Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Weekend escapes abroad

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is poised to cross the 10,000 mark as I write this, but times are still hard for many Americans. Those who are able to take time off for a weekend escape are not likely to go farther than their car can reasonably take them for a few days of travel. But tough economic times also mean travel operators are slashing prices. So a weekend escape abroad—if you're willing to take a long flight for a short stay—is not as crazy an idea as it sounds. Below I've included a few deals that I've seen recently.

Cancun: 3 Nights All-Inclusive Oceanfront & Air, $415
Enjoy roundtrip air and three all-inclusive nights (including alcohol) in a junior oceanview suite. This package also includes resort taxes & gratuities, roundtrip airport transfers and 10% spa discount. Kids 12 and under stay, play and eat free. Does not include additional taxes of approximately $100 p.p. [More info]

Iceland: 2 Nights & Air, Tour, $489
IcelandAir has really been pushing this weekend escape: Take an afternoon departure from NYC, Boston or Seattle; arrive the next morning in Reykjavik; spend two nights with breakfast in a four-star hotel (morning check-in permitted on arrival); take a full-day tour of scenic sights on the second day; and fly back home on Day 3. Not included: airport transfers (approx. $42 p.p. roundtrip) and taxes (approx. $100 p.p.). [More info]

Italy: 3 Nights & Air, $499
A long weekend in Rome or Florence? Certo! This package includes air fare from NYC (nonstop to Rome) and three nights in a selection of 3-star hotels (including breakfast). Specific departure dates are specified, but some of those dates include a Miami departure for the same price. You can also upgrade your hotel and select discounted tours. Not included: Taxes of $120 p.p. [More info & instructions]

Disclaimer: As always when I post deals like these, it is for informational purposes only. I don't receive any kind of commission or other payment.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Europe's Christmas markets - $499 Danube cruise

For countless years, I've wanted to spend part of the holiday season touring the many Christmas markets in Europe. Some of the most popular ones are to be found in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but it's a common tradition in many parts of the continent. There's something about the Old World setting for an Old World tradition that makes a magical season seem even more magical.

I can't even recall when I first heard about Europe's Christmas markets, nor when this whimsical idea first formed in my mind. I believe I saw a travel program that showcased the markets (probably Rick Steves), and that's all it took to set my imagination alight. Someday, I hope to make this fantasy of mine a reality.

If this idea appeals to you as well, and you're casting about for cheap holiday travel ideas, check out this special deal (which is what brought this to mind months before Christmas): five nights cruising the Danube, including 14 meals, with shore excursions to Christmas markets in Vienna, Passau and Regensburg, all for $499. Find all the details here.

[Disclosure: I am not affiliated with this travel operator in any way, and I have not vetted the offer, so do your own research. On the surface, it seems like a great deal.]

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Labor Day fare sale (NOT)

"Don't spend your holiday weekend at home this Labor Day," United Airlines urges. "Take advantage of low Labor Day fares!"

The wife and I have been searching for some last-minute getaway ideas, since my birthday falls on Labor Day this year, so United's promotion caught our notice. A quick glance at the terms, however, revealed that the "Labor Day Savings Sale" was no sale. The valid departure and return dates did not line up with the actual Labor Day weekend dates—at least not in any practical fashion.

Sure, you can leave on Saturday, September 5, and return the next day, if your idea of a Labor Day getaway is spending all weekend flying. Or you can depart and return on the Tuesday or Wednesday preceding or following Labor Day, if you have the vacation time to tack onto your holiday weekend. But if you've got the extra time off, wouldn't you rather use your vacation days in conjunction with a non-holiday weekend, when things are cheaper and places less crowded?

So once again, we have an airline fare sale that is not really a sale. You can find one of these "sale fares" if you're willing to fly on the most inconvenient dates and times; but that's true anytime you fly. If it were a real "Labor Day Savings Sale," the airline would offer a limited number of low fares for Friday and Monday, the preferred departure and return dates for Labor Day Weekend.

Yes, those travel dates are the highest in demand, so why should the airline offer low fares on those days? The answer is, they shouldn't. That's not the issue. But neither should they call a fare sale a "Labor Day" sale if it's useless to anyone traveling on Labor Day Weekend.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 14, 2009

AYCJ: An air travel smorgasbord

I have to hand it to my favorite airline, JetBlue, for their creativity. They have just announced the AYCJ (All-You-Can-Jet) pass: fly anywhere you want, as often as you want, from September 8 to October 8. The cost is $599 (domestic taxes and fees included), and you can choose from the more than 50 cities that JetBlue serves. Read the full details here; it really does seem to be as good as it sounds.

But act now; you only have till next Friday—or while supplies last—to buy the AYCJ pass. I'll be picking one up myself. Those friends and family members who live in cities served by JetBlue, better get your couch ready for me!

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

$9 nonstop fares - no, really

Do you need to fly between Newark, New Jersey; Melbourne, Florida; South Bend, Indiana; Toledo, Ohio; or Lansing, Michigan? For most of you, the answer is probably "No." But if so, news of America's newest low-fare airline might interest you. Jet America opened for business today, and takes to the skies beginning July 13.

The airline's introductory fares, clearly designed to grab headlines, are priced at $9 each way for the first nine seats on each flight. If you manage to get one of those seats, however, then of course you'll pay more. Based on a sample flight that I looked up, the minimum out-of-pocket cost will be $49 after all taxes and fees. Still, not bad for a nonstop round-trip flight on a 737—if you're traveling between any of the aforementioned cities (which, other than Newark, are not exactly high-in-demand destinations).

From what I've been able to find out, it seems Jet America will follow the RyanAir model of making money off miscellaneous fees, such as a $5 fee (each way) for booking online ($10 for phone reservations), and $10 for a reserved seat assignment.

We're getting closer and closer to that coin-operated lavatory....

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 2, 2009

ACT NOW! $14 fares between NYC, SFO and LGB

Here's a fantastic (real) deal for TODAY ONLY that might sell out before you even read this. That's right, $14 air fares between NYC, San Francisco and Long Beach on JetBlue. Really! A round-trip fare between NYC and SFO for $49 TOTAL, after taxes.

The catch: you have to purchase your tickets TODAY, before 11:59 p.m. MT, and travel must take place between April 2 and April 8, 2009.

Here's the link. Sorry, no time for commentary; I want to publish this before it sells out!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

$50 voucher for travel on JetBlue

Want a $50 voucher good for air travel on JetBlue? This offer won't help a lot of people, but if you are already planning to fly on JetBlue this fall and early next year, then it might work for you.

The details: Register now for the offer, book a flight by September 21 for travel between October 15 and November 15, and JetBlue will give you a $50 voucher—but the voucher can only be used on flights booked for travel between January 8 and February 9, 2009.

Like I said, probably not useful to most, but hopefully one of you will be able to take advantage of the offer.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fall travel deals

Lacking time to write anything substantial tonight, I thought I'd share some fall travel deals that came through my Inbox today from Travel Zoo.

Caribbean & Mexico From Across the U.S.
Fares start from $80 for travel through December 10 (book by September 12).

Fourth Night Free at El Conquistador

Some great deals at one of the nicest resorts on Puerto Rico (also book by September 12).

Virgin Atlantic to London as Low as $226 Each Way
I didn't price out a sample ticket, so I don't know what these low fares will actually amount to after taxes (which can add a lot on flights to London), but this is still really low for fares to London that I've seen in recent months.

Low Fares to Central America
Considering that Central America is a fantastic budget destination in these harder economic times, this looks like a great way to put together a cheap trip to somewhere like Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatamala or Nicaragua.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Renovated: Wyndham Nassau Resort

The first group scuba diving trip that I made with my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, was to Nassau in the Bahamas, where we stayed at the Wyndham Nassau on Cable Beach and dived with Stuart Cove's. [See photos and shark diving videos.]

The dive operation at Stuart Cove's has a bit of a reputation for driving "cattle boats," but my overall impression was quite favorable. I found the operation to be well organized, the boats and facilities to be in great shape, and the staff to be helpful. Then again, our large group (31 people) was a herd of cattle in itself, so maybe it didn't seem like a cattle boat because we all knew each other.

My impression of the Wyndham, however, was altogether different. This place looked like it had been a fantastic resort—30 years ago. Paint was peeling off everywhere, the hot tub was hot on only one of the four days we were there, the decor was all 1970s pastels, many fixtures didn't work, and more. My favorite example was the window shade in our room: a piece of plywood.

However, I just read that the Wyndham finished a top-to-bottom refurbishment in January. They completely renovated 304 of their rooms (including flat screen TVs and refrigerators), they refinished the exterior, they overhauled the whole pool area... in short, they seem to have fixed most of the major issues.

Add together these renovations, my favorable opinion of Stuart Cove's and an outstanding special as low as $415 per person for a 3-night/2-diving-day package, and you've got a recipe for an excellent long weekend of scuba diving.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Some great summer scuba diving deals

Having done four big scuba diving trips last year, I find myself in the unhappy position of having no upcoming dive trips planned. We've been trying to put together a short trip to the Florida Keys or a reasonably close Caribbean destination, but haven't been able to plan anything that fits our budget, work commitments and vacation time.

I'm sure we'll eventually be able to make something happen, but in the meantime, here are a few really good deals that I've come across:

Little Cayman Fall Fanta-Sea
This package includes seven nights accommodation (and hotel taxes), six days of 2-tank diving, 3 meals a day, free nitrox and airport transfers. The $1,291 p.p./d.o. price tag is pretty good for expensive Cayman. [More info]

Exumas, Bahamas - "Dive Your Face Off"
Run by my dive club, Oceanblue Divers, this weeklong luxury liveaboard trip onboard the Aqua Cat takes you through the mostly uninhabited Exumas island chain in the Bahamas. The $2,095 price (no single supplement!) includes basically everything (even alcohol!) except air fare. [More info]

And if the preceding specials make you nervous because of hurricane season (buy travel insurance!), here's a deal I wish I could take advantage of, since Curacao lies outside the Caribbean hurricane belt:

Buddy Weeks - Curacao Summer Special
This package includes seven days (pay for six) in a studio apartment, six days of unlimited diving (pay for five), airport transfer, and best of all, your buddy pays half-price for diving when you pay full price! [More info]

Labels: ,

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travel cheap: Visit a friend or family member

Okay, travel is becoming almost ridiculous this year, thanks to economic factors. The sagging dollar makes European travel crazy-expensive. Record oil prices have caused fuel costs—and therefore air fares—to skyrocket, making domestic travel cost-prohibitive. Those same fuel costs are even pushing local travel—to destinations within driving distance—out of reach, as gasoline prices also hit record levels. Factor in the lackluster economy ("recession," as some call it, though I think the R word is unwarranted), and it's making it hard to travel this year.

So, short of exploring our own backyards, how do we get away affordably? That's easy: visit family and friends. Let's call it "The Year of the Air Mattress" or "The Year of Calling in Favors." Think of how much you can save by sleeping on a friend's couch or crashing on your brother's pull-out bed. Sure, the Sheraton "Heavenly Bed" or a suite at the Marriott would make a more comfortable getaway, but don't let the lack of a concierge and daily maid service keep you from traveling this year.

My brother is planning a trip to New York City for a family of three, and is trying to stick to a budget of $500 or less. Sacrificing a little comfort and using some creativity, they can use Southwest rewards to fly free into Long Island, take the Long Island Railroad to Brooklyn, sleep on an air mattress in my one-bedroom apartment and visit museums for free thanks to my corporate connections.

If you too apply a little creativity and resourcefulness, I'm sure you can think of friends who owe you a favor, family you'd like to visit, or friends-of-friends who'd love to host you and show you around. It may be hard to get around the expense of air fare, but if you can save big by staying with a local (and perhaps even eating in part of the time, for additional savings) and finding free stuff to do, you can still travel in these economic hard times.

Think about it: you can get free room service (your sister-in-law making breakfast); an always-available concierge (your friend answering your 20 questions about what to see and where to go); and complimentary cocktails (your cousin offering you a glass of wine when you return from the day's sightseeing). Maybe you'll have to make your own bed, but how hard is it to roll up a sleeping bag?

Better yet, kick-start this idea of goodwill travel by calling up a friend or family member you haven't seen in a long time and inviting him or her to visit you. If you get the ball rolling, people will start paying it forward by inviting their friends and family to visit, and before you know it, we'll all be traveling on the cheap this year!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Airlines: The Year of the Fees

Just when you thought the airline ugliness of recent weeks was past, a TIME magazine article suggests there could be more to come this summer. The guy in charge of protecting the airline whistle-blowers hints that there could be more cases of shoddy inspections coming to light this summer, which could lead to more groundings and flight cancellations.

There's also a new airline fee to report: United has increased the change fee to a whopping $150 (up to $250 for some international flights). Yes, we've all gotten used to the fact that we'll have to pay a fee to change our ticket. It started reasonably: a large enough fee to deter needless changes, but not so large that it penalizes people with a valid need. Now, United will charge you a fee so large that you could buy a whole new ticket to some destinations.

Incidentally, Arther Frommer has an excellent blog article that outlines this year's new airline fees, including increased over-the-50-pound-limit fees for that single bag you're allowed to check for free. It's only April, but I think we can safely call this The Year of the Fees.

On the brighter side, I've been seeing lots of air fare sales lately, so you can still get a good deal if you check only one bag, don't change your ticket, are willing to sit in a middle seat, don't mind living in the airport for several days if your flight is cancelled, and can last a six-hour flight without eating. Happy travels!

Delta: Atlanta & NYC on sale
AirTran: Spring/Summer/Fall sale
Continental: Canada for cheap
American: To/from the Southwest
Southwest: Always easy to find low fares

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 10, 2008

Group travel: save a buck and make a friend

Last weekend, I went skiing in Vermont with a group from the Appalachian Mountain Club. In January, I spent a week diving in Honduras with a group from scuba club Oceanblue Divers. Before moving to the East Coast, I frequently traveled on weekend camping excursions with adventure club Total Escape. Come to think of it, many of my travels over the years have been with groups. Why is that?

Save. You can save time, hassle and money. For people like me, researching new destinations and planning a trip is part of the fun. But it takes time, and sometimes it's a hassle. Booking a spot on a group trip makes it as easy as point, click, buy and travel. Typically, group trips also build in an economy of scale, bringing the cost down lower than if you booked individually. And if you're a solo traveler, you avoid those pesky single supplements.

Do. You can do things you might not be able to do as an individual. On some of my dive trips, we've done optional activities like shark dives. Often, such excursions require a minimum number of people, so if you're on your own, you might not be able to make them happen. The leader of a group trip might also be able to make special arrangements to see sights that aren't typically open to individual travelers.

Meet. For me, meeting new people and making new friends has always been the best reason for group travel. In 2002, I moved back to my hometown of San Diego after an extended absence. In 2005, I relocated again, this time to the East Coast. In both instances, I had to recreate my circle of friends, so I did it the quickest way possible: finding clubs and organizations that catered to my hobbies, and signing up for their group trips. Show me a group of strangers who travel together—even just for a weekend getaway—and I'll show you a group of fast friends. Many of my closest friends (and even my girlfriend) are people I've met on group trips.

Sometimes, traveling solo gives you a great deal of freedom and flexibility to get the most out of your trip. I'm overdue myself for such independent travel. But if you just want to go have some fun without breaking the bank or spending a lot of time planning, or if you are new to your area or want to make some new friends, go on a group trip!

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cheap dive packages to Cozumel

For those like me who love to scuba dive, I wanted to share this awesome deal I found for dive travel to Cozumel, thanks to Sport Diver magazine. Both Hotel Cozumel and Fiesta Americana are offering some really inexpensive specials for 3-, 5- and 7-night stay-and-dive packages this summer and fall. You can find all the pricing here, but a sample 3-night/2-dive-day package at Hotel Cozumel (perfect for a long weekend getaway) during the summer is only $296 (p.p./d.o.). Upgrade to all-inclusive (all meals and alcohol) for only $353.

I'm not going to get in the habit of posting just any great deal I come across, but this one's so good that I'm probably going to take advantage of it myself. I stayed and dived at Hotel Cozumel last year, so I know it's a decent place to stay. My girlfriend Cassie did her first night dive right off the dock there, seeing such cool critters as a free-swimming octopus and eel, a school of squid, a wandering lobster and much more.

The only dive trip I've got planned for the rest of 2008 is a weekend in Dutch Springs (a quarry in Pennsylvania), so I'd better get busy planning something!


Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Great deals @ Travelzoo

Okay, today I'm giving a free plug to Travelzoo. The company finds amazing travel deals, and publishes them on their website and in their weekly Top 20 email newsletter. I've been a subscriber to the latter for several years now, and am always amazed by some of the deals they manage to find. I've even taken advantage of a few of them myself.

So with a nod of thanks, I figure they've earned a freebie. Go sign up for their Top 20 newsletter.



Saturday, February 16, 2008

jetBlue now serving LAX

jetBlue has long been serving the Greater Los Angeles area with flights to/from Long Beach Airport, but they just started flying to/from LAX—and are offering some pretty decent fares to promote this new service.

The airline also offers some cool city guides on their website that include crewmember blogs and recommendations for "best" things to do. Currently, they offer guides for New York, Houston, Orlando, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.


Labels: , , , ,