Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Travel Insurance -- Why You Need It

The question is not whether you should have travel insurance when you travel, the question is which kind you should have.

This week, the India terror attack devastated the city of Mumbai, and the Bangkok Airport was shut down by political demonstrations, stranding more than 200,000 tourists for more than a week. Last year, a baggage snafu at London's Heahtrow Airport delayed flights for days and baggage for longer.

Missed connections, misplaced or damaged luggage, an unexpected accident or illness in the family before or during a trip, the unrest after a disputed election, such as occurred in Kenya recently, a strike or work stoppage by airline or train workers, even forgetting your passport for departure or losing it en route -- these are all reasons you should not leave home without travel insurance, travel medical insurance, or both.

So, which kind to get? Start with travel insurance that covers trip cancellation.
Without trip cancellation insurance, you are at the mercy of airlines, which can charge as much as ten times the price of your original, discounted, advance-purchase ticket for a replacement. Without trip cancellation insurance, your hotel might charge you a 'no-show' fee that's half the cost of the room, even if they rent it to somebody else.

Basic policies also cover delayed baggage, so you can buy yourself a toothbrush and a clean t-shirt and be re-imbursed.

And many travel insurance policies cover medical care away from home that is not covered by your regular health insurance policy. So, it is especially important for U. S. travellers over 65 to have travel insurance with a medical component, since Medicare does not cover medical care outside the United States.

Generally, travel insurance policies have a medical cap at $5,000 or $10,000, which -- generally -- is enough for a family reunion with grandma in Scotland, or the first ski trip with the grandchildren in Lake Tahoe. And, generally, travel insurance policies cover everybody travelling together on a family trip. But you have to read the fine print to be sure.

If you are going on that once-in-a-lifetime trip -- travel to see the penguins in Patagonia, or the blue boobies in the Galapagos, or hiking the rugged trails of the Caucusus -- you should consider a travel insurance policy that includes helicipter evacuation from even the most remote area. Such as what is offered by MedJet Assist, which will even fly you home in a special med-evac aircraft. Expensive? If you had to pay for it out-of-pocket, it could cost $15,000, or more. But your entire family is covered for $350 a year. Now that's green travel -- saving green!

Here are other travel insurance companies I recommend --

You can compare them by checking Travel Insurance Review, a non-biased industry organization. And be sure to check your homeowner's policy, even your auto insurance policy for hidden gems of coverage.

Another advantage of insurance is that it gives you one place to call to arrange all the details, including re-imbursement.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Historic Santa Monica Hotel Re-Opens With Green Features

It's not unusual for the beautiful ladies of Santa Monica to get a facelift when they reach that 'certain age'. When the legendary grande dame is the historic Hotel Shangri-La, that body-re-building costs $30 million. The result is a sleek new look with equally modern green amenities and practices.

The Hotel Shangri-La sits on Ocean Avenue, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a spot where you can't help being aware of the environment. There are ocean views from nearly every room.

Hotelier Tehmina Adaya says, "Hotels are notoriously one of the biggest offenders to the environment, and we wanted to challenge this idea by incorporating easy elements to eliminate excessive and unnecessary waste." What this Art Deco gem is doing to be sustainable and eco-friendly includes --
  • bath amenities from Natura Green. Packaging is made recycled paper and bottles are bio-degradable (made from a cornstarch based product), and all products are non-animal tested.

  • $5.00 off Overnight Valet Parking for guests driving a hybrid vehicle.

  • Bottled Water provided from Natura Waters. All carbonization and filtration will be done on-site and glass bottles are sanitized and re-used.

  • Non-toxic, organic cleaning products used for housekeeping.

  • An Electric Cart for hotel staff to use for running local errands.

  • All paper products and stationary printed on recycled paper.

  • Rooms furnished with Dual Flush low flow toilets.

  • Newspapers will be delivered to guest rooms upon request, not as a standard, to save thousands of copies that are never read.

  • The restaurant is being supplied by local vendors and purveyors, and the wine list features primarily American wines to help lower carbon impact.

  • There are double layered the windows to prevent loss of heat and air conditioning, and compact fluorescent lighting is used throughout the hotel.

  • Even the pool is eco-friendly -- it is solar heated.

Hotel Shangri-La also has partnered with a recycling agency to pick up all bottles and cardboard, since recycling bins are not a standard city service in Santa Monica.

They've also partnered with Midway Car Rental agency, which offers the largest selection of hybrid cars and is located blocks from hotel. Their fleet includes the Toyota Prius, Lexus RX400 SUV and LS600 sedan, Chevy Tahoe and Toyota Camry.

Hotel Shangri-La is an architectural gem and historic landmark. Built in 1939, it is an Art Deco beauty combined with Hollywood allure and Los Angeles history.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Taos Combines White Snow and Green Policies

There are two major changes for New Mexico's legendary Taos Ski Valley this winter season. First, it is the first full season in which snowboarders are able to share the slopes with skiers. Taos was one of the last ski-only hold-outs in the U.S., allowing boards for the first time only at the end of last season.

The other biggest change will be that 100 percent of Taos Ski Valley’s electricity will now come from renewable sources. In a partnership with Kit Carson Electric, Taos Ski Valley will purchase approximately 3,000,000 kilowatt hours of wind power and will no longer rely on traditional coal-produced electricity.

The resort is the region's largest energy consumer, and the switch to wind power is expected to encourage other large energy consumers and ski resorts in New Mexico to consider switching to renewable energy to run chairlifts and other amenities. Other green practices include replacing older two-stroke snowmobiles with new, cleaner-burning four-stroke snowmobiles, and more modern, more efficient snow-making compressors.

Taos Ski Valley also offers guests a unique "SkiGreen" program, which lets you offset 150 miles of the carbon produced from your travel. Add the SkiGreen tag to a lift ticket for just $2 or to a season pass for $20. SkiGreen is a partnership between the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and other leaders in the winter sports industry.

Employees also contribute to keeping the valley green. Instead of each employee driving an average of 30 miles round-trip every day for work, they will now park their cars at a central location and carpool in a company vehicle. The resort estimates this new program will eliminate more than 150 miles of driving each week, and help reduce carbon emissions in the ski valley

It's not just a winter thing. The resort works with the National Forest Service every summer to plant grass to keep soil from eroding on the ski and snowboard trails. Also, as the area grows, more runs are being thinned into glades instead of clear-cutting them into open trails.

Taos joins a growing list of winter resorts switching to wind power. Most definitely, these travel destinations are the green leaders.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Holiday Travel Deals for Tough Times

The economy is the bad news. The good news is that the bad news is causing hotels and airlines to drop prices for the holidays, so there are plenty of travel bargains -- if you know where to look and move quickly, before the deals disappear.

For the entire month of January through February 16, 2009, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is offering 20 percent off the best available rate for all hotel suites at more than 30 participating Kimpton hotels, most of which are downtown in cities like Boston, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. Often, Kimpton hotels go under the name Hotel Monaco, so it's best to check the website to find a participating hotel in the city you want to visit. Additionally, Kimpton, is offering breakfast for $1 for guests who book a best-available-rate stay at participating hotels between now and March 1, 2009. Suite deal!

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide also has a discount offer, from now until March 31, 2009. For every night you stay with Starwood, the next night can be 50 percent off. The promotion is valid at the company's nearly 500 hotels in the U. S., Canada and the Caribbean, including the W brand, Westin, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, AloftSM, ElementSM. The promotion is called Better Tomorrows -- and don't we all hope things will be better tomorrow than they are today.

Under the Starwood discount program, a two-day NYC weekend escape at the W New York averages $598 instead of $798, and a four-day fall family getaway to the Westin San Francisco will average $507 instead of $676. If you book a six-night winter vacation at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa in Hawaii could save $308, more than enough for a hula lesson.

Alaska Airlines Vacations is giving away three nights and tickets to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Just book a four-night package by Dec. 20, 2008, for travel Jan. 4 through June 27, 2009, and get three additional nights free including theme park tickets. If you book a seven-night package and travel by March 29th, the deal includes a $200 gift card. There are some restrictions -- seats are limited and there are blackout dates -- so don't delay.

The US dollar has gained 15% against the Euro and 20% against the British pound in recent weeks, so the combination of the stronger dollar, lack of crowds and deals and discounts just increases the appeal for a winter escape. American Airlines is offering a free companion ticket for future travel to Britain if you book a round-trip ticket between now and December 31, 2008. Remember to use the promotion code UKCMP.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hyatt Hotels Switches to Filtered Water

No more bottled water at Hyatt Hotels & Resorts. The company is switching from all those plastic throwaway bottles to filtered water -- which saves two kinds of green -- money and the environment.

According to the Container Recycling Institute, Americans buy an estimated 35.8 billion plastic water bottles each year, and fewer than 20% of those bottles are recycled. Additionally, the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, estimates that the energy required to produce each water bottle is equivalent, on average, to filling a quarter of a plastic bottle with crude oil.

So, providing filtered water to hotel guests makes sense. So does filtering your own water at home and refilling a re-usable bottle to take to the gym, work, and other daily travel errands.

Hyatt has contracted with Natura Water Inc. to provide guests in its restaurants with a healthy, safe, environmentally responsible alternative to bottled water. It's the first hotel company to work with Natura on a nationwide basis.

The Natura water system removes impurities from the local water source while retaining healthy minerals – thus eliminating the need for bottled water and the waste associated with its use. The system dispenses the water – still or sparkling – into specially designed re-usable glass bottles with sealed caps.

Right now, the filtered water is available at restaurants at Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago, Hyatt Regency Phoenix, Hyatt Regency Reston in Virginia, Grand Hyatt Dallas Fort Worth and Grand Hyatt New York. Hyatt is planning to add more hotels to the filtered water over the next several months.
So, a giant green kiss to Hyatt for this eco-friendly decision. Perhaps it will be copied by Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton, Ramada, Embassy Suites, and other hotel chains not mentioned.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Enjoy New York City for the Holidays

New York City shines year-round, but especially during the holidays, when it is truly a winter wonderland. The official start of the season is Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The best place to watch is anywhere along Central Park West, since the crowds get thicker the closer you get to Macy's and all those television cameras.

My own favorite family adventure always has been the night before the parade, when the balloons are inflated in the streets around the American Museum of Natural History. Take the kids and watch as a beloved character's’s arm or leg comes to life, whether it's Kermit the Frog, Barney, or Horton the Elephant. Be sure to visit the museum, too, during daytime hours, of course. The dinosaurs and life-size whale suspended from a ceiling are there year-round, but the glittering origami Christmas tree is only for the holidays.

The World’s Largest Menorah shines for eight nights at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, right in front of the Apple Store, already a landmark for its see-through glass-like cube design, and the FAO Schwarz toy store. The New York State Theater in Lincoln Center is where Sugarplum Fairies dance nightly in the annual The Nutcracker ballet, another city tradition, as are the high-stepping Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

Grab your skates, or rent them, and take a spin on the world's most famous ice skating rink, in Rockefeller Center, in front of the world-famous tree. Or, avoid the tourist crowds and head to Central Park's Kate Wollman Rink, a favorite of locals. This is where I learned to skate, and taught my kids. The rink offers amazing views of surrounding skyscrapers.

Some of the best things in my hometown are free, and I’m not just talking about the people watching. Department stores Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Lord and Taylor are famous for their spectacular animated holiday windows. There's a different theme each year. It might be old-fashioned Victorian holidays one year, futuristic Space Age holidays the next. Also free is the laser light show that turns the high, vaulted ceiling of Grand Central Station into a magical extravaganza.

The same people who sponsor the New York City Marathon, held the first weekend of November, also sponsor the Midnight Run through Central Park. It's a great way to get away from the crowds in Times Square, where it's just you and a million or so of your closest friends watching the ball drop on New Year's Eve.

For more ideas about what to see and do in NYC at the holidays, check the NYC Convention & Visitors Bureau website. Or, just ask me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Largest Eco-Tourism Project in Israel's History

Simply, it's one of the world's most dramatic environmental initiatives, transforming the unsightly 2,000-acre Hiriya garbage dump on the outskirts of Tel Aviv into a magnificent park and 24-hour recreational hotspot. Since the dump was created decades ago, it has been both an eyesore and an ecological mess, complete with a terrible stench and swarming herds of scavenger birds and other varmints.

But that was then. Now, this mess is close to be reborn as Ayalon Park, one of the world's largest urban parks, dotted with trees, tropical gardens, and hiking, horseback riding and bicycling trails. The total transformation of this dump into an oasis of green is an engineering and environmental masterpiece, worthy of visiting.

The 230-foot Hiriya Mountain, a waste-mound in the park's center, has been transformed into an eco-friendly attraction of terraces, shaded foot paths and areas with benches and tables for rest or picnics. Atop Hiriya Mountain, there's a spectacular panoramic views of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But it's not just pretty trees and picnic areas. There's an enormous Recycling Center, 75 acres large, at the base of the "healed" mountain, which uses state-of-the-art technologies for recycling waste -- the very same plastic, paper, dead cell phones and other junk that once simply was dumed on top of the growing piled.

Arie Sommer, Comissioner of Tourism, North and South America, said, "The park will be a hotspot for nature-seeking tourists and a "front door" to Tel Aviv's amazing natural landscape."

Congrtatulations to Tel Aviv and Israel for this astounding green initiative. It's something I hope will be copied with other cities with similar unsightly and eco-dangerous dumps.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Chicago Cashes in on Obama Connection

The hometown of President-Elect Obama and his family is suddenly the most popular city in the country. Or, at least its website is.

So many people want to know more about the Windy City, and perhaps travel there to visit favorite places of the future First Family that the city's tourism agency Choose Chicago has just added a new section called Presidential Chicago.

The website includes obvious must-see attractions, including the Art Institute of Chicago -- where I was lucky enough to see a special exhibit of Monet's Water Lillies paintings a few years ago -- and shopping along the Miracle Mile, the Chicago version of Fifth Avenue in my own hometown, New York City.

And, you'll learn that one of Mr. Obama's haunts is one of the city's the outdoor basketball courts, at Hayes Drive and South Lake Shore Drive, where he likes to shoot hoops — often with his brother-in-law Craig Robinson, who is head basketball coach at Oregon State University.

My favorite hotel in Chicago is the InterContinental Chicago , one of just a handful of hotels in North America that are certified environmentally-friendly. And, it is in the final stages of receiving LEED and Green Seal certification, two other hard-to-get ratings. What makes this especially important is that this isn't a brand new hotel, designed and built from the ground up to be eco-friendly, like the ones Marriott is building near the Obama's new address in Washington, D.C.

The InterContinental is one of the most historic hotels of America, retro-fitted to be a modern energy star. Originally built in 1929 as the Medinah Athletic Club, an exclusive luxury men's club, the InterContinental Chicago is one of Chicago's most elegant landmarks. It includes a historic, junior Olympic size pool, is recognized as one of the best indoor pools in the U.S. and is included in Chicago's major architectural tours.

All the attention surrounding the Obama family's connection to Chicago also is helping raise the city's profile for its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

As the song says -- Chicago, my kind of town, Chicago is.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Two Certified Green Hotels Planned for Washington, DC Area

The best way for a hotel to go green is to build it eco-friendly from the ground up. And that's exactly the plan for two hotels just across the Potomac from Washington, D. C., easy travel distance visits to the city's attractions.

One will be an upscale Renaissance hotel, the other a budget Residence Inn. Both hotels will be managed by Marriott International, and both are expected to be LEED® certified “green” buildings when complete – the first such hotels in Arlington County, Virginia. The Renaissance Crystal City Potomac Yards and adjacent Residence Inn Crystal City Potomac Yards will cost around $130 million to build, and should open in two years. The 600-plus rooms in the two hotels will add 500 jobs to the area -- good news in tough economic times.

The green hotels will feature an energy saving “green roof’ with plants and trees. Since their location provides a picture postcard view overlooking the U.S. Capitol and Potomac River, my prediction is these roof gardens will become a new favorite hotspot for sunset gatherings. When the weather cooperates, of course.

LEED® is the benchmark standard for environmentally responsible buildings set by the U.S. Green Building Council, and there are some stringent requirements. By the end of 2009, all new Marriott hotels -- including the other brands it owns such as Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott -- will be designed and built according to LEED standards. The company also is working towards getting LEED status for its international headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

So thank you, Marriott, for helping us travel green.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Vote for These Ski Vacation Bargains and Deals

Times are tough right now, but hotels, airlines and some destinations are offering ways to help you save green this ski and snowboard season. And let's face it, more of us are likely to give up buying new furniture right now than to give up the winter holiday vacation getaway. Here's a selection of deals to help stretch your snow budget:

Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Delta Airlines have teamed up to offer free skiing for anyone flying to Gunnison/Crested Butte via Salt Lake City this season. The ski free deal must be booked through Crested Butte Vacations, and you'll get one free lift ticket for each person in your party who flies in on a Delta jet. Just book by November 14, for anytime this ski season. I have skied this Colorado resort often, and love the place, especially the well-named Paradise bowl. It's great to ski in Paradise!

Another one of my absolute favorite places to ski is Jackson Hole, and this year when you purchase three airline tickets through Jackson Hole Central Reservations, the resort will throw in the fourth ticket for free. Even better -- this is the year the legendary moutain opens its new aerial Tram, that will whisk skiers and snowboarders 4,139 vertical feet in 9 minutes to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain. Even if you aren't a skier, take the ride for the incredible 360 views of the Tetons from the top. Or, follow me down Laramie Bowl, my favorite run here. The resort opens for the season on November 29. The Tram debuts December 20th.

It's less than one hour from the Salt Lake City airport to the nearest chairlift, so it's easy to get a couple of runs in the same day you arrive in town. And if you do -- it's free. Just show your boarding pass and ski free in the day of arrival at any of Park City's three resorts, Park City, Deer Valley and The Canyons. It's called the Park City Quick Start program, and you have to register online. And don't ask me which one of these three resorts is my favorite -- I have experienced both adrenalin rushes and humiliating splats at all of them.

The new High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid, New York, is pegging its room rate to whatever the Dow Jones' closing number is each Friday. If you book a room through December 19, you'll pay the closing bell price in dollars and cents. For example, if the Dow Jones average closes the week at 8,387, the room rate for the following week will be $83.87 -- a savings of more than $160 off the hotel’s $250 average nightly rate.

See you on the slopes!