Last year, Google began allowing the public to use its technology to create customized online maps, free of charge. Since then, tons of companies--including BT--and regular people have programmed "mashup" Google maps that highlight selected locations with teardrop-shaped markers and info boxes, often with addresses, URLs, phone numbers, and commentary.
Like bloggers, the mappers have interests that run the gamut. Maps may focus on bird sightings (geobirds.com), comic-book stores (hijinxcomics.com/maps/cbia), drink specials in Atlanta (atlspecials.com), strip clubs (stripclubmap.com), or New York City bicycling routes (nycbikemaps.com). Sites are generally produced by amateurs and are not comprehensive. Still, travelers may find them helpful; one, for instance, is dedicated to the most dazzling views in London (communitywalk.com/map/65).
The foremost resource for maps is googlemapsmania. blogspot.com. Plug in a topic under "Search This Blog" or scroll through the subject list on the right-hand column. We recently found maps with markers for golf courses, hot springs, maternity-wear stores, hotels in Rome, brewpubs in Oregon and Washington, Tokyo sake bars, favorite scuba-diving sites, secret fishing holes, and Chicago hot dog stands.
DIY Google Maps
Hurricane Season Just Became a Safer Bet
When a major storm hits the Caribbean, most airlines and hotels eventually wind up waiving the usual restrictions so that customers can change or cancel their plans free of charge. But because policies have traditionally been announced on a case-by-case basis--and at the last minute--you had little choice but to wait and cross your fingers. Now, after two brutal hurricane seasons, a few airlines and tour operators have taken steps to ease travelers' concerns. The best policies explicitly state that customers can make changes for free once the National Hurricane Center (nhc.noaa.gov) declares a hurricane watch or warning. Spirit Airlines allows you to rebook without a fee as soon as the NHC officially announces a hurricane watch at your arrival or departure airport. Clients of Worry-Free Vacations or sister company NWA WorldVacations who are headed to Mexico or the Caribbean can switch destinations for free after hearing about a watch or a warning, as long as the new booking leaves within seven days of the original departure. Or, for a $50 fee, you can request credit for another trip to be booked within 60 days. A few tour operators have beefed up their travel-insurance policies. Apple Vacations and TNT Vacations guarantee a free replacement vacation if a hurricane interrupts your trip. (An "interruption" is defined as a 24-hour period during which guests are displaced from their hotel.) In the past, you might have received company credit or a refund for the interrupted portion only. The policies cost $50--$70 extra for Apple Vacations, $95 for TNT. Cheap Caribbean.com's travel insurance, formerly an optional $49 purchase, is automatically included in all packages this year. With the policy, you're allowed to change or cancel your trip once without penalty up until three hours before departure--if the NHC announces that a hurricane is within 48 hours of your destination, departure, or connecting city. Beware, however, of hurricane policies that don't actually guarantee anything. Expedia first told clients of its Hassle-free Hurricane Promise last year: Agents will help rebook a ruined trip and try to convince hotels and airlines to waive fees. Essentially, Expedia will be an advocate for its customers--but isn't that what an agency is supposed to be?
Kid-Friendly Hotels and Resorts
Parents with young kids would love to get away, but traveling often doesn't sound worth the trouble. To make travel as easy as possible, alleviate parents' fears, and build business connections, some hotels and resorts are partnering with established non-travel brands. Select Loews hotels offer guests loaner Fisher-Price toys and play sessions with storytelling, music, snacks, and drinks at $10 per child. Atlantis, the megaresort on the Bahamas' Paradise Island, has teamed with Johnson's to give families a kit with baby creams, washcloths, a night-light, and a lullaby CD. The resort also created a hotline for parents to order baby bathtubs, bottle warmers, strollers, and babysitters. "Juggling the kids and planning the trip is hard enough," says Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, a pediatrician and mother of three who provided a list of travel tips included in the Atlantis kit. "This takes away a lot of the headaches." Even some hotels that don't advertise baby-friendly policies may help parents out. Diapers, formula, and even baby-proofed rooms can be waiting when you arrive.
Upsold Down the River
Travel agents argue that upselling can in fact be good for their clients. "If we put customers in the absolute cheapest room at a hotel in the Caribbean, they're going to come back annoyed with us because they got the worst room at the resort," says William Caldwell, president of Caldwell Travel in Nashville, Tenn. "If we get them to spend a little more on a great room with a view, they'll come back happy." Certainly, travelers want to know what the various options are, and what they cost. What you may not know is how the incentives work--and how they affect the pitch you'll hear. Earlier this year, to give just one example, Marriott registered the 100,000th member of an online training program that teaches agents how to talk clients into buying spa treatments and other extras. Agents who complete the course see their commissions raised from 8 percent to 10 percent. You can't really blame a company for trying to get its customers to spend more. But some agent programs involve underhanded price manipulations, and all the spin in the world won't make them look like good news for the consumer. Last fall, Enterprise Rent-A-Car began registering agents for a special program in which client cars can be reserved at a discounted price and a 5 percent commission, or at a higher price and a commission of up to 15 percent. About 4,000 agencies have signed on, and there's no requirement to clue customers in. With US Airways Vacations' Commission Choice program, agents can likewise receive larger commissions for packages sold at inflated rates. In the Travel Agents section of the company's website, a hypothetical Las Vegas booking demonstrates how, at a standard $300 price, the agent receives an 8 percent commission, or $24. By opting for Commission Choice and charging the customer $330, however, the agent receives 15 percent, or $49.50. The website even acknowledges that there's something to be ashamed of: "Commission Choice was built so that the increase in price does not appear on either your customer's itinerary or their credit card. Your customer will only see one final package price."
A Guide to Flight Passes
Planning a trip with multiple flights can eat up your time, money, and patience. That's why flight passes seem so attractive: You buy several flights at the same time for a set price that's often cheaper than booking piecemeal. Cathay Pacific's All Asia Pass, for instance, includes airfare to Hong Kong from New York, L.A., San Francisco, Toronto, or Vancouver, as well as connecting flights to 18 Asian cities over the course of 21 days--all for $1,499. But air passes aren't as simple as they sound. Taxes might add hundreds to the advertised fare, and the booking process can be so difficult that you won't mind paying a travel agent to take over. (Cathay Pacific's passes are actually sold only via agents.) To figure out if one is right for you, consider the following. Idiosyncrasies Some passes, like Cathay Pacific's, include long-haul international flights in the purchase. Other passes strictly cover flights within a specified region. The Discover India Pass from Indian Airlines, for example, is good for unlimited flights within India for 7, 15, or 21 days, for $400, $630, and $895 respectively--but as for your flight from the U.S. to India, you're on your own. Prices, restrictions, and parameters for passes vary greatly. The Caribbean Air Pass from BWIA West Indies Airways (from $450) includes flights to eight Caribbean destinations over a span of 30 days, but prohibits backtracking--i.e., you're allowed to fly into each airport only once. Aerolineas Argentinas's South America Pass includes as many as 10 flights between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, but pass prices are based on total mileage. One itinerary, hitting Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro, starts at just $550. The details on various flight passes can be found at bestfares.com (search "international air passes"); staralliance.com, which offers 11 passes around the world; and oneworld.com, which sells six passes. Low-fare competition With the African Airpass from Star Alliance, all flights are routed through Johannesburg. Nonstop flights on low-fare carriers such as Nationwide Airlines may be more convenient and cheaper. Because discount-carrier routes are so plentiful in Europe, flight passes there rarely make sense. Search for low-fare carriers by region on attitudetravel.com. Reservations Much of the appeal of an air pass is the idea of one-stop shopping. But you have to know exactly what you want: Unlike rail passes, which can be used without reservations, flight passes generally require that routes and dates be booked when you purchase. Extra costs and blackouts The Malaysia Airlines AccessAsia Pass starts at $1,399, but taxes raise it by $300-$500 depending on your itinerary. Also, if you want to add cities not included in the pass, like Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City, for example, tack on at least $320. Sometimes pass prices are higher--or blacked out--during certain times of year. Cathay Pacific's pass is $350 extra for travel between May 19 and August 20 of 2006, and weekend flights add $100. Free stopovers How much flying will you really be doing? Cathay Pacific always allows free stopovers in Hong Kong, so if all you want to do is visit the airline's hub for a few days en route to Bali, as one possibility, a standard ticket will probably cost less than a pass. Availability Airlines often limit the number of seats that can be taken by flight passes; you can be shut out even if a flight isn't full. "If there are only one or two flights a day, your vacation can be dictated by availability," says Eva Robinson, a travel agent in Old Saybrook, Conn. Travel agents should know their way around this stuff, and typically charge $30 and up for their service. Change policies Most airlines prohibit changing destinations once a pass has been purchased, though they'll usually let you switch dates: Cathay Pacific charges $100, while Aerolineas Argentinas and BWIA charge $25. Pass holders on Indian Airlines can change dates for free, provided they don't exceed the number of travel days allowed. Frequent-flier miles Some passes, like the Star Alliance African Airpass, allow pass holders to earn miles, while others, such as Cathay Pacific's All Asia Pass, don't. In fact, Cathay Pacific won't even let frequent-flier members redeem miles when purchasing the pass. POPULAR FLIGHT PASSES AROUND THE GLOBE Pass: Aerolineas Argentinas South America Pass 800/333-0276, aerolineas.com.ar The Basics: Flights within South America priced by mileage, starting at $300 for up to 2,500 miles Heads Up: Date changes allowed for $25 Pass: Cathay Pacific All Asia Pass cathay-usa.com The Basics: Flight to Hong Kong and a choice of 18 Asian cities over 21 days, for $1,499 Heads Up: Join the free online club to save $200; booking through a travel agent is mandatory Pass: BWIA West Indies Airways Caribbean Pass 800/538-2942, bwee.com The Basics: Flights between eight Caribbean destinations, from $450 Heads Up: Destination changes for $25; no backtracking allowed Pass: Star Alliance African Airpass staralliance.com The Basics: Up to 10 flights in 17 sub-Saharan countries, at 15¢ per mile Heads Up: Only sold to passengers flying a Star Alliance partner into Africa