Road Trip

Considering Cuba?

The best restored vintage cars serve as taxis for tourists in Havana. Photo: Harriet Baskas

In early January I joined Alaska Airlines for the first scheduled flight to Havana from a west coast city – Los Angeles – in over 50 years. Here’s the CNBC story that came from that adventure.

Photo by Harriet Baskas

Last week, the newly inaugurated Trump administration warned it was in the middle of a “full review” of U.S. policy toward Cuba—prompting new questions about how committed President Donald Trump will be to the political and cultural thaw began under his predecessor.

However, uncertainty over Trump’s Cuba policy did not prevent American Airlines from opening a ticket office in Havana this week, a mere two months after the carrier flew the first scheduled commercial flight from the U.S. to Havana since 1961.

American’s new outpost in Cuba underscores how both U.S. fliers and air carriers are rushing to make the most of the first real opening between the two countries in decades—despite lingering questions about whether that thaw will continue in the Trump era.

 “We cannot speculate about what [Trump’s] next step will be, but I can assure you that we are moving our machine forward,” said Galo Beltran, Cuba manager for American Airlines told the Associated Press, “You are a witness to the investment and how important Cuba is to American as a U.S. entity doing business.”

American began flying to Havana from Miami and Charlotte in late November, and from Miami to five other Cuban cities in September. After a mid-February ‘schedule adjustment’ that drops one of two daily flights between Miami and three cities (Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero), American will be operating 10 daily flights to six Cuban cities.

Other U.S. airlines competed for the go-ahead to offer service to Havana and other Cuban cities. These include Delta (which in November was the first U.S. airline to open a ticket office in Havana), Spirit, United, Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest, all of which are sticking with their original flight schedules.

“Myriad external forces govern the climate in which we operate – prices of energy, labor,” said Brad Hawkins, spokesman for Southwest Airlines, which currently operates a dozen daily roundtrips between Cuba and the U.S.. As of right now, “Our Cuba flights are performing in-line with our expectations.”

JetBlue reported the same.

“Cuba routes are performing as expected,” said JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart, “As has been the case since we completed all of our route launches last fall, we continue to operate nearly 50 roundtrips between the U.S. and Cuba every week on six unique routes.”

Photo by Harriet Baskas


As one would expect from tourists prohibited from visiting a cultural Mecca for decades, many U.S. visitors who now fly to Havana join walking tours through the city’s old quarters, take rides in restored vintage cars and visit the Presidential Palace (home of the Revolutionary Museum), Hemingway’s House and the studios of local artists.

Members of a 50-person delegation of political, business and cultural leaders who joined Seattle-based Alaska Airlines in January, as part of the first regularly scheduled flight between Los Angeles and Havana, indulged in the same.

At the same time, they engaged with their Cuban counterparts, exchanging ideas and business links.

Stephanie Bowman and other commissioners from the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and an assortment of cruise and marine terminals, met with the Cuban Minister of Trade and Foreign Investment and the Cuban Port Authority.

“We learned that with the lessening of trade restrictions and the increase in tourism they have huge challenges in infrastructure development, everything from roads and hotels to being able to provide enough food for everyone,” said Bowman. She suggested the Port of Seattle host some Cuban executives in Seattle “so they can observe our cruise and airport business and take some best practices back.”

Photo courtesy Tom Norwalk

Kevin Mather, president & COO of the Seattle Mariners, didn’t meet with Cuban baseball officials or players while in Havana. However, he did bring a suitcase full of t-shirts, whiffle balls and other Mariners promotional items to hand out to baseball fans in a downtown Havana plaza.

Mather recognized that scouting for potential players in Cuba is a touchy subject right now, but he’s confident that eventually Cuban baseball leagues and the American Major League Baseball will have an understanding.

“And when the gate opens and the race starts, I want to have a horse to ride,” said Mather. He instructed his office to retain scouts and people well-versed in the Cuban economy “so that when the day comes we can react.”

That “hurry up and wait” lesson is being learned by members of cultural, business, tourism and trade missions heading to Cuba from a variety of U.S cities, said Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons, which organizes the on-the-ground details for many delegations.

Once in Cuba, “They quickly realize that it’s not quite so straight-forward and that until the Trade Embargo is lifted, doing business with Cuba comes with an enormous set of regulations,” said Moore.

“So feelers are being put out there and relationships forged, but at this point concrete steps are more difficult,” she added.

Heading to the airport? Hold onto that rental car.

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales , via Flickr Commons.

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales , via Flickr Commons.

Disclosure: National Car Rental sponsored this project.

You finished your meetings, filed that report and now there’s not much else to do but take another pass at the breakfast buffet, check out of your hotel and head to the airport to hang out before your flight.

But don’t return that rental car just yet.

If you plan it right and do a little homework, you can squeeze in a leisure adventure on the way to the airport.

Here’s are some great attractions nearby 5 major airports:

San Francisco International Airport: Burlingame sits on San Francisco Bay, and is home to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia. Nearby is the Coyote Point Recreation Area, which offers a beach promenade, marina and great viewing spots for watching planes take off and land.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is just seven miles from the sprawling Museum of Flight, with more than 160 air and spacecraft, flight simulators and a brand new, 3-acre Aviation Pavilion that features many of the large commercial aircraft in the collection.

New York’s LaGuardia Airport is less than 2 miles from the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in Corona. The world famous jazz musician and his wife, Lucille, lived in a modest house in Queens and guided tours of the home are offered every hour.

Los Angeles International Airport – The Flight Path Learning Center and Museum is on the south side of the airport in the LAX Imperial Terminal and features airplane models, uniforms, photographs and a wide variety of historic artifacts relating to the aviation industry and the history of Southern California. In-N-Out Burger, a favorite among plane spotters, has a branch in nearby Westchester, less than 2 miles away.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport: Founders’ Plaza, on airport property (but almost two miles from the terminal), has an observation area offering great views of airplanes landing and taking off, telescopes, picnic tables and a radio broadcasting air traffic control communications. Historic downtown Grapevine, with wine tasting rooms, public art, shops, restaurants and an entertaining glockenspiel clock tower, is just 7 miles away.

The easiest and most time-efficient way to reach most of these near-the-airport locations is by car. A good option: National Car Rental, where some of the time-saving benefits offered to Emerald Club members make it easy to squeeze in leisure time on a business trip.

At these busy airports and many others, Emerald Club members get to bypass the lines at the check-in counter, pick out any midsize (or above) car from the Emerald Aisle and, when they return to the airport, skip the paperwork and get an email receipt after dropping off the car.

I’ve got a work trip planned to Denver and I’m planning now to squeeze in a drive out to Golden to see the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and grave before heading back to Denver International Airport, returning my rental car and heading home.

National_Emerald Aisle_image

Don’t give that rental car back just yet. Take a fun side trip before heading back to the airport.

Canada lures travelers with low Loonie

Courtesy Travel Manitoba

Courtesy Travel Manitoba

If flying over Niagara Falls in a helicopter or coming face to face with a polar bear in Manitoba are experiences on your bucket list but not in your budget, now may be the time to recalculate.

The Canadian dollar – known as the Loonie – dropped 16 percent against the dollar last year and is now hovering at about 70 cents to the U.S. dollar.

That means that U.S. travelers heading north of the border for the Valentine’s Day/Presidents’ Day weekend or perhaps the NBA All Star Game (Feb 12-14) in Toronto will find everything from dining, shopping and lodging to attraction admissions on sale at 30 percent off.

Travel analysts say right now the exchange rate makes ski resort vacations in Canada especially appealing.

“At Blackcomb-Whistler, Revelstoke and Banff, 3-star hotel rooms for Presidents’ Weekend can be booked for under $50 U.S. per night, which frees up money for lift tickets and meals,” said’s Brian Ek.

“Multi-day Banff lift tickets cost less than Tahoe at par, and you’ll save even more with the exchange rate,” said Arabella Bowen, Editor-in-Chief at Fodor’s Travel.

Long before winter set in, savvy travelers were already taking advantage of the deals offered by the devalued Canadian dollar.

“In 2015 we saw an 8 percent increase over 2014 in inbound travel from the United States,” said Rob Taylor, Vice President, Public & Industry Affairs, for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.

According to group’s Summer Travel Snapshot, during the 2015 summer season alone (May to September) Americans added $1.9 billion to the Canadian economy.

“2015 was the best year we’ve had since 2008, when Canada saw a big dip in U.S. tourism because the United States began requiring Americans to show a passport to reenter the country,” said Wayne Thomson, chair of Niagara Falls Tourism. “More Americans have passports now and I’ve talked to people staying at some of the hotels who are amazed at the bargains they’re getting.”

The story is much the same across Canada.

In 2015, Tourism Vancouver recorded 8.7 percent growth in US visitation to the city over the same period in 2014, said Amber Sessions, Communications Manager for Tourism Vancouver, and “many hotels and tourist attractions here are taking advantage of the low Canadian dollar to reach out to U.S. travelers with special offers and targeted advertising.”

As of November, 2015 visits from United States to Ontario were up 9 percent over 2014. In November alone there was a 14 percent increase in visitors over November 2014.

And because it’s now more costly for Canadians to travel outside of the country, “more Canadians are traveling domestically,” said Andrew Weir, Tourism Toronto’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, “so it’s a win-win for cities like ours.”

Even Churchill (population: 813), the tiny town in the far north of Manitoba famous for polar bear and beluga whale viewing experiences, is seeing increased visitors.

“I’m hearing 30 to 40 percent increases year over year for our Polar Bear Viewing Experience, said Colin Ferguson, President and CEO of Travel Manitoba.

The trips range between US $6,000 and US $7,500 for a 5-day excursion that includes airfare from Winnipeg to Churchill. “But in Canadian dollars that’s almost free,” said Ferguson.

Being able to go on a bucket-list adventure at a huge discount is a big draw for some visitors heading to Canada right now. For others, it’s the increased value they get for their vacation dollars.

“The dip in the Canadian dollar means a $500 room at a resort in Whistler is really just US $350. And compared to a $500 room in the U.S, it’s just a way better value. And it extends to shopping, restaurants, activities and so on,” said David Lowy, President of Renshaw Travel, a Virtuoso-accredited travel agency in Vancouver.

“We’ve had a 17.8 percent growth in Whistler as a destination this year,” said Jack Ezon, President of Virtuoso member Ovation Vacations in New York,” with some clients heading to Canada instead of Vail, Colorado or Deer Valley, Utah.

“In some cases the airfare to Vancouver is less expensive,” said Ezon, “and I can get them a two or three room residence at the Four Seasons Whistler for the same price as two connecting rooms in Vail.”

South of the Canadian/US border, some businesses and cities have seen a drop-off in Canadian visitors due to the loonie’s decline.

“Canadian visitors used to be our some of our best weekend customers,” said Sarah Young, owner of the SaySay Boutique in Portland, Oregon, “especially when we reminded them there is no sales tax in this state. But now, if they’re even in town, they’re carefully checking the exchange rate and buying fewer items.”

But Seattle, for one, isn’t giving up.

Last week it issued a round-up of hotel packages with special perks and promotions only available to Canadian visitors, including a NW Resident Rate at the four Kimpton properties in town and, at the Renaissance Seattle Hotel, a Weekend Rate Parity package that includes free self-parking breakfast for two and a rate that is the same whether paying in U.S. or Canadian dollars.

(My story about travelers heading to Canada lured by the dip on the Loonie first appeared on

Not an airplane, but a Pendleton-themed AirStream

Airstream Pendleton

It’s not an airplane – but this new, limited Airstream trailer is a pretty swanky way to travel – and a good way to support the country’s National Parks during their 100th anniversary year.

Airstream, the company that makes that iconic “silver bullet” travel trailer, has partnered up with Oregon-grown Pendleton Woolen Mills, creators of iconic blankets and western wear, to make a Limited Edition 2016 Pendleton National Park Foundation Airstream Travel Trailer.

It’s a good match. In 1916, Pendleton made its first National Park Blanket -in Glacier Stripe – and that was the same year the National Park Service was born. Pendleton now features ten parks in its blanket collection.

Airstream produced 100 special-edition trailers that include park-inspired Pendleton decor and accessories, including a queen size bed with Pendleton bedding.

Want one? The Pendleton Airstream lists for $114,600. Airstream will donate $1,000 to the National Park Foundation for each of the special edition Pendleton travel trailers sold. The National Park Foundation will use the donated funds to support priority preservation projects at Grand Canyon and Glacier National Parks.

All I can say is …. road trip!

pendleton airstram

On the road: Deadwood and Wall Drug

Wall Drug Jackalope

Two South Dakota spots I recently visited – Deadwood and Wall Drug – face with the classic tourism challenge: how to get people to come visit. And then visit again.

Here’s a slightly edited version of the story I put together for CNBC:

Since its Gold Rush-era founding in 1876, the South Dakota frontier town of Deadwood has been through several booms and busts.

Yet it retains a veneer of the Wild West and keeps fresh the stories of legendary residents such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

But Deadwood is trying not to live up to its name: the town that helped spawn a popular cable series is looking for a shot of something new.

“All destinations need to evolve over time, even those that that wish to remain the same,” said Alan Fyall, a professor in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Since November, 1989 — the year that Deadwood joined Las Vegas and Atlantic City as a cohort of then U.S. cities with legal non-reservation gaming — more than $18 billion has been wagered in the town. That activity has generated millions of dollars in tax proceeds to restore historic buildings in Deadwood, and to promote tourism statewide.

But despite the addition of keno, craps and roulette this past summer, Deadwood is no longer confident of its winning hand.

Recently, state data showed the city’s gaming revenues have plateaued, prompting some officials to suggest the town has to adapt to a more competitive landscape.

“Gaming is now ubiquitous nationwide, and Deadwood can’t just rely on gambling or its Western culture anymore,” said South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard

On that score, Deadwood’s Revitalization Committee recently commissioned a 96-page action plan that contains recommendations on how the town can capitalize on its history and place in popular culture.

Deadwood’s popularity is at least partly attributed to HBO’s three-season-long “Deadwood” TV series (which was canceled in 2006 but is still popular online) and attractions such as Kevin Costner’s memorabilia-filled Midnight Star casino and restaurant on Main Street.

“The town has so many things going for it beyond gaming,” said Roger Brooks, whose tourism consulting firm put together the revitalization report. “Plus, with a name like Deadwood, it doesn’t get much better when it comes to being able to stand out.”

Brooks would like Deadwood’s Wild West-themed streets to be more authentic and pedestrian friendly. He’s also urged the town to create a central plaza where regular entertainment and activities can take place. Meanwhile, the town’s business community is grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and rallying around those recommendations.

“We developed 55 action items from the report, and have been busily working on making them happen,” said Mike Rodman, executive director of the Deadwood Gaming Association and a member of the Revitalization Committee.

Currently, the town is building a new welcome center and in town more technology-friendly parking meters now accept credit cards and cell-phone payments.

“We also cleaned up our signage, put up baskets of flowers on the street lights and wrapped some electrical boxes to make them less visible,” said Rodman.

Next on the list: finishing plans for two downtown plazas and raising the $8.8 million needed to move that part of the plan forward, said Rodman.

Meanwhile, at Wall Drug

Deadwood may need to change, but Wall Drug credits its success to remaining pretty much the same.

Now a block-long oasis of kitsch visited annually by more than a million visitors traveling along a lonely stretch of Interstate 90, Wall Drug got its start in the 1930s when the owners of a struggling drug store put up highway signs advertising free ice water.

Thirsty Depression-era travelers pulled over for refreshments and purchased ice-cream and other small items while they were there.

Over the years, Wall Drug evolved into one of the country’s most famous pit stop, with a cafe, restaurant, art gallery and shops that sell everything from postcards and T-shirts to jackalope hunting permits, turquoise jewelry and high-end cowboy boots and western wear.

Dozens of free, photo-friendly attractions were built as well, including a giant jackalope, a replica of Mt. Rushmore, a shooting gallery arcade and a giant Tyrannosaurus rex that roars to life every 15 minutes.

The ice water is still free, the coffee is just 5 cents and many grandparents make a point of reliving their childhood Wall Drug experience with their grandchildren.

“My father and my grandparents wanted Wall Drug to be someplace where people could stop, have a nice meal and enjoy themselves without spending much money if they didn’t want to,” said Rick Hustead, current Wall Drug chairman and the oldest grandson of founders Dorothy and Ted Hustead.

“Our guests spend on average two and a half hours here and 50 percent of our business is repeat customers, so we must be doing something right,” Hustead added.

Wall Drug coffee