May 24, 2013

The Newest Way to Travel in Italy

Last April, a new high speed rail service called Italo started operating in Italy, run by Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV). The Ferrari-red trains offers service from Venice to Rome (stops in Padua, Bologna & Florence) and from Milan to Salerno (stops in Bologna, Florence, Rome & Naples). 

At at a recent presentation by Rail Europe, here's what I learned about Italo:

- All employees speak English.

- It's completely ticketless. 

- They have 3 classes of service (they call it "ambience"): Smart (2nd), Prima (1st) , and Club (Premium 1st)

Club ambiance
Prima service
- Free WiFi is available in all cars.

- It stops at different stations than Trenitalia trains.  In Rome, the station is further from the city center, but it connects to the airport and the Spanish Steps by subway. 

- The power units are distributed under the cars, not located on the end cars like - traditional high speed trains.  This gives a smoother and faster ride.  For example, Italo takes 2 hrs to get to Milan from Rome, where Eurostar takes 3 hr.

- All stations have 'Casa Italo', a comfortable lounge with easy to use self-service ticket machines, a welcome desk, and free WiFi.

Casa Italo
- They have vending machines on all trains.

- Baggage lockers are available where you pay 1 EU to secure a cable around your luggage (and it's returned after you retrieve your bags).  The luggage storage area is also monitored by security cameras.

It's fun and easy to travel by train in Europe, but it can be a little confusing.

For help planning a great vacation to Europe, by train, plane, or cruise ship, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com

May 7, 2013

My Secrets for Getting Connecting Rooms

One of the most common requests from families when planning their vacation is connecting rooms.  It’s often because they are a family of 5 or more that can’t be accommodated in a standard hotel room.  But sometimes even smaller families just want extra space and privacy.  And suites with a separate bedroom are often more expensive than two standard rooms.

Most hotels and resorts will not guarantee connecting rooms, they will simply note it as a request.  They do give preference to families with young children.  But it’s still stressful for parents if they won’t know until check-in if they will even have adjacent, much less connecting, rooms.  (Important note:  “Adjoining” does not necessarily mean connecting.)

Here’s what I do when connecting rooms are a “must have” for a client.

Recommend a hotel that offers connecting rooms as a specific room category.  Several all-inclusive brands, such Karisma, AMResorts, and Club Med actually list connecting rooms as an option to book (may be referred to as a 2 room suite), and often for less than the cost of 2 rooms.  These are usually located in the “family section”  of a resort, so it’s not recommended as a way for 2 couples to shave costs while traveling together.
Azul Sensatori, Riviera Maya

Recommend a hotel that will block connecting rooms for families at the time the reservation is made.  In Hawaii, the Grand Wailea will guarantee connecting rooms for a $50 per night fee.  Hyatt Resorts worldwide has a policy of blocking connecting rooms for families with children age 12 and under for no fee, if they are available.  If kids are older, then connecting rooms are “on request” only. 

Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa, Kauai

Reach out to a supplier who has personal contacts in my client’s destination.  This might be an independent sales rep, a wholesaler, a tour operator,  maybe a small local company with whom my agency has developed a strong relationship. (Some are so small they don’t even show up on TripAdvisor, so you have to be “in the know."  And some only work with travel agencies.)  I network at trade shows with sales reps and hotel managers, and some offer to personally block rooms for my clients.

Hotel Hassler Roma
This route works particularly well when booking hotels outside the US.  I actually find it easier to book rooms for large families in Europe than in the States!  And I have learned that some hotels don’t even show “family rooms” on their websites, you have to contact the hotel directly.  And that assumes you even know this particular room type exists.

Rubens at the Palace, London

Recommend a Virtuoso property or other luxury brand where we have preferred agency status. Nothing beats the relationships we have with Virtuoso properties, or brands such as Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Rosewood, Mandarin Oriental, etc.   If connecting rooms are available, they almost always block them for my clients.  And as a bonus, my clients  receive extra amenities such as complimentary breakfast and resort, dining, or spa credits.

Four Seasons Costa Rica
The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe - All 1 bedroom suites
connect to a double queen room

Sometimes despite my best efforts, a hotel will not confirm connecting rooms in advance.  In that case, I offer a different guarantee to my clients.  I will leave no stone unturned in finding the most influential person at the hotel who can personally review my client’s reservation, and do everything possible to honor their request.  And I also guarantee no travel website will make that offer.

Atlantis The Palm, Dubai - 95% of the rooms are connecting