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IT—Inside Traveler
By Jessie Johnston and Emily King

June 22, 2006:

Weather Warranty


With the arrival of Alberto—the first named storm of the 2006 hurricane season—comes the realization (aha!) that summer travelers will have to face up to unexpected weather glitches. The Wall Street Journal leads us to a few travel companies that are "promising to compensate travelers for plans inconvenienced by bad weather."

Spirit Airlines—the leading low-fare carrier to the Caribbean—is offering a Hurricane Buster Protection Policy. Customers who hold tickets to/from an airport located in a hurricane watch zone will be allowed to change reservations without paying the usual $50 fee.

Discovery Cruise Line—a company that offers one-day cruises from Florida to the Bahamas—assures customers that they will not lose their deposits in the event of cancellations due to a hurricane. Customers can cancel or rebook trips free of charge if a hurricane watch or warning is posted for their departure or arrival location. Also, if such a watch occurs while the traveler is already at their destination, they are allowed to return from the island at an earlier date than their booking.

Partnering with the Bermuda Hotel Association, 16 of the island's resorts are offering the Hurricane Guarantee program. If a hurricane is predicted to approach within 200 miles (322 kilometers) of Bermuda within five days, travelers may cancel their hotel reservations without penalty. "In the event that the island is directly affected by a hurricane (as determined by the Bermuda Weather Service) during the guest's stay in Bermuda," states their website, "the participating hotel will not charge for rooms, food and beverage or other essential services for any period of time that the participating hotel's normal services are not available."

IT's simple solution:
Insure your trip the way Emily does, by vacationing in land-locked, drought-prone, mountainous Utah.


IT travels with Ingrid Ahlgren

Researcher Ingrid Ahlgren headed west to Seattle for a week, and shared her favorite experiences:

"We went beneath Seattle's streets on the Underground Tour mentioned in our March 2006 WorldWise quiz. After an 1889 fire destroyed much of the city, officials ordered streets to be raised above the original grade to avoid the flooding that had plagued the early city. Some stubborn businesses remained underground until the early 20th century, however. The tour begins in a restored saloon before it heads into the areas belowground. Our guide told colorful tales of Seattle's early sewage system (toilets didn't always flush the right way), and the city's 'seamstresses,' who were actually prostitutes. The sidewalks were uneven in parts, and this isn't the tour for you if you hate stairs.

"The next day we drove down to Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. We gawked at the active crater from afar (due to current activity, it's closed to hikers) and watched a scary video in the visitors center about the volcano's 1980 eruption. If you don't want to make the two-hour drive from Seattle, check out VolcanoCam's live views of the mountain.

"Our next journey was to San Juan Island. We drove from Seattle to Anacortes,  and from there took a Washington State Ferry to the island. In Friday Harbor we crashed at a hostel called the Wayfarer's Rest. It has private and shared rooms, and is walking distance from the ferry. We got a four-person room for only $75 per night. There were fresh flowers in the shared bathroom, the common areas were nicely decorated, and even the bedroom had homey touches, like a driftwood railing on the bunk. (None of us tried one of the more interesting features: a coin-operated shower!)

"The highlight of the San Juan jaunt was whale watching. The first day we took a four-hour tour on the Odyssey and saw everything except whales—eagles, harbor seals and porpoises. Since whales were guaranteed, we got a rain check from the company. The next morning we visited the Whale Museum. The whale skeletons were cool, but the $6 entry fee seemed steep for the small exhibit. That afternoon, due to mechanical problems, we ended up on another boat, the Island Commuter. This time there were lots of orcas out and about. We even saw a mother with her baby."

All IT can say is that we wish our commute had that kind of view….


From June 20, 2006:

Rogue Art at Rouge

Laurel Kellner—Berkeley grad and NG Geotourism Coordinator—passed us the following tip:

"A South American penguin made a surprise appearance at Darren Smith's art opening two weeks ago. His work is the latest in a rotating, monthly art exhibit showcased in the bar and lounge area of the Hotel Rouge—one of D.C.'s hippest hotels, where a SeaWorld penguin-handler happened to be staying. Smith's kaleidoscopic picture mosaics present places you've seen in ways you've never seen them. By cutting up multiple prints of a subject and piecing them together in new configurations, the artist creates a Magic Eye-style vision of the world around us. Think surrealism with a cubist touch.

"'I was always fascinated by geometry,' Darren told me, 'so I use it to shape my work.' Spires, abundant in Dupont Circle architecture, become delicate snowflake designs; palm trees bend into a 'Bermuda Triangle'; and mundane street signs multiply into looming skyscrapers.

"My favorite: 'Dreaming California,' a brilliant composition blending California quintessentials—beach scenes, blue sky, and the freeway overpass—into a perfect portrait of the Golden State, served up in the shape of…a car tire.

"The work will be shown through July 5. Apparently, penguins are welcome."


Chinatown Bus 101

By now most people have been touched by the media frenzy surrounding the phenomenon of so-called Chinatown buses. While awareness of these low-cost intercity coach lines has gone mainstream, many folks have yet to actually venture aboard a Chinatown bus, often because they don't know how to go about it.

IT to the rescue! While we can't claim to have been onboard since the trend's beginning, IT has been taking non-Greyhound buses up and down the East Coast for years, and has frequently initiated neophytes into the mysteries of the practice. We thought it was about time we shared those secrets with you.

First, for complete novices, a brief explanation. The original Chinatown buses started running between the Chinatowns of Boston and New York during the late '90s, and were primarily used by Chinese restaurant workers. Community members and cheapskate students quickly caught on, however, and companies offering cut-price service between Chinatowns sprang up throughout the eastern seaboard. Today, any company offering low-cost, nonstop bus service between major cities is typically termed a "Chinatown bus," even if its buses don't actually pick up in a Chinatown. The lines keep costs down by not maintaining stations (pick-ups and drop-offs are generally at designated street corners or parking lots) and running schedules so tight that delays have a ripple effect.

To actually take a Chinatown bus yourself, the first thing to establish is whether a bus company serves your city. A helpful (if incomplete) list of routes is maintained here. Another excellent source of info is GotoBus.com, aka IvyMedia, an online ticket-booking clearinghouse for most Chinatown buses on both coasts. Some holdouts don't sell tickets through IvyMedia, though, so it's always worthwhile to do a quick Google search as well.

Before buying your ticket and boarding your bus, remember the following, and you will be sure (as most onboard garbage bags instruct) to "Have a Nice Day":

1. Not all Chinatown buses are created equal: Traveler staffers like Eastern Shuttle for its frequent departures, and Vamoose and Washington Deluxe for their timeliness, cheesy movies, and convenient pick-up locations (caveat: neither of the latter offer Saturday service, as their owners are Orthodox Jews). We try to steer clear of Today's Bus and New Century based on prior less-than-ideal experiences (self-dismantling overhead bins proved particularly memorable). Ask bus-savvy buddies for their local recommendations.

2. Arrive half an hour before departure: Even if you buy your ticket in advance, seating isn't always guaranteed, and some buses leave when they're full, regardless of the schedule. While you may be allowed to use your ticket on another departure if you don't make your intended bus, it's generally preferable to snag a spot early.

3. Carry cash: If you haven't paid for your ticket online, you may be expected to purchase your ticket with genuine green; most buses don't have onboard credit-card readers.

4. Wear layers: Temperature control on the buses can be highly erratic. Board prepared for all possible climates.

5. Bring a snack: Some buses will break up long journeys at a rest stop to give passengers a chance to get food, but many do not. It can be a long and hungry ride.

6. Sit near the front: Just as not all buses are created equal, not all bus bathrooms are equally well-maintained. 'Nuff said.


E-mail your feedback and tips to InsideTraveler@ngs.org.

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Emily King, Traveler's assistant to the editor, aspires to be on the cover of Fast Company. Researcher Jessie Johnston is traumatized enough by the photo on her National Geographic staff badge.


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