Thursday, October 29, 2020

What makes Austin, Texas like no place else?

Longtime Texans have an innate understanding of the uniqueness of their state--and Austin perfectly illustrates that mindset. If you're looking to visit a city that's a little out of the ordinary, here a few reasons why Austin should be your destination.

Flying Bats

People lined up on the Congress Avenue Bridge to await exodus of the bats.

Only in Austin would flying bats become a bona fide tourist attraction. From March through October hundreds of people gather every evening at dusk on and around the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch an enormous black cloud of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats stream out from crevices under the bridge and fly away for their nightly feast of mosquitoes and other insects.

Here they come! Millions of Mexican free-tail bats!

Keep Austin Weird

Drive around Austin, and you’ll see bumper stickers, T-shirts, and billboards proclaiming this unofficial city motto. It’s a sign of the quirky character Austin residents love and nurture. After all, the city created Spamarama, a festival that pays homage to canned meat, and Eeyore’s Birthday, a spring event honoring the sad-faced character from Winnie the Poo.

Live Music Capital of the World

On any given night, the sounds of blues, country, rock and roll, jazz, and folk blend in Austin’s famous music districts that attract patrons into 100 plus smoke-free establishments. The hip, college-age crowd generally drifts to boisterous Sixth Street, while the Warehouse District along Fourth Street attracts a supposedly more mature audience. You’re not an authentic Austin music junkie until you’ve joined ranks with hordes of attendees at South by Southwest or Austin City Limits Festival.

Armadillos and Deer

There’s a strange cult of armadillo lovers around Austin, to the extent that this armor-plated critter than neither hears nor sees very well has been adopted as a mascot.  Affection is evident in many things that bear this recurring symbol of whimsy: Art works, games, puzzles, toys, T-shirts, and jewelry contain the animal’s likeness. 

Austin’s science fiction convention has taken the name of ArmadilloCon. For more than 50 years residents have shopped the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, which began as a special event at the famous Armadillo World Headquarters, once the hottest club in town and still a legend long after its demise.

The Hill Country

Austin is a gateway to one of the state’s best-kept secrets, the Hill Country of Central Texas. Northwest of the city is Lake Travis, a favorite recreational spot. 

With topography ranging from rocky ridges and gentle rolling hills to fertile ranch lands dissected by numerous rivers, creeks, and lakes, the region offers many surprises to outdoor enthusiasts. 

Spend a fun day boating on Lake Travis. 

Several state parks in the area, stunning scenery, fields of wildflowers (including bluebonnets, the state flower, in spring), and abundant wildlife bring city dwellers to the country year round.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and from free sources.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Are airline change fees really gone for good?

In today’s post Scott Keyes, founder and Chief Flight Expert of Scott's Cheap Flights, shares his thoughts on the change fee policy recently adopted by several airlines. 

Four airlines—United, Delta, American, and Alaska—have announced they were permanently axing change fees, which for domestic flights had typically been $200 (plus any fare difference).

Hooray! Sort of.

On balance, this is a positive move for travelers, but it’s not nearly the panacea that airlines would have you believe. There’s still too many exceptions in the fine print.

Here’s why I see this development as more of a first step than a major milestone.

A huge loophole

The airlines were patting themselves on the back for canceling change fees, but they left a glaring omission: the new policy doesn’t apply to basic economy tickets. You’ll have to pay for main economy in order to benefit.

If you’re someone who avoids basic economy tickets, then change fees are a thing of the past for you. But if you pack light and are loyal to the cheapest fare available, airlines aren’t making your life easier.

Temporary Covid waivers mean that airlines across the U.S. did suspend change fees, including for basic economy tickets, through December 31, 2020.However, airlines plan to roll back that flexibility for basic economy starting next year.

Applies to domestic flights, but only some international.

Though all four airlines and Southwest are eschewing change fees on domestic flights (except for basic economy tickets), which international routes the new policy applies to varies by airline.

On United and Delta, the policy doesn’t apply to international routes. On Alaska and Southwest, it does. And on American, it only applies to international flights to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Free changes do not equal free cancellations.

It’s reasonable to read that airlines have axed change fees and assume that means you can now get a refund if you want to cancel a ticket.Not!

The new policy allows you to switch flights without a penalty, but unfortunately it doesn’t entitle you to a free refund. For that, you’d have to buy a much more expensive refundable fare.

Though there’s no longer an additional fee, if you want to change flights and the new one is more expensive, you have to pay the fare difference.

But if your new flight is cheaper, the policy varies airline to airline. On Southwest and American, you’ll get the fare difference back in travel credit, but on United you won’t get any form of refund if the new flight costs less. Delta and Alaska haven’t announced their policies yet.

Free same-day standby, if you’re feeling lucky.

Let’s say you booked a flight home for Thanksgiving that departed Wednesday night, but you later decided it’d be better to leave that morning. When you check fares, though, the morning flights are $300 more expensive than what you paid.

Before you hand over your hard-earned bread, you could try your luck with a newly announced policy on American (starting 10/1/20) and United (starting 1/1/21): free same-day standby, even for basic economy ticketholders. It’s a gamble, of course, but if there’s an available seat on the plane come boarding time, it’ll be yours without having to pay any fare difference.

A caveat: you can only use the free same-day standby policy to switch to an earlier flight, not a later one.

Southwest stands out.

As exciting as it was to see change fees die on so many airlines, none of the latecomers do it as well as Southwest. Southwest doesn’t have change fees on any tickets; other airlines still have them for basic economy.

Southwest doesn’t have change fees for any routes; other airlines still do on many international flights (Alaska Airlines notwithstanding).

Southwest gives you the difference if you switch to a cheaper flight; United does not and Delta/Alaska haven’t said.

Bottom line 

It’s great that airlines are getting rid of change fees. It’s the right thing to do, especially during a pandemic when travelers should be making their plans in pencil, not in pen.  Hopefully, airlines continue down this path and plug some of the existing gaps by including basic economy, all destinations, and giving passengers back any fare difference.

Photos from free sources

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Be happy: make travel plans and book flights now

This weeks post is courtesy of Scott Keyes, owner of He expresses a common feeling that frequent travelers know well—but have been missing.

The Happiness Hack of Booking Flights

A few weeks ago I booked my first international trip since the pandemic began—Madrid in late February 2021. Every time I book a flight, I’m reminded again of how wonderful it is to have a trip to look forward to. (That’s especially the case this cursed year.)

In fact, one of the most overlooked benefits of travel is that having a trip to look forward to—even one 10 months from now—can do wonders for your happiness today.

Tomorrow's Trip is Today's Treat

People usually discuss travel solely in terms of the joy you get during a trip, while ignoring the joy it brings you before a trip. I’m not just referring to the dopamine hit you get from clicking purchase on a cheap flight. I’m also talking about letting yourself spend the next however many months looking forward to that trip.

After all, nobody books a trip to Tokyo and then doesn’t think about it again until they board the plane. If you’re anything like me, the entire interim is spent dreaming of sushi and researching hidden gems I want to see while I’m there.

We can always daydream about future travels, but where the true excitement comes is when it’s about an actual planned trip, not just a someday/maybe idea. And what takes a trip from a mere idea to something real? When you’ve booked the flight.

Studies Show Anticipation is One of The Best Parts of Travel

When researchers have examined which parts of vacation bring us the most joy, it turns out that the period before a trip may be even more important than the trip itself. Study after study has shown how much happiness the anticipation of a trip can bring.

It’s not just that planning trips gives us joy today; it also makes travel more possible. According to one study, people who plan trips well in advance took 50% more time off from work to travel than non-planners. One big reason why: bosses are far more likely to approve time off when it’s requested months in advance.

Free Changes on All New Bookings

Right now, airlines are offering free changes on all new bookings, even basic economy. As a result, if come February 2021 it’s still not possible or wise to take that trip to Spain I booked, I can just push the trip back to the summer without having to pay any change fee. Remember though: free changes aren’t the same as free cancellations, and you’re still responsible if there’s a fare difference with the new flight you choose.

Knowing I can book flights and still have flexibility is, personally, the linchpin that gives me confidence to plan future travel amidst so much uncertainty today. Think of it as booking in pencil, not in pen.

In the past month, I’ve heard over and over from people how excited they are to make up for lost time once they feel safe and comfortable traveling again. And many of them have already started making 2021 travel plans as a treat for both their future selves and their current selves.

Photos from free sources. 


Sunday, October 11, 2020

Great Gardens of the South

Lovely water features can be found in all the featured gardens.
This one is in Garvan Woodland Garden in Arkansas.

Fall and spring are magical seasons for gardens, so now is a good time to plan your visit to enjoy a bonanza of blooms at one of these public Southern gardens. Even better, they provide lovely floral displays and programs throughout the year, so you can visit again and again.

Tulips are a specialty in Garvan
Woodland Garden.
Garvan Woodland Gardens

One of only eight woodland gardens in the U.S., this 40-acre landscape is located on a peninsula on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas.  It began as a private garden in 1956 by Verna Cook Garvan and opened to the public in 2002.  

Garvan laid out each section, carefully marking every tree that needed to be removed, choosing each new plant, and selecting its location along four and a half miles of wooded shoreline. Many of her original tulips and roses are still part of the design. 

The  glass-walled Anthony Chapel is a striking feature of Garlan Woodland Garden.
Other highlights include dramatic waterfalls, four unique bridges, and the Anthony Chapel, which overlooks the lake and soars 57 feet into a tree canopy allowing spectacular seasonal views through its glass ceiling and walls.
Specialties: Daffodils from February-March, tulips March-April; nationally recognized Japanese Garden. Special holiday exhibits and plein art painting festivals.

Best time to go: The Tulip Extravaganza, features 10,000 tulips in a multitude of hues in March.  More than 100,000 other flowers, including daffodils, hyacinths, azaleas, and dogwood blossoms spread under a canopy of southern pines and ancient oaks.

Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Mirror Lake at Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Alabama.
 Famous for a spring time explosion of azaleas, Bellingrath Gardens, located 20 miles southwest of Mobile, Alabama, also features camellias in winter and chrysanthemums in November.  In December, three million twinkling lights transform Bellingrath Gardens and Home into a glowing wonderland. Other attractions include Asian American Garden, Mirror Lake, Conservatory, Butterfly Garden, Chapel, and Boehm Porcelain Gallery.

Azaleas bloom on the Great Lawn
at Bellingrath Garden.
Bessie Bellingrath initially built the garden that borders on Fowl Lake at an old fishing camp. Friends urged her to share the beautiful space, and the Garden attracted 4700 people the first day it opened to the public in 1932. After her death in 1943, Walter Bellingrath, who made his fortune bottling Coca-Cola, honored her memory with water features, additional plants, and paths to showcase the natural beauty of the area. 

Specialties: Blooming flowers year round, Bellingrath home, and Southern Belle Cruise on the Fowl River

Best time to go: 250,000 azaleas burst into glorious color from mid-March to mid-April, with a multitude of spring flowers providing the chorus.  Spectacular roses from April to December; Magic Christmas in Lights and festival in December. Combine with a tour of the home or cruise for best value.

Tyler Municipal Rose Garden
Texas has outstanding gardens, too. Thousands of visitors arrive in Tyler each October for the annual Rose Festival, held in the largest rose garden in the country.  But the 14-acre city park also features many flower and plant varieties in every hue year round.

Beautiful rose varieties come into full bloom for the annual
October Rose Festival in Tyler, Texas.
More than 38,000 rose bushes displaying at least 500 different varieties turn this site into an elegant landscape. Paths meander through the Garden, past sculptures, benches, and water features. Specimens range from tall grafted rose trees to tiny miniature roses.  In between are dozens of varieties of hybrid teas, grandifloras, shrub roses, climbing roses, and much more providing an amazing panorama of color.  Because the garden is an All American Rose Selection (AARS) test garden, visitors come all year to take notes on fragrance, color, and form of the newest varieties as well as old favorites.

New varieties of roses are tested and the best are selected for awards
in Tyler Municipal Rose Garden
Specialties: Roses!

Best time to visit: Spring and fall. Gardens are free. Fee for museum. Special fees apply during Rose Festival

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Monday, October 5, 2020

Inspiration of Precious Moments park

If you’re looking for an uplifting place to visit, especially in uncertain times, there’s no better destination than the PreciousMoments complex near Carthage, Missouri.

Entrance to the Precious Moments park
A tribute to the artistry of Samuel J. Butcher who created Precious Moments figures, this park is anchored by the Precious Moments Chapel.  You’ll see 10,000 square feet adorned by 84 amazing hand-painted murals, 30 Bible verses and stories replicated in stained glass, and beautiful gardens decorated with meaningful sculptures. It’s a place for quiet reflection as you admire beloved Bible stories told through Precious Moments art.

Angels are recurring figures throughout the park.
While the Chapel has attracted millions of visitors, there’s much more to see.  Upon arrival, you enter a large building decorated with vignettes in Precious Moments style.  Informative films show the creative process, from casting the figures in clay to adding details and additional items nestled beside figures to close-ups of artists’ hands painting the distinctive muted hues. 

Statues of praying angels surround the perimeter, while stained glass windows with angel designs add to the cottage look. The world’s largest Precious Moments gift shop is filled with all kinds of figurines—for babies, marriage, graduation, family, friendship, patriotism--all of life’s special events and feelings. The Royal Delights Snack Shop will keep you nourished during your visit.

Beautiful gardens and water features honor beloved guests.
Head outdoors and you’ll see a statue of praying angels holding a tiny child. Called “Remember the Children,” it’s a memorial to children lost during the Oklahoma City bombing disaster.  The grounds are beautifully landscaped with colorful blooming flowers, trees and rock features. Grandma and Grandpa Cooper’s Garden, a water feature named in honor of an elderly couple who came every Thursday for many years, is a gesture of thanks for the love they demonstrated for everyone.

Mr. Butcher loved the woods, creek, and cave on the property he purchased in 1984. We understood why while wandering along well-kept paths.  Larry and I were impressed with the overall creativity including statues and fountains.  The solemn Avenue of Angles is filled with plants and figures dedicated by families to their lost loved ones.

Avenue of Angels is a way for families to remember loved ones.
In the museum, we saw original “Debbie” figurines including the first one called “Love One Another.” Each year new Precious Moments figurines are produced, some limited in production. Once those figurines are sold, the mold is retired and withdrawn from production.

Butcher himself painted every piece of art in the awe-inspiring Chapel. Three large, intricately-carved doors are inscribed with the scripture, “To God be the glory, great things He hath done.”  The heavenly ceiling, painted in 1985, originally included all but one of his angel figures, which was later added to indicate the ceiling was finished forever.
The Chapel is a work of art and a venue for story telling.
Several layers of art adorn side walls of the Chapel and stained glass windows, telling stories of disciples (painted in 2003) and parables through his trademark figures.  Circular paintings tell Old Testament stories, while children of the world are depicted in the ovals. 

Butcher’s sense of humor shows through as he painted Matthew, the tax collector, holding an IRS sign and the Good Samaritan with a Red Cross first aid kit. 

The park is open, but operating hours vary according to the season. Check online or call 800-543-7975.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier