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Arthur Frommer Online
Comments, opinion and advice from the founder of Frommer's Travel Guides
Arthur Frommer Online

All the die-hard opponents of high-speed rail who read this blog will just to have to forgive me for bringing attention to still another European advance in that form of transportation: in April, France will inaugurate a budget-priced high-speed rail route between a suburb of Paris (where France's Disneyland is located) to Lyon and Marseille. Frenchmen and Frenchwomen will enjoy prices as low as the equivalent of $10, an absolute maximum of $100, to traverse virtually the entire north-to-south distance of France in cut-rate trains serving no meals (they will have to bring their own sandwiches) or providing any other amenities other than lightning-like speed from the outskirts of Paris to the south of France.

And all the while, we in the U.S. are condemned to our Toonerville Trollies, our slow-moving, often halting, outmoded trains requiring a full day and more to travel the shortest of distances. People in the late 21st century will laugh at the opposition to this much-needed advance in transportation, from that vociferous band of die-hards who absolutely refuse to accept improvements in energy usage and emissions, avoidance of overcrowded highways and air routes, advances in the quality of our lives.

Unlike the trains of America, the airports of America are keeping up with the latest in modern re-design. On last Sunday's Travel Show ( wor710.com , click on "podcasts"), my daughter Pauline interviewed travel writer Harriet Baskas about recent advances in airport amenities, which include the installation of free-of-charge pay phones in such airports as Denver's -- a step so popular that it is now predicted that dozens of other airports will do the same. How is it possible that those phone calls can be made without charge? It's because they first play a lucrative commercial message to those persons making the calls.

Other airports around the country are installing playgrounds for children, more power outlets for persons with electronic devices like laptops and tablets (those power outlets are now becoming far more numerous), and more programs awarding you "loyalty points" for using such airport facilities as their parking lots (earn frequent flyer mileage by making purchases at the airports). And in Las Vegas Airport, to no one's surprise, there are now liquor stores in the areas you pass through after you have picked up your luggage on arrival, so that you can equip yourself with a bottle of scotch or bourbon just prior to going to your hotel. An advance!

Meantime, airlines are continuing to wrack their brains to think up more ways to earn income from unusual fees and charges. United Airlines is the latest to impose a small fee for the right to board the plane ahead of all others, and a much more substantial fee (at least $50) for obtaining the right to go through expedited security lanes. United will also ship your arriving luggage directly to your home or hotel, for a fee, enabling you to avoid those long waits at the luggage belt. And Southwest Airlines, not to be outdone, is now charging $5 to watch a movie on your laptop, in flight. Although it doesn't otherwise show films on its flights, Southwest will "stream" one to you in exchange for a small charge. Progress!

I haven’t written much about XL Airways of France, because the difficulty of booking aboard it seems to outweigh the savings it offers. And yet a great many Americans have discovered its awesome airfares and somehow managed to snare a cut-rate seat.

What sort of savings do they offer? Well recently, persistent US bargain hunters have been able to fly round trip between Miami and Paris -- a just-inaugurated new itinerary of  XL Airways  -- for about $664 per person, and in summer, no less. That’s at least $400 cheaper than you would pay to any other carrier.

They found the remarkable bargain by looking for a round-trip on the aggressive  CheapoAir.com  or on the equally hard-striving  Momondo.com .

Now why is it so difficult for us Yanks to fly on XL? It’s apparently because the officials of XL Airways believe they can fill its flights solely with residents of France. In the European travel media, XL Airways is frequently featured. And in the few years that XL has been flying the Atlantic, Parisians have filled almost of all of its seats.

But try hard and persevere by finding a travel agent who knows the  phone number of XL , and you’ll enjoy big savings of between $200 and $400 per person -- a discount that can add up to big bucks for, say, a family or group of four. Tell them to look at Momondo.com or at CheapOAir.com, and you’ll frequently snare a seat on an airline whose services are just as good as any other trans-Atlantic carrier but at a sharp discount in price. The powers that be at XL Airways just don’t think it’s necessary to expend much effort in attracting U.S. business.

Ever heard of Coco Cay in the Bahamas? You probably haven't, because that little strip of land is scarcely inhabited and belongs -- lock, stock and barrel -- to Royal Caribbean Cruiseline, which operates bars, cafes, and shops alongside its beaches. Royal Caribbean has now entered into an agreement with Carnival permitting Carnival to dump passengers from two of its cruise ships for a full day on Coco Cay (aka Little Stirrup Cay), instead of sending those passengers for that day to Key West, Florida. Instead of enjoying an authentic experience of a celebrated and rather eccentric U.S. city, Carnival's passengers will now spend that day on a private beach of a private island.

Instead of going to Nassau, Freeport, and Key West, passengers on five-day cruises will go to Nassau, Freeport, and "Coco Cay."

All sorts of explanations of the change have been offered by Carnival. But the real reason is undoubtedly money. Coco Cay is only 50 miles from Nassau, the preceding stop. Key West is some 260 miles from Nassau. Carnival will be spared the expense of sailing some 200 miles.

I believe I may be the only writer who has railed and shouted about this use of private islands as the "foreign destinations" for many cruise passengers. The policy transforms a travel experience into something wholly trivial. The rest of us should be absolutely firm against ever booking a cruise that substitutes a phony travel experience for a real one.

The big news in travel is the announcement by the TSA that starting on April 25, they will permit air passengers to carry on board their flights a whole array of potentially-damaging devices that used to be prohibited. Prominent among them are pocket knives less than 2.5" long and half an inch wide. Though all of us know that such knives can fatally hurt a human being,  they will now be permitted in carry-on luggage,  which means they can be accessed by their owners in the course of the flight. 

In the same gesture, the TSA announced last week that sporting equipment of the pole or bat variety can now be carried on board. You can bring with you a golf club, a children's-size bat, ski poles -- even though these items can be brandished or swung overhead to knock out a flight attendant or another passenger. 

What's particularly disturbing to me is the allowance of pocket knives. It is widely suspected, and partially confirmed by the luggage the hijackers left behind them, that the terrorists who brought down planes on September 11 were not equipped with box cutters, as was widely assumed, but with pocket knives. Such knives, drawn across the neck of a person, can kill them just as effectively as a box cutter. Various union officials representing flight attendants have bitterly complained about the TSA's new liberal policies and asked that they be reversed.

I'm with them. Despite all the seeming safeguards -- locked doors to the cockpits of all planes, federal marshals flying aboard surreptitiously -- there is now a greatly enhanced opportunity for either crazed people or terrorists to create mayhem aboard a flight. I can't for the life of me guess what caused the TSA to take a step that no one at all was really advocating, but simply assume that the constant, unreasoned criticism of that federal agency has made its officials eager to be liked. No one can constantly listen to the carping and criticism of our airport safety agents without wanting to take a step that will mollify the attackers. Too bad that the rest of us must now fly with less assurance that the terrorists, or the lunatics, will be thwarted.

On Sunday's Travel Show, my daughter Pauline provided a fascinating description of her recent trip to  Taiwan , a long journey from which she returned last week.

Not many Americans include Taiwan on a list of potential vacation destinations, but the Taiwanese government has recently launched a major marketing effort to change those attitudes. Actually, the largest current group of tourists to Taiwan are Chinese, who can now fly there non-stop from Beijing. That totally unexpected cooperation in aviation marks a startling shift in what used to be a policy of unending enmity between the two republics (Taiwan persists in calling itself The Republic of China, while Beijing styles itself as The People's Republic of China).

Why did the change come about? Why non-stop air between two former adversaries? A political science professor-friend of mine suggests that Taiwanese businessmen are now so heavily engaged in making investments in mainland China that the Chinese have felt compelled to soften their tone. And obviously, Beijing wants Taiwan back, and may now be offering a carrot rather than a stick. That's also (perhaps) why some mainland cities are partially subsidizing the trips to Taiwan of their residents wanting to experience the strong, historic culture of China.

There remains, of course, the ever-present possibility of an armed takeover of Taiwan by mainland China. Beijing's threat is so sensitively felt by the Taiwanese, according to my daughter's observations, that citizens of Taiwan are unusually cordial to visitors from the United States, which they regard as their chief defender against such a Chinese move. Invariably, people would broadly smile at her, make friendly comments, even hug her on occasion, the moment they learned she was an American. The stay was made unusually pleasant by such gestures, as it will be for any American tourist going there.

When the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek was finally defeated (around 1948) by the Chinese communists, they fled to Taiwan, and were accompanied in the immediately-succeeding years by more than two million Han Chinese from the mainland. They also brought with them many of the most precious and important historical relics of the Chinese culture (especially from Beijing's Forbidden City), and placed many of them in an important Palace Museum in Taipei. Accordingly, a visit to that museum is a stunning immersion in the ancient culture of China, stronger perhaps than what one sees anywhere in today's mainland China (where so many artifacts of history were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution). Scattered throughout Taiwan are also numerous religious temples, seemingly more numerous than anything one views in mainland China. These are intricately decorated; and the religious rites and exercises within are done with surprising force and fervor.

But despite those two million Han Chinese that came here with Chiang Kai-Shek, the demographics of Taiwan are amazingly diverse; there are large ethnic groups representing some 17 tribes that historically occupied Taiwan, along with a large number of Japanese who once ran Taiwan. In the "night market" of Taipei, Pauline saw scores of food stands, each one totally different in content than the next. She tasted numerous different ethnic cuisines, one better than the next. In restaurants, she never repeated the ethnicity of a meal.

And prices were surprisingly moderate. She paid the equivalent of one dollar for a bowl of Pork Liver Soup, the equivalent of two dollars for an astonishing Oyster Omelette, one of the best dishes she has ever had.

She ascended to the top of Taipei 101, the world's second highest skyscraper. She went to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, and witnessed an intricately-choreographed Changing of the Guard. And at stores and market places, she never felt herself harassed to purchase, unlike the ever-present and very intrusive hawking of tourists in mainland China.

I've noted only a fraction of her impressions, which you will hear in much greater detail if you turn to the  first hour of our March 3 podcast , at wor710.com . I think you'll enjoy hearing her comments, and may be persuaded to consider a trip to Taiwan.

 

 

The series of travel shows called "Travel & Adventure" have grown enormously in attendance over the past ten years, and now attract far more than 15,000 persons to each such two-day event, in cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The last show of the current winter season will take place on Saturday and Sunday, March 9 and 10 (i.e., about a week from now), at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center (801 Mt. Vernon Place N.W.), and I'll be speaking there on Saturday, March 9, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the main auditorium of that center, on the subject "The Coming Year in Travel." Immediately afterwards, I'll then be signing books and speaking personally with visitors to the show at a bookstore area located near the auditorium.

It always happens at such shows that readers of this blog appear in fair numbers, to talk about travel issues that they're confronting, to discuss recent topics covered in this blog, and generally to shoot the breeze on any and all subjects. I so very much like those encounters, and hope that readers living in the Washington, D.C. area will come to the show, hear the talk, and then remain to converse.

Although a ticket purchased at the box office costs $15, you can buy the same in advance for only $10 by buying it online at  www.adventureexpo.com . For any questions about the event you can call 203/878-2577, ext. 100 or e-mail info@adventureexpo.com .

Hope to see you there.

I can't remember why I consented to ride in a hot air balloon during an African safari in Kenya some years ago, but I do recall that the moment we went aloft, I became painfully aware of how foolish I had been to do so. Our pilot was a somewhat deranged middle-aged man of British extraction, reacting ecstatically to the joy of being aloft. Instead of simply skimming along the tree line, as he had initially done, he suddenly manipulated the balloon to soar to altitudes of several thousand feet. And suddenly, standing in a small wicker basket hanging from the balloon, I looked down from an unimaginable height at the earth far below, and realized how vulnerable we all were.

It was not only that we were hanging from a flimsy balloon, kept aloft by a sheet of flame, but we were also flying above a games park filled with prides of lions, thousands of wildebeest, cheetahs by the dozens, and other wild animals, in a balloon whose exact place of landing we could not control. What if it set down among those lions, I asked myself? It was only after I emerged with knees shaking from the completed ride, and climbed out of that slightly-worn wicker basket hanging at an angle over the ground, that I realized how dangerous it is for tourists to subject themselves to such risk. And I reacted with sharp, sensitive awareness to the news, this week, of those  19 foreign tourists to Egypt  who were incinerated while hanging from a hot air balloon that caught fire.

Imagine the near insanity of consenting to ride in a hot air balloon in a country where the entire activity is unregulated and the pilot unlicensed and the entire activity is undertaken by local entrepreneurs out to make a fast buck.

But hot air ballooning is only one of the "extreme sports" or "extreme adventures" that tourists sign up for in numerous foreign countries. Each year, people are severely injured, somewhere in tropical waters, by plunging down from a parasailing device drawn by a motorboat whose engine has suddenly stopped. This happens with surprising frequency. Each year, a tourist consenting to ride hanging from a zip line over a deep ravine in Costa Rica is suddenly found stuck on that line high in the air. This happened to a relative of mine. Each year, tourists to Belize take unimaginable risks by swimming into a cave and then being directed to dive underwater to a passage that supposedly leads them to an open-air room in the rock.

All over the world, untrained entrepreneurs in an unregulated activity, taking no safety precautions whatsoever, offer thrills to the visitor for a modest payment. Even in the United States, the regulation of hot air ballooning is apparently confined to the requirement that pilots be licensed as supposedly aware of the need for precaution. How many unreported accidents take place in hot air balloons carried aloft by air heated by jets of flame that can easily be misdirected at the balloon itself?

Persons in the travel industry should direct warnings to their clients against succumbing to those offers of extreme adventures. The risks are greater than assumed, and the possibility of grave injury or death is tangible.

While most other foreign currencies fluctuate up and down, the Chinese yuan stays solid as a rock. That's because the Chinese government is obviously engaged in unabashed currency manipulation, keeping the yuan at a virtually-motionless level of 6.23 to the dollar. All this is in support of the Chinese export industry, and the other major consequence of it is the cheap cost of a China vacation. If you'd like an example of that, you need only go to the air-and-land packages operated by China Spree in the month of April, 2013.

Provided you depart at least a month from now, and choose any listed date in April, you'll pay only $1,499 for a nine-day tour to Beijing and Shanghai, consisting of seven actual overnights in China. You'll receive, included in that figure, round-trip airfare from San Francisco (or, for only $100 more, from New York), round-trip transfers to and from the airports of Beijing and Shanghai, seven nights at a good, first class hotel with breakfast daily, and considerable escorted sightseeing, as well as transportation between Beijing and Shanghai. When you consider the normal cost simply of a 13-hour round-trip flight completely across the Pacific to China, which alone is worth $1,499, you realize what a staggering value is this week in two fascinating cities. No other destination anywhere else in the world is as comparably cheap.

If you'd prefer a more extensive introduction to both Beijing, Xian, Suzhou, Tongli, and Shanghai, you can buy a 10-day tour of China's so-called "Golden Triangle" (flying you, among other features, not simply across the Pacific round-trip to China, but also transporting you by air from Beijing to Xian, to see the terra cotta warriors enshrined in Xian), for an April 2013 departure, for only $1,859 from San Francisco, and $1,959 from New York. You'll again receive first class lodgings, several meals, and considerable escorted sightseeing, for 4 nights in Beijing, 2 nights in Xian, and 3 nights in Shanghai (on one day, you'll be driven by motorcoach from Shanghai to Suzhou and Tongli). This air-and-land package called "The Golden Triangle" is available to be booked for numerous departure dates this coming April.

The tour operator is China Spree ( www.chinaspree.com ), which is obviously making a concerted effort to be the leading source of ultra-low-cost tours to China. At virtually every newspaper-sponsored travel shows I've been to this year, I've been accosted by people telling me how much they enjoyed their ChinaSpree-operated tour. The two low-cost air-and-land packages to Beijing and Shanghai, or to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, are almost always cited as the tour they took.

The weird outcome of last weekend's Italian election -- major vote totals for the outrageous Silvio Berlusconi and the equally-nutty Beppe Grillo -- has at least created positive news for American travelers. It has so unnerved the business interests of Europe that the value of the euro has now fallen to $1.30, with the British pound selling for $1.51. Those rates -- which might even go lower -- have markedly cheapened the cost of a European vacation for us dollar-possessing travelers.

And the Japanese yen remains at a remarkable 90 to the dollar, lowering the cost of a stay in Japan. Provided only that you can find an inexpensive airfare for an overseas vacation (try hipmunk.com , do-hop.com , or momondo.com ), the prospects look good for ambitious summer vacationers.

But you'll need to make wise decisions in the choice of destinations. There's an awful lot of misleading information out there, as I discovered in responding to callers on this weekend's Travel Show (Sunday, noon to two E.S.T., at wor710.com ).

One listener phoned the show to point out that she was flying in June with her fiancee to Rome, where they hoped to get married in a Presbyterian church (are there any in Rome?) on days one or two, and then to embark on a train trip to Florence and Venice. Her specific question: How can she arrange to ship her sumptuous wedding gown back home, as she did not want to cart it along for the remainder of her Italian trip?

I had the unenviable task of pointing out that as far as marriages are concerned, Rome is not Las Vegas. Unlike Las Vegas, where you can obtain a marriage license and get hitched within a half hour after your arrival, all European countries have severe residency requirements for permitting people to have weddings on their soil. I told her that she had to contact the nearest Italian consulate to learn how many months she would first have to reside in Italy before she could be married there. I could almost hear a groan of dismay from the caller.

Another caller explained that she was planning to go on a Baltic cruise this summer, ending up in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she hoped to make her own hotel reservations for two days of sightseeing in that fabled city. For such a short stay, she reasoned, she would not have to go through the difficult and expensive process of obtaining a Russian visa. I had to disappoint her by pointing out that her plan for bypassing a visa was just not do-able, that Russian requires a visa of any tourist, and that the only exception to that rule was for cruise passengers engaging in a group sightseeing tour arranged by the cruise ship, involving a day-long stay that returned at night to the cruise ship. Even a one-day overnight stay in Russia requires a visa.

Another listener, who had submitted his question by e-mail to the program, announced that he was anxious to cruise the coast of Alaska, but would do so only on a ship catering to young passengers. I had to respond that there was no such thing; that the audience for Alaskan cruises was heavily weighted to mature and elderly people. Was I wrong to be so pessimistic?

Is South Africa safe to visit, asked another caller? I responded that the general consensus is that Cape Town is acceptably safe (provided only that you take the precautions you would follow in any large city), while Johannesburg is iffy -- iffy because of the considerable poverty in that city, that is usually a generator of crime. Nevertheless, a great many tourists stay over in Johannesburg on their onward trip to Krueger National Park, and by taking reasonable precautions, they enjoy a stay without mishap.

Generally speaking, the questions posed to us on The Travel Show are so wide-ranging, reflecting an intention by many listeners to visit the most remote corners of the world, that they prove the continued vitality of travel. In the course of a slow economic recovery, at a time when unemployment is still high, people are still traveling in huge numbers and not simply on weekend trips but to international destinations. One caller this past weekend extolled the pleasures of a trip to Ghana in Africa, which he portrayed as a stable country that recently achieved a peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. It is reached, he said, by non-stop flights, and your visit is among friendly people well disposed to America, in cities with modern hotels.

Travel lives.

As someone who obviously doesn't have expertise in ship design or maritime safety, I felt somewhat hesitant in passing comment on the recent tragedy of the Carnival Triumph , whose electrical system -- knocked out by an engine room fire -- caused it to drift without power for five days in the Gulf of Mexico.

And yet it seemed obvious to me. A cruise ship is like a city at sea.  Shouldn't it possess back-up generators  if the main source of electricity is knocked out? Of course it should, as I proceeded to write in this blog. And if such an event happens during a time of stormy seas, or when the ship is hundreds of miles from land (as on a trans-Atlantic sailing), grave tragedies including loss of life could occur.

Would you believe that The New York Times has this morning published  a well-researched article  reaching the same conclusion? And it points out, amazingly enough, that the event on the Triumph is the third such instance to occur during the past three years. One such loss of power occurred, amazingly enough, on another ship of Carnival Cruise Lines, the Splendor , in 2012.

Because of an ambiguous situation of government regulation (all ships carry the flags of tiny countries like Liberia and therefore claim to be immune to supervision by the United States), no government has rushed to enforce comprehensive or effective rules for the installation of safety equipment aboard ships. Though various admonitions to create redundancies in the production of electric power have been issued, only 10-or-so modern cruise ships contain back-up generators located far from the main engine room. The other 100-plus cruise ships contain one such system, and if it is knocked out, then the boat and its passengers are out of luck.

Two years ago, the Splendor experienced an engine room fire that eliminated its electrical power, amid resulted in harrowing circumstances almost identical to what befell the Triumph . Yet Carnival did nothing. And passengers of the Splendor rubbed their eyes when they read about the identical later occurrence on the Triumph .

What is needed is strong action by Congress. Asserting its authority over any ship that docks at a U.S. port, or that is marketed primarily to a U.S. audience, Congress could demand that ships be re-fitted with back-up generators. Though this will require the ships to give up a fair number of passenger cabins in order to create the space for those second generators, it is a requirement that cries out to be enacted. Otherwise, we will soon see an even greater tragedy than the one that so affected the passengers aboard the Triumph .

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