Saturday, May 5, 2007
When considering a one-day tour, an escorted tour or even a cruise itinerary, read the language carefully. The words "to see," "to view," or "to admire" are not the same as "to explore" or "to visit". For example, a description for a tour of Washington, D.C. may include "to see the Lincoln Memorial." This probably means that the route of the tour bus will pass by or briefly stop in front of the momument. It does not mean you actually have the opportunity to visit the memorial itself. Check the itinerary very carefully that the attractions your heart is hoping to visit is truly that, a visit and not a drive by.
With the internet, air fares and hotel rates are so accessible that most travelers no longer go through a travel agent. Still, a travel agent is a necessary component when planning complicated itineraries for escorted tours and cruises. Many travel agencies now specialize in these areas, one factor to consider when choosing an agent or agency.
The best place to start is recommendations from family or friends who have used a particular agent or agency. Second it's almost as important that the agent has the actual experience of say, taking a cruise or a coach tour in Europe. Once you have chosen the agent or agency, give them a call. Each agency can send you a number of travel brochures for different tour companies and cruises. From there, at your leisure, you can diligently choose the vacation that fits your purpose. You may choose to work via the internet but that first call and experience can help to give you an idea if you are comfortable with the travel agent.
For land tours, among the most respected are Trafalgar and Globus. Each company publishes tour brochures based on the part of the world you are wanting to visit. For example, the Trafalgar tour brochure for Europe will detail tours of various lengths and will encompass as few as two countries to a dozen or more. Each tour description details day by day what the tour includes. Some airlines also have an arm that will handle vacation options such as American Airline's AAVacations (www.aavactions.com)
For pricing of these tours, look at the hotels included in addition to attractions. The more central or upscale the hotel, the higher the cost. Hotels that are out of the city center will likely be included on a less expensive tour.
For cruises, your choice will likely be based on the ports of call as well as the ship and its amenities. Norwegian Cruise Line has gained some popularity for its freestyle cruising. Unlike traditional cruises, NCL's freestyle cruising have no fixed times for dinner, relaxed dress codes and your choice of restaurant. You can plan ahead or choose on a whim. Like the hotels for land tours, your choice of cabin on a cruise is a big factor when budgeting for your cruise.
Another important thing to consider when budgeting for a tour or cruise is the cost of activities that are not included in the base price. Land tour operators and cruises always have the optional excursions that can add at least a couple of hundred of dollars per person to the intial cost.
The best part of all for choosing an escorted tour or cruise is a lot of the planning is taken off of your shoulders. Just choose wisely and carefully for your purpose.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Everyone dreads the middle seat on a plane. But the experience on a long haul flight may never the same again. Britian's PAIG (Premium Aircraft Interiors Group) has introduced the Freedom Economy Seat, a three-seat row that flips the middle one backwards. The four-seat configuration has the two middle seats facing backwards.
Introduced in a trade show in Germany this year, these seats try to eliminate the current problems passengers experience with present day configurations. These include bumping elbows, knees and shoulders. PAIG claims these seats also give the passenger two more inches of legroom.
PAIG also claims that these seats will allow the airlines to add more seats to a plane. For example on a typical 777 econcomy configuration, there are nine seats across. Freedom Seats will allow airlines to have ten seats across.
The main question is how passengers will feel about a stranger staring back at them two feet away. Think of someone standing in the elevator facing away from the doors. The seats feature fold-out privacy shields built into the head rests for privacy so another passenger can't watch what you're watching on your laptop screen.
So will airlines add these seats for the economic (more seats) or passenger benefit. The idea is not actually that unusual. British Airways has some seats facing backwards. But these seats are featured in their Club World business class section.
These seats are designed for wide-body jets. PAIG has indicated that these seats will not work in a narrow-body economy section such as on a 737.
With the ranking of the world's busiest airports, it should only be fitting that a list of the world's largest hotels follow. Based on the total number of rooms they are:
1) FIRST WORLD HOTEL (Malaysia) 6,118 rooms (pictured above)
2) MGM GRAND (Las Vegas) 5,690
3) AMBASSADOR CITY JOMTLEN (Thailand) 4,631
4) LUXOR (Las Vegas) 4,408
5) MANDALAY BAY (Las Vegas) 4,341
6) THE VENETIAN (Las Vegas) 4,027
7) EXCALIBUR (Las Vegas) 4,008
8) BELLAGIO (Las Vegas) 3,993
9) CIRCUS CIRCUS (Las Vegas) 3,993
10) FLAMINGO LAS VEGAS (Las Vegas) 3,565
11) HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE (Honolulu) 3,386
12) CAESAR'S PALACE (Las Vegas) 3,349
13) MIRAGE (Las Vegas) 3,044
14) MONTE CARLO (Las Vegas) 3,002
15) LAS VEGAS HILTON (Las Vegas) 2,956
16) PARIS (Las Vegas) 2,916
17) TREASURE ISLAND (Las Vegas) 2,885
18) GAYLORD OPRYLAND (Nashville) 2,883
19) DISNEY'S POP CENTURY (Orlando) 2,880
20) BALLY'S (Las Vegas) 2,814
Just below the top 20 are two other Las Vegas hotels, WYNN at 2,716 rooms and IMPERIAL PALACE at 2,635 rooms.
The following hotels will take their place among these hotels when completed:
ASIA ASIA HOTEL (Dubai) 6,500 rooms
THE CITYCENTER CASINO (Las Vegas) 4,100 (pictured below)
PALAZZO CASINO (Las Vegas) 3,025
Also the MGM Grand is upping their game to maintain at least a second position. Two additional towers at this emerald resort will add another 1,152 rooms when they are completed sometime in 2007. If the hotels were to be ranked by average room size, then THE VENETIAN would shoot to the top at an average 700 square feet.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
The Airports Council named the busiest airports in the world for 2006 based on the total number of passengers. The council's preliminary rankings are:
1) ATLANTA'S Hartsfield International Airport 84.8 million
2) CHICAGO'S O'Hare International Airport 76.2 million
3) LONDON'S Heathrow Airport 67.5 million
4) TOKYO'S Haneda Airport 65.2 million
5) LOS ANGELES International Airport 61 million
6) DALLAS-FORT WORTH International Airport 60 million
7) PARIS Charles de Gaulle Airport 56.8 million
8) FRANKFURT Airport 52.8 million
9) BEIJING Capital International Airport 48.5 million
10) DENVER International Airport 47.3 million
Hartsfield also led in the number of flights at 976,447. O'Hare ranked second with 958,643 flights. The Airports Council's final figures are released in June.
It's finally happen (again). The British pound passed the $2 mark last week, the first time since 1992 and has been fluctuating around there since. Maybe that's why there's a hint of a smile on the Queen's face on British currency. What does this mean to the U.S. traveler? This means a hamburger costs $8; to have a beer with that, you'll have to cough up another $5. A one-way ticket on the London subway (okay, tube) is $8; the meter in a taxi starts running at $4.40; and then the ride from Heathrow Airport to central London is at least $110.
At this exchange rate, just the enjoyment of having a Starbucks coffee and pastry can set you back $15. Still, this probably won't stop another 3.7 million U.S. visitors to the United Kindom from spending another 2.7 billion pounds. Count the Hopeful Traveler among them. Oh yeah, 2.7 billion pounds is more than $5 billion.
Just to put Americans in their place, the joke about the lack of value of Canadian money is on us now. The Canadian dollar is almost worth as much as a U.S. dollar.
For most people, ticket pricing can be the most confusing part of air travel. Fares are constantly changing. What your friend paid yesterday for a flight from New York to Chicago is probably not what you are going to pay today for the exact same flight. Even the people sitting in the same section of a flight likely paid very different prices for their tickets.
There are several factors that contribute to the cost of a fare:
Purchase date - The earlier you buy a ticket, the cheaper it will be (most likely). For instance, Delta loads a flight into its reservation system about 332 days from the actual flight date. Someone who buys a ticket on the day the flight is entered is going to get a cheaper fare than someone who buys a seat on the day of the flight.
Class - Put simply, first class is more expensive than coach (duh!)
Destination - There are certain destinations that cost more, either because of the distance to the destination or the popularity of the destination. This is simple supply-and-demand economics.
Flight date and time - Flights that depart earlier in the day tend to have lower fares because fewer people are flying then. Also, fares go up in the summer vacation season.
Fuel costs - Fuel is an airline's second largest expense. Only labor costs more than fuel. The airlines paid about $5.4-billion in fuel costs, according to the Air Transport Association (ATA). Any increase in fuel costs is usually passed onto passengers in the ticket price.
Competitors' fares - An airline has to be careful not to price their fares too much higher than their competitors. Sophisticated computer software is used to track the fares of competing airlines.
Special factors - There are certain specialty fares given to senior citizens, government and military employees and corporate customers.
Another factor that can affect ticket pricing is the hub system itself. If a large airline controls a lot of the gates at a particular airport, it may charge higher ticket prices. That large airline has the most flights coming into that airport, so consumers have to pay the higher fares if they want to fly into or out of that airport. So find out if connecting at different airports affects your ticket price.
Once in a while The Hopeful Travelers will offer a top five list just for fun. As of this date, the H.T.'s Top Five Destinations are:
1) NEW YORK CITY
4) LAS VEGAS
5) (tie) DISNEY WORLD & WASHINGTON, D.C.
As you can see the the H.T. loves the big cities. In a nut shell, NYC & London for their arts & culture and the all-day/all-night dymanics wherever you go. There is just something about Toronto. Great People, clean and safe with just enough diversions for a few days fun. Think of NYC or San Francisco but on a smaller scale. Las Vegas, well what's there to say...just ask anyone from Hawaii. Disney World & Washington, D.C. ties for the concentration of things to see and do in a limited area. The H.T. says Disney World rather than Orlando because it's possible to tie yourself up for five days just visiting the parks and resorts. Washington, D.C. because all the Federal sights are free and the history behind everything.
Monday, April 30, 2007
The best way to handle this situation is to know your rights. The DOT rules state airlines cannot bump you involuntarily unless they asked for AND are unable to find volunteers willing to give up their seats in return for compensation. If you are one of the chosen to be bumped, the airline must give you a written notice of your rights and give you immediate compensation.
If the airline manages to find an alternate flight for you that arrives at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time, the airlines must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to a maxium of $200. If the airlines get you to your destination more than four hours late, the compensation is twice your one-way fare, up to $400. This amount was set in 1978 and has never been changed.
The compensation above is in addition to your ticket. You always get to keep your ticket and use it on another flight. You can also choose an "involuntary refund" for the ticket. This refund is essentially your compensation as payment for your inconvenience. You may also be offered free transportation for future flights but you always have the right to insist on a check. But the DOT advises that once that check is cashed or the free flights accepted, you will probably lose the right to demand more compensation later.
There are exceptions to these DOT requirements. If the airline substitutes a scheduled aircraft with a smaller plane, the airline is not required to pay passengers who are bumped as a result. Also these rules do not apply to flights departing from a foreign airport to the U.S. and between foreign destinations.
Here's a cheat sheet for the traveler on tipping. First rule of thumb: Never leave home without a pocket full of dollars. Then the following amounts should do for tipping:
- Hotel doorman $1-$2 to hail taxi or help with bags
- Hotel bellman $1-$2 per bag
- Hotel concierge $5 for making a prime dinner reservation; $10-$20 for more complex requests
- Hotel maid $2-$5 each night
- Parking valet $1-$2 when retreiving car; nothing when arriving
- Cruise ship steward or waiter $3-$5 per person, per day (varies, follow guidelines provided by the specific ship)
- Restaurant waiter 15%-20%
- Taxi driver 15%-20%, rounded to the nearest dollar
- Bartender $1 per drink or $2 for high-end establishments
- Coach tour guide and driver $2-$5 per day for each
- Skycap $2 per bag
- Airport Shuttle Driver $1-$3 per bag and/or 15% (if no bags)
More info highlighting some of these specific tips will be posted in the future.
Ever wonder where the money goes from a ticket for a Broadway show in New York City. It's not pure profit. From salaries to dancing shoes, Broadway shows have quite an overhead. The running cost of an average Broadway show ranges from about $300,000 to $600,000 a week.
Excluding premium seats, most orchestra seats at any Broadway musical is about $100-$120. For arguments sake, let us just use the low end example of $100 for an orchestra seat. This is an estimate of what that ticket pays for:
$1.25 THEATER FACILITY FEE This fee goes toward the maintenance and upkeep of of the theater.
$11.20 ADVERTISING/MARKETING Those Times Square signs are a huge expense and all productions are charged a fee to be listed in the New York Times theater listings.
$5.30 SALARIES (CAST) A big budget Broadway musical can employ as many as 30-40 actors. All are members of Actors' Equity union and earn the Equity Broadway contract base pay (estimated to be over $1,400/week). Actors in major roles earn more, and stars like Nathan Lane can make more than $50,000 a week.
$6.90 SALARIES (CREW) Unionized stagehands are one of the bigger expenses of any show. Base pay for a crew chief is estimated to be $1,500 a week before benefits. A backstage crew of a big musical could employ more than 30 stagehands.
$2.00 SALARIES (MUSICIANS) The orchestra members, also unionized, receive a base pay estimated to be about $1,400 a week.
$1.40 SALARIES (OTHER) Press agents, another unionized group, receive a base pay estimated at almost $2,000 a week. Other expenses include ushers, box-office personnel and security.
$4.10 BOX-OFFICE COMMISSIONS Paid to group sales and theater party ticket brokers.
$4.50 THEATER UTILITIES AND MISCELLANEOUS EXPENSES
$1.00 INSURANCE/ACCOUNTING All Broadway productions carry insurance as well as basic liability estimated to cost over $3,000 a week.
$6.70 THEATER RENT A Broadway theater can cost over $20,000 a week plus 5 to 6 percent of the show's gross profit.
$4.10 RENTALS Most shows rent their lighting and sound equipment.
$9.90 UNION BENEFITS/PAYROLL TAXES
$1.20 UPKEEP OF COSTUMES
$15.70 ROYALTIES Every member of the creative team (composer, director, set designer, costume designer, etc) receives royalties.
$24.75 RETURN OF CAPITAL TO PRODUCERS What it's all about on Broadway: making money. About a quarter of a $100 ticket goes back to the people who made the show possible. No, not the actors, or the director, or the writers: the investors.
Note that this breakdown by no means is representative of any single show and is only an approximation of what salaries and/or costs could be for a big budget broadway musical.
Keep in mind that a Broadway musical may require an investment of $6 to $14 million to get the show to opening night. Even when a show grosses over $1 million dollars a week, it still may take almost a year or longer to repay the investment and continually cover weekly operating costs before the investors see a profit. It would not be a false statement to guess that less than half of Broadway shows opening each year earn a profit.
By the way, the musical "The Phantom of the Opera" opened at the Majestic Theatre in New York City in January 1988. As of spring 2007, the production has grossed almost $650,000,000 million dollars at this one theatre. Somewhere an investor is smiling.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Airlines do not guarantee their schedules and you should immediately realize this when you purchase your ticket. Everything from the weather, air traffic or mechanical problems can delay an aircraft. Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. Simply, there are no federal requirements so airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed or cancelled flights. You may try to negotiate for such things as meals or telephone calls but the airline is not obligated other than to get you on the next scheduled flight.
How can you minimize your problems from cancelled or delayed flights? A lot of it is out of your control but consider some basic things: busy airports, the likely weather at the airport, connection time. There is no way to foresee mechanical problems. Based on this your odds for a delay or cancellation are far greater at Chicago O'Hare in the winter than it is to connect or fly from airports in the southern part of U.S. Of course remember that there is a domino effect when there is delay or cancellation. So even if you're flying out from Dallas/Ft Worth and the plane you'll be flying on originates out of Chicago, there is still a possibility of a delay or cancellation.
There is some confusion over the terms "non-stop flight" and "direct flight". These two terms are not the same although in both instances, the flight numbers remain the same and may make a difference in your flying expectations. For example if you are flying from Orlando to Los Angeles, a non-stop flight will fly from Orlando International straight to Los Angeles International without any intermediate stops.
A direct flight from Orlando may include a stop in Chicago before going on to Los Angeles. In the direct flight you usually will not be changing airplanes if you are using the same airline straight through. But with the advent of code-sharing it's possible to change planes and airlines but retain the same flight number. So the stop in Chicago will allow passengers who boarded in Orlando whose destination is actually Chicago to deplane. The flight will then allow passengers in Chicago to board for the flight to Los Angeles. Because the stop may be a couple of hours, you may be asked to leave the plane and take any valuables or all carry-on bags. However you will have the same seat (unless you are chaging aircraft) after the plane is cleaned and ready for the continuation of the flight. So always check your intinerary issued by the airline.
There are four guide books that the Hopeful Traveler feels will best fit most travel needs. These are Frommer's, Eyewitness, Access and Fodor's. However there are many many guide books to choose from and there may be another book best suited to your purpose. The suggestion is to visit your major bookstore and review these books. Also when unsure about where to visit or just thinking about a trip, these books serve a valuable purpose of having a bundle of information at your fingertips. As much as the on-line search is easy, finding the information in one source can be unwielding.
The four recommended guide books are easy to use covering all aspects of travel from basic traveler needs to the more common researched information (hotels, sites). Frommer's and Fodor's are similarly designed in this manner. Eyewitness guides are colorful with lots of pictures and puts the information about what to see and do at the forefront. Travelers basic information is at the back section. Access guides compiles all the information by neighborhoods.
These books are updated regularly but the informaton may change little within one year. After checking out a book at say, your local bookstore, check out amazon.com to see if the book has been discounted to your favor compared to the in-store book price. Because the information contained in one book may be more than you need, some people have recommended that you head over to your public library and see if these books are available and photocopy the pages you need.
By the way Frommer's and Fodor's publish some of their guide information online (frommers.com, fodors.com). Most of the basic information found in their guidebooks can be found on their websites. If you find you're printing far too many pages from these websites, it may just be wise to invest in a hard copy of the guide. The Hopeful Traveler keeps the guides as souvenirs of a trip. If you're done with yours, pass it on to friends or donate it to your local library.
It should be noted that Frommer's and Fodor's publish guides for more destinations than Eyewitness or Access.