Tuesday, February 13, 2018

8 Tips On How to Avoid Lost Luggage

In January, frozen pipes at JFK airport led to a huge amount of lost luggage at Terminal 4, the International arrivals terminal.  The building had to be evacuated and luggage from arriving flights were puled up wherever space could be found. After several weeks, some passengers still didn't have their luggage returned.

Here are some hints to try to ensure that your luggage can be identified and returned to you if your luggage should be misplaced.

1. Make sure you have a luggage tag on your bag with your name and phone number.  Or two tags in case one breaks off in transit.

2. Place a copy of your itinerary including hotel names and your contact information inside your suitcase.  Make it easy for the airline to find you in case your bag is misplaced.  You can also buy a Retriever Tag from Magellans.com which allows you to add a copy of your itinerary in the luggage tag in case your bags is lost or delayed. This works well if you use a TSA luggage lock on your bags.

3. Arrive for your flight early - recommended time to check on at the airport is two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international.  There is less of a chance of your bag being misplaced when there is plenty of time to get it to the appropriate luggage bin.

4. Take some pictures of the inside of your bag and it's contents.  If your bag is lost it will make filing a claim easier to show what was actually in the bag.

5. Download the airlines app. to your smart phone.  Many airlines offer tracking for your bags right on your cell phone. (Delta is one).

6. Purchase a smart tag. Check out Rebound Tag.

7. Use a luggage strap, especially if you have a black bag.  The more unique you can make your bag look, the easier it will be for airport personnel to find a lost bag.  Don't think duct tape is off the table - brightly colored duct tape  on the back of your bag with your last name written on it will make it stand out.

8. Don't book flights with short connections. The airlines may sell flights with 45 minute connections but your bags might not make it on the connecting flight with you, especially if your incoming flight is late.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Nervous Traveler

Yes, I admit it - I was the nervous traveler I warn others not to be.  It was my first time in a Communist country (China) where little English was spoken.  We were in business class on China Southern Air and were grabbed at the bottom of the stairway after arriving at the Guangzhou airport and shown to a bus by a flight attendant who spoke no English. We wanted to wait for a friend who had traveled in economy but they were not allowing it - the bus wasn't moving unless we got on it and we could see annoyed looking people in the windows.

I tried to ask the flight attendant where the bus was taking us and received no answer. So in we went. The bus driver drove and drove and drove, seemingly to nowhere.  I looked at the fellow American next to me and said "Do you have any idea where we are going?" He chuckled and said "Nope! Not a clue."

After a seven minute ride we pulled in front of a non-descript building and were told to exit.  We obediently went up an escalator and discovered we were in fact in the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport.  It seemed deserted.  We fumbled our way to find the next place we were supposed to go to check in for our next flight. Because we were flying business class, we knew we would be able to relax in a lounge somewhere.  But how to find it? 

Again, we were guided to a waiting golf cart and told to get in.  We kept looking for the normal crowds we would find at JFK, our home airport - there were none. No one. Nada.  Again - we had no idea where we were going.  After a very speedy ride, we were dropped near the gate we would be embarking from and pointed to the direction of the China Southern lounge.

We had an uneventful two hours in the lounge where we didn't understand a lick of the language and kept to ourselves.  About ten minutes before we were ready to leave for the gate, the friends we were looking for found us in the lounge and we were able to go to the gate together for our evening flight to Guiyang.

Guiyang is one of the most beautiful areas in China. The Guiyang government was sponsoring a convention there to introduce American travel agents to this area of China in an effort to increase tourism to the region.

Once we landed in Guiyang, we were met by our transfer company and breathed a sigh of relief at having two girls who spoke excellent English.  We had a half hour drive to our hotel in Guiyang, the Hyatt.  As we marveled at the hundreds of high rise apartments on the way to the Hyatt, our guide told us that five years ago none of those hotels were there - it was all country side.  Building in that area was not easy because the land is solid rock so much carving had to be done and apartments placed strategically.
                                                 Waterfall in the back of the hotel

                                                          Hyatt Regency

In Guiyang we found much of the Hyatt staff spoke English so it made it so much more comfortable for us.    We toured some other areas nearby for two days before returning back to the Hyatt. We had excellent guides that spoke English and gave us a wonderful look into the culture and customs of the Chinese. We were in our "comfort" zone.

 A few days after we returned back to the Hyatt for our conference, armed with a card from the hotel with the address in Chinese and English, we took a cab about a half hour away to Qianling Mountain in Guiyang. We had heard others raving about going to this park and decided to go on our own. The park has a beautiful lake, and a temple and is ruled by wild monkeys.

See one of our videos from the park   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TemffDobv1I

We were dropped off outside the park off a main road. After several hours in the park,(and being the center of attraction as the only Americans these folks had apparently seen in a while) it was time to go back to the hotel.  But how to hail a cab?

We went back to our drop off and didn't see any cabs.  We observed the locals for a while and found a bus stop, but not a cab stop.  There was another couple we saw that looked as if they were waiting for a cab as well, so I went and stood behind them and my husband approached a police man nearby.   He showed him our hotel card and somehow asked him if this was where we would wait for a cab - the police man indicated yes.

Suddenly, a cab pulled in front of us and let out someone and the couple in front of us started to get in.  The policeman stopped them, motions for us to get in and told the driver where to take us. I tried to tell him to let the other people have it but he insisted we get in. We were extremely embarrassed but got in and were taken back to the hotel.  We arrived and high fived each other for getting out of our comfort zone and experiencing this amazing park.  And then got a cab to the nearest Walmart.

Don't let fear or being outside of your comfort zone stop you from experiencing travel.  We had a wonderful time on our trip and relaxed more and more as time went on.  You can do it too!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

12 Tips for Using a Travel Agent

12 Tips for Using a Travel Agent
If you regularly book your vacations with us, you already know the best way to use a travel agent and what we need from you to find the perfect trip. We are here to save you time and money and  use our expertise to tell you good and bad hotels or cruise ships to match your personality to your trip.

Here are a few reminders to make the most out of using a travel agent
  • DO - tell us how many adults, how many children, the exact dates you want to travel and what your budget is.  I don't want to price $400 a night hotels if you only plan on spending $200 a night. I don't ask your budget to spend it to the max but so I don't waste your time (or mine) pricing a resort that is too expensive. Our goal is to come in UNDER budget.
  • DON'T - give us a range of months to look at- we don't have time to play with dates to save a few dollars.  Give us the actual dates you want. If you want to know the secrets to saving money - Tuesday or Wednesday are the cheapest days to fly, followed by Saturday.  Returns on a Sunday are often the most expensive flights.  Keep that in mind when requesting dates. 
  • DO - be honest and tell us if you have already priced a trip. We don't mind trying to beat a price on a land vacation - bring us your best price and we can often beat the price or provide you with additional amenities you wouldn't get on your own.  
  • DON'T - use us by asking us to do all your work planning your trip and then book it yourself. It takes days for us to develop an itinerary - hotels, order of things, cars, changing dates, etc. We don't get paid unless we book your trip and it is bad business to use us for our knowledge and experience to take that information and book yourself. Why when we've done all the work for you? If you want to book yourself - we would be happy to provide put together a trip and charge a research fee for an itinerary you  can book yourself.   Just tell us. Would expect an attorney to spend hours on filing business papers for you and you not pay him or her?  That is essentially what you are doing by using our hard work and research and booking on your own. 
  • DO - consider travel insurance.  You might think you are young and healthy but did you know that most health insurance doesn't cover your if you have to go to a doctor or hospital out of the US?  What if you have a car accident on the way to the airport? What if you fall and break your ankle two weeks before your trip? What if an immediate family member has a serious illness right before you leave and you can't go? What if you have a heart attack on a cruise ship and have to be helicoptered off to the nearest hospital in S. American and have to remain in the hospital for 2 weeks before getting medivac-ed home with a private nurse?  All of these things have happened to our clients and all were reimbursed for their expenses because they had insurance. If you can't afford to lose all the money you have paid for your vacation - you need travel insurance.
  • Don't - take everything your friends tell you as gospel.  Do you eat exactly the same type of food? Do you have the same taste in music? Movies?  Does your friend spend $500 a night on hotels but you can only afford $300?  We have a multitude of experience booking clients throughout the world. We will be honest and tell you our experience with various hotels and ships.  Your friends can't possibly have the exact same taste as you do and what they love you might hate.  Your friend might like a certain cruise line that, after we speak to you and find out you love formal nights on a ship, might not be what you expect. Trust us. 
  • Do - tell us about your favorite or least favorite vacations. We listen to what you liked or didn't like about your prior trips to insure your new trip will be a favorite and not a least favorite.  Different hotels and cruise lines have different "flavors" - you want to find the flavor that is YOUR favorite.
  • Don't - think you will get the same detailed service from booking through an online travel agency you will get from booking with a real human agent. If you arrive at the airport and find your flight's been canceled - your OTA isn't going to tell you to sit tight and they'll get you on another flight.  You might be on hold for hours using up precious cell phone minutes. If you call us, we'll get you rebooked and call you back with your new flight information. 
  • Do - understand you have an advocate if you have a problem.  Did your hiking tour get canceled due to rain? Call us, we will get a refund for you.  Did the hotel put you into the wrong room? Call us to get it straightened out for you.  Understand when you use an OTA and arrive at a hotel that is overbooked - the OTA room is usually the one walked to another property (or in some cases you'll just be told there are no more rooms) since they have paid the least.  We have often the same pricing and the backing of a large supplier that books thousands of rooms in that same hotel annually and won't walk YOUR room.
  • Don't - book last minute, especially for holidays!  There are no last minute deals - this is one of the biggest travel fallacies.  Last minute leaves you paying the highest price for air and your hotel or cruise choice may not have any  inexpensive rooms left - they book early.  We just had clients that wanted to book Christmas two weeks before. The only room we could find for them were top of the line concierge rooms - at $1345 per night.  If you booked early (a year in advance is not unusual for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and school winter breaks) you would have had a good choice of rooms at all different price points.  Also understand - if you have three kids, in most hotels and cruise ships, you will need two rooms. The majority of rooms only hold four people but we know which ones sleep five  or guarantee adjoining rooms. 
  • Do - make sure you have at least six months left on your passport from the date you will be returning home. Many countries require six months and you will be refused check in at the airport if you are going to one of those countries and don't have the proper expiration dates. We know the requirements - the OTA's won't tell you . You may need a Visa for the countries you are visiting as well. We give our clients that book with us all the information they need.
  • Don't - tell us to call you when we see a good deal.  A good deal to us may not be a good deal to you. If I find a great safari in Africa but you want to travel to Austria - that good deal isn't a good deal.  If I find a deal in October on a cruise, but you are a teacher and can't travel then - the deal is not good.  Have a definite plan when you call us on what you want to do and when. 
We are professionals.  We have mandatory training we  perform annually to keep up with changes in laws and information with suppliers.  We have to know current airline, VISA and passport rules, be up to date on cruise line changes and be meticulous with your itinerary so there are no mistakes (guess who pays for them if there is one? Not you!).  We need to know the newest hotel and resort openings and closings.   The service you will receive from us is by far better than anything you would get booking on your own and we are your advocates before, during and after your trip.  

All this doesn't cost you a penny.  Call us for your trip.  516-608-0568

Sunday, October 22, 2017

So You Want To Take Your Childs Friend on Vacations....Things you Need to Know

It sounds like a great idea - your teen asks if they could take a friend on your family trip to Disney World, Busch Gardens, The Poconos, Mexico.   Or Mary's Mom calls and asks if Mary would like to accompany her Heather on their family trip to Virginia Beach. 

Oh yes, you think - your child will have a companion to keep them occupied on the long car or plane ride, or Mary will be out of your hair for a few days. But not so fast....there are some things you need to consider and plan before that will eliminate issues we have seen occur with these type of trips.

1. Who's paying?  If you are inviting Billys friend Mark - are you paying Marks way or do you expect Marks parents to pay for Mark?  If you are Mary's Mom - does Heathers Mom expect you to pay for her share of the trip -  rooms, meals, sightseeing?  Make sure you are absolutely clear on who is paying so there are no surprises later. 

2. Make sure you all have a clear understanding of what is going to happen if Heather and Mary have a fight the week before the trip and Heather tells Mary she can't go. This is an absolute MUST beforehand.  If you are Heather's Mom - will you give Mary's Mom back any money she has paid  towards the trip or do you tell her it is all non-refundable?  If you are Heathers Mom and paid for Mary to go - are you willing to risk losing what you paid for Mary to go? This is where trip insurance might come in handy - but it would have to be Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) insurance because regular trip insurance doesn't cover a fight between 14 year olds. (But regular travel insurance would cover if Mary broke her leg or came down with the flu and her doctors said she couldn't travel).  And with CFAR, you most likely will not get 100% back of what you paid since CFAR rarely reimburses the full amount - some only 60 - 80% depending on the company. 

3. Has your child spent a large amount of time with their friend - sleep overs or hours with each other so you know the other child is able to be away?  Is the other child comfortable sleeping away from home for an extended period of time?  I had a cousin who lived an hour away from us and wanted a slept over. In the middle of the night she decided she wanted to go home forcing my Dad to get in the car at midnight to drive her home.  Make sure that isn't going to happen if you are flying 3,000 miles away for a vacation.

4. Understand family rules.  If the host family doesn't allow video games or shuts the t.v. off at 8 PM - make sure your child can live with those rules.  You need to share rules in advance so the kids know what to expect.

5. The non-family member must bring a notarized letter from his or her parents stating  you are giving Mr. and Mrs. Jones permission to travel with your child and that you allow the other parents to authorize medical treatment for your child in an emergency. You should also send a copy of your insurance cards.

6. If the trip is out of the country, you will need a  notarized letter from both parents allowing the host family to take your child outside the country.  If you have sole custody of your child, you should be prepared to send a copy of your custody agreement showing you have primary custody of your child in the event you cannot get the other parent to sign a notarized letter.

7. Make sure both families know about any restrictions or information about communicable diseases in the destination you are traveling to.  The CDC has a website with information for just about anywhere you can travel to.  https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel

8. Ensure that both families know all details of the itinerary. Has the companion ever flown before?  Do you need a passport or visa - if you do, make sure you apply a few months in advance. A passport requires parents to appear in person with the child to apply for it and can take up to a month to deliver.  (Insurance won't cover your trip if you cannot get legal documentation in time for your trip).

9. Even if  the host family is paying all expenses, make sure you send your child with money for souvenirs or snacks, etc.

10. Have fun!

Using these tips know to understand the issues that can come up might save a lot of aggravation later.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Iceland - A "HOT"Place to Visit - Days 1 and 2

To say Iceland is on the radar of many travelers is an understatement. Average hotel prices rose 30% from 2016 - 2017 and according to the Reykjavik locals, so have the prices of everything else.  The city is "under construction" with building going on throughout the downtown waterfront area.  Enough construction that our tour guides call is "Little Manhattan".

We knew all this going into planning our trip and decided there was no time like now to get our feet wet and jump in to see what Iceland has to offer. We put together a group and off we went.

Once our flight landed and we were on the bus for the transfer to our hotel, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.  The land was flat with landscaping that could best be described as the closest thing to being on the moon.  Black and rocky as far as the eye could see.

Our large bus took us to the main bus station where we had to transfer to a smaller bus to be dropped in the Reykjavik city area.  In July, a new law went into effect in the city that stopped buses from dropping off tourists at their hotel. Instead, there are bus stops throughout the city where you can get off and walk to your hotel.

We were staying at the CentreHotel Skalbreid which was right around the corner of the #7 bus stop. We trudged up a small hill and took a left and our little hotel was on the right hand side.  This is NOT a hotel for anyone with mobility issues.  There were three large steps to go up to get into the hotel (with no railing) and once inside, five more steps to get to the elevator - again, not easy to navigate.

Our rooms weren't ready when we arrived at 12:30 so the hotel clerk held our bags and our group went out to explore.  The hotel couldn't have been in a more central location - you could walk almost anywhere in the city from it. We made a left and walked downtown to the water front area. There were plenty of restaurants and a couple of museums - a volcano museum and Northern Lights Museum.  You could do a whale watching or puffin boat excursion right from town or add on an excursion and be picked up by bus to various places such as Thingviller Park, the Blue Lagoon, an Ice Cave or even a tour of the city.

We explored the city on foot and then returned to check in.  The hotel is certainly not modern and the rooms are extremely small but it was clean.  There was a free breakfast and you could ask for a wake up call for the Northern Lights.  However, the price was right and the location could be better - right in the middle of the city where you could find plenty of restaurants within walking distance.  The only issue we had was noise at night. Apparently, Reykjavik is party central at night and because the rooms were very warm at night (there is no air conditioning in the hotel), we would have to open the windows to cool the room off. And the bar noise was terrible - people screaming and yelling in the streets at all hours.  We had ear plugs and used them.

Day two we had two things planned - a tour of Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon.  The bus tour of the city was interesting - it took us to the majestic church that is an icon in the city,  Hallgrimskirkja Church. Construction of the church began in 1945 and it wasn't consecrated until 1986. As majestic as the outside of the church is, the interior is quite sparse - until you see the organ, which has 5,275 pipes!

 Hallgrimskirkja Church

Another place we visited was the Hofdi House, which was the place that President Ronald Regan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 to try to reach a bi-lateral agreement on nuclear arms reduction.  A year after Reykjavik the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for the first time eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons.  The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed a few years later during President H.W Bush’s term.
Hofdi House

 The last tour of the day was to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon experience is like a well oiled machine - we had to turn in our vouchers  and opt to rent towels and bathrobes once we arrived. We were given rubber bracelets to use to to open and lock our lockers and the bracelets also acted as a credit card.  If you had a drink at the lagoon bar, or ate at the on site restaurant, the bracelet was scanned.  At the end, before you could be released from the Lagoon after dressing, you simply had to pay any money you owed for whatever you bought.

After showering before getting into the lagoon (everyone had to shower before getting in to the water).  We were instructed to make sure we did not get our hair wet as the silica in the water was extremely drying.  Women were advised to take hair conditioner and spread it onto your hair and leave it in when going into the water.

The weather was beautiful for Iceland standards - a balmy 50 degrees yet my concern was how I was going to get out of my robe and quickly into the water before I froze.  No reason for concern, as you can enter the water from inside the building and it wasn't necessary to walk outside in the cold in a bathing suit at all.

Ah, the relaxation!  The water was therapeutically warm.  Once you are in the water, you are instructed to walk to the left to an open air hut that housed silica to make a mud mask.  You could put it on your face only or your entire body.  We opted for the facial mud and it really extracted impurities from your pores!  To the right was a huge open air bar where you could get a drink while relaxing in the water.  We were there for about two hours and totally enjoyed the experience.  One caution - food is very expensive in Iceland and even more so in the Blue Lagoon.  Wait until you get back to Reykjavik for a meal.

See part two for the rest of our Iceland experience.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

AMA Waterways River Cruises - A Touch Above

Thanks to Downton Abbey, a large river cruise line has introduced the world of river cruising to the American people. Many people think that the line that advertises is the only river cruise out there.

We're here to assure you that there are many river cruise lines and each offers something different. River cruises differ from ocean cruises in that the ships are smaller, some excursions are offered in the price you pay and some include wine, beer and soda.  Some lines include your gratuites, some multiple choices of excursions.  Some have better reputations than others. Unless you are a travel agent, you may not know some of the other players and we'd like to introduce you to one of our favorites, AMA Waterways.

 AmaWaterways is a luxury line that cruises Europe, Vietnam and Cambodia and Africa rivers. You'll be introduced to local culture and sights on tours included in your price.  Also included are wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, free Wi Fi and internet access, and bikes you can use to explore. 

AMA is also award winning so don't just take our word for it. Among the many awards they won in 2016 was from Cruise Critic  for Best River Cruise Line Overall, Best River Cruise Line for Active Cruisers, Best River Cruise Line for Families,  Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards Recognition, The Highest Rated Ships in Europe, Berlitz Guide to River Cruising in Europe and they also were the 2017 Travvy Award Gold Winner for Best River Cruise Line Overall; Best River Cruise Ship, AmaStella; Best River Cruise Line, Europe; Best River Cruise Line, Africa; Best River Cruise Line, Asia

Some of the things that make AMA Waterways different are the number of excursions you can choose from.  Some of the lower priced cruise lines offer one tour for everyone, regardless of interest. AMA has developed a potpourri of excursions in each port so that you will have a choice of several options. All tours are led by a local English speaking guide. In many cases, you’ll have a choice of  pacing - gentle, regular or active depending on your needs. There are even some options for late risers.

There are also tours that immerse you in the culture of the city you are visiting. How about bratwurst and a beer tasting in Germany? Try Belgian waffles and chocolate in Antwerp.  See a Water Puppet show in Hanoi (do you know what that is?)

Their cabin designs are also award winning.  Most staterooms have not just one but two balconies - a French and a full outside balcony. 

Are you a foodie? A river cruise offers some excellent choices for local cuisine. Ama is the only river cruise line that offers a Chef's Table, a specialty restaurant where the chef prepares your dinner right in front of you. Meals are paired with local wines and you can even enjoy sparkling wine and fresh juice with breakfast.  You'll find tapas and snacks in the Main Lounge in between meals. 

Are you ready to book an AMA Waterways cruise? Call us at 516-608-0568.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Serena Lake Manyara Hotel

During our five night safari in Tanzania, we were booked in three different Serene hotels.  We couldn't have had a better choice of hotels.  All offered different charming locations and we wold be hard pressed to choose a favorite.

Our first was Lake Manyara Serena.  When we pulled in  our check in was FAST - they were waiting for us and issued keys very quickly plus provided lunch in the restaurant for our group even though we arrived after the lunch period was over.

We stayed in a room in a rondoval building (see picture above) that had four rooms, two up and two down.  In the room was a king sized bed with mosquito netting, an outside terrace with views of Lake Manyara, a beautiful credenza made of native wood housing drawers, hangers and safe, a good sized bathroom with shower plus desk.  The rooms aren't air conditioned but this hotel had floor fans that gave great circulation of air in the room.  Being high, the air conditioning wasn't missed.

The grounds were very nice.  The grounds overlooked Lake Manyara and the infinity pool had a breathaking view.

The restaurant had excellent food - you could order from a menu for lunch and dinner and there was a buffet with made to order eggs and pancakes.  (Three meals a day are included - if you will be out on safari, you'll get a lunch box to take that had so much food we couldn't finish it all and pooled together our leftovers to give to the men who washed the safari van every night)

Staff were extremely helpful, especially showing us to our rooms and collecting luggage the next day.

In early evening, all Serena hotels offer some type of native entertainment. We had some native music and locals performing a great acrobatic show around the pool.  All Serena hotels had gift shops were we were able to buy some native arts and crafts to bring home.

We loved the serene grounds and watched some interesting birds at night in the trees. Each Serena hotel had a different charm to it. We'll review all three on our blog,