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Recapping our Facebook travel chat with special guest Reid Bramblett

Thanks again to everyone who participated in our latest Facebook travel chat. Reid Bramblett and I had a great time answering your questions, debating travel best practices, and sharing our travel know-how. I want to recap the Q-and-A here on the blog for anyone who missed it.

Q: How is Friendly Planet able to send people to Cuba? Isn’t there an embargo against Americans visiting the island?

Peggy: The answer is a new license called ‘People to People’ which enables us to send American travelers to Cuba to engage in educational and cultural exchanges. This means that in Cuba you get to do all the things that you would long to do in any international destination — meet real Cubans, see how they live, work, study, and generally live their lives — in addition to visiting the important sites on the island.

Q: Hi there, I love history and learning when I travel, what would be some great historical places in Europe to visit that might be a bit off the beaten path or not as widely known as say, Stonehenge or the Colosseum?

Reid: It sounds like you’re interested in ancient sites, and Europe is full of them. For example, the Irish version of Stonehenge is Newgrange, a gorgeous passage tomb just an hour north of Dublin. The west coast of Ireland is filled with Celtic ruins as well. This year is a great time to visit Ireland because of the Gathering. There are many activities celebrating Irish heritage throughout the country. I recommend the Fleadh Nua in Ennis, the most participatory of the Irish music festivals.

As for an alternative to the Colosseum, the south of Italy is filled with ancient Roman and Greek ruins (much of it was once part of greater Greece), from ancient amphitheaters to temples. (more…)

Join us for our next Facebook travel chat with special guest Reid Bramblett!

Do you have questions about travel, and you’re just not sure whom to ask? Well, why not ask the man who wrote the book? We’re hosting our next Friendly Planet Travel Facebook chat, and this time around, special guest Reid Bramblett will be joining us! This chat will be on Thursday, March 14 at 3 p.m. EST on Friendly Planet’s Facebook page.

Reid Bramblett has authored or contributed to more than 30 guidebooks, and has worked as a travel editor at Frommer’s, Budget Travel, and MSNBC.com. He’s also appeared on various news and cable television shows; spoken at the Smithsonian; and is the man behind ReidsGuides.com, a comprehensive travel advice website. With all these credentials, Reid is the perfect person to join us for our next travel chat!

I’ll be chiming in with Reid to help answer your questions and share travel advice. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some questions that we’ve gotten in the past:

  • When is the best time of year to visit Italy?
  • What types of things should I do in my spare time in South Africa?
  • Is there any way to avoid single supplement fees when booking a cruise?
  • If I want to get the best deal on airfare to Europe, how far in advance should I book?
  • Is it possible for me to visit Cuba legally?

Make your list of travel questions and join us for answers, insights, and more. We can’t wait to see you there!

Lucky #13: 13 travel resolutions for 2013

It’s the time of year to resolve to do things better in the new year. For many of us, this includes eating better, exercising more, and being kinder to one another. And let’s not forget my favorite — sticking with our resolutions beyond the second week of January.

As for me, I’m adding 13 travel resolutions to my list for 2013. I describe them all in my latest contribution to the Huffington Post. Click over for the list in full.

What are your travel resolutions for 2013? Let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook page.

My big upset with the big upsell

One of the open secrets of the travel industry is what we call “the big upsell.” You are probably familiar with this sales technique, just didn’t know it had a name. The “big upsell” is the term coined for a “bare bones” vacation package that is sold at a dirt-cheap price. Travelers who fall for this trick end up paying extra for everything, like transfers or an upgrade to a decent hotel, and they typically end up paying much more than they originally intended.

The “big upsell” is one of my biggest pet peeves in the travel industry, because it is designed to lure you in for a price you’ll never actually pay. And it’s so unnecessary to market this way. Friendly Planet doesn’t need to resort to tricky pricing, because our deals, while including great hotels, transfers, and much more, are always carefully priced with a focus on huge value for money.

Anyone who takes the time to read our inclusions and make even a superficial comparison with other similar packages can see that they actually provide everything a traveler needs to have an amazing vacation. Our travelers don’t have to worry about paying for extras later, and we take pride in this.

Before you fall for a tour price that is simply too good to believe, please check out “The Big Upsell” piece I wrote, which was published on the Huffington Post last week. Read it to find out more about ‘deals’ that trick travelers into over-paying.

Have you fallen victim to an upsell when booking a trip? We want to hear your story — leave a comment below.

Travel Talk: Pairing backpacking with lending a helping hand to those in need around the world

Do you dream of seeing the world and inspiring good along the way? That was the dream of Jessica Festa, the woman behind the travel blog Jessie on a Journey and the next guest we’ve invited to join us for our Travel Talk blog series.

Jessica has traveled all over the world to help people, including teaching English in Thailand and orphanage work in Ghana. She is also a backpacker by nature, and has backpacked through Europe and South America, studied abroad in Australia, and toured Southeast Asia and China.

She writes about her philanthropic travels on her blog to inspire others. We think Jessica is pretty inspiring herself! Read on for how she got started volunteering and traveling, misconceptions she often hears about solo women travelers, her best budget tip, and more.

1) When did your love of traveling begin?
I’ve been traveling my whole life, as my parents also are avid travelers, just with a different focus. When I was younger, we would do a road trip every summer driving to different amusement parks. Then as I got older, we started doing the whole cruise thing. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, that I realized I wanted to go abroad more. Now my travel style is a mix of volunteering abroad, international solo backpacking, and U.S. road trips.

2) What is the most memorable destination you’ve visited and why?
Probably Sydney. I was there for six months and had an apartment, gym membership, favorite cafe, designated grocery store, a part-time job, etc. These things made me feel as though I was truly a local, and helped me to get to know the place. Another very memorable place was Ghana, Africa. I lived with a family and worked at an orphanage for a month, and really fell in love with the culture.

3) What’s the biggest misconception people have about traveling solo, especially women who travel by themselves?

That you can’t do it. People still tell me “you can’t go to Bolivia by yourself” or “Quito is too dangerous for a solo woman traveler.” Well, I’ve done both and lived to tell the tale!

4) What is the best piece of advice you can offer to someone traveling solo to a country they’ve never been to before?

Don’t give up as soon as you start to feel lonely. There will inevitably be times you feel a bit more lonely than others, but there are also ways to combat it. My favorite thing to do is use the CouchSurfing forum, not for sleeping on couches, but to plan meet-ups and dinners. For example, if you’re going to Buenos Aires, search for the city group, join, post a note saying when you’ll be in the city, and ask if anyone would be interested in grabbing a drink, sightseeing, etc. It worked out very well for me.

5) What’s one travel item you can’t leave home without?

My LUSH Godiva shampoo bar. It’s moisturizing, compact, and takes up much less space than a shampoo and conditioner together.

6) What’s your best budget travel tip?

Go local! Skip the touristy restaurants and shops and opt for local eateries and markets.

7) You’ve written in the past about a travel philosophy. How would you define yours?

To me, your travel philosophy is about your beliefs on travel and travel goals. It’s all about experiencing local culture and getting to know new people and places with an open and welcoming mind.

8) Are there any stereotypes of places you’ve visited that you can disprove based on your travels, especially for women travelers?

One thing I’ll say that’s usually wrong is when people stereotype an entire country. For example, I heard over and over about how dangerous Brazil was. However, while Rio and Sao Paulo may have been a bit rough, the areas of Paraty and Ilha Grande felt very, very safe.

9) When you meet other women solo travelers, have you found that there are any common personal or cultural characteristics that you share?

I think women solo travelers seem to be easy-going and adventurous. I mean, you have to be to go against the warnings of your friends and family and do what’s best for yourself.

10) Where in the world are you headed next?

I’m going on an adventure-focused trip to Ohio this week, which I’m excited about, as well as a two-week road trip from Melbourne to the Outback in Australia. Then, I’ll be driving around Kentucky for two weeks exploring the hiking and bourbon offerings. I definitely have some exciting things coming up! :)

Thanks for sharing your amazing adventures with us Jessica! Be sure to check out Jessie on a Journey for the latest news on where she’s going next.

Travel Talk: What would you ask someone who’s been to almost every country in the world?

When you’ve visited almost every country in the world, there are probably few surprises left to be seen. But that’s not stopping Lee Abbamonte, who is on track to become the youngest American to visit every country in the world. At the age of 34, he’s visited 306 out of 321 countries and unique destinations in the world per the Travelers Century Club list.

With so much travel experience under his belt, Lee has a ton of advice for blog readers, and we thought he’d be the perfect interviewee for the blog series we’re kicking off today — Travel Talk. Our series will feature travel enthusiasts from around the globe who will share their knowledge and insight with you.

Read on for our interview with Lee about his amazing travel adventures and the record he’s trying to break. Right now, it’s held by Charles Veley, who visited all 321 countries in 37 years, 9 months, and 17 days. At 34 years old, Lee hopes to beat that record with room to spare!

1) When did your love of traveling begin?

I always loved discovering new places in the small town in Connecticut I grew up in, but never even thought about traveling the world until my junior year in college when I studied abroad in London. It changed my life and I fell in love with travel.

2) What is the most memorable destination you’ve visited, and why?

(more…)

Recapping Friendly Planet Travel’s first live Facebook travel chat

CHAT AWAY: I was happy to answer your travel questions
during our first live Facebook chat!

Having traveled both professionally and personally for over 30 years, I am often used as a resource for a wealth of travel questions. So you might have seen that we held our first-ever live chat on Friendly Planet Travel’s Facebook page. I answered many of our fans’ travel questions in real-time, and had a great time doing so. I wanted to share some of the biggest takeaways with those who missed it.

Q: What are the benefits of booking with a travel agency versus booking on my own?

A: The benefits are various, but mainly, you’ll save money. We spend a lot of time getting great deals for our passengers and we pass those on to you. Also, you’re getting plenty of expertise. All that research you’ll need to do, we’ve already done it.

Q: Out of all the cruises you’ve taken, which is your favorite and why? 

A: Honestly, the very best cruise I have ever taken was on a small ship, part of the Cruceros Australis fleet, in Patagonia. I loved this cruise because it was an amazing adventure, not just fancy food each day — we visited some of the most pristine places in our hemisphere. Also, the size of the cruise was very conducive to making new friends.

Q: Do you save any money planning a trip far in advance? 

A: It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, especially with airlines and cruises, the best rates are not always available far in advance. However, with tour companies like ours, if we see opportunities to reduce cost, we always pass along the benefits, even at the last minute. The main reason to book early is to be sure you get the trip you want. If you wait, you might not get the space at all.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for traveling abroad, specifically to Ireland? 

A: If you are traveling on your own, perhaps with a rental car and some basic hotel arrangements, you’ll want to check in with the Irish Tourist Board. It has a tremendous amount of information, plus plenty of recommendations for restaurants, pubs, and fun events, many of which are completely for free. Since there isn’t a language problem, you’ll meet plenty of warm and friendly people among the Irish who will share their personal favorites regardless of where you travel. Ireland is one the most accessible destinations for Americans.

Q: What would you recommend for a good girls’ getaway trip, one with lots of sightseeing but also some relaxation? 

A: Go to Tuscany. It’s amazingly rich in touring opportunities; it’s gorgeous, friendly, with great food and plenty of opportunities to relax.

Q: Is it safe to travel to Greece right now? 

A: You bet it’s safe. There is no problem with safety in Greece today. Not a bit. The Greeks have their issues with their economy. Tourist are not only safe, they are major personas MUY GRATAS. The Greeks will treat guests like royalty, and there is no reason at all not to consider visiting Greece this summer.

Q: When is it best to exchange dollar for Euros? 

A: Never exchange money in the U.S. before taking a trip abroad. Your best exchange rate will be in the country you’re visiting. You can exchange some money when you arrive, usually right in the airport. That will get you started with local currency for tips or small purchases. Then you can check the local exchange places you’ll find everywhere or at the banks. You should check Travel.State.gov for information regarding specifics of customs, health requirements, alerts, and lots of other information. The site is for U.S. travelers, and it is very helpful.

I want to thank everyone who participated in our first of many live travel chats. If you missed it, we are holding our next chat on Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. EST. Join in and ask me your biggest travel questions. Just remember, it’s better to know before you go!

Medical tourism: Traveling to go under the knife

How far would you go to cut through the red tape, high prices, and long waits to have the surgery you need or want? Many people are traveling farther from home and venturing to other countries — it’s even become part of the tourism industry.

Medical tourism is the practice of traveling across international borders to obtain some type of health care. It’s most commonly used for elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery, or complex specialized operations, such as cardiac surgery or joint replacement.

The process for having a medical procedure abroad starts with finding a medical tourism provider and presenting them with a medical report, which includes a full health history and a local doctor’s diagnosis. Next, the patient has a consultation with the medical tourism provider’s certified doctor. They’ll discuss where the procedure will take place, the duration of the stay needed, and the approximate expenditure.

After that, the patient signs consent forms and applies for a medical visa for the country where the procedure will take place. Once in country, the medical tourism provider assigns the patient a case executive, who is responsible for overseeing treatment and care.

The medical tourism trend is on the rise, and while I’m by no means a medical expert, I wanted to share my insight about how this trend is impacting the travel industry.

Why are patients turning to medical tourism? Long wait times and high health care costs in first-world countries are among the reasons cited. Compared to the United States or Western Europe, the cost of surgery in places like India and Thailand can be one-tenth the price, with hospital stays and rehabilitation included.

The biggest concern with medical tourism is that the level of care and accreditation varies greatly across the globe. Because of the rapid growth of the industry, little has been done to ensure that health care tourism providers maintain a high level of care and meet safety standards. For example, you might run into health care providers oversees who practice outside of their area of expertise, or utilize student volunteers and trainees in place of licensed medical professionals.

Another factor to consider is if something goes wrong abroad, it might not be covered by insurance. Medical malpractice litigation doesn’t protect patients in many foreign countries as it does in the states, so patients can be left with tricky legal issues. Additionally, if a patient is actually awarded malpractice financial damages, there is the chance that the doctor or hospital will not have appropriate insurance and are therefore unable to pay the compensation.

Ethical issues have also plagued the medical tourism industry, such as the illegal purchasing of organs and tissues, and the growing concern that the quality of care for local patients will decline as local doctors focus efforts on foreigners.

Despite the risks, medical tourism is growing, and is set to become a $100 billion industry this year. If you’re considering medical tourism, the first and most important step is to be informed. Learn all you can about the country to which you’ll travel, its laws, and the medical facility where your procedure will take place. Be sure the facility and doctor you choose is accredited according to U.S. standards. You’re your best advocate, so make sure to be an informed medical tourist.

Would you ever travel internationally for a medical procedure? Should the industry be regulated or left to the patient’s discretion? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.

4 destinations to visit in summer 2012

It’s hard to believe that summer is right around the corner. With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, I started thinking about the best summer destinations to visit in 2012. Here are my thoughts:

Kenya: See the abundance of spectacular wildlife and lavishly gorgeous, incredibly photogenic landscapesKenya. Although June through September is the rainy season, the great migration of animals that cross the Serengeti occurs during this time, making it well worth the trip. Travelers will be amazed to see the plethora of wildlife as the animals take part in their annual search for water and a mate. Think of it as the best safari ever, unfolding right before your eyes.


Ireland: Enjoy the emerald green countrysideIreland. Pleasant weather during the summer allows travelers to enjoy the lush, green scenery that this country is known for. The friendly, outgoing Irish people will make you feel right at home, and travelers will have more chances to take in all of the attractions, as they have the longest operating hours during the summer.


Greece: Explore the ancient secrets of the Greek islands and bask on the sun-splashed Mediterranean beachesGreek Islands. This summer is a great time to visit, as travelers can take advantage of the many bargains being offered to attract tourists. Although Greece is experiencing unrest and a problematic economy, the exquisiteness and charm of the most beautiful islands that exist anywhere in the world remains unchanged.


Italy: Experience the art, fashion, and music that flourish in the citiesItaly. Though a great year-round destination, some places are better visited in the summer. Tuscany is lavishly fertile, with vineyards and olive groves as far as the eye can see, delectably fresh food, and magnificently endless panoramas and rolling hills. Venice and Florence are also great to visit in the summer, thanks to many outdoor performances and festivals. The Amalfi Coast and Sorrento, aka the Sunbelt of Italy, is home to some of the most beautiful towns, dramatic coastlines, and stunning panoramas in Europe, and should not be missed. There’s also nothing like enjoying a summer evening outside at one of the countless restaurants with a delicious Italian meal, glass of wine, and good friends.


If you’re interested in booking a trip to one of these destinations, or would like to speak with a member of our reservations team about other fantastic summer getaways, you can reach us at 800-555-5765.

Where are you traveling this summer? Let me know your top choices in a comment!

How much responsibilty should you take for your vacation?

For those who might have missed Chris Elliott’s latest article this past Sunday (I caught it in the Philadelphia Inquirer), I wanted to share it with you here today.

In the article, a traveler wrote to Chris for help because a hotel refused to honor a price they had mistakenly printed as a keystroke error. The hotel manager still gave the traveler a significantly discounted rate, and waived other associated fees with staying at the hotel, such as the mandatory valet parking fee. Still, this traveler was adamant that the original price be honored.

Clearly, this traveler expected Chris — the champion of travelers’ rights — to side with him. And here’s where some readers might have been surprised. Chris did not believe a hotel should be forced to honor a price that was printed in error, if the price was obviously too good to be true — such as a $28 night at the Westin.

The point that Chris drove home in his article is that just as vendors have a responsibility to travelers, we as travelers also have responsibilities as consumers. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we all need to have understanding.

In my own opinion, that traveler was being unnecessarily demanding, especially considering the many ways the hotel tried to make it up to him. So I greatly appreciated Chris response. This leads me to the subject I wanted to write about today: What happens when something goes wrong on your trip?

What happens if a weather delay grounds you in an airport in the middle of a vacation, when you’re supposed to be en route to a new city? We had to deal with this exact situation this past week on one of our Taste of China tours.

Thumbnail image for FP_delays.jpg

A heavy fog prevented a plane of Friendly Planet Travel passengers from landing at the destination city of Shanghai. Instead, the plane landed at the next nearest airport. The problem was, people had signed up for a tour, and this was not part of the plan!

The Friendly Planet Travel operator — who wants very much to accommodate the group the best way possible — turns himself into a pretzel to find an alternative way to get 34 to Shanghai as quickly as possible. He finds a way — at a minimal cost —  and ultimately saves the day. But wait. These new arrangements — everything from new tickets to accommodations — will now cost our travelers an additional $157.50 out of pocket.

Some of our passengers were NOT happy. I spent the entire afternoon fielding complaints from livid customers who had not been told they would have to pay this extra amount. And immediately Chris Elliott’s latest article was called to mind. What should you expect when you travel? What should a responsible person be thinking about? How should you really prepare for a trip? Are there times when you have to know that things can go wrong?

There’s a situation known as force majeure: situations that no one can control (such as bad weather). You can’t, as a travel dealer, create a fantastic deal that includes a great trip, wonderful arrangements, all for an incredibly good price, and still have the buffers to cover $157.50 for 34 people.

So I wrote a letter to everyone on the trip, explained what had happened, and apologized that they hadn’t been told about the cost. I asked them if they would be willing to pay this extra cost, so that our China rep wouldn’t be liable for this money himself.

Out of 34 people, 23 immediately paid the $157.50, and the there were another few that said they would pay later. The remaining members were still angry. In situations such as this, most people are very understanding, but there is truly something to be said about having some responsibility for the way life sometimes works. As I said, force majeure — when something is no one’s fault.

My takeaway: When you prepare for a trip, don’t forget to mentally prepare yourself for situations that can arise when you’re away from home. Friendly Planet Travel promises to take care of you when you travel with us, but we still ask that you understand that in situations beyond our control, we sometimes need a little wiggle room from you.

We will always make the decision that we feel is right for you, no matter that. That said, every traveler needs to make the decision to travel responsibly. And as every experienced traveler knows, life happens. (And sometimes, life makes for the best stories ;) )

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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