Latin America dominated the headlines this week in travel, as a number of headlines—good and bad—from the region piqued our interest. Of course travel news from elsewhere on earth grabbed our attention, too. Here’s a rundown on the stories you need to know. As always, if you have any questions or comments about what you read here, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. And please share this column with friends!
Travel on the cheap to Mexico
Atencíon, bargain hunters! The Mexican peso hit an all-time low this week, meaning that the U.S. dollar will buy you more south of the border than ever before. The most recent drop is the latest decline in what has been a steady downward spiral for the beleaguered currency. According to the Financial Times, the peso fell more than 14 percent against the dollarlast year and was down an additional 5 percent this year through the end of last week. For travelers, this drop yields huge values in Mexico—unless hotels and outfitters raise prices, it will cost fewer U.S dollars to experience the same stuff. Arriba!
Zika virus prompts warning on travel to Latin and South America
Mosquitos in Latin America are spreading a dangerous virus, and last week, U.S. health officials advised pregnant women to postpone traveling to the region. In all, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warning applies to 14 countries and territories: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guyana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. It’s the first time the CDC has advised pregnant women to avoid a certain region and, considering the 2016 Summer Olympics are being held in Rio de Janeiro, could impact South American tourism significantly. The virus, dubbed Zika, is dangerous for expecting mothers because it has been known to cause microcephaly, a developmental aberration that leads to babies with small heads and damaged brains. Stay tuned for updates on the situation.
Asian airlines shed fuel surcharges
A growing number of Asia-based air carriers are dropping fuel surcharges as the price of jet fuel continues to drop. According to a report on TravelPulse this week, JAL and ANA, the two largest Asian airlines, will do away with their surcharges by the end of the April—the first time since 2005 they will offer flights without the extra fees. The changes could mean huge cost savings for people who travel internationally, as surcharges can add hundreds of dollars to the price of a ticket. AirAsia, Quantas, and Singapore Airlines also have eliminated or reduced fuel surcharges in recent months. Cathay Pacific still charges extra for fuel; the airline has to file with the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department each month to get approval for the fees.
Uber to pick up from LAX, rent copters
Angelenos love their Uber, and the ride-sharing juggernaut achieved a major victory this week when the Los Angeles City Council finally green-lighted UberX to begin picking up customers at Los Angeles International Airport. Following the City Council’s approval of Lyft for pickups last month, both of the largest ride-sharing companies now can operate at the West Coast’s busiest airport. The move resolves a ban that had rankled travelers and frustrated locals for years. The city had been hesitant to allow Uber (and Lyft, as well) to pick up at LAX because it wasn’t sure how to regulate the industry. Similar bans have existed in other cities: Las Vegas forbade ride-sharing companies from picking up passengers at McCarran International Airport until December. According to a report in LAist, UberX pickups began Jan. 21 and require passengers to pay a $4 airport surcharge. A story in the L.A. Weekly added that UberX will also have a limit on the number of drivers available at a time. For passengers, perhaps the only inconvenience is logistical: To meet their rides, travelers will have to head to the upper departures level and wait in an area marked “Ride Services.” Consider this a small price to pay for another transportation option. In other Uber news, the company has teamed up with aircraft manufacturer Airbus to allow users to hire helicopters as forms of transportation. While no price has been revealed for the whirlybird rides, an Uber spokesperson told CNBC that the company will roll out the service with H125 and H130 aircraft at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. Uber first tested its UberChopper service between Manhattan and the Hamptons in 2013.
Free Wi-Fi goes live in NYC
New York City finally has joined the ranks of U.S. urban centers that offer free Wi-Fi. The public network, dubbed LinkNYC, went live earlier this week with four standalone sidewalk hubs near the Union Square area of Manhattan. Each “hub” looks like a mini-billboard and includes two USB charging ports, touchscreen Web browsing, and two 55-inch ad displays. The city expects to install about 500 hubs throughout Manhattan by mid-July. When the project is complete, there should be 7,500 hubs across all five boroughs. According to a report in The Verge, both upload and download speeds on the new network topped out at 300 mbps, above-average for public Wi-Fi.
New hotels continue to crop up around the world
Don’t look now but we’re in the midst of a hotel boom. Leading the charge: The Taj Santacruz, Mumbai, which opened last week. The 279-room luxury hotel sits just off the Western Express Highway in India’s capital city and represents Taj’s fourth property in town. Two other new hotels were expected to open later this spring: The Gray, a 293-room Kimpton hotel in The Loop area of Chicago, and the 201-room Andaz Scottsdale, which sits on 22 acres in Scottsdale at the base of Camelback Mountain. Also from the world of hotels, Vidanta, a collection of Mexican beachfront resorts that previously had been limited to private membership, recently opened its rooms to the general public and is now accepting hotel guests. The company owns resorts in seven destinations, including Los Cabos, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan. The Riviera Maya resort features three wildlife sanctuaries and JOYA by Cirque du Soleil, a culinary and theatrical experience that takes place in a custom-designed theater. A Vidanta property in Nuevo Vallarta has a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a Greg Norman course opening this summer.
Even the nicest hotel rooms have germs
A new study has revealed that—surprise!—the average hotel room appears to be dirtier than a typical home, airplane, or school. The study, “Hotel Hygiene Exposed,” conducted by TravelMath, includes data from nine different hotels and assesses bacteria levels in terms of colony-forming units. The takeaways: Bathroom counters and remote controls are among the filthiest surfaces in a hotel room, no matter how nice that hotel room might be. Thankfully, the study says we can disinfect most of these surfaces fairly easily with antibacterial wipes or spray. It also suggests sealing hotel remotes in clear plastic sandwich bags before using them. Don’t forget to pack the bags.
Ancient Filipino tattoo traditions are getting new life in the Philippines, and author Anne Collins Howard captured the phenomenon beautifully in a recent feature for BBC Travel. The story, which is a long read, focuses on the Kalinga region north of Manila and profiles Apo Whang-Od, a 97-year-old woman who is the last tribal tattoo artist in the country. In the piece, Howard notes that unless Whang-Od’s apprentice masters traditional tattoo art, the skills likely will disappear forever. Riveting stuff.
Family travel writers can pen article after article about how they think kids enjoy family trips, but nothing beats getting insight from the kids themselves. That’s why Sherri Eisenberg’s recent piece for Yahoo Travel stands out. In the story, Eisenberg offers insight from her 3-year-old niece about cruising, contextualizing quotes from the girl in a broader industry perspective. The result is both helpful and endearing.
The New York Times has installed a new bureau chief for the Andes region, and the reporter, Nick Casey, is keeping a blog of his first 30 days in Caracas. Casey’s original pieces about the experience are raw, honest, and detailed accounts of life in a city in the midst of great tumult and change. He also responds to a number of reader questions. Together, the posts provide a postmodern travel narrative well worth a read.
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.