Sunday, August 24, 2008

Packing Light and Avoiding Excess Baggage Charges

Every day it seems, the airlines are figuring out new ways to charge us for things that used to be included in the price of the ticket. In-flight movies, earphones and food are old news. Easy enough -- bring your own. But how do you get around the new extra charges for checking bags? Not so easy.

Not every airline charges you to check a bag -- JetBlue and Southwest still don't, and even airlines that charge you for checking a bag from New York to Los Angeles don't charge you if you and your bag are on an international flight to Liverpool or Lima.
Here's how to avoid excess baggage fees --

Join the airline's frequent flyer program. Having miles in the 'bank' makes you a valued customer, and even if trying to redeem the miles is a miserable, frustrating experience, having them in your personal record can help you avoid the suitcase surcharge.

Pack light and take only what you can carry-on. You've heard that before. You are allowed one

carry-on bag plus a personal bag, such as a purse or something larger that can hold your laptop, camera and wallet, too. Or, a diaper bag if your travelling companion calls you mommy or daddy.

Also, you are permitted to carry on a coat or jacket and something to read on board. Considering current baggage restrictions, carrying your jacket can be less expensive than stuffing it into your suitcase, even if it means looking ridiculous carrying cold weather clothing through a hot weather airport. Also, if your suitcase doesn't arrive with you, at least you won't freeze. And, wear your heaviest, largest shoes on the plane, instead of packing them.

Save space in your carry-on with proper packing techniques. Fold items neatly and stack in the middle of the bag. Fill up the edges by rolling things that don't care if they get wrinkled, like t-shirts, pajamas and underwear. Stuff socks and belts inside shoes. Leave the shampoo behind -- hotels provide that. Soap, too.

A top packing tip for either checked or carry on luggage is to pack last what you'll need first, so it is at the top of the bag. Don't put your jammies at the bottom if you are arriving late and too tired to play archeologist, digging around for the secret to the universe. And even if you are checking a bag, carry on a fresh shirt, just in case. And always carry on important medications and documents -- including that all important presentation you are giving to a client tomorow -- and the housegifts for whoever you are visiting.

Check your airline's weight and size restrictions for carry-on. Generally, it has to be 40 pounds or less, and not exceeding 45 inches when length plus width plus height are totaled. And, of course, it must fit in baggage bins or underneath the seat.

Happy travels. Use these packing tips to save green -- the green in your wallet.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Denver Ready for Democratic National Convention

Just like the Olympics underway now in Beijing, the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention are held every four years. And just like the sports Olympics, the presidential marathon takes years of planning and training.

The Democrats meet in Denver on August 25-28. Here's what just one hotel -- the Ritz-Carlton -- has been doing to prepare --

The eco-friendly theme includes a fleet of hybrid taxis to help guests travel green around the city, and recycling leftover food, flowers, and bathroom amenities through donations to local hospitals and homeless centers. The hotel expects to serve more than 6,000 meals, for overnight guests and for the parties booked here. And that doesn't include its signature restaurant, ELWAY’S Downtown, named for legendary former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway. The restaurant expects to serve more than 12,000 meals and cocktails.

Here's just part of the hotel's grocery list:
  • thousands of pounds of prime Colorado beef,

  • 15 kegs of local Rocky Mountain brews

  • hundreds of pounds of organic produce

  • created special menus and even cocktail recipes inspired by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, including Barack On The Rocks

  • baked some 11,000 donkey-shaped cookies to be placed on guests' beds each night as turn-down amenities.

  • preparing desserts such as Ballot Box Brownies and a red, white and blue Campaign ’08 Trail Mix, which includes healthy yogurt-covered almonds, dried strawberries, and for added crunch, blue M & M’s.

The hotel staff is preparing beyond the kitchen and bar, too --

  • memorizing political factoids, the simplist of which is “What city is hometown for Senator Barack Obama?”

  • practicing checking in large numbers of arriving delegates

  • preparing for the nightly race to deliver more than 800 gifts reflecting the official DNC colors of red, white, blue, and eco-friendly green.

  • the bell staff has been building its biceps for the 3,000 pieces of luggage it will be handling and opening the door some 5,000 times for entering and exiting guests.

If you haven't got your room booked yet, you're too late. The Ritz-Carlton has a waiting list. But you're never too late to become a fan of the Mile High city of Denver, which I love, especially in winter, when pass through on my way to the great Colorado ski country just west of town.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Beware of Phony Hotel Reviews

It's no surprise that skyrocketing fuel prices have affected how and how often we travel, whether it's a family car trip or a getaway that involves an airplane ticket. So, since you are likely traveling less often than you used to, it is more important than before to be sure you are getting what you pay for from your hotel.

Beware of phony hotel reviews. Many of us these days are relying on so-called 'user reviews' on such websites as and But are these really written by users? The answer is yes, no, maybe. You wouldn't buy a used car from a guy named "anonymous", so why would you trust your vacation to him or her or them?

I'm a professional travel writer -- a road warrior who has slogged hundreds of thousands of miles from Machu Picchu to Maine, slept at forgot how many airports when a missed connection jinxed me, left behind countless travel alarm clocks in hotel rooms where the pillows were 300-count covered rocks that left me sore in the morning, been frustrated by Wi-Fi that isn't, eaten things that probably shouldn't be identified, etc. So -- do you trust me more than some user named Hugo in Hartford? I hope so.

My colleague Durant Imboden is another professional travel writer. His Europe for Visitors website recently published an article detailing some scary truths about the big business of fake hotel reviews. These include glowing posts by staffers of advertising and marketing agencies who are paid to write four-star reviews of their clients plus reviews trashing the competition. Plus, there are deliberately bad reviews of hotel #1 written by a relative of hotel #2. Granted, some 'user reviews' are exactly that. But not all. How can you tell the difference? You can't.

So who do you trust? If you put your vacation in the hands of somebody not identified beyond "Charlie G." on a website, you deserve to be disappointed. Or do you put your trust in professional travel writers who write for magazines and newspapers and websites, and report on travel on radio and TV? And let's not forget the many reputable travel guidebooks in Barnes & Noble, Borders and on Yea, I've written some of those, too.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Celebrate a Wind Powered Chairlift

In the winter, the Zephyr chairlift whisks skiers to the top of the Jiminy Peak mountain, in the picturesque Berkshires of Massachussetts. In the summer, it lifts mountain bikers and hikers. But all year-round, this is a green lift, powered by the wind. And it's a winner.

The wind-powered chairlift has received the 2008 Golden Eagle Award for overall environmental excellence from the National Ski Areas Association, the trade association that represents more than 300 North American alpine resorts that account for more than 90 percent of the skier/snowboarder visits.

The award is sponsored by CLIF® BAR, the leading organic-certified energy bar, which skiers, boarders, hikers and bikers all stash in their pockets or backpacks for a quick fix mid-slope. They also make the Luna brand, which I personally prefer to the original Clif, which can be kinda tough to chew when it's cold, like when I'm skiing.

Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort is celebrating the first birthday of the Zephyr lift this week with an on-mountain festival, plus free tours of the turbine. This is your opportunity to see how renewable energy works, up close and personal, as the saying goes. Be forewarned -- it's a hike to and from the turbine from the top of the chairlift. But worth it, for the edcuation you'll get about green, renewable energy in the travel industry, including ski and snowboard resorts-- and the view is pretty spectacular, too.

Just so you know -- Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort is the largest ski and snowboard resort in southern New England -- about half-way between Boston and New York City. And although other resorts buy wind power or carbon credits to operate their chairlifts, this one is the only mountain resort in all of the United States to generate its own energy using alternative wind power.

The Zephyr is powered by a 1.5 MW GE wind turbine, enough to power nearly 800 houses. It cost just under $4 million to build, including construction of a road to the tower and blades, but the resort expects it to pay for itself in seven years. And think of all the diesel fuel and fumes the Jiminy Peak wind turbine is not using! Good for you, Jiminy Peak.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Free Trolley for Visitors in Alexandria, Virginia

It's a charming, historic city. And you can travel green because once you get to Alexandria, you don't need your car at all. Park it and hop on the picturesque -- and free -- trolley to get around town. Many of the shops, restaurants, attractions and hotels in historic Old Town are within walking distance of each other and the trolley stops.

The new King Street Trolley runs up and down the main street in Old Town. Remember -- it's free, so you save gas, the green in your wallet, and the environment because you're not spewing stuff out of your tailpipe. The trolley operates daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with frequent stops along King Street from the Potomac River to the King Street Metro.

You can also visit nearby Mount Vernon, Georgetown and National Harbor without driving, too. Take the Water Taxi instead, for great views and a great breeze on a hot summer day. The Water Taxi leaves Alexandria and National Harbor every 30 minutes, also from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Actually, leave your car in Alexandria and take the Metro to Washington, D.C. It's just four stops away, and you'll save gas. That's called green travel.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Full Moon Excursions and Energy

A full moon can cast enough light that it is possible to hike or even read a book outside without a flashlight or other additional outdoor lighting. And a meal in the moonlight -- how romantic can things get.

The next full moon is the weekend of August 14-17, and The Boulders in Scottsdale, Arizona, has a special lunar package designed to draw on the power of the universe -- especially that full moon -- to help tune the body, inspire the spirit and open the mind.

One memorable thing to do is to walk the resort's labyrinth under the moonlight. I've done it in bright sunlight, and even though I'm too pragmatic as a journalist to be especially spiritual, I did, indeed, feel the power. So I can just imagine the forces at play under a full moon.

The package also includes --
  • Daily morning group hikes in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert
  • Unlimited fitness classes
  • Three 50-minute spa services such as massage, wrap, facial, scrub
  • Three daily meals, plus afternoon tea if your tummy has room
  • Daily lecture on such topics as nutrition, health, fitness, wellness and astrology
  • An interactive cooking demonstration, more like a lesson, with the chefs at The Boulders award-winning Golden Door Spa
  • A pedometer, so you can track your hiking mileage during your stay
  • A rock climbing lesson on the boulders of The Boulders
  • Labyrinth walks, daylight and moonlight
The same package is available for September's full moon, weekend of September, 18-21. Also, on the Fall & Spring Equinox and Summer/Winter Solstice there's a 'gastronomical' dinner under the stars in the resort’s Organic Garden. A guest astrologer explains the symbolic language of astrology and how the movement of the constellations and planets influence our lives and how the different signs relate to each other.

BTW -- The Boulders was one of the first resorts in the world to go organic, serving only organic foods. And organic wines, too. Definitely, a resort that knows a few things about green travels!