Categories
Booking Strategy Family Travel

Why You Should Choose a Disney Cruise for Your Next Vacation

Wondering why might it be worthwhile to spring for a Disney Cruise, even if you might be able to get onto another cruise at a lower price? Well, let’s put it this way: You know that inimitable excitement that kids (and adults) experience at the Disney theme parks? Bottle that up, stick it on a ship, and you’ve got yourself three to seven days’ worth of that same brand of magic and happiness—minus the crowds.

Why Disney Cruises Are Different than Typical Cruises

Disney cruise line
Castaway Cay (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

Disney Cruise Line staffers are experts at pulling Disney’s signature storytelling aspects through the voyage, starting with a pre-departure phone call from Mickey and Minnie to tell their youngest passengers-to-be how excited they are to see them onboard. From there on, each ship’s 950 employees know exactly how to make each guest feel like royalty, making sure to add creative, memorable touches at every opportunity. This guarantees that even the passengers who aren’t particularly Disney fans will be smiling all day long.

Those who are Disney fans, however, will be on cloud nine with the level of theming throughout the ship: Every night, there are exclusive Broadway-caliber shows starring all the favorite characters. Kids’ club programming includes superhero lessons from Marvel protagonists. There are character greetings, fireworks at sea, free first-run movie screenings (and popcorn) at onboard theaters, Disney movies playing all day on a huge screen above the ship’s swimming pool—and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where children get transformed into pirates and glittery princesses.

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That’s not even to speak of the restaurants, many of which are immersive experiences in and of themselves. Disney Wonder has Tiana’s Place, which transports guests to New Orleans. Tiana herself visits each table while a talented quartet jazzes up familiar tunes, with a rollicking parade finale. Animator’s Palate, another Wonder eatery, is a tech-driven tribute to Disney’s drawn history; you scribble a character onto your placemat, then see it come to life during an engaging on-screen mashup.

Perhaps, though, the level of service is the most distinguishing factor separating a Disney cruise from any other sailing experience. Each room has a personal attendant who knows the names, schedules, and preferences of each passenger in his or her care. Every night, they leave gifts on the bed—Mickey bandannas for the pirate party one night, Ghirardelli squares the next—and fold towels into amusing figures. But more than the stuff they leave and the diligent care they take of the room, they are genuinely kind, sincere hard workers whose every goal is to please and satisfy. These crew members are hired from all over the globe and, as a Disney Cruise Line executive recently explained, “We have the opportunity to go around the world and find the best talent with the most passion for our product.”

What You’ll Experience During a Disney Cruise

Family-Friendly shows
Family-Friendly Shows (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

So, what else can you expect during a Disney cruise? In part, that depends on which ship you choose. Each has its own curated itineraries and unique features. Currently, there are four to choose from: Disney Wonder, Disney Magic, Disney Dream, and Disney Fantasy, with a fifth ship being added in 2021, and a sixth in 2023.

Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are sister ships; in late 2016, Wonder got intensively renovated, making everything aboard feel brand-new. These two 83,000-tonners are Disney’s “classic,” smaller boats, with 10 floors and 875 rooms. Each carries 2,713 passengers.

[st_related]Is a Disney Cruise Worth the Cost?[/st_related]

Disney’s newer ships, the Art Deco-style Disney Dream (2011) and the Art Nouveau-style Disney Fantasy (2012) are 130,000-ton vessels with 1,250 rooms that hold 4,000 travelers. All four ships offer themed restaurants, live shows, deck parties, elaborate kids’ spaces, character appearances, at-sea fireworks, and more that feels familiar from ship to ship.

When choosing between boats, the itinerary will likely be your key variable. If you’re interested in the Pacific coast, Mexico, Alaska, or the Panama Canal, Disney Wonder is your ship. Disney Magic makes transatlantic crossings and goes to Canada and Europe, including through fjords to see the northern lights. All four ships buzz around the Caribbean, with some itineraries stopping at Castaway Cay, Disney’s Bahamian private island. Each port stop offers a big menu of shore excursions, which should be reserved well in advance.

Onboard, the kids’ spaces are magical: They were created to immerse kids in Disney stories, so popular characters including Elsa, Doc McStuffins, Sofia the First, and Black Widow interact with the kids in settings inspired by those characters.

As for the guest rooms, they’re roomier than can be expected, with extraordinarily comfortable platform beds, private bathrooms, and TVs that play Disney movies all day. If you get hungry in the middle of the night, room service is included, so you can order as much as you like without being charged extra.

In fact, a Disney cruise is about as close to an all-inclusive vacation as you’ll find—it may seem pricey upfront, but you’re getting almost everything you’ll need over the course of your vacation.

Your last night aboard, the main characters gather in the atrium to give guests a final chance to take photos and give hugs. The cruise director delivers a farewell, and children are invited onstage to participate in a moving performance, followed by a cascade of Mickey-shaped confetti. In true Disney form, it’s the perfect ending.

Why Book a Disney Cruise With a Travel Agent

There are plenty of reasons why you should book your Disney cruise with a travel agent, as opposed to going it alone. Travel agencies such as Pixie Vacations specialize in Disney-themed travel and can secure all the insider goodies that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access—plus, their services are completely free.

Forget crowdsourcing your social media pals for input regarding your next Disney vacation. Instead, let professional travel planners act as your experts on Disney cruises and destinations. Pixie Vacations’ husband-and-wife owners graduated from the College of Disney Knowledge and are Authorized Disney Vacation Planners, meaning that they received a designation from Disney for meeting the company’s high standards. They even worked at Disney World for years.

Their goal as your agent is to plan an ideal, customized Disney vacation at the lowest possible price, while adding on special activities and recommending insider things to do. They always have access to Disney’s latest offers, and know which are the best floors, staterooms, and excursions to book.

Booking a Disney cruise via a travel agent saves plenty of money because agents know how to access special rates that aren’t available to the general public. Agents will also monitor your reservation, so that if a better deal comes up even after you’ve booked, they’ll change your existing reservation package to the better-priced one, at no cost to you.

To contact Pixie Vacations about planning your next Disney cruise, call (678) 815-1584 or visit their Disney Cruise Line Special Offers page.

 

Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel

The Cheapest Airfare? Here’s When to Book

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of claims that this or that is the optimal time to book flights at the lowest airfares. For one thing, that would credit the airlines with operating according to a strict pricing logic, whereas in fact airline pricing seems wildly chaotic. Plus, if there were an easy best-time-to-book rule, it would be widely known and followed. Which isn’t the case.

[st_content_ad]Nevertheless, organizations large and small continue weighing in with their own recommendations as to the best timing to book flights.

The latest is from CheapAir, which today released results of its own analysis of airline pricing trends, based on a review of 917 million airfares in 8,000 markets.

According to CheapAir’s 2018 Airfare Study, the lowest airfares are typically to be found between 121 and 21 days in advance of the departure date.

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That date range, what CheapAir calls the prime booking window, is for flights within North America.

Seasonality

While the prime booking window is a good overall rule of thumb, the cheapest-airfare windows differ somewhat by season, as follows:

  • For summer flights, book 14 – 60 days in advance
  • For fall flights, book 21 – 100 days in advance
  • For winter flights, book 21 – 110 days in advance
  • For spring flights, book 46 – 122 days in advance

Best Days of the Week

CheapAir also looked at the day-of-the-week question, another perennial traveler conundrum.

First, there is no categorically cheapest day of the week to book travel. One day’s as good as another for making reservations.

However, there are cheaper and more expensive days to fly. Tuesday and Wednesday are the cheapest, and Sunday is the most expensive. “Flying on Wednesday instead of a Sunday will save you an average of $76 per airline ticket.”

Reader Reality Check

How do these suggestions accord with your own experience?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

Save 10 Percent with Wyndham’s New Members-Only Rate

Wyndham has been on a roll recently, bulking up with the acquisition of La Quinta’s 900 properties, revamping its Wyndham Rewards loyalty program, and treating its customers to a series of especially generous bonus promotions. For all that, the company remained uncompetitive with other hotel chains in one respect: It didn’t offer members-only rates, discounted hotel rates available only to members of the hotel’s loyalty program who book direct.

Members-only rates have become a fact of hotel-booking life, available at all other major hotel groups, and a base consumer expectation.

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[st_content_ad]Wyndham finally plugged that gap earlier this month, offering Wyndham Rewards members a 10 percent discount when they book direct with Wyndham and are signed in as Rewards members.

What Wyndham is calling its Rewarding Rate is notably more generous than the discounts offered by its peers. Hilton’s members-only rate is “up to 10 percent, on weekends”; Hyatt’s is also up to 10 percent; Marriott’s varies between 2 and 5 percent.

In other words, where most other member-only rates are based on a range of possible discounts, depending on the day of the week or location, Wyndham’s is a flat 10 percent, every day, at all 8,000-plus properties in its network.

Better late than never, and well worth waiting for.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Booking Strategy Budget Travel Group Travel Money Road Trip Student Travel

5 Ways to Stay Sane When Planning a Trip with Friends

You haven’t eaten because your friend didn’t wake up in time for breakfast. Now your train is delayed and you missed out on the one tourist destination you really wanted to see. This is not the vacation you wanted when you imagined planning a trip with friends.

For friends to stay friends before, during, and after a trip, it’s vital to have both complementary travel styles and clearly defined expectations. This checklist for planning a trip with friends will minimize headaches and maximize quality time.

Questions to Ask Before Planning a Trip with Friends

Ask yourself these questions before committing to a trip with friends: 

  • Do your travel styles align? Figure out if you’ll be happy doing the same activities, staying in the same type of accommodations, and generally moving at the same speed. Comparing travel styles also means considering transportation preferences; for instance, are you OK with taking a connecting flight to save some money, or do you only travel nonstop?
  • What is the most important thing you want to get out of the trip? When planning a trip with friends, think about what you most want to get out of the trip. Are you longing for plenty of low-key beach time, or do you want to see every museum on your route? Figure out what your goals are before you agree to a trip with another person or group.
  • Do you have the same budget? Money is a big deal when it comes to travel. Don’t book a trip with someone if you know they’ll want to spend significantly more (or less) than you overall.
  • Do you have the same budget for different things? Your budget also encompasses what you’re willing to spend money on, like splurging on a hotel room vs. staying in a hostel, or going out to a nice restaurant vs. saving money on food by cooking in your vacation rental.
  • Who will take charge of booking and reservations? There’s a lot of leg work that goes into planning a trip with friends. If you don’t have the time, patience, or organization to take charge of these details, don’t volunteer to plan the whole trip.
  • How many vacation days are you willing to use? Before you book a trip, make sure you know how many days people are willing to take off from work so you know how flexible you can be with dates.
  • Do you want to book everything in advance? Some people like to travel with flexibility, while others prefer to have a set plan, so discuss this beforehand.
  • Do you have the same level of physical fitness? Many trips include long days on your feet or some sort of physical activity. If your friend is notorious for lagging behind, you might not want to go on a walking tour or volcano hike with them. Make sure you’re on the same page about just how much activity you want to do on your trip.

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Things to Consider When Planning a Trip with Friends

Here’s what to discuss when you’re planning a trip with friends:

  • Type of accommodations. Don’t book a five-star hotel if you’re trying to save on accommodations. But also keep in mind that hostels and budget hotels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Make sure you agree on what type of place you’ll stay at and a rough budget.
  • Type of transportation. Decide if you’ll fly, drive, or take a train ahead of time. It’s important to weigh the cost benefits of each option, i.e. saving money by taking a long train ride or spending more to get to a destination quicker.
  • What you can’t miss at the destination. Make a list of what you each want to do at the destination and allow time for everyone’s top activities.
  • On a road trip, who will be driving? Driving for hours on end is tiring. If you’re taking a road trip with a group, plan on switching off and taking breaks. If you’re renting a car, make sure everyone who is driving will be on the contract.
  • Eating schedules. Some people need to eat first thing in the morning while others can go hours before needing a meal. Discuss this ahead of time to avoid any hunger-induced arguments.
  • Sleep schedules. Jet lag and fatigue will vary by person. Make sure you don’t plan a bunch of activities right when you land if people want to rest or nap during the first few days of your trip.
  • How you’ll split up costs. Decide ahead of time what you’ll split expenses for, including meals, accommodations, and transportation.
  • What you’ll pay for individually. Decide ahead of time what you’ll pay for individually, such as flights, tickets, alcoholic drinks, Wi-Fi, travel insurance, etc.
  • Tipping habits. Read this handy tipping guide together before you travel so you’re on the same page about tipping expectations in your destination.

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Tips for Splitting Expenses

Splitting expenses is one of the biggest problems you’ll encounter when planning a trip with friends. Use these tips to help alleviate money tension:

  • Book on Airbnb. You can now split the booking costs on Airbnb. This is a great way to split expenses on accommodations without anyone fronting the whole reservation.
  • Use rideshares. One of the reasons people love Uber is because of the built-in split cost feature. No more keeping track of who paid for which cab.
  • There’s an app for that. There are countless expense apps out there, but tricount is a great tool when planning a trip with friends.
  • Jar fund. Another alternative to tracking expenses is to create a “jar fund.” All members of the group contribute a set amount of money that goes onto a credit gift card. You can then use the card for meals, drinks, and other agreed-upon expenses.
  • Book accommodations or trips where you can pay in installments. This way if one person has to front the costs for accommodations, you can either divide the payment with installments or book with no deposit down so the other members of the group can pay the person back ahead of time.
  • Take out cash. It can get annoying if one person is always borrowing cash for tips or not exchanging enough money, so visit the bank before your trip.

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Important Tips for Traveling with Friends

Following these tips can help keep everyone on the same page and prevent offense:

  • Know what annoys them, and tell them what annoys you. When I travel with friends, I let them know that I always need to have something small to eat in the morning before we go out and do anything. The sooner they know that something will bother you, the better.
  • Raise issues before anything builds up. You’re more likely to reach a breaking point or get angry if you let little annoyances build up.
  • Be flexible and have patience. This helps you realistically manage expectations. Group trips are all about give and take. And hopefully if you go out of your way to go to a restaurant someone really wants to go to, then you’ll get your moment, too.
  • Don’t say “we’ll figure it out later” when paying. Keep track of expenses when they occur by using an expense app.
  • Pack well. Make sure you both pack things like chargers, adapters, proper footwear, and outerwear. It can get annoying when your friend asks to borrow your phone charger for the 10th time when you’re also trying to use it.
  • Have your alone time. Take some time every day to separate yourself from the group if you need to. It can be as simple as walking to a coffee shop or going to a museum by yourself.
  • Take turns. It can be exhausting if you’re always the one in charge of navigating or choosing a restaurant. Switch off being the group leader.
  • Limit phone time. Take time to be with your friends rather than on your phone. This also goes for taking photos: While it’s great to have your friends as photographers, it’s annoying to take 40 photos at every single monument.

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Trip Planning Help for Traveling with Friends 

If planning a trip with friends is too overwhelming for your group, look to these alternatives.

  • Go on a cruise. Cruising is a great way to travel with friends. There’s no planning involved once you’re on the trip, and everything is priced per person. Plus, you’ll have plenty of time to do your own thing.
  • Go on an organized tour. If you don’t want to do a cruise but want something preplanned, look at a guided tour. Intrepid Travel and G Adventures have great options for younger people, as do Contiki, STA Travel, and EF Ultimate Break.
  • Look into all-inclusives. If you want some flexibility with your trip, book an all-inclusive resort so your drinks, meals, and some activities are included in the up-front price.
  • Use a travel agent. This isn’t the cheapest option, but a travel agent will be able to plan and book a great itinerary for your group travel while keeping in mind everyone’s budget and must-do activities.

View the checklist:

More from SmarterTravel:

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Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities

A Budget Destination for Every Month of 2018

Where to go in 2018? For those on a budget (the 99%, in other words), Booking.com has a suggested destination for every month of the year.

To compile its list of value destinations, Booking.com considered the average rates for 3-, 4-, and 5-star hotels in popular destinations, and then looked for the best deals given the monthly rate fluctuations.

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Here’s the calendar:

  • January – San Diego (37% more affordable than high season)
  • February – Las Vegas (43% more affordable than high season)
  • March – Montreal (22% more affordable than high season)
  • April – Toronto (27% more affordable than high season)
  • May – Orlando (18% more affordable than high season)
  • June – Miami (39% more affordable than high season)
  • July – New York (25% more affordable than high season)
  • August – New Orleans (45% more affordable than high season)
  • September – Washington, D.C. (26% more affordable than high season)
  • October – Los Angeles (14% more affordable than high season)
  • November – San Francisco (31% more affordable than high season)
  • December – Atlanta (24% more affordable than high season)

While the recommendations are based on hotel rates, airfares are also likely to be lower for travel to the listed destinations during the specified months, since both hotel and air prices rise and fall according to the same changes in travel demand.

More valuable than the specific suggestions, perhaps, is the underlying strategy for picking destinations where your travel dollar will go further: Be a contrarian. If it’s the dead of winter, most travelers will choose to travel to warm-weather destinations, and their travel expenses will spike accordingly. So do the opposite. Instead of Miami or Honolulu, book a trip to Dallas or Chicago or Minneapolis. Your wallet will thank you.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your strategy for choosing a good-value destination?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy

Travel Agents’ Favorite Airlines, Hotels, Cruise Lines

Travel agents aren’t like the rest of us. We occasionally consume travel; they sell it every day. We’re amateurs; they’re pros.

[st_content_ad]When it comes to opinions about travel services and suppliers, we have our own, based on our limited experience; they have their opinions, based on their experience, plus feedback from thousands of customers.

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Travel Weekly, a trade publication for travel agents, has just published results of its 2017 Readers Choice Awards, with the top vote-getters in 77 categories, including best airline, best hotel, best cruise line, best travel insurance, and so forth.

Here are some of the more consumer-relevant picks:

  • Best domestic airline: Delta
  • Best international airline: Virgin Atlantic
  • Best first/business class: Emirates
  • Best global network: United
  • Best airline overall: Delta
  • Best car rental: Hertz (both domestic and international)
  • Best domestic hotel chain: Marriott
  • Best luxury chain: Ritz-Carlton
  • Best upscale chain: Hilton
  • Best mid-priced chain: Hampton Inn
  • Best boutique chain: W Hotels
  • Best hotel chain overall: Marriott
  • Best domestic cruise line: Carnival
  • Best Caribbean line: Royal Caribbean
  • Best Europe line: Celebrity
  • Best luxury line: Crystal
  • Best cruise cuisine: Oceania
  • Best cruise line overall: Royal Caribbean

No doubt you have opinions on some of the above “best of” categories, as do I. Always room for a second opinion, right?

Reader Reality Check

Any strong disagreements with the travel agents’ opinions?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Group Travel Historical Travel Island Travel Trends

U.S. Government Tightens Cuba Travel Restrictions

In the latest blow to Cuba tourism, the U.S. Department of the Treasury today issued new restrictions on travel to the island nation.

Apparently following up on President Trump’s promise, in June, to strengthen Cuba sanctions and travel restrictions, U.S. citizens wishing to visit Cuba will only be allowed to do so as members of organized tour groups, accompanied by at least one member of the sponsoring organization. Trips booked prior to June 16 are exempt from the new restrictions.

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Further complicating Cuba travel is the new ban on doing business with a long list of hotels and other businesses, many of which cater to tourists. According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “We have strengthened our Cuba policies to channel economic activity away from the Cuban military and to encourage the government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.”

The new sanctions and restrictions take effect on Thursday, November 9.

The latest hurdles come on the heels of a State Department warning against visiting Cuba on September 29, in response to a series of mysterious attacks suffered by U.S. diplomatic staff in Cuba. At the time, the State Department cautioned tourists as follows: “Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

Reader Reality Check

How likely are you to visit Cuba while the current sanctions remain in place?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Peer-to-Peer Travel

The Top 25 Travel Apps to Upgrade Your Smartphone

What’s on your smartphone? Have you downloaded the latest and greatest travel apps, to have them available to help research and book your next trip?

Do you know what the latest and greatest travel apps are?

While they won’t all be applicable to your circumstances and needs, these are the 25 most-downloaded travel apps from the Apple Store, according to an analysis by hitwise, an “audience insights” company:

  1. Airbnb
  2. Booking.com
  3. United
  4. American
  5. Expedia
  6. Southwest
  7. Delta
  8. Hopper
  9. Hotels.com
  10. TripAdvisor
  11. Hilton
  12. Marriott
  13. HotelTonight
  14. KAYAK
  15. HomeAway
  16. Delta (iPad)
  17. JetBlue
  18. trivago
  19. Frontier
  20. Priceline
  21. Allegiant
  22. VRBO Vacation Rentals
  23. Skyscanner
  24. Carnival
  25. Travelocity

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The report also includes a list of the 25 most-downloaded apps for devices using the Android operating system. Although there are some differences between the Apple and Android lists, the names are mostly the same, and Airbnb, Booking.com, and United are the top three for both platforms.

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Predictably, the largest airlines are fully represented, as are the leading online travel agencies. More surprising, and interesting, the list reveals a number of apps from lesser-known travel services that bear looking into: Hopper, HotelTonight, trivago, Skyscanner. And how about Airbnb? While it has gotten plenty of traction with travelers recently, it was a revelation to find the home-sharing service’s app topping the lists.

Reader Reality Check

What’s on your phone?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Travel Trends

Should You Book Directly with the Hotel? It’s Complicated

Hotels have a love-hate relationship with online travel agencies like Expedia and Hotels.com. On the one hand, hotels depend on those sales channels for a significant percentage of their bookings. On the other hand, those bookings come at a price, literally: The hotels must pay the OTAs a commission, which makes indirect bookings less profitable.

If the hotels had their druthers, all bookings would be made directly, via the hotels’ own websites or mobile apps. That means no commissions on the sales, and the hotel has the opportunity to up-sell and cross-sell its services during the booking process.

To ensure they’re maximizing the amount of business that’s being booked directly, the hotels have taken a multi-pronged approach. First was the lowest-price guarantee, invoked to assure travelers that the prices shown on the hotels’ own websites are the lowest available anywhere; no need to waste time surfing the OTA sites. The second was the linkage of loyalty programs with direct bookings. OTA bookings do not earn loyalty points. And, taking the best-rate guarantee a step further, loyalty program members receive a discount on room rates, but only when booking directly.

Those efforts notwithstanding, travel consumers have continued using OTAs, both to research their options and, critically, to book their stays. A new study by Piper Jaffray suggests that they were right to do so. Or at least partially right.

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As reported by Skift, the study compared prices for stays at 86 hotels in major cities worldwide as shown both on the hotels’ own sites and as shown on Priceline.com, Booking.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Kayak. The results were as follows:

  • At 66% of the surveyed hotels, the prices were the same through all channels.
  • At 21% of the surveyed hotels, the OTA prices were lower, by an average of 4.2%.
  • At 13% of the surveyed hotels, the prices were lower on the hotel sites, by an average of 3.8%.

So much for that lowest-price guarantee, right? However, the study opted not to use the hotels’ discounted loyalty rates for the comparisons, so it could well be that loyalty-program members are getting a better deal than indicated when booking directly.

And then there’s the matter of the points earned for direct bookings, and forfeited for OTA bookings. While loyalty programs have been steadily devalued, the programs and points do still have some value. And by anyone’s calculations, paying $100 and earning points is a better deal than paying $100 and earning no points.

In the end, there remains a strong argument in favor of checking both the hotel sites and the OTA sites, at least for travelers who are not loyalty-program participants. For those who are loyalty-program members, when the points and discounted rates are factored in, the case for OTA booking is much weaker.

Reader Reality Check

How do you book your hotel stays?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel Travel Trends

Airfare Transparency Imperiled by New Legislation

As things stand today, it is considered “an unfair or deceptive practice” to fail to disclose the full price of air transportation, including any and all government-imposed taxes and fees, in ads or other marketing communications and online booking apps.

In other words, no fair advertising a low-ball base fare, when the final price, with all fees added in, is actually much higher. It’s called airfare transparency, and its express purpose is to allow travel consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons when shopping for flights.

Airlines have opposed the rule since its imposition, in 2012, calling it intrusive government regulation. Consumer advocates, including this writer, strongly support the rule, characterizing it as a sensible consumer protection.

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In a big win for the airlines and a setback for travel consumers, the rule may be undermined by legislation currently being voted on by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Included among the 622 sections of H.R. 2997, the FAA reauthorization bill known as the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, is a provision (Sec. 505, near the bottom) that would amend the airfare transparency rule to allow the advertising of base fares, provided that taxes and fees are disclosed “through a link or pop-up … in a manner that is easily accessible and viewable by the consumer.”

Anything short of displaying the all-in price of tickets up front is not airfare transparency; it’s airfare opacity. It’s a return to the bad old pre-2012 days, when much airfare advertising was deceptive, full of nasty surprises when the final “Pay This Amount” price bore little relation to the advertised base price.

Because the new rule has been hidden deep within an enormously complicated and wide-ranging reauthorization bill, it’s received little in the way of attention or debate.

Travel consumers should be prepared for a nasty surprise, wrapped in a nasty surprise.

Reader Reality Check

Is it unreasonable to expect airfare transparency from airlines and travel agents?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Family Travel

Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusive December 22, 2007 – January 3, 2008

Author: Arubalisa
Email: arubalisa@gmail.com
Date of Trip: December 2007

Tamarijn All Inclusive December 22, 2007 – January 3, 2008

Overview
We are a family of 10 comprised of my grandmother age 94, who treated the family to this trip as a Christmas present. My parents are in their late 60’s, my brother, husband and, myself – mid- 40’s and children- aged 11, 13, 15 and 18. My parents have been to Aruba three times previously having stayed at the Holiday Inn and most recently the Radisson. My husband and I, have been to Aruba quite a few times having staying at a variety of resorts along Palm Beach, some numerous times: Divi Phoenix timeshare, Playa Linda timeshare, Wyndham (now Westin), Allegro (now Occidental), Radisson and Hyatt.

Traveling with 4 children who love to eat and eat well, we knew to start, dining out was not an inexpensive option and cooking by one of us, say in a timeshare, was just not going to happen. We could stay home and cook for the holidays if that were the case. So in our case, all inclusive was the choice for our family. We have used MCM Tours for over eight years now when booking our Aruba travel. Having always had the best pricing and excellent service, this trip was no different. In explaining what our family needed in a resort accommodation and having booked our travel through them for so many years, they knew our likes and dislikes and recommended the Tamarijn. We went along with this knowing full well before booking that it is NOT a 5 star resort.

This was the first land vacation in Aruba for my brother and his children. After seeing the crowds along Palm Beach during Christmas week, he said given the choice of staying at the Riu all inclusive on Palm Beach or staying at the Tamarijn, he would choose the Tamarijn hands down for simple fact that the beaches all along Palm Beach were just too crowded. Add to the crowds, the huge amount of watersports activities and their accompanying noise, it was a real big turnoff to him.

I cannot say in words how happy our family was with the Tamarijn. In reading a great many reviews of this resort over the many months before our trip, we knew what to expect. This was not going to be a 4 star resort like the Marriott, Radisson or Hyatt or even the Westin. I would however say we were just as happy if not happier with our experience at the Tamarijn than our 3 stays at the Westin when it was still the Wyndham, and it is a different type of experience than our four stays at the Radisson.

The atmosphere at the Tamarijn is much more relaxed than anything you would find on Palm Beach, never mind the Radisson or Hyatt. Cannot comment on the Marriott because we have never stayed there, but would imagine it would be the same. Dh and I, still believe there are “trade offs” for staying along Palm Beach at some of the more “upscale” hotels and staying at a resort such as the Tamarijn. The Tamarijn and Druif beach does not have all the many activities within walking distance, the rooms at the Tamarijn are much more basic and unlike Palm Beach where there are many casinos in the hotels adjacent one another, there is only one casino, the Alhambra, across the street from the Divi Resort. For us, however, the tangible bonus of the Tamarijn was the ability to walk directly out of our room right out on to the beach. As much as we love the Radisson we cannot do that there.

For some it seems so much easier for people to find faults with the Tamarijn than to have done the proper research before booking their stay. Just because all the rooms are oceanfront, this does not mean that this is a 5 star resort. There are no 5 star resorts on the island. We had booked our trip through MCM Tours, and they had requested, though could not guarantee that our 4 rooms be near one another. Our room in the 1300 building was more than adequate in size for three people, but then again, the only time we spent in our room was to shower and sleep. The beach outside our room was our living room for the 12 nights of our holiday vacation. Our TV was never turned on. The ocean outside our door was our entertainment. The baths may be outdated, but were clean and again, for our needs, not an important factor for this vacation. The resort suited our family in every way for what we required, in a family vacation for our holiday.

The rooms at the Tamarijn from what I understand were renovating not too long ago and appeared to us clean and fresh. After having read so many reviews I was also expecting a room the size of a shoe box. Well, maybe too many cruises for us, but with three people, we had plenty of room and storage for the all too many clothes we packed. Many reviews have also stated that the guestroom bathrooms were outdated. Well, yes they are; however, our family knew what to expect, and we found clean bathrooms which in no way adversely affected our vacation. Other complaints I have read over and were that other than their ala carte restaurants, they serve their beverages in hard plastic cups. Indeed this is true, we knew what to expect. The swimming pool was not fancy; yes the swimming pool is a simple rectangle. In our opinion, on the island of Aruba, the Tamarijn cannot be beat for the value for the money in an all inclusive resort. All oceanfront accommodations make this resort the perfect paradise.

If anything, the worst thing I can say is that it would be very easy to never leave the resort except for an occasional run over to her sister resort the Divi. For first time visitors to Aruba, if you never left the resort, you would never get a real feel for the island and all it has to offer. You would still however have the wonderful experience of one-on-one contact with one of Aruba’s and the Tamarijn’s exceptional assets: it’s warm, welcoming and friendly people. As soon as we stepped out of our taxi driver friend Bully’s van and were greeted by the bellman and subsequently the front desk clerk, we knew we had found an amazing spot.

My husband and I, love to frequent some of those $150 – $200 per couple “fine dining” restaurants in Aruba such as the Sunset Grille and found all the food outlets at the Divi and Tamarijn, whether ala carte for dinner or breakfast and lunch buffets, to be delicious. All members of our family are “foodies” and no one felt there was anything wrong with the food here. From made to order omelet’s at breakfast and even seafood selections at lunch such as scallops in wine sauce and paella, we could find nothing to complain about. In other words, we could always find something to eat. Snacks and sandwiches at the Pizza bar were also excellent. Made to order pizzas were our favorite, with a choice of thick or thin crust!

Service at the food and beverage outlets was typical “Aruban or island time.” No worse than any other place where we have eaten. If we were looking to sit down, eat and run, then the buffet will be our choice. Since I enjoy being able to sit and enjoy the atmosphere and the company of whom I am with, I was more than pleased with the service and staff at both the Divi and Tamarijn.

Getting There
Our family members flew from Newark on Continental, American from Miami and dh, dd, and I, from Atlanta on Delta. Considering we were flying the Saturday before, and only 3 days before Christmas, things did not go too badly.

Living in Atlanta, most of our flights no matter we travel are via Delta. We have flown Delta 3 times, twice domestically, in the past 6 months and our experiences have been good and bad. Probably all in all it breaks down to 40% poor, 40% mediocre and 20% excellent. Even booking flights eight months in advance for this trip, the discounted fares were already sold out. The discounted first class airfare on the way to Aruba was less expensive than a round trip coach fare so we took that, and used frequent flier miles to upgrade to first class on the return.

A last minute equipment change gave us a larger plane but screwed up coach class seat assignments. All the passengers then had stand in line at the gate to grab whatever seats they could get as well as new boarding passes. The result was long lines accompanied by short tempers, coupled with a low ceiling, our flight for Aruba departed over an hour late.

Attitudes all around with Delta were much better when the airline was in the midst of their bankruptcy. Things have since returned to their cold, uncaring attitude towards their customers. My tray was broken, so dh and I ate lunch in two shifts switching seats. The flight attendant was not even willing to look at it and totally indifferent to the situation, basically like “deal with it.” I do have to admit that the airport personnel for Delta in both Atlanta’s Hartsfield and at Queen Beatrix in Aruba were excellent. On surely one of the busiest travel days of the year, could not do enough to assist us. Come on airlines, come on FAA, Delta needs more competition in Atlanta!

Having made up some time, our flight to Aruba arrived only 40 minutes late. Again we faced similar scenes from the morning, crowds and people who had simply “had enough.” Add to this everyone was tired and now hot. The terminal was more crowded than I had ever seen it and there were a number of unhappy passengers who had arrived on American Airlines with their luggage not arriving along with them. Admittedly, it did take a good 20 minutes for our flight’s luggage to begin coming out. I overheard someone state that the delay was caused by the passing rain shower during which our flight had landed and the fact that they do not like to unload luggage in the rain so it does not get wet. We were fortunate that as soon as the luggage did begin coming out, for the first time in 16 visits, we were one of the first people on our flight to receive our luggage off of the carousel. For us, coupled with a short line at immigration and breezing through Aruba Customs, we made it out in for us, near record time!

Exiting Aruba Customs, already on the other side of the glass, I could see our friend Bully, the taxi driver, excitedly waving and motioning hello. Passing through the doors there were hugs and kisses all around, we had finally arrived at our “home away from home.” Off for a very short ride to the Tamarijn. Well, what normally would have been anyway?

What is Christmas like in Aruba? To start off with, the Saturday before Christmas and LG Smith Boulevard through downtown Oranjestad was closed. This is a traditional day for Arubans to do their shopping. To ease access to stores, especially for families, the street is opened only to pedestrian traffic. Bully did his best but it seemed that every corner we turned resulted in just more gridlock. Either way, we made it to Tamarijn and who should be standing at the far end of the lobby but my Mom. She had been at Pizza per Tutti and just had “that feeling” that we had arrived.

The Tamarijn: The Rooms
After a quick hello to my Mom, we went to the front desk and received our bracelets which would allow us to eat and drink throughout our stay, towels cards, and room keys and, we rented a key to the safe for the duration of our stay. Again, we booked four rooms through MCM Tours and had asked them to request for obvious reasons, that at least my grandmother’s room, be located on the ground floor with the three remaining rooms as close together as possible. In checking in we discovered that all our rooms were adjacent on the first floor of the 1300 building- 1313, 1311, 1309 and 1307. We were off to a wonderful start.

Some people worry about security with these ground floor rooms but I would not worry too much if you take the proper precautions. We felt just as safe at the Tamarijn in a ground floor room as we did anywhere else we have stayed in our 15 previous visits to the island. The room’s sliding glass doors have a bar which locks across the middle of the door in addition to a standard lock. Our lock was always locked when we were not in the room. I have heard from others who either forgot to put up the bar or chose to sleep with their door open, that security had stopped by and asked them to shut the door and put up the bar. In building 1300, because of the direction of Aruba’s tradewinds, front to back on our room, we had to ensure we truly pulled hard when shutting the front door to our room to guarantee that the lock had caught. Not doing so, there would be a chance the door could blow open. This is not an issue as long as you are aware of it. There was visible security around the resort day and night. Twice during the day when I walked to the end of the resort to the 2500 building there was a security guard posted there as well.

Rooms came equipped with hair dryers, iron and ironing board (not for me on vacation thank you), and a mini-refrigerator and clock radio alarm. You can put whatever food you wish in the mini-fridge. It is totally empty and located on the bottom right of the armoire. Delicious Aruban water is from their desalinization plant and can flow from the tap quite warm. Bring your own empty pitcher if you want to chill some to keep in the fridge. Satellite TV stations were very well covered: ESPN, ESPN2, HBO, TNT, Disney, USA, WGN, TBS, CNN, Venevision, Tele Aruba, Cinemax, Fox, CNN Headline News, BBC World, BBC America, CNBC, ABC Family, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox Sports, Golf Channel, MTV, In-house TV and a couple of others, presumably South American, I never heard of.

The maids have a tough job keeping the tile floors clean of sand. I know in all four of our rooms, no matter how hard we tried, we still tracked in some sand each day. We took the towel tub mat and placed it right inside our sliding glass door from our patio to wipe our feet on when we came in the room, and that helped some. I think the rooms in the higher numbered buildings which have grass between their room and the beach, accumulate less sand.

Again, I have read complaints about the noise from these in the wall units but it was never was a problem for our family and, it soon became just background noise. The air conditioning had a digital thermostat to set as you wished and to boot, the room had a ceiling fan! Lighting in the room could have been better for reading at night. Luckily dd, had brought her book light and dh used that to read before falling asleep at night. If you have a lot of hanging clothes, bringing a dozen extra clothes hangers from home is also a pretty good idea. Between dd and myself we need at least 8 hangers just for beach cover-ups.

Many people state, for them the biggest turnoff is the bathroom, but honestly I thought it was clean. There was always hot water, soap and plenty of fresh, fluffy towels. I have one photo where it looks like mildew on the tiles in the shower, but after close examination dh and I did not think so. I have horrible allergies to mold and mildew and have had allergic reaction in rooms in other resorts throughout the Caribbean because of this. This was not the case at the Tamarijn. The shower had shampoo-body soap “all in one” type wall dispenser and a bar of soap were provided as well. There is a liquid soap dispenser for the sink as well. If you like your “own” brand bring it from home and if you have longer hair definitely bring conditioner for your hair.

With my grandmother being now 94 years old, she has difficulty walking long distances. Past Christmas vacations when we have taken cruises, she has spent most of her days on the balcony of her cabin sharing only meals with us. I just knew that if we could convince her that Aruba was a destination which would appeal to the entire family, that the Tamarijn would be the perfect accommodation. The entire family loves the beach so our days are spent mainly there and, of course, in the ocean swimming. What would be more fitting for her than an oceanfront room with a patio where she could sit working her crossword puzzle or where only steps away, she could lounge under a shade palapa all within sight and contact of the entire family.

In building 1300, everything was centrally located for her, whether we needed to get her out to the lobby to the rental car for our “do it yourself” island tour or the golf cart shuttle to take us over to the Divi for dinner at the ala carte Red Parrot Restaurant or an even shorter walk to Pizza per Tutti for lunch or a snack or the Cunucu Terrace for breakfast or lunch. Also close by between the lobby and the Cunucu Terrace were the ala carte restaurants, Ginger and Paparazzi. The Palm Court Grill is also located adjacent to the Cunucu Terrace. Again, this was ideal for someone who could not do much walking.

After settling into our spectacular oceanfront room, we met up with my grandmother and headed over to Pizza per Tutti where we had some delicious pizza and my first Balashi of the trip, all while overlooking the ocean just a stones throw away! The snack proved to be more than enough food to hold us over until our first night’s dinner at the Red Parrot. Following our snack, dh headed back to the room to unpack, and I headed to the lobby to await my brother, my nephew and two nieces. It had been a year since I had seen the kids, and I missed them dearly. Following a long day of travel, the next best thing to being in Aruba, was sitting in the Tamarijn lobby gently cooled by the tradewinds, just after dark, relaxing in the warm glow of the Christmas lights and beautiful Christmas decorations and trees.

The Tamarijn: Food, Beverage & Service
Food was excellent throughout the resort and there was always something for everyone, including the children. For food the buffet opened at 7 a.m. and Pizza per Tutti stayed open until 1 a.m. For a quick snack there was always popcorn. They made it throughout the day at per Tutti and dish it out fresh in small paper bags. My niece complained the pizza at the pizza bar had a “plain” sauce and was “not like the NY pizza she was used to.” She was supplied with oregano and red pepper- problem solved. We were totally taken by surprise by some of the more upscale offerings on the lunch buffet such as scallops in wine sauce and paella complete with shrimp, mussels and crabmeat (though I think that may have been imitation). Steaks at the Red Parrot were better than the ones we have been served on Princess and Celebrity Cruise Lines and in my opinion, the Churasco was better than El Gaucho’s. The portions were also more than plentiful. If I had to say any part of the food was lacking it was the cakes for dessert, though there were a couple of chocolate cakes that were not half bad. Is anyone going to allow his vacation to be judged upon desserts?

My parents arrived at the Tamarijn a few hours prior to us so Mom was in charge of making dinner reservations. She was able to make reservations for the first three nights of our stay. Reservations the first day work out essentially, you get whichever seating’s are left for the night you arrive and, except for those who have checked in already before you that day, you have first dibs on the next two nights. Then the following morning beginning at 8 a.m. you can make reservations for your fourth night’s dinner and so on for the successive days. My husband is an early riser so was there at 8 a.m. each morning. The resort was full capacity for some of the nights we were there. On New Year’s Eve, because of all the new check-ins of those who could book the 3 nights in advance, instead of 8:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. our reservation for that night was 8:45 p.m. We do not mind eating late, especially on New Year’s Eve, a 15 minute difference was no big deal. Most every other evening we were able to reserve a table at 7:30 p.m. It was very sad arriving at the restaurants, which were supposed to be booked solid, and they sat half empty. From talking to the staff, they explained that from drinking all day, people get tired, take a nap and then sleep right through their dinner reservation.

You cannot discuss dining without mentioning the service. Again, a matter of opinion, we did not have high expectations for the service at the resort after reading negative things throughout the internet. We again, were very pleasantly surprised at how good the service was. Those Arubans who were outstanding included: Concierge Iris; at the Cunucu Terrace: Iso and Elvira; Tamarijn bartenders: John and Carmen and Calvin at the Red Parrot. These are just a few of the folks at the Tamarijn and Divi who made our vacation so enjoyable. I also cannot leave out the activities staff, which no matter how few participants they had, just carried on in their jobs trying their best to get the crowd involved. The biggest draw of the day was always poolside bingo. I knew the ladies from the kid’s club were winners when they surprised the kids during pool games by jumping in to the surprise of everyone, with all their clothes on! The kids thought it was cool, and so did I.

My husband was not keen on tipping at an all inclusive where the tipping was “included,” but at my prodding, he quickly learned that a $5 tip here and there was worth a ton of good will. He visited the concierge first thing 8 a.m. each morning to make our dinner reservations. Twice he came forth with a $5 tip and both reactions were the same, utter shock. Evidently no one at the resort ever tips the concierge? Must have been a truly memorable moment for sure if dh received a hug and kiss from Iris the concierge as we were departing. $5 first thing in the a.m. helped us get prompt service the rest of the day at Pizza per Tutti, meaning if we walked up the same time as someone else, we were handed the drink first, rather than having to wait and the drink being slid across the bar. This also helped our dd who is a little on the short side stand out among the crowd when she was waiting to be served. Dd was having a difficult time in the beginning getting served her afternoon ice cream. When they found out she was with us that took care of that problem too. LOL…Was it a problem? Where was she rushing off to anyway?

There was no beach or pool service, but the bars served just about every kind of tropical drink imaginable. Alcohol served was name brands. They only served one brand of wine, Colon, from Argentina. Dh liked the merlot, Mom liked the Chardonnay, and I liked the Pinot Grigio. Beer is only available on tap. All bars served the local Balashi beer. Balashi is a light lager similar to Amstel Bright and Corona. Some of the bars carried Amstel and Heineken. For beverages, or food, for that matter, neither beach nor pool service was offered. If you ordered something at Pizza per Tutti and wanted to sit at the table and chairs they have under the canopy overlooking the boardwalk and ocean, the bartenders would gladly bring your food over to you after it was cooked.

Breakfast buffet at the Cunucu Terrace at the Tamarijn was more than satisfying. There is a problem if you could not find something to your liking. Offerings included: yogurts, small platter of meats and cheese, chunks of fresh fruit: pineapple, orange, mango, melons, eggs cooked to order, hard boiled eggs, French toast, pancakes, pastries and breads, corned beef hash, scrambled eggs, sausage links, sausage patties, bacon, Dutch potatoes (baked cubed potatoes with onion) and juices: fruit punch, orange, grapefruit, tomato and cranberry among others. Dh did not particularly care for the coffee, but then again we have never traveled where he liked the coffee as much as he does his own at home. It is interesting to note that on New Year’s morning, dh and I decided to head to the Divi’s breakfast buffet and in addition to the above, they offered lox as well as egg’s Benedict and poached eggs. Overall the breakfast was a little more upscale, but if you do not like the walk or the even longer wait for the golf cart shuttle there from the Tamarijn, it is not a huge deal if you skip it. As a nicely added touch, on both Christmas and New Year’s morning, the resorts offered a choice of Mimosa or champagne at the breakfast buffet.

Monday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: chef salad, nicoise salad, beet salad, fresh cut fruits, fresh cut fruits, salad bar; Soup of the Day: cream of asparagus; Hot Buffet: wild rice with mushrooms, macaroni and cheese, deep fried plantain and potatoes, BBQ ribs, turkey and mushroom; Action Station: chicken nuggets with honey mustard sauce, pork sate with peanut sauce, stir fried vegetables, Cajun mahi-mahi, grilled beef steak with chimichurri; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, tuna salad, smoked turkey-tomato, pastrami-mozzarella; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Tuesday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: crabmeat salad, baby corn salad, coleslaw, fresh cut fruits, salad bar; Soup of the Day: beef bullion with noodles; Hot Buffet: rice pilaf with curry, penne with basil pesto, mashed potatoes, cauliflower in cream sauce, Cajun beef stew; Action Station: fried calamari, beef skewer with spicy dip, pork loin stir fry, chicken stir fry with vegetables; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, egg salad, gouda-lettuce-tomato, turkey-cheese-bacon; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Wednesday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: Titi shrimp salad, turkey salad, potato salad, green bean salad, salad bar; Soup of the Day: Boston clam chowder; Hot Buffet: Cajun rice, tri-color rottini with pesto, potato bonne femms, sautéed zucchini, spicy chicken wings, pork in tomato basil sauce; Action Station: French fries, onion rings, fish skewer, stir fry beef, pork in mushroom sauce; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, salami, roast beef-mozzarella; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Thursday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: Italian salad, bean salad, egg salad, salad bar; Soup of the Day: Potato garlic; Hot Buffet: white rice with raisins and butter, penne carbonara, boiled potato in tomato sauce, mixed vegetables; steamed mussels in wine sauce, sweet and sour vegetables; Action Station: mini croquettes, chicken sate with peanut sauce, beef stir fry, pork in sun dried tomato pesto; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, shrimp salad, pastrami-mustard, mozzarella-salami-onion; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Friday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: mixed seafood pasta salad, beef potato salad, kidney bean salad, salad bar; Soup of the Day: Goulash; Hot Buffet: fried rice, bow tie pasta with four cheese sauce, fried potatoes and peppers, Asian mixed vegetables, BBQ chicken drumsticks, jerk beef ribs; Action Station: fish fritters with Thai sauce, meatball onion skewer, pork in pepper sauce, chicken with fajita spices, French fries; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, prosciutto-provolone-pepperoni-onions; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Saturday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: chef salad, tri-color pasta with pesto, rice-fruit-raisin and nut salad, salad bar; Soup of the Day: chicken consommé with vegetables; Hot Buffet: rice with herbs, fettuccine with tomato basil sauce, curried boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, fish fillet in Creole sauce, beef stew; Action Station: breaded pork in zingara sauce, beef kabob, grilled chicken in BBQ sauce, mini pastechi; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, bacon-lettuce-tomato, cheese-mushroom-pizza sauce, salmon salda; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes. Sunday Lunch Buffet Cold Buffet: chicken vegetable salad, four bean salad, beef macaroni salad, salad bar; Soup of the Day: mushroom; Hot Buffet: paella, farfalle with mushrooms, potato quiche, yellow squash with onions, pork Roast with mustard sauce, sesame chicken in five spice sauce; Action Station: fried fish with tarter sauce, chicken with sweet and sour sauce, pork in pepper corn sauce, soy beef and vegetables; Sandwiches: hamburger, hot dog, crabmeat salad, roast beef-lettuce-peppers, ham-cheese-pineapple; Dessert: variety of mousse and cakes.

When we did not eat at the buffet for lunch, we ate at Pizza Per Tutti. We also walked over to per Tutti for most of our beverages since it was so close to our room. For water or soda, we walked to the other side of the swimming pool to Coconuts where there was a self-service station. My personal favorites at per Tutti were the made to order, thin crust pizza with mushrooms, tomato, peppers, onions and olives, the Mexican fries which are topped with salsa, sour cream, cheese sauce and guacamole as well as the onion rings. My Mom loved their garlic bread, grandmother enjoyed the garlic bread and, of course all the kids loved the chicken nuggets, ice cream, frozen virgin drinks and grape soda. In June I will try the Tuna on French bread as well as the meatball sandwich on French bread. If you were still hungry, everyday, many times a day they were making pop corn. Popcorn was dispensed plain so low calorie which makes it even better. On the subject of calories, dh and I thought we would gain some weight on this trip with all the terrific food, and it turned out we did not. He and I came to the conclusion that with all the walking back and forth between the bar and the buffet or per Tutti, we were burning the calories as we consumed them.

Some days my grandmother did not feel up to walking to the Cunucu Terrace so my brother or I, would fix her a plate “to go”. Usually, one of her favorites, a hot dog with sauerkraut or a nice salad from the salad bar, and she would eat it at the table on her patio overlooking the ocean.

In that we prefer a sit down dinner, by choice, our family did not dine at any of the dinner buffets. Each night there was a different theme. Menus were posted following lunch at the Cunucu Terrace, so you had the ability of deciding whether you wished to eat the buffet for dinner or ala carte, if you could still get a reservation.

For our ala carte meals, we ate many terrific meals at all the restaurants: Ginger, Red Parrot, Paparazzi and the Palm Court Grill. Being at the resort for 12 nights, and so the restaurant food did not become boring, we did rotate restaurants each night and overall were extremely happy with not only the quality, but the portion sizes. Some of the men ordered, appetizer, soup AND salad each night and were never told no or limited in any way. They just ordered whatever they wished. On Christmas and New Years the Divi and Tamarijn’s restaurants offered a special holiday menu with only three entrees. My Mom is a finicky eater and did not care for any items offered. One night she was able to order a Caesar Salad which was not on the menu and which she loves anyway. New Years night at the Red Parrott, she asked for broiled shrimp which they not only said was not a problem, but they even offered to prepare with garlic for her. Every night the server received a $10 tip. Too much or too little or not necessary I suppose is based on personal opinion. Tips were always gratefully accepted.

We ate only once at Ginger since my parent’s are real fond lovers of that type of cuisine. We only ate twice at the Palm Court Grill since there were 10 of us and preferred eating together. My personal favorites were the Caesar Salad at Paparazzi and the Red Parrot, the Dutch Onion Soup at the Red Parrot and the Churasco a Moda at the Red Parrot. This steak was served with a delicious, hint of garlic, creamy “almost” mashed potato as well as tomato vegetable relish and orange soy barbeque sauce. These were spicy, which I have a hard time with, so just asked for them on the side the next time. Special requests like that were never problems.

At Ginger, the Asian restaurant, some of the items we sampled included: Appetizers: Spring Rolls, Sushi, Green Curry Mussels, Tempura Mix (included fish besides the Vegetables), Miso Soup, Won Ton Soup and Entrees: Tokyo Beef Noodles, Spicy Chicken, Spicy Green Curry Chicken and Mango Chicken.

The Palm Court Grill Restaurant was a different concept. The table is your cook top here and you cook your own food. You grill your own two choices of Shrimp, Pork, Chicken or Beef. Some in our family just doubled up and ordered two beef or two shrimp and it was never a problem. Before bringing out your entree for cooking, there was a choice of two salads and two soups were offered as well. Along with your selections for the entree, each table was also served a fresh vegetable mix for grilling, French fries or fried rice, and three yummy sauces: Chimichurri, teriyaki and garlic mayonnaise. Besides the ice cream, the best dessert was found here, what they referred to as cream puffs! In actuality, even better, Profiteroles!

What would an all inclusive resort be without an Italian restaurant? At the Tamarijn it was called Paparazzi Restaurant. I would label the food here more Aruban Italian, than true Italian but we made out just fine. With that said, I was never daring enough to try the Lasagna al Forno with cottage cheese. Perhaps next time I will be daring enough to try it? In the 12 years we have been traveling to Aruba, never have we found a true Italian meal. No matter where we have been it has always had that blend of Aruba mixed in. Imo, it would only be the real Italians looking for some of Mom’s “homemade gravy” who would have a tough time at Paparazzi since again, like all the restaurants, there was something for everyone.

At Paparazzi we sampled just about everything. Appetizers: Bruschetta, Prosciutto E Sopressata, Carpaccio Di Pesce, Caesar Salad, Beef consommé with ravioli and Entrees: Ravioli Al Formaggio (Cheese ravioli in a creamy mushroom sauce served with basil and parmesan), Pasta Di Penne (Mediterranean ratatouille with penne pasta and tomato), Frutti Di Mare (Spaghetti with shrimp, mussels and squid in a creamy crustacean sauce), one of our favorites: Rinforzare E Salsa Delia Senape- Grilled beef tenderloin with cheese ravioli and grain mustard butter sauce and Dessert here: try the Torta Di Formaggio Di Amaretto- Amaretto cheesecake with marinated raisins and rum raisin ice cream. No need to go out drinking when you get a taste of their rum raisin ice cream. With the amount of rum in that ice cream the spoon stands up all by itself.

The other most popular ala carte restaurant is the Red Parrot Restaurant located at the Divi Resort. Items we sample here included: Appetizers: Nicoise Salad, Caesar Salad, BBQ Chicken Wrap, Island Seafood Gazpacho, Bonito Carpaccio (tuna loin), French Delight (Baked Brie cheese on toast served over poached apples finished with honey and red wine drizzle), Chorizo Delight (dh’s least favorite item in all the restaurants), Dutch Onion Soup and Entrees: Creole Snapper, Coconut Shrimp, Lomito Famoso (grilled medallions of beef tenderloin accompanied by a garnish of potatoes, onions, bacon and carrots served with a creamy pepper sauce) and Churasco a Moda (Marinated and grilled sirloin steak served with creamy garlic potatoes, tomato vegetable relish and orange soy barbeque sauce).

If there were one thing I could fault on the service, it would be the golf cart shuttles between the resorts. Sure it is an easy walk, for most adults, but for my elderly grandmother as well as mother who had a hip replaced less than a year ago, it was not possible. The shuttles were just not dependable. Whether it was the mornings to get a ride over to the Divi for breakfast or even worse, to come back from dinner at the Divi’s Red Parrot, either way expect a wait. One night we waited a half hour for the shuttle from the Divi back to the Tamarijn. There were plenty of shuttles around but they were taking folks back and forth between wherever and the Alhambra Casino.

Beach
Another huge topic among those who discuss the Tamarijn on the internet is “the rocks”. There are a substantial number of rocks the length of the resort. Yes, it was a slight inconvenience, but again there are many positives of the Tamarijn which outweigh this aspect. In comparison to the high rises, the Tamarijn’s beach may not have as sandy of a bottom, but unless you own a lanai at the Playa Linda or an oceanfront unit timeshare at the Riu, there are no resorts where you are able to walk from your room directly out onto the beach. If all you know are high rise beaches, all you know is a beach full of people. We had been reading and hearing how wonderful the beaches were at the low rise resorts for many years. It took a stay there and seeing it with our own eyes to be convinced that yes there are beaches in Aruba which are not crowded.

Which rooms have rocks in front of them? It seems that there is no single answer to this question since Mother Nature is always in flux. The one steady factor seems to be that there is always a beautiful stretch of white sand beach between the Tamarijn and Divi resorts.

http://www.arubabound.com/accommo/tamarijn_map.jpg The resort runs from the north at building 1100 ending to the south at building 2500 closest to Oranjestad. The end closest to 2500 is extremely quiet. The northern end at 1100 is not as quiet in that it is next to the fitness center, sports center (spot to pick up non-motorized watersports equipment) and a long stretch of beach beyond where many of the resorts guests choose palapas as well as owners of the Divi timeshares across the street.

During our stay, the north end of 1100 had the least amount of rocks, our recent stay was in the 1300 building, and walked to 1100 in order to easily enter the water. There were some coral shards (worn down, not sharp) even there but no rocks to climb over and I had advised my parents to bring water shoes. They were glad they did.

Essentially rocks extended from 1200 all the way down the beach parallel with the swimming pool to 1400 which had a very nice stretch of beach. All the public areas, two of three bars, restaurants, and lobby and publics areas are located between 1300 and 1400. Unfortunately, 1500 – 1800 was entirely rocky. The Bunker Bar is located between 1800 and 1900. 1900 to 2500 the further south you headed, the wider and better the beach was.

A terrific idea had read on the internet was to bring along clothespins or hair clip to secure our beach towels to the chaise lounges. With the type of chaises that the Tamarijn uses, there is no way to wrap the edges of the towels up and around and through the corners of the chair to prevent the towel from blowing off the chair. This tip worked like a charm!

We were very fortunate that outside of our four first floor rooms, there were a total of two palapas. As I said, my husband is an early riser. One morning he awoke at 7 a.m. and there was a woman already sitting under the palapa right outside our room. LOL, there was a palapa right outside her room, but her next door neighbors had risen even earlier and claimed that palapa. Domino effect and did not matter to us because we were touring the island that day. It worked out in days to come; she shared the palapa outside her room with her neighbors in the room next door. When we came back to the resort at 2 p.m. she evidently had already had enough of the beach for the day anyway and the palapa was empty. That too was a day during which the resort was booked solid. I think many folks down at our end of the resort headed north to use the palapas on the beach between the Divi and the Tamarijn. There were always a ton of people walking back and forth in that direction. If you did not mind the walk the beach there was nicer.

There are some buildings which have only two palapas. Down towards the south end of the resort from 1900 – 2500, there were a number of palapas being used by owners staying at the Divi Dutch Village. I understand they are fully entitled to do so, and you will also find owners from the Divi Village and Divi Links timeshares using the beach and palapas between the Divi and Tamarijn Resorts. The resort’s policy is that you cannot “hold” a palapa; you must be there with your towels and possessions.

Tamarijn Activities
Upon check-in you will receive a packet of information which includes a list of resort activities. There was a wide variety of things to do at the Tamarijn. The activities center-towel hut was open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Our family’s main use was to pick up towels and floats. Most days we exchanged our towels for fresh ones late in the day when our time at the beach was over. This way when dh went out early in the a.m. to sit under the palapa waiting for the rest of the family to awaken he always had fresh towels. The most popular activities seemed to be bingo poolside as well as t-shirt tie-dying. My 18 year old niece was one of only three to participate in the beer drinking contest and though she lost, she still received a t-shirt. My brother and the kids took the bicycles out for a spin one morning and one afternoon he took a ride down to Palm Beach and back. There were always a ton of sign up sheets: pizza making, t-shirt cutting (presumably the ones you had tie-dyed earlier), Aruba Aloe Factory Tour, bicycle tour to snorkel and more. There was a minimal fee for some of them and you need to sign up in advance for all of them. Activities like the beer drinking contest and pool volleyball etc were more spontaneous, though scheduled and did not require sign up.

The Divi Sports Center at the end of building 1100 was the spot where you could sign up to take out Sunfish sailboats, kayaks and windsurfers. Clinics were offered here as well. In addition this was the pick up spot for snorkeling gear: fins, masks and snorkels. Gear was in good shape, and they were nice enough to allow us to keep the gear overnight in order to head out first thing in the morning to snorkel rather than having to wait until they opened at 9 a.m. There were many people, including us, who attempted snorkeling the waters off of the Tamarijn to discover there is nothing to see, except some schools of small fish, mostly, fish I believe, are called silversides. My brother and nephew some saw critters down past the Bunker Bar near the pipes in the water. The next day my brother went back with dh and myself in tow and we saw nothing. I swear if I had not read on the internet that other people had seen things here I would have never believed him. The rock climbing tower at the center was open 4 hours a day and the adjacent fitness center was open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Besides live music nightly, night time activities at both the Divi and Tamarijn offered a nightly theme which rotated. These theme shows included: Salsa, Waterballet, Salsarengue, Karaoke, Limbo and contest, Latin Dance, Carnival Dance show which was the best show I have ever seen on the island. On the beach there was an 8:30 p.m. movie one night for adults and another night at 7:30 p.m. a movie for children. Chaise lounges are lined up and positioned facing a large white screen affixed to the front of the Divi Sports Center. Another night there was a kids disco complete with clowns! http://www.arubabound.com/accommo/tamarijn_activities.jpg http://www.arubabound.com/accommo/divi_activities.jpg

The Rest of Our Vacation
Most of our days were spent lounging on the beach with plenty of food and swimming mixed in. Jerry and I were usually the first ones in the family to head over to the breakfast buffet. Nice and quiet that time of day with no line for omelets and usually easy to secure a table close to the beach. For myself there is always that stupor for the first few days, just relaxing in a chaise lounge looking out over the gorgeous turquoise waters trying to keep my eye lids from closing until the time I ultimately lose the battle. No book needed these first few days. My grandmother was very content watching the kids enjoy themselves as she watched from her chaise lounge under our palapa. The rest of the time she kept herself busy reading or doing a crossword puzzle. Walking just those few short steps from the patio to the chaise lounge was perfect for her. Dh does what he does best, reading under the palapa until he eventually dozes off. His idea, and mine too, of a perfect vacation.

On Christmas morning we awoke to waves. Well, waves in the sense of two to three footers on the western coast of Aruba which are far from the norm. These lasted for a few days and broke up the monotony. That is I suppose if you care about that sort of thing like the kids did. All in all the weather was a little wetter than average, but hot as usual. Wetter in that we had some rain showers overnight, but not every night and some early morning showers most mornings as well as a couple of afternoon sprinkles. The first half of the trip was a little cloudier than the second half but I guess that means the kids were a little less sunburned than they would have been otherwise. I can force my own kid to slather on sunscreen, but my teenage nephew and nieces were a little more difficult. The best I could do was standby with the higher SPF for the next day, which they had “forgotten” to bring and the Benadryl for the itchy rash.

We did get out of the resort a couple of times. One day at lunch my grandmother announced that she needed to go shopping. Living in an assisted living facility she has many people who help to look after her and there were a few of her favorites for whom she wished to bring back souvenirs. I knew these could be had at the Tamarijn’s Mini-Market. We picked up a couple of nondescript items and I figured she was finished. She had it in her mind that she wanted to buy a guayabera for the kind gentleman who drives her to the beauty shop, bank and doctors. Nothing in the store could satisfy her. To her, they were not authentic enough. Where else to head in Aruba then but La Linda. La Linda is an Aruban department store in downtown Oranjestad. As a matter of fact a good place to go if, heaven forbid, the airline ever loses your luggage! I telephoned Bully and asked him if he was available to come pick us up. As considerate a person as he is, Bully felt his nephew Harold’s taxi was easier for my grandmother to get in and out of than his van so Bully telephoned Harold to pick us up at the Tamarijn. In the meantime Bully was close by and the next thing I know, he pulled up at the Tamarijn in his taxi with his seven year old son riding “shot gun”. They just wanted to say “hi” and help us to pass some time while we waited for Bully’s nephew.

Harold was terrific. He was able to drop us off right in front of the store so that my grandmother did not have far to walk. He then came into the store and waited while she made her selection. After we had paid for the purchase, Harold offered to bring the taxi around front, but being parked right outside the back door my grandmother said she could make the walk. All in all the ride cost almost as much as the shirt, but I am happy to see my grandmother do her part to help the local economy. People are not happy about the BBO, the car rental situation at the airport, the rising price of gas (they are well aware it has fallen in the US in recent weeks) and it goes on and on and on…not to mention Riu.

Another night before dinner we had made plans to meet up at the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort with Andrea (moderator from aruba.com forum), Cheryl from various bulletin boards and Eagle Beach Boy. A nice time was had by all and as always, it was nice putting faces with names. Andrea, nice person that she is, had actually come down with her husband to the Tamarijn earlier in our stay to say, “hi” and meet us. Imagine walking up and down the boardwalk at the Tamarijn looking for the kid in my computer avatar? What a lady!

Dh and I had worked it out so that about the middle of the vacation, when we thought there might be a chance that the kids would begin to get bored with the Tamarijn, we would have two SUV’s for the 10 of us to tour the island for three days. We made the reservation with Royal Car Rental in April for late December for two Suzuki XL-7’s. The day before they were to drop off the rentals, Royal called us to say that they would not have the vehicles the following morning, but could drop them off late afternoon. Jerry called them and said why not just make it the morning after that since we did not plan on using the vehicles at night anyway. The kids could have cared less about not leaving the resort. They were happy to continue doing what they were doing. A day after originally scheduled Royal appeared with two vehicles, one Suzuki and a Jeep Wrangler. The second Suzuki we had reserved had not yet been turned in. The Jeep Wrangler ended up being not in the best of shape, bottom of the barrel really. I can only imagine the amount of wear and tear those things go through. Jerry telephoned Royal at the end of the day and asked them to just come pick it up and we would just keep the one vehicle. After one day of touring, the kids and my parents had seen enough, so basically after that we just wanted the rentals to drive around to some snorkel spots one day and do something to be determined later on the third day. Royal was nice enough to come the very first thing next morning and switch out the Wrangler with a Lexus RX300 SUV at the same price as the Wrangler. After this we had no further vehicle problems.

So the big day comes and we finally have our “wheels” and we are off to tour the island with our “newbie’s.” With myself as tour guide in the Suzuki and dh as tour guide in the Wrangler, off we went heading south towards San Nicholas. We missed the turn as we do, nine times out of ten for Baby Beach. Next thing we know we are at the Seaman’ s Memorial and then continued on into Arikok National Park from there. Everyone was excited to see the herds of wild goats and the few wild donkeys. Lucky for us the donkeys were nice enough to pose.

The next stop was Quadirikiri Cave. Dh and I had been to the cave at Fontein before and with the Indian’s drawings, thought it interesting. Why would Quadirikiri be any different? It was much different and definitely not for the faint of heart. This is a much larger cave. The ranger from the park service warns you before you enter, that if you have respiratory difficulties or fear of bats, that this is not the cave for you. He was correct on both accounts. It was a tour of 20 – 30 minutes and probably the hottest I have ever been in my life. This place is virtually a sauna. The further back into the caves we went, the tighter the spaces, the hotter it got, the more bats, and those were the ones pointed out to us. Indian drawings, fossils, stalagmites and stalactites were all very nice. The kids loved it and now we have done it so now can say we do not have to do it again.

From there just continued on the path towards Boca Prins stopping a few places along the way for photo opportunities. The kids soon began complaining that we were showing them nothing but rocks and the rough ocean so once at Boca Prins we headed straight out of the park rather than making the right hand turn past the sand dunes to get over to Dos Playa. It was their loss for sure. We headed back to the resort and grabbed some lunch. When it came time to venture out again, everyone was enjoying themselves on the beach so dh and I headed back out on our own.

This time we retraced our steps to Boca Prins to pick up where we had left off. A few years back, Arikok National Park had set up a visitor’s center a short ways before heading north and reaching Boca Prins. In the back of the visitor’s center was Fontein. This is the only fresh water spring on the island. Literally an oasis in the middle of the desert and a lovely little spot with fresh water fish and turtles inhabited the water pond and it was a nice tranquil spot. In 2006 when we drove by the place was closed off and shuttered tight. Curious what had happened to such a wonderful spot I asked the ranger at Quadirikiri Cave what had happened and there was evidently a dispute of some type over the property so it is now closed to the public. I was a nervous wreck and got a lot of briars on my socks and sneakers, but we were able to figure out how to sneak in for a few pictures. The spot is virtually unchanged, though overgrown and we did not spot any turtles.

Once we arrived for the second time that day at Boca Prins we stopped at the bar and gift shop, for some bottled water and a bottle of, my favorite, Amstel Bright. Dh figured it was the least he could do to try to sooth over the rough morning. We continued onto Fontein Cave right around the corner, but by this late in the afternoon it was locked up tight. Yes, the caves are locked at night to protect the drawings from graffiti artists. Undaunted we continued out stopping along the way for some pictures of the white sand dunes at the base of the beach at Boca Prins. It is a long drive around the sand dunes, to get back over to the coast line to head to Dos Playa, but I am all for it if it protects the dunes, flora and fauna. We finally arrived at Dos Playa and took a couple of quick pictures. A squall was racing in off the ocean so fast you could literally see it pushing the waves ahead of it. We got back in the Jeep and headed back inland towards Santa Cruz.

Our next target was the collapsed Natural Bridge via the Ayo Rock Formations, but we missed the turn and ended up all the way north in Bushirbana. Heading back towards the eastern coastline we passed by the Bushirbana Gold Mill Ruins. The dirt paths here were horrible. Sharp pointed rocks were everywhere we looked and dh was worried about getting a flat tire so with darkness soon upon us anyway we decided to take one last quick detour up to Alto Vista Chapel. From there we just went back to the Tamarijn through the island route through Noord. This time I did not get us lost and much to dh’s relief we did make it back to the hotel before dark.

The following showery morning, dh, my brother, myself and the four kids set out after breakfast to snorkel. We started off at Catalina Cove. Imo, this is the best spot, but also the hardest. There is a lot to see once you get out into the four or more foot deep waters, but before that there are many rocks. It is difficult at best trying to walk over them with fins on and extremely painful in bare feet. The kids were getting tired and it was getting cloudy. Yes, yet another shower was heading our way. By the time we got out of the water and toweled off, it began raining. The kids decided that they had seen enough and were not interested in being in the water in the rain. Dh and I on the other hand, are used to diving in the rain so snorkeling is not much different except for the funny sensation on your back. My brother took the kids back to the Tamarijn in the Suzuki and dh and I hopped into the Lexus and headed down to Boca Catalina. Very strange snorkeling here. There is a very sandy bottom. The difference entering the water here was like night and day. For the best of both worlds, enter the water here and snorkel northward, it is not that far before you eventually reach Catalina Cove. Consider it one large snorkel area with just so-so coral up towards Catalina Cove, a lot of fish, and a good place for beginner snorkelers.

Anyone who knows us, realize that we are never without our dd. With my brother’s offer to look after dd back at the resort, we decided to dry off and head off for some more fun. What could be better than a long relaxing lunch? Next decision was where to go. I was thinking Bugaloe on De Palm Pier, but couldn’t be bothered with trying to figure out a place to park. Instead we settled on Salt and Pepper. We hadn’t been there in a number of years and it ended up being a really great choice for a relaxing leisurely lunch for two. The sun had finally made an appearance so we decided to eat outside. There was a table that would soon be available so we decided to wait at the bar. Dh was dying for a good espresso and I ordered an Amstel Bright.

About five minutes later, our table was ready. I suppose we were starving from all the exercise that morning because we ate like little piggy’s. You have to love tapas, being able to order all those small portions of everything that appealed to us. We started out with an appetizer of nachos, good but more like the Aruban version, followed by delicious: Greek salad, marinated olives, salt & pepper dip (kalalu-spinach and cream cheese with nacho chips), seafood wrap and garlic calamari. The service was on Aruban time, but dh and I were in no rush since we never ever get out alone together. Too full for dessert we just stalled our departure over a cappuccino and espresso before heading back to “the family”. Ending our peaceful interlude, dh and I headed back to the Tam and picked up my Mom and Grandmother to drive them back up the north coast to see the California Lighthouse which they were gypped from seeing the day before.

That night at 10 p.m. was the Ling & Son’s firework display. The front desk told us that there was an office building’s parking lot across the street from the Tamarijn which would be perfect for viewing the fireworks. This fireworks display was one of the things which we told my grandmother would make this trip to Aruba worthwhile. She admitted later we were right. She had not seen fireworks like that in her entire life. Dh drove my grandmother over to the parking lot in the Lexus and she had a seat and a stupendous display. Our family thought they were just as good, if not better, than 4th of July at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. They had a 15-20 minute delay due to technical difficulties, but worth the wait.

The Divi Sports Center at the end of building 1100 was the spot where you could sign up to take out Sunfish sailboats, kayaks and windsurfers. Clinics were offered here as well. In addition this was the pick up spot for snorkeling gear: fins, masks and snorkels. Gear was in good shape, and they were nice enough to allow us to keep the gear overnight in order to head out first thing in the morning to snorkel rather than having to wait until they opened at 9 a.m. There were many people, including us, who attempted snorkeling the waters off of the Tamarijn to discover there is nothing to see, except some schools of small fish, mostly, fish I believe, are called silversides. My brother and nephew some saw critters down past the Bunker Bar near the pipes in the water. The next day my brother went back with dh and myself in tow and we saw nothing. I swear if I had not read on the internet that other people had seen things here I would have never believed him. The rock climbing tower at the center was open 4 hours a day and the adjacent fitness center was open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Besides live music nightly, night time activities at both the Divi and Tamarijn offered a nightly theme which rotated. These theme shows included: Salsa, Waterballet, Salsarengue, Karaoke, Limbo and contest, Latin Dance, Carnival Dance show which was the best show I have ever seen on the island. On the beach there was an 8:30 p.m. movie one night for adults and another night at 7:30 p.m. a movie for children. Chaise lounges are lined up and positioned facing a large white screen affixed to the front of the Divi Sports Center. Another night there was a kids disco complete with clowns! http://www.arubabound.com/accommo/tamarijn_activities.jpg http://www.arubabound.com/accommo/divi_activities.jpg

The Rest of Our Vacation
Most of our days were spent lounging on the beach with plenty of food and swimming mixed in. Jerry and I were usually the first ones in the family to head over to the breakfast buffet. Nice and quiet that time of day with no line for omelets and usually easy to secure a table close to the beach. For myself there is always that stupor for the first few days, just relaxing in a chaise lounge looking out over the gorgeous turquoise waters trying to keep my eye lids from closing until the time I ultimately lose the battle. No book needed these first few days. My grandmother was very content watching the kids enjoy themselves as she watched from her chaise lounge under our palapa. The rest of the time she kept herself busy reading or doing a crossword puzzle. Walking just those few short steps from the patio to the chaise lounge was perfect for her. Dh does what he does best, reading under the palapa until he eventually dozes off. His idea, and mine too, of a perfect vacation.

On Christmas morning we awoke to waves. Well, waves in the sense of two to three footers on the western coast of Aruba which are far from the norm. These lasted for a few days and broke up the monotony. That is I suppose if you care about that sort of thing like the kids did. All in all the weather was a little wetter than average, but hot as usual. Wetter in that we had some rain showers overnight, but not every night and some early morning showers most mornings as well as a couple of afternoon sprinkles. The first half of the trip was a little cloudier than the second half but I guess that means the kids were a little less sunburned than they would have been otherwise. I can force my own kid to slather on sunscreen, but my teenage nephew and nieces were a little more difficult. The best I could do was standby with the higher SPF for the next day, which they had “forgotten” to bring and the Benadryl for the itchy rash.

We did get out of the resort a couple of times. One day at lunch my grandmother announced that she needed to go shopping. Living in an assisted living facility she has many people who help to look after her and there were a few of her favorites for whom she wished to bring back souvenirs. I knew these could be had at the Tamarijn’s Mini-Market. We picked up a couple of nondescript items and I figured she was finished. She had it in her mind that she wanted to buy a guayabera for the kind gentleman who drives her to the beauty shop, bank and doctors. Nothing in the store could satisfy her. To her, they were not authentic enough. Where else to head in Aruba then but La Linda. La Linda is an Aruban department store in downtown Oranjestad. As a matter of fact a good place to go if, heaven forbid, the airline ever loses your luggage! I telephoned Bully and asked him if he was available to come pick us up. As considerate a person as he is, Bully felt his nephew Harold’s taxi was easier for my grandmother to get in and out of than his van so Bully telephoned Harold to pick us up at the Tamarijn. In the meantime Bully was close by and the next thing I know, he pulled up at the Tamarijn in his taxi with his seven year old son riding “shot gun”. They just wanted to say “hi” and help us to pass some time while we waited for Bully’s nephew.

Harold was terrific. He was able to drop us off right in front of the store so that my grandmother did not have far to walk. He then came into the store and waited while she made her selection. After we had paid for the purchase, Harold offered to bring the taxi around front, but being parked right outside the back door my grandmother said she could make the walk. All in all the ride cost almost as much as the shirt, but I am happy to see my grandmother do her part to help the local economy. People are not happy about the BBO, the car rental situation at the airport, the rising price of gas (they are well aware it has fallen in the US in recent weeks) and it goes on and on and on…not to mention Riu.

Another night before dinner we had made plans to meet up at the Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort with Andrea (moderator from aruba.com forum), Cheryl from various bulletin boards and Eagle Beach Boy. A nice time was had by all and as always, it was nice putting faces with names. Andrea, nice person that she is, had actually come down with her husband to the Tamarijn earlier in our stay to say, “hi” and meet us. Imagine walking up and down the boardwalk at the Tamarijn looking for the kid in my computer avatar? What a lady!

Dh and I had worked it out so that about the middle of the vacation, when we thought there might be a chance that the kids would begin to get bored with the Tamarijn, we would have two SUV’s for the 10 of us to tour the island for three days. We made the reservation with Royal Car Rental in April for late December for two Suzuki XL-7’s. The day before they were to drop off the rentals, Royal called us to say that they would not have the vehicles the following morning, but could drop them off late afternoon. Jerry called them and said why not just make it the morning after that since we did not plan on using the vehicles at night anyway. The kids could have cared less about not leaving the resort. They were happy to continue doing what they were doing. A day after originally scheduled Royal appeared with two vehicles, one Suzuki and a Jeep Wrangler. The second Suzuki we had reserved had not yet been turned in. The Jeep Wrangler ended up being not in the best of shape, bottom of the barrel really. I can only imagine the amount of wear and tear those things go through. Jerry telephoned Royal at the end of the day and asked them to just come pick it up and we would just keep the one vehicle. After one day of touring, the kids and my parents had seen enough, so basically after that we just wanted the rentals to drive around to some snorkel spots one day and do something to be determined later on the third day. Royal was nice enough to come the very first thing next morning and switch out the Wrangler with a Lexus RX300 SUV at the same price as the Wrangler. After this we had no further vehicle problems.

So the big day comes and we finally have our “wheels” and we are off to tour the island with our “newbie’s.” With myself as tour guide in the Suzuki and dh as tour guide in the Wrangler, off we went heading south towards San Nicholas. We missed the turn as we do, nine times out of ten for Baby Beach. Next thing we know we are at the Seaman’ s Memorial and then continued on into Arikok National Park from there. Everyone was excited to see the herds of wild goats and the few wild donkeys. Lucky for us the donkeys were nice enough to pose.

The next stop was Quadirikiri Cave. Dh and I had been to the cave at Fontein before and with the Indian’s drawings, thought it interesting. Why would Quadirikiri be any different? It was much different and definitely not for the faint of heart. This is a much larger cave. The ranger from the park service warns you before you enter, that if you have respiratory difficulties or fear of bats, that this is not the cave for you. He was correct on both accounts. It was a tour of 20 – 30 minutes and probably the hottest I have ever been in my life. This place is virtually a sauna. The further back into the caves we went, the tighter the spaces, the hotter it got, the more bats, and those were the ones pointed out to us. Indian drawings, fossils, stalagmites and stalactites were all very nice. The kids loved it and now we have done it so now can say we do not have to do it again.

From there just continued on the path towards Boca Prins stopping a few places along the way for photo opportunities. The kids soon began complaining that we were showing them nothing but rocks and the rough ocean so once at Boca Prins we headed straight out of the park rather than making the right hand turn past the sand dunes to get over to Dos Playa. It was their loss for sure. We headed back to the resort and grabbed some lunch. When it came time to venture out again, everyone was enjoying themselves on the beach so dh and I headed back out on our own.

This time we retraced our steps to Boca Prins to pick up where we had left off. A few years back, Arikok National Park had set up a visitor’s center a short ways before heading north and reaching Boca Prins. In the back of the visitor’s center was Fontein. This is the only fresh water spring on the island. Literally an oasis in the middle of the desert and a lovely little spot with fresh water fish and turtles inhabited the water pond and it was a nice tranquil spot. In 2006 when we drove by the place was closed off and shuttered tight. Curious what had happened to such a wonderful spot I asked the ranger at Quadirikiri Cave what had happened and there was evidently a dispute of some type over the property so it is now closed to the public. I was a nervous wreck and got a lot of briars on my socks and sneakers, but we were able to figure out how to sneak in for a few pictures. The spot is virtually unchanged, though overgrown and we did not spot any turtles.

Once we arrived for the second time that day at Boca Prins we stopped at the bar and gift shop, for some bottled water and a bottle of, my favorite, Amstel Bright. Dh figured it was the least he could do to try to sooth over the rough morning. We continued onto Fontein Cave right around the corner, but by this late in the afternoon it was locked up tight. Yes, the caves are locked at night to protect the drawings from graffiti artists. Undaunted we continued out stopping along the way for some pictures of the white sand dunes at the base of the beach at Boca Prins. It is a long drive around the sand dunes, to get back over to the coast line to head to Dos Playa, but I am all for it if it protects the dunes, flora and fauna. We finally arrived at Dos Playa and took a couple of quick pictures. A squall was racing in off the ocean so fast you could literally see it pushing the waves ahead of it. We got back in the Jeep and headed back inland towards Santa Cruz.

Our next target was the collapsed Natural Bridge via the Ayo Rock Formations, but we missed the turn and ended up all the way north in Bushirbana. Heading back towards the eastern coastline we passed by the Bushirbana Gold Mill Ruins. The dirt paths here were horrible. Sharp pointed rocks were everywhere we looked and dh was worried about getting a flat tire so with darkness soon upon us anyway we decided to take one last quick detour up to Alto Vista Chapel. From there we just went back to the Tamarijn through the island route through Noord. This time I did not get us lost and much to dh’s relief we did make it back to the hotel before dark.

The following showery morning, dh, my brother, myself and the four kids set out after breakfast to snorkel. We started off at Catalina Cove. Imo, this is the best spot, but also the hardest. There is a lot to see once you get out into the four or more foot deep waters, but before that there are many rocks. It is difficult at best trying to walk over them with fins on and extremely painful in bare feet. The kids were getting tired and it was getting cloudy. Yes, yet another shower was heading our way. By the time we got out of the water and toweled off, it began raining. The kids decided that they had seen enough and were not interested in being in the water in the rain. Dh and I on the other hand, are used to diving in the rain so snorkeling is not much different except for the funny sensation on your back. My brother took the kids back to the Tamarijn in the Suzuki and dh and I hopped into the Lexus and headed down to Boca Catalina. Very strange snorkeling here. There is a very sandy bottom. The difference entering the water here was like night and day. For the best of both worlds, enter the water here and snorkel northward, it is not that far before you eventually reach Catalina Cove. Consider it one large snorkel area with just so-so coral up towards Catalina Cove, a lot of fish, and a good place for beginner snorkelers.

Anyone who knows us, realize that we are never without our dd. With my brother’s offer to look after dd back at the resort, we decided to dry off and head off for some more fun. What could be better than a long relaxing lunch? Next decision was where to go. I was thinking Bugaloe on De Palm Pier, but couldn’t be bothered with trying to figure out a place to park. Instead we settled on Salt and Pepper. We hadn’t been there in a number of years and it ended up being a really great choice for a relaxing leisurely lunch for two. The sun had finally made an appearance so we decided to eat outside. There was a table that would soon be available so we decided to wait at the bar. Dh was dying for a good espresso and I ordered an Amstel Bright.

About five minutes later, our table was ready. I suppose we were starving from all the exercise that morning because we ate like little piggy’s. You have to love tapas, being able to order all those small portions of everything that appealed to us. We started out with an appetizer of nachos, good but more like the Aruban version, followed by delicious: Greek salad, marinated olives, salt & pepper dip (kalalu-spinach and cream cheese with nacho chips), seafood wrap and garlic calamari. The service was on Aruban time, but dh and I were in no rush since we never ever get out alone together. Too full for dessert we just stalled our departure over a cappuccino and espresso before heading back to “the family”. Ending our peaceful interlude, dh and I headed back to the Tam and picked up my Mom and Grandmother to drive them back up the north coast to see the California Lighthouse which they were gypped from seeing the day before.

That night at 10 p.m. was the Ling & Son’s firework display. The front desk told us that there was an office building’s parking lot across the street from the Tamarijn which would be perfect for viewing the fireworks. This fireworks display was one of the things which we told my grandmother would make this trip to Aruba worthwhile. She admitted later we were right. She had not seen fireworks like that in her entire life. Dh drove my grandmother over to the parking lot in the Lexus and she had a seat and a stupendous display. Our family thought they were just as good, if not better, than 4th of July at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. They had a 15-20 minute delay due to technical difficulties, but worth the wait.

We held a roll call for the family for our last day with the rental cars. Anyone who wished to snorkel again was more than welcome to join. Another showery morning and dh, dd, my brother and I headed out to snorkel at Mangel Halto. It is right past the Spanish Lagoon and usually a very picturesque spot. This time though with the clouds, the colors of the water were just not as bright. We snorkeled for a short time and quickly became cold so headed back to the Tamarijn. By the time we reached Oranjestad, as every other day, the sun came out and the rest of the day was beautiful.

Topping off our day was New Year’s Eve! After another wonderful dinner we went back to our room and awaited midnight. The day before a barge loaded with fireworks had been moored just off shore between the Divi and Tamarijn Resorts. We lined up a bunch of chaises to face the fireworks where the palm trees would not block the view. Steps away from the fireworks, again, they were everything we had hoped for. No disappointments for us.

Vacation wound down after that and before we knew it was time to head home. We ended the vacation the same as it began, shared a final beachside lunch with my parents and grandmother at per Tutti. Bully made two trips transporting my brother and his family and then dh, dd and myself to the airport. Bully’s nephew Harold picked up my parents and grandmother to take them to the airport, again because of the ease of my grandmother being able to get into the car. Our flight was later than everyone else. We asked the Tamarijn for a 1 p.m. check out rather 12 Noon and they nicely obliged. We always spend every last moment on the beach, leaving on enough time to shower and dress before leaving.

We did not know what to expect as far as long lines at the airport and I would say they were about normal. The line for US Immigration was non-existent. First time we have ever seen this. People complain, rightfully so, that there is no where to eat once you pass through US Customs and Immigration. At the gate area, unless you like Sbarro, essentially you are out of luck. If you fly first class you receive a meal, but otherwise flying Delta you receive a snack pack and then a snack. Next time, we will bring tuna or turkey sandwiches with us to eat on the airplane for our dinner. Our flight boarded on time; however we departed about an hour late. Some excuse was made about flight control. From what I have been able to piece together, air traffic control which is actually located in Curacao, had computer problems, so we were unable to depart. My parent’s flight on American was supposed to depart over an hour prior to ours and they were still at the gate as we were taking off. They eventually took off about 15 or 20 minutes later.

The only other downer which we already knew was that when we arrived in Aruba. We had just purchased new hard sided luggage and one piece arrived in Aruba with one corner so dented it was no longer there. Knowing that the personnel in Aruba were contractors, dh figured it was easier to get the problem straightened out when we arrived back in Atlanta. He was right. Upon retrieving the luggage from the carousel back in Atlanta we headed over to the baggage claims office to report it. They filled out the paperwork and gave us a pre-paid shipping bag in order to send the suitcase, after I had emptied it, on to Delta’s baggage repair center. They telephoned us a few days ago to say that the bag is not repairable but they could ship another new one as a replacement. Only problem is that the color is black, ours was orange and part of a set. We purposely purchased the color orange because it is so easy to separate from the others on the carousel. Even in preparing to go through US Customs in Aruba there was a wall of luggage lined up and ours just popped right up our of the mass. Delta left it that they will have their claims department contact us so they could arrange reimbursement . That is fine, as long as they make good on it. Dh is persistent, they will make good on it, and they will not have a choice.

Now we are home and in the midst of an extremely cold winter counting the days until the end of the school year for dh and dd and our return to the Tamarijn.

Categories
Booking Strategy

How to Find the Right Travel Agent

Back before I became a diehard fan of travel agents, I was a diehard fan of doing it myself. But a few bad trips, many of which I’ve written about in this column, resulted in numerous comments from travel agents that they could have saved me some agony, not to mention quite possibly some money. Here’s the story of my quest to find the perfect travel advisor.

What Makes a Good Travel Agent?

Full disclosure: I’m in the market for a holiday trip to a popular destination (a Hawaiian island) for a friend’s wedding. I figured I’d mix business and pleasure, and turn this article into a quest for affordable airfare.

As a result, I had three agendas:

1) To find a “Good Travel Agent.” What is this elusive creature?
2) To experience this creature’s purported magic first-hand.
3) To (somehow!) find a great airfare in a sold-out market.

A Monday afternoon’s calls to some local travel agents went thusly:

First call: No answer, left message, no returned call within 48 hours, still haven’t heard from them.

Second call: Spoke to an agent, gave her my itinerary, then had this exchange:

“We’ll see what we can do, and give you a call.” I had to ask when that call might come.

“Hopefully by the end of the week.” (Remember, this was on Monday.)

Third call: Receptionist answers, asks my name, then tells me (and I swear these were his exact words): “All our agents are currently busy with other customers. Please call back in 15 to 20 minutes.”

Aside from the fact that he sounded like a computer-generated on-hold operator, he made no offer to take my name or my number to have someone call me. Call us, we won’t call you….

Fourth call: The folks at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) are always trumpeting their agents, so I chose an agent who sported the ASTA logo in his Yellow Pages ad. Pay dirt.

Gene was funny, happily swapped war stories with me, called back promptly after investigating my itinerary, and explored other options at length when I wasn’t entirely happy with prices or the airline. In short order, by using some alternative airports, he found a fare that was $200 cheaper than what I had seen online.

He placed the reservation but asked if I could wait until the morning, as he was going to a party that night with some colleagues, and wanted to see if he could find anything interesting.

At 9:15 a.m., Gene called with some news: He had found a package deal with a three-night “throwaway hotel” (when you don’t even have to show up if you don’t want to) for almost $2,000 less than either of us could find anywhere else. He had nailed down our preferred dates of travel, if not our preferred airline, but beggars can’t be choosers, as the saying goes. As I said before: pay dirt.

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Finding a Good Travel Agent

Needless to say, I’m sold that a good travel agent can do some things no search engine will ever do. (I’ll still use online booking sites, nonetheless, for speed and convenience, but will call my new travel agent much more frequently.)

A few guidelines for choosing your travel agent:

1) I have to trumpet the ASTA connection; go with an ASTA agency. ASTA has a code of conduct, a Consumer Affairs Department where you can register complaints against members, and a reputation to uphold. You can search for ASTA-affiliated agents on the organization’s consumer site, TravelSense.org.

(Note that, on further inspection, I discovered that at least one of the agencies I didn’t use was an ASTA shop. ASTA affiliation isn’t a guarantee, but it’s a good start.)

2) Does the agent tell you everything you need to know? When you don’t like a certain airline, departure times or dates, or connection, does he shift gears immediately to find alternatives or try to force the issue? If your agent responds well in these situations, stick by him.

3) Do the agent’s fares and itineraries stack up well against the online booking services? Even when I call the airlines directly, I check an online reservations site to investigate my options ahead of time; I do the same with travel agents. The more information you have as a consumer of any product, the more likely you are to find what you really want.

When to Use a Travel Agent

Strongly consider using a travel agent instead of doing it yourself in the following cases:

Group trips/sales.
Getting 25 people on the same plane with seats together at an affordable price is no job for a dilettante. Call a travel agent immediately when traveling with a large group. Be firm and clear in your instructions on your budget, time and date restrictions, and other requirements.

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Family travel.

I consider family travel just a smaller subset of a group trip — we want sensible flight times, the fewest connections and shortest overall travel time possible, seats together throughout, hotel rooms with enough sleeping space, a car that can accept a child’s seat, etc. A good travel agent understands all of this intuitively, and can save you the headaches of sorting through all of this yourself.

When looking for a package deal.

There are so many package deals out there, at hotels you’ve never heard of, with itineraries so vague you’re not sure what country you’re visiting, that you probably need some assistance. (See Are Vacation Packages a Good Deal? for more help.)

When you fly frequently.

When you fly frequently, and especially when it’s SEM (Someone Else’s Money), having a good travel agent can be essential. No hours on hold, no endless Web surfing, no hassles; just a quick phone call, and your e-tickets arrive in your inbox.

When traveling to an exotic locale or new “resort” area.

I once took a trip to a new resort that hadn’t completed its plumbing installation, overlooked a beach at an oil drilling site and was plagued with thefts. I rented a car and disappeared for the rest of the trip, swallowing the cost of the hotel.

A good travel agent has an ear to the ground and will know whether a new hotel in an exotic location is safe and ready to welcome travelers. Many travel agents routinely visit hot new locations (often on the tab of the resort — see Potential Conflicts of Interest below).

Additionally, if any components of your itinerary collapse, your travel agent is accountable to help try to set things right. If you made all your reservations yourself, you’re up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

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When you don’t have time.

You might save a few dollars in fees, while you lose two hours in research. What is your time worth? Travel agents earn their keep by doing work you don’t have time to do.

When you have all the time in the world.

If you have a relationship with your travel agent, you can ask them to keep an eye out for good deals to your favorite locations. Sure, email notification services can do the same, but your travel agent might catch something a “bot” might not.

When you have the itinerary from H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.

If you have a particularly sticky itinerary — one with stopovers, rented cars in every city, several hotels and the like — you might want to get a pro on the job.

When you have a great travel agent.

If you’ve found the world’s best travel agent right in your neighborhood, throw her all your business. You won’t do better anywhere else. She can see everything the booking engines can see, and sometimes more. She’ll make a living, you’ll become a preferred customer and the world will be a better place. (Well, maybe not, but we can try.)

When to Do It Yourself

I do believe there are times when you can just make your bookings yourself:

Routine travel.

If you’re booking a simple roundtrip flight, you can probably do it yourself online with your preferred airline. This way, there’s no third party to consult if you have to make quick, simple decisions about departure times, prices or other factors. You make a few clicks and it’s done. No travel agent is going to make this process simpler or likely even cheaper.

When you’re working on word of mouth, or with Mom and Pop operations.

Many small hotels, B&B’s, local car rental joints or similar outfits don’t register on the average travel agent’s radar screen. When a friend tells you about this great and affordable little cabin that you can get by calling the local bait shop, make the call yourself.

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What to Ask a Travel Agent

A good travel agent will answer the following questions honestly and without resistance.

Do you apply a surcharge to my purchase? How big is it?

I think it is unfortunate that travel agents have been forced to apply a surcharge to get paid for the valuable work they do. And usually they’re worth the small fee. I have no sympathy, however, for agents and agencies that institute a surcharge and don’t tell their customers until after the fact.

Does the price quote include all taxes and other charges?

The odd travel agent will quote you the base price on a flight or hotel stay; then when you try to pay, it’s much higher. Even online booking engines quote final prices; expect your travel agent to do so as well.

What about incentive programs?

Are agents getting paid to steer you to a specific airline, cruise company, hotel or car rental agency? You want to know.

Are there airlines that do not appear in their computers?

Some airlines are more equal than others. Some airlines, such as Southwest and other smaller discounters, may not participate in the central reservations system. Good agents will know to check those airlines’ sites when appropriate.

Do they routinely work with vacation package companies?

The truly creative agent might not just offer you an airfare, but might find a vacation package that could even come in cheaper than the flight.

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Potential Conflicts of Interest

An agent who is paid to find the best airfare, but is simultaneously paid by airlines to steer customers to their flights, encounters a clear conflict of interest. While most agents should be assumed honest, you want to know about these arrangements, as the agent is put in a tough position of saving you a few bucks or making a few more bucks for himself.

It’s a conflict of interest, a little like when a real estate agent represents both the buyer and the seller. Whose interests are they protecting? Besides their own, of course. Please understand that I’m not attacking travel agents’ right to make a living. But when an agent sells out the customer on the other end of the phone to the airline on the other end of an incentive program, we have a problem.

Familiarization Trips

Often called “fam” trips, these are partly educational trips for travel agents and partly favors from travel companies, who often expect to be “paid back” with sales to that destination. Probably a necessary evil, but when someone recommends a new locale she’s just visited and loved, remember that she didn’t pay as much as you will to visit there. Again, ask the tough questions.

Overrides

An “override” refers to an incentive program where agents are rewarded, in commission increase or other perks, when they sell a minimum number or dollar amount of reservations for a particular airline, hotel, car rental company, cruise line or the like. The temptation to steer passengers to that company can be overwhelming, even if it’s not entirely in the best interests of the traveler.

Overrides are primarily an issue at large companies; your average local company can’t get anywhere near the numbers required for most overrides.

I’m not slamming agents by highlighting these issues; remember, one just saved me $2,000. I’m merely reinforcing my eternal credo: Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do your homework to find that “Good Travel Agent,” and you won’t regret it.

Categories
Family Travel

Wonder Down Under NOT our biggest nightmare!

Author: Marie A.
Date of Trip: October 2001

We went to Australia and rented an RV which there is called a Caravan. Our youngest was still in diapers! The travel agent immediately tried to convince us that it would break up our family. It was the best family vacation in that we had no limitations, could make our own schedule with freedom to go wherever and whenever and not the beaten path. We met wonderful people, stayed at RV campgrounds where there were dinners cooked in a joint outdoor kitchen and dining area with friendly natives quite willing to share there food,advise and cultures to make us feel at home. It was a great learning adventure.

It was just after 9/11 with plenty of fears. It was during the baseball world series and we were from Arizona who won the world series as a new team against the long established Yankees. The Austrailians told us this news and were excited for us when they saw it on the television in the camp outdoor kitchen while sharing shrimp on the barbie with us.

We took 3 long flights to get there out of Phoenix to LA,then to Honolulu, then to Guam then to Cairns in Queensland Australia. We went sailing to the Great Barrier Reef to beautiful pristine beaches where you leave only footprints and take back only memories(great fines or imprisonment if caught with a shell or littering).This was very ideal for all ages. We went zip lining at mission beach which was free in the local beach park with a pool using ocean water and a retaining wall.

We stayed at a cattle station and milked the cows and got to know George and Matilda an old Kangaroo couple. Our whole family played with the beautiful parrots,rode on Camels en route, went to The Bilibong animal sanctuary to see koalas, alligators, pandas,wombats,kangaroos. We went inside the lava tubes which was a big cave carved out of lava and water.

It was our own choosing of what we ate since we shopped in local stores and cooked what we wanted when we wanted to eat. There were Italian neighborhoods with pastry and all the ethnic foods and customs in Innisville,German food, Greek food,Asian food. You name it you can find it. We went into a fairy shop with a local owner who had another small toy store which was quite fascinating. Interesting fairies and other toys including boomerangs,and didgeridoos. It was like going back in time to a smaller,simple life 50 yrs ago to local store front mom and pop butchers,bakers,grocers.

We went in late October into early November 2001, which was their summer/spring. We only booked a hotel on arrival and departure since we traveled by air so long and arrived by midnight and did not know the roads and driving on the wrong side of the road.

The Kuranda train and scenic railway was a wonderfull blast from the past up to the rain forest, followed by a cable car high above the canopy of the rain forest with views of the great barrier reef in the distance. The waterfalls were breathtaking. Various billabongs and the Billabong sanctuary offered one of a kind experiences. Blue Water RV or as they say there Caravan Park offered Camel rides for all of us.

Townsville was a quiet and quaint little town,friendly and clean with great family parks and beaches with unique zip lines, play equipment and sea serpents and fish statues for great family photos as we took in Soropootist Park in Townsville in tropical North Queensland and the rockpool and waterpark in Magnetic Island which are all FREE without long lines and high priced admission tickets there, Palm Cove, Green Island, Charters Towers which was an hour drive inland from Townsville where you truely believe Opy and Aunt Bee are there to greet you at the tiny visitors bureau just before they roll up the sidewalks to go to sleep by 7PM.

We took a nice boat ride to Kelso Reef. There was a long trip to the Cattle Station at Bluff Downs where we passed long truck caravans 2-3 trucks joined together on single lane roads where your RV would have to pull onto a sliver of road to allow the oncoming traffic to pass since there was no two directions possible at the same time.

At the cattle station we got put to work through our own request like a farm hand to be able to play with the kangaroo, parrots and birds with such beauty in such proximity that we had never seen before. The Undara lava tube also caught great interest from all of us with its carved out Lake Eacham. Malanda Falls, Green Isle and Pinnacle reef let us enjoy sailing, swimming and snorkeling and other nice sights and activities.

Categories
Beach

Bavaro Princess – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Author: Monique Johnson
Date of Trip: April 2004

Just thought I would write my own review as we just returned on Friday April 30 and it was the most magnificent 7 days of my life, next to my wedding and the birth of my children of course. We booked through a Canadian (Ft Erie) travel agent, we live in Buffalo, NY. Only my husband and I went- this trip was to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary.

Airport: We flew out of Toronto into Punta Cana International and let me tell you, the pictures we saw on the web do not do it justice. Hatch roof, open air, very tropical. After going through customs, very easy if you have a passport and your tourist card already filled out. These cost $10US, hopefully whom every you book through has them in your package already. You claim your luggage and head for the outside.

There they have lots of men with signs showing several Travel groups, they tell you the number of your bus to your resort. Cross the parking lot, find your bus, check in with your travel guide, watch your luggage get put on, then take a seat. Our guide made a “CERVESA”(BEER) run to get cold, ice, cold El Presidente, the beer of chose in DR.

Then its off to the resort. We did have to drop off people at 2 other resorts. They looked very nice, but none compared to what we were about to see.

Check-In: the people-OH so very friendly. Check in went well, as well as any check-in can be. Told them our name, received cold tropical fruit drinks while in line. Had everything explained to us in English-pleasantly surprised after all the negative reviews about the language difficulties. Informed due to the time we arrived Noon our room would not be ready until 3pm, changed into our other cloths (swimsuits & shorts-packed in our carry on- thanks for the tip) we had lunch -Hispaniola-buffet, they open @ 1pm.

Then, because we opted for VIP,(very wise chose) we asked if we could get our key now, since we were heading for the beach and didn’t want to have to come all the way back to the lobby in a couple of hours. The front desk guy was great-“Hansel”, he handed over the keys without even getting a tip- but we tipped him anyway. They make so little.

Room: the pictures on line or even in the brochures do not do it justice. Beautiful, full stocked refrigerator, CERVESA, & cold soda & water, even diet soda! Fresh flowers, our maid even made the towels into ducks/swains and a heart on the bed. We did leave her little gifts after the first day, I got that as a tip from another website, but we also left a couple US dollars too. Next time I think I’ll just leave US dollars, the gifts made our luggage extra heavy. They even had a cake delivered on the first day stating “Feliz Annivesario”. We thought that was a nice touch.

*** Remember to pack the colored wash cloths-another tip we got***

Beach: Beautiful, wonderful, magnificent, more than enough chairs & hunts for shade, even if you don’t go out @ 8am to leave a towel on the chair-which to me seems lame, since the people who do this do not even show up to lay out and enjoy the beach until well into the afternoon.

Pools: As pools go I guess they are good, but I didn’t come all that way to sit by the pool. We lounge by it the first day, then it was the beach. But I do have to say the swim up bar is very cool.

Food: never got sick, not even a little and my husband & I are lactose intolerant and we ate ice cream. We did as our Sunwing agent-Yessy said, stayed away from the coconut milk-natural laxative. So when I had a fresh fruit smoothy-pineapple every morning it was made with OJ instead of coconut milk and NO PINA COLADAS. But that was OK the food was great.

El Gaucho- Steak house- good, not great, no steak sauce, so if your an A1 guy or gal bring your own

MacPrincess- beach hunt, burger joint- great, chicken burgers, hamburgers, french fries-ketchup is different-kind of vinegary but OK if you only eat Heinz or Hunts or only like that kind of taste-bring your own

Bella Pasta- just what the name implies-Italian, Great! pizza, pasta, steak, lasagna-great!

El Pescador- Seafood-had the very first night-wonderful, lobster does not taste like Maine lobster but good just the same.

Sakura- Japanese theme-Asian flair- good but keep in mind your in DR not Japan-try the pistachio ice cream-to die for.

Chopin- great- buffet style, so something for everyone. Make sure you book for after around 8:30pm, that’s when the piano boat signer sings 20 minutes-very nice.

Licey- gourmet-very, very nice. Atmosphere very romantic, had a bottle of Champagne with dinner along with “VINO”, food was OK, glad it was included in the VIP, I don’t think I would have been as happy if I had to pay the $25 per person charge. The “Princess Lobster” was different than what I was expecting but my husband had steak and he thought it was great!

Hispaniola- I think by far the best buffet I have ever been to. We went Thursday night, which is Dominican night. Shots of “MAMA JUANA” greet you at the door. Then the selection of food is amazing, all the delicacies of DR are on display including but not limited to the roasted pig-full body, of course. What can I say the food was great, I ate well every day.

Breakfast was the main buffet-Hispaniola-eggs made to order, fresh made fruit smoothies, waffles, doughnuts. Heard Chopin also had breakfast but never made it there for breakfast.

VIP: well worth the extra money, didn’t do the horseback riding, but the Bottle of Rum-delicious, cigars, gourmet dinner and massage-WHICH WAS THE BEST ONE I HAVE EVER RECEIVED, was well worth it!

PARASAILING: wonderful-and I’m afraid of heights-I don’t even take my kids on the ferris wheel. But I did it 250- 300ft in the air, the company that took us out even dropped us off at the beach of our resort like a water taxi. Cost $75 for the two of us to go up together for about 15-20 minutes-GREAT!

Shopping: Across the street or down the beach-BARGAIN, do not settle for the price they give you, move on if they do not give in, someone else will.

PEOPLE: The Dominican people are the most friendly people I have every met. “HOLA” was all we ever heard from everyone we came across. The Europeans-Spanish, in particular are rude. They seemed to act as if not only was it the staffs every desire to fulfill all their wishes and commands but for all other guest to bow down to their feet also.

All in all this was the greatest trip and best resort we have ever been to, but since this is the first resort we have been too, don’t take my advise, check it out yourself!

Categories
Outdoors

3 days in Novosibirsk, Siberia – AND a total solar eclipse!

Author: RichardNika
Date of Trip: August 2008

I’d wanted to visit Russia since my teenage years; after the Soviet Union collapsed in ’91, I sometimes joked that I had missed my chance to go there when it was still “dark and evil.” I didn’t know if I’d ever get there, but the laws of planetary motion finally dictated a trip this past July and August. You might say that it was “in the stars.”

I’d wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun ever since I was into astronomy and science fiction as a kid. My dad wasn’t about to allow my then-adolescent self to travel alone from Buffalo to Minneapolis for the 1954 eclipse, and I missed the 1963 spectacle because I was too busy courting my wife-to-be. But when I realized, early in 1970, that a total would be crossing Mexico and the southeastern US on March 7, I checked the weather forecasts carefully, flew to Virginia Beach (I was then living in southern Michigan) and saw a beautiful eclipse in a totally cloudless sky.

I was hooked! I began chasing totals (and a few spectacular annulars, in which the sun is almost but not quite covered) seemingly everywhere – north and south America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe, India and southeast Asia, some alone, some with my wife, some with one or more of my three daughters, and once (Curacao, 1998) with the entire “gang of five.” After my wife and I saw the ’06 total in the spectacular Cappadocia region of Turkey, I had 11 totals, two annulars and one spectacular and rare annular-total (in downtown Atlanta, of all places!)under my belt. And I hadn’t been clouded out once, although I’d had some very close calls! In ’07, my wife asked me when and where the next one would be. I checked and told her – far (VERY far) northern arctic Canada, Siberia and China. The forecast for arctic Canada was – well, as New Yorkers famously say, fuggedaboudit! That left Russia and China. My wife was nervous about traveling independently in China because of its sheer “foreign-ness,” and I had been getting really put off by Chinese repression (not that Putin’s Russia was that much better), the Tibet issue, and the regime’s closeness to such world-class regimes as those of North Korea, Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe. But the deciding factor was that the eclipse would be August 1 and the Beijing olympics – with the attendant crowds and inflated prices – would begin only days later.

I began studying the path of totality through Russia. The path entered from the north and sliced down through central and southern Siberia, clipped the SW corner of mongolia and then entered China. Quite a few Russian cities and towns were in the path, but the clear winner was Novosibirsk, the biggest Russian city that I (and probably you) had never heard of. Russia’s third largest city, it lies astride the River Ob, and is a major junction on the trans-Siberian railroad. The weather prospects were favorable, and there was easy access. It was settled. “Novo” was our choice.

The first step was getting the plane tickets. TransAtlantic airfares in the summer are costly, but, fortunately, require no more in the way of mileage awards than offseason. When you live in south Florida and have kids and grandkids in Atlanta and LA, the miles pile up, and we greedily hoard them. That’s how we got to Austria and Turkey in the summers of ’99 and ’06 for those totals.

After spending a few hours on the phone with American Express and Delta reps, we got our paid-for-with-mileage tickets as far as Moscow – leaving Miami International the afternoon of July 28, Air France to Paris and again to Moscow, and return to Miami via NY/JFK on Aeroflot and Delta on August 12. This allowed plenty of time to get from Moscow to Novo. Those tickets had to be paid for – with money, unfortunately – and bought directly from Aeroflot. That should have been easy. It was not. Aeroflot wanted not just money but documentation, including at least one passport, before turning over the tickets. Frustrated, I finally decided to physically go to their office in Rockefeller Center during a one day visit to NY in December. I got to see the big Christmas tree – but not the tickets! They had the reservation request, and I had my passport in hand, but they wanted to see my wife’s passport as well. After returning home, my wife faxed a photocopy of her passport to them, and they finally mailed us the tickets. Our flights were now settled. We’d arrive Novo early morning of July 30 after 25 hours in transit and two redeye flights two nights in a row, leave Novo the early morning of the 2nd, land in Moscow 4 hours later, leave Moscow on the 4th on a 70 minute “shuttle” to St. Petersburg, fly back to Moscow the morning of the 12th, then nonstop to NY/JFK on Aeroflot and on to Miami on Delta.

Now came the processes, first, of getting a hotel room in Novo, and then getting our Russian visas. Have you ever tried to book a hotel room in a city which might as well be on the moon as far as all the usual American and European booking sites know? Moscow? No problem. St. Petersburg? No problem. Novosibirsk? Fuggedaboudit! As if that wasn’t enough, the hotels themselves, once I managed to get their names and addresses, were impossible to reach directly. E mails, in the rare cases in which an e mail address was available, were ignored. Phone calls? Fine – if you speak Russian. We didn’t.

Why the hotel room first and then the visa? Very simple. No paid-for hotel room for each Russian city on your itinerary? No visa! To get a Russian visa, you need a ‘letter of invitation” from every place you’re going to stay. In practice, that means a letter from each hotel certifying that you have a room reserved – AND have paid for it. But wait! There’s more! You need to get rooms in hotels that offer “visa registration.” What’s that? It’s a requirement that you have to “register” your visa in each city in which you will spend three or more days. Three days can mean three full days. It can also mean arriving in a city at 11:55 at night on Day One and leaving at five minutes past midnight on Day Three.

OK, you don’t HAVE to stay in a hotel that offers visa registration – IF you don’t mind going to a government office in each city and maybe waiting in line and then doing it yourself, probably with a clerk who speaks no English.

I found several travel agencies that could get us what we needed in Novo. Each one wanted to charge us 3 to 4 times the going rate. I finally found a German-owned Russian agency – with an office in Novo, and an obliging young English-speaking lady named Alla – who booked everything that we needed for us in all three cities, at reasonable prices.

There would be eight full days between our initial arrival in St. Petersburg and our final departure from that city. St. Petersburg is not far from both the Estonian and Finnish borders, so I decided to spice up our itinerary. Three days and nights in St. P., then a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, then a boat across to Helsinki, a visit there, then back to St. P. for one more day and night there. I decided to arrange that, but first we needed not just Russian visas, but Russian double-entry visas, because we’d be leaving and then returning to Russian territory. We downloaded the Russian visa application forms, discovering in the process that the fee had been raised from $100 to $131 each to match a recent US increase for Russians in the same amount. Money orders or cashiers checks only, of course.

We messed up two sets of those forms before finally getting everything right. Names (single and married), current and the previous two addresses, name, address, phone number and dates for every previous employer and every college and/or university attended as well as last high school attended, addresses and phone numbers for each of our hotels, every country visited within the last 10 years, and so on. All this went, with our passports, money, and the required prepaid return FedEx empty packet, to the Russian embassy in Washington. A week and a half later, our passports came back, each with the precious sticker in it. Needless to say, we kept copies of everything we’d sent.

We were now into the spring of ’08. The next stage was to fill in the Estonia/Finland travel itinerary, which eventually involved a bus from St. P. to Tallinn, ferry to Helsinki, and bus back to St. P. I’ll save the details of those trips, and the preparation for them, for separate trip reports.

It was time for the final planning stage – the local logistics and tourist stuff. My practice, when traveling, is to use public transit whenever and wherever possible – especially when going to and from airports. Doing this in Russia, once you visit the library and photocopy everything you need from guidebooks, isn’t that difficult. But there is one catch. You MUST learn the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet! Without that, you will be lost, unable to make out station names, street signs, etc..

No problem. The letters A, K. M, O and T are the same in Russian as in English. Russians also have B, C, E, H, P and X. Problem is that their B is a V, C is an S, E is a “yeh,” their H is really an N, their P is an R and their X is, well, an H. A small ‘y’ is “oo.” A small e is an e, but if it has two dots over it, it’s “yo” (as in Rambo). Russian, of course, wouldn’t be Russian without a few of those backward letters that western cartoonists love to make fun of. So, a backwards R is “ya” (as in a Minnesotan saying “yes”) and a backwards N is “ee.” A 3 might mean 3, but also might be a Z, unless it’s shaped a little differently, in which case it’s “eh.” I’ll spare you the rest, except to note that if you’ve ever seen what a spider looks like after the cartoon cat Garfield has squashed it, well, that is a “zh” sound. Every night for at least two months, before turning in, my wife would say “why aren’t you studying your Russian alphabet?” Eventually, I “got it.”

I had made a special effort to rent a car in Novo, in case we needed to move quickly to get out from under cloud cover, as I had had to do for several totals in the past, but this turned out to be next to impossible. There were six or seven local rental agencies. I called them all, and no one spoke English. Hertz had an outlet and available cars, but we were leaving too early the morning after the eclipse to return the vehicle while their office was open. I finally decided we would see what arrangements we could make when we got there. Perhaps we could hook up with some other independent travelers and pool our resources.

I accumulated lots of photocopies of maps, suggested itineraries and so on. The final thing left to do was to arrange to have our house, two dogs, cat and bird taken care of in our absence. I managed to arrange for one of our daughters to move in for all but the final three days, during which I hired a pet sitter to come in three times a day.

The first stage of the trip was an overnight nonstop on Air France from Miami to Paris/Charles de Gaulle (CDG). We’d taken that same flight in ’06. It was full then, and was full this time as well. As always, we carried our luggage. I’d been advised that the weight limit for a carryon suitcase was 10 kilograms – about 22 pounds – and a “personal item” was also allowed. We kept our suitcases down to 19 or 20 pounds throughout, and I packed everything heavy into my “personal item.” I had supplied myself and my wife with hand-printed plasticized home made baggage tags for every segment of the trip in case we were forced to check anything. Each tag had our destination hotel in English and Russian. (Thank you, freetranslation.com) I knew that, in Europe, the carryon suitcase is always weighed, but the personal item is not.

We were packed in, but were also fed well and supplied with free drinks. In ’06, we’d had to change from an Air France Miami-Paris flight to an Air France Paris-Istanbul flight. It was a nightmare – we had just over an hour to do it, had to change terminals, take a bus, cope with the only rude and unhelpful people I’ve ever encountered in France, go through extra layers of security, and finally found our gate when the question “Are you people going to Istanbul?” was answered with ‘We THINK so!”

I was told that this would be much easier. Our flights arrived and left from the same terminal, we’d have only to walk from one gate to another nearby, and we’d have four hours to make the switch. Right. We had to walk endlessly, ask several times before discovering which way to turn, take a monorail ride, go for another long walk, and go through extra security, during which the small scissors that TSA had had no problem with were confiscated. (“Ohhh, FORBIDDEN!”) and everything was hand searched. Thanks to decades of familiarity with inflated airport prices, I’d packed plenty of food, and we had snacks at our gate. The flight to Moscow took about three hours. Lunch was served. The landscape was totally clouded over. It was only on the final descent that we saw ground, trees and buildings.

We were brought to a building, told to descend a stairway, and were in a huge room with at least 500 people in it, milling around as best they could in such a crowd. There were passport control booths, but people were processed with extreme slowness. On our right were two special lanes, one for diplomats and one for people with electronic passports. All the signs were in both Russian and English. Even though we had a four hour layover before leaving for Novo, I was concerned, because we were going to have to transfer from the international airport, Sheremetyevo (SVO) 2, to the domestic terminal, Sheremetyevo 1.

The room emptied very slowly. I began seeing more and more people go through the “electronic passports” line and began thinking that perhaps many of them didn’t have electronic passports. Finally, I walked up to that booth – there was no line at all – and asked the woman if she could process us, and she said certainly. Afterwards we walked through the customs “green line.” I didn’t see anyone’s bags being searched.

Outside was chaotic. Cab drivers were besieging us and everyone else with offers to take us to Terminal 1. I saw what appeared to be a shuttle van. I’d read over and over about Russian cab drivers, and none of it was favorable. We got into the van and were taken the three miles to the other terminal. The fare was posted as 15 rubles – about 65 cents – but no one asked for any money, so our ride was free. We had to go through a cursory security to get inside Terminal 1. It was confusing, a sort of long wide corridor with dozens of numbered doors. There were frequent announcements in Russian and English, each with a number. We finally figured out the system, and when our flight was announced, we headed for the appropriately numbered door and were allowed in, and our passports were checked.

The last thing I’d expected to see in a Russian domestic airline terminal was a crowd of other Americans, but now we were amidst well over a hundred of them, mostly 50s and up, and all wearing badges for an eclipse tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope magazine. Such tours are all inclusive, and also very expensive. They were from all over the US. One woman had paid $100 – that’s dollars, not rubles – for a cab ride between the two terminals, the same journey that we’d made for free. It was a mob scene. When I got to the Aeroflot checkin desk, the impatient and irritable young woman agent insisted that I check my bag. It was the only time during the trip that that happened. I could have asked for the station manager, but it didn’t seem worth the trouble. It was a nonstop flight to Novo. I made sure it was correctly tagged (OVB) and put my own tag on it before handing it over.

We left around 11 PM, with probably a greater percentage of Americans aboard than on the average US domestic flight. It was about a four hour flight, almost due east. The cabin was darkened, and we dozed off. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, we were awakened with everyone else and served a full hot supper. It was good, too. We dozed again, waking as the sky lightened and we saw a strange almost-barren landscape with strange elongated shaped land between rivers and streams.

Novosibirsk’s Tolmachevo airport is a new, modern two-story facility, with shops, some of which were already open, and a cafeteria. We left the plane with no formalities and I claimed my bag. I knew there were public buses that ran into the city and to the huge Novosibirsk Hotel, but what I didn’t know is that Novo, like other Russian cities, has both private and public buses running along the same routes. It was confusing, but we finally found a large, inter-city type bus heading into the city for a low fare. We passed buildings and factories – Novo was founded as an industrial city in 1895 – and finally crossed the bridge over the Ob and were soon at a huge multi story hotel. We entered the large, well furnished lobby, checked in, collapsed in our modern room, and turned on the TV, eager for news, but the only English language channel we could get was Bloomberg business news. We couldn’t have cared less about the Nikkei average and the price of pork belly futures.

We looked through our windows. The view was amazing. We overlooked one of the city’s busiest streets. Across the street was the huge, surreal, green-colored Trans-Siberian railway station. Between it and the street was an enormous plaza, filled with people and vendors. On the left side of the plaza was a huge, ever changing video screen, mounted on a sort of pedestal. On the other side of the station and behind it was the River Ob, with various watercraft on it and an industrial area on the other side, fading off to the horizon. between the station and the river, and on either side, was a network of tracks, with trains frequently moving in and out in both directions. The sky was clear and the weather was very warm.

A word about the Hotel Novosibirsk’s buffet breakfast. It was awesome! I wasted few calories on the mediocre pastries, preferring to splurge on the fish, the cheese, the veggies, the fruits, the olives, the sausages, the berry juice. Lunch? Fuggedaboudit!

A few weeks before the trip, I had discovered the novosibirskguide.com website. It seemed to have been created primarily for the purpose of bringing together people like us, who were traveling there to see the eclipse, and doing so on our own. Several dozen people, all from Europe and the UK, had written in. the site was being more or less coordinated by a woman from Holland who had taken the nickname “Stardust,” and a man from Austria named Thomas. Several days before we left, it was announced on the site that we’d all be getting together at the Lenin Statue in Novo at 2 PM local time (local time being 11 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time) on July 30, the day of our arrival. So much for crashing from exhaustion right after arriving and taking a very long nap.

There was one desk employee, a young pretty woman named Olga, who spoke English well and gave us directions. We set out, passing the casino and KFC outlet adjoining the hotel, heading up hill along a busy street lined with buildings, shops and a few restaurants and cafes. It was mid afternoon of a weekday. The sidewalk was crowded with workers, shoppers and delivery people, all looking and dressed much like Americans on a typical American city street on a warm day. There were just a few things about the scene that distinguished it from that. The Cyrillic letters on signs and building fronts, the frequent shallow yet hazardous steps built into the sidewalk, and the profusion of small private buses running back and forth with number and fare signs in their windows. And, most of all the covered kiosks – small roofed structures – which sold snacks, newspapers and magazines, and dozens of different brands of cold beer and bottled water – the latter considered a necessity in Russian cities. I quickly learned to ask for Russian rather than the costlier German beers – the Russian was just as good, and a bottle averaged about 65 or 70 cents.

We managed to get lost several times, because Olga had told us it was only a few blocks, and it seemed more like a few dozen. But eventually we came to a huge intersection. On the other side of it was a plaza with a large raised stone platform. On it were way larger-than-life statues of three heroically-posed men. The middle one was Lenin. A Soviet image right out of the books.

People were gathered atop the platform, and we joined them. These were our fellow eclipse-chasing independent travelers. We were half an hour late, but it didn’t matter. Everyone was chatting. but no one had any clear plans for “e-day” – August 1st – and no one had arranged for a vehicle rental. Finally, someone mentioned that there would be some sort of eclipse-related artistic presentation that evening. She pointed down the street that ran in front of the statues and to either side, providing directions.

We headed back to the hotel, the walk easier for being downhill. We had plenty of food left in our bags. My priority now was getting internet access to let our three daughters and others know that we’d made it safely. The hotel had a large room off the mezzanine lounge which served as a business center. Two doors from the mezzanine lounge led into an even larger conference room. An orientation for the American Sky and Telescope group was taking place in it, and almost every chair was filled. On a long table inside the business center was a single laptop. I had to buy a voucher from the front desk, come back and submit it. The system didn’t work well, but I did manage to get my e mail out and check a few incoming notes.

On the end wall of the business center area was a huge video screen, divided into at least a dozen square sections. On the screen ran a continuous and endlessly varied series of street scenes and blown up photos, some obviously current, some dating back years and even decades. The young man in charge proudly told us that “this shows the history of our city.”

The eclipse-and-art event we’d been advised of was scheduled for 7 PM. I asked Olga how to get to the Lenin statue by public transit. I didn’t feel like another long uphill hike. Take the Metro, was her advice. During my research, I’d learned that Novo indeed had a Metro (subway) system, less than 20 years old, and with two intersecting lines. Our station was easy to find – there was a large sign with a big yellow “M” in the railway station plaza. The fare was about 65-70 cents, paid for with small coppery tokens bought at a window. We boarded at one end of a line. The cars were sleek and modern. We changed lines, and emerged right across from Lenin. The street we followed took us past a couple of museums, and ahead of us, in a sort of island, was a small church with a huge golden bulb on top.

Two blocks along, and one block short of the side street where the event was, we came across a good sized park, and I experienced one of the most magical moments of the trip. The park was filled with – as the old REM song goes – shiny happy people. All age groups, all enjoying themselves, all enjoying themselves on a balmy summer evening. There was a large fountain, with people sitting on a low wall around it. There were children enjoying pony rides, lovely flower gardens, various types of beautiful luxuriant trees, and intriguing semi-abstract white statues of people, including my favorite, a mother and baby. Off to my left, bordering the park, was a popular restaurant I’d come across in my on line research, the improbably named New York Pizza – part of a small Siberian chain, founded by an American expatriate. On the other side of it was a small area in which people were breakdancing! The last time I’d seen public breakdancing had been in Rockefeller Center.

Salsa music was playing over speakers, and a shifting collection of couples, mostly young, a few older, and one with a child were dancing to it. They weren’t just dancing, they were radiating the sheer joy of it. I took photo after photo – later, at home, I’d print them out just to be able to look at them when I wanted a lift. The salsa and break dancers, the English-only New York Pizza signs, the western summery clothing, the affectionate young couples, the happy playing children – this could have been anywhere in America – but we were in Siberia. Siberia!

Along the edge of the park, near the sidewalk, were tables on which all sorts of merchandise was being sold, including eclipse memorabilia. I ended up with a gorgeous square eclipse refrigerator magnet, a souvenir viewer- we already had our own – and a few other items. I bargained for a few odds and ends. Wandering amidst the people were attractive young men and women dressed in what appeared to be lightweight white robes. They were not religious cultists – they were selling eclipse viewing glasses! We saw many of them right up through e-day.

We finally walked another block and down a residential side street. The eclipse-art thing was in a room in a second-floor walkup. It was crowded, there were no seats, and there was no air conditioning. It was steaming hot. It was some sort of a lecture. We left quickly. I wanted to watch the dancers some more, and I did. And took more photos. We walked back, downhill to the hotel. Finally. Blessed sleep!

Thursday morning – that wonderful breakfast again, and once again being almost totally surrounded by Sky and Telescope tour group Americans! In the lobby was a table with a posted schedule for the tour group people. I decided it would be a good day to go to the much ballyhooed Novosibirsk zoo. Sweet little Olga directed us to the number 2 bus. Leaving the hotel, somewhat to my astonishment, there was a tall, sleek woman in tight red shorts and top, leaving against a fence at the edge of the hotel property. She didn’t have a sign on her saying, into languages, “Hi, I’m a hooker!” But no such sign was necessary.

We crossed the street and boarded bus no.2, passing shops, apartments and tiny parks en route. Now, if you are in a country and don’t know the language, just recite the name of where you want to go, and you will either be pointed that way or, in this case, warned to get off the bus there, which we did. Up an impressive entry drive, and we bought our tickets. There was a sign advising that an art-eclipse project would take place the next day – it would involve monitoring the reaction of animals to the total. Tempting, but we decided we preferred to be on our own, and, if need be, prepared to pay someone to drive us from under cloud cover.

Novo’s zoo is BIG. Once past the booths and kiddy exhibits and pony rides, you wander endlessly along forested paths, coming to clusters of enclosures and refreshment stands, ice cream kiosks and mini-cafes. There are numerous forks in the road, reminiscent of the Oz scene in which Dorothy meets the Scarecrow. This being Russia, there was a fine collection of humungous bears, the largest of which stubbornly turned his face away whenever I raised my camera. I was exhausted when we finally, after soliciting directions several times, reached the exit whence we’d entered and caught the 2 bus back. I wanted to check out the inside of the trans Siberian railway station, and it was impressive, a busy Grand Central with signs in Russian and English and sign displays showing the history of the station. On a lower plaza, a troupe of Russian dancers and a few musicians were entertaining a crowd of people, most of whom appeared to be members of the American eclipse tour group. We leaned on a railing for a few minutes to watch.

Back in the hotel’s business center, on their laptop, checking novosibirsk,guide.com I discovered another meeting scheduled under Mr. Lenin’s auspices that evening, and once again, we headed up via the Metro. A plan had been made for a chartered van or bus to take those interested to a lakefront campground near the “Academic City” 25 miles distant. But the weather forecasts were both optimistic and spotty, indicating an equal probability of clear viewing no matter where we were in the region. My eavesdropping on tour group meetings at the hotel had indicated the same. It was decision time. Thomas was literally passing the hat, and “Stardust” approached and asked if we wanted to join the little expedition. If we did, we’d be picked up at our hotel in the morning and would be out by the lake all day. The eclipse was to begin around 4:41 PM, with the two and a half minutes of totality beginning at 5:44 and partiality ending at 6:45. It was a difficult decision. I finally decided that our chances of seeing the eclipse were just as good if we stayed in the city, saved the money, and had a chance to do some other activities. True, we wouldn’t have the same mobility if we ended up with a bunch of clouds between us and the sun at the critical time. But I decided it was worth the risk. I thanked Stardust, but told her we would opt out and wished them luck.

We headed back to the park. Alas, the salsa dancing party had ended, but the shiny happy people were still there enjoying themselves. Walking back, it began to drizzle. It was dark, and I almost tripped several times on those crazy shallow sidewalk steps. Alas, the beer kiosks were closed. I wanted a cold Klinkskaya. Perhaps even two.

Finally in our room, I prepared for a good night’s sleep when the phone rang. It was a group of independent eclipse-chasing Spaniards with whom I’d been e mailing and calling while still at home. We met a group of Spanish couples in the bar, and were each treated to a cold beer.

Friday, E day! One last splurge at the breakfast buffet! The hotel’s internet service, such as it was, wasn’t working, so we set out, looking for an internet café. We had plenty of time – the partial phase of the eclipse wouldn’t begun until after 3 PM.

There were none. We had some leads, but in each case were told the internet café was no more. We returned to the hotel, got an e mail out and made some inquiries. Finally, we decided to go to the Siberian Regional Museum, which was halfway between Mr. Lenin and what I’d come to think of as Salsa Park. As we left the hotel, facing the street and the plaza and train station on the other side, there was a 30-ish woman, leaning and sprawled out against a railing, wearing tight red top and shorts. She was very obviously a practitioner of what has been called “the oldest profession,” but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her.

The Siberian Regional Museum, just across from and a few doors along towards the park from the Lenin statue, was a fascinating place. As with many museums in Russia and elsewhere, there were two levels of admission fees, one without permission to take photos, and one with. We chose the latter. The many rooms contained mockups of Siberian native rooms, huts and yurts, implements, arts, crafts, photos, and many historic paintings, prints, newspapers, books and photos.

As we progressed from room to room, we also moved forward it time, and the scope broadened in terms of more recent Russian history and particularly World War II. It was there that we were taken in hand by an older woman guide, of whom there are so many in Russian museums. As we browsed through replicas of early 20th century offices and the one and only artistic triumph of Soviet communism – the world’s most extraordinary poster art – she spoke to us, as best she could, of the sacrifices that Novosibirsk had made during the war. Although the front line had never come anywhere near that city, 180,000 soldiers from Novosibirsk and vicinity had given their lives, and she showed us the memorial books loving and proudly kept and maintained, as well as the many photos and newspapers of that era. After having taken many photos, she also cautioned us about the photo rule. Yes, we had paid for the right to take photos – but only if at least one person appeared in the picture! So my wife played that role in the last few photos.

Walking back downhill to the hotel, we saw more of the white-robed young men and women selling eclipse viewers. Back in our room, we overlooked the railway plaza and watched the sky. Eclipses, like Swiss trains, always run on time. We were armed with our own viewers – rectangles of number 14 welders glass – and two binoculars. The sky was mostly clear. Soon after the first bite was taken out of the sun, a fat cumulus cloud hid the sun for five minutes, but, after it passed, I could see that any oncoming cumulus clouds weren’t big enough to hide the sun for more than about 30 seconds. After another 10 minutes or so, it was clear that there were no more clouds at all in the sun’s path, and, with about a third of the sun now “missing,” we headed downstairs. I stopped at the desk to urge sweet little Olga to be sure and come out for totality, assuring her what many people don’t know – that during totality, the eclipsed sun is no brighter than the full moon, and just as safe to view.

We entered the plaza. On the huge outdoor video screen, images of the partly eclipsed sun alternated with views of the crowd and a group of commentators at a table. The plaza was always busy during daylight hours, but people were moving more slowly and breaking out viewing devices. The white-robed youngsters were still circulating. There was something almost mystical about them. We moved to a ledge overlooking a large ramp that led upwards and downwards, to and from track level. People were constantly emerging from the lower level. A few had their viewers in hand. One friendly lady asked to use our glass for a minute or two.

It’s difficult to describe the incredible sight and intensity of a total solar eclipse. Without a viewer, there is no sensation of an impending extraordinary event until 10 to 15 minutes before totality, when the light begins to very gradually dim. In some cases, it takes on a peculiarly yellowish tint, but that wasn’t the case here. The daylight simply lessened. I began taking photos, using a special disposable camera that would not adjust for the degree of light, so the darkening would show. It was only two or three minutes before totality when the light diminished enough so that it seemed like actual twilight. By now, everyone was totally absorbed in the onrushing spectacle. People were still streaming up and out from the track levels and out of the ramp. The thin crescent of sun still visible became a curved thin line, visible both in the sky and, greatly magnified, on the video screen.

When totality comes, it’s very quick. Sometimes, you can see a black disc appear and crowd out the last thin line of light, which sometimes breaks up into “Bailey’s Beads,” broken up by the lunar mountains. In this case, the eclipsed sun simply seemed to spring forth instantly, full blown, a black disc in what was like very deep twilight, with the solar corona – the sun’s pearly luminescent atmosphere – surrounding it.

In many eclipses, the corona takes odd, sometimes irregular shapes, and solar prominence – red or pink flames – flare out. In this case, the full corona was uniform and thin, almost like a ghostly ring around the black disc. The image shown out on the giant screen as well. The scene was fantastical yet oddly normal, like being on a different planet with a different kind of heavenly apparition where a sun might normally be. The phenomenon is quick and at the same time very stretched out, seeming not to end. Yet, once the prescribed two and a half minutes were up, a brilliant star appeared, quickly blaring out on the opposite side of the disc from where the sun’s final crescent had vanished. This is the “diamond ring” effect, one thing that always happens at the end of totality. Ever so quickly, within minutes, the strange twilight ended and it was daylight again. Most observers quickly stop looking, but I kept peeking through my now-essential viewing glasses, watching a solar crescent facing the other way and slowly widening.

We couldn’t stay up late, because our flight out to Moscow would be leaving at 6:55 the next morning. I stopped to see if Olga had gone outside to watch totality – she had. We went for a walk and then had dinner in an American-type grill attached to the hotel. We’d both wanted to try hot beef borscht, and we did. It was excellent. We knew that our flight left too early to catch a money-saving bus to the airport, so we did what is highly advisable in Russia – arranged for a taxi to the airport. Olga took care of it. It was eerie, checking out early and riding through the still, slowly lightening city and over the river and back to Tolmachevo. The cafeteria was open and, like all airport eateries, was overpriced, We settled for cups of tea – coffee made Starbucks look cheap. Our counter finally opened, and as we took off, we looked down for the last time at the River Ob and the strange landscape before a layer of clouds intervened. It was a 4 ½ hour flight back to Moscow.

NEXT WEEK: 2 days and nights in Moscow. A hotel clerk tries to steal money from us, we get drenched in a rainstorm, and my wife takes a bad fall – in Lenin’s tomb!