Thursday, November 28, 2013

Save Money By Booking Your Own Travel . . . NOT!!

 One of the things that continues to amaze me is how many people insist of booking their own travel. I have said in the past, "Anyone who books their own travel is in the same boat as the guy who serves as his own attorney . . . i.e., he has a fool for a client." That doesn't mean that people who book their own travel are stupid. It does mean that they simply don't understand the booking process.

To validate this theory I have begun asking "self-bookers" why they don't use a travel professional to  book heir travel. Most of the people I have spoken with give a strong argument for self-booking based upon their underlying assumptions. It would be nice if these underlying assumptions were correct.

The number one reason given to me by "self-bookers" is that they save money by doing it themselves online. The second largest group of self-booker believe that they are avoiding paying booking fees if they use Travelocity, Expedia, or even a travel supplier's own website. Sadly, both of these are false assumptions. The truth is one rarely saves money by doing their own booking and virtually never get the best bang for their buck. 

Keep in mind a few truisms about finance. First, "You never get anything for nothing." The second is like the first and states, "You get what you pay for," and the third is, "If it seems to good to be true it probably is."   I'll bet you have used each of these expressions at some point in your life.

That third one is a bit tricky when it comes to travel because you really have no way of knowing if
the price is a good value or not. Price is  not always, in fact seldom is, an indication of value. Price tells you about cost not value. I believe what most "do-it-yourself" bookers are trying to achieve by doing their own booking is getting the best value for their dollar. The fallacy is they equate price with value. That is, the cheaper the price the better the value. If you think about it for a minute you'll realize that while it sounds good it simply is not true.

There is a relationship between price and value but it is not what you may suppose. Value is tied to your expectations. It answers the question, "What am I going to get for the money I spend and does it meet my expectations?" When you get what you want/expect for as good a price as you can then your value per dollar goes up. People who can't appreciate the quality sound of a Bose sound system are not getting value for whatever amount  the spend on a Bose System.

Here's where the value of the Travel professional comes in handy. Sit down with your Travel Agent
and explain what you want in a cruise or resort vacation. What level of service are you expecting? Talk about the kind of people with whom you prefer to travel. Do you like crowds? What do you want included?  What are the best places to visit while in port? How much is your vacation budget? These and other questions when truthfully answered will enable a travel agent to find a cruise or land vacation that will give you the best value for your dollar. It may or may not be he cheapest cruise  but it will be the best value for your budget.

A good Travel Agent will know whether the price being paid is a good value or not in relationship to what you are buying.  For example, if you want to  book a cruise for an anniversary celebration. You go online and you find a booking site and you fill in the blanks (Date of travel, port of embarkation, destination and duration of trip and occasion) and hit the search button. A page opens and says, "Please wait while we find your cruise vacation."  After a moment or so up pops a list of all the cruises leaving from your selected port. Prices run for a 7 night Carnival fat $799 per person to a 7 night Azamara cruise for $2699 and about four other cruise lines between those prices. Which one is the best value? The answer is, the one that gives you the biggest bang for your buck and comes closest to meeting your expectations. That may not be the cheapest or the most expensive.


The second misunderstanding is that you save money doing it yourself because you don't have to pay a travel agent. The truth is that you do not save money doing it yourself. How is that possible you ask?  It's really pretty simple. Let's say you booked the $799 Carnival cruise mentioned above and you did it through a travel agent. What do you think the cost to you is going to be? If you said $799 you'd be right. If on the other hand you book that same cruise through Expedia or Travelocity what would be your cost. If you said $799, again you'd be correct.

The price is the same.  The cruise lines build into their pricing and amount equal to about 17% of the price you pay less what they call NCF's for that cruise as commission because that is what they pay sellers of their cruises between 10-17% based upon volume of sales.  Hence, since I am not a large volume Carnival Travel Agent they, not you, would pay me about $49 for that cruise. However, because Travelocity is a large volume seller of their cruises the would get about $83.30. I might add that this is also true if you use one of Carnival's Personal Vacation Planners. PCP and paid on commission just like a private travel agent or an online booking site. Regardless of how you book your cruise your cost is the same.

You say "Wait a minute neither of those amounts equal the percentages you mentioned. That is correct. Because nearly all cruise lines subtract from the total cost of the cruise an amount they call non-commissionable funds (NCF's) the actual commission is much smaller than one might think. Commissions are paid on the remainder after NFC's are deducted. It is a bit more complicated than that but suffice it to say what is significant to you is that you will pay the same either way.

BTW: If you book directly online with the cruise line (No agent, no PVP, no online booking company) you are paying the cruise line for the privilege of doing all the work. The commission amount as a part of the purchase price is on top of what the cruise line must receive to make their predetermined profit per cabin. So by doing it yourself on their website you are literally paying too much for your cruise vacation by returning the commission amount to the cruise line.

Truth is most Travel Agents can almost always beat an online price for a cruise or packaged trip. For example, I received a call just today inquiring about a particular Carnival cruise that showed up on the online booking agencies page as $1093 for an inside cabin. Because I noticed where they lived I was able to offer them either that inside cabin for $749 or  a balcony for the cost of that inside cabin they were considering.  Either was they got more value for the money they spent.  Travel agents really can and will save you money.

However, I rarely try to beat the online price because I know you are looking for a special kind of vacation when you buy a cruise vacation. Truth is, you really don't want the cheapest available cabin. What you really want is the best value you can get for the money you have to spend and that's where your Travel Agent will prove to be invaluable. Working together we can get you a great cruise at a price with which you can live.

So, am I going to tell you not to book your own cruise or resort vacation online. . . no, I am not. I am going to ask you, "Why you would want to book your own cruise or resort vacation when you could have the help of an expert without any additional cost." After all, booking is a mechanical process but selecting the right destination, duration and kind of trip for your needs at a price within your budget is another story.


By the way, not all Travel Agents work in a Travel Agency Store Front Business. In fact some of the best Travel Professionals I know actually work from their home offices. I know, I myself, now do most of my work from my home. When looking for a quality Home Based Travel Agent look for the OSSN logo. This indicates that they belong to an association of professional travel agents committed to continuously improving their skills. Remember, the internet is for looking but the travel agent is for making a choice and then booking your vacation.














Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Great Place for a Family Beach Vacation

I recently made mention on my Texas Cruise and Travel Facebook Page that I spent a few days in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area of Florida as a guests of some of the area hotels and Rob Price of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. This region is located on the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida and is characterized by its white sand beaches which are some of the most beautiful in the country.

I will tell you up front that if your looking for a Spring Break atmosphere this IS NOT the place for you. However, if you are looking for a great place for a family beach vacation it may well be one of the best kept secrets in vacation travel. Hotels, are well appointed and more importantly, as a rule are children friendly. You need to keep in mind that while you can have alcohol on the beach you may not take it off of the resort at which you are staying's beach or property.

While in the area I had an opportunity to visit a number of properties that I believe would be perfect for a family vacation regardless of how your family is put together. All of these properties are located on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach and all of the properties I will mention have their own beach areas. So, whether your staying in one of the large properties like the Trade Winds or its more quaint neighbor, the Post Card Inn, your going to have access to a marvelous beach. Since God made the beaches I will not give any credit for them to the hotels. Just understand that all of the hotels have great beaches.

The largest, and in my view the most upscale of the hotels was the TradeWinds Island Grand Beach Resort. It is a complete resort with all the amenities you would expect from a 4+ star hotel. But, because I have a grand niece who has Asperger's I was excited to from Karen Lumpkin that this resort welcomes these children.

Not only are the welcome there but the resort provides programs for them as well. Here is a place where families with Autistic children can have a family vacation without being constantly concerned about that special needs child disrupting other guests. For me, this was a big plus. Great facilities, great food, and great service to go with a great beach.

Another really nice property is the Sirata Beach Resort. This is another fairly large property and according to Stephanie Alexander is privately owned. The rooms are well appointed and designed so that you could do much of your meal preparation right in the room. These a large and spacious rooms with multiple outlets for all your electronic devices. The TradeWinds has all the amenities you'd expect at a 3-4 star property. This is one of the few really nice properties that according to



The Sirata has a great stand alone dinning facility called the Compass Grille. If it's on the menu I really do recommend the shrimp tortellini. Actually, while the menu is limited the food is excellent and you don't need to stay at the resort to eat there.

A third resort that I was impressed by was the Post Card Inn on the Beach. It was not so much the facility itself that got my attention as it was the people working there. I could not help but notice as I walked the property a n umber of employees who were physically or mentally challenged. In speaking with Diane Dove I learned that it was part of the resort's employment policy to include on their staff a number of these kinds of people. This, for me was a big plus for me. It is the kind of social conscious thinking I'd like to see across the industry.


The facility itself is not as up-to-date as the previously mentioned properties. The property calls itself a boutique property and I guess it is. However, to me at least,  it appears to be more like a very large motel on the beach. Rooms are nice, comfortable, fairly well appointed and affordable. It is a great place for a very active family. Again, it has everything you need for a family beach vacation. In fact, of all the properties I visited this one had the best beach of them all.  In fact, I had breakfast on the beach at the Post Card Inn and must say I was not disappointed.

Truth is a tasted the food at all three of these properties and was not disappointed at a single one. All of them offer dine-in opportunities and have facilities (rooms) that allow you to do some meal preparation on your own. They all have pools and beach bars and food huts. Like I said, any one of these three properties would make a great family beach vacation headquarters.

But there is more to the area than just beaches, as if that were not enough. There are museums such as the Salvador Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection. Both make for an interesting break from the beach.



There is one other thing that I recommend that you do as a special event during your stay in the area. I highly recommend the Starlight Sapphire Dinning Yacht. I did a two hour luncheon/site seeing cruise and was not disappointed. While the billing said luncheon the mean was more like dinner. It was outstanding and as good as any I've had elsewhere and I have done the dinner cruises in Galveston, New Orleans, Sydney and at half the islands of the Caribbean. The price was reasonable for the meal and excursion.








Friday, November 8, 2013

Are You A Chronic Over Packer?

Does the guy at the left look familiar? He should because he is in every airport and on every cruise ship I've ever seen.

I am one of those guys who can throw a few things in a back pack and I am ready to be off on my next adventure. However, for the past 48 years I have been married to a woman who defines the phrase "over packer."  I have lugged large suit cases through airports all around the world.

By definition an over packer is anyone who packs their suitcases with items the never use on their trip. This over packing is usually the result of too many "what if's."  What if it rains; what if it turns cold; what is we get delayed. Over packers are not bad people. If anything they are worried people who are simply trying to cover all the possible eventualities,  The trouble is you end up lugging around a bunch of stuff you never unpack let alone use.

Today I want to share a few tips about packing for a trip. 

Naturally the length of the trip and the kind of travel you are doing will inform what kinds of things you need to pack. You'll pack differently for a cruise than an all-inclusive resort. You'll also pack differently for a road trip than you would a flight.

I suggest that before you start to pack you consider the nature of your trip and create a packing list made up of the things you will need and cannot get at your destination.

1. However, regardless of the kind of trip I am taking I always start with a back pack. This is my essential ingredient and emergency kit. It will contain my basic medications and toiletries as well as a change of clothes including extra underwear. It will also have all my travel documents.  Sometimes, instead of a back pack I will use a business style carry-on. By starting here you force yourself to think small and essentials.

2.When packing your suitcase you should focus on things that can be worn more than once. With the exception of formal wear the rule of thumb for packing is Only Pack Things That Can Be Worn More Than Once. If it can't be used more than once and it is not needed for a function leave it at home. Focus on packing things that can be mixed and matched and worn a few times on your trip. Try to keep most of your clothes within the complimentary color schemes.

3.  Always Pack More Tops Than Bottoms. No one is likely to notice if you wear the same pair of jeans every day as long as you have a different shirt on the top. Try packing only one or two pairs of pants (perhaps a pair of jeans and a pair of dress pants) and then re-wearing them with different tops.

4.  Ideally, you shouldn’t need to pack more than two pairs of shoes — one for walking/hiking/being active, and one for dressing up. Regardless, always limit yourself to no more than three pairs of shoes.  But if you’re doing a lot of walking, it can be good to pack two pairs of everyday shoes (or boots for colder climates) in case one pair gives you blisters. Wear the most comfortable shoes on the plane and pack the other pair.

5.  In our fast paced electronic age we need to question just how much electronic equipment is enough. Ask yourself, "Do you really need your laptop, tablet, digital camera, and smart phone on your trip? So many gadgets multitask these days that one or two should serve all of your needs. If you’re packing your laptop for a business trip, you might want to leave the tablet behind and use your laptop to watch movies or read e-books. Smart phones can connect to Wi-Fi and work like laptops for browsing the Internet and checking email — and a flexible keyboard can let you type as if you were on a real computer. Transfer your music to your phone and leave your iPod behind. These gadgets may not seem like they take up a lot of space, but they can add up when you factor in all the assorted cords and chargers.

6.  Don’t Pack at the Last Minute!  Plan all of your outfits ahead of time. Decide on one outfit per day (or per occasion, if you will need multiple outfits for each day). Don’t pack any more than what you need for each outfit. Last-minute packing generally leads forgotten essentials, and mismatched clothing. Start packing early so you’re not in a bind if a piece of clothing you need is dirty or you need to buy something for the trip. This also gives you time to trim down after you’ve started packing.  Keep in mind that if you don’t wear it at home, you’re probably not going to wear it on vacation, either. So, leave behind all of those clothes that don’t quite fit, aren’t your favorite color, or you just don’t like.

7.  Pack Half the Clothes and Twice the Money.  I don't know who said it first but they sure nailed it. Lay out the clothing and cash you plan to bring on your trip. Now pack just half of the clothes and double the money. The point is that people often over pack and regret bringing certain items of clothing, but no one ever regrets bringing extra money. You really won’t need as many clothes as you think!

8, So now that you've packed you back there is one more step. Look through the things you have chosen for your trip and pull out all the "what if" items.  This will probably reduce the items you take by 25%.  Do you really need those extra shirts? Shoes?
 
9.Remember, you may not pack liquid or gel substances in your carry-on unless they are in individual containers of 3.4 ounces or less and enclosed in one clear, quart-size, plastic, zip-top bag per passenger. Any larger containers of liquids and gels must be packed in your checked luggage.

 
So what's your packing tip?  Share it in the comment section below.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Don't Become A Victim of a Travel Scam


I have recently received a number of phone calls from some wonderful people who have fallen prey to the same travel scam. Now they are hoping I can salvage something of their money or somehow make their trip happen at no additional cost. I used to take a little time and see what could be done because I wanted to at least let them know someone feels their pain.  Now I just tell them to report it to the appropriate authorities and plan on kissing the money they have already paid goodbye.

These are not stupid or uneducated people. They are highly educated and in their fields are near the top but they are not travel experts and they are no match for the Scam Artist. Someone once said that anyone who served as their own attorney had a fool for a client. I would say the same to most of you "Do It Yourself" travel people.

I have learned over the years to visit my Doctor when I feel bad physically even though I may have a good idea of what the problem is because I want an expert's opinion; visit my accountant or financial advisor before making a financial decision of any importance not because I don't understand finance but because I want an expert's view of the opportunity or challenge; when I was a pastor and we decided to build a church we hired an architect . . . not because we didn't know what we wanted to build but because we wanted an expert to show us the best way to do it; and also when, as a pastor, Whenever I had an overseas mission I always turned to a Travel Agent to advise and help with the details.  In each and every one of these instances except one I had to pay a fee for service. What was the exception, Yep, the Travel Agent.

The best advise I can give you is when it comes to travel is "Use a trusted travel agent or travel
consultant." The cost is usually nil and never very much when there is a charge. Travel Agents are paid by the supplier of travel at a fixed percentage of a portion of the price you pay. Please understand, the commission the Travel Agents receives DOES NOT affect the price of your vacation! You will not save any money or get any additional perks by doing it yourself and not using an agent. All you do is forfeit the years of experience and the abundance of knowledge the Travel Agent has that will help enhance your travel experience.

You may be the world's best teacher, lawyer, doctor, brick layer etc. but what you are not is an expert in the travel industry and believe me it is a large and complex industry. I'll take this a step further and say that you are not a match for the Travel Scam Artist who makes his/her living cheating people every day  by selling bogus travel opportunities and club memberships.

Now there are plenty in the travel industry that would say that people who choose to go it alone should be left alone. As folks used to say, "They made their bed let them lie in it." They argue and with some merit that these folks who fall prey to one of these scams will just see that as further evidence that all Travel Agents are dishonest. I am sure that is the case with those people who cannot accept their own responsibility for their choices. Travel Agents are not Scam Artists!

However, I hate to be taken advantage of and I hate to see others so deceived by people who purport to be in the same business as myself. These predators give every legitimate Travel Agent a black eye. Granted, they are taking advantage of people who are looking for something for as near nothing as possible but they are also creating a false picture of the travel professional.

Travel Agents seek to save you money and at the same time arrange for you to experience a terrific Vacation and you may even find a Bon voyage gift waiting in your cruise cabin. The Scam Artist has your money and has moved on to his next victim. The Travel Agent is still there anxious to hear about your vacation and start planning your next trip. The Scam Artist hopes he doesn't accidently run into you somewhere else. The Travel Agents wants your business on a continuing basis and hopes to be counted as your friend. A Scam Artists takes as much of your money as they can and leaves you holding a bag filled with useless paper. A Travel Agents will answer your calls, do everything they can to see you have a great vacation and will help you solve any problems that come up with your trip.

Here is some advice: If your phone rings and you answer and there is a short pause followed by the sound of a ship's horn . . . hang up! You're about to be scammed. My wife suggests doing what she does, i.e., simply do not answer calls from numbers you don't recognize. This will reduce your exposure to virtually every kind of scam out there to almost zero. Seriously, if your suspicious don't answer. Let the caller leave a message.

Second, if you want to join a travel club a club choose one in your local community that friends recommend. If there is not one then work with a Travel Agent you know and trust to create a Travel Club.

Third, stay way from travel clubs/groups out of town/state companies that hold meetings in hotels and at airports -- especially those offering a great deal if you sign up today. I am not saying they are all scams but I am suggesting the chances of legitimacy are not very high. In this electronic age these people know what you like and buy. They may actually know more about you than you do. This enables them to tailor their scam to make it easier for you to take the bait. Once the bait is taken you'll discover they are experts at setting the hook and reeling in your checkbook and credit cards. If they ask for cash or a Western Union money transfer or worse yet a pre-paid Visa card . . . don't just walk away, run! To quote a Kenny Rogers song, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, Know when to walk away and know when to run."

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true then it's probably a scam. Suppliers cannot stay in business by giving away their product and that includes travel suppliers.

Actually the best advise I can give you is to use a local travel agent or at least one that you know something about. There are a lot of reputable Travel Agencies and Agents and you should be able to find one quiet easily. Texas Cruise and Travel is one.



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What To Do At Your Port of Call.

I want to talk a little about shore excursions and shopping on a cruise but before I do I want to say right up front that it doesn't matter how experienced you are as a cruiser you should always use a Travel Agent. This is good advice even if you sail the same itinerary on the same cruise line every six months. You are always better off with a Travel Agent than you are on your own and in most cases it will not cost you a nickel more. I know at our agency you will never pay more for us to book your cruise than if you did it yourself and you get the benefit of our broad cruise experience. So why wouldn't you use a Travel Agent?

AS long as your on the ship (Sea Days) the choices of what to do are pretty much confined to what the particular cruise ship you are on offers. There is relaxing on the balcony, unwinding in the SPA, frolicking on the Lido Deck, drinking at one or all the bars, gambling in the Casino, and etc. Then comes the anticipated shore days when virtually everyone leaves the ship and scatters across the Port of Call on shopping and sightseeing excursions.

Now every passenger is confronted with the question, "If we go ashore, what are we to do. Will we shop; will we take an excursion or tour; or will we just leisurely wander around on our own?"  This is where on the day before we arrive in our first Port of Call the daily cruise bulletin and the public address system reminds us of the shore excursion meeting in the theater.

Everyone who has ever taken a cruise and particularly those who regularly sail on what we in the
industry publically refer to as Contemporary Cruise Lines and privately call Mass Market Cruise Lines have at least heard of the Shore Seminar/Lecture if not participated in them. This is that time when the Cruise Director or their representative gathers all the cruise Newbies and first time destination passengers in a salon or theater to share information about the next port.

These meetings are usually divided into two segments. The first segment will be led by a Port Lecturer. Ordinarily this individual will provide you with some very helpful information about the port you are about to visit. He/she will talk about local culture, history, traditions, customs and places to see.  He/she will most likely also give you some very helpful safety information. This information can be very helpful.

In my experience this presentation will be followed by a representative from the shore excursion desk promoting the various excursions that can be purchased aboard the ship. This is often coupled with a warning about the "non-cruise line" recommended excursions.

Both of these can be useful, especially to the first time cruiser who doesn't know anyone who is an experienced cruiser who can help them avoid common mistakes. However, don't confuse the Shore Lecturer with the Shore Excursion Desk presenter. One is the purveyor of useful information and the other is a sales pitch with a thinly veiled warning that if you don't use the cruise line contracted tour people you (1) may not get back to the ship in time and WILL be left or at best get a second rate tour and at worst you might get scammed or even robbed.

I recommend making discovering your ports of call a part of you cruise experience. By that I mean, take the time to research (read-up) on where you are going. Ask your travel agent about shore excursions. Some places you're better off on your own in other instances a driver and/or guide are a better choice. Usually your Travel Agent can help you know which is which. Your Travel Agent can also help you decide when a company that specializes in shore excursions (Shore Trips and Shore Excursions) can offer you a better choice.

Once the Shore Lecturer is finished and the Cruise Line Shore Excursion Desk person has returned to their posts the Cruise Director will introduce their shopping guru. This is the person with the little map with numbers on it that correlate with the names of shops listed on
the back. Ostensibly this persons job is to point you toward reliable shops where the prices will be fair, the service courteous and the cruise line will help you if you have a problem with the products you purchase. They will also point out the shops where you get a free gift or drink if you mention you ship.

Be advised that this person is a paid employ either of the cruise line itself or the shops that will get special recommendations. Their job is not to keep you from being cheated but to point you toward shops with which either they or the cruise line have a financial arrangement (something akin to kick-backs). There is usually a coupon for a free drink or a drawing that you turn in at the shop. This is how they know which cruise line and/or representative referred you to their shop.

Don't misunderstand me at this point. I am NOT saying the shops recommended by the Shopping Guide are risky or to be avoided. On the contrary they are usually reputable shop owners and as a rule you'll get pretty good prices and service. By the way, many of these shops are owned by the same company even though they appear to be independent shops. For example, in the Caribbean Diamonds International owns nearly all the jewelry shops on the cruise line's recommended shops). I simply want you to be aware that the person making the recommendations actually has an interest in your shopping those businesses. There are other shops and businesses that are equally legitimate and may actually offer you better prices for the same quality.

Recently, the State of Alaska has taken action to force the cruise lines and shops to let you know that these shopping experts are paid employees and work for the shops or the cruise line recommending them. That is that there is a financial link between the presenter and the shops recommended. Check it out on Cruise Critic.

Shore excursions can be the source of some great experiences and wonderful memories. Just be aware that you do have choices. It is precisely at this point that your Travel Agent can be an enormous asset.

BTW- we would love to have you visit us on Face Book at Texas Cruise and Travel.





Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Woman's Day Magazine Actually Published That?

My wife has been a reader of Woman's Day Magazine since before we were married. Not only has she been a reader of that magazine I sold that magazine for many years through my relationship with the Safeway grocery chain in years past. It is always been a reliable and respected source of popular and useful information. Truth is, I confess. that I have perused its pages myself. In fact, that's exactly what I was doing when I came across an article under the heading of  Travel Smart: Trip Planning Pointers - 10 Things Travel Agents Won't Tell You by Anne Roderigue-Jones.

Ms. Roderigue-Jones did with 10 bullet points what reading a magazine beginning in the 1970's was not able to do . . . . Get me to throw a magazine in the trash with disgust. However, 30 minutes later I found myself digging through that same trash to retrieve the magazine. I just could not believe what I had read and had to take one more look.

As I reread the article I realize this poor woman knows absolutely nothing about which she is writing and what information she has came from Online Travel Agency owners. I say that because I don't want to accuse her of deliberately distorting and/or outright falsifying information. There is so little in her article that is actually true as to brand the whole thing as a lie.

After reading and re-reading  the article I just couldn't let it go. I thought, some of my clients will read this and because it is in a reputable magazine might actually believe this lunacy. I just need to say a word or two or three or more about what Anne Roderigue-Jones has said.

So, here are the real facts:

The article begins with the outright accusation that travel agents deliberately inflate the cost of travel in order to boost their already sizable commissions and that they often receive bonus commissions for so doing.  The only thing accurate in her assertion is that most travel agents received commissions on sales made. However, you would hardly call them sizable.

For example, as I write, I can book you on a seven day  Carnival cruise for December 1, 2013 out of Galveston,Texas on the Carnival Magic in the category 1-A room at  a cost of about $900 for two people. My commission will be $54 or about 7%. This is hardly a major commission and there are no bonuses or prizes or free trips or bonus points to be accumulated. And, just so you know, booking online yourself  with an OTA will not save you the $54 since the commission is already factored into the fare by the cruise line. Instead, the OTA gets it. If you book directly with the cruise line they just pockets it themselves. In a sense you are paying them for the privilege of booking online.

If  MS  Cambridge, the lady mentioned in the article, received a fur coat for selling an Alaskan cruise it was because some supplier was having an incentive promotion. She had to have sold a minimum number of Alaska cruises in a fixed period of time.  (I've never actually heard of one of these) and did not impact the price of the cruise. It really made the point because several thousands of other travel agents sold Alaskan Cruises at that very same time (whenever it was) that didn't get a prize. Instead they got a small commission.

 When it comes to airlines she has it wrong again. The only travel agency that can book directly with the airline are those agencies who hold and International Air Transportation Association memberships. You cannot use Cruise Lines International Association enumeration number (CLIA) or a Travel Retailer Universal Enumeration number (TRUE) to book directly with any airline. Additionally, airlines do not pay commissions to Travel Agents. Travel Agents who book air do so as a courtesy to their clients and may or may not charge a small fee.  In most cases a TRUE or CLIA registered travel agent will work with a trusted supplier to put together a vacation package that includes air. Some of these pay commission on air and some do not.

Her third assertion is ridiculous on it's face.  No one, and I mean absolutely no one, has visited every property available to the consumer. Virtually all online hotel booking sites use Hotels.com's data base. Online travel agencies, commonly referred to as OTA's, list as many as 90,000 properties in their database.  Some even list more and in many cases are using the very same database that your travel agent is using. However, your travel agent will have in all likelihood have visited many of the properties that they recommend. As a result they know firsthand what the property is like. They are not going to steer you to a bad property or an overpriced property because they would like to have your repeat business. They will not get you a room facing the cemetery either unless of course that's what you want.

The need for flexibility is self-evident but not always possible. Besides, if you have a more than point-to-point flight you had better be very careful that you don't wind up with a seven or eight hour layover or find yourself arriving in a foreign country at 2 AM in the morning and and nothing is stirring except a mouse in the airport The OTA may get you a low price but not the best deal. It might be the cheapest price but it may take you hours longer to get where you're going .

She follows this is by virtually suggesting that you shouldn't even consider buying travel insurance since you have a credit card and you have health insurance. What she doesn't bother to tell you is that with travel insurance companies health care is paid at time of service but with your insurance company you have to submit invoices for reimbursement. If you get a serious illness of a foreign country you have to pay for it upfront.  I don't know about you but I don't generally carry that kind of money around with me. Come to think of it of I don't have that kind of money to carry around. I'm betting you don't either. However, I do suggest you check with your health insurance carrier, your insurance companies and your credit card companies and find out what their policies are how they operate before you purchase additional insurance is just the smart thing. Just remember that Medicare does not pay for services rendered outside of the United States or it's territories.

She also mentions "Milestone" trips (anniversaries etc.). When it comes to milestone trips she suggests using a Travel Agent. However, if  you've done everything that she suggested this far you might as well go ahead and take the risk and do your own milestone trip because there will be no travel agents left to help you with it .  Even Jeff Wasson the owner of Gusto.com, a travel related company, suggests that for complicated travel arrangements an agent is needed.

Do OTA's offer refunds for cancellations?  You'll  get no argument from me about what they say in their policies about refunds. However, I can tell you that you might get an argument from the people who have called me trying to get help in taking advantage of those policies.  As one lady told me, "They gave me an 800 number and said call Barclay they handle all our refunds." Barclay is an insurance company that underwrites the travel insurance for suppliers such as cruise lines, OTA's, and package vacation companies.

Far more could be said but suffice it to be said, "Go ahead and book your trip online, use your Groupon, schedule your flights . . .  be a "do-it-yourself" traveler if you're confident you know what you are doing."  I hope you get what you think your paying for but be aware when the flight is canceled, or you miss a connection or the in-country representative doesn't show up or your driver speaks only what to you sounds like gobbly-goop call your OTA and see what happens.   If you have the time and are of the disposition to do a lot of research and if you're comfortable comfortable with being in strange places without any support then "go for it."

Seriously, let me make a suggestion. It is your vacation, holiday or trip and you need to be involved. If you have the time and the disposition for it do your research. Then, if you find something that appeals to you  take it to your Travel Agent and ask them to look at it, make suggestions and help finalize the trip. If you don't find anything then sit down with your Travel Agent and have a conversation. I promise, they want you to have the trip of a lifetime every time and there is no good reason for not taking advantage of their expertise.

 Someone much wiser than me said that anyone who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. I'd apply that to travel as well.



Friday, June 28, 2013

Where Do You Turn For Travel Advice?

Are you one of those people who before you decide on a vacation type or destination do a lot of personal research. Are you someone who wants to know what others are saying about it.

Often we will talk to friends but many, if not most, will turn to the Internet. After all, "if it's on the Internet it has to be true."  Cruisers will turn to a website like Cruise Critic where they will find reports on the various ships and destinations and most importantly reports of the experiences people like them have had on a particular cruise.  Others might turn to Trip Advisor where folks (myself included) make regular reports about our experiences at destinations, resorts, hotels, restaurants etc.

Let me up front acknowledge that I visit these site regularly to see what people are saying. However, because I have been around a while I know that just because it is on the Internet does not mean it is true or that any one review represent what is normally experienced by folks at a destination, resort or cruise. Keep in mind that these sites are tools and like any tool you need to know how to use it. Used properly they can help you and your Travel Agent plan the perfect vacation. When used improperly they might cause you to miss out on a great vacation.

 Now, having said that I want to make a few suggestions on how you should use these tools that the Internet has placed at your disposal.  

The first thing I do is look at the date on the latest three evaluations. It's really pretty simple. If the dates of the latest opinions is an old date then the opinion is an old opinion. That is,  it is out of date and may reflect a condition that at the time was accurate but no longer exists. So my first rule of thumb is that you make sure the date of the review is reflective of what is going on today not a year ago.

Pay attention to the number of reviews for your event. One or two reviews is totally inadequate for making a decision. This is especially true if they are made on or near the same date. When you have a bunch of opinions within a short time period it usually means that a supplier is either hyping their product or being critical of a competitor's product.  Another possibility is that it is a lot of people who, lets say were on the same cruise that went bad but certainly does not reflect what is normal for that particular cruise. Personally, I want to see a dozen or more entries from a variety of people living in different parts of the country.

Always keep in mind that people who are disappointed or angry over something are more prone to say something that people who are happy. People who perceive they have been "short-changed" will tell 25 people where as people who are happy with their experience will only tell 5 people. Translated to the Internet you can count on unhappy travelers to report their opinion more often and in more places that those with happy experiences. You should also understand that what might leave one person disappointed may be exactly what another is expecting.

 Another thing to consider is whether all the reviews are critical or they are positive. No vacation product has ever pleased all the people all the time. So I suggest simply disregarding or skipping over those. I'd also look askance at any set of reviews that sound too much alike.

I am not suggesting that you not use these resources. To the contrary, I encourage you to seek opinions  from as many sources as you can. Tell your friends what you are contemplating and ask their opinions.  Go to the above mentioned websites and see what others are saying about what you are thinking of doing on your vacation. However, the most important piece of advice I can give you is that while you are doing all this research you also consult with a travel agent/consultant. They usually know these travel suppliers or they know how to find out what the real story is on a given vacation supplier. You travel agent can help you find your way through this maze of positive and negative information you've found on the Internet. They can help you choose a vacation that will fit your needs and offer you the best opportunity for a great vacation. Many of them have actually done what you are thinking of doing or been where you are considering going and thus have personal experiences upon which they can draw. Trust me, because they want your repeat business they will never intentionally steer you in the wrong direction.

So, the bottom line is this, even if you want to do all that research USE A TRAVEL AGENT to book your cruise.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Trade Shows & Forums

Because I have a limited amount of money to spend on trade shows and travel forums I have traditionally limited myself to two major events. I try and attended at least one OSSN sponsored Home Based Travel Agent Forum and Trade Show and one CLIA Cruise3Sixty.

These two events fit the bill for my needs.  That, however is changing. The Home Based Agents Forums has, while embracing technology, remained true to its constituency, i.e, the travel agent. The forum meets most of my needs for meeting suppliers, networking and learning the trends in the various travel sectors.

Hence, the forum with its classes, seminars, workshops, panels and speakers are relevant to what I do as a travel consultant. The Trade show allows me to speak with the suppliers whose products I promote and sell as I discover new suppliers and trade support companies. The only thing missing is a strong cruise line representation and CLIA certified courses both of which I personally would like to see present.

CLIA on the other hand has embraced technology but not to enhance the Travel Agent and Cruise Consultants experience. They have embraced it for convenience, efficiency and cost cutting.

To be sure they still have the Trade Show, the classes, and the dinners. What they no longer have is the in person ship inspections. Instead all ship inspections will be virtual (virtual is just another word for "not real"). Just send me the tour on a USB Flash Drive and I'll view it at my convienence and as often as I like.

A virtual ship inspection is the next best thing to an actual ship inspection. However, you only want the next best thing when the best thing is no longer doable. It's like having a virtual girl friend. She looks good but she has no real personality and you can't really interact with her. In the case of CLIA that means no more "onboard" ship inspections. It means that cruise3sixty, perhaps the most popular and successful industry specific trade show created gives way to cruisExcellence and virtual ship inspections.

What does that mean to me, the cruise consultant/travel agent. It means that by-in-large the spending of my hard earned cash on airfare, hotel, meals etc. is no longer necessary. From now on, when it comes to learning about cruises and the various cruise ships I'll rely on personal cruises, virtual ship inspections on CD or USB Flash Drives. It means instead of needing a classroom in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, or Vancouver I'll just take the course online, attended a local class or go to a particular cruise lines' travel agent website.

The only thing that I see remaining at these events of any value that can't be obtained in other places at a more leisure pace is personal face-to-face networking. But I've solved that problem I'll just attend two OSSN sponsored Home Based Travel Agent Forums and Trade Shows instead of just one.

I suggest that if the cruise lines want their sales reps, BDM's and corporate people to actually meet and influence the people actually selling their product and not just the CEO of some hosting agency, OTA or Consortium who don't sell or service a single product themselves they best get a booth at one of these shows.

Some will say that the Virtual Ship Inspections are better than the "In Person" Ship Inspections because the agent will see "all" the features of the ship. My answer to that is that what the agent will see is a sterile view of the ship and a crew who know they are on parade. By personally boarding a ship for an inspection the agent gets a "feel" for the entire guest experience. We not only learn about the features of the ship but we get to first hand observe how the crew relates to guests, the quality of the food, the accessibility of services and, most importantly, which of our clients best fit a given ship.

The virtual tour does not give a true picture of the sights and sounds of a ship. It only shows the structure. One cannot assume the value of the wine simply because it is in a pretty bottle. Just as the wine must be tasted to learn its value, the ship has to be personally experienced to truly know what a cruise experience on a given ship should be.

So, the long and the short of the matter is that I'll see my fellow Travel Agents in Orlando in October at the Home Based Travel Agent Forum and Trade Show October and will skip the cruisExellence there in June.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Balcony Is You Best Cabin Value

There is an illusion out there that at Texas Cruise and Travel we are all
about and only about cruises. Truth is we do know a lot about cruising but it is not all we are about. Just so you know, we are also all about all-inclusive vacations as well. We are Texas Cruise and Travel because we intended to use the initials for our name in all our promotion but someone beat us to the TC&T and besides it sounds like a railroad. However, just to be clear our business is pretty evenly split between cruises and all-inclusive vacations.

Today I want to talk cruises . . . not just cruises in general but cabin choices. Now, right from the start let me say I have never had a bad experience on a cruise because of my cabin selection. Whether and inside cabin or a suite any cruise I get to experience is a good cruise.  

The choice of cabin is largely determined by what one expects in general from the particular cruise they are taking.  There are some people who on certain cruises should select an inside cabin. These are usually the least expensive cabins on the ship and provided the same basic creature comfort  Inside cabins are generally for single people who plan to do little more than bath and sleep in their cabin. It is for people who are on the ship more for the activities than the amenities. You get the basics in human comforts as you get in a suite. You get a room with a door that locks; a bed; a shower and toilet; a television; a small safe; and a few other creature comforts. Also, when you shut the door and turn out the light it is like sleeping in Carlsbad Caverns without the lights on . . . it is dark than a thousand midnights. So, if you don’t like it that dark, leave the light on in the toilet.

At the other end of the spectrum is the suite. These are large spacious cabins with large verandas. They usually have a mini-bar . . . not the little refrigerator with a few drinks and nuts in it but a full fledged bar with a sink, wine glasses etc. The toilet is separate from the shower/tub and the tub often doubles as a Jacuzzi.  There is room for entertaining without the feeling of being in a sardine can. It is far more than a place to bathe, shave and slumber (sleep it off?). It is your private refuge where you relax and rejuvenate.

 So, you don’t want that cramped inside bungalow and you’re not ready to drop a dime on that luxury suite . . . what to do. Do what I do . . . get a balcony cabin. Now it used to be that a balcony was twice the price of an ocean view cabin (An ocean view cabin is generally speaking an inside cabin along the hull of the ship with a window). By the way, these are a good alternative to an inside cabin for people short on cash and long on claustrophobia.  These days a window will cost you about a hundred dollars per person more than the inside cabin.

In my book the best buy on any cruise ship is the balcony (Veranda) cabin. It’s going to cost you about $15 per person per day more than the ocean view cabin (roughly $100 pp on a seven night cruise) but it’s going to give you everything you get in the inside cabin and about half what you get in a suite. What I am trying to say is that cost really should not be an issue in choosing a balcony cabin instead of one of the lower category cabins (inside or ocean view). Now if those best meet your other needs go for it but I’m here to tell you that a balcony cabin is your best cruise buy.

I cannot think of a seven days or longer cruise where a balcony isn’t the best choice (value). Trust me, the longer the cruise the more cramped that inside/ocean view cabin will become. You will discover, because of the balcony, you will spend more time in your cabin than you expected. Again, the longer the cruise the more you’ll find yourself enjoying that balcony.

It really doesn’t matter where you are going on your cruise a balcony is a good choice. However, it is an especially good choice if you are sailing where there is scenery. If you're sailing in the Mediterranean or any particularly scenic destination, the view is definitely worth the money. Even on an Alaskan cruise it's so refreshing to sit on your very own balcony watching the glaciers. Sitting on your very own balcony beats the fire out of standing on the rail of the Lido deck.  We often enjoy having breakfast on our balcony as the scenery passes. There is even something about having coffee on the balcony in the fresh sea air on sea days when land is out of sight.

 So take my advice, if you can make it work on your next cruise choose a balcony cabin. You’ll be glad you did.

Let me make a suggestion here that is totally aside from choosing a balcony on a cruise ship. If you are already a balcony or suite person when it comes to cruising and if you really enjoy watching the scenery go by let me suggest that you consider a river cruise. There are paddle-wheeler cruises all over America (especially the Mississippi River system) and in a couple of years Viking River Cruises will be offering a European style river cruise on the Mississippi. 

Many ocean cruisers never come back to the big ships after they do a river cruise . . . just warning you . . . River Cruising is addictive.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dancing With The Stars Cruises

Watched a Barbara Walter's special on the all time greatest television programs. As I suspected the number one all time best televsion program as selected by one million voters was Lucille Ball's I Love Lucy Show. However, when it came to special categories the Reality TV category selection was Dancing With The Stars.

Dancing with the Stars is in fact one of the biggest television shows on earth, teaming celebrities and professional dancers to compete for the coveted mirror ball trophy.

Holland America Cruise Line has teamed with the ABC and the producers of the show to offer six "Dancing With The Stars Cruises" in 2013-14:
  • February 16, 2013 ms Eurodam, 7-Day Eastern Caribbean
  • June 22, 2013 ms Veendam, 7-Day Canada & New England
  • June 30 and July 7, 2013 ms Oosterdam, 7-Day Alaska
  • January 5, 2014 ms Nieuw Amsterdam, 7-Day Eastern Caribbean
  • January 12, 2014 ms Nieuw Amsterdam, 7-Day Western Caribbean
On these cruises guests will have the opportunity to learn the steps, meet the stars, and join in the fun. These theme cruises will feature “Dancing with the Stars” events including dance lessons; a chance to meet the dancers, ask questions and take photos; and a dazzling production starring celebrities and the famed dance pros, complete with glamorous costumes and routines from the TV show.

Currently scheduled to appear on select sailings are two-time champion pro dancers Mark Ballas and Kym Johnson; pros Tristan MacManus and Lacey Schwimmer; and some of your favorite celebrity competitors. Additional stars will be added.

This is a remarkable opportunity for fans of this show. However, there is only a limited number of those opportunities. In fact, one is already gone. We here at Texas Cruise and Travel can and are more than happy to put you on any of these cruises as long as cabins remain available. However, we have space reserved on the January 5, 2014 sailing that will offer special pricing and some added amenities to our guests.

One of the reasons Texas Cruise and Travel chose this particular cruise was to enable our guests to experience not only the Dancing with the Stars theme experience but also the newest of Holland America's cruise ships.

Nieuw Amsterdam, further defines and expands the Holland America Line premium brand with new concepts such as the innovative pan-Asian Tamarind restaurant and Silk Den lounge surrounded by panoramic views overlooking the ocean expanse and the Lido pool. Other additions are an Explorer's Lounge Bar, a premium wine-tasting lounge, an elegant luxury jewelry boutique, new atrium bar area, enhanced and reconfigured show lounge, and a new photographic and imaging center.The ship will continues several much-admired Holland America Line features, including outside-view, glass elevators at midship; the Explorations Cafe -- a cyber-coffee house powered by The New York Times; the Pinnacle Grill and Pinnacle Bar; the innovative Culinary Arts Center presented by Food & Wine Magazine, where culinary experts provide cooking demonstrations and intimate classes in a state-of-the-art onboard show kitchens; an expanded Greenhouse Spa and Salon with thermal suites and hydro-pool, the largest gymnasium ever built for Holland America Line; and a youth facility that includes the teens-only Loft. In addition the ship will feature the family-style Canaletto's Italian restaurant.

Just as we selected the ship for it's ameneties we selected the sail date for it's itinerery. This is an Eastern Caribbean cruise leaving from a easily accessible port. Our itinerery includes: Fort Lauderdale; Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Half Moon Cay, Bahamas.

You have a choice of booking into our group or as an individual booking. Only those who select our group pricing will receive the additional group amenities. Our group cabins are categories: Inside J & I; Ocean View F & E, DD, D, & C: Verandah VD & VC; Suites SY.  Prices start at $699* for an inside category MM cabin while our group prices start at $719* for a category J inside. Ocean View, Verandah and Suite cabins are available as well. Emal us for pricing. Every cabin in our group can accommodate up to 4 people. The 3rd & 4th person in all categories is $699 per person.

Visit our Facebook event page for more information and to indicate your interest in this or any other Dancing With The Stars cruises. To book now or get more information email us at Texas Cruise and Travel.

Visit our website for additional vacation opportunities.


*Prices are per person, for cruise or cruisetour only, based on double occupancy. Price reflect best fares available for each stateroom on one date that this itinerary is available, from a snapshot taken in the last 24 hours for staterooms in each category. Changing the dates may change prices. Prices do not include Government Fees & Taxes. Pricing and availability subject to change without notice. Stateroom availability varies by ship and category. Images shown are representative of a stateroom in that category. Room measurements are approximated, and rooms in the same category may vary in size and/or have different furniture placement, windows or fixtures from those pictured.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

One Great Cafe: Da Wabbit

Spent a couple of days in New Orleans this past week and as usual had a great time.  I did so without even stepping foot in the French Quarter. In fact as close as I got to the French Quarter was to view it from the freeway. Contrary to most people's thinking the French Quarter is not all there is to New Orleans.

Did get down to the River though. Took a quick tour of the Chalmette Battlefield where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. While not far from the city center it is inconvenient to the average tourist it is worth the little extra effort to visit. There is also a Civil War era cemetery on the battlefield grounds.
Also saw the Malus-Beauregard House built sometime between 1833 and not to be confused with the Beauregard-Keyes House in the French Quarter was the home of the son of confederate general P.T. Beauregard. It is empty now from flooding from Katrina. It is amazingly small by mansion standards.
 
By the way, if you find yourself in New Orleans and only have a couple of days don't miss the World War II Museum. This is one of the most informative and interesting WWII museums anywhere in the world. Even if you have been to the museum in the past you'll want to see it again as the museum has opened two new buildings. The US Freedom Pavilion houses a number of WWII planes and a submarine experience that is unbelievable.
 
But what I want to talk about is found on the West bank of the river where tourist do not usually go.  There is a restaurant called Cafe 615 (Da Wabbit). Located on Kepler Street "Da Wabbit" opened shop in 1949, and has been slinging hash ever since. For most of its was better known as a bar with card games in the back rooms than for its food. The current owners took over  performed a serious renovation to the interior, fixed the neon sign and turned it into a great place to eat.
 
This Cafe, I know the sign says "drive-in" but trust me it's not and you'd better arrive early because it is going to be packed.  While all the tourist are hitting the "famous name" restaurants the locals are flocking to this place. I've heard all my life that if you want to know where the best food is served follow the locals.  
We arrived about 5:00 p.m. and the place was already hopp'n. However, we were greeted by a friendly voice and a smiling face and seated almost immediately. The atmosphere is "down home" and relaxed. The most popular item on the menu appears to be the gumbo. However, I had the grilled catfish stuffed with crab meat and covered with a white wine brulee sauce. It was absolutely "the best!"  In fact, Tom Fitzmorris, a New orleans food blogger says of Da Wabbit, "It would be the Mandina's of the West Bank if Tony Mandina's weren't already there."
 
Often local restaurants aren't always friendly to "out-of-towners" and we often get the idea that they are places where only regulars are welcome, Da Wabbit is among the friendliest neighborhood joints in New Orleans. Believe me, you'll feel right at home.
 
By the way if you're accustom to ordering appetizer just order one. At Da Wabbit appetizers are huge and one order is enough for two people. Just saying, there are a lot of great places to eat in New Orleans and for my money Da Wabbit is one of them.