Road Trip

Tumbleweed invasion

Here’s a crazy travel story for the New Year that’s not about flying, but about driving.

 Truck surrounded by tumbleweeds near Richland Washington. Photo: Washington State Patrol Trooper C. Thorson

On Tuesday night – New Year’s Eve – at least five cars and an eighteen-wheeler truck got trapped in a bizarre, giant pile-up of tumbleweeds on a rural, central Washington State highway.

According to the Washington State Patrol, the tumbleweed invasion was so serious that the highway had to be closed for 10 hours, trapping the drivers inside their cars until 4:30 a.m. New Year’s Day.

Washington State Trooper Chris Thorson told the YakkTriNews that strong winds blew tumbleweeds into an area with berms near the roadway and that caused the tumbleweeds to clog the highway.

There were so many tumbleweeds on the road that when cars stopped to avoid hitting the tumbleweeds they ended up getting buried by them.

How did they get rid of the tumbleweeds?

Snowplows were brought in to clear the tumbleweeds and free the trapped drivers and their vehicles.

According to the State Patrol, the tumbleweed heap reached 30 feet tall and was hundreds of yards long.

On the road: Boston

Souvenir at Boston Logan Airport

StuckatTheAirport.com is spending the holiday week in Boston.

While here, we’re exploring the up-and-coming downtown Seaport neighborhood, which sits between Boston’s waterfront and the historic Fort Point district.

One of 7 sculptures by Okuda San Miguel in the Seaport neighborhood. This one is Mythology: Being 1

The neighborhood is a mix of historic buildings and brand new hotels, shops, inviting green spaces, public art and hangout spaces. There are also plenty of highrise office and apartment buildings – many still being built.

Opening day at Martin’s Park was just two weeks ago. The $7 million accessible playground and open space honors Martin W. Richard, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombings. The park sits right next to the Boston Children’s Museum, which moved to the area in 1979.

Two of Boston’s best rooftop bars are in the Seaport neighborhood as well.

The charming Yotel Boston offers the Sky Bar, with a 270-degree panoramic view of the city and harbor from the hotel’s 12 floor.

Yotel Boston

Nearby, the Envoy Hotel offers a wider choice of views from the 8th floor Lookout bar. I had the great fortune to be invited up for a cocktail and a look around on a picture perfect day.

Have you been to this ‘new’ Boston neighborhood? Please share some of your favorite “don’t miss” places.

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 Priceline.com’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 CNBC.com.)