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.

  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.

  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.



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.

  Don’t Lose Frequent Flyer Miles this Winter..Here’s a Little Known Secret


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!


  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…


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.





  Yet Another Tragic Plane Crashes in Asia. Does it Make You Think “How Safe is my International Airline?”


Sheesh. The photo of that TransAsia plane clipping the roadway looks like a scene from a blockbuster action movie – unreal. Unfortunately, it WAS real, and sadly, people have lost their lives.

The world has seen an unprecedented number of plane crashes in that region of the world lately – most in SouthEast Asia. Many reports I’ve read point out this may not be coincidental, including this one from Bloomberg news http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-12-29/why-air-disasters-keep-happening-in-southeast-asia

The aviation industry in areas of Asia  has grown at such a rapid pace, and low-cost carriers have proliferated so quickly, that it may be putting a  strain on the quality and training of employees to fill all the jobs. That region also has crazy weather systems, for which pilot experience is important.

Also, according to Bloomberg, “the increase in flights seems to have also  taxed air traffic controllers, and mechanics operating in Indonesia. The country has become infamous for poor management of planes in the air and coming in for landings, and for lax enforcement of airlines’ need to maintain planes. Pay for air traffic controllers, mechanics, and regulators of the aviation industry remains low by regional standards, “and corruption is endemic at all levels of regulatory agencies in Indonesia.

So if we are visiting another region of the world, how do we know if we are booking a flight on a safe international airline? There are no guarantees, but doing your homework could land you a seat on an airline that has taken better safety precautions and has stronger regulation.

Here are some tips:

1) Try to fly an American airline that comes under the FAA regulations. Yes, the flight may be more expensive. But at least you know better what you are getting.

2) Check with a great resource: airlineratings.com. It lists all airlines, and gives them scores based on things like their air safety record and number of fatalities… and even if they fly all Russian planes. ( Russia’s aviation industry suffered with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)

Look at all the scores – and compare. Note though – it looks like many low-cost carriers are marked down two points because they don’t belong to a large industry group… You be the judge if that is a reason or not to fly.

3) Check which airlines are blacklisted by the FAA and the EU aviation authorities. List is here : http://www.1001crash.com/index-page-liste_noire-lg-2.html

To illustrate the point about the explosion of airlines in Indonesia, and the questionable safety, more than 40 airlines in Indonesia are on the blacklist.

Be safe. Travel far and well.


  Good Reminders of What to do if Your Flight is Cancelled due to Weather

From ausbt.com.au

Argh. Winter storms can wreak havoc on the best laid travel plans. But since flight delays & cancellations are out of your control, I know it’s hard, but try to accept it & move forward. Let’s talk about what you can do to try to make the situation more tolerable, & still keep your sanity if possible :)

1) When you book your flight, always sign up for mobile notifications from the airline sent to your phone. This is helpful in many ways – I was once at the airport when my flight was supposedly delayed for two hours… I went to a restaurant, & the status quickly changed – the flight was boarding in 30 minutes instead of 2 hours. Luckily, I got a text, otherwise I surely would have missed my flight while enjoying a glass of wine and a book at the cafe.

If your flight is cancelled, & you’ve signed up for mobile notifications, you could also receive a text that you’ve automatically been rebooked. That could even save you a trip to the airport if you find out soon enough. However – there are also problems with this. If you are traveling with family members or friends, you may not be rebooked on the same flight – so getting a notification in advance helps you to change the flights as soon as possible.

2) When you make your travel plans, it is a good idea to either use a travel app like Trip It to store all your travel info, or simply load it into your phone in notes. That way, all the important phone numbers – hotels, airlines, etc are at your finger tips once you hit the road or wait in the airport. You may not have WiFI when you need it to get this info. Or, some airports only give you 45 minutes or so of free WiFi, and you pay afterwards.

With those phone numbers, start working the phone when you find out your flight is delayed or cancelled. YES  – if you are at the airport also wait at the main airline desk to try and rebook your flight, but also work the phone. There will be long lines at the desk. Many travelers already  know about this trick, but there are more phone agents working than people working at the desk, so it will still be more efficient if there are long lines at the gate or desk.

Here’s the key: If the person on the phone rebooks you, ask him or her to send a link to a mobile boarding pass if possible. I have been rebooked on the phone, only to get to the gate and the gate agent says I do not show up in the system. So after all that, I could not board the plane I thought I so ingenuously rebooked. (Cue the sad trumbone.)

3) If you rebook yourself, thinking out of the box, and flexibility can reward you. Is there another airport nearby that is not affected by weather that you can fly into and then drive to your final destination? This is a good option if you have to be somewhere by a certain time.

4) In cases of cancellations due to weather, the airlines are not obligated to put you up overnight. There are some travel apps that can help you with finding a place to stay – I have used Hotel Tonight  – discount rooms at the last minute.

5) If you know of up coming storms, think about rebooking your flight in advance of your flight day. Many times airlines won’t charge a change fee.

Most importantly – hang in there. This too will pass.

  The Hotel that Inspired a Golden Globe Winning Film

I was so happy to see the film “Grand Budapest Hotel” win Best Picture Musical/Comedy last night at the Golden Globes!

I have seen it three times now, on flights I took last summer. Loved it every time – it is an eccentric but charming movie following a concierge at the height a grand dame hotel’s popularity during the period between World War I and World War II.  I’m no movie critic, but Ralph Fiennes is captivating – he brings to this role a freshness anyone can appreciate – very different from his roles in the “English Patient” or the “Harry Potter” series. And… there are some unexpected, fun cameos throughout.

Corinthia Budapest Hotel

Yes, there is a travel theme – thus, my enthusiasm. If you love being in hotels, that is the film’s backdrop. But there is allegedly some real life inspiration for this. Some have drawn parallels between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hey day and even architecture of an existing Budapest hotel, the Corinthia Budapest in Budapest, Hungary. Filmmaker Wes Anderson reportedly stayed there, and the similarities are striking.

Corinthia Budapest Hotel

The Corinthia Budapest has quite a history – opened in 1896, it survived wars and the Hungarian Revolution… In the upcoming months, I will have a story about that on Travel Detective on PBS member stations on a recurring segment “Hotels with a Past.”

By the way, if you can get to Budapest, I recommend it. It has has areas that are as lovely as other top European destinations, and is less expensive… with historic sights and a great nightlife atmosphere.

In the meantime, catch the film! In a surprise win over “Birdman”, it may have some Oscar traction….


  How to Find Meaning in the Wake of Devastating Events – Even While You Are Traveling

132 children. Killed.

I can’t even talk about it. This week’s news is so heart wrenching. I know many of you feel the same way. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a Pakistan school or in your own community, the loss of so many young, innocent life, so brutally, is painful.

It may ache to think of  this tragic incident. It may make us mad as heck to think about the cold-hearted act. But it won’t do any GOOD.

Instead, I would like to share something with you, that may do some GOOD when tragedy hits.

After another senseless attack just last month, I read something that resonated. A man reflected on his friend, Rabbi Kalman Levine, who was one of four killed while innocently praying in an Israeli synagogue. The friend said the rabbi would have advised this about finding meaning in his murder, or other tragedy:

“He would say when you observe this type of act, you need to increase the force of good in the world. Do something good you wouldn’t have done otherwise,” he said. “It’s the only way we’ll defeat the forces of evil.”

THIS is something we as individuals, who may feel helpless, can do. Try to make the world a better place with little moments.

I especially believe  this is important while we travel. We are giving everyone around the world an impression of Americans. Do they want to be our friends? Can we help make the world beyond our familiar borders a little less evil?

One meaningful, and adventurous way to make your trips meaningful and help is by voluntourism. It’s not only important to giving back, but how you help  can be a bridge between cultures… and intellectually interesting on a personal level.


Accommodations for Voluntourism on Mexican farm

Accommodations for Voluntourism on Mexican farm


I report on voluntourism opportunities for the tv show “Travel Detective” on PBS member stations.  Above is a family farm in Mexico where I  helped in a garden…and the accommodations for volunteers.

Reporting on Heritage Malta Voluntourism

Reporting on Heritage Malta Voluntourism

You’ll see some more of my stories in the upcoming season:  I’ve profiled some interesting ways to give back to another country, while seeing another part of the world. Above, I was working on an archaeological dig in Malta, preserving Roman baths. It was amazing.

You can do it too. No matter what your passion, there is surely a volunteer trip for you.

How about working on a winery in New Zealand? How about helping preserve an endangered species’ habitat? Many times no experience is necessary. But – many times you do have to pay for your place to stay or contribute in some way. It isn’t always – “help out and you will have a free vacation. “  But you would be paying for a hotel anyway , right? By the way, the accommodations aren’t always 4 or even 3 star, but are you going for the experience or to be pampered? If pampering is your answer, this is not your kind of trip.

Here are some resources to help you begin researching some ways to volunteer on vacation.




Around this time if year, when we try to find good in the world, it’s nice to think we CAN do something that impacts others in a positive way. As we are thinking ahead to New Year’s resolutions, this might be anactivity for you to consider.

And although I believe in being modest or even anonymous in one’s charity, this just may be a time when you want to take photos for friends back home to spread the word :) #payitforward


  Another Airline Charging for 1st Checked Bag – How to Save $$ On Baggage Fees
From blog.aztec247.com

From blog.aztec247.com

How many more airline fees can we fliers take? Just in time for the holidays, one of the only airlines to not charge for a first checked bag, announced that it is offering new classes of airfare – essentially eliminating the free checked bag with the discount airfare.

The airline – Jet Blue. Southwest now remains the only airline to not charge for the first checked bag.

The nation’s largest 15 airlines made $3.35 billion on baggage fees last year- With those kind of numbers, Jet Blue is calculating it to be a smart business move. Gas prices are down, so the airlines are poised to make even more money.

So how can we beat the airlines at their own game and save money? Travel smart and know before you go.

1) First way to avoid baggage fees: Consider getting an airline-aligned credit card that allows free checked bags. Even though the cards usually come with annual fees, if you travel & check bags frequently, the card pays for itself in saved baggage fees. Plus – you can earn other perks like extra miles, & free passes to the upper class lounges. Not to mention – your travel partners reap benefits too.

Here are some cards and baggage bonuses I researched  - but please double check before becoming a card holder!!

United Mileage Plus Explorer  - First bag checked free, & one companion on the reservation also gets a bag checked for free.  Upgrade to a United Club card & you & a companion get two bags checked for free.

Platinum Select American Airlines AAdvantage -first bag checked for free, plus FOUR people on the reservation get bags checked for free – big savings for a family.

Delta Gold Sky Miles -  Not only do you get one bag checked for free, so do up to NINE people on your reservation. Sounds great, but… I don’t really know anyone who books nine people on one reservation, but heck, if you do – that’s a $450 savings round trip at $25 a checked bag.

From Fedex.com

From Fedex.com

2) Second way to avoid baggage fees: Mail your bags in advance with a carrier service like Fed-Ex or UPS. The farther you plan in advance, the cheaper it is. Depending on how heavy the bag is & where you go will determine how much you save, (or not.) BUT – it is more convenient, and the airlines won’t lose your luggage.

compression bag3) Third way to avoid baggage fees: Pack light so you can fit everything in your carry on.  Vacuum storage bags make everything compact & give you more room  – I recommend them if you have a lot to pack with little room for it. Wear your bulky clothes on the plane, & put your toiletries in your personal purse/bag if possible, as long as liquid items are  less than 3.4 ounces.

4) If you have to check bags & pay a fee, make sure you know the rules of the airline, & any weight limitations. You can buy a small scale so you can weigh your bags before you get to the airport  – overweight bags get charged extra, so know before you go. Digital luggage scales can easily be found on Amazon.com.

Good luck!