February 2018 Travel Column

Carnival Celebrations and Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday,” occurs 47 days before Easter and this year falls on Feb. 13. It is the last day of the Carnival season, ending in major celebration the day before Ash Wednesday and the solemn observance of Lent for Christians around the world. Travelers, regardless of religion, who want to join in the fun have plenty of choices.

New Orleans, with its mix of French, Spanish and Creole culture, is especially festive, with organizations called krewes putting on parades through Feb. 13. Each has its own unique history, elaborate floats and costumed marchers. Afterward, stroll through the Garden District with its shops and historic homes, and head to the city’s French Quarter to enjoy the nightlife, music and food that make New Orleans special.

In St. Louis, the festivities center in the city’s old French neighborhood of Soulard. The Bud Light Grand Parade takes place Feb. 10 and this year celebrates the centennial of The Muny, America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater. Soulard is also home to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, where you can take a tour. Of course, you’ll also want to visit the Gateway Arch, the 630-foot monument celebrating westward expansion.

Internationally, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has a special vibe, a mix of Brazil’s European and African cultures. It’s a place to hear the rhythms of the samba in street parades and parties. Of course Rio’s beaches, like the famous Copacabana and Ipanema, are a big draw. Locals and tourists alike go there to soak up some sun or stroll the promenades lined with restaurants and clubs. Keeping watch over the city is the 125-foot tall statue of Christ the Redeemer, accessible by a train up Corcovado Mountain.

In Europe, Carnival is a magical time to visit the Italian city of Venice. Colorfully decorated boats sail along the Grand Canal and processions and costume contests are held in St. Mark’s Square, the city’s main gathering spot. St. Mark’s is also a place to relax at a café and sightsee. Attractions include the 14th-century Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica, one of Italy’s most magnificent churches. Go to the top of the church’s 325-foot bell tower for great views of the city.

The German city of Cologne, spanning the Rhine River, offers a full slate of parties and parades during Carnival, with the biggest procession on Rose Monday, Feb. 12. Cologne is also home to a grand Gothic cathedral and a wide variety of museums, such as ones dedicated to the history of chocolate from the Aztecs to today, and to works of modern art, including one of Europe’s largest Picasso collections.

On the Caribbean island of Martinique, daily life practically comes to a standstill with everyone taking part in Carnival celebrations featuring processions, costumed dancers and the island’s most beloved musical groups. There is much to see and do on this small island, from the panoramic views on Mount Pelee in the north to the beautiful white-sand beaches in the south, to the colonial architecture in the capital, Fort-de-France, on the western part of the island.

For help planning a Mardi Gras getaway, contact your travel agent.


Passport Card Satisfies Real ID Act 

Travelers concerned about whether a driver’s license or other state-issued identification card will be accepted at the airport for a domestic flight can rest easy – for now.

The Department of Homeland Security has granted all states that are not yet in compliance with the REAL ID Act an extension until Oct. 10. That means travelers from all states can continue to use their driver’s licenses, whether or not they meet REAL ID standards. States that have extensions are Alaska, California, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. The others are already fully compliant.

But with another deadline looming, it’s a good idea to learn about what other forms of ID are acceptable to get through security at the airport, if you’re flying from a noncompliant state with an extension. While everyone is aware of a passport book, some travelers may not realize that there’s a cheaper alternative. A wallet-size passport card fulfills some, but not all, of the functions of a passport book.

A passport card meets the requirements of the REAL ID Act, passed by Congress in 2005 and designed to improve security and prevent identification fraud. The Transportation Security Administration will accept it as identification for domestic air travel. While it cannot be used as an ID for international air travel, a passport card can be used to enter the United States by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Because a passport card cannot be used for international flights, many cruise lines suggest that passengers get a passport book just in case they need to fly from the U.S. to meet their ship if they miss their scheduled embarkation, or if they need to fly home for any reason before their cruise ends.

A passport card is also cheaper than a passport book. For travelers 16 and older the card is valid for 10 years. The fee is $55 for applicants 16 and older, $40 for those under age 16. Renewing the card by mail costs $30. For comparison, the fee for a passport is $135 for anyone 16 and older and $105 for those under age 16. A renewal is $110 by mail.

The application process is the same for a passport book or passport card. You can obtain an application online but you must go in person to a passport acceptance facility, usually post offices, libraries or government offices, to hand it in. And remember not to sign the application until you’re instructed to do so in front of a designated official.

You’ll have to bring several documents, including proof of U.S. citizenship, which for most people will be their birth certificate, and a photo ID, as well photocopies of the front and back of each, a passport photo and your payment by check or money order.

Your travel agent can help with any questions, as well as assist you in planning a trip across the country or around the world.


Deciphering Travel Jargon 

You’re planning a spring break getaway and poring over all the options for destinations, transportation and accommodations, but some of the phrases baffle you.

While your travel agent can help you decipher the language, here are some of the more common terms.

All-inclusive: Whether you’re at a resort or on a cruise, all-inclusive usually means lodging, three meals a day and some beverages. After that, policies vary. Some resorts may charge extra for premium alcoholic beverages and use of the golf course and spa. While cruise lines may include some beverages and most entertainment, travelers can expect to pay for specialty restaurants, a drinks package for alcoholic beverages and shore excursions.

Adjoining and connecting rooms: If you’re traveling with the family and want a separate room for the kids, be aware that these mean two different things. Adjoining rooms are next to each other but aren’t connected by a door. If you want to be able to check on the kids easily, make sure you tell your travel agent that you want connecting rooms.

Baggage allowance: Individual airlines set requirements for the number, size and weight of checked luggage and carry-on bags. Carry-ons are typically limited by size, while most airlines charge extra for any checked bag weighing more than 50 pounds. But the requirements vary per airline as well as whether you’re seated in Economy Class or Business or First Class.

Beachfront and beach view: When choosing a hotel, it’s important to find out where you’ll be in relation to the water. A beachfront room usually means that you’re directly facing the water. With beach view, you may be able to see some water from your room, but you’ll have a walk to the beach once you head outside.

Continental vs complimentary breakfast: When you see that your hotel offers a continental breakfast, it will likely be something light, like bread, rolls, pastry, tea, coffee and milk or fruit juice. Don’t expect a hot meal with all the trimmings. Most of the time a continental breakfast is included with your stay, but not always, whereas a complimentary breakfast is always included and may offer “full breakfast” options, such as scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, fresh fruit, hot oatmeal and meat.

Direct and nonstop flights: A direct flight goes between two airports, but may stop along the way to pick up additional passengers, although you won’t have to get off the plane. A nonstop flight will go directly to your destination.

Economy class: Nowadays, some airlines have basic and premium economy. The lowest-priced economy fare can mean having to wait until check-in to get your seat assignment and no access to overhead bin space. Premium economy usually offers more legroom and an advance seat assignment.

Ecotourism: This is an opportunity to become immersed in the natural environment of the destination, by staying at resorts that support conservation efforts and offer guests a chance to get up close to wildlife, while having low-impact on the natural areas.

Shoulder season: This is the time period between peak and off-peak seasons and can be a great time to get discounts on travel. Depending on your destination, there are shoulder seasons for spring and fall travel, generally mid-April through mid-June and September through October.

Wellness travel: A growing trend among travelers, wellness retreats promote healthy living through physical and spiritual activities. Those activities can include spa treatments, meditation and yoga, walking tours, hiking and biking, healthy eating and culinary events, outings and adventures in nature and volunteer opportunities.

For help planning a spring break vacation, contact your travel agent


European Capitals of Culture

They are not the European capitals that usually spring to mind, but Valletta in Malta and Leeuwarden, in The Netherlands, have been designated European Capitals of Culture for 2018, offering travelers lots to explore.

The selection of European Capitals of Culture dates to the 1980s, when actress, singer and Greek Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri came up with the idea as a way to recognize the importance of art, culture and creativity. Athens was the first, in 1985, and since then, more than 50 cities have been named. The program helps bring a renewed sense of purpose and community to the regions, and it gives lesser-known areas a chance to shine.

Valletta, the capital of the Mediterranean island of Malta, is surely among the smallest cities to ever be named a European Capital of Culture, with about 6,000 residents. But what it lacks in population it makes up for in a rich history dating to the 1500s. The city was founded by a Roman Catholic order, the Knights of St. John, and is known for its museums, palaces and churches.

For 2018, Malta has planned a program of 400 events taking place throughout the year. Some are new for 2018, like a multi-site visual art installation that explores Malta’s island heritage, bringing together artists from 15 countries. Others are annual traditions, like the Valletta Green Festival held in St. George’s Square May 4-6 that promotes environmental awareness. During the festival, one of the city’s largest open spaces is transformed into a giant carpet of potted plants. Visitors can also get a rare glimpse of historical treasures, like the 400-year-old gardens of the Archbishop’s Palace and the Convent of St. Catherine. On June 7, the Pageant of the Seas takes place against the backdrop of the Grand Harbor, with boat races during the day and a fireworks and light display in the evening. From June 29 to July 14, the Malta International Arts Festival will offer music, theater, dance, films and opera.

Leeuwarden, a city of about 100,000, is the provincial capital of Friesland, in the northern region of the Netherlands, about 90 minutes from Amsterdam. It’s a charming city of canals, which you can tour by boat, and is home to many artisans who display their work in local shops. Attractions include a museum devoted to Dutch ceramics that’s housed in a 17th-century royal palace.

Among the highlights of Leeuwarden’s year as a European Capital of Culture is an appearance by the French street theater company Royal de Luxe, which will bring its gigantic marionettes to the city Aug. 17-19. From Aug. 3-6, the majestic Tall Ships sail into Harlingen, the region’s primary port. At the same time, a literary festival focusing on the sea will draw authors from around the world. In September and October, 100 Friesian horses will be part of an epic theatrical production called “The Storm Rider,” about the region’s battle against the elements.

For help planning a trip to Valletta or Leeuwarden, or another European destination, contact your travel agent


Business Travel: Exercise on the Go 

For business travelers, one of the downsides of being away from home is missing out on your normal fitness routine. As legroom gets tighter on many planes, it’s even more important to try and get in some stretching and walking whenever you can.

If you have a long layover at the airport, there are many ways to exercise while waiting for your flight. Many large airports have gyms on their property or in adjacent hotels. Some are free, while others offer the option of purchasing a day pass.

For example, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the Hilton Hotel, accessible from both domestic and international terminals, has a health club with cardio equipment, weights, a lap pool, steam room and sauna. At Toronto Pearson International Airport, in addition to the cardio equipment, a circuit training area and free weights, you can also rent workout clothing and shoes if you don’t have your exercise gear handy. The fitness center at Munich Airport offers a wide range of massages.

Yoga rooms are increasingly common at airports, offering fliers a chance to relax and recharge in spaces with mats, full-length mirrors and soothing décor. You’ll find them in, San Francisco, London, Miami and Hong Kong, among other places.

If you don’t have time to hit the gym, specially marked fitness trails are another way to stay in shape. At the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a walking path inside Terminal D measures seven-tenths of a mile and follows colorful tile medallions that are part of a public art initiative. In Phoenix, Sky Harbor Airport offers a mile-long fitness trail. Travelers can stop along the way at water bottle refill stations and take in the view of scenic spots, including the downtown skyline, Camelback Mountain and the red sandstone buttes of Papago Park. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport has a 1.4-mile walking path in Terminal 1, where you’ll also find storage lockers that can accommodate a carry-on bag.

But even if there isn’t a specially marked trail at the airport, you can still get in some cardio by going on a brisk walk. If you have a long trek to your gate, instead of a leisurely stroll or taking the moving walkway, pick up the pace and use it as an opportunity to do some power walking. Go part of the way with your suitcase in one hand and then switch hands to give your shoulders and forearms a workout. There are plenty of exercises you can do while waiting at your gate, too. It’s important to stay hydrated before and during your flight, so buy a big bottle of water and, before you drink, use it as a dumbbell to get in some bicep curls. A one-liter bottle weighs about two pounds. Even while seated in the boarding area you can take a few minutes to get in some light stretching on your legs, neck, shoulders and back. It’ll help get you in shape for the long flight ahead.

For help planning a business trip, contact your travel agent.

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