Monday, February 8, 2016

Tips for booking hotel rooms

Viceroy Riviera Maya Mexico
Once you’ve decided where to travel, you’ll probably need a hotel room. The Internet has made searching for good deals easier than ever, but it still requires a bit of research. Even if you find a great price at a discounter site like or, you still need to be sure the hotel is convenient to places you want to visit in the area. On-site maps can help you determine the best accommodations for your needs--so you don’t shell out big bucks on expensive taxi rides or have to nurse sore muscles from walking miles to events or attractions.

Whether you should book far ahead or last-minute depends mostly on the popularity of the location and/or time of your visit and your need for certainty. If you’re easily accommodated, you can bid on a hotel in the general location on sites like Hotwire, but you won’t know exactly where the room is until your bid is accepted.
Free breakfast is a welcome amenity
Often you can get the best deal by calling the specific hotel you're interested in directly. Ask if they will match rates found online or add extras like free Wi-Fi or late checkout. It’s usually an advantage to deal directly with a specific hotel staff rather than a third party, especially if something isn’t up to snuff during your stay. While checking with the hotel, be sure to ask if there is a resort or parking fee or any other charges you need to know about as those can add up quickly.

Many hotels offer this amenity.
Not all hotels participate on major search sites. Use Google to find accommodations in a specific city or check TripAdvisor for recommendations from users.  If you plan to stay awhile in one spot, consider renting an apartment or house. HomeAway, VRBO, or other sites offer a variety of long-term rentals.
Be wary of sites that require advance payments, and be sure to read the fine print. Often it’s worth a few extra dollars to book a refundable rate, especially if your stay is several weeks or months away. If you forego making reservations, calling a hotel the day of your stay may net you a lower rate by having your credit card charged on the spot.

Local tourist offices, especially in Europe, may have discount coupons or services for finding same-day rooms. This works best if you’re traveling at a less popular time for the destination.
Beacon Hotel in Washington D.C.
If your travel is limited to one destination, booking a package that includes airfare, car rental, and hotel may be cheaper than buying each part separately.

Many credit cards allow you to use accumulated points for hotel stays (score bonus points at sign-up). If you especially like one brand, apply for a loyalty card. If you use the card for additional purchases, you may get numerous free nights a years—and some even offer free nights annually to card holders.
The best advice for booking hotel rooms at the best rates is to do research and planning before arrival. Then you’ll know that you’ve secured a reasonable rate.

Free photos from

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Free First Sunday Weatherfest at Bob Bullock Museum in Austin

Lone Star guarding Austin's Bob
BullockMuseum, which hosts
Weatherfestin the free
First Sunday program
Keep weather on your radar at Austin's annual WeatherFest, Sunday, February 7, 2016, 12 noon till 5 p.m. Enjoy free exhibit admission at Bob Bullock Museum where families can experience hands-on science experiments, weather-related films and panel discussions, hands-on activities, and more.

Join Girlstart to learn more about weather science:
  • Explore aerodynamics and make a glider.
  • Make a LEGO building that could withstand an earthquake
  • Learn about spectroscopes
  • Be a weather reporter
  • Create an extreme weather shelter
  • Tell time with the sun and make a pocket sundial
Free Scheduled Presentations
12:10 p.m. - 12:50 p.m.: El Nino Q&A, Classrooms
1:30 p.m. - 2:20 p.m.: Ask-A-Meteorologist Panel Discussion, Classrooms

Films include Wild Texas Weather, 1-2 p.m. and Shipwrecked, 2:30-4 p.m.

Drop by and visit these exhibitors from 12-3 p.m.:

Burton Fitzsimmons - Time Warner Cable News, Girlstart, Lower Colorado River Authority, Advanced Radar Research Center from University of Oklahoma, KEYE and meteorologist Chikage Windler, Austin Fire Department Swift Water Rescue, KXAN and meteorologist Jim Spencer, Austin Fire Department Wildfire Division, National Weather Service, Austin Astronomical Society, National Weather Center, City of Austin Watershed Protection, and U.S. Geological Survey.
While there, families can explore the Story of Texas through three floors of exhibits that showcase artifacts from around the state. Support for the Bullock Museum's exhibitions and education programs is provided by the Texas State History Museum Foundation, 1800 Congress Ave., Austin, Texas.




Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Facts of life in Cuba

1950s vintage cars are still a big attraction for tourists to Cuba.
We rode to dinner at a paladar in this blue Ford.
More people are clamoring to visit Cuba since certain regulations have been lifted regarding travel from the U.S. However, most tourist and trade regulations are still in place, so I think little has changed for the average Cuban citizen since my visit there in March 2013.
Horseback or horse-drawn cart are primary means of travel in rural areas.
The idea of going to Cuba “before it changes” is understandable, but it will likely be many years before big box stores and chain hotels line the streets. Cuba is still a poor country, and the government is very much in charge, limiting economic growth of the people who live there.

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from traveling to Cuba because our people-to-people experience with International Expeditions was very enlightening. Cuba is a country with contrasting landscapes: rugged mountains, lovely beaches, and green valleys in addition to bustling cities and rural areas where not much has changed since the 1950s.
Beautiful sunset over the beach at Cienfuegos, a city
of culture and history in Cuba.
I’m glad we went and met people from all walks of life—artists, farmers, scientists, school children, and ordinary folks. I plan to write a series of articles based on my experiences—the good, not so good, and surprising-- so please check in frequently.

If Cuba is on your travel list it might be good to have a realistic idea of what you’ll discover there. Jessie, our Cuban guide summed it up this way: “Cuba is not a typical tourist place. I hope you brought a spirit of adventure and enjoy the people.”

Typical Cuban lifestyle

With that in mind, here are some facts of life that Jessie shared with our group:

The color of uniform worn by
children indicates their grade level.
Education is provided for 12 years through secondary school where test scores and grades determine what you can study at university or trade schools.  That’s also determined by the province where you live and its needs. There’s no charge for college if your scores are high enough, but you pay for career education with social service—working for three years wherever the government dictates.

People in public service careers like teachers, doctors, or engineers don’t get paid much. “One of worst things in Cuba is salary—what you need to live on versus what you earn is not balanced,” Jessie said. A doctor earns 25 CUC a month—roughly equivalent to 25 dollars (Jessie’s husband is a doctor). A carpenter or mechanic earns much more. Jessie estimated Cubans need about 300 CUC a month for living at a standard much lower than is typical in the U.S.

Cubans who work in tourism, as she does, work for the State but depend on tips for a living. For multi-lingual guides like Jessie, increased tourism means more American dollars (We tip well). Tips also support waitresses and bathroom attendants (keep those coins handy), who must have a license to do their jobs. “You have to have a license for everything,” Jessie told us.

The Vinales Valley is green, agricultural, and scenic.

Hotels and restaurants are run by the government, which owns at least 51 percent of foreign properties (U.S. owned companies, for example). While private business is allowed in some cases, the State limits potential growth. “The State can close (take away a license) if it thinks a private business is getting too big. It may claim a lack of quality, even though private is usually better,” Jessie said.

This house, painted pink to grab attention, has a room for rent
Cubans can rent one or two rooms of the house where they live (If you want to stay in a home, know that quality varies considerably and furnishings are sparse). Or they can start a restaurant at their residence within limits (These family-run paladars are very popular with tourists).

Each Cuban has a ration book
noting provided monthly items.
Private businesses pay taxes, but there are no taxes on homes or property. Credit is not common, so if you want to buy a house (hard to come by), you pay directly to the seller, who pays a hefty tax to the bank. Internet and cell phone service are sketchy or non-existent (Cuba is working to improve this).

Cubans are issued ration notebooks at birth that stipulate the amount of staple food products they are allowed from the government each month.  Per person examples: five pounds of rice, five pounds of brown sugar, three pounds of white sugar, half pound black beans, 10 eggs, one pound ground beef, and half a chicken. Most people shop at the first of the month because stores often run out. 

Outdated farm equipment is
still in use.

Because items like matches, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste were removed from ration books a few years ago, they are very expensive. We brought personal care items to donate, along with school supplies.

To hedge the high cost of many items, Jessie told us, “Cubans use a lot of black markets. It’s a normal part of life. Everybody knows; nobody talks; everybody buys.”  

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier






Friday, January 29, 2016

'Journey to Churchill' sets standard for Arctic zoo exhibits

Having journeyed to Churchill, Canada, myself to observe polar bears in their native habitat, I was especially interested in this exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg. This project provides a thrilling education for many people about these massive mammals and the harsh environment around Hudson Bay in which they live. If an actual encounter isn’t in your plans, the zoo’s beautiful exhibit is something to see.
Seeing polar bears in their natural habitat is the best wildlife sighting.

Opened in 2014, 'Journey to Churchill' is a permanent exhibit. The sprawling 10-acre exhibit showcases Northern Manitoba, allowing visitors to connect with arctic species and landscapes, including going "nose to nose" with a polar bear. It’s the closest you can get to swimming with a polar bear and still stay dry and safe.
Zoo exhibit is a fabulous opportunity to see and learn about polar bears.
“This is certainly the largest zoo project in Canada in the last 25 years,” said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Zoo. “Journey to Churchill will be the number one polar bear Arctic exhibit anywhere in the zoo world.”
Tourism to see polar bears gives Churchill's 800 inhabitants an economic boost.

Visitors to 'Journey to Churchill' travel through three distinct zones. In the boreal forest-like Wapusk Lowlands, watch snowy owls swoop above, while caribou and musk ox graze and arctic fox play in grasslands.
Gateway to the Arctic's showcase piece is the Sea Ice Passage, an underwater viewing tunnel for watching polar bears and ringed seals frolic. In separate pools divided by an acrylic wall, the predator and prey are still able to see and smell each other. Visitors to this zone also experience the 360-degree Aurora Borealis Theater.
Polar bears congregate at frigid Hudson Bay near Churchill, Canada.
Churchill Coast offers a re-creation of the famous northern Manitoba town, and here visitors can watch polar bears congregate, just as they do along the Hudson Bay coast. The attached International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) is a world-class research facility caring for orphaned and at-risk polar bears.
"The whole intent of the project is to create a love of wildlife, while educating attendees about conservation issues and climate change,” Peterkin says "It's an important message. People like to feel they can do something to make a difference, and by coming to the zoo and supporting what we are doing they are helping to save these animals,” he adds.
Sunset glistens on the late fall ice--before Hudson Bay is frozen over.
While you're there, grab a bite to eat at Tundra Grill Restaurant and watch polar bears roam. Children can romp and play at the Polar Playground’s ice caves, super slides, and a wall-sized icicle xylophone.

Information courtesy of Cathy Senecal, Travel Manitoba 
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Picture-perfect village of Mijas, near Malaga, Spain

Flowers in blue pots provide exquisite decoration
for white houses of Mijas, Spain.
Perfectly coordinated blue flower pots line the walkways and walls of buildings in Mijas, Spain. Filled with colorful geraniums and oleanders, these pots make a dazzling display against the white houses with their red tile roofs. Decorative grills and balconies echo the colorful scenes in this charming town.

Could there be a more idyllic Mediterranean village than this? Perched high on a mountainside, Mijas is delightful. Walking on twisting, cobbled streets, we visited several of the village’s prominent attractions, including impeccably decorated Church de La Immaculada.
Every town, no matter how small, has an abundance of churches.
Our ship on the Mystic Mediterranean cruise with Oceania had docked at Malaga, the second most populous city in Andalusia and the sixth largest city in Spain.  Malaga, is the southernmost large city of Europe and capital of Costa del Col (Coast of the Sun). It is located about 62 miles east of the Strait of Gibraltar and 78 miles north of Africa. Because of its mountains, Malaga has a subtropical climate and among the warmest winters in Europe. In fact, summer lasts eight months!
Beautiful purple blossoms of the
jaranda tree lined the streets.
Malaga’s history spans 2,800 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Its history and cultural diversity are similar to other Mediterranean destinations: Founded by Phoenicians, ruled by the Roman Republic and Empire, under Islamic domination, then under Christian rule. Today it’s the main economic and financial center of southern Spain.

So we passed through Malaga and continued on to Mijas, a thoroughly Mediterranean mountainside town . Purple flowers of jaranda trees and large ficus trees (brought from America in the 1900s) lined the avenues. Donkeys decked out with colorfully woven blankets are everywhere, especially pulling carts for visitors to sightsee around the town, although it’s very walkable.
Overview of Mijas from lookout point above the town.
To get a better view of the town, we walked up to Mirador, a lookout point at 1400 feet elevation.  After visiting a church (yes, there are plenty of churches here), photographing the lighthouse, and scanning a landscape filled with white buildings (white is cooler in this tropical climate), we walked to the lower level to see what the shops had to offer.
Carts drawn by donkeys provided fun sight-seeing opportunities
for tourists.
Bountiful shops on the winding, stone streets of Mijas entice visitors, and I fell under the spell. High quality leather goods are a specialty, so I couldn’t resist purchasing a beautiful red leather jacket. After that, I decided thwart temptation and skip shops filled with fine porcelain and jewelry.
Brown sand beach of Malaga leads into turquoise ocean water.
After our return to Malaga, Larry and I walked about 20 minutes from the ship to the beach. The sand is dark brown and very hot (don’t walk barefoot), but refreshing waves splashing onto the shore provided a playground for many locals. There we learned a bit of interesting information: All beaches in Spain are public and topless.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, January 22, 2016

Festival to honor Irish culture in South Texas

Harp and Shamrock Society of Texas celebrates 50 years in 2016
Beautiful landscape in the Emerald Isle
The Harp &Shamrock Society of Texas (HSS) will continue its 20-year history of celebrating its annual Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival on Saturday, March 19, 2016 from noon to 8 p.m. on the campus of University of the Incarnate Word, 4301 Broadway, San Antonio.

The event celebrates Irish traditions in South Texas with a full day of activities including:
Harps are found in many Irish homes.
--Onsite Irish parade - Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium (12 noon)
--San Antonio Gaelic Athletic Club Gaelic football tournament and hurling competitions - Gayle & Tom Benson Stadium (12 p.m.)
--Food trucks offer authentic Irish cuisine (corned beef, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie, fish & chips, and Irish sausage) “traditional” festival food
Dancers step to lively Irish tunes.
--Irish music and dance by Inishfree Irish dancers, Ravenmoor, San Antonio Pipe & Drums, Kelly Singers, Sean Orr & Celtic Texas, and Black Irish Texas
--Arts and crafts
--"Passport to Ireland" – Culture area that offers genealogy research, history of early Irish Texans, introduction to Gaelic language and bag pipe, Kiss the Blarney Stone and much more

 Parking is free on University of Incarnate Word (UIW) campus and free admission for active military with ID, UIW students with valid ID and children 12 and under. Adult tickets are $5 at the gates with advance discount tickets available on the website.

Bagpipes are part of the Irish tradition.
“The main goal of the Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival is to celebrate our rich, spirited Irish heritage and traditions with everyone – Irish or not! It is a bonus that we raise money for HSS’s scholarship program, which has granted over $60,000 in academic and cultural scholarships,” says HSS Irish Festival chairman and Board Member Carolyn Dowd. "The 2016 festival will be expanded to include even more festivities because it will be the Society's 50th anniversary."

 “In addition we are hosting a St. Baldrick’s Foundation Fundraiser during the festival." Dowd adds, "Last year the event raised $40,000 for the foundation's research fund to find cures for childhood cancers. Individuals who are participating in the fundraiser also receive free admission to the festival.” 

Other events open to the public include:

--Saturday & Sunday, March 12 & 13, noon - 6 p.m. – Annual Murphy's St. Patrick's Music Festival –Arneson River Theatre

Sample yummy Irish stew, too.
--Sunday, March 13, 4 – 5 p.m. – Annual Murphy's St. Patrick’s River Parade – San Antonio Riverwalk
--Thursday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), 12-12:30 p.m. – St. Patrick's Day Alamo Wreath Laying, honoring Irish heroes present at the Battle of the Alamo – Alamo grounds
--Saturday, March 19, 8 a.m. – Donovan’s Memorial Day Fun Run – Lady Bird Johnson Park, 10700 Nacogdoches Rd
--Saturday, March 19, noon to 8 p.m. – Harp & Shamrock Irish Festival – University of the Incarnate Word (UIW)

Another amazing landscape--no wonder the Irish love their country.
--Harp & Shamrock Society Fiesta medals commemorating the Society’s 50th anniversary in 2016 will be on sale at all these events and at the Fiesta Commission Store.
Drums are an important part of Irish
music, culture, and history.

Since 1966, the Harp & Shamrock Society of Texas has been dedicated to keeping Irish history and culture alive in South Texas. “Our legacy in Texas started with the birth of Texas,” says Melissa Schulz, president, Harp & Shamrock Society.  “Of the 188 defenders at the Alamo, 12 were Irish-born; 30 were of Irish heritage.   Four Irishmen signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, and 100 were listed in the rolls of the Battle of San Jacinto – comprising one-seventh of the total Texan force in that battle. To say our bloodlines and pride runs deep in Texas is an understatement!”

Glenveagh Castle is a reminder of Ireland's ancient past.
For more information, visit or call 210-896-1598.
Information courtesy of Jeanne Albrecht, Harp & Shamrock Media Coordinator

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Charms of western Sicily

View of Trapani, Sicily from our ship
Tall pink oleanders line the streets of Trapani, capital city in a corner of western Sicily. Palm trees and others that remind me of ficus trees also provide shade as we travel through this city on the largest and most luxurious Mediterranean island.  Thick stone walls dating from the 1500s surround the city--remnant of its turbulent past that remind us it wasn’t always glamorous.
Walls and fortresses provided protection in ancient times.
Trapani is a port on our Mediterranean cruise which is substituted after terrorist actions canceled our scheduled stop in Tunisia. While that was a disappointment, we discover a magical region that we might otherwise have missed.

We learn that Sicily’s mountainous terrain and temperate climate make it one of the most alluring Mediterranean islands. An eventful history is part of its intrigue because this triangular piece of land jutting out from the tip of Italy’s toe has been at the crossroads of events since ancient times
Cable cars take visitors up the mountain and provide
excellent views of Trapani and the island.
People have lived on the islands of Sicily since the 8th century B.C. The Romans arrived in 200 B.C. and planted wheat fields to use the island as a granary. Later, the Byzantines from Turkey and Greece, then Egyptians, Tunisians, Africans, and Normans occupied the island. Slavics ruled until 1215 when it became a vice-kingdom of Spain. In fact, Sicily’s history includes every great nearby civilization through the ages—each influencing the culture and artistic heritage in ways that enchant visitors today.  Now a republic, the island still has ties to Italy.

Exploring a small slice of the island
Narrow cobblestone streets add to the character of Erice.
We found Trapani to be a lovely, low key town with a beautiful historic center full of baroque churches (not a surprise!). We watch fog roll in and cover the mountain top with a luminous haze. It’s an eerie sight tempting us to go up the mountain via cable car (avoiding a bus ride on the steep mountain road with many hairpin turns). From our vantage point in the air we can easily see the notable “tail” of land that snakes into the sea at the end of the island.

Colorful ceramics depict picturesque scenes from the island.
Our destination at the top of the mountain is Erice, a lovely town with a decidedly European flavor. We wander through a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, stopping to explore richly decorated churches, spacious courtyards, and myriad shops. Intricate tapestries and brightly colored pottery in traditional and modern designs displayed outside the shops attract our attention, so we mosey in for a closer look. 
Ornate altar in one of the local
Part of the allure of this hill top town is the views you see looking out over the ocean. Don’t miss a spectacular overview of the coast from Pepoli Castle and Villa Balio Gardens. It’s easy to understand why Erice has become a favorite holiday  destination for for both locals and tourists.

As our visit winds down, we stop at a local bakery and purchase samples of the almond pastry for which the town is known. It’s a sweet finish to our visit before returning to Trapani and our ship.  
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Visit America's national parks for free

Glacier National Park
National Parks are truly America’s Best Idea. This year the deal is even better.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Many of my most memorable travel experiences have been in parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, Rocky Mountain, Great Smokey Mountains, Big Bend, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Hot Springs, and others. Even parks that are lesser known have much to offer the public and are also fabulous.

This year is special because the National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016. To commemorate the centennial, on 16 days in '16, all National Park Service sites that charge an entrance fee will offer free admission to everyone. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.

Yellowstone National Park
Mark your calendar for these entrance fee–free dates in 2016:

January 18: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
April 16 through 24: National Park Week
August 25 through 28: National Park Service Birthday
September 24: National Public Lands Day
November 11: Veterans Day

There are 409 national parks, monuments, seashores, and more available to everyone, every day. The fee-free days provide a great opportunity to visit a new place or an old favorite, especially one of the 127 national parks that normally charge an entrance fee. The others are free all the time. Choose any of these to learn more about our country’s history or to enjoy nature and spectacular scenery.

Save on recreation
Yosemite National Park
The fee waiver includes entrance fees, commercial tour fees, and transportation entrance fees. Other fees such as reservation, camping, tours, concession and fees collected by third parties are not included unless stated otherwise.

Fee-free days make parks accessible to more people. However, national parks are always economical, with entrance fees that range from $3 to $30.
In addition, any fourth grade student can get a free annual pass through the Every Kid in a Park program, and active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability can also get free passes.

People 62 years or older can get the Senior Pass, a lifetime card that allows entry to all U.S. national parks and federal recreational lands. The pass costs $10 if it is purchased at a federal recreational site—truly a bargain. An additional processing fee of $10 is added if the pass is purchased by mail order

Volcanoes National Park, Big Island Hawaii
For more information about the variety of discounted passes available, please visit the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass page.
Information courtesy of National Park Service
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Austin airport now screens applicants for TSA PreCheck program

If you travel by air several times a year—and you get impatient waiting in long security lines—there’s good news for Austin travelers.  On January 14, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport joined 38 other U.S. airports in offering the U. S. Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.

Pay $85, and you can skip potentially long security lines for five years. Even better you won’t have to take off your shoes, jackets, or belts. You can leave your laptop and baggie with allowable liquids in your carryon bag.

Of course, since the federal agency recently announced that it has enrolled more than two million passengers in the expedited security screening program, those lines may start getting longer, too. But with the major growth currently being experienced at the Austin airport, participating in the program should still save passengers time.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible to apply for the program, which requires an in-person visit at an application center. Fingerprints and required documentation is required for the process. Approved PreCheck travelers receive a “known traveler number” as soon as five business days after their interview that can be used when booking travel.

The program began in Oct. 2011, and now has 356 application centers around the country, including 39 on-site offices at airports. Austin has had a downtown PreCheck enrollment center since 2014, but the airport site will be more convenient for many travelers.
The $85 application fee for PreCheck applicants covers an extensive background check as certain criminal convictions — such as federal crimes or certain state felonies — within the past seven years can disqualify applicants.

If you travel internationally, check out the Global Entry program, which is offered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I have been a member since 2014 ($100 for five years), and it greatly expedites passing through customs in countries that participate in the program and especially saves time when re-entering the U.S. after foreign travel.
Once you have signed up and been approved, fill in information with your “known traveler number” on airline websites so the designation will be noted on your boarding pass. On rare occasions it might be omitted, in which case you’ll have to join the masses in the regular (longer) lines.

Photos from free sources