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

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is Arthur Frommer an "Ugly American"?

Arthur Frommer is one of the most well respected voices in the travel industry. He's been writing travel guidebooks for more than 50 years, and has grown the Frommers line into one of the industry's top brands. But, with all due respect, maybe it's time for him to retire.

I'm blogging about old news at this point, but a couple of weeks ago, Frommer wrote fearfully about the presence of firearms at a political demonstration in Arizona, ultimately announcing a boycott of travel to the state. He felt the very presence of guns was de facto intimidation, and called the gun-toting demonstrators—who were law-abiding citizens—"extremists." I'm probably starting to lose those of you who believe in gun control, but please read on; this posting is not about politics.

The best kind of traveler is he or she who respects the culture and values of the place they are visiting. Conversely, the worst kind of traveler does the opposite, tries to impose their own beliefs and expectations on those who live where they are only visiting. Lacking evidence to the contrary, I have always believed Arthur Frommer to be the former; how else does one become a star in the travel industry over a 50-year career?

But Frommer's rant makes me think of the old label "Ugly American," defined by Wikipedia as "a pejorative term for Americans traveling or living abroad who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards." Revising that definition slightly, I'd say the shoe fits: "Pejorative term for American liberals traveling to other states who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American liberal standards."

Arthur Frommer's Best Places to RetireYes, maybe traveling from uptown Manhattan to downtown Phoenix does not constitute foreign travel in a strict geopolitical sense; but culturally, the two places might as well be on different continents. In any case, regardless of one's politics or stance on the Second Amendment, the fact remains that here we have a travel professional boycotting a state just because the citizens of that state have different values than he. That's just plain wrong. In my book, that makes him an "Ugly American."

And if that's the kind of perspective that Arthur Frommer has to offer these days, then I think it's time for him to consult his own reference material (pictured at right), before he ruins the reputation of the brand that bears his name.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday travel photo

Taking my then-new Xterra off-road for the first time in Fish Creek, Anza-Borrego State Park, east of San Diego. [Full gallery]

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where I'd rather be: New Zealand

New Zealand has long been near the top of my travel wish list. Anyone who has seen pictures (or the Lord of the Rings movies) knows what a gorgeous country it is. Between the North and South Islands, there exist many diverse opportunities for outdoor adventure on beaches, over mountains, through forests, across rivers and yes, even under oceans.

My friends Greg and Sirpa stoked my envy in recent years, when they showed me hundreds of photos after their respective visits and told me their travel tales with glowing excitement. When Fodors offered me a free travel guide last year in exchange for quoting me in one of their books, I chose their latest New Zealand guide. Cassie and I even briefly considered the country as a honeymoon destination. But the place still remains on the wish list.

While Googling "Lake Harris" the other day, looking for information about camping in the Adirondacks, I accidentally hit on this page of jaw-dropping New Zealand photography (because, apparently, there is also a Lake Harris Down Under). Travel photographer Tom Dempsey whisked me away for a solid 20 minutes as I longingly scrolled through several pages of his spectacular photos. So if, like me, you'd rather be in New Zealand, let your mouse be your guide.

Photo credit: Tom Dempsey /



Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Labor Day fare sale (NOT)

"Don't spend your holiday weekend at home this Labor Day," United Airlines urges. "Take advantage of low Labor Day fares!"

The wife and I have been searching for some last-minute getaway ideas, since my birthday falls on Labor Day this year, so United's promotion caught our notice. A quick glance at the terms, however, revealed that the "Labor Day Savings Sale" was no sale. The valid departure and return dates did not line up with the actual Labor Day weekend dates—at least not in any practical fashion.

Sure, you can leave on Saturday, September 5, and return the next day, if your idea of a Labor Day getaway is spending all weekend flying. Or you can depart and return on the Tuesday or Wednesday preceding or following Labor Day, if you have the vacation time to tack onto your holiday weekend. But if you've got the extra time off, wouldn't you rather use your vacation days in conjunction with a non-holiday weekend, when things are cheaper and places less crowded?

So once again, we have an airline fare sale that is not really a sale. You can find one of these "sale fares" if you're willing to fly on the most inconvenient dates and times; but that's true anytime you fly. If it were a real "Labor Day Savings Sale," the airline would offer a limited number of low fares for Friday and Monday, the preferred departure and return dates for Labor Day Weekend.

Yes, those travel dates are the highest in demand, so why should the airline offer low fares on those days? The answer is, they shouldn't. That's not the issue. But neither should they call a fare sale a "Labor Day" sale if it's useless to anyone traveling on Labor Day Weekend.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honeymoon in St. Lucia

Last June 20, I married my beautiful wife and travel companion. We are both adventurous, but after months of wedding planning, we wanted nothing more strenuous than relaxing in a hammock and cooling off in a pool. We got exactly that by spending a week in a private villa on the West Indies island of St. Lucia, though we couldn't go the entire stay without a little adventure (as you'll see, we hiked to the top of the Petit Piton). There's nothing so cliche as a "honeymoon in paradise," but we happily lived the stereotype!

View photo album

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Friday, August 14, 2009

AYCJ: An air travel smorgasbord

I have to hand it to my favorite airline, JetBlue, for their creativity. They have just announced the AYCJ (All-You-Can-Jet) pass: fly anywhere you want, as often as you want, from September 8 to October 8. The cost is $599 (domestic taxes and fees included), and you can choose from the more than 50 cities that JetBlue serves. Read the full details here; it really does seem to be as good as it sounds.

But act now; you only have till next Friday—or while supplies last—to buy the AYCJ pass. I'll be picking one up myself. Those friends and family members who live in cities served by JetBlue, better get your couch ready for me!

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Continental flight "stranding" may be a good thing

If it were a bad made-for-TV movie, it might be called "The Stranding of Flight 2816."

Last week, a Continental Airlines flight spent nine hours on the tarmac while trying to fly from Houston to Minneapolis. Thunderstorms forced the plane to divert to Rochester, MN, where it sat on the tarmac—full of passengers—overnight until it finally deplaned the passengers after seven hours. The airline then waited another couple of hours, reboarded the passengers and completed the flight to Minneapolis.

That's the thumbnail version of the story. But when you start peeling back the layers, more and more outrageous details emerge.

- The Continental plane had only one lavatory, and at some time during the night, it stopped flushing and began to stink up the cabin.

- The plane was only 85 miles from its final destination, which means the airline could have easily put passengers on a bus instead.

- Continental's regional partner ExpressJet (which operated this flight) claimed that the airport was not staffed or set up appropriately at that time of night to deplane passengers safely. According to the manager of the airport, however, there was plenty of staff on hand—ground handlers from Delta Airlines, in fact, repeatedly volunteered to help—and a secure area in the airport was available, where security re-screening would not have been necessary.

- In fact, a Northwest Airlines flight was diverted to Rochester after the Continental flight, and they were able to deplane—and the airline made the decision to bus the passengers on to Minneapolis (where they arrived at about the same time the Continental passengers were just being let off the plane for the first time).

- Tellingly, the flight crew on the Northwest flight had "timed out"—that is, they had reached the maximum time they were allowed to fly. So, if a timed-out crew can be deplaned, but passengers with a crew that isn't timed out have to endure hours of wailing babies and overflowing toilets, it certainly leaves the impression that airline labor issues are more important than concern for passengers' well being.

As the title of this blog posting suggests, there may actually be some good news out of all this, believe it or not. The Obama administration is investigating the incident to determine if any laws were broken. More importantly, the incident may be the final push needed to pass the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in 2007. Among other things, the legislation would mandate deplaning of passengers after a three-hour wait on the tarmac. (Continental already has a policy for doing so "if it is safe," but this incident clearly shows the judgment of the airline's dispatchers can't be relied upon in all cases.)

Enough is enough.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Expectations defied in Cuba

A friend recently traveled to Cuba, and told me the following story. I found it inspiring enough to share here.

The whole trip is too long to write about, but our first impression pretty much sums up the whole experience. Cuba is famous for all kinds of hustlers, scammers and petty thieves, and our travel budget was cut in half right at the airport when our fully pre-paid rental car was suddenly two times more expensive than previously agreed. Since American credit and ATM cards don't work in Cuba, our vacation looked pretty much doomed. So with a bitter taste already in our mouths, we started driving around the country.

We always pick up hitchhikers wherever we travel, but we didn't know if we should stick to this principle after the bad start. But we did our usual thing when the guy we stopped for directions asked if he could ride with us, since his sister lives on the way. The rough roads took us much longer than we ever expected, and it was already midnight when we arrived at the sister's house. It was obvious to everybody that we could never get to our destination before the morning, and this area was too rural for any hotels. So the guy asked us to stay with them. We refused and said we were okay and didn't want to bother them. In reality, we were so exhausted and tired that we couldn't have driven any longer. But we were too afraid to stay and thought they would chop our heads off and take the car and the little cash we had left (everybody in the countryside carries a machete on their belt).

After long negotiations with our terribly poor Spanish we finally decided to stay. We offered some money and they refused. Then he kicked his sister out of her bed and both of them went to sleep in the same bed with their old mother. And they were so poor that they had only one light bulb, so when you went to the bathroom (which had no running water), you had to take it out of the kitchen light. All this was too generous and good to be true, so we went to bed really nervous.

We woke up early in the morning and thought if we survived this far, we should try to leave ASAP without waking anybody. I left $5 on the pillow and we snuck out of the house. Half way to the car, we hear: Tommi y Anna! We thought that he finally got his machete, and maybe we should try to run to the car. But I decided to go back and find out what he wanted. He apologized that they didn't have anything to make us for breakfast (their fridge really was empty when we put our water bottle in there the previous night). Then he gave me a piece of paper with his email address on it (they are not allowed to access the web, but they can use email at post offices).

At that point, I started feeling really ashamed about my doubts. But that was nothing compared to later that day, when I decided to take a closer look at his email address: it was written on a folded piece of paper, and when I unfolded it, a $5 bill dropped from it to the floor. I don't think I have ever felt so ashamed of my prejudice, my cultural background and values. Not only is my home country's embargo partly to blame for why they are doing so badly, but my $5 would have been considered as trading with the enemy—which could bring me $250,000 in fines and two years in prison. But they didn't have any trouble giving the enemy a shelter that night.

The whole rest of the trip we stayed with the local families, every single night. Absolutely amazing people and country.