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, 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.