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Flights to Cuba prepare for take-off: The View from AFAR

Plus: Nickelodeon Resorts go international, selfie luggage breaks the Internet, and an inside look at flight attendant school

Typically, the days before a major holiday constitute a slow news time. In the world of travel, however—at least here toward the end of 2015—that couldn’t be further from the case. Here’s a look at the most notable happenings in our industry for the week. As always, if you have questions about anything you read here, please Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

The United States and Cuba reach a deal to restore passenger flights

For the first time in decades, U.S. airlines will fly direct passenger flights between the United States and Cuba—thanks to a deal hammered out this week between the two countries’ governments. The agreement is the latest step in ongoing efforts to normalize relations with the Caribbean nation, which the U.S. has largely boycotted for the last 50 years. In an article published this week, the Washington Post reported that carriers such as United Airlines, American Airlines, and JetBlue could begin selling tickets for service to Cuba as soon as the summer of 2016. Another article, from TIME, said the deal reached Wednesday opens the way for U.S. airlines to negotiate with Cuba’s government for 20 routes a day to Havana and 10 to each of Cuba’s other nine major airports. Of course a lot needs to happen between now and then. As both stories noted, the Federal Aviation Administration still must conduct safety inspections of airport facilities in Cuba, and airlines will have to price the new flights and work them into their respective schedules (a process that usually takes three to six months). Nevertheless, airlines appear to be excited at the possibility of adding Cuba as a destination. Officials at United have said the carrier would service Havana through Houston and Newark; American would fly to Havana through Miami. Though legal travel to the island nation is still limited to people who meet certain requirements, U.S. travel to Cuba has risen by more than 50 percent this year, and many of the entry regulations are expected to soften in the coming months. Stay tuned for more news on the subject as it develops.

New cruise line builds itineraries around environmental education

A new small-ship cruise company vows to offer trips that educate passengers about environmental issues around the world. Seattle-based ExploringCircle is accepting reservations for its inaugural “Classic Northwest Passage” cruise, a 13-day odyssey that explores the remote Northwest Passage and fjords around Baffin Island in Canada. Passengers aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov (yes, that’s the ship’s name) will learn all about the potential effects that accumulations of plastic in the Arctic have on wildlife and habitats. Researchers from 5 Gyres, a nonprofit that researches the extent of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, will be on board to share research and detail the major concerns, as well as interpret anything passengers might see. The cruise is scheduled for Aug. 12–24, 2016. Rates start at $8,895, double occupancy, and a portion of the proceeds will support 5 Gyres directly.

New hotels around the world

Three new hotels grabbed headlines this week—two budget properties in Denver, Colorado, and a family-friendly luxury resort in the Dominican Republic. The Denver hotels are interesting because they represent the city’s first dual-branded accommodations and provide guests two different hotel experiences under one roof. The 248-room Hyatt Place Denver/Downtown is geared toward business travelers, while the 113-suite Hyatt House Denver/Downtown was designed more for families and leisure travelers. With local beers and local art in the shared lobby, the hotels offer a legitimate sense of place, something that often is lacking with budget hotels. Rates start at $149 at Hyatt Place and $159 at Hyatt House. The D.R. hotel, which opens on Uvero Alto beach May 1, stands out because of its affiliation with Nickelodeon; its formal name is the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana, and it represents the kids’ cable network’s first international property. The hotel comprises 208 suites and features a “village” with a water park, a kids-only clubhouse, and an area where families can meet Nickelodeon characters such as the dogs from P.A.W. Patrol. The property also boasts 10 all-inclusive restaurants. Just be sure not to get slimed. Rates start at $345.

SWISS to feature menus from Alpina Gstaad

Flying home from Switzerland just got a lot tastier, as the Swiss airline, SWISS, announced that certain passengers on flights from Switzerland would get to sample menu items from the Alpina Gstaad, the first luxury hotel to open in the Alps in 100 years. The new program features dishes such as lobster medallions, Thai red curry soup with fried duck wonton, and Belper Knolle cheese with herbed mashed potatoes. All the meals will be accompanied by wines from the cantons of Valais and Bern, the heart of Switzerland’s biggest wine-producing region. As of now, the new meal program is available only to passengers in first and business classes. Someday, maybe SWISS economy class passengers will eat well at 35,000 feet, too.


Extravagant packages for Valentine’s Day

It’s always fun to daydream about extravagant travel (especially when Valentine’s Day is right around the corner). This week we spotted two once-in-a-lifetime trips worth considering—both are within driving distance of San Francisco. The first, a three-night, four-day jaunt to the Brewery Gulch Inn in Mendocino, includes a stay in the uber-exclusive Cottage at Serenity Point (which sits on five private acres), chauffeur service for the duration of the stay, and an exclusive piece of exquisite jewelry crafted by a local jewelry store. The price tag: a cool $20,000. The second package, from Ram’s Gate Winery in Carneros, comprises round-trip private jet service from Santa Rosa to Truckee, private access to the Mountainside at Northstar ski resort (with full-day lift tickets to Northstar), and, back near sea level, a wine-pairing dinner at Ram’s Gate’s tasting room. At $14,000 for eight, this one’s a steal. Who’s in?

Man prints selfie on luggage, breaks Internet

The Internet nearly came undone this week when photographs of one man’s “selfie luggage” hit social media. The man, who was spotted at an unidentified airport, was snapped sitting next to a piece of luggage that was wrapped with a decal-style picture of himself. As some of the photographs surfaced on the photo sharing site, Imgur, hundreds of thousands of people started talking about the guy, and man became meme. Some thought more deeply about the sighting than others, contemplating the philosophy behind the fellow’s luggage ornamentation. The overwhelmingly popular theory: Dude slapped a selfie decal on his bag so he wouldn’t lose it. As of press time, attempts to identify and track down the gentlemen had not been successful. If you see him on your holiday travels, let us know.

Good reads

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to train to be a flight attendant, you’ll love Beth Blair’s recent essay for BBC Travel about her experiences in flight attendant training school. The piece documents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Blair, one of the forces behind the family travel blog The Vacation Gals. For us readers, the article offers unique insights and a fresh perspective on what has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.

 We try not to have too many repeat customers in this section, but the inestimable Don George transcends all rules. Thanks, then, to WorldHum, which published an excerpt from George’s new book, The Way of Wanderlust, earlier this month. The inspirational, short-but-sweet excerpt is titled “The Intricate Weave,” and it tells the tale of how a visit to a violin museum in Cremona, Italy, helped George reconnect with his late father. Consider this a must-read.

Travel geeks, unite! In an article for the web-based Business Insider, Megan Willett dives into the wacky world of airport codes, explaining the vagaries of why airports have the three-letter codes they have. The story is full of juicy tidbits; for instance, did you know that no domestic commercial airports have codes that start with N because the U.S. Navy saved those for itself? 

Spotlight: BookDifferent

In the world of Online Travel Agents (OTAs), BookDifferent is, well, different. The Amsterdam-based company provides travelers with an innovative platform to book a hotel based on its ecological and social choices. The company also gives directly to causes or projects that the customer selects at the time of booking. Here’s how it works. First, the service uses Booking.com as its fulfilment engine and receives a commission for each reservation. Next, according to Lonneke de Kort, director of marketing and business development, BookDifferent takes half of each commission and donates the money to charity. “We believe that when you incorporate sustainability in the day-to-day business, making sure there is no extra effort needed, people will change their behavior and that will lead to a greener future,” she said. Though de Kort wouldn’t say how much money BookDifferent has donated over the years, at last check the site had more than 700,000 hotels in its database. That certainly represents a lot of opportunities to book different. Check it out.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker,  Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.