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

Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday travel photo

The end of a successful blue crab feast
Cantler's, Annapolis, Maryland

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Travelocity picking up the slack

Again, I find myself writing about the airline industry. You're probably expecting me to once again draw deeply from the well of negativity and cynicism that the airlines have tapped within me. But today I can spread a little bit of guarded optimism.

While the airline industry has exercised unparalleled creativity in recent months to come up with new fees for just about everything, it's been status quo when it comes to service. So big kudos to Travelocity, who has been equally creative—and proactive—in finding ways to pick up the airlines' slack.

When people book through the online travel site and encounter the air travel problems that seem so commonplace these days, Travelocity often takes the fall for the airlines' failings. To preserve their customer relationships, they're trying to find creative ways to mitigate such problems. What a concept. I wonder if any of the airlines are listening? Probably not... they seem to be expending all of their creativity coming up with new fees.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sitting on the tarmac, but still "on time"

Turns out at least one of my airline conspiracy theories was right on the money: airlines are indeed padding their schedules to account for chronic delays, so they can report those delayed flights as "on time." Watch the eye-opening video on, in which a flight sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, yet still managed to arrive a few minutes early.

I guess this is nothing new, however. This practice may seem fraudulent, but I suppose it's no different than advertising that a flight includes a meal and serving an inedible pasty material looks nothing like food. Or selling seats on an overbooked flight, only to routinely bump passengers who didn't expect to spend the night at the airport. When it comes to airlines, truth in advertising seems to be optional.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fortress of Solitude: Mexico's Crystal Cave of Giants

I've been in a real-life "Bat Cave." I've sat in the captain's chair on the set of "Star Trek: Voyager." I've even walked amongst hills where Iron Man would later escape from terrorists. But I've never been inside Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Turns out such a place does exist outside of movies and comic books. In a mine in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, miners discovered in 2000 what could be the world's largest crystals. Giant columns of selenite (gypsum) grow as long as 50 feet, conjuring visions of the Man of Steel's hideout.

For now, the 1,000-foot-deep "Crystal Cave of Giants" is off-limits to the general public. But perhaps one day these amazing crystal behemoths will be accessible to everyday adventurers seeking a crystal connection to Krypton.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Brooklyn Bridge!

This weekend marks the 125th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge. Cassie, our friend Simon and I celebrated by riding in the Tour de Brooklyn yesterday, a leisurely 18-mile ride that started near the base of the bridge.


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Sunday, May 25, 2008

1,000 words isn't enough

Last Monday, I wrote about Inspa World, a Korean-style bathhouse in Queens. On Friday, we decided to start off the holiday weekend with a clean slate by spending the day there and washing away our stress. I don't think we could have had an experience that felt more like traveling without boarding a plane. With no idea what to expect, and not knowing how the facility functioned, it felt like we were actually in Korea. We ordered food by pointing at a picture and made cultural blunders one would expect to make in a different country.

Our adventure started in the lobby, where we paid our entrance fee and strapped on our personal electronic bracelets. These opened our lockers and paid for food and services when we waved the embedded chip in front of a receiver, eliminating the need to carry a key or money. At the back of the lobby, Cassie and I parted ways and headed to the gender-separated locker rooms and baths. We were both on our own to figure out how things worked.

At the doorway to the locker room, I was prompted to remove my shoes. An anteroom contained a row of small lockers just for shoes, before you even reached the locker room proper. I locked up my shoes, and walked around barefoot for the rest of the day.

From what I'd read about this place, both in the New York Times and on the spa's own website, I knew that the baths on this first level were separated by gender, and the baths on the upper levels were mixed-gender. What I didn't know, however, was what (if anything) I was supposed to wear on this first level. Changing into my bathing suit, I made my way to the bathing area.

Before I could even enter, however, an attendant chided me in broken English for wearing a bathing suit, and told me I had to be naked to enter the bathing area. Feeling like an idiot, but more comfortable now that I knew what to do, I stripped down and went back to the bathing area. This time, they let me in without a word.

When I saw what aquatic delights lay at my disposal, I knew I was in for a treat. Along one wall stood a bank of chrome and glass showers. Along another were a row of personal hygiene stations with stools, where you could sit and shave or take a seated shower. Most of the room, however, was taken up by a series of baths. They ranged in temperature from 59 F to 108 F, enabling you to find that perfect temperature or go back and forth from hot to cold. They all bubbled and frothed, and many featured therapeutic jets to soothe away all your stresses.

After I showered, I made my way to the closest bath, still a bit unsure of myself. I settled into the warm water, discreetly looking around to get the lay of the land and learn by observation. As I tried to blend in and look nonchalant, I glanced up and noticed the sign above the pool in which I reclined: "Kiddie Pool." So much for looking like I knew what I was doing.

I sampled several other pools, and then made my way back to the locker room. Cassie and I had planned to meet upstairs after briefly checking out the baths. After I dried off and reentered the locker room, the attendant stopped me again and thrust some pajamas into my hands. As it turned out, you don't just spend your visit barefoot, you also walk around in pajamas. Talk about relaxation.

Upstairs, "Sauna Valley" beckoned us with seven different saunas. Gold Sauna featured real gold plating. Jade Sauna soothed with far infrared rays and intricate mosaic design. Ice Land, a chilled room with ice-covered walls, was a welcome respite between sauna visits. This level also offered a salad and fresh fruit bar, frozen yogurt and Starbucks coffee, as well as lounge chairs where we spent a couple of hours reading and relaxing.

On a day as beautiful as Friday, the rooftop pools were the best. Two large outdoor pools featured every configuration of aqua jet you could possibly imagine, enabling you to move from one to the other and massage every part of your body. Our favorite was the "Waterfalls," where gallons upon gallons of water poured down on you from above at the touch of a button.

I could go on and on about our experience—I suppose I already have—but words can't adequately convey the sensation of spending the day at this place. In fact, that's why I have rambled on at such length. I am critical of bloggers who write extended treatises on topics that can be covered in a paragraph, and don't hesitate to critique the writing skills of someone who needs 1,000 words to paint a picture. But in this case, I am guilty as charged. Sometimes it takes 1,000 words to realize that even a million words wouldn't be enough.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday travel photo

With this weekend's Indianapolis 500 race in mind, here's a shot from when I did my own lap around the Indianapolis Speedway.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alabama Hills and Iron Man

We went to see "Iron Man" tonight (at $12 each, thank you, New York). When the lights dimmed and the first scene started unspooling, I had one of those movie/travel moments when I said to myself, "I've been there!" No, I haven't been to Afghanistan, the setting for the brutal opening scene. But I've been off-roading in Alabama Hills, where they shot the sequence.

How did I recognize the location so quickly and definitively? If you've been there, you would too. The Alabama Hills are a distinctly picturesque range of boulder-strewn foothills near Lone Pine, California, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Even if you avoid filming the most distinctive features of the terrain, as director Jon Favreau did, it's still easily recognizable.

The uniqueness of the landscape is what makes it a Hollywood favorite. Films have been shot there since the 1920s, featuring such old-time faves as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. The Alabama Hills have also been a backdrop in more recent movies like "Tremors," "Star Trek Generations" and "Gladiator."

I became acquainted with the Alabama Hills on one of the group camping trips I've written before. While it was great fun off-roading around the boulders during the day (when I shot this photo), my fondest memory was driving a truck full of campers across the dirt roads after dark, a full moon silhouetting the jagged landscape, Frank Sinatra crooning from my speakers and echoing off the rocks.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Year of the Fees continues

As I type this, I'm still having a hard time believing it, but American Airlines will become the first airline to charge for ALL checked baggage. Travelers have only just started getting used to the new fees for a second checked bag (that new rule went into effect earlier this month for many airlines). Now American will charge $15 for the first checked bag. Will the other airlines follow suit, as they did with the second-bag fee? How much do you want to bet?

I've already started calling this the Year of the Fees, but clearly it's much more than that. We're witnessing a sea change in the airline industry, and history will mark 2008 as a radical turning point in how airlines do business—and how travelers fly. It ain't gonna be pretty.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I have no memory for food

I've mentioned before that I'm not a foodie. I live in New York City, so I don't have to travel to enjoy a world-class meal (Cassie's latest find: Luz, right here in Clinton Hill). But whether I'm dining in Paris or Paso Robles, I can barely remember what I ate the night before, no matter how amazing the meal was. For me, travel isn't about the food, so while I might sample some of the most fantastic cuisine I've ever tasted, it's the people and the experience that will stick with me.

In Torino, for example, I remember that I enjoyed the most delicious meals of my six-week tour of Italy, but I'll be damned if I can recall what I ate. It's the beautiful architecture that stands out from that visit. The high point of my trip to London last November was a three-course meal that Cassie and I ate with her brother and sister-in-law. But it's the good times we had with each other, not the food that we ate (quail, I think? I do remember the limoncello) that stuck with me. And I know I ate well last time I went to Hawaii, but the memories I have come from the priceless time spent with family members I see too rarely.

That's not to say I remember nothing that I eat. I'll never forget the succulent whole fried fish I ate in a nondescript food stand outside Tegucigalpa in Honduras, an experience that makes me want to order the same thing anytime I see it on a menu. The most amazing calamari—my favorite seafood—that I've ever tasted was found far from the ocean, in Chicago of all places. And, as embarrassing as it is to admit that an appetizer from a chain restaurant made such an impact on me, I can taste the improbably juicy fried zucchini sticks at San Diego's Claim Jumper whenever I summon them from my memory.

So just because you don't often find me raving about this restaurant or that meal doesn't mean I don't appreciate fine cuisine or that I dine at McDonald's. And I'm not suggesting that I'm above people who are foodies, like my friends and Yelp aficionados Michael and Carlton. It's just that, when it comes to travel, food is the fuel for my experiences, not the objective.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

A high-rise water park

Leave it to someone in New York to find a way to create a water park in a high rise in the middle of Queens. Inspa World may lack crazy water slides and a wave pool, but it still offers plenty to satisfy the water lover. Indoor hot tubs, steam rooms and saunas let you slough off your life's worries and stress. A relaxation lounge offers beverages, private televisions and foot massages. Best of all, rooftop pools feature aqua-jets, waterfalls, mineral baths, massage tubs and even a sluice for those wishing for a water slide.

Stay tuned to this blog for a first-hand report in the near future!



Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travel cheap: Visit a friend or family member

Okay, travel is becoming almost ridiculous this year, thanks to economic factors. The sagging dollar makes European travel crazy-expensive. Record oil prices have caused fuel costs—and therefore air fares—to skyrocket, making domestic travel cost-prohibitive. Those same fuel costs are even pushing local travel—to destinations within driving distance—out of reach, as gasoline prices also hit record levels. Factor in the lackluster economy ("recession," as some call it, though I think the R word is unwarranted), and it's making it hard to travel this year.

So, short of exploring our own backyards, how do we get away affordably? That's easy: visit family and friends. Let's call it "The Year of the Air Mattress" or "The Year of Calling in Favors." Think of how much you can save by sleeping on a friend's couch or crashing on your brother's pull-out bed. Sure, the Sheraton "Heavenly Bed" or a suite at the Marriott would make a more comfortable getaway, but don't let the lack of a concierge and daily maid service keep you from traveling this year.

My brother is planning a trip to New York City for a family of three, and is trying to stick to a budget of $500 or less. Sacrificing a little comfort and using some creativity, they can use Southwest rewards to fly free into Long Island, take the Long Island Railroad to Brooklyn, sleep on an air mattress in my one-bedroom apartment and visit museums for free thanks to my corporate connections.

If you too apply a little creativity and resourcefulness, I'm sure you can think of friends who owe you a favor, family you'd like to visit, or friends-of-friends who'd love to host you and show you around. It may be hard to get around the expense of air fare, but if you can save big by staying with a local (and perhaps even eating in part of the time, for additional savings) and finding free stuff to do, you can still travel in these economic hard times.

Think about it: you can get free room service (your sister-in-law making breakfast); an always-available concierge (your friend answering your 20 questions about what to see and where to go); and complimentary cocktails (your cousin offering you a glass of wine when you return from the day's sightseeing). Maybe you'll have to make your own bed, but how hard is it to roll up a sleeping bag?

Better yet, kick-start this idea of goodwill travel by calling up a friend or family member you haven't seen in a long time and inviting him or her to visit you. If you get the ball rolling, people will start paying it forward by inviting their friends and family to visit, and before you know it, we'll all be traveling on the cheap this year!

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Carrier: Life aboard a Navy warship

Family and friends know I served four years in the U.S. Navy before going to college, and those acquainted with my past blogging have read about some of my experiences in the Navy ("My Cup Runneth Over," "Beer Day" and "Gulf War Memories," to name a few).

The Navy slogan "See the world" was the only part of the recruitment process that wasn't an exaggeration: I visited Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and other places during those four years of shipboard life. I crossed the Pacific Ocean several times, crossed the Equator twice and watched a radar screen in the first Gulf War.

If you want an even better idea what it was like to serve in the Navy than my blogging, I urge you to check out the PBS program "Carrier." Not only does it paint an extremely accurate and candid picture of what things are like for sailors and airmen/women at sea, it's also a very well produced and entertaining program in its own right. It's a 10-hour miniseries, and they've been rerunning it regularly, so check it out (you can also watch full episodes on the website).

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday travel photo

Future wine at Castoro Cellars
Paso Robles wine country, California

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fodors travel forums: pure online travel gold

The Fodors travel forums are a gem among online travel references. The site offers different forums for every major region in the world, and the community that visits and communicates in these forums is huge, active and vocal. If you have a question on virtually any travel-related topic, you can either find an answer with a quick and easy search of the forums, or you can post your question and get 10 answers in as many minutes. It's like having thousands of knowledgeable friends at your disposal at any hour to answer whatever question you may have.

But watch yourself: these "Fodorites" aren't just overflowing with knowledge—they're also full of opinions, and they aren't bashful about sharing them. Nor are they shy about putting you in your place, whether or not you're deserving of their frequent scoldings. They'll just as soon tell you that your itinerary is all wrong or that you should have searched the site instead of posting a frequently asked question as they will offer advice or help you find that cheap hotel or great restaurant.

No matter the idiosyncrasies of some of the Fodorites, though, the forums are pure gold when it comes to travel research. Just take care in how you present yourself and what you say—which I suppose is good advice for any traveler in a strange land.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hot Springs National Park

Being a native Californian who enjoys camping, hiking and the great outdoors, I've always associated hot springs with natural settings. In California, hot springs are generally the destination for a camping trip, because they're located in scenic, and usually remote, settings.

So when I relocated to the East Coast in 2005, I was excited to stop at Hot Springs National Park when I drove through Arkansas. I chose spontaneity as my sightseeing style on that trip, so I didn't do any advance research. I simply looked at the mileage for the next day's driving, and then checked out the map for points of interest in the general vicinity of where I'd end the day's drive.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Hot Springs National Park is located in as natural a setting as New York's Central Park. Hot Springs is a town, albeit a charming one, and the eponymous springs have all been capped. The hot water is diverted to historic bathhouses, which drew visitors from around the world in their heyday. You could probably call it the "most urban" National Park.

Nevertheless, I found it interesting enough to while away the afternoon, despite my mistaken expectations. The spa featured gorgeous stained glass, and the vintage gymnasium was quaint. But two-thirds into my 3,000-mile drive, I would have preferred to experience the hot springs more directly.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Budget fare on JetBlue: Lavatory Class

First Class offers the best possible seat on an airplane. Business Class is pretty dang good too. Economy Class? Well, it's not the most comfortable seat for those long hauls, but it gets you there. But what about Lavatory Class? I'll take that middle seat in Economy, thank you very much.

"Lavatory Class?" you ask. That's apparently the latest innovation from JetBlue. Manhattanite Gokhan Mutlu boarded a JetBlue flight back in February, and an hour into the flight, the pilot made him give up his seat and sit in the lavatory. Yes, I know it sounds like an urban legend, so go read the full story.

I'm a JetBlue fan, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for litigious people. I also happen to think most airline pilots are very intelligent people. But in this case, I think Mutlu's wallet is going to be significantly fatter in the near future, and I doubt the JetBlue pilot who made him give up his seat has the brains to fly a paper airplane.

As with any lawsuit, I'm sure there's more to this story. But no matter how obnoxious Mutlu might have been, no matter what booking snafu led to his buddy pass being honored on that flight, you just don't make a passenger give up his seat and sit in the lavatory unless you want to significantly increase his net worth.

So on second thought, yes—I'll take that Lavatory Class ticket, thank you very much.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

A treasure trove of business travel tips

While I frequently visit for the latest news headlines, I rarely check that site for travel information. However, they just published a great feature chock-full of travel tips from business travelers, so I highly recommend checking it out.

Here's a peek at what you'll find:

> A report on the new Diamond Lanes program, an "express lane" for those airport security checkpoints.

> "Confessions of an Airline Agent," an enlightening look behind the airline counter.

> Tips on tipping internationally: if you're in a restaurant in Fiji, Malaysia or South Korea, should you leave a tip?

> Four scams from rental car companies, including the apparently widespread gas gauge scam.

And much more... including the common sense business traveler tip I never would have thought of: When you arrive starving at your destination because your airline didn't serve a meal on that cross-country flight, call ahead to your hotel and place a room service order to be waiting in your room for you.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

May flowers

Today, I left town and traveled to an island, where I walked amongst all manner of lush flowers and tropical vegetation. Did I hop a short flight to the Caribbean? I wish... instead, I settled for the Staten Island Botanical Garden.

They say April showers bring May flowers. So far, I think we've had more rain in May than we got in April, but the part about the May flowers is pretty much right on. Many of the flowering plants we saw today appeared to be getting a late start, but more than enough had gone into full bloom to give us a beautiful show. Don't ask me to identify the flowers pictured below, but we saw everything from lilies and azaleas to poppies and peonies, and all manner of more exotic flora.

Within the Botanical Garden, we visited the Chinese Scholar's Garden, a serene environment surrounded by bamboo-gone-wild. Babbling brooks rambled through private pavilions, inviting both reflection and relaxation. While we were there, a crew was setting up for a wedding, a ceremony that will surely be memorable in a setting like that.

Poor ol' Staten Island, the forgotten borough, gets a bad rap. As crazy and hectic as the other four boroughs can be, Staten Island seems to be much more laid back—an "island" in an urban sea. [More photos here]


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Friday, May 9, 2008

Friday travel photo

Smoke from the 2003 San Diego wildfires obscures the sun at the Otay Mesa border crossing in Mexico. (Read story)

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Paso Robles Wine Festival

My sister emailed me today and mentioned that she's driving north to visit my parents next week for the Paso Robles Wine Festival. This annual event, the largest outdoor tasting of its kind in California, showcases the many outstanding wines in the region. Paso Robles, sometimes called the "southern wine country," doesn't have the name recognition of its northerly counterparts, Napa and Sonoma (though, based on the quality of its wines, it should). But that also means it hasn't yet become the zoo of limo buses and drunk tourists that those areas have. But shhhh— don't tell anyone.

Apparently this is the first year that my parents aren't hosting a bunch of friends for the festival, so my sis jokingly invited us out to join them. Never one to pass up an opportunity for spontaneity, I immediately logged onto Orbitz to check last-minute air fares, on the off chance (okay, the really, really off chance) that I could find a bargain.

No big surprise there: $600+ per person. Would've been fun, but we'll be with them in "spirit," and will crack open a bottle of Paso Robles wine next weekend in their honor.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Adventures in Baja

I have fond memories of exploring Baja California during the period of 2003-2005. Late in 2002, I moved back to San Diego after several years living in Los Angeles, and got involved with an adventure travel group called Total Escape. With the friends I made in that group, I took a number of excursions across the border, often to off-the-beaten-path destinations like Mike's Sky Ranch, Guadalupe Canyon and Laguna Hanson.

These trips were an awakening of sorts for me, at least in terms of Baja travel. Before then, most of my forays south of the border took me to the popular beach towns of Rosarito and Ensenada to party. That was also fun, for what it was worth, but it hardly showed me the real Mexico or let me experience adventure.

My first trip to Baja was a surf camp expedition during junior high school. We went as far as Punta Baja, about 200 miles south of the border, and camped out for a couple of days. It wouldn't be until 2003 that I once again went off-roading and camping in Mexico. Now I can't wait to do it again.

I've always wanted to drive the entire length of the Baja peninsula, from the U.S. border to Cabo San Lucas. Now that I've seen the latter in all its Americanized glory, I'm not as excited about that as a final destination. But I know the journey itself would be full of adventure.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Seligman's Snow Cap: Historic humor on Route 66

Route 66 holds a place in American culture nearly as revered as that of another, more mythical road, the one made of yellow bricks. And one of the most beloved stops along Route 66 is the Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona. In this monument of kitsch, a straw is not a straw, a bottle of mustard holds more than just a condiment, and you'd better not ask for a napkin.

I visited the Snow Cap with my family back in 1998, on our way from San Diego to Lake Powell. Pulling off I-40 and onto the business loop—old Route 66—we passed by the Roadkill Cafe and stopped at the Snow Cap. We had no trouble finding it; the old Chevy painted in garish colors, the sign announcing that they sold "Dead Chicken"... the place hardly blended in. When we saw the sign that said "Sorry, We're Open," we knew we were in for a treat.

Sure enough, it became evident that "Dead Chicken" was not the only thing on the menu. They featured a special of Gags, a side of Jokes and a freshly baked loaf of Cornball Fun. When I ordered a small cup of coffee, I got a thimble-sized cup. When one of my nieces asked for a napkin, the server asked "New or used?" If you requested a straw, you were likely to get a handful of real straw.

Owner and founder Juan Delgadillo was the one behind the gags, including the mustard bottle that shot out a yellow string that looked just like the real thing. He opened the Snow Cap in 1953, and shortly thereafter began serving fun with the french fries. Though I read that Delgadillo passed away in 2004, his sons have kept his spirit alive, so don't miss this historic landmark of humor if you're visiting the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona or any of the many other sights in the vicinity.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Airlines: The only constant is change

Last week, USA Today reported on the dramatic effects that record-high oil prices (and the consequent effect on jet fuel costs) will likely have on air travel. Many of the things we're so fond of complaining about now could become commonplace: fewer non-stop flights, longer layovers, fuller planes—and, of course, much higher fares.

Perhaps it's anyone's guess what the future of air travel holds, but it's hard to argue with the conclusion that things are going to change pretty radically. According to the article, the airlines' cost for jet fuel will rise a whopping 44% this year. United Airlines alone posted a $537 million loss for the first quarter of this year. Oil futures passed a record $120 per barrel today. How does any airline survive the effects of such numbers?

The hard part is finding that balance between making up losses by raising fares, without raising them so high that people will stop flying. Thus, the creative solutions mentioned above: changing routes, fleets, flights and all the other things that will make air travel suck more than it already does.

So while no one knows exactly how things are going to change, it seems safe to say they ain't gonna change for the better.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Awards

TripAdvisor is one of my favorite travel sites, and I never book a hotel stay without first reading reviews on that site (though I sometimes have to keep a few grains of salt handy while reading).

This week, TripAdvisor published their 2008 Travelers' Choice Destinations Awards (download PDF), in which they named the top 100 world destinations (and the top 25 for every region) based on reviews from their site.

Such lists are always subjective—my own top 100 list would certainly look different (I would not have placed Charlotte Amalie in the #6 spot, for example!). But I still found myself going through the list, counting how many I'd been to (25 of the 100, which I guess is pretty good). And reaching the end, I had mentally added a few new destinations to my "top 100" wish list.

How many of these places have you been to? What destination not on the list should have made the cut?

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Friday travel photo

On top of Cookie Jar Butte, overlooking Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dark tourism: reflection and connection

Taking a journey only the internet can offer, yesterday I followed a series of links originating in a travel blog and ended up in the figurative crying room of the travel industry: "dark tourism." The term, also known as "black tourism" or "grief tourism," signifies travel to destinations associated with death and suffering.

I had no idea such a niche existed. Sure, I know sites like Auschwitz and Gettysburg draw millions of visitors, but I didn't realize such tourism had its own term and cottage industry. But I suppose it makes sense. Travel to such places inspires reflection about our personal and collective losses, and enables us to connect to our past, whether individually—by visiting a site where a loved one or ancestor died—or collectively—communing in a place where violent events affected a nation or the entire world.

As I thought more about it, I began to remember more and more such "dark tourism" sites that I myself have visited. I've been to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and contemplated how that loss affected our country. I made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg with my family, where my great-great-great grandfather fought and thousands died. I've passed the sunken remains of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and thought about the hundreds of sailors still entombed in that wreck to this day. I've stood above Ground Zero and tried to imagine what the victims and survivors who were there on September 11 must have felt. I've gazed upon the 168 memorial markers at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and thought about how many of them represented children whose lives ended too soon.

I guess part of me has a fascination with dark tourism. Someday I'd like to visit the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, where my uncle Jack drowned during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. I also think a visit to a Nazi concentration camp would mean a lot, as I try to comprehend how human beings could treat other human beings with such brutality. Maybe that's just it: perhaps dark tourism helps us to better understand the human condition.

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