Monday, 30 September 2013

My Unexpected Travel Adventure

A business trip to Minnesota claimed to be more than just a business trip, it was a real experience to say the least.

I booked my trip well in advance to take advantage of cheap flights, as I planned to fly out a day early, caught an early flight, thought I’d do a little shopping at the Mall of America in Minneapolis during my stay.

I arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on time, in fact, surprisingly a little early. I then proceeded to hail a cab from the airport to my hotel, no need for a rental car, at the time, maybe it would have been the best choice in the end!

Checked into my hotel room, did the usual ‘observation’, all seemed to be in an orderly fashion, up to my specifications anyway. Clean room, clean bathroom, etc. I gently placed my large suitcase and carry-on bag onto the hotel room floor, as I wasn’t going to need to take anything with me to the mall. I’d require both hands to carry all my purchases! What was I shopping for anyway? Nothing, just a woman on a mission to shop.

Now, it was time to hit the stores! Imagine, an entire day to myself? That doesn’t happen too often. I took the hotel shuttle across to the mall, tipped the driver, and off I went.

WOW, what a place, levels upon levels of everything from amusement rides to shops to restaurants. I'm thinking I should have booked a few extra days, not just one.

After an entire day of shopping, I was completely exhausted, but happy with my mall experience.. The question was now “how was I going to stuff all that I bought into my suitcase? I knew I could do it, but the real question was “how was I possibly going to lift it?”

The weather in June was scorching hot in Minnesota, who would have thought? The forecast for the following next few days would remain the same. I unfortunately hadn't checked ahead of time. 100 degree temperatures to contend with, one fall weight business suit, and two pieces of luggage.

The next morning I woke refreshed, slept in a little later than I should have, but still enough time to shower, dress, but no breakfast. I was hungry, but ready for my day. My transportation from the hotel to my business meeting location was about a two hour drive. Again, rather than a car rental, I thought I would arrange this transportation through the hotel. Maybe a limo to chauffeur me there. The cost wouldn’t be much more than a cab. I could spend time preparing for my meeting during the trip. Great idea, I thought!

The limo ended up being a Lincoln Navigator arranged by the hotel. Plenty of room, and most importantly, a comfortable ride. As we left the hotel parking lot, a little idle chit chat with the driver, and off we went. The ride seemed a little bumpy, the driver assured me it was just the road. I trusted his words. About 30 or so miles into the ride, I was beginning to question the road conditions, I was beginning to believe it was the vehicle. My seat belt was fastened securely, otherwise I would have had some serious brain damage. I felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride, my head would have hit the interior ceiling of the SUV if I weren’t belted in.

Up, down, up, down, up down, I was bouncing in my seat, this was no exaggeration ..this was beginning to worry me. The driver admitted he was having car trouble, what was my first clue? At this point, he needed to immediately pull off the road, the back end of the SUV had some serious issues, as I knew it wasn't me. I was almost feeling ill at this point, all the up and down motion which seemed to get progressively worse after each mile.

He took the next exit, pulled into a convenience store/gas station in the middle of nowhere, and told me I needed to find another source of transportation, and demanded I pay him the entire cost. I told him I’d pay him half, considering he only got me this far. He called a tow truck, and off they went.

Left standing in one hundred degree plus temperatures wearing a business suit, two pieces of heavy luggage stranded in literally the middle of who knows where.

My business meeting was scheduled to begin in an hour, I was now in panic mode.

After standing outside pondering for quite some time, I walked inside the convenience store, explaining my situation to the young man behind the counter. I asked him who I should call for a cab, and how long he thought it may take for one to arrive. He answered “most likely an hour, there is no cab company close by.” As we further discussed the predicament I was faced with, a young man of an ethic background walked in, overheard my dilemma, and offered to help. He said he was on his way to where I needed to be, and would be willing to drive me there. How kind was that?

As excited as I was to jump on the offer, I was also a little hesitant, not because of his ethnic decent, it wouldn’t have mattered who offered me a ride, it was just the fact that it was total stranger. I obviously wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time. I seemed to be more concerned about making the meeting than what was at risk, that being my life. As desperate as I was, I took his offer.

I followed him to his car, wheeling my suitcase behind me, carrying the other bag over my shoulder. I made sure I had my cell phone in hand, 911 already keyed in, ready to hit if needed.

When I approached his very small car, he mentioned his trunk was completely full, therefore I had to sit with my luggage on my lap.

The car windows were down, I noticed two others sitting quietly. One in the front, one in the back. Two women covered from head to toe in their native dress. All that was noticeable were their eyes. I reluctantly got in the back seat, placing my large suitcase across me, the other next to me. We then drove off.

No words were spoken to me. The only words exchanged were between them, sadly enough in their language, which was completely foreign to me.

After what seemed like hours in the car, it was only about 15 minutes. I then tried to make small talk in order to break the silence, our situation was noticeably uncomfortable. I only realized these women feared me as an American Citizen, as much as I feared them as who they were. My cell phone rang, I immediately answered, it was my daughter! A comforting voice just when I needed one. After a very brief conversation, my last words to her were “I love you too.” Just those few words, "the international language" broke the ice. I then showed them the screen on my phone which presented my beautiful daughter. Arriving safely at my destination, we all built a trust in one another.

No matter where you travel, it’s always taking a risk. Whether you take a flight, rent a car, hop on a cruise ship, stay at a five star resort, you just never know what may become of your next vacation. The experience is just part of the adventure.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Planning My Vacation Getaway

I was feeling the need to escape immediately. I was ultimately at a point of desperation, ready to jump on a plane and head out of town today, but obviously not realistic. The question I needed to ask myself was “Where would I plan my family vacation”? Just the thought of the word “vacation” can mentally exhaust me prior to my trip even beginning, to say the least!

Decisions, decisions... First off, where’s my destination going to be? Secondly, the airline, third, the hotel accommodations and “car rental, as well as travel insurance if needed. Final question. What’s the cost? How much was I prepared to spend? That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

Initially, I need to turn on my computer. Thankfully, with today’s technology this makes it a little easier...well, maybe not, depending upon how technologically challenged I may be! Booking a vacation online seems to be less expensive than through a travel agency, as I’ve always booked through an agent in the past, this time; it’s my turn to impress myself!

Here I go... as I sit down, I turn on the computer, I type in “Cheap Flights”... About 62,900,000 search results appear, are you kidding me? Where do I even begin? On the first page, I see seat sales, last minute vacations, cruises, hotel discounts, etc. etc. This has now become a little overwhelming. Maybe I need to contact an agent after all!

My original time slot that I’ve allowed myself to book this trip would be approximately half more, no less. It’s only been two hours since I’ve begun my search for the ultimate vacation destination. I ask myself “am I any further ahead than I was a few hours ago”? No I’m not, but my excuse.. I got a tad bit carried away with all the options available. Now, dazed and confused, the only issue that’s been resolved is where I’m going, answer is “CRAZY”! I really need that vacation now, more than ever before..

I’ve just come to the realization that it’s now late fall, winter’s just around the corner. I’m soon going to crave the warmth of the sunshine when I’m removing the snow from my driveway, which I’m assuming will be not far off. Book that trip for next month, I told myself ! Locating a last minute deal, a cheap flight, maybe even a seat sale shouldn’t be too difficult to track down. I have a plethora of options to choose from.. Could it be WestJet, Delta, American Airlines, United, Air Canada, Air Transat ? I’m in search of the best travel deal available, who’s is going to be ? The winner is.. I’ll leave you in suspense.

Now that I’ve chosen my flight and destination, next step, the accommodations… I would call myself “a hotel snob”, always looking for a five star rating with countless, yet positive reviews. I’ve acknowledged the fact that we should never judge a book by it’s cover. As I’m viewing the most breathless pictures of white sandy sprawling beaches, lounge chairs, umbrella’s, pools, and patio bars. In my mind, this is where I’m destined to be. The hotel, and lobby look beautiful, the rooms seem spacious enough, and the view from the balcony is priceless. Hoping it’s all that it’s cracked up to be upon arrival.

Next question to myself “do I require a car rental for transportation“? What’s a vacation without a little sight-seeing? Excursions a must. I can’t possibly sit on a beach for a week and do absolutely nothing. Being a woman, shopping is a major priority on my list, although I seem to buy just for the sake of buying when on vacation. That dress looked great at the island boutique, but will I ever wear it at home? You’d think I’d learn from past purchases that those dresses are still hanging in my closet, tags attached. As for the last minute souvenirs for friends and family, those are usually purchased just prior to boarding the plane at the airport. I won’t tell them, will you ?

Now that I’ve booked my perfect vacation destination, I can’t say it was uneventful, but can only hope my trip will be. This has definitely been a learning experience with so many options to choose from and decisions to be made regarding the airline company, flight, and hotel accommodations. I’m fully aware there will be many more choices I’ll have to decide upon my arrival, such as menu options, cocktails, and how much time to spend at the beach and pool each day.

Upon arrival next month to the ideal vacation spot, with my camera in hand, the memories obtained will far outweigh the stress it took me to book this trip. Thinking back, I truly believe it took me longer to book this trip than it will the flight to get there !

Friday, 8 April 2011

Adventures in Orlando - More Than Theme Parks

by Pam Stellini

My recent visit to Orlando was intended to learn a little more about what the area had to offer Canadians and when our WestJet flight landed early on a Tuesday morning, it was the beginning of five days of unexpected pleasures in a city known more for its thematic treasures.

I didn’t need to be sold on Orlando. It was a destination I had shared enthusiastically with my children when they were young, and then again when they were teens. I had visited on an incentive trip and I had also hosted a team of Canadian travel agents. I once did a secret handshake with Pumba. I was familiar.

Relaxing at The Peabody Hotel

As guests of the Peabody Hotel we were privy to the volume of conference business this city hosts in the adjacent convention facility. With 1,641 rooms the hotel is the largest non-gaming four-star in the nation and it serves the business guest with flawless consideration.

Our evening started with a drink at the Rocks Lounge. If there is an example of this bar catering to a professional clientele it would be with the beverage menu. Rocks offers an expansive wine list and creative cocktails with ingredients that are more savoury than syrupy, including Serrano ham, peppers, cucumbers, watermelon, sage and dill.

Our dinner at Napa ,was described as ‘farm to fork freshness.’ Ingredients are grown locally by a number of farms in central Florida exclusively for the restaurant. Produce, such as kale is delivered within four hours of harvesting and served with distinction by staff as proud as if they had planted the gardens themselves.

Outdoor Adventure: Forever Florida

For past investors of “swampland in Florida” we checked out your real estate. It looks fine. In fact it is all part of the 4,700 acres of conservation area of Forever Florida where we partook in the Zipline and Coach safaris.

I opted not to take the Zipline, but regretted it once I saw the calibre of the facility, the training, and the guides. The brave ones who made aerial visits across the wetlands got to zip past the iconic resident who was apparently purring in anticipation of mating season. George is a 13’ gator and his bellowing sound caused ripples in his pond that could be seen from the height of the zipliners.

Once George was distracted by his view in the sky, the rest of us boarded the coach that travelled across nine ecosystems hoping to not be greeted as ‘meals on wheels.’ We came across stunning fauna, herds of cattle and sunning gators.

Outdoor Adventure: Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

Winter Park feels like good manners, argyle sweaters and classic novels, and makes so much sense when you know that it is the location of the summer home of the late children’s television personality Mr. Rogers.

Our capable skipper navigated us through the calm waters and canals with compelling stories of the town’s origin. For a peaceful hour we passed manicured estates and historical properties sharing the tranquility on the lake with sailboats and students among palm trees and cypress and an unexpected garden of bamboo.

Outdoor Adventure: Boggy Creek Airboat Rides

Boggy Creek Airboat Rides began as the original airboat company in Central Florida with just one six-passenger airboat in 1994. At that time, it was unheard of to stay in the Orlando area and take an airboat ride.

The Florida Everglades in south Florida are known worldwide as the location to go out on an airboat tour. It took years, according to Boggy Creek’s Airboat Rides, to make visitors aware that the headwaters to the Florida Everglades actually start right in Orlando, and the chance to visit the "Real Florida" is only minutes from Orlando's attractions.

We boarded boats propelled by large fans that skim over inches of water to see the natural habitat of many bird species as well as the famed Florida ‘gators.

Culture: The Morse Museum

The most comprehensive collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany is housed in the Morse Museum.

The Tiffany collection includes the leaded glass windows and lamps the artist is known for, as well as jewellery, pottery, paintings and art glass all displayed in a building as captivating as its collection.

The Laurelton Hall exhibition includes many architectural features rescued from Tiffany’s Long Island home including his original marble terrace that looks out to the garden.

Entertainment: The Blue Man Group

If I told you that the evening ended with giggling people in the audience passing along toilet paper in long unbroken sheets over our heads to the people in front of us you might think our evening was silly.

Image the competence of the Blue Man Group whose performance before the TP came out made it feel okay for us to pass toilet paper. And we didn’t just pass it, we owned it.

Entertainment: Cirque du Soleil, La Nouba

It was my first Cirque du Soleil. I will have to be forgiven the chronic gasps I emitted throughout the performance. I marvelled at all the harmonies: the human forms linking and unlinking and the energy powered by the music; gravity being defied in juggling, inertia defied in cycling. Rope skipping was a momentous event.

After the show, another joy as we met ex-Montrealer BenoƮt Jutras, the Musical Director since 1998 responsible for composing the music and insuring its harmonious delivery technically in sync with movement from all levels of the stage.

Theme Park: Universal Studios, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The place is magic; from imposing historical buildings; the steam engine train, the flying car wedged in a field with a simulated engine running you are captivated by the Harry Potter aura.

At the end of a long day of magic I highly recommend the refreshing supplement of a Butterbeer or pumpkin juice, both non alcoholic. Though after my first one I thought the people in the paintings of the Portrait Gallery were talking. It may have been my imagination.

Indoor Pleasure: The Spa at The Peabody

I had the purifying facial. I didn’t want to leave. My skin was so soft and I smelled so good and the treatment room was lovely and tranquil and my towels were heated. In a sophisticated place like the Peabody, they are too refined to ask you to leave. Of course I did leave, but only after I followed a woman who prepared me a delightful beverage infused with lemon.

Shopping: Premium Outlet Shopping

There are 150 stores at this outdoor shopping centre. I highly recommend a map and a plan. I would also encourage a zigzag pattern and a speed of increasing intensity, because just when you think you have hit all of the stores you have wanted to, you will come across a new desire.

Getting there

And remember folks, WestJet, Air Canada, Sunwing and Air Transat all fly to Orlando from various Canadian gateways. Be sure to check out the cheap flights to Orlando that make amazing vacations possible!

Reprinted with permission from Travel Industry Today

Monday, 28 February 2011

Cheap Flights To London Enabled Me
To Explore A New Place

If it were not for cheap flights to London, my trip to England would not have become reality. Working from home, my budget is very tight, so overseas travel is usually not feasible. After doing a search online, I found some inexpensive cheap flights. This permitted me to plan the vacation of a lifetime. It was such a great trip that I plan to make a return visit next year.

The flight was a direct non-stop flight to London, something that a traveller like me greatly appreciates. The process of changing planes frustrates me. In addition, the possibility of bags getting lost on the wrong connecting flight is not something a person wants to deal with when travelling overseas. Instead, my flight to London was pleasant and comfortable, providing me with some time to review the travel guides.

When I disembarked from the airplane at London Heathrow Airport, my excitement began to build. After retrieving my bags, it was off to the car rental counter to pick up the vehicle that I would be driving for the week. Service was friendly and I got a nice-sized, clean car within minutes. It did not take long to get used to driving on the opposite side of the road and I was soon zipping along to my hotel.

When it came to hotels, there were so many to choose from during travel planning. I opted for one in the city. Prices vary depending on location, amenities, and whether the lodging is part of a worldwide chain. By booking in advance, I was able to get about 20 percent off the best available rate offered by the hotel. My wallet was very happy and I was equally pleased when arriving at my room that featured a queen size bed and excellent views of the city.

The room was bright, modernly decorated, and featured a nice plasma television and a desk. I quickly made a cup of tea and sat down to review the available on-demand movies. This hotel charged for in-room high speed Internet access but I had already researched the local Wi-Fi hotspots and located a nearby coffee shop. After a shower and some fresh clothes, I headed there to check emails and get a lay of the land.

While enjoying a scone and some more tea (I would have quite a bit of that on this trip), I made some inquiries regarding the best restaurants. My hotel actually housed one of the London dining institutions, Trader Vic’s, so I knew that French Polynesian restaurant would be the dining locale that night. After getting some additional recommendations, these were incorporated into the itinerary. They included the Fish Club, Morito, and Launceston Place, with more surely to be added based on my travels.

Back to the hotel for some rest and then an excellent dinner at Trader Vic’s, where I had to have a Mai Tai, of course. Now wide awake, I ventured back out to 1 Lombard Street, a local bar that came highly recommended. After arriving, I could see why, because at the circular bar, customers can choose from about 50 wines, numerous types of vodka, and an assortment of pub fare.

After a night of excellent sleep came a full day of sightseeing, which took full advantage of the free tourist attractions. First, to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard and the on Horse Guards Parade. Since my vacation took place during September, I was able to tour the Palace. It is open to visitors only during August and September, providing them with an opportunity to visit the Big Ben clock tower and the Houses of Parliament.

The love of fairy tales took me next to the London Bridge, actually called the Tower Bridge. I was one of the more than 40,000 people who would pass over the bridge on this day. Since the Tower of London was nearby, it could not be missed and the Beefeaters were well worth the visit. History was a large part of the reason for this trip so a visit to the British Museum was next. It was amazing that it housed so much in one place and offered free admission.

During the rest of my trip, I visited Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, rode the London Eye, and visited some of the beautiful parks in the city, including Kew Garden and Hamstead Health. The week flew by like a day, and soon I was on a plane headed home. Were it not for cheap flights to London, this memorable vacation would never have been possible.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Two days in Delhi

It was with some trepidation that I arrived in Delhi, the capital of India. Everyone I'd spoken to said it was a place to go straight through, but as I normally like big cities I thought I'd give it a go. I have to say that after sampling clean India in Himachal Pradesh, I didn't really want to go back to dirty, smelly India, and I think I'd generally had enough of the stresses and strains of the country after 5 weeks. But Delhi had another draw - friends from England, Kay and Steve, were arriving in Delhi on the same day as me at the start of a 4 month trip around India and Bangladesh.

With Nepal on my mind, the first thing I did was book a train ticket to Agra, then stopped off for a croissant at one of Paharganj's great German bakeries - one of the few good things about this grotty, tacky tourist enclave. I set out to see the sights of Old Delhi, starting with the Central Mosque. Well, the mosque is certainly big, but at 200 rupees just to get in (plus 100 more to climb the minaret), it's a waste of money compared to the multitude of other more beautiful religious landmarks in India - even accounting for the comical patterened gowns that inappropriately dressed tourists are made (and charged) to wear.

Next stop was the Red Fort, but on my way there ok stopped and turned around - I didn't want to see another fort, and more importantly I wanted to get out of India! Thankfully, I met Kay and Steve that evening for a few beers, a thali and a backstreet lassi. India is decidedly more attractive when you dive into the chaos and enjoy it for what it is, but I think I was beyond that point by now. I met Kay and Steve again the next morning for a farewell brekkie before they caught their train, and agreed to meet up again as our paths would probably cross in Varanasi - me heading north to Nepal and they east to Kolkata and Bangladesh. I should say that Kay and Steve never take a camera with them on their travels, and requested that their photo not appear on the blog... but they do exist, honest!

My second day in the capital was spent exploring New Delhi, the Lutyens-designed extension grafted onto Old Delhi like a mismatched limb. It's all tree-lined boulevards and roundabouts - not really India, but a nice respite for a day. I went first to Humayun's tomb, a spectacular mausoleum big enough to rival the Taj Mahal and Khufu's Great Pyramid for the most outrageously extravegant monument to a dead person. A long, boring walk along New Delhi's streets (most of which are being beautified for the impending Commonwealth Games) brought me to Lodi Gardens, a lovely oasis of green, sprinkled with ruined mosques and yet more mausoleums - and best of all, it's free! Enjoying an ice cream in the shade of a tree, away from all the noise of Delhi was a good way to avoid the heat of the day.

Leaving Lodi Gardens, I headed for the main artery of New Delhi, Rajpath, which connects the grand India Gate with the Prime Minister's residence and the Secretariat buildings. It's a grand boulevard, and the Secretariat buildings still evoke thoughts of the British Raj, looking like a little slice of Whitehall but with Hindustan Ambassadors instead of Jags, and kites perching on the lampstands. Curiously, not a single rickshaw driver would take me back to Paharganj from New Delhi, so I decided to try out a decidedly un-Indian mode of transport - Delhi's metro. Sitting in the clean, quiet car, I felt a little bit homesick for the tube - even the announcements were made in a clipped English voice, and the station signs are a blatent ripoff of LUL's famous roundel. For the princely sum of 8 rupees I was back at my hotel in less time than it would have taken to barter a price for a rickshaw, and without all the pollution and stress... a big thumbs up!

My last morning in Delhi was probably the worst moment of my trip so far. Waking with a bout of Delhi-belly, I spent a few hours in bed before deciding that I needed to catch my train to Agra at 2pm... rather than spend even longer in the capital! What should have been a 10 minute rickshaw ride to New Delhi station turned into a 40 minute journey to hell, as my cycle rickshaw wallah drove through every bump as he circumnavigated Delhi and got us stuck in a traffic jam where we didn't move for 20 minutes. The smell of shit, fumes and other general Delhi aromas made me vomit, after which I decided to shoulder my bags and walk to the station to avoid missing my train. I then found out that the station was 10 minutes in the opposite direction... if I'd seen my rickshaw man again I probably would have smacked him! I made the train with 5 minutes to spare and collapsed onto my sleeper bed... happy to be leaving Delhi and excited about going to see what I hoped would be one of the highlights of my time in India - the one and only Taj Mahal.

Experience your own adventures in Indian with cheap flights to Delhi.

Reprinted with permission from SmithyWorldWide

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Winging it out of Buffalo
The Welcome Mat is Out

15 JUN 2010:  Buffalo, New York is famous for the best chicken wings, its hard-luck Buffalo Bills football team and some brutal snowstorms. It is also becoming a very popular departure city for Canadians to fly out of instead of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. I know many in and out of the travel industry who love flying out of Buffalo. On a recent business trip I decided to check it out myself for value and convenience.

I needed to fly into Boston on business. I had been looking at our own Canadian based airlines and fares to Boston. The price kept creeping up as my departure date got closer. As travel agents know it’s always a gamble whether to wait to see if the price will go down. In this case they kept going up. For whatever reason the dates I selected were popular, so seats were falling by the wayside but not the price – it only had a straight vertical rise.

I could get a cheaper fare on one US carrier if I wanted to fly Toronto-Fort Lauderdale-Washington DC-Boston. Now doesn’t that sound like fun!

Panic, frustration and reality set in since my trip was now only a couple of days away and I had to co-ordinate my flights with other members in a group. I was about to rent a vehicle and just drive to Boston (about 10 hours from Toronto). But then the land of the Buffalo wing set me straight.

I had never considered flying out of Buffalo before but checked out the fares and a US based commuter carrier had non-stop flights to Boston. It was between 25-40 percent of the price compared to the price of the other flights from Toronto even though the flight time is about the same. I immediately booked the flights.

Yes, there would be a two hour drive to Buffalo. But I just saved over a thousand dollars. A taxi from my place to Pearson airport – about $65 each way. That’s $130 return. And I haven’t even left the city yet. It would be far less in gas to drive to Buffalo even with the high fuel prices.

After crossing the border (a 15 minute wait) it’s a short 30 minute drive to Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. The airport was actually larger than what I was anticipating. It was modern, clean and efficient.

I did the Preferred Long Term Parking which is adjacent to the airport. An Airport shuttle was there in less than a minute. I stepped on the shuttle and the driver immediately said, 'Welcome to Buffalo-Niagara International Airport – how are you doing today?'

It’s only a two minute drive to the departures drop-off. When I chatted with the driver and I said I was from Toronto he replied he was pleased and appreciated the fact I chose Buffalo to fly out of.

Wow! A person who appreciates my business. I think this is the first time an airport employee has said this to me. I’ve had friendly service from Canadian airport personnel (and definitely unfriendly as well, but never before has anyone said they appreciated my business.

The check-in was done in a minute and with no customs to go through a short walk to security, where they were efficient but friendly, and off to wait for my flight. I wasn’t expecting to be done so quickly – maybe a total of 10 minutes from being left off from the airport shuttle to passing through security.

My appetite was calling so decided to grab a bite. This is the one area that the airport can work on – they need to offer a better variety of food services but it was adequate. The Wi-Fi is $7.95 per 24 hour period (and can be used at some other airports) but hopefully that will change as more airports are offering free internet access now.

The other pleasantry about smaller airports – no long taxi out to the runway, or huge line-ups of planes waiting to take-off. At Pearson half the flight sometimes seems to be the taxi to or from the gate.

My flight back to Buffalo was delayed so I didn’t arrive until just before midnight. After leaving the plane and going to the baggage claim area my bag was coming off the belt – now this I love!

I then waited a couple of minutes for the shuttle. I probably had an 'It’s been a long day, haggard look' and the airport shuttle driver said, 'Tell me exactly where your car is in the lot and I’ll drop you off there.' Another customer service 'wow' moment. And, like the other driver, he said how he’s happy that I chose Buffalo airport. Since it was so late I decided to stay in Buffalo and he ran down a list of possible hotels – some just across the street or some cheaper ones a bit further down the road. Nice.

The service at the airport is friendly and genuine. It extends to their website with a Canadian information section providing information on real time border crossings, directions to the airport from various border points, Canadian ground transportation and Nexus Pass information.

I laughed at the image used on the Canadian information page of the website. It’s a young Canadian couple with the guy wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs’ hockey jersey. I wonder what the Buffalo Sabres’ fans say about that!

Even with the hotel cost, gas, I still saved hundreds of dollars on my flight compared to the price I would have paid out of Toronto. No wonder you see the parking lot filled with Ontario licence plates.

I prefer to support Canadian airlines and airports – we have some great ones here too, and no doubt travel agents feel the pressure from their clients when searching for the most inexpensive fares that it makes sense to fly out of Buffalo or other US border city.

The federal government needs to wake up and see revenues being lost due to the excessive fees they charge airports and airlines which are then passed along to the traveller.

Even more satisfying than the money I saved what impressed me the most was my business was genuinely appreciated. Customer service is alive and well in Buffalo.

Reprinted with permission from Travel Industry Today

Saturday, 22 May 2010

A baboon stole my breakfast!

After leaving the Swazi border, I drive north to the town of Nelspruit, from where I start a 4-day tour of one of Africa's best-known game reserves - Kruger. The size of Kruger Park is difficult to comprehend... 350 kilometres from north to south, covering an area of nearly 2 million hectares. It was established in 1898 as the Sabie National Park by Paul Kruger, and now comprises the park itself, along with a collection of private reserves which together form the larger Kruger eco-system.

My safari experience at Kruger will be split between the main park and the Guernsey Private Reserve, located an hour or so from Kruger's Orpen Gate. After driving to our lodge from Nelspruit, we embarked on an evening drive in Guernsey. We came across rhino, wildebeest and giraffe, and about an hour into the drive our guide received a report of a leopard, resting not far from the reserve's boundary. We drove there to find a female leopard reclining in the grass - presumably after a kill. This was the closest I'd been to one of these beautiful creatures, and it didn't seem to be phased.

No sooner had we left the leopard in peace, our guide received another report of a sighting... this time a cheetah. We arrived to find more than we were expecting... a female cheetah and her three cubs, sprawled out on the grass with their bellies full. We watched as they cleaned and relaxed... the cubs not much smaller than their mother. After enjoying a beer and some nibbles from the front of the jeep (how civilised?!), we went for a short night drive then headed back to the lodge.

The next day was our full Kruger safari. Setting off at 5am, our small group of 3 (Margaret, Theresa and myself) were in the park for 6am, and set off in search of Kruger's legendary collection of game. Unlike the private reserve, our driver didn't have a radio and the spaces within which we were driving were much larger, and so our sightings were less frequent. That didn't stop us from seeing a herd of elephants, plenty of zebra and giraffe, and a solitary lioness ambling along a dry riverbed - all before breakfast! We stopped for breakfast at one of the main rest camps, and tucked into our picnic. Our guide Fanwell left us briefly to buy some airtime from the shop, and within seconds we were rushed by a male chacma baboon, who'd been hiding behind the nearby fence. Shocked, we grabbed whatever food we could, but he nabbed a bag of apples and retreated to scoff them in about 30 seconds! A few minutes later, and just as I was about to tuck into my second scone, the baboon (whom we'd named Bertie, which I still think is too jolly a name for such a creature) returned. Looking straight at me, ignoring Margaret and Theresa (baboons know that women are no threat...), he ran straight up onto the table and grabbed whatever food he could while looking me square in the eyes. I tried to wrestle something off him, but he bared his teeth and snarled... so I thought better of it! Theresa managed to salvage Margaret's bag before Bertie ran off... taking my scone with him! He retreated further when one of the park guards came to see what all the fuss was about - apparently they recognise uniforms, but they know that tourists are easy pickings.

Feeling slightly violated and shell-shocked, and wondering where we could file a police report, we climbed back into the jeep and headed back into the park. Our afternoon was dominated by three lionesses, who we found stalking a watering hole populated with zebra and impala. As two lionesses took position under a nearby bush, the third waited near the roadside, with the job of flushing the impala back towards her waiting accomplices. We drove alongside the single lion as she stalked the impala, but a car coming in the other direction managed to stop right between the lion and the impala - losing sight of her prey, the lioness turned and lunged for impala in the other direction, but they saw her and made an easy escape. Flustered and a little dejected, she sat down in a clearing, panting from the effort - and seemingly a bit embarrassed by the whole affair.

The next morning, Theresa and Margaret departed... Margaret excelling herself by spotting a teabag in a tree, when she didn't manage to spot a white rhino in open ground or a giraffe stood right next to the road in Kruger! Good skills Marge!.

My final day on the tour was spent relaxing at the lodge, and going for a second evening game drive at Guernsey. Just when I thought we'd had enough luck, the Kruger eco-system delivered me with more sights... first a large herd of buffalo, rutting for dominance, then a solitary male cheetah, spraying trees to mark his territory, and then one of the most enchanting sights in Africa - a male lion. Lying in some long grass, we realised that our lion had just survived a scrap with another male, as we watched him lick a series of wounds on his paws and legs. Once finished, he did what every cat in the world loves to do, and sprawled out on his back! There remain few animals as majestic as the lion... and seeing a male so close will never lose its excitement for me.

Kruger's reputation as one of the best safari experiences in Africa is indeed well-founded. It's sheer size and wealth of wildlife is difficult to beat, and my experiences there rivalled those of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. If you ever go to Kruger, keep your eyes open for a large, well-fed male baboon, with big teeth and a maniacal look in his eyes... and stay well away!

Enjoy your own safari experience with cheap flights to South Africa.

Reprinted with permission from SmithyWorldWide