Saturday, October 3, 2015

Earn frequent flyer miles in the air or on the ground

There’s something magical about taking a flight and not paying for it. At least you’re not shelling out cold cash on the spot—just cashing in your frequent flyer miles (that you paid for one way or another).
There are lots of options to
earn miles with credit cards.
Still, we love to think we’re getting something free and try to rack up as many miles as possible before booking the next trip. If you don’t fly often enough to accrue sufficient miles for a free ticket, there are other ways to boost your frequent flier account.

The most obvious is to use a credit card either one from a specific airline or one that allows you to earn points that can be used for a flight (compare here),. Many airline cards give you a sign-up bonus that may be enough for a domestic flight, with additional bonus miles added after you charge a certain amount on the card. If you charge all of your credit purchases on the same card, you’ll be surprised how quickly the miles add up. Airlines will even tempt you to purchase additional miles that may be discounted, but use your calculator to decide if the price is worth it.
If a hotel partners with an airline, you can transfer
points to miles.
Most major hotel chains are affiliated with an airline, and you can transfer points to their partners. Same for car rental companies and lots of restaurants. Use your loyalty credit card for these purchases, so you get additional miles when using those services. Then transfer points earned to your frequent flyer account.

You should also sign up to link your credit card with dining programs and use that card for payment for an easy way to earn additional miles. Watch for miles used as sign-up bonuses by retailers like Direct TV or Dish, too.
Add more miles to your account when dining out.
If you like to shop online, you’ll find many airlines let you earn miles (and multiple the points periodically) for shopping with specific retailers. Again, you do need to register at the airline’s site and use that specific card, but if you’re buying anyway, you might as well get points in your frequent flyer account.

Online shopping is a great way
to bolster your miles account.
Have free time? It’s possible to earn miles by taking surveys. Also, follow airlines on social media because sometimes special promotions are offered on Twitter or Facebook, but you generally have to grab those quickly.

Overall, points programs can be confusing and frustrating because values are constantly changing. Redemption can be difficult especially if you wish to travel on certain days or visit specific destinations. Sometimes the required miles may be so high that the exchange isn’t worth doing.
But if you like a challenge and a sense of gaming the system, bank those miles and use them when it’s to your advantage.

Images from free sites.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Deep and steep--Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Gunnison River cuts a path through canyon rock.
Standing near the rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I’m awed by the immense expanse of rock and the deepness of the canyon. It’s almost overwhelming, especially when I recall that I’ve been to this national park before, but I’ve forgotten how stunning it is. I feel as though I’m seeing the steep cliffs that cradle a ribbon of river below for the first time.

Another look at the steep canyon walls
at Black Canyon of the Gunnison
National Park in Colorado
The beauty of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park sneaks up on you like that. With some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth--the craggy spires are nearly two billion years old—canyon walls change in appearance as daytime shadows move with the sun.  Standing on the edge of the gorge, you see the river, canyon walls, and jagged rocks that have been sculpted by the forces of wind and water.

A good starting point in the park is the South Rim Visitor Center, located at an overlook called Gunnison Point. Without going any further you could get a good idea of the geology and the natural forces that created this amazing southwest Colorado destination.

Rugged rock formations add to the beauty of the park.
From the Visitor Center, you can take South Rim Drive, a well-marked road that covers seven miles from Tomichi Point (the first pull-out where you can view the canyon) to High Point (at 8,000 feet, it’s the beginning of wilderness area). Along the way are 12 overlooks, most reached by walking short trails, but each offering its own special view of the canyon.

Chasm View Lookout shows how deep
Black Canyon is. Dark shadows give
the canyon its name.
Although we had only planned a quick visit, the canyon drew us in, and we spent an afternoon fascinated by scenes at overlooks like Chasm View, Painted Wall, Pulpit Rock, Cross Fissures, and the dangerously high Rock Point. Panoramas can only attempt to capture the depth of the Gunnison River, which drops at an average of 95 feet per mile. (By comparison, the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile).

A gnarled tree reflects harsh conditions on
the plateau.
Black Canyon  of the Gunnison is one of the lesser visited national parks, but it’s certainly worth a visit, especially during 2016, the centennial year for the National Park Service. If you’re a photography buff, you’ll have plenty of exceptional vistas of Colorado’s incomparable scenery to record with your camera.

In addition to driving through the park, visitors can hike, backpack, raft, or kayak. While some sections of the Gunnison River require experienced kayakers, outfitters like RIGS, based in Ridgway about an hour from Black Canyon, offer rafting trips in Gunnison Gorge on the lower Gunnison. Suitable for all ages, this trip is especially fun when the water is flowing from spring run-off.

Rafting on the Gunnison River is a fun excursion, and lunch
may be included by outfitters.
I’m really glad to have a second chance to savor Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park whose extraordinary rock formations are now etched in my memory.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier





Friday, September 25, 2015

Autumn explodes with a bounty of beautiful scenes

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Red aspens in Colorado
Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to travel. The weather has cooled from summer’s triple digits (if you’re in the South), and landscapes are bathed in brilliant colors. Not only are tree leaves turning red, yellow, and orange but harvest time brings a cornucopia of brightly colored produce to farmer’s markets and our tables.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Even if the area where you live barely registers four seasons, you can still enjoy splendid natural landscapes.  These photos taken by Larry and Beverly Burmeier are intended to whet your appetite for more fall scenery, so enjoy—and then go find your own glorious views.

Holland, Michigan

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Maroon Bells, Colorado

Big Bend National Park, Texas 
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Na Pali coast, Kauai, Hawaii
Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas
Grand Teton National Park, Montana
Aspens in Colorado

Branson, Missouri
Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas
Midland, Michigan
What a marvelous place to play golf--Wisconsin.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Is it possible to make flying fun again?

Higher fares, smaller seats, delayed flights, lost luggage. We’ve experienced all of these during the last six months of our travels. Is it any wonder we consider flying the most challenging part of travel?
More passengers step onboard airplanes every year.
Of course, we don’t plan to stop going places and exploring our big wonderful world, so we just deal with those inconveniences as best we can. Understanding what is happening regarding air travel might help make your trip a little less stressful. It won’t be more fun, but at least you won’t feel sabotaged.

Compared to 1975, prices for flights are 35 % higher, and today the fare is just the starting point. Extra charges may come from your chosen seat assignments, change fees, and checked bags—all of which add a sizeable margin to the airlines’ profit.
Checked bag fees add significantly to the
bottom line of most airlines. Don't expect those to go away.
The current recommendation is to buy tickets 54 days prior to your flight. If you’re planning a vacation at specific dates, that’s probably doable, but change fees can be expensive—up to $200 on domestic flights and more for international. Purchasing insurance may be a wise move. Depending on where you’re going, booking anywhere from 25-105 days ahead is reasonable—shorter lead times for domestic flights and longer margins for international or remote destinations.

Booking well in advance also helps ensure family members can get seats together. Purchasing preferred seats might help keep mom with the kids during busy times, but that can add lots of bucks to the stated fee.
Baggage fees are rising, too. In 2013 U.S. airlines made $3.35 billion from checked bag fees, which average $25 each way. The easiest way to avoid spending an extra $50 or more per trip is to get a credit card from your preferred airline. For domestic flights, being a card-holder allows one checked bag per person on the reservation. For international flights, one checked bag is generally allowed for all passengers (be aware that Canada and Mexico may not be treated like international destinations).

Make sure your carryon bag is the appropriate size or you may be asked to check it anyway.
Speaking of luggage, carryon size for most domestic flights is 22 inches, although international airlines may limit bags to 21 inches. Delta, American, and United seem to be the most restrictive, while Jet Blue, Alaska, and Southwest are less so. However, change is in the air even for so-called budget airlines, so be sure to check on what’s allowed before packing.
When you squeeze into an economy seat and feel there’s no place for your elbows and knees, it’s not your imagination that seats are getting smaller. The seat pitch (space between rows) has decreased from 34 inches to 29 or 30 inches. Not only are seats shrinking but the padding also seems to be getting skimpier. Comfort of passengers has given way to making money by inserting more seats into planes, and that trend doesn't show any signs of abating.

To avoid delays, fly early in the day, especially if leaving from the east coast. Delays increase from morning to evening and from east to west. When you purchase a ticket online at the airline site, the on-time percentage of each flight is listed. Not surprisingly, this can vary by the hour.
Allow enough time for any changes to your flight.
Check in early. You’ll generally get an email reminder 24 hours before your flight, and it’s best to check in as soon as possible. Confirm seat assignment to be sure it was recorded correctly and that there hasn’t been a change of plane types with a different seat configuration. If a flight is overbooked and not enough passengers volunteer to take a later flight, the last ones checked in will be the first ones bumped involuntarily, if that becomes necessary. Since U.S. airlines sold a record 87.8 percent of seats in July 2014 (not counting airline employees who fly for free), that means virtually every seat is occupied. Overbooking is not uncommon these days.

Find a spot to relax in the terminal before your flight.
Arrive early for your flight, too, so you can keep up with any gate or departure time changes. It never hurts to ask about an upgrade since seats sometimes open up at the last minute. If that happens, you may have a surprisingly enjoyable flight.

Photos from free online sites.




Wednesday, September 16, 2015

4 things to do in Colorado before summer ends

Summer is winding down, but for the next few weeks you can still enjoy warm weather activities in Colorado.
Colorado Fruit and Wine Country

Peach orchard near Palisade
On Colorado's Western Slope, primarily around PalisadeGrand JunctionPaoniaHotchkiss and Cedaredge, the mountains and plains conspire to create a perfect climate for some of the country's most innovative and charming wineries. Amid orchards of peach, cherry and apple trees, acre upon acre of neat green rows of grapevines stand in stark contrast to the red sandstone mesas and deep azure sky. Stop in some of the intimate wineries for stellar classics like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon and interesting Rieslings, gew├╝rztraminers, petit verdots and malbecs.
Vineyard near Grand Junction
Read more: Beyond Wine in Colorado's Wine CountryFrom Fine Wine to Fossils
Vineyards in Colorado wine countryds in Colorado wine country
Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Mesa Verde National Park
Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Cortez is only open to the public through a unique program in which Ute guides navigate visitors into the wilderness that abuts Mesa Verde National Park's southern boundary. This land was home to Ancestral Puebloans 1,000 years ago, who built cliff dwellings and irrigated and farmed the land. With only 1,300 visitors per year, Ute Mountain is undeveloped and quiet. Hike narrow trails and climb steep ladders onto high ledges — and feel like you have the place to yourself.
Read more: Colorado Scenic Byways: Trail of the AncientsGaming in Colorado's Four Corners Region

Zapata Falls
Great Sand Dunes National Park
As hikers approach the falls along a winding, half-mile trail at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and Alamosa, it feels a bit like they're chasing it — they can hear the roar of the 40-foot-tall Zapata Falls and feel its cooling effect long before they can actually see it. The view from the trailhead encompasses the expansive San Luis Valley and the entire field of the distant dunes. Other wilderness hiking and biking trails can be accessed in the same area.

Zapata Falls
Concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre or a Colorado Rockies Night Game

Choosing just one essential Denver summer experience is difficult — squeezing both into one weekend will have you in Colorado bliss.
Every Coloradan's — and perhaps even the nation's — favorite outdoor concert venue, Red Rocks' massive, slanting red-rock outcroppings rise from the earth to create an acoustically ideal natural amphitheater. But the experience goes beyond the music itself. The iconic rocks provide a powerful mystique. Early evening concerts are especially enchanting, as the waning rays of a Colorado sunset frame the stage and paint the setting with pastel colors.

Fans of Colorado's boys of summer are the luckiest we know. Coors Field is one of the Major League Baseball's most scenic, friendly and reasonably priced venues.
Information and some photos provided by Colorado Tourism,
Other photos by Larry Burmeier

Monday, September 14, 2015

Put Glacier National Park on your must-see list--soon

Established as a national park in 1910, Glacier is well-known for opportunities to spot wildlife. But there are additional reasons why you should plan a visit—sooner rather than later.
Lake view from the lodge at Many Glacier
Only 26 of the 150 glaciers that existed in the park in the 1850s are still there today. For most of those, visitors just see remnants of ice high in the mountains. Scientists estimate that there won’t be any more active glaciers in the park by 2030.
Even without wildlife and glaciers, abundant mountains and lakes in this northern park provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. Roads in the park take you near many of the 131 named lakes (more than 630 lakes are unnamed). The park also contains 175 mountains and more than 740 miles of trails for spectacular views.
Bears fatten up on berries in late August.

Whether you see the scenery from hiking trails, boat rides, private car, tour bus, or while sipping a glass of wine at one of the vintage lodges, the vistas will become etched into your heart and mind. Every turn in the road, every direction you look, there’s another “wow” moment to remember forever.
Glaciers are still visible but many are disappearing.
Specials on lodging now
Early fall is a great time to visit Glacier National Park. Golf packages are available for guests staying at Grouse Mountain Lodge until September 22. From September 20 through May 15, 2016, book three consecutive nights at Grouse Mountain Lodge and the fourth night is free.
As summer changes to autumn, it’s prime time to enjoy a beautiful drive or take a breathtaking hike on one of the trails. Explore the changing landscapes and get your third night free when you stay at any of the park’s properties now.  Book online or call 406-892-2525 to reserve.
A huge park
Hidden Lake is a beautiful destination, and the hike is easy.
Glacier National Park encompasses one million acres. Knowing we couldn’t cover it all, we chose to stay at two lodges in opposite ends of the park. Our first destination was at the park’s largest lake, McDonald Lake. We entered Glacier National Park at the St. Mary entrance, got our bearings at the Visitor Center there, and headed south to McDonald Valley in the forested, less mountainous part of the park. Within half an hour we spotted the first black bear ambling along the roadside gathering berries.
Later, heading to ManyGlacier Lodge on the northeast border, we drove on the narrow, winding Going-to-the Sun Road, aptly named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985. If you’re not comfortable behind the wheel, take a guided tour—but don’t miss this experience.
Mountain goats were plentiful, but this one was especially close.
The 12-mile road to Many Glacier Hotel is reputed to be one of the best sections of the park to view wildlife.  With 68 animal species and 227 bird species in the park, you’re almost guaranteed to spot a large variety of wildlife.
Along with watching as a mama bear and two cubs amble along the road by our lodge, we stood spellbound as a bull moose crossed Fisherman’s Cap Lake in nearby Swiftcurrent--mere yards from spectators on shore.
Moose-watching at Fisherman's Cap Lake in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located in the northwest corner of Montana along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada is the northern extension of Glacier NP. The two countries work together to promote and preserve the parks.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book holiday flights now!

If you’re planning to fly on an airplane before the end of the year, and especially during the upcoming holidays, the best advice from Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating guru and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, is to book early.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since holiday travel ramps up every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Strong demand for air travel will continue, and that means higher ticket prices and limited seat capacity.

Despite the fact airline performance statistics have generally improved each year since 2007, the whole travel experience has become more stressful and less certain. Add to that the possibility of winter weather affecting departures, and you have a scenario that no one wants to think about.

Flights for holiday periods often sell out months ahead. The exception might be to fly on the holiday itself—Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day. If you must travel on specific days, now is the time to book your holiday travel.

“The holiday travel period continues to be a challenging time for travelers,” Headley says regarding his annual report released on Sept 10. “December and January have the worst on-time arrival percentage and mishandled baggage rates. If possible travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes,” Headley cautions.
When booking, consumers also need to be on the lookout for additional fees. The price you see on a website may not be the final price you end up paying. Extra costs for certain seats, baggage, early boarding, and insurance can be significant, especially if a family is traveling together.

If you have a choice between two connections with similar fares, choose the one with the least congested connecting airport. This reduces the risk of missing a connection or losing luggage.
Recheck departure and arrival times of flights a few days before travel since schedules sometimes change. Be sure to check in early for your flight (up to 24 hours prior online). On oversold flights, which are common during the holidays, the last passengers to check in are the first to be bumped, even if they have met the deadlines.

Finally, mind your manners. Other travelers (not to mention airline employees) are also under stress at that time of year. Consideration for other travelers is a good way to share a cheerful holiday spirit.
Photos from free sites.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The grandeur of Mount Rushmore doesn't disappoint

Our first look at the famous presidential heads of Mount Rushmore came through a tunnel.
The sculptures of four American presidents has become
and iconic symbol of freedom and hope.
Perusing brochures we had picked up on our road trip across South Dakota, I discovered that we could arrive at the monument via Iron Mountain Road, a scenic winding road that runs partly through Custer State Park--between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the junction of US 16A and SD 36.

Tunnels were blasted through the mountain when
building Iron Mountain Road.
Instead of taking a direct western route, we drove a bit south and then followed 17-mile Iron Mountain Road through hills, meadows, and Black Hills National Forest—marveling at the amount of dynamite needed to blast through solid rock and create three tunnels when the highway was built in 1933.
Mount Rushmore views for a distance of several miles.
Designed to frame the four presidential faces as they emerged on Mount Rushmore, Iron Mountain Road is a marvel of engineering. Corkscrew spirals known as pigtail bridges, possible wildlife sightings, and magnificent Black Hills scenery make the hour-long drive worthwhile, even if you’re not heading to Mount Rushmore.

Despite the hazy atmosphere (from fires in Canada) I was thrilled at our first glimpse of the National Memorial. Once through the final tunnel, our views of the gigantic presidents increased with every turn in the road--another two miles to Mount Rushmore. 
One of the pigtail bridges on Iron Mountain Road
in South Dakota
From the time American children are in school, they see pictures of Mount Rushmore. It becomes a familiar sight, yet the enormity of the mountain sculpture is hard to imagine. The 60 foot tall faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt were carved into the granite stone of the mountain under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, as a symbol of American freedom and hope for people from varied cultures and backgrounds.

To celebrate our country, the primary walkway is flanked by flags of every state. At the end of the esplanade is a seating area that looks out over the presidential heads. At a staging area below a local band was playing marching music on the day of our visit.
We visited the Sculptor’s Studio where Borglum spent much of his time refining his scale model of Mount Rushmore. Then we walked President’s Trail--0.8 mile and 422 stairs long, to get as close and personal with the sculpture as possible. A 14-minute film in the Visitor Center describes the reasons for and methods used in carving Mount Rushmore.

The profile view of Washington
is also incredible.
Rangers give talks throughout the day, and we learned that the massive task took 14 years and 400 workers to complete at a cost of almost a million dollars. Although Borglum made a plaster mold of each face, he told the artists to feel with their fingers and work from what they felt more than what they saw. We also learned that a 10’ tunnel created behind Lincoln’s head was intended to store historical papers but was never finished.
With an erosion rate of one inch every 10,000 years, Mount Rushmore National Memorial should last a really long time. If you can visit in the evening, a spectacular Lighting Ceremony is held nightly from mid-May through the end of September.

Even after leaving the Memorial, the views were not over. An amazing profile view of George Washington was visible on Hwy 244 as we headed to the town of Custer.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier