February 27, 2014

Be Suspicious of Quick Answers to Your Travel Questions

I really need to quit reading the Q&A in the newspaper's travel section, because I always seem to get riled up.  Basically, readers write in with questions, such as what to do and see in a particular location, or what hotel or cruise is "the best."  And they get a brief answer, usually with very specific recommendations.

If a client called and asked me any of these questions, we would spend a minimum of 15 minutes in conversation before I would consider giving them an answer.

No cookie cutter answers
for my clients!

In fact, I’d be asking them a whole lot of questions right back, such as:
  • Can you tell me more about who is going on this trip?
  • Why are you going, what is your vision, are you celebrating anything?
  • How old are your kids, what are their interests & activities?
  • What are your favorite hotels?  
  • What do you like to do on vacation?
  • Have you ever cruised before, traveled outside the US, etc?
  • What are your hotel “must haves” and what do you like to avoid?
  • Do you want to be in the middle of the action or do you want a quiet retreat?
And something that is really important to families: do you need guaranteed connecting rooms or a specific bedding arrangement?

The answers I receive usually create more questions: “So you’re taking along the grandparents.  Do they have any mobility issues, or they ok with stairs and long walking distances?”
Spiral staircase to get to breakfast
Paris elevator - not for claustrophobes!
You can buy a guidebook and or easily find on the internet a list of top attractions of any destination.  But is a book or a website going to say “Since you are a gourmet cook, why don’t you check out this market, it’s the best one in the city.  Or better yet, how about a Farm to Fork tour?” 

Farmer's market in Provence

“Since your teens are active and enjoy being outdoors, this is a great place to rent bikes to explore the area.”


“This hotel has a zero-entry pool so it’s much easier to monitor your toddler, they can sit and splash in shallow water.  Then you don’t have to stand in the pool holding them the whole time.”  

Turks & Caicos waterpark
So you see there is no one right answer when it comes to travel.  Even the most expensive, top rated, most talked about hotel in the world is not “the best” hotel for everyone.  And the “must do/must see” list for a retired couple traveling alone is different from that of a family with young children.  
As for selecting a cruise, don't even get me started! 
When you thing about the variables for just one destination:  the cruise line, the ships within that line, cabin types, ports visited, onboard activities, etc. it staggers the mind. 
Small ship
Big ship
Or something in-between
My job is to make sure I give the best answer for each and every client.  And that requires a lot of communication between us.  Many people email or call to ask about rates for a specific hotel, often because their friends recommended it.  Personal recommendations are great, I use them all the time.  But is that really the best fit for you, of ALL the hotels available? 

After all, think about your friends and family members.  Do you all drive the same model car?  Like the same food?  Have the same hobbies?  I have over 300 Facebook friends, but there are only a handful that have the same travel style as I do.
Do you like cool, modern elegance...

Or warm, rustic luxury?
One time I had just returned from the destination featured in the Q&A section.  And while the “expert” recommended a couple things I agree with, there were several things I think he/she missed, and I would have narrowed the list even further if I knew the ages of the travelers.  They also made a dining recommendation which baffled me, as the town had many other much better restaurants.

So don’t believe everything you read!  

For help with planning the perfect vacation just for you, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

February 14, 2014

Five Factors to Consider When Selecting an Alaska Cruisetour

Alaska cruise brochures can be the most confusing to understand, even for an experienced travel advisor.  And the cruisetour section can be especially intimidating - so many choices, and so many tours that look similar.  

Of course, the easiest way to sort it all out is to ask your trusted travel advisor for guidance, as they ask the right questions to find the best fit for you. But if you'd like to figure it out on your own, or want to do a little research before reaching out to a professional, here are some tips to help you get started.

1) Do you want to do the cruise or the tour first?

I personally prefer a northbound cruise, because I enjoy the increasing anticipation of getting closer and closer to Alaska.  Also, the ports of embarkation, Vancouver and Seattle, offer a lot to do and see.  Since most travelers need to arrive at least one day prior to embarkation, they can use that time to explore one of the cities.
Vancouver cruise ship

However, the land tour requires a lot of moving around, so it’s more tiring than the cruise portion.  For that reason, many travelers opt to do the tour first, then spend the end of their trip relaxing.   But if you feel that you need some R&R before going on an adventurous land tour, then cruising first would be the better choice.
So, you see, it’s really a matter of personal preference.

2) How much time do you have?

The shortest cruisetour is 10 days (7 day cruise + 3 day land tour), but you generally need at least 11 days to allow for travel to the start of the cruise or the tour.  The less time you have, the fewer options available.  Most tours that stay within Alaska run a maximum of 13-14 days,  and Yukon tours go up to 16 days.

Market in Anchorage
Market in Anchorage
3) Where do you stop and for how many nights?

While it may seem there are a baffling number of tours available, on close inspection you'll notice that they generally visit the same areas.  The main differences will be the order of the itinerary, and the number of nights in each location (typically 1-3).  I find my clients fall into one of these groups:  they either want to hit the maximum number of places in the least amount of time, or they want to visit fewer places and have more free time for activities. 
Downtown Talkeetna
Downtown Talkeetna
Think about what you want to see and do, and note in which town those activities are available.  Then mentally walk yourself through the itinerary.  Are you OK with how often you will pack and unpack, how many early mornings you will have, how often you’ll be on a bus, how much free time you will have?  Will you have time for any "must do" excursions?

Some cruise lines offer “Direct to Denali” service which means they take you from the cruise ship to Denali National Park the same day.  It’s a long day, but it allows you to spend more time at Denali if that’s important to you.

Alaska Railroad
Alaska Railroad passing through Talkeetna
4) What Denali Park tour is included?

All accommodations are located outside the park boundaries.  The only way to travel deep into the park, and have a chance to see Mt. McKinley (if weather allows), is via a National Park Service bus.  Almost all cruisetour itineraries include one of the narrated bus tours, which vary in how far they travel into the park (15 to 53 miles, 4-8 hrs roundtrip).   The further you go, the more spectacular the scenery and the more opportunity to see wildlife. However, note that none of the narrated tours go as far as Eielson Visitor Center.
Denali Park shuttle bus
Park service bus
Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road
5) Would you prefer traveling on your own?

A cruisetour is the most seamless way to visit interior Alaska before or after a cruise.  If you want someone else to do all the planning, driving, and luggage handling, then that is the best choice.  But if you want to be more independent and even get off the beaten path a bit, you might consider doing a land tour on your own.  
Sled dog pups at Iditarod Race Headquarters
Sled dog pups at the Iditarod Race Headquarters
While there is plenty of public transportation in the Denali Park area, having your own car gives more flexibility in how you spend your time.   Though the distances in Alaska are long and services are limited, driving and navigating is quite easy.  You can start right at the cruise port, or you can travel to Anchorage and pick up a car there.
Driving to Denali
Driving to Denali from Anchorage
In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of traveling independently is having time in your schedule to take the park service shuttle into Denali instead of a tour bus.  If you are up for the long day (11-12 hrs), then you can travel the entire length of the park road, over 80 miles, and enjoy all the amazing scenery this beautiful, remote wilderness area has to offer. It is truly the trip of a lifetime.

Brown bear in Denali Park
Brown bear on Denali Park Road
I’ve traveled all over the state of Alaska, so whether you travel by ship, bus, train, or car, I can custom design an itinerary just for you, and provide insider tips for a fun and memorable vacation.  For more information on how to get started on your dream trip to Alaska, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.