It's been a wild year in travel — historic records for delays, but more people traveling than ever before. New airplanes, new routes and destinations, and despite a very weak U.S. dollar, some hope on the horizon for just about anyone hoping to travel in 2008, not to mention the Olympics in China. Herewith my year-end report — and a few heads-up looks at what's ahead this year in the world of travel:
First, the hot, affordable destinations for 2008:
This destination is exploding, and with good reason. During the last five years, foreign visitor arrivals to India have grown by almost 80 percent.
Flights from JFK to New Delhi: about $1,300 in January on Air India, Virgin Atlantic and American. Emirates starts at $1,400. Jet Airways from JFK to Delhi starts at (special economy) $900; Newark to Mumbai (special economy) is about $1,400. Expect fares to drop by February. Why? One of the reasons India has grown into such a hot destination is due in part to the growing number of domestic budget airlines that can get you around the country affordably.
In peak season, you can do a weekend from New Delhi to Jaipur on Jet Airways for $70 roundtrip. Jet Airways from New Delhi to Mumbai is $106. A trip on Kingfisher between Mumbai and Goa for $154 roundtrip. Delhi to Chennai (Madras) is about $100 on IndiGo.
Hotels in India can be affordable; the high-end 5-stars like The Claridges, The Imperial and The Taj in New Delhi can start around $350 a night. But the Sheraton starts around $150 a night; The Manor Hotel is about $115.
It's one of the great hubs of Southeast Asia — centrally located Kuala Lumpur makes a great starting point for Southeast Asia. Malaysia Airlines is the largest carrier in the region, serving more than 100 cities worldwide. And the airline has an Asia pass — for about $1,000 you can fly throughout the region on MAS.
And, for once, getting there is as affordable as being there.
Malaysia has one of the world’s oldest rain forests. It dates back more than 300 million years, even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. The rain forest contains trees that reach a height of 300 feet.
Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo, contains an elaborate system of caves. Sarawak Chamber is so large it could fit London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral inside. Clearwater Cave, more than 60 miles long, is the longest cave in Southeast Asia and contains many stalactites. Deer Cave could fit 47 jumbo jets.
Sipadan Island is one the world’s most unique and beautiful diving sites. Jacques Cousteau described it as a “piece of art” and it is consistently voted the best diving site in the world.
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The KLIA Express train offers a nonstop transfer from the airport to Kuala Lumpur in only 28 minutes. The trains depart every 15 minutes and operate from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Single-trip fare costs about $9 US for adults.
Malaysia is a great place to shop. Best buys included batik, silver, pewter, brass, wood carvings, local textiles such as ‘songket,’ ‘kain pau,’ and silk. Other top buys include electronics, computers, watches, perfumes, cosmetics and top international designer fashions.
Hotels are affordable: Top-notch hotels are plentiful in Kuala Lumpur. The Renaissance Kuala Lumpur has special rates of just $85 a night this winter. The Novotel Hydro Majestic is an amazing $59 a night for five-star luxury. Le Meridian is a little pricier, at $130!
Langkawi, technically, is a group of islands, but the largest one — Langkawi Island — is the most well known. How many islands does Langkawi have? The answer you will get is 99 or 104, depending on the tide.
Not surprisingly, the Four Seasons is pricey, around $500 a night. The Andaman Hotel starts at about $280. However, the four-star MariMari Resort starts at about $120 a night. Berjaya Langkawi Beach & Spa Resort starts at $135.
You can fly from KL to Penang — an island with great beaches, resorts, rich history and diverse culture — on Malaysia Airlines for about $150. You can also take a train comfortably and safely between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok — the train from KL to Penang will cost you about $5.
This is the great sleeper destination, and one of my favorites. You can fly directly in, but my favorite route is to go to Dubai first, then drive through the Emirates into Oman and the beautiful Musandam peninsula. And go swimming in the Arabian Sea with dolphins.
Hotels are affordable — from $50 to $150 a night, and it is, unquestionably, a great place for shopping. Local craftsmen excel in arts and handicrafts such as silversmithing and weaving. Visitors can buy intricately carved handmade daggers, coffee pots, rose-water sprinklers, incense burners, rugs, saddles, bags, camel straps and fragrant frankincense. Women's jewelry is definitely worth a look, ranging from small silver boxes designed to hold kohl to bracelets, earrings and rings, heavy anklets, and huge belts and necklaces.
Salalah is on the coast of southern Oman, about 620 miles south southwest of Muscat, and is the capital of Dhofar. Although now a very modern town, Salalah has retained great charm and character.
There are fantastic beaches along the coastline near Salalah, many of which are near perfect, with pristine, white sands and a crystal-clear, warm turquoise sea. Surrounding Salalah are coconut, papaya, mango and banana plantations and the area is unusually green and fertile compared to the rest of Oman owing to the summer monsoon, which also helps keep the temperatures a bit lower. In fact, Salalah has a mildly tropical atmosphere with many stands selling fresh fruit and coconut milk. The steep cliffs and mountains of Dhofar are often shrouded in mist.
Scuba diving is a must — uncrowded and beautiful. The Oman Dive Center (ODC), located on one of Oman's most beautiful and rich sites of natural heritage, offers a complete range of diving courses.
Bulgaria is on the same latitude as New England, but is more temperate and Mediterranean in climate.
It's beautiful in the summer in Bulgaria, and now it's even a great ski destination in winter. If you want to go without crowds, try the end of ski season, around mid-March, when airfares from JFK (via Rome) are showing about $800 on Delta, America, KLM and Alitalia. If you’re not into skiing, September is a beautiful off-peak time to go, with prices also in the $800 range.
But if you want to ski, check out the resorts in Vitosha, Bansko and Pamporovo.
Vitosha has long been a getaway for urban Bulgarians from Sofia and overlooks the city. Reasonable prices and accessibility make this resort shine. Stay for a week at the new Scotty's Boutique Hotel in Sofia, and a standard double is about $70 per night
Bansko is known as a luxury ski resort, with millions of euros having been invested in recent years to make this place a top skiing locale. Although labeled luxury, Bansko's prices are quite reasonable: A modest 3-bedroom apartment at the Snow House Apartments is about $105 in the winter. Also, since Bansko is popular with British tourists, several restaurants, hotels and street signs are in English.
Pamporovo is an older resort area, but the price is right. For about $50 per night per person, skiers can stay at the Orlovetz, widely considered to be the finest hotel in Pamporovo. For about $70 per person per night, skiers can stay at the Panorama Hotel at the base of the slopes, with breakfast and dinner included.
This is where the weak U.S. dollar is still king. And you can almost live like one. Argentina is the great bargain when it comes to the U.S. dollar (1 USD = 3.15 Argentine pesos).
Remember, when it’s winter here, it’s summer in Argentina. This is the peak season for visiting the country, and it’s pretty hot in January and February. Consider waiting until March or next September, when prices go down
Airfare from JFK to Buenos Aires is about $800 in March and the high $600s in September, aboard Mexicana, TAM, Taca and Aerolineas Argentinas. January (midsummer) prices are showing more than $1,000 roundtrip.
Hotel prices are quite reasonable. The Sheraton Buenos Aires in March starts at $195 a night. The Marriott is also under $200 a night. The luxury apartments of ArtSuites range from just $115 to $189 a night (sleeping 2 to 4 guests, respectively).
You’re not just limited to Buenos Aires on your trip. Other hot spots in Argentina include Mendoza, Cordoba and Patagonia.
Mendoza has more than 880 wineries, and they make some pretty great wine (Malbec in particular). Weather during December through February ranges from the high 80s to the high 50s and low 60s at night. December through February are generally Mendoza's warmest months. My choice is the Park Hyatt, well worth the extra tariff because the hotel specializes in arranging private winery tours and overnights. Other accommodations include El Portal Suite Hotel, a suite-style hotel that overlooks Plaza Chile. Rates start at about $147 per night. NH Cordillera is located in the center of the city, and rates start at about $106 per night.
And what's on the horizon for 2008:
New passport rules kick in
Don't wait. If you don't have one, apply for a passport NOW. Delays in processing passports in 2007 got as bad as 16 weeks. And some people never got to travel overseas last summer, because it took all summer to get the passports. So apply NOW and be somewhat ahead of the game. And despite State Department claims that they've now caught up with their terrible backlog, there's no guarantee it won't actually be worse this year.
Wi-Fi on airplanes is about to become a reality
Jet Blue is offering free Wi-Fi to BlackBerry users. And fee-based wireless services will be offered in the U.S. by American Airlines. In Europe, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Lufthansa and BMI will offer the service, and later this year it will also be deployed on the fleets of Royal Jordanian, Kingfisher Airlines, Air Asia and Shenzhen Airlines.
U.K. relaxing baggage restrictions
Yes, I can finally announce the end to my boycott of all British airports. Starting January 7, the British government has announced it will be relaxing — and it's been a long time in coming — the absurd and ridiculous one carry-on bag rule that has so abused air travelers. For more than a year, no one traveling to or through U.K. airports has been permitted entrance into the terminals carrying more than one carry-on bag. This inflexible rule was applied to anyone and everyone, and not only resulted in some terminal chaos as passengers scrambled to check in additional bags they had never intended on checking, but a baggage mess of historic proportions.
Some airports, like Heathrow, became quickly overloaded and managed to lose, misplace, damage or destroy more than 8,000 bags a day. What's worse, there was never an appropriate, logical or common-sensible explanation for such a draconian rule from the British Airports Authority — and as a result, thousands of passengers (including yours truly) made the point of bypassing U.K. airports en route to other destinations in Europe, choosing instead to use airports like Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt etc. rather than attempt to go through London.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
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