Opaque websites more useful, less scary

Opaque websites are intentionally mysterious. Hotels, rental car companies and airlines often have “express inventory,” which means bookings aren’t going as quickly as they’d like. But they don’t want to put out a super-cheap price attached to their names to avoid denigrating their brand. This allows travelers to snag cheaper prices than they might otherwise find, but without knowing the supplier’s name until after they’ve made a non-refundable purchase. The best known of these are Hotwire and Priceline; Travelocity and Expedia also sell “secret” hotels. Autoeurope offers a similar service on cars, though unlike other “secret” deals, these are refundable.

For years I’ve used opaque sites for car rentals with superb results. Because I don’t rent that often, I’m not racking up loyalty points with one particular car company. And all of the opaque sites work with major suppliers, so there’s no danger of getting saddled into a car from a local no-name company with no road support.

Hotels and airlines are a different matter. Days off are precious, and when it comes to airlines, I care far more about the airline I’m flying (those FF points have taken me worldwide more times than I can count) and the exact times I’m flying than I care about saving a few dollars.  As for hotels, though I don’t adhere to a strict loyalty program, I’ve  never felt comfortable without knowing the name of the hotel, along with its exact location.

I’ve now changed my mind — at least where hotels come into the picture.

Recently we arranged a trip over a high-season weekend to Amsterdam. It’s one of the glaring holes in my travel resume, despite a number of previous efforts to get there (including one trip that was whited out by a London ‘snowstorm of the century’). In cities I know well — London, Hong Kong, New York — I have strong opinions about my precise location. But in the case of Amsterdam, I only know the neighborhoods I’d find convenient. What I do know is that my credit card screamed every time I looked at the hotel choices. Once I added in taxes, the cost of just about every hotel at any star level was heading close to $300 per night — meaning a tab of $900 for a three-night stay. Ouch.

Following the old adage that looking is still free, I went to Hotwire and found it has improved significantly since the last time I booked a hotel there. On the site, Amsterdam is segmented into tight areas, so you get a pretty decent idea of neighborhood. Information about each of the “secret” hotels offered includes a rating by previous Hotwire customers about whether they would recommend the hotel. Better yet, it also includes the 4-out-of-5 rating from Trip Advisor. (The two companies previously were held by the same ownership group.)

Still, all that might not have been enough to tempt me alone. The price was. Instead of paying $300 per night for a 2- or 3-star hotel, we found a price of $180 per night for a 4-star hotel in a good neighborhood. Even when we threw in a $40 cancellation insurance add-on, the price for our stay came down to just above $600 — a good 33 percent discount.

Click! Now that we had paid, the name was revealed. It turned out to be a chic brand hotel that I’d seen elsewhere online for $325 per night…more than we would even have considered booking out right.

It will be a couple of months before we actually travel; I’ll report back then on the experience. For today, I can say that we’ll be checking out the opaque sites next time we’re heading to a major city. It’s at least worth a look.

 

Former Vistafjord to become floating luxury hotel

The former Saga Ruby will now be a floating hotel in Myanmar.

Long-time cruisers will remember the Norwegian Vistafjord, considered one of the most luxurious cruise ships afloat at her 1970s debut. In the 1980s the Norwegian America Line was bought by Cunard, and in the 1990s the ship was renamed as the Coronia. In 2004, the ship was sold to Saga Cruises as the Saga Ruby.

Now she’s moving to Myanmar (the former Burma), where she will become a luxury hotel, according to Dania Beach, Fla.-based QPS Ventures, the brokerage arm of Nautical Ventures Group. The 561-passenger ship, which sold for $14 million, will be refurbished and used as a stationary luxury hotel, according to a QPS statement.

 

Maine in winter? Let them eat pie!

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

Fruit tarts at Capt. Lindsey House

The bell rings, one of the Berry Manor Pie Mom calls for the raising of the forks, and the call comes out. “Let’s eat some pie!” And off we go onto a calorie-laden three-hour forage for crust and filling, 40 flavors in all, at 27 bed-and-breakfasts, galleries, shops that on regular days serve up spa treatments and gourmet olive oils and yarns.

Though this is the 10th annual Pies on Parade festival in

Downtown Rockland, it is our first romp through a glorious feast of tarts, pies, quiches, pizzas, pastry shells and cobblers in just about every sweet and savory combination imaginable. pecan, raspberry, blueberry, cinnamon, pumpkin,

Pies  on Parade, Rockland, Maine, 2014

Savory pie with balsamic vinegar at Fiore.

artichoke and spinach, goat cheese, roasted turkey, bacon and apple, seafood, lemon meringue. Cornish lamb with rhubarb chutney. Shepherd’s pie. Even blue barky pup-pies for the canine set. And of course, this being Maine, whoopie pies.

Though the Berry Manor moms, Capt. Lindsey’s Ken and Ellen Barnes, and Bobby Flay-nemesis Lynn Archer posed tough competition, our favorites came from the Artspace cooperative, where five artists turned their talents to a yummy pair of pastries, one made from apple, sausage and cheese, and the other of apricot and almonds — Yum! — serving up 50 pies in all.

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

At Rheal Spa

The pie parade is a fundraiser for the local food pantry. This year’s event was a sell-out, with more than 600 buying the $25 tickets, and a not-a-prayer waiting list.

Yeah, I can hear you thinking. But really, is this reason enough to leave your home in warm-and-sunny Miami for wicked cold (that would be 18 too-cold-to-snow degrees) in Midcoast Maine?

Really, once you pull on long johns, jeans, and four layers of arctic wear and down courtesy of L.L. Bean, Icebreaker and Uniglo, it’s not bad.

If you REALLY want cold, come up the weekend after the Super Bowl for the annual National Toboggan Championships. (The year we went, it was so cold that even the Flaming Hot Menopausal Mamas sledding team members huddled by the bonfire and hid out in the Chowder Competition tent.)

For that, you definitely need to fortify yourself with a hearty breakfast at Home Kitchen Cafe and dinner at Shepherd’s Pie, our favorite local restaurants. Or heck, you could just burrow in front of the fireplace at the Camden Harbour Inn and sip a Winter’s Wrath at Natalie’s restaurant and bar. A couple of cocktails, and you won’t care about what’s happening outside.

Celebrating winter in midcoast Maine (near Rockland and Camden, by Penobscot Bay):

Pies on Parade, Rockland, Maine 2014

Pies on Parade

  • Pies on Parade: Last Sunday each January in Rockland; 2015 date is Jan. 25. Tickets go on sale the day after Thanksgiving and cost $25; proceeds go to the Area Interfaith Outreach food pantry.
  • Winterfest Carnival: Ice-carving, snow games and snowboard and ski competitions are part of the fun at this annual week-long event, this year beginning Feb. 1.
  • National Toboggan Championships, Feb. 7-9, 2014: The culmination of Winterfest held annually the week after Super Bowl, this three-day celebration of athleticism and insanity features costumes, tailgate parties and teams from around the globe and benefits the Camden Snow Bowl, the local public slope.
  • Camden Conference, Feb. 21-23, 2014: This annual conference focusing on world events offers a more intellectual approach to winter. This year’s topic: the global politics of food and water.
  • Smelt fishing: Several camps rent out shacks complete with a wood-burning stove and electric lights so you can the fish in the hole. Experienced anglers suggest asking for a flat-top stove and bringing a skillet so you can fry the fish soon as you snag them. Well-known camps include Baker’s Smelt Camps, Worthing Camps  and Jim’s Camps
  • Maine Restaurant Week, March 1-10, 2014: Fine restaurants around the state offer prix fixe meals. Midcoast faves include Natalies and  Hartstone Inn
Midcoast Maine information:

 

Book 21 days out for best airfares

In the old pre-recession, pre-last-minute-sale days, airlines offered their best fares for tickets booked in advance. Those days — sadly — are back with a vengeance.

Most airlines will tell you they require a 14-day advance purchase on their sale fares. With a heartier economy and less competition in the skies, I’m finding that after the 21-day mark, fares go up substantially.

On American, prices can jump as much as 30 percent on that magic day between the 21-day advance and the 20-day advance. And the prices go up again at the 14-day mark.

Another change for AA fliers: The “free hold for 24 hours” function used to hold the price until 11 p.m. the next day. Now that function is “up to” 24 hours…which means after a much briefer period you can find that your great fare has skyrocketed. Beware.

Traveling this spring? Look for deals now

You’re just ambling back to work after the holidays, and you’re still sorting through your December bills. Buying a ticket for a spring trip to Europe or a summer cruise isn’t really on your radar.

And that’s exactly why airlines and cruise lines usually announce fare sales just after the holidays. Bookings typically slow as we all trudge back to work and try to keep those New Year’s resolutions about financial caution.

This year’s airfare sales may be delayed until after the current Arctic vortex clears. (Marketing dollars aren’t terribly effective when the airwaves are splattered with images of stranded air travelers.)
But cruise lines are already offering deals. (January and early February are their ‘wave’ period, when cruise companies try to jump start spring and summer bookings. For instance, passengers who book between January 6 and 8 on Norwegian‘s European summer cruises qualify for a $200 onboard credit and a stateroom upgrade. Celebrityis offering passengers who book Alaska cruises by Jan. 28 their choice of one of three upgrades: a $300 onboard spending credit, free gratuities or a free beverage package including wine and spirits.

When the airfare deals do kick in, they will likely be for tickets to Europe with traveling beginning before April 1 and tickets to frigid destinations.Those looking to escape the chill with a Florida trip may find deals are few. Still, if your toes are turning blue and your nose has frostbite, it might be worth the price to get someplace warm

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Best small town Fourth of July?

A reader wants to take her young children to a great, small-town Fourth celebration. Larry Bleiberg, travel writer and my co-author on 100 Best Affordable Vacations from National Geographic Books, recommends Bristol, R.I.’s annual celebration. I don’t know if it qualifies as best, but I love the hometown parade in Thomaston, Maine.

If you’ve got a suggestion, I’d love to hear it!

And speaking of 100 Best Affordable Vacations, I’ll be talking about the book and sharing some of my personal travel slides today at the Miami Book Fair. 2:30 in Room 7128; join us!

 

Q&A: Avoiding credit card fees

France: Copyright Jane Wooldridge

Q: I recently was in Europe on business and found my credit card company charged me $8 on a $240 hotel charge. That seems high to me. My wife and I are going back for a two-week vacation and would like to know how we can avoid these kinds of fees.
Juan

A: Most credit cards charge a percentage fee for “foreign transactions” on top of additional fees your card issuer may impose. 

If your credit is good and you’ve got enough time before you leave, consider getting a credit card that doesn’t charge for foreign transactions; I use a Capital One card (and no, I don’t have any connection to the company.)

If that’s not an option, or you just don’t want another card, check out the rates on cards you already have. Be aware that you’ll pay high fees if you make a cash withdrawal against a credit card; using an ATM card to pull cash is usually cheaper.

You could avoid all of that by carrying travelers checks, but even then you’ll often have to pay a fee for converting them from U.S. dollars to the currency of the country you’re visiting. And in these days of widespread ATMs — I’ve found them just about everywhere in the world that has electricity, with the exception of a few places in rural Africa — many vendors won’t even take travelers’ checks.

Whatever card you use, call and let them know to which countries you’ll be traveling, and when. Be sure you’ve got enough credit and that your card isn’t expired. This will avoid the hassle (not to mention embarrassment) of having your card denied.

Conventional wisdom says you should stick with one card for all your trip purchases. Great idea — but be sure you’ve got a second card stashed in a different location. On a trip to Senegal, the ATM machine ate the card of one woman in our group; it was the only card she had with her, and we delayed the trip several hours until the bank re-opened so we could rescue it.

Also take the emergency contact numbers for your cards; an easy way to do this is to scan the back of your cards and e-mail them to yourself or upload them to a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Docs. I once had my wallet stolen in London but didn’t have the phone numbers handy to report the loss of my various cards. Sorting out the mess took two days, and by the time my “replacement” card finally arrived at my London lodging, I was on my way back to the U.S.