North Carolina readies for ‘Hunger Games’ opening

Anticipation for the movie version of “The Hunger Games,” which will be released next week, has been building for more than a year – and no more so than in North Carolina, where most of the film was shot.

At the North Carolina Governor’s Conference on Tourism this week, Governor Bev Perdue cheered the first movie of the dystopian saga, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as the rebellious Katniss fighting for her life. While “The Hunger Games” has become North Carolina’s largest film set on site (previous biggies were “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Dirty Dancing”), another 119 films are being shot in the state, Perdue said.

If you’re looking to follow in the stars’ footsteps, you’ll have to rent a car; shooting sites range from Charlotte (a stand-in for The Capital) to DuPont State Recreational Park, site of the Arena, to the tiny town of Shelby, where the Reaping scenes were filmed. During the shoot, the stars were based in Asheville, in the western part of the state.In anticipation of visiting fans, the VisitNC website has put together several “Hunger Games” resource guides, including a four-day itinerary and a Pinterest board. While businesses such as the Nantahala Outdoors Center in Bryson weren’t used during the filming, the state is cleverly tying them in with the movie’s survivalist message (you, too, can train like Katniss!)

So will the movie generate the tourist dollars that the state hopes to receive? The odds are ever in their favor. Just look at the boom in visitation that a certain Washington town named Forks received after the “Twilight” movies came out.

Travel writer Chris Gray Faust covers value luxury vacations on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World.

Must read e-book: Fatal Voyage, the Wrecking of the Costa Concordia

Looking for a relaxing read en route to your cruise? Then don’t buy Fatal Voyage, The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia, a Kindle Singles e-book that takes an in-depth look at the modern day Titanic.

Written by journalist John Hooper, the e-book covers one of the worst passenger ship disaster since the Titanic in engaging detail. Numerous interviews with survivors describe plates falling as the ship’s two-story dining room listed, the dark passageways where passengers crawled to reach an outside deck, the confusion around the lifeboats as the crew, acting without clear orders from above, tried to maintain control.

Hooper’s experience as a Rome-based reporter for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper stands him in good stead. The book contains details about the sinking that never made the U.S. coverage, including the Italians’ collective embarrassment around one of their own, Costa Concordia Captain Francesco Schettino.As you’d expect, much of the story does center around Schettino, and his unbelievable series of bad decisions. Hooper notes that the call to “salute” the island of Giglio came out of nowhere, as the retired captain that Schettino meant to fete wasn’t even there at the time. And he also captures the feeling of pride that Italians felt when transcripts revealed that Coast Guard Captain Gregorio De Falco had ordered Schettino to get back on his boat. No wonder that T-shirts reading “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” (get on board, dick) became top sellers.

The rush to publish does highlight the e-book’s faults. Hooper’s e-book, which reads more like a long-form magazine article, came out on Feb. 15, just a little over a month from the Jan. 13 sinking. As a reader, I wanted even more details from the survivors than Hooper collected. Every passenger who lived through that night has a chilling tale to tell, and while the examples that Hooper picked were jaw-dropping, I had more questions than answers when I finished the book.

But hey, what do you expect for $1.99? Hooper continues to cover the fallout from the Costa Concordia tragedy for the Guardian. If and when he releases a longer, more detailed version of what exactly happened on the ship that night, I’ll be hitting the download button.

Travel writer Chris Gray Faust covers value luxury vacations on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World.

Travel Smarter 2012: New tips for the budget traveler

For a while there, it looked like 2012 would be a bad year for budget travelers. With hotel occupancy rates creeping upward, flight capacity remaining tight and recession-wary vacationers opening their wallets again, it seemed inevitable that prices would rise accordingly.

But something funny happened during the lean years: Travelers became more savvy about using technology to find discounts and last-minute deals. And the travel industry has found that once people become used to grabbing travel bargains, it’s hard to get them to pay full price again.

So with that in mind, here are some ways budget travelers can continue acting like it’s 2009:

Book on the go. With the resurging economy, hotels had hoped that the booking window – the length of time before a scheduled trip – would go back to the pre-recession standard of 90 days. Instead, says Ben Kazez, Senior Director of Mobile Apps & Emerging Platforms at Expedia, people – particularly younger travelers – have become used to waiting until the last minute to find a hotel room. “They treat it like going out to a restaurant,” he said when the company launched its hotel app in December; 60 % of people use it for same-day bookings.The Expedia app is indeed a good place to find last-minute unsold hotel inventory while you’re on the road, as is Priceline (If buying from opaque sites scare you, narrow down your risk by using BetterBidding). HotelTonight, which specifically looks at rooms available after noon on the day you want to check in, also receives stellar reviews.

A caveat: Last-minute bookings work best if you’re traveling during a destination’s quieter time of year. In other words, don’t arrive in Florida during Spring Break without a hotel room and expect to get a great deal.

Follow the (bad) news. Greece, Portugal, Egypt. If a country’s economic woes show up on the news, chances are that their tourist industry will take a dip soon after. Which means lower prices for bargain hunters, if you’re OK with assuming a little risk.

If business news isn’t your thing, read the real estate section. Cities that have already gone through hotel construction booms will have likely drop rates to keep occupancy up. According to Bloomberg, rates in Berlin – already inexpensive by European standards – are already lower because supply has outpaced demand. The hotelier’s loss is your gain.

Wait until the crowds leave. Likewise, keep your eye on cities and countries with major festivals and sporting events – and go after the hoopla ends. Your historical precedent is South Africa, where new hotels that came online for the 2010 World Cup famously slashed their rates more than 20 percent afterward because hotel demand crashed.

In 2012, that means you should look into London after the Diamond Jubilee and Summer Olympics have ended, or a trip to Mayan Central America after the Long Count Calendar ends Dec. 21 (if we’re all still standing, that is).

Consider alternatives to flying. Summer airfares are already going up, based on that familiar complaint, rising fuel costs. So make the fewer flights that you do take count, and fly into hubs where you can easily take buses or trains to other destinations.

On the East Coast, that might mean flying into the cheapest airport you can find and grabbing a Bolt Bus to a pricier destination (check out BusJunction to compare route prices and read Yelp reviews). In Europe, avoid some of the supposed low-cost airlines such as RyanAir (with all those fees, it’s never a bargain) and see if it’s cheaper to take a train.

Try peer to peer lodging. Peer to peer lodging services such as AirBnB took a PR hit in 2011, after a San Francisco woman published horrifying details about a renter who trashed her apartment. But growth continues, particularly in Europe, where the company has both benefited travelers and those renting out rooms for extra cash. Both 9flats and Couchsurfing have received funding injections, although the latter has received flack from its community over how the growth is changing the free service.

Bottom line: If you’re an open-minded traveler who doesn’t mind interacting with strangers, these services can provide interesting and cheaper places to stay than many hotels (although AirBnB has its share of pricey properties). Who knows, you might even make a friend.

Become cruise savvy. In the wake of the Costa tragedy in January, cruise bookings dropped significantly, according to figures released by Carnival Corp., which owns numerous lines. The market will likely recover, as cruise fanatics are just that, fanatical. But if lower prices do tempt you to book, remember that you’ll still need to budget for drinks and other extras on board. Handle your own air for greater flexibility, and remember that the official shore excursions offered by the lines are never a bargain.

Sign up for coupon sites and flash sales. The offers that come in through coupon sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial or flash sale providers such as Jetsetter can provide immense savings – as long as you actually want what they’re selling. Read the fine print so you’re aware of blackout dates and other restrictions.

Reconsider the car. Car rental rates often seem like the most mysterious travel expense, with rates that fluctuate within the airport. If you can, skip a rental all together and take advantage of car and ride sharing services. While ZipCar is probably the most established car share program, Hertz On Demand and Car2Go have expanded into more cities. For those who are really trusting, RelayRides bills itself as the AirBnB of carsharing.

Don’t drive? The Avego ridesharing app connects people needing rides with drivers who have empty seats. Zimride has a similar concept with a more social layout. Or simply bike it with Spotcycle. You’ll not only save money, you’ll feel socially conscious and fit – a budget traveler trifecta that will make you feel even more entitled to enjoy that beer at the end of the day.

Travel writer Chris Gray Faust writes about value luxury vacations at her award-winning site, Chris Around The World.

[flickr image via GaryKnight]

Emirates comes to Seattle, launches nonstop Dubai service

Living in Seattle has its trade offs, travel-wise. You’re closer to Alaska and Hawaii and Japan and places you’d never thought you’d visit, like the Yukon. But it takes an incredibly long time to get to the Caribbean, Europe or almost anywhere else, and there aren’t as many non-stop long-haul flights as you might wish.

Enter Emirates. By adding a non-stop flight from Seattle to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the airline instantly opens up easier travel to the Middle East, Africa and India – a boon for the Emerald City’s multicultural population. The flight to Dubai will take about 12 hours, with a 14 hour return.

The service launched March 1 with a press conference, appearances by flight attendants wearing the trademark Emirates pillbox hat and scarf and an arriving plane full of various dignitaries. As the headquarters of Boeing, Seattle has a rich aviation history and you could see the ground crews taking cell phone photos of the Emirates plane as it pulled through a water turret salute to unload at the gate.

Seattle isn’t the only West Coast beneficiary of recent Emirates expansion. The airline opened a 9,502 square foot lounge in San Francisco last month that boasts marble floors, Rolex watches and chauffeur service for Silicon Valley execs lucky enough to be in those highly regarded First Class private suites or Business Class.

Things aren’t that fancy up here in the Pacific Northwest. But one thing that will make Seattle frequent fliers happy: Emirates has partnered with Alaska Airlines for its mileage program. So maybe those lie flat beds aren’t as unattainable as you might think.

Pinterest for travelers: 5 practical uses

Everyone’s jumping on the Pinterest bandwagon, and no wonder. The social media site, where you “pin” inspiring photos of luscious baked goods, bucket-list world landmarks and HDR-enhanced sunsets, provides perfect travel porn. Once you start browsing other peoples’ boards, it’s almost impossible to stop.

But does Pinterest have any practical uses for travelers? Although it seems mostly geared toward of the armchair set, there are a few ways that people planning vacations can get something substantial out of scrapbooking:

Get ideas. The most obvious way to use Pinterest is still the most practical. Already you can find thousands of gorgeous travel photos on Pinterest, not only from regular users, but from noted brands such as The Travel Channel (and yes, Gadling). As more travel companies and destinations flock to the site, the visual resources that are available to people planning vacations will become richer.

Just look at the Visit Savannah boards. Run by the city’s destination marketing organization, some of Savannah’s pins carry practical information, such as the best things to order at local restaurants and specialty shopping. And the I Do board makes you want to redo your nuptials in front of the city’s Spanish oaks. It’s a perfect fit for Pinterest’s wedding-crazed members.

Crowdsource. Most people use Pinterest to put forth their own vision of what a vacation could be. But let’s say you’re taking your first trip to Paris. You could create a Paris board and invite your most Francophile friends to pin their recommendations too. It’s a much more visual way than asking for tips on Facebook.
Coordinate expectations. Planning trips with friends can be tough, particularly if you span income brackets. So the next time you’re putting together a group trip, create a Pinterest board where everyone can contribute.

You’ll spot quickly where problems could occur. Let’s say one person pins a Michelin-starred restaurant, while the other pins a taco stand. That could open up discussion about budget limitations, and what kind of meals you’ll be eating. Likewise, you’ll want to make sure that the friend pinning serious powder for a ski vacation meshes with the friend posting spa treatments. Use the photos to form an itinerary that appeals to everyone.

Buy gear. Pinterest’s Products boards have become the most controversial, after users discovered that the site was embedding affiliate links into pins. The Gifts section, where prices are displayed on the pin, is divided into dollar amounts now. But like most social networking sites, Pinterest is continually evolving – and category breakdowns are sure to emerge.

Sharing vacation photos. Facebook has become the web’s largest photo sharing site, with billions of pictures. In fact, people post so many photos on Facebook that almost nothing surprises anymore. While Pinterest, which celebrates the pretty, will probably not become the place to post family reunion photos, a vacation board is a great place to share your best envy-inducing shots.

Travel writer Chris Gray Faust is using Pinterest to help plan her sister’s destination wedding. Follow her boards.