Is it Safe to Travel to … ?

With the ongoing terrorist events each year, some of our clients are always asking, “Is it safe for me to travel to (insert destination here)? The broad answer is no place on earth is completely safe, including your own home. Terrorism and has been with us for centuries and will not be going away. My feeling is that if we stop doing the things we planned to do in our ordinary lives, then the terrorists win. This blog was written on December 8, 2015 and revised in late 2017. There will be other terrorist events in the future. That is a given. But let me give you a little perspective. Did you know that there are between 8000 and 13000 airplanes in the air on this day right now? They are all landing safely, or you would hear about the one that did not. Perhaps a few times in the year a plane crashes somewhere in the world, rarely but sometimes due to terrorism, so your chances of a safe flight are nearly 100% every time you fly. And your odds of being involved in any terrorism event are less than those who travel by air today.

In Paris, if you had been at the Bataclan when the shooting happened, there were more people who survived than were killed or wounded. And if you were in Paris at the time of all the attacks, there were 10.5 million people in Paris and the surrounding suburbs who were not attacked. If you asked me today, would I go to Las Vegas, Orlando, London, Paris or San Bernardino, I would say yes without hesitation and I would bring my family. I’d do it even if I were going there a day after the terrible event.

You might think those words coming from the owner of a travel agency are self serving. So let me give you one more piece of evidence that my views are not just because I am in travel. Before I owned a travel agency, and after the 9/11 event, I had to make a decision. Our family had purchased air and hotel in the summer for a trip to NYC for 2001 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. We had purchased tickets to the Rockettes Christmas show and Lion King. So we had to make a decision. Do we go to NYC on that trip? You might not recall this now, but there was talk of the terrorists doing something in NYC over Thanksgiving. We decided to go and I took the whole family with me, just 7 weeks after 9/11. Yes it was somber to see the damage and the memorials. But we still had a marvelous time and we were there supporting the businesses that were hurting due to the lack of travelers. As a traveler to NYC for decades, I saw a kinder, gentler NY. I am really glad we went. I took the family back to NYC in 2016 and the 9/11 memorial visit was more meaningful, due to our trip in 2001.

I have been traveling for more than 50 years. I had nearly 2 million miles on Northwest, and I have more than a million on Delta. My wife and I were in Greece and Turkey in 2015 during the financial and refugee crisis. Although we had taken extra money as a precaution, I never saw a line at an ATM the entire time I was there. I never saw a crowd of refugees, though I know they were there on islands we did not plan to visit. I will continue to travel but I will always be prepared with advance knowledge from the US State department. And I use common sense because besides the terrorists, you might encounter a scam artist or petty thief, and they are more likely to be your encounter than with a terrorist.

We recommend that anyone who wants to travel internationally, should review the travel comments on the US Department of State website for safety and security information. Being informed is the best defense. Go to this link for safety information by destination.

http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country.html

We also recommend you enroll in the STEP program. See the details on the web link above.

As travel agency staff, we cannot fully answer the question of “Is it safe for you to travel?” All we can do is provide the most accurate, up to date information, and it is up to you to make an informed decision. And I hope you continue to travel.

Yes You Can Sail the Greek Isles

 My wife loves to water ski. I love to sail. We always joked that we would buy a boat when I found a sailboat she could water ski behind. Of course, its not that likely to ever happen. So instead we settled on a cruise to the Greek Islands. We selected STAR CLIPPERS for our travel partner and its namesake, The Star Clipper as our ship. We sailed from Athens to the islands of Amorgos, Patmos, Mykonos and we also visited Kusadasi/Ephesus Turkey, and Monemvasia on the mainland. This was our first trip to Greece. We have since made our second trip to Greece.

We are ocean cruisers for decades. On these smaller ships, there are some differences that we were initially concerned about. We had to give up a balcony. And we had limited places on the ship for restaurants, bars, and public spaces. Large ocean going ships are a destination within themselves. The smaller ships, the ports are the true destination. On the larger ships, the amount of time in port is limited and the smaller ships expand the hours in port, often staying overnight.

The cruise we took was called the Northern Cyclades tour. We started and returned to Athens (Piraeus). We visited Patmos, Amorgos, Monemvasia, and Mykonos in Greece. We also visited Kusadasi (Ephesus) in Turkey. The destinations were awe inspiring. At Ephesus, you visit an unearthed town of about 250,000 inhabitants. It was built in about 1000 BC and taken over by the Romans in 129BC. Walking through miles of ruins, you get a real sense of what it might have been like to live, work and play in a town of this size. This is where Paul, John and Mary lived after the death of Jesus. Nearby, you can visit the last home of Mary, where the Pope visited in 2006.

On this trip, we visited the island of Patmos. This is where John wrote the book of Revelation in the cave of the Apocalypse. Guides show you the stone desk where exiled John wrote the book, and the area in the cave where he slept.There is also a triple fissure in the ceiling of the cave where it is said that John heard the voice of God.  On to Amorgos. Here we visited the Hozoviotissa Monestary. Its built on the wall of a sheer cliff to keep it safe from invaders. To visit, you will need to climb 335 steps. Once there, the view is breathtaking.

Another port of call for us was Mykonos. This is the second most visited tourist Island of Greece. Santorini is first. This is a land of beautiful beaches, wonderful Greek architechture and fantastic shopping and restaurants. We spent a wonderful day there. Upon getting back to the Star Clipper, I had the opportunity to helm the ship as we sailed to our next port. You can’t get near the bridge of most modern cruise ships, but on the Star Clipper, you can do as little or as much of the sailing as you want. Of course, to be safe, there is always crew around to make sure that you do not make any mistakes. Climb the rigging? Yes, you can do that. Talk to the Captain for hours? Yes you bet!

Our last stop was the mainland port of Monemvasia. This is one of the most romantic ports in all of Greece. You will find a medieval castle here and a village that dates from that era with very little change. It is a wonderful stop on the cruise. After that, it was back to Athens for our flight back to the US. We stayed in Athens a day before the cruise. I recommend this to help with jet lag and in case your plane flight is delayed. Athens is a very busy city with the Acropolis and a very modern museum dedicated to that monument and the history of the Greeks, who founded democracy.

There are many ways to see the Greek islands. You can fly or take ferries to most of them, though they may not run every day depending upon the connection. So traveling by ship is a great way to see a lot of Greece without packing and unpacking. There are lectures daily on the region and the history. Its great for the first timer who wants to find out where they would stay for days on their next trip. And you will not find a more authentic sail cruise than the Star Clippers. Once you go with them, you will fall in love with their style of cruising. We usually have special pricing for trips on the Star Clippers and often there cruises where solo travelers pay no single supplement. Call us for more information.

TSA Precheck and Global Entry Programs

Travelers going through metal detection screening
Airport Security Screening

This is an update to the registration for TSA Precheck and Global Entry I originally published in 2014. Lines at the TSA security checkpoints can be long, especially at peak times. Although security protocols change from time to time, such as the ban on hover-boards and the Galaxy Note7, and more screening of laptops and tablets, as of this writing, you must still keep gels and  liquids in a 1 quart bag and no more than 3 oz (100ml) in each container in that bag. You must remove all jewelry, coats, belts and shoes and anything in your pockets before you go through the screening. This is a delay and hassle that frequent trusted travelers now have a way to avoid most of the time. “Most” means you still may get picked at random to be fully screened. If you are an international traveler, the Global Entry program allows you to scan your passport at a kiosk and bypass the manual immigration line.

There are two trusted traveler programs for air travel in the US. One is TSA Precheck and the other is Global Entry. Both are ways to reduce the hassle of traveling and both are described here. (There are surface travel programs for Canada and Mexico only, not described here.)

TSA Precheck operates at all major US airports and screening does not require you to take out your quart bag of liquids, or your laptop. You do not need to  remove belts, shoes, and light jackets. In the past, frequent fliers have been nominated by their airline for TSA Precheck, but as more enroll in the official program, some elite flyers are now being sent through normal screening and even more will be sent to normal screening if they do not register soon. For TSA Precheck registration, travelers need to apply online using this link: www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck and then pre-enroll. Then setup an appointment to visit one of the centers for an in person interview. As of this writing, there are five centers in Minnesota: MSP Airport, Bloomington, Mankato, Brooklyn Center, and St. Cloud. For an up to date listing and the hours, visit the link above. You must bring an original copy of a government issued identity and proof of US citizenship. An unexpired passport will fulfill this requirement as will an unexpired US drivers license and a certified copy of your birth certificate. There are other options listed at the TSA web site. Cost to enroll, at present time is $85 for a 5 year period.

Global Entry will allow international travelers to speed through the customs and immigration process. For Global Entry, travelers need to apply online starting with this link: www.cbp.gov/global-entry/how-to-apply and read the process and then enroll. After enrollment, you would make an appointment to visit one of the centers for an in person interview. The interview center in Minnesota is at the MSP Airport. The link above will give you all of the locations and specific addresses. Cost to enroll in the Global Entry program is $100 for five years. One advantage of Global Entry is that if you apply and are accepted for this program, you are automatically part of the TSA Precheck program. So if you plan to travel internationally, this is the program for you. You will receive a Global Entry card that can be used instead of a drivers license to board a domestic US plane. (You will still need your US passport to board a plane traveling internationally.)

Once you have been accepted and get your known traveler number, be sure that you give it to your travel agent when making reservations so that your boarding pass will indicate you are a trusted traveler. Like your frequent flier numbers, this can be put in your profile at your travel agency so you don’t have to give it out each time. One final note: Random checks are still performed on the trusted travelers. This means you might still be randomly selected to undergo the normal screening process even if enrolled in one of these programs.This has happened to me several times, so it is not rare.

These programs serve two benefits. One is less hassle for you when traveling. The second is it costs the government less to screen you. Unfortunately, this does not translate into a savings on your ticket, but it should help to keep costs down in general. As of December, 2017 we learned that the government may merge TSA Precheck and Global Entry. We will update this blog if that happens.

If you do get your Global Entry, you may apply for the U.K. Registered Traveler program which will give you similar screening benefits when traveling to the U.K. The details of this program can be found at www.gov.uk/registered-traveller .
The cost of this program is GBP 70, but it is only good for one year.

There are other programs, such as the CLEAR program which is currently limited to many of the larger US Airports, and not all of the terminals at an airport. For example, at MSP airport, only in Terminal 1. Cost is $179 per year although some elite flyers receive discounts. I might blog about this in the future.

Bottom line is I highly recommend that anyone doing multiple trips by air each year should consider getting TSA Precheck or Global Entry. This will save you time and hassle. If traveling domestically on a Minnesota drivers license for ID, please see my blog about Real ID.

Exciting and Surprising Morocco

Two Guards on Horseback
King Mohammed V Mausoleum Guards

I had a chance to visit Morocco in North Africa recently. Morocco sits on the south western part of the Mediterranean and is a country of diversity. It is also a very surprising country and one that I would highly recommend visiting. Africa is a glorious continent but many of the countries are impoverished and or embroiled in war or civil unrest. Police, health standards, and accommodations are likely to be poor in many of the countries. This makes many of those countries unsuitable for all except the most adventurous traveler. This is not true of Morocco, and you will feel very welcome as an American in a country that is 98 percent Muslim. There are many available tours that you can choose from in Morocco, depending upon the time you have and location.

My entrance and exit into and out of the country occurred in Maraketch via Delta Airlines. From there, I took a bus for 60 minutes to the town of Rabat, the present capital and official residence of King Mohammed VI. Our tour included the kings residence/palace and then a walk to the Medina (walled section of the city with many shops and restaurants) and then a visit to the 12th century Kashba of the Oudayas on the Bou Regreg River, the Great Mosque and the Hassan tower. We also visited the Mohammed V Mausoleum which is spectacularly guarded 24/7 by the king’s security force. The gold casket is on display for Mohammed V and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah are also entombed there. You drive past the ramparts and walls of Mehuoar that encompace the royal palace.

One of the surprising things about Morocco, is its close relationship with Jews. A bit of history explains why. During WWII, when France fell to the Germans, Morocco, a French protectorate of that time also came under the Germans. But the harsh anti Jewish laws enacted by the Vichy government were not applied in Morocco because King Mohammed V stayed in power. The king refused to send the jews to Germany. After the war, when Israel was established, many of the Jews emigrated from Morrocco and established residence in the new state of Israel. The Jews continue to come back to Morocco to visit where they or their ancestors had lived.

The archeological Roman ruins at Voubilis are partially excavated ruins from the Roman and Berber days. Our guide showed us the parts of the city that were steps from each other. You could go see the Roman bath and then walk to a private home nearby in short order. What impresses the visitor is how far the Roman empire had extended before it collapsed. I did not realize that it extended to North Africa. These ruins are open for those to walk about them and get a sense of life in the third century BC, and the Berber culture in the 3rd century AD before the Arabs arrived in the 8th century. These buildings stood for centuries through many groups of people only to be ransacked in the 17th century and further destroyed in the 18th century earthquake. Today it stands as a UNESCO world heritage site.

We traveled to Fez, the imperial city built in 790AD by Moulay Idriss II. In Fez, we visited the Kings Palace and both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. We visited Al Quaraouiyin University. It is claimed by UNESCO as the oldest continuously running university in the world and the first to offer a degree for studies. It started in the year 859. It is open to both men and women of Muslim faith. One of the requirements is that everyone must memorize the Qu’ran.

From Fez, we traveled to the Middle Atlas region of Imouzar. This is a day trip out of Fez or other Moroccan cities, and worthwhile to see the changes in landscape of this amazing country. We visited the delightful ski resort of Ifrane and then continued on to a Berber village known for its handicrafts and carpet weaving.

From there, we traveled to Casablanca on the bus. We visited the UN Square, Royal Palace, Central Market, the Anfa residential area and the Hassan II Mosque, second largest in Morocco. For purchases, we visited a tannery where you could see them dyeing the leathers after conditioning them. We were given mint leaves to hold in front of our noses to abate the smell of the operation. Many leather goods from belts to purses to coats were available for sale at factory prices. We also visited a tile factory where we saw the entire production which was all by manual labor. There were heavy tile tables for sale, as well as small to large fountains and many Jewish items such as Menorah candle holders. You can also watch the workers handling all phases of production.

While in Casablanca, I met an amazing woman, Kathy Kriger. She was a former travel agent from Portland Oregon. She had come to Morocco as a US embassy diplomat. She fell in love with Morocco and decided to open up Ricks Cafe to pay homage to the Warner Brothers classic movie starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. We had a wonderful dinner at her restaurant. You will instantly be transformed into the atmosphere of the 1940’s during the war and yet you will have a sumptuous French-Mediterranean meal with items like lamb shank and saffron rice to filet mignon and spice roasted tomatoes.

Traveling to Morocco from Minneapolis on Delta can be done by connecting flight in Amsterdam. United, Lufthansa, and Air Canada also have connecting flights but will require three segments. If you already are in Spain for a visit, there are ferries that can take you to Morocco. The most popular one  is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in northern Morocco on the fast ferry. The ride takes one hour.