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September 2006

10 Tips: How to Choose the Right Group Tour

By guest blogger Phyllis Stoller

If you're considering going on a professionally-arranged group tour, there are key things to ask about in the first ten minutes of your research. Here are the 10 most important things to consider:

1. References: Make sure the references the wholesaler gives you are for similar groups to yours. Example: if they only take European travelers, you might find group needs differ from those of Americans.

2. Small print averse? At least read cancellation penalties and figure how much you can lose if your trip does not meet its numbers. Airline ticket cancellations are usually the surprise loss. Note: a substantial group organizer will have some pull and flexibility with your hotel/airline choices.

3. Hotel quality: Google the hotel used in the capital city on the itinerary for a general flavor. If the hotel is a condition of your contract, make that clear up front. Many group contracts only specify X hotel or similar.

4. Red flag the word "from" on pricing. It means you are looking at the lowest price.

5. Trip pace: If breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included, you'll be on a leisurely moving trip. I recommend usually 2 meals a day for groups over 25; it moves the trip along. Ask where the meals are held: hotel or restaurant.

6. Financial security: Most group deposits are payable by check only, so credit card acceptance will not gauge financial stability of your wholesaler. But check for travel insurance availability and, if the group tour organizer/operator offers insurance, make sure you know the name of the insurer.

7. Trip length: Forget number of days, most wholesalers include "travel days."

8. Check trade association memberships like ASTA, BBB, and length of time the company has been doing groups exclusively. Many agents doing individual reservations will tell you they also do groups. Other gauges: a 24-hour emergency number, ability to issue tickets themselves, country specialists, pre-printed customized labels, luggage tags, etc. will tell you this is a real company.

9. Prompt responses from the company mean they are group-friendly. Prompt email responses means they cater to Internet savvy travelers.

10. Customer service: Check that the company has a street address and more than one person in their group department.

Get a few quotes and don't be shy to ask for more information on any issue.

Phyllis Stoller has been a group tour organizer for 15 years and is currently President of Women's Travel Club, wholesale operator and largest such group for women in North America. For 15 years Women's Travel Club has run group trips for women.

Travel Carnival: 3rd Edition

The 3rd carnival of travel brings a kaleidoscope of perspectives on family travel, adventures into lesser known territory, solo sojourns, traveling with friends, and travel tips. The carnival keeps rolling, and the writing stays fresh and engaging, making me want to get out and travel.

So, I think I will. For the next two weeks, I'll be on a boat trip in the San Juan Islands hiking, kayaking, and doing some serious relaxing. Next carnival of travel will be in mid September. Until then, enjoy this thoroughly eclectic assortment of travel articles.

Please Pass the Olives 
Food brings people together, even when they don't speak the same language. Pam brought me right back to being in Italy with one of the most enjoyable reads I've had it a while! I really must visit another Tuscan villa. It's time. 

Hidden Gems: Hell
Replete with puns, wit, gorgeous photos, and one helluva sense of adventure, this trip to Hell, "a small corner tucked away on Grand Cayman's northwest corner" on the dreaded 6/6/06 is quite a tale from Willy at Gadling.

Himalayas: Room With View, and Bath 
Basia's sense of humor and adventure took her all the way to the Himalayas, nearly to Everest, and on a brief detour to a hot, steamy experience of a lifetime. An unbelievable trek.

Paris Catacombs
Beneath the streets of Paris lies a vast network of catacombs, containing the bones of an estimated six million former residents. Joe's account of his journey to the catacombs of Paris is haunting and fascinating all at once. Perhaps an idea to see the dark side of the City of Lights? A thought-provoking post indeed.

River City Food and Wine
An anniversary trip culminates in Montreal, with reviews of lunch, dinner. If you've never been to this Canadian city, this post gives a snapshot (literally and figuratively) of what to expect. The Botanical Gardens and a glass of pear cognac are first on my list, if I ever go.

10 Tips to Help You Deal with Airport Security
Directly from a flight attendant, here are tips to maneuver through airport security, when the code keeps changing colors. While specific requirements will change depending on circumstances, the tips are still relevant.

Because You Can't Depend Solely on William Shatner's Word 
If you've ever used Priceline or been curious how much of a deal you'll really get, Mike at Pocket Change sheds some light on a site aimed at helping Priceline users make informed bids from other Priceline users. 

Hold the Mustard, Please
When a nine-year-old and her mother (Kelly) go out for crab in Maryland, they get more than they bargained for.

Trinity Prep School - Landing Inside Our Books 
Incorporating educational travel with homeschooling, Maureen blogs about a family trip where the kids experienced the wonders of discovering the Great Lakes and Louis and Clarke path through both the eyes of the authors and themselves.

A Journey of 13,000 Miles - By Jetski
Two men are going for the Guinness Book of World Records, attempting to jet ski from Alaska to Florida (13,500 miles) without a support team. They're currently just reaching Mexico's waters.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial 
Foo Chuan describes why you should visit the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, located in Taipei City, Republic of China. This memorial honors the late President Chiang Kai-shek.

My Forgettable Trip to Egypt - Part I 
Simonne returned from a trip to Egypt with a less than favorable impression. My take aways? Don't go to Cairo for a pleasant stroll in the big city; instead, learn how to walk like an Egyptian (and not get hit by cars). Also, there's no such thing as a free camel ride, especially by the pyramids.


Vacations for Generation Y

Here's something shocking. Call me a Gen X traditionalist, but Gen Y kids have it easy when taking family vacations. Not only are rental SUVs equipped with DVDs so kids can substitute road trip daydreaming (something no doubt good for their brains) with spacing out blankly at a screen, now hotels are taking Gen Y travel targeting to the hilt.

Oahu's Hilton Hawaiian Village now offers YSpa with massage and other treatments for teens and tweens. I guess it isn't enough to enjoy a family vacation, snorkeling and swimming in the sun-kissed waters of Hawaii. Now kids need pampering for all their hard school work (and parents foot the bill)? If I reflect back on my teenage years (ack, don't make me!) I think I would have died to have a spa vacation. But now that I'm an adult and can afford the services for myself, I realize what a treat spa services are. If they had been handed to me as a teen, I don't think I would have the same appreciation for such an indulgence.

When these Generation Y kids grow up, what will they have to look forward to as a treat?

Universal Packing List

In preparing for an upcoming boating vacation, I got to thinking about what I needed to bring. I've never taken an extended boating trip and keep peppering my captain with questions. He's the boating veteran, chef, and navigator - but I'm the list maker. It's all in his head (flares, battery charger, food, packing essentials) and I needed to see a concrete list so I could get organized, too.

Luckily, I just learned about the Universal Packing List, a one-of-a-kind application that helps you quickly prepare for most trips. You simply fill in details about your trip, and the it spits out your list for free. Exactly what I needed.

I tried out the application for my boat trip and was impressed. It doesn't have a particularly snazzy design, but the basic list is all you really need. I selected "All items" for my packing list length (you have a choice of "normal length" "just critical items" and more) and found a plethora of things to do before leaving (from handling spare house keys to holding mail) as well as a full packing list.

Opt to view the comments. They're helpful and specific. Examples: bring a collaged photocopy of pictures of loved ones if you think you'll get homesick, leave most wallet contents at home and only bring the basic credit cards and ID (so if stolen, you don't have to also replace your library card, video rental card, and so forth).

Obviously, each trip has its specific requirements, but the Universal Packing List is about as comprehensive a starting point as it gets.

Early Fall Festivals

Are you a last-minute traveler? Spontaneous to the core? If so, you're probably too busy enjoying summer to think about early fall. But you may to keep a few festivals on your radar. September is a golden time of year for cooler weather, for warm, gentle breezes, for parents who get to usher their kids onto school buses or into schools, for the buzz of summer to wind down, and for people to plan those last days of summer vacations.

There are several September festivals for all spectrums of life: families, music lovers, art adorers, food fanatics, and more. Here's a snippet of what's on the horizon for late summer, early fall.

Sausalito Art Festival, Labor Day Weekend (early September)
The Mediterranean-style seaside town of Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, has hosted the world-famous art festival annually since 1952. "The best local, American, and International Artists bring their combined perspectives, virtuoso skills, and more than 20,000 original works of art — including paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, fiber art, fine glass, woodwork, mixed media, and photography."

Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, September
"...three days of world-renowned musicians performing live on the famous Telluride Town Park stage, late night jams in the local juke joints, 50 choice microbreweries serving up their handcrafted "cream of the barrel" during Saturday's Grand Tasting, the Rainbow Kids area, free Acoustic Artist Series, Blues For Breakfast, and the Telluride Acoustic Blues Camp."

La Tamale Festival in Los Angeles, September
This red hot event is in its second year, drawing 60,000 visitors. You can enjoy a kids pavilion, world record-eating contests, tamale-making classes, and as much spicy Latin sauce as you can dish up.

Russian Mosaic Festival in Philadelphia, September
This free festival will be a day packed with music, dance, and entertainment. This year's seven-hour concert program is set to showcase the Russian community's original folk, classical, and ballroom dancing performers.

Plano Balloon Festival in Plano/Dallas/Fort Worth, late September
A "something-for-everyone" event, this festival is filled with plenty of hot air. Cow-shaped balloons awe the crowds from above, hot air balloons offer rides, a team of expert sky divers do stunts out of planes. All this with entertainment, food, and plenty to keep the kiddies occupies.

Visit to find a wide range of other arts, cultural, music, and family festivals in the U.S. and around world.


Your Wedding - Your Way

Stress-free wedding planning that reflects your personal style.

By guest blogger Blair deLaubenfels

Getting engaged brings euphoria, joy, and expectation. But all too often the initial excitement that comes from saying "yes" to the big question gets lost in the attempt to answer all the little questions like who to hire, what to wear, where to get married, and how much will it cost.

Here are five fun steps to help plan the wedding of your dreams, personal style in tact.

1. Share your deepest desires

Great partners care about each other's dreams and know how to lend support to help them come true. Before you run out and tell your family and friends your big news, sit down with your fiancé and make a list based on your deepest desires.

  • List ten things that you really want from your wedding and the five things that are most important to you about your honeymoon.
  • Number them in order of priority.
  • Talk about why you choose those things and make a pact that you will work together to see that most, if not all of your deepest desires will be met as you make your wedding planning decisions. This mutual understanding and trust will help you arrive at decisions and respond to all the well meaning advice you’re bound to encounter on your way.
  • If you start worrying over little things, check your priority list to get back to what really matters.

2. Set up your support team

With the help of trustworthy friends, supportive family members, and recommended wedding professionals, you'll be able to design a stress-free wedding. Put together a friends and family team based on love, reliability, and interest, and give some thought to the unique skills and talents each individual can bring to your day. Don't be shy to delegate.

Choose the professionals you need by recommendation. Hire an experienced wedding consultant that can share their expertise with you or ask friends who have been married recently. Talk to other wedding professionals and look for businesses that have won local and national awards and recognition. Check references! It doesn't take long and the feedback you get will be invaluable in bolstering your confidence, or steering you clear of a costly mistake.

3. Agree on a budget

This is one of the toughest parts of wedding planning. The average wedding in the United States costs between $18,000 and $25,000 depending on where you live. Use your priority list to set a comfortable budget. Splurge on the things that are really important and get creative about the rest.

Junebug Weddings image editor Kim Bamberg and her husband Adam shared their desires and set their budget in a truly inspiring way. They discovered that they had both always dreamt of getting married in France and that Kim had envisioned herself in a gorgeous gown since she was a little girl. Before anyone told them their dreams were too outrageous, they found the perfect chateau just outside of Paris, rented it for a whole week for less than the average reception cost in Seattle, and invited their friends and family to join them on a once in a lifetime vacation. With cake from the neighborhood boulangerie, flowers from a local market, and the most memorable wine on the planet from the vintner down the lane, Kim was ecstatic when she made her way down the aisle in her Madina Vadache designer original.

4. Reflect your personal style

Do what feels most like you! Most cowboys aren't crazy about tuxes with tails, and fashionistas usually aren't comfortable in anything but the very latest haute couture. Don't let magazines, advertisements, or other peoples' expectations drive your choices. There are a million options to choose from in every aspect of wedding planning. Find the elements for your wedding that are all about you and really make them your own.

5. Relax, and let the magic happen

You're in love, and this can be one of the best times of your life.

I've attended countless weddings and heard about all the little things that cause stress and worry. In almost all cases those distractions have turned out not to matter in the end. Learn about your partner's dreams, think creatively to develop a comfortable budget, involve your friends and family in unique ways, and let your style shine through. Chances are, your wedding will be perfectly you.

Blair deLaubenfels is Senior Editor for Junebug Weddings, which features a list of some of the country's most exceptional wedding photographers who are available for travel all over the world.


Ecotour Adventures

Ecotourism is a growing trend in travel. As our world shrinks, thanks to globalization and population expansion, sustainable travel naturally tags along as people want to help preserve communities, native habitat, and the little creatures that inhabit the planet.

Step out of the ordinary and raft down a river, tour a village, meet the locals, and touch nature without leaving too much of a mark. Here are a few eco-friendly tours and organizations to get your green trip with friends or family started.

  • Conservation International and jointly launched an initiative to get travelers off the beaten path in a sustainable way by promoting community-based tourism. Here are two wonderful examples of how this program is helping travelers see the real Ethiopia or tour Thailand via locally arranged tours. They offer tours in many other countries as well.
  • Maui's Pacific Whale Foundation, an organization solely dedicated to marine ecotourism and habitat preservation, has naturalists aboard every snorkeling cruise, whale-watching tour, and other water activity. Great for families who seek to add a little education to their adventure and enlighten the kiddies.
  • Costa Rica is a pioneer in ecotourism and one of the best places to see nature's bountiful biodiversity. Ergo, there are several ecotour operators of choice. A few that look appealing are Adventure Life, "affordable, personalized tours" from Key to Costa Rica, and customized adventure tours from Southern Explorations.
  • Sierra Club has outings across the U.S. and Canada. Outdoor adventures such as kayaking, canoeing, hiking, rafting, sailing, biking, and specific family adventures are all done in an eco-friendly manner.
  • Volunteer through Earthwatch Institute to help scientists in the field across the world do research that helps preserve habitat, animal species, and local cultures. This organization is a leader in sustainability, but there are plenty of volunteer vacation opportunities where you can make a positive impact while traveling.

You can plan a group ecotour or sustainable travel vacation with friends, family, or members of an association or organization you belong to using TripHub's travel planning tools.

Know of any other great ecotours or organizations that facilitate sustainable travel?


Flights at Code Red and Orange

With recent arrests of terrorists plotting to target flights from London to the U.S., there is a temporary code red on flights from London to the U.S. and temporary code orange for flights into the U.S. What does it mean for travelers to travel under a code red or orange?

Smarter Travel gives insight on deciphering the codes. Here are airport security short-term changes known to be in effect:

  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is prohibiting all liquids, hair gels, and lotions in carry-on baggage within the United States. This includes coffee, soda, and even contact solution.
  • Essential liquids, such as baby formula, are being allowed.
  • No carry-on baggage is being allowed on any international flights.
  • Expect severe security delays at the airport. Television news reports are putting some security line wait times at one to two hours long.

USA Today's blog Today in the Sky gives a run down of the various airline policies for handling the temporary security situation. American Airlines canceled six flights today, United revised its ticketing policy to give travelers a break in changing travel plans and re-booking seats, and other airlines alert travelers to give even more time at airports for tightened security measures.

Homeland Security issued a release about cooperating with Britain to ensure traveler safety and stated, "These measures will continue to assure that our aviation system remains safe and secure.  Travelers should go about their plans confidently, while maintaining vigilance in their surroundings and exercising patience with screening and security officials."

A Toast to Vacation

Nothing says vacation like a table full of drinks. At least within my circle. It's the start of a ritual, a conversation starter, ice-breaker, or at least has been that way for eons. This photo was from a trip to Hawaii with my family, so we felt obligated to get in the mood at the airport with the most tropical drinks on the menu.

I find, however, that I alter my drinking patterns according to the trip, and who I'm with. Solo sojourns often include sips of red wine to accompany my pondering while journaling. Family reunions usually involve the ol' one-two routine of microbrew then water, microbrew then water, microbrew then water (due to daily extended "happy hour" at my family reunions). And getaways with my girlfriends varies as widely as the type of trip we're on, from wine tasting to slugging beers at pubs to swirling iced Baileys around in my glass and mouth. The list goes on.

On many vacations I often drink only water, usually as part of a health kick. But parties, vacations, or getting together with friends so often center around the drinks in our society, not drinking can seem odd.

Consider throwing a bachelor(ette) party without shots of tequila, a family reunion without Uncle Jim's finest Scotch or that special bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, a wedding without the ceremonial champagne toast, or a weekend golfing with the guys (or girls) without a round of drinks. It can be done. But would it be as fun? Whether people drink or not is their own choice, but having the option at a group social setting seems standard in our culture. And I accept this. If I'm not in the mood to drink, I usually have a glass of water in hand and, if asked why I'm not drinking, sometimes make up clever reasons for drinking water and entertain myself with the responses. Good party fun.

Health or religious reasons aside, I think social drinking (especially on group vacations) is here to stay. What do you think?

TripHub Re(de)fines Group Travel Planning

Today, it just became easier to plan a vacation with friends and family. TripHub launched several new features this morning, adding to an assortment of online travel collaboration tools.

You can still invite people on trips and track who's coming (similar to Evite), share itinerary information, upload a trip photo (perhaps a prom picture for a bachelor/ette party?), search for and book flights, hotels, activities, car rentals, plus discuss hotel options within your group all in a central hub or home page.

All that helps simplify group travel planning tremendously, but two new features go the extra mile.

Trip Blogs: Now you can start discussions on any topic related to your trip such as transportation, dining reservations, what to wear, solicit votes, and more. You can upload photos in posts (as long as they are publicly available photos and not behind a firewall or from your personal computer), and the Trip Blog within your trip is private. Although private to your travel mates, careful not to give away any surprise birthday gag gifts, as all trip members can view and comment on any trip topic started.

Event Schedules: Also new today are agenda-like event schedules that offer even more structure and ease to the group travel planning process. Anyone can add an item (flight arrival times, dinner reservations, tour dates, show times, party details) for the whole group to see. It's a great way to look at all the key information in one tidy spot; plus, you can print and take it with you.

More cool tools

Quick flight searches are another time-saving feature. You can search for flights by entering in travel dates and destinations only once, then clicking on the Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz links to do multiple searches and find your preferred flights (and fares).

TripHub also added several new travel planning guides on its home page – for family reunions, getaways, group reservation know-how, and weddings; plus, an assortment of destination guides (also featured on the Group Trip Advisor blog).

You can also preview invitations before sending them.

TripHub's travel planning service is free. If you're ready to plan a family reunion, take a multi-generational trip, go on a girls getaway, plan a bachelor party, even plan a wedding, TripHub helps simplify the planning process. And today, even more.