Going South by Southwest

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sxsw festivalSouth by Southwest (SXSW) by Austin

It’s an annual event so famous that it’s known by an acronym – SXSW.

South by Southwest started in Austin, Texas, in 1987 as a music festival, drawing about 700 people. Today, it takes place over 10 days, attracts thousands and is four festivals in one: music, film, comedy and interactive media. Together, they attract innovators from a variety of fields including the arts, entertainment, business, health care, technology, government and journalism. This year, SXSW takes place from March 10-19.

Music still plays a major role at the festival, which draws more than 2,000 performers from across the United States and more than 60 foreign countries. There’ll be industry insiders and musicians hoping to be discovered, as well as fans who just want to take it all in. The city becomes a giant venue for live music, with dozens of performances taking place every night in bars, clubs, parks, hotels and even churches. You’ll hear everything from indie rock to electronic to pop, Americana to hip-hop, world music and more.

The SXSW Film Festival lineup includes more than 125 features, with dozens of world premieres starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names and a wide range of documentaries. The Comedy Festival has a packed schedule – day and night – with improv, standup and sketch comedy performers. The tech industry is represented, too, with speakers from heavy-hitters like Google and Microsoft, as well as some of the hottest social-media companies.

The lineup of speakers at SXSW offers something for everyone. From science, industry and government they include Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is a leader in new technology in the Defense Department, Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford, Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker. In the world of entertainment, “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus will be there, along with “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, musician Mick Fleetwood and actor Seth Rogen. Authors in the lineup include Cheryl Strayed, who penned the memoir “Wild,” and Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo.

Of course there’s much to do in Austin beyond SXSW. The LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, located on the University of Texas campus, offers an in-depth look at Lyndon Johnson’s life and long career of public service. The 19th century red granite Texas State Capitol is open for free guided tours seven days a week. Lady Bird Lake, named after the former first lady, is a reservoir on the Colorado River and a major recreation area for the city. The lake is a popular spot for kayaking and canoeing and it’s home to the Austin Hike and Bike Trail.

After all that activity you’ll work up an appetite. Austin is home to terrific food, including barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine. Scholz Garten, a downtown beer garden and restaurant in business since 1866, is one of the city’s culinary landmarks. Then head over to 6th Street, where you’ll find a bustling neighborhood for nightlife filled with bars and clubs.

For help planning a trip to Austin for South by Southwest, contact your travel agent.

Leaving for Spring Break? Make a List and Check it Twice

You’ve made your spring break travel plans and now all that remain are the last-minute details. Here are some tips to keep in mind before you head out the door for your vacation.

First, take care of everything at home. Remember to cancel newspaper delivery, arrange for a neighbor to pick up the mail, or have it held at the post office, and put a lamp on a security timer. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends unplugging appliances that continue to draw power from electrical outlets even when they’re turned off or idle, including hair dryers and electric shavers, coffee makers, toasters, computers and printers.

Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in the world these days but don’t forget a simple, yet essential, step when you’re traveling, whether it’s in the United States or outside the country. Contact your bank and credit card companies before you leave to let them know about your travel plans. The last thing you want when you’re paying for dinner or picking out a souvenir is to find that a hold has been placed on your card because you’re in an unfamiliar location. (It’s also a good idea to take anything out of your wallet that you won’t need on your trip.)

If you’re traveling abroad, make a copy of your passport so that you can leave the original in your hotel room safe. Also check to make sure that you have the right adaptors to plug in your phone charger and other electronic devices. Another step to consider is registering with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, listing your dates of travel, destinations and the hotels where you’ll be staying. Enrollment will make it easier for officials to contact you if there’s a family emergency, as well as alert you to important information about your destination. Also, if you are going to take your smartphone along, contact your service provider in advance to get onto an international calling plan so you can avoid huge roaming fees.

The night before you leave on your trip, while you’re packing and printing out your boarding pass, take a look at the weather forecast for your destination. Spring temperatures can vary widely and you want to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in store.

Also as you’re packing, remember the Transportation Security Administration’s 3-1-1 rule: 1 quart-size clear plastic zip-top bag per passenger, and liquids, gels and aerosols in containers of 3.4 ounces or less. And don’t forget to wear shoes that you can take on and off easily when you’re going through the security line – that is, unless you have TSA Precheck or are age 75 or older.

The morning of your vacation is filled with anticipation but it can also be a bit hectic. It’s good idea to make a checklist and go over it before you leave for the airport. Do you have all the clothes you need, and is it possible you actually over-packed? Do you have each of the essential toiletries you’ll need, including sunscreen? Are medications packed in your carry-on? Do you have your phone charger? Do you have your boarding pass and passport? Finally, check the traffic report and leave in plenty of time to make your flight, especially if you’ll be on the road during rush hour.

For help planning a spring vacation, contact your travel agent.

Mexico’s Welcome Mat Rolled Out for Americans

Mexico is one of the world’s most visited countries, drawing more than 30 million people each year to soak up the sun on its pristine beaches, explore historic sites and get a taste of its unique Latin American culture.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization ranks it among the top 10 travel destinations, and Mexico’s resort areas are perennially popular vacation spots for Americans, according to Travel Leaders Group surveys.

With so many visitors, the vast majority from the United States, tourism plays a vital role in Mexico’s economy. The government places a high priority on putting its best foot forward in welcoming travelers from near and far, whether that means developing resort areas on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts or safeguarding sites connected to Mexico’s ancient Mayan civilization.

Mexico’s tourism industry really began to take off in the 1970s, when the government started to develop a nearly forgotten stretch of sand dunes in the Yucatan Peninsula, on the Caribbean coast. Today, Cancun is the country’s number one tourist destination, as well as among the top five international destinations booked by Travel Leaders agents for their clients. A new terminal is expected to open this year at Cancun International Airport to help make travel even easier for the growing number of tourists from the United States and Canada.

Cancun and Riviera Maya, the stretch of coastline to the south, offer something for every traveler, with a wide variety of hotels and resorts catering to singles, couples and families, to opportunities for recreational activities like swimming, snorkeling and golf, to fine dining and shopping. The Cancun Riviera Maya Wine and Food Festival will be held March 15-19 – the event features wine workshops, gourmet meals, a taco competition and a golf tournament. This year’s special events include Rock and Roast: Texas Meets Mexico, with grilled specialties from both places, and a gala tribute dinner to New York City.

Mexicans place great value on courtesy and family, and they are justifiably proud of their country’s rich history and heritage. A visit to Puerto Vallarta, on the country’s Pacific Coast, is a great way to sample that culture and get a glimpse of Mexican society. Take a stroll along the Malecon, the city’s newly renovated seaside promenade, popular with tourists and local residents alike. In the evening, you’ll find everyone from senior citizens to families with young children gathering in the Plaza de Armas, Puerto Vallarta’s main square, where there’s often music and folk dancing. During the last two weeks in May, the city is home to a cultural festival with art exhibits, music, food, parades and fireworks.

Cabo, at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, is known both for its beautiful rugged terrain dotted with beach spots that are perfect for sunbathing. It’s also a top destination for sport fishing, known as the Marlin Capital of the World. Quiet San Jose del Cabo retains the charm of a small Mexican town, while Cabo San Lucas offers a vibrant nightlife with beachfront bars and restaurants.

For help planning a trip to Mexico, contact your travel agent.

Beyond Sydney by Ferry

As Australia’s largest city, home to the iconic Opera House and the country’s busiest airport, Sydney naturally gets a lot of attention and visitors. But travelers who venture beyond the city center will find much more to explore.

A ride on one of Sydney’s popular ferry routes is a great way to get around. Seven routes operate as part of the city’s public transportation network, traveling across Sydney Harbour and west along the Parramatta River. While the ferry rides are an integral part of many Sydneysiders’ daily commutes, they also offer spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

Manly, a suburb north of Sydney, is home to one of Australia’s most popular beaches, as well as the spot where the first World Surfing Championship was held in 1964. Once you arrive after a 30-minute ferry ride, the beach is a short walk from the ferry terminal along the Corso, lined with palm trees and filled with shops, restaurants and pubs.

The Taronga Zoo is just 12 minutes from Sydney by ferry. Founded in 1916, it is home to 4,000 animals from more than 350 species. Of course you’ll see giraffes, elephants, chimpanzees and zebras. But what makes a visit to the zoo particularly special is the chance to see animals native to Australia – some you’ve no doubt heard of, like koalas, kangaroos and Tasmanian devils, and others that you may never have heard of, like the Southern hairy-nosed wombat.

For a fun day trip, take a ferry to Parramatta, about an hour from Sydney. Located on the Parramatta River, it rivals Sydney as a city center, with many companies and government offices located there. For tourists, Parramatta offers great dining, beautiful parks and some of Australia’s oldest buildings, as well as a thriving nightlife and cultural events.

The Parramatta visitor center, on Church Street, is a 10-minute walk along the river from the ferry terminal. Church Street, known informally as “Eat Street,” is considered one of the best spots to dine in Greater Sydney, with restaurants catering to every taste, from Asian and Mediterranean to Middle Eastern, as well as places to get a burger or pizza. There’s also a farmers market on Friday through the end of April, with more than 20 vendors selling locally grown fruits and vegetables, freshly baked breads and sweets.

Founded in 1788, the same year as Sydney, Parramatta offers a chance to delve into Australia’s past, with many examples of 18th– and 19th century buildings that mark the arrival of British colonists. Historic sites include Elizabeth Farm, birthplace of Australia’s wool industry, the elegant Old Government House in Parramatta Park and the Lancer Barracks, with a museum that traces the history of Australia’s oldest surviving and most decorated regiment.

In October, the popular Parramatta Lanes food and cultural festival takes place, with gourmet street food, pop-up bars, live music, art and performances held at eight uniquely themed spots throughout the city. In January, Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres complex becomes one of the venues for the Sydney Festival.

For help planning a trip to Australia, contact your travel agent.

 

If you are a frequent road warrior, you know that time is money, and that applies to getting through airport security screenings quickly so that you can concentrate on business. So it is important to note that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is making changes to the way it runs its expedited screening program at the nation’s airports, and that could have an impact on you as a frequent flyer.

TSA Precheck allows enrollees to get through security quicker and with less hassle – qualifying passengers don’t need to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or light jackets. Travelers pay an $85 fee good for five years, fill out a brief application online and schedule an in-person appointment that includes a background check and fingerprinting. (Frequent international travelers sign up for Global Entry, which not only provides expedited customs and immigration screenings upon re-entry into the United States, but also includes TSA Precheck.)

Until now, TSA security personnel haven’t always been very rigorous about who gets to go through the TSA Precheck security line. Some flyers found, to their pleasant surprise, that their boarding pass was marked for the expedited line regardless of whether or not they were part of the program.

However, as of this year, that is changing. TSA spokesman Mike England has stated, “Starting early February 2017, TSA will significantly reduce access to expedited screening for non-enrolled travelers.”  England said that since TSA Precheck started in 2011, some travelers have been allowed access to the expedited security line on a flight-by-flight basis. He predicted that the change would affect “very few” travelers.

Business Travel: Changes to Expedited TSA Screening

For business travelers who are enrolled in Precheck, the change could help lessen congestion at the lines for expedited security screening, although the process already goes fairly quickly for most flyers. The TSA reported that 98 percent of Precheck passengers made it through the security line in less than five minutes in December.

More than 4 million people are enrolled in TSA Precheck, and one likely reason for the policy shift is that officials expect that number to increase. In January, the agency announced that the program has been expanded to 11 new airlines, for a total of 30 carriers operating at more than 180 airports. Acting Administrator Huban A. Gowadia said that partnering with the new airlines will “substantially increase our trusted traveler population.”

The ease of getting through security is among the top concerns cited by business travelers in recent Travel Leaders Group surveys. For this group of airline passengers, missing a flight could mean missing a key meeting or conference. So anything that makes the process go a little more smoothly would benefit them.

Even before flyers get to the security screening, they have wait in line to get their identification checked. New technology is helping with that, too.

A company called Clear operates at more than a dozen airports nationwide. Enrollees pay an annual fee and have their identification authenticated using biometrics – a fingerprint or an iris scan. At participating airports, they look for the Clear kiosks, scan their boarding pass, then tap their finger on a pad or blink to verify their identification. Once that’s done, a Clear representative escorts them to the front of security screening. Clear promises enrollees that they will complete the ID process in 5 minutes or less.

For help planning a business trip across the country or around the world, contact your travel agent.

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