Thursday, January 14, 2016

Travel Trends for 2016

A new year is upon us. New years bring new beginnings and new opportunities.  Maybe you are one of those persons that like the newness of the new year.  Maybe you like to think about doing things you have never done or seeing places you have never seen.  Well the travel industry is well equipped this year to offer everyone something new and exciting.  Here are some examples of what is hot for 2016.

1) Cuba.  This destination has been making the news now for quite some time but it is still very misunderstood.  It is not "open" to tourism as some headlines make you think.  But it is accessible through the right tourism channels.  Now is the time to investigate those channels before it does become more open and more hotels and resorts descend upon the pristine beaches staking their claim for the future.

2) The "other side of Mexico."  Major hotels and luxury resorts are seeing the potential in places like Cabo San Lucas and Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa.  These are still destinations where you can escape the larger crowds that flock to the Caribbean side of Mexico.  Hotels to consider are the new The Cape in Cabo and Capella in Ixtapa.  Enjoy some of the most gorgeous sunsets and beautiful beaches found anywhere in the world.

3) Experiential Travel.  More and more travelers are weary of the same old same old when it comes to vacationing.  Sitting on a beach with an umbrella drink was fun the first 5 or so times, but thanks to social media, more travelers are seeing that there are exciting experiences awaiting them out in the big old world.  So travelers are now looking for their vacations to be one of a kind experiences that they can brag about to their friends via sites such as Instagram, Snapchat etc.  This makes destinations such as Costa Rica or Guatemala places that are seeing increases in tourism.

4) Year of the Dragon.  I am using that phrase generically to show that so many areas of Asia are on the radar now for 2016.  When large luxury hoteliers such as St Regis or the Four Seasons start building new properties in areas, you know that they are seeing trends that are making these destinations the next hot area.  Such is the case with Japan, China and Korea.  If you have been to Hawaii, you are already half way there.

5) River Cruising.  No longer are river cruises for those that carry certain cards to get certain benefits because of their birth dates falling before a certain year.  Get what I mean? Tour companies such as Tauck and Disney are seeing that river cruising is for all age groups within a family.  It is one of those vacations where grandma, grandpa, mom, dad and son and daughter can all go together and have something enjoyable to see and do during the vacation. This means that staterooms, menus and activities are all being designed to cater to all ages and families are seeing this as a great opportunity for the whole group to get together for a once in a lifetime vacation.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Giving Winter the Slip

One of my favorite songs that I love to listen to in the winter is "Under the Sun" by Michael Franks.  One of my favorite lines in the lyrics of that song is when he says "Snow in my shoes, mid-winter blues, have got me down, just point me south lets go now, the clothes on back are too Pasternak, from soul to crown, where in the hell's the snow plow? Down 95 we'll come alive, and by the time we get somewhere near Savannah, give winter the slip, it's well worth the trip..."  Don't we all want to give winter the slip after a few days in the 20 or 30 degree temp range?  Palm trees, sand and sun start to call our name.

Well the problem comes in when people come to us, as their trusted travel professionals, and say they are ready to give winter the slip but they prefer to be able to drive to that sunny and warm destination. Or they are willing to leave the Country, but only on a short cruise or a short flight to the Bahamas.  Trust us when we say that driving as far south as the Keys or even planning a trip to the Bahamas in January or February will NOT guarantee that you will be giving winter the slip.

I have personally traveled to Florida (by car) and have cruised to the Bahamas twice in December and January and at least 3 trips were met with cool to cold temperatures.  There is nothing more disappointing than stepping out on the white sands of the Bahamas in a hoodie.  Nobody wants to be packing a hoodie for their winter escape.

So where are some places that you can travel to in the winter where you will be truly giving winter the slip and leaving your hoodies and warm socks back at home?  Here are our top 5 based on flight distance from the USA or cruise length.

  1. Cancun, Mexico.  Even if you get down there and the temps are in the low 80's, no hoodie required.  You will be met with white sand beaches, blue Caribbean water, friendly people and a warm sun. 
  2. San Juan Puerto Rico.  Flight times are good from most major airports, easy immigration process for US citizens, and plenty of warmth, sun, and sand.  And, it is a destination rich in culture.  
  3. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  Some are thinking...where did you say?  This awesome destination is on the Pacific side of Mexico and offers a true winter escape and is a nice change in scenery for those who have been to Cancun more than once. 
  4. Turks and Caicos.  If you look on the map you will see that T&Cs are closer than most other Caribbean destinations from Miami International Airport.  If you have not visited this destination yet, it needs to be on your radar before it becomes even more popular and more crowded. 
  5. 5 night Caribbean Cruise.  Royal Caribbean offers 5 night options from Tampa as well as Port Everglades (Ft Lauderdale).  The 5 night cruises will usually take you as far south as Cozumel (short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen and Cancun).  4 night cruises can't get that far south usually unless they sail from Galveston TX and we have our reasons why we are not recommending those cruises.  Trust us.
So there you have it.  Our top five pics for giving winter the slip without the fear of winter sneaking into your checked luggage. And all of these are not going to require an all-day travel experience to get there.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

I Left My Heart in Savannah

I know, that is not the right lyric but if you have ever visited Savannah GA, you will know what I mean.  I completely understand why writers use it as a back drop for their novels.  I know now why photographers flock to its squares.  I am fully aware now why food shows shoot episode after episode there.  I understand 100%.  And I also understand why it is a city where romance blossoms.

It is everything a traveler could want out of a destination.  It is steeped in so many centuries of history.  Pirate stories, revolutionary and civil war stories make Savannah a historian's paradise.  You see its history around every corner and on every step that you take down one of its cobblestoned streets.

I could go on and on but what I want to do is give you an idea of how to spend a weekend in this southern gem.

First...try to stay somewhere along Bull Street.  The Mansion on Forsyth Park offers a very unique experience with a very eclectic design in the main hotel building which is juxtaposed against the historic mansion adjacent which houses the hotel's main restaurant and lounge.  Or you can choose to stay at he Hilton Savannah DeSoto which is also located on one of the historic squares, but closer to the main downtown area of Savannah.  Or maybe you prefer smaller, boutique hotels.  If that is the case, try a few nights at the Eliza Thompson House which too is situated right on one of the 6 parks/squares that are along Bull Street.

Once you are situated in your hotel, get out and walk.  Don't take a shuttle, don't call a cab...walk.  Walking is by far the best way to enjoy Savannah over a weekend. Walking allows you to stop and savor what you are really seeing with your own eyes.  And make sure your phone/camera has plenty of storage space.  You will want to snap a pic of literally everything you are seeing.  So as you are walking, you will notice the small, local pubs and bistros that go from Forsyth Park all the way down to Bay Street.  Pick one and enjoy an awesome dinner.  One with a fun atmosphere for your first night would be the Six Pence Pub.  Try the shrimp and corn chowder (if available) or the crab cakes.  And get yourself a pint.  Its an English Pub for Pete's sake.   Finish the night with a historic tour via a horse carriage and take in the romance of a southern night.

The next morning, wake up and head down to the "Arts Cafe" which is affiliated with the Savannah College of Art and Design.  A piece of Savannah History resides inside.  It was such a refreshing alternative to a heavy, southern-fried breakfast.  Healthy eating and the south can go together and they do well at the Arts.  You can't miss it.  Just look for the big red bus inside and ask about it while you are there.

Now that you did not have a heavy, painful breakfast, enjoy some more walking around and take in some of the many boutique decor and clothing shops along Bull Street and within two blocks on either side of Bull Street such as One Fish, Two Fish or Folklorico.  After you have shopped and explored...take a break at the Crystal Beer Parlor and act like a local because this is a local's watering hole.  Take time to read the menu on the outside of the building and you will appreciate what you are about to step into.

Then...go back to your hotel and take a breather and prepare yourself for one of the most confusing, yet pleasurable dining experiences of your life.  You might want a shuttle or pedicab ride to get to this next dining experience since it is down on Bay Street.  And please don't confuse this place with some of the other more touristy options down in that area of town.  Bay Street is where you can find all of the souvenir shops and other tourist-oriented activities,  but surely you can see that this itinerary is leaning heavily towards the local scene in Savannah.  And the Treylor Park is nowhere (currently) on the tourist's radar.  As we sat and ate our PB&J chicken wing appetizer, we noticed it was filled with the younger, local demographic and yes...I said PB&J chicken wings.  Just go with it.  Hope you get there thirsty because the beer and bar menu is something you need to venture into.  Then load up with the chicken pancake tacos.  Yep, you heard me correctly again.  That is fried chicken strips inside a savory pancake topped with some form of strawberry concoction that made me want to reenact the scene from When Harry Met Sally.  So go and enjoy my friends.  You will want to tell everyone about the transcendent food experience you just had and they won't get it until they too head to Savannah to hitch up at the Treylor Park.

So after your brain catches up with your stomach,  enjoy a leisurely stroll back up Bull Street and make a stop at The Public Kitchen and Bar and have their mixologists whip you up something real nice and again enjoy feeling a part of the neighborhood. you have come to the last morning.  I say head to 700 Drayton which is inside the mansion section of the Mansion on Forsyth Park Hotel.  Their omelet and pancakes were incredible.  Service was a tad slow but we had to remind ourselves that we were in the south and southerners tend relax more and enjoy life so sit back, take in the ambience of the restaurant, sip your coffee and let Savannah take your heart one last time (like it did mine) before heading back home.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The "Best Airfare" Conundrum

Some of you remember back in the day when flying was a gigantic luxury.  The cost of airfare kept most American families out of the air and stuck to vacations within driving distance.  Then, as the economy changed, flying became more and more of a feasible way to get you from point A to B.  Because of that, slowly but surely flying became an ordinary thing for travelers and now it is something that everyone treats as a commodity on the open market.  "How cheap can I get it?"  That is now the standard measuring stick someone uses when looking to fly.

Article after article are being written about how you can attempt to get the cheapest price out there.  Some will tell you to make sure you buy on a Tuesday or a Thursday or try logging on a different computer in case the airline knows you were looking at that flight previously.  Some will tell you to fly on certain days in order to get a better fare (I will come back to flying on certain days in a minute).  And other "experts" will try to tell you to wait 60 days to buy before your trip or some other amount of time before you are wanting to fly.

But here is something that is very important when it comes to waiting or looking for cheaper airfare etc.; what if the flight you really wanted is sold out after you waited to see if airfare is getting any cheaper?  What if you really wanted to leave on a Thursday, but those flights are gone and now you are leaving on a Friday? What if your 6 night vacation just got shortened to a 5 night vacation because seats sold out?

The "how to get cheap airfare" articles never ever address the issue of sold out flights.  They also never address the issue of double connections or terrible layovers.

The majority of the traveling public will not want sit in an airport for 6 hours because that long layover saved the person $30.   The majority of our clients do not want to leave at 5am and arrive at their destination at 9pm because they left one airport, flew to another with a 3 hour layover, flew to another one with a 3 hour layover and then finally on to their destination.  But that all day-double connecting flight may have been the cheapest by $30-$40 each way.  Is the extra $60 to $80 worth it if you have to spend $20 to $40 for airport food because you traveled all day and on flights where there was no food service?  Is that extra savings worth the chance that your luggage may get lost between points A to D? We professionals say no it is not. We say there are more factors at play when deciding on what airline to fly and how much the ticket is going to cost.

So when looking at airfare, here are the criteria WE use for our clients when it comes to the air portion of their vacation:

1)  How early can we get you to your destination?  Our theory is to get you relaxed in a pool chair or hammock as quickly as possible.  Early morning departures with single connections and shorter layovers usually accomplish just that.  Early departures also allow for mishaps such as weather delays, mechanical issues etc.  If you are taking the last flight out because it is the cheapest, you have no room for mishaps and may end up spending the night in the airport.

2) How long is the layover?  We prefer an hour to 2 hours.  Anything shorter has the traveler at risk of missing a connection.  Anything longer than 2 hours is overkill and not preferable.

3) Where is the connecting city?  If you are flying in the winter, connecting in Dallas may be better than connecting in Chicago or Detroit.  If you are flying internationally, we know which airports have the better customs set-up and which ones do not.  Miami is horrific (generally) when it comes to getting through customs.  Dallas on the other hand seems to have theirs more organized and streamlined.  So connecting cities matter.

4) Are you flexible when it comes to schedule?  I mentioned above that I would come back to this. Flying on a Tuesday or Thursday may be preferable simply because the airports tend to be less crowded.  Forget the idea that it might be cheaper to fly on certain days.  I like to fly on certain days for the sake of possible shorter security lines and check in lines.  Sundays, Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays tend to be more crowded due to business and leisure travel. So regardless of being cheaper or not, days of the week can make for a better overall travel experience.

5) Do you have a frequent flier account?  United may be $50 cheaper than American, but you may have a frequent flier account with American and this next trip may give you enough miles for a free airline ticket on your next vacation.  So spending that extra $50 may end up saving you $500.

So again...none of the above is ever discussed in the "How to get cheap airfare" articles.  No one walks into a clothing store and says, "I want the cheapest pair of pants you have.  I don't care about how they fit, what they look like etc.  I just want the cheapest."  Yet so many treat their travel plans this way, especially when it comes to airfare.

So there you have it.  You now have our airfare advice and we didn't have to write some complicated computer program to help you figure it all out.

Friday, October 16, 2015

So You Want To Be A Rock Star?

Whether you are already a rock star, an aspiring rock star or just want to see how a rock star lives for the day, we have the perfect idea for you.  Pack your bags and let us send you to Universal Orlando Resort.  They know how to turn ordinary folks (like you and me) into VIP's.

You can become the most important person(s) in their two theme parks once you arrange for their VIP Tour Experience.

Be the envy of everyone as your personal tour guide escorts you to the front of the line of your favorite attractions.  Smile as people wonder who you are when your guide takes you into areas usually only reserved for Universal personnel.  Look good for the cameras as other guests assume you are someone famous because you are being seen in areas of some attractions that others had no idea they could access.

The knowledge of each tour guide is amazing. They spend hours training to qualify for the exam that gives them the honor of becoming a VIP tour guide.  They can help you maximize points on rides such as Men in Black by telling you exactly where to aim.  They can show you where certain cameos of famous people appear on rides such as The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman.  In addition, you will get to eat in some of Universal's top dining spots and all arranged in advance.

And for the ultimate rock star experience, plan a stay at the Hard Rock Hotel which is just steps away from the entrance to the parks. Book the King or Graceland suite and upgrade to "Rock Royalty" for the ultimate in rock star luxury.  Enjoy all the perks that a VIP should such as a concierge service, access to their exclusive rock royalty lounge, discounts on pool cabanas etc.

I can tell you from personal experience, once you enjoy the perks of their VIP tour experience, you will never want to plan another theme park trip without it.  Couple it with a suite at the Hard Rock and you may never go home.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

More Than Quoting and Booking

Unfortunately the internet has made so many people think that all there is to certain professions is quoting and booking.  Insurance, mortgages,  home renovations, photography and tons of other services have been effected by people thinking they can go find someone online and get them to simply quote what they want so they can choose between the cheapest option and then book that service.  No other industry has been more effected by this mentality than the travel industry.

But it is so much more than that. Relationships play a key role in travel. The time we spend traveling to various destinations and attending conferences, dinners and luncheons is not because we love food or just love being away from our families so much. It's not just for the purpose of touring and evaluating various resorts and hotels. It is for the relationships we build with the key personnel at those resorts and hotels or with our preferred tour operators and wholesalers.

The benefits of those relationships are passed down to our clients. Those little welcome amenities or those occasional free upgrades or those special dinners or excursions are all results of the time we spend getting to know the resort managers or concierge staff or our wholesaler's business development managers (BDM's as we refer to them). And when the occasional error is made because we are all human, it is our relationship again with key contacts that gets things corrected.

This is why we tell people, sure you can book it on your own through some online travel site, but you may never ever know what you are missing out on until you work with a professional who has become good friends with the key contacts at that resort that you chose.

Now you may think, well I will try to get to know the resort staff myself when I am there. Feel free to do so, but what the general public cannot do is be a resource of hundreds of possible new clients.  You may decide to vacation at that resort again, but travel professionals may send scores of new clients to that one resort...or they may not, depending on client experiences and relationships with that resort.

And this is where the HUMAN travel professional is different than the online travel agency, or OTA as they are called; it is impossible to build goodwill and trust with a computer. The persons behind the scenes at the online agencies are only interested in getting things as cheap as they can so they can convince their users to simply get a quote via them and click "book it." The resorts know that the online agencies are only interested in beating them down to get prices lower and lower. What do you think that does to the relationship between resort and OTA? Do you think that the OTA client is high on the resort's priority list when they check in?

This is why we no longer consider an OTA as our competition. We know that our relationships within our industry is what makes for an incredible vacation experience for our clients. We know vacation planning is more than quoting and booking. Want to learn more about how we are different than some online travel site? Click on this link and let us show you.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Best Onsite/Offsite Disney Property

Is it possible to even have an onsite/offsite property when it comes to Walt Disney World?  Well yes it is.  The Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World is that property.  It sits on Disney property and actually within a Disney residential development.  What makes it an offsite property is that it does not come with the standard onsite perks such as extra magic hours, 60 day in advance fast pass planning, the ability to make it a package with dining etc.   But who cares in this instance.  The property, its service, the rooms, the food and beverage quality trump the lack of other perks, in my opinion.

It is an amazing place and now puts some serious pressure on Disney to up their game when it comes to their deluxe properties.  What did I like so much about the Four Seasons you ask?  Well let me tell you.

First, the rooms are comfortable, spacious and decked out with what you expect at a luxury property; iPads, expresso makers, large LED televisions, gigantic bathrooms with double vanities and a tv in the mirror (yes a tv in the mirror I said), tons of storage, and a huge closet.   Those are just some of things that make the rooms a place you really want to just hang out in and those come with the standard rooms.  On top of what is inside the rooms, you can choose to have a park view room where you will have a view every night of the Wishes Fireworks Show over at the Magic Kingdom.  You can easily see Cinderella's Castle from our view which I enjoyed seeing every morning with my cup of coffee.

Second, the grounds are amazingly beautiful.  Everywhere you turn, you want to snap a photo and hurry and Instagram it and hashtag it #PrettiestPlaceEver.  But this is what you come to expect with a Four Seasons property.  We enjoyed just walking around and seeing how they integrated the property within the natural landscape which made it feel like it has been there a long time vs a property that literally just opened last year.

Third, activities are as abundant as you want them to be.  You can golf, play tennis, exercise in their state of the art gym, enjoy a spa day, launch yourself down their 3-story waterslide, float along in their lazy river, relax in their adults only oasis area, or sip a beverage while watching a movie pool-side at their family friendly pool. And that does not even touch on the activities just for kids.  If you hear someone say they are bored while they are at this property, run like the wind because something is drastically wrong with them.

Fourth and finally, it is the service that really makes this property the best onsite/offsite option.  From the time you pull up to the property, you are made to feel like a VIP.  Every staff member we encountered seemed thrilled to be there and greeted us with a smile and wished us a great stay.  We were there over the Labor Day weekend.  It was hot and the resort was at over 80% capacity, but we never felt like the staff was being overworked or pushed to their limit.  Service was as we expected.  There was only one time where things may have been a little slower than what some might like, but we have to remind ourselves that you are there because you are on vacation and not on your way to business meeting.  Relax, take a load off and enjoy and who cares if it took 10 mins to get your drink or food.  You are on vacation.

I usually try to find some negatives about a property and the only negative some may talk about is the price of food and beverage.  You need to go there understanding that things will not be the same as your local eateries in your hometown.  You will be paying "Four Seasons" prices for burgers, sandwiches, drinks etc.  The fun little coffee, ice-cream, pastry, grab and go, venue called "Lickety Split" was one of our favorites as was the lobby bar.  Both have food options that are less expensive than some of the other on-property restaurants.

But let's compare value to the other actual onsite Disney options.  When looking at pricing, you will find that the average rate per night for one of Disney's deluxe properties runs between $450 to $650 for the standard, garden view rooms.  Four Seasons nightly rates will run between $490 to $550 for their standard, golden oak view room (no park view).   So rates are very comparable.  So you then have to look at value and what you are getting for the rate.  This is where, to me, the Four Seasons stands above the deluxe onsite properties.  Rooms are a huge step up.  Service is as good if not better than what we have received during our onsite, deluxe stays.   It feels far less crowded and is a respite when coming back from one of the theme parks.  It is a destination itself with everything it has to offer for families and adults without kids.

You do get free shuttle to the 4 parks and you are shuttled there in a Four Seasons comfortable motor coach for those that may wonder how you can get to the theme parks.  And the shuttle schedule is much better than any other offsite option.  It literally runs every 30 mins to and from the Magic Kingdom.  So again, to me, the pros outweigh the cons when considering a deluxe Disney resort vs a stay at the Four Seasons.

So the new Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World gets an thumbs up from me and it is a place that I cannot wait to return to.  So...looking for luxury in the heart of theme park heaven?  The Four Seasons now allows you to visit the "happiest place on earth" without sacrificing some of the extra touches you come to expect from a 4-5 star luxury resort.  Have you been already?  If you agree with my assessment or do you have a differing opinion.  Would love to hear your thoughts, especially from those diehard Disney fans out there that feel you HAVE to stay onsite.