Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Farewell, MAXjet. We barely knew you.

Until December 24, MAXjet Airways was one of just four airlines that operated Business Class-only flights from the U.S. to Europe. By most regards, it did a good job of balancing reasonable prices with excellent service. But on Christmas Eve, high fuel prices, dwindling corporate travel budgets, and scarce credit in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis came together to push MAXjet into bankruptcy.

Of course, many industry analysts have been saying for months that the industry is overcrowded. United and Delta have been in talks about a possible merger. German carrier Lufthansa just bought a 19% stake in JetBlue Airways. Even ultra-discount carrier Skybus--modeled on no-frills European carrier RyanAir--just posted a $16 million quarterly loss, and its business model could hardly be more different from MAXjet.

None of that helps MAXjet's passengers, some of whom had already started their trips when the bankruptcy was announced. But Continental has announced that it will honor MAXjet tickets, and the airline has also made arrangements with Eos to accommodate its passengers on its flights from London to New York. It's a Festivus miracle.

MAXjet may have been special, but it wasn't unique. There are three other carriers that provide Business Class service to Europe: Eos and Silverjet(1) to London, and L'Avion to Paris. Eos CEO Jack Williams, incidentally, says that the airline's "passenger numbers are at record highs and load factors are consistently strong." Maybe the collapse of MAXjet is nothing more than the logical outcome of too many airlines competing in a highly profitable but necessarily limited market--since even at $1500, most people going to Europe can't afford a seat on one of these premium-only carriers.

As for Skybus, the idea of pricing airline tickets to compete with Greyhound isn't new: Independence Air tried it a few years ago. But then, pricing is one thing, while actually providing service comparable to Greyhound is something else entirely. The Columbus-based carrier that lives up to its name may yet surprise us.

(1) Silverjet also flies to Dubai.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dealing with Lost Luggage

I don't know what happened.

I arrived at Stuttgart Airport two hours early. I was among the first people to check in for the Air France flight. More than 90 minutes passed between my arrival in Paris and departure on the Continental flight bound for America. My bag was marked with one of those special yellow "Priority" tags that identifies a customer with elite status, and Air France and Continental are SkyTeam partners with established interline baggage procedures.

In short, I did everything right. Nonetheless, when the conveyor belt stopped at Newark-Liberty International Airport, I was one of a dozen passengers whose bags had not made it onto our flight out of Charles de Gaulle--and every one of us had connected from an earlier destination.

I'll get them back, I'm sure. When I arrive in D.C., I'll file a claim, and they'll be tracked down. In a day, or two, or maybe three, the bags will probably be delivered. But until then, I'll be without the bulk of my dress clothes, half of my tailor-made dress shirts, my best cuff links, my dress shoes, and more than half a dozen bottles of wine that I bought as Christmas presents. The clothing is particularly problematic since tonight is my company Holiday Party (a semi-formal event).

Could I have avoided it? Yes, it theory: I could have chosen an itinerary that kept all of my flights with one carrier. When you have a connection from one airline to another, no matter how you've arranged it, the odds go up that your bags won't make the transfer. It's one of the little secrets the airlines try to keep hidden, especially among their codeshare partners.

But doing that would have meant bypassing SkyTeam. That, in turn, would have cost me the 5700 miles I'll earn for the itinerary, miles that will lock in my top-tier Platinum status with Continental and its affiliates for 2008. What's worth more: avoiding a few days' wait for luggage, or enjoying priority upgrades on domestic and international flights? When you travel more than 200,000 miles a year like I do, it's not really a question.

Baggage gets lost some times. Even between flights with the same carrier, not everything always makes the transfer. Short of staying home, there's really not much you can do about it.
Know what you packed, be prepared to estimate the fair market value in case it does need to be replaced, and try to keep calm. It will work out eventually.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Assigned Seats: The New Business Class

In the 1980s(1), airlines faced with an overwhelming number of business travelers who were forbidden to buy expensive First Class tickets but tired of flying Coach came up with a new concept: Business Class. For about half the price of a First Class fare, a Business Class seat offered longer legroom, wider seats, tastier food, and more personalized service than Coach. It was a huge success--at least for a few years, when companies went through their next round of cost-cutting.

Today, most business travelers travel in the class of service created for them only when they're able to broker an upgrade from a Coach fare. Aware of the strict "bottom line"-centric price controls increasingly in place at American companies, U.S. low-cost carriers like Southwest have seen an opportunity to jump into the fray with a new take on business travel. For an extra $10 to $30 per ticket, road warriors booking Southwest's Business Select fares earn the right to board first--a coveted privilege on an airline that has no reserved seating.

Not to be outdone by its sky-borne counterpart, commercial bus carrier Greyhound announced its own initiative. Like Business Select, Priority Boarding offers passengers advance boarding but goes a step further by allowing them to actually reserve specific seats online--and it costs just $5 to boot, handily undercutting Southwest's fee.

Now, to be fair, Southwest's Business Select provides a few other benefits. Passengers earn additional credit in the airline's Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program, and each booking comes with a coupon for a complimentary alcoholic beverage that you pointedly won't be offered on Greyhound. But then again, when you as a business traveller are faced with the reality that the amenities you'll get on your flight are only a slight step ahead of taking the bus, you'll probably need that drink.

Happy travels.

(1) Strictly speaking, the first Business Class seating was introduced by Australia's then-national carrier Qantas in 1979. However, it was during the 1980s that the offering was first offered by U.S. airlines.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Three hours, please.

When you fly domestically, arriving 90 minutes early is a best practice even though an hour is usually enough time. For an international flight from an American airport, two hours is the norm. Should your travel plans include Israel, though, be very clear on this: you should arrive at the airport no less than three hours before your flight.

Israel takes airport security very seriously. Whether that's because the country has been officially at war with a dozen Arab nations for its entire history or because Yasser Arafat basically invented modern terrorism, I couldn't say. The specific impetus is unimportant anyway; what matters is that you, as a traveler expecting to fly out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, will be given a closer look if you arrive, say, two and a half hours before your flight.

Oh, and were you just visiting for the weekend? That's very suspicious unto itself. Who would fly from America to Israel just to spend two days exploring Tel Aviv--even if the Lonely Planet guide says that's enough time to be worthwhile?

Wait... is that a Bahraini stamp in your passport? Now you're really going to get some in-depth scrutiny.

Readers might correctly understand at this point that my weekend trip to Tel Aviv ended with just such a discussion with Israeli airport security. I managed to arouse every possible suspicion that one might have with the exceptions of being an Arab or a Muslim; if one or both had been true, I'm not sure whether I'd have made my flight!

The depth to which I was questioned really did surprise me:
  • When I told the guards the name of my company, they wanted to see business cards.
  • When I said what I did, they asked me to walk them through a typical audit procedure.
  • When I said I'd taken lots of photos, they had me show them on my camera.
  • When I told them about Spontaneous Tourism, they had me power up my laptop, connect to the (free) airport Wi-Fi, and pull up the book on Amazon.com.
All tolled, I spent about half an hour talking with the security guys and answering their questions. My bag was also scanned twice, at different points by different people (which had nothing to do with my brief stay; that's part of the standard process).

For all that, I found the experience very pleasant. I was treated with the utmost courtesy at all times. They retrieved my boarding pass for me while I was being questioned, to make sure that I'd get to my flight on time (which I did; they had just started boarding when I walked up). And that silly bag of gels and liquids that TSA finds so terrifying? The Israelis--they who have more cause to worry about terrorism than anyone on the planet--didn't need to see it, because they'd done a thorough job of screening me.

But just the same, spare yourself the trouble. If you'll be flying out of Israel, make sure you get to the airport in advance. Three hours, please.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Credit where credit is due

You've searched everywhere to get the lowest fare you could find. Now, you've bought your ticket, and the only thing left to do is take the trip. But did you really get the lowest fare? What if you bought the lowest ticket at the time, but then prices drop?

You might think you're stuck, especially on non-refundable fares. But that's not quite true: most airlines, including six of the seven legacy carriers and a whole bunch of their low-cost competitors, will give you the difference in fares if prices drop after you buy but before you travel. (They're not just doing it to be nice, either; protecting you against fare drops is one way that airlines encourage you to book early, which in turn helps them fill planes.)

Here's how it works:
  • Buy your ticket.
  • Check periodically to see if the price has dropped.
  • Send documentation to the airline and request credit.

At one point, most airlines would give you actual cash rebates for the fare difference. Today, most provide vouchers for use on future flights with them. But that's pretty good, don't you agree?

Of course, up until recently, the challenge was keeping track of ticket prices. After all, the low-fare protections only apply to the same type of ticket, so you need to know the fare basis and compare apples to apples. That's beyond the ability of some people and beyond the attention span of most others.

Enter Yapta.com, which does it for you. Register (for free), enter your airline ticketing information, and let Yapta search the fares for you. When it finds a price drop for the same fare basis, you'll be notified--and Yapta even helps you get the credit to which you're entitled.

It's free money. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Seeing your own backyard

When we think of travel, visions of faraway places come to mind. More often than not, though, we haven't done much exploring in our own hometowns.

Even if you don't live in a large city, odds are that within 100 miles of where you live, there are historic cites, monuments, parks, and attractions that you either haven't seen at all or haven't seen recently. The trick is that you have to approach your local area the same way that you would if it were somewhere that you were visiting. Do some research online. Ask for ideas of what's worth seeing. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Besides helping you get back in touch with your community and its heritage, traveling locally has another big advantage: it's cheap. Travel cost is minimal. And while if you want the full immersion experience, you can stay in a local boutique hotel, it will be enough for most people to avoid the fast food chains and look for local cuisine.

Remember, being a traveler is less about destination than mindset. So even if Paris has to wait until you can save up for the plane ticket, don't put off your adventures. Be a Spontaneous Tourist at home.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Departure Taxes

Everyone pays airport taxes. Most people don't realize it, though, because these taxes are generally included in ticket prices. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, though, I was reminded in a very direct fashion that some countries--Argentina among them, but also Costa Rica and dozens of other destinations across the developing world--prefer to collect their departure taxes themselves at the airport.

In most cases, the tax is $20-30 USD. What makes it fascinating is that it's almost always paid in dollars (or euros) rather than the local currency. This decision brings stable currency into government coffers but has the implicit impact of making leaving the country a variable expense for the nation's own citizens (who are paid in local currency and not dollars or euros). Handing over my last U.S. $20 bill to pay the tax was an annoyance; for an Argentine with tickets to leave the country, not having $60 AR pesos would've stopped the trip before it even began.

Bottom line: you can't leave without paying the departure tax. That means that you, as a Spontaneous Tourist, should be careful to always have $20-30 USD set aside should you need it at the last minute. Fortunately, in most cases, credit cards are accepted. Happy travels!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is a United-Delta merger in the works?

According to the Associated Press, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are in talks regarding a possible merger. Were it to occur, the merger of these two legacy carriers--respectively the second- and third-largest in the U.S.--would create a company larger and with more routes than American Airlines, which currently holds the #1 spot for total size among U.S. airlines. Rumor also has it that the new company would retain the United brand name.

The possibility of a UAL-Delta merger is bizarre for several reasons, not the least of which is that Delta vehemently fended off an attempted purchase by U.S. Airways earlier this year on the grounds that it was well positioned to succeed as an independent company. Delta was also bankrupt at the time, and has since emerged from bankrupcty with new labor contracts that included dumping its pension obligations on the Government; why were those concessions granted if only to pave the way for a merger?

For travelers, of course, these political questions are less important than some others:
  • Delta is a member of SkyTeam, while United is a member of the Star Alliance; would the new airline retain the Star Alliance membership along with the United name?


  • Would the "new United" set its top-level elite status at the 100,000-mile level currently used for United 1K flyers, or would it adopt 75,000 miles like Delta's Platinum Medallion level?


  • United currently offers regional and systemwide E-upgrades in addition to mileage upgrades; Delta doesn't have these. Would the "new United" continue to offer these non-mileage upgrades to elite members?

Of course, we don't know. And it may never happen anyway; remember, in late 2006, there was talk about a United-Continental merger that never went anywhere. Keep an eye on this, though. There are far too many airlines in the United States for the industry's own good, and if it isn't UAL-Delta, one thing is certain: consolidation is coming.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gifts for Travelers!

A few days ago, the AP published Gifts for Globetrotters, a list of items recommended by travel experts as being perfect for frequent travelers. The story was posted on CNN.com and in dozens of other places, and included four of my recommendations.

Since the format didn't include links to the products that I recommended, though, I decided that some follow-up information was in order. Here's the inside scoop on what I recommended and why.
  • External Power for Laptop Computers. Long flights drain laptop batteries. You can get more life out of your portable computer by turning down the brightness of the screen, but isn't it hard enough to see the screen on a plane? A better solution is an NCharge VNC-130 external battery pack by Valence. Sleek and very thin, the NCharge is fairly heavy (because it is a battery) but provides up to 8 hours of AC-equivalent power. Specifying your laptop model ensures you'll get the right power connector. ($300; order direct from Valence.)

  • Privacy Filter for Laptop Screens. Maybe you're in First Class, or maybe you have a middle seat in Coach. Either way, do you really want the person next to you to see what's on your laptop screen? The privacy filter by 3M has you (and your laptop) covered! Choose the right size for your laptop, install it in seconds, and anyone looking at your laptop from more than 15 degrees off-center will see nothing but a black screen--but you'll barely notice the difference looking at it head-on. ($50; widely available.)

  • Ultraviolet Water Purifier. If you've traveled outside of the developed world, you're well aware of the need to treat local water with skepticism. Buying bottled water, though, can be both expensive and frustrating--and if you pick up a local brand, you may well be paying a premium for the same water you'd find in the tap anyway. Instead, bring along a SteriPEN Adventurer UV water purifier by Hydro-Photon.

    Designed with backpackers in mind, the SteriPEN is a lightweight device about the size of a sheathed knife that comes with a belt pouch. Turn it on, dip it into clear water, and swirl gently. It turns itself off when its cycle finishes, and you can drink the water knowing that it's damaged or destroyed "in excess of 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.99% of viruses and 99.9% protozoa." I brought one with me to Mexico and drank purified tap water the entire time that was there with no ill effects. ($130; available from REI and other vendors.)

  • Ultra-Thin Travel Shaver. Gentlemen who are otherwise clean-shaven will immediately appreciate the annoyance of getting of a flight looking overgrown and haggard. Turbulence makes bladed razors a bad choice for places, though, and most electric razors are bulky. The ES518N by Panasonic is not well named and offers just one blade but stands out with good reason: it's about the size of a credit card and only half an inch thick, and while it won't replace your favorite bathroom razor at home, you can't beat the convenience while you're traveling. ($60; available at Brookstone and online.)

Hope these ideas make it easier for you to shop for the frequent travelers in your life.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Traveling for Thanksgiving?

It's no secret that Thanksgiving is the most traveled holiday of the year. Roads will be congested with traffic--and so will skies. Flights are almost always oversold during the holidays, and this year is bound to be no different.

What can you do to limit your travel hassles this Thanskgiving? Here are some tips:
  • Consider Amtrak. If you're traveling up or down either coast, it's often very convenient to travel by rail. Train stations are typically located downtown, convenient to mass transit. Trains are rarely oversold, and while they'll certainly be crowded, there's none of the hassle of going through security lines when you take Amtrak. Book now, though, if you expect to get a seat. You won't be the only one to realize the train is a smart idea.

  • Fly early. Very early. Even around the holidays, people don't like to wake up earlier than they have to. Most travelers on the day before Thanksgiving will plan to take afternoon flights. Some will leave around 10:00 a.m. Far fewer will opt for the flight that leaves at 6:30 a.m. That means you should be on that flight, because if there is a problem for any reason, you can get it straightened out before the mob arrives in the afternoon.

  • Limit your luggage. Bags get lost at the airport every day. Want to guess what happens to the odds of your bag being one of them when the amount of baggage increases to four times its usual quantity and the people handling it get extremely bitter about their working conditions? You got it: they go up. Don't pack more than you need--and ideally, fit everything into a carry-on.

  • If you have to be on the road... take off the day before Thanksgiving, and leave in the early morning. You want to be outside of any major cities when rush hour arrives (because there will still be plenty of people who aren't traveling trying to get into work). And this advice applies whether you're driving or taking the bus; remember, buses use the same roads that cars use.
Remember, few problems get better when you ignore them. Plan ahead, travel smart, and have a wonderful time this Thanksgiving. Happy travels!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Passports: They're required again.

Effective October 1, 2007, the temporary reprieve that the U.S. government put into place for the summer has ended. That means that from now on, under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, you'll need to have an actual passport to return to the United States by air after traveling abroad.

The land and sea phase of the Initiative won't take effect until some time in the summer of 2008. By then, we're expected to have a few options, including something called a passport card that's currently in development to use when traveling to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

For anyone interested, the Initiative was part of the Intelligence Reform and Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA).

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Round-Trip Taxi Service: Not necessarily a savings!

In many resort communities, from Orlando to Acapulco, the market for transportation to and from the airport is dominated by transit companies offering fixed-price tickets to major hotels. Since taxi prices vary, buying a ticket from one of these companies can save you time and money.

When you make your purchase, you’ll generally be asked whether you want a one-way or round-trip ticket. At first glance, this seems like a no-brainer: if the service is reliable to get you to your hotel, why would you not want to work with the same company to arrange your return trip? Turns out, there are good reasons why not.

First of all, the price may not be as much a savings as you expect. Once you get to your hotel, you’ll have a better idea of how much a taxi will cost. You can also get solid information on the local bus service. One or both of these options may prove to be a better deal than you were offered at the airport, especially if your resort has arranged discount fares or if there are official rates to bring passengers back to the airport from their hotels.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the return service may not be very convenient. You are typically asked to call 24 hours in advance to schedule your pickup for return to the airport. However, the implication that you can choose your pickup time is not necessarily correct. In Orlando, for instance, my girlfriend and I called to request a 4:00 a.m. pickup for our 6:00 a.m. domestic flight, only to be told that the closest available pickup would be 2:15 a.m.

Overseas, the convenience factor takes on a whole new level. Depending on where you are traveling and where you are staying, it may be confusing to call to make your pickup reservation. When you do reach someone, he or she may or may not speak English, and phone quality can make communicating in otherwise-passable “travel language” relatively difficult. That means you might be stuck wondering whether you’ll miss your flight if the shuttle doesn’t show up, even Spontaneous Tourists don’t welcome that sort of stress.

Of course, as long as you keep some money handy, you can always forgo the return service and take an official-rate taxi (as I did on a recent trip to Acapulco). If that happens, though, understand that you’ll have wasted the money on your round-trip ticket, because no one else will honor it and there are no refunds, ever.

My advice? Buy a one-way ticket to your hotel, and figure out your return transportation once you get checked in. Even at a travel hostel, there will be people who can help explain your options, and you’ll maintain the flexibility you need to enjoy your trip.

Happy travels.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cargo Pants: Great for travel!

When you're traveling, and especially when you travel abroad, you may find yourself struggling to decide how to carry everything as you explore. Short trips rarely warrant much in the way of checked baggage, but even a backpack can be heavy and uncomfortable after a while.

At the same time, there are a lot of things you want to have with you: a camera, water, money, and probably a map. Maybe you have a cell phone. Do you need to carry allergy medication with you? If the water isn't safe to drink, you might have iodine tablets or one of the newer ultraviolet water purifiers.

A lot of this stuff can be attached to your belt, but not all of it is stuff that you necessarily want to be visible. Cameras, in particular, are an annoying dilemma: you want to be able to take pictures, but you don't want to make yourself a target for thieves. (Yes, everyone knows you have a camera, just like they know you have money; on the other hand, making it obvious where these items are makes it more likely that someone can steal them quickly, and that's what thieves prefer to do.)

Cargo pants offer a good alternative to carrying your backpack wherever you go. The more pockets you have, the more space to store things without carrying them--but they remain easily accessible as needed.

Of course, having lots of pockets doesn't mean you shouldn't secure your valuables in a hotel safe. But pockets can help you keep a lot of things close at hand when you need them.

Oh, and here's a tip for protecting yourself against pickpockets. When someone in a crowd yells, "Pickpocket!", everyone instinctively reaches for his or her wallet to make sure that it's still there. Train yourself to not do this, because it's usually the pickpocket who's yelling--instantly discovering where each person is keeping his or her money.

And now, I'm off to Acapulco. Happy travels.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Have you been to Vayama?

If you're interested in international travel and haven't visited Vayama.com, do yourself a favor and take a look. At first glance, Vayama might seem like any other travel site--there are drop-downs for origin and destination points, classes of service, and travel dates. But Vayama is a little different.

Unlike most travel sites, Vayama offers only travel between major U.S. cities and major overseas destinations. You can't use the site to look for domestic trips. That's not a downside; by taking this approach, Vayama is able to provide several benefits that broader fare finders can't. Among the benefits:
  • You can leave either the destination or the origin open. Vayama can tell you, for instance, which international city is the cheapest destination from Washington-Dulles Airport in D.C., or which U.S. city is the cheapest place from which to depart if you want to get to Tel Aviv, Israel. (Of course, you do have to provide one or the other.)
  • Vayama includes international low-cost carriers. Most of the fare finders give strong preference to U.S. airlines and concentrate on major foreign carriers when they're included. Vayama includes foreign airlines that aren't part of alliances, like Air Pacific. On the other hand, you can also indicate an airline preference if you have one.
  • Search results provide lots of information. When results come up, you can quickly see everything from what alliances an airline has to what restrictions apply to the specific fare code that the search has found. Taxes are broken out in the itemized cost but included in the bold round-trip price quote that you'll see first--a big improvement over teasing you with a low fare only to find that the tax-inclusive price is $200 higher!
Understand up front that Vayama imposes a fee when you book through the site. In many cases, the fares that Vayama finds are published, in which case you can go to the Web site of the airline offering the lowest fare and book directly. And in those instances where Vayama has found you a special fare available only through the site, you're usually saving more than the $10 fee by taking the special.

Sure, Vayama isn't perfect. It doesn't include all or even most destinations, and it doesn't deal with domestic U.S. flights. But when you're looking to travel internationally, give it a try. You may save a lot of time and money.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Luxury Rail Service comes to Amtrak!

In an unprecedented move, the National Passenger Rail Corporation--better known as Amtrak--on September 6 announced a partnership with privately held GrandLuxe Rail Journeys.

GrandLuxe, which formerly operated under the name American Orient Express, is legendary for providing service and accommodations on refurbished and restyled trains that echo the splendor of the railroad's golden age. Private butler service, five-course menus, and luxury furnishings are all part of the GrandLuxe experience, which can be compared to a cruise on land.

Now, to be clear, Amtrak has always provided locomotives to pull GrandLuxe trains on that company's special routes. What makes this partnership new and exciting is that we're talking about attaching multi-car GrandLuxe trains to existing Amtrak routes and offering these luxury accommodations as an alternate form of booking--much more comfortable than standard Amtrak sleeper cars, to say the least!

The first routes that will offer GrandLuxe service will be the California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco), the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), and the Silver Meteor (Washington, D.C.-Miami). Additional itineraries will be offered from D.C. to Chicago (the Capitol Limited) and with Denver as an optional destination along the California Zephyr route.

How much will it cost? The word is that service will start at under $800 one-way, including all meals and accommodations--about twice as expensive as booking a standard Amtrak sleeper berth for the same itinerary. Two-night routes will be more expensive, going as high as $2500, but even then we're talking about a big difference compared to GrandLuxe's typical 10-day excursions.

GrandLuxe isn't for everyone. But with Amtrak starved by funding shortfalls and suffering from outdated equipment on many of its long-haul routers, this partnership offers a rare opportunity for anyone looking to experience the joy of luxury rail travel.

One caveat: this is a pilot program that may or may not continue beyond January 2008. If you're interested in giving it a try, don't wait too long.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

When to Deal with a Travel Agent

My boss and I got into a conversation a few days ago about travel agents: their role in the twenty-first century travel market, when it makes sense to work with them, and when they can make life more difficult for you as a traveler. Since we agreed on just about every point, I'd like to share with you some of our conclusions. (For those who don't know, a travel agent is a professional who handles your travel plans for you.)

In the days before deregulation and continuing up through the early 1990s, travel agents were a big help in booking airline tickets. They had access to special fares that most consumers couldn't get, understood complex ticketing processes that left most customers scratching their heads, and could fix problems en route for travelers who encountered problems. During most of this time, travel agents made their money primarily from commissions paid by the airlines and other travel companies; if it's free, why not use an agent, right?

Well, a lot of that changed with the emergence of the Internet. Over time, airlines in particular began offering the best fare deals from their own Web sites to compete with fare-comparison sites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. They also got embroiled in intense competition with one another, especially as low-cost carriers emerged to challenge the legacy carriers. With each fare cut, the commissions paid to travel agents got smaller. Eventually, they disappeared entirely.

Under the current model, travel agents who book airline tickets for you make little or nothing from the airlines. They get their money from you, in the form of service fees. At the same time, booking your own airline tickets has gotten super-easy (again, thanks to the Internet). Under those conditions, why would you use an agent?

But maybe you're lazy, and you prefer to have someone else do the work for you. Fair enough. So here's another downside, which applies not only to travel agents but also to any time when you book fares through a third party rather than directly with the airline: only the company that sold you the tickets can change them. Need to reschedule a flight? You'll have to call your travel agent, or Expedia, or whoever; the airline won't help you directly. That's a big downside.

Does that mean travel agents are useless? No. There's one area where working with a travel agent can still make your life quite a bit easier, and that's when you're booking a cruise. Unlike airfares, cruise fares and arrangements remain extremely complicated. Prices vary widely, and there are plenty of special incentives that a travel agent can offer that you may not be able to get for yourself (or at least, not without spending huge amounts of time and effort on it). And unlike airlines, cruise lines continue to pay travel agents for their efforts.

Bottom line: when it comes to air, rail, or bus travel, make your own reservations on the Internet, but go to a travel agent when you want to take a cruise.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Relying on the Chinatown Bus

The various bus companies whose routes connect the Chinatowns across the East and West Coasts of America--Apex, Today Bus, Dragon Coach, and others--operate reasonably clean, modern buses. When it comes to scheduling, however, taking the Chinatown Bus is practically a hands-on lesson in third-world bus travel.

Last weekend, I walked my girlfriend to 610 I St. in D.C., the location where she was to pick up the return portion of her Chinatown Bus ticket to New York City. We arrived at the bus stop and joined a crowd of perhaps fifty people waiting for the bus, which was scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m. More people arrived steadily, and there may have been 100 or more when the departure time came. And went. With no bus.

Now, this isn't the first time that she's taken the Chinatown Bus; she does it often. We try to see each other most weekends, and bus travel is by far the cheapest way to get between D.C. and New York. And within the realm of bus travel, Chinatown Bus companies like Apex are even cheaper than Greyhound's e-tickets (though not by much; a D.C.-NYC e-ticket is $40 RT, versus a $35 RT on Today Bus).

Of course, for many travelers, including my girlfriend, what put them off Greyhound was less a matter of price than customer service. Greyhound employees can be quite belligerent, even when responding to simple questions. The Chinatown Bus companies don't have that problem; many of their employees speak no English whatsoever, so arguments are rare. (Actually, some of the contracted bus drivers don't even know which "company" they work for on a given route... but I digress.)

That same inability to argue, unfortunately, came back to bite us on Sunday. By 8:45, there was still no bus, and no sign that there ever would be one. She recounted a previous experience waiting on a hillside in Baltimore as bus after bus came by that was contracted by a different line and wouldn't honor her ticket. On that occasion, she ended up buying a Greyhound ticket after a four-hour wait. Not this time.

With her shift starting at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, we headed to Union Station and got her on the 9:30 Amtrak regional train. She arrived in New York at 1:30 a.m., later than she'd planned but in plenty of time work work.

And all of the others who were waiting for that bus? Well, they didn't take the train. Maybe they were still waiting there the next morning. That's the price of low fares.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

When First Class is the better deal...

When it comes to airline tickets, everyone knows that First Class costs more than Coach, right? Not so fast. This conventional wisdom holds true in most cases, but not all of them. Here are a few situations where you might save money by going with a First Class ticket:
  • When Coach is sold out in advance. On planes where the Coach seating is full, you can usually get a seat only if you pay full-fare (Class Y). Often, the price of a full-fare Coach seat is higher than that of a discounted First Class seat.

    You might assume that other passengers would have already taken these discounted seats, but there's a twist: many business travelers are forbidden to book First Class tickets (even if they're cheaper). That's no guarantee, because some airlines automatically upgrade full-fare Coach passengers at the time of ticketing, but you can potentially save money and enjoy a more relaxing trip by taking a minute or two to check.

  • When restricted Coach awards are gone. The legacy carriers have two types of award fares. Restricted awards are subject to capacity controls (i.e. only a certain number of seats on a given flight are eligible). Unrestricted awards are good for any seat but require twice as many miles.

    What you may not realize is that the miles required for an restricted First Class award are usually the same or even fewer than those needed for an unrestricted Coach award. Most people, though, don't bother to look; once they see that restricted Coach isn't an option, they'll be looking at unrestricted Coach. That can mean First Class seats up for grabs even within a week of the flight.

    Some airlines make it easier to grab these seats than others. On Continental, for instance, both types of awards are shown for both classes of service whenever you search for an award ticket. That means you're less likely to find them hiding. United, on the other hand, requires a separate search for each type and each class of service--too much hassle for most people.
I have personally used both of these strategies to book First Class tickets on domestic and international flights. Recently, I was able to pick up an international First Class ticket from Washington-Dulles to Nagoya, Japan for the same 120,000 miles that it would have taken to secure an unrestricted Coach seat; paid for in cash, that ticket would have cost me over $10,000!

So, take the time to look. But don't wait too long. As many as 72 hours before a flight, airlines start processing standard upgrades for their elite members and assign those unsold First Class seats to them on the basis of fare code and seniority. Once that happens, there won't be any more discounted First Class fares or restricted awards available.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Route to Low Fares

As has commonly been observed, airline fares are extremely complicated and difficult to predict. They literally change on a constant basis, responding to supply and demand equations built into elaborate computer algorithms that take into account the price of fuel, passenger load, previous years' booking for the same time period, and other factors.

Travel sites like Expedia and surveyors like Kayak give you an edge in finding low fares. The airlines' own sites promise that they offer you the best possible deal on a specified itinerary. But none of these tools can really get you the lowest possible means of going from one destination to another, because the possible combinations of any itinerary--taking into account possible connection cities, stops, class-of-service changes, etc.--are too numerous to analyze.

Enter ITA Software's Fare Shopping Engine, a no-frills tool that appears at first glance to have nothing new to offer versus competing fare-finders and has an unattractive interface at the same time. You have to log in to use it. There aren't any flashy colors. You can't make hotel reservations at the same time. Yet you should take note, because this tool is something special.

The power of ITA's engine is that it allows you to submit queries in route language, a structured code similar to that used by airline mainframes to organize and retrieve their actual real-time data. Any fare-finder will let you ask for a low fare from Washington D.C. to Seattle; ITA can find you the lowest fare from D.C. to Seattle that has exactly one stop going out, at least one coming back, and routes through Chicago. It's also extremely careful to match your preferences, so when you say that you want a morning flight, you will only get morning flights. Period.

ITA's engine doesn't provide for online booking in all cases, because some routes are just too complicated for the airlines' customer-facing Web sites to process. But the software will generate ordering information that you can give to your travel agent or an airline ticket agent in person or over the phone, and you'll get exactly the itinerary and fare code that you saw online.

Does ITA guarantee you the lowest fares? No; it's limited to what it can see, and special rates offered by the airlines on their own Web sites in particular are often restricted from outside viewing to give these sites a "home field" advantage. In the ongoing battle to find low fares, though, there's no doubt that an informed consumer is going to get a better price than one who jumps blindly for the first fare offered.

So, sign up and give ITA a try. It's free, and you just might save a lot of money for the effort.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Calculating Miles: Stops vs. Layovers

A friend of mine asked me today about a flight that she took from Washington, D.C. to Boston. The flight routed through New York City, and she was surprised to notice that she'd been credited with 500 miles for the DC-NYC flight and another 500 for the NYC-BOS flight. Here's an explanation that you can apply to your own travels.

Most of you are aware that airlines compute mileage as the straight-line distance between airports, so earnings are fixed even if a flight plan change is required (to avoid a storm, for instance). The mapped distance between Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Boston-Logan (BOS) is 413 miles. The legacy carriers have a 500-mile minimum credit, so had my friend taken a direct flight, she'd have been credited with 500 miles and nothing more.

What most people don't realize is that the mileage calculation--and the 500-mile minimum--is per segment rather than per flight. A segment is defined as a numbered flight with a set itinerary. Segments may include stops, but those stops don't impact the distance of the itinerary, so a flight from D.C. to Boston that had a listed stop on New York would also earn only 500 miles.

Here's how a flight with a listed stop might look:

Flight 213 IAD-BOS Depart: 12:00 p.m. Arrive: 1:30 p.m. Stops: 1 Miles: 413 Award Miles: 500

A large number of flight itineraries, however, are actually made up of multiple nonstop segments, each of which is calculated as a point-to-point distance for mileage purposes. Whenever the flight number changes, you've started a new segment--and that means you'll earn miles for each segment independently. And if those segments are shorter than 500 miles, they each receive the 500-mile minimum credit.

Here's a sample itinerary that includes multiple nonstop segments:

Flight 901 DCA-LGA Depart: 12:00 p.m. Arrive: 12:50 p.m. Stops: 0 Miles: 229 Award Miles: 500
Flight 417 LGA-BOS Depart: 1:05 p.m. Arrive: 1:40 p.m. Stops: 0 Miles: 185 Award Miles: 500

What does this mean for you? If you want to maximize your mileage earning, always choose a flight with multiple nonstop segments over one with listed stops. In many cases, the price is comparable, and you can come away with hundreds or even thousands of additional miles for the effort, often for spending the same amount of time in the air. The only difference is whether the time you spend on the ground is called a "stop" or a "layover."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Introducing Virgin America

Virgin America, a U.S.-based affiliate of the already enormous Virgin empire of Richard Branston (though only owned 25% by Virgin Group because of U.S. laws restricting foreign ownership of airlines), started selling tickets at 6:00 a.m. EDT on July 20. The first flights are scheduled for August 8, pending Government approval.

Now, I know what you're thinking: another airline? It's true that we have quite a few of them these days, but before you write this off as a waste, let me tell you some of the things that promise to make Virgin America different from most of the airlines flying today:
  • Outlets at every seat with standard 110v power, USB connectors, and Ethernet for broadband Internet access
  • Self-serve mini-bars and fresh food that can be ordered from your seat and bought with the swipe of a credit card
  • Mood lighting that changes over the course of the flight to create a relaxing atmosphere
  • A First Class cabin with reclining leather seats with footrests, equivalent to what you'd find on international business class on America's legacy carriers
  • On-demand digital entertainment including television by Dish Network, pay-per-view movies, and video games
Up until this point, I would have subjectively rated JetBlue as America's most advanced airline, on account of their DirecTV video service, expanded seating, and overall excellent service for extremely reasonable prices; Virgin America looks ready to challenge them on every level. By opting for two-class service, they're also taking aim at the lucrative business market served by the legacy carriers.

Most of my questions at this point focus on Virgin America's frequent flyer program, eleVAte. Would-be travelers can join today, but details on the program are still sparse. What's known so far is that eleVAte is a point-based program (5 points per $1 spent on travel), and award tickets will be available for any open seat. What we don't know so far, though, is...
  • Will upgrades be available using points? (Probably.)
  • How many points will it take to book an award seat?
  • Is there an elite status tier system?
  • And the big question: will Virgin America's eleVAte program include partner affiliation with Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club?
This last point matters a lot. Why? Well, because Virgin America is a domestic low-cost carrier. That means you'll be able to fly VA* around the United States--but to really compete in the business travel market, an airline needs to be able to offer international service. Virgin Atlantic already offers service around the world; if Virgin America flyers gain access to the benefits of the huge Virgin Atlantic route map, the appeal to fly with VA will be much greater.

Anyway, flights scheduled to start on August 8, with initial routes operating out of San Francisco/SFO with service to New York/JFK and Los Angeles/LAX. Direct LAX-JFK service should start on August 29, and VA plans to add Washington-Dulles and Las Vegas-McCarran to the mix before the end of October. (Refer to the route map.)

I'm planning my first flight on Virgin America to be over Labor Day weekend. Check back for an update at that point.



* Virgin America has been assigned the code "VX" because "VA" is already assigned to Virgin Atlantic. But I think most people will refer to them as "VA" anyway, especially since the airline chose to call its frequent flyer program "eleVAte".

Friday, July 13, 2007

Understanding Award Fares on Legacy Carriers

One of the biggest benefits of frequent flyer programs is the ability to trade accrued flight credits for free travel. The process is extremely straightforward for low-cost airlines like JetBlue, which have only one type of ticket. Choose your flight, trade your credits, and hop aboard.

It gets a little more complicated, though, when you're dealing with one of the legacy carriers, the seven* U.S. airlines that existed prior to deregulation. Consumer advocacy groups and passengers alike regularly complain that it's virtually impossible to get free flights from these airlines. The airlines counter that awards are always available.

In fact, both sides are correct.

Legacy carriers typically have two classes of award: an unrestricted award, which can lay claim to any seat on any flight on any day; and a restricted award, which is available for a limited number of seats on certain flights and may have blackout dates. The names vary by carrier and can be a little confusing--"standard", for instance, means unrestricted on United while Continental uses the same name for its restricted awards--but there is one common trait: unrestricted awards require twice as many miles as their restricted counterparts.

When advocates complain about award availability, therefore, they aren't claiming that airlines won't actually honor award fares; they always do. What has them furious is the difficulty that they have obtaining restricted awards, forcing them to use twice as many miles to take the same trip.

Now, to be fair, I almost always pay for my fares so I can earn miles towards elite status. At the same time, I regularly buy award tickets for my girlfriend and other people to accompany me on trips, so the shortage of restricted award is an annoyance that I routinely encounter. (Anyone who imagines that I have an unlimited stockpile of miles to use for unrestricted awards need only consider just how many miles it takes to get one of those tickets when going to, say, Asia.)

Even so, I think people are being a little unfair. With flexible planning, it's possible to find a restricted award going just about anywhere. And if you do have firm, fixed plans, why shouldn't you pay for the privilege of having the itinerary that you want? At a time when most of the miles we use for free tickets are earned from non-flying activities like credit cards, we as consumers should appreciate the cost airlines incur when passengers fly for free.

That being said, everyone wants to get the best deal. So, how can you get the best availability of restricted awards? Here are some tips:
  • Check early. Award fares are available as much as a year in advance.
  • Check again 30 days out. Most airlines "hold" a number of award seats until a month in advance to prevent everything disappearing too early to give anyone a chance.
  • Check again 14 days out. Depending on booking, additional seats may be converted to restricted awards.
  • Call 3-4 days in advance. Airlines hate to fly with empty seats. Sometimes, empty seats get converted to last-minute restricted awards at the last minute.

Even if you do everything right, though, you may not be able to get a restricted award. If that happens, you have a few choices. If it's not expensive, you may prefer to buy a ticket outright. Most programs also let you buy miles, and some let you transfer them from other programs like American Express Membership Rewards.

In a pinch, though, you may have to reschedule your trip. That's why the best advice I can give you when it comes to award travel is this: if one person is buying a ticket and booking an award fare for someone else, always lock in the award ticket first. Otherwise, you may end up paying a fee (which may be as much as $100) to reschedule the fare you bought.

Happy travels!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thinking of Traveling Solo?

Most people assume that traveling is something best done with a bunch of friends or as part of a tour. Group trips have their place, but there's a lot to be said for traveling solo as well.

Writing for one of my favorite travel sites, RaeJean Stokes offers some great insights on traveling alone. Her comments are focused on students in particular, but as a 27-year old who's had more than his share of solo adventures, I can assure you that these tips and the references that she includes as links will be helpful to just about anyone.

Take a look!

For Luxury, Look to Foreign Airlines

In today's Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney writes about the luxuries that some foreign carriers are making available to their First Class passengers: private check-in and security screening, bubble baths, cigar rooms, and chauffered planeside service in a Mercedes or Porsche. At the same time, the article observes that most of the U.S. legacy carriers--including Delta, Northwest, Continental, and U.S. Airways--have eliminated First Class service altogether for their overseas passengers, offering only Business and Coach seating.

And for those that do continue to offer international First Class, the service gap between their accommodations and those of foreign carriers could hardly be wider: United Airlines, for instance, recently announced with much fanfare that its international First Class passengers would receive free WiFi Internet access in its lounges, a $9.95 value in recognition of a fare often priced at more than $6,000. (AirlineEquality offers ratings of the various airlines' lounges; you'll notice that the U.S. carriers' lounges receive little praise.)

But we can hardly place the blame for waning service on the airlines. For all of their faults, U.S. carriers tailor their service to what their customers want--and America has become a culture more interested in lower prices than higher quality. As long as that remains the case, we can anticipate that the U.S. airline experience will lag behind that offered by foreign airlines. If you do want to receive outstanding service, put those alliances to use and do your overseas flying with a foreign airline.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dealing with Delays

In its July 5 article "Ugly Airline Math," the New York Times brought to the forefront a serious problem facing travelers: across the board, domestic airlines are finding it harder to keep to their schedules. As fares drop, air travel is becoming more popular, and because airspace and air traffic control capacities are limited, adding more planes tends to compound rather than reduce the problem.

Merely an annoyance in most cases for passengers arriving at their final destinations, flight delays can cause serious problems for those who are meeting connecting flights--especially if those connections take them overseas or to remote airports serviced by infrequent commuter flights.

No amount of planning can prevent delays entirely. Spontaneous Tourists, however, can minimize the impact of these delays by following some basic principles of travel planning:
  • Try to get direct flights rather than connections. You may arrive late, but at least when you do arrive, it will be at your final destination.
  • If connections are unavoidable, try to find an itinerary where all flight segments are with the same airline. That makes it easier to reroute you in the event of a delay.
  • Give yourself some leeway by planning any layovers to last at least an hour.
  • Include luggage tags with your phone number of all checked baggage, so the airline can reach you in case something gets lost en route.

Above all, be courteous and patient when dealing with airline staff members. It's understandable that you're frustrated, but imagine the amount of work--and stress--involved in dealing with hundreds of frustrated people! U.S. airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delays; compensation rules apply only to passengers involuntarily "bumped" from overbooked flights. There are often things that the airline can do for you, though, and when you treat people well, they are far more inclined to help you.

Happy travels.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Finding Last Minute Fare Specials

All of the legacy carriers in the U.S.--United, U.S. Airways, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, and Alaska Air--offer last minute fare specials for the weekends, which are called "e-fares", "e-savers", or other names depending on the airline. The airlines offer these reduced rates to fill flights that are coming up on the weekend below their optimal bookings, so the city pairs that are offered change each week.

Instead of visiting each carrier's site to see what options are available, try the Last Minute Airfare tool on SmarterTravel.com, which lets you find fares based on an origin city, a destination city, or a preferred airline. It's simple and quick.

Why We Travel

"One of the issues becoming obvious in the aviation industry is that it is not about the United States anymore," said Jon Kutler, head of Admiralty Partners, a Los Angeles aerospace private equity firm. "It's an extraordinary shift in power. Airlines like the Emirates are pushing for the latest and greatest. They are making an obvious distinction with American carriers that are nickel-and-diming the passengers."

Quoted in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune's business section, Mr. Kutler captures in one stroke the essence of why it is so critical for Americans to travel. For fifty years, those favored by luck to be born in the United States have enjoyed a preeminent position in the world. While children in other countries learned foreign languages, we confidently strode across the globe speaking only English, the purchasing power of American dollars reinforcing our belief that the world revolved around us.

The world has changed.

Today's American students--lazy beyond reckoning, demonstrably inferior in terms of measured performance, yet blind to these realities because of a culture that places them on a pedestal--will enter a global economy in which their birthright offers precious little. In such an environment, we cannot afford to ignore the outside world.

Travel. See the world. Talk to people. Learn that the ways in which others do things are different but not necessarily inferior. As Thomas L Friedman writes in The World is Flat, "the playing field is being leveled."

To get to the top, you'll have to climb.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

One-way vs. Round-trip on the Chinatown Bus

The Chinatown Bus has become increasingly popular in the last few years. Tickets can be bought online or in person when the bus pulls up, and fares are amazingly low--around $20 for a typical one-way from New York to Washington, D.C. Safety records are hard to track, but the buses themselves are comparable in terms of comfort to what mainstream industry giant Greyhound offers, and GotoBus.com makes it easy to check schedules for all of the participating companies.

While each company provides similar service, however, the companies themselves are unrelated and do not accept one another's tickets. That introduces a bit of a dilemma for some travelers, because once you've got a ticket with a particular bus line, you're stuck waiting for that company's bus to arrive. On the other hand, the round-trip fare is about $5 cheaper than two one-way fares, money you might use to pick up dinner at a fast-food place before you leave.

Of course, there's no right or wrong answer here. If you'd like the flexibility to jump on whichever bus shows up first that's heading to your destination, the higher total fare is worthwhile. For those who want the best deal, buy round-trip and be prepared to wait a bit longer as other buses come and go. The important thing is that you're aware of your options.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The pen is mightier...

Whenever you travel, it's a good idea to carry a pen. You can use it to jot down a reservation number, write a postcard, or sign the upper left hand corner of a train ticket (which you have to do if it was purchased using a credit card, and conductors don't always carry pens).

In fact, bring two. Put one in your bag in case you lose the one you're carrying. They don't take up much space or add much weight, and that way, you can be sure you'll have one when you need it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bundled Discounts Save You Money

When you visit a new city--whether you're spending a week or taking the Spontaneous Tourist's approach and dropping by for a quick weekend--odds are that you want to see a few of the major attractions. That leaves you with two challenges: figuring out what you want to see, and paying for the admissions and tickets you'll need to see it.

Bundled discounts like CityPass and Go Card can help. Available in select cities, these programs can save you as much as 50% off the price of admission to popular attractions and include maps and travel tips. They'll also save you time, because when you show up with tickets in hand, you won't have to wait in line.

When you're planning your next trip, check and see if a bundled discount is available. It's hard to pass up a chance to save time and money.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Spectacle Island: The Best View of Boston's Skyline

Over the course of its history, Boston Harbor's Spectacle Island has been a quarantine site for Smallpox victims and a landfill for the city's trash. Over the last decade, however, the millions of tons of dirt created by Boston's Big Dig project were put to use transforming the site into something of which Boston residents can be proud.

With beaches, wooded areas, and marinas, the new and improved Spectacle Island provides the highest vantage point from which to enjoy Boston's skyline. Best of all, it's just a 20-minute ferry ride from downtown's Long Wharf. The next time you're in Boston, take a few hours to enjoy this newly rediscovered treasure.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

ClubAcela: An added benefit of Continental's Presidents Club

You may already know the benefits of airport clubs (and if you don't, I discuss the pros and cons of club memberships in my article, "Join the Club? The Case for Airport Lounges.") So let's say you do decide you want to belong to an airport club, at an annual cost of around $400.

Sure, it makes sense to join the club operated by your favorite airline. All things being equal, though, SkyTeam lounges--including those operated by Continental, Delta, and Northwest--are better than Star Alliance lounges, which include United and U.S. Airways: the SkyTeam lounges provide free Internet access and complimentary alcoholic beverages, while United's Red Carpet Club and the U.S. Airways Club charge for both.

Savvy travelers looking to extend that value further may be aware that they can get complimentary access to the Delta, Northwest, and Continental lounges by presenting an American Express Platinum Card along with a same day ticket. At $399 per year, the Card has a hefty fee, but it's the same fee you'd pay for Club membership anyway, and you get more benefits. Case closed, right?

Not so fast. Aside from the potentially annoying twist that the American Express benefit is limited to the three domestic SkyTeam airlines listed and not to the overseas carriers that belong to SkyTeam, there's another benefit the members of Continental Airlines' Presidents Club in particular get that no one else does: access to Amtrak's ClubAcela facilities when traveling on a same-day Amtrak ticket.

True, not everyone travels Amtrak, and ClubAcela is only available at four locations on the Northeast Corridor (Washington-Union, Philadelphia-30th Street, New York-Penn, and Boston-South). But if you are an Amtrak traveler, this benefit can be tough to top. That's because Amtrak doesn't offer a way to buy ClubAcela access; other that Presidents Club members, the lounges are open only to passengers traveling First Class and those who have attained Select Plus status in Amtrak's Guest Rewards program.

So, if you find yourself taking the train on the Northeast Corridor and have been weighing the benefits of an airport club membership, take a close look at Continental's Presidents Club. It might be the best way to go.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The National Zoo - free family fun!

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is only one of several excellent zoos to be found in America, but it does have one compelling advantage over its counterparts: as part of the Smithsonian Institution, it's free.

While visiting this past weekend, I saw elephants, otters, a crocodile, several snakes--including one who was just a passerby, wandering along the sidewalk in a manner only slightly different from the rest of us--and a particularly endearing sloth bear. The giant panda exhibit no longer requires tickets, either, and it was fun to get to see Tai Shan, the adolescent panda born in 2005 to still-present parents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang on loan from China.

The lack of an admission fee has a surprising impact on the overall zoo experience. Since there's no need for visitors to pass through a central ticketing location, it's possible to enter the zoo from several different locations. The main entrance, for instance, is just a few blocks north of the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan stop on Metro (the Red Line), but those who prefer to drive will appreciate being able to walk directly into the park from one of five different lots.

Next time you make it out to D.C., plan to come by and see the zoo. You can't beat the price.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Passport Delays

With the turnaround for passports now as long as three months, Congress has finally conceded that it's not practical to require a passport for all land and sea travel to and from the United States by the original deadline of January 1, 2008.

The new deadline to have a passport for land and sea crossings of American borders has been set for June 2009. In the meantime, the backlog is so bad that the U.S. Government has even temporarily loosened the requirements for air travel.

But that doesn't mean you should wait to apply. If you don't have a passport, put in for it now before you need it so you'll have it when the time comes.

Friday, June 15, 2007

SkyBus adds three new airports!

You've probably heard the buzz about RyanAir. Europe's biggest low-cost airline routinely offers flights with fares as low as $0.01, has an a la carte fee structure for everything from sodas to checked baggage, and puts advertising on just about every surface of its planes.

Skybus, America's newest airline, is looking to emulate that model -- and cash-in on the enviable 30% profit margin that it's yielded. The Columbus, Ohio-based airline offers flights starting at $10 each way.

The secret? Like RyanAir, Skybus flies to smaller, less-used airports rather than the major international airports favored by most airlines. Going to Boston? Skybus can get you to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Seattle? Your flight lands in Bellingham.

On July 16, the airline is adding three new destinations: Daytona Beach (St. Augustine), Hartford (Chicopee), and San Diego (which actually is San Diego International Airport).

It's not a solution for everyone. For one thing, no matter where you're going, every Skybus flight goes to and from the carrier's main hub in Columbus, Ohio. But the price of a bus ticket from one of these outlying airports to the local metropolitan area is often a lot cheaper than buying a ticket with a larger carrier.

Do the math and it may save you a lot to give Skybus a try.