We have added a new attraction to our best places to visit in Belgium. It is the Musee Herge, which honors the work of the creator of the famous TinTin adventures. The new museum is open to the public starting June 2, 2009 and is in beautiful building located in the “university town” of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, about thirty-kilometers southeast of Brussels. See our guide to the Best Places to Visit in Belgium for more details including a map showing the location of the new museum.
I apologize for the delay in posting this story. When I attempted to post it over a week ago, I found that our Wordpress installation was dysfunctional. It took several days to repair, but now we are back up and the blog is operating thanks to the help of our friends at HostMySite.com. The reference to dates in the text is off, but I think you will understand my message.
One of the saddest stories in the travel provider world surrounds the problems that Ambassadors International is having maintaining the Windstar line of ocean cruisers. Windstar is our favorite small-ship cruise line, as we like the ship-size, the itineraries and the type and level of service that Windstar provides. Although the cruises are not “cheap”, neither are they pretentious. You generally get great, though unobtrusive service and mix with a crowd of people small enough to make meaningful friends and life-long acquaintances.
A few years ago, Ambassadors, which then ran an travel-based event management company, purchased Windstar to accompany its venture of US river cruising called the Majestic Line (now defunct). Unfortunately, Ambassadors appears not to have had the wherewithal to manage a complex business and began shedding units to continue its operations. It now appears to be solely focused on Windstar.
Today, Travel Weekly posted an article that confirmed industry rumors - Ambassadors may need more cash to stay afloat, I guess that’s the industry phrasing for avoiding bankruptcy, which for many companies is a prelude to financial default and ceasing operations. A few weeks ago we saw another report that indicated that Ambassador’s accounting firm believed that the company was close to no longer being a “going concern”.
In turn, we have noticed that Windstar is really reducing fees for some of their current cruises and have a suggestion for you. If you are booked on a future Windstar cruise, be sure to purchase trip insurance that covers a company ceasing operations during your travels. Some travel insurance companies cover default but not bankruptcy. What you need to do is explain the situation to your agent and ask them to arrange coverage that will get you home if the cruise line is unable to operate due to financial problems.
Windstar provides a great vacation experience. We hope they make it.
With all apologies to the Comedian George Wallace (now appearing at the Flamingo in Las Vegas) , who has made the title line of this blog famous, I could not help but think of him when I read the results of survey conducted for Hewlett Packard by American Airlines. The survey found that among frequent business travelers having a dead notebook battery and no place to charge it was their most frequent travel-related complaint. (See the entire story at Internet News.) How about pilot fatigue, stressed airframes and an inefficient and potentially unsafe air travel control system?
Twenty-four percent of those surveyed, responded that access to a power socket was the most important technological amenity aboard an airplane. I still consider a flush-toilet that operates at 40,000 feet to be a fairly important technology, but that may be because my travel is mostly long distance. I found it amusing that, forty-seven percent of those surveyed felt that having Wi-Fi connectivity was the most important amenity at airline terminals, outscoring food by thirty percent in the ratings.
The reason that I find this amusing is that I am normally surrounded by more technology and connectivity than most. For some unexplained reason I have six computers (four desk tops, two notebooks, a SONY PlayStation III, a SONY PSP, three printers, numerous PDAs, a couple of PNDs and numerous other processor-based boxes all in my office. I’d like to be able to tell you that I share an office, but there is no truthful phrase that I could write that would lead you to believe that I am not the sole occupant of the space.
When I travel, I am loaded with gear. I carry a Blackberry, PND, PDA, notebook, camera, digital voice recorder and other electronic stuff that I am convinced I will need to cover the assignment. However, I rarely take this stuff out at the airport or on the plane. In fact, the airport and plane are usually the only places where I get to to think really deep thoughts when I travel. I guess I am among the group that flies in the cheap seats and doesn’t really have the room to do any work other than that which naturally occurs in the space between my ears.
Usually, after I arrive at the airport, I stop at the Kiosk or the Admiral’s Club and snap up a Wall Street Journal and the local newspaper to see what’s new around the world. After all, if I was in a hotel the night before, I spent most of my evening online doing email, sending reports and preparing for the next day. So, when I get to an airport, I want real amenities – not WiFi and not electrical plugs (though they do come in handy for recharging). So let’s keeps those news kiosks and the shops with the incredibly expensive and unreasonably bland food – for some reason I have developed an addiction to them – or maybe it’s just that MasterCard has convinced me that these opportunities are “Priceless”.
The following Travel Alert was issued by the U.S. Department of State on May 15, 2009:
The Department of State wishes to inform U.S. citizens traveling to and residing in Mexico that on May 15 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted its recommendation that American citizens avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico. As a result of the CDC’s decision, the State Department’s Travel Alert relating to the 2009-H1N1 influenza outbreak is no longer in effect.
The CDC continues to suggest precautions that travelers and U.S. citizens resident in Mexico (especially those at high risk for complications of influenza) should take to reduce their risk of infection while in Mexico; provides recommendations for those who must travel to an area where cases of 2009-H1N1 influenza have been reported; and recommends measures travelers should take following their return from an area that has reported cases of 2009-H1N1 influenza.
At ThereArePlaces, we report the offical stances to you, but suggest that you decide when you feel that travel is safe. While the Influenza A outbreak has not yet lived up to its potential severity, it is still early in the game. If you have travel plans in Mexico, check locally to determine the severity (or lack of it) at your destination.
Although Influenza A seems to have fallen off the world news chart, the outbreak is still growing, although at a slow speed. For an interesting look at the time series of the outbreak check out this map at the Who website (Flash player required).
Click on the “View the Interactive map” link and you will see the most recent influenza outbreak map. In the upper right hand corner is a button allowing you to see the number of cases and their spatial patterns by day back to April 26. If you are concerned about the influenza in a location for which you intend to travel, this is a good way to see what has and is happening there.
By the way, WHO does not recommend curtailling travel due to the Influenza A outbreak. For more information, see their website.
Recently, we saw a quote attributed to Louis Pasteur, the noted French scientist. In addition to inventing pasteurization, he is reputed to have said “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” As curious as this may seem, it reinforced for us the role our website ThereArePlaces plays for you.
All of us are busy (it seems as if we get busier every year) and often dislike having to spend time in advance to prepare for a vacation. After all, a vacation is a period when you do not have to work and can relax and enjoy life without the complications of your everyday job. On the other hand, since we have so little vacation time, Pasteur’s quote seems to make sense related to travel – Only by preparing can you know what to see, why it’s important and what attractions might be less interesting to you.
Traveling can be done in one of two ways. First, you could just make a decision to visit a country for the first time. You could, then pack your bags, arrive at your destination’s airport and? Hmmmm. Or, you could prepare for your travel by thinking about Pasteur’s quote and prepare your mind. The best way to prepare for what you will see during your travels is to do the homework before you go, by looking up the critical details at a website like ThereArePlaces, or buying a travel guide at your local bookstore.
Most people who buy travel guides, delay reading them until on the plane and most fall asleep before they get through more than a few pages (of course, maybe the “sleep-time” is worth the purchase price). Some try to read these giant tomes the night before they visit the attraction, but after a day’s touring and a big night out, few of us have the stamina to read an action packed travel guide.
As an alternative, we suggest you take a quick trip to ThereArePlaces before you go and then buy a guide if you really want to know more information than we present on a location.
Well, that’s one of the main reasons we created ThereArePlaces. We give you a concise review of the best places to visit in the countries, regions and cities that we cover. We provided additional detail when it is called for, a limited detail when it is not. We provide photos of leading attractions to let you “prepare your mind” and optimize your “observation” time. Finally, we provide detailed maps to help you find how to string attractions together into beads on a vacation-chain. Try us. We think you will like our approach.
Yesterday, we saw an article in the Hurriyet Daily News.com indicating that bootleg booze was causing a tourism problem in Turkey. Three young German students died last March in Kemer, Turkey as a result of consuming contaminated Vodka they had purchased at a local market. In turn, this news has caused quite a stir in Europe and bookings have dropped significantly compared to last year (although some of this may be caused by the problems with the world economy).
Turkey is taking action to try and make sure that this issue does not happen again and we wish them luck in their efforts.
Our recommendation: when traveling exercise vigilance, especially in countries where problems with contaminated drinks have been reported. If you ask for bottled water, check to make sure that the container looks intact, has not been re-used, and has information about the bottling company. If you are going to drink alcohol, asks for brands with which you are familiar and ask to see the bottle. If a server is reluctant to show you the bottle, cancel your order. House brands are more of a problem, since you will probably not recognize them. Our recommendation – stick with brands you know and inspect the bottle – or skip the drink.
Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity are well-known Online Travel Companies (OTCs) that have revolutionized the travel industry. These companies have created a new travel services purchasing environment by providing the consumer with greater access to reduced rate ticketing, based on their ability to apply the practices of yield management and harvest the unused inventories of airlines and hotels, as well as those of other travel services providers.
The profit of an OTC, in part, is based on the difference between the rate they are charged by the property owner and the rate that the consumer is charged for the service. In turn, the consumer purchases are also burdened with taxes and the taxes have now become a bone of contention between local municipalities and the OTCs. It appears that the OTCs have paid taxes based on the price they are charged for the room – not the price they charge you. Well, municipalities feel that they are shortchanged by the practice.
Of course, there is a class action lawsuit at the heart of this issue. Read this article from Fortune for more details. And when you read the article, you may conclude, at least based on the example provided, that consumers are paying the full, local tax, while the differential appears to be pocketed by the OTCs. Hmmmm. More lawsuits?
The World Health Organization has published a detailed map showing the geographic dispersion of the Swine Flu. It is likely that the map underestimates the actual spread of the new influenza due to unreliable reporting in many developing nations. The former Swine Flu in now being called Influenza A (H1N1), as it is caused fo the influenza “A” virus that swince can transmit to humans, although the virus is also found in birds.
Also of interest is the WHO Influenza website, which is updated daily and contains information about the flu that may be of interest to travelers. Finally, see this WHO link for information on what you can do to protect yourself from catching Influenza A (H1N1).
Today, we saw the results of a poll by the website TripAdvisor representing the sentiments of their members on travel in Europe. (We have attached links to each city mentioned here in case you want to take a look at our recommendations on these destinations.)
According to the 2,376 people surveyed, London is the most expensive, has the worst-dressed citizens and is the dirtiest city in Europe. The headline of the article claimed that London had the worst cuisine in Europe, but in the poll it was voted second behind Paris (by one percentage point), and ahead of Rome (by four percentage points). How London could be the worst, when it was not voted the worst seems like editorial malpractice. Somewhat curiously, in a poll by TripAdvisor held on March 13, 2008, London was voted as the best European city to visit, although it was cited as being the most expensive and the dirtiestParis was evaluated as overrated and expensive.
Apparently there is a silver lining to every dark cloud as the voters loved London for its numerous free attractions (most of its major museums for instance), while Paris was cited for having the best food and best-dressed people. Dublin fared well as a friendly place, as did Amsterdam and Prague (the best bargain). Copenhagen was voted as Europe’s cleanest city. Barcelona was rated as having the best architecture, while Warsaw was rated as having the ugliest.
We don’t know about you, but if we had the chance to hop on a flight today for any of these cities, we would happily do so. In large part, the quality of your travel experience depends on your doing the research to find the place that is right for you. If you do not like art, fashion, history and great food, or the French, you will hate Paris. Most of us find it a joy to visit the City of Light and would recommend it to others. London, too, is a fantastic place to visit and we have never had a bad time while exploring the complex entity that is London. We have found that street food in London is greasy and poorly prepared. However, if you are willing to pay the price, London has some of the best restaurants in Europe.
One final observation – we tend to fill out review forms when we have had a bad experience. If the restuarant’s service was poor, we let them know. If the flight was delayed and the service was cruddy, we let them know. Conversely, when things go well we also let them know, but would likely not fill out a form to tell that that our experience was just as it should have been. In other words, we take polls for what they are worth – very little. But, they do make life interesting. As does travel.
Pasted below is the data from the TripAdvisor Poll, in case you do not want to read the release.
Attractions: 1. London (35%) 2. Rome (9%) 3. Barcelona (9%)
Most Over-Rated: 1. Paris (25%) 2. London (12%) 3. Dublin (6%)
Most Under-Rated: 1. Krakow (7%) 2. Bruges (6%) 3. Edinburgh (5%)
Locals: 1. Dublin (15%) 2. Amsterdam (14%) 3. Edinburgh (8%)
Least Friendly: 1. Paris (36%) 2. London (17%) 3. Moscow (6%)
Most Boring: 1. Brussels (14%) 2. Zurich (9%) 3. Dublin (6%)
Traps: 1. London (30%) 2. Paris (15%) 3. Rome (10%)
Most Romantic: 1. Venice (29%) 2. Paris (21%) 3. Rome (11%)
Most Expensive: 1. London (23%) 2. Paris (19%) 3. Venice (8%)
Best Bargain: 1. Prague (16%) 2. Amsterdam (9%) 3. Istanbul (8%)
Best Nightlife: 1. London (27%) 2. Amsterdam (17%) 3. Barcelona(11%)
Cleanest: 1. Copenhagen (9%) 2. Zurich (8%) 3. Stockholm (7%)
Dirtiest: 1. London (36%) 2. Paris (9%) 3. Athens (7%)
Best cuisine: 1. Paris (18%) 2. London (17%) 3. Rome (13%)
Worst cuisine: 1. London (10%) 2. Moscow (7%) 3. Warsaw (6%)
Architecture: 1. Barcelona (15%) 2. Rome (14%) 3. London (12%)
Architecture: 1. Warsaw (8%) 2. Berlin (7%) 3. Brussels (6%)
Parks: 1. London (50%) 2. Paris (7%) 3. Barcelona (6%)
Best Dressed: 1. Paris (26%) 2. Rome (23%) 3. Madrid (8%)
Worst Dressed: 1. London (20%) 2. Dublin (6%) 3. Moscow (6%)