Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Final FL310 Blog Post: A Very Big Thank You

My thoughts and emotions are a bit jumbled and all over the map by this post, but after 5 and half years of writing the FL310 blog, being a stellar Travel Agent, and criss-crossing the globe,  it's time for my next evolution.  

In mid-February y'all were made aware that I had left AAA and I would keep you apprised of my next move.  Well, the day is finally here, and this may well be the 2nd scariest jump I've ever made (maybe THE scariest, if I'm honest with myself).  It was time for this Jet Lag Junkie to make his move and keep traversing the globe showing you amazing places both near and far.  There was just one little snag...

The Jet Lag Junkie name was already being used.  *cue deflating sounds*  

Not to be counted out before I even left starting gate, I thought long and hard about what to actually call and market myself as.  It took a grand total of 4 days, but I figured, I'm a genius at figuring out and creating amazing and unforgettable travels for my clientele, why shouldn't I do the same for myself?  *light bulb*  George The Travel Genius was born.  I fired up my 8-bit brain and learned the ins and outs of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and built my own website that would feature my own blog posts, journeys, video clips, and anything else deemed travel-worthy.  It's been a very different kind of adventure so far, and with my first official GTTG Trip coming up in less than 10 days from now, I'm excited (and maybe a little nervous) to see how this will pan out.

You can check George The Travel Genius out on the following links (and please follow!):

The Official George The Travel Genius Website (I would appreciate it if y'all would sign up!)

Now that the shameless self-promotion is over with, I just want to say, to all my family, friends, followers, colleagues, and assorted hangers-on, THANK YOU.  From the bottom of my olive-oil saturated heart.  I appreciate every single one of you.

Thank you for 5 and half years of supporting my adventures an giving me your feedback here, I look forward to more on my website and various social media outlets!


George The Travel Genius

Monday, March 11, 2019

Southwest Airlines Heats Up Hawaii

Photo Credit Southwest Airlines

It has been a long time coming.  Everyone I know has been talking about it for years, at least ever since the merger with AirTran was consummated.  Southwest Airlines can now go to Hawaii! That was in 2014, when the last vestiges of that great Southern airline with the stylized "A" on its 717's and 737's was wiped out and replaced with the "Hot Dog On A Stick with a Heart" livery of Southwest.

Photo Credit Southwest Airlines
It took a little while longer, and originally, Southwest had planned to start Hawaii flights by 2018, only to be delayed to March 18, 2019.  Fares were published and posted to just a few days previous to this writing, with introductory fares as low as $48 each way from Oakland, CA to Honolulu on certain dates.  Within hours a lot of those lower fares were gone.  The fast fare sales are nothing new to Southwest, but this new strategy shows the evolution of an airline that originally began as nothing more than a intra-state shuttle within Texas' 3 largest cities of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio with flights of usually no more than 500 miles, and who's biggest competition wasn't other airlines, but automobiles and buses.

What Southwest flights will do for the consumer

Photo Credit Southwest Airlines
There's quite a few positives for the consumer with Southwest's entry to Hawaii.  First, Southwest has already driven the average cost per ticket down.  Normal average roundtrip fares from the West Coast secondary cities like Oakland and San Jose were regularly in the $500-$700 range.  Now you can find it for $250-$300 across the board on all the airlines from those cities.  Of course, Southwest's 2 Bags Fly Free policy sweeten the pot a bit too, especially for those who stay on the islands longer due to timeshares or condominium stay requirements.

Another positive is the connecting cities of Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento.  If you were to look for a low fare before Southwest's launch of service, you'd normally see the lowest fares are usually found on Alaska Airlines, with a stop in Seattle or Portland.  For the majority of the country, that's quite a ways off the beaten path to go for a low fare.  Don't get me wrong here, thousands of passengers do go out of their way to connect in those cities on Alaska (and Delta too, with their Seattle hub as well, and trying to keep the lower fares off of the flights out of Salt Lake City and Los Angeles), now with Southwest's entry, at least lower fares can be had from more, uhm...Southerly connecting points.

Just to compare, I did an airfare search from Salt Lake City to Honolulu and looked at all available airlines.  Southwest's fare was $524.60 with one stop in Oakland each way, Delta was $684 for a nonstop flight going and a stop in Los Angeles on the way back, American Airlines wanted $590 with a stop in Phoenix each way, United wanted $850! with one stop in Denver going (from SLC..hmm), and one in Los Angeles coming back, and Alaska wanted $616.71 with one stop in Seattle each way.  Granted this was just one search, but it looks like even connecting passengers stand to save a bit with Southwest's offerings, but the biggest thing is the checked luggage allowance.

Now, for those folks flying from points further East, you can get to Hawaii on Southwest, but, due to the limited schedule they have right now, with a late afternoon and an evening arrival into Oakland, you'll have trouble getting back without a forced overnight stay.  I've heard from people in Austin, St. Louis, Detroit and Baltimore all moan about the lack of return flights.  Roughly half the country is pretty much scheduled out from using Southwest to get back home at the moment.  Give Southwest some time to grow Hawaii flights into other cities such as Phoenix or Las Vegas, and you'll start seeing more connecting opportunities arise.

What Southwest flights will do for the Airline Industry

Having more and more carriers on the same route kills any sort of yield management when it comes to controlling fares and how profitable (or unprofitable) a flight can be.  Delta and American Airlines aren't really worried about Southwest's entry in Hawaii, as their mentality is Hawaii is an offered destination for their passengers, but it's not one of the more hotly contested and profitable destinations for them (hence why they have started using smaller and smaller aircraft to service those routes).

United is the 500 lb gorilla on mainland - Hawaii flights.  They have the most amount of flights to and from, connecting several cities in the islands to Chicago/O'Hare, Denver, Houston/Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles, Newark, and Washington/Dulles.  They also fly to Tokyo, Guam and throughout Micronesia from Honolulu.  United has also been competing with Southwest since the early 1980's when the smaller airline expanded outside of it's Texas home turf.  They have tried to best Southwest at their own game by developing separate airline-within-an-airline operations, gutting planes into all-Coach class configurations with no meals, and almost separate staffing (not really due to union limitations), to no avail.  Both efforts were quietly discarded in time.

Photo Credit Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines also has a sizable presence in Hawaii.  In fact, they are almost right up there with United, flights to multiple islands not just from their hubs in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but from secondary cities such as San Diego, Oakland, Bellingham, San Jose, and Sacramento.  Each of the cities Southwest is starting from.  Alaska is currently the fare leader to the islands, but they also have their large mainland system to boost loads from.

Photo Credit Hawaiian Airlines
The airline with the most to lose in this is Hawaiian Airlines.  Honolulu is their main hub, but they serve the other islands as well.  For decades, they've only flown to major cities on the mainland West Coast, only going as far east as Phoenix and Las Vegas.  Just a few years ago they started Honolulu - New York/JFK flights (more recently Honolulu-Boston, as well) and a year ago they began accepting deliveries of brand new Airbus A321 narrow body jets for service to smaller cities or for additional segments on popular routes.  Now we see Pualani (the Hawaiian girl on the aircraft tails) in cities like Long Beach, Oakland, Portland, San Jose from Honolulu and from Maui and other islands to the mainland as well.  This in addition to their inter-island flights operated by a workhorse fleet of trust Boeing 717's, and a long-haul network in Asia and to several major cities in the US with the incredible and very comfortable Airbus A330-200.

The reason I say they have the most to lose is this.  Because of the expenditures for this new fleet of planes, their balance sheet isn't exactly at it's strongest.  Any sort of fare war that may erupt of shedding of loads could adversely affect their long-term viability.  Hawaiian already went through two rounds of bankruptcy, in 1993 and in 2004.  This last time it emerged financially sound, strong, and with a clear vision.  Now, I'm not saying Southwest alone will drive Hawaiian into another round of (and possibly final) round of bankruptcy, but with that much competition, Hawaiian would be wise to divest itself and continue growing in the Trans-Pacific region away from the mainland.  Thankfully, they are also due to accept delivery of 10 Boeing 787-10 widebodies, which will add to their International route portfolio, no doubt.

I'm not too terrified of Hawaiian's chances with this new entrant, as long as their management doesn't lose it's head.  Hawaiian has withstood new entrants from the mainland for the last 30+ years, and weathered the arrival of Alaska Airlines and Virgin America to the islands as well.  They should be able to withstand the arrival of Southwest.  Official market share numbers (thanks to Henry Harteveldt at the Atmosphere Research Center for the data) show United with the lion's share, at almost 33%, Hawaiian coming in at a distant 2nd place with almost 20%,  American right behind at 19%, Alaska at 15%, and Delta at the tail end with 13%.  Where Southwest will end up after service startup, just a shot in the dark here, but my guess would be somewhere between American and Alaska's numbers.

The Jet Lag Junkie's Opinion:

Southwest Airlines' arrival in Hawaii is a mixed blessing.  It's good for consumers (especially those on the West Coast), with relief from paying for luggage and previously exorbitant fares (before Alaska and Virgin America entered the market, fares were routinely in the $700-$900 range).  For the airlines, it could be bad, as any sort of disciplined yield management might go out the window.  For Hawaiian, United, and Alaska, in my humble opinion, all we'll see is an erosion of their combined market share.  But, while Southwest is here, and while the fares are at these low introductory prices, enjoy!

**All photos the author's except where credited**

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Most Convenient Hub in the West: The NEW Salt Lake City International Airport

**My first article on the new Salt Lake City International Airport appeared in the April 2015 issue of Airways Magazine.  As happens in reality, quite a few things have changed since that original article.  Enjoy.**

Photo Credit: Author's Postcard collection
Salt Lake City, Utah has always had an important place in U.S. Commercial Aviation history, and has maintained it's importance through to the 21st Century.  From a postage stamp size field of 100 acres in 1911 to its current size of 7,700 acres, the Airport has grown with the times and advancements and changes with the aviation industry itself.  Now it's time to grow again, the majority of buildings and structures are from the 1960's - 1980's and are not seismically stable, nor big enough to cope with the amount of passengers, both connecting and originating, or able to keep up with the airlines' demand for more flights.

Originally, Salt Lake City was just a stop along the way for United Air Lines' Transcontinental route from New York to San Francisco, as well as the North terminus for Western Air Express' C.A.M. 8 route from Los Angeles, via Las Vegas.  From those small beginnings, SLC grew with United and Western's fortunes, not to mention the region's own growth spurts.  World War II saw the field transformed in a training base and replacement depot for the US Army Air Force.  The dawn of the Jet Age saw the building of Terminal 1 (back then it was the ONLY terminal) as well as airfield improvements including a Category II Instrument Landing System (ILS).  These improvements and Western Airlines new nonstop service to Calgary, Canada enabled the airport to be renamed from the Salt Lake Municipal Airport to the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Deregulation and the 1980's brought more changes, with Western Airlines retrenching and redrawing its entire system to focus on a main hub at Salt Lake City, with a secondary hub at Los Angeles, thereby requiring more facilities.  Luckily the airport had just expanded the main terminal with 2 concourses (A & B, or F and G as they are now known), so a second terminal (Terminal 2) was added, with one concourse originally, followed by a second (Concourse D) 2 years later, all to keep up with Western's ever expanding operations.

Photo Credit: Official Airline Guide (OAG)
During the 1990's more enhancements came, a new runway added, Delta Air Lines (which merged with Western in late 1986) added more flights and built the Salt Lake hub into a fortress of sorts, and the Airport Board began making renovations and plans for the then-upcoming Winter Olympics, scheduled for 2002.  These last 2 decades, Salt Lake City International Airport has been serving 20 million passengers yearly, in a facility built to handle between 10 and 12 million.  SLC was bursting at the seams.  Delta and the other airlines added flights to more destinations and have pretty much maxed out the current airport.  Something had to be done, and soon.

In January 2012, in his State of the City address, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker announced the launch of the Terminal Redevelopment Program for the Salt Lake City International Airport, to be phased in over the next 8-10 years, generate 24,000 jobs, and cost around $1.8 Billion (the latest cost projection shows it to $3.6 Billion).  The new airport would have a single terminal, new concourses, new parking facilities, a new, expanded, and centralized light rail station, as well as the requisite support facilities to handle it all.  Request for Proposals went out and Holder-Big D Construction was selected as the construction manager at risk in October, 2013.  Work began immediately, with groundbreaking in July 2014.  Opening of the new terminal was originally slated to open in 2018, but like most major construction projects that have major changes partway through, that has been pushed back to 2020, and they are on track for that.

Photo Credit SLC Dept of Airports
The 700,000 square foot Main Terminal has 3 floors, the bottom floor housing International Baggage Claim, Customs, commercial vehicle drop-off, employee security screening, and the main baggage handling system.  Level 2 includes access to the pedestrian bridges to the parking structure, passenger pickup, Domestic Baggage Claim, TSA Security checkpoints for passengers along with access to the gates and concourses, and retail and dining option both pre- and post security.  Level 3 is passenger drop-off, Ticketing and Check-In, and Airport Administration office spaces.

Photo Credit SLC Dept of Airports
The main difference from what I had originally written in late 2014 and now is the building of the North Concourse, instead of keeping Concourses F, D, & C attached to the new Main Concourse.  This layout makes for a much more cleaner airport layout, much like what Atlanta and Denver Airports look like.  The new airport will have a total of 75 gates, all jetway equipped, a trade-off of the 88 gates at the current airport, but only 56 are jetway equipped.  Delta Airlines will have a greatly expanded SkyClub, with an airside SkyDeck, where Club members will have an outdoor patio view of the ramp.  This feature has proven popular at all current SkyClubs that have one.

Ingress into and egress from the airport is also streamlined.  Currently, there is 3 lanes for passenger drop off, and 2 lanes further away from the terminal entrances for passenger pick up.  The lanes closest to the entrances are for commercial traffic such as buses, taxis, and private shuttles.  A rather inefficient setup for today's traffic levels.  The new airport's main roadway will be split into two levels, with Level 1 for picking up (both private and public), and Level 2 for dropping off departing passengers.  This will make for a far smoother traffic flow, and seriously decrease traffic jamming up at peak times.  Also, the Utah Transit Authority's Airport Light Rail Station will be located at the East End of the new rental car facility.

The Department of Airports, contractors, and architects have come together to create a project that will have achieved LEED Silver Certification upon completion, with an ultimate goal of Gold Certification, of which only 9 airports in the United States have achieved.  All airport vehicles are making the transition to electric power, contributing to the targeted emissions-reduction program already in progress at the airport, and keeping in alignment with the City's own emission reductions goals.  The airport expects to have all vehicles electric powered by 2024.

Photo Credit SLC Dept of Airports
At the time of this writing, the Main Terminal is scheduled to open in Fall 2020, with the West side of the new South Concourse going online and connecting to the current concourses, and the demolition of the current Terminals, parking structure, and concourses E & G simultaneously.  Demolition of concourses C & D are scheduled between 2021 and 2024, along with completion of construction of both new concourses' East sides and opening of the North Concourse as well.  By the end of 2024, there will be virtually no aspect left of the old airport, and the new airport will be up and running completely.

Photo Credit SLC Dept of Airports

Photo Credit Jim Lawrence/
The Jet Lag Junkie's opinion:  I honestly can't wait for the new Salt Lake City International Airport. Yes, I have had so many good memories in and out of the current airport growing up, and as an adult.  I grew up within those hallowed halls, watching Boeing 727's, L-1011's and other airliners from airlines like Delta, TWA, America West, and Continental take off for far flung destinations.  Granted, this was all before post-9/11 security measures closed off the airside concourses to passengers only, when a kid could pass through security and spend entire days gazing out the windows watching the planes.

Western Airlines advertised their new Salt Lake City Hub as "The Most Convenient Hub In The West".  It most definitely was.  The concourses were not miles long, and you could connect to another flight or collect your baggage with ease.  The new SLC promises the same, and even though Delta has grown the hub by more than double what Western ever had, this layout is still convenient, and easier to navigate through than other hubs in the region.  Salt Lake City was, and still will be, a hidden gem of a hub guaranteed to faithfully and admirably serve the region well for generations to come, as it's predecessor did.

**All photos the Author's own except where credited**

Saturday, February 2, 2019

There's A Sucker Born Every Minute (SkyGreece Round 2 or, if you will, Hellenic Imperial Part 3)

As the title suggests, and as P.T. Barnum famously said, there's a sucker born every minute.  In this case, wealthy Greeks on both sides of the Atlantic have been, or about to be, taken for another goat-rope.

On January 31, 2019; the Greek City Times reported of a new airline starting up offering both domestic and long haul international flights, and to "take on Greece's leading carrier, Aegean Airlines".  As Frank Sinatra sang, Athens Spirit's got high apple pie in the sky hopes.

Let's put this "take on Aegean Airlines" comment into perspective.  Aegean has (as of June 2018) 49 aircraft, all narrow body Airbus types from the A319 up to the A321.  SkyGreece...ehm, Athens Spirit is planning on starting up with 4 Airbus A319's and two wide-body Airbus A340's.  It's a startup, so starting off small is a must.  However, A340's are yesterday's technology and extremely expensive, also, they've all been pretty much retired from the worldwide airline fleet, except for some smaller operators operating niche flights.  Out of Athens, you sure as hell don't need a four-engined gas-guzzling behemoth to fly a simple route to North America.  Then again, SkyGreece had the twin-engined Boeing 767, that kept falling apart and only operated a handful of flights before one emergency return to Athens stranded an entire plane load of people and shut the airline down, which I chronicled in detail in a previous FL310 entry (The Perils Of Pride).

Equipment issues aside, let's take a look at the funding.  Athens Spirit is funded by investments from wealthy Greeks throughout the diaspora, and Aegean has funding from, well...operating profits (60.4 million Euro in 2017), the open European Stock Market and the Athens Exchange, not to mention 18.2% ownership by  the German Flag Carrier, Lufthansa, as well as providing some key operational and network consulting.  The deck is completely stacked against Athens Spirit with it's "take on Aegean" mantra. If they continue with it, they will pay dearly for it.

The concept of non-stop service to Athens from North America (and other far flung points) is not a new concept.  Long time flag carrier Olympic Airways flew long hauls to North America, South Africa, Asia and Australia for years using Boeing 707 and 747's.  Iconic US Carrier TWA sent 707's and 747's to Athens from New York, Paris, and Middle East points, at one time even had a crew base there.  The problem with Athens, at least, for long haul flights, there's very little premium cabin or cargo demand that could keep the flights making money year-round.  Sure, flights do gang-busters and depart over sold during the summer high tourist season, but once the tourists stop, those cavernous 747's flew back and forth virtually empty.  You could go bowling down the length of a 747's cabin in winter.  Now, I know what you'll say, you'll say, "but George, we see the Business Class cabins full!"  Well yeah, but how many of those fares are actually full fare passengers, not somebody who paid the relatively minuscule upgrade fee or, like in most cases, redeemed frequent flier miles?  Now you see my point.

The only way a new carrier could work is if it had connecting feed at both points.  Now, Athens Spirit wants to fly domestically with 4 A319's to feed those blow-dryer powered A340's.  Good idea, however, Aegean/Olympic, SkyExpress, Ellinair, and Astra all have the Athens market share pretty much carved out for themselves.  If this airline had any clue on how to run properly, it would look at partnering up with one or more of these carriers on the Athens end, and another carrier or two on the other end of the routes.  Connecting feed will keep a startup carrier alive during those lean months.

Next, and in my mind, what gets my blood boiling is who is behind this crazy half-baked scheme.  The "President" of this scheme is a former SkyGreece founder, and Olympic Airways A340 pilot (probably where he got the hair brained idea to use A340's in this day and age).  Just by the simple fact that this guy was mixed up with the former priest and restaurateurs that bilked and stranded HUNDREDS of travelers and refused to give them back their money for services not rendered, should be enough to scare not only passengers and possible employees away, but also investors.

This past decade has been hell with Greek investors and their need to have a nonstop connection across the Atlantic to our beloved Πατρίδα (homeland). Yes, it's not exactly cheap to fly on the Summer nonstops offered by Delta from New York/JFK, United and Emirates from Newark, American from both Philadelphia and Chicago now, but, at least if something happens, these airlines will not leave you stranded. You're on a flying bus, leave your pride at home or in your carry-on. Get there and back home in one piece, and with peace of mind.

So, in conclusion, will Athens Spirit actually take off? Very doubtful. The odds are monumentally stacked against it. But, no matter what, the skies between the US and Greece might heat up later on this year. You do the math and decide.

Find our blog at wordoftravel

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Changing of the Old Guard

Photo Credit Southwest Airlines

By now, most of the world knows that Southwest Airlines' legendary boss, Herb Kelleher, passed away at the tender age of 87. He was one of the last of the maverick airline chieftains of the 1980's to retire from his post, but his tenure, as most of us in the industry (regardless of which airline we worked at) will agree, is one of the most respected and loved.  I won't go into his background in detail, or into a lot of Southwest's history, but instead, I just want to shed some light on what kind of figure Herb was to us airline folk, and what the industry used to look like.

The domestic airline scene in the 1970's was one FAR different than what we are now used to in 2019.  Back then (before yours truly was even born, let alone the airline czar he is now), airlines were heavily regulated, and the now defunct Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) ran and ruled on everything from setting fares, to what type of aircraft could be used on what flight at what time of day, to how napkins should be folded on the meal tray!  Ridiculous, to say the least.  The only way an airline could get away with ANYTHING not controlled by the CAB was to be a strictly intra-state carrier.  Only then could an airline fly without restriction say between, San Diego and Oakland, without the CAB needing to tell them when and how to fly, and for how much.  In fact, Southwest Airlines was NOT the original low-fare, no-frills airline.  Nope, not by a long shot.

Photo credit Southwest Airlines
That belongs to a lovely little carrier named Pacific Southwest Airlines, PSA for short.  They flew DC-3's, DC-4's, Lockheed Electras, and finally Boeing 727, 737's, and DC-9's up and down the California coastline when the big wigs from Southwest showed up at their doorstop.  That's right, Southwest was NOT a pioneer.

In 1969, Southwest's principals, Rollin King and Lamar Muse went to San Diego to see how PSA was run, as their idea was basically a Texas-sized version of PSA intra-California operation.  King and Muse told PSA's chief, Andy Andrews, they knew basically nothing about running an airline, and Andrews turned around and gave the fledgling company full access to every nook and cranny of PSA's operations, from top to bottom.  In fact, the first 737 was leased from PSA, the first reservation system, and all the initial manuals and uniforms also came from the All Smile airline.

Photo Credit Joe Pries
So no, Southwest didn't pioneer ANYTHING.  But, when Herb took over the CEO duties, he was one of the most visible airline leaders in the free world.  He was everywhere, TV and print advertising, Capitol Hill in Washington, random cities around the Southwest system, competitor's flights, etc.  Under Herb's guidance, Southwest turned into enough of a economic powerhouse, that, in the late 80's and 1990's, they could do no wrong.  Cities and their respective airports clamored for Southwest to begin service.  Once they came to town, they didn't start with a handful of flights to one or two destinations, oh no, they came in with all guns blazing.  They would start 5-6 flights a day to several cities, usually 405 at first, then constantly growing as the loads developed and maintained sustainable levels.  This would boost a town's population and was a major driving force for new job creation in the area.  This was called the "Southwest Effect".  For years, this was how it worked, and Southwest motivated every single economy it touched.

Photo Credit Morris Travel
Even with the random airline purchases Southwest made (Dallas based MuseAir in 1987, Salt Lake City-based Morris Air in 1994), Herb and Co. made sure that the respective employees from the merged carriers were taken care of and had a place to work at Southwest (even future jetBlue and Azul CEO David Neeleman, who started Morris Air, ended up at Southwest for a very brief spell).
The way Herb made Southwest do business was a complete polar opposite from the rest of the industry, save perhaps Delta Airlines.

Photo credit Joe Pries
Even though I never managed to cross paths with Herb, he was one of the few industry leaders I looked up to and admired.  Not because he ran an airline, but they way he ran it, the stories I'd heard about him and what kind of person he was, etc.  There were several saying of his that I used to take to heart as a young up and coming airline guy.

  This blog is just my simple and heartfelt way of saying,

"Thank you, Herb.  You will be missed."

Photo Credit Southwest Airlines

Saturday, October 27, 2018

All-Inclusive for All Ages: Beaches Ocho Rios Resort, Jamaica

Photo Credit Beaches Ocho Rios

**Disclosure:  This trip was part of a FAM (Familiarization) Trip sponsored by AAA, Pleasant Holidays, and Sandals Resorts.  Please note that all photos are the author's own, except where credited.  As a travel industry professional, I make a big investment in first hand experiences, and I spend a lot of time to keep up with my accreditation and staying up to date with current and future developments in the airline and travel industries.  This means attending conferences, seminars, site inspections, FAM (familiarization) Trips, and even group trips.  I have been able to have some of these experiences shown and described in my blog entries at a reduced cost or comped by the hotel, tour operator, cruise line, or other supplier.  The feedback supplied is based on my own personal experience.  The first hand experience allows me to better serve my clients and match the experiences they are looking for.**

There are literally dozens of All-Inclusive Resorts in Jamaica that say they are family and kid-friendly, but how about one that goes far above and beyond everyone else not just for families and kids, but are also world renown for their Autistic Children's programs?  Take a look at the excellent Beaches Ocho Rios, then give me a call and let me book you and your family there.

Before I go into the property's details and room types and whatnot, let me speak out about their Nannies.  They are amazing.  From everything we've been told and what I've asked guests and seen first hand, the Beaches Nannies are phenomenal and a must have when you bring your children to play in Jamaica.  The Beaches resorts are the ONLY resorts in the Caribbean where Nannies and infant care are included all day, every day, for every level of accommodation, from newborns, toddlers to kids of all ages.    All Beaches Nannies are accredited by the International Nanny Association (INA) and they have added training in safety, nutrition, and child development.

My visit to Beaches was definitely my favorite part of the FAM trip.  I had been waiting to see this resort with my own eyes for a long while now.  The resort itself boasts 222 rooms and Suites (16 bookable categories to my Travel Agents out there) on 22 acres, a decent 2 hour transfer from either Kingston or Montego Bay, and the suites have Concierge services, however, unlike the Sandals Resorts in Ocho Rios, there is no butler service.   The rooms are broken up into the Caribbean Village main building, the Oceanfront French Village, and my personal favorite, the Beachfront Greek Village, right on the beach and perfect for couples.

From the minute I got off the bus I turned into a 5 year old when I was met by Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street fame.  Beaches partnership with Sesame Workshop makes it the ONLY resort where kids (and some adults) can play with their favorite characters every single day of their vacation.  There are 11 Sesame Street characters on site every day, including the latest addition to the show, Julia, an autistic 4 year old Muppet who can be seen playing around the resort with her long time pal, Elmo.  There are quite a few activities kids do with the Sesame Street characters, such as nature hikes, tea parties, story time, reusing and recycling (with one of my favorites, Oscar the Grouch), to full on character breakfasts and even nighttime tuck-ins (available for an additional charge, of course).

Of course, there's also things to do for the older kids too.  From the Xbox Play Lounge, with dozens of games to choose from on the XBox One and Kinect platforms, to the massive on property water park (11 water slides in all), the TrenchTown arcade with Foosball, air hockey tables and more, to outdoor billiard tables, unlimited scuba diving, tennis clinics, and glass bottom bot tours, there's virtually no end to the fun and activities the older crowd can get into.

Photo Credit Beaches Ocho Rios
As with the other Sandals resorts in Ocho Rios, guests at Beaches Ocho Rios also have access to the Sandals Golf & Country Club, along with complimentary transfers and no additional green fees.  Not a bad perk if you want some time on the links (unlimited rounds included) while the family lounges about on the beach all day!

There's no shortage of dining options at Beaches Ocho Rios, either.  7 distinct eateries abound on the property, from fine French and Italian cuisine to Seafood served dockside, to more run of the mill offerings like fresh made crepes, pizza and BBQ, private dining on the beach for a romantic getaway, or for those with special dietary needs, let the resort know (or your Travel Agent) about a month before hand and any needs you have can be met.

The resort itself is amazing, to be sure, but what blows this writer away, as this hits real close to home, is their attention to detail and laser focus on guests with autistic kids.  Their programs go so far to include and involve autistic kids it amazes me.  Beaches is the first resort to complete and implement the rigorous training set by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), allowing the resort to offer specialized service, engaging activities, and custom dining options so all families can enjoy a memorable Beaches experience.  The IBCCES training also extends out to Travel Agents to learn about and have the ability to better sell the resorts, and this particular Travel Agent is in the middle of my own Certification.

The programs they offer include the Kids Camps, which are certified Autism Centers that ensure the team members have the requisite knowledge, skills, temperament and expertise to cater to all children and offer age-specific programs for infants, toddlers, pre-teens, and teens.  Also, there are activities that involve the Sesame Street characters, now including the newest Muppet, Julia.
Photo Credit Beaches Ocho Rios

This Travel Agents Opinion:  I do not hesitate to quote and book Beaches, especially for my clients traveling with families, honeymooners, and those traveling with special needs, dietary concerns, or autistic travelers.  Everyone deserves an unforgettable vacation, an escape from the everyday grind, if you will.  All Beaches Resorts go above and beyond to achieve this, and the Beaches Ocho Rios, from what I've seen, covers all bases. 

**All photos the Author's except where credited**

Monday, October 22, 2018

Leisure flying, eh? A Ride on Air Canada Rouge

I get a LOT of static from my friends and Travel Agents up North about Air Canada, and especially it's leisure subsidiary, Rouge.  Yet, when I send Americans on AC from the West Coast to Europe, even on Rouge to places like Dubrovnik or Athens, I don't hear a single complaint, in fact, I hear the opposite.  Myself, up to this point have only traveled on mainline Air Canada (and loved the ride), so this trip on Rouge was a definite first for me, and I especially wanted to try the Boeing 767-300 service, as that plane serves those longer flights I book the majority of travelers on, to Athens, Greece.

Air Canada (let alone Rouge), does not serve my home airport of Salt Lake City (sort of, every few years they bring seasonal service back from Toronto, albeit on a minuscule Air Canada Express Regional Jet), so the flight I selected had me leaving Kingston, Jamaica (I was on the island for a AAA and Pleasant Holidays sponsored FAM Trip anyways) bound for Toronto, then connecting onto mainline Air Canada for a quick jaunt up to Montreal.  I was looking forward to this so much, I couldn't wait to get to Norman Manley Airport after the FAM.

Soon enough I was on my way from Ocho Rios to Kingston on a very smooth 2 hour bus ride (a FAR cry from the hideous ride on the way in), arriving at the airport with plenty of time to check-in, and get through security and passport control.  Don't get me wrong, the Jamaicans were very nice and very well meaning, and a vacation to the island is a dream for hundreds of thousands of people, but speaking for myself, a Jamaican (or most any Caribbean island - save St. Maarten) vacation is just not my idea of a vacation.  But enough about me.

Since space is at a premium in the terminal, passengers wait in the main hall until their flight is called for boarding, as there is very little room in the gate areas and jetways.  This was fine by me, I had found myself a fantastic place to sit overlooking the Kingston ramp and next to a wall outlet to plug in while waiting for boarding.  Before I knew it, the staff were calling for Premium Rouge (all 3 passengers), and Rouge Plus (that's me!) to line up at the gate.  I had booked myself in seat 13A, the window seat, in the second row of Rouge Plus.  Even with a not even a half way full flight, we pushed back a little late, but made it up in the air.

Today's flight was operated by the 26 year old former Canadian Airlines Boeing 767-300ER registered C-GHLK.  She was delivered on October 7, 1992 to Air Europe Italy, then sold to Balair in 1999, who then sold it to Canadian Airlines in November, 2000; just in time for the merger with Air Canada.  I can hear the grumbles from my readers at the age of the plane, but, I have to tell you, she was incredibly well maintained, and even though she has an older layout and seats, she performed the flight admirably.  I really have no problem selling Air Canada Rouge to my clients (especially those going from the US West Coast to holiday spots in Europe.  The space in Rouge Plus is perfect for someone of my size (are you listening, American Airlines?) and I stretched my legs until my seatmate boarded (it was turning out to be one of those kind of trips!)

The 4 1/2 hour flight to Toronto was absolutely fantastic.  Right after takeoff, I let the passenger next to me have my seat (a 6'9" Jamaican basketball player takes up a TON of space after all), and I moved to a completely empty center section of row 14.  All 3 seats were mine, so I spread out, and even gave Philbin his own seat.  I passed the flight plugged into the inflight power, cranked up my music, and began journaling my trip.

Yet another feather smooth landing on the 767 in Toronto.  Deplaning was quick, making it a breeze to get through the kilometers of corridors before hitting Customs and Baggage Re-Check and onwards to my connecting flight on Air Canada mainline to Montreal.

I still don't know why so many people give Air Canada (and it's subsidiaries) such a hard time, but every segment I've had on Air Canada and Rouge thus far have been simply phenomenal.