There has been no shortage of screenplay-worthy travel stories in the past few weeks. Dennis Rodman’s holiday in Pyonyang with the reclusive dictator, Kim Jung-un? Lifetime should be on it. The Carnival Triumph cruise fire? Bet on it being retold in a three-part epic on ABC Family. The sequester’s impact on air travel? That one’s still under discussion, but there’s no doubt the right network will make it work. Here are three would-be plots.
The TV Movie Version, “Mr. Worm Goes to Pyongyang”: An American basketball star (retired), hair dye aficionado, pro wrestler and self-proclaimed “bad boy” travels to North Korea to secure a peace treaty with the country’s ruthless supreme leader, Kim. Like his piercings and tattoos, the Worm’s methods are unconventional — and pooh-poohed by stiff-collared American foreign service elites. But with the help of the Harlem Globetrotters’ feather-on-your-funny-bone brand of non-verbal hijinks, coupled with all-you-can-drink of apple soju-tinis, he succeeds in melting the dictator’s heart. (Kim’s favorite gag: Player pretends he’s pregnant with a basketball.) Choking back guffaws and sobs, the glorious ruler reveals that he feels ostracized by the West; all the tiny, tracksuit-wearing tyrant really wants is to hear the smooth baritone of the American supreme leader. Worm and Kim embrace during a moment filmed by a cell phone, and the video goes viral. Having proven the cynics back home wrong, the Worm earns the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Thomas Jefferson Star for Foreign Service and, due to a clerical error, the Distinguished Honor Award from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The TV Movie Version, “Triumph Over Adversity”: The vacation of a lifetime, a four-night voyage on a 14-year-old Carnival ship, becomes a cruel Darwinian experiment when an engine room fire leaves the ship without power in the Gulf of Mexico. Raw sewage sloshes around the decks, the now-infamous red bags for toxic waste are dispensed and essential supplies quickly dwindle. Despite food and medicine shortages and a growing intolerance toward poop jokes, a perky cruise director tries to keep the mood upbeat. But after only 24 hours adrift, hungry passengers have formed into splinter groups, with a maniacal Texan leading a powerful sect of pseudo-religious cannibals. Their first victim: the chipper cruise director. Screaming headlines (procured from a handful of surviving cruisers who managed to salvage cell phone batteries) and a CNN helicopter that surveys the scene from a safe distance tell the story to the world. Even as tug boats manage to reach the ship and slowly pull it to Mobile, the carnage continues.
When it seems that all hope is lost, President Obama reaches for the red phone and dials. A voice can be heard over the receiver: “I was wondering when you’d call.”
“We need your help, Dennis Rodman,” the president says.
The TV Movie Version, “Sequestration, the Movie”: With the U.S. government unable to agree on some sort of budget by some sort of date, $85 billion in spending cuts are initiated. Services the American public depends on may be ravaged. Most importantly, lines at airports are getting dangerously long. “Get there 90 minutes before departure” becomes “get there three months early and rent a hibernation pod, a new for-fee option introduced by the airlines.” (First-class hibernation pod passengers get to board in Zone 1 in the unlikely event their planes take off.) It gets worse. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, played by Kathy Bates, announces that the TSA is sending out furlough notices to its workers. As TSA staff numbers dwindle, fewer and fewer bags make it onto planes and fliers grow increasingly confused by the lack of ineptitude, condescension and rude interactions. Republicans and Democrats refuse to budge on spending, despite a growing number of airport horror scenes captured on cell phones and streamed out on CNN. Travelers angrily refuse overtures from train companies, preferring to form angry mobs at airports instead. Is the president out of options? Not yet. Dennis Rodman, one of the most decorated non-military heroes in U.S. history, is called in to mediate.
Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including a viral image of a flight attendant flipping the bird, the possible end of airline fees and an attempt to make airline loyalty programs “sustainable.”
Middle Seat, Middle Finger
The image, taken from a flight attendant’s rear cabin point of view, shows an outstretched arm with a certain finger aimed skyward. The sentiment is directed towards the fliers. Now Tatiana Kozlenko, an Aeroflot flight attendant said to have posted the pic on her Vkontakte page (Vkontakte is a social network in Russia), has been deplaned from the company. Russia-based news and TV outfit RT.com reports that the pic was posted back in October 2011 and had been languishing in relative obscurity until a popular Russian blogger reposted it on Twitter.
Kozlenko says it’s 1) not her in the photo, 2) not an Aeroflot plane and 3) not something she posted herself (she says she just tagged herself to it). Regardless, the airline has still laid down the long finger of the law. Aeroflot tweeted Monday morning that the firing was justified: “The fact of posting a photo shows Tatiana’s attitude towards passengers and her duties. She acknowledged her fault when she spoke to the leadership of the company.”
Airlines Running out of Fee Ideas?
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimate $36 billion in ancillary fees in 2012. But on Time.com, Brad Tuttle ponders whether a la carte pricing may have reached maximum altitude. Simply put, there’s almost nothing left to charge fliers for. What gave him that idea? The CEO of Spirit Airlines, the undisputed czar of deconstruction, recently told American Media Public Marketplace that the wellspring of added-fee innovations is starting to run dry. We’re not convinced. (Still left on the docket are a fee to talk to a human, fines for in-flight flatulence and an up-charge for armrest dominion.)
In the end, Tuttle doesn’t buy it either. He argues that any dearth of new ideas would be outweighed by ascending fees for baggage, onboard meals and the like.
Loyalty Pays Less
Veteran travel writer Chris Elliott reports that Delta is the first legacy airline to bind the value of its frequent-flier program not only to the number of miles passengers fly but also to the amount they spend. From January 1, 2014, loyalists will reach new echelons through a combination of miles or segments flown and annual spending on Delta flights. The key downside, among others: Snagging a great deal will help you less in the loyalty program game.
Naturally, Delta’s new program will help the airline’s bottom line. In the airline’s mind, too many undeserving fliers were benefiting. For Elliott, “As painful as these changes are, they make sense.” JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America already have programs that reward fliers based on how much they spend, he says. “Air travelers tempted to give their loyalty to an airline like Delta now won’t cling to an empty promise that they can reach elite status any other way than by spending their way there. Some will refuse to participate and will instead purchase a ticket that makes sense for them, and not for their loyalty program.”
How does a mild-mannered person transform into the Incredible Hulk? Try flying on a midnight redeye with a mini-Muhammad Ali sitting behind you. While society dictates that we not act like, well, you know, there are times when no unwritten rule about screaming in Spanish at children or delivering soapbox speeches to annoying fellow passengers can be heeded. I apologize for losing my cool … but here’s what happened.
Toe to Toe with a Toddler
On a redeye from Quito to New York, an infante diabolico shared the seat behind me with his mother. We took off and the punching began. He was a prize fighter in training, standing deftly on mom’s lap, using my seat as a fast bag. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Wait for your opponent to swivel and shoot you the first of a few startled looks. Stay patient. Dance. Weave. Laugh. Taunt. Then … tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Good, the opponent is getting angry. When you see his face turn crimson and steam curl up from his ears, he’s at his most vulnerable. He’s lost control.
Tap, tap, tap … “Termina el golpeando! Termina el golpeando! Otra vez y otra vez y otra vez!” Summoning my high school Spanish, I made my counterattack.
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Mom.
No more punches.
Still, I think all ringside judges, staring wide-eyed or stifling shocked guffaws, would agree: I fought a little unfair.
Now Boarding Zone Crazy Eyes
After 48 hours exploring Chicago — Wrigley, Millennium Park, blues club, deep dish — sandwiching four hours of sleep, it was time to fly home to Boston. With the gate lice working their beady eyes, boarding began. First class. Passengers traveling with small children. Zone Two and so on. I was in Zone Two and queued up accordingly. By the time I neared the ticket agent, the floodgates had opened. All zones. To my left, a slight woman, aged 45 to 55, materialized. “I’m Zone Two, do you mind if I jump in?” she said with a warm smile.
“Actually, I do.”
I then proceeded to deliver a lunatic’s lecture about society crumbling if people didn’t follow basic rules, about arriving on time to take advantage of zone privileges and about how she was doing a disservice to everyone on the plane by even asking. “Are you the type of person who has never been told no? Your kind doesn’t deserve to find space in the overhead bin.”
Save for my parents and girlfriend, I’ve never experienced such a look of pure twitching rage. She could no longer form words. She stood, abuzz, gazing into space, as Zones Two, Three, Four and Five slid by.
I had gone too far again. A fellow passenger disagreed. “Thank you,” she said as if I had given a kidney to her brother.
On top of decimating houses and deluging city streets, Hurricane Sandy temporarily upended what we travelers take for granted: the ability to hop in a car or plane and go. But while that “right” has been more or less restored for most, many New York and New Jersey residents are still reeling (yesterday’s nor’easter didn’t help matters). Thankfully, along with an outpouring of aid from individuals and the expected charitable heavyweights, a number of popular travel brands have jumped in to help, some leveraging their leisure offerings in creative ways.
Last week, non-legacy favorite JetBlue partnered with NYC food trucks to offer free meals and snacks to hard hit residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Hoboken. The airline says thousands of locals were offered bites from mobile purveyors of grilled cheese, pizza, Lebanese specialties and cupcakes. JetBlue is also matching all donations to the Red Cross up to $100,000, and touting frequent flier miles as a bonus incentive. Those who give can earn six TrueBlue points for every $1 they donate by November 30.
Hip “for rent by owner” site Airbnb has partnered with the city of New York in an effort to offer free housing for residents displaced by Sandy. Several hundred local hosts have offered up their couches and spare rooms. Airbnb uses a mutual verification process — owner and potential renter must meet virtually and the owner always has final approval. (Renters and rent-ees can be both be “reviewed” and Airbnb cautions never to rent unless you’re completely confident in the occupant.) Though no money is changing hands, hosts are still covered by Airbnb’s guarantee. For those who can afford to shell out a bit for their temporary digs, there’s also a list of “discounted for Sandy” spots.
American Airlines is using its Web space and social platforms to promote the efforts of the American Red Cross — and throwing in some bonus frequent flier miles for good measure. Through November 30, 2012, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.
Have a favorite travel brand you think deserves kudos? Share it in the comments.
Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including JetBlue’s toe-dip into presidential politics, a robot suitcase and a new approach to reducing airplane aisle gridlock.
If That Stupid [Candidate A/Candidate B] Wins…
I’m leaving the country on the next JetBlue flight. Even after Goodwill trucks pack up the last box of “Yes We Can (Again)”/”I Built This!” T-shirts on November 7, the losing side can take some solace. Nonpartisan airline JetBlue is giving away 2,012 flights to destinations outside the United States after the election. Entering is easy: Go to JetBlueElectionProtection.com and pick Obama or Romney. If your guy loses, you have a shot at becoming a temporary expat via one of JetBlue’s international routes, which include the Caribbean and Mexico. All of America wins.
About Time: Robot Luggage
Aussie air travel news site Terminal U is reporting on a new type of robot luggage that could someday hit an airport near you. An inventor has created a prototype of a hands-free suitcase, called “Hop,” which stalks its owner via signals from a cell phone’s Bluetooth. You move, Hop moves. You move, Hop doesn’t move? Hop alerts you by making your phone vibrate. (Hop moves, you move? The TSA bans Hop and you end up on the no-fly list.)
Check out this video of Hop in action:
About Time: Moving Airplane Seats
Reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail: U.S. company Molon Labe Designs claims that its “Sider Seat” — an aisle seat that can slide over and atop the middle seat — will save airlines two hours of extra flying time a day. Molon Labe says the movable seats would expand aisle width from 19 to 43 inches, allowing for whimsical twirling and quicker loading and unloading. The seats are not robots — a passenger or member of the flight crew must physically move them — and they do not recline. As one commenter on the Daily Mail site correctly pointed out, the approach to boarding would have to change in tandem with the furniture. What happens when the already beleaguered middle-seater finds he now has no seat?
IndependentTraveler.com has requested access to the airport bar napkin the idea was originally scribbled on.
Be you leisure or business traveler, you’ve probably been here: in a new city with a day to see it.
The best way to do it? Get on a bicycle.
The Dutch, Germans and Chinese might shrug at America’s urban bicycling “revolution,” but an increasing number of U.S. cities are introducing bike share programs, carving bike-only lanes from roads and generally promoting two-wheeled transportation. There’s even a political action committee, Bikes Belong, that supports bike-friendly candidates.
I’ll steer clear from politics, but will say this: There is no more efficient, invigorating way to see a city in a day.
At a recent Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) conference in Indianapolis, I cycled the city’s $60-odd million Cultural Trail, a 7.5-mile route that took our group on a leisurely tour past museums, canals, monuments, restaurants and purpose-built art installations. Having your own bike/pedestrian lane is something of a confidence booster. I got a better feel for Indy, a compact, accessible city (if not the stuff of bucket list day dreams), in five hours than I did in the other five days I was there. It was also good to get the heart pumping after so many SunKing IPAs.
The city doesn’t yet have an automated bike share program, something found in Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and Miami. This approach, however, generally places an emphasis on returning bikes to hubs within an allotted time period (or paying a surcharge). Mapping out a full-day route vis-a-vis bike hubs does require some planning. An app makes it easier.
Renting a bike for the day or a half day takes out some of the stress.
However you roll, be aware of the road rules and the reputation. The cohabitation of cars and bikes is a relatively new phenomenon in U.S. cities, and bike lanes aren’t a constant. You will have to share the road with wary drivers, and rules for cyclists vary by city. “I didn’t know” might not convince a police officer from handing out a citation.
Disclaimers aside, tell us: What’s the best city you’ve ever cycled in?
Blame Isaac for scattering Caribbean-based cruise ships, upending tightly coordinated shipping schedules, and deluging popular cities and islands. But apparently, none of this should come as a surprise.
According to a recent blog on Weather.com, over the past 11 years, those ornery “I” storms have been among the most destructive of the Atlantic hurricanes. Seven “I” names have been retired by the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency with the curious task of humanizing the potentially catastrophic (among myriad mandates). Storm names are retired by the WMO when the specter of seeing another Hurricane Katrina is deemed too painful.
The “I” storm phenomenon can partly be explained by the position of the letter in the alphabet within the context of Atlantic Hurricane Season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. According to National Hurricane Center data, a typical Atlantic season is composed of some 11 storms, (±4), with the seasonal peak generally coming around September 10. All seven retire-I’s spawned between August and early October. Weather conditions during this period — low wind shear, higher sea temperatures — are the inspiration for more and bigger storms, right when the “I’s” are statistically set to materialize.
Still, during that 11-year stretch, zero “H’s,” two “J’s” and that very deadly “K” have been put to pasture. Compare that to Irene (August 2011), Igor (September 2010), Ike (September 2008), Ivan (September 2004), Isabel (September 2003), Isadore (September 2002) and Iris (October 2001). Some would call it an I-jinx.
Fortunately, Isaac didn’t have nearly the gusto of 2011’s Irene, which diverted dozens of cruise ships in the Northeast, Eastern Caribbean, Bermuda and Bahamas, and caused billions in damage and some 40 deaths. No one will soon forget Ike either, which holds the dubious honor of being the United States’ second-most expensive tropical storm, causing nearly $29.5 billion in damage (source: weather.com).
Whatever Isaac’s legacy, here’s hoping that he won’t be retiring any time soon.
As soon as the 24-hour check-in window opened, I pounced on seat 10A, a $37 exit row upgrade with enough legroom to do calisthenics in.
There are 93 Airbus A319-100’s in the US Airways fleet, according to IndependentTraveler.com’s sister company Seat Guru. To make room for the left and right exits in row nine, the window seats (9A and F) were never slotted in. For the occupants of 10A and F, that bit of safety-inspired good fortune meant that our 2.5-hour flight from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, to Philadelphia offered 62 inches of seat pitch (the distance from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat in front or behind). That’s the kind of space you could comfortably tie your shoe in without fear of head injury — the kind of space you could disappear in. You can’t disappear in first class, where the pitch is a meager 38 inches.
An hour in, I gifted my spot to my sleepy travel companion. She vanished, and reappeared looking refreshed when we touched down.
The one drawback is that the tray is in the armrest — so you can’t move the armrest up and expand the width by a centimeter, no small measure in a world defined by tiny bags of pretzels, coffin-sized bathrooms and implied demilitarized zones between strangers.
Certainly no flier is pleased with the so-called deconstruction of airfares, those added fees for a checked bag or a smile from the flight attendant. But this was $37 — waived for certain frequent flier achievers — well spent.
Be you bucket lister or wildlife buff, the idea of cruising the Galapagos is imbued with animal magnetism. It’s evocative of a science fiction adventure — ship as time machine transporting travelers to a prehistoric land of black lava, alien cactus trees and giant tortoises.
It turns out that planning for such a voyage, which includes ticking off items like “underwater camera housing” or “quick-drying pants that magically become shorts,” is oddly satisfying. So with the determination of a flightless cormorant who hasn’t had eel in a week, I began researching, prepping and packing for a July Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s 48-passenger La Pinta.
As I dug through travel message boards and guidebooks, and picked the brains of past passengers, there emerged four cornerstones of the successful Galapagos cruise: protection from the sea and weather, proper footwear, a touch of pre-cruise study, and a means to record the experience of wandering onto a beachhead littered with groaning sea lions and thousands of fluorescent orange crabs.
Protection from Sea and Sun
The packing list skewed more backpacker’s trek than cruise. Instead of a blue blazer and dress shoes, I stuffed my carry-on with quick-dry shirts, zip-top bags to protect equipment and a floppy hat to repel the equatorial sun. Also part of the regimen: two large tubes of sunblock, one SPF 45 for the delicate face, the other a waterproof 30 for the rest of the body — plus aloe, should I forget to re-apply either.
The sea poses its own problems — the wind-drawn Humboldt Current can bring with it nauseating, choppy waters from July to December — so I scored some Dramanine (which I later found that La Pinta offered in an all-you-can eat basket). Other passengers ultimately went with the prescription motion sickness patch, the dot-behind-the-ear option not available in South America.
Simply put, lava, over which many of the hikes take place, is unforgiving. Still, I left my hiking boots at home, opting instead for the TEVA sandals I’ve taken over rocky Greek Isles, European cobbles and dessert sands. However Galapagos visitors roll, they should make sure they’re properly out-footed. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’ll just bring my oldest pair of shoes and then dump them at the end of the trip,'” said John, one of our guides. “If there’s one tip I can offer, it’s to bring a solid new pair.” (Break them in pre-trip to avoid calluses.) Sure enough, one French passenger suffered a dual sole-ripping on a single walk. His well-worn boots literally ripped in half. Given his propensity for mocking American dining habits, no one seemed too upset for him.
The Galapagos is a place where pre-knowledge enriches the experience — or so I was told. “On the Origin of Species” felt a little too “Challenges of Modernity,” a 200-level class, so I tapped Dominic Hamilton, Metropolitan’s Head of Communications, for something less collegiate. He suggested three: “The Beak of the Finch,” a non-fiction look at a pair of evolutionary biologists who watched natural selection, in real time, shape a colony of finches; “My Father’s Island,” a memoir written by a woman whose family colonized Santa Cruz in the 40’s; and “Galapagos, the Islands That Changed the World,” a photo-laden companion book to the BBC documentary of the same name. My public library had them all and all were winners.
Capturing the Tortoise
Though the local wildlife remains bizarrely apathetic to encroaching, camera-wielding homo sapiens, a colleague’s husband suggested renting a telephoto lens. I discovered LensProtoGo, which ships the lens in a waterproof, nearly indestructible Pelican case. The Nikon 80 – 400 millimeter telephoto lens costs about $1,600 new but only $15 a day to rent, and is ideal for framing the red-rimmed eye of the swallow-tailed gull or spying on other expedition ships. If you do bring the “bazooka” and plan on switching lenses, don’t forget the accouterments (a sensor cleaning kit). Jumbo-sized zip-top bags, procured from Amazon.com, would shield my camera equipment, already in a water-resistant bag, during wet landings (when Zodiacs pull up to a beach rather than a natural “dock”).
A second splurge, inspired by Galapagos cruise vets who shared regrets, was an underwater camera. I opted for a waterproof case for my Canon S90 point and shoot, which cost about $150. The video I took underwater, including a spiritual moment with a baby sea lion, was worth the cost.
The one thing I didn’t pack? My cat, a plague-like invasive species, had to stay.
On a Mediterranean cruise with six port calls in seven days — essentially the tapas restaurant version of European travel — you might only have 10 hours in port to get it right. Ironically, in many ways the half-day visit requires more researching and planning than a lengthier, more stationary stay.
Unless you have a local friend. Or the next best thing: a guide.
If you’re a fan of Julius Caesar, Augustus or Caligula (you weirdo), there’s nothing like Rome, near which our ship docked for the day (in Civitavecchia, a 12-euro train ride away). It’s an easy capital to visit in the sense that it’s eminently walkable. Just wear comfortable tennis shoes and stay hydrated via the fontanellas, the public fountains found in almost every square. But it’s a challenge in that its history is as dense as the Pantheon’s walls, and, as in other epic destinations, tourist traps sprout like barbarian hordes around the 2,000-year-old monuments.
As a wanderer, my previous experiences in the Eternal City comprised just that: ambling for what sometimes seemed like an eternity until I reached a Renaissance-era church or second-century ruin, not knowing what either really meant. This time — my shortest visit — would be different.
Our group of three met Teresa, a U.S. expat turned Rome tour guide for Love Holidays (and a long-time friend of one of our fellow passengers). She took us through mini-tours of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter’s Chains), and brought us to a low-key cafe filled with Italians enjoying sandwiches and salads. Bouncing questions off Teresa — did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Should I get the raspberry or apricot gelato? — went a long way toward making me feel like I wasn’t squandering my time.
“What do you guys want to do?” (followed by 20 interesting options) was a welcome conversation starter on more than one occasion.
Finding yourself such a guide, of course, is the trick, but it’s increasingly easy. TripAdvisor reviews, message board recommendations and friends with a penchant for gladiators can all steer you in the right direction. And a private guide isn’t necessarily that expensive; split among a party of four or five, you can expect to pay about 100 euros each (plus museum entrance fees, public transport and tip) for a full, eight-hour day. That’s less than cruise lines charge for the “panoramic” motorcoach tour — you know, those excursions that often leave 40 passengers in that hazy space between sleep and reality, heads thudding against windows at regular intervals.