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“Did you know…The best & worst places for July 4th celebrations?”

WalletHub recently compared the 100 largest U.S. cities based on how well they balance holiday cost and fun. Based on a number of criteria, including duration of fireworks shows, average gas prices, the number of festivals and performances, weather forecasts and more, the overall winning city is Minneapolis, MN — this year’s loser: North Las Vegas, NV.

Source: WalletHub

Italy: One Country — A World of Cultures

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

In the final installment of our cultural travel series, we’ve saved the best for last with an appraisal of Italy’s significant art and cultural attractions.  Kit Burns, owner of Doorways, Ltd. and Italy travel expert, talks about the wonders we’ve all dreamed of seeing, as well as those you may have never heard of.  Having visited Italy more than 100 times, Kit’s vast experience and perspective is comprehensive and hard to match.

Watch our video interview with Kit.

What is it about Italy that makes it one of the most culturally significant travel destinations in the world?

For starters, it has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which makes it the most culturally rich country in the world. UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Click here to view the Heritage Site list for Italy followed by the date that the site was named to the UNESCO list. Basically no matter what area of Italy you travel to, you will inevitably be close to fabulous cultural treasures.

Your business has taken you to Italy more than 100 times. What are some of the most treasured regions and attractions from your standpoint and why?

Every area of Italy is full of wonders, its own cuisine, its own dialect and its own natural beauty. Just when I think I have seen it all, I make another discovery. Everyone has heard of Venice, Florence, Rome, Amalfi Coast (and Capri), Lake Como and Tuscany. But there are many other wonders to discover like Umbria, the Veneto, Lake Maggiore, Umbria, Puglia or Sicily.

Where do you recommend first-timers to Italy visit for authentic cultural richness?

First timers with two weeks would probably want to see Rome and north and south of Rome because there is so much in each area. A classic first trip to Italy could be to fly into Venice to spend three nights; rent a car and travel to Tuscany for a week in a villa to explore Florence, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Cortona and the beautiful wine country, and then drive down to Rome, drop off your car and spend the balance of your trip there. Second timers might elect to fly into Rome and travel south to the Amalfi Coast for a week and then finish off with a week in Rome.

Are there any events, festivals, etc., happening this year that travelers may want to plan a trip around?

Expo15, the World’s Fair, is taking place outside of Milan this year.  The befitting theme is, “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life.” The fair started on May 1 and runs through October 31, 2015.

For more information about Kit Burns and vacation villa rentals in Italy, Spain and France, click here.

Study calls airlines out on restricting airfare and scheduling transparency

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

The Travel Technology Association (TTA) recently released a study, which continues to fuel a flame of discord between some key airlines and online travel resource sites, including ExpertFlyer, Hipmunk, Travelzoo, among many others.

After numerous mergers, only four major airline carriers currently control 80% of the domestic air travel market.  The study concludes that by prohibiting display of price and scheduling information on certain travel websites, airlines are making it harder for consumers to find the right flight at the best price, resulting in long-term consequences:

  • 223 million American leisure and unmanaged business travelers would pay an additional $6.7 billion in airfare annually – equivalent to $30 more per ticket or an 11 percent increase, which is about $120 for a family of four making a trip.
  • 41 million travelers would choose not to fly because of the higher ticket prices, denying revenue to airlines.
  • The air travel market would suffer an annual $600 million loss.

To read the full study, click here and view the clickable infographic below.

airfare and schedule transparency infographic

Benefits of Preserving Consumers’ Ability to Compare Airline Fares – See more at: http://www.tnooz.com/article/delta-feuds-with-online-travel-sites-after-removing-fare-and-schedule-data/#sthash.Owwl9xFz.dpuf

India: The (Real) Top 5 “Must See” Destinations

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Over the past ten years, India’s status as a place to do business has grown immensely.  According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), India is the 10th largest business travel market in the world.  With more Westerners traveling for business and gaining appreciation for the vast and unique cultural attractions, history and landscape, more leisure travelers are keen on exploring India, but it’s a big country – 1.2 million sq. miles covered by more than 1.2 billion people!

Louise Nicholson, a trained art historian, India travel expert/guide and author of more than 25 books, including National Geographic Guides to India, says, “You can’t see all the major sites of India in one trip, unless you have a few years to spare. My mantra is ‘less is more’, meaning the fewer places and areas you travel to, the more you will undoubtedly get out of your journey.”

TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice destination picks for India include the following geographies in their top five: 1. Jaipur 2. New Delhi 3. Mumbai 4. Jaisalmer 5. Bardez

We asked Louise to give us her version of the top 5 special choice destinations in India. Not surprisingly, her picks are quite unique. In fact, only Mumbai made her top five when compared to TripAdvisor’s choices.

“This is almost impossible to do, so much choice, as if you want the top five destinations in all of Europe!  But here are five choices for five very different tastes; India is all about finding the right place for YOU, which is what I have been doing for 35 years.”

  1. World Trade Centre, Mumbai

    World Trade Centre, Mumbai

    Mumbai – a great entry city for a first visit to India.  Many people just transit through, but it merits stopping and exploring. Mumbai is a bustling buzzing port-city made great by the British in the 19th century, and now the financial, fashion, film and entertainment capital of India.  Downtown (around the Taj Mahal hotel) is easy and safe to walk, and you can find bars, restaurants of all cuisines, the Prince of Wales museum, cool contemporary design and art galleries in beautiful old warehouses, and fantastic fashion.  Other areas have their own neighbourhoods for eating and shopping; I really like Bandra.

  2. Udaipur, Jodhpur, Nagaur – the best trio of cities in fairytale Rajasthan, and you just drive between them – so, no airport hanging about.  These are some of the best Rajasthan cities at the moment, thriving, not too big, walkable, great hotels.  Ideal for honeymooners and people wanting the full combo of dazzling colours, romantic forts, shopping direct from craftsmen, and outrageous playtime palaces, many of which you can stay in and partake of their amazing spoiling spas.  At Nagaur you stay in the palaces the queens lived in!
  3. Sacred temple water tank of Koviloor, Tamil Nadu

    Sacred temple water tank of Koviloor, Tamil Nadu (Photo: kulasekaran Seshadri)

    Tamil Nadu – this is the state in South India where you see historic India, but living full pelt today, especially in the huge temple cities with their temple bazaars, festivals, their own in-temple elephants.  You can start from Chennai and then do a tour through the villages and fields to visit Mahaballipuram, Thanjavur, Thiruchirappalli and Madurai.  Good historic hotels along the way.  Find delicious food, music, weavers, ladies in glistening saris.  And watch all those rituals and festivals.  You even have a drop of French sophistication at the former French colony of Pondicherry!

  4. Ajanta and Ellora – two world class mind-blowing sites inland from Mumbai; you just take a 40 minute flight to Aurangabad, which is your base for visiting each site.  Still in rural India, it is as if you are discovering each one.  Dating from 2nd century BC up to the 8th century AD, or so, you see the birth of monumental sculpture and painting that spread eastwards across the Buddhist world, and Hindu and Jain sculptures that set the tone for the great medieval achievements.  As if that were not enough, one of India’s most important Shiva pilgrimage temples is at Ellora (almost no foreigners know about it), and the high quality shimmering Paithan silk weaves on sale in Aurangabad.
  5. Crow's Lake is one of the hundreds of lakes in Northern Sikkim.

    Crow’s Lake is one of the hundreds of lakes in Northern Sikkim. (Photo: Carsten.nebel)

    Sikkim – up in the lush and pristine Lower Himalaya hills located between Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until recently.  Few tourists visit, yet it is tranquil, varied and very beautiful.  Just the place for relaxing in the spring and fall.  You start from Darjeeling, crossing into Sikkim to explore a very distinct culture.  You can visit a tea plantation, go inside ancient monasteries to hear monks chanting, spot orchids hanging from trees and great big rhododendrons blossoming in their natural habitat.  You can take walks through villages and farms to spot hill birds, see how people live close to the earth, and take hikes of varying challenge into the mountains.  There is even a superb new hotel built in Sikkim style with excellent food and rooftop terraces where you can gaze – all day long if you wish – at a row of family snow-capped Himalayans peaks.  I am taking a tour there next April – come with me!

For more about Louise and her special trips to India, visit: www.louisenicholsonindia.com.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo! Mexico – Beyond the Beach

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Did you know that each year U.S. residents make more than 20 million trips to Mexico? Yet, most rarely venture off the comfort zones of their beach resort.  ExpertFlyer is taking a deep dive with an art and cultural travel series where we interview experts from three global destinations, including Mexico, India and the United Kingdom.  Our first interview features Stephanie Schneiderman, owner of Tia Stephanie Tours, specialists in Mexican and Columbian cultural vacation experiences.

You are a specialist in Mexican and Columbian cultural tours.  Is there a growing demand for cultural/art experiences in Mexico?

I think travelers already know that Mexico is a popular beach destination, to places like the Riviera Maya, Puerto Vallarta/Nayarit, Los Cabos, but some of the traveler set are recognizing that Mexico has so much more to offer, more in the interior of the country and more related to Mexico’s history and people. This awareness has come through touch points such as: the new wave of chefs who are introducing more authentic flavors of Mexico in U.S. restaurants; Mexico Tourism’s messages that include Adventure and Culture (not just Sun & Beach);  areas of Colonial Mexico have been popular for awhile, such as San Miguel de Allende, but some people are going  further afield to have more authentic experiences with interactions with the people of Mexico. This segment is already traveling the world for cultural and human experiences, but they realize that they don’t have to go to Paris for Art, Italy for Cuisine, Bhutan for Culture, Egypt for Pyramids;  they can see all of that, in their singular expression in Mexico, just a 3-4 hour flight from most U.S. cities!

If one is interested in this type of experience, which areas of Mexico do you recommend?

Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban Ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

I recommend that everyone go to Mexico City. They will be very grateful they did and will make it a return visit, assured. This is based on our experience introducing travelers to this cultural powerhouse and world class capital city. I call it the “I never knew”  phenomenon: “I never knew Mexico City had so many museums (164 and counting), “I never knew Mexico City had such ancient history,” “I never knew Mexico City had world class contemporary art galleries and architecture,” “I never knew the cuisine in Mexico City ranges from delicious street tacos to high end contemporary Mexican cuisine, fine dining experiences,”and on and on.People also love exploring Oaxaca, which is about 4-1/2 hours to the east of Mexico City.  Oaxaca has a singular regional artistic expression, dating to Rufino Tamayo and expressed today by many artists, such as Francisco Toledo and others who express with color, fantasy and “magical realism.” Going to Oaxaca City, one can explore numerous art galleries that work with established and emerging artists. Traveling to the communities that surround Oaxaca City, one can visit Zapotec weavers, wood carvers, potters and other artisans that Oaxaca is known for. And, the cuisine is world renowned, given its over seven variants of “mole,” including, black, red, almond, green, yellow, and many other flavors of this sacred sauce that combines dried chili peppers, seeds, nuts, sometimes cinnamon, chocolate, peanuts and other herbs for an indescribable flavor.

I also recommend, for travelers who might already be on the Yucatan Peninsula, that they go deeper and explore communities such as Valladolid and Merida, Yucatan,  to visit ancient Maya sites, such as Uxmal and Ek Balam, and also venture into the less visited State on the Peninsula: Campeche. Campeche City is a UNESCO World Heritage City and is a walled city that fended off pirate attacks in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It sits on the Gulf of Mexico and is home to unique cuisine, based in sea food, combined with Mayan dishes using turkey and corn as ingredients. In Southern Campeche lie some of the most important and remote Maya sites that will make travelers feel like true explorers. Calakmul was once a great empire and surrounding sites of Ixpujil, Becan, Chicanna and others are marvels of Mayan architecture and art. We love Campeche and invite travelers to explore it!

Travelers yearning for a rich art experience travel far and wide to places like France, Italy, Spain, etc.  How is Mexico emerging as a major player in the global art scene?

Mexico has always had  a vibrant art scene.  I think people are beginning to recognize this. In the 1920’s to 1950’s Mexico was the place to go to learn about, meet with and learn from the great Muralist artists, such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Modern Art Galleries and many Museums in Mexico were established, such as the Modern Museum of Art (MAM) and the Galerias de Arte Moderno (GAM). Even the 1968 Olympics demonstrated the creative talent of the architects and graphic designers who came up with some of the most iconic images of any Olympics (remember the pop-art ’68 graphic?). Today, Mexico City is home to Zona Maco, the internationally renowned Contemporary Art Fair that takes place every February. Top Galleries, Collectors, Art Enthusiasts flock to Mexico City to attend this Fair and to view and collect cutting edge art. And some of the most important Contemporary Art Collections are in Mexico City, including the recently opened Museo Colleccion Jumex, and Kurimanzutto, art gallery.

You’ve got an interesting tour coming up in August that showcases the work and lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  Tell us about that and the Botanical Gardens exhibit opening this month?

We are excited that simultaneously, several exhibits are taking place  in the U.S. that feature the art and lives of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the art of Mexico. In Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), “Diego and Frida in Detroit” opened in March, and exhibits never seen before, “cartoon” sketches of Diego’s work for the Detroit Industry Murals, commissioned by the Museum and funded by Edsel Ford in 1932. The exhibit covers the lives and art of Diego and Frida during their stay in Detroit. Diego was happy, painting and being admired by all; Frida was miserable, given the bitter cold of the Winter, the attitude of the local society towards her, and she sadly had a miscarriage. But it was here, that she began to experiment with art and techniques, including engraving, with her friend and accomplished artists, Lucienne Bloch.

The New York Botanical Garden exhibit is called, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden and Life”, and will focus on the botanical elements used in many of Frida’s artwork. The exhibit opens on May 16.

diego-frida-tour mexico city

“Man, Controller of the Universe” by Diego Rivera (photo: Tia Stephanie Tours)

Taking these two blockbuster exhibits, we coordinated and designed a tour to complement these exhibits and learning experiences. Our “Diego and Frida in Mexico City Tour” will lead travelers to important historic places that were pivotal in the lives and development of both artists and their lives as a couple. We will see where the first Murals were painted in the 1920’s, in the Antiguo Colegio San Idelfonso, which happens to be where Frida went to high school! Visiting the Murals at the Palace of Fine Arts, we will be able to compare and contrast the art, techniques and political messages of the “Big Three”, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, as while they were part of the Mexican Muralist Movement, each had  different ideas and artistic expressions.  Travelers will enter the “Blue House,” Frida Kahlo Museum to see where Frida grew up and to imagine her in her Studio, in her Garden surrounded by her beloved animals, and sadly in her bed, where she was often in pain, due to a childhood trolley accident. And, visiting the Diego and Frida Studios in San Angel neighborhood, we will see the space that their friend and architect Juan O’Gorman designed for them to work and live separately and sometimes together! That was the life of Diego and Frida!

This tour takes place August 8-16, 2015 and will include wonderful dining experiences, including some of Frida’s favorite dishes! Visits to the archeology site of Teotihuacan and the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are also places that Diego and Frida loved to visit.

You offer very niche experiences like your Mexican Textile tour. Talk about that and some of the other unique twists you offer to travelers who want to go deep into Mexican culture and history.

Zapotec rugs

Zapotec Rugs (Photo: Tia Stephanie Tours)

A central aspect of Mexico’s history and present day landscape, is an understanding and appreciation of the country’s original people and ancient civilizations that emerged from hunter, gatherers to building grand cities, with great accomplishments in art, astronomy, math, writing, etc. These civilizations were the Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec, Purepecha, Totonac, Huastec, Aztec and many other groups.  While we visit these sites, we always remind our travelers, and it is apparent, that these original peoples of Mexico are still present and they represent the living cultures of Mexico today. About 10% of Mexico’s population is indigenous (original), and each ethnic group has different expressions in dress, language, food, customs, rituals, etc. On our Textile Tours we are particularly interested with the rich textile traditions, dress as cultural expression, weaving and dying as master techniques and art, iconography and symbols embedded in the weaving. We visit communities on the Coast of Oaxaca, for example, to see how the Mixtec dyers climb on the ocean rocks in search of the sea mollusk that emits a purple dye, for their women to weave the lovely purple wrap skirt they are known for. We visit Maya weavers in the Highlands of Chiapas near San Cristobal de Las Casas, followed by the Lowlands (Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak) to see how weaving has not changed in over 3,000 years.

Our Textile Journeys attract textile enthusiasts, curious travelers, collectors, and all are very grateful to travel to locations they have never been to before. Even  the most seasoned Mexico travelers have called some of our tours, “Off the Grid” and “Bold”. Mexico is a vast and diverse country and one could spend a lifetime exploring it. We aim to go broader and deeper into this extraordinary country, and to help facilitate these experiences for our travelers.