| June 2013
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By Corrie M. Anders
Seasoned traveler Chris McGinnis has a world map with 50 pins stuck in it, representing all the countries he’s already visited. That means he’s got about 150 to go.
Before we knew it, summer was upon us, so theVoice turned to Chattanooga Street resident Chris McGinnis to seek some last-minute vacation tips.
McGinnis knows his stuff. The 53-year-old travel correspondent has been roaming the globe professionally since 1989. Along the way, he has visited more than 50 countries.
For most of the 1990s, McGinnis worked as a travel writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Entrepreneur magazine. Over the last decade, he’s been a regular columnist for BBC.com, CNN Headline News, the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, and the Weather Channel, to name just a few.
As head of Travel Skills Group, Inc., he continues to track trends and share advice on making travel speedier, safer, and more economical. He also blogs as the Frequent Travel Advisor on SFGate.com and as “The BAT” (Bay Area Traveler) on his own website, www.thebat-sf.com.
When he’s not on the road—or in the air—McGinnis is enjoying his perfect vacation: relaxing in his backyard garden or hanging out at Martha’s coffee shop with his partner, Barkley Dean, and their black lab, Walker.
Here are his responses to our top 10 travel questions:
Voice: Like busy people everywhere, Noe Valleyans look forward to taking vacations. What ideas do you have to help us get away this summer?
McGinnis: With recent stock market gains, declining unemployment, and improving consumer confidence, I expect we will likely see the busiest summer travel season since before the dark days of 2008–2009. Unfortunately, rising demand means rising prices, so get ready to suck it up and spend a lot if you are planning to travel during the peak of the summer travel season.
However, if you get off the beaten path, you can still find bargains in destinations in their “off-season.” For example, the Colorado Rockies are full of really nice condos and hotels that are mostly empty during summer months, and go for a quarter of what you’d pay during ski season. And Colorado is packed full of summer activities for everyone, from hiking, biking, and swimming to hot-air ballooning, spas, great food, and sightseeing. Plus, thanks to Southwest and Frontier airlines, Denver is one of the cheapest airports in the country to fly into.
Other off-season ideas: Las Vegas, especially if you have the flexibility to go midweek during summer when five-star hotels go for as little as $100 per night. Who cares about the heat when you’re in Vegas anyway? Same for Arizona, which is full of really nice hotels/spas that command top dollar during winter and spring, but they almost have to give them away during summer.
“Another good tactic is to fly at the least busy times—the airlines are saying that peak days this summer will be on Thursdays and Fridays—some of which will be busier than the Sunday after Thanksgiving. So fly midweek and midday to avoid crowds.”
Voice: What are the most/least expensive times for taking a trip? Are there ways to avoid high airfares and fees?
McGinnis: Roughly June 21 through Aug. 11 this year is when you’ll encounter the highest prices and the largest crowds, so if you can avoid that, you should. Another good tactic is to fly at the least busy times—the airlines are saying that peak days this summer will be on Thursdays and Fridays—some of which will be busier than the Sunday after Thanksgiving. So fly midweek and midday to avoid crowds, i.e., Tuesdays and Wednesdays, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Fees have gone through the roof as the airlines desperately try to hold on to their newfound profits. Just last month, all the major carriers raised change fees on non-refundable tickets to $200 (from the already painful $150). That’s on top of checked bag fees of $25 for the first bag, $35 for the second.
If you know you can’t pack everything into a carry-on bag, then consider flying JetBlue or Southwest, which do not charge for the first checked bag. You can always ship your luggage, but it’s very expensive to do so unless you pay ground rates and send it off four to five days ahead of time, and who wants to do that?
Voice: Is 2013 a good year to visit Europe?
McGinnis: Despite economic turmoil in Europe, the euro has not declined in value too much, so don’t expect many bargains once you get there. Peak summer airfares are slightly higher than last year (which was expensive), so prepare for sticker shock if you plan on flying nonstop from SFO to Europe—peak season round trips are now $1,500 and higher. (Fares are slightly lower if you are willing to make a stop en route.)
If you are feeling fancy, premium economy and business class fares have declined; for example, some European carriers have had recent business class sales for as little as $3,000 round-trip from the West Coast.
For the best bargain travel in Europe, go east to places such as Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Turkey. Heavy demand from wealthy Russians is keeping rates relatively high in fashionable destinations in the Greek Isles and other Mediterranean hot spots. Traditional favorites, such as London, Paris, and Rome, will be sky-high again this year. However, London is expected to cost slightly less than last year when the Olympics were in town and hotels overbuilt.
“I hate to say it, but travelers in the United States are likely exposed to much more danger here than in most other areas of the world.”
Voice: Some countries are safer than others. Are there any travel destinations we should be wary of?
McGinnis: I hate to say it, but travelers in the United States are likely exposed to much more danger here than in most other areas of the world. Granted, there are certain hot spots like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan that Americans should steer clear of. But remember that the Middle East, for example, is a huge place, and there are plenty of completely safe, exotic, and wonderful places to explore there right now. The longest flight from SFO is on Emirates and clocks in at 15 hours straight over the North Pole and lands in Dubai. From there you can explore the cool super-modern cities in the United Arab Emirates, or pop over to India and feel completely safe.
Voice: Not everyone can afford to leave town. Where can you find an inexpensive “staycation” in the Bay Area?
McGinnis: Some of the best news around summer travel is that gasoline prices are moderating right now, and we are not seeing the “summer spike” like we normally do. The reason is that the United States is now producing the majority of its gasoline right here—imports are at record lows, and that’s keeping prices down. So driving vacations are looking pretty good!
The average price paid for a gallon of gas on the West Coast is now $3.93, down from $4.26 this time last year. That said, the cost to fill an average 15-gallon tank will be about $60 this summer. So if your car gets 20 miles per gallon, a one-tank trip will take you 300 miles from home. So get out a map, and draw a 300-mile circle around your home and decide where you can go for $110 round-trip. (Use Freemaptools.com to draw this radius.) One idea: Southern Oregon is gorgeous and relatively inexpensive.
Voice: What should Noe Valleyans look for when shopping for a hotel or other lodging?
McGinnis: When searching for hotels, always be sure you are comparing apples to apples. This means you need to know ahead of time what’s included in your hotel rate, and what’s not. For road trips, look at chains like Best Western that always include free breakfast and free wi-fi and, in most cases, free parking. If you are headed to a resort like Las Vegas or Miami, ask about “resort fees” of $10 to $30 per day that are tacked onafter you make your booking. For researching and booking hotels, some of my favorite websites are Room77.com, Oyster.com, Expedia’s “Insiders’ Select” list, and a new app called Hotel Tonight.
Voice: Can you name some kid-friendly vacation spots? Dog-friendly?
McGinnis: The most consistently popular kid-friendly destination I hear about is not really a destination. It’s a cruise: Disney Cruises. While they are expensive, every parent I’ve talked to said that it’s money well spent and that Disney has perfected the family cruise experience. Good news for Californians is that Disney recently started offering West Coast cruises. However, you can’t jump on a Disney Cruise in San Francisco…yet.
Dog friendly? My advice here is to check with hotels first about their pet policies. While many state that pets “are welcome,” some charge non-refundable fees if your pooch stays with you—whether or not they soil the room. So always ask if “pet-friendly” hotels charge a fee, or if it’s free.
Voice: Are there websites that you would recommend for finding cheap flights?
McGinnis: This summer is going to be pretty painful pricewise because the airlines have been doing a good job cutting back capacity, and keeping prices high. However, I don’t expect that we’ll see any huge spikes compared to last summer because airlines are enjoying moderating fuel prices, too.
There are no websites that are better than others when it comes to finding cheap flights—they are all pulling from the same airline inventory. The smartest thing you can do is to start out at a meta-search site such as Kayak, and monitor flight prices for several days to get an idea what the “going rate” is, then pounce when you see that price drop. There are also many sites such as Bing or Farecompare that will send you price alerts when fares drop.
I would encourage folks to sign up for my Bay Area Traveler blog (www.thebat-sf.com) because I keep an eagle eye out for meaningful airfare deals from the Bay Area airports and post them on the blog or on its Facebook page. If you have the flexibility to take advantage of last-minute deals, be sure to sign up for airlines’ email alerts and follow their Facebook or Twitter feeds for last-minute deals. While you’ll likely not get much in terms of last-minute deals during summer months, you will find some substantial bargains if you can travel during the spring or fall “shoulder seasons.”
Voice: Do you ever suggest Noe Valley as a vacation getaway?
McGinnis: I always think that it’s smart to dig into neighborhoods to see how the locals live when you are in other cities. Europeans seem to be better at this than Americans. I always get a kick out of seeing the visiting Italians or Brits or Germans who are renting Noe Valley houses on Airbnb.com or VRBO.com or Homeway.com walking along Chattanooga Street (where I live) with their maps out and guidebooks in hand, and I always try to help them out.
Voice: Where are you spending your vacation this year? Can you get the Voice staff a good deal on a trip to Hawaii?
McGinnis: I’m a travel writer, not a travel agent, so I don’t book trips! Sorry! Hawaii is very expensive this year. As a matter of fact, hotel rates there are in the top three most expensive cities in the country, which includes New York and Miami. Food costs in Hawaii are also the highest in the States.
On the bright side, we have a lot of new competition from the Bay Area to Hawaii now, so airfares are trending down. There are certain times of year (like fall) when I’ve seen round-trip fares dip below $300. If you ever see that happen, book it! That’s a great deal!
My summer trips? New York on business. Ouch! Hotel rates there are off the charts this year, so I’m glad my client is paying! My partner and I will attend a family reunion in Charleston, South Carolina, and I’ll be able to introduce him to the low-country way of life. And I’m attending a meeting in San Diego, which I’ll extend into a mini-vacation.