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Radio Show Host, Travel Expert, Stephanie Abrams' Travel Blog

NPR’s Northeast Public Radio Presents Travel Agent with Questionable Answers

Yesterday, I listened to a radio show host on Northeast Public Radio that I truly enjoy. His name is Ray Graf. He is often the best part of a guest’s appearance keeping the show topics pertinent, lively, entertaining, insightful and informative. He fields emailed questions and often takes callers to the live show. But when the subject turns to travel, I often want to jump through the radio and make the guest’s appearance more of panel discussion so I can get my two-cents into the mix. Yesterday was one of those occasions.

It started out with Ray introducing a travel agent from the region who was there to answer audience questions and discuss the overview and fine points, as best as one can within the restrictions of time that a radio show naturally imposes, of well-crafted answers.  I pounced on the phone to call in to respond to a less-than-complete answer to Ray’s lead-off question which was, in essence, “Where can you go at this time of year when it’s cold and snow is on the ground and you don’t want to spend a fortune to get away?”  The guest’s answer was, “Florida.”

That’s not a wrong answer. In fact, it’s a good answer as there are many destinations within Florida that provide a wide range of lodgings in every budget level. But Florida is not the only answer so I wanted to round out the scope, for the listeners, of what else might be appealing and, for that purpose, called the station’s call-in line.

I passed the screener’s muster and was put on-hold seemingly forever. During that time, during which I became convinced they are never putting me on the air, I was able to hear the show in progress and, with each question asked by email or phone call, I had more to share and was making notes like simultaneous translator at the United Nations!  The guest’s answers were, in general, not wrong. They were, however, woefully incomplete, providing just enough information to be dangerous.

By the time I was put on the air, which came as a great surprise to me as I was certain by that point that that wouldn’t happen, my list of items that needed to be addressed had reached a point where the first question about where to go in the winter that isn’t a fortune and has “pizzazz,” and won’t break the bank, was no longer the first and most important item to share with Ray’s audience.  And while I got to give what I believed to be important insights, they clearly couldn’t devote a disproportionate amount of time to my input as, at the end of the day, it’s still a radio show with time restrictions, so I never got to what had started out as the reason I called.

I’m hoping that the next time travel is the focus on that station that they’ll think of me as I’d love to be a panel member to round out and beef-up the information offered but I’d like to share with you some of the items that came up that I believe are important to travelers for which more specific/focused/in-depth information needs to be provided. So, here are the answers to the questions asked yesterday on a show you probably didn’t hear but have importance to all travelers anyway!

Q.1. Where to go in winter when you want warmer weather than you’ll find in the northeast of the US and don’t want to break the bank:

A.1. Think Mediterranean! The southern coastline of Europe is lowest of low season now through sometime in April with the exception of Christmas/New Year’s and Easter Holidays periods. You can find low coast air transportation roundtrip and the cheapest way to get to destinations like Portugal’s Algarve, Madeira, Spain’s Costa del Sol, the Canary Islands,  The Balearic Islands, France’s Riviera, southern regions of Italy, Malta, and Morocco is  to fly to Dublin  . . .Aer Lingus has fares to Dublin under $500 at this time of year roundtrip inclusive of taxes, fees and a checked bag and meals, such as they are, and Norwegian Airlines has fares about half of that (a subject that specifically came up later so see below). Once in Dublin, check out Ryan Air’s fares. Just be sure to note the weight for checked luggage on Ryan Air as compared to your transatlantic carrier and pack for the smaller amount of allowable checked (and carry-on) baggage. Ryan Air often has fares of 9 Euros with tax about 14 Euros so starting at about $30 each way you can get from Dublin to an amazing number of destinations in Europe. And, in addition to weather in the 60- 75 degrees Fahrenheit range you can enjoy beach destinations (and heated and indoor pools) as well as historic and spiritual sights, great food, no crowds and great rates wherever you go! Check with a travel agent for packages that are very competitive air/land packages or fly/drive packages for the adventurous! You’ll be shocked by how much less expensive it is to go to Europe in the winter than to Florida or the Caribbean and live at a much higher standard in Europe than your budget will buy closer to home.

Important note: Check with Aer Lingus about their Free Stopover in Each Direction and if they are still offering that, take advantage of it. With most airlines that connect in their hub/flagship location, if you want to break the trip in either direction and spend some time in that connecting city, there is a handsome charge for that privilege. Aer Lingus  has been offering, for some time now, a free stopover in either or both directions. So if you were going to Malta or Paris, or Madrid or Italy or wherever you’re interested in going, you could fly to Dublin with Aer Lingus, spend some time and get over jetlag in Dublin, fly on to your final destination and, on your return, overnight for however long your ticket allows and then fly home from Dublin without incurring charges for stopover privileges. You will also find that flying “Beyond” the carrier’s home country generally provides a significant savings over flying non-stop to the country on its proprietary carrier. That is so that the connecting carrier can get you to fly BEYOND their homebased routes with them. So flying with Air France to Rome or Israel with Iberia may well be cheaper than flying non-stop with Alitalia or El Al. But flying to Ireland is often the cheapest way in to connect with a low coast carrier to go the rest of the way and the saving can be thousands of dollars!

Planning a walking trip? Try the trails of St. Patrick and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland!

And the Republic of Ireland offers so many  walking and hiking opportunities along scenic routes with every level of dexterity accounted for!

Q.2. I want to take a walking/hiking trip. Should I go alone? How do I find a group to travel with?

A.2. The right answer is to go to www.ASTA.org, the American Society of Travel Agents and fill in the form for “find a travel agent” where you choose by verified specialists in destinations and niche market interests in travel. I just did that and there are 8 pages of agents to connect with who specialize in “Great Outdoors!”  Just going online to find some agent or quasi-tour operator like throwing a dart at a board is not the best solution. In this sometimes chaotic world, I wouldn’t recommend taking off on a walking tour alone, although the guest-travel-agent was supportive of that idea. Even a twisted ankle on a hike when you’re alone in a bad cell zone can present some daunting and unnecessary problems. There is safety in number and working with an agent/agency experienced in hiking, walking and bicycling tours is a great start to being put on trails that offer more than scenic beauty along the route. Most have vans that trail along nearby in case of unexpected need and they carry your baggage while you walk with just your back pack and thermos, catching up with you at the end of the walk at the next place you will stay at along the route.  The time it would take an inexperienced visitor to a new destination to figure out where to walk, where to stay, where to eat, especially for a walking/hiking trip is daunting and leaves too much to chance! You want this to be a dream trip, not a nightmare! The same info goes for choosing a company to sort out your horseback riding trip on trails and/or beaches!

Q.3. I  want to go to Iceland in  . Is that a good time to go?

A.3.  The guest travel agent says, “No. It’s cold there in May.” Let me trouble you with the facts. Firstly, if you want to go anywhere. . . anywhere. . . in the world and you want good weather, the best month of the year planet-wide is MAY! The weather is gorgeous everywhere in May and the best you will get for whatever the destination for the year in terms of mild and not extremes of weather conditions. You can expect very little rain in Iceland in May in the range of 1.65 inches for the month and tends to be light rainfalls with no snow unless you are up at the higher elevations in the mountains, which is no different from what you’d find in any destination with tall mountains where you see snowcaps year ‘round. The average temperature in Iceland from May to September is 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit with highs around 70 degrees in summer. I would not designate this as “too cold” to visit in May.  I live in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Our average temperatures in May are between lows of around 43 degrees and highs around 66 and expected rainfall of 4.21 inches. I think this listener didn’t get the best guidance with the answer of No-Go-May! Gee, I hope he reads this blog!

If you’d like to know more about Iceland, do a SEARCH on this site for ‘Iceland’ and click to hear archived interviews, read stories and see photos.

Tale time to pose for a photo with a giant-sized reproduction of a ‘Perfect Guinness,’ something that’s next to impossible to get in the US!

You can take a quickie Master Class in Pouring the Perfect Guinness and do all of the above at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

If you’re a guest at The Morgan or other fine hotels in Dublin, ask the concierge for a Fast Pass which will allow you to bypass the huge line

that can take hours to pass through to get to the  admissions ticket counter inside. You still have to buy the ticket but  you go to the front  of that long line outside!

When the weather is less  than pleasant, you really don’t want to be waiting 2 or 3 hours in the cold, damp, wind or rainy conditions. Or  go with me! We always have sunshine in Ireland. . .we bring it with us!

Q.4. I want to go to Ireland for 6 nights. Can I see Dublin, Galway and the southern area visiting Killarney?

A.4. You may know that I am just finishing my first travel guide, “1001 Reasons to Visit Ireland” and while I’d love to see the visitor have more than 8 nights, the answer the caller should have gotten is that it can be done and done well if you follow a bit of advice. Like the travel agent, I’d prefer the traveler to have more time and invest more time in each place visited but if you only have 6 nights and you have a burning desire to see more, here is some good and workable advice:

1. Fly to Dublin. Take a taxi to your Dublin hotel. Invest 2 nights in Dublin because the first day you’ll be getting over jetlag.  On your third day, buy into (make reservations in advance),  Railtours Ireland First Class which leaves early in the morning and takes you westward to Limerick where you’re met by a motor coach that takes you to the Cliffs of Moher and more and ends up in Galway. Most people have dinner in Galway and return to Dublin on the train. Instead, let them know you plan to depart in Galway. You may not get a discount for not returning with the train but this way you get a solid day of sightseeing and a marvelous train experience and this puts you in Galway on the third night. Overnight at your pre-arranged hotel with plans to pick up a car in Galway on the 4th day.  Drive from Galway to Killarney for night no. 4, then onward any number of good spots to stop between County Kerry and County Dublin for night no. 5, perhaps Kinsale or Athlone or Glasson (try the Glasson Country House and Golf Club  for good food, great accommodations and a round of golf await you or Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone where an indoor pool and Leisure Centre right on the lake will provide some rest, relaxation and a great fitness center, and on to Co. Dublin for night no. 6. I’d recommend, since you’ve already had  2 nights in Dublin, that you overnight in a spot convenient to getting to the airport on the 7th day. Try The Beacon, just off the M50, in Sandyford. Parking is free which is a big asset given that you’ll pay somewhere between $50 -$70 for a night of parking in Dublin Town and driving in Dublin is not fun! Also consider Clontarf Castle, an historic Norman Castle with every modern amenity that is 10 minutes from downtown Dublin City Centre and a quick hop to the airport. Great place, great location, marvelous wrap-up to a trip to Ireland!

2. It’s a 2 hour drive from Dublin to Galway and there are lots of places along the route. So, if, on your first day in Dublin, you visit the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity College, have lunch at The Bank, 20-22 College Green just next to Trinity’s campus and then walk about a block to the left when you exit The Bank, make another left onto Fleet Street and half-a-block in stay at the newly refurbished Morgan Hotel, you’ll be in Temple Bar and in a great spot for going wherever you want to go in Dublin on Day 2.  Somewhere around 4pm, jump into your rental car and drive the 2 hours to Galway and overnight there your second night and then pick up the itinerary above. You can spend one or 2 nights in Galway and carry on from there. Do you best to come up with another 3 to 4 days  or more as you will not want to leave Ireland or start planning our next trip while you are there!

Stop at Junction 23 on the  M7 Motorway in  Moneygall, Co. Offaly, Ireland on your way to or from Dublin and Galway, Ireland. Moneygall is where Obama’s Irish ancestor was from! This link will take you to an archived interview about the Moneygall-Obama connection!

3. Later, another caller called to ask about Norwegian Airlines flying to Norway from airports on the east coast including New York’s Stewart Airport.  The travel agent warned not to be seduced by the very cheap fares because there are hidden add on costs for baggage and for food. Please note the following: You can fly  non-stop from Stewart to Dublin (and you can fly to Cork International Airport from Providence, RI) roundtrip for ridiculously low rates . . .often under $200 or under $300 roundtrip including all taxes and fees. They have 4 levels of fares: Low fare if no-frills. You might be paying $179 to $249 ROUNDTRIP but if you want to be serve meals on board you need to add $45 to that roundtrip fare for your dinner and breakfast. The alternative: By what you want to eat at the airport and carry it on-board. Remember that it’s about a 5 hour flight so you don’t really need a meal if you eat the airport before boarding and bring a snack along! If  you buy the next level of fare, Low Fare+, that includes one checked piece of luggage per person and food service on-board and that fare is, generally, $30 more roundtrip so it’s a still a bargain and you don’t have those extra fees. So the fare that is $249-no-frills turns out to about $279 all-in ROUNDTRIP! You can’t get very far in the US on that fare. . .you’ll be lucky to fly someplace one-way for that fare and you’re not crossing the Atlantic to do it! But the travel agent left the impression that it’s cheap fare and then you pay for everything which is not the case. There is another fare called Flex which includes even more and is still a bargain and on DreamLiner flights there is a Premium Class which is still like flying First Class in terms of seat size, legroom and amenities but is, essentially, coach fares on any other airline and you’ll fly roundtrip for a fraction of what other carriers charge. The glib info on this carrier did a disservice to the caller. A subsequent caller testified that she took a Norwegian Air flight and that it was more than satisfactory. The plane was clean and the service was good and she’d do it again!

Q.5. A gentleman called about losing the value of his airline ticket cancelled flight due to medical conditions that he’d like to recoup now 22 months later. Ray asked the travel agent representative if there was an advocate he could go to negotiate with the airline and she said, “No.”

A.5  I wouldn’t give up that quickly.  While Adria Gross may not want to undertake this case, she just might or she might be able to recommend someone who would so I’d contact her first. Adria generally advocates for people who have insurance and the insurance company is finding reasons not to pay off! Visit her website at AdriaGross.com.

Q.6. Do I need a visa to go to Cuba and what about going to Cuba through Canada?

A.6. Yes, you will need a visa and you will need to adhere to very specific requirements related to the reason for our trip. Joy rides are still not allowed as we have not reached that level of ‘familiarity’ with the Cuban government.  The part left out by the travel agent guest on radio was that: As an American citizen, you are subject to all US regulations no matter how you arrive in Cuba. So if you fly in from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica or London, England or you cruise in from somewhere, it won’t make a difference to the US government as you need to obey US regulations. And there are stiff penalties for hotshots who get caught trying to beat the system so I wouldn’t go there!  Going through a tour operator who knows what they are doing is a good start. Anytime you need assistance with passport and/or visa services, try Travisa. The company has been around for decades and they can literally get you whatever you need within 48 hours if it’s a rush job. You’ll pay a bit extra for rush service but when you need what  you need when you need it you’ll find they are super reliable no matter what the situation

Q.7. Ray Graf asked, “How do you know where in the world is safe to travel.”

A.7. I was disturbed by the travel agent’s answer because safety issues are different from where is the best beach. If you make a mistake and choose a black volcanic ash beach instead of your preference of a pink beach like the crushed shell beaches of Bermuda, it won’t kill you. But choosing a destination that could be dangerous is quite another question and deserves an answer more serious than the glib response instructing travelers not to be afraid and just go. So I got to address this one on the air and I suggested that if you have concerns about safety factors in a destination, your best resource are http://www.travel.state.gov. This website is part of the US State Department’s information for travelers online and includes a spot to click for Travel Advisories. The US government issues up-to-the-minute information on hotspots globally and flags these alerts indicating whether you caution or special attention is advised or if this is a destination that should only be traveled to if there is no other choice in your life often designating “no non-essential travel” as the polite way of telling you not to go to whatever place it is. Given that the world is a big and exciting amusement park for travelers with so many wonderful choices, I go by the rule that I don’t go anywhere where I might not come back in the same  or  better condition from when I left home. Why put yourself in the potential of harm’s way? That doesn’t mean, “Don’t Travel.” That means, “Travel Richly. . . Travel Well. . .Travel Safely.” Hard as it is to imagine, the travel agent on the air with Ray Graf launched into defensive mode and tried to equate the scenario of a doctor wanting to prescribe a medication and providing you with a list of all of the awful things that could happen to you if you take this medication trying to apply the faux-logic that you’ll take the meds and nothing bad will happen to YOU. . .maybe. That’s really not the same story especially when there is the downside risk that you if you don’t take the meds you could also get sicker or die! But you have choices in your life and people you love that depend on you that you don’t want to abruptly up and leave! Often, the US government advisories are posted for a few days or a few weeks and then conditions change. This was the case when a truck driven by a terrorist mowed down people on the promenade along the Mediterranean in France, when riots took place in Paris, when general strikes took place in Athens, and so on. It doesn’t mean “Never go to these places.” It means you might want to consider if you  want your business trip or holiday inconvenienced by whatever is going on at that destination or if you want to risk getting a load of buckshot sent in your direction on purpose or by accident. The right response of the guest travel agent would have been, “Yes, that’s an excellent place to go to get travel advisory information,” instead of trying to prove that her approach of “just go and you’ll be taking no more risk than taking a pill that has proven negative side effects,” is the advice to be followed. Sorry, no agreement there!

Also note: travel.state.gov is your go-to place for info on travel to Cuba and any other questionable destination and you will find State Department protocol for interacting with people in foreign destinations. This is important for leisure trips but is even more important for business trips as you don’t want  to offend people at a meeting doing something you find so natural and normal that is so offensive and insulting to  them that you’ll never get a deal with them and you’ll never know why they weren’t interested in you, your company, product and/or service. For instance, there are so many cultural differences in Asia:

  1. If you are in Asia and you are talking with people there, never point when gesturing or making a point. If your finger tip points directly at a person, they will find that very insulting.
  2. When going to Asia on business, bring a wrapped gift and try to bring one representative of the US  or the regions of  the US you come from. If you are from Vermont, you might want to bring a tin container that looks like a log cabin and is filled with Vermont maple syrup. Bring something manufactured in your region or a coffee table book with lots of great photos. You start your meeting off with the “presentation of gifts” and they will have a gift for you so you don’t want to look foolish not knowing this is expected.
  3. Learn to sit with both feet planted on the floor. It won’t make a difference if your feet are under a table, but if your legs are in plain view while sitting on a sofa or chair, if you cross your legs, there’s a good chance that the toe of your shoe will be pointing at someone directly. Ah, me! Very insulting in Asian culture! You can lose a deal and never know why!
  4. In the US, we seem to be focused on efficiency. If you’re at a boardroom table and need to get your business card to someone at the other end, you just might put it on the slippery high-gloss finish or glass-topped table and give it a shove like a hockey puck to shoot it to the other end of the table. OUT OF THE QUESTION in Asia. Even handing your business card using only one hand to give it to someone is a no-no! If you do that you are seen as inconsiderate and careless and insulting. To properly hand someone in Asia your business card, or someone from Asia visiting you in your office, grasp your card in the upper corners with the thumb and index finger of each hand and gently extend the card forward with both hands. As an added courtesy, you might want to bend a bit forward as you hold it out. The Asian person will present his/her card in the same manner. When you have given your card, you can then grasp their card in the same respectful fashion.  Not a big deal to do but a very big deal if you offhandedly chuck your card at them with one hand or toss it downstream to someone. You’ll be seen as boorish and rude! Protocol for every destination and culture can be found at the US State Department’s website. Your investment of time is worth the effort and you’ll also find info on monetary currency, electric current and other rules, laws and customs that you should be aware of to enhance your travels.

NOW HOW IS THIS FOR IRONY:

Fascinatingly, at the very end of the show, Ray Graf asked the agent where she is off to next. I had to laugh when she responded, “Portugal and Morocco!” Guess why? At this time of year it’s warm and offers low  season rates on airfare, hotels and everything else  travelers would want in an environment where San Diego weather abounds in unique and historic destinations with so much adventure for so little expense!  Why didn’t she say that when asked where to at a bargain to get away from winter weather?!

Clearly, when I finish writing “1001 Reasons to Visit Ireland,” I need to contemplate writing,” A Serious Traveler’s Guide to the World!”  There is so much one needs to know and relying on anonymous tips for total strangers posted in reviews online is not the best methodology for getting the information you really need!

Travel Richly,

Your Personal Travel Expert

Herself the Elf,

Stephanie

--Gotta Fly Now!sm
Your Personal Travel Expert
Nationally syndiated radio show host
Stephanie Abrams

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