booking online | what could possibly go wrong?

Brandenberg Gate (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved
A traveler recently shared his experience of an all-inclusive tour to Dublin, London, and Paris booked through an online website. The story is a valuable, cautionary tale in this age of internet shopping. The price looked good, so they bought the trip.

How did it work out? These travelers were extremely dissatisfied. They were sent to a Dublin hotel 45 minutes outside of town. Their Paris hotel was 30 minutes from the center of the city in a sketchy neighborhood. Discrepancies between the printed itinerary and the actual vouchers caused them to miss their train on the Eurostar.

Just because a tour company claims expertise doesn't mean anything. I took a look at their website. Attractive and well-designed, their prices looked good, including round-trip economy air, airport transfers, accommodations, buffet breakfasts, and guided sightseeing. Sample itineraries were available to peruse, and the company specifically mentions its "handpicked hotels." Expertly Designed. Affordably Priced. Discover your dream vacation today, they say, so I put that claim to the test. I pulled up a random "expertly designed" itinerary from their website — Central Europe Vacation.
Accommodations in hotels listed, or similar 
1 night in Frankfurt at the Leonardo Royal Frankfurt or Mercure at Friedrichsdorf
2 nights in Berlin at the Abba Hotel or NH Alexanderplatz Hotel or Holiday Inn Express City Centre
2 nights in Warsaw at the Golden Tulip Warsaw Centre Hotel or Ibis Old Town
2 nights in Kraków at the Hampton by Hilton
2 nights in Budapest at the Novotel Centrum Hotel or Leonardo
1 night in Vienna at the Hotel Kavalier Wien
2 nights in Prague at the Clarion Congress Hotel or NH Praha Hotel
1 night in Munich at the Achat Premium South
1 night in Frankfurt at the Leonardo Royal Frankfurt or Mercure at Friedrichsdorf
Some quick observations... 

9 cities in 14 days means you'll doing a lot of packing and unpacking. You'll spend a lot of time between cities in a motor coach. Where is the time to explore, savor, and enjoy each destination on your own? Two nights in a city means just one full day to experience that destination. One night in a city means you get there in the afternoon and leave the next morning, a total waste. My advice: when planning an itinerary, less is more.

Handpicked hotels? Some google-mapping reveals the "handpicked hotel" in Vienna to be adjacent to the train station, five miles outside the Ring (where everything of interest is found). The "handpicked hotel" in Prague is five miles from the Charles Bridge. No chance to walk and explore. My advice: the top three things to consider when selecting a hotel are location, location, and location. If you're in Berlin, you'll want to be able to walk to the Brandenburg Gate (pictured above)

And what about quality control? Plenty of travelers choose inexpensive tours on the internet, but you're not just buying a tour. You're buying the services of a tour company, trusting them to put together your dream vacation and make sure all the pieces fit. My advice: ask who vouches for that company. If considering an individual travel advisor, is he or she a member of a respected hosting agency? If considering a tour company, is it a member of ASTA, USTOA, and a respected consortium such as Virtuoso? 

You can book a great trip online, if that's your choice, but planning travel is an art ... and stuff can and does go wrong.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Norwegian Airlines | premium class review

If you've ever flown Norwegian Premium, you'll recognize this trademark from the inside of the box in which meals are served. I recently flew from Bergen, Norway to Oakland, California, connecting at London Gatwick. Here's a review of my day with Norwegian Airlines.

Bergen (BGO) to Gatwick (LGW). I arrived at the Bergen airport two hours early, way too early as it turned out, but it relaxes me when I'm not rushed. Checked in at a kiosk, printed and attached my baggage claim, and dropped off my bag. Note: there are no "Priority" bag tags, and my bags certainly did not receive priority service. Loads and loads of bags preceded mine at baggage claim in Oakland. Security was quick at 7 a.m., and passport control took place later as I entered the gate area. Note that you should make any purchases before going through passport control. The flight to London was on-time and non-eventful. Note that nothing is complimentary on intra-Europe flights except in-flight WiFi! Want water, peanuts, or a snack? Everything costs extra.

I had a scheduled 3 hour layover at Gatwick. First, a note that security here is so much better than Terminal 5 at Heathrow — no long, snaking lines. Once through security, however, the signage for connecting flights is poor; had to ask at an information desk which way to go for Norwegian flights. Once in the correct terminal, I checked into the No.1 Lounge at which Norwegian Premium passengers enjoy free access. (Priority Pass members likewise get free admission). Quite a nice lounge with a small buffet, some killer brownies, espresso machines, and a menu of hot meal options you can order at the bar.

Gatwick (LGW) to Oakland (OAK) departure experience. Norwegian wants you at the gate a ridiculous amount of time before departure, so I complied. Once at the gate, we waited. And waited. At one point, the two unsold Premium seats were offered to any takers at 250£, and I saw two guys run up to the desk waving their arms. SOLD! Then we waited some more. Finally they let us board. There was an inordinately long wait past the scheduled departure for reasons that weren't made clear. Once we pushed back, there was a problem with the tractor not disengaging it from the plane, so we waited some more. Once that problem was solved, the taxi and take-off were quick. Gatwick is a small airport, and taxi times are short.

Norwegian Premium flight experience. The bottom line is that $750 represents a fabulous value for what I received.

The seat. Better than your typical domestic first class seat, it's wide, reclines 40º, and has an extendable footrest. Not lie-flat, but it's a pretty comfortable way to spend a long daytime flight when sleep is not your goal. Each seat has a video screen with USB charging slot as well as a power receptacle. The selection of movies and TV shows was OK, not great, and I mostly watched Netflix and Amazon movies previously downloaded to my iPad. You're provided with a nice blanket but no pillow, so bring along an inflatable neck pillow if those work for you.

The seat did have one downside... the arm rests were hard at the points where your elbows contact with them. Here's a photo of the center console. My right elbow rested on the metal hinge at the back of this console, and it was pretty hard. My left elbow likewise rested on the metal piece at the back of the arm rest.

The food. The meal was fine. I chose salmon for lunch, and it was tasty, filling, and nutritious without pretending to be gourmet (which it was not). My one complaint concerns the presentation. The meal is handed to you in a box. Flip the lid open, remove the aluminum foil cover from the hot dish ... and then experience how crowded the tray table becomes. The opened box is deeper than the tray table and just about as wide. There is no place to place the foil cover and the various lids. The box contains a small plastic fork, knife, and spoon and a small paper napkin. Speaking from experience, it's easy to spill food from the small fork, have it miss the small napkin, and land squarely on one's shirt.

How does Norwegian Premium compare with a true business class? The legacy airlines provide much more comfortable lie-flat sleeper seats and better meal service when flying business class over the pond. BUT ... if you're going westbound and don't need to sleep, then Norwegian represents a phenomenal combination of value and comfort. I'd definitely fly them again, going westbound. What about an eastbound red-eye flight? I'd probably pay the bucks for a better night's sleep.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


traveling soon? get organized!

In four days, one hour and forty-three minutes (not that I'm counting), I leave for the airport for my much-anticipated return trip to Norway. While a sense of anticipation is one of the most pleasurable things about international travel, it also pays to sweat the details. Here's my checklist.

(1) Find your passport and put it in your carryon. Make sure the expiration date is at least 6 months beyond your date of return, and ensure that you have empty pages. Find out if you need any visas for foreign destinations.

(2) Double-check your flights. Airlines often make modifications to their flight schedules, and though any changes should be emailed to you, emails sometimes go into your spam folder or remain otherwise unnoticed. Go to your airline's website with your reservation code and double-check the times. Especially look out for the following:

Is your departing flight earlier than originally scheduled? If so, you'll have to modify when you leave for the airport.

Is your departing flight later ... or your connecting flight earlier? Make sure you still have enough time to make your connections. If the airline's change has given you a too-tight connection, they'll likely agree to revise your itinerary for free.

(3) Plan your getaway. How (and when) are you going to get to the airport? If your drive is during rush hour, consider using public transportation. Here in the Bay Area, the Bay Bridge can experience enormous traffic jams, but BART can speed me from North Berkeley to SFO in one hour, no matter the surface traffic.

Scheduling a driver? I prefer Wingz to Uber and Lyft because (1) you can schedule your ride well in advance and (2) you can use a preferred driver. My Wingz driver is extremely knowledgeable and knows his way around potential traffic bottlenecks in the Oakland "maze." Use this link to sign up for a Wingz account and score yourself (and me) a $5 credit towards your first ride.

(4) How much time to give yourself? We all have different attitudes about time ... but unless you're POTUS and your plane takes off on your schedule, you'll have to abide by the normal rules of the universe. I always build in time for an unexpected traffic jam, a long line at check-in, and a long line at security (unless the flight qualifies for TSA Pre-Check). I never mind waiting in front of a long line, but being at the end of a long line when I'm running late is extremely stressful to me.

(5) Put it on your calendar to check in online. I consider it a MUST to check in for your flight at the earliest opportunity, usually 24 hours before departure. Why? Because if your flight is oversold, you're less likely to be bumped if you've already checked in and have a seat assignment.

And make sure "TSA Pre-Check" appears on your boarding pass, if you're traveling on a participating airline. If it doesn't, phone the airline and make sure your trusted traveler number is in your record. If not, the airline's agent can enter the number, and you can print a new boarding pass with that coveted and time-saving designation.

(6) Get your itinerary in shape. When planning a personal trip, I keep all of my confirmations in a manila folder. I also write my flight details on the front of the folder so that I can find them in a jiffy, without sorting through papers. Also notice — on the picture above — that when I arrive in Oslo on this trip, I have to take the FLYTOGET express train into Oslo. From the central station, I have a 5 minute walk to my hotel. I printed out a google map of that walk and taped it to the front of the folder.

When the details are all taken care of, I can sit back, relax, and enjoy my journey. Hope this helps you enjoy your next trip too!

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Trusted Traveler & Global Entry | new website

If you are a frequent flyer, Trusted Traveler is the best investment you can make ... and if you travel internationally, you should definitely enroll in Global Entry (which includes Trusted Traveler status). Here's why.

Tired of taking off your shoes — not to mention slipping off your belt, your overcoat, and removing your laptop and baggie of liquids from your carryon? Trusted travelers are spared this process (and especially having to get dressed again). As long as you're traveling on a participating airline (some international carriers are not), you'll place your carryon on the conveyer, walk through the magnetometer, and pick everything up on the other side. If no one is in line, it can take as little as 15 seconds.

Despairing at the length of the line at immigration? Don't! Global Entry members literally walk around that line. You'll waltz up to a friendly kiosk which will scan your fingerprints, take your photo, and give you a receipt to hand to the officer when exiting (and enjoy a special exit line from Customs as well). You're even spared having to fill out the immigration card, as the touch-screen kiosk gets this information from you.

Did you know there's a new Trusted Traveler website? All current users will need to re-register, but not to worry. I did it this morning, and it's relatively quick and painless. Just have your PASSID number handy before you begin, the "trusted traveller" number found on the back of your global entry card. Surf to the Trusted Traveler Programs website. Click "I'm already a program member" and choose "manage my membership." The website will guide you through the process. Although not as user-friendly as it might be, it's pretty straightforward. For more detailed instructions, see The Points Guy blog.

Haven't signed up yet? I enthusiastically recommend Global Entry and Trusted Traveler. Many credit cards will credit your enrollment fee. To save even more time, you might consider additional time-and-aggravation-saving services such as CLEAR and get a discount if you have a Delta Airlines SkyMiles number.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


how to explore the byways of Europe

Roman amphitheater in Verona (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all right reserved

Excellent advice was offered in today's column by Rick Steves in many Sunday newspapers: avoid destinations congested with tourists and look for what he calls back doors. In Steves' words, "Many travelers go to crowded, touristy places — then complain about the crowds." Here's my takeaway from his article.

Seek out secondary destinations. Rome is a very crowded tourist destination, and the Colosseum has long ticket lines. If getting up-close-and-personal with an ancient Roman colosseum is on your bucket list, consider the smaller (and very walkable) town of Verona in northern Italy. Pictured above is the Arena di Verona, a historical colosseum minus the crowds. You can even attend live opera there in the evening.

Avoid (what have become) tourist traps. While the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay are both world class museums in Paris, you'll have to contend with the crowds. If you want to check the Louvre off your bucket list, enjoy the spectacular but relatively empty Napoleonic bedrooms and avoid the hundreds of tourists pushing up in front of the (tiny) Mona Lisa. If you love the French impressionists, visit the lesser-known Marmottan Museum (that houses the world's biggest collection of Monet's art).

Spend the night in destinations that are crowded during busy daytime hours — but are perfectly delightful in early morning and evening. Saint-Paul-de-Vence is a cute little town near the French Riviera. The pedestrian pathway through the town's center is inundated by day with visitors from bus tours and cruise ships ... but if you spend the night at Virtuoso hotel Le Mas De Pierre, you'll have the town practically to yourself.

Look for ways to skip the lines. Google secret entrances to the Louvre; you don't have to queue up in front of the pyramid. Purchase museum passes — or timed admission tickets — and bypass ticket lines entirely. It's even possible to arrange private tours before and after regular hours for many popular attractions.

Best of all, you don't have to figure this out on your own. Together with our trusted Virtuoso travel partners all over Europe, we get you Insider Access. Do you want to plan a trip that maximizes your precious time? that explores the byways of Europe? that takes advantage of the lesser-known back doors that local experts know best? Just drop us an email, and we'll help you Discover More.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Aman at Summer Palace | royal retreat

courtyard at Aman at Summer Palace (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

When visiting Beijing, here are some reasons to spend your first few nights at Aman at Summer Palace before moving to a downtown hotel.

(1) It's outside the busy city, an escape from Beijing's congested traffic and smoggy air. Aman at Summer Palace is adjacent to the 290 hectare summer palace grounds which once served as an imperial retreat to the Qing Dynasty. So when you get off your plane and, instead of being driven on a 16-lane highway into the center of Beijing, spend your first couple of nights getting over jet lag while enjoying peace, tranquility, and Aman-like serenity.

(2) Summer Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is very popular with tourists. But if you're an Aman guest, you can use the secret gate that leads straight from the hotel grounds into the Palace gardens. Skip the entrance lines and even enjoy the Summer Palace gardens before opening and after closing.

(3) The Great Wall is a much easier drive from Summer Palace than from a downtown hotel. I suggest that you check out of Aman your second morning and travel with your guide to a remote section of the wall. After you experience the iconic Great Wall of China, drive back into Beijing and check into your downtown hotel, an ideal base from which visit the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven.

Pictured above is a courtyard at Aman at Summer Palace, viewed from the restaurant. All Virtuoso guests receive complimentary daily breakfast for two and a complimentary 60-minute massage, along with an upgrade if available and free WiFi during your stay. Please get in touch to plan your completely customized trip to China.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


carless Sundays in Paris | good news or nightmare?

Paris without cars (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

No cars are allowed within Paris on Sunday, October 1, 2017. What's your take on this? Do you consider a car-less Sunday to be...

... the worst possible nightmare? One poster on fodors.com took this point of view, opining that a car-free day "may be your worst nightmare..."

... or the most wonderful way possible to experience Paris? October 1st is your chance to explore Paris without private passenger cars congesting the streets or polluting the air with exhaust fumes.

My personal opinion: it's a great idea, Paris essentially transformed into a pedestrian mall — an opportunity to walk to your heart's content without dodging traffic when crossing the street. Here are a few Parisian walking tours suggested by Virtuoso travel partner Aristo's Tours Paris.
Notre Dame and Ile de la Cité
Saint Germain des Prés
the Latin Quarter
the Marais
The Metro will be running, so getting around will be no problem. Should you need to get from the airport to your hotel on Sunday, ask your hotel for a "justification de domicile;" this will permit your car service to drive within the city limits. And speaking of hotels, we can secure exclusive, money-saving amenities for you at these 20 five-star Parisian luxury hotels ... and at many four-star hotels as well. You get complimentary daily breakfast for two, hotel credits, room upgrades (sometimes at time of booking!), and more.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.