Saturday, May 19, 2007

More Posts Per Page

To more conveniently review the posts, The Hopeful Traveler has changed the current view of posts per page from seven to fifteen since posts have been averaging about ten a week. All previous posts are still found by clicking "older posts" at the end of each page or one of the other three search options detailed in the welcome message from T.H.T.

Where in Hawaii is Shipwreck Beach? - CBS renews THE AMAZING RACE for 12th Season

The commercial networks announced their fall 2007 schedules this week. THE AMAZING RACE was not included on the CBS sched. But fans of the reality competition show rest assured. CBS announced the show will return mid-season for a 12th season. The show challenges teams of racers to travel around the world completing tasks into each country before venturing on to the next and eventually the finish line.

For any budding traveler or armchair traveler, the series is a great primer in dealing with the challenges of traveling and experiencing the world outside your own. This includes the pleasure of seeing the teams jockey to find the quickest flight out of each airport and overcoming the language barrier in attempts to complete each task in the race.

In season 11, an all-star version of past competitors, racers began in Miami, Florida and traveled to the following countries:


The show reveals parts of the world many of us have never experienced including places that are close to home. For example, The Hopeful Traveler never knew about Shipwreck Beach, located in the state where he lives, until this latest season of the show. In Hawaii the remaining contestants had to fly to the island of Lanai (from Guam to Tokyo to Honolulu). Catching a taxi to Kamaka Air Hangar, each pair of contestants flew via helicopter to Lanai and drove to Kaumalapau Harbor. Teams needed to take a boat to an underwater cave and swim under the rocks where their next clue would be waiting. Alternatively, the teams could stand and paddle themselves on a paddleboard to a buoy to retreive the same next clue.

After securing the clue, teams learned they had to drive to Shipwreck Beach (above pictures) where the rusting World War II Liberty Ship clings to a reef near the shore. Not suitable for swimming due to powerful currents and numerous reefs, the racers had to kayak to the ship to retreive a clue from another buoy. Within the same day, racers flew back to Honolulu onto their final destination, San Francisco.

Visits to Hawaii on previous seasons had contestants finding duplicate aloha print shirts at the Hilo Hattie factory, trekking all over Maui and a visit to Volcanoes National Park.

The show which awards a million dollars to the winning team has won the Emmy Award for best reality competiton series four years in a row beating AMERICAN IDOL, SURVIVOR, THE APPRENTICE and PROJECT RUNWAY.

Seasons 1 and 7 are available on DVD from Paramount Home Video. More info about the completed 12th season available at

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Quick Tip - Using a Credit Card Abroad

If traveling abroad and using a credit card, always call your credit card company. Inform them where and when you will be traveling. Credit card companies are monitoring your credit card use. They have systems in place to flag your card for any unusual purchases for your protection.

For example, you live in Hawaii and you're in the Orient for a vacation and decide to do most of your shopping for gifts at one shop. You charge it on your VISA. The next day, you pay for lunch with the same card. The waiter returns and informs you that your card is not valid. You call the credit card company and realize they have placed your card on hold because of the unusual large amount charged outside of your country of residency. Once you inform them you are abroad, the card company will release the hold.

However the credit card company should be contacting you first before placing your card on hold. They will verify two things. First, that the card is in your possession. Second, that you authorized the transactions. If you have not contacted your card company first and you are already abroad, the card company has no idea where you are and therefore no way to contact you. They have no choice but to place the card on hold to prevent any fraudulent charges.

You probably never noticed, but If you look on the back of your credit card there should be a long-distance number to call when traveling abroad since the toll-free number can only be used while in the U.S. Believe it or not, you can call the card company collect when having problems with your card abroad. The card company should accept your call. The Hopeful Traveler speaks from experience.

Some card companies are already on the lookout before you leave home and not just for foreign charges. Before leaving Hawaii, The Hopeful Traveler once charged several different attractions with a company in New York City. The card company called me soon afterwards to verify the charges are valid.

One last thing. Be sure your credit card has your signature. Though credit card companies don't authorize this, some suggest that you write "ask for identification" in lieu of a signature. This flags the merchant to verify it is you making the charges and helps if you lose the card. This may give you some trouble if the merchant does not speak or read English well.

There will still be instances where you cannot help those merchants that just swipe the card without verifying the signature or identifcation of the patron. Of course, you may be the few who have a card with your photograph. This definitely helps in avoiding fraudulent charges.

Quick Tip - Foreign Coins

If you have any foreign coins at the tail end of your trip, use them all first. Financial institutions will not accept foreign coins for exchange. The suggestion is to spend the coins at the shops at the airport from where you are scheduled to depart. Use them to buy snacks, postcards or a last minute souvenir or gift.

Some people keep one of each coin as a souvenir. But don't count on planning to use them on your next trip. Countries like the United Kingdom updates their foreign currency in interims.

Money Shopping at the Foreign Exchange (Part 2 of 2) - Coming Home

Now you return home from London and you have 100 British Pounds (GBP) left over. You could sell the currency to your bank for US$188 at a rate of 1.883. At the bank where you purchased your foreign currency, you find the sell rate is 1.908 for US$191. Believe it or not you just lost US$13-$17 by first changing US dollars to British Pounds and finally back to US dollars at these financial institutions.

This is how it happened. Above it shows you'll get either US$191 or US$188 from the two banks. But if you look at the banks buy rate (see Part 1 of this post), you actually bought the money for US$208 and US$201, respectively when you first exchanged the American money into British Pounds.

Sound confusing? This is why when planning for a vacation at a foreign destination that you budget the actual foreign currency you may need. You have your credit card. Think of all the places where you can actually charge. Your credit card company will also have a fee when they change the foreign transaction into American dollars. But the convenience of using a credit card is worth it. All credit card companies must have their exchange rate policy available.

Carry some spare US currency. So if you feel you are running low when in a foreign city, you can go to a currency exchange and change only what you need. The alternative is using a credit or ATM card to withdraw cash from an ATM which is the current trend. If you go this route, you'll find it practical but first you need to check with your financial insitution to see if your credit or ATM card can be used abroad for cash withdrawals and for which financial networks. Also check what fees will be added for the transaction.

On the subject of foreign travelers checks: The only good reason to have them is if you lose them, they can be replaced. If you are carrying an unusual large amount of money, it makes sense to have travelers checks. However the exchange rate for foreign travelers checks is less favorable than a cash exchange. They are also a burden because you need to keep track of the number of each check and when and where you use them. In addition you will need to present your passport for verification to the merchant.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Money Shopping at the Foreign Exchange (Part 1 of 2) - Leaving on a Jet Plane

You're planning a trip to Europe and realize you'll need cash for things like cab fare, tips and meals. Where do you go? You'll have to price compare to get the most bang out of your buck. Or if you're buying money for London, to get the most 'Pounds' for your buck.

First find out the current exchange rate. Under the Quick Links section of this blog, use the currency calculator. The exchange rate you find is a measure. You will not get the same rate at banks or currency exchange bureaus. The fact is these institutions will buy low and sell high any currency exchange transaction. This is the reason why you lose money each time you exchange the same currency. More about this in Part 2 of this post. So using the British Pound as an example, you find the current rate of exchange is 1 British Pound equal to US$1.97. (Note: all rates in this post are as of 5/16/07).

Next consider how much cash you will need. You estimate 470 British Pounds (GBP) for a trip to London. The current exchange rate shows that is equal to US$930.

Now you have to check who has the best 'buy' rates for foreign currency. At the American Express exchange bureau, GBP470 will cost you US$995. You now see where the financial institution is earning some money since you know the current exchange rate. In addition American Express will add $13 for UPS 2nd day service and a $15 service fee. The total cost of the exchange: US$1,023.

Next you try your bank where you have an account. Call the bank's foreign currency exchange office (all major banking institutions should have one) and ask for their 'buy' rate for British Pounds. Your bank uses a 'buy' exchange rate of 2.0828. The GBP470 will cost you US$979. A little better than American Express and closer to the current exchange rate. But wait a minute, the bank will add a $1 service fee plus charge you one percent of the total U.S. dollars being exchanged which would be $9.80. The total cost of the exchange: US$989. Your bank requires 5-7 business days to process your order.

Do you stop there. You should try at least one more source. Remember all inquiries should be made within a day as the rate fluctuates and is different among financial instutions. Like playing the stock market, you always have the opportunity to wait and see if the 'buy' rate improves to your benefit.

You call another bank whose buy rate is 2.0126. GBP470 will now cost you US$946. This bank only adds a US$10 service fee. The total cost of the exchange: US$956. The bank will have your order ready in two working days. You feel happy with this exchage and make the purchase at this second bank.

It is your job to do your research to find the most favorable exchange rate and not just be giving money away. The next post will deal with any left over foreign currency after your trip is over.

Monday, May 14, 2007

But What Does it Look Like?

Thank you for the positive emails about the series of Harrods posts. As some of you requested here are the pics you felt were missing for items mentioned in the posts. Guess imagination can only take you so far. The photo to the left is an example of truffle stuffed brie. The photos below are in order: The Iberico Ham, The Iberico Ham Sandwich and English Christmas pudding.

The Hopeful Traveler says that Christmas pudding is very rich and a more sophisticated version of a fruit cake. A small piece is very filling. The store bought product must be steamed before serving. T.H.T. will now look forward to his next trip to London to find out what makes the Iberico Ham sandwich special. As for the truffle stuffed brie, it is completely out of of T.H.T.'s budget. Perhaps Harrods will offer a whiff of it in lieu of a taste. One doubts that Harrods will be offering free sample of this cheese, umh sorry, fromage.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Accommodations - A Different Thing to Different People

The Hopeful Traveler has largely avoided the subject of accommodations or searching for a hotel. This subject is one of the most difficult to discuss simply because the idea of a hotel means so many different things to everyone. But there are some basics you should know that are similar to how one chooses airfares.

Location: Like in real estate, it's all about the location. Your choice of city will make a primary difference. Overall the average price for a hotel room is much less in Las Vegas than New York City, for example. Prices will then vary for hotels in proximity to a lot of attractions in your choice of city as opposed to ones a little off the beaten path. In New York City, a hotel in Times Square will definitely carry a higher per room night fee than say hotels in lower Manhattan. Times Square will all its diversions for tourists is seen as a prime area to stay during any visit to the city.

Brand: Like purchasing a piece of clothing from a name brand manufacturer, so goes the rule with hotels that come under any of the major brands. Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt and Radisson are among the major players. Stays at these hotels will likely be more than independently owned or smaller chains in the same area. Often the services or amenties at these hotels are more than those at lesser known brands. But the personal touch at a smaller hotel with luxurious surroundings and limited rooms may carry a higher rate than those massive monoliths that some hotel brands operate.

Hotel Families: Because the big boys want to cover all walks of the hotel staying public, some of the major brands have additional brands that cater to some specific travelers tastes. Marriott, for example, has the Courtyard brand that caters to business travelers and offers less frills than one would find at one their Marriott named resorts. Hilton has the Garden Inn brand catering towards travelers on a budget or to families. Normally the difference between each hotel within a brand is the services, amenties, location and cost.

Dates of stay: The popularity of certain dates or even the day of the week will see the per night stay fluctuate. In big convention cities like San Francisco, Toronto or New York City some Monday-Friday rates will be through the roof when a big convention is in town. But because of the popularity of these cities with business travelers, weekend rates can be lower. Hotels at family destinations will see higher rates during school holidays. For all big cities, New Year's Eve carries high tarrifs.

Date of purchase: There is no doubt that planning ahead can help. Planning a stay in London? Radisson Edwardian Hotels usually have some advance specials where the Value Added Tax (VAT), a hefty 17.9%, is already included in the quoted per night rate and includes English breakfast. The Hilton brand offers a net advance rate that allows you to pay at a lower rate when booking the room rather than when checking out from your hotel.

Room location: Want a view, it will likely cost you. For a destination like Hawaii, a room with an ocean view will cost more per night than a room with a mountain view. Certain hotels have exclusive floors that have special amenties for those guests. The Marriott brand has a Concierge level where there is a private room for those guest to enjoy drinks and complimentary continental breakfast and hors d'oeurves.

Expectations: Often we demand more than what is actually offered. Be sure that everything you had expected in the hotel is offered. A clean room is a reasonable demand. 24-hour room service must be advertised as so.

Speak-Up: Often hotel stays are ruined because nobody bothers to bring up bad service to hotel management and demand that it is corrected. Being realistic will help you here as well. The room was not clean when you checked in? Call the front desk ASAP. On the other side of the coin, hotels also appreciate when you comment their services or particular employee for an outstanding job.

T.H.T. views a hotel as a home away from home. Many will always say a hotel is just someplace where you sleep. However the most complaints T.H.T hears about are usually about the accomodations. A traveler needs to look at all aspects of a hotel choice. Cost is the primary factor but consider location and amenities for example. Recommendations are often someplace to start but do as much thorough research as possible. Hotel booking consolidation websites will offer a variety of price comparisons in addition to customer comments. Even if you are not planning to use a site like, just consider the information it has to offer. Always check directly with the a hotel's official website to determine base prices before checking a site like or

Someone once told T.H.T of his champagne tastes when it comes to hotels. Yes, the T.H.T. loves such things as the chocolates on the pillow and the newspaper delivered each morning. But the research, plans and budgets are carefully thought about as soon as possible. When a last minute trip is in the making, the T.H.T.'s expectations are then drastically altered to then be realistic about choice of hotel, dates and cost. One has to be so complaints should be very rare or very few.

The Food Halls at Harrods - Some Final Words & Other Shopping Suggestions

Harrods is definitely upscale in it's inventory but also a complete department store. Equally fascinating is the food halls at Fortnum & Mason (storefront pictured below), another worthwhile excursion. For keepsakes bearing the Harrods name, check out the Harrods store on the lower ground floor and the Harrods arcade on the ground floor. For purchases of a more reasonable nature, visit the food hall and other departments at stores such as Selfridge's or Marks & Spencer during a shopping excursion of Oxford Street in London. In fact you could make a day of shopping and eating in London. Go figure, considering Britian's reputation for food. But a morning at Harrods then the rest of the day shopping along fashionable Regent Street and Oxford Street will give your feet a good workout. In between you can nosh at your pleasure. Some people look forward to the experience of afternoon tea in London and many a visitor consider the Georgian Restaurant at Harrods at the top of the list. There are however other places to choose for this English tradition. T.H.T. has had one opportunity to have a champagne/afternoon tea at Harrods and the experience was filling that dinner was skipped over altogether. Tea at posh establishments like Harrods, the Ritz Hotel or Fortnum and Mason will probably run about 20-30 British Pounds each (US$40-$60). Often it's about the experience rather than just about the food.

To peruse items you can purchase via internet check and

The Food Halls at Harrods - Vegans Keep Out

The last of the four Food Halls at Harrods finds you among fresh fish, meat and poultry selections. The ornate hall and beautiful arrangements of products will wet any appetite. Choose from aged beef, slabs of bacon, a roster of Scotch Beef and Dutch Veal and too many fish. There is even a section to choose from a variety of quail eggs. There are over 25 places to enjoy a meal at Harrods for either to dine in or to go (or as the British say "take away"). Within this hall you'll find four of them: The Sea Grill, Champagne & Oyster Bar, Harrods Famous Deli and Rotisserie.

World Trade Center Memorial

The World Trade Center Memorial construction is under way in addition to the Freedom Tower and other structures at Ground Zero. The new subway station and new WTC 7 are already completed. Here are some renderings of the how the completed area will appear. When visiting the site during construction, you'll find the scope of the area that is Ground Zero astounding. You can walk the perimiter of the entire area gazing at the presently unobstructed vistas and temporary memorials. Ground Zero remains a moving site several years later and on return visits. More information at

The basic design of the memorial are two massive voids with waterfalls cascading down their sides. The names of all 2,979 who perished in the 9/11 attacks will be inscribed around the edge of the Memorial waterfalls. A state-of-the-art museum will be constructed as well. Visitors can also descend below the Memorial voids to view the slurry wall and other remaining structures. The Memorial will occupy eight acres. The remaining eight acres of the former WTC site will contain the Freedom Tower, WTC Towers 2, 3 , 4, retail development, train terminal and peforming arts center. Click on any of these three renderings for a detailed view.

The Food Halls at Harrods - An Eden of More than Apples

Another food hall at Harrods contains fruits, vegetables, florist and hamper & food orders. Along with the confections and coffee/teas, this hall will be another chance to find that perfect item to bring home. You'll find gift sets or tins of the mentioned items in addition to fruit preserves. During the Christmas holidays, you can pick up authentic Christmas Pudding in various sizes. For many in Britian, the Christmas pudding is one of the most important and favorite part of the Christmas meal. The pudding is rich, alcoholic, fruity and delicious. The Daily Mail, one of Britian's leading newspapers, classified Harrods Classic Christmas pudding as the best in terms of consistency, fruitiness, alchohol flavor and moistness. There is a section in this hall for the placing of food orders and hampers (gift baskets). Keep in mind U.S. customs laws on what can be brought into the United States. But if you have an unusual large amount of gift items, this counter can assist you. However as a caution the postage cost to have Harrods mail these items back to the U.S. for you may be as much as the item you purchasing. Better you choose wisely a limited selection of items that you can pack and bring home yourself.

Border Patrol: Ten Basic Tips from U.S. Customs

The United States Customs offers these ten basic tips for the traveler going abroad. Easy to remember, they will help you in your shopping abroad decisions and exit from and re-entry to the United States.

1) Check that you have all the required travel documents for the countries you're visiting, as well as identification for re-entry to the United States. Passports are required for re-entry to the U.S. by air from all countries as of January 23, 2007. Visit for destination information.

2) Declare everything you are brining in from abroad, even if you brought it in a duty-free shop. (Items sold there are subject to the U.S. duty fees and other restrictions.)

3) If you buy something from a street vendor, keep in mind that it may be counterfeit and/or unsafe. You may have to surrender it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection when you get home.

4) If you bought things abroad for personal use or as gifts, they are eligible for duty exemptions. If you are bringing them back for resale, they're not.

5) Shipped goods are not eligible for your personal duty free exemption, and it may cost more than you think to clear them through U.S. Customs and Border Proections. U.S. Customs offers an "International Mail Imports" brochure for more information.

6) Regarding medecine, many foreign-made medications are not FDA-approved and cannot be brought into the United States. Also, when traveling abroad, bring only the amount of medication you'll need during the trip. T.H.T notes that all prescription medications be carried in original bottles/packaging with prescription labels.

7) Don't try to bring any Cuban-made products into the U.S., no matter where they were purchased.

8) Don't try to bring any food into the U.S. without first checking to see if is permitted. Also, any and all live birds and bird products, whether for personal or commercial use, may be restricted and/or quarantined. T.H.T. notes that even meat products are suspect by U.S. Customs. Usually most confections, cookies, jam/jellies and coffees/teas purchased abroad are safe for export.

9) CPB officers can inspect you and your belongings without a warrant. This may include luggage, vehicle and personal searches, and is meant to enforce the law as well as protect all legitimate travelers.

10) Read the helpful brochure, "Know Before You Go," before traveling. Print copies may be requested online or view the web version at under the Travel section.

The Hopeful Traveler has posted links for U.S. Customs, including the to the "Know Before You Go" brochure, under the Quick Links section of this blog. Another link is added for passport information to the U.S. Department of State website.
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