How serendipity turned a trip to Spain into a memory of a lifetime
Plus: Will Crystal’s river fleet float again? | An unexpected stop in paradise | Taking a gamble on Frontier Airlines’ ‘fly anywhere’ pass
College freshman Joaquin Contreras in Morocco moments after Morocco stunned Portugal in the World Cup semifinals on Dec. 10, 2022 – Felix Contreras
Happy New Year and welcome to our 50th newsletter – our first of 2023!
Over the past year, we’ve been delivering honest insight and expert analysis about travel news, destinations and industry trends – all with the simple mission of helping you navigate this new world of travel. And it’s been quite a journey!
Along the way, we’ve taken you on our adventures near and far – from small ship cruises to a last-minute ski trip to Vail, Colorado, a new resort in Curacao and the lesser traveled roads in Greece (just to name a few.)
As veteran, independent journalists, we’ve also stayed true to our mission to keep you ahead of and take you beyond the headlines – bringing you the news other outlets aren’t reporting, such as concern by experts about the safety of expedition cruising following back-to-back fatal accidents on recent Antarctic sailings.
Many of you have asked how you can support Travel Essential and help us grow. We’re working to set up a donation option. But there are other ways you can help us:
The Alhambra fort on Sabika Hill overlooks the city of Granada -- Felix Contreras
In this week’s edition, we take you to beautiful Spain for the first time with a piece by journalist Felix Contreras of National Public Radio, who founded Alt.Latino (and happens to know his way around jazz history, the Grateful Dead and jamon). In December, Felix trekked through Spain from Tarifa to Barcelona intentionally in the off season to accompany his son Joaquin on a father-son trip when Joaquin wrapped his first semester in college in Sevilla.
And Barb weighs in on why Frontier Airlines' $800 "all-you-can-fly-in-one-year" pass might be better than playing the slots in Las Vegas -- and why it makes her miss working for American Airlines.
First, here’s the news we’re watching:
–Is Crystal River Cruises back? Well, kind of, maybe. Last year, a German luxury hotel company bought one of the defunct luxury lines’ river ships, the Mozart, launching Riverside Luxury Cruises. This week, the company’s web site says the Riverside Mozart “is joined by two ships that are equally pleasing to the senses.” But the site gives no other information about those additional ships. Given the importance of brand consistency, and the fact that there are few other luxury rivers ships at the ready to meet the Crystal standards Riverside seems intent on continuing, we can’t help but wonder if the company is buying more or all of the remaining four ships from Crystal’s river fleet. We reached out to Jennifer Halboth, CEO of the company’s U.S. operations, who told us "an announcement" is indeed in the works, but that she doesn’t yet have enough detail to talk about it. Stay tuned!
–We’re sorry we ruined your holidays. Here’s some rewards. Things appear back to be largely back to normal at Southwest Airlines after its epic holiday meltdown. But the fallout – and mea culpas – are far from over. This week, Southwest said it would give all passengers whose flights were impacted by more than three-hour delays 25,000 rewards points. Little comfort to those who plans – and pocketbooks – were dramatically impacted. The White House also weighed in this week, saying the airline needs to do more. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the airline “failed its customers– point blank,” adding that Transportation Department "will seek fines from Southwest if it doesn't cover" required costs for those affect. Congress is also investigating.
–Unscheduled stop in paradise. Not all delays are created equal, as we saw New Year’s Eve when a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Sydney was diverted to Pago Pago in the remote Pacific territory of American Samoa because of a technical issue with an engine. According to media reports and Twitter postings, passengers were offered a tour of the island of Tutuila and beers on the beach while they waited for United to send a replacement plane to the island, which is about halfway between LAX and Sydney. “Sounds amazing,” one person tweeted. “Sounds better than Sydney,” wrote another. “What an adventure,” posted another. Indeed, we’d welcome any opportunity to break up a 14-hour flight with an island adventure.
–And in case you missed this happy Christmas tail: The Washington Post warmed our hearts with this sweet story of Polaris the puppy, who was abandoned by his owner last summer at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Arriving from China with questionable paper work, the poor pup couldn't leave SFO without quarantining and his owner chose to leave him. At that point, United Airlines staff took him in, creating a quarantine room complete with toys and 24/7 care and naming him after first-class cabin Polaris. But just before Christmas day his quarantine was up, and he was officially adopted by United pilot William Dale. "I only hope that we can do half as good a job of taking care of him as the United staff did," Dale told the Post. Don't miss reading this story!
Courtesy Frontier Airlines
Why I’m considering buying Frontier’s $800 unlimited-travel pass, and you might, too
By Barbara DeLollis
If you love adventure, last-minute travel and ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airline’s 100 U.S. destinations such as Denver (all of which apply to me) and 31 international destinations, then the carrier’s “all-you-can-fly” pass for $799 per person may be for you. I only began thinking about it seriously recently, now that I’m an official empty nester and my youngest son Joaquin (featured in photos above and below!) will soon attend the University of Colorado Boulder, making Denver one of my regular airports.
If you’re interested, act soon. The carrier’s in the final stages of selling a limited number of Go Wild! passes through 11:59 p.m. mountain time Jan. 10.
Pass holders will be able to book on flyfrontier.com and start flying on May 2. But be sure to to read the fine print. Pass holders still have to pay for baggage. And they’ll only be able to book last minute trips, and work around black out dates. (Flights can only be booked and confirmed the day before flight departure for domestic trips and starting 10 days before departure for international trips.)
So is the pass a deal? Maybe.
We can’t say for sure, because it will depend on many, many factors, including luck and your personal tolerance for risk. For instance, you might try to get on to 10 flights over the course of the year but only get on five of them, unless you know how to game the system to boost your odds.
Closest way to feel like a non-revver
As a former airline employee, though, I’d say it’s the closest thing that the average traveler who doesn’t have unlimited travel dollars will ever come to flying “non-rev.” That’s the airline industry’s insider term for people who work for an airline or are either a buddy or relative of an airline employee, allowing them to fly for free or almost free (barring certain fees or taxes).
I was fortunate enough to experience the non-revving lifestyle in the pre-Covid era when I worked for American Airlines at corporate headquarters. Some of my friends, for instance, would routinely use their flying privileges to outfly each other just for the hell of it – like flying from Dallas to Paris for lunch or to Hawaii for an hour at the beach.
Since I had young kids at the time, my family and I used our non-rev perks for more practical reasons like vacations and athletic pursuits. We flew first class to Japan, flew business class to Buenos Aires and flew economy to Rome to spend Christmas for virtually no cost. And several times during cold winter months, we’d pack a few shorts and bathing suits and catch a Friday evening flight to Miami to feel warm again. We also non-revved back and forth to Germany, Hungary, France and Russia over the years so my eldest son could compete in international fencing tournaments.
These trips were not necessarily easy, but they were affordable and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world! Today, my kids today are savvy fliers who know their way around airports worldwide. More importantly, their dad and I believe this “fly anywhere, anytime, at any moment” experience shaped their lives, global mindset and love of food, music and culture. We also knew the downside, such as the fact that we might not make it on a flight. These were never mileage runs, because – like Frontier’s pass holders – non-rev fliers don’t earn miles.
And, like Frontier, seats for non-revvers are subject to availability so there’s always an element of risk and luck involved.
If you’re the gambling type, this pass could be a cheap thrill or even an incredible deal.
Selfie of Felix and Joaquin Contreras in the Old City of Tangier in December 2022
Father-son score big with World Cup experience in Morocco
By Felix Contreras
Travel is usually about intentionality. Our destinations often mean something to us: a bucket list destination, family heritage exploration, picturesque R&R, etc.
Most successful trips are the result of planning well before the departure date and day by day on the ground.
All of which means that one missed flight, one unexpected museum closure or even a wrong turn on an unfamiliar street thousands of miles from home can tear those well-crafted plans to shreds.
But to get very hippie metaphysical on you (I am 64 years old, after all): sometimes the universe has other plans for you that can exceed your expectations and plans.
Which is what happened to my son Joaquin and I during a recent trip to southern Spain.
So here's the deal: he was wrapping up a semester abroad in Sevilla. My plan was to arrive on the Tuesday of his last week of college, then we would rent a car and make our way up La Costa del Sol and eventually arrive in Barcelona for our departure back home to Washington, D.C.
My carefully researched plan was for us to make our way to the port city of Algeciras on the Strait of Gibraltar to catch a ferry to Tangier in Morocco, a mere 50-minute ferry ride.
Using my phone, I went online to order two tickets ($30 apiece) for Saturday morning 11 a.m. departure.
Now comes the first time the universe had other plans.
I lost the hotel Wi-Fi signal mere seconds before clicking “purchase.” After a few choice words in English and Spanish, I started the process again, THEN discovered that that route I was about to purchase would not drop us right in the Tangier port but at a different port 45 minutes away by car from Tangier.
Switch to Tarifa and a 1 p.m. departure.
The timing becomes important here because this visit was timed to give my son, a rabid "football" fan, an opportunity to watch the Moroccan national soccer team play for an historic semi final berth in the World Cup competition.
My son and I witnessed the scrappy underdogs defeat the Spanish national team on my first night in Spain the previous Tuesday. Saturday's game would be against Portugal and a chance to become the first ever team from any African country to make it to the semifinals (by once again vanquishing the entire Iberian Peninsula).
The game was scheduled for 4 p.m. Our ferry left at 1 p.m., giving us plenty of time to find a local cafe to watch the game. Our return was scheduled for 9 p.m., which gave us time to wander the labyrinth of streets and alleys lined with shops that is the old city.
Easy peazy, right??
There are two commercial ferry operator outfits in the port building at Tarifa. They are literally right next to each other. Not sure why there are two but whatever.
The very nice man at the ticket counter informed me that the 1 p.m. ferry was canceled because of the weather. Like the mariners who have been crossing that 38 km stretch of water from the time they started making ships to do so thousands of years ago, we were at the mercy of Mother Nature.
As I stood there trying to figure out what it meant for our plan to watch the game on African soil, the ticket guy said, "The company next to us has a ferry leaving at 4 p.m. and returning at 9 p.m.”
My soccer-loving son was crestfallen that we'd have to watch the game inside a Spanish cafe since the ferry departed at exactly the same time the game was set to start. (For all of you non-soccer fans: a soccer game consists of two 45-minute halves in which the clock never stops. Add in a 15-minute half time and usually an average of an additional 10 to 15 minutes of extra game time to account for when the action stopped but the game kept going).
My son did the math and we were barely going to make it.
But we hadn't counted on the looooonggg and very slow line to check everyone's papers before departing since we were about to enter another country.
Another 20 to 25 minutes.
No way, he said.
I kept thinking about George Constanza from Seinfeld and his famous line "The seas were rough that day, my friends..." as those that were not watching the game on their phones were puking into little plastic bags that the crew handed out upon boarding. I'd say the split was about 50/50.
We were able to keep track of the score and the fact that the Moroccan team actually had a chance to make history.
However we could not beat a hasty retreat from the port to the nearest cafe because of ... more customs paperwork.
When we finally did make it out of the port building, two guards pointed us toward a small cafe just yards beyond the port entrance gates.
Because of those extra minutes that get added to regulation time we were able to watch the last 10 minutes of the game.
All Morocco had to do was play superb defense and stop Portugal from scoring and tying a 1-0 Moroccan lead.
The explosion of joy and celebration and pure elation was felt all across the African continent when that last whistle blew on that history making game.
Selfie of Joaquin and Felix Contreras in Selfie of Joaquin and Felix Contreras in Morocco in the moments after Morocco defeated Portugal during the 2022 World Cup semifinals.Morocco in the moments after Morocco defeated Portugal in 2022 World Cup
Inside our little cafe the place erupted into a cacophony of yells and cheering and the "woo woo" that Arab women do for celebration. Hell, I was kissed on both cheeks and hugged by any man who happened to be standing near me. The moms and children started chanting and singing with the men. It was an amazing emotional moment.
Side story: it has been my own long time dream to someday set foot on the African continent. This ferry ride was set up for me to realize my dream. But to have it coincide with such a historic moment for all of Africa made it even more of a special moment for me.
And then things kicked into overdrive.
It's now around 6:30 p.m. or so and I suggested we walk up the hill to the old city to look for a café to celebrate in.
Right as we walked up to the first alleyway that we came across, a group of men dressed in some kind of traditional garb and carrying drums, hand cymbals and other noise makers were starting a parade.
For the next 45 minutes (I think, I lost track of time) my son and I were part of a celebration that most of those folks will never forget. We were marching right behind the drums as the crowd snaked behind us for what seemed like miles (or kilometers). Eventually the skies opened up and soft rain started to fall but it felt as if it was meant to cool us all down from the sweating and chanting and singing.
Eventually we made our way back to the port and ferry (barely!) and we still had a two-hour drive ahead of us back to Sevilla after the ferry ride.
But none of that mattered because my son and I bonded over a once-in-a-lifetime experience that never would have happened if that 4 p.m. ferry wasn't available.
Thank you, serendipity!
WRITERS: Taking a bucket-list trip and interested in being featured on Travel Essential? Email us at [email protected] and let's talk!
Why miss Travel Essential's best editions? Some faves:
NEED A HAND AT THE AIRPORT? -- Las Vegas, others have a solution for $50!
ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS -- Why they're becoming all the rage
LAS VEGAS -- Sin City's Covid-era makeover may surprise you!
ALASKA -- Think you can touch an iceberg?
CARIBBEAN -- Our new favorite (lesser-known) island
GREENSBORO -- An unexpected delight in North Carolina
LOS ANGELES + HARLEY-DAVIDSON -- Riding and dining with Harley-Davidson