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Traveling to Cuba

Traveling to Cuba has been a hot topic for quite a while now. With the President’s latest announcement on travel restrictions, I thought Cuba might be a timely topic this week.

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit my husband’s family in Cuba. His mother, father and most of his father’s family left in the early 1960’s but his mother’s family stayed. This was a very special trip for my husband since he had never met his cousins or aunt. For his Aunt Margarita’s 80th birthday, we ventured with his mother to Cuba. Following are pictures from our trip and an excerpt from a blog I wrote several years ago about our trip.

 

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My husband and I joined his cousins for a walk through the neighborhood where his mother grew up. Portions of most buildings were crumbling, while others stood proud, weathering the years much better. We saw the school his mother and aunt attended. The upper floor was for the children from the rich families; the lower floor was for the poor families. It still serves as a school today.

Signs in the neighborhoods of “Socialism or Death”, it becomes clear that we are seeing Cuba much differently than most tourists. There is no hot water in the majority of homes. We learned that families receive no milk once children in a household reach the age of 7; to buy powdered milk on the black market you pay $15/pound. A family is given 7 eggs a month; to buy eggs on the black market you pay anywhere from $2-3 per egg. Shelves in the grocery stores are bare and little to no meat available. I wandered through three different stores, wondering what I could pull together to make a meal if I had to – and came up empty. Finding bread on a daily basis is no better. One day we found none and resorted to eating cookies for breakfast. Always a fan of sweets, this didn’t concern me, but I couldn’t imagine living like this every day. What really bothered me was that we saw an abundance of chickens, goats and cows, yet there were no eggs, chicken to eat, milk or red meat. Cuba is surrounded by ocean, yet where is the fish? Where does all this food go? Government officials? Embassy officials? Tourist hotels? Tourist restaurants? Your guess is as good as mine. The life of a Cuban and the life of a tourist are in such contrast it is surreal.

Old Havana is beautiful, but here you find more of the same. Some buildings restored, others crumbling and people living in homes that are falling down around them, with electrical wiring that scared even me. This building was a convent, built in the late 1800’s. It was turned into apartments sometime in the 1920’s and people still live there today.

But if you stay on the path that most tourists do, you will see things such as The National Hotel, a favorite amongst tourists, where the rich and famous stay and food is abundant; the Malecon, where people take leisurely strolls; and all the grand buildings that have been restored. One will also pass by the old fort, art galleries and tourists shops.

You will find music everywhere – in restaurants, in the streets, in the plazas.

I’m sure most tourists are also driven through Miramar, where the grand old homes are impeccable and most occupied by government and embassy officials. Unbelievable what a difference a couple of blocks can make.

We also visited Varadero, a beach community about two hours from Old Havana. Beautiful vistas abound on the drive, striking green hillsides and turquoise blue waters. Varadero has an abundance of tourist resorts, most just a few years old and others under construction.

When I think about what we saw and what we experienced, I am still at a loss for words. A harder life in general with limited opportunities; the daily struggles of life. How do these people continue to do it? Despite all of this, it is amazing to see that the people, overall, are very positive about the future of Cuba. Once again, I have been dealt a lesson in perspective. And I more thankful than ever for what we have and the opportunities that await.

Oh, Cuba….how haunting you are; how glamorous you once were. What if history had been different?

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So what about traveling to Cuba today? What restrictions will be coming into place? Here’s a brief summary as it has been described these last few days:

Obama allowed U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba under 12 different categories which included education, religious reasons, journalism and family visits, but tourism was still prohibited. Trump is eliminating the people-to-people trips, which helped Americans go to Cuba on their own. Here are the important points you should be aware of:

  • Americans will only be able to visit Cuba as part of a tour group if you want to go for educational purposes, and it must be approved through the Treasury Department
  • Any financial transaction that benefit the Cuban military’s business is prohibited – which includes many hotels, restaurants and other entities
  • There could be increased enforcement, either from customs agents at the airport or through audits occurring after travel (hold on to your receipts)
  • All visitors will be required to maintain full schedules while in Cuba and keep detailed logs for five years
  • The Treasury Department will be conducting regular audits of travelers
  • Anyone caught violating Cuban sanctions could face civil or criminal penalties, with fines up to $65,000 per violation

Please note: this list may or may not be all-inclusive, as no official restrictions have been drafted yet

Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise lines were quick to send out statements immediately clarifying their cruises that include Cuba ports all meet the new government restrictions. Land providers are making changes to ensure they will comply with the new restrictions as well.  Treasury and Commerce have 30 days to start drafting the new rules and changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued. The State Department plans on publishing a list of prohibited hotels and businesses.

If you already have a trip to Cuba scheduled, you can proceed as long as the new regulations aren’t in effect. 

A trip to Cuba is still one of those once in a lifetime experiences for people from the U.S. It’s a startling contrast to see a country that has almost stood still in time. If you have any interest in going, now is the time to see Cuba before it undergoes even more modern-day changes. Or before all travel is restricted once again.

Our biggest advice to anyone wanting to travel to Cuba is to call your travel agent. Please make sure you are booking a trip that meets all qualifications so you don’t face criminal charges or penalties down the road. A travel agent will ensure that any arrangements meet the travel restrictions and the tour providers are reliable and financially stable.

Don’t have a travel agent? We’d love to help you. Visit our website at http://www.takeoffandgo.com for the latest travel deals and to contact us!

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Why Use A Travel Agent?

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One question seems to keep popping up numerous times lately – “why should I use a travel agent?” In these days of constant connection, email and Facebook ads promoting all kinds of travel deals, that’s a fair question. Anyone who uses a search engine can find what is termed the latest and greatest travel deal. Everyone has their favorite spot to search for airfare, hotels, etc., whether it’s Travelocity, Kayak, Hotels.com. So what is the advantage of a travel agent. More importantly, does it cost you more?

So let’s address the biggest elephant in the room first. Does it cost more to use a travel agent? Most travel agents work on a commission base only. That commission is paid to them by the various suppliers they work with. The cost is not passed on to the client. How is this possible? Travel agents and/or the companies they work for are part of a bigger consortium. This increases buying power, which in turn results in better deals and amenities for a travel agent’s clients. There are some agents who do add a standard fee for services which is paid by the client, but personally I do not.

Now that you know you aren’t going to be charged extra (at least by me), what are the other advantages? ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) put together a list of 101 reasons, but I’ll keep this blog list short and sweet.

  1. We literally have hundreds of suppliers at our fingertips. Do it yourself vacation planners could search for days on end for the best deal. It might take a travel agent a couple of hours to sort through all the specials out there – but I can guarantee we can narrow down the best prices faster and more efficiently than you can. And guess what? We can probably find some special amenities to throw in for you to sweeten the deal. We are truly the one-stop shop.
  2. Yes, anyone can search on-line and find bargains. But how do you know that bargain is going to be the best fit for you? There’s nothing worse than planning for months, anticipating that perfect, relaxing, much valued vacation time – then showing up to a dump resort whose online photos have obviously been photo shopped; the cruise ship that doesn’t come close to what you had in mind; or the “beach” you and your kids were looking forward to that is now non-existent due to the latest hurricane. Travel agents know the questions to ask you to narrow down what would be the best bang for your buck and leave you with memories – of the good kind – to last a lifetime. Most travel agents also travel extensively, so they can give you firsthand knowledge of hotels, destinations and valuable personal experience.
  3. You know that great coupon travel deal you booked? Guess what happens when you experience travel challenges and call the 800 number…….you wait on terminal hold for the next available representative, only to be told there’s nothing they can do about you showing up and the resort is oversold and they have no room for you. Or how about that cruise and airfare you booked, and now your flight and every flight after it has been cancelled and you are going to miss the ship. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a travel agent you can call, who will pick up the phone and make the dozen phone calls and arrangements for you? In this day of airline mishaps it truly pays to have someone who has your back! A travel agent works for YOU. Believe me when I say we want your vacation to be fabulous.
  4. Travel agents attend training, seminars, classes and webinars all the time. Take advantage of us. Benefit from our knowledge!
  5. A travel agent can create a special itinerary with anything and everything YOU want to do. You don’t have to spend hours researching only to get stuck with a bargain that’s not really what you want.
  6. Travel agents should be using only dependable, reputable suppliers. You know that great hike you booked through a local in Peru that was a phenomenal bargain? What happens if they go out of business before you arrive and you have already paid in full? Yep, travel agents have that covered too.
  7. Have you ever had a medical emergency while on vacation? I hope not. But if you do, your travel agent can help you find the nearest medical assistance.
  8. Travel agents know the best times of the year for travel to different destinations that result in cheaper prices and smaller crowds.
  9. Travel agents are great when you need a group discount and coordination. We know the best properties for groups and the suppliers to work with. Do you need 5 or 10 rooms? You bet we can get a discounted rate!
  10. It’s just easier to use a travel agent. Enough said.

So the next time you are thinking about that weekend getaway, family vacation or dreading planning that upcoming family reunion, talk to some local travel agents. Find one that you think you can work well with. And then let them sweat the details while you take all the credit!

Thinking about a trip but don’t know where to find an agent? Check out our website at http://www.takeoffandgo.com for the latest deals and travel tips. And give us a call!

 

What’s Your Favorite Place You’ve Ever Been? Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about my love for Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, France. I’m not sure there’s ever been a place that – for some reason – completely put me at ease and at peace. My second all-time favorite place to visit happens to be in France as well.

The Beaujolais region of France is located north of Lyon in eastern France. A few years ago, we ended up in Lyon after a whirlwind tour of Geneva. One of our days was dedicated to finding a village in the Beaujolais region that we had heard about that did wine tastings. Unfortunately, we never stopped to think that the particular day we decided to do this was on Good Friday.

After driving about an hour or so from Lyon and all through this quaint little village several times, we could not find any open wine tasting rooms. We were about to give up when we stopped in a little bakery to see if they could give us some guidance. The owner of the store did not speak English and we do not speak French. Fortunately a lady buying her day’s bread overheard our attempt at conversation and knew enough English to understand what we were asking. She made her bread purchase and waved to us, indicating we should follow her. Little did we know the lady and her husband owned a vineyard and we would end up in their house for a personal tasting of their wines.

Needless to say, the wine tasting was not your typical tasting. This complete stranger welcomed us into her home, stepping over shoes and daily life clutter, through the living area to a room with boxes and cartons of wine. She introduced us to her husband, Alain Chanrion, and we spent the next two hours communicating – in broken English with some Spanish thrown in – about the wines and their family owned vineyards. There was a lesson to be learned that day – if you are willing to put the time into communicating with someone who speaks a different language, you will somehow understand each other.

We talked about their small vineyard, his father and brother who also own vineyards, and how they hand pick their grapes. We had been in Napa several years ago, so the opportunity to learn about how this small operation compared to the large operations in California was priceless. They were so excited about our interest that they invited us to follow them to their building to see their grape press and vats.

Their equipment was housed in a stone building in the middle of the village, built in the 1600s, dirt floors still intact. It was not quite what we were expecting, but certainly full of charm and history. There was one grape press on the main level and three vats on the lower level. Alain demonstrated how the press worked before leading us down centuries-old dirt stairs to the lower level, where we tasted wine from all three vats to understand the variances of taste throughout the wine making process.

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More wine consumption led to the realization we were in dire need of food. Our hosts sent us on our way to their favorite restaurant, a little diner at the foot of the hills. Again we were met with open arms and became the center of attention. Everyone wanted to know where we were from, what brought us there, what we thought of the wine, etc. We ate delicious food, sampled delicacies of the region and interacted and laughed with the neighbors of our new friends from the vineyard.

To this day I have no idea how we were so lucky to stumble into this great experience. Not only did we learn about the manual handpicking process that is specific to the vineyards of the region, we also were also blessed to experience hospitality in its truest form, experiencing a taste of the daily life and culture.

We are truly thankful to have had an experience like this and realize it would be one that would be impossible to recreate. Memories like this are why we like to travel off the beaten path, away from the jam packed tourist areas, to explore on our own.

My biggest piece of advice to friends is always to research your destination, determine what you most want to see, then figure out how to get there – whether it’s by car, train, bus or taxi. The normal tourist traps are fine for a day or two, but then explore the area on your own. Get to know the people and the culture. Eat in the out of the way diners. Truly experience your destination and make your trip your own!

I would love to hear your favorite experience. Sharing stories and memories often inspires others to travel!

 

 

What’s Your Favorite Place You’ve Ever Been? Part 1

I was recently asked what was my all time favorite place I’ve traveled to. Instantly, two places in France came to mind – Monet’s Gardens and the home of a vineyard owner/wine maker in the Beaujolais area. I’ll cover Monet’s Gardens in this posting and save Beaujolais for the next.

The first time I traveled to France was in 2000, with an incentive meeting I was doing with my former employer. I was fortunate to be able to visit Monet’s Gardens with a small group of our attendees. For fifteen years, the beauty and serenity of the gardens stayed with me, beckoning me to return. My husband gave me the best gift ever for our anniversary – a trip to Paris and London, so we visited in June of 2015. The second visit was just as incredible as the first.

We took the train from Paris to the charming village of Vernon, where we had the pleasure of shopping in the village stores to gather our picnic supplies. We sampled cheese in the cheese shop, picked up fresh bread and goodies in the bakery, grabbed some cider and fruit in the fruit/vegetable market, and meat from the butcher’s shop. Once we had all made our purchases, we loaded up the baskets on our bikes and rode a short distance to the banks of the Seine, where we sat on the grass, sharing our spreads with everyone in our tour group.

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After lunch, we headed out on the paved trail for the short ride to Monet’s Gardens. It’s an easy ride, suitable for anyone who knows how to ride a bike. No hills, no great distance (about 3 miles to be exact). It was an enjoyable and postcard perfect ride past trees, homes and gardens until we arrived in the village of Giverny, home to Monet’s famous gardens and his home from 1883-1926.

Monet’s paintings feature actual gardens he planted and they are still maintained today. Due to a lack of words to accurately describe his gardens, I think I’ll just post a few of my favorite pictures.

After we explored the gardens, we grabbed a quick ice cream cone in the village and headed back to Vernon on our bikes. Our guide gathered the bikes, stored them, and we hopped on the train, arriving back in Paris in time for dinner with new friends we made on our tour.

If you’re ever in Paris, I highly recommend a fat bike tour to Monet’s Gardens. The groups are small, you aren’t rushed and you visit small villages that are in total contrast to the rush and crowds of Paris.

Our day was the perfect combination of sun, blue skies, fresh air, breathtaking scenery and great companions. Things that memories of a lifetime are made of.

 

Have Friends, Will Travel

Did you know that with sometimes as little as five hotel rooms you can request a special group rate? And with five or more rooms, you may also receive free upgrades, special rates on hotel services, resort credits and private check-ins?

Did you know that with as few as 8 double occupancy staterooms on a cruise, your group can qualify for special amenities on board such as on board credit, wine and/or special treats delivered to your stateroom, and  private group wine tastings, just to name a few? Larger groups may even receive a free cocktail party. You can also work with a tour company to arrange a private group tour or shore excursion.

Group travel ideas include girl’s getaways, family reunions, high school and college reunions, anniversary celebrations, religious groups, milestone birthday celebrations, hobby and social clubs and even fundraisers.

Tips on Planning a Group:

  1. Plan early. Hotels and ships fill up quickly during popular travel months like spring break and summer vacations. For the best variety of options, you should reserve your space at least nine months in advance.
  2. Have some flexibility on dates. Often if you can travel a week or two earlier or later, you can get more value and better rates. Cruise lines offer varying amenities for groups that is based solely on the sail date. With a little flexibility you get a lot more bang for your buck.
  3. Know what you want to get out of this group trip. Is it strictly for fun and relaxing? Is it an educational trip? Is it a certain area your family wants to visit to honor their heritage? Knowing what everyone’s desires are at the onset make it much easier to plan a successful trip and keep everyone happy.
  4. Know where everyone in your group will be flying from. Often with as little as ten passengers, airlines will give you a group contracted rate. Or you can work with a vendor that offers bundled vacation packages if you are staying at a resort.
  5. Make sure you know the cancellation and penalty charges. Nothing is worse than not being aware of when that cancellation date is before you start accruing penalty charges.
  6. It’s all in the details. Double check your dates, the passenger names, where people are flying from/to. Missing the tiniest detail could result in some stiff change penalties.

Perhaps my biggest piece of advice on groups – call a travel agent! Chances are your travel agent knows the best vendors to work with when dealing with groups and they know all the ins and outs. Not to mention your travel agent probably has some leverage with their vendors and will use it to benefit your group. A travel agent also knows which resorts and/or cruise lines are offering group specials.

Our specialty is groups.  We would love to help you plan your next group vacation. Visit our website at www.takeoffandgo.com or call us at 816-209-4573 for more information.

Happy travels!

About Take off and Go!

My love of travel started at a young age. Fortunate enough to have a father who was an airline employee, we were able to easily fly anywhere. That love of going (anywhere) morphed into corporate event planner jobs where I was lucky enough to get paid to do what I loved – TRAVEL! I have been fortunate to travel domestically and internationally, both for work and personal trips.

Where have I been? All over the continental United States and Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska; France, Italy, Germany, England, Tunisia, Greece, Spain, Cuba, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Colombia, Panama (where we lived for five years) and probably a few others that I have missed.

I’ve traveled by car, by train, by ship, by plane and hoofed myself around many, many places. Along the way I met my husband, who also shares my wanderlust. This led us to purchase a travel franchise. I love helping people create wonderful memories that will last a lifetime. The only problem is that I keep adding to my own bucket list on a daily basis!

Though this blog, I’ll share my own personal memories and some helpful tips. Hopefully my passion for travel will help you, in some way, in your own personal travel adventures.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert