May
26th
  Booking a flight with children? Read this first…It can save you $$
From airlinereporter.com

From airlinereporter.com

The airlines these days have found ways to charge us fees for everything – at one point one airline was looking to charge us to use the lavatory!

These fees have earned the airlines billions of dollars, so don’t look for them to go away anytime soon. However, we can be smart fliers and know how to fly with minimal fees.

Econ

For instance… listen up family travelers. Most airlines – particularly US airlines, charge parents extra to reserve a seat next to children. But if you are traveling on a foreign airline with any children younger than 12, and budget is a consideration, don’t pay to reserve your seats.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, because you need to sit next to young children on planes, but what some foreign airlines don’t tell you upfront is that they automatically place you together if you are traveling with someone younger than 12 years of age. **Please note this is for many airlines – I would call in advance to confirm your airline does this. Also double check the age where they would automatically assign seats together, because that could be different too.

I asked one airline – what if all the other fliers book their seats and there are no other seats for us together – this particular airline said they move everyone around at the gate to accommodate people flying with children – even if we are a group of five and only have one child under 12.  (Honestly, that doesn’t seem totally fair either  – moving  those have paid to sit next to a window, but that’s the airline’s policy.)

If you are the type who doesn’t trust leaving it in the hands of the airlines, make sure you do the following:

1)Enter the age of your fliers when you book your flight- especially the one under 12 so the airline will know to put you together.

2) Get to the airport early and go to the gate to make sure they know you are traveling with children. Attendants can choose your seats then… or work it out in the system.

Think about it: Most airlines don’t want kids not seated next to their parents for everyone else’s sake!

It’s actually ridiculous some US airlines still don’t automatically place families with young children together. There has been legislation lingering in Congress to change this, but it doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.

Again, it helps to call ahead on ANY airline to research the airline’s policies. I know there have been sympathetic agents who have helped families work it all out.

Happy travels – this is going to be a busy summer season!

 

 
May
22nd
  What You Should Know Before a Beach Vacation: The Dangers Lurking

A beach vacation can be a care-free family vacation – no need to plan what you are going to do every day – you have the beautiful blue ocean right there for you.

But sometimes when we wade into a pretty new environment, we are so mesmerized with our surroundings, we can neglect cautionary facts about our location.

Did you know that according to the CDC, 4,000 people die each year in the United States from drowning? About 50-75% of them are drownings in open waters, like the ocean.

Most are preventable.

So parents – watch your kids, and take heed of these beach safety tips.

 
May
15th
  Hotel of the Week: Mod in Madrid for $200 USD

While the dollar is strong against the euro, it is time to take advantage of some of the European deals! I have been getting many questions from travelers going to Europe this summer, so am writing a lot about that topic.

Amigos, if you are heading to Madrid, there is a boutique hotel with loads of style for a very affordable price that I’d like to share with you.

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

It is the Hotel Hospes right in Madrid’s Plaza de Independencia…

Retiro Park, Madrid

Retiro Park, Madrid

…walking distance from the world famous Prado museum, and the lovely Retiro Park – one of my personal favorites.

The hotel was built in 1883 – that is one of the very cool things about traveling to Europe, you get to see and stay in relics with architectural significance. It was initially an apartment complex for wealthy families.

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

The Hospes company converted it into a very chic and current setting, yet preserved the gorgeous molding, woodwork, wrought iron and columns to give it an eclectic vibe – It is hip without being too cold.

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

Hospes Hotel, Madrid

There are 41 guestrooms – all designed differently but contemporary style – with some suite duplexes and junior suites. (The blonde doesn’t come with the room – she’s my friend :) )

Hospes Hotel ,Madrid

Hospes Hotel ,Madrid

The room in which I stayed was two stories… with a living room downstairs.

The hotel also has **Free Wifi – my personal favorite amenity when I am working on the road – along with a spa, and hotel bar. There is a restaurant too and the rooms come with breakfast, which is nice and convenient.

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There also are some restaurants right out in front of the hotel… Again convenient, and a great vibe sitting outside at night, but the food in my opinion was just so-so.

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Hospes is a boutique chain that has 9 properties throughout Spain.  Room prices in Madrid start at around $200 USD, depending on when you book and when you go. www.hospes.com/madrid-madrid/default-es.html

Buen Viaje!

 
May
12th
  Travel Tip Tues: A Volunteer Vacation for the Family: Save the Turtles, While Still Enjoying the Island Beach

DSC02655

We all go on vacation to get away from it all… be exposed to something new.. or spend time with friends and family. But have you ever gone on vacation and experienced the destination through volunteering in that place?

Although the term “volunteer vacations” is used now, you actually don’ t have to make the entire trip a benevolent investment. There are many groups that allow you to participate for a day or two out of your trip, which gives you time to see the sites and relax, and give back to a community. In my opinion, getting involved in any way is a win-win: You get a deeper understanding of your destination, and you make the world a little better place.

To get your feet wet if you’ve never done this, I am going to tell you about one way to volunteer in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina that is easy… family friendly… and oh so interesting.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Hilton Head

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Hilton Head

It’s all about saving the Loggerhead Turtles that lay eggs on Hilton Head. They are quite beautiful creatures, as well as huge – they typically weigh in at  250 lbs. Yet, these reptiles are an endangered species, & need travelers’ help preserving their habitat.

The migration of the turtles is fascinating – when they are three days old, they crawl out of a deep hole that is their nest, to be guided by the light of the night moon to the ocean. Their destination ? Oh only Portugal! They will spend 10 years in the Azores off Portugal’s coast, then come back to the East Coast to forage for another 10- years until they are sexually mature to mate.

But only 1 in 10,000 make it back to Hilton Head.

The greatest threat to these reptiles is loss of nesting habitat due to coastal development, predation of nests, and human disturbances (such as coastal lighting and housing developments) that cause hatchlings to become disoriented.  Other major threats  accidental capture in  fishing, and pollution.

DSC02625

The turtles that DO make it back to Hilton Head lay about 120 eggs in one nest. There is a very sweet non-profiut museum called the Coastal Discovery Museum that leads the way in educating visitors about the turtles, and coordinates a volunteer program to help save them .

Courtesy of Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Program

Courtesy of Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Program

From May through October, (nesting season) guests can attend a very interesting and educational one night seminar all about the Loggerhead Sea Turtles… and then take a beach walk with guides. If you are very lucky you may see a turtle.. but since  they are federally protected we can’t  interact with them, and most of the turtle activity takes place in the dark of night.

Leigh West's hatchling original (4)

Things you will be asked to do is make sure holes in the sand, or old sand castles are filled up and knocked down so the hatchlings don’t fall in or are blocked when they move to the ocean. You will pick up trash that can cause problems. Some can even help finding turtle nests, that are then marked off so no one disturbs them.

Best of all, you carry this with you during your stay, so after a day on the beach having fun, you can fulfill your duties and make sure the beach is flat and clean when you leave.

Trust me – the second you see a photo or video of these baby hatchlings that can fit in the palm of you hand, you will be transformed into a volunteer vigilante.

For more information on the Hilton Head Loggerhead Sea Turtle Protection Program – and on the wonderful museum – www.coastaldiscovery.org

Make sure to watch for a more in-depth story on PBS’s Travel Detective next season.

 
May
05th
  Travel Tip Tues: Travel Abroad with Kids? Yes! Here are Stress-Busting Tips.

Because of the strong US dollar, I have been getting many emails regarding travel abroad – mostly to Europe. A hot destination this summer!

But I also hear a lot of.. “Should we bring the kids overseas,” especially from parents with young children. They worry it’s way too much trouble: jet lag, airports, long plane rides. the experience is wasted on them….or it’s too expensive.
Well I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be such a hassle. I admit, it’s not always easy, but you can still have a great time.

Here are some tips to make the journey less stressful.

1) The first step is getting through the airport sanely.

London Gatwick Airport

London Gatwick Airport

If you dread the thought of standing in long security lines at the airport, some foreign airports actually offer “family lanes” – special security lines for families only, offering extra assistance for parents with strollers and other extra baggage.

London Gatwick, and Sydney Australia are just two airports where you will find these helpful services.

Look for these lanes when going through immigration also – they tend to be shorter. Some airports will let you go ahead of the pack if you have children – think about it – who wants crying children standing in customs for 45 minutes? Lima International in Peru is one such example.

And ask at US airports if there is a family lane – TSA did implement them a while ago – I haven’t seen them that much but know travelers who use them & shave time off security checks, so you need to ask..especially if you travel with strollers.

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2) When you do go through security, know in advance what you need to take out of your bag & put on the conveyor belt… Security rules at overseas airports can be different than what we have here at home.

This can save you – and your kids – a lot of time and frustration once you get in line…

For instance -did you know that in many European airports, not only your laptop but your iPad also needs to be taken out of your bags? Many families pack electronic items to entertain kids on long flights so be prepared & check security rules before you go to the airport.

passport

3) Now let’s talk about something that can really halt your trip: an expired passport. First off, all children, no matter how young, must have one. If your child already has a passport, make sure you check the expiration date. If it was issued at age 15 or younger. the passport expires after FIVE years – not ten years like adult passports.

4) Once you are through the airport, the airline you fly can make a difference in your family’s budget.

To save money – look for airlines that offer reduced fares for children -  British Airways, Air Canada, & Air France are a few.

And if you are a frequent flier, look for airlines with programs that allow you to pool your miles with other family members to maximize your program rewards. They do exist and can really save you money by dividing up the miles so everyone can potentially fly on an award ticket without paying fees to transfer miles.

 

 

 
Apr
13th
  How to Protect Your Health on a Cruise Ship

princess cruise

Gastrointestinal craziness, as two large cruise ships report hundreds of sick passengers on their vessels.  The suspected culprit: the very contagious norovirus.

We hear these stories every so often, and ugh! What a way to upstage one’s vacation.

But with more travelers taking cruises, and the cruise ships’ environment of close contact with many people, more travelers  are at risk for gastrointestinal illnesses. The norovirus is the most common gastrointestinal infection, and it can be serious for the elderly or younger children. It is passed on through another infected person, contaminated food, or touching contaminated surfaces.

So what can you do?

1) Be vigilant about cleanliness. It may be obvious to wash your hands before you eat, after you use the toilet, after changing diapers, etc.  But, you  should also wash your hands before brushing teeth, after you blow your nose, and after coming in contact with anyone infected. Yes – go overboard (pun intended) in your scrubbing up.

2) HOW you wash your hands matters. Washing with soap and water is the BEST way to reduce microbes. Wash for 20 seconds… dry your hands… and make sure you use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and use door knob afterward.

**Many cruise ships have set up hand sanitizer dispensers around the ship for prevention – but do not slip into a false state of feeling protected. Hand sanitizer has to be at least 60% alcohol based to be effective (difficult to verify if the cruise ship is using that) AND is still doesn’t eliminate all germs like soap and water. It can reduce the number of microbes, so sanitizer doesn’ t hurt, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for washing with soap.

If you do choose to supplement with hand sanitizer, make sure you are using it properly for it to work – people often don’t use enough volume, or may wipe it off before it is completely dried. Be patient and let it dry.

3) Immediately wash any soiled clothes that could be contaminated, and if you have to handle them, wash your hands afterward.

4) If at all possible, avoid touching railings on the stairs, elevator buttons, door knobs. Wash hands immediately after if you do. Use your knuckles to press elevator buttons and have tissue handy for doorknobs.

The CDC is investigating the cruise outbreaks, and has a vessel sanitation program that evaluates the effectiveness of prevention and control strategies on board. Get this fun fact: the manual for cleaning these large cruise ships is 267 pages long! The sanitation crew has to disinfect every inch – including bedside Bibles.

Passengers who are affected, can request a copy of the CDC final report at FOIARequests@cdc.gov

All this being said – the number of cruise ship outbreaks is actually on a decline, even as more passengers choose to cruise.

 
Mar
27th
  Safety Questions re: Regional Airlines, & Pilot Health in Light of Germanwings Plane Crash

Don’t mean to be Debbie Downer on this gorgeous Friday… So I’m going to state the positive: In light of all the sensational plane crashes in the past year, let’s remember air travel just saw one of it’s safest years in 2014. (More fatalities, however, but fewer plane crashes all together. )

Yet I get that it is normal to understand these statistics, but still get nervous jumping on a plane. You have no control… more than likely don’t know what goes into flying a jet…and are literally putting your life in another person and company’s hands.

From airlineratings.com

From airlineratings.com

So this latest Germanwings crash can make us all a little uneasy, especially now that officials are saying the pilot deliberately crashed the plane. After 9/11, our main fear was an outside network sabotoging our flights. Now, a new worry – destruction from within.

Here  is what we should be concerned about:

1) How are pilots vetted for mental stability? As of now… they are tested annually or semi-annually…but they are supposed to self-report if they are ill or mentally not well. Reports now say the Germanwings pilot hid an illness from an employer. Good example of why few really self report: they risk being taken off the job.

What we need is more teamwork – diligence by co-workers and family members to report any signs of mental instability. Better psychological testing and background investigating on the mental health of potential pilots. Should the medical community, although held to strict privacy standards, somehow report when the patient could put other lives at risk? That  is a tricky, subjective slope.

Requiring more than one pilot in the cockpit is another good start to prevent the act of one unstable pilot  – the US requires it and as of  today, airlines worldwide are rushing to adopt this policy.

2) Regional airlines – What airline are you really flying?

Although Germanwings is owned by Lufthansa… There is not enough transparency in travel when you book on a regional airline. For instance your flight on American Airlines could have one leg of the trip on American Eagle, which could really be operated by Compass airlines – confusing? Compass Airlines is contracted by American… and doesn’t necessarily have to follow American’s training procedures, maintenance manual, etc. But because it will say “American Eagle” flight, one may assume it is part of the American family.

In fact, Compass is a regional airline, and recently we’ve seen some regional airlines come under scrutiny for pilot safety, after a 2009 crash in Buffalo NY on a Colgan flight (code share w/Continental.) The FAA then demanded more pilot training hours, but these regional airlines are pinched for cash and can’t pay pilots as much as other airlines. Now the pilots have to pay for more training too. So are these regionals getting the cream of the crop pilots for low salary and high training costs.. in the midst of a pilot shortage?

3)When flying foreign airlines, you have to know they don’t come under the same regulations as the US – It would take a lot of time researching each foreign airlines’ policies, but there is a place you can go to see how a foreign airline ranks in safety. Generally, Western Europe has ranked high in safety.

For airline safety ratings check here: www.airlineratings.com/airlines-ratings.php   And…here are airlines blackballed by the FAA and EU aviation authorities: www.1001crash.com/index-page-liste_noire-lg-2.html

And like I said – air travel is very safe looking at the statistics. However… there is always room for improvement. Hopefully, this terrible incident wont be in vein, but will propel airline regulators to re-examine all safety protocol, and find better technology or strategies to make the flying experience even safer.

 
Mar
23rd
  Ken Burns’s Favorite National Park & How You Can Get in Free!

Recently, I had the absolute privilege of sitting next to documentary maker Ken Burns at a dinner party.

You must know his work on PBS on a wide variety of important subjects from – “The Civil War,” to “Baseball,” to “The Roosevelts.” Needless to say, it was a fascinating dinner conversation with all the guests peppering him with questions, and him, with his encyclopedic memory, recanting tales and facts from his years of observing and listening on the job. He even recited the Gettysburg Address from start to finish. He certainly honors his subjects through the stories he tells on, and off the screen.

Yosemite

Yosemite

But it his six- episode documentary on our country’s  national parks (The National Parks: America’s Best Idea)  that prompted me to ask him my travel-related question: “Which national park is your favorite? ”

Without missing a beat Burns said “Yosemite.” And… I of course returned, in the same rapid fire speed, the question “Why Yosemite?” He answered in three words, “Because. It’s. Beautiful.”

What??! Not because of Half Dome’s lurking majesty? Or the delicate but plentiful bursts of color from Wawona Meadow’s wild flowers? Or the sheer trance-setting Bridalveil Fall?

Quick to ask (perhaps too quick, but still with the utmost respect) I said, “That’s it? Just because it’s beautiful?” I expected  a much more poetic answer from someone who has so much to say on so many topics..and who had spent a lot of time at the park and on the subject.

His effortless answer struck me..stayed with me.  It was almost as if he found Yosemite so awe-inspiring – all 750,000 acres of it – that the sheer magnitude of its beauty left even the most descriptive, expressive writer who can’t wait to tell the next story, somewhat speechless.

Sometimes a simple answer leaves just as big an impact. (Or perhaps he was just tired of answering my questions, LOL)

So on this note, I want you to see for yourself. Spring is a fantastic time to visit Yosemite, but there are some special things going on at the park all year long:

1) This October Yosemite will celebrate it’s 125th anniversary ! President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation making Yosemite our country’s third national park. There are all sorts of activities organized leading up to Oct – many for kids! -  so check here for how to best plan your trip: www.nps.gov/featurecontent/yose/anniversary/index94d6.html?doing_wp_cron=1425330117.6956789493560791015625

2) Every Kid in a Park: Starting this September if you have a fourth grade child, you and your family can get into any national park for free for a year. The idea is the Obama administration’s incentive to encourage children to get away from screens, and see our beautiful country. Fourth grade was chosen because someone felt this is the ideal age to expose kids to the great outdoors. This could be a nice savings for millions of families… as an annual pass costs around $80.

Spring has sprung! So much to see… and if you can’t make it to Yosemite, you might want to check out Ken Burn’s series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Just beautiful.

 
Feb
27th
  Don’t Lose Frequent Flyer Miles this Winter..Here’s a Little Known Secret
From WTDN

From WTDN

The past two winters have been brutal for flight cancellations and rerouting due to inclement weather. Yes, this costs the airlines money having to terminate flights – but it also costs passengers.

Don’t let it cost you in frequent flyer miles! For those of you who are mile mavens, keeping precise track of how many miles you earn and are already calculating to reach a new premier level, every little mile counts.

So if you’ve been rerouted this winter due to storms, make sure you check on how many miles the new route brings you. If it brings you LESS than  your original route, you are entitled to collect higher number of miles you originally booked.

Also – if you have been rerouted to another airline, you can call the original airline and collect from that airline – presuming it is the airline you fly frequently.

Sometimes you then get to double dip with the airline you actually fly, and the one with which you originally booked.

All of this, of course, ONLY if you get rerouted or rebooked involuntarily.

Yeah yeah I know. It can be a hassle to call the airlines and work it out, and frankly, may people just don’t do it. But trust me.. when you are booking your summer vacation flight to Orlando and are 120 miles short of getting a free ticket, you will appreciate having laid the groundwork.

Happy Travels!

 

 
Feb
10th
  The Nightlife Rage in Budapest: The Ruin Pub. (Where to get your Groove Back)

DSC02767What is this mom of three doing writing about some of the so-called hippest nightlife in the world?

Let’s just say after the daily carpooling, meal-making, & weekends on the soccer fields, I appreciate reigniting my mojo.  And adult nightlife doesn’t get much more creative than in Budapest, Hungary.

Specifically, in the ruin pubs.  The “ruin pub” is the hottest thing, emerging about 12 years ago & gradually becoming more popular.

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

Many are in the Jewish quarter of Budapest. A formerly run-down hood, buildings were deserted & the area impoverished after thousands of Jews were deported after World War II. Neglect continued through the years.

Inside a ruin pub - Budapest, Hungary

Inside a ruin pub – Budapest, Hungary

Until… the story goes.. some young men looking for cheap places to get a drink, took over an abandoned building, invited artists to spruce it up. People started coming for the unique ambiance and very cheap beverages. Some of these buildings look like they could be condemned, but the decay and grafitti have instead become part of the charm.

I went to the most famous ruin pub among a few others – the Szimplakert. It was the first one of its kind, and Lonely Planet has listed it as the third best bar in the WORLD, for whatever that’s worth – one person’s opinion… but I must say, I’ve never felt so alive as in some of these places. They are eye candy… mixed with a foreign avant garde vibe. I must not be alone because ruin pubs have spread in the hood.

Notorious Trabant car turned into dining seating at a ruin bar

Notorious Trabant car turned into dining seating at a ruin bar

Check out the cool design… an old Trabant car (iconic in Budapest) turned dining table….bikes hanging from the ceiling… a gnome on a swing..  This ruin pub also offers live music and film screenings.

DSC02759The entry is a long hall of eclectic rooms to stop and get a drink or just look…

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There is a second floor with a  great view of the courtyard.

Chair made from old tires at ruin pub

Chair made from old tires at ruin pub

.. and whimsical items like a chair made of tires. Everything that may have been rubbish has been turned into art or something functional .

Think thrift store meets German beer garden.

Granted… I quickly realized the place was filled with travelers/foreigners… locals have moved on to other, newer ruin pubs… but that certainly doesn’t spoil the ambiance. I still recommend it highly.  But ironically, now that the entire area is becoming gentrified because of the ruin bars, there is concern they may be harder to find. Here are some sources: Take a tour with underguide.com – Or check out ruinpubs.com

Nightlife in BudapestThat’s not the only vibrant nightlife scene in Budapest… Another night I visited different unique hang out – An outdoor mall of sorts with various bars and restaurants..

Nightlife in Budapest

…one even had a car show going on. And… Seriously, there is no shortage of people out after sunset on ANY summer night in Budapest.

So if a glass of wine for $3, along with a vibrant scene is your idea of exploring another country – check out the ruin pubs and other venues for a really fun time. Take it from this mom… who, like those ruin bars, transformed her M/O for a short, but really memorable time.