German Group Journeys

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie

Germany is a wonderful place to visit for anyone who loves art, architecture, culture and history. It's also a bike rider's paradise. On a group trip with your friends, family or wedding party, there's plenty to do and see in every region of Germany.

Bike, Art and Culture - Here are some ideas for places to visit with a focus on art and architecture. You can tour these areas by bike (it's easy to rent bikes locally) or by car: 

Focus on Art - Muenster and Kassel:

  • If you and your group of friends or family members love contemporary art, there’s a "solar art eclipse" taking place in the Westphalia region (until the end of September 2007). In Kassel, documenta 12, a prestigious, contemporary art exhibition—like the Venice Biennale—takes place every five years and the Muenster Sculpture Project takes place every 10 years—see them both now! (Trains linking Muenster and Kassel take about two hours.)
  • Muenster is a lovely town with cobblestone streets, historic buildings and charming churches. The Sculpture Project is not in a museum but strategically-placed throughout the town. You can tour the sculptures with a knowledgeable guide on a bike or walking tour. Even when the Sculpture Project is not taking place, it’s worth a trip to Muenster. This university town is full of pubs, restaurants and year-round cultural events. Be sure to sample some local beer at Muenster’s oldest brewery, Brauerei Pinkus and enjoy regional specialties at the oldest restaurant, Gasthaus Leve. In the surrounding countryside of Muensterland, there are 100 castles to be viewed on a bike tour or by car.
  • Hotels: In Muenster – Stadthotel; Hotel Feldmann. In the countryside - Hotel Hof zur Linde; Hotel Schloss Wilkinghege. In Kassel – During documenta, there are special hotel package deals.

Focus on Industrial Design - The Rhur Region:

  • The Ruhrgebiet area has transformed sites from its former industrial past—steel mills, coal mines, gas tanks--into incredible venues for art exhibitions and other leisure and cultural activities. As a result, the area has been named European Capital of Culture 2010.
  • In Essen, the Zeche Zollverein, a former coal mine, is now a UNESCO world heritage site and a vibrant arts center with space for emerging artists and an outstanding showcase for design at the Red Dot Design Museum. You and your group can hike or bike around the site as well as have a great lunch in the Zollverein Casino.
  • In Oberhausen, the Gasometer at CentrO used to store gas for the steelworks. An installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude made the site popular for unique art exhibitions.
  • Other cultural highlights in the area include Essen's Folkwang Museum (its fabulous collection is currently in the Villa Hügel). In Duisburg, stroll along the lovely Inner Harbor. The Lehmbruck Museum is a must-see, then head for Landscape Park on the grounds of the former Meiderich Ironworks, now an entertainment and recreational center. The Ruhrgebiet tourism office can help arrange tours for your group. If you'd like to discover the area on your own by bike, the RuhrTalRadweg is a signposted trail or your group can do an organized bike tour.
  • Hotel: Castle Westerholt is a lovely and convenient base to use for visiting the region.

Focus on Medieval Architecture – Lower Saxony:

  • The Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) region of Germany is a treasure trove of half-timbered architecture (similar to Tudor style with strips of horizontal, vertical and diagonal wood framing on the houses). One of the most picturesque spots is Hannoversch Münden, located at the juncture of three rivers—Werra, Fulda and Weser—it has over 700 half-timbered buildings centuries old. The town is on a few incredibly scenic routes that your group can tour via bike or car including the Fairy Tale Route and the Framework Road.
  • Hotels: Try Hotel Alter Packhof.

Focus on Modern Art and Architecture – Düsseldorf:

  • Düsseldorf: Although people often come here on business, anyone who loves art and architecture should definitely put Düsseldorf on their travel itinerary. First, it is situated on a lovely stretch of the Rhine River lined with magnificent buildings such as Neuer Zollhof by Frank Gehry and William Alsop's Colorium that have made Media Harbour a hot spot for architecture. Next, Düsseldorf has outstanding museums (Kunst means art): the Kunst Palast features old masters, contemporary art and a fantastic glass collection. K20 displays 20th century masterpieces and K21, cutting-edge contemporary art of the 21st century, while KIT (Kunst im Tunnel) is a unique exhibit space for emerging artists and the Hetjens Museum features ceramics.
  • After all that museum-hopping, you and your group of family and friends might need to recover with a cold brew. The best place to taste test Düsseldorf's famous Altbier is in Altstadt, the charming old section of town with more than 260 bars and restaurants.
  • If you like, do some designer shopping along the tree-lined boulevard Königsallee and have a tasty meal in one of the all-glass restaurants along the riverside such as the Cafe Curtiz or the Lido with a view of Media Harbour.
  • But don't leave the area without a visit to the splendid Insel Hoimbroich, art pavilions in a nature preserve and the adjacent Langen Foundation, a stunning museum for Japanese art designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando.
  • The Düsseldorf tourism office can arrange any kind of biking, city or cultural tour for your group.
  • Hotels in Düsseldorf: Lindner Hotel Rhein Residence; Sir & Lady Astor Hotel; Carat Hotel.
  • Arrival: All the above regions can be easily reached from Düsseldorf. Delta, LTU and Lufthansa have direct flights from several U.S. gateways, as well as flights to Berlin. In Germany, there's an excellent train network between cities; you can even get your tickets before you leave through RailEurope.

Focus on Culture and History - Berlin:

  • No trip to Germany would be complete without visiting Berlin. Not only is it a major European city, its also become a trendy spot for contemporary art. East and West Berlin now form one huge, fascinating urban scene. But you can get anywhere in a jiffy in the excellent subway system (U-Bahn and S-Bahn). If your group prefers biking, there are several biking tours or you can just rent a bike and pedal around on your own.

Sightseeing highlights include: The Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the Holocaust Memorial: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by internationally-renowned architect Peter Eisenman. Sections of the Berlin Wall that still stand, with landmark status, have become a canvas for modern graffiti art. There are museums galore and contemporary art lovers can tour hot, new galleries with Go Art! Berlin.

  • For an authentic cabaret experience, spend an evening at the Bar Jeder Vernunft. For trendy nightlife, the East Berlin neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg are the new hip spots, filled with twenty-somethings partying to all hours at the clubs.
  • Classical music fans will also be in seventh-heaven here as there are three opera houses and eight symphony orchestras; the Berlin Philharmonic is considered one of the world's best.
  • Berlin even has two zoos—one in the East and one in the West. In fact, your group should spend some nights in a hotel in East Berlin and some nights in West Berlin to fully experience this marvelous city.
  • Hotels: In East Berlin - Juncker's Hotel, a small, friendly place with great breakfasts; in West Berlin - Steigenberger Hotel, a pleasant spot in the heart of the shopping district.

The tourism offices in all these places can help you arrange any kind of group trip—city tours, bike tours, museum visits. Almost everyone in Germany speaks English and those that don't will still make every effort to help you. In Germany, it isn't just the art and culture that shines, even the sparkling-clean restrooms are impressive! So, no excuses. Get your group organized for a great journey to Germany.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


Making the Most of Volunteer Vacations

By guest blogger Leah Mayor, PhD

Volunteering abroad can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences. Choosing a pre-organized group trip means valuable knowledge, resources, and information will be available to help you integrate and immerse yourself in a new destination.

After living and volunteering abroad for more than three years in different countries as well as conducting years of research on the subject, here are a few tips to help you make of the most of your experience traveling abroad both as an individual and group traveler. 

Think about long-term impact.
Even if you are only volunteering for a few weeks, aligning yourself with an organization means that you are a part of an on-going relationship with a community.  Choose an organization that reflects the kind of relationship that you want to share with that community abroad and hopefully you will find ways to be a part of it even after returning home.

Know why you are going and align your motivations with your actions.
Not long ago, I spent 6 months helping volunteers acclimate to their new surroundings in Mongolia.  I worked with a woman who espoused that her main motivation was to immerse herself in another culture and learn from intercultural interactions.  Unfortunately, she spent most of her time in her tent avoiding the heat, the flies, and the very kinds of interactions that led her there. Clearly, her actions were not in-line with her goals. When volunteering abroad, you can expect to have to put more energy into situations simply because they will feel "new." Defining clearly your goals and intent will help you to reach out to more situations and opportunities so that you can achieve your goals and will lead to a more satisfying and transformative trip. 

Consider your skills and the destination.
Choosing a volunteer destination is not just about where you want to go on vacation. While many of us dream of riding through Mongolia on horseback or circumambulating Mt. Kailash this is not what the volunteer vacation is about. If you really want to travel to make a difference then your skills can help you determine where we go.  Consider the kind of impact you can make abroad.  When you are researching groups to volunteer with tell the organization about your skills and what you have to offer and see if they have any suggestions. Making an impact will help you to have the trip of a lifetime!

Do your research.
Nothing is more important before departure than knowing what you are getting into. Talk to people who have done the trip before, learn what kind of support you will have in your volunteer experience. Learn what you can about the kinds of people who choose the trip. Often Web sites and promotional materials show the best face of an organization. Talking to people will help you to assure that this is indicative of the actual experience there. There are some organizations that don't follow through in providing the kind of relationship with tourists or the community that they say they do.  Figuring this out is part of your job in ensuring an amazing volunteer experience.

Look inward and outward.
I have spent years working with international organizations and individual travelers to understand their motivations and experiences. While most of us emphasize the cultural understanding gained through travel, the truth is that our deepest insights are personal. Travel is a marvelous opportunity to come to a clearer sense of our own cultural lenses and to cut through limiting aspects of our own culture. When seen this way, time abroad can open an opportunity to live more authentically and free from cultural expectations. But it is important to not simplify the cultural codes of others. It is one thing to believe that "Life for Mongolians is simple." It is another to understand the meaning of this more closely resembles "Coming to Mongolia has simplified my life in ways that I hope to retain when I return home."

Bon voyage!

Leah Mayor holds a PhD in Adult Education from Cornell University and continues to conduct research and write about travel.


Kid-friendly Golf Resorts: Ten ways to know one when you see one

By guest blogger Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

Love family vacations? Love golf? Bringing the two together has never been easier, as more hotels and resorts are wooing parents with excellent golf schools and family-minded packages. But how will you know if a resort’s family golf program is really as kid-friendly as promised?

You can tell a lot simply by reading the property’s brochure or web site, says Jerramy Hainline, director of instruction at the Hilton Golf Academy, whose three resorts welcome over 350 kids each year. Compare how the resort describes its junior golf instruction with how it portrays its adult offerings. “If there’s very little difference in how the classes are described, it’s more than likely that the resort hasn’t tailored anything for kids,” says Hainline. “If a resort or school truly wants kids there, it will have made accommodations to offer junior golfers a quality experience.”

What else should you look for? Here are 10 more clues that a resort will deliver a golf vacation that’s truly a family affair:

  • On-course instruction. A no-brainer, right? Far from it. You’d be surprised at how often a kids’ golf “program” turns out to be a 90-minute etiquette lesson in a windowless conference room or an hour on a driving range plus a soda break. It’s critical that a program teaches kids how to play the game, not just how to drive a ball or putt. “Kids need to experience being on the course to bring it all together,” stresses Hainline. So if a resort’s junior program doesn’t feature any on-course time, it’s a deal breaker.
  • Reduced green fees. Discounts for junior golfers or deals where “kids play free” with a paying adult demonstrate that a resort is serious about encouraging kids to play.
  • Low student-instructor ratio. Class size for kids ages 6 to 17 should never exceed six kids per instructor, says Hainline. “And for 4- to 5-year-olds, the ratio should be closer to 2 to 1.”
  • Inclusive instruction. Even preschoolers can learn the fundamentals of golf, including the basic rules of etiquette—whose turn it is to putt, where to stand, and that old bugaboo, when to be quiet. A family-friendly resort will have come up with ways for kids as young as 5 or 6 to participate in the game.
  • Child-savvy pros. “You want instructors who have experience with the programs and a history of working with junior golfers,” says Eric Alpenfels, director of instruction at the Golf Academy at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. “I think five years of experience is a good start. Junior-golf certification programs vary from facility to facility.” If you can’t find this information on the resort’s web site, call and ask.
  • Family-friendly tees. Most youngsters don’t have the skill and strength required to play a long course. To get kids in the game, many resorts now offer forward tees set at shorter distances. Having a variety of tees allows the family to play together, with Mom and Dad playing the long course and kids hitting from the forward tees. Some resorts even have special scorecards with more realistic pars for kids.
  • Kid-size clubs. “Cut-offs” are adult clubs that have simply been shortened, resulting in a heavy head relative to shaft length. They’re better than nothing, says Hainline. But it’s preferable that a resort provide kids with junior clubs, which are scaled down appropriately from top to bottom.
  • Big balls, little balls. Young kids are still working on eye-hand coordination. At the Hilton Golf Academy, junior golfers start off hitting beach balls. Once they’ve mastered those, it’s on to rubber balls, then tennis balls, and finally golf balls.
  • Designated family time. Many resorts now offer special tee times reserved just for families. Pinehurst’s “Family Fairways” program goes one better, giving parents and their kids one course all to themselves for several hours each afternoon. “Family Fairways takes the intimidation factor out of play,” says Alpenfels. “You don’t need to worry about who’s behind you, or hitting in the middle of the fairway, or going straight to the putting green.”
  • Non-golf kids’ activities. If family members have varying levels of skill and interest, it’s simply unrealistic to expect your whole clan to golf 24/7. Look for a swimming pool and other recreational activities to keep everyone happy. An on-site kids’ camp or babysitting service will add flexibility to your schedule.

Bio: Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the Editor-in-Chief of WeJustGotBack.com, a family travel website with resort and hotel reviews, how-to articles, readers’ tips and recommendations, and planning advice for kid-friendly vacations.

 


Virginia is Still for Lovers… of Food, Wine, and Relaxation

By guest blogger Andrea Deagle

Are you fond of television shows where people go to an old building and have a paranormal experience? Consider yourself a history buff? Do you like cooking demos that let you taste the food? Does 45 minutes sipping wine while watching a sunset sound appealing? Virginia – the Old Dominion – is still a terrific place to sightsee and now offers ways to investigate the unknown and indulge in the here and now.

More than a family vacation spot, Williamsburg has become a town rich in visual arts, fine food, and ecotourism. Located in the Mid-Atlantic, this charming town has the good fortune of entertaining visitors year-round. It's a place where you can feel at home, get a taste of the South, brush up on American history, and feel safe.

Whether touring with a bus group (a great way to get discount attraction tickets) or with family, there is so much in the surrounding 50 miles. To get started, here is the baker's dozen of essential ingredients for your Williamsburg "to do" list (day trips included).

  1. Jamestown Island (National Park Service) – This is the real beginning of America – 1607. Stories of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and the amazing New World colony lay here on the banks of the beautiful James River.
  2. Jamestown Settlement – Three reconstructed ships are open to public; rebuilt James Fort (houses, church, blacksmith) and the Indian village are also open; plus a state-of-the-art museum with London to America and Africa to America journeys.
  3. Colonial Williamsburg – An architectural wonder, this is a fully restored 18th century city with a great combination of living history, relaxing walk-about opportunities and decorator’s dreams. Take the Tavern Ghost Tour hosted by tavern employees.
  4. Art Galleries – Merchant's Square, near the College of William & Mary, is home to 15 galleries and shops and a short walk from the historic area of Williamsburg.
  5. Williamsburg Cuisine – Seven bistros, three colonial taverns, a theater kitchen, two nationally-acclaimed dining rooms, and great barbeque are a sampling of how this town offers something for everyone.
  6. Ecotourism – Grab your binoculars to spot some of the many bald eagles that nest here. Bicycling, kayaking, and hiking on trails are all available as low environmental impact activities. Also, check out the nearby Great Dismal Swamp for wildlife and recreation.
  7. Busch Gardens – Voted "most beautiful theme park" for 16 consecutive years by the National Amusement Park Historical Association, this park offers a different twist with a European theme and top-rated roller coasters, the famous Clydesdale horses, and renowned live shows.
  8. President's Park – Think you can name all U.S. presidents? You might after a visit here. Walk the trail through busts of all presidents, a collection of first ladies' gowns, and the oval office set from Saturday Night Live.
  9. Williamsburg Winery – There are superb wines being produced here, plus a restaurant, tastings, gift shop, and museum.
  10. Yorktown – Take a short drive to Yorktown, historic site for the last battle (and surrender) of the Revolutionary War. York River waterfront area has shops, restaurants, and river tours.
  11. Virginia Tidewater Plantations – See ruins, farms, majestic mansions – all captivating and part of the American fabric.
  12. Richmond – Home to revolutions of many kinds from Patrick Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech, the capital of the Southern Confederacy, and the African-American strive for civil rights. Also, take time to visit Virginia's capitol building.
  13. Relax – Golf (plenty of courses), shopping (from eclectic to mainstream), spas, water (Water Country, Virginia Beach, your hotel's pool), gardens, and playgrounds.

Like many destinations, there are different reasons to go at different times of the year. Virginia summers can be hot and humid, but this is a great time to plan some "get wet" activities. Winter is mild and peaceful, with the occasional snowfall to make it magical. Spring is azaleas, tulips, daffodils, and school kids. Fall may be one of the perfect times to visit. Foliage peaks at the end of October and the weather averages the high 60’s.

For additional information, the Virginia Tourism Corporation has extensive Web-based guides, and Williamsburg has two sites, gowilliamsburg.com and visitwilliamsburg.com.  Group tour information can be found on all Web sites.

Andrea Deagle is a native Virginian and resident of Williamsburg. She is currently Director of Group Sales for the Hampton Inn & Suites Historic and has been involved in the travel industry for over 20 years.


5 Tips for Planning a Winter (Ski) Resort Wedding

By guest blogger Blair deLaubenfels

Whistler_winter_wedding2Does the idea of a winter wedding complete with sleigh rides, making tracks through fresh powder, hot toddies, and friends around a roaring fire make you feel warm and cozy inside, but the idea of planning for one leaves you cold? Then try these 5 tips for simplifying winter wedding planning.

1. Choose a resort that offers something for everyone.
North America is full of fabulous places to ski and snowboard, but not all of your guests will be enthusiastic about heading to the slopes. Pick a location that offers a wide range of activities and choices for everybody. Resorts like Whistler, Breckenridge and Vail offer first class nightlife, dining and shopping, as well as plenty of other relaxing and entertaining options for guests of all ages.

2. Hire a local consultant
Even if you're quite familiar with the area you've chosen, finding a highly recommended wedding planner who has lots of experience planning weddings at that destination is a must. Ask for references and check them. Once you've found someone you're comfortable working with, set a budget you can live with and supply the consultant with as much information about the preferences of the guests on your list as you can. Stay in close contact as changes arise.

3. Book early.
Peak times at coveted ski resorts are often booked a year or more in advance, so be sure that you get your reservations all set 12 to 18 months before your wedding. Send out invitations as soon as you've made your arrangements so friends and family have plenty of time to schedule time off and travel.

4. Help your guests plan
Have your consultant provide a detailed itinerary to each person attending. Be sure that it includes a map of the area, transportation arrangements to and from accommodations and events, an hourly time-line for your wedding day and the days leading up to it, as well as contact information for your consultant and local emergency numbers. In addition, guests who aren’t familiar with ski resort living will appreciate a packing list with all the items necessary for them to keep warm and safe.

5. Consider taking your photographer with you.
Seattle wedding consultant Dianne Greene, of Distinctive Weddings and Events, recommends that you hire a photographer who lives near you so that you can meet and see their work before your wedding. When your photos and album are ready you'll be able to pick them up in person, insuring that you get what you paid for.

Blair deLaubenfels is Senior Editor for Junebug Weddings.

Photo supplied by Whistler photographer David Buzzard


Health Precautions When Traveling

By guest blogger Brianne Wheeler
Part two of two-part series on travel insurance and precautions to take

Preparations and precautions can and should be taken when traveling in groups, especially to foreign countries. Here are the Consumer Reports on Health risks and precautions to be taken to prepare better for a trip. They go hand in hand with travel insurance to provide traveler peace of mind.

Traveler's Diarrhea
Most common illness, strikes up to 60% of visitors to developing countries

  • Self-help step: Avoid non-pasteurized dairy products and tap water
  • Self-help step: Choose foods served steaming hot
  • Medical supplies to pack: Non prescription loperamide (Imodium A-D)
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription antibiotics for more severe cases

Motion Sickness
Nausea as a result of the inner ear, eyes, and body sending conflicting signals to the brain while flying, boating and driving

  • Self-help step: Keep head still, close eyes or look at stationary objects
  • Self-help step: Avoid reading
  • Self-help step: Open vents or windows to increase air flow
  • Self-help step: Move to the center of the boat
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription scopolamine skin patch (Transaderm-Scop) or tablet version (Scopace)
  • Medical supplies to pack: OTC drugs dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizene (Bonine) are not as effective

Jet Lag
Insomnia, irritability, and foggy-headedness caused by a sudden time-zone shift

  • Self-help step: Before traveling, shift activities to correspond to time zone of destination
  • Self-help step: After arrival, spend time in the sun
  • Medical supplies to pack: Melatonin (2-3mg) may ease symptoms when started on first night of travel (has not worked in some studies)

Insect-Borne Diseases
Across much of Latin America, Africa and Asia, mosquito-borne malaria and dengue fever are serious concerns

  • Self-help step: Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, closed-toe shoes
  • Self-help step: Use repellents containing 30-35% deet on exposed skin
  • Self-help step: Sleep under mosquito net treated with permethrin repellent (Duranon, Permanone)
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine is available for Malaria; ask your doctor for the best drug for your destination
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine or preventative drug is currently available for Dengue Fever

High Altitude Sickness
Headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting resulting from a rapid increase in elevation

  • Self-help step: Before going to a high altitude, spend a few days at an intermediate elevation
  • Self-help step: Until you are acclimated, avoid rigorous activity
  • Self-help step: Drink a lot of fluid to avoid dehydration
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription acetazolamide (Diamox) starting 1-2 days before altitude change

Blood Clots in Airplanes
Prolonged sitting increases the risk of leg clots, potentially causing a life-threatening lung embolism

  • Self-help step: While seated, flex ankles and knees often
  • Self-help step: Walk in the aisles about once an hour
  • Self-help step: Drink plenty of non-alcoholic beverage before, during and after flight to avoid dehydration
  • Medical supplies to pack: If you take a drug that increases the chance of clots or have other risk factors, consider compression stockings, and/or ask your doctor about preventative aspirin or heparin

Car Accidents and Other Injuries
Accounts for about 1 in 4 travel-associated deaths

  • Self-help step: Don't drive at night in rural areas
  • Self-help step: Don't drink while swimming or boating
  • Self-help step: If possible, choose lodging with smoke detectors and sprinklers
  • Medical supplies to pack: Bring bandages, sunblock, tweezers, moleskin for blisters, water purification tablets, pain reliever, topical antibiotic
  • Medical supplies to pack: Carry list of medical conditions and contact numbers

Avian Influenza A (H5N1)
Transmission to humans is rare, but the influenza is widespread in birds

  • Self-help step: Avoid contact with chickens, ducks, geese, live-food markets, places contaminated with poultry excrement
  • Self-help step: Make sure food is thoroughly cooked
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine for Avian Flu is currently available
  • Medical supplies to pack: Risk is too small to warrant carrying anti-flu prescription drugs

Source: Courtesy Consumer Reports on Health

Brianne Wheeler is the Assistant Marketing Manager for Travel Assist Network, a global medical services company that provides medial evacuation, travel protection, and critical information services to travelers worldwide. It also provides custom protection for corporations, travel groups, and non-profit organizations tailored to meet each group's coverage needs.


Travel Insurance Insider's Tips

By guest blogger Brianne Wheeler
Part one of two-part series on travel insurance and precautions to take

Since the September 11 attacks, many travelers and group travel organizers have become increasingly concerned with their health and safety while away from home. As a result, many companies have launched travel protection products to give travelers peace of mind.

Here are common travel insurance options for individuals and groups, plus tips for finding what's right for you:

Medical Evacuation: Provides emergency transportation for a traveler who has a medical emergency, which is especially important when traveling to remote areas.  Medical evacuation membership programs offer an array of additional benefits, such as lost luggage compensation and guaranteed hospital admission.

The fine print:

  • Nearest Appropriate Facility: With this coverage, you are likely not going to be transported to your home hospital, but rather to the nearest clinic or hospital that the insurance company deems adequate. You can also look for coverage that provides transportation to the home or specialty hospital of your choice. Independent medical evacuation services, as opposed to comprehensive travel protection policies, often provide this option.
  • Coverage Limits: If a group of travelers purchases a plan covering $20,000 of medical evacuation per person and one of the travelers has a medical emergency with a cost to evacuate of $75,000, the patient is responsible for covering the remaining $55,000.  Be sure to purchase coverage that is unlimited or has a very high dollar limit.

Travel Health Insurance: These policies typically cover expenses that a traveler may incur from being in the hospital or seeing a physician while traveling. Coverage may also include benefits such as trip interruption, trip cancellation, travel delay, extreme sports and identity theft assistance. Note: Coverage may also include medical evacuation coverage, but several companies offer medical evacuation as an independent service.

The fine print:

  • Trip Cancellation Coverage: Before purchasing trip cancellation, make sure you know what the limitations are. For example, if a group of surfers plan a trip to Florida and a hurricane hits three days before their departure, most companies require that they cancel prior to the storm being officially named. Outside of bad weather, some policies will allow you to cancel for any reason; however, many only let you cancel for personal or family medical reasons.
  • Terrorism Coverage: With the recent political unrest around the globe, some companies have listened to travelers' concerns and expanded coverage to include benefits for travelers who are injured victims of a terrorist act. You'll want to ensure your coverage includes this benefit.

Although, thankfully, the majority of people travel to and from their destination with no medical emergencies or other issues, it's nice to have peace of mind and protection from unforeseen events. A tip for groups: purchase coverage together because groups usually receive discounted rates. Finally, here's a list of travel preparations and risks in various regions of the globe. Bon voyage!

Brianne Wheeler is the Assistant Marketing Manager for Travel Assist Network, a global medical services company that provides medial evacuation, travel protection, and critical information services to travelers worldwide. It also provides custom protection for corporations, travel groups, and non-profit organizations tailored to meet each group's coverage needs.


Garden Tour Destinations

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie
See How to Organize a Group Garden Tour as part one of a two-part series.

Doing a garden tour with family or friends is a nice activity for all ages; and there are gorgeous gardens across the globe. Have a look at these sample garden tours to whet your appetite for plants, flowers, shrubs, and all things botany:

Philadelphia: Gardens Galore

  • Philadelphia is famous for its annual Flower Show in early March but in the greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area there are more than 25 beautiful public gardens to visit. They range from the historic Bartram Gardens to the Chanticleer pleasure garden to the rare tree specimens at the Morris Arboretum and gorgeous plantings at Longwood Gardens.
  • If you'd like an extra special, private tour of these exquisite gardens and the area's cultural and historic treasures, contact: Philadelphia Hospitality. Or, if you'd like to do a tour on your own, several hotels offer special garden packages. For more information, contact: http://www.gophila.com.

Washington State: Celebrate spring

The right mix of climate and soil has made Washington State a wonderland for flowers. Each year during peak bloom season, festivals are held throughout the state to celebrate the glorious variety of flora. You can walk through tulip fields, visit lavender farms, stop at nurseries and get gardening tips from professional growers.

  • Over 500 different species of rhododendrons grow wild in Washington State (it’s the state flower). To see how remarkable these shrubs can look, visit the annual Rhododendron Festival in May.
  • Some fifty varieties of lavender grow on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. In July, at the annual Lavender Festival, you can go into the fields to pick your own lavender.
  • At the annual Tulip Festival each April, garden lovers wander through colorful tulip fields larger than those in Holland and visit display gardens and greenhouses. If you find a few favorites for your own garden, you can have bulbs shipped home.

England: Britain in bloom

England is a divine location for garden lovers because of the wide variety of garden design styles (formal, informal, etc.). You can attend the Chelsea Flower Show in May or the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July, when the perennials and roses are at their best. Be sure to include stops at gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley gardens—240 acres with model gardens offering planting ideas.

  • In the Cotswolds, visit fine gardens such as Sudeley Castle with radiant old-fashioned roses, parterres and colorful herbaceous borders and Hidcote's classic English garden "rooms" with different color schemes and planting themes.
  • Southern England has fabulous historic and romantic gardens such as Vita Sackville West's Sissinghurst Castle Garden with color-themed garden rooms; plus, Hever Castle, complete with romantic moat, maze, Italian gardens, classical statuary and fine topiaries.
  • These garden tour companies offer excellent itineraries: Coopersmith's; Brightwater Holidays.

France: Vive les fleurs!

France is a dream destination for glorious gardens. Everywhere you turn, there's another botanical beauty--from the Bagatelle Gardens in Paris, filled with irises and roses, to the formal gardens of Versailles and the world-renowned gardens of Claude Monet at Giverney in Normandy. In the Loire Valley, Villandry is thought to be one of the most beautiful and authentic Renaissance gardens. On the French Riviera, the Rothschild's Villa Ephrussi, with its seven distinct gardens, is a must see and in the south of France the terraced gardens at Chateau Val Joanis are a visual wonder.

  • For an extra special French garden experience, try this for your group: The Prieuré d'Orsan is a spectacular, recreated medieval garden on the grounds of a restored, 12th-century monastery (now a 7-room boutique hotel). In addition to staying at the hotel and visiting this magnificent garden, you can also take gardening and cooking workshops. All the meals are prepared using herbs, vegetables and fruits and other ingredients fresh from the garden. This is a not-to-be-missed experience.
  • These garden tour companies offer excellent itineraries: Jeff Sainsbury Tours; Brightwater Holidays.

Morocco: Everything's coming up roses

  • If the desert is the only thing that comes to mind when you think of Morocco, you’ll be surprised that some of the most gorgeous roses bloom in the fertile Dades Valley. The Rose Festival of El Kelaa in Ouarzazate province celebrates the flower harvest in mid-May. This event dates back to the 17th century, when roses were brought to the Dades Valley of eastern Morocco by pilgrims returning from Mecca.
  • In this magnificent setting, the rose crop is celebrated with music, folk-dancing and singing, handicraft exhibitions, banquets, flower-decked floats, the selection of a "Miss Rose," camel-rides and an excursion down the valley of roses. 

The Caribbean: Garden jewels

Several Caribbean islands are a floral paradise.  Jamaica’s botanical gardens are a showcase of showy, exotic plants. You can visit them all--Hope Gardens, the Goodson Garden, Cranbrook Flower Forest and Shaw Park Gardens.

Cruises: On-shore gardens

If you love gardens and cruises, here's a way to combine the two:

  • Spring Pilgrimage: Relive the glory days of steamboating with a trip down the Mississippi River. Along the banks lay the beautiful gardens and plantations of the Old South. During "Pilgrimage Open House" in the spring, local garden clubs host tours of lovely homes and gardens.
  • Dutch Bulbfield Cruise: There are few things more beautiful than the Dutch countryside in bloom. Cruise along the Rhine and Waal rivers and connecting canals, past historic towns such as Amsterdam, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Utrecht, Dordrecht and Delft. Springtime in Holland means flowers galore. On this cruise, you'll visit the world famous Keukenhof gardens, with over 6 million tulip, daffodil and hyacinth varieties on display, and the grand Het Loo Palace, considered one of Europe's finest formal gardens.

Final thoughts on visiting gardens:
Booking an organized garden tour is a wonderful option. The tours are led by horticulture experts, everything is arranged for your group and you stay in lovely accommodations. But, these tours can be a bit pricey. (They range from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars per person. However, most garden tour companies will give a price break if you are booking for a group.) So, in addition to selecting a garden destination, you need to factor in your group's budget.

You can always book rooms at a centrally-located hotel or resort in your preferred area and arrange day trips on your own from there to the various gardens. However, plan it so that wherever you go, a garden trip will be a delightful experience for everyone in your group. And when at a family reunion, destination wedding, weekend getaway, retreat, and so forth, don't forget to stop and smell the roses.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.


How to Organize a Group Garden Tour

By guest blogger Jacquelin Carnegie
See Garden Tour Destinations as part two of this two-part series.

Group_travel_garden_tours_002If you and your family and friends are garden enthusiasts—or just like to look at pretty fleurs—going on a garden tour is a wonderful experience. For garden experts in your group, it's a great way to get new planting ideas. And, for those who just like to gaze, visiting colorful gardens is a visual treat.

Go on a garden tour lead by horticulture experts or set your own itinerary. You can visit magnificent gardens close to home or as far away as your imagination (and budget) takes you! Schedule your trip to coincide with well-known flower festivals or just try to arrive when the gardens will be at peak bloom. The only rule of thumb (or green thumb) is to start researching and planning now. Don't wait until spring to arrange your trip.
 
How to begin researching a garden tour vacation:

  1. Garden Clubs: Nearly every state in the union has a garden club. Many organize local home and garden tours each spring; some organize tours to other parts of the world. You'll find links to garden clubs nationwide on the National Garden Clubs' Web site.
  2. Public and Botanical Gardens: Many gardens offer tours of their own lovely grounds as well as tours of other gardens. Here's a list (and links to) Botanical Gardens to visit in the United States.
  3. Gardening Magazines and Web sites: You can pick up great ideas on gardens to visit by flipping through a gardening magazine or checking out a gardening Web site. See Horticulture, American Horticultural Society, or visit http://www.gardenvisit.com and the National Gardening Association's events calendar.
  4. Garden Tour Companies: There are several excellent garden tour companies. Just looking over their itineraries will inspire you to pack your bags and get your group in gear. These companies arrange everything for you and can also create custom tours for your group: Coopersmith's; Jeff Sainsbury Tours; Brightwater Holidays.
  5. Word of Mouth: If you have friends and neighbors who love gardening, perhaps they've gone on a garden tour and can offer some suggestions. If not, just look at these garden tour destinations for ideas.

Jacquelin Carnegie is a Contributing Travel Editor to Accent magazine. For the past 15 years, she has covered international travel destinations for both consumer and business publications.

Photo provided by Jeff Sainsbury Tours


Lucky 7 Tips from a Volunteer Vacation Group Leader

By guest blogger Suzzanne Lacey

So, you say you're a giver. Giving up your vacation time for a good cause could be the most satisfying way to spend a week or two of your life. But how should you spend it? Which volunteer opportunity fits you best? I've led countless group trips and have learned a few lessons along the way. Here are my tips for volunteer vacationers:

1. Core mission matches your values: Do you agree with and support the organization's mission? Consider this first before agreeing to join a group. It takes patience and commitment to volunteer with a non-profit, and altruistic as the cause may be, you should believe 100 percent in what you're doing since you're giving up free vacation time and money. There are many types of volunteer vacations: counting sea turtles, excavating a Roman fortress, tutoring children. You can also travel solo or take the family. Overall, it's important to remember that this is work. Tax-deductible work, but work nonetheless.

2. Commit to the trip: Organizers of such trips (educational tours, for instance) need volunteers to be committed and available so they can assist on the trip. Be prepared to do the work needed on the trip and sign up only when you can fully commit. It's helpful for (yourself and) the organization. If you're making cheese on an organic farm in France, spend time researching the region. If teaching English in China, head to a shelf at your library or bookstore that will enlighten you on China's history.

3. Donations, in addition to fees, help: Yes, you're giving your much appreciated free time to help a worthy cause, but often the non-profit still struggles with funding. In many instances, volunteer vacations require that you pay part or all of your way. However, for those that don't (you're lucky if you find this) you can still donate money to the cause. Most non-profits include administrative fees in the trip price to offset overhead costs, but like all "good causes," anything extra, even in-kind donations (accounting advice or an old scanner in good condition) can help. Expect to pay fees from $600 to $3500 for a volunteer vacation.

4. Sleeping situations: Get ready for an experience. You're on an adventure and chances are you'll have an opportunity to sleep anywhere from a dorm room to a tent—and you'll have a roommate if you don't travel with a friend or family. Please be kind and know that you're on a peace, educational, or environmental mission and your time, as your roommates' time, is valuable. But standards may be different than what you expect. Keep an open mind and go with the flow.

5. Keeping in touch: I don't go anywhere without my laptop. As group leader, it's not only necessary for my work, but also how I keep in contact with friends and family. Skype is a brilliant technological invention. Simply plug in a microphone and headphone and talk anywhere in the world for pennies, or even for free. When I was in Austria last May, I spoke to my parents, two friends, and a colleague for $1.50 total. If you don't carry a laptop with you, many cyber cafés around the world are Skype-ready. If you really feel adventurous, for about $12, you can acquire a local phone number where people can call you around the world for free.

6. Free time: Expect some free time. All volunteer vacations build in time to get to know your surroundings. It is expected that you'll want to do some exploring, since the destination is likely new to you. Just as you would prepare for any other vacation, research places to go during your free time. When you're at the bookstore picking up that sea turtle book, grab a destination guide, too.

7. What to wear/bring: Find out what clothing is truly appropriate for the trip from the organization ahead of time. Don't be caught in the Amazon without rain gear or in Mississippi with only long-sleeve shirts in the heat of August. Ask what you should bring and what you should leave at home. Any good organization will have a list ready and should be more than happy to pass it and other information along. They should also be willing to respond to any preparation question, no matter how small. Ask away!

Most important is being open to new experiences. There will be moments of shock and awe. You'll also become aware of your weaknesses and strengths.

There are still moments on my trips that surprise me. I spent some time in the southern U.S. this past summer and learned there was such a thing as a "flying, giant cockroach." This turned out to be a problem for many on the trip. But as we ended up laughing about our irrational fear of something so much smaller than us, I still slept with the sheets wrapped around me like a cocoon and my walkman headphones tucked tightly on my ears. It was a comical couple of days on the program. It was also the only city we left on time and the first one we laugh about at reunions. Volunteer vacations are made of lasting moments that don't fall into any itinerary or description. But you can count on them being more than worth the time or money for the unique adventure.

Suzzanne Lacey is a freelance journalist and Founder and Executive Director of Museum Without Walls, a non-profit that plans and gives educational tours around the world.