Destination Mexico: Testing a unique new small ship itinerary
Plus: 10,000 Starbucks lattes for a plane ticket? | What to expect for holiday travel | Airbnb availability soars for ski season
Hello Travel Essential community,
Greetings from the Pacific coast of Mexico, where Jeri is sailing her first-ever “repositioning” cruise. It's also a first for the ship she’s on, American Queen Voyages’ new expedition vessel, the Ocean Victory, as it moves from its summer season in Alaska to winter sailings in Antarctica.
Compared to those polar expedition sailings the ship was designed for, it’s quite a different experience. Below in her Travel Essential Dispatch, she reveals why these twice-a-year sailings AQV plans between San Diego and Costa Rica are definitely worth considering. (Hint: They are not for big-ship cruise lovers. But they do offer a relaxing alternative to the traditionally cruise averse, those looking for slow travel options, even digital nomads.)
More broadly, this week’s line-up includes travel tips, news and some real-time intel from travel advisors that you won’t read anywhere else – such as how prices in Hawaii and California compare this year vs. last. Reminder: To ensure you receive our insights in your inbox once a week, it takes just one click to subscribe to Travel Essential! And to support our work, we’d greatly appreciate your sharing the newsletter with your friends on social media or via email.
First, here’s the news that we are following this week. And we'll point out a (rare) common theme – optimism.
Inflation, Covid and crazy air service be damned this holiday season
Don’t expect empty airports or highways this holiday season, no matter what the headlines say about inflation or a looming recession. Based on a survey of 4,000 consumers, PwC says that nearly 75% of respondents plan to spend at least the same amount of money on holiday travel this year vs. last. Millennials are the most eager to get out of dodge, with 63% of 4,000 respondents planning to travel vs. 47% overall. In fact, holiday travel’s such a priority this year that people are already spending less on restaurants, clothing and streaming services to save up some cash, PwC notes.
To book their trips, the majority of respondents plan to use an OTA like Booking.com with Millennials leading the charge (60% plan to use an OTA vs. 45% overall). As for lodging, survey responses indicate greater confidence in getting out in the world vs. staying with family and friends or relying on a chain hotel. The growing segments this year are independent hotels, short-term rentals like Airbnb and all-inclusive resorts that are increasingly branded and upscale.
Deeper dive: Luxury travel advisors talk holiday trends
The Travel Essential team’s especially obsessed with premium travelers’ behavior, so we connected with two of our favorite travel advisors who specialize in upscale and luxe travel.
“I just booked a client at Montage Kapalua Bay (in Hawaii) for $91,000 for over New Years," said Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Bue Vacations in Seattle
Schreiner says her clients are “concerned about costs, but that doesn't mean they aren't spending. They just want to make sure they are getting good value.
“And of course, some don’t care.”
When it comes to destinations, she says bookings for the holidays are fairly typical.
“I'm still getting warm weather for the holidays through February – Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean.”
In general, Schreiner told us, she’s not getting any cancellations and bookings are continuing to climb at a steady pace.
Holiday bookings jump 23% over last year
Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Group, reveals that his company’s holiday season business is up 23% over last year, and with a more varied mix of destinations. Fewer clients, he said, are booking the usual spots.
“Bookings are very strong for festive, but we have seen a shift away from domestic festive bookings, compared to last year,” Johnson told us. “Now that the world has opened up, business has never been better but it’s more evenly spread out across the globe rather than only in the U.S.”
Inflation isn’t yet curbing demand, he said, noting that price drops in destinations such as Hawaii and California are offsetting price concerns.
“Obviously if it continues, it will impact our business,” Johnson told us, “but right now, because there is so much demand out there, inflation doesn’t seem to be a concern. Plus, a lot of domestic destinations have lowered their rates as well as softened their usual rules for length of stay requirements to attract more business.”
Vail's Eagle Bahn Gondola in the Lionshead pedestrian village takes you to slopes ranging from easy, breezy green runs to challenging black diamonds -- Barb DeLollis
-- Hitting the slopes may feel different this year: To get the ski experience you crave, no doubt you want to plan your trips and lodging now because the major resorts are expecting big demand. (Waiting to book a last-minute trip last year meant staying far from the resort, yet paying $1,000 a night for a Doubletree.) They’re even trying to staff up by shelling out bigger hourly wages in hopes of luring workers who can’t afford to live near pricey spots like Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado. The resorts are also operating with an increasingly intentional eye on prioritizing loyal guests -- people who commit to buying passes in advance and, like loyalty members in the hotel world, are apt to spend more. The biggest resort owner, Vail Resorts, plans to limit day ticket sales to prioritize advance-purchase buyers of its Epic passes. North American ski pass sales are up 6% over last year, Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch said on a recent investor call. Tip: When looking for lodging, don’t rule out short term rentals on Airbnb or other platforms. For better or for worse, they’ve apparently been rising lately. “We've seen a lot of short term rentals come on the market much more so than pre-COVID levels,” Wall Street analyst Patrick Scholes of Truist said on the call.
-- Airlines to make it easier to enjoy Europe next summer: As airlines announce summer 2023 flight schedule plans, we are noticing a clear trend - “more.” Citing strong demand on Oct. 12, United Airlines announced plans to fly about 10% more transatlantic capacity next summer vs. this year, and 30% more than 2019, reports Airline Weekly’s Edward Russell. That includes three new destinations — Dubai, Malaga, Spain, and Stockholm. And United is adding flights to destinations it already serves — Barcelona, Berlin, Rome and Shannon, which is a great option if you want to explore Ireland's west coast destinations like Limerick. Previously, Delta Air Lines announced plans to expand transatlantic seats by 8% next summer vs. summer 2022. Now, let’s hope these flights can run smoothly: 1) Get vaccinated with the new Covid booster, and be sure to get it at least 10 days prior to travel. 2) Don’t forget to get your flu vaccine, too. 3) Bring tests with you, at least two per person. TE Takeaway: Don’t stay home – get out there and live it up! You can get Covid anyway even by attending weddings, conferences or high school reunions, as well as going on a cruise or flight.
-- Don’t let Covid stand in your way of a good trip: In the latest sign that Covid is now just a part of our lives that we are learning to live and travel with, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently adjusted Covid monitoring. Going forward, the CDC will limit public announcements to warnings about emerging variants or spikes in outbreaks in a certain country, instead of announcing infection levels. So how do you assess risk? CNN’s medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University's Miliken Institute School of Public Health, shared some common-sense advice including 1) get the new booster at least 10 days before departure 2) don't forget your flu shot and 3) bring Covid tests with you, at least two per person.
-- 10,000 Starbucks flat whites for a free ticket?: It’s clear that the giant travel brands are hankering to be a part of our lives – 24/7, regardless of where we are or what we’re doing. And that’s why Delta Air Lines and Starbucks on Oct. 12 announced a deal where we can link accounts to get one Delta mile per $1 spent at Starbucks, with double miles on days we’re flying Delta. Think of this partnership as more of a symbolic gesture than a “wow, I can get a free ticket” kind of thing. You do the math. Consider the price of a round-trip ticket between Baltimore (BWI) and Los Angeles (LAX), and the price of a honey almond milk flat white $5.95 at a Starbucks in New York’s Flatiron district. When we shopped for reward flights, we found a round-trip ticket – main cabin outbound and comfort seats upon return – for 56,000 miles. Promotions aside, thats ’s nearly 10,000 whites for a ticket. TE Takeaway: Watch for more big brands to come up with cute, PR-friendly point and mile partnerships like this, but don’t expect mega rewards.
-- All this optimism’s great, but when will I get my hotel service back? We’ve been talking about the hospitality labor shortages almost as much as summer airport chaos. And, unfortunately, like air travel, there doesn’t seem to be much relief on the horizon. Are there enough workers who want hospitality jobs in an age where people can work in Amazon warehouses for better wages? A new survey conducted last month by the American Hotel & Lodging Assocation shows that 87% of 200 hoteliers surveyed report staffing shortages – 36% severely so. The most critical staffing need is housekeeping, with 43% ranking it as their biggest challenge, marking a slight improvement over May. To counter, 81% of hoteliers are raising wages, 64% are offering more flexible schedules, and 35% are expanding benefits — but 91% say they’re still unable to fill open positions. National average hotel wages for 2022 through June are over $22 per hour. TE Takeaway: More hotel companies should follow Wyndham, and figure out ways to let customers tip housekeepers and other staff using an app.
Sailing private yacht-style on Ocean Victory’s first ‘repositioning’ cruise
By Jeri Clausing
ONBOARD OCEAN VICTORY – When American Queen Voyages invited me to join its new expedition ship’s first repositioning cruise between Alaska and Antarctica, I didn’t even check my schedule before responding with an enthusiastic yes.
Although details – like exactly where we would go and what kind of activities and excursions would be offered – were in flux, I had fallen in love with the 186-passenger ship and its crew back in May, when I spent two weeks on board for its inaugural sailing in Alaska.
What I did know is that the bulk of the stops on this test-run of sorts to scout ports and activities for what will be twice-a-year repositionings would be in (mostly) lesser visited ports in Mexico – an always-favored destination for me – and Costa Rica.
Boarding the ship felt a little bit like going home, but even better. This trip I was set up in a spacious suite with a double balcony, walk-in closet, mini-bar and full-sized couch and chair in the living area.
And with just over 50 passengers and more than 70 crew, this sailing took the intimate river-cruise-meets-expedition-ship vibe from my Alaska sailing to a whole new level – think do-whatever-you-want, private yacht-style sailing.
Or course it also underscored that such sailings are not for everyone – particularly those looking for meticulously planned days, non-stop onboard entertainment options and multiple dining venues.
Because the ship had a limited number of days to get from its last Alaska sailing of the season to Ushuaia, Argentina, to begin the Antarctica season with Albatros Expeditions, there were more sea days than one would normally expect on a coastal-hugging ocean cruise.
But that can be a plus or a minus. If you’re a flexible traveler, looking for a close-to-home, slow adventure with good WiFi and plenty of downtime to keep up with or catch up on work without FOMO, I recommend keeping a close eye on this itinerary as it evolves.
Instead of casinos, think corn hole, science lectures and sea turtles
No, there is no onboard casino or shopping. Instead, think hands-on science lectures from the same expedition leaders and naturalists who sail Alaska, corn hole tournaments, even demonstrations from the housekeeping staff on how to turn those towels into animal figures.
Additionally, because it was the first sailing for AQV in this region, it was a test run of sorts as the company scouted out ports and partners for future sailings. That meant plans and excursions were subject to occasional glitches and last minute adjustments.
But none of the paying passengers seemed to mind. And the crew made it clear during nightly briefings that it was a new adventure for everyone, themselves included. In fact, the only grumblings I heard were from fellow travel writers, who are notorious for being able to find something wrong with anything.
We set out from San Diego, with two sea days ahead. That was like a dream for me. It meant I’d have plenty of time to unwind, finish all the work that didn’t get done before I left and hang out around the pool, bar and hot tubs on the sun deck.
Our first stop was the very touristy Los Cabos (above), which I think everyone agreed was a misfit for Ocean Victory’s customer base. Instead, for future sailings, AQV execs said they hope to hit a smaller port on the way down from San Diego, then head into the Sea of Cortez for a day of kayaking and Zodiac exploration right off the ship.
From there the port calls got more appealing: La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Hualtuco and Chiapas in Mexico, followed by Playas del Coco and Puntarenas in Costa Rica.
I’m not one for group excursions, but there was plenty to do independently. In La Paz, a few of us biked along the Malecon, hit an artisan street fair and sipped margaritas at the marina.
In Manzanillo, while some visited a turtle sanctuary, we grabbed an authentic Mexican breakfast at a 60-year-old corner diner, bought fresh coconut water from a street vendor and wandered the back streets to get a glimpse of real life in this port town.
I’m writing this while sailing past Acapulco, with plans to do a mountain biking excursion in Hualtuco and, hopefully, some kayaking in Costa Rica.
But like I said, this is a test cruise of sorts. Stay tuned to see how it all evolves.
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