I Resolve to Travel in 2023

Whether or not you are a fan of making News Year’s resolutions, chances are you plan to travel in 2023. Travel is always a great goal, and though the travel environment continues to offer challenges, the outlook for 2023 is good and improving.

I’ve written that travel bargains are a thing of the past. That won’t change for 2023, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice value. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of the travel dollars you spend in 2023.

1. Book early. The days of last minute travel bargains are over…booking early is the best way to maximize value from your travel dollars. It usually gets you the best price and it always gets you the best choice of itinerary and accommodations. You may find also more add-ons included in your trip price, and you’ll get the best choice of dates. The most popular destinations and cruises are already booking up for 2023 so if you wait, you may be disappointed.

2. Not every trip worth taking is a bucket list trip. Know the difference and where you are willing to make trade-offs in your travel that can save you money. Premium economy air is great, business class air is even better, but is either worth spending more than the cost of the rest of your trip when you only get to enjoy the benefit for a few hours? Maybe for a bucket list trip, not so much for a weekend getaway to Miami. Know where you are willing to make cost trade-offs and put your money where you’ll get the greatest return.

3. Once you book a trip, don’t look back. The time to price shop is before you book, not after. Once you’ve booked your trip, think about the value you are getting out of the travel dollars you spend and don’t dwell on whether you could have saved a few bucks. Cheap travel is just that…cheap travel, and it is almost never the best value. When a client we’ve booked finds a lower price for their trip, we check into it for them. Invariably we find that getting that lower price involves tradeoffs they aren’t willing to make. Once you’ve booked a trip, don’t look back…look forward to making the most of the trip you booked.

4. Buy trip insurance. I wish I could say air travel will improve in 2023. It won’t. Air remains one of the few downsides of travel…United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby recently said as much to industry analysts and travel reporters. Kirby commented, “The system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth. There are a number of airlines who cannot fly their schedules. The customers are paying the price.” Purchasing trip insurance gives you peace of mind if your flights get bolluxed up and it protects you against more costly expenses should you encounter medical problems like illness or injury. Nobody likes to think about all the things that could go wrong when they plan their vacation, but trip insurance can protect you financially if the unthinkable happens.

5. Avoid peak travel times. Easy to say, harder to do but it is worth considering how much flexibility you have in your schedule. If you can’t avoid the peak travel season, and many people can’t, perhaps you can go early or late enough in the season to avoid paying the highest prices.

6. Stay longer. Airfare continues to be one of most expensive components of travel. Planning for a longer trip won’t necessarily save you on airfare, but it can help you make the most of the money you do spend, and that’s what value is all about.

7. Avoid changing plans. There is almost no aspect of travel that doesn’t end up costing you more when you make changes after you’ve booked. Spend more time planning before you book so you are less likely to need changes once you’ve committed money to a trip.

8. Make sure the trip you are taking is the trip YOU want to take. Too often people choose destinations, tours, or cruises because family members or friends made the same trip last year and had an amazing experience. That’s great for them…but does it work for you? Make 2023 the year you are the trend setter.

9. Ignore supplier marketing. I get dozens of marketing e-mails every day. Some suppliers send me multiple “deals” each day…every day. Is their really value in all those specials? No, of course not. All of those deals you see in your e-mails or in ads aren’t real. They are marketing ploys intended to get you emotionally hooked on a trip so you’ll pay more than you plan to, or to convince you to take a trip the supplier wants to sell you rather than the trip you want to take.

10. Use a competent travel advisor. Whether that is Tidewater Cruise and Travel or another advisor you have a relationship with, a travel advisor is the best way to get the most value out of your hard-earned money.

The cost of travel is not going down, but that doesn’t mean travel isn’t a good investment. Plan early, know what you want to get out of each trip you take, buy trip insurance, and use a travel advisor to help you get the best value for the money you spend.

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Destination Revisited: Cuba…It’s Complicated but Getting Easier

Janet and I have enjoyed many unique travel experiences, but I have to say one of the most memorable was our trip to Cuba four years ago. We enjoyed seeing the country and we loved the opportunity it gave us to interact with the Cuban people. That trip highlighted the core principle of one of our suppliers…a principle we embrace through our travel business, “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” We didn’t realize at the time of our Cuba trip how difficult it would soon become to make a return visit, but getting back to Cuba remains on our list of travel goals and it just got a bit easier.

Travel to Cuba has been a bit of a roller coaster, starting with President Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions, followed by President Trump’s rollback of those more permissive rules, ending with President Biden’s pledge to revisit relations with Cuba. The anticipated return to more relaxed travel rules has been slow and was interrupted by COVID, but I’m happy to report there has been some recent progress. Tourist travel to Cuba is still not allowed, which means you can’t decide to take a weekend hop to Havana and spend your time on the beach. But commercial flights have resumed and there are once again opportunities to visit Cuba legally on State Department approved People-to-People cultural exchange tours.

We work with several suppliers licensed to operate legal and compliant tours to Cuba, and I’ve looked at their itineraries…they are similar to the land portion of the tour Janet and I took when we cruised to Cuba. The People-to-People compliance is built into the tour itinerary and the supplier does all the paperwork to make sure it is legal, so you don’t feel constrained…in most respects it is no different than traveling with any organized tour group.

For now you’ll have to settle for land tours in Cuba…cruise lines are still prohibited from sailing to Cuba from the U.S. Even after they are permitted to return, I don’t see cruise lines quick to resume sailing. The cruise lines have become mired in a civil suit brought in Florida courts by descendants of the owners of Havana Docks, a company located in Florida that claims ownership of the Havana port facilities that were nationalized following the revolution. The suit claims that the cruise lines illegally benefited from the uncompensated use of the Havana Docks facilities in Cuba under the more relaxed travel policies of the Obama administration. I don’t see any cruise line sailing to Cuba from the U.S. until the Cuban government completes construction of a new cruise pier and terminal unencumbered by claims of past ownership, a project that was just getting started when we visited in 2019.

One aspect of our tour that impressed me was the open access we had to the Cuban people. The People-to-People program provides structure for tour activities, but it doesn’t restrict you from interacting with anybody you encounter, and we did. Some chose not to talk with us, but most openly and willingly discussed life in Cuba. And they didn’t pull their punches…they gave us an unvarnished view of their lives.

The older generation of folk we talked with were still supportive of their government, even as they acknowledged its shortcomings. Younger Cubans who have only known life in today’s Cuba were far more critical and expressed impatience toward gaining greater freedom. They were quick to point out the failings of the Cuban government, divorce and alcoholism are both widespread in Cuba and food staples are rationed. It can take several months of saving rations to collect the ingredients necessary just to make a simple birthday cake. One fellow I spoke with said something that struck me as memorable, both because of the sadness and longing in his voice and the simple truth of what he said. He told me, “We don’t make anything anymore. We rely on others.” Most of the Cubans we spoke with, including the older generation, are tired of being beholden to others…the former Soviet Union, Venezuela, and increasingly their own government’s control. They openly expressed a desire for change.

Tourism remains one of the few bright spots for Cuba’s economy. We are one of the few countries that still prohibit tourist travel…even Canada allows their citizens to visit Cuba, requiring nothing more than a passport and a visa. Before COVID travel restrictions hit, tourism was a growing industry in Cuba. COVID restrictions have since been lifted and Cuba’s slowly  recovering tourism industry is fueling a growing partnership between the government and private citizens. Private business ownership which was tightly controlled before COVID has been expanded since. The Cuban government recently extended legalized ownership of private businesses to include small and medium sized operations that can employ up to 100 people. Most private businesses in the tourist sector involve families using their homes as restaurants or B&B type lodgings known as Casa Particulares. Money brought in by private businesses though tourism is taxed…at a rate of about 8% from what we were told, which the Cubans involved gladly paid. It brings in money from foreign tourists that they use to buy food and necessities that are otherwise rationed or in short supply from government stores, both to support their business and their families.

Cuba is a far cry from its pre-Castro heydays. Much of the once beautiful architecture has sadly deteriorated. A visit to today’s Cuba is a sobering experience, but one well worth making. I won’t forget the time we spent on our trip, nor will I forget the many conversations we had with the people who are eager for change and a better life. Our visits help fuel their dreams of a better Cuba, with the ability to one day live and work in freedom. I won’t pretend to understand all of the complexities involved in our government’s position on Cuba, or the pain of people who escaped the revolution with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But I have to think tourism is one way we can improve things.

Let me say again that I highly recommend visiting Cuba. Even with the constraints of the People-to-People program, or perhaps because of them, you’ll come away with experiences that challenge what you thought you knew about Cuba, and with a better appreciation for the plight of the Cuban people. Seeing Cuba for yourself is truly the best example of how you can “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” Give us a call and we’ll set you up on a legal, compliant tour that you won’t soon forget.

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A Plane Ticket Is Not A Sweater

Like most people in my generation, I grew up with the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. So why do I find myself getting suckered into reading social media posts and travel articles that offer to reveal the latest hack that will get me cheap travel? What is a hack if not social media’s version of a free lunch? Most recently I ran across an article titled, “The secret to cheap flights? Stalk after booking.” The words “secret” “cheap” and “stalk” are click bait red flags that I usually skip right past, but against my better judgement I found myself reading the article. In my defense, it was published in the Washington Post which gave it at least a modicum of legitimacy. Or so I thought. Silly me.

My gripe with the WAPO article, and others like it, is that they leave travelers with unrealistic expectations. The hacks, or cheat code as the WAPO author called it, rarely work. The few occasions when they might actually be useful generally involve restrictions that are impractical for anyone to benefit from, except maybe a travel writer. Hmm…

The WAPO article’s premise is straightforward…purchase a plane ticket and then watch the price like a hawk. If the cost of your flight goes down just cancel your ticket and repurchase at the lower price, putting the savings, which will be in the form of a future flight credit, toward your next trip. There’s so much wrong with that approach to booking air that I hardly know where to begin, so let me start with this….it doesn’t work.

Treating a plane ticket like a department store sweater purchase might have worked for a few minutes, at the height of the pandemic when airplanes were flying nearly empty and airlines were practically giving away tickets along with waiving their change and cancellation fee policies, but those days are gone. And with planes back to flying full, even with those ridiculously high prices, non-refundable fares are once again non-refundable. Which means the WAPO hack doesn’t work. Even if you fly Southwest where you can still cancel without penalty the hack doesn’t work…Southwest’s prices are lowest when they are first released and only go up from there.

When I purchase air I stalk prices before I buy, which is the opposite of the WAPO article’s strategy. My golden window to purchase a plane ticket is between 2-8 months in advance, and sooner rather than later if I’m traveling over a holiday or during the peak summer vacation travel season. I track the price of flights I’m interested in for several weeks and when I’m satisfied the price is stable, and that my trip is a go…very important detail since I always buy non-refundable tickets, I buy. Once I buy a plane ticket, I don’t look back. Even if I could cancel a ticket without penalty, I’ve got a much better shot at winning the lottery than I do rebooking air at a lower price. The one thing I don’t do is wait too long, hoping prices will come down. They might, but they are much more likely to go up.

Some people swear by apps that track air ticket prices and send an alert when the price of the flight being tracked goes below whatever threshold you set. I’ve tried using those and found them to be pretty worthless. They give the illusion of being helpful without actually being helpful. The times I’ve gotten a price reduction alert using one of those apps, I found the price had gone back up before I could make a purchase. It has happened often enough that I wonder if the price ever really went down.

When it comes to air travel there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You can’t even buy lunch on most domestic flights these days…you have to hit the food court before you board! All you can do is balance ticket cost and schedule risk against your risk tolerance, and once you’ve made the decision to buy, don’t look back.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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A Peek Behind the Curtain

One of the comments Janet and I see most often on our social media posts are people telling us how much they wished they had our jobs. I understand where that comes from, and we take it as a compliment. We travel a lot, and we post lots of pictures. We do that to inspire each of you to travel, even when it means going outside your comfort zone. Travel is an investment in yourself…in experiences, other cultures, and above all, in memories.

That’s the fun side of travel. As travel advisors, we also have to deal with the sausage making side. We try to keep all that messiness hidden behind a curtain, but I thought I would pull that curtain back, just a bit, to let you see some of what we do to help you get the most out of your travels.

Let me start by sharing that when you are a travel advisor, you never get a vacation. No really…you don’t. My fitbit challenge group always knows when I’m traveling…my daily step count goes from under 3,000 steps per day when I’m home…it’s a long commute between my desk and the coffee pot…to over 10,000 and often 20,000 steps per day when I travel. Most of the steps I take when I travel aren’t getting me to the fun; they take me to all corners of the resorts, destinations, and cruise ships we visit so I can check out the things I think YOU might enjoy. These trips aren’t devoid of fun for us, but usually the fun is in learning so we can share with our clients.

We made the decision early on to reinvest the bulk of our profits back into our business, and most of that is in the form of travel. It is a myth that travel agents get lots of free travel. Maybe at one time that was true…many years ago, and long before we got into the business. Occasionally we get to take advantage of some discounts available only to travel agents, and we get invited to participate in cruise ship inaugurals or supplier familiarization trips, but those opportunities aren’t free. They allow us to stretch our travel dollars further than we otherwise could, but we have yet to enjoy any “free” travel. Most of the time when we travel, we pay what you pay.

Anytime we travel we make the most of it, arranging inspections of as many properties as we can. We post pictures of Janet’s neatly pedicured feet relaxing on the beach because we want you to see the experience you’ll have. We keep the pictures of her swollen and sweaty feet tired after a long day of inspecting properties hidden behind the curtain. You’re welcome!

We firmly believe you can’t be a travel advisor, a good travel advisor, if you don’t travel often, so we do. We also believe in continuing education. There is no formal certification or licensing requirement to be a travel advisor, which is probably why there are so many bad travel agents. Janet has gone through the most prestigious and demanding voluntary certification programs the industry offers, and we’ve both attained specialty certifications for the areas of travel we sell.

In addition to traveling and staying current on our certifications, each year we spend many hours in supplier training and at conferences to keep up to date with changes to brands, destinations, and properties, as well as travel trends. During the height of the COVID pandemic Janet spent a ridiculous amount of time keeping up with the constantly changing travel restrictions, testing, and vaccination requirements. We heard far too many horror stories from colleagues who had travelers show up for a flight or a cruise only to be denied boarding because their COVID documentation wasn’t adequate. We didn’t want that to happen to our clients.

It only takes about 20-30 minutes to book a trip…it’s the least time-consuming thing we do, but being a good travel advisor involves much more than navigating a booking engine. Before we ever get to booking a trip we’ve spent hours researching and sharing the options, customizing each trip to fit our clients’ needs. We don’t follow a one size fits all approach like some travel agents, where your vacation dreams are shoehorned into a set of options constrained by the agent’s limited experience, or those that make them the highest commission.

We are travel advisors, not booking agents, and we work hard to find the travel opportunities that best fit your needs and your budget. Sure, you might be able to find trips that cost less money than what we plan for you, but that usually involves making compromises and taking risks than rarely turn out well.  Remember…when we travel we usually pay what you pay…we’ve gotten very good at finding the best value for our travel dollars and we share that expertise with all of our clients. We don’t play games with pricing. We take the time to give you a real price quote from the beginning and update it as we customize the trip to your needs. And if a better price becomes available after we’ve booked you, we’ll do everything we can to get it for you, or to explain why the “deal” isn’t available for your booking and let you decide if the trade-offs required to get the “deal” are worth making. They almost never are.

Once we’ve booked a trip for a client, we service their booking until they return home and even beyond that if there are any lingering issues to be worked through. You won’t get that when you book direct from a supplier’s consumer website, or from a discount online booking service, which is why the internet is full of travel horror stories. We share a wealth of information with our clients to ensure you make the most of your time. I won’t get into all that we do to service our clients’ bookings…that’s part of the messiness better left behind the curtain along with Janet’s sweaty toes. I’ll just say it generally means multiple phone calls and long hours on hold, often educating suppliers who know less about their products than we do. We don’t mind…we’d rather be the ones making calls to suppliers and spending time on hold than our clients.

Travel comes with risk, but a big part of the value we bring to our clients is minimizing the risks, and then giving you a resource to turn to if something unexpected comes up. We can’t completely avoid things like flight delays and cancellations, or changes in cruise itineraries, but we can minimize the risks and put you in a position to recover quickly if something does happen. We spend a considerable amount of time planning for all the things you wouldn’t think of, so you don’t have to. If it has happened to someone sometime, we do whatever we can to try to prevent it from happening to you.

Travel is still fun for us, but it is a different kind of fun. Just as many of you enjoy our travel vicariously through our social media posts, we enjoy your travel when you come back and share some of the amazing memories you’ve made. And the greatest compliment you can give us is when you refer us to your friends and family. It means we’ve succeeded in keeping all the messiness that goes into planning travel hidden behind the curtain, so you can enjoy creating lifelong vacation memories. That’s more than a tag line for us…it is our passion.

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Black Friday…The Day After

You can’t trust anything you read or hear from the “news” these days. I offer two examples to prove my point: headlines back in October warning of a turkey shortage just in time to ruin Thanksgiving, and headlines earlier this week reporting a worldwide strike at Amazon just in time to ruin Black Friday. Here is my take on both stories as I sit on my patio this day after Black Friday, enjoying the birds, the sun, and the unseasonably comfortable weather.

The Turkey Shortage That Wasn’t

The turkey shortage headline cited a combination of ongoing supply chain issues, complicated by an avian flu outbreak that decimated the supply of turkeys. It all sounds reasonable until you actually think about it. Frozen turkeys are produced year-round…the supply is well protected from seasonal pressures like avian flu and supply chain problems, and even from a spike in demand around the holidays. Big Agra actually reported a glut in their supply of frozen turkeys earlier this fall, with on hand stocks 10% higher this year over the past two years. Demand was up this year for sure…large family gatherings reached pre-COVID levels for the first time since the pandemic. But there was no shortage. Frozen turkeys are bred and processed year-round and the supply is well insulated from seasonal pressures.

To be fair, there was an outbreak of avian flu this summer, but that only affects the supply of fresh turkeys, and there is an outbreak of avian flu every summer. This year’s outbreak may have been worse than in the past, but it is something big Agra plans for. What made this year different, at least a far as fresh turkey goes, is that big Agra intentionally reduced their breeding program for fresh turkeys by 20%. They wanted to reduce the supply of fresh turkeys this Thanksgiving so they could create a real sense of urgency, and then jack up prices. Which they did.

Even though the predicted turkey shortage didn’t materialize, the high prices certainly did. But as with every year the price of fresh turkeys tanked the day after Thanksgiving. Fresh birds that Wegmans sold for $2.69 per pound the day before Thanksgiving were put on sale for just $1.29 per pound the day after. That’s less than frozen turkey, which is holding steady at $1.69 per pound. Those frozen turkeys can sit in the display case for up to a year, but grocery stores only have a few weeks to sell out the fresh turkeys they buy in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

Black Friday Mirage

Is Black Friday even real anymore? I’ve never been one to set the alarm clock the day after Thanksgiving and go bat shit crazy at retail stores in search of bargains. My idea of Black Friday shopping is to check Amazon while I sip my third cup of coffee, which was the extent of my Black Friday shopping this year.  Do you want to know how much money I saved by shopping on Black Friday? ZERO.

I was a little concerned as I scanned the news headlines before moving on to my shopping list. I saw headlines reporting a worldwide Amazon strike. I don’t do much retail shopping for the holidays so anything impacting Amazon would be a problem for me. But I was ready. I had created my holiday shopping list on Amazon back in September in anticipation of all those Black Friday specials I was going to cash in on. As long as the strikes didn’t impact Amazon’s website, I would be OK.

I hit the Amazon website much earlier than I planned. For some reason my body was wide awake at 5AM, so there I was just a little before 6 shopping on Amazon eager to see how much money I was going to save. Turns out I didn’t save a penny. Oh sure, every item on my list was tagged with a “Black Friday Special” label, and the sale prices reflected a 35-45% markdown from what the site listed as the regular price. But the actual purchase price, the “Black Friday Sale” price, was the same on Black Friday as it had been when I put the items on my shopping list back in September.

Amazon had jacked up the “regular” price overnight just so they could present the illusion of a great bargain sale price. That’s marketing, something we often encounter often in our travel business. And it works. Only in my case it didn’t. I only bought one item, something I planned to buy anyway, and I paid what I would have paid the day before Black Friday, which is the same I would have paid the day after Black Friday.

What about that worldwide Amazon strike? Well I don’t know. What I do know is the one item I purchased off my Amazon shopping list at 6AM on Black Friday morning was delivered that same day, to my porch, at 10AM. Black Friday prices aren’t what gets me to buy from Amazon…it is their quick delivery. That and the fact that I can shop in my PJs while I sip coffee with Christmas music playing in the background. Holiday shopping sure has come a long way!

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some turkeys to buy.

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What’s In A Name? A Restaurant Review

I mentioned to Janet a few weeks ago that I would like to go out for dinner sometime before things got too crazy at Christmas. As we hit the online menus for our favorite places Janet commented, “You’re too good to me.” I don’t think that could ever be true considering what she puts up with from me, but she went on to say that I’m too good to her in the kitchen. We weren’t finding anything interesting enough to justify the outrageous cost compared with what I can cook in my own kitchen. I mean, when did pork chops and chicken breasts break the $35 barrier?

Still, Janet decided to give me a break from the kitchen for my birthday so I decided on Thatcher and Rye, Chef Brian Voltaggio’s rebranding of his flagship restaurant Volt. He had to close Volt at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when the restaurant business tanked along with so many other social endeavors. If I’m being honest, the timing was fortuitous. My last few experiences at Volt left me thinking its best days were in the past.

The rebranding went beyond a change in name, livery and décor. Where Volt offered a very hands-on in the kitchen approach with their menu offerings, Thatcher and Rye presents a more COVID-friendly minimalist take on dining out. From the QR code accessible menu to the fast pace of service, dinner at Thatcher and Rye is all about risk management in a pandemic environment where touch and time spent in an enclosed setting are minimized. Thankfully the changes did not come at the expense of flavor.

Even before COVID, the trend for dining out was toward simplifying menus, moving from a six course meal to just two, and with minimal downtime spent at the table between courses. Thatcher and Rye does a great job of all that. Too good in some respects. They no longer offer an amuse bouche to kick things off, and there was no palate cleansing sorbet before the main course. I didn’t miss the brain freeze I usually get from eating the sorbet too fast, but I did miss the amuse bouche. Chef Voltaggio is the best in the business at packing an array of flavor and texture into one small spoon that explodes in your mouth, much to the delight of my tastebuds.

Our server was knowledgeable. He answered my questions about ingredients and composition without hesitation, and the pace of service was attentive and brisk. Whereas dinner at Volt used to be a leisurely three-hour affair for me, we were in and out of Thacher and Rye in just 90 minutes. The menu features two sections, one of which is desserts, the other is everything else. Instead of a forced separation into multiple courses, this menu left it up to the diner to build their own one, two, or yes even six course dinner if you must….the components are all there. As someone who frequently orders a starter for my main, it was refreshing.

Another touch that I appreciated was smaller portion sizes, not quite tapas but not far from it. That isn’t new for Chef Voltaggio…he has always focused on quality, creativity, and above all else, flavor. I enjoy unraveling layered flavors, and I don’t measure whether I’m getting my money’s worth by counting the number of bites…I wallow in each one.

Right…so onto the food. Rather than the usual basket of bread or rolls, half of which don’t get eaten and end up in the trash bin, our server started us off with two bite sized corn bread poppers. I popped that sucker into my mouth without bothering with the spread that came on the side, enojying it for what it was…a well baked morsel of airy sweet-corn heaven. It was a good beginning.

We decided to share an order of the Parker House Rolls for our only starter, and it was the lone disappointment of the evening. Don’t get me wrong, they were perfectly baked and the dash of coarse salt on top was inspired. But they weren’t hot. At best they came to us slightly above room temperature, as did all of our dishes. I suppose that’s the cost of having a briskly paced dinner service, but I’d rather spend more time at the table and have my food served made to order hot.

The rolls were accompanied by a plate of rich and creamy butter, as well as a smoked salmon and cream cheese schmear with a spoonful of roe nestled on top. The schmear was surrounded by drizzles of a chive oil with a vibrant green color that complimented the bright orange of the salmon roe, offering as much a treat to the eye as it was the palate. For me, as good as the salmon spread was, it didn’t go with Parker House Rolls. That’s just my bias…I like my fresh baked rolls, hot straight from the oven please, unadulterated with anything but butter. I sampled the schmear and I can tell you, on a bagel it would have been delish. The pop of brine as I bit down on the roe was a playful touch that I enjoyed, and the chive oil drizzle added a biting bit of herbaceousness. But Parker House rolls aren’t bagels, and they don’t need anything more than butter. Oh I ate my share of the schmear…I’m not crazy. It was yummy! I just didn’t put it on the roll.

I chose the ravioli for my entrée, mainly because Brian’s ravioli are what made me fall in love with his style of culinary creativity during our first experience at Volt back in 2014. I still marvel at how thin he managed to roll his pasta. To be precise, because Chef Voltaggio IS precise, that dish I enoyed so much at Volt was mezzaluna, not ravioli. I didn’t fully appreciate the difference until mid-way through this dinner.

My plate came with half a dozen pumpkin colored, traditionally shaped ravioli swimming in an eye-catching bath of honeynut squash sauce that was as much a puree as it was a sauce. I know Brian uses interesting additions to color and flavor his pasta, sometimes ash and sometimes beetroot powder, appropriate to the seasonal nature of his menu on any particular day. In this case I am guessing he used pumpkin or some other form of fall squash. It added yet another layer of flavor to an already richly complex dish. The sauce was just a shade richer in color with a garnish of painstakingly placed microgreens.

The ravioli looked delicious, but my first bite was a bit of a disappointment. I tried a bite of the pasta without any sauce, expecting the same delicate wrapper filled with just a dollop of cheese as I got with Volt’s mezzaluna. I didn’t get that. What I got was pasta with the same thickness and texture as the ravioli I make in my own kitchen, and it was stuffed so full of goats cheese the sour tang was an assault on my taste buds. I was confused. This was not the dish I expected.

Silly me. What I forgot was that pasta dishes are all about the sauce, and with my first bite I left off the sauce. Italian cuisine is known for its many forms of pasta, but they aren’t interchangeable. Each is engineered with exacting characteristics intended to serve as a vessel to deliver the particular sauce it is served in. So though my first bite gave me a thicker pasta and more cheese than I anticipated, the viscosity of the honeynut squash sauce demanded both. Once I realized that and allowed the pasta to do its job of carrying the sauce into my mouth, I got over my initial disappointment and appreciated the dish for what it was meant to be…a cornucopia of fall flavors.

The ravioli and sauce were garnished with a pumpkin seed crunch…roasted pumpkin seeds caramelized in a drizzle that reminded me of cranberry. Maybe it was cranberry, maybe it wasn’t…but the sweetness was a nice counterpoint to the earthiness of the squash. The crunch gave a textural contrast to the softness of the pasta and the silky mouthfeel of the honeynut squash. The dish was a parade of flavors and textures and it represented everything I love about Chef Voltaggio’s creative cookery.

Janet ordered the chicken. When I saw the price, at $36, I thought she better be getting the whole damned chicken with a few golden eggs on the side. She didn’t. Her dish consisted of one half of one breast, skin on. She was good enough to share a few bites, and can I just say it was a huntsman’s palate of fall flavors. Somehow the meat was moist and flavorful yet with a lightly golden, perfectly crisped and well-seasoned skin. I don’t know how Brian does that. On the surface it looks like such a simple dish, yet it delivered such complex layers of flavor and texture. It was perfect…creatively imagined, flawlessly executed, and worth every penny.

The chicken was accompanied by a brodo with gnudi. Those are two menu descriptors it helps to understand. I didn’t, but I looked them up at the table. Brodo is Italian for stock, and gnudi are like gnocchi except they are made with ricotta and semolina instead of potato. The brodo in Janet’s dish was far more flavorful than any stock I’ve tasted, and the gnudi gave it a toothsome quality without the heavy density of gnocchi.

The chicken was garnished with chanterelle mushrooms and pickled red onion. I love chanterelles, but I expected the red onion to be harsh and out of balance with the rest of the dish. It wasn’t. The lite pickling tamed them nicely letting through just a hint of acidity. It would be easy to go over the top with the different components of this dish, but it all came together with a carefully reserved touch.

Dessert was good…not amazing, probably because I’ve had it before. I went with the cheesecake made with goats cheese, topped with a scoop of grape sorbet and garnished with curry almond granola. The curried granola was a new experience for me, but very much in keeping with the seasonal fall palate that ran throughout the menu. Both the crunchy texture and the exotic nature of the curry transformed an already good cheesecake into a nice end to a great meal.

I miss Volt, particularly the way Brian married his mastery of molecular gastronomy with his uniquely modern take on classic French and Italian techniques. Thatcher and Rye is a nod to operating a restaurant in a tough marketplace where the often unrealistic demands of food network trained diners compete with the reality of out of control food prices. I’m happy to say it does all that while retaining the creativity and complexity of flavors that make dining out a treat. It’s probably the only place I am willing to pay over $35 for a pork chop or half a chicken breast.

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Let’s Talk Turkey…

Tradition! I believe in tradition, especially when it comes to the holidays. There’s something comforting and familiar about traditions as they get passed down from one generation to the next with each generation adding their own interpretation, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays when traditions matter. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have turkey for Thanksgiving. I even had turkey for Thanksgiving when I lived in Turkey (the country) a lifetime ago. That’s tradition.

Our family Thanksgiving tradition comes from a combination of my family and Janet’s. I serve a whole roasted turkey with all the usual side dishes like stuffing and lumpy mashed potatoes. I tried using an immersion blender a few years ago to smooth out the lumps in my potatoes but they ended up with the consistency and texture of kindergarten paste. Take it from someone who ate his share of kindergarten paste back in the day, that isn’t tasty. Janet makes the mashed potatoes in our house now, and I enjoy the lumps because they remind me of my mother’s mashed potatoes. Janet’s family contributed sauerkraut to our Thanksgiving tradition. I don’t like sauerkraut and I don’t eat it, but every year I make sure I pick up a bag of the stuff when I get the turkey. Because…Tradition!

And gravy. You gotta have gravy. Everybody pretends the gravy is for their mashed potatoes but its really so they can dredge their turkey in it. Let’s face it, turkey without the gravy is dry and boring. Honestly, I have yet to cook a really good turkey for Thanksgiving, just ask my family, but the gravy bails me out every year.

I’m pretty good in the kitchen at most things, but not turkey. Why do we observe such an important holiday with such a blah dish as the centerpiece anyway? I mean, I get why it was the main course at the first Thanksgiving…work with what nature, and the indigenous population, gives you and all that. But nowadays we have our choice of entrées. Why don’t we eat lasagna for Thanksgiving? I like lasagna. Oh yeah…Tradition!

I went on a rant two years ago about the roast I cooked my family for Christmas Eve dinner, another family tradition. I learned from that experience that the most important decision you can make when cooking beef is at the butcher shop. No amount of culinary skill can make up for an inferior cut of beef. Not so with turkey. All the magic happens in your kitchen no matter what you bring home from the poulter. You get that when I say butcher and poulter I really mean the meat case at your local grocery store where you pick through whatever products they happen to get from big Agra, right? It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your turkey, whether you get fresh or frozen, butter injected under the skin or not…they all turn out pretty much tasteless. That’s why we spend so much time on the side dishes. And the gravy! Gravy fixes everything. Except sauerkraut. Bleck!

I’ve done my homework on this. I’ve tried everything in my BubbaGump-esque attempt to find culinary turkey perfection…frozen turkeys, fresh turkeys, kosher turkeys, wet brined turkeys, dry brined turkeys, un-brined turkeys, free-range turkeys, name brand turkeys, store brand turkeys, generic turkeys, hormone and antibiotic free turkeys…you name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve paid as little as $13 for a 20-pound frozen generic store brand bird and as much as $120 for a 15-pound pick-your-own-from-the-field free-range hormone and antibiotic free turkey that was so fresh it was slaughtered the day before I picked it up. The cheap frozen bird turned out better, which is not to say it turned out great. Somehow all the turkeys I’ve roasted turn out tasting about the same…meh. A few years ago I started brining my turkey and that helps, but there’s only so much a dash of salt can to do flavor an otherwise tasteless protein.

The reason it is nearly impossible for a home cook, and even for many professional chefs, to get any flavor from a turkey has to do with big Agra. In the 1960s, not long after I was born, big Agra set out to come up with a breed of turkey that was cost effective to raise, and that had a higher muscle to bone ratio. Those two things increased the profitability of raising turkeys, and that made big Agra happy. After years of cross breeding they came up with a marvel of agricultural bioengineering…the broad breasted white. This is a breed that goes from egg to table in 4 short months, in the process developing a ridiculous amount of muscle mass, mostly concentrated in the breasts…hence the name. In exchange for the fast growth rate and huge breasts, the broad breasted white has no taste. It doesn’t. None.  They don’t live long enough to develop any. Big Agra bred the flavor out of turkey. That and a few other things…all in the name of profit. Big Agra ruined Thanksgiving.

Broad breasted white turkeys constitute over 98% of turkeys sold in this country. These birds are mutant freaks, the result of years of cross breeding that yields oversized breasts on an undersized frame. Broad breasted white turkeys are such freaks they are physically incapable of mating. Wait…what? Yep…they live incredibly short lives, and they don’t even get to have sex. It would kill them if they tried…literally. The undersized bones in those little drumsticks can’t support the weight of their huge breasts. If they tried to do anything as strenuous as mating their legs would snap in half. Even if they didn’t, they still couldn’t do the deed…their huge breasts get in the way. All turkeys sold in the grocery store are raised from artificially inseminated eggs. I’m not even kidding about that…you can fact check me on google.

The result of all that breast meat is that by the time you get your turkey cooked to the USDA safety standard of “165 degrees F as measured at the thickest part of the breast, the innermost part of the wing and the innermost part of the thigh,” most of the rest of the bird is hopelessly overcooked. Whatever flavor your bird might have had to start with gets cooked out by the time it makes it to your table. I suppose that’s a small price to pay in return for killing off all the salmonella that turkeys are infested with. Big Agra raises them in such closely confined pens they spend the entirety of their short and sexless lives wallowing around in their own feces. Thanksgiving lasagna is sounding better and better, isn’t it?

I like turkey. I do. Especially for Thanksgiving. As blah as my turkeys turn out the leftovers make it all worthwhile. In addition to the best ever turkey sandwiches, the carcass makes great soup. That’s tradition, and there’s something to be said for tradition. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Scary Cost of Travel

Happy halloween! You wanna know what’s scary? The cost of travel. If you’ve traveled recently, or considered it, you know inflation has hit the travel industry. Hard. Air travel leads the pack in high prices, but no corner of the travel industry has been immune. Inflation is a factor for sure, but demand is probably the bigger factor. That and the need for companies to recover the staggering losses they experienced during the two plus years of pandemic related travel restrictions.

Let’s take a look at what that means for your 2023 travel plans.

1. Forget about travel bargains. Sure, suppliers continue to aggressively advertise travel bargains, BOGO sales, and limited offers, but those are nothing more than marketing come-ons to get you to hit “Buy Now” and think about how much you are actually spending later. After they have your money. If you want to travel anytime in the next few years, you’ll pay more than you have in the past. Probably a lot more if this year is any measure.

2. Be intentional about your travel. Last year after Thanksgiving when fresh turkeys went on sale I bought three on impulse. At less then $14 for a 20 lb bird that was a good impulse buy. This year that same 20 lb turkey would run me over $50. My impulse now is to serve lasagna for Thanksgiving. Look..trips booked on impulse will eat into your household budget, and more often than not, you won’t get as much out of it as you wish.

3. This is the time for bucket list travel. As long as you are going to have to pay more for travel, you should make it count. You might have to save up for a year or two to be able to afford it, but you can put that time to good use planning the trip.

4. Consider the UK or Europe. The exchange rate in the UK and Europe is better now than at any time in my life, which means even allowing for the increased cost to travel, it is more of a bargain than it has been, or than it will likely be a year or two from now.

5. You still get what you pay for. Ignore social media claims of cost saving “hacks.” Those hacks aren’t universal recipes for saving money on travel, they represent trade-offs that are available to everyone. Trade-offs are good…I had an entire graduate school semester on trade-off analysis at the Johns Hopkins University. The trouble with taking travel advice from people on social media is that you are taking advice about someone else’s vacation, not yours. Their “hacks” are their trade-offs. That doesn’t make them right for you, and they could end up ruining your vacation.

6. People lie. That sounds harsh but it’s true, and it’s especially true on social media. We’ve found most people claiming to score travel bargains…didn’t. Not really. What they did was fall victim to clever marketing schemes. Suppliers, and more often internet booking sites, have invested a great deal of energy studying what makes people tick, and in particular how they can hijack your cognitive processes to get the emotional side of your brain to give you permission to spend more on travel than you plan to. Or can afford to.

7. Get family and friends to help. I’m not talking about setting up a “go fund me” page, but for your next birthday, holiday or special occasion why not give friends and family an opportunity to contribute to a special trip you want to take instead of buying a gift that you don’t want/need/won’t use? Let them spend money getting you something that will build lifelong memories rather than leave you standing in a department store return line. There are clever ways to do it that won’t leave you feel like you’re trying to crowd source your next vacation, and we can talk you though them.

8. Avoid air. With the cost of a plane ticket being the single biggest cost factor for your vacation, consider a trip that doesn’t involve flying. Royal Caribbean offers year round cruising from the Port of Baltimore. You can put the money you save by not having to buy plane tickets toward a stateroom upgrade and still save money.

9. Travel less but stay longer. The most significant cost contributor to vacation travel is air. Rather than taking two short trips and spending twice for air, take one longer trip. The money you save on one set of plane tickets instead of two may be more than enough to buy you an extra week in paradise, or exploring Europe, or whatever and wherever your next bucket list trip will be. It is a great way to get more out of your travel dollars.

I wish I could tell you the cost of travel will be going down soon, or that I have magic ways to help you save money. I can’t, and I don’t. The truth is, travel is more expensive now and any bargains that were out there during the height of the pandemic travel restrictions disappeared once the restrictions were lifted.

Janet and I have always worked hard to get our clients the best price and we continue to do so. We also work hard to make sure you are getting the most value out of your travel dollars, and that’s the magic we bring to planning your travel. People still want to travel, and you should. Make your next trip one that leaves you with lifelong vacation memories.

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Hey Grandpa…What’s For Supper?

Blackened Quail with Watermelon Molasses and Cornbread Stuffing

I get inspiration for my cooking from the most interesting places, but I never thought an airplane would be one of them. While flying down to St. Lucia recently, one of the programs Delta Airlines offered on their in-flight entertainment system was a Master Class featuring Chef Mashama Bailey. Chef Bailey is well known for traditional southern cuisine, which she features in her Atlanta-based restaurant The Grey. The recipe that caught my attention was her blackened quail with watermelon molasses and cornbread stuffing. Watermelon molasses…I had to try that.

As soon as I got home, I set about working on my approach to Chef Bailey’s dish. I must confess that although I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, southern cooking is not in my palate’s wheelhouse. Oh sure, I had my share of greens and beans as a kid, but they never appealed to me. I ate them, reluctantly, because there were times when that was all my folks could afford to put on the table. It was that or go hungry, and I’ve never been a fan of going hungry. As an adult, my palate has no sense of nostalgia for much of the food of my childhood. I loved my mother’s scratch spaghetti sauce and her lasgane, but not the southern dishes she so creatively prepared for us. I didn’t even care for the fried green tomatoes she cooked up occasionally as a treat for my father. He loved them. Not me. But this dish promised to be different.

As I set about tailoring Chef Bailey’s creation to my palate, I found that quail is a protein not readily available at any of my local grocery stores, but I wouldn’t accept a substitute. If I got nothing right about this dish, I was determined to find some quail. I’ve used the online vendor D’Artagnan Foods in the past for specialty meat and game and turned to them to source the quail I needed for this dish. They offer several varieties of quail and I went with the traditional European quail.  I placed my order for four unfrozen European quail on a Thursday, and they were delivered the next day in a well-insulated container filled with icepacks.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as far as the size of quail. I suppose something along the lines of a Cornish game hen. I ordered four thinking I would cook two and toss the other two into the freezer…I never get a new dish right the first time. Often it takes four or five tries before I’m satisfied. But quail are small birds. To give you an idea how small, the picture in this post is of two quail…on an appetizer plate. That’s small. Where a Cornish hen weighs about a pound and a quarter, the average European quail tips the scale at half that. Each bird yielded about two to three ounces of meat, so I ended up cooking all four and thanked my stars I wasn’t planning to serve this at a dinner party.

Let me just say in spite of the fancy sounding name, this is not a complicated dish to make. Complicated in concept yes, but it doesn’t require any advanced culinary technique, nor does it require any equipment more exotic than a spice grinder and a cast iron skillet.

Chef Bailey starts with a blend of spices to create a blackening rub. Her blend is heavily influenced by Creole with its fusion of African and Caribbean spices. Her ingredient list included one spice that was new to me…powdered sumac. It has an interesting flavor profile, something akin to key lime meets cumin. Sumac berries are high in malic acid, which is smoother on the palate than the citric and ascorbic acid of lemons. It allows you to introduce subtle hints of sweet acidity to a dish, but without the lip-puckering tartness of lemon.

In addition to the sumac, Chef Bailey’s blackening blend was heavy on the cayenne, chili, and salt. REALLY heavy. Too heavy. I cut way back on those, adjusting everything else to fit my palate and tossed it all into two gallon-sized plastic bags. I rinsed and dried the quail, rubbed olive oil over them, and put two birds into each bag of the blackening spices. After shaking and rubbing them around to make sure each bird got a fair amount of the blackening spices sticking to them, I put them in the fridge overnight and let the flavors of the blackening spices infuse the birds.

I liked Chef Bailey’s idea of serving cornbread stuffing with the quail, but I didn’t care for her approach to making it Creole style. I respect the classic New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper in gumbo and Étouffée, but for me there is no place for green bell pepper in stuffing, so I omitted it. She also calls for adding some of her blackening spices to a shrimp stock, which she then thickens using a medium dark roux, using the finished product as both the moistener for her cornbread stuffing and as a gravy to ladle over the finished dish. I wanted a more traditional savory stuffing, so I took my New England style stuffing recipe and modified it to fit the pseudo-southern take on her dish that I was trying to create.

My mother made a decent cornbread from scratch, but for this stuffing I decided there would be no shame in using a box mix. Janet found a sweet and tasty cornbread box mix that she’s enlisted the help of our grandkids to make in the past and it turned out quite tasty. I figured if the grandkids could make a yummy cornbread from a box mix, grandpa couldn’t mess it up too badly. So I used a box mix. It took all of two minutes to mix the ingredients and another 30 minutes to bake. After letting it cool for a few hours, I crumbled it all up and let the crumbles sit out overnight to dry so they would soak up more of my stock mixture.

The next day I allocated three hours to prep and cook. I thought that was generous for such an uncomplicated dish, but I ended up using every minute of it. I knew the quail would cook up in under 30 minutes, so I saved that for last and started on the stuffing. I diced up two yellow onions and a couple of celery stalks, then sauteed them together in olive oil over medium high heat for about ten minutes. I diced up a head of garlic which I added for the last 30 seconds of cook time. Garlic is great when you cook it just enough to bring out the flavor, but it can go from fragrant to acrid in seconds if you cook it too long. About half a minute after adding the garlic I pulled the skillet from the burner and scooped the contents out onto my crumbled cornbread and gave it a good mix.

Rather than using Chef Bailey’s Creole style shrimp stock, I brought a quart of low-sodium chicken stock to a low simmer, melted in a stick of butter…yes, an entire stick of butter, unsalted of course…and then stirred in a couple of tablespoons each of rubbed sage and fresh chopped basil, and a couple of teaspoons of dried marjoram. I let that continue to simmer for another 15 minutes to infuse the herbs into stock then poured it over the cornbread.

I never know how much stock my breadcrumbs will absorb, so I always prepare more than I’ll need and add the stock incrementally. I prefer my stuffing to be a bit on the soggy side but short of soupy. In this case I used about three quarters of the stock mix. Once my stuffing had the consistency I wanted, I covered the dish with foil and popped it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I removed the foil cover for the final 15 minutes of cook time to evaporate off some of the moisture which left the stuffing gooey but with a nice crispy surface.

My cornbread stuffing turned out surprisingly good. It was savory and much sweeter than a classic New England stuffing. The cornbread gave it a unique flavor that teased my palate. It won’t replace my go to bread-based stuffing when I make a holiday turkey dinner, but I will make it again when I am going for a poultry dish with a touch of southern charm.

Once the stuffing was in the oven, I turned my attention to the watermelon molasses. As much as the idea of cornbread stuffing as a side dish for quail appealed to me, the aspect of Chef Bailey’s dish that really caught the imagination of my palate was watermelon molasses.

Making molasses from watermelon is easy, but it is time consuming. All you do is scoop out the contents of half a watermelon, minus the seeds, and puree it up in a blender. Once you have a pitcher full of watermelon puree you simmer it over low heat in a saucepan until it reduces down to about half a cup. Which takes forever. You have to stir it constantly or the sugars in the juice will burn and that wouldn’t taste very good. In the end it took me over an hour of steady stirring until the watermelon reached the consistency of molasses.

In my mind, the watermelon would reduce down into a sweet and delicious syrup of concentrated watermelon flavor. Sadly, that’s not how it turned out. Watermelon is a member of the squash family, and as the water cooked off and the sugars concentrated, so did the squash flavor. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t the flavor profile my palate conjured up when I imagined what watermelon molasses would taste like.

With my watermelon molasses cooling and the stuffing now out of the oven, I turned my attention to the quail. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by the idea of cooking quail, but I needn’t have been. It was the easiest part of this dish to cook. I pulled the quail from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about half an hour as I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven was doing its thing, I took the cast iron skillet I used to sautee the celery and onions for my stuffing, poured in a drizzle of canola oil, and let the oil heat up over medium high heat. Once the oil was nice and hot I added the quail, back side down. I gave the quail about two minutes per side to brown and then popped the skillet into the oven with the quail breast side up.

Quail are so small they take almost no time to cook. And unlike chicken, quail don’t spend their short lives so densely packed into growing pens that they wallow around in their own feces. Which is to say you can get by with cooking quail to a lower internal temperature than chicken without fear of foodborne pathogens. I was going for an internal temp of about 140-145 degrees and got that after eight minutes in the oven.

After letting the quail rest for about five minutes, I put two birds on each plate, topped them with a ladle or two of the watermelon molasses and added a scoop of cornbread stuffing on the side. I like cooking a veggie with my meals, and though I don’t usually care for Brussels sprouts, somehow that seemed like the right choice for this dish. And it was. I steamed up my sprouts in the InstantPot for about six minutes, finished them with a few minutes under the broiler, and then dipped them in a bath of olive oil and balsamic vinegar before plating.

I started out intending to recreate Chef Mashama Bailey’s quail and watermelon molasses. My quail dish turned out nothing like Chef Bailey’s Creole-inspired concoction, but it was damned tasty. The meat was moist and far more flavorful than chicken with a slightly gamey edge to it. It was pink close to the bones, almost to the point of being red. If you are used to chicken where the slightest tinge of pink or red turns your stomach you might find the look of it a bit off-putting, but the texture was perfect. It was tender with just enough of a chew factor to make you want to linger over each bite as the flavors melted onto your tastebuds.

Even with my adjustments, Chef Bailey’s blackening spice blend had more heat to it than I care for. After one bite I understood the role of the watermelon molasses…it acts as a cooling agent with the concentrated sugars cutting the edge off the spicy heat.

The dish, as I created it, turned out to be a harmonious blending of north and south. The cornbread in the stuffing lent a sweet southern charm to a side that was otherwise vintage New England, and the Brussel sprouts added a nice touch of bitterness. The next time I make it, and there will be a next time, I’ll go even lighter on the cayenne in the blackening blend. And though I didn’t care for the squash notes I got from the molasses, I am still intrigued by the idea of sweet watermelon flavor in this dish. I think instead of watermelon molasses, I’ll serve it with raw watermelon chunks on the side. I’ll stick with the cornbread stuffing as I made it, and I’ll probably even include Brussels sprouts. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

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Flying Still Sucks But Help Is On The Way…Maybe

Air travel has long been something to be endured, but the abysmal performance of airlines since this past spring has turned it into something to be loathed. With all the flight cancellations and delays resulting in missed connections and unacceptably late arrivals, you have no guarantee the plane ticket you carefully selected and purchased will get you to your destination as scheduled. Good luck getting compensated for the added expense of meals and lodging when a one hour delay turns into an overnight ordeal. If your flight is cancelled the only thing you can count on is that you’ll be rebooked. Maybe. It probably won’t be the same day as your scheduled departure, and it might not even be from the same airport, but what can you do?

For now, not much. Travelers are at the mercy of the airlines, but that may soon change. The Department of Transportation is taking steps to hold airlines more accountable for actually delivering the services they promise when they take consumer’s money. It’s a bit late for this summer’s travel season, but it might prevent similar problems next year.

Getting compensated for meals and hotels when you get stuck far from home because of flight delays and cancellations has been a common problem this summer, and it’s a real headache. I’m still waiting to to be reimbursed for meals and the hotel that Lufthansa promised after a flight delay resulted in a missed connection in Frankfurt almost two months ago.

Each airline follows a different set of rules and those rules are so full of exceptions they might as well not exist. To help consumers navigate the tangled web airlines have weaved (woven?), the DoT recently established an airline customer service dashboard. It is designed to help travelers know their rights when flights are delayed, and the DoT is working to make it more difficult for airlines to avoid delivering on the compensation they promise. I am hopeful airlines will soon automate the process, allowing you to request a voucher through their app and then pushing the voucher to you digitally so you never have to wait in line or on hold if you call. They aren’t there yet, but I think that time is coming.

Getting a refund for your flight when it is significantly delayed or when the airline cancels it is another can of worms, but that too may be getting easier. The DoT has released a draft policy that will make it much easier to get a refund for your plane ticket when an airline cancels your flight, even if you booked a non-refundable fare. No longer will you be forced to accept a rescheduled flight that might be several days later than the one you booked, or put up with having your non-stop flight in business class switched to an economy class fare with two connections.

Easier refunds for cancelled flights are a good thing. It means travelers will have the option to make alternate arrangements with another airline without the risk of not getting a refund for the original ticket. Under the proposed policy you can get a refund, or you can opt for future flight credits with the same airline if you prefer. That will be your choice, not the airline’s, and under the new policy, if you opt for flight credits they’ll never expire.

One of the best parts of this new policy is that it removes the excuses airlines have been hiding behind to avoid refunds. There have been plenty of head scratching stories of airlines cancelling flights because of “weather” when the skies are clear and the winds calm. They cite bad weather on the west coast as justification for cancelling flights on the east coast, an excuse that under the current policy takes them off the hook for providing refunds. Lately airlines have taken to blaming the air traffic control system, or local airport operations for cancelled flights…anything to avoid having to give back ticket revenue once they’ve taken your money.

Under the new policy it won’t matter why a flight was cancelled…the airline will be obligated to offer a refund, even if they’ve automatically rebooked you on another flight and even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket. There are rules, but they are reasonable, not loopholes the airlines can hide behind. You won’t be able to demand a refund when you cancel your ticket, but at least when the airline cancels the new policy will ensure you can get your money back.

There are some aspects of the proposal that need more work. In addition to requiring refunds when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights, there are refund provisions for travelers who have to cancel a trip because of illness during a declared public health emergency, or in keeping with public health guidelines. This part of the proposal is intended to deal with highly contagious, serious diseases…like COVID…it won’t cover things like the common cold. In its present form the policy is way too complicated for the average traveler to understand, and I hope the final version gets simplified without sacrificing the protections it seeks to provide.

Another aspect of the proposed policy that I’m not thrilled with has to do with the role travel agencies play in air ticketing. Under the draft policy, travel agents who include air in their bookings would be liable for refunding the cost of that air to clients when their flights are cancelled. That aspect of the policy is intended to target travel agencies that take consumers money, aggregate it, and then use the pooled money to get a better price by purchasing blocks of tickets. Those travel agencies may pass the savings along to their clients, but they may not…the airlines have no way of knowing.

It makes sense for a travel agency to be responsible for returning the money when they’ve taken it for air tickets, and then get reimbursed from the airline when flights are cancelled. It does not make sense to treat all travel agencies like that is their business model, which is what the proposed policy does. At Tidewater Cruise and Travel, we don’t collect consumer money for air bookings…the money goes directly to the supplier or airline we book with. Having to offer refunds when those flights are cancelled would mean having to pay out refunds with money we don’t get and don’t have, and then hope we get reimbursed from the airlines. That’s too much of a risk for our small operation, and it means we would no longer be able to offer courtesy air bookings as we have in the past. The impact on our business would be minimal since most of our clients prefer to book their own air, but it is a change we would rather not have to make just the same.

You can expect to see this new policy published in final form by the end of the year. When that happens and all the revisions are locked in, I’ll revisit the subject in a future post and lay out what it means in simple, non-government language. Until then, we’ll continue to put up with the airlines’ shenanigans. What choice do we have?

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