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Tag Archives: tips

See you in 2 weeks: When couples take separate vacations

This summer, I decided to take a couple of weeks for a much-needed getaway in southern California. I lounged by the Manhattan Beach pier, spent some quality time with my parents and sister, and brought my two boys to the wallet-destroyer known as Disneyland.

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My wife stayed home.

As I write this, she’s in Haiti, visiting her hometown in the country’s west. She’s eating local dishes like diri ak djon-djon (rice with black mushrooms), getting all the village gossip from her father and getting respite from the summer heat in the river that snakes down from the mountains.

I’m here in Brooklyn.

There’s nothing wrong with our marriage, at least as far as I know. But the last couple of years we’ve fit in a couple of separate vacations, and it seems to be working just fine. She gets to go where she wants, I go where I want, and we both get a little head space away from the relentless demands of being full-time parents.

“I’m seeing more and more people not even batting an eye about going away alone for a couple of weeks,” says Iris Krasnow, who, as author of “The Secret Lives of Wives,” interviewed more than 200 women about their marriages. “In fact I get more mail and comments on that subject than about anything else in my whole book. You don’t have to be joined at the hip, in order to make your marriage endure.”

Case in point: Krasnow herself. She recently got back from two and a half weeks along the California beaches, a continent away from her family home in Annapolis, Md. Apart from her four sons, two pets and one husband, she was able to carve out a little time just for her.

“I go to a little hideaway, shut the shades, and sip my glass of cabernet,” says Krasnow, a journalism professor at American University. “The ocean’s mine, the cottage is mine. As a writer who needs solitude but never gets it, I need those getaways – and I always come back refreshed.”

Of course, such thinking goes against the conventional grain, that harried husbands and wives need more time for togetherness, not less. For many couples, that may indeed be the case. But for others, the opposite can also make perfect sense: That spending time on your own, rather than only existing as one-half of a twosome, can foster long-term benefits.

It’s not as uncommon as you might think. In fact, according to a new poll by the travel website TripAdvisor, 59 percent of site visitors report having taken a vacation separate from their significant other.

Indeed Krasnow sees a direct link between that mindset of increasing openness, and declining divorce rates. “It’s now down to 43 percent, from the 50 percent that it’s been for decades, and I think it’s because people are marrying later and smarter,” says Krasnow, who’s been married to her husband for 24 years. “People are learning that it’s OK to rewrite the rules of marriage for their own needs, and not just do what their grandparents did. It’s a gift my husband gives me, to be able to fly solo once in a while.”

Of course for many, separate vacations are still somewhat of a bizarre notion, and a subject that needs to be broached with care. Some spouses might react to the idea with horror, not with understanding.

A few tips:

Trust is a necessity.

Presumably if you’ve gone to the trouble of choosing a lifelong partner, there’s a certain level of trust there. If that’s lacking, then spending time apart could easily lead to suspicions about what your spouse is really up to. In those cases, rather than recharging the marital battery, a solo voyage could drain it – which would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise.

Keep a lid on costs.

One advantage of traveling together is that there are some natural cost savings, like piling the whole family into the same hotel room. If you’re taking two separate vacations, with two different hotel stays, the bill can add up very quickly. Try to take advantage of special discounts, or get bulk deals by traveling with buddies, so that the financial burdens of separate vacations don’t lead to undue stress when it’s time to pay off the credit card bill.

Get ready for the jury.

Even if you think separate vacations are a brilliant idea, others may not. “The biggest hassle is probably the jury of your family and friends, who might look at you and judge you,” says Laurie Puhn, a couples mediator in Westchester County, N.Y. and author of “Fight Less, Love More.” “You have to be comfortable enough as a couple to withstand that criticism, and know that separate vacations are part of what makes your marriage balanced and joyful.”

As for my wife, she’s about halfway through her Haitian vacation, and I’m missing her more than ever. As marriage indicators go, that’s a pretty good one.

Chris Taylor is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp

Expert packing tips for every type of trip

Packing the right clothes, shoes and gear for your trip is an underrated, yet necessary skill (as anyone who has ever tried to hike a trail in flimsy footwear can attest). And with the addition of airline baggage fees, not to mention the fight for overhead space on the plane, being able to bring just enough — without going over — can even save you money and hassle.

Below, you’ll find packing guidelines for four different types of vacations. No matter where you are going, try to restrict yourself to one suitcase and one carry-on (or even a carry-on only!), at least on the way there. Otherwise, you won’t have room to bring anything home — and where’s the fun in that?

How to pack for a beach vacation
What’s essential?: You might hate shopping for them, but no beach vacation is complete without a swimsuit. Buy more than one so there’s always something dry to wear, and bring them along in your carry-on. Women should pack cute cover-ups, both to wear on the beach when it gets too hot and to walk along the boardwalk without too much exposure. In the evenings, costume jewelry can add just enough glamour to a sundress. Men should bring a lightweight button-down shirt for nicer restaurants; Tommy Bahama is always an upscale choice. For your feet, bring flip-flops, sandals or canvas tennis shoes, depending on the type of beach you’re on.

Choose a mesh or nylon beach bag with a distinctive pattern so it’s easy to spot among the crowds, and make sure it has inside pockets, preferably waterproof, to store valuables and small electronics such as your cell phone. Speaking of gadgets, make sure that they’re waterproof or have protective covers. A soft-sided insulated tote for drinks and snacks is easier to carry than a bulky cooler. Pack some disposable wipes for quick clean-up. Plastic bags can be your best friend: Use them to bring food to the beach, and then carry wet swimsuits and towels on the way home.

Secret weapon: If you wear corrective lenses and your beach sessions involve exploring reefs for colorful fish, you’ll want to invest in a prescription snorkel mask. Having your own mask can also prevent communicable diseases (I once got a wicked case of pinkeye from a tainted snorkel mask in Costa Rica).

Safety first: No matter how good it feels, the sun is not your friend. Load up on sun protection with a strong sunscreen that you can reapply often. If you’re traveling to your destination by plane, look into sunscreen towelettes that won’t explode or leak. When you’re lathering up, don’t forget your face. Add lip balm, and wear sunglasses and a hat.

Leave at home: Being on the beach is an excuse to cut loose; avoid bringing clothing that’s too stuffy or structured. If you’re staying at a hotel, find out ahead of time if towels and other beach amenities are included. Many vacation rentals also have “house” items such as camp chairs and barbecue grills so there’s no need to bring your own.

How to pack for an African safari
What’s essential?: The African sun can be brutal. Be sure to buy a pair of polarizing sunglasses that can protect your eyes. During the day, you’ll want a hat that covers not only your face, but also your ears and neck. Look for one that has a cord so it won’t fly off as your Jeep sprints across the savannah. Those roads can get bumpy, so women might want to pack a sports bra. The African bush can be chilly during the mornings and evenings; be sure to bring a windbreaker and long pants. You’ll want to pick your shoes depending on the type of safari you’re taking; while heavy hiking boots are necessary for a walking trip, you’re better off with light hikers and sports sandals if you’ll be spending most of the time in a vehicle (sandals are also great for walking around the camp at night). A small flashlight or headlamp can also assist after hours, as many lodges and camps run on generators. And finally, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t bring a pair of good, mid-sized binoculars. Look for ones that are sturdy enough to survive getting dropped.

Secret weapon: So common back home, batteries can be a priceless commodity if you run out of them in the bush. Pack some extras — and buy an extra digital camera card while you’re at it. You don’t want to run out of space right when you’re ready to take that close-up of a lion.

Safety first: A small first-aid kit full of bandages, hand sanitizer and medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, may be your best friend. Consider including ibuprofen, Dramamine and Imodium; ask a doctor if they’ll give you some Cipro (for intense stomach problems) or Ambien (for sleeping). Pack an extra travel toothbrush in case you forget and use tap water. And it goes without saying that insect repellent and malaria medication should be on your list (ask your outfitter if mosquito netting is provided).

Leave at home: The colors that you wear on safari are almost as important as the actual clothes. Anything white and bright will distract the animals, and black and blue (including jeans) attract flies. Stick to olive, green and khaki. Forget your formal clothes; things are casual out in the bush, even at upscale lodges.

How to pack for an active/outdoor vacation
What’s essential?: While blue jeans may seem like the ultimate outdoor outfit, they can get wet and heavy. It’s better to get pants that are water- or wind-proof, or can be converted into shorts. A pair of tights or long underwear add an extra layer. Look for T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies in breathable, synthetic fabric that will absorb sweat better than cotton. You’ll want to pack an emergency poncho or some other form of rain gear to protect from sudden storms. Your footwear will depend on what kind of activities you are doing. Lightweight hiking shoes or boots can handle many conditions, but you might need something sturdier for rockier trails. Kayaking or rafting trips could demand durable water shoes. Scarves, gloves and hats can make a big difference in comfort at higher altitudes, even in the summer. Insect repellent to prevent bites — and anti-itch cream to soothe them — are must-haves.

Secret weapon: Pack multiple pairs of non-cotton hiking socks to keep your feet dry. Band-aids and moleskin can go a long way toward keeping blisters from ruining your hike (make sure you expose them to the open air during the night). Bring some Neosporin to prevent infection.

Safety first: When you’re heading into the back country, bring a whistle for bears or other unsavory creatures, especially if you’re a woman traveling alone. Dehydration can be a problem on the trail; bring a reusable water bottle and refill it often. (You may need a water purification method to make sure your water is fit to drink; see Drinking Water Safety for specifics.) Bring a flashlight or headlamp for night hikes, along with plenty of batteries. And be sure to check in with rangers if you’re going to a remote area.

Leave at home: It goes without saying that this is one trip where you won’t need heels or dress shoes. No one on the trail cares what you look like. And while I’m a big fan of using an e-reader to save space in your luggage, I wouldn’t bring a Kindle, iPad or laptop into the wilderness. You should be unplugging anyway, right?

How to pack for a city sightseeing vacation
What’s essential?: Invest in a pair of good walking shoes that could also be worn to a nice restaurant (Merrell and Clarks have great ones that have an urban vibe). Try them out before you go, as you don’t want to be limping through a city with blisters. For women, you can’t beat a pair of skinny jeans and stretchy black pants that can be worn while walking around during the day, and then out again at night paired with a dressier blouse or top. Instead of a backpack, look for a purse or bag that has a thick shoulder strap that can’t easily be cut, and can be worn messenger-style against the body to prevent thieves. For men, a lightweight travel blazer or sport coat can be all that you need to go from a museum to an evening out (wear it on the plane to save room).

Secret weapon: A couple of colorful scarves don’t take up too much room, and can transform a blah outfit — or hide the fact that you’ve worn it already.

Safety first: A rubber doorstopper can be a girl’s best friend in an unfamiliar city. Stick it under the hotel door if there’s no security lock, or under the door of an adjoining room.

Leave at home: Even when it’s hot out, women might consider skirts or loose-fitting, lightweight capris instead of shorts, especially if you’ll be visiting churches or other religious structures. And while men might not go anywhere back home without wearing their showiest watch, it’s all too easy to take a wrong turn in an unfamiliar city. A good rule of thumb: If you don’t want to lose it, don’t bring it.

More from IndependentTraveler.com

Hotel guests pay more, enjoy stays less

More bucks, less bang. When it comes to travelers’ satisfaction with their hotel experiences, a new report suggests the industry’s efforts are more dud than dazzling.

Released on Wednesday, J.D. Power and Associates’ 2012 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study shows overall guest satisfaction dropping to 757 on a 1,000-point scale, down 7 index points from last year. Although small, the drop is significant, says the report, because it masks even larger drops in key sub-categories, including check-in/check-out, food and beverage and guestrooms.

In other words, it’s not what guests are paying that has them peeved — satisfaction with costs and fees was down slightly but is still high by historical standards — but rather, what they get for their money.

And which hotels are giving guests what they want? Analyzing the industry across seven categories, the top-scoring hotels were:

  • Luxury: The Ritz-Carlton (864, third consecutive first-place finish)
  • Upper Upscale: Omni Hotels Resorts (811)
  • Upscale: Hilton Garden Inn and SpringHill Suites (tied at 811)
  • Mid-scale Full Service: Holiday Inn (776, second consecutive year)
  • Mid-scale Limited Service: Drury Hotels (841, seventh consecutive year)
  • Economy/Budget: Jameson Inn (751)
  • Extended Stay: Homewood Suites (838, third consecutive year)

High-scorers aside, however, overall guest satisfaction has been on a downward track in recent years as hotels have been slow to renovate or add staff even as the economy has rebounded and more people are traveling.

“During the downturn, occupancies were also down so it was quicker to check in, easier to get upgraded,” said Stuart Greif, vice president and general manager of the company’s global travel and hospitality practice. “Now it’s reversed. There are more people on property so lines are longer, you can’t get upgrades as easily and it’s more crowded in the gym.”

In fact, according to Greif, four of the seven categories studied — check-in/check-out, food and beverage, hotel services and hotel facilities — received their lowest scores since 2006 while a fifth — guestrooms — declined to within one point of its seven-year low.

Despite the declines, this year’s study also suggests a possible path for future improvement. For the first time, researchers developed a Staff Opinion Model, which took a more in-depth look at how overall guest satisfaction was impacted by interactions with staff across various departments.

“If everybody has nice rooms and puts omelets out for breakfast, what is it about the hotel brand that sets it apart?” said Greif. The answer: employees and the degree to which they make people feel welcome.

Take front-desk staff. According to the study, guests reported an average overall satisfaction of 797 at hotels where they were addressed by name but just 702 at properties where they weren’t, a difference of almost 100 index points.

“A smile is not a hard cost,” Greif told NBC News. “It doesn’t have to be part of a $5 million property improvement plan.”

Furthermore, what’s good for guests is also good for hotels as customers who reported higher satisfaction with staff were also more likely to return, recommend the hotel to others and even spend more on food, beverage and other amenities.

“A number of the highest-ranked brands have that human touch,” said Greif. “It’s not just a cliché to say we want guests to be happy. It really is an important part of brands’ success.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

More on Overhead Bin




Sold! Airlines begin auctioning seat upgrades

Courtesy of Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways is one of several international carriers that offers travelers the option to upgrade to first class through an auction.

There’s a new trend developing among many international airlines that appears to be gaining traction.

Upgrading a coach ticket into business or first class generally requires a traveler to redeem miles or spend a fixed amount of cash determined by the airline. Elite frequent flyers also receive upgrades for free or by using certificates bestowed on them for their loyalty.

But many international airlines are now offering an “upgrade auction,” where fliers bid against one another for a seat in business or first class. It’s already available on seven international airlines and some frequent flyers aren’t too happy.

Upgrade auctions are currently available on Etihad, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, Czech Airlines, El Al, TAP Portugal and Brussels Airlines. They are powered by a platform created by the U.S.-based company Plusgrade . TAP and Air New Zealand were the first to try the program in early 2011. While no U.S. airline has yet to introduce an auction format for upgrades, it’s likely only a matter of time.

It works the way you’d expect, with some minor variations between airlines. Several days before your flight is set to depart, the airline contacts you and asks if you’d like to bid for a seat in the next class of service. The airline sets either a minimum bid, or a bidding range. You put in your offer, wait a couple of days, and if yours was the winning bid, the airline notifies you to complete the transaction. If not, you’re not any poorer.

There’s no doubt that airlines see this as a potential revenue gold mine — after all, they don’t earn money from empty seats. It’s not clear at this point exactly how much additional cash is to be made from auctions versus fixed price upgrades, but the former is definitely more profitable than the latter, says Ken Harris, founder and chief executive officer of Plusgrade.

“An offer-based model will always outperform a fixed-price system,” Harris told CNBC.com in an email. “With the number of empty seats taking off every day, it’s too big of an opportunity for any airline to not have a robust strategy in place.”

Nor is it clear how the minimum/maximum bids are set or how winners are chosen as the process is proprietary and decided by each individual airline.

“Once [the airlines] define their strategy, the Plusgrade platform algorithms power the targeting and decision engines which serve and award the upgrades,” Harris explained.

Early reactions amongst frequent fliers are mixed on the new system. Some critics see it as just the latest in a string of annoying ancillary fees designed to extract even more revenue from fliers, like baggage and ticketing fees. As one commenter on the popular FlyerTalk forum noted, “I guess they figure any amount over economy is better than nothing.”

Others feel that auctions will erode the value of airline loyalty programs, which often give elite (or even non-elite) members first dibs on upgrade seats. For example, reaction was swift and unfavorable when Air New Zealand recently adopted an auction-based system, which replaced the fixed-price system in which its Airpoints frequent-flyer members get upgrades.

“Now all the Airpoints features can be replaced by cash and they are taking away all the meaningful elite benefits,” said FlyerTalk member Xiaotung in a forum.

Under the old system, any Airpoints member could buy an upgrade for a fixed price before a flight, provided a seat was available, and elite members had varying levels of preference depending on their tier. But under the new OneUp auction system, all AirPoints members would have to bid against one another with no guarantee of getting the upgrade. Many members complained loudly and threatened to take their business elsewhere.

Air New Zealand partially backtracked in May 2012 and decided that top-tier Gold Elite members would be exempt from the new rules and would continue to get preference for upgrades.

Harris said the auction system is more empowering and flexible for passengers than traditional upgrade systems.

“The upgrade request process really is an ‘everything to gain, nothing to lose’ environment,” he says. “You offer what you’re comfortable with and only get charged if you receive it — otherwise you keep the ticket you have. What’s to lose?”

This article, “Sold! Airlines begin auctioning upgrade seats,” originally appeared on CNBC.com.

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6 tricks for navigating a foreign language

Erin Mclaughlin / via Budget Travel

Even presidents have had trouble avoiding gaffes when traveling.

We spoke to language expert Benny Lewis, who runs the website Fluentin3Months.com, and asked him for his top advice for navigating a foreign language. Making mistakes is inevitable, but it’s easier than you think to navigate a vacation without getting lost in translation. Even Lewis (who, by the way, is fluent in eight languages, including Portuguese, French, German and Italian) has had some doozies, including accidentally announcing to a German friend that he was horny and telling a Mexican that he liked to shag the bus every day. (On that note, did you know that embarazada means “pregnant,” not “embarrassed” en español?) Do something similar and you’ll want to zip yourself into your own suitcase and never come out. Follow his easy tips and you’ll never be embarrassed again.

Etiquette goes a long way 
Good manners are universal. If you’re quick with basics like “hello,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” people tend to be more gracious as you flub the rest of their native tongue. One of the best things you can do is to research etiquette expectations before you travel. In Paris, for example, call out “bonjour!” when you enter a shop; in the Middle East, don’t admire an object in Arabic unless you want its owner to feel obligated to give it to you. For a primer on local politesse, look up the BBC’s fabulous language-learning website with its quick guides to 40 different languages, including lists and audio clips of what not to say in FrenchSpanish and Italian.

Learn these 5 phrases
The first thing Lewis does when he hits a foreign country is to learn these key phrases: “Where’s the bathroom?”; “How much does that cost?”; “Excuse me”; “The food is delicious!”; and “Do you speak English?” “When you’re starting off, grammar is not going to help you,” Lewis says. “You need to set phrases so you can communicate the basics to people.” Tuck a phrasebook into your bag so you can whip it out on the fly, or download a digital version with audio that tells you just how to pronounce “Where’s the bullfight?”

Listen to pronunciation before you go 
Nothing gets you the “huh?” expression faster than mispronouncing a foreign word. To get a better sense of how things should sound, check in at Forvo.com, an online dictionary with audio pronunciation. Lewis also likes RhinoSpike.com, where you can upload text and a native speaker will read it out loud and submit a recording for you. How long it takes to get a response depends on how many requests there are for the language you are trying to hear (you can move your request up the queue by recording text for other users).

2 proven tricks for remembering words 
Visualize words. “I’m a very forgetful person,” Lewis confesses, so he relies on old-school memory tricks like creating mental images to match words he’s learning. For instance, the word playa, Spanish for “beach,” reminded him of “player,” so he envisioned a guy using cheesy pick-up lines on the beach. To remember prvni, the Czech word for “first,” he broke it down into the sounds “pro van,” then visualized winning first place at the Van Olympics. The mental images are bizarre, but you will never forget them! You can also try setting phrases to music. You know how you can still sing all the words to that Depeche Mode song from sixth grade? Music is a world-class memory aid, so put it to use while you nail a few foreign language phrases. To cram “Where is the bathroom?” in Italian, Lewis sang “Dov’è il bagno?” to the ding-dong ditty of the Big Ben chimes. “After a couple times it stuck,” he says.

How technology can help 
Technology is a godsend for those trying to get by in a new language. Word Lens allows you to hover your phone over text to get an instant translation, even when it’s offline. Google Goggles allow for point-and-shoot translation with your camera phone: Just snap a photo from a baffling menu and the app provides on-the-spot translation. Use the Jibbigo app to get a rough voice translation for whatever phrase a waiter or a shop owner says into your phone. The concept of old-school flashcards has also gone digital. “I’m a very big fan of Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard system you can download onto your smartphone,” says Lewis. Anki’s algorithm figures out which words are hardest for you-and shows you those more often. You can download premade flashcards decks with the most common words in a language, or make your own with words you see around town. (No worries if you’re a tech-phobe: paper index cards do the trick, too.)

The one expert you can always rely on 
When the DIY approach to getting by in a foreign language fails, consult the concierge or desk clerk at your hotel for translations and phonetic pronunciations of stuff you’ll need to say that day, such as, “Can I get a ticket to the 7 o’clock performance?” The staff at hotels usually speak multiple languages — and are happy to help.