Jeff's Travel Blog

I'm Jeff Marks. My day job is general manager of WDBJ7. My hobby is travel.

POSTED: 04:30 AM EST Dec 24, 2013    UPDATED: 09:45 PM EST Nov 21, 2013 

Allegiant is America's stealth airline. If you live in a city where it flies, you've probably heard of it. Otherwise, no. Allegiant does almost no national marketing.

So we are lucky to have this low fare airline serving Roanoke.

Unlike most other airlines, Allegiant flies only certain days of the week. For most of the year, we have two flights a week to Sanford, outside of Orlando, and St. Peterburg, across the bay from Tampa. Allegiant saves money by flying into underserved airports like Sanford and St. Pete.

There's no connecting to other cities. There's no first class, but it is a comfortable flight on updated full-size jet aircraft. No free anything on board.

To make the most of your dollar, keep some things in mind:

- You'll pay an extra fee of $10-$15 per flight to book online or on the phone. The only way to avoid that is buy your ticket at the airport. And there's a catch there: Allegiant is open for ticket sales only when there's a flight leaving and their staff is at the counter. That's four hours per week, and that's it. (My theory is that this policy enables Allegiant to advertise the lowest fare but to make it inconvenient to get it. Still, even with the surcharge, Allegiant is almost always the least expensive way to go.)

- There's a surcharge for using a credit card: $4. Save it by using a debit card.

- There's a charge to board first or to reserve seat assignments. If sitting together is essential, you'll want to pay for seat assignments when you buy your ticket. Otherwise, at the counter, the computer will choose your seat and there's no negotiating. I never pay for a seat assignment. Recently, by luck of the draw, the computer gave me my favorite seat, by the window in an exit row with extra leg room.

- If you plan to take luggage, it will cost less if you pay in advance. And something recent: if your carry-on is not going to fit under the seat in front of you, you'll pay a fee to stow it overhead.

- Be careful when you buy your ticket. My experience is that several months out, fares are as high as $198 one way. Later they can drop as low as $59. I have bought seats to Florida for $29. Keep an eye on the trend.

It can be a little complicated to go Allegiant if you're used to the rules on the "normal" airlines. But the discount can make it all worth it.

Oct. 29, 2013

When I travel, I try to see how my fellow Jews live and worship.  I have been to synagogues, or the remains of them, in the Caribbean, all over Europe and parts of Asia.  I have worshiped with the small Jewish communities of Beijing, China and Timisoara, Romanie.

We're going to Israel for the first time next March, and I'll write about that.

On our visit to Georgia, we took a side trip to the beautifully restored Rabati Castle. I asked if we could stop at the synagogue down the hill in the town of Akhaltsikhe.

Our van reached the building at sundown and there was no sign of life.  Our host was determined to get us in.  He found a man who knew the son of the caretaker.  The son went to the supermarket to retrieve Mr. Levy, the man with the keys.

It is a lovely synagogue that could seat 200.  The congregation has 15 of the sacred scrolls, the Torah, including one that is 500 years old.  15 scrolls for the eight members of the congregation.

Akhaltsikhe was a thriving Jewish community until 1989, when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the country.  Hundreds of thousands moved to Israel, leaving a few families behind in communities that used to teem with Jewish life.  In Akhaltsikhe, that number has shrunk to eight, and it will almost certainly be at zero in a few years.

Folks drive three hours from the capital Tbilisi every few weeks to worship with the Jews of Akhaltsike, keeping the flame burning.

Stories like this abound in eastern Europe.  It makes one happy to know that Jews of the Soviet era have enjoyed a generation of freedom.  It's a bit sad that that has happened at the expense of the Jews who remained behind, their synagogues and the centuries of living, mostly in peace, amid the Christians, Muslims and others of their home countries.

Oct. 16, 2013

I was in Georgia on Friday and Georgia on Saturday. Two very separate Georgias, you understand.

We flew through Atlanta on our way to Tbilisi, the capital of the nation of Georgia, which was, until 1991, part of the Soviet Union.

Even now, because of a military dust-up in 2008, Russia occupies two provinces of Georgia, claiming that the Russians were not being treated nicely in those provinces. This rankles the Georgians.

I was there on a U. S. government-sponsored exchange to share ideas with a small television station in Borjomi, a couple of hours drive from the capital.

Roxanne and Dana, her girlfriend from Romania, joined me on the trip and spent their days sightseeing. They discovered amazing caves and castles and toured the museum dedicated to the hometown "hero" of the city of Gori, a fellow named Stalin. Yes, they say, he was a tyrant who killed millions, but the trains ran on time and everybody (who lived through it) had food.

While I was there, the town's children took over a soccer field for a show of ethnic dances of the occupied regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to draw attention to their plight. Thousands of ethnic Georgians fled those regions and now live in marginally habitable apartments or tiny houses without plumbing. They want to go home, but they are no match for the Russia's army.

It's a poor but proud country, tucked in between Turkey, Armenia and Russia. It would have been low on the list of places I would have picked to see, but now that I've been there, I can recommend a visit if you're in the neighborhood.

Oct. 2, 2013

Allegiant is a successful airline that flies all over the United States. Unless you're in one of the cities it serves, like Roanoke, you probably haven't heard of it.

The airline's slogan should be, "Make your schedule fit ours, because we fly for a low price non-stop to Florida, but only two days a week." And lots of people do accommodate Allegiant for its ninety-minute flights to Sanford, the alternative to Orlando, and to Clearwater/St. Pete, the alternative to Tampa.

Right now, the schedule has a single flight each way to each city on Thursdays and Sundays.

Seats can be priced at $29 or $249, depending on when you book. Watching those prices at Allegiant.com is like trying to time the stock market. Nevertheless, last year, I made six round-trips to Florida for a little more than $700. Total.

Some warnings. If you book and pay online, there's an extra fee. You can avoid the fee by paying at the airport, but tickets are sold only in the sixty minutes after a flight leaves for Sanford or Clearwater. Again, timing is everything.

The lowest fare is available only for debit cards. For credit cards, there's a fee. There are more optional fees: baggage, carry-on that doesn't fit under the seat, seat selection, priority boarding. I usually travel light, and I don't care about my seat assignment on this short a flight, so I beat those charges.

The only option I sometimes take is the one that allows me to cancel at any time for any reason for full credit against a future flight. That's better than the insurance deals other airlines offer.

Your travel needs may not fit with Allegiant's grand plan. Let's just say that Allegiant is making a profit and a lot of travelers, willing to be flexible, are saving money.

September 22, 2013

There's so much in New York that's free and easy.  Or nearly free.

Roxanne and I just took our 11-year-old granddaughter to New York for her first time. And while you drop a lot of money taking carriage rides through Central Park and riding to the top of the Empire State Building, there's much you can do that's less expensive.

You can walk the park for nothing.  It's safe -- although I wouldn't do it at midnight –and lovely, a great place to enjoy nature or play with it.

One of the world's finest museums, the Metropolitan, is on city land, so the rule is that you pay what you want.  They recommend an admission price, but they tell you clearly that it's just a recommendation.  Poor artists go there all the time for nothing and see masterpieces...and not just art on the wall.  The Met has textiles and armaments and much more.

We haven't gotten to it yet but the high line, which used to be the elevated railway, is now on the list of must-do sights.  It's now an aerial greenway, a city park one mile long and as wide as a couple of railroad tracks.

The New York Public Library is an architectural gem and an amazing repository of books and documents.

Pretty soon, you'll be able to watch the skaters and admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.  The windows at Macy's and Lord and Taylor are decorated fancifully for the holidays.  Vendors take over Bryant Park at holiday time, and it's fun to browse. 

What can you add to this list of ways to see New York for free?

September 13, 2013

I drive a 2007 hybrid.  It's comfortable and easy on the gas.

Last week, I had to deal with a family situation, which meant going to Richmond, Indiana on short notice.  Flying would have cost $660.  Driving was the alternative.

I compared rates on one of the Web travel sites and found a rental car for $26 per day, or $52 for the 48 hours I would need it for the drive up and back, which turned out to be 887 miles.  How does that compare with the cost of driving my hybrid?

Using a wear-and-tear calculator I found at ehow.com, driving my own car would have run me $151 in depreciation, tires and what-have-you.  A conventional mid-size car would have been $206.  An SUV or large car:  $300.

Furthermore, the rental had a USB port, which my 2007 does not.  Insert smiley face here.

You may be most comfortable in your own car, and you might think that the only cost of driving your car is gas.  When you include the hidden costs, rental cars often prove to be a better choice.

September 3, 2013

W. C. Fields, the comedy star of early cinema, was quoted as suggesting something like this for his tombstone:  "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."  Were he still alive, I would argue the point with him.

I fly a whole lot on US Airways.  Whenever I can, I connect through Charlotte.  Sometimes, the only choice is Philadelphia.  

US Airways is a much improved airline.  It has consistently the lowest fares from Roanoke.  I even like the airline's reliable Dash-8 propeller aircraft.  The issue can be their connecting cities.

Charlotte can be a problem on a late afternoon in the summer.  Lightning can shut that airport down in an instant.  I have been lucky this year.  It hasn't happened.

But Philadelphia--that's a worse story.  The mere suggestion of bad weather will close all but one runway, backing up some flights for hours--that is, the ones that don't get canceled.  Something bad has happened each of the three times I have used Philadelphia this year.

Yesterday, I was supposed to leave Portland, Maine at 6:15 p.m.  Having learned my lesson before, I arrived at the airport at 1:30.  A space opened up on the 3:30 flight to Philadelphia, so the agent moved me to it.

The 3:30 flight left at 6:30.  I made my connection and landed just an hour late at midnight.

If, when I had started driving, I had skipped the Portland airport and kept going all the way to Roanoke, I would have arrived at 1:00 a.m., one hour later than my flight delivered me.

This is flying today.  It is, for the moment, faster than driving.  Barely.

August 29, 2013

Belize is a little country in Central America.  You can cross it to Guatemala in a couple of hours, not that there is any good reason to go across the border.

They moved the capital inland a few years ago to keep it away from hurricanes.  When I read in a tour book that Belmopan is "best seen in the rear view mirror," I had to visit.  

It is an unfinished city with barracks-like buildings, easily the least interesting capital.  Anywhere.  So if you go to Belize, I'd recommend staying in the interior at a lodge where you can zip-line or float through caves.  Also, the beaches on Ambergris Cay. (Pronounce it "am-burg'-iss-key" to sound local.)  And a very nice zoo.

At the zoo, in an aquarium, lives a snake of about 18 inches with a diamond-shaped head.  That shape is the giveaway that it's a nasty little fellow with a killer bite.  The fer-de-lance is the scourge of walkers in the woods of Belize.

So Roxanne and I were, of course, walking in the woods.  We had to in order to get to the point where we would jump in a tube and float down the river.

You have to understand that with the fer-de-lance, you have about two hours before your eyes start to bleed.  They assured me that the lodge had the anti-toxin.  

We did not end up needing to prove that..  My advice, nevertheless:  look down, and keep looking down and you'll live to enjoy a beautiful country, mostly unspoiled, except for Belmopan.

*********************************************************************************

August 27, 2013

I'm Jeff Marks.  My day job is general manager of WDBJ7.  My hobby is travel.

This blog is devoted to what I have discovered along the way.  I'll share tips and warnings.  And I would like your contributions on any travel subject.

Disclaimer:  I am vice chairman of the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors but I'm not going to write that much about how wonderful our part of the world is.  We know that in terms of culture, education, recreation, scenery and so much more, this region is a gem.

I am lucky to have visited 44 states, some of central America, Mexico and Canada, 26 countries of Europe, lots of the Caribbean, and parts of Asia.  I thought I had traveled a lot until I met a young flight attendant this morning who has been to many of those places and also South Africa and South America.  Of course, she travels at a big discount.

My wife Roxanne and I took a trip in June with Sean, our 12-year-old grandson.  We saw the sights of London, northern Wales and Ireland.  Someday I'll share some of those pictures, but I want to mention here an afterthought that turned out to be a highlight.

On the last full day of our trip, we were driving from Kilkenny to Dublin for our flight home the next morning.  As we often do, Roxanne checked the tour books to see if there were any interesting spots along the way.  The only thing she came up with was a cutlery showroom in the otherwise undistinguished town of Newbridge.  We drove to it.  Well, we drove by it twice.  We found it.  Sean stayed in the car.

Since that tour book was published, Newbridge Silverware has turned itself into a gift emporium, featuring knock-off jewelry of the stars from Audrey Hepburn to Greta Garbo.  What wasn't in the guide was that the second floor of Newbridge Silverware is a museum.  The owner has collected one of Dorothy's dresses from The Wizard of Oz, the Beatles' suits from A Hard Day's Night, and costumes of stars from Michael Jackson to Bette Davis.  

The museum is astounding to find in a small town in Ireland.  It's also free, if you don't count the $86 we spent in the gift shop afterwards.  

Ireland has fabulous castles, cliffs, pubs and parks.  Do all of that, then stop in Newbridge on your way out of the country.

http://www.newbridgesilverware.com/visit_us/museum