passport for the armchair diver to virtually travel to these 33 dive sites, so for that reason alone, it's definitely worth a visit. For any divers reading this blog, what site do you think should have been on this list?

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Traveling to my couch

You know I love everything about travel. I love visiting new places, meeting new people, creating new memories. I also love reading about others' travel experiences, seeing photos of distant lands, thinking about and planning future trips. But some days I don't want to travel beyond my own front door. Today is one of those days.

During the past month, I attended the New York Times Travel Show, went skiing in Vermont, flew to Los Angeles for work, tasted wine in Paso Robles, hosted visitors on two different occasions, and even found time to design a new newsletter for my dive club (which includes some of my travel writing—download a copy). That's more than enough activity for me.

After taking my last visitors to the airport this morning, the only travel that interests me is the trip between my couch and refrigerator, and perhaps the vicarious travel I'll get with some past episodes of "No Reservations."


Friday, April 4, 2008

Friday travel photo

Reconnecting with our family's past and enjoying the present: My parents and the current piano man at Bill's Gay Nineties Cafe in Manhattan, where my great-grandfather was the piano man in 1939.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Iceberg, right ahead!

When I first reported on Southwest Airlines' safety inspection violations, I had no idea just what a hornet's nest that would prove to be. First, Southwest grounded some of its planes for which required inspections had not been done. Last week, Delta and American did the same. This week, United has also grounded planes for the same reason.

I have to wonder, is all of this just the tip of a very scary iceberg? The airlines are heavily regulated, so we all assume we're safe when we board a plane. We take for granted that safety inspections and regular maintenance are done. Now it seems that some of the airline maintenance and safety inspection work is no more thorough or exacting as the work your auto mechanic does or the service a local restaurant provides.

Of course, the key difference is that if your auto mechanic has a hangover when he's fixing your car, the worst that will probably happen is that your car will break down on the way home. If your waiter is too indifferent to get your order right, you just have to send it back to the kitchen. But when an airline employee is too lazy or the airline too cheap to pay someone to do required safety inspections, the result might be a plane full of people falling out of the sky.

Let's hope we spotted this iceberg in time.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

People are the best part of travel

I am traveling vicariously to New York City again, this time hosting my parents for a visit to celebrate their anniversary. We went to Lombardi's ("America's First Pizzeria") in Little Italy on their first night, which has somehow become a standard stop for all the people who visit me here. Today, I'm taking the day off work to take them sightseeing.

Initially, I had a little difficulty trying to think of things to see and places to take them. A few ideas didn't pan out. My father expressed an interest in seeing the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but that tour is currently closed for security reasons. I thought of getting tickets to see The Late Show, but those are hard to come by, and they only give them out in pairs (which would make it impossible for the four of us to go together). My father is also having some knee issues, so things that involve a lot of walking or standing are not the best choices.

Then an obvious "travel truth" dawned on me, and I stopped worrying about it. People are the best part of travel, whether it's the people you meet while traveling or the people you travel with. So no matter what we do today, I know they're excited to see and spend time with me, so I know they'll enjoy whatever we do.

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