Mar 20, 2023

Delta passes the buck on code-share flights; so much for 'seamless' travel


Delta sells and books tickets on flights operated by Aeromexico

As a Delta Skyteam silver elite member, I always travel on either a Delta flight or one operated by a code-share partner such as Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Air France or Aeromexico. 

Since Delta sells and books the code-share tickets, I expect Delta to take responsibility when something goes wrong.

The airline, after all, promises "a seamless travel experience" with code-share flights, a system that allows airlines to sell tickets to destinations where they do not fly. 

In the case of its partnership agreement with Aeromexico, for instance, Delta says on its website that it is "focused on providing customers with a consistent experience when traveling between the two airlines. 

"By looking at all aspects of the customer journey together, and using technology to enhance the digital experience, the two airlines have established a foundation to benefit their shared customers by aligning products, polices and services."

This was not my experience with a multi-city itinerary booked through and paid for on Delta, but operated by Aeromexico.

Instead of taking responsibility for an error that almost left my husband and I stranded in Veracruz, Mexico, Delta passed the buck, insisting that "Aeromexico will have to handle the claim." No offer to help. No offer to work it out on the customer's behalf.

After three e-mails explaining the situation, and requesting either miles or compensation for a missed non-stop back to Seattle from Mexico City, a customer service agent, using the name Isabela Cook, refused to budge.

"We consider the case closed, " she wrote, "and we will not respond to any additional correspondence regarding your travel." 

So much for a "seamless" experience.

The problems began when we went to check in online for our non-stop from Seattle to Mexico City, and neither Delta nor Aeromexico would let us check in using their apps.

We arrived at the airport early to find a gate agent. Delta sent us to Aeromexico where an agent found glitch on our return connection from Veracruz into Mexico City. Someone had transposed the month and day of our return so that the return was booked for April 3 (4/3/2023) instead of May 4 (3/4/2023).

After 30 minutes or so of back-and-forth, agents from both airlines assured us they fixed the problem, and our return was set as originally booked.

It wasn't until we received check-in notices from both Aeromexico, and Delta on the day before departure, that I saw the flight from Veracruz to Mexico City had disappeared from from our itinerary. We were left with the non-stop from Mexico City back to Seattle, but no flight from Veracruz.

Sitting on the bed in our hotel room, I spent an hour on the phone with a Delta agent (Our cell phone plan allows free calls in North American, but if it didn't, we would have had quite a bill) while she worked with Aeromexico to find us seats.

The flight we originally booked was fully-booked. We finally settled for an early-morning flight that would have meant an eight-hour layover in Mexico City. The alternative was an Aeromexico flight from there to Los Angeles with a Delta connection to Seattle. This entailed going through customs and immigration in L.A., leaving security; walking to a different terminal to find a Delta ticket agent to issue our boarding passes; and reentering TSA security to reach our gate - all within a 1.5-hour window. We have both Global Entry (the fast pass for reentering the U.S.) and PreCheck (TSA fast pass), otherwise we might not have made it.

What I wanted most in contacting Delta after we arrived home was to find out how a portion of one's itinerary could be dropped without a notice from either airline. Had we checked in as both airlines instructed, we would have arrived at the airport in Veracruz without a ticket.

 And indeed, if Delta's hard and fast policy is to "not provide compensation if the flight is operated by another airline," then surely a goodwill gesture was in order since we had paid extra for the return non-stop from Mexico City to Seattle. I recalled a time when the entertainment system on a Delta flight to Amsterdam was not working. The flight attendant came around and credited extra miles to passengers' accounts.

My last e-mail from Isabela Cook contained neither an explanation nor an offer to make amends. 

"Any further correspondence regarding these matters will be kept on file," she wrote. However, no additional responses will be sent. "

In other words, case closed.

Mar 12, 2023

Mexico for the Mexicans: Pueblo Magicos evoke traditional life


Fresh chicharron for sale in a Mexico City market

"Get ready to see a side of Mexico City you've never experienced," our friend Oskar smiled.

We were finishing spinach omelettes in the upstairs cafe at Pendulo bookstore in La Condesa, a chic neighborhood filled with restaurants and Airbnbs catering to digital nomads.

Now, with Oskar, whom we met in 2019 through the Global Greeters program, we squeezed into a crowded subway car with a connection to Mexico City's newest mode of transportation, the 6-mile-long Cablebus, a network of cable cars, designed not for sightseeing, but as public transportation for residents living in the hills above the city center.

Mexico City's Cablebus

Rooftop murals visible from the Cablebus

Riding in a car along students on their way home from school, we looked down on rooftops painted with colorful murals, part of a government project to improve the view for the residents of Iztapalapa, the city's poorest and most populous neighborhood.

Oskar pointed down to an abandoned airplane turned into a  library. Checking out a book here would be the closest many kids would ever get to a real plane.

After a couple of hours on the Cablebus, we got off and walked through a market close to where Oskar, 25, lives with his parents and brother. We sampled fried pork skins called chicharron, the authentic version of what we know as pork rinds; drank pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant; and bought flowers for his mother, America. The day ended around their dining room table where we shared bowls of her homemade pozole, a traditional Mexican stew, and a red gelatin dessert molded in the shape of hearts.

Drinking pulque with Oskar

America Sandoval and her special dessert

It was the perfect start to a 10-day trip, most of which my husband and I spent traveling by bus through the state of Veracruz in Mexico's gulf coast region.

Our time with Oskar and his family set the stage for exploring a side of Mexico not well-known to foreigners, but beloved by Mexicans. These areas are neither beach resorts, nor drug cartel-controlled border towns where crime and safety are major issues. Mexico for the Mexicans, became the theme as we headed off to several small towns called Pueblos Magicos, recognized not for their famous sites, but because they evoke a sense of traditional life. 

The state of Veracruz

As a destination, the state of Veracruz is overlooked by most travelers. There are better beaches and colonial architecture elsewhere. But for those who have explored other parts of the country, and are looking for something different, discoveries are waiting to be made. Unlike in resort areas such as Cancun, or colonial towns such as San Miguel de Allende, your travel companions are likely to be Mexican families and couples on weekend getaways rather than American travelers.

You won't find much English spoken. You will enjoy comfortable rides on first-class buses; a sense of safety due to lack of pick-pockets or hustlers; restaurant meals for around $25 for two; coffee drinks better than anything Starbucks can produce; and uncrowded museums.

Our first stop was Orizaba, a town of around 500,000 nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains in central Veracruz, four hours by first-class bus from Mexico City. 

Flat, one-story buildings painted in bright colors line narrow streets leading to the historical center. Our Airbnb was unusual in that it was a complete and modern apartment in a newish three-story building with a sushi restaurant the top floor. 

Next door was a mom-and-pop shop where the owners sold drinks and snacks though a slot in the door. I bought water there twice until I discovered we were around the corner from the local version of Costco filled with Mexicans pushing huge carts filled with diapers and soda. 

Veracruz State Art Museum

Our go-to morning stop for coffee and chilaquiles was the modern Cafe-Cafe Bistro with a QR code menu and tables an outdoor courtyard. Down the street was the Veracruz State Art Museum housed in a 16th century former monastery, hospital and women's prison. 

Mexicans come to Orizaba on weekends to stroll though an open-air animal reserve along a six-mile walkway skirting the Orizaba River. Bridges link paved paths on both sides, making it easy to get up-close views of jaguars, monkeys, llamas and lions.

Orizaba riverwalk and zoo

Near the riverwalk is the Orizaba's other main attraction, the Teleferico or cable-car transporting visitors to the top of a mountain with forested walking paths, and views of Pico de Orizaba, a snow-capped volcano that is the third -highest mountain in North America. Long lines form on weekends, but when we visited on a Monday, there was no wait.

Gustave Eiffel's Iron Palace

Relaxing at a cafe is a popular pastime everywhere in the state of Veracruz, a major coffee producer. We sampled the local speciality, the Picardía Orizabeña, prepared with coffee liquor, condensed milk and espresso, while people-watching on the terrace of the Gran Cafe de Orizaba attached to the Palacio de Hierro or Iron Palace. Designed by Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris), the art nouveau city hall was built from metal and wrought iron imported from Belgium in the 19th century when Orizaba was the state capital. Today the building houses several museums including a beer museum which dispenses free beer courtesy of Heineken International, owner of brewing plants in Mexico including one in Orizaba.


Four hours by bus from Orizaba is Xalapa, the current capital of the state of Veracruz, and the jumping off point for a visit to Coatepec (Hill of Snakes) and Xico, two Pueblo Magico towns in a premier coffee-producing region.

Rompope frappé

Quaint hotels, parks and shops line the streets of Coatepec, a short taxi ride from Xalapa. Organized tours cover visits to a coffee museum a few miles out of town but a better plan on a hot day is to cafe-hop about town, sampling cold concoctions. Among our favorites was a frappé (espresso, milk, crushed ice) spiked with Rompope, a Mexican eggnog-flavored liquor. 

Downtown Xalapa

With a population of 800,000, Xalapa is a hectic university and government town, probably not the best choice for those with a car, but we found it a convenient base for exploring by cheap taxis. Our hotel, the Meson del Alferez Xalapa, was a former colonial mansion in a residential neighborhood until the town built up around it. Now it fronts on one of Xalapa's busiest streets where police use ear-splitting whistles to control traffic. Surprisingly, its rooms were quiet, protected by thick outside walls and an interior courtyard.

Courtyard rooms at Meson del Alferez in Xalapa

A cook makes tortillas at the Meson del Alferez

Sometimes spelled Jalapa, the city gave its name to the jalapeño chili pepper grown in the surrounding area. Built on hillsides, Xalapa is set up in a way that almost everything worth doing requires a walk up or down steep streets. Parque Juárez is Xalapa's main square. Ringed with snack kiosks and shoe-shine stands, it doubles as the town's terrace with views of the valley below. 

An Olmec colossal head dating from 900 BC 

At the Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, the focus is on the main pre-Hispanic civilizations from the Gulf coast, with well-preserved artifacts displayed in galleries that descend the side of a lush hill. Noting that the museum was just two miles from downtown, we decided to walk. It took us an hour and half to wend through various neighborhoods to avoid hills and busy streets - well worth the effort, but once was enough. We took a $2.50 taxi back.

Preparing a lechero

Locals love their morning lecheros, Mexico's most popular coffee drink similar to what we call a latte. Many cafes serve it, but we waited until we reached the city of Veracruz to sample it at the Gran Café de la Parroquia, a 215-year-old cafe near the waterfront. 

With 40 mile-per-hour winds scrapping our plans for a walk, we took cover inside, and watched the ritual unfold. A waiter brings glasses filled a quarter of the way up with espresso. Then, with a tap of a spoon on the side of the glass, he signals the "milkman," another waiter who comes by with a kettle of hot milk. By pouring a stream high and slow, he creates a thick layer of foam on top.

 "Going to Veracruz and not going to the Café de la Parroquia is like not having been to Veracruz," someone said. 

Perhaps it was the Covid pandemic's effect on local businesses, but we couldn't find many reasons to spend much time in Veracruz. As attractions go, La Parroquia topped the list. 

Safe travels: The U.S. State Department assigns various levels of caution for traveling in Mexico, depending on the state. It advises against travel in six states, including the state of Tamaulipas where four Americans were recently kidnapped and two killed. It recommends reconsidering travel to seven other states. Veracruz is one of 17 states where the department recommends exercising caution.

Feb 8, 2023

Winter in the rain forest: Deals at historic lodge tempt visitors to Washington's Olympic Peninsula


Lake Quinault Lodge

A cabin at Mount Rainier National Park was for years our go-to winter getaway. Tempted by blankets of fresh snow and views of the mountain at every turn, my husband and I, often with friends, would look forward to hours of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter hikes. 

Then came the rain. Two years in a row, it rained so hard we could barely walk to and from the car. Our snowshoes stayed in the trunk. Walking paths turned to slush. We played all the games we brought - twice. 

It was time for a change. If we were going to go somewhere where it was likely to rain, why not pick a place ready- made for wet weather. 

Tempted by a seasonal two-nights-for-the-price-of-one special at the historic Lake Quinault Lodge, we headed to the Quinault Rainforest in the temperate wilderness valley that runs through the southwest end of Olympic National Park and National Forest.

Built in 1926 and designed by Robert Reamer, a Seattle architect, in a style reminiscent of his work at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park, the V-shaped lodge has expanded overtime to 91 units, some in the main lodge and others in side buildings.

Unchanged are the views of Lake Quinault, a natural lake formed by a glacier that receded into the mountains thousands of years ago. Part of the Quinault Indian Nation, it was traditionally used as summering grounds for salmon fishing, hunting, berry picking, and recreation.

Unlike Mount Rainer National Park, you don't come here expecting snow and getting rain. You come expecting rain, and most likely will get it. The valley receives an annual  average of 12 feet a year, with most of it falling in the winter months.

The reward, during dry respites, is access to a lush ecosystem filled with giant trees, waterfalls, wildlife and easy hikes designed for getting back to shelter quickly in case of a deluge. 

"It's one of the untouched gems of this region," says Quinault forest service ranger Matt Ferraro.  "In winter, you basically have the rain forest to yourself."

Settling in 

Plan on a three-hour drive from Seattle via a remote stretch of Highway 101 N. Lake Quinault Lodge sits by itself on South Shore Road inside the national park.

The iconic log fireplace at Lake Quinault Lodge

With a heated pool, and lobby filled with leather couches and chairs, soft lighting and a huge wood-burning fireplace, the lodge invites lingering on rainy afternoons. 

Rates soar in the summer when rooms fill with tourists anxious to combine a wilderness experience with a stay at an inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

 "Winter is the lowest occupancy," says general manager Robert Hugo. In 2016, the lodge began offering seasonal deals from mid-October through March (recently extended through mid-May)  that slash room rates by half or more. 

Cozy furniture and soft lighting invite lingering 

A spot check for Thursday-Friday dates in late February, 2023 brought up a rate of $245 for two nights with taxes for a lake-view, fireplace room compared to $795 for two nights in late May.  A Queen, lake-view room in the main lodge was $173.73 for two nights in late February compared to $609.66 later in the season.

Hiking trails

Consult a map or suggestions at AllTrails for hikes of varying lengths and difficulty. 

The easy Cascade Falls loop trail

Popular is the the Quinault Loop, a four-mile trail along the south shore of the lake. Points of interest include Cascade Falls, Cedar Bog, and the half-mile interpretive Quinault Rain Forest Nature Trail, parts of which are accessible to wheelchairs. 

Another is the Kestner Homestead Trail, a 1.3-mile loop, that takes visitors past an old settler's farmhouse surrounded by fields, apple trees, a barn and out buildings. 

Other close-by trails wend past waterfalls, huge Douglas fir trees (Trail of the Giants), and what's been called the world's largest Sika Spruce.

 "Assume cold rain," Ferraro advises. "We are temperate, so it's not like you're at Mount Rainier, "but definitely be prepared with rain gear and warm clothes. Aways bring water, something a lot of people neglect when it's cold."

Winter drives

Accessible by car year-round is the Quinault Rain Forest Loop Drive, a 31 mile road trip around Lake Quinault, up the Quinault River in Olympic National Park, and back around the other side. 

Rangers advise checking road conditions (not suitable for RVS), and looking for opportunities along the way for viewing waterfalls, wildlife and giant trees. Leave two hours minimum to complete the trip.

A herd of wild Elk at Bunch Field in the Quinault Rain Forest

Another option is to sign up for the Lake Quinault Lodge rainforest van tour ($50 for adults, $35 for children), a four-hour shuttle tour through the forest with a guide. Included are stops for   walks and photos and commentary about the Quinault Indian Nation history, early expeditions and native vegetation. 

Rainforest guide Chris German 

The tours can include up to 14 people during busy times, but my husband and I were the only ones to sign up mid-week in late January. Guide Chris German gave us a private tour on what turned out be a cold but clear day, perfect for short hikes and spotting bald eagles and wild elk. 


Food options are limited to breakfast and dinner (closed for lunch in winter) served in the lodge's Roosevelt dining room, or take-out from the nearby Rain Forest Resort Village Salmon House restaurant

Indoor dining at the Salmon House is closed, but locals recommend trying any one of five types of salmon dinners ($26.99-$29.99) available to go from 3 -8 p.m. daily.

Elegant but pricey is the lodge's lakefront dining room, named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt who visited in 1937, and later signed a bill creating Olympic National Park. 

Look for sweet potato pancakes, oatmeal and scrambles in the morning. Filling out the evening menu are seared duck, salmon, mushroom polenta and the restaurant's classic pot roast. 

Locals help fill tables on weekends, but come mid-week, and just like in the rain forest, you'll likely have the dining room to yourself. 

If you go: 

Lake Quinault Lodge, operated by Aramark Destinations,  will be offering its two-nights-for-the price of-one special through May 11, with substantial discounts on a variety of room types, subject to availability. 

To find the deal, go to the home page, hit on "special offers" at the top right and then "Lake Quinault Lodge." 

Aramark says it plans to repeat the deal mid-October through March in 2023-24.

Nearby is the more rustic Rain Forest Village Resort. It also offers winter mid-week and weekend discounts on lodge rooms, fireplace cabins and suites, with further price breaks through mid-February available by calling 1-800-255-6936 CQ There's also an RV park, open weather permitting.

For park information, contact the National Park Service  or the U.S Forest Service  with a ranger station at 353 South Shore Road. Limited hours. Call 360- 288-0203 before visiting. 

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on February 8, 2023.

Jan 17, 2023

Travel podcasts: Put the earbuds in and discover new destinations


My favorite podcast about Italian travel

I love listening to podcasts while I'm cooking, exercising or driving. I subscribe to programs that offer in-depth takes on current events (ie: inflation, the missing classified documents, China's rise in Covid infections), but there are times when I want to forget that the world seems to be a caldron of chaos.

This is when I turn to travel podcasts. 

For the next 30 or 40 minutes - time enough to chop some veggies or do my morning weight routine - I'm transported to Lisbon, Bologna or Paris by an enthusiastic host clearly in love with his or her city. I smile when I hear a guest speaking English with a thick Italian accent, detect the sound of wine glasses clinking or the blare of sirens in the background. 

The hosts and their guests remind me that there's always something new to discover even in places where I've been. 

Here are five of my favorites. All are available free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts etc. 

Destination Eat Drink

Food and travel guidebook write Brent Petersen, currently living in Portugal, has 215 episodes archived on his site. Guests talk about tooling around Bordeaux, France in a Soviet-era motorcycle sidebar; eating in Pizza in Rome; or how to support indigenous producers while dining in Bogota. 

Petersen will sometimes introduce a show with the sounds of street life as he records inside his  favorite cafe. His style is relaxed and unscripted as he probes his guests for in-depth answers.  Many are experts in their fields. For a piece on Valencia, Spain, he hosted Eunice Reyes, author of Spain: the Ultimate Vegan Travel Guide. In a podcast about Lisbon, he invited   former Seattle resident Scott Steffens to talk about what is is like to open a craft brewery in a city with no craft beer.

Petersen's site links to his blog with stories he has written on various destinations. Unlike some travel podcasters, he doesn't appear to be selling or promoting tours or books. There's a button for making for a $10 donation to keep the research going.  

Seattle to Italy and back 
The Bittersweet Life

NPR veteran Katy Sewall, based in Seattle, and her long-time friend Tiffany Parks, an ex-pat tour guide living in Rome, host what they title a podcast "for ex-pats, travelers, seekers and dreamers."

They began the podcast six years ago in Rome when the two  reconnected in Italy, and decided to explore the highs and lows of the expat experience. 

Recent segments covered Katy's long -planned trip to Rome after the pandemic, interrupted by Covid; Tiffany's thrill of having her baby baptized by the pope in the Sistine chapel; and the challenges of putting together a Thanksgiving meal in Rome. True to radio, they are careful about incorporating sounds into their podcasts. Most memorable was the sound of babies crying while being baptized.

New episodes, released every Monday, focus on a specific theme or topic. On Thursdays, they publish mini-episodes that often take you onto the streets of Rome or Seattle.   The two banter back and forth as if they were sitting next to each other instead of thousands of miles apart. 

Bittersweet Life has $5, $10, $20 and $50 monthly Patreon membership levels that come with extras such as access to behind-the-scenes production videos, and live virtual meet-ups with the hosts. 

The Earful Tower

Australian ex-pat, author and tour guide Oliver Gee moved to Paris in 2015 as a journalist, then switched to podcasting in 2017. 

His weekly shows are best when he includes guests ("What's it really like to be a Paris waiter"), less so when he and his wife, Lina Nordin Gee, a Swiss fashion designer and illustrator (Paris Postcards), giggle their way though most of a half hour, leaving you wondering when they are going to get to the point.

I give them credit for tackling some ambitious projects such as a series of podcasts on how to spend 24 hours in each of Paris' 20 districts, and a recent two-parter on what to do on your first and second trip to Paris. Their web site is worth a look for links to videos with photos that pair with their podcasts.

Gee has developed a man-about-town reputation among Paris ex-pats. Besides podcasts, he does walking tours and has published a book, the Earful Tower Guide to Paris 2023 for sale on his website. He offers $10, $20 and $50 monthly Patreon memberships.

Untold Italy

This is my top pick when I want to get away and "go" to what I know will be hidden parts of my favorite country.

Travel planner Katy Clarke is the author and founder of the travel blog Untold Morsels. She launched Untold Italy in 2019 to share her passion for all things Italian, and help others plan trips by putting together tours to towns and cities most large tour operators ignore.

She and her Italian guests, often speaking with thick English accents, are frank about telling you how to get an authentic experience by avoiding expensive and touristy places such as the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre, and choosing other close-by destinations instead. 

I loved her recent hour-long report on Italy's northern Piedmont region, especially the city of Tornio where I visited last year. Her guest was a Toriono tour guide at whose home my husband and I dined through the website

Travel with Rick Steves

Is there anyone who travels who isn't familiar with Rick Steves?

Best known for his European guidebooks, Public Television shows and sold-out group tours, Steves expands his reach beyond Europe in his weekly podcasts. All 890 are carefully edited and scripted, so no off-the-cuff banter here. I find them more interesting than the TV shows, perhaps because they include interviews with guests. 

Each 52-minute segment covers two or three different topics along with guest commentary and pre-recorded call-in questions and answers.

Recent programs have included an interview with an American author describing her experience in raising her family in France; Alabama's popularity as a destination for international travelers; and autumn in Japan with author Pico Iyer. 

Do you have a favorite travel podcast? Please share it in the travel comments here.

Dec 6, 2022

Planning travel in 2023? Here's how to avoid some costly mistakes


A tram trundles along the waterfront in Porto, Portugal

The new year is almost here. Let the travel planning begin. For many, it already has. But before you lock in dates, buy air tickets and make hotel reservations, take care to avoid some costly mistakes.

 Here are my Top 5:

 1) Don't be pressured into booking non-refundable or non-changeable hotel reservations, excursions or airline tickets. Most airlines have extended their Covid-era policies to allow changes without a fee, and cancellations for a credit to be used later. 

Keep in mind that if you make a change, you'll pay the fare in effect at the time. It will likely be higher, but could be lower than when you originally booked. Delta makes changing reservations online easy by showing what flights are available and what the price difference would be. I recently changed a flight to return to Seattle  from Naples, Florida, one day early. The price was the same as when I booked a few months ago, but had it been lower, Delta would have given me a credit.

Travel in 2023 will be no less risky than it was in 2022, given that Covid is still around, and the political situation tenuous in many parts of the world.

Having a back-up plan is always a good idea. That calls for flexibility. The earlier you lock yourself inn, the less flexible you'll be. 

If you buy travel insurance, check carefully for details on what it does and doesn't cover. Trip cancellation and interruption clauses don't cover a change of heart about a destination unless you buy an expensive "cancel for any reason" policy. The best idea is to "self-insure" your trip by avoiding travel that requires a non-refundable deposit or pre-payment up front.

In researching a trip to Mexico, I began to notice that most of the B&Bs in Mexico City required a non-refundable full or partial payment. Many are very nice, and I might have chosen one otherwise. Instead, I pivoted to an Airbnb which allows cancellation with no penalty up to a few days ahead. 

Pick a B&B or Airbnb with a
liberal cancellation policy

There's rarely any reason to buy airline tickets too far in advance. Resist the urge to look at fares for travel six months out, and tell yourself you'd better buy now because prices will only go up. Prices could fall if fuel prices decline, or a recession curbs demand for travel.  

When it comes to sightseeing, consider the organized day trips available on sites such as Get Your Guide or Viator as an alternative to a group tour that requires pre-payment. These companies consolidate listings of excursions offered by local travel agencies, then offer easy online booking with free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.

2) When using a credit card for overseas purchases, ALWAYS pay in the local currency. Duty-free vendors inside airports (Amsterdam's Schiphol and Pairs' Charles De Gaulle are two examples) ask customers if they'd rather pay in dollars or euros. Many inexperienced travelers  automatically say "dollars," which undisclosed to them by the cashier, carries a "conversion fee" for the so-called convenience of posting the amount in U.S. dollars on your receipt instead of euros.

3) When it comes to using bank machines to withdraw cash, avoid withdrawing euros from Euronet Worldwide bank machines installed near many shops and restaurants. They charge a hefty fee -$3.95 euros - plus a surcharge - 12 percent or more - by lowing the exchange rate below what is available from ATMs operated by real banks. The exchange rate might be 0.78 euros to one dollar, for instance, compared to the current rate of 0.95.

A clue will be instructions to tap on "accept this exchange rate" before you complete the transaction.

Prepare for many businesses going cashless, and streamlining  the process by accepting Apple and Google Pay as well as credit cards embedded with the tap symbol that don't require a chip and pin reader. Ask your bank to send you a new card with the tap symbol if you don't have one. 

4) Don't count on in-person service. Get comfortable with using self-checkouts in shops, and automated kiosks at airports for checking in, obtaining a boarding pass and checking bags. 

Checking in for a flight online is optimal, but sometimes not possible, especially in a code-share situation when you've booked with one airline (Delta, for example) but a partner airline (Air France) is operating the flight. 

I give the Pairs Metro extra credit for continuing to employ human ticket sellers in many of its stations. In a station where there were no staffers on duty, I used a blue button to push to call for questions. To my amazement, it worked. Using French to start, I asked the person on the other end if he spoke English. He did, and answered my question perfectly.

The reopening of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
 planned for April 15, 2024

5) Don't assume you're safe from catching Covid because no one else around you is wearing a mask, or distancing. Given flu and respiratory viruses, you're probably more at risk of falling ill while traveling than anytime in 2022.

Do what makes sense to avoid having your travel plans ruined. For me, that means wearing a mask from the time I enter the airport in Seattle to the time I get off my bus, train or out of the taxi at my destination.


Nov 5, 2022

Postcards from Paris: Post-pandemic musings from my favorite city


Cafe de la Rotonde on Boulevard Montparnasse

Warm lights inside the Art-Deco-style Cafe de la Rotonde beckon early risers for a quiet coffee. Lines no longer snake outside museum entrances. Late afternoons call for a wooly scarf and an Aperal spritz on an outdoor terrace. 

With the summer crowds gone, Paris is Paris again. It may just be my favorite city, especially in late fall. I've been coming here almost every year for the past 20. Now, after a two-year break due to Covid, I'm feeling my way around again. 

My favorite two-star hotel near Place de la Nation has raised its prices, and installed AC in all the rooms. 

The husband-and-wife owned tea salon next door appears to have permanently taken over a wide swath of sidewalk with its its Covid-era outdoor seating. No heaters though. Paris is on an energy-saving diet. 

My paper Metro tickets left over from my last trip still work, but not for long. The carnet - a booklet of 10 tickets sold at a discount - has gone digital with a pre-loaded plastic Navigo card. 

What's changed? What hasn't? What's new, given preparation for the summer Olympics in 2024? 

 A few musings after a week's stay:


Paris' metro, bus, RER and train systems remain fast and efficient most times; crowded and unreliable other times. Pre-Olympic improvements on the RER B and C lines make using either to get to Charles de Gaulle airport (RER B) or Orly (RER C) risky. Then again, buses and taxies get stuck in traffic. And with new construction and renovations underway everywhere, traffic is bad.

After waiting 40 minutes one morning for a bus to De Gaulle that never came, I ran across the street to the RER station, and with one metro connection, made it to the airport in 40 minutes. Another morning, the RER B was out of service several stops before De Gaulle, requiring a 20 minute ride the rest of the way on a shuttle bus. Another day it was shut down all together after someone left an unattended bag on the train. 

Best advice: Have a back-up plan, or better yet, spend the night before your departing flight at an airport hotel. The Ibis CDG Airport hotel a few steps from Terminal 3 is one of the best options. It's clean, modern, reasonably priced, and the only way you could miss your flight is if you sleep in.

Be prepared for many people commuting to work and school on bikes and scooters. Step into a dedicated bike lane with the same caution you would crossing a street. 

Inflation and the U.S. dollar

Inflation has hit Europe hard, and Parisians will tell you they feel the impact of rising prices. Cushioning the effects for American travelers is the rising value of the U.S. dollar, now worth slightly more than the euro. 

A 5 euro coffee at the Rotonde is $4.95 U.S. whereas in 2021, it would been around $5.90. This means it costs less to relax here in elegant surroundings, sipping coffee served with a pitcher of warm milk, than it does for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks.

Good value has always been easy to find in Paris, and still is. Look no further than a neighborhood away from the major sites.

Example: My 12 euro ($11.64) lunch of smoked salmon, salad, bread and  an anise Pastis at La Fee Verte, the Green Fairy, a classic cafe near Pere- Lachaise cemetery. The cafe  specializes in absinthe, the green anise-flavored spirit favored by Parisian artists and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The Green Fairy cafe

I found it by walking along the Rue de la Roquette towards the Bastille, a route suggested by Harriet Welty Rochefort, a Parisian ex-pat author (French Toast and French Fried among other books) and friend whom I had met for coffee earlier in the day.

Harriet and I at a cafe near Pere-Lachaise

In the past the La Roquette district was known for containing two prisons: the "Petite Roquette" for young delinquents and women, and the "Grande Roquette" for major criminals. The guillotine was brought out at night to bring the lives of the imprisoned to a fateful end.Today, the district is a happier place filled with trendy art galleries, bars, restaurants and a busy nightlife.

Self-service everything

The same "staffing" shortages affecting U.S. retailers are affecting most service providers in Paris. Expect to use a self-service kiosk to buy everything from grocery items to train and metro tickets. 

I spotted only one or two live cashiers in many stores, including the gourmet section of the luxury Galeries LaFayette department store which draws many foreign tourists.

Galeries Lafayette

Passengers obtaining boarding passes from Air France at Charles de Gaulle must use self-service kiosks as well as check their own bags. 

Apple Pay is accepted almost everywhere as well as credit cards equipped with the "tap" symbol for contactless payment. To take advantage of the most favorable exchange rate, avoid withdrawing euros from Euronet Worldwide bank machines installed near many shops and restaurants. They charge a hefty fee -$3.95 euros - plus surcharge - 12 percent or more - by lowing the exchange rate below what is available from ATMs operated by real banks. The exchange rate might be 0.82 euros to one dollar, for instance, compared to the current rate of 0.99.

A clue will be instructions to tap on "accept this exchange rate" before you complete the transaction.

Duty-free shops at De Gaulle airport offer customers the option of paying in euros or dollars. Always opt for euros to avoid similar surcharages.

Iconic sites and off-the radar art

No matter if you're a first-time or repeat visitor, everyone feels the pull to walk past and/or visit the iconic sites for which Paris is known. 

Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre

I like to find vantage points in unexpected locations. This sighting of Sacre-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre came into view as I glanced down a side street while walking towards the Galleries Lafayette department store.

Notre- Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame Cathedral is scheduled to reopen to the public by 2024—five years after a fire collapsed its roof and toppled its spire. It looks much the same from the front, minus the spire, but the entire back area is a construction site.

Visits to major museums require advance purchase of timed tickets.The show-of-the-moment is Frida Kahlo at the Palais Galliera, usually sold-out each day. On the other hand, it was easy to walk right into the Musee d'Orsay with a time ticket purchased the day before.  Sadly, one of my favorite paintings was missing. 

Degas's Absinthe Drinker

I looked everywhere for Edgar Degas's Absinthe Drinker. Finally, I asked, and was told it was on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The 1886 painting portrays a woman and a man sitting in a café, staring blankly, looking almost sad. The painting became controversial after it was discovered the artist used models posing as real patrons, and painted it in his studio, not a cafe. The painting cast a slur on the reputations of the two models, and Degas had to state publicly that they were not alcoholics.

Not everyone has time for Paris' lessor-known museums, but making time for at least one can feel more rewarding than trudging though the big sites. 

Burdens literally fall on the shoulders of women all over the world as depicted in a moving exhibit by American/Indian photogrher Lekha SIngh at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Manknd). Fifty portraits celebrate the courage and strength of women in India, Tanzania, Morocco, Rwanda, Kenya and other countries. They are the non-motorized engines that transport heavy loads everyday to provide fuel, water and building materials for their families.

A woman from Kenya carries a stone to build a fire pit for her family

Women in Tanzania fill 50-pound pots with water to carry to their families

The bonus of visiting this museum (Trocadero metro stop) is the dead-on view of the Eiffel Tower from the upstairs cafe window. 

Paris greeter Raphael Rispoli

Better than any museum is to spend a few hours with a Paris Greeter. These are locals who volunteer to spend time with visitors on two to three-hour walks around the city. They are not tour guides, but rather people who enjoy meeting others and sharing their knowledge of  favorite areas.

 I met up with Raphael Rispoli for a two-hour morning walk around the Left Bank, starting near the Jardin du Luxembourg and ending at the River Seine near Notre Dame. We enjoyed lunch together afterwards at a small restaurant before parting ways in the early afternoon.  

Oct 22, 2022

Basking in Bilbao: Edgy art, bar hopping and outdoor adventures


Bilbao specializes in pintxos, the Basque version of tapas - little snacks served with zuritos - half-glasses of beer

The Guggenheim- The big reason to visit Bilbao, but not the only one

Pick up any guidebook on Spain’s northern Basque Country, and it will point you to Bilbao to visit the futuristic-styled Guggenheim contemporary art museum designed by architect Frank Gerry. Afterwards, the advice will be to decamp to nearby San Sebastián, known for its beaches, five-star restaurants and cobblestoned old town.


Tom and I decided to reverse that itinerary, skip the beaches, and take a deep dive into Basque culture by spending four nights in Bilbao, the largest city in Basque country. Known pre-Guggenheim for its iron mines and busy port, Bilbao has undergone a renaissance since the museum was completed in 1997. Still, it goes largely undiscovered by day-trippers. 

The museum’s design and riverfront location do impress. We visited on our first afternoon in town, riding the city’s efficient metro a few stops from our hotel in the historical center, and timing our visit to two hours before closing to avoid crowds.

Inside the Guggenheim 

 Most find the exterior and interior design elements more interesting than the art exhibited inside. We agreed, with one exception: The artist created this wall-length piece entirely from scraps of tin, bottle caps etc., and hired Nigerian helpers to stitch it together with copper wire.

Balconies with glass-enclosed sun porches grace buildings in  Bilbao’s medieval town center

Bilbao is split along two sides of the Nervion river. Walking paths along both sides replaced former docks in what in post-pandemic 2022 has become a compact and highly-pedestrianized city with a charming old town, an edgy arts district, and a skyscraper-filled new town with bars and restaurants on every corner.

Mercado de la Ribera

We spent most of our time in Casa Viejo, the 700-year-old medieval town center on the river’s right bank. One that side is the Art Deco-style Mercado de la Ribera, a covered market built in 1929. Opposite the market, on the other side of the river, is a scrappy but gentrifying quarter where much of the city’s former iron mining was located. Street art, chic cafes, and even a Michelin-star restaurant. Bridges connect the two sides of the river at various points.

Peppers of several varieties dominate this mural on Bilbao’s  left bank

 Clotheslines come with umbrellas for protecting hanging laundry from the rain

A historical marker in Spanish and Euskara , the Basque language that pre-dates Romance languages 

The Basque people come from a region of southwest France and northwest Spain. They have their own language and cultural traditions. Some favor independence from Spain, but the separatist threats of past years have largely been replaced by show of nationalistic pride.

Culinary traditions are strong. Mountains of sweet peppers, and fresh tuna and cod from nearby fishing villages create toppings for pintxos that appear on the countertops of bars starting mid-morning until late night.

Markets overflow with sweet red bell peppers 

Padrone peppers are served roasted and salted. Most are mild, but one in 10 could be hot. You eat the whole pepper in one bite, except for the stem

A pintxos meal

Ordering pintxos from busy bartenders requires quick decisions. Platters appear on the bar as they come out of the kitchen. You point to what you want, indicate how many, order a drink, pay, Then, if you’re still hungry, you come back for more, We made meals of pintxos most nights instead of ordering full dinners. The snacks are often paired with little half-sized beers called zuritos. The idea is that you can bar hop from one place to another, sampling different pintxos, without drinking too much at each stop.

Bilbao’s signature dessert, the Carolina (pronounced Caroleena as in “Little Carol”). Of course, I had to try it. The Carolina was invented by a pastry chef whose young daughter loved meringue. To make it easier for her to eat, he filled a miniature pastry crust with a cone of meringue, and glazed it with egg yoke and dark chocolate. Carolinas are best eaten with a spoon, and paired with a cafe con leche (latte) served in a tall glass.

Carol with a Carolina

 Cafe con leche 

Bilbao is surrounded by incredible natural surroundings. The metro connects the city with a string of beach towns within a 30-minute ride.  We traveled to one perched high above the water, found a path down through the village, and a funicular to take us back up for 20 cents. Just 10 miles inland from the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s Northern Coast, the area is considered one of the world’s top surfing locations. 

The bay also is the location of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century island hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Some might recognize it as “Dragonstone” from Game of Thrones. 

The walk to Dragonstone

Local travel agencies offer day trips for those without cars. We signed up for a morning bus excursion that included a hike to a monastery at the top via 241 steps along a zig-zag path that reminded us of the Great Wall of China. 

The view from the top

The 1.7-mile round-trip walk took about 1.5 hours, and was not as hard as it sounds. There were around 25 people on our bus, and most everyone made it up and down in about the same amount of time. The reward: fantastic views of the bay in both directions.

By the way, in my previous post about Porto in Portugal, I mentioned that almost know one was wearing masks. It’s a different story in Spain where the law still requires masks on public transportation including planes. Everyone complies.

For more pictures and stories, see Tom’s blog at