As they have done for several years in a row, Arthur Frommer and daughter Pauline Frommer had an overflow audience at the 2014 New York Times Travel Show, enrapt with their insights into how to have the most enriching travel experiences often because they also afford the greatest value, and their recommendations for "new" or rather under-appreciated destinations.
Getting Best Value, Experience in Accommodations
Home exchange, AirBnB, couchsurfing, hostels aren't just ways to save a bundle over commercial hotels, but open the door to uniquely "authentic" experiences - you literally live like a local.
In some instances - such as AirBnB and couchsurfing, the owner may well become your guide, giving you insights and insider information about places that you would never find on your own, especially in such a limited time frame. And they are often personalities and persons whose presence adds immeasureably to the travel experience - what travel is supposed to be about.
Arthur Frommer is a big fan of AirBnB, and he answered the controversy directly of whether or not it is legal in New York City (if owner stays in residence). Pauline was able to stay for $110 - the owner even said she could help herself to what was in the refrigerator and made breakfast in the morning.
AirBnB and most of the other apartment renting organizations, he stressed, run references and post comments by people who have stayed in the unit before, and invite you to post, as well.
Home exchange – where you literally trade a stay in your home for someone else's which could be around the world and no money changes hands (often the host throws in the use of their car, as well). "You have the most prized accommodation in the world, here in New York City," Frommer says. "People around the world believe New York City is 'high adventure,' an experience lifted from a Fred Astaire movie. The moment you list, you will be deluged from as far as Timbuktu to with people who want to stay in your place while you stay in theirs."
Couchsurfing - where you literally crash on someone's couch (or floor) has become a growing trend, (Couchsurfers.com is one of the most prominent sites). He gave the example of Pauline’s friend who plays the harp – signed up, stayed free of charge in homes all around the US, whose owners were thrilled to having a musician from touring company of South Pacific – most would drive her to the theater at night, and pick up at end – saved thousands and thousands of dollars.
Hotel Tonight (www.hoteltonight.com) is a mobile travel app for iPhone, iPad and Android devices that allows users find discounted last-minute hotel accommodations throughout North America and Europe.
"A remarkable app you download to your cellphone, can enable you on arrival to find a particular hungry hotel is radically reducing prices providing you stay that night and only that night," he said. Pauline used it in San Diego and got a hotel room for $90 when every place else listed at a minimum of $163.
Hostels: He pointed to the Emergence all over US of absolutely proper and comfortable hostels, where most of the accommodations are dormitory style, certain rooms set aside for women, rooms set aside for families or private rooms that you can purchase at a premium.
He gave the example of the Firehouse Hostel, located in the oldest standing firehouse in Austin, built in 1885 and the Bivvi in Breckenridge ($29).
Also, he gave a shout out to Southside Travelers Rest, opening in Pittsburg this summer. An affordable alternative to a traditional hotel, SSTR offering shared accommodations "allowing our guests to connect with one another and our community" (and ideal for those biking the Great Allegheny Passage, touring museums or attending a convention, http://sstrpgh.com/).
Three European hostel companies are entering the US market this year, opening properties in New York City, Washington DC and Miami, charging $35/night per person "for a proper accommodation."
Hostels used to be the purview of youth (some may remember American Youth Hostels), but there is no longer a maximum age restriction on the right to use a hostel, he noted.
"During times of the year when young people tend to be in school, predominant clientele of hostels all over the world are middle aged and elderly."
New Developments for Air Travel
In an action that will likely spread to other major airlines, Delta Airlines is changing frequent flyer program – instead of using miles to get award, points will be earned based on how much money is spent, "And those folks who have higher elite status will get even more miles than peons like me who isn’t loyal to any airline. It becomes a complex calculus: Do I pay more for a ticket in order to get more miles later on, or do I just go for the best deal?"
Airline mergers are virtually certain of guaranteeing higher air fares. "Because of these mergers, in just a couple of months, four airlines will control 80% of domestic routes in this country – with that lack of competition, especially in certain gateways, it seems inevitable prices will go up, so travelers will have to be savvier than ever," Pauline Frommer said.
She offered these tips to get the best value for airfares:
Book on a Tuesday or Wednesday, never on the weekend. "Often prices go up on the weekend, because airlines know that’s when people are home and like to search."
Book in advance, but not too much in advance: As for how much in advance, she advises that based on Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) data, for domestic fares, the "sweet spot" for lowest fares is six weeks in advance.
"If you book too early, it shows the airlines they’ve got you, because you really want to travel."
For Europe, the best window to book is two months ahead.
For South America, six months in advance is when you get the best price.
For Central America, book six weeks in advance.
For Africa, "bizarrely enough, you get the best prices three weeks in advance," she advises.
For the Caribbean, you want to book within a month, that’s the sweet spot when the deals ‘pop’ – based on Kayak that did the stats.
Other tips to save money on airfares:
Non-direct flight may be cheaper
Two one-ways may be cheaper
Be flexible (on airports and times/dates)
Use a local or specialized travel agency - especially one with real specialty, like an ethnic agency which knows the air destination intimately. "Going to Japan, I called Nippon Travel in Washington DC because it specializes in ethnic travel. I finally got someone who could speak English and got a ticket $125 cheaper - which amounts to a lot for a family of four - that I wouldn’t have gotten on the Internet."
Don’t pay premium unless it's really premium, she advises. "A lot of airlines are charging more to sit in front, but you don't get an inch of extra space. Seatguru tells you if it is actually premium."
Follow your favorite airline on Twitter or Facebook: "Airlines want you to come to their website so they can up-sell you to hotels, car rentals – so they only hold their best sales for 3 hours because that doesn't give Expedia and the others enough time to match."
How do you find these short-lived specials? On Twitter, so if you know you will be flying on a particular airline, follow the line on twitter. Triptwit is a good search engine to set up that search.
"Airfares are going up and up, and there may be times when we really can’t do much about it. So compensate [or mitigate] by staying in alternative accommodations."
New Developments in Cruising
Arthur Frommer has never tried to disguise his contempt for the mega-ships, the floating resorts, which he believes defies the essence of a true voyage - the experience of discovery and enrichment, where the exploring the destination is the highlight.
And so, when it comes to "developments in cruising," he says, "I have very poor news."
"I have devoted a lifetime to making the claim 'the less you spend, the more you enjoy.' It is solely in world of cruising where I have reluctantly concluded that you harm your vacation by booking the popularly priced mass-market cruise companies -Carnival, RCL, MSC, Norwegian Cruise Lines.
"These cruise ships that house as many as 4000-5000 apiece are today run by avaricious executives hell bent on converting their cruiseships into amusement parks," declares Frommer, never one to mince words.
"Just two weeks ago, the president of RCL, announced the newest ship would include a rink with bumper cars on top deck of ship, next to a basketball court alongside a roller skating rink, and a wind machine that would propel you six feet up from upper deck, to emulate experience of sky diver –true, I don’t have the imagination to come up with that. Today, increasingly you are booking yourself onto large amusement parks when you book the standard, lower price, mass-volume cruise ship.
"I myself would not like to cruise with fellow passengers attracted to the cruise by bumper cars, or who were hell bent on booking a cruise ship because they could use a basketball court or go into a wind machine to emulate a sky dive.
But of course, he acknowledged that his daughter Pauline, and granddaughter Beatrix had a wonderful time- the rock climbing walls, water chutes.
Still, he remembers the glory days of ocean cruising. "I found myself on a ship where totally impossible to enjoy the glories and benefits of a cruise – not a single quiet spot on the ship where you can avoid the sound of rock music – I looked at a map of one deck and saw a faraway lounge to read, and immediately heard the crash of bowling pins – a bowling alley. Imagine, a 5,000 passenger ship with no library at all. Now they building ships that contain no libraries, simply amusement parks.
"One wonders why necessary to go to sea at all? They can save the money – and not bother to hire the captains, sailors, first officer – just dock on the west side of Manhattan and permit themselves to charge $100 for a 7-nite 'cruise,' and they would still make money."
Frommer's alternatives that offer more traditional cruising? "In the world of cruising today, the only way to enjoy the traditional benefits of cruising is to book a Celebrity cruise, Holland America, Princess cruise, thus enjoy the ability to lie in a chaise lounge on deck, read a novel, be served bouillon by an attendant and have wonderful conversations with the other passengers, not surrounded by rock music, bowling allies and bumper cars."
However, he continues, "One area where this advice doesn’t occur is on Mediterranean cruises. Because cruiselines scheduled too many ships that take you to all the storied parts of Mediterranean, if you go to search engines, there are incredible values- by MSC and Norwegian and Costa Cruises in particular for cruises of the Mediterranean – islands of Greece, Turkey, Istanbul, Ephesus, kusadesi, Naples."
He also discourages cruisegoers from purchasing shore excursions from the cruiseline, which "charge outlandish sums for shore excursions" often to be stuffed into a 44-passesnger motorcoach.
"With the exception of a handful, there is not a single port that can’t be better visited on your own." [Or rather, through independent shore excursion companies which you can pre-arrange through your travel agent or by researching online.]
"In Mykonos, you walk a couple of hundred yards from where you disembark and will see everything you want to see, and that is true of virtually very port in the world," Frommer says.
[Here, though, I would disagree; the areas immediately around the ports are not at all authentic, and because ships are often in port such a limited amount of time, you don't have time to first go explore on your own, without knowing the logistics in advance. You don't necessarily have the time to hop a public bus and explore; and often the excursions get you access and to places you might not have visited on your own.]
But, Fommer adds, "If you determined to take an excursion, there are companies emerging that won’t put you in a motorcoach but a 12-seat van at half the price of a cruise line and give a better tour."
For example, a tour company in St Petersburg, called Red October, offers tours in a 12 passenger van rather than 44-seat motorcoach.
My tip: Have your travel agent contact Shore Excursions Group which offers more than 5,000 excursions and tours worldwide; small group size (tours generally range in size from 2-20 people; or for private groups of 4 or more, at a cost comparable to the cruiselines' regular shore excursion). The company offers guaranteed return to ship (in the unlikely event the tour doesn't make it back to the ship in time, the company pays all expenses to get you to the next port, plus $500 to each impacted customer); a 100% Customer Satisfaction Money Back Guarantee; guaranteed tour departure; Price Match on Tours; and 24/7 support (www.ShoreExcursionsGroup.com).
Frommer is also really keen on river cruising - that is, with caveats. "If you regard yourself as a ‘swinger’ – this is not for you – the average age is my age. My wife and I have enjoyed creeping along rivers at 3 miles an hour, watching the shore inch by, as you sit in your balcony lounge."
Here too, I disagree. River cruising is for any age; longer departures outside of school holidays obviously get an older clientele, but the cruise and the daily activity is certainly suited to families with children 8 and older, and especially multi-generational families. River cruises facilitate exploring because your accommodation travels with you, but each day, you are in a new place.
A source Frommer recommends is Rivercruise.com.
New Developments: Air/Hotel Packages
Sometimes, there is better value to be had in air-hotel packages.
Pauline Frommer pointed to her experience booking a trip to Cancun, where she saved $200 per person with an air-hotel package for a week on the Riviera Maya.
Some sources: VacMart.com, PleasantHolidays.com, BookIt.com, Expedia.com, VacationExpress.com, Travelocity.com, Tours.com, VirginVacations.com, AerLingusVacationstore.com, SceptreTours.com. Also, AppleVacations.com (travel agents only).
Small Group Adventure Tour Operators. This is a new development and you don’t have to bungee jump, Pauline says. "These are trips that are purposefully green – you stay in locally owned guest houses, use public transportation to get around, there are never more than 12 in a group so you are not stuck waiting for 39th person to get back on the bus, and you see more because not with a massive group of people."
Among her favorites:
G Adventures (used to be Gap Adventures, but they had to change because of clothing store
Intrepid Travel, from Australia.
Adventure Center, which acts as a clearinghouse and is more of a real adventure type travel company, offering safaris, overland excursions where might find yourself in van in Kazakstan, work with British companies mainly, adventurous itineraries you might be nervous to do on your own – such as to Siberia – but you do it with group and still have more time on your own.
Road Scholar (which used to be Elderhostel before the company changed its name – didn’t want the stigma of elder, but still pretty much is for those over 60. They have wonderful tours, often with educational component.
Context Travel – which offers mainly day tours and private tours and hires tour guides who are art historians, graduate students, art restorers, and people who are passionate about the place who take you on unique tours. They used to be just in Italy, and have expanded to France, Germany, Central America, China.
Voluntourism is growing in popularity. These are volunteer vacations where you spend at least some of your time away doing something meaningful - like working to conserve a wilderness trail (in Colorado), participating in science research, making wishes come true for sick children (Orlando).
That's what Pauline did at Give the Kids The World, just outside of DisneyWorld. "The Make a Wish Foundation finds that the number one wish, 90%, want to go to DisneyWorld – a lot were getting to Disneyworld too sick to really enjoy it – so a group of volunteers started the village. It's a remarkable place - everything is free for the children and their families There is an ice cream parlor, a wheelchair accessible playground. Volunteers come from the theme parks to visit – a lot of the children get there but too sick to leave - but they still get to meet Cinderella." Pauline volunteered during her visit. She advises that you have to arrange this in advance because they have to do background checks (www.gktw.org).
Other Short Volunteer Vacations: ParisminaTurtles.org, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Colorado Trail Foundation.
Longer volunteer vacations are offered by such places as Global Volunteers, Earthwatch Institute, Vaughan Systems, American Hiking Society.
"Volunteering used to be whole vacation, now it can be just a part of it," Pauline says. "Besides, you meet a better class of people."
Global Volunteers has been around a long time. They offer lots of different adventures. For example, in Rumania, you may have the opportunity to work in an orphanage.
EarthWatch Institute (earthwatch.org) lets you join actual teams of researchers and scientists. You can find yourself on boat in middle of pacific – helping tag sharks or at archeological dig.
For example, Investigating Whales and Dolphins of the Norwegian Arctic - Amid spectacular scenery, study the behaviors and needs of arctic whales and dolphins ($2675 - $2775, Andoya Island, Vesterålen, Norway, 8 days).
Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge - Scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of global warming in the Arctic. But what, exactly, will these effects be? ($3625 - $3725, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, 11 days)
On the Trail of Giant Pandas in China - How can we support the long-term welfare of the giant panda, one of the world’s most beloved and endangered species? ($3595 - $3995, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, 7 days).
Earthwatch and Global Vacations trips tend to be expensive – because your money goes to support the work of the organization or the scientific research.
Vaughan Systems is free, except for airfare to Spain. It is a school where you help Spanish business people learn English. "You just talk and talk but they give you wine at each meal." (volunteers.grupovaughan.com).
American Hiking Society is another. You can sign on for a week of building and maintaining trails in exciting & diverse locations across the country. Crews consist of 6-15 volunteers accompanied by a crew leader. Trips involve backpacking or day hiking and accommodations vary from primitive campsites to bunkhouses or cabins. Tools and supervision are provided by the host agency or organization (www.americanhiking.org/volunteer-vacations).
Frommer Guides Return
Two of the newest developments in travel actually concern the Frommers, themselves:
In April of 2013, the Frommers reacquired ownership of their iconic Frommer Travel Guides, which Frommer began 57 years ago after getting out of US Army, and self-publishing "Europe on $5 A Day." He sold the company in 1977 and though remaining heavily involved was not in control. Last year, they reacquired the title from Google, and given seven months in which to publish the first new line.
"We called our favorite authors – all were delighted to do another Frommer guide – experienced journalists who were told they could write in the grand tradition of Frommer Guides.
"Not encyclopedic but selective, offering 30 write-ups - 10 expensive, 10 moderate, 10 cheap – the best."
The line is introducing 30 titles in two categories, with five more coming: Easy Guides are 256 pages in length so they don’t overwhelm; and a series of Day by Day guides.
By fall, Frommer expects to have 60 or 70 out, priced at $10.99.
This is such welcome news for all of us whose maiden travel experience in Europe was exploring the continent with his "Europe on $5 a Day." The new guidebooks return to that same tradition. A true baedeker.
Also, their national radio program is being preempted in New York City by Mets broadcasting on Clear Channel for the next six months, but listeners can stream from their website; New Yorkers can also contact the radio show in advance if they want to ask a question for the radio show. (Go to http://www.frommers.com/podcast/)
The 11th annual New York Times Travel Show, the largest trade and consumer travel event in North America, featured nearly 500 sponsors and exhibitors representing over 150 countries (NYTTravelShow.com).
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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