Grand Central lights up
A free holiday light show dubbed Kaleidoscope returns to the beautifully restored main concourse of Grand Central Terminal on Saturday, December 1 (through January 1, 2008). Brilliant images of fairytale landscapes and iconic New York scenes are projected onto the walls during the seven-minute show, performed daily at the top and bottom of the hour, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Photo: An image from the Kaleidoscope show depicts Central Park as a winter wonderland, complete with angels and reindeer (courtesy of Artlumiere).
In adjacent Vanderbilt Hall, tourists and harried commuters pause to browse at the Holiday Fair, where 76 vendors sell jewelry, scarves, and quirky gifts. You can get a glimpse of Grand Central during the holidays by clicking on our slide show.
Confessions of a rental-car salesman
Alex Frankel recently did some undercover journalism by taking a job at Enterprise-Rent-A-Car. He reports on his stint as a counter clerk there—along with his brief gigs at a Gap clothing store, a Starbucks shop, and an Apple store—in his new book Punching In. In the following Q&A;, Alex talks about Enterprise—plus his tips for booking a rental car with any company: Q: Alex, Congrats on your new book. Why did you choose to work at Enterprise instead of one of the other rental car companies? A: Enterprise is the biggest car rental company most people have never heard of, or don't know much about. The company is the largest recruiter of college graduates and an expanding behemoth of car rental. The way in which the company recruits and trains its employees is fascinating and well thought out. Q: Alex, have you changed what you do and say at the rental car counter now that you know what goes on behind the scenes? A: Absolutely. Here are a few things I now know: Rental car firms are one of the few parts of the travel industry in which one does not need to commit at all financially to secure a rental car reservation. This means that you, as a customer, can presumably make multiple reservations at multiple car firms for one particular trip. Additionally, most people don't realize this but you can almost always get a better rate by booking online. Walking up to a rental car counter is a great way to get the worst rates. Reservations are cheapest when done online. Also, many companies push for you, the customer, to sign up for insurance-oriented “products.” Insurance can be a good thing to add on, but in many cases people are covered by their credit card companies and existing car insurance policies. If you can, check on this before you rent a car and you may find you won't need to bother with the insurance and so-called damage waivers that are offered. Finally, if you can avoid interacting with a person at a rental car company you will often find that you have a better experience. More people should look into hourly rental cars [such as the newly-merged ZipCar and FlexCar services]. Q: What was one of the most surprising things you learned, not from the branding or labor standpoints, but from a consumer's perspective? A: I believe you are referring to the car rental business here. Mostly related to the above. Most rental car consumers don't understand how rental car fleet management works and it's fairly interesting. When you reserve a vehicle, that vehicle is usually going to be delivered to the branch where you are renting just a bit before you get there. Often rental car companies don't have that car and they will try a lot of tactics to get you to rent another car—often up-selling customers to bigger cars. Customers should stick to their reservations and demand the cars they are promised. [Thanks, Brad Tuttle, for your suggestion that we write about Alex's book.] MORE CONFESSIONS Confessions Of... A Front-Desk Clerk and Readers React to "Confessions Of... A Front-Desk Clerk"
Rare passport stamps
We loved the exotic passport stamps that readers of BudgetTravel.com recently shared. Here's a slide show of the most fascinating ones, from Laos, Turkey, Libya, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Brazil, Suriname, Mozambique, and Bangladesh. Since publishing the slide show, we've received a couple more rare ones: Back in the 1970s, I made many trips to Afghanistan, where I was involved in helping the Afghan government start a new medical school in the city of Jalalabad. On one of these trips, I was traveling from Karachi, Pakistan, where I had picked up a case of Skippy peanut butter at the American Embassy commissary to take to my son who was working in a youth camp in France, where I was headed the next day. When the Afghan customs officer at Kabul Airport asked what was in the box, I told him it was food and took the cap off one of the jars so he could see and smell it. He was totally bewildered, and filled up this entire page in my passport giving me permission to import the stuff, so that when I departed the next day I would be permitted to take it out through Customs.—Edwin W. Brown, M.D., Indianapolis When my husband and I traveled to Zimbabwe in 2005, we got this cool stamp. We were there on a hunting safari and I got to go to Victoria Falls too. The falls were so powerful and beautiful! At the time the country had it's share of troubles, and it's saddening to know that it has continued it's spiral downward. With the fastest growing inflation in the world and severe shortages of everything, the country is in great turmoil.—Wende Warren, Milwaukee [who has a blog]. Shown at left is a honorary stamp from Port Lockroy, British Antarctic Territory.You'll find the stories behind all of the stamps featured in the slide show here. Update 11/28: It’s not too late, you can still send us your coolest passport stamps
How to buy travelers' confiscated and lost items
Transportation Security Administration officials at airport checkpoints have confiscated millions of items annually since 9/11; chain saws, fuzzy handcuffs, nunchucks, and ulus (round Eskimo chopping blades) are among the craziest. The contraband is turned over to state surplus agencies, and our recent story Leftover Loot details where you can puchase it in stores and online. Not only is more stuff being confiscated, but the amount of lost and mishandled luggage is rising. On the eve of Thanksgiving—when an estimated 27 million passengers are expected to be flying—the New York Times reported that all major airlines have had increased difficulties with baggage in 2007. ("One in every 138 checked bags was lost during the first nine months of this year, compared with one in 155 bags a year earlier.") After 90 days, an unclaimed bag's contents are put up for sale at the aptly named Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), a 40,000-sq.-ft. store and the biggest tourist attraction in tiny Scottsboro, Ala. The UBC has seen its own share of oddities, from a suitcase full of Egyptian artifacts dating to 1500 B.C. (sold to Christie's) to a 5.8-karat solitaire diamond ring (bought by a couple from Tennessee for $23,000). More than 7,000 items arrive daily, and spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell cautioned that the privately-owned UBC can't take requests to search for anything specific. Disgruntled callers are instead invited to make a trip to Scottsboro—as are interested shoppers. The press-savvy store's website allows you to take a tour and read about surprising finds, but not to make online purchases. According to Cantrell, the UBC has only one documented case of a retrieved lost possession: A man passing through on business picked up a gift for his wife, who had the unexpected pleasure of being reunited with lost ski boots that had her initials monogrammed inside. A photo of assorted goods for sale at the Unclaimed Baggage Center (courtesy of the UBC). RELATED: Tired of lugging your luggage? Ship it!, Pack to Avoid Checking Luggage, and Confessions of a Baggage Handler.
Now you see this museum, now you don't
You know those sorta-bookish, sorta-edgy glasses Johnny Depp is always wearing? I became obsessed with them recently when I decided I needed glasses, so I did some research. It turns out that they're made by Moscot, and the company's flagship store is right here in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side. The shop has been open for more than 90 years and is something of an institution. A travel destination? Unless you share my optical obsession, probably not. I just learned, though, that the shop is turning its first floor into a temporary museum, which, to my mind, earns it instant travel-worthy status. The collection will consist of never-before-released black-and-white photographs of the Lower East Side from the 1930s to the 1970s. As any New Yorker will tell you, before the neighborhood was taken over by American Apparel, Whole Foods, and more hipsters than you can shake a leg warmer at, it was home to one of New York's most prominent immigrant communities. With such a rich, eclectic history to draw from, these photographs are bound to be interesting. The collection will only be up from November 23 to December 31—here and gone before you know it. If you visit, be sure to head upstairs to the retail shop and check out the eyeglasses. Turns out my vision is fine, after all (and I would never be able to pull these off anyway), but maybe you can come up with an excuse to buy a pair. Moscot Museum, November 23 through December 31 Grand opening: November 23 1 p.m.—7 p.m. Regular hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 1 p.m.—7 p.m. Saturdays: 1 p.m. - 6 p.m. Sundays: 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. 118 Orchard Street (at Delancey) Subway: F train to Delancey Street) MORE BY BETH COLLINS Traveling for the food. A new online tool makes trip-planning easier. Flickr can help you buy a camera.