Five Reasons to Take a Fall Vacation

September 12, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Now that summer is over and the kids are back in school, this is the best time to start thinking about a fall vacation. But it doesn’t have to be a two-week trek to a whole different part of the world: Micro-cations are the new trend, so you could spend 3 – 4 days (a long weekend, really) and lay back and relax.

Maybe you can take a few days this October or November and spend it in a new city, enjoying the fall colors and cooler temperatures. Or if you live in Florida, you can head to the theme parks or the beach and enjoy the fact that the crowds have all gone back home.

Here are five reasons you should take a fall vacation (or micro-cation) for a few days.

1. The prices are lower for hotels and airfare.

Now that the peak travel season is over, the prices are lower for most vacation costs. You can get an airplane ticket for less than the summer prices, and your hotel costs are lower as well. This means you can stay an extra day, stay in a normally-more expensive hotel, or even fly at a more convenient time for the same amount you would have spent in the summer.

2. Fall vacation crowds are smaller.

Mackinac Island is a great place for a fall vacation.One of the best time to hit the Florida theme parks are right after school has started: all the kids are back in school, which means most corporate vacation seasons are also over. That means a smaller crowd inside the kid-friendly places. I can tell you that Wednesdays in October are thoroughly enjoyable in the Orlando theme parks.

It’s the same in all the other vacation attractions around the country: Museums tend to be a little less crowded, as are restaurants, sightseeing tours, and other tourist attractions. Lines and wait times are shorter and you can often get reservations at that hotel or restaurant you’ve been dying to try.

3. The temperature is more enjoyable.

Summers are plenty hot, which makes going outside a bit of a challenge. You have to stay plenty hydrated, and sometimes your day is just spent walking from shady spot to shady spot or spending the entire day inside for the air conditioning.

In the fall, the temperatures have cooled to a more manageable level, and you only have to put on a light sweater or even a sweatshirt to deal with the cooler days. It’s not so cold you have to wear a parka and mittens, so you can still enjoy your time outside.

4. There’s a bigger emphasis on relaxing.

When I was a kid, summer vacations were always about going somewhere and doing something. Even when we vacationed in Florida, we were always on the go. A day at the beach was hardly relaxing, because we had to drive there, fight for a spot in the sand, complain about the heat, wait in line for snacks, wait for a table at restaurants, and then whine about the sunburns and sand in our swimsuits. It wasn’t that fun, frankly.

With a fall vacation, I always feel more relaxed. Maybe it’s something about the lower temperatures, but it always makes me slow down. I’m more interested in going for a walk, especially in the woods. I can hang out, meander around a new city, or drive around and look at the leaves. Fall is more about seeing and enjoying, not rushing and doing.

5. It’s the last chance for a breather before the holidays.

Most of us have hectic, chaotic holiday seasons coming up: there are the different office parties, friends’ parties, and various different parties, shopping, and kids’ events you’ve got to attend. You can easily get overwhelmed with everything you have to do.

A fall vacation is the last chance to relax before the busy holidays begin, starting a week or two before Thanksgiving, and not ending until after the new year. Take a break at the end of October or early November, and spend a few days relaxing and taking it easy while you still can. That way, you won’t feel so wound up from summer vacation just as you start the silly season.

Are you going to take a fall vacation? Have you taken any, or would you take one? If you’re taking one this year, what are your plans? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Michael Sprague (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

How to Manage It When Your Flight Is Canceled

August 15, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

My wife and daughter flew to New York a few weekends ago to visit some family, and were meant to fly back on a Sunday afternoon. However, this was a weekend of major storms (there was flooding in Brooklyn!), and all the flights in the New York area were canceled on that Sunday evening.

After standing in line for a couple hours, all they could manage to get was a standby flight the following evening. They went back to my wife’s cousin’s and spent the day there again. They returned to the airport at the appropriate time, and it happened again: All the flights were canceled.

This was Monday evening, and my daughter had already missed a class and a day of work, and was about to miss another day of work on Tuesday.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue however. She drove up Monday night from Central Florida to Newark, New Jersey, arriving Tuesday evening. They turned around and drove back to Florida that night, getting home on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 60 hours after they were supposed to leave

Thunderstorms may require you to make other plans if your flight is canceled

Dark Night Thunderstorm Lightning Sky Storm

Given the crazy weather patterns, the way airlines fill up (and sometimes overbook) their flights, and the frequent occurrence of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — it’s a good idea to make contingency plans for your vacations and business trips, to ensure you don’t run into the same kinds of problems.

But you don’t want to start making contingency plans when you’re standing in a 3-hour line with the faint glimmer of hope of getting a standby flight. Here are a few things you should do to prepare your contingency plans in case your flight is canceled.

First, make sure you purchase travel insurance before your trip. Get it as soon as you book your tickets, in fact. If your flight or trip gets canceled due to natural disasters, it doesn’t cover you if you bought it after the natural disaster occurred. That is, if you buy travel insurance two days before you leave because a hurricane is just boiling up, you won’t be covered. You needed to buy the insurance well before the hurricane was even a tropical depression in the middle of the ocean.

Second, make sure you understand your passengers’ rights when a flight is canceled. You need to know things like the airline doesn’t “owe” you anything if it’s canceled due to weather or other events outside their control (riots, strikes, war)> But if it’s canceled because of something in their control (mechanical issues, plane change, crew shortage), they have to help you out: food vouchers, hotels, even switching to another airline. Be sure to review your rights so you know what you can ask for and what they won’t cover.

Next, consider booking your flight and vacation with a travel agent. This is not a more expensive option.

Let me say that again: It does not cost more money to book your plans through a travel agent. They get paid in commissions from the airline and hotels, you don’t pay them. If anything, they may save you a little money.

But if there’s a problem, you can get your travel agent to start working on it, and they can make other arrangements on your behalf. (Plus, if anyone needs to wait on hold for an hour or more, wouldn’t you like to skip that yourself?)

Install apps for your favorite rental car agency on your phone. When my wife first thought about driving home, she went down to the rental car agencies — she had to take a shuttle after standing in line for nearly two hours — and not only were the cars gone for the night, there was a 48-hour hold on renting out any more cars. But if she’d had, say, Enterprise’s or Hertz’s app on her phone, she could have booked the car as soon as the flight was canceled and still gotten one. Or she could have booked a car at a facility several miles away and caught a Lyft or Uber there.

Install your airline’s app too. When a flight gets canceled, it’s the responsibility of the airline to book you on the “next available seat.” And they’ll notify you by text or email when they do it, but you could also get notifications through your app. You might even be able to make some arrangements via the app, although don’t make that your first strategy. Maybe try that while you’re standing in line.

Speaking of standing in line, go to another gate to rebook your flight. When a flight gets canceled, a lot of people will run up to their original gate to get rebooked. But there’s nothing magical about that gate: Every gate in the airline is connected to the same system, so any agent at any gate should be able to help you. Leave your gate and walk to another one where the flight has just left, and ask them for help.

Note: Some airlines are going away from this model. My wife said that her airline would not provide that service and everyone from all the flights that had been canceled — and that was all of them — had to stand in a customer service line, which only had five people working at the desk. She waited for nearly two hours and there were 40 people in front of her. When she looked behind her, she estimated there were at least 150. So if you learn there’s going to be trouble, make a bee line for the customer service desk immediately.

If you find yourself in that situation, that’s the time to call the airline’s customer service hotline. Even if you have to wait on hold while you wait in line, do both. Either way, you’ve got both bases covered, and you’ll reach a real person.

Another thing my wife learned is that the airline will only match your flight with an identical flight. So if you have a direct flight, they will only put you on a direct flight. You can’t get a one-layover flight to a different city. For example, if your layover city is the place with weather problems, you could fly to a different layover city and get home from there. But if you flew a nonstop flight, they won’t do that for you. And the reverse is true: if you have a layover flight, they won’t put you on a nonstop flight.

Finally, don’t get upset at the agents helping you. These are not the people responsible for the weather, making the decision to cancel your flight, or the kink thrown into your plans. Yelling at them won’t make them find you a better solution, but I can tell you from personal experience that being kind and sweet to them will make them want to find you a solution as quickly as possible.

(I once watched a guy bellow at a gate agent, and she apologized but said she was not able to help him. At. All. When it was my turn, I was all sweetness and sunshine, and I got a ticket on an alternate flight right away.)

Bottom line: Don’t wait until you’re in a sticky situation before you start looking for solutions. Make a few arrangements beforehand, even if it’s working with a travel agent and installing a couple apps on your phone, so you aren’t trying to figure out what to do when you learn your flight has been canceled.

How do you cope with major disruptions to your travel plans? What are some of your tips and tricks? Tell us about them on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Maxpixels.net (Creative Commons 0)

Things You SHOULD Buy Before You Travel

June 27, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

While there are many things you can probably go without when you travel — miniature sleep tents for airplanes, battery-powered neck-warming pillows, airplane bathrobes — there are a few things you should have.

Smarter Travel recently published an article on seven things you shouldn’t buy before you travel, and I found myself disagreeing with about half of their items. The list includes:

  1. Travel insurance
  2. Private Passport Expediting Service
  3. Seat Assignment
  4. Prepaid Credit Cards
  5. Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrades
  6. TV Show Downloads
  7. Expedited Security

As a former road warrior turned frequent road tripper and couple-times-a-year flier, I think you’re making a big mistake if you follow this advice. There are a few items I absolutely insist on getting, and a couple items I could go either way. And, of course, there are some you should absolutely never, ever pay for. Ever.

To start with, I agree, you should not pay for private passport expediting services. You’re basically paying someone else to fill out a form and/or stand in line for you. You can pay for expedited service from the State Department anyway, which is what the private services are going to do. You can also get “life or death emergency” passport services. If you can do it yourself, do you really need to pay a few hundred dollars for someone else to do it?

I also agree you shouldn’t pay for TV show downloads, unless you’re already doing it. Download Netflix or Hulu episodes if you’re a subscriber (that’s included in your subscription), but don’t buy new episodes just for a trip. You’ve probably had plenty of items on your Netflix watchlist for many months if not years, so watch some of those. Save the purchased episodes for when you get home.

Skip prepaid credit cards, unless you can’t get your own credit cards. You should instead get credit cards that give you travel miles, so you can help pay for your next trip.

And the seat assignment thing is a little iffy. If you check in immediately 24 hours before your flight — like, right at 23:59:59 before you leave — you could probably get a good seat. However, just remember that there are people like me who purchase the Platinum-Economy Seat Upgrade, and I can reserve my seat when I book my ticket two months in advance. But if you’re on a less-popular flight or route, you’ll probably be okay.

You Should Absolutely Get These Before You Travel

However, I think you should get these things before you travel, especially if you fly more than once a year. (There are a few exceptions for each of these though.)

1. Buy travel insurance if you’re going on an expensive trip.
I don’t always get travel insurance, but there are plenty of times that I do. If nothing else, your travel insurance is going to help pay for any and all lost pre-paid tickets if you ever have to cancel or cut short a trip because of weather or illness.

Imagine saving up for a family vacation and canceling all those non-refundable airline tickets because someone got the flu two days before the flight. Sure you can recover or postpone the park/cruise/adventure tickets, but it’s a lot of hassle and time, not to mention the loss of any nonrefundable fees. Travel insurance can help you avoid all those headaches, and it’s not that expensive.

Check the different travel insurance options — and make sure you know what they cover and don’t cover beforehand — before you book your first ticket.

2. Get the platinum-economy seat upgrades.
As I’ve said before, I’m bigger than average. I need more legroom, but I don’t want to upgrade to business class. The Economy Plus (or whatever each airline calls it) is completely worth the extra costs.

The difference in seat pitch between Economy and Economy Plus may only be a couple of inches, but those couple inches mean the world of difference to me. I’ve spent two hours with my knees jammed up against the back of a seat, and I’ll change my entire itinerary before I ever do that again.

3. Pay for expedited security.

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

TSA security line at Denver International Airport

As the Smarter Travel article said:

Expedited security can be a really awesome perk when you’re faced with a lengthy line that snakes off into the distance. On the other hand, when there are three other people in line and the sound of crickets in the air, it can feel like a rip-off.

Even if you only fly once a year, expedited security is totally worth it. The cost for TSA PreCheck is $85 and it lasts for 5 years: $85 ÷ 5 = $17.

So your cost for having PreCheck is $17 per year. For a round-trip flight, that works out to $8.50 per trip. Would you pay $8.50 to not have to stand in line at security? I would.

I can tell you that never-have-I-ever been in a security line with only three people in it, but I’ve been in plenty of lines that snake off into the distance before. And there are some days where I would just pay 85 bucks to skip that line, let alone have five years’ worth of skipping.

If you’re a very infrequent traveler, or you’re small enough to fit into the regular economy seats, maybe you can skip these three “should buys,” but for the most part, I always recommend them to anyone who’s average height or above and flies at least once a year. Otherwise, take a good, long look at what you’re giving up, and see if the gains make up the possible headaches that will arise if something goes wrong.

What kind of “must haves” do you get before you travel? Are there any we can skip or items we should never leave the house without? Share your tips on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Do You Have to Switch Seats If Someone Asks?

May 23, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Several years ago, I was getting ready to fly to another city and had just boarded the plane. I had paid for an upgrade to an Economy Plus seat, because I like the extra legroom.

(Note: If you want to be able to board early, get a little extra legroom, and make sure you get a space for your bag in the overhead bin, upgrade to Economy Plus. You also get to choose your seat, ensuring you get your preferred seat. Totally worth it!)

I had booked my ticket and selected my seat two months earlier because I’m rather particular about which seats I get and don’t get. I’m a big guy, so I prefer an aisle seat. When the day came, I boarded the plane, found my seat, and settled in. This was a 5-seat row, with three seats on one side and two on the other.

Several minutes later, a grandmother and her two younger granddaughters came in. The girls, 9 and 11, sat in my row, and her grandmother was across the aisle in the window seat; her seatmate had not arrived yet.

“Would you switch with me?” the grandmother asked. “I bought these tickets, but I didn’t think they would split us up.” Airlines often split up passengers and charge fees for seat selection so you can sit together.

You may be asked to switch seats on a plane, but you don't always have to do it.“But I paid for an upgrade so I wouldn’t have a window seat,” I said. I felt like a bit of a jerk. After all, the woman wanted to sit with her granddaughters, which I understood. But there’s no point in paying for an upgrade if you’re still going to get stuck in what you tried to escape from.

I wasn’t sure what to do. It wasn’t like these were tiny children who needed adult supervision. And it’s not like she was at the back end of the plane. But I wondered if I was being selfish. Where was the line between “you should have selected your seats when you bought your tickets” and “when people ask for help, you help them?”

The day was saved, however, when the woman’s seatmate showed up. The grandmother explained what was going on, and the other woman agreed to switch with her so I could switch with the grandmother. Problem solved!

Should You Have to Switch Seats?

We were fortunate in this case. The seatmate was more than willing to be accommodating. She told me she actually preferred the window seat, and she was short enough that the legroom didn’t make a difference to her.

But there are other cases where two people traveling together want to sit together for the plane ride. And even though they’re going to spend every waking hour together for the next several days or weeks, they can’t bear to be more than 30 feet apart for a few hours.

In a recent travel etiquette article on SmarterTravel.com, Caroline Morse Teel tackled the question, Do you have to switch seats if someone asks?.

In short, Teel says no, you’re not required to switch seats (unless you’re specifically asked to do by the flight attendant), because you might be giving up a good seat for a terrible seat. As she said:

Even if you feel like being a good person, don’t agree to anything until you check out where the replacement seat is located. My stance is that the person looking to swap should always offer a seat change of greater or equal value to the person they want to switch with.

For example, if a couple is seated in two window seats and they want to be together, they should trade one of their window seats for a middle seat. If someone is asking you to switch your emergency exit row aisle seat for their back-of-the-plane middle seat, you can decline without feeling guilty. Simply explain that you selected the seat during the booking process and would prefer to keep it. Be polite but firm. You don’t owe any further explanation for your decision.

However, bear in mind that you might be sitting next to a very grumpy person for the next few hours. But they’re the ones who are seeking to inconvenience you, and you’re only choosing to not be inconvenienced for their sake. That’s not your fault or your problem.

What if you want someone to switch with YOU?

So what if the shoe’s on the other foot — or the plane’s on the other tarmac; this is a travel blog, after all — and you want someone to switch with you?

First of all, ask the other person if they would like to switch. Don’t just plop yourself down in the other seat so you can ask once they show up. The example on SmarterTravel came from a person who said she showed up at her seat and found the other person already in it, so she felt pressured to make the switch.

Don’t be that person though. Go to your already-assigned seat and ask the other person politely. Some people will get their hackles up if they feel they’re being pressured, or if you’ve already “stolen” their seat, and they’ll complain to the flight crew. You’ll be the one in the wrong, so you’ll be forced to move anyway and it can be embarrassing.

Second, be prepared to be generous. Remember, if you’re in an upgrade section, the other person paid to be there, so this isn’t just a question of buying someone a coffee or lunch. Some of those upgrades can be a couple hundred dollars, so you’d better make it worth their while.

Third, if the other person refuses, that’s their prerogative. Remember, you’re asking them to do you a favor, and it’s perfectly within their right to refuse. Sure, they’re being selfish, but it’s not like your request was for the greater good either. So be prepared for them to say no and don’t get upset with them for it: It’s going to be a long plane ride already, and you don’t need the tension and stress.

Have you ever been in this situation? How did you handle it? Do you have any other travel etiquette questions or your own stories? Share them with us on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream, and be sure to connect with us on Instagram.

Photo credit: Christian George (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons 0)

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