September 2014 Travel Column

Cosmopolitan Atlanta – 150 and 75 Year Anniversaries

Atlanta, by far the South’s largest city, is also the region’s most cosmopolitan. It’s no wonder Georgia’s capital is often referred to as “Hotlanta.” But 150 years ago, Atlanta was literally ablaze, and a couple of milestone anniversaries harken back to the Civil War events that unfolded in 1864.

This November 11 marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Atlanta when General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered his Union Army to troops to burn city to the ground. At the time, the city’s population was barely at 10,000, yet it had become such a vital transportation hub, that it was transformed into a critical supply line for the Confederates.

The essence of the Battle of Atlanta was captured in an immense panoramic painting that is currently housed in the city’s Grant Park. The Atlanta Cyclorama is world’s largest oil painting with a circumference of over 350 feet – the panorama is cylindrical, with observers taking it in from seats on a rotating cylinder in the center. Painted in 1885-86, the historical artwork features a three-dimensional foreground (if you look closely, you can even see a soldier who looks like Clark Gable).

To commemorate the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum is hosting events both on-site and around the city through the rest of the year, including “Art Against the Wall: The Battle of Atlanta at 150” – a free art exhibit at Atlanta’s Gallery 72, now through October 5.

Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell also captured the Battle of Atlanta in her Civil War-themed novel Gone with the Wind, which was first published in 1936 – three short years before its translation into a silver screen classic. A former journalist, Mitchell wrote the book at her home, a turn-of-the-century Tudor Revival building that has since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Margaret Mitchell House is now open to the public.

Less than a mile down Peachtree Street from the Margaret Mitchell House is Atlanta’s “fabulous” Fox Theatre. Seventy-five years ago, the former movie palace figured prominently into the world premiere of the big screen adaptation of Mitchell’s work – not as the venue for the first showing of the film, but instead serving as the starting point for the official parade kicking off the festivities. On December 15, 1939, more than one million people were drawn to Atlanta to celebrate the movie, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1939.

Like the Margaret Mitchell House, the Fox Theatre earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places. While it came close to being razed in the 1970s, the Fox Theatre now serves as an impressive live-performance mecca. In addition to offering 60-minute guided tours, the opulent venue plays host to a variety of acclaimed shows. Over the next six months, audiences will flock to the Fox to see artists like Jason Mraz, Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and musicals including Disney’s “Newsies” and “Wicked: The Musical.”

Atlanta also offers visitors a wide array of experiences typically starting at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport – the world’s busiest – where hometown airline Delta Air Lines just opened its Delta Flight Museum. With a metropolitan population of over 5.5 million, this global city is home to such must-see attractions as the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the High Museum of Art and CNN’s Atlanta Studios.

To learn more about visiting Atlanta, please contact your travel agent


Commercial Airline Industry Centennial

In this Space Age when space stations and unmanned missions to Mars are no longer a fantasy – and a full 45 years after the first man on the moon – it may seem hard to believe that 2014 only marks the 100th anniversary of the world’s airline industry, which began in earnest just ten short years after Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Consider all the major airlines that are no longer in existence – either because of mergers or simply management issues – like Continental, Eastern, Northwest, Pan Am and TWA, just to name a few, and it makes the thought of their ascent beginning a scant 100 years all the more mind-boggling.

But in 1914, visionaries Percy Fansler and Thomas W. Benoist capitalized on Kitty Hawk’s tenth anniversary by launching SPT Airboat Line, which provided commercial air service, albeit briefly, between two Florida cities: St. Petersburg and Tampa. Using three wooden, open air-wing seaplanes, the journey across Tampa Bay at 65 miles per hour took all of 23 minutes – dramatically less time than the two hours it ordinarily took by boat or the grueling 20 hours required by the still relatively new automobile.

While today’s jumbo jets can carry over 500 passengers, it was a decidedly different flying experience for full-fare paying passengers. Each Benoist Airboat was a two-seater aircraft, meaning there was only enough room aboard for one pilot and one passenger on each of the two daily roundtrip flights offered. While there’s no record of peanuts being served on those flights, the one-way fare of $5.00 was anything but at the time; in today’s dollars, the ride would cost $116.

So wildly anticipated was that first commercial crossing of Tampa Bay on January 1, 1914, that a parade preceded the flight and 3,000 spectators turned out to watch history being made. The first passenger was determined by auction, with former St. Peterburg Mayor Abram C. Pheil bidding $400 for the honor of flying at a reported altitude of only about fifty feet – some 35,950 feet lower than most long-haul aircraft today.

Yet Benoist had a clear vision for the future of aviation noting, “Someday, people will be crossing oceans on airliners like they do on steamships today.” Now, 100 years later when his extraordinary dream has become an everyday – yes, ordinary – occurrence, the very first commercial flight continues to be celebrated. Not only are events taking place this year, but in the lead up to the centennial – underscoring just how far aviation had come – an original Benoist pennant flew aboard the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery in 2011 with astronaut Nicole Stott.

Throughout this year, the St. Petersburg Museum of History is the place to be. The museum’s signature exhibit is housed in “The World’s First Airline Gallery,” devoted to the story of commercial aviation beginning with the first flight of SPT Airboat Line. A full-size working replica of the original Benoist Airboat is on display.

For more information on getting to Tampa Bay and other attractions there, please consult with your travel agent.


Travel Insurance Provides Peace-of-Mind During Travels

Recent headlines about Iceland’s most active volcano served as a stark reminder to many Europe-bound passengers that in the blink of an eye, unforeseen circumstances can suddenly disrupt travel plans, no matter how well you may have prepared.

That is, unless during your travel planning, you had the foresight to protect your trip with travel insurance. The only true way to ensure that each trip goes off with a minimum of glitches is to purchase third-party travel insurance (versus policies sold directly by the airline, cruise line or tour operator that is supplying your travel experience). Travel insurance guards against all the unknowns, both at the most personal levels and at times when emergencies occur well beyond your control.

Given that we live in a non-refundable age, you have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to lose all the money I’ve invested in my family’s vacation if this trip is cut short or canceled?” If you’re traveling abroad, you should also be aware that most health insurance policies in the United States will not offer coverage outside the country; this should prompt you to ask yourself, “Can I be 100% sure that absolutely nothing will happen where we’d need medical care?” If you answered, “No,” to either question, you should guard your travel investment with travel insurance.

Here are some of the top reasons why you should consider travel insurance:

Issues Precluding or Delaying Travel – You never know when the unexpected will occur that can completely derail your plans before you’ve even started your journey. Whether you experience a sudden medical issue or job loss, travel insurance has you covered.

Medical Emergencies – It’s in our nature to think we’re immune to becoming ill, injured or even worse during the course of our travels. But all too many travelers face the unexpected and then are forced to pay significant and unanticipated out-of-pocket costs. Travel insurance not only covers you, but you can also purchase medical evacuation insurance for the extra peace-of-mind when visiting popular places where medical care may be questionable. 

Other Issues While Traveling – What if something happens back home that requires you to cut-short your trip, including the death of a loved one? What happens when you lose a valuable item during your travels? There’s travel insurance that can protect you in both cases.

Travel Supplier Closures – Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that on occasion, some businesses go out of business – and the travel industry is not immune. This only reinforces just how crucial it is to buy third-party insurance as opposed to one that offered directly by the supplier. But it’s also a smart idea to work with a travel agent who can counsel you on strong suppliers.

Overall, travel protection insurance covers many contingencies, depending on the type of trip planned. There are various types of policies from several trusted insurance companies – such as Allianz and Travel Guard – to protect non-refundable trip deposits and payments should your travel be canceled or interrupted for any reason. They also can include affordable family rates and competitive car rental coverage. Most policies also provide primary medical coverage so you can get emergency medical attention immediately, without having to access your own health insurer.

To learn more about the travel insurance coverage that’s right for you, contact your travel agent.

Maximizing Your Hotel Dollar

A recent Associated Press story took inventory of a growing array of fees that some hotels are adding to their guests’ bills. Taking a page from the airline industry, it appears on the surface that hotels are seeking innovative ways to charge for items that were previously free.

So what is a consumer to do? Except for vacations where you’re staying with family or friends, most of us stay in hotels of varying amenities.

Fortunately, over the past few years, the U.S. hotel industry has been booming. According to CNBC, “many in the industry say they expect the good times to keep rolling for a few more years until supply catches up with demand.” That, in turn, means that there are more properties at every price point. More competition is good for consumers.

But even better news is that there are a number of ways to avoid paying fees at hotels.

Perhaps the most important one is not to make your hotel reservation directly through the hotel. You’ll only have access to what that specific hotel is offering, meaning that you’ll have no comparative information on which to base your decision.

Second, don’t fall for the hotels’ own “best rate guarantees.” The hotel rate you may be shown directly by the property may not be indicative of all the extras you might ultimately end up paying for. Plus, if you’re browsing online, thanks to the growing use of “cookies,” the rate you initially saw may no longer be available the next time.

Third, if you’re going to visit online booking sites, use them for comparison purposes only. The best use of such sites is to see what other travelers have experienced with the property you’re considering. But just like booking through a hotel directly, booking through online sites rarely provides you with access, if any, to value-added amenities, such as complimentary breakfasts or free Wi-Fi.

The best way to get the best rate at a hotel plus added benefits is to book through a travel agency. Today’s top travel agents not only have access to competitive rates at most hotels worldwide, but because of their buying power, they also have access to plenty of perks that are provided to guests.

For example, in addition to the free breakfasts and Wi-Fi mentioned above, travel agents who have access to the Travel Leaders Group Worldwide Hotel Program can offer their clients complimentary parking, room upgrades and the last available room at over 34,000 hotels globally – even if it is not showing as available on a hotel’s website.

If you’re looking to splurge on your hotel, you should ask your travel agent if they have access to a luxury hotel program like Select Hotels & Resorts, which can provide similar amenities as outlined above, but also provides room upgrades at check-in (based on availability), early check-ins and late check-outs (also based on availability) and special VIP amenities. That way, when you’re comparing notes with your fellow guests, you’ll have peace-of-mind that you booked your accommodations like a pro.

For more information on value-added amenities for all your hotel stays, contact your travel agent.


Business Travel: Upcoming Changes to Frequent Flyer Programs

Savvy business travelers have long sought ways to be rewarded for their frequent flights. At the top of this list is participating in frequent flyer programs that reward them for their patronage. Those who fly the most on one particular airline can score upgrades and plenty of other rewards – including “free” travel – as they pile on the miles.

They can also enjoy such benefits as priority check-in, waived baggage fees, airport lounge access, and even expedited TSA Precheck screening.

Since the dawn of frequent flyer programs in the 1980s, the ways travelers have earned their miles proliferated to include purchases made with the airline’s credit card to using the airline’s hotel and car rental partners. Yet fundamentally, the core way of earning miles has remained largely the same – travelers have been credited with one mile for every actual mile flown. However, this way of accumulating mileage – and with it the accompanying “status” levels conferred on the top frequent flyers – is about to change dramatically.

Beginning in 2015, airlines like Delta will begin crediting mileage based instead on the price of the airline ticket. While this approach has its critics, it may ultimately be a net positive for those individuals who fly the most: business travelers. Delta was the first legacy carrier to announce changes to its program and other airlines have followed suit.

For its part, Delta Air Lines has offered a mileage comparison calculator to help its customers determine how much more – or less – they’d earn next year on their most frequent itineraries. Starting with those who have no status with the carrier, they’ll earn five miles for every dollar spent.

However, current status brings with it more miles per dollar spent: seven miles per $1 for Silver Medallion members (those who currently fly 25,000 miles per year), eight miles per $1 for Gold Medallion members (those who currently fly 50,000 miles per year), nine miles per $1 for Platinum Medallion members (those who currently fly 75,000 miles per year), and 11 miles per $1 for Diamond Medallion members (those who currently fly 125,000 miles per year).

Delta attributes its upcoming change as “to better reward customers who spend more with Delta.” But it is also promising to create more redemption options and increase award seat availability at the lowest price points for all of its frequent flyer customers.

Fortunately for those road warriors among us who live their lives on the road, they’ll enjoy significantly less competition for those immensely valued upgrades once they begin flying in 2015.

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