Saturday, November 30, 2013

Travelling in the Off Season

The first thing to recognise when thinking about travel and the seasonality game is that it is exactly that; a contest between the travel supplier and the consumer. There are often no winners and no losers in this game, only contestants, but there are some very basic rules to follow when mulling over your travel opportunities.
Firstly, and the most important point of all, is that the “Peak Season” is not the best time to travel; it is the time that most people choose to travel, or have to travel, and thus the period that the prices for everything from transportation to accommodation are the highest, and the lines for attractions are the longest.

Nobody ever said that the best time to visit London was in July or August, or that the Mexican Riviera is at its peak of attraction coincidentally during the school holidays. No, the truth of the matter is that seasons are determined above all by school vacations; airlines know when school breaks are and position their inventories accordingly, hotels, resorts and attractions do likewise, and consumers all know as they plough through airports during these seasons that there has to be a better way.

And, of course, there is. For anyone unencumbered by the school calendar, there are nine other months to travel, more economically, and more importantly with space and without the clutter of mass tourism.
There are plenty of destinations to choose from; for those with an inclination to travel independently, Europe, as always, offers many opportunities. Spending time exploring Southern Spain will delight; from the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol, it is a short drive to the iconic destinations of Granada and Cordoba; Seville, the centre of the flamenco history is a charming city to spend a few days, and pushing even further west, the south coast of Portugal will offer off-season visitors wonderful beaches (if chilly waters), gorgeous countryside coming into blossom from late February, and towns unsullied with the crowds.

The south coast of France, from Barcelona to the Italian border is also a most charming destination. Delightful country hotels will run from €70 - 170 per night for two, and combined with the low season airfares and moderate car rental rates can combine to make a most attractive package.
Rome, the majestic and deeply moving capital of Italy can be yours in the off season to explore with now queues, restaurants that do not hurry you away and private guides to help you explore the nooks and crannies off the beaten track. Why wait for the crowds when you can have the city to yourself?

Off course, the weather won’t be idyllic, but then again you won’t need the sunscreen. Southern Europe in the winter is unpredictable, but expecting daytime highs between 10 and 15˚ and anticipating some rain will stand you in good stead.

If you prefer escorted tours, there are many to choose from; the traditional European coach tours, ranging from the pan-Europe three-weekers to a variety of regional tours are available; the river cruises will start again in March, but the weather in the north, and the subsequent effects on the major river systems should not be underestimated; high waters can force the operators to change schedules and miss ports, and in extreme cases, idle the boats should the water levels rise too high for the locks.

Finally, there is a wonderful selection of small group exploratory tours throughout Europe, all seeking to really get to know a small part of Spain, Italy or even Morocco.

Then again, one needn't travel so far afield; the USA is a huge and fascinating country, and offers such diverse opportunities as the Charleston/Savannah corridor, and the stunning countryside and attractions of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. For those hankering to sample the music and food of the Deep South, March to May is really a fine time to travel, and staying away from the oppressive heat of the summer is a pretty good way to ensure the best possible trip.

There are endless destinations to try, and if you can drag yourself away from the school calendar, and head away in the “off season”, the rewards will be terrific.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Transit through Casablanca

Humphrey Boagart's "friends" had a considerably more interesting time transiting Casablanca than I; no Rick's Bar in the airport transit lounge, and certainly no pianist tickling the ivories to help us pass the time. There was music of a sort, though; it sounded at first like the soundtrack from a rather unimportant military parade, and then morphed into a pretty poor attempt at Gilbert O'Sullivan's lovely number, Alone Again; which is pretty much how most of us felt, I think.

I had thought that the evolution of airport-decoration had passed beyond austere marble floors, a very large copper pip-looking object hanging from the ceiling, forty-eight chairs to accommodate the requirements of five gates, all illuminated by an incredible collection of 40, or possibly 45 watt bulbs of varying age and provenance. But no; public spaces at Casablanca’s international airport are really rather grim. They are all under the watchful eye of the monarch and, I would suspect his son, but I am not sure, who you can bet have never flown domestically in economy in their gilded lives.

There is a coffee “shop”, but with nowhere to exchange money for Moroccan Dirhams, and an unwillingness to accept other currencies even at an exorbitant rate, even a coffee (or heaven forbid a glass of wine) is out of the question.

I am here, of course, to catch a plane. Grumpy because my flight was cancelled, presumably because of a lack of passengers, and the new one is three hours away; Marrakech remains tantalisingly close.

It was a wrench to leave the Languedoc this afternoon; I had only been there for a couple of days, just long enough to see old friends, once more be astonished at the startling and variable beauty of this part of France, and generally start to settle in. However, it was not to be, and duty called, this time in the form of a conference in Marrakech called the “PURE Life Experience”, or something like that.

It is a meeting of many of the world’s top operators, and agents whose clientele demands the extraordinary. For some reason or another, I was invited to apply to attend as a buyer, and having been vetted and accepted, here I almost am. I am partly looking forward to it, and partly not.

Expensive, or as they say in the trade “Up Market” travel really comes in a variety of guises. There are those experiences that are truly extraordinary, and are extremely expensive to assemble; these, ranging from space travel (yes, they have a booth here) to Adventure touring in the High Caucasus are fascinating, and very much out stock-in-trade. Secondly there are some quite extraordinary and luxurious properties, ranging from ranches to spectacular hotels; these are of some interest as our clients will quite often punctuate their trips with a few nights judiciously booked in one of these hotels.

Then there are the frankly, over-priced and rather dull  hotels that spring up all over the world with ever more “features” (and inexplicably expensive internet), on beaches the world over that are becoming indistinguishable. These are of little interest to me at all.

It will be interesting to see how many fall into each category.

There are now considerably more than forty-eight folks waiting for their planes and many are wandering around looking a touch testy. I don’t think I will get up for a walk. Transit lounges are an unavoidable feature of travelling life; they don’t however, get much duller that the Mohammed V airport in Casablanca.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Frequent Flyer Point Dilemma

Frequent flyer points are the crack-cocaine of the travel world; folks do all sorts of peculiar things to maintain status and benefits from their favoured carriers, one friend of mine is flying to Argentina this weekend simply to maintain his top-tier status for next year, but rarely are these devotions reciprocated.
Airlines are getting bigger and bigger, and if one counts Alliances as a carrier itself, they are simply global behemoths, and care little for any individual; as a result, they create targets, measured either in segments flown, or in the actual miles travelled, with attractive benefits for those who reach these levels.
However, their currency, frequent flyer points, are like any other currency; create too many and they will devalue. In the case or airline points, of course, these points, and their concurrent liability to the airline, grow as more people fly, miles are accumulated and not utilised and their “partners”, hotels, credit card companies and the like, issue more and more; more even than the “dollars” issued by the Zimbabwean Central Bank at its zenith.

So there is but one solution for the airlines, and that is their yearly 10 - 15% devaluation; it is true that few of us would actually hold any other investment that shed value so predictably, but we do. In the case of Air Canada, at least some notice is given; others like Delta simply announce that “today” the value of their points has decreased; no chance to book a trip with points accumulated, just back to the airport for a few more flights.

Points too have their blindside; it is rarely worth using Aeroplan points, for example, for a low-season ticket to Europe in economy. A recent look at purchasing a Winnipeg - Dublin / Paris - Winnipeg ticket is a good example. Including taxes, the ticket would cost $1,150; to use Aeroplan points, it would have cost 60,000 points, plus a rather irritating $730 in “taxes and surcharges”; the saving would be a massive $420. Now putting this into perspective, a ticket from Winnipeg to New York, Los Angeles or New Orleans can often cost upwards of $700 these days, yet one can use 50,000 points and $87 (per person) in fees for a reward ticket; a much better value for utilising accumulated Aeroplan points.

Aspirational travel is, of course, the best value of all; travelling in business and first class is beyond the pockets of many of us, and if one has sufficient points, the value can be spectacular. A First Class return ticket, complete with large, flat beds, caviar, luxurious ground facilities and all the fun of the fair, can be yours for a mere $13,000 per ticket, or currently 125,000/145,000 points for a ticket to Europe. Space in these classes can be harder to come by, but persistence or the assistance of a suitable compensated travel professional can be invaluable.

It is also worth subscribing to one of the myriad of frequent-flyer blogs; one I particularly like is “One Mile at a Time”, (; it is a touch US-centric, but nevertheless interesting.
The best advice now, unfortunately for those who were collecting for their dotage, is to “Earn them and burn them”; similarly, it is worth accruing points in a neutral program such as Diners Club or American Express who allow you to hold points, and then turn them into a variety of different programs.
And be careful of exchange rates! As with any other currency exchange, there are huge variations. It costs fare fewer Alaska Airlines or American Airlines points to travel on British Airways that it does BA points themselves, yet they accrue at the same exchange rate via the credit cards. There are many other such opportunities, and a canny traveller will look at three issues: where do I want to go, who travels there and which points can be turned into this journey.

The answers to that question may surprise you; but on the other hand, they may get you to your preferred destination faster and in more comfort!