Budget Holiday Travel Possible With New Way Of Thinking

The desire for holiday travel is here. We want to visit friends and family sometime between now and the new year. Still, to recover from economic challenges, travel-related businesses are operating differently than they may have in years past, making that desire for holiday travel more difficult to achieve. Today, there can be a lot more to consider when planning holiday travel than getting time off work, choosing convenient flights and arriving with gifts for all.

“It’s not just tight family finances making travel tough,” says a Detroit News article. “Airlines struggling to save on jet fuel and other expenses have cut the number of flights, leading to a jump in airfares. Those hitting the roads face high gas prices and rising tolls.”

In the past, filling the tank of the family car with gas, planning which route to take and where to stop along the way was about all it took to make it to our holiday destination. Today, travelers on a holiday road trip make sure to have plenty of travel funds available to keep that tank full, check with their favorite mid-way motel to see if it is still open and pack food rather than buying it along the way.

Previously, a seemingly unending number of flights to major destinations had picky travelers looking to fly at a convenient time, in seats together and on their favorite airline. Today’s reduced flight capacity has travelers settling for a flight close to what they had in mind at a price that won’t break the bank.

Still, there are steps that travelers can take to hold down costs, steps that can make the difference between being able to afford holiday travel or not.Packing- Fees for checked bags don’t seem to be going away any time soon so many travelers are re-thinking just how much clothing they really need at their destination. Throw out the old packing list and take a look at reducing what we take along down to one carry-on and a personal item that will fit under the seat.

Use those miles- For those who have been hoarding miles for a future, unknown trip, right now may be the time to dust them off and use them up. Airline tickets, hotel reservations, car rentals and more that might have fit into the holiday travel budget nicely in the past might not now without some work.

Leverage the Internet like never before– From meals to hotels, entertainment venues and more, information on just how much expenses along the way might be is readily available online. Planning each meal of a multi-day trip in advance alone can add up to huge savings vs. just stopping at some place that looks good. Avoiding expensive breakfast in hotels and eating less expensive lunches than dinners can be helpful too.

Utilize Public Transportation- Whenever possible take advantage of this least expensive option to get from point A to point B. Many cities with subways and/or rail transportation systems have smartphone apps to help plan and budget trips in advance too.

Weigh Options- Take the extra time and compare flying to driving or train service. A two-hour flight might not take all that much longer driving when we consider time to get to the airport, through security and to the gate as well as time getting off the plane and out of the airport. It can easily take me longer and cost more to fly from Orlando to Miami vs. just getting in the car and driving there.

Engage Everyone- Social networks have us talking to people around the world easier than ever before. Why not ask a favorite blogger, online group or business for tips on navigating their city, product or travel-related service. That’s a good way to go with planning and also while in-transit, as many travelers have found out tweeting a problem to airlines, hotels and other companies.

In the end, some big savings can be had by just thinking about travel differently.

Do I really need three pairs of jeans and six shirts for this trip?
The locals manage to use the subway system just fine, can’t I?
I have never been on an Amtrak train; is now the time to try?

Checking in with online sources can get us thinking in the right direction as we see in this ABC News video:

[Photo Credit- Flickr user jazzowl2003]

Roadside America: St. Joseph, Michigan

Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.

Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.

This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.

In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.

[flickr image via Molechaser]

Travel Smarter 2012: Tips for improving your train travel

The railroad is the oldest, commercial mass transport of the modern age, predating the car and the airplane by at least 100 years. So how can train travel be smarter in 2012?

For starters, “the train takes less time total than all the preliminaries of air travel,” says Margaret King, who regularly opts to take the train to New York City, DC, and Boston from her home in Philadelphia. “I can take plenty of luggage, with no extra fees; I can easily work aboard the train; [and there are] no security hassles.”

From smartphone apps to help you plan and book your travel to a new crop of high-speed trains, train services across the globe have upgraded to appeal to frustrated air travelers and entice would-be drivers from their cars. Let’s take a look at all the ways traveling by train is smarter in 2012.

Smartphone Apps
Name any national railway and there’s likely an app that helps you find train schedules, get arrival and departure updates, and book seats. If you’re traveling to Europe, you can download apps for the particularly country you may be visiting or get the free Rail Europe app. Though far from perfect (e.g., tickets purchased through the app are sent via email as an e-ticket or, given enough lead time, mailed, rather than existing digitally within the app itself), the Rail Europe app gives you information on timetables, stations, and more for 35 European countries. Amtrak has a similar app (also free) that includes a panel for Guest Rewards, a loyalty program that lets regular rail travelers earn points towards free trips. Round-the-world trekkers, particularly those that intend to city-hop, would do well to download AllSubway HD ($0.99), a database of more than 130 city subway maps.Improved Rail Travel Using Social Media and the Web
Twitter is the social media platform of choice for travelers who need quick answers on rail information, particularly interruptions in service on municipal rail lines. Transitpal, a service available to riders of the Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area, monitors tweets to determine delays, police activity, and schedule changes. A companion app to the Transitpal service is set to launch in spring 2012 and the concept, says developer and Google alum Frederick Vallaeys, could easily be applied to rail lines in other cities.

As for using the web to improve the rail travel experience, look to Hipmunk, which became in fall 2011 the first online travel agent to integrate Amtrak searches. Hipmunk now displays train schedules and fares alongside airline timetables and fares, giving passengers, particularly those on the East Coast, where Amtrak service is strong, “greater flexibility and pricing power when considering routes.” Sadly, Amtrak fares are not included in Hipmunk’s smartphone app.

High-Speed Rail and Express Trains
Investing in high-speed rail infrastructure has become a priority on the local, state, regional, and federal level as they see that more consumers are willing to pay a bit extra for faster connections. Countries currently at work on high-speed rail networks include Turkey, China, Italy, and Russia. China’s newest express line, which connects Beijing to Shanghai in just over five hours, opened in June 2011. NTV, the first private bullet train operator in Italy, is set to begin service of its Italo fast trains in spring 2012. A point of interest: the private, high-speed rail line has the backing of Italian leather goods mogul Diego delle Valle, among other investors, and a 20 percent stake by SNCF, the French National Rail Service.

Russia has two relatively new high-speed trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, but Russian Railways is currently at work on a line that will connect Moscow with Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Turkey’s famous Haydarpaşa Train Station, the terminus on the Asian side of Istanbul closed in January 2012 for restoration so that Turkish State Railways (TCDD) could complete its construction of the high-speed link between Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, as well as the Marmaray Tunnel, a controversial and ambitious project that will create an underground rail link between Europe and Asia by digging a tunnel below the Bosphorus.

On-Board Amenities
In a bid to compete with and outdo airlines and bus companies, railways have been upgrading on-board amenities, such as offering Wi-Fi and unique dining menus. Amtrak launched free Wi-Fi on 12 East Coast routes and three California routes in fall 2011, thereby bringing the percentage of Wi-Fi-equipped fleet to 75 percent. (Note: Hipmunk, mentioned above, automatically provides info on Wi-Fi trains in its search.)

Meanwhile, rail passengers on board the Canadian, the VIA Rail train that connects Toronto to Vancouver, can look forward to a revamped dining menu. VIA recently enlisted the talents of eight chefs in a Top Chef-style cook-off. The 2012 Menu Creation Challenge saw the chefs create 72 gourmet dishes for menu consideration.

[flickr image via krikit]

Denver’s Union Station undergoing LEED Gold makeover

The historic Union Station in Denver, Colorado, will soon be undergoing a major restoration project that will turn it into one of the most progressive transportation hubs in the United States.

According to Inhabitat, the project is aiming for LEED Gold certification and will preserve the train hub that connects the Amtrak system with regional modes of transport, like Colorado’s celebrated FasTracks light rail system and local bus lines. The restoration will also include the addition of a 130-room Oxford Hotel-affiliated boutique hotel, a retail center, and six public plazas.

The new Union Station is projected to bolster the reputation of Denver’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) District as a model for urban revitalization. Short for Lower Downtown, LoDo was the first settlement in the greater Denver area and is now one of the most happening parts of the city, with breweries, cafes, galleries, and creative businesses taking over the district’s Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings. The new Union Station is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

[via Inhabitat; Flickr image via Cliff]

20 Reasons to travel by train

While I truly appreciate the technological miracle of human flight, I’d altogether avoid flying if it were possible to do that and still indulge my serious case of wanderlust. And I love a good road trip, but who would want to drive everywhere? So until teleportation devices are invented I’ll continue to travel by train whenever possible…and here’s why.

1) Bells and Whistles – No other form of transportation has sounds as exciting for kids and inexplicably nostalgic for adults to hear than the ones a train uses to announce its presence. Those who live next to railroad tracks excepted, there’s something a little wrong with people who don’t like the sound of a train whistle, or the clanking bells as it approaches a station.

2) Downtown to Downtown – Saving on cab fare, rental cars or time spent commuting from airports on the outskirts of a city is a definite train travel perk. Whether headed somewhere for work or pleasure, arriving downtown saves time and lessens the likelihood you’ll succumb to the tempting smell of an airport Cinnabon.

3) Leg Room – Tall people sometimes have to pay extra to bring their legs along while traveling. On a 13-hour flight from the States to Tokyo my legs literally touched the seat in front of me the entire way. I paid an additional fee for United’s Economy Plus on the way home to try and avoid significant back pain. In contrast, regular economy class on a train comes with space for my legs to happily accompany me at no extra cost.4) Unrestricted Tech & Comfort – Smart phones, iPods, laptops, DVD players and other electronic devices are unrestricted from the time you step foot on a train until you get off. No getting yelled at by flight attendants to turn stuff off. The same goes with seatbacks and tray tables. So settle in, recline with outstretched legs and listen to your own playlist while typing a list of reasons to ride trains.

5) Conductor’s Hats – When having your ticket collected, it’s always nice to see a neat hat.

6) Scenery – Peering into the downtown of various stops, and lakes, mountains or the permafrost landscape of destinations is something that just can’t really be done by plane. Some train journeys themselves are even UNESCO World Heritage sites, like Switzerland’s Bernina Express and the Himalayan Darjeeling Express in India. Amtrak’s Adirondack train from NYC to Montreal even offers historical and nature information by the National Parks Service in the café car. Riders can get a free ‘tour’ and ask questions from two expert volunteer guides there just for the fun of it.

7) No Groping – Besides not having to trek out to an airport, you don’t get put through the metal detectors, baggage x-ray, grope-tastic pat-downs, shoe removal, and restrictions on liquid and other items in your luggage.

8) Private Cabins – On a long train it’s splendid to curl up in bed and sleep like you mean it instead of getting whiplash from nodding head syndrome in a seat. Plus, it’s fun for a little hanky panky when traveling with a significant other and much easier to deal with than the logistics of joining the Mile High Club.

9) Smelling the Roses – Aside from great scenery, sometimes the trip is in the journey. Being on a train can be a great time to unwind and relish the travel part of traveling.

10) Cool Names – Unlike most planes (with a few exceptions), trains often have cool names, which adds a little extra magic to the ride. Some are even named for folk songs, like The City of New Orleans. But even when they’re named simply for their destination like the Narita Express, it somehow seems cooler.

11) More Luggage, Less Fees – You’d have to bring a startling amount of luggage to be charged extra for it on a train, while fees for even one checked bag has become the norm for most airlines. And overhead storage spaces are larger on trains, so heaving it up there is a bit easier. This often also helps make boarding faster because the guy in front of you doesn’t have to try and deny the laws of physics by insisting his puffy oversized carry-on “always fits” for what feels like an our before the eventual walk of shame to gate check it.

12) Meeting People – When a creepy guy or freakishly chatty person is your seatmate on a flight, the only hope for getting away is to slyly slip your earbuds in and avoid eye contact at all costs. But on a train, not only can you get up and walk to grab a beer and sit at a table, people are generally friendlier and in a better mood (you included), so it can be fun to talk with people – especially locals along the train route in a foreign country who are happy to offer destination advice.

13) Affordable Upgrades – In most developed countries there’s not a huge difference between train classes, or if there is, the second-class accommodations are comfortable enough not to care. And the difference between upgrading to business or first-class is nowhere near as traumatizing as jumping from a $300 airfare to an $8,000 airfare to do so.

14) Fewer Crying Babies – When my kids were babies, I dreaded the rolling eyes and sighs of other passengers just because we were boarding a plane. And when I’m traveling alone, no amount of motherhood could make me want to listen to someone else’s kid wailing in my ear the entire flight. Trains offer a bunch of ways to beat this conundrum. First off, parents can walk around as much as they want, or take a little tyke to the cafe car for a snack. Similarly, you can seek respite in another train car until the crying has ended. Bonus: since trains don’t have huge altitude changes, children’s ears don’t get the dreaded ear pressure problem that often sets up a chain reaction of crying the entire flight.

15) It’s Green – Some experts say traveling by train can cut a passenger’s carbon emissions by up to 90 percent versus flying. Combine that with reason #2 on this list and deduct the amount of non-renewable energy used while commuting to the train itself.

16) Less Carnage – There is some debate on how to calculate the percentage of injuries and fatalities on planes versus trains. But unless you’re a drunk guy parked on the tracks, it seems you’re less likely to die maimed and incinerated when a train derails, than when a plane crashes.

17) No Speeding Tickets – Not only do trains help travelers avoid traffic jams and tolls, you can hop on high speed lines like the European InterCityExpress (ICE), or Japan’s Shinkansen which both regularly travel over 180 mph. Try to do that in a car on I-80.

18) Less Barfing – For those of us afflicted with being prone to motion sickness, a train ride is often far less nausea or headache inducing. In fact I can read, watch a movie, or happily type away on a computer, which would be impossible in a car without blowing chunks. Maybe it’s the large windows, or the consistent rhythm, but riding the rails can even be comforting, especially on overnight journeys when it feels like you’re being rocked to sleep.

19) Wheelchair Accessible – One of my kids uses a wheelchair and it’s exponentially easier to travel by train than go through the hassles of an airport’s invasive security screening (since he can’t walk through the detectors), not to mention the sheer logistics of getting on and off a plane. Plus, passenger services often offer a porter who will help with luggage and a little ramp to get on and off the train.

20) Compensation for Delays – It would be unheard of with airlines, but you can sometimes get a partial refund (in the form of a voucher) for severe train delays. I often take the Acela Express train from New York City to Washington DC and on a recent trip was delayed due to mechanical failure for an extra 1.5 hours on a route that normally takes only 3 hours. I called customer service afterward and a friendly fellow sent me a $75 voucher.