Two separate tour operators — one specializing in Hawaii, the other in the Caribbean — have both advised me in recent days that people hoping to book bargain offers should contact them by phone, and not over the Internet. That's because the airlines are continually raising and lowering their airfares on particular dates and for particular flights, creating a bewildering jungle of prices. The people who insert various dates for the air-and-land packages they desire will too often be disappointed in the results, and will need to spend a large amount of time trying other dates and times of day.
By contrast, the telephone reservationists at these companies are so familiar with what's going on that they can immediately advise you of the dates and flights for which prices are advantageous.
So it's back to the future. The good old telephone seems superior, in this case, to the slickest computer.
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Increasingly, I hear of cruise lines offering "soda cards" to their passengers — pieces of plastic with magnetic information enabling the user to enjoy unlimited cans of soda in the course of their weeklong cruise. But while some of these cards are good buys (certainly the ones costing $20 for a week will enable you to enjoy reasonably priced sodas), a number of cruise lines charge as much as $42 per card valid for an entire week — and that doesn't work out to your advantage. Since most cans of soda on a cruise cost $2 ($1.75 plus service charge), you'd have to drink three cans of soda a day for all seven days just to break even. If a card costs considerably less than $42, it should be considered.
Last month, those initial "test" sailings of the humongous, 6,000-passenger Oasis of the Seas, on which most guests were travel journalists writing about the experience, turn out to have limited their invitations to just 3,000 passengers on each sailing. So we can't yet know how capable the immense vessel is of servicing the recreational and food needs of 6,000 passengers at one time; we'll have to wait until reports dribble in from the 6,000 paying passengers who went on subsequent, one-week sailings. One journalist on an early sailing raved about how "empty" the ship seemed, without acknowledging that only half the cabins were occupied.
If you're an American living near the Canadian border, and thus able to travel easily to such near-border cities as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and more, then you'll want to look into the winter holidays offered from such cities by Sunwing Holidays of Canada. To islands of the Caribbean and Central America, to beach resorts of Mexico's Mayan and Pacific coasts, to numerous other tropical locations, Sunwing's prices and values seem remarkable to me, much superior to the similar offerings of U.S. tour operators, even considering the longer distance from most Canadian cities to the tropics. Canada has had a long tradition of rock-bottom winter bargains, and its tour operators seem especially adept at squeezing out every penny of cost.
And finally, among the major U.S. cities offering "greeters programs" (on which residents offer to escort you on an informative walking tour of the city, free of charge), Chicago's always has seemed the most dynamic — and that reputation was recently confirmed through the addition of free bicycle tours of the city (a local bicycle rental company provides the bikes). Go to www.chicagogreeter.com, click on "Click Here to Register," then scroll down a fair bit.