Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ten Things We Can't Do Without

I recently saw two lists, each claiming to be the top ten things we can't do without. While the two lists had several items in common, they weren't identical. That got me thinking. There are some things that are very obvious and others that are so much a part of our day-to-day activity that we don't think about them as being essential to our daily lives. Of course, when that item is suddenly not available, its impact becomes glaringly important.

Almost in no particular order here are ten items (without the first item most everything else becomes a non-issue) that we feel we can't do without.

1) Electricity: From that almost all else flows. Without that wall plug-in receptacle that we totally take for granted, all our gadgets would be useless. They would simply sit there collecting dust. What's that you say? Your laptop computer runs on battery? Your cell phone runs on battery? You have a battery operated television? Well, unless they run on solar power, those rechargeable batteries need to be recharged on a regular basis. Do you remember the last time a major storm knocked out all power for days? I do. And since I have an all electric kitchen, I couldn't even boil water for instant coffee. That was a rude shock! And, of course, the refrigerator and freezer were no longer functional.

2) Plumbing/Flush Toilets: No explanation necessary here. :)

And now that the two primary candidates are out of the way, let's talk about specifics.

3) Air Conditioning (and heating): Office buildings, hotels, restaurants, stores, private residences, even our vehicles…we can't imagine them without air conditioning and heating so we can be comfortable in all seasons.

4) Computers: Needless to say, our computers are an integral part of life. Whether you're always on the go with your laptop or stay at home with your desktop, computers are a major factor in our lives. And not only our personal computers. Look around you…everywhere you go and almost everything you do is somehow computer controlled or computer generated…even the monthly bill for the electricity.

5) High Speed Internet: Closely aligned with number four is the need to be able to access and use the internet as quickly as possible. Waiting for a large download that seems to be moving at a snail's pace is way too frustrating.

6) Cell Phone: I am not addicted to my cell phone. I don't need to have it in my hand at all times, require hands free operation for my car because I'm not capable of driving to the grocery store without checking for text messages, tweets, or updates during the ten minutes it takes me to drive there. However, even on the most basic level a cell phone has become a necessity. The pay phone seems to be something rapidly disappearing from the American landscape. Even at airports where you used to be able to find a long row of pay phones as soon as you got off a plane, that's no longer the reality. Maybe a couple of pay phones, but even those usually require phone cards rather than actual money.  We no longer need to make sure we always have coins for a phone call if we have an emergency.

7) Television: Yep, whether we use it for entertainment or news and other informational areas, we all have them and can't seem to do without them. There's something both sad and funny about surfing through fifty channels and complaining that there's nothing on. And if the cable goes out…well, enough said.

8) Automatic garage door opener: One of those many things you take for granted because it's always there. Hmmm…I think we just segued back to electricity. There you are, in your car with the rain pouring down and 60mph winds. You're wearing your best clothes because you've just come from the society event of the decade and now you need to get out of your car to unlock and manually open the garage door. Or, everything is covered in ice and snow and you're thanking the deity of your choice that you made it home safely…but now you need to walk on that ice to get your garage door open.

9) Automobiles: In some places more than others. There are certainly places where one can live without the need for a car because the public transportation is excellent. Some places where owning a car is a disadvantage due to the expense of needing a place to park it. Certainly New York City (or more specifically, Manhattan) comes to mind. But for most of us, an automobile is an absolute necessity in order to get to and from our job, go to the grocery store, and other required chores.

10) I think I'm going to declare this slot as a tie between remote controls and coffee: We definitely have become a society too lazy to get out of the chair to change the channel on the television. And that's only one of many remote controls. Even on our key ring we have the remote door lock/unlock and trunk open for our car. And coffee…it's obviously big business when there are shops whose only product is coffee. I can't speak for anyone else, but I have a small four cup coffee maker in my office so that I don't need to go to the kitchen to make coffee first thing in the morning when I turn on my computer and access my high speed internet while reaching for the remote control to turn on television to watch the morning news…well, as you can see, I'm back at electricity again. :)

Honorable Mention: I felt compelled to include chocolate and wine.  :)

What modern convenience is an absolute must have for you?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Most Unexpected Flight Delays

Anyone who flies, even if it's infrequently, has experienced flight delays for one reason or another. It could be weather related at the airport where you are or perhaps at the airport where your plane is coming from which prevents the aircraft from arriving at your airport. It could be mechanical problems with the plane. Or simply more flights taking off and landing than your airport can handle. Or a myriad of other minor inconveniences that delay your departure.

It's very frustrating when you've arrived at the airport the requisite two hours before departure, waited in the long line to get through security, had a personal possession confiscated by the TSA agent even though it was not on their list of disallowed items. And you finally arrive at your gate only to find that your flight has been delayed. Maybe for half an hour maybe for three hours.

But what about those truly unexpected flight delays? Those strange occurrences so far out of the realm of normal that they defy description. I recently saw a list of ten wackiest—and scariest—flight delays that I'd like to share with you.

10) Bug Bungle: Florida has the reputation for being a state that's home to many different type of creepy, crawly things. An American Airlines flight from Miami to Washington, D.C., in March 2010 was delayed due to a cockroach infestation in the cabin. Specifically on the curtain between first class and the cockpit.

9) Turtle Love: In July 2009, something far less predictable than flight congestion at JFK airport caused a delay. Seventy-eight amorous diamondback terrapins from nearby Jamaica Bay made their way across the runway looking for a place to breed. They were rounded up and trucked by to Jamaica Bay.

8) Toilet Trouble: Some passengers aboard a Biman Bangladesh Airlines flight scheduled from Dhaka to London in August 2009 decided to test the toilet system on the plane by flushing all kinds of things including bottles and cups in the five toilets. The clogged toilets were cleared in two hours, but more than two hundred passengers had to wait an additional eight hours for takeoff due to a night flight ban at London's Heathrow airport.

7) Catfish Conundrum: Catfish, it seems, are able to use their pectoral fins to go for a temporary stroll on land. In August 2008, a Delta Airlines flight was denied landing permission in Florida due to the presence of four walking catfish on the runway, along with two gopher tortoises, a blue indigo snake and an alligator. The plane had to circle until the herd was rounded up and relocated to a nearby pond.

6) Flight Attendants: In February 2010, Two female flight attendants on a Delta Connection flight from Rochester to Atlanta were removed from duty after a fight between them resulted in a flight delay. The passengers had to deplane and take other flights to reach their destination.

5) Over-Ambitious Employee: Bomb threats are a scary reality, but in December 2009 American Airlines received a very unusual phoned bomb threat. A secretary in Miami was concerned that her boss, who was running late, would miss his flight to Honduras. So, rather than booking him on a later flight, she emailed the airport saying a bomb had been planted. While the aircraft and the luggage was being searched, she was traced via her IP address to her office where she was arrested.

4) Rabbits Doing Their Thing: In June 2007, passengers at the airport in Milan, Italy, weren't prepared for the problems caused by an excessive number of mating rabbits. Problems so severe that they halted takeoffs and landings for a few hours until they were rounded up and taken to a wildlife preserve.

3) Forgetful Passenger: At JFK airport in September 2008, an American Airlines flight returned to the gate after it had taxied about forty-five minutes and was just about to take off. It seems that one of the passengers realized he had left his laptop computer in the terminal. He was freaking out, wouldn't listen to the flight attendants, and refused to sit down. He was taken off the plane and the flight was delayed even longer so his luggage could be located and removed from the plane.

2) Gold Fever: In Canada, hockey is a very serious endeavor. During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, passengers were watching Canada and the U.S. play for the gold medal on airport televisions. They ignored repeated announcements and pleas from gate agents to board their flight t Montreal thus causing a flight delay.

1) MIA Baby Pythons: It sounds like something from a horror movie. In April 2009, a Quantas airplane missed two scheduled flights after it was discovered that four baby pythons were unaccounted for following a flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne. The plane was fumigated and returned to service, but that didn't necessarily ease the minds of many passengers since the snakes were never found.

What's the longest you've ever been stuck on a delayed flight? I was on an American Airlines flight scheduled to depart at 6:30am from Burbank, California, for Dallas where I had a connection departing Dallas at 12:30 that afternoon. We sat on the tarmac at Burbank more than four hours due to mechanical problems which caused me to miss my connection in Dallas and also the next available connection in Dallas three hours later (missed that one by five minutes) and then the last connection of the day was grounded in Dallas because of fog at my destination so I had to stay overnight in Dallas and catch the first flight at 9:30 the next morning. Not a fun travel day.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

America's Greatest Train Rides

Train travel in Europe is very commonplace. Whenever I travel to the UK, I always buy a Brit Rail pass before I go and use it for traveling all over Britain—day trips out of London and longer trips such as to Scotland and Wales.

And here in the U.S., with more and more restrictions and inconveniences put on airplane passengers and airlines constantly adding fees and surcharges on top of the ticket price, train travel has had quite a resurgence. Warren Buffett recently made a $44 billion investment in a railroad company. And with gasoline prices on the rise again (just in time for summer vacation), not surprisingly, the last two years have been the best in Amtrak's history. With the increased amount of time you need to arrive at the airport prior to departure, the reduced number of flights which creates longer wait time when you need to change planes for a connection, even a short flight takes a lot longer than it used to.

The Travel Channel on cable television has a couple of episodes about scenic train travel in America.  One show is about a luxury train tour of several of our National Parks.

One of the nation's best rides is Amtrak's Southwest Chief that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles and gives the traveler a way to relive America's expansion west from the 1800s. The train trip lasts a little over forty hours, traveling through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and the famous wild west town of Dodge City. From there it continues into Colorado and New Mexico. Then across northern Arizona with the availability of a side trip to the Grand Canyon. And finally into downtown Los Angeles' Union Station.

With only a few exceptions, this ride is on the same tracks that were once the Santa Fe Railway which was built along the old Santa Fe wagon train trail, a route that also inspired the famous highway of the days before Interstates criss-crossed the country—Route 66.

Here are five more great rail journeys.  Many of the stops along the route offer the availability of getting off the train to check out local tourist attractions.

The West Coast's Coast Starlight is considered by most travelers to be Amtrak's most scenic route. It runs along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, traveling through some truly spectacular scenery.

From California, the classic route east is the California Zephyr, following the path of the first transcontinental railway between San Francisco to Chicago. It visits such places as Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, across the Rockies to Denver, through Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago.

By taking the Southwest Chief in one direction and returning on the California Zephyr, you are traveling what the Gilded Age tourists in the 1880s and 1890s called the Grand Tour of America.

If you want a ride that goes through the heart of the country, try the Texas Eagle starting in Chicago. It crosses the Mississippi River at St. Louis, travels down through the Ozarks, across Arkansas into eastern Texas, and continues through Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and to San Antonio where it connects with the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

Because of daily commuter traffic, the East Coast relies much more on rail service than the rest of the country, especially the heavily used tracks between Boston and Washington, D.C.

One of the country's first scenic rail routes is the Empire Service from New York City up through the Hudson River Valley where Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane encountered the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hallow.

And if you're on the East Coast and are heading to Florida, you can take the Auto Train where your car travels with you. Passengers board just south of Washington, D.C. and their vehicles are loaded on the train. The trip terminates just outside Orlando, Florida.

But maybe you're not planning a vacation by train, but would like the train experience. There are lots of day trips and even two or three hour tours in various parts of the country, including vintage steam and narrow gauge railroads. My personal favorite is the Napa Valley Wine Train in California, which includes winery stops. And Alaska Railway's White Pass & Yukon Route offers a three hour tour through some truly dramatic scenery.

Have any of you taken a train vacation? A day trip train tour?

Over the last few decades, train travel in the United States went into serious decline while air travel increased its dominance.  But with the dramatic resurgence of train travel in the last two years, you might want to check with your travel agency or on the internet and see what type of vacation railroad travel packages are available.

Next Sunday, May 23, is one week before Memorial Day weekend which is the traditional start of the summer vacation season. That will be my last post in this series of Getting Ready For Summer Vacation blogs. I'll be talking about flying.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Quirky Questions Tourists Ask

At one time or another when we were in school, we've probably all heard a teacher say that there are no stupid questions in an attempt to get us to express our curiosity about something without being embarrassed.

However, as an adult that old adage doesn't apply to all situations. The travel industry is filled with weird, quirky, and in some cases just plain stupid questions asked by tourists. Here's a sampling of quirky questions  from various sources.
Actual Questions Asked On Cruise Ships:

Does the crew sleep on board?

Is the island surrounded by water?

What happens to the ice sculptures after they melt?

What time is the 2 o'clock tour?

Can you see the equator from the deck?

I know that ships often serve smoked salmon, but I am a non-smoker.

Can the iced tea be served hot?

Will I get wet if I go snorkeling?

Should I put my luggage outside the cabin before or after I go to sleep?

Does the outside cabin mean it's outside the ship?

Where is the good shopping in Antarctica?
And cruise ships aren't the only place that tourists seem to have absurd questions. Here are some actual questions received by Australians from foreigners, along with some well-deserved replies given to the questioner.

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, how do the plants grow? (question from the UK)
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (question from USA)
A: Depends how much you've been drinking.

Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney—can I follow the railroad tracks? (question from Sweden)
A: Sure, it's only 3000 miles, take lots of water.

Q: Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in Australia? Can you send me a list of them in Brisbane, Cairns, Townsville and Hervey Bay? (question from the UK)
A: What did your last slave die of?

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (question from USA)
A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is the big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not…oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night at Kings Cross. Come naked.

Q: Which direction is north in Australia? (question from USA)
A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of the directions.

Q: Can I wear high heels in Australia? (question from the UK)
A: You're a British politician, right?

Q: Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (question from Germany)
A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of vegan hunter/gatherers. Milk is illegal.

Q: Can you tell me the regions in Tasmania where the female population is smaller than the male population? (question from Italy)
A: Yes, gay nightclubs.

Q: Do you celebrate Christmas in Australia? (question from France)
A: Only at Christmas.
The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom put together an international list "of the most inexplicably simple queries fielded by tourism officials."

Are there any lakes in the Lake District?

Why on earth did they build Windsor Castle on the flight path for Heathrow?

Is Wales closed during the winter?

Why did they build so many ruined castles and abbeys in England?

Do you know of any undiscovered ruins?
And here are some tourist questions asked at Niagara Falls:

What time do the falls shut off?

How far into Canada do I have to go before we have to drive on the other side of the road?

How much does it cost to get into Canada and are children a different price?
And here are some goodies from Minnesota:

I'm coming in July and I want snowmobile rental information.

We want to tour the Edmund Fitzgerald. (the ship sank in a storm in Lake Superior in 1975)

One traveler asked to see the bridge in Minnesota with the arches. She was shown various photos, none of which were the bridge she was looking for. She finally identified a picture of the St. Louis Gateway Arch as the bridge she wanted to see. She was given directions to Missouri.
And finally …these tidbits.

One tourist to Scotland asked what time they fed the Loch Ness Monster. Another visitor to New York City thought they would end up in Holland if they drove through the Holland Tunnel. A traveler in Miami asked a tourism official which beach was closest to the ocean.

So…I guess the bottom line is to maybe think about that question a second time before you actually ask it. :)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Is A Guided Tour Vacation Right For You?

For the second week of my getting ready for summer vacation blogs, I'm exploring things to think about when considering a guided tour. I'm referring to vacation tours of several days rather than the two hour city tour.

Some travelers find the sight of those large tour buses spewing out hoards of vacationers at tourist attractions enough to make them cringe. Others love getting on the tour bus and not having to worry about planning an itinerary, making hotel reservations, or booking transportation.

How do you know if a tour is right for you? Finding a tour that meets your travel needs might be easier than you think. You just have to ask a few pertinent questions.

Do you know anyone who recommends this tour? Just because a particular tour got a good review, or rave comments on one of the travel websites, doesn't mean that your taste agrees with those who left comments. But you know your friends and family, know their taste and whether it agrees with yours.

Will the tour help with a language barrier? Possibly you can get by with a guide book and a foreign language phrase book, but not being able to communicate in the local language can prevent you from seeing some place you really wanted to visit. And a tour guide can definitely expedite border crossings. Finding a good tour operator can be the difference between an enjoyable trip and a disappointing one.

Does the tour solve transportation problems? In the developed world, most tourists feel comfortable renting a car and going out on their own. But in the developing nations transportation can be the biggest challenge you'll face on your travels. With dangerous and in some cases even non-existent roads, driving yourself can be quite impractical. Other times, a car is not even an option with alternate transportation being very expensive.

Does the tour operator share your ideals? Even though travel expands our minds and challenges our beliefs, a tour operator who runs their business in a way that truly offends your sensibilities can totally ruin the experience. This is particularly important if you're seeking out cultural tour experiences.

Does the tour offer more than your guidebook? Sometimes a guidebook is all you need to experience what a location has to offer. But for other locations a tour guide can often give you a deeper understanding than you can get from a guide book or pamphlet.

Who is the guide? Taking a tour where the owners of the tour company are your guides can provide a far better experience for the traveler than one of the massive tour operators. The small operators can't afford to develop a bad reputation while the large companies often have transient, part-time help that doesn't care as much as the small business owner does.

How big is the tour group? When it comes to tours…size matters. Small groups allow you to have a more personalized experience while large groups keep the costs lower and allow you to meet more people. Know your preferences before you pay out that non-refundable deposit.

How much free time will you have? Even those travelers who always prefer guided tours to independent travel want some free time while on the tour. Before booking your tour, find out how much free time is included in the schedule.

Where will you be staying? Make sure the level of accommodations matches what you're looking for from the tour. If you're wanting a back to nature roughing it experience, you don't want to find yourself in a chain hotel every night. If you want a pampered experience, then a mediocre motel each night won't give that to you.

Even if you are one of those travelers who don't want to have anything to do with a guided tour, there are some parks and historical sites that only allow people to visit if they are part of a licensed tour group.

Have you ever taken a guided tour vacation on a large tour bus? What did you like or dislike about the experience?