May 2018 Travel Column

Cruises Are Popular with Americans

Alaska cruises topped the list of the most booked domestic vacation destinations in Travel Leaders Group’s annual survey of more than 1,300 of its travel agents. Caribbean cruises retained the top spot for international travel, with European river cruises and Mediterranean cruises among the top five destinations.

Consumers are increasingly recognizing the ease, value and extraordinary experiences that cruises provide. With meals, many beverages and entertainment included, it’s easier to keep to a vacation budget. While specialty restaurants, spa services and shore excursions will cost extra, travelers know ahead of time what those costs are going to be. In addition, many cruise lines offer perks to their passengers, like money to spend onboard and some free Wi-Fi access.

In many ways, cruises offer travelers the best of both worlds – a chance to relax and a chance to explore. They’re a way to make the most out of precious vacation time.

For example, think about traveling from Amsterdam to Budapest on a European river cruise. You’ll sample the local food and wine, visit a 13th-century castle or learn to waltz. Or perhaps you’d rather cruise from Paris to Normandy along the Seine, with a tour of the D-Day beaches. Wherever you go, you can travel to each new stop with ease aboard your floating hotel.

For some destinations, like Alaska, the deck of a cruise ship is the best way to take in the majestic landscape of mountains and glaciers. To see the wilderness up close, combine a cruise with a land excursion to Denali National Park. Or learn about the gold rush days with a trip to the Yukon.

Cruises are also a great way for families to spend time together while also finding something to meet their own interests. On a weeklong Caribbean trip, mom and dad can enjoy a gourmet meal while the kids can splash around in the waterpark. Shore excursions also offer a chance for the whole family to be together, whether it’s swimming with the dolphins or touring and shopping.

Cuba is another destination drawing interest from American travelers. The Travel Leaders survey reports that the number of consumers expressing interest in visiting the island by cruise ship jumped nearly 10 percent from 2017. Cruises, which depart from Florida, combine shipboard comforts with an unforgettable firsthand experience. A shore excursion in Havana fulfills the people-to-people educational exchange that complies with U.S. law for Cuba travel, while giving passengers a look at Cuban history, culture and everyday life.

According to the Travel Leaders survey, the most common questions consumers ask when considering a cruise are about shore excursions and what to do in port. They also want to know about pre- and post-cruise travel and specialty restaurants. All of these questions cover areas in which travel Leaders travel agents have a great deal of expertise. Travel agents are trusted advisors for their clients, helping them decide which cruise fits their needs and getting them the best possible deal.

For help planning a cruise, contact your travel agent.

Put a Trip to a National Park on Your Bucket List

America’s national parks stretch from Maine to Hawaii. They’re places of incomparable natural beauty and a visit to at least one – if not more ­–­ should be on every traveler’s bucket list.

If you’re planning a national park vacation in 2018, here are some tips to get you started. And remember, your travel agent can help you explore all the options.

First, think about what you want to see.

For some, it’ll be the towering granite cliffs, waterfalls and forests of California’s Yosemite National Park. Others may be more entranced by Florida’s Everglades, a tropical wilderness that’s home to more than two-dozen protected species. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to look down into the Grand Canyon. You may want to experience the gorgeous colors at Maine’s Acadia National Park in mid-October. Spring is a great time to explore New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, when the desert comes alive with cactus and blooming flowers. There’s really something for everyone in the national parks, whether it’s lakes and woodlands, deserts or mountains.

Next, think about when to go.

With the kids out of school and more people on vacation, summer is generally the most crowded time of year, so it’s important to plan ahead, especially if you want to stay someplace in the park. But remember that these parks are very large, so if you have to go in the middle of July or August, there are plenty of places to roam, even in the most popular locations.

To beat the crowds, try to plan outdoor activities early in the morning. If you can manage a trip in early fall, you’ll be rewarded with generally good weather, fewer people and a chance to spot wildlife like bison and elk. Winter has its attractions, too. The parks are gorgeous under a blanket of snow, and there are lots of opportunities for activities like skiing and snowshoeing.

Plan what you want to do.

Every park has some must-see attractions. For example, if you’re at Yellowstone, in Wyoming, you want to make sure you see one of the regular eruptions for which Old Faithful is known. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, has more than 90 historic log structures – barns, churches, schools, grist mills – that have been preserved. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you’ll want to explore the summit of Kilauea Volcano via Crater Rim Drive, traveling through both desert and lush tropical rain forest. For an unforgettable experience, don’t miss the sunrise over the volcano.

The National Park Service offers some tips of its own. If you’re traveling with children, be sure to check out the Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program for activities geared toward young visitors. Once you arrive at the park, stop by the visitor center for up-to-the-minute information, to learn about special programs and to pick up maps and guides. Park rangers can also advise you on the best hike for your skill level.

For help planning a national park trip, contact your travel agent.

See the Total Eclipse in Santiago, Chile

If you missed seeing the total solar eclipse over the United States in August, you’ll have another chance in 2019 if you’re ready for a South American adventure.

A total eclipse occurs when the moon completely covers the sun, with the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, becoming visible. The next time that will happen is on July 2, 2019, and the best view will be over Chile, on the western edge of South America. While that may seem like a long way away, this is the time to start planning.

The best spot to catch the eclipse is the beautiful Elqui Valley, about 300 miles ­–or an hour’s plane ride – north of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

La Serena, founded in 1544 and Chile’s second-oldest city, is the gateway to the valley, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes Mountains. In La Serena, visitors will find a thriving street market with stalls selling everything from handicrafts to sugarcoated papaya, and more than two dozen churches, most notably the Church of San Francisco, dating to 1627.

The Elqui Valley is best known for its clear, unobstructed sky, drawing astronomy buffs from around the world to more than a dozen observatories in the area. The eclipse will be visible in the valley for about 2 minutes and 20 seconds in the late afternoon on July 2, 2019. The valley is also one of the country’s most important wine-growing regions, known primarily for the grapes used to make pisco, a distinctive brandy produced in Chile and Peru. It’s easy to plan a trip that combines wine tasting with stargazing and watching the eclipse.

Vicuna, one of the valley’s many charming small towns, is a center of pisco production and is also home to the popular Mamalluca Observatory, where visitors can browse through multimedia exhibits, get a lesson in astronomy and peer through a telescope at the night sky. The town is also home to a museum dedicated to poet Gabriela Mistral, a Vicuna native who became the first Latin American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945.

Visits to Chile usually start in Santiago, a scenic city located in a valley and surrounded by the Andes. You’ll want to spend some time there either before or after your trip to view the eclipse. To get a taste of the city, wander through the Central Market, go shopping along fashionable Avenue Alonso de Cordova and enjoy the galleries, restaurants, bars and clubs in the artsy Bellavista neighborhood.

Day trips from Santiago include the seaport of Valparaiso, where you can ride the funicular railways that connect the historic upper and lower towns. In Pomaire, visitors can experience small-town Chilean culture. While you’re there, pick up some of the pottery for which the town is known. June through October is ski season in Chile. The El Colorado and Valle Nevado ski areas are a couple of hours from Santiago.

For help planning a trip to Chile, contact your travel agent.

Czech Republic and Slovakia Celebrate Centennial

Although they are now separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are united in marking 100 years since the creation of Czechoslovakia, the nation that arose in 1918 following the end of World War I.

For travelers who want to explore the charms of old-world Central Europe both countries have much to offer, with historic town squares, booming cultural scenes and breathtaking landscapes.

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is the starting point for most visitors to the region. Be sure to visit the 9th-century Prague Castle and the ornate St. Vitus Cathedral, a noteworthy example of Gothic architecture. Walk across the landmark Charles Bridge, lined with statues, and stroll through the beautifully preserved Old Town. Also, check out Prague’s outdoor markets, where you’ll find everything from cheese and fruit to handmade crystal and glass jewelry.

About an hour from Prague, Pilsen is the home of Pilsner beer and a 2015 European Capital of Culture. Czechoslovakia proclaimed its independence on Oct. 28, 1918, and the city has planned a weekend of festivities from Oct. 26-28 to coincide with the anniversary. Events include special tours, performances and fireworks. Pilsen also has a historic city center filled with cafes and restaurants. History buffs and beer fans alike will enjoy a tour of the Pilsner Brewery. Also worth a visit is Karlovy Vary, about two hours from Prague and famous for its hot springs. Brno, a university town about 2½ hours south of the capital, has a lively café and club scene, with museums and microbreweries.

Slovakia is home to the cosmopolitan city of Bratislava, but also offers lots of activities for travelers who want to experience the outdoors. The small country has nine national parks, with ample opportunities to explore lakes, forests, waterfalls, mountains and caves. Also worth exploring are Slovakia’s many castles and picturesque wooden churches that dot the countryside.

Bratislava, the capital, stretches along both banks of the Danube River. Bratislava Castle, on a hilltop above the Danube, is home to a museum and offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding area. In the Old Town, don’t miss the Primate’s Palace, with its famous Hall of Mirrors. One of Bratislava’s biggest annual events, the Cultural Summer and Castle Festival, takes place from June 1 to Sept. 30, with performances of music, theater and dance, and traditional handicrafts on display.

While Czechoslovakia was dissolved on Jan. 1, 1993, an act known as the “Velvet Divorce,” Slovakia and the Czech Republic remain on good terms. The two countries are working together on a number of cultural projects to mark the centennial. Museums in both countries, including Prague’s National Technical Museum and the Slovak National Gallery, in Bratislava, will have exhibits highlighting everything from art and agriculture to industry and technology. And Prague will host a day of open-air concerts on June 27 culminating in a performance by the Czech Philharmonic, joined by musicians from Slovakia.

For help planning a trip to the Czech Republic or Slovakia, contact your travel agent.

Business Travel: Making a Home Away from Home

There’s no denying that business travel can take its toll. It can mean hours in the air, living out of a suitcase, spending time away from home, friends and family, but there are ways to make it feel more like home. Here are some suggestions on how business travelers can balance work and life while they’re on the road.

If you go to the same destination for business travel, try to develop a routine. For example, stay at the same hotel each time. The front-desk clerks will get to know you and be ready to help with everything from restaurant tips to room upgrades that can make your time away from home as pleasant as possible. When your surroundings begin to feel more familiar, you’ll be more at ease.

And don’t let those healthy habits that you’ve developed at home go by the wayside when you’re on the road. Concentrate on eating healthy, staying active and getting plenty of sleep. Use the hotel gym or just walk when you can instead of taking a cab. Look for restaurants that use fresh, local ingredients. A burger is fine sometimes, but don’t settle for whatever fast-food place is nearby.

Also, apps like FaceTime and Skype make it easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones wherever you are around the country or around the world. When you’re on the road, try to develop a ritual that keeps you in touch with loved ones at home, whether that’s sending a daily email or calling right before bedtime, or snapping some interesting pictures to share when you get back.

At the end of a long workday, give yourself some time to recharge just like you do at home. Take advantage of that different location to try something different, such as experimenting at a new restaurant with cuisine you haven’t tried. Or, it could mean engaging in local cultural activities, taking in a sporting event, checking out a brewpub in the area or strolling through the neighborhood that’s lively in the evening. If you’re feeling low on energy, spend the evening relaxing at your hotel.

If your company allows it, build a “bleisure” trip into your business travel. Take a few days either before or after the business portion of your trip to do something fun, whether it’s sightseeing or relaxing on a beach. If you extend your trip by a few days, a family member or significant other may even be able to join you on your mini vacation. If you plan your bleisure trip before your business trip, you could wind up saving your company money with a cheaper flight, or get more accomplished by being better rested before you begin work. Either way, taking personal time can make a business trip more of a perk, and help maintain that crucial work-life balance.

For help planning a business trip, or a trip that combines business and leisure, contact your travel agent.

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