The frenzy around President Obama's historic visit to Cuba is increasing an already piqued interest in our island neighbor. From touching personal stories like this reporter's to curiosity about Afro-Cuban culture there are so many adventures waiting for American tourists.
It is technically illegal for Americans to enjoy a leisure beach type vacation to Cuba. Our travel must fit under one of the 12 permissible categories. While there are ways to piece together a bare bones DIY back door entry trip, I'd prefer a (legal) easier tour. ;). For those who love a bit of edgy let's hope we don't get caught and detained' fun, here's a great blog post.
While travel restrictions are changing, for the time being one of the most rewarding ways to soak up the culture is a people-to-people exchange program. This is one of 12 approved ways to obtain a visa for Cuban travel. Several tour companies offer charter flights on scheduled group departures from Miami or you have cruise options from Miami and Montego Bay. (Soon direct flights from Atlanta to Havana could be available) On these tours you'll have a full itinerary of cultural immersion activities that showcase Cuban culture. From expected Havana delights like salsa lessons, cigar making and classic car caravans to unique explorations of artist enclaves or lectures on the economy and the dual currency system. American travelers need to understand just how different a trip to Cuba is from any other Caribbean nation. The allure of a country largely untouched by American commercialism makes people forget that the comforts you're used to aren't widely available either. If you're really worried about that, opt for the cruise. You'll be assured to return to your comfy stateroom at night if local accommodations might be too rustic for you. For now, Cuba is a chance to see a culture without Starbucks on every corner without going halfway around the world. That's what I'm all about, culture and adventure close to home!
Sometimes using a low cost airline and DIY travel plans make sense. Smart travelers weigh the options and decide when it is in their best interest to consult a travel professional for vacations or pay more for a ticket on a legacy airline.
What usually happens though is people want a worry free ,custom designed, done for them travel experience at a DIY low cost. Just like in most anything it's not happening!
I've become a fan of Frontier Airlines lately because you can't beat $19 fares. However, I don't have a hotel reservation waiting on either end. I don't have anywhere to be (because usually there's only one flight per day with these airlines) You are not getting legacy airline schedules at a low cost.
If you need to make a cruise or prepaid for an expensive resort, don't chance it! Maybe you saved $100 but you could lose your entire vacation with the slightest hiccup. Alternatively if you insist because money's tight and you simply MUST, buy insurance. Yes, it will take a little chunk of your savings but it could wind up saving you hundreds in the long run like this couple who paid hundreds of dollars in change fees when their Carnival ship couldn't dock in time to meet their Spirit Airlines flight.
So here are my top five reasons it makes sense to use a low cost airline:
You have flexible lodging arrangements - Staying with family or reserving a hotel once you arrive so you're not risking your savings should your flight be delayed one day.
Last minute domestic trips – I've seen low fares up to a day before. Even several bag fees don't add up to the fare on a big airline for unexpected trips.
Replacing one leg of itinerary- Let's say you need to change a return flight but the fee is $200 pp on Delta, but you can buy a one way for $99. Remember, that won't work on your initial flight! Miss that one and the entire ticket is canceled usually.
You travel light- Those carry on fees add up!
Your expectations are reasonable – It sounds obvi, but check the reviews and you'll see so many complaints for things people should have known in advance. No, there won't be any legroom, free snacks, blankets or nice lounges but you should already know that.
If you've been around for a while you've seen my number one road dog (aka travel partner) is my son. We've flown since he was three months old, taken long road trips and made some great memories on our journeys together. I've said before too many families think Disney trips are the best way to vacation with kids. Given the ever increasing prices you can just as easily see Mexico, Italy or the United Kingdom as stroll through the World Showcase at Epcot. With a little planning, traveling with kids can be a wonderful experience for everyone.
Travel is good for your health, helps the family bond(the mishaps make the best stories later!), exposes kids to new cultures and brings class work to life. Why not get them started early?! For even more inspiration read Ten Things Children Learn About Life While Traveling. Kids who travel build confidence and resilience in ways you won't get at home in familiar environments.
According to Project Time Off, “Sixty-one percent of kids say the way they want to spend quality time with their parents is on vacation. Yet, nearly a quarter (22%) of working parents reported that their last family vacation was more than a year ago. “ (Go read the report it's eye opening). Besides work reasons, there are some very real fears that keep parents from bringing kids along. Here's some tips on the three biggest issues most parents have with traveling with kids.
Flying – I swore off long flights for a while when my son was 2 because of a particularly stressful 5 hour flight. He was exceptionally active and we flew in the daytime. A major no-no! I was stressed the entire flight, but there are lots of tips out there to prevent this with a little planning now. The friend who suggested this topic has flown to Italy several times with TWO boys that I know are just as crazy as mine. It's totally doable! My top tips... Fly overnight when possible, let your little ones walk the long hallways and utilize the play areas at the airport. Download movies or shows for older kids and bring over the ear headphones. For non-electronic fun Pinterest has tons of ideas for activity bags to keep them occupied during the flight that you can get from the dollar store. They're probably going to annoy somebody in front of you no matter what, so just apologize in advance and hope for some sympathetic fellow travelers.
Eating – Just as food a source of conflict at home for some it can be hard to eat with kids abroad. If your kids aren't the adventurous sort you'll find something they can eat everywhere. Some nearly universal foods that you can find just about anywhere are rice, yogurt, potatoes, cheese , crackers etc. Go ahead and try some new foods yourself and just ask for plain sides for your kids. They may decide to sample something when they get tired of eating the same things, but if not at least they are taking in how these foods are prepared differently around the world. Just think of the many forms bread takes in different places. Tortillas, injera, naan, biscuits, baguettes... So it may not be the healthiest week of their lives, but they won't starve. Relax and just enjoy yourself anyway! If you're nervous about sit down dinners, try a cruise. Most servers on cruises are incredibly patient with kids and will make your evening so much easier.
Activities – Take tours geared toward families. Allow for plenty of rest and free play between historic sites. Does anybody else remember the 'Clipboard of Fun' from Full House?Don't be that guy! No one, probably not even your significant other wants to go on an Amazing Race style whirlwind of every important site in your destination. Have everyone make a list of their absolute must visits ahead of time and narrow them down based on the length of your visit. (Or give it to me! We can probably arrange some private tours to go at your own pace.) Go to a local playground you come across between tours and your hotel. It's amazing to watch kids who don't speak the same language find a game to play anyway.
Look for travel blogs written by families who have visited your destination before. So many world schoolers, travel bloggers and moms share their experiences online you're bound to find some insider tips on even the most obscure places. Some of my favorites are Travel With Kids,Globetrotting Mama and The Travel Mom but there are hundreds more.
Start with these easy tips and you're on your way to creating amazing memories together without the headaches. Are there any tips you've found invaluable while traveling with your kids?
Today's Travel Agent Awareness Week topic is why use a travel agent? The number one reason I think someone should use a travel professional? To save time! Time is money and people forget that. Let's say we spend 30 minutes on your getting acquainted call going over your expectations, wants and needs. I'll prepare a quote for you, that it takes maybe an hour for you to look at and check reviews on. We make a few tweaks, send your payment and you're done! Even if the first few options don't strike you at all another one is still whittling down your options from 500 hotels to less than 10. So on the outside you've spent 3 hours planning a vacation from start to finish. Guess how much the average consumer spends online booking a vacation? 39! (and that's just an average) At the median household income ($50,500) that's over $900. Some people love to research, others do it because they think it saves them money. As you can see you're better off outsourcing your planning.
The second reason is customizing your vacation. For some a bathtub is a perk for others it's a necessity. Some must have a-la-carte dining 3 times a day and others just need a hearty buffet option on their way out to explore. Everyone is different and every trip is different. Of course people ask their friends, read blogs and reviews to get ideas on their travel. You must keep in mind you need to read these opinions through the lens of your expectations. I chuckle a little in forums when a person asks where should I stay in XYZ when I visit and they get 30 answers, yet no one asks what kind of hotel the person likes or what activities they hate. A person planning a girlfriends getaway will get a recommendation for a resort brimming with kids. Yeah it's a super nice resort in a fabulous location, but not matching a more suitable hotel will leave them with an unfavorable impression of the destination. I've seen umpteen reviews where that happens. RIU for example attracts many European guests. I've seen people go on and on about how 'rude' the guests were and how they will never go back to Playa del Carmen because there were no Americans there. Well, had they just consulted with an agent they could have gone to a resort 2 minutes away that has mostly American clientele. I've run into couples on a ship disappointed that their 2 year old can't participate in the kid's club. (Big sigh) Come on! That is really simple to fix by talking with someone. So maybe you perceive you saved by booking online real quick with that agency that doesn't accept phone calls...but now that your entire week is ruined with dashed hopes of alone time without the baby, is it worth it? Just like anything in life, if you're willing to invest the time you can DIY. The problem is people want the shortcut that's cheap. You'll rarely get that. Otherwise I'd be changing my own oil. Jiffy Lube and car dealerships certainly aren't in danger from losing my business! Taking the time to properly learn and execute car maintenance just doesn't make sense in my life. If travel planning is like that for you, don't feel guilty about using your time wisely.
Lastly, but perhaps most important is having an advocate on your side in case of a problem. Things come up last minute, plans are canceled, weather, flight delays etc. I've done everything from manage resort changes while a client lounges in the lobby to calling family back home on 3 way in an emergency. It's tempting to book my own travel sometimes, but if it's an area outside my niche I don't. Recently I arrived at an airport to find the car rental line an hour long while another company had no wait. We simply called the agency and within 5 minutes we had a new reservation, got out of line and on our way to the car while the first line hadn't even moved. After a long day of travel with a kid that help was priceless!
Day 3 of Travel Agent Awareness Week, and today it's all about specialty. You may have noticed you see more travel professionals specializing in a specific type of travel than you did when brick and mortar travel agencies were the only way to book travel. Nowadays there is an EXPLOSION of information out there, lots of tour companies that offer similar products. What we really need to do as consultants now is get to know YOU and find the right fit.
As I mentioned Monday, I typically sell Mexico, cruises and Caribbean all-inclusive resorts. I love to add some adventurous tours to even the most mundane vacation. Even if you're staying at the most Americanized resort possible in Cancun you can still take a day to visit Mayan archaeological sites. Go snorkel on the 2nd largest coral reef and be back by dinner time.
On cruises you have several opportunities to get to know different cultures. My clients skip the long cruise ship excursion lines and immerse themselves for a few hours with a local tour operator.
In the last few years I've developed more of an interest in soft adventure travel in off the beaten path destinations. I've found places that are profoundly unique yet still comfortable and welcoming. There's been such a distinction between travel and tourist and I really believe one is not better than the other. Just because so and so backpacked for month in hostels for $200 doesn't mean their experience was any more 'real' than yours if you chose a 4 star hotel. Would we say someone didn't experience America if they stayed at a top rated B&B in the mountains rather than a gritty hostel downtown? No they're all a segment of our society. Lately 'grazers' have been the biggest influx of adventure travelers. We may not be the adrenaline junkies, but want more from a trip than sun and sand.