Taking Advantage of Your Hotel's Concierge

You’ve seen them before at your hotel. Some are seated behind elegant desks with a computer screen at their ready. Others are just a few paces down the counter from the reception desk. Concierges are there to help hotel guests and often provide an invaluable service. Indeed, many travelers don’t understand or, in some instances, aren’t willing to pay for what a concierge can do for them. Prior to last year, I probably fell into this category. I might ask for directions or a local map but that was about it. That changed when we stayed at the BoBo Hotel in Buenos Aires.

In May of 2006, my wife and I were planning our second trip to Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina when I decided to surprise her by taking her to see Cirque de Soleil’s Saltimbanco. Not only had we never seen a Cirque de Soleil show, the opportunity to do so in another country seemed irresistible. Besides, thanks to the exchange rate, tickets in Argentina would probably come at a discount.

Rather than navigating through Ticketek’s local web page and potentially messing up my order due to a language misunderstanding, I decided to let Julia at the BoBo take care of purchasing our tickets. She easily arranged for the right night, the perfect seats (about a dozen rows from the ring, as the picture to the right attests) and transportation to the show near Puerto Madero. The evening, paired with a one AM dinner at Bice, was one of the highlights of our trip.

For a recent trip to London, we enlisted the services of the concierge at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel for tickets to Wicked. I had difficultly locating decent seats on December 30th – an awfully tough time to land tickets for a hot West End show. The concierge contacted a local ticket agent, handled payment and arranged for two seats in the stalls – Row K, Seats 24,25 – arguably two of the best tickets in the house. Sure… I had to pay a premium for the seats but nothing extravagant. The concierge’s great work was well worth a comfortable gratuity.

On that same London trip, while visiting The Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair, we had the hotel's conciege work with the concierge at The Sherlock Holmes to arrange for transportation to Gatwick. Honestly, this concierge took service to a different level and my wife and I still talk about the way he treated us. Well worth a reasonable gratuity!

Concierges can help with difficult restaurant reservations, transportation or other hard-to-come-by tickets or tours. If you’re planning on simply taking in the sights and not arranging for any special events, their assistance may not be necessary. However, if you want to arrange for a truly memorable evening or want to make your trip smoother, make it a point to use your hotel’s concierge. Don’t forget to compensate them for their hard work. A good gratuity may continue to pay dividends for the remainder of your stay.


A Real Slice of France in North America

Before you read another word, know that I'm not referring to Canada. In fact, while this slice of France is adjacent to Canada, it is indeed part of France.

This morning I spotted an article from Lonely Planet in the Houston Chronicle on the tiny islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon... two islands off of the coast of Newfoundland that are self-governing territories of France. Who knew?

Has anyone ever had any experience with Saint-Pierre et Miquelon? Apparently one world record-setting couple has stopped by.


Good Fares to be Had

Not sure if there is a fare war out there (just haven't been paying attention) but lately I've been able to grab sub-$200 fares from Houston to Denver, Houston to Philadelphia and Houston to Atlanta... all on Continental Airlines. Two of these trips were midweek fares - clearly business trips but the tariffs were cheaper than some Saturday night stays. I had to play with the days to get the cheapest fare to Denver - only $170.00. Not sure if SWA's recent entry into Denver has something to do with this. Philly used to be ridiculously expensive (a la Newark in the late 90s when fares would regularly hit $1600) but has since tempered into a reasonable place to fly.

Right now might be a good time to take a random long weekend trip in February. The skies may be more crowded but the ticket prices are much more palatable.


Wise Hotel Selection in Venice

Venice is one of the most popular destinations in Italy and with good reason. The city is one massive museum. Perhaps it fails as an example of typical contemporary Italian life as the city now lives and breathes for tourism. Still, it certainly provides a fascinating glimpse into what has always been an astounding, if not enchanting place. Of course, even in the most beautiful city, a poorly selected hotel can ruin an entire vacation. During a 2005 trip to Italy, we soon found out how this can be the case as we experienced our own version of "A Tale of Two Cities".

We rarely travel on Thanksgiving week but when we do, we typically take long trips that allow us to take advantage of extra vacation days. In 2005, we joined my cousin and his wife for a trip to Italy. Our trip consisted of the usual visit to Rome followed by a side trip to Venice. We had planned to stop in Bologna, my hometown, on the way back to Rome but a strike by railway workers caused us to stay an extra night in Venice. Normally, this would be good news but since our original hotel was sold out during that unplanned night, we had to find a different hotel. While our visit to Venice was by no means ruined, it certainly ended on a bit of a whimper compared to where it started.

Our first two nights were spent at the Locanda Ca' Del Brocchi in Dorsoduro, one of the less touristy sestieri of Venice. This mostly residential area is quiet yet still offers a few sights like the Peggy Guggenheim and Le Zattere plus plenty of restaurants, peaceful squares and maze-like calli. The eastern part of Dorsoduro, where we stayed, is connected by the Accademia bridge to San Marco. It is centrally located but feels like a million miles away from the touristy areas of San Marco. Our hotel, the Ca' Del Brocchi was located a mere two minutes from the Guggenheim on a tiny rectangular-shaped piazza occupied by a few residences and a neighborhood school. The hotel service was exceptional, our rooms were comfortable and well-appointed, the bathrooms were clean and modern and the breakfast service was simple but sufficient. We really could not have been any happer with our hotel.

On our third and unplanned night, we moved across the canal to the Hotel Torino, located just a few minutes from Piazza San Marco. The hotel was a far cry from the Ca' Del Brocchi. The rooms were worn and dingy, the bathrooms were scary and the nightly rate was considerably higher. The included breakfast was fine but who really cares when the room's dingyness trumps everything else? Furthermore, in theory, one would think the location would be ideal. Major sights were within very easy reach. Yet, unlike Dorsoduro, the area felt overly touristy. Restaurants in San Marco clearly cater to tourists, shops are more expensive and the crowds are noticeably heavier.

Lessons learned?

  • Do your homework when picking the hotel. Unfortunately, we had to act quickly do to a train strike so our options were somewhat limited.
  • Central is not necessarily better. In popular cities like Venice, you're like to face higher costs and poor service at both hotels and restaurants. If you can, choose something that is a little off the beaten path.
  • Beware hotel web sites. The Hotel Torino is a perfect example. Take a good look at the photographs of the hotel rooms. If they look like they were taken with a Kodak Disc camera, look elsewhere.
...and, as is certainly the case with Venice, truly try Dorsoduro, Santa Croce or even Castello. Visit San Marco but make the other sestieri your home.


Some Flight Planning Tools

I don't know how many different Google searches I had to use to find this page. It's not quite the one I was looking for but did the trick. Anyway, the AviationDB allows you to take a look at historical on-time performance for individual flights to/from specific airports. If you've flown in/out of Atlanta-Hartsfield, you know how critical this information can be for making connections or avoiding loooong delays. My flight two days ago left 45 minutes late.

Of course, you just might want to know current flight delay information and the FAA has a handy site (and don't overlook that little map on the right). You can also find more information than you might ever need from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Ironically, I was surprised to see in this New York Times article that Hartsfield actually has a better on-time record than Houston Intercontinental. From my experience, that's not the case but I guess that's my experience, right? The article also shows best/worst times for each airport. The best on the list was Salt Lake City. The worst? No surprise... JFK.

I know there is a better (free) page out there... does anyone have it?


Insider Tours in Buenos Aires

I absolutely love Buenos Aires - I find it to be a fascinating city that blends the best of Europe in the middle of Latin America. The people are friendly, the food is exquisite, the shopping is out of this world... I could go on and on. Really... I can't say enough good things. This picture on the right is from Complot, one of the countless little shops in Palermo Soho.

Well, Conde Nast just published a new article on Buenos Aires. In part, I wish they would stop letting the cat out of the bag but, hey, those of us who have been there can't keep the city to ourselves. Anyway, a local was quoted in the article on her tours:

"We're about so much more than the tango," Agustina Menendez tells me. Menendez is a twenty-five-year-old singer and modern dancer. Recently, she began a small company offering visitors what she calls "alternative urban tours"—studio visits, gallery drop-ins, a trip to a metalworks that transforms into a performance space at night. "I've always hated the regular tourism thing," she says. "The tango shows, La Boca, Recoleta, and those places that have nothing to do with me"—the areas, she means, which tourists used to frequent before Buenos Aires began, suddenly and necessarily, to transform itself from a city run on nostalgia into a capital of design and style.

It turns out that Agustina is a poster on the Trip Advisor Forums. I like the idea of her tours - not your run-of-the-mill jaunts around the city. If you look at her post, you'll see her e-mail listed, in case you want to take advantage of her services.


Back from Atlanta

Don't ask me what I did with the font today... I have no clue.

Let me start by saying that there is so much to be said for having a driver pick you up and take you to the airport at 5:30 AM and in the rain. I have my brother (and boss) to thank for that. I normally drive myself but can't stress how convenient a driver can be during "less desirable" conditions.

Here are today's travel observations:

We apparently dawdled too long at the President's Club since the flight was mostly boarded by the time we arrived at our gate. When we boarded, the flight attendant informed us that there wasn't any space left for carry-ons and that we might have to check our bags. I opened the bin above my seat and found that, with a little creative maneuvering, my bag would easily fit. Apparently very few people know the concept of "wheels in". Honestly, I don't blame passengers for this as they may simply not know. Flight attendants who are worth their salt should perform a check to make sure bags are set wheels in so that more can fit in the overhead compartments. I've seen some do this but the sad reality is that most don't.

We landed a good 15 minutes ahead of schedule so, rather than talking the train from Terminal D at Hartsfield, we opted to walk to the main terminal. We didn't really plan to walk the whole way - we just started and decided to keep on. If you ever have the time, it is a valuable way to get a bit of exercise during a hectic travel day. Since we had the time to spare, MARTA was worth using to get to our first appointment. We saved ourselves the hassle of picking up/dropping off a car and found a taxi driver by the station who later hauled us from appointment to appointment and back to the airport. Our meetings ended earlier than planned so we could catch an earlier flight - getting home earlier than expected from a business trip is always a great feeling.

Lessons learned today:
  • They may say there isn't space in the overhead bin but there probably is. If you don't mind having people watch you, look at that bin as a puzzle and move around the puzzle pieces until you can fit your bag. Often, a turned bag or two is all it takes.
  • If you find a good local taxi driver, get his card and use him during your trip. Ours made our trip more convenient and he made the extra effort to get us back to the airport early so we could catch an earlier flight.
On a personal note, today's meetings went well. They allowed to get a bead on some of my forecasts for 2007 while building goodwill with some of my most valuable clients.

Heading to Atlanta

Got up at 5:00 AM this morning to get ready for a business trip. Right now, it's 6:45 and I'm sitting in the Continental Airlines President's Club at IAH with my brother. We're heading to Atlanta to visit a few clients and coming back later this evening. Since we're taking a day trip and our meetings are in a concentrated area, we're going to take a crack at using MARTA from the airport. I'll report back on the convenience factor compared to renting a car.


When Not to go to Mexico

Our sales team had a good year in 2006 so several of us are being rewarded with a trip to Acapulco. Never mind the recent news... we're looking forward to a great vacation. Anyway, it doesn't take one long to figure out that organizing a dozen schedules can be a bit, eh... daunting, shall we say?

We were originally shooting for March but now the date seems to be flying all over the 2007 calendar. It turns out fares in March are ridiculous thanks to some obscure event called "spring break". At one point, a few people wanted to shoot for September or October.

Having vacationed on the western side of Mexico, I immediately started raising a stink. "You don't want to book a trip to Acapulco in September." Apparently, quite a few people didn't realize that...

a) Western Mexico gets hurricanes
b) July - October are "prime time"
c) Oh yeah... they tend to form right in the waters off of Acapulco

In case you're thinking of Ixtapa, Puerto Vallarta or Acapulco, take a look at what happened in 2006. Of the 18 named storms, 17 formed after July 11th. Hurricane John was particularly troublesome. 1997's Hurricane Pauline was no slouch, dumping 16 inches of rain on Acapulco. Of course, the same goes for the western Pacific although the 2004 hurricane season should've straightened people out.

So... just keep that in mind when planning a trip to the tropics. The Internet will help you figure out when to plan a trip. My cousin and I visited Ixtapa during Labor Day Weekend in 1995 and had a great time. The weather was ideal. Yet, when my wife and I went to Los Cabos over Labor Day Weekend in 2000 for his wedding, the wedding day was pushed off by a day due to a hurricane in the Pacific. Do some homework and you can avoid situations like the photo listed above - Cancun after Hurrican Wilma.

Do you have any stories you can share about poorly timed trips to the tropics?


The Story Behind the Shot: Sperlonga, Italy

During the summer of 2004, we went with my aunt to Sperlonga, a small beach town about 1 1/2 hours south of Rome. During the summer of 1979, my family spent a month in Sperlonga so I was excited to spend a few days in town. One of the reasons people visit Sperlonga is to wander through the narrow streets of the whitewashed village. The setting is awfully reminiscent of typical Cycladic architecture in Greece.

One evening, we came across a little alleyway that faced towards the sea. The sun was setting and the moon was reflecting over the water. The view was amazing so I decided to take a shot. Just as I was composing the picture, a father and son began walking up the steps. My first thought was to wait for them to clear the alley so I could take a shot. Then, I realized... no, this is the shot. I snapped it before they passed us and was thrilled with the result.


Book Review: Italian Neighbours

Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona by Tim Parks is written along the same vein as Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde. I picked up the book at la Feltrinelli for 14 Euros while visiting Italy in 2005. It remained mostly forgotten until this past fall when I found it buried under some Italian novels. While not as funny or wry as Clarke's memoir of his adventures in France, Italian Neighbours offers an amusing look at a British couple's life in Montecchio, a town outside of Verona.

As an Italian, I found that many of Parks' observations were valid. Specifically, chapters such as Statali, dipendenti, autonomi... rang true. The chapter details the lengths people go to land civil servant jobs as statali - positions that offer lifetime security and benefits. It is these civil servants that permeate the Italian bureaucracy that Parks must grapple with on a regular basis. Other chapters focus on everything from the use of Italian words and bureaucratic bribes to old maids, religion and other local characters.

Italian Neighbours is 326 pages and perhaps a bit long but certainly enjoyable. And, as you can guess from the book's title, you will become very acquainted with Parks' neighbors (with a "u"). While not in the same league as The Italians, the book is worth reading.


Our next trip

So, as mentioned, I can't fathom not having a trip scheduled on our calendar. In fact, just having something nailed down doesn't necessarily keep me from lining up something else. In some cases (well, often really) we end up traveling somewhere else, first. To some extent, I drive people crazy. Why book a vacation when you already have one lined up? It gets to the point where you almost feel a touch guilty about all the trips you take.

On that note, our next "big" trip will be to the Greek Islands. We'll be visiting during high season - not ideal but the best we could since we're using frequent flier miles. I essentially called Continental and said, "I'll take two of anything you have between June and August." Flexibility is key, particularly when trying to land rewards seats for a flight that often runs around $1300 or more.

We'll be visiting two contrasting islands - one quieter and less "developed" while the other seems to be on everyone's Greek island itinerary. Our first stop will be Milos, the famed home of Venus de Milo and dozens of stunning beaches. While in Milos, we'll be staying at the Limeri Apartments. In doing my research, it looks like hotels tend to be few and far between. Some are not willing to take reservations this early (trust me, I tried) so apartments are a good option. Assuming we can find a good ferry, we'll then head to Santorini, the stunning volcanic island. To avoid the massive crowds that sometimes overtake Fira, we opted to stay at the Studio Artemis (you can also check their main page but it is down right now) in the quiet village of Megalochori.

The trip is still far away but all this research has made me long for the crystalline waters of the Aegean. More to come as we get nearer to the trip.



As my little "About Me" blurb says, I have a bit of a problem. It doesn't necessarily hurt anyone... not even me. Like a true addict, I could say, "I can quit anytime" but I'm afraid I wouldn't be telling the truth. My addiction can be quite expensive although, with a bit of effort, the costs can be kept in check. I have a travel addiction. As of this post, I've been "clean" for 16 days, having just returned from a trip to London. In less than a week, I am going to fall off the wagon (although for less-glamorous business travel)

I am a travel addict. I actually enjoy flying (and counting my frequent flier miles), I read travel magazines, horde travel guides, dig and dig and dig for travel information and can't fathom not having a vacation scheduled. This blog is intended to keep my addiction in check while providing a travel fix for my fellow addicts. Tips, ideas, reviews, photos, suggestions and everything in-between... that will be my mission.

Let's face it, if your sole addiction is travel, you're doing well.