Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Flying during the holidays: How to dodge disaster

Flying during the holidays? The airports are going to be packed, flights jammed, luggage systems overloaded.

We know this because long before the holidays approached, the airlines hit record highs for lost luggage (1.68 million bags were mishandled between May and August, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, though that improved slightly in September) and record numbers of passengers (72.2 million on U.S. carriers in July alone.) Though on-time performance was much better in September than during last winter's storms, we all know that one good weather system can bring the air travel system to a halt.

Sounds grim. But don't cancel your reservations: How else are you going to get to Grandma's? Instead, follow our tips:

  • Get to the airport early. If you miss your flight for any reason, your chances of getting on the next one during the holiday crush aren't good.

    TSA's local spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, says the average time to clear security at Miami International is 20-25 minutes (though I got caught a few weeks ago in lines that stretched to 37 minutes.)

    Times can vary; check with your airline. Spirit Airlines -- plagued earlier this year by monster back-ups -- advises allowing a total of three hours for security and other processes at Fort Lauderdale.

  • Catch a ride. Airport parking is never cheap, rarely easy. Get a friend to drop you off if possible. If not, try to prebook your taxi. Local taxi companies often won't allow you to prebook, but individual drivers sometimes will.

  • Tire easily? Request assistance in advance. Distances between gates and luggage carousels can seem like miles.

  • Check in online and print your boarding pass before you go the airport. (In most cases, you can do this 24 hours in advance.) This will speed up the process at the airport.

  • Can't print out your boarding pass? Use the self-service kiosk at the airport.


  • Before leaving home, explain security procedures to children. You don't want one sobbing because his or her fave teddy had to go through the X-ray machine.

  • Snacks and more: So, let's assume you're going to be hanging at the airport for a while. Bring toys for kids and snacks for everyone in your crew. (You never know what the food situation will be, and airlines won't feed you anymore.) Don't bring bottled or boxed drinks of more than 3 ounces.

  • Cell phone: Have it charged and handy. Be sure you've got the phone numbers of the people who will be meeting you and your airline. If your flight is delayed, call the airline ASAP...this is often faster than standing in an airport line.

  • Credit card: If you're delayed by bad weather -- and often, even if you aren't -- the airline isn't going to help you with lodging or food. So you'll want to grab your cell phone, call for a hotel room at the airport before everyone else does, and have a card to pay for it.


  • Try to cram your stuff into a carry-on bag. If it's with you, it isn't going to get lost. You're allowed to take one carry-on size bag -- typically 22 inches x 18 inches x 10 inches -- plus a personal item (laptop, briefcase or purse) when traveling within and from the U.S. (Traveling within Britiain? They have different rules...one bag only.)

    Can't quite manage? Travel expert Peter Greenberg suggests Fed-Exing bags ahead. This can get pricey -- and it means you have to pack those items in advance. But if your company has a good Fed Ex contract, you might be able to send a box for as little at $30.

  • Remember 3-1-1. If you are flying with carry-on luggage, all liquids, gels and aerosols must be in containers 3 ounces or less, in a one-quart clear plastic zip-top bag. (You will need to pull this out of your bag and put it in a bin for security, so keep it in an outside pouch.)

    If you've got breast milk or medications that exceed the 3-ounce limit, don't panic, says Koshetz of the TSA. Pull it out of your bag and declare it to the screener.

  • Don't wrap any gifts, in case screeners need to examine the item.

  • No no no! Sharp objects (except scissors less than 4 inches) such as knives and box cutters are not allowed in carry-on bags. Same goes for baseball bats and many other sporting items, guns, most tools, flammable items. For the full list of what is and isn't allowed, see the TSA website.


  • Have your ID handy. When you hit the security line, you're going to be asked twice for your ID and boarding pass: Once by an airline employee, another time by a TSA employee.

  • Wear easy-to-shed clothing. When you get to the checkpoint, you will need to place your shoes, sweaters, jackets and belts into a bin. This will go faster if you wear easily removed shoes and trousers that don't require a belt. (The process speeds up if you start shedding as you approach the X-ray machine instead of waiting until you arrive.)

  • Be sure you've moved everything out of your pockets and into your carry-on bags before you hit the X-ray machine.

  • Keep your laptop handy. It -- along with video cameras -- will need to come out of your luggage and into it's own bin for the X-ray check.


  • Tag the bag: Be sure your bag has a label with your name, address and cell number securely attached. Put another label INSIDE YOUR BAG.

  • Keep valuables in your carry-on bags. No jewelry or meds should go in the checked bags. This includes undeveloped film, which can be damaged by screening equipment used for checked luggage.

  • Be prepared for problems. In practical terms, this means keep a toothbrush, toothpaste and extra undies handy.

  • Cross pack. Travel expert Tom Parsons of Best Fares advises putting one of your outfits in your companion's bag and vice versa.

  • Report losses immediately. If your bag does get lost, you have to stand on the queue at your airline's luggage desk and report the problem immediately. Otherwise, you have no tracking documents.


    PHOTO: Courtesy of Hefty OneZip Products.
  • Friday, November 9, 2007

    Going with the Gang: On the ground

    You've got the time, the place, the budget. But that doesn't mean you're all got the same agenda.

    It's unrealistic to expect the group to spend all its time together. (And doing so is probably a set-up for strained relations, either during the trip or thereafter.)

    The trick: balancing individual time with group time ... and being clear up front which is which.

    The answer: A loose itinerary. Set it up before you go, keeping these thoughts in mind.


    • Dinner is a natural. But unless you're on a cruise ship, you've got to set a time and place. And if your group is larger than 4, reservations often are essential. (On cruise ships with "alternative restaurants,'' you'll need reservations as well.)

      On our first "siblings'' reunion in Las Vegas, we ended up wandering around the oversized hotel trying to find a place that would take our group of eight on a Saturday night.

      The next time around, we got smarter. A sister who knows Santa Fe well made dinner reservations for each evening. Her selections were terrific, and removed the strain of group haggling.

    • Consider other important touchstones, like a private tour of a famous museum or a fishing trip. Poll the attendees in advance -- and get credit card numbers -- from all who sign up.


      Don't assume people will know how to fill their "off'' hours. You need to help them.

    • Local musts. Write up a brief overview of the destination's attractions (or ask someone else in the group to do so.) Include relavant websites and names of guidebooks, so it's not all up to you.

    • Visiting multiple locations, like cruise ports? Assign one port to each couple, making them responsible for finding good websites and bringing a guidebook for their port.


      Set a ground rule: It's OK to go off on your own, even at a reunion. Make it a ground rule from the start, and you'll avoid hurt feelings when Suzy and Ana go shopping while Cindy says by the pool.


    Make up a cheat sheet with cell numbers, room or cabin numbers and any other contact information for the group. And remind everyone to keep their phones turned on.


  • Set up an itinerary in advance.
  • Schedule in only dinners and major mile stones; leave the rest of the time open.
  • Ask someone familiar with the destination to pick the dinner restaurants and make reservations.
  • Going to multiple locations? Divvy them up.


    Bring extra copies of the itinerary, plus a guidebook and printouts of the most important web pages. Not even professional travel journalists remember to bring these with them.


    PHOTO: Wooldridge siblings at a recent reunion.
  • Thursday, November 1, 2007

    Going with the Gang: Deciding when and where

    You don’t need a marketing study to know that one of the hottest travel trends of the last few years is vacationing with friends and family. Traveling together builds bonds and memories and offers a concentrated “time out’’ from an insanely busy world.

    With weddings, guests have it easy. The bride and groom set the agenda; the only negotiating is between them (and possibly, their parents.) As a guest, you need only attend – or not.

    But putting other trips together can be like herding cats. Add in the family emotions that sometimes lurk beneath the surface (“Mother always loved you best’’) and your hug fest can turn ugly.

    Borrowing from personal experience (I’ve arranged trips for family, friends, couples and yes, even business conferences) and those of others I know, here’s a cheat sheet on planning a group trip. It might not seem like the quick-and-easy way to do this, but it’s the best we’ve found. (See time-saver tips below. And if you’ve got better ideas, or experiences to share, just Click to Comment below. You don’t have to register.)

    • Choose a group leader. Yes, you need one. This is the person who gets things rolling and keeps the plan moving. But -- you don’t want the kind of leader who takes over entirely and plans the trip only he/she wants.

      (Having that problem? Direct your group leader to this posting and make up some excuse about seeing some other tip.)

      One solution: If it’s a similar-regular event, like a family reunion, rotate planning responsibilities. This keeps one person from taking over – and shares the hassles.

      One immutable rule: The group leader must be discreet. If Susie insists she isn’t coming if Anna comes, that’s Susie’s business. The leader absolutely positively shouldn’t share this with others.
    • Be clear about the group leader’s role. Who wants to be a babysitter? A smart group leader states at the beginning, “My job is to facilitate getting us all on the same page. I am not responsible for booking your arrangements or taking care of your personal problems once we’re on the trip.’’

    • Ask, "Why are you doing this?" Sounds obvious. But as my colleague Marjie Lambert learned, not everyone is signing up with the same goal in mind.

      So ask yourself (and members of the gang):

      • Is the trip mostly about reconnecting? If so, make that clear. Politely remind people that while you’d like the location to be comfortable for everyone, that’s secondary. (It helps put the gang in a give-and-take frame of mind.)
      • Or is the point to visit a particular place? Sure, you’d like to see it with people you like. But if you’re going to this place with or without them, then don’t expect everyone on your list to go. Some people won’t have the time, money, interest.

    • Decide on the group. If you’re footing the bill, it’s nobody else’s business who’s on the list -- and I’m not 100 percent sure it’s their business even if it’s a Dutch-treat invitation. Still, you can’t blame someone for wanting to know with whom they’ll spend the weekend/week …especially if it’s going to cost them money.

      (The exception to this is a wedding. The bride and groom’s wishes trump all, and you should not ask who else is coming before you decide to accept. But yes, it’s O.K. to politely inquire after you’ve RSVPed.)

      Unless everyone already knows who else is invited – say, all your old college suitemates -- the leader may, again, want to be discreet. Sometimes, if one person isn’t coming, the group may decide to add another person. You don’t want him/her feeling like a substitute.

    • Choose the date well in advance. For groups of more than 4 or 6, at least a year is recommended. (One of my three siblings is retired, and it’s still a nightmare getting us all to agree on a date!)

    • Agree on a budget. Even when you’re traveling with family, you might not really know what they can – or are willing – to afford. And there’s nothing worse that being in the “I can’t afford it’’ position.

      Here’s one strategy: The group leader sends out an e-mail with various options; everyone replies by secret ballot. (Yes, if you use e-mail, the group leader will know. Another case for discretion.) The options might range from “Here are three hotel prices. Which suits you best?” to “Here are three tours. Let me know if there are any you like best, and any you just aren’t interested in at all.”

    • Narrow locations. I’ve seen three approaches work.

      • The group leader picks. Everyone else comes – or doesn’t.
      • Everyone votes. The group leader solicits nominations by e-mail. He/she puts them out for discussion (see Time-Saver Tip, below) and, on a certain date, calls for binding vote.
      • Pull it out of a hat. A group of friends in Miami each put their top choice into a bowl, agreeing to all abide by the random-draw choice. The winner was Marrakesh. And yes, they came back friends.

  • Now, here’s a biggie: If someone turns you down, don’t take it personally.

      That’s stickier than it sounds. Earlier this year, I started planning for a Significant Birthday – an African Safari. I followed all the rules: started a year out, asked people what price range suited them most (since my picking up the tab is completely out of the question.)

      Pretty much everyone decided not to go, and I have to admit, I felt a bit hurt. After all, I’d only invited my closest friends; didn’t they understand that?

      Then another group of friends started planning a Baltic cruise, and I realized how my birthday guests felt.

      We love the people involved, like the idea of cruising the Baltic. And while we’ve tentatively signed up, we’re on the fence. Money and time are big factors – but so is the ship that’s been chosen.

      I knew in advance what ships were under consideration and tried gently to nudge in the preferred direction. (One ship was much smaller than the other, and that factor is important to us. Price was the same.) But I didn’t want to be churlish, and so I resisted the direct approach of “We’re most likely to go if Ship B is the choice.’’

      Of course, Ship A was chosen.

      If time and money allow, we’ll probably still go. And we’ll have a great time. Because anybody who goes on a trip with any other attitude shouldn’t go at all.


      Set up a wiki. (That’s a website that all the members of your group can easily access and post on.) This enables the group leader to put the itinerary in one place that everyone can reference. The group can make lists and assignments (who will bring what, which couple is researching which port).

      Best bet is Triphub , set up just for groups traveling together. It’s website offers a wealth of help and let’s travelers set up their own group page (for free, of course.)

      Other sites that let you easily set up a free wiki are Pbwiki, Wetpaint and Wikispaces.


    • Hotels.com and Orbitz both allow for group bookings.
    • Travelocity has a “meet me in…’’ tool that helps you plan a trip with a friend who lives in a different city. Look under “Last minute packages.’’
    • www.family-reunion.com. Not the most sophisticated site, but it has some useful tips.
    • Group Travel Directory is a listing of group travel suppliers. Though it is aimed at professionals, you may find some good ideas here.


    • Cruises. Tons of flexibility for all ages. (Word to the wise: Check shipboard activities; On some ships, older teens and young adults can find themselves bored.)
    • Rented house/condo (or a group of them). Beach, mountains, lakes and islands are all good choices; so are foreign destinations like Italy.
    • Theme park. There’s a reason these are so popular. (Even an anti theme-parker can have fun if they just give up the grouch.)
    • Urban scenes. Cities like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Portland and Las Vegas are good options if everyone in your group is mobile. Be sure you pick a place where you can get around easily via foot and public transport.
    • Festivals/events: Food fests, fringe theater and other arts festivals can be great – as long as everyone in the group shares a love of the activity.


    Before you opt for one person’s house or home turf. All kinds of power plays and resentments can come into play. (These reunions work only if the host/hostess is super-relaxed and everyone pitches in.)

    NEXT WEEK: Creating an itinerary.


    PHOTO: For a recent Wooldridge sibling reunion, we opted for Santa Fe ... mid-way between all our homes, with enough to do for a long weekend.
  • Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    Finding a New York hotel

    Anybody who has tried booking a hotel room in The City knows that the prices are killer.
    So it may pay to spend a little more time shopping around than you'd normally like to invest.

    I spent nearly an hour on this very task (though I crammed it in between meetings and phone calls.) I'm traveling at a slightly less-desireable time (in mid-week close to a holiday, when convention hotels aren't likely to be full), so I was able to find a half-dozen decent options for less than $200 per night. Just two days later, prices were typically $100 per night higher.

    Here's my strategy:

    • Check one of the Big Three online agencies: Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz.

    • Next, check Hotels.com.

      Note that in either case, you'll need to add about 20 percent to the "room price'' to estimate the full cost of a New York hotel room. (The actual cost won't be revealed to you until you get all the way through booking to the final purchase stage; the 20 percent is a shortcut to help you estimate.)

    • Review the reviews. Look at your top two or three choices, and check out traveler reviews of them. You'll find those reviews right on Hotels.com; you may also want to look at Trip Advisor. (Whichever you choose, take the reviews with a grain of salt. I'm suspect of both the most glowing and the most virulent; who knows who's actually posting these?)

    • Check direct. Once you've narrowed to your top choice, go to that hotel's website directly. The prices may be cheaper ... though in several cases I checked this morning, Hotels.com and Expedia generally had better pricing.


    Yes, of course, money matters. But you also want to consider:

    • Location. Convenience and safety matter. Happily, most of New York is now relatively safe. But any hotel that is a long subway ride from the area you most want to visit or that is a long walk to a subway station will cost you time. And if you end up in taxis because the weather is bad or the neighborhood feels unsafe, you'll spend more money as well.

    • Cancellation policies. Some sites allow you to cancel up to the day of arrival, some allow cancellation until the day before arrival, and some impose a penalty for any change at all. Typically, the hotel's own web site will have the most liberal policies.

    • Room quality. One of the unspoken realities is that when you book directly with a hotel, you may get a better room than when you book with a big agency. The companies involved usually say this isn't true, but travel experts agree that this often is the case.

    • Reliability. When you book directly with a hotel company, you KNOW they've got your reservation...as long as you get a confirmation in your e-mail. But even the biggest and best agencies often have to confirm reservations with the hotel via fax ... and faxes sometimes get lost, says Christopher Elliott, whose syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column appears around the country. That's why he gets so many letters from unhappy travelers who have arrived at a hotel with a confirmation from an online agency, only to find there's no room at the inn.

      The lesson: 24 hours after you book through an agency, call or e-mail the hotel directly to be sure they've got your reservation.


    Because I wasn't ecstatic about any of the hotels available in my price category, I kept hunting. Sidestep -- a metasearch service programmed to launch automatically when I start a hotel or airline search -- didn't offer up anything better. So I looked at several other sources: Quikbook, Lastminute, Hotwire and Travelzoo.

    At Travelzoo I saw a $199 rate at a Kimpton hotel on Park Avenue, just south of Grand Central Station. I've had good experiences with Kimpton before; these are boutique-style hotels but not overly trendy, and I know the company is reliable. What's more, Travelzoo doesn't do any booking itself...it just refered me to Kimpton's own site.

    I checked the cancellation policy: No penalty up to a day before I arrive. That gives me time to make a change if I find something I like better. (Hotwire sends out e-mails as you get closer to the date of travel that alert you to dropping hotel rates, and last-minute sites sometimes yield deals close to the travel date.)

    But I doubt I'll make a change. The price is fair, the location good, and the brand one I'm comfortable with. Sure, it took me an hour...but for me, in this case, it was worth it.


    If you've got a great travel agent, it may be worth a small booking fee to get him or her to book your hotel in a major city or in Europe. Miami agent Gabrielle Coneo of Corporate Leisure Specialists says travel agents can often get rooms in Europe more cheaply than the "Internet Only'' rates. You may save a $25-$50 travel agent booking fee on your first night of hotel.

    Thursday, October 18, 2007

    Why this blog

    I already have a blog...Travels with Jane, where you can follow me on the road and read my thoughts on wanderlust. Even catch info on some hot, just-announced travel deal.

    So why start a new blog? Because I love travel, but I hate planning it. Because I want a great vacation, but I don't have time to book it. Because I figure I'm not alone.

    For some people, the planning and dreaming are part of the holiday itself. For me, it's drudgery. It requires me to commit (something I hate to do.) And I guess I hate it because I know I'm going to get something wrong.

    This blog is dedicated to people like me...people with no time to plan a vacation, which means they really, really need one.

    Part of the problem: A good travel agent is hard to find, especially if your funds are something less than those of, say, Julia Roberts. Given the business realities of running a travel agency, most agents have to specialize...in cruises, Costa Rica, or pricey lodgings. And that leaves the rest of us out on the Internet...alone.

    So here's help. Each week I'll post a new column on some aspect of travel ... where to vacation if your kids are dying to ride horses, but you're not sure you want to spend the whole holiday in a saddle. How to set up a reunion without driving yourself and your friends / relatives completely nuts. How to create a romantic getaway that doesn't go awry (as so many do.)

    I hope you'll follow it and comment often, offering other travelers the benefits of your own experience, positive and not-so.

    Sign up for feeds by clicking on the "Feed'' link above, and you'll get an alert each time I post a new column.

    Here we go!