December 2015 Travel Column

Getting Away from Home for the Holidays

Instead of heading home – or staying home – for the holidays, some Americans are trying a different tack: they’re heading out on vacation.

A Christmas getaway, sometimes bringing the family along, can provide a break from the stresses of the season. It’s also a terrific way to keep gift giving to a minimum and create a new holiday tradition that’s all your own.

The possibilities are limitless – from lounging on a beach or aboard a cruise ship to exploring a historic European capital or visiting sites in the Holy Land that take on special significance at this time of year.

Travel doesn’t mean giving up everything that makes the holidays special, either.

Many cruise lines offer voyages to ports in Mexico and the Caribbean in December that give passengers the opportunity to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah the way they would at home, including enjoying traditional foods, taking part in holiday activities and even attending religious services.

With daytime temperatures in the low 80s, a trip to Hawaii can be the perfect gift for travelers who dream of spending December someplace warm. There’s plenty of holiday spirit in this tropical paradise, too, from Christmas parades to performances of “The Nutcracker.” And of course, there are Hawaii’s world-famous beaches, great for outdoor activities such as swimming, surfing and snorkeling or for simply relaxing and soaking up some sun.

Of course Europe is a great place to visit at any time of year, but it’s especially beautiful in December, when Christmas markets pop up, historic city centers are all decked out and cultural events are in full swing.

In London, carolers sing each evening in December beneath the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square and the stores along Oxford Street sparkle with a brilliant display of lights. Both adults and children will enjoy taking in a pantomime, or “panto,” comic musicals that are a British Christmas tradition. One of the city’s biggest holiday attractions is the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, which includes Christmas markets, a “kingdom” made of ice, a skating rink and a circus.

To spend Christmas immersed in Old World charm, consider a trip to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The ancient buildings and magnificent churches of Old Town are especially welcoming in December. Bustling Christmas markets selling traditional foods and handicrafts make for a festive atmosphere. Jazz and classical concerts, as well as opera and ballet, take place all month long in some of the city’s most historic venues, including Prague Castle.

A trip to the Holy Land can be an incredibly spiritual experience no matter what your faith or religion. For Christians, December is an especially meaningful time to visit. On Christmas Eve, pilgrims from all over the world gather at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem’s Manger Square to celebrate the birth of Jesus. From Nazareth, in northern Israel, to Jerusalem and beyond, the region is filled with places that make the Bible come alive.

For help planning a holiday getaway anywhere in the world, contact your travel agent.


Ringing in the New Year on Vacation

Sure, there are plenty of places to party and watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve but for travelers searching for a unique spot to ring in 2016, here are celebrations that add a little something extra to the mix.

To celebrate with an Afro-Brazilian beat, head to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. Offerings of flowers and candles are tossed into the water throughout the day to honor the goddess of the sea and people wear white to bring good luck for the coming year. In the evening, the music begins from stages along the beach, where partiers dance the samba. There’s a fireworks display at midnight from barges offshore, but that’s just the beginning. Afterward, revelers head to clubs, bars and hotels to party until dawn.

On Dec. 31, Vienna’s historic old city center is transformed into a New Year’s Eve Trail, where the celebration continues until 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day. Revelers stop off for food and drink and enjoy musical performances as they make their way from one open-air attraction to the next. The Graben, one of the Austrian capital’s most famous streets, becomes the site of the world’s largest outdoor ballroom, enabling partiers to waltz in the New Year. If you’re a little rusty, the city’s dance schools are there to offer crash courses.

New Year’s Eve in Tokyo offers a chance to explore an ancient culture. There are fireworks over Tokyo Bay and plenty of restaurants and nightclubs where revelers can celebrate, but it’s the traditions such as hatsumode, in which people make the first visit of the new year to a shrine or temple to pray for health and happiness that you’ll likely remember. At the most popular places, such as the Meiji Shrine, the atmosphere is festive, with vendors selling food and people buying charms to ensure good luck. At midnight, temple bells ring out 108 times, each one representing a temptation to overcome.

After an evening of partying, the Bahamas rings in the new year with Junkanoo, an electrifying parade that starts after midnight and lasts until dawn. In Nassau, the capital, it’s a community-wide effort as families, friends and neighbors band together and attempt to outdo each other with music provided by cowbells, drums and whistles, elaborately choreographed dance routines and colorful costumes. The centuries-old tradition has roots in slavery but lives on as a celebration of freedom and Bahamian culture.

Of course to many, New Year’s Eve is synonymous with New York City, where a celebration has been held for more than a century. People start filling Times Square at midafternoon and they’re treated to an all-star lineup of performers, which this year includes country music’s Carrie Underwood. Everything leads up to 11:59 p.m., when a crystal-covered sphere will drop 70 feet in 60 seconds from 1 Times Square to herald the start of 2016, and a million revelers will be covered in a shower of confetti.

For help planning a trip to celebrate New Year’s Eve anywhere in the world, contact your travel agent.


Resolve to Travel More in 2016 

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time for New Year’s resolutions. And in 2016, one resolution worth your consideration is to simply travel more.

Wherever you go, the act of getting away can help relieve the stresses that build up in everyday life and make you feel recharged and ready to tackle whatever comes next. Travel is also a way to keep your mind and body strong.

That travel can help make you healthier and happier is not just an opinion. A report by the Global Coalition on Aging found that after being on vacation for only a day or two, the vast majority of people are able to leave the stresses of work behind and relax. According to Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine who participated in the report, travel “challenges the brain with new and different experiences and environments.”

Some of the strongest evidence that there are physical benefits to taking a break comes from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, since 1948 and is responsible for much of our knowledge about cardiovascular health. Among its conclusions is that there’s a connection between more frequent vacations and longer, healthier lives.

The benefits of travel even extend to the workplace when we return. In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young found that for every additional 10 hours of vacation time its employees took, their year-end performance rating improved by 8 percent. Employees who took more frequent vacations were also less likely to leave the company.

Think about the places you’ve been and the conclusions from those studies will likely make sense. Travel is fun and exhilarating. It takes you out of your routine, can give you a burst of energy, and can provide you with unique experiences that just might enrich your life.

Taking a trip keeps you active. It’s an opportunity to use your muscles and stretch your legs, whether that means walking, hiking, cycling, swimming or even dancing the night away.

When you’re finding your way around a new place, or dusting off your high school or college foreign language skills, travel has the capacity for keeping you mentally sharp, too. It can also give you a chance to relax by the pool, on a beach or onboard a ship and read – or perhaps write – that book you just never quite found time to get to at home.

Travel is a way to broaden your world and meet new people. It stimulates the senses with new tastes and smells and sights and sounds. It teaches all of us to be more flexible and patient, to see things from a different perspective.

By placing travel on your list of New Year’s resolutions, you can make a commitment to yourself to explore more of the United States and more of the world. Perhaps you’ll revisit a favorite spot, or take a vacation to a place you’ve never been. Maybe you’ll finally get to that dream destination, family trip, romantic getaway or adventure you’ve been thinking about for years.

If you’ve made travel one of your New Year’s resolutions, your travel agent can help you keep it.


The Baltic States – 25 Years after Soviet Collapse 

It’s been a quarter century since Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia regained their independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, these thriving democratic nations along the Baltic Sea have strong ties to the West and are small gems waiting to be discovered by travelers.

Estonia, the northernmost of the three, has cultural ties to Scandinavia. The capital, Tallinn, is located on the Gulf of Finland, a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. Tallinn has a beautifully preserved Old Town whose cobblestone streets are dotted with medieval churches and grand merchants’ homes, as well as restaurants, shops and galleries. In the summer, Old Town Square is the site of concerts and in December, it’s transformed into a Christmas market.

While many of them are tiny, Estonia has about 1,500 islands and they offer activities including bird watching, canoeing, sailing and fishing. The largest, Saaremaa, is the site of majestic Kuressaare Castle, built in the 14th century. Tartu, a university city, is a cultural center that exudes a bohemian spirit.

Latvia is in the middle of the Baltic States. Its capital, Riga, built on the Daugava River, inspires superlatives. A poll of USA TODAY readers voted Riga the “Prettiest European City.” Among the must-see attractions are the intricately designed Art Nouveau apartment buildings along Albert Street; the vast Central Market housed in World War I Zeppelin hangars; and the 13th century Riga Cathedral, in the city’s Old Town. In addition to historic sites, Old Town is a great place to experience Riga’s nightlife.

Forests cover nearly half of Latvia and there are plenty of places to get in touch with the natural world. At Gauja National Park, about an hour northeast of Riga, visitors will find opportunities for hiking and cycling on scenic trails and canoeing along the Gauja River, as well as castles, churches and even an underground bunker built during the Soviet era for use in the event of a nuclear war. In the winter, the park’s slopes become a destination for skiers.

Southernmost of the three Baltic States, Lithuania is on the border with Poland. Its capital, Vilnius, has an Old Town that’s one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, with more than 1,500 buildings in a variety of architectural styles including the Gothic St. Anne’s Church. For a panoramic view of Old Town, climb or take the funicular railway to Gediminas’ Tower, named after the founder of Vilnius and a symbol of Lithuanian independence.

There’s much to see outside of Lithuania’s capital. Trakai Castle, located on an island on a lake, is a popular day trip from Vilnius. The Curonian Spit, a 60-mile strip of sand dunes and pine forests along the Baltic Sea, is one of Europe’s most unique natural features. And the Hill of Crosses, in north-central Lithuania, is a remarkable manmade site. Since the 19th century, visitors have left thousands of crosses there, many with photos of loved ones or personal messages.

For help planning a trip to the Baltics, which could even include a cruise to give you a taste of the region, contact your travel agent.


Finding the Right TMC Just Became Easier 

For many companies travel is an integral part of doing business, whether it’s to attend conferences, visit suppliers, meet with potential new clients, for a job or for a number of other reasons.

Naturally, the business traveler’s focus is on the work to be done once he or she reaches the destination. Handling travel arrangements – ensuring the best deals and most convenient transportation and lodging – requires time and expertise that some businesses, especially smaller ones, may not have in-house.

Travel Leaders recently launched a new website that makes it easier for businesses across the United States, even smaller ones, to find a Travel Management Company (TMC) that understands their industry, has the expertise to get them the best value and provides personal attention. Best of all, the TMC may be in their own backyard.

The easy-to-navigate website allows potential clients to search for a TMC based on key criteria including where their business is located, the industry they’re in and any foreign language requirements they may have. The website can also help them keep up with current business travel news.

All they have to do is select a state and industry to search from pull-down menus, or select all industries. They can scroll through a list of results, then click on a button to learn more about a specific travel agency. And the information can be viewed on all types of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones.

TMCs from the Travel Leaders Associate network are being added to the website weekly. The number of participating agencies has more than doubled since the site’s soft launch at the end of September and is expected to climb steadily over the next several months.

Profiles on the website offer an in-depth look at each of the individual TMCs in the Travel Leaders family. The information includes how long they’ve been in business, their geographical area, business philosophy, services they offer, industries they serve, foreign language skills and customer testimonials. Through the TMC Profiler, it’s easy for potential clients to select a company that best fits their corporate culture.

Travel Management Companies have expertise in more than a dozen fields. Depending on the location, those specialties include aerospace, agriculture, automotive, consumer goods, education, energy/oil/gas, food and beverage, health care, media/entertainment, nonprofit, pharmaceuticals, and technology. TMCs also provide services in areas such as duty of care, expense integration and online booking tools.

In addition, many TMCs have multinational experience. With linguistic, destination and cultural expertise, they can assist clients in business operations around the world, managing travel programs regardless of the global scale.

The website also allows users to refine their search if they need a combination of skills, from expertise in a specific industry to a foreign language to particular technologies.

If, for example, a business requires a Travel Management Company specializing in the energy/oil/gas industry that uses expense integration technology and has Mandarin language skills, the answer is only a click away.

To find the Travel Management Company that best fits your needs, go to

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