Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus travel deals: It's a buyer's market, but should you buy?

Today’s post is by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, whose latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). This column originally appeared in USA Today.

The coronavirus travel deal was too good to pass up. For just $500, Danielle Tedrowe could enjoy a week at the five-star Live Aqua Beach Resort in CancĂșn, Mexico this fall. "It was a phenomenal rate," says Tedrowe, a property manager and travel agent from Austin, Texas. 

Beach vacations are popular with people planning to travel this summer.
An 80% discount for an oceanview room at the Live Aqua Beach? That's not a deal; it's a steal.

The travel industry is in a tailspin. Everything -- I mean everything -- is on sale.

"We're seeing flight prices that are 30% to 40% lower than historical averages," says George Zeng, CEO of Moonfish, a company that analyzes global flight data. "I suspect flight prices won't get much cheaper."

Book now?

If you see a flight deal, grab it.
Restless travelers who are confined to their homes are seeing these coronavirus travel deals and wondering: Should I book before the bargains are gone? If I buy, will the airlines, cruise lines, and hotels be there when I travel, given the state of things? Is it right to buy a cruise or resort stay at such low prices?

The conventional wisdom seems to be: If you see a deal you like, buy it now. Travel companies will try to raise prices as soon as they can to make up for the revenue lost during the lockdown. They won't keep their 80%-off sales going longer than they have to. 

For Tedrowe, the decision to book the Live Aqua Beach Resort was easy.

"The hotel was offering free cancellation up to a week before check-in," she says. "If the pandemic is still going on in early fall, I can cancel or reschedule without penalty. This gave me a sense of security while also providing me with something to look forward to."

It's best to book with larger, established companies
rather than smaller properties.
Will Hatton has seen fares as low as $5 on Ryanair. He says he would have booked them but wasn't sure he could get to Europe to take advantage of them in the coming weeks.

"As tempting as it is, I have actually passed up opportunities like this," says Hatton, who writes the Broke Backpacker blog. "I don't know how long it may be before we can travel freely again.”

Will the company still be there?

Travel experts are worried that some of the companies discounting their products may not survive. Adrienne Sasson, a travel advisor with Rubinsohn Travel in Jenkintown, Pa., says she's seeing a lot of aggressive discounts from luxury villas and boutique hotels. 

"My concern is their financial health," she explains. "Will some of the smaller boutiques and villas have the funding to remain open and in good repair while they have no income from guests?"

With so many future credits, cruises
are booking fast for 2021.
We've already seen the demise of the online travel agency and the Alaskan regional carrier RavnAir. But look for many more cessations soon.

Her advice: Book with some of the bigger brands of hotels, resorts, and cruise lines. They're far less likely to go under during these difficult times.

Is it morally right to take the deals?

There's another question that these coronavirus travel deals raise. Is it morally right to buy such a deeply discounted product? Is grabbing a $5 airfare taking advantage of a situation -- or helping a company get through hard times?

Will you be able to get good deals to places like Sydney, Australia's famed Opera House?
"I'm not concerned about the ethics of buying a deeply-discounted plane ticket," says Nelson Sherwin, a manager at a human resources company in Palm Harbor, Fla. "If they don't want people to make the purchase, don't offer it for sale. The reality of a capitalist economy is that companies have the freedom to succeed or fail."

Kaitlin Ray, a former hospitality company employee who now writes a travel photography blog, agrees that there's nothing wrong with taking the deals. 

"In terms of the morality of buying a product so deeply discounted, all businesses are currently struggling and trying to make ends meet," she says. "As long as the sale even just allows the company to break even, it's helpful to the overall longevity of the company."

Look for deals, but book carefully.
Ray also says her former employer made "astronomical" profits and that the coronavirus issues probably won't make a dent in its earnings. So don't feel too bad about taking that deal.

Here's another way of looking at it. If the tables were turned and it was a seller's market for travel, do you think companies would hesitate to charge you top dollar for their products? Of course not. So buy now especially if the cancellation terms are generous. 

Protect yourself when booking a travel deal

Read the cancellation terms very carefully. Look for the ability to cancel your trip without paying any penalties. Make sure you get the rules in writing before making a reservation. That means print out a hardcopy or take a screenshot.
Paying by credit card is smart.

Use a credit card. If the airline, cruise line or hotel goes out of business, you can file a chargeback and obtain a full refund. If you pay by check or cash, your money will be gone.

Keep up with the news as conditions
change almost daily. 
Follow the news closely. Coronavirus is affecting destinations differently. For example, you may be fine visiting New Zealand in the near future, but you'll want to avoid Italy. Keep an eye on current events as your trip gets closer, and don't be afraid to invoke those generous cancellation terms if the situation takes a turn for the worse.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and from free sites. 


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Exploring Sedona's red rock country on foot

Sedona is a visually stunning city in the heart of Arizona’s red rock country. It is surrounded by a panorama of natural  formations—arches, bridges, pinnacles, cliffs, and gorges. Together with mesas, canyons, and cave—some featuring prehistoric pictographs and Indian ruins--this region contains such varied and colorful geography and history that one visit is never enough.
Sights like this are all around Sedona.

We have been to Sedona three times in the past five years and find new ways to explore and enjoy the natural beauty each time. While casual sightseeing is fine to do, there is an abundance of outdoor activities to take advantage of in this land that nature has been sculpting through erosion for more than 350 million years.

A plethora of places to visit around Sedona
We have taken several jeep tours, a helicopter ride to see formations from the air, driven extensively in the area, and played golf there. But one of our favorite—and possibly the best way to become acquainted with this treasure--is on foot. With easily 100 trails suitable for day hikes in the region, we have only begun to scratch the surface. Here are a few that you might want to try.

Crossing Devil's Bridge
Devil’s Bridge Trail: The trek to Devil’s Bridge, a massive 54-foot-high natural sandstone arch, takes a little more than an hour, even more if you spend time being a dare-devil on the bridge or find it necessary to park a half mile before the start of this popular trail. The trail begins on an old unpaved road but eventually climbs natural (read uneven) rock steps to the top.

You’ll hike about a mile to the destination, a natural rock formation that is only about five feet thick. The bridge spans about 45 feet; it has cracked and fractured over time but apparently is stable enough for the many hikers who are enchanted with a sense of danger. For those who are brave enough to walk out on the arch, you’ll be rewarded with dramatic vistas of the surrounding canyons, mountains, and red rock formations.

On the Fay Canyon Trail
Fay Canyon Trail: Plan at least an hour and a half to hike through Fay Canyon, located in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. From the starting point of the 2.4 mile round trip, you’ll walk toward stunning red rock walls to the mouth of the scenic box canyon. An unmaintained side path leads a quarter mile up the steep east canyon wall to elusive Fay Canyon Arch. 
Approaching the arch

From below, the arch is hard to recognize. The massive slab of rock that forms the arch broke away from the canyon wall, leaving the arch close to the vertical cliff behind it. The 23-foot thick natural arch has a 90-foot span and height of 15 feet. Tread carefully along the stone walls to the arch and a small prehistoric dwelling from the ancient Sinagua Indians.
Take time as you walk the both directions of the trail to admire the gorgeous red sandstone cliffs of nearby Bear Mountain.

A rocky trail up Doe Mountain
Doe Mountain Trail: Doe Mountain is a flat-topped mountain between Bear Mountain and the Cockscomb (a formation with scalloped spires that resemble the comb of a rooster). A zigzagging path ascends the north face of the mountain with views of caves and rock sculptures in the weathered cliffs. While the trip to mesa is only about three-quarters of a mile, it seems longer because of its many switchbacks. A steady climb over craggy rocks takes you along the eroded cliff face to the top.
Standing on the rim of Doe Mountain near Sedona
When you reach the plateau 400 feet above the valley floor, you have wide, sweeping vistas of the surrounding red rock landscape. You can loop around the mesa on an unmaintained path, which adds another 1.25 miles. Or just meander close to the rim and take photos of cliffs and canyon walls across the canyon. If you decide to take the perimeter loop, make note of where you started for your return.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Monday, April 13, 2020

The poetry of Bryce Canyon National Park

The National Park Service brochure describes Bryce Canyon as “Poetry in Stone.” As I started to write this post I couldn’t think of a more apt description. You may think about poetry in soft, esoteric terms, the exact opposite of hard, static stone. But the vistas in Bryce are deceptive; the landscape is constantly changing.

Whether you are standing on the rim in a crisp morning sky, observing shadows while walking along trails in bright sunlight, or enjoying the kaleidoscope of colors at sunset, your memory will be etched with different scenes from this dynamic national park in southern Utah.

In addition to daily changes, weathering and erosion continue to shape the striking rock formations. Between 55 and 40 million years ago, Utah was a mountain-encircled basin, and the area was full of water. For millions of years, rivers deposited sediments, mostly dissolved limestone, into a system of large lakes. As the Colorado Plateau began to rise 20 million years ago, the lakes dried up. Layers of rock emerged, and formed multi-layered cliffs.

Today, frost-wedging—when snow and ice melt seeps into fractures in rocks—is a more important erosion factor than flowing water. When it re-freezes, it expands and cracks surrounding rocks; thin walls called “fins” break away. Frost-wedging further enlarges cracks in the fins, creating holes or windows. 

Eventually the top may collapse, leaving a column. Rain continues to sculpt these limestone pillars into spires called hoodoos, formations for which Bryce is famous. As time goes by, new hoodoos emerge while others become reduced to lumps of clay. 

Knowing how the enormous forces of nature created Bryce Canyon can help visitors appreciate its unique beauty, but a geology lesson isn’t necessary to enjoy the gorgeous multi-colored sandstone canyons, windows, and hoodoos.

We left Zion National Park and drove just two hours to Bryce. Our first stop was at the Visitor Center for an overview of the park. At Zion, you look up to view imposing rock formations; at Bryce you look down into the canyons.

From the Visitor Center we set out to drive the 18-mile paved road, stopping at noted overlooks along the way. During the summer, a free shuttle follows the plateau rim with stops at popular sites. More than 65 miles of hiking trails, most starting from overlooks, take visitors down into the canyon for a closer look at hoodoos.

Because we only had one day to spend in the park but wanted to go deeper into the canyon, we decided to do the Navajo Loop Hike from Sunset Point. We chose the Wall Street path filled with lots of switchbacks that descended 800 feet. Although the trail is 1.3 miles round trip, it seems much longer because of the steep inclines and switchbacks. But that’s what makes it so breathtaking at every turn that we were snapping photos almost constantly. We couldn’t resist each new sight filled with red, white, pink, brown, tan, and white formations.

We saw spectacular formations--many have been given names—and walked through narrow passageways and tunnels on our downhill trek. Of course, since we walked down, the return was uphill on more switchbacks. Some people get short-winded because of the elevation (signs at every overlook record the elevation, which gets over 9,000 feet at Rainbow Point), but stopping to take photos provides an easy rest.

As we returned to the Visitor Center, we stopped at Inspiration Point and Sunrise Point, two overlooks that had been too crowded earlier in the afternoon.  That can happen in summer or even in September, as we experienced. Other viewpoints along the road include Fairview Point, Natural Bridge, Agua Canyon, and Ponderosa Canyon.

From April through October days are pleasant and nights are cool. You may start out wearing a jacket but shed layers at mid-day. Stargazing at night is popular because of the high elevation, clean dry air, and lack of light pollution. No matter what time of day you visit, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the variety of hues, shifting shadows, and sheer enormity of the massive rock formations.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The marvelous mystery of Stonehenge

Even today, Stonehenge, the miraculous monument in England, is a mystery to visitors and archaeologists alike. Many theories surround this super stone circle regarding its purpose, how it was constructed, and what significance there is in the specific arrangement of stones.

While we were anxious to hear what experts have concluded about this unique prehistoric monument, none of that really mattered when Larry and I stood in front of this most marvelous of human creations. Stonehenge is truly awe inspiring and inspirational all by itself. But it is even more so, when contemplating the time, courage, skill, and labor that went into its creation.

Located in Salisbury Plain, about eight miles north of Salisbury, England, Stonehenge was built in six stages between 3000 and 1520 BC, during the transition from the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) to the Bronze Age. Along with a short history, I’m including photos from our recent visit, which I hope will encourage you to visit if you have the chance.


Stonehenge is an inspirational place and worth a visit.
One theory is that the site was a place where sick people went in hopes of being cured by the monument’s healing powers. Other experts think the alignment of stones with the sun, moon, and stars was a kind of ancient scientific observatory to track movement of those celestial bodies. Perhaps Stonehenge was a temple to sun or moon gods. One thing is known for sure—it was used as a cemetery, a place for important funeral ceremonies.

Each year on June 21 (longest day of the year) the sun always rises over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge. The sun also always sets over the Heel Stone, a large sarsen stone which stands outside the main monument, on the shortest day of the year. 

Positioning of the rocks was carefully planned.
4,000 years ago, Stonehange was made up of an outer circle of 30 standing stones called sarsens. These surrounded five huge stone arches in a horseshoe configuration. Two other circles were  made of smaller bluestones and four station stones positioned outside the central monument. A circular ditch and bank surrounded the entire site—and remains today.

The lighter bluestones weight about the same as two cars, and the upright sarsen stones are each as heavy as four elephants. Altogether the boulders would have been dragged or hauled from hundreds of miles away. Then there was shaping the stones—without the use of modern tools. And finally, lifting the enormous boulders to their standing position would have required engineering techniques not known at the time, especially since there are interlocking joints not seen in other prehistoric monuments.
A probable method of transporting the huge rocks.
It is also surmised that about 200 or 300 years later the central bluestones were rearranged to form a circle and inner oval, and a main avenue was built to connect Stonehenge with the river Avon. Between 1800 and 1500 BC more rearranging was started but probably not completed.

Not just a bunch of rocks

Sheep in the field next to Stonehenge
Most likely Stonehenge served a number of purposes over thousands of years. Its uses probably evolved over centuries depending on cultural shifts and social norms—just as the builders changed due to migration from Europe. It is so much more than just big old rocks stacked in a circle. We can admire its architecturally sophisticated design and building techniques that made it a World Heritage Site in 1986--without needing to pin precise historical facts on the famously complex site.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier