Friday, October 20, 2017

From Fjord to Treehouse: Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec

By Cynthia Dial for

My initial introduction to Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is a serene one, with the drive through acres of farmland dotted with corn, cows and a collection of colorful barns simply a preview of its attractions to come. At one point La Route des Bières (The Beer Route) runs adjacent to our road and serves up five microbrewery stops along the trail (the only perk missing from this bicycle path is a designated driver). Only a bit further down the two-lane road water appears and reappears bend after bend – from rivers to lakes to fjords – all underscoring the significance of Saguenay’s name, meaning “from where the water flows.”
Photos by Cynthia Dial

“Welcome to our region,” I’m warmly greeted at my first stop with a warm handshake and a seasonal snack, chocolate-covered blueberries (my sampling is from Pères Trappistes de Mistassini, Trappist monks, rumored to be the best). Coincidentally synced to wild blueberry season (mid-August to mid-September), my visit is during the time of year that its food scene showcases such specialties as blueberry butter, blueberry onion confit and blueberry sausage. Fresh and farmed characterizes the area’s food and drink, with agriculturalists and artisans selling their local products from roadsides to storefronts. Among the fresh-from-the-region fare are maple syrup, walleye fish, broad bean soup, Perron cheddar cheese and sparkling wines made from raspberries, blackcurrants, grapes and blueberries.

Beyond its month-long affair with “everything blueberry” is a topography as diverse as it is impressive – plains, forests, mountains, rivers, a lake as big as a sea and one of the world’s longest navigable fjords lined with unspoiled villages and cliffs so steep they are accessible only by water. Even the Michelin Guide recognizes the region’s most noted natural attraction, listing the Saguenay Fjord as one of the planet’s must-see destinations -- alongside such internationally-renowned landmarks as Egypt’s pyramids and the Eiffel Tower. 

A white “S-a-g-u-e-n-a-y” name sculpture accented with a red heart confirms you’ve arrived in this area known for its unique combo of independence and ingenuity. Since 1981 it has been illegal for a woman to take her husband’s name; moms are not encouraged to stay at home; typical snacks are cheese curds, salt and vinegar chips, poutine and Pepsi (not Coke); the roads’ yellow-and-black warning signs caution motorists of moose, deer and snowmobiles and opportunities to see bears are abundant.  

At Okwari Aventures it’s possible to observe black bears in their natural habitat from a watchtower, with the animals coming within feet of the open-window viewing areas. Of the 3,500 black bears in the region, 30 reside here. As timing is important, it’s key to note that from the end of June to mid-July there’s the potential to see cubs and because of September’s blueberry season it’s a good month for sightings. Additional options include hiking in the bear-free area, canoeing the lake in a rabaska traditional birchbark vessel and observing beavers in their environment.

It’s this eclectic spirit, almost exclusive to Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean, that also defines its overnight prospects, which creatively range from traditional hotels and treehouses to ghost towns and zoos.  

At Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux, a night in the wild translates to a treehouse stay 25 feet above ground at the top of a trunk-mounted flight of steps, sleeping within a starlight dome with windows covering one-third of its surface or overnighting in the coziest of choices, a suspended spherical treehouse – each ensconced in the woods and many with through-the-tree views of the fjord. Nothing quite compares to awaking at dawn by the sun filtering through the forest’s canopy to the sound of a bird symphony. An early morning start is advised to take advantage of the large menu of activities – sea kayaking on the fjord (sunrise, sunset and full moon), ascending the cliffs lining the fjord along the Via Ferrata (day time and full moon) and climbing the high ropes circuit (includes zip lining on seven giant zip lines).
To imagine an overnight in a ghost town is a stay in Val-Jalbert, a photogenic company pulp mill town from the 1920s, complete with 40 of its original turn-of-the-century houses, the general store, convent school (option: sit in on a lesson as Mother Superior teaches her convent girls), post office and the imposing 236-foot high Ouiatchouan Falls (a higher cascade than Niagara Falls). Here it’s possible to sleep in of one of the 24 luxuriously-restored workers’ houses or in accommodations above the general store – all projecting a back-in-the-day vibe and all complete with 21st century comforts.

A cultural and heritage site – it was home to 950 at its peak in the 1920s, the mill permanently ceased production on August 13, 1927 and the village was abandoned for years until the 1960s – today’s Val-Jalbert is the recreation of last century’s thriving town, complete with “nuns” walking its main street in route to school, the “mayor” driving the tour bus and the “mayor’s daughter” bicycling around town.

The 26-hour VIP experience and prospector tent overnight within Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien takes adventurous sleepovers to a uniquely Quebecois level. Listed as one of the world’s ten most beautiful zoos, it is home to more than 1,000 animals from 75 native or exotic species. This one day-plus experience begins in an elevated, open-air nature trail park train as it winds more than four miles through acres of open territory – home to such North American mammals as deer, moose, caribou, wolves, musk oxen and bears. Bears are the only animals able to traverse all areas of the zoo and train stops to accommodate them along the road are frequent, which translates to even more photo opps.

“We make the schedule,” says guide, Maëlys, of the customized itinerary. Lunch is in a home from 1905, which was moved from its original site to the zoo. Reflective of its era, the house’s minimalistic décor includes religious pictures and a Singer sewing machine. “Marguerite” (the occupant of the house) serves a traditional meal of soup, chicken pie and blueberry pie (a menu that is always homemade and forever varies). Marguerite speaks only in French and stays in character, even as she gives a brief tour of the outdoor yard before rushing us back into the house when a bear is spotted wandering onto the lawn. Thus, the rules: Always walk in a group, never wander off and be aware of your surroundings and its animals at all times.

To reach the campsite, the vehicle stops as Maëlys surveys the situation. She quickly unlocks the gate to our enclosed area and we just as quickly drive through it, gate closed behind us. Once we’re settled into camp, items securely tucked into our tents, possibilities include moose tracking, feeding the site’s baby moose and venturing again onto the train and out of the enclosure to travel to a bison-surrounded lake for a sunset canoe ride. After an old-fashioned meal cooked over open flames, the day ends as all campouts should – surrounding the fire to roast s’mores. Before departing the next morning, it’s possible to visit the new animal nursery and go backstage to observe the vets at work.
It's best described as a Canadian safari with only guarantee: adventure. While it’s possible to stay at nearby Hôtel du Jardin instead of within the zoo, who would choose to forgo a night in the wild surrounded by roaming animals and their around-the-clock activity?

Returning to the water, passengers have discovered Saguenay Fjord from the comfort of Les Navettes Maritimes du Fjord (the Fjord Marine Shuttle) for more than 40 years. Between its three ships offering approximately 15 daily departures from a variety boarding points, the July and August shuttle traverses from village to village. As the perfect vantage view for whales, its appeal extends to bikers and sightseers alike.

If arrival to the region is by sea, the port of Saguenay does not disappoint. Recognized for the “best international port welcome” four years running, the lively passenger greeting is from the costumed cast of the region’s summer theater production “La Fabuleuse Histoire d’un Royaume” (“Fabulous History of a Kingdom”). Celebrating its 30th season and noted as the country’s first large-scale historic performance, the show features 150 actors, horses, cars, flooding, cannon shots, explosions of fire and whirlwinds of music and dance.
So hospitable, so extroverted are the people of Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean that though French is widely spoken (with a bit of English conversed here and there), should a non-French speaking visitor need help, it isn’t uncommon for a local to find someone who can assist and if that’s not possible, communicate through a game of charades, if necessary.

As I bid my silent farewell to this remote retreat, I hear “Au revoir,” when walking through security to board my flight. And though it is all too soon that I disembark in reality, I find comfort in my carry-on snack – a bag of chocolate-covered blueberries which I’ll enjoy with a Pepsi (not a Coke).

Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean
The city of Saguenay is Quebec’s sixth largest and the region of Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is almost four times the size of Belgium, yet its atmosphere is so homespun, to locals it’s “a small village at the end of the road.”

The area code for Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean is 418.

Where to Sleep:

Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux – Self-described as “a renowned destination in adventure tourism and eco-tourism,” this park of adventures and such unique accommodations as treehouses is seasonally open from late May to mid-October, with peak season from June 24 to the first Monday in September.  250 Chemin de la Pointe aux Pins, Saint-Fulgence; 418-674-9114;

Val-Jalbert – Not only the impressive revival of a ghost town, it’s also possible to overnight here. For a peek into its history and to best understand the town, first stop should be at the old pulp mill to watch its 360-degree multi-media production, an “immersive sensory experience,” that transports you to the turn of the 20th century. As village visits are seasonal (open from late May to mid-October), book early as July and August fill soon. 95 Rue Saint-George, Chambord, 418-275-3132;

Zoo sauvage de Saint-Félicien – Called “Land of the Caribou,” this night in the wild is one where you are caged and the animals run free in their vast natural environment (though caribou are within your multi-acre enclosure). Accommodations are available June through mid-October; though the zoo is open winter and summer. 2230 Boulevard du Jardin, Saint-Felicien; 418-679-0543;

Where to Eat and Drink:

Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean – An award-winning microbrewery within walking distance of beaches and the blueberry trail is known for such homemade beers as its famous Gros Mollet and 10 seasonal draught beers (all enhanced by the use of regional spices). Its equally-revered menu offers such choices as escargot and cream pub pastry, foie gras crème brulee and beeramisu (ladyfingers soaked in beer syrup and topped with mascarpone mousse). 120 Rue de la Plage, Saint-Gedeon; 418-345-8758;

Restaurant du Moulin – Located within the old industrial mill of Val-Jalbert, Chef Carl Murray is at the helm of this fine dining establishment. Having served as chef for six years, his connection to the site is more than his longevity – his grandfather was once employed as a mill worker. Chef’s recently created Heritage Meals showcase recipes of the village’s past. Val-Jalbert, Chambord; 418-275-3132;

Auberge-Bistro Rose & Basilic - By using regional herbs, spices, honey, blueberry liqueur, cheeses and more, this urban inn focuses on the flavors of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean – featuring such menu items as salmon tartar, house rillettes, pan fried scallops and shrimp and chocolate fondant. 600 Boulevard des Cascades, Alma; 418-669-1818;

Must See:

Site de la Nouvelle-France – An archeological site where movies such as The Black Robe were filmed, this is a replication of Champlain’s first settlement in Quebec City and its daily life in the 17th century, complete with colorful characters who act as colony habitants. 370 Vieux-Chemin, Saint-Felix-d'Otis; 418-544-8027;   

Musée du Fjord – Located on shores of the Saguenay River’s Baie des Ha! Ha! cove, this museum features a 14,000-gallon salt water aquarium, a touch pool with starfish, sea cucumbers, urchins and other species and such outdoor activities from June to September as digging in the fjord’s tidal pools and guided excursions in quest of discovering living organisms, minerals, plant and wildlife. 3346 Boulevard de la Grande-Baie-Sud, La Baie; 418-697-5077;

#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #saguenaylacsaintjean #quebec #travelpics

Monday, October 9, 2017


by Cynthia Dial for
With an arrival timed to Swiss National Day, a holiday that symbolizes the 1291 founding of the Federation around which Switzerland was formed, celebratory fireworks seem to shout: “Welcome to Vaud.” Home to such illustrious settings as Lausanne, Vevey and Montreux – all perfectly perched along the shores of Lake Geneva – this is where bonjour is spoken to passing strangers “just because,” a three-kiss greeting is standard and everything is considered an opportunity to open a bottle of wine.
Photos by Cynthia Dial

As one of Europe’s largest lakes, Lac Léman (translation: Lake Geneva) is a significant presence in this region that shares the liquid icon with its across-the-water neighbor, France. When you add lakeside promenades, hillside vineyards, cobblestone town centers and a backdrop of the Alps, the resulting recipe is a magnet for those lured by luxury.

Home to eight five-star hotels and Ecole Hoteliere Lausanne (the world-renowned Swiss hotel management school), Vaud has established an exclusive standard of hospitality. Add to the mix a total of 95 restaurants selected by the Gault&Millau 2017 guide (tally: 1,338 points) and 12 Michelin-starred restaurants (totaling 17 stars) and the canton is also one of the world’s most famous regions for the culinary arts. Among its delicious specialties are cabbage sausage, Gruyere cheese, fresh-from-the-lake perch and Chasseles wine (a velvety smooth dry white variety grown in nearly 70% of the region’s vineyards).

To best appreciate the canton of Vaud, let’s explore some of its towns.
Built on two rivers and three hills, Lausanne is as cosmopolitan as it is transnational. The setting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it has 60 sports federations, more than 300 sports clubs and is home to the Olympic Museum. An attraction for 300,000 annual guests, museum highlights include 1,500-plus exhibits, 150 video screens and four restaurants (TOM café on the building’s top floor is known for its weekend brunch and lake view).

Superlatives define Lausanne. With 17 parks and 280 square feet of green space per resident, Lausanne has been called Europe’s Greenest City. As the setting of 50 language schools and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in addition to the hotel management school, it has also been named the Capital of Schools. And running every three minutes along the city’s vertical terrain, Lausanne’s metro system is the continent’s oldest (built in 1877) – transporting passengers along hills so steep, the landscape is reputedly responsible for the Lausanne ladies’ reputation as having the best legs in Europe.   

Of Lausanne’s three five-star palace hotels – Hotel Lausanne Palace & Spa, Beau-Rivage Palace and Royal Savoy Lausanne – each is tastefully extravagant. Hotel Lausanne Palace & Spa (1915) is the setting of Côté Jardin, a restaurant recognized with 14 points Gault&Millau, also known for its antipasti offerings and its perched-overlooking-the-city seat. The Beau-Rivage Palace’s premier restaurant, Anne-Sophie Pic, is headed up by the three-star Michelin chef whose name it bears and the hotel grounds are also noted as the spot on which Coco Chanel’s dog is buried. Continuing the tasty trend, three-star Michelin designee Marc Haeberlin serves as Royal Savoy Lausanne’s Signature Chef and is especially active in the creation of Brasserie du Royal’s seasonal menus.
Originally opened in 1909 to accommodate the wealthy on their grand tours, the art nouveaux-style Royal Savoy Lausanne closed 100 years later for a two-year, $100 million renovation. Protected by Swiss Heritage, today’s historic building pays homage to the past but also features comforts of the 21st century, including such amenities as in-room Hermès toiletries, Nespresso machines and its at-the-top-of-the-hotel SkyLounge.

Montreux, another Instagram-worthy Lake Geneva town, showcases a flower-lined waterfront walkway, palm trees and the iconic statue of Freddie Mercury (hard rock group Queen’s late lead singer and treasured Montreux adoptee). With a philosophical musical core, the town’s history includes once-upon-a-time visits from Tchaikovsky who came for inspiration and modern-day concerts that have highlighted such luminaries as Miles Davis, Deep Purple and Prince.  

Vevey became home to Charlie Chaplin in 1952. Enticed by its welcoming ways, he moved to the village with an Old Town comprised of narrow walkways and historical monuments at the base of overlooking-the-lake hills. In combo with Vevey’s lazy lakeside lined with hotels, restaurants and bars and a collection of such distinctive museums as the Alimentarium Food Museum (you’ll know its location by the “Fork” that appears in the lake), Läderach’s Chocolate Museum and the Swiss Camera Museum – today’s appeal is as irresistible as it was to the celebrity comic 65 years ago. Chaplin’s World museum is located in Manor de Ban, the Chaplin’s family home. Sitting on 10 acres amid 100-year-old trees, it chronicles the actor’s career and provides a personal peek into the life of his family of 10.

Along Vevey’s shores the Grand Hôtel du Lac presides over the setting like a queen over her court. As the town’s “grand” hotel, it serves up such one-of-a-kind guest settings as the Oriental Lounge (open for tea service and inspired by the “Arabian Nights”), an Asian-themed Bar and Les Saisons, the signature restaurant under the tutelage of Executive Chef Thomas Neeser (recognized with 16 Gault&Millau points and one Michelin star).

Lavaux’s wine region was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. The steep, narrow, terraced vineyards rising from the lake are supported by stone walls and situated between Lausanne and Montreux. As one of Switzerland’s oldest wine making regions, it was originally cultivated by monks in the 12th century. Comprised of 14 preserved wine-growing villages, all offer wine and most offer exceptional eateries as well.

Vaud’s mountains are never far from these shoreline towns and are easily connected by the rails with conventional and specialty train travel varying from clog trains and the Swiss Panoramic Train to the Cheese Train and Chocolate Train. Located within the mountains Les Diablerets (a village and ski resort that lies between Lake Geneva and Gstaad) has Alp-style excitement. After a 15-minute cable car ride to Glacier 3000, so named as it is 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) above sea level, adventure is abundant. At its top is the Peak Walk (the world’s first suspension bridge connecting two mountain peaks), the Alpine Coaster (a one-half-plus mile descent, including a loop, 10 curves, six waves, three jumps and two bridges) and Restaurant Botta, known for such Swiss mountain food as raclette and fondue and complemented by a surrounding view of the Alps.

Situated in a mountain valley is the village of Rougemont and its three-year-old Hotel de Rougemont. Though described as a typical chateau, nothing is “typical” about this Alpine boutique hotel and spa. With an addictively quiet atmosphere, the day may begin with a symphony of cow bells serenading guests as the animals transfer from one mountain to another, church bells chiming on the hour and end as the moon rises between the mountain ridges. 

Swiss Alps, Lake Geneva, UNESCO-recognized wine region and eternally charming towns – this is Vaud. It was beloved by such purveyors of perfection as Coco Chanel and her affection for Lausanne, Audrey Hepburn and her ties to Morges and Lord Byron and his fascination for Montreux’s Chillon Castle. However, Vevey resident and cherished son, Charlie Chaplin, says it simply but best in his letter to a friend: “We love Switzerland more and more each day.”

#vaud #travel #travelpics #traveltips #travelingcynthia #lakegeneva #montreux #vevey #rougemont #lausanne

Monday, September 11, 2017

September 11, 2017

On the 16th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy, it is important to remember that the country will always rebuild, recover and become an even stronger nation -- whatever challenges we may face.

Photos by Cynthia Dial\


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Top Five Secrets to Savvy Travel

Excerpted from Condé Nast Traveler

Time it Right

1. Fly on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday.
Traveling on off-peak days – and at off-peak times – means lower fares, a less crowded cabin and a greater chance of snagging those elusive mileage-award seats. Taking two days off for a long weekend?  Instead of a Thursday to Sunday or a Friday to Monday trip, save money by flying on a Saturday and returning on a Tuesday.
Photo by Cynthia Dial

2. Hop Between Cities at Midday.
When you’re traveling through Europe or Asia and need to get from one city to another, consider scheduling transportation for the middle of the day.  If you leave at dawn, you miss the sunrise – ideal for photography and observing locals – and reach your destination at midday, when temperatures are highest, the light is at its worst for photos and it’s too early to check into your hotel.  (You may also have to fight rush-hour commuters and miss a breakfast that is included in your rate.)

3. Visit Islands During Shoulder Season.
Peak-season rates on islands often reflect nearby countries’ vacation schedules rather than the best time to visit (Bali’s hotels, for instance, fill up with Japanese in early May and with Australians in January).  In low season, many businesses shut down.  Shoulder season – when crowds are thinner but the weather is still good – is the solution.

Find the Hidden Deals

4. Sign Up for E-mail Notifications.
The best airfare and hotel sales are largely unannounced.  Airlines and hotel companies target specific subsets of travelers – loyalty program members, holders of certain credit cards, people who’ve registered on their Web sites – and alert them by e-mail.  To keep your in-box from being bombarded, get a dedicated e-mail address for such alerts and check it when you’re ready to start planning your next trip.  If you can make quick purchasing decisions, sign up for alerts from flash-sale sites that sell hotel rooms at discounts of 40 percent or more, such as Jetsetter and Tablet Hotels.

Find the Right Human Beings

5. Get the Best Room for Your Dollar
At luxury properties, rates vary substantially according to occupancy. A room could be $350 one week because there’s a big group and $250 the next because nobody’s coming.  For top-end hotels that have on-site reservation desks, call and ask the manager when, during your travel window, the hotel will be emptiest and thus have the lowest rates.  Then ask something like, “If I come on that date, would there be a chance of an upgrade to ocean-view?”

#travel #travelingcynthia #traveltips #travelsecrets

Monday, August 21, 2017

Travel Quote of the Day

Travel quote: "It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase 'As pretty as an Airport' appear." Douglas Adams
#travel #travelquotes #travelingcynthia

Thursday, August 10, 2017

8 Ways to Breeze Through Customs Quickly


The basics are simple: Fill out your paperwork before you get off the plane, book a seat that'll let you get out of your plane quickly and then head straight for the customs agent without bathroom detours.

To some degree, customs lines are inevitable. After all, every time a plane full of people arrives, it takes a little while to process all that luggage. You'll also have to go through customs if you're traveling across international borders. Still, that doesn't mean you have to suffer; there's a lot you can do to get yourself toward the front of the line and speed your way through the actual customs encounter.

1. Travel Light

Guess what: The less time you spend juggling your bags, the faster you can get through the customs line. With that said, there's one item you should never be without: a pen for filling out your customs form on the plane. Somehow there are never enough pens to go around.

Do you see someone struggling to manage all their bags on the way through security? As hard as it can be to watch them having a hard time, you should never transport someone else's bag through customs. You never know what they might be carrying that they'd like to escape responsibility for. If you just can't stand to watch the mayhem, offer to rent them a luggage cart – but rest assured that your Good Samaritan obligations end there.

2. Ditch the Food

Many restrictions exist for transporting fresh products like fruit, vegetables or meat across international lines; your trip through customs will usually go faster if you ditch the food entirely. Still, even if the food you have is legal, failing to declare it can net you some hefty fines. Therefore, honesty is always the best policy.

3. Track Your Spending

Each country allows you to transport a certain dollar amount of purchases across the border without paying "duty" – basically, a tax levied on purchases made or gifts received while you're abroad. Keep your receipts, or track how much you've spent at the very least. This way, you can prove whether you fall under the duty limit or how much you may be over the limit.

4. Avoid Farms

Customs won't deny you re-entry to the country if you've visited a farm, but you may lose some time in customs while they clean your footwear to make sure you're not accidentally bringing any biological contaminants into the country. However, customs people don't clean your boots for the fun of it. Invasive species and illnesses like foot and mouth disease are very real hazards. If you have visited any farms, admit it and accept the possible delay.

5. Put Your Phone Away

Want to have an up-close-and-personal visit with a customs agent? Just whip out a camera and start taking pictures; it'll get their attention quickly. If you'd rather have a quick and hassle-free experience, leave your phone and cameras tucked away until you're all the way through customs.

6. Apply for Global Entry

If you want to make everyone else in the customs line turn green with envy, consider applying for the Global Entry program. You'll have to pay $100 and give your fingerprints, and not every airport supports the Global Entry program. Nevertheless, if you're accepted into the program and traveling through a major airport, your trip through customs boils down to a quick stop at an automated kiosk to confirm your identity and make any necessary declarations. The NEXUS and SENTRI programs, also offered by the Department of Homeland Security, offer similar benefits.

7. Check Your Baggage Requirements with Your Airline

If your flight into the United States doesn't take you directly to your final destination, then you might have to retrieve your checked bags after passing through immigration and before going through customs. After that, you'll need to recheck the bags again before you catch your connecting flight. Check with your airline beforehand to find out whether you'll have to retrieve and recheck your bags or not.

8. Know Where You're Staying

Be prepared to tell officials where you're staying in the country you're visiting. They may ask you to provide the address of your hotel, so keep a copy of your reservation on hand. Sometimes they also ask you for proof of your departure ticket and date, so those copies need to stay in your carry-on bag as well.

Some travelers take being first in the customs line very seriously. It's true that if there's a long walk to customs, moving quickly can get you out ahead of the pack. Still, there's no need to turn a trip through customs into a race or a competition. No matter where you end up in line, we guarantee that the experience will be more pleasant if you relax and enjoy the experience. 
#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #easycustoms 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Eight Expert Travel Hacking Tips for 2017

By Brian Robson

“Travel hacking” is when you work within the rules of airlines, hotels, and travel credit cards to earn rewards such as points and miles to put toward free travel. Despite its name, travel hacking is simple (and legal), and lots of people do it every day to save money and see the world. If you have ever wanted to take the family on a trip and just couldn’t afford the airfare, learning to travel hack can solve your dilemma.
Photo by Cynthia Dial

Meet the experts

We reached out to the following travel rewards experts for their advice on choosing a travel card, maximizing rewards, and making the most of points or miles at redemption. Here’s what they told us.

Tip #1 – Take advantage of more than just free travel.

You might not know this, but travel credit cards are good for more than just earning points. Some of these cards grant you and your family access to additional perks. Ariana from TopCashback explains:
Airline miles or hotel loyalty points may seem like the only rewards, but think again! In addition to miles, some reward programs (such as American Express) give you access to airport lounges, restaurant and hotel concierges and deals on rental cars.”

Rewards programs may also offer opportunities for earning extra points with participating car rental services, hotels, and airlines. All the more reason to make sure you read up on everything your card has to offer.

Tip #2 – Choose cards with miles bonus incentives and flexible redemption.

Travel hacking is all about finding ways to earn miles and points faster while working within the existing rules. Cat Holladay from The Compass is Calling explains how some cards make that even easier:

“The key is to sign up for the cards with the most miles’ bonus incentive AND the most flexible usage. Several cards out there give 50-60,000 ‘miles’ after spending $3,000-4,000 in the first 3 months. 60,000 miles is the equivalent of 2 domestic tickets on many airlines, almost two international tickets on Singapore Airlines, and one international ticket on most carriers.”

Choosing a travel credit card with flexible redemption means more options when it’s time to redeem your hard-earned miles. Some top travel cards offer 1:1 rewards transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs or discounts on travel booked through the card’s rewards program, and more. Others allow you to redeem miles for a travel statement credit, which means you can reimburse yourself for eligible travel purchases, no matter where you book. And, as Cat points out, many of them offer generous mile bonuses for spending a couple thousand dollars within the first few months.

Tip #3 – Maximize rewards on everyday purchases.

What kind of purchases do you make in your everyday life? Do you find yourself eating out more often than not? Are you brand loyal? It is wise to sign up for a credit card with a rewards program that aligns with those everyday spending habits.

“By signing up for a new credit card with a hefty welcome bonus and just doing your normal, everyday spending, you can accrue points or miles towards free flights (plus taxes or fees, generally low) or hotel rooms,” explains David Slotnick of The City Miler.

One of the best things about a credit card that rewards your everyday spending habits is that you don’t have to change anything. You don’t need to adjust how much you’re willing to pay for something just to hit a particular threshold, and you’ll earn your way toward a free trip in no time.

Tip #4 – Don’t opt for cash back.

Some cards let you cash in your points for a pre-paid gift card. While that might seem like a perk, it’s a colossal waste of points and miles. With most travel cards, you’ll get the best points redemption value for, you guessed it, travel. (Some travel credit cards even give you a nice redemption bonus if you book through their cardmember portal!)

“It’s tempting to exchange your points for cash back – you see the dollar amount beckoning to you on your screen, just one click away,” says Kaja Olcott of RewardExpert. “However, people need to know that it’s not necessarily the best value available to them. In fact, redeeming for air travel typically offers the most lucrative return.”

Tip #5 – Study loyalty program terms for extra points.

Travel isn’t the only category where loyalty programs exist to help you earn and spend points. In fact, quite a few travel credit cards on the market feature loyalty programs in other categories for dining, car rentals and more. Studying and understanding the terms of these programs is a great way to maximize your point accrual, according to Torsten Jacobi of Mighty Travels:

“Loyalty programs often offer bonus miles or points just for signing up to them for free. If you shop online, you can use various portals like MileagePlus Shopping and AAdvantage eShopping to earn as you spend and some loyalty programs also have dining programs so you can earn as you eat. You can earn with your car rentals, your mobile phone provider, when you buy an Internet service, order flowers and sometimes even when you buy or sell a property!”

Another way to earn extra points is with loyalty programs that let you “level up” in terms of spending and earning points. “Just for signing up you get 3 American Airlines points for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants,” explains Sean Ogle from Location Rebel. “Once you hit 12 transactions in a year, you get bumped up 5 points per $1 spent. So to give you an example, if you go out to a dinner and spend $100, you’ll get 500 AAdvantage points just for being part of the program. If you register one of your rewards credit cards, then you’ll also get points from them.”

Tip #6 – Consider a card with an annual fee.

No one likes to pay annual fees on their travel credit cards. However, in some cases, the annual fee is worth it, as Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt points out:

“For those who travel a lot and fly a lot, I think it is worth it to get a card with a fee. Fee-based cards tend to give you a better rewards scheme, where you can accumulate points faster, get better access to services and special offers, and get better travel protection. With these cards, I have saved more money on travel than I have spent on fees.”

The cost of the annual fee can pay for itself several times over. This is especially true with cards that come with a generous sign-up bonus. For instance, if you opt for a card that nets you 60,000 points just for signing up, the cash back on those points could pay for the card for several years. It’s also worth noting that some of these cards offer to waive the annual fee for your first year.

Tip #7 – Be flexible.

Generally, flexibility is a good thing to have when life throws little curve balls at you. This is especially true for booking travel and redeeming hotel rewards. Some rewards programs help you save money or earn extra points if you are flexible about your departure date and are willing to shift things around. You might even be eligible for more rewards if you downgrade your hotel accommodations.

“Flexibility is key when trying to maximize airline and hotel rewards. Sometimes the award space will appear just days before your trip. If your travel dates aren’t flexible, book a backup itinerary and change it as better options become available.” – Scott Mackenzie, Travel Codex.

It’s often important to opt for travel credit cards that have flexible spending and redemption bonuses. The same is true for how flexible you are in redeeming those points.

Tip #8 – Transfer points to partner programs.

Sometimes it pays to transfer your points to a partner program. Take it from the Financial Panther himself, Kevin. He explains:

“Some card issuers have a bunch of travel partners to which you can transfer your points over and get tremendous deals. For example, I have a friend this year, who is flying to Hawaii round trip from Minneapolis for 25,000 points! He did this by transferring his points to Korean air partner, who partners with Delta, and they have a deal where you can fly anywhere in the US roundtrip for 25k points.”

Some top travel credit cards feature 1:1 points transfer to several airline and hotel loyalty programs. That means you won’t lose any points if you decide to do like Kevin’s friend and transfer those points for a better deal.

These are just a few expert travel hacking tips you can use to earn free travel while making the most of your points. So don’t let the rising cost of travel stop you or your family from seeing the world. Take some tips from our panel of travel experts, and start making the system work for you.

#travel #travelingcynthia #traveltips #travelhacking

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is Wanderlust Genetic?

Nomadic Matt wonders (and I agree with his assessment): Is there also personality type for travelers?
Photo by Cynthia Dial

Personally, I think people who break the mold and dream of faraway do have a certain personality type. They are mentally wired for it - both genetically and psychologically. I think we are risk takers who are little different from the rest. We want adventure, change, and excitement in our lives. That’s not to say other people don’t want travel too but we crave it like junkies.
There are those who are content with going on that one trip a year or two and then there are those that secretly have Google flights open at work every day.
Remember how in the 3rd Matrix movie "The Architect" (the guy at the center of the Matrix) told Neo that not everyone accepted the Matrix? There were always people who resisted the programming, thus the Matrix robots in the Matrix created Zion (and the never-ending war)?
Well, we’re like those people.

The typical path society wants us to walk down doesn’t jive with our wanderlust or our desire to keep pushing the boundaries of who we are and what we know about the world. 
#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #wanderlust #travelgene

Friday, May 19, 2017

Travia: King Tut

Travia: King Tut is the nickname for Tutankhamen, an Egyptian leader who ruled from age 9 to 18. He was buried with 145 underpants.
#travel #traveltips #travia #travelingcynthia #kingtut

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cruising the Mediterranean

by Cynthia Dial as seen in

It’s not that high I tell myself after committing to be the first to climb a rope ladder to the crow’s nest of a tall sailing ship – my home on water for a week. Not one to break my word (at least not with so many witnesses), I’m secured into a safety harness, place one footstep above another in my steady ascension of the ship’s mast and am pulled up onto a wooden platform to be greeted by an unparalleled reward – a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the Mediterranean Sea from atop the Star Flyer.

A member of the Star Clippers’ fleet, the Star Flyer is one of this family of three (soon to be four) of the world’s largest and tallest sailing vessels. Back-in-the-day-style boats equipped with 21st century yacht-like lures, the fleet’s inception began as a love affair between Swedish owner and lifetime yachtsman, Mikael Krafft, and the classic sailing clipper ships that reigned the waves throughout the 1800s. In the book Star Clipper Saga, he explains: “In 1987 I decided to build a genuine large sailing ship with the wind as the most important source of power. No one had ever done that for almost a hundred years. The ship should resemble old clippers in hull, yet be designed to accommodate some 150 guests. In my new clipper, I wanted to include all the romance of sail and style that you find in a large sailing yacht.”

Four years later in 1991 his dream became a reality with the introduction of the Star Flyer (175 passengers/74 crew/16 sails). A year later its sister ship, Star Clipper, entered the scene. In 2000 five-masted, full rigger Royal Clipper (227 passengers/106 crew/42 sails) set sail; and debuting late 2017 is the Flying Clipper (300 passengers/140 crew/35 sails).

As a sailing ship, the rules are different but the experiences are exceptional – so with wind in my hair and a salty breeze in my face, I dive in. Unlike most cruises, Star Flyer has an open bridge policy. Serving up the opportunity to observe the captain and crew at work -- from charting the courses to maneuvering the controls – the only restriction is to request permission to enter. Then there’s lying in the bowsprit’s trapeze-like netting suspended mere feet above the water as the ship skims the waves toward its next port (color me jealous when a previous passenger recounts her bowsprit venture alongside a pod of dolphins).

Even port departures deliver dramatic memories. With all hands on deck and all passengers on board, sheets flap and sails unfurl as they scale the ship’s four masts to the background music of Vangelis, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and the Star Flyer sets sail.

Departing from Barcelona, anticipation is high for our upcoming week at sea and visits to such Mediterranean magnets as Palma and Mahon, Spain, Bonifacio and Calvi on the French island of Corsica and finally St-Tropez. At embarkation, there’s live music – it’s Peter (Slovakia) on the keyboard playing Beyond the Sea. As cruise director Steffi (Germany) says, “A ship without music is impossible.” Our welcome aboard drink, named Bon Voyage (each day features its own bar specialty), is liberally served as Captain Mariusz Szalek (Poland) greets all who step onto the high-gloss deck of the ship’s al fresco Tropical Bar. One word describes the atmosphere: addictive.

During initial exploration of the intimate ship, I discover a cozy library, a beckoning piano bar and several salt water pools (all fleet-wide standards). Reflective of Star Clippers’ rich maritime heritage, the décor is nautical – antique-like fabrics, artwork of famous sailing vessels, expansive teak decks, gleaming mahogany railing and polished brass appointments. Yet, regardless of the comfortable amenities typically found on traditional ships, each of the Star Clippers’ fleet is also small enough to visit off-the-beaten-path, inaccessible-to-larger-liner ports; and intimate enough for guests to readily know one another.

Passengers and sailors Jan and Mike English, Princeton, Illinois, transfer their affection for sailing their 33-foot boat on Lake Michigan in their downtime to sailing with the Star Flyer during vacation time. They additionally appreciate the vessel’s comparatively diminutive size (175 passengers) in contrast to today’s ships carrying thousands of guests. “Mike would never cruise on a mega-liner,” says Jan. “We prefer ships with 200 passengers or less and love making friends from all over the world.”   

In agreement are the English’s newly-acquired friends, Louise and Rafi Glaser, Sydney, Australia. Veterans of 25 cruises, including a 3,500-passenger ship, Rafi says of the experience: “We didn’t like it. To me, it’s the informal, intimate ease of the Star Flyer that I most enjoy.” 

With no casino, no musical revues and no rigid schedule – only the reward of unconstrained time to do nothing or to sample everything – here are some low-key, Star Flyer-style options: learning the art of napkin folding from the wait staff, the secret to cocktail mixing with the bartender and the skill of knot-tying with a deck cadet. For on-deck participatory types, there’s pulling the lines and hoisting the sails; and if it’s a beach day, activities range from swimming and windsurfing to waterskiing, kayaking and snorkeling. With casual elegance as the dress code (no formal gowns or black-ties required) – even packing seems a timesaver.

“This is a sailing ship, so I know you want to sail,” announces Captain Szalek during his first-day introduction. “You can trust that as much as we can, we will be sailing.” His explanation as to why the Star Flyer is sometimes under power: “There’s no bad wind – there’s either no wind or there’s wind – all you need is time,” which for a ship with a set itinerary can sometimes be a limited commodity.

That said, here’s the line-up of ports and each stops’ prime perks:

Barcelona – A city of matchless magnets, from Antoni Gaudi to Pablo Picasso, and such quirky draws as a shoe museum and a chocolate museum, Barcelona has something for everyone. The Picasso Museum features the country’s best collection of the artist’s masterpieces and handiworks of the famous architect, Gaudi, are equally plentiful.

They include Sagrada Familia (called “a church in progress” because though he worked on it from 1883 until his 1926 death, it remains incomplete); Casa Milà, once described as “the famous melting-ice-cream creation,” and Casa Batlió, which is known for its almost exclusively curved construction. All define the superlative of creativity and all are lavishly adorned. After viewing his creations, it seems inconceivable that the word ‘gaudy’ isn’t derived from the architect’s surname (though there is no connection).

Las Ramblas, one of Europe’s most famous streets, is one of Barcelona’s best known tourist haunts. A lively tree-lined pedestrian walkway with distractions at every intersection, one delicious detour is La Boqueria Market to sample the local food and drink.
Tip: Observe (or better yet, participate in) one of this Catalan region’s most characteristic traditions – the Sardana dance. Forming a circle, participants hold hands, raise their arms in slow motion (think Zorba the Greek) and sway to the music for one to two hours.

Palma de Mallorca – Known for its old town’s meandering alleyways that are punctuated with busy plazas, old aristocratic mansions, horse-drawn carriage rides, cafes and coffee shops, it is also the home of its famous namesake pearl.

Sightseeing should include the Cathedral, Spain’s second largest Gothic church, and its hillside Bellver Castle –  if for nothing else than its views.

Tip: Explore and enjoy Palma by imbibing its food and drink scene – from paella and sangria to hot chocolate and ensaimada crema (a spiral-shape Mallorcan pastry with a rich cream cheese filling).

Mahón – Its colorful history – an 80-year British occupation – remains reflective today, whether it’s the capital city’s four-story Georgian townhouses, its citizens’ affinity for gin or its English-speaking residents. From port, a steep walk up several flights of steps is necessary to reach the town center; but the reward of this StairMaster-like effort is a panorama of this island of Minorca.

Tip: Take home a piece of Mahón – it’s known for leather goods (particularly its own distinct style of shoes), local cheeses, gin and wine.

Bonifacio – To reach the town, it is necessary to sail between two stony promontories on Southern Corsica. Just as in olden times, it is a demonstration of seamanship that excludes many larger cruise ships. Comprised of an upper town and lower town, each has its own character. Two gates mark the entrance into the upper town’s medieval village – a network of narrow cobbled streets, charming squares and intimate eateries.  Lower town sits by the marina and features a trendier scene, complete with cafes and boutiques.

Tip: For a less-than-three-euro investment, walk the Escalier du Roi d’Aragon (King Aragon Steps) – a staircase cut into the stone, perched over the sea and hugging the cliff. Consisting of 187 steep steps, legend says it was originally carved by soldiers overnight during the siege of 1420. Regardless of its origins, its prize is a priceless view of the Mediterranean.

Calvi – One of Corsica’s most northern points, it too has an upper and lower town. The upper town centers around its ancient citadel, and its lower town is replete with cafes, boutiques and a seaside promenade. However, Calvi is also known for its surrounding hills covered with olive, citrus and fig trees. A popular side trip, by taxi or even motor scooter, is to the ancient village of Sant’Antonino. One of the island’s oldest inhabited towns and named one of France’s “most beautiful villages,” perched on a small mountaintop, it is visible for miles.

Tip: Grab a beachside table at one of the many restaurants alongside the lower town’s harbor for prime people watching and delicious downtime.

St-Tropez – Of this tony town’s reputation for over-the-top opulence, it’s been said: “If you came here for history or quaintness, you caught the wrong yacht.” Founded by artists, it wasn’t until Brigitte Bardot’s 1956 film, “And God Created Woman” that it became synonymous with the Riviera’s glamour. Though its populace is 5,700 year-round residents, each summer translates to a deluge of 100,000-plus daily visitors. This is the scene: pastel tinted houses, boutiques with such names as Brigitte B and Vintage Tiffany and bling everywhere.  

Tip: To get the feel of the residents’ St-Tropez, head to the town’s central park, Place des Lices, and observe a serious game of boules every day or the popular flea market on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Photos by Cynthia Dial

Bottom line: Though not your standard cruise ship, Star Flyer is loaded with crossover appeal –  for typical travelers, it’s distinctive; for seasoned sailors, it’s comfortable and for eternal explorers, it’s the epitome.


#travel #traveltuesday #travelingcynthia #traveltips #mediterraneancruise #cruising