The Tactical Traveler



This week: Shopping in Europe's Christmas markets; helps you give back miles for a good cause; how--and where--to give the gift of travel; how to turn points and miles into presents; and links to more stories on holiday travel strategies.

Business travelers rarely have the time or inclination to shop on the road, but frequent flyers to Europe know that this is the time of the year to make an exception. All throughout Europe in the weeks before Christmas, charming and quirky "Christmas markets" pop up in town squares and city parks. They almost always house booths, kiosks and stalls of independent crafts people and artisans. The markets date back hundreds of years and are holiday staples in Central and Eastern European towns. You'll also find them in Belgium, France and Italy. The offerings vary from market to market, of course, but savvy frequent flyers will find bargains everywhere: tree ornaments, local jewelry and crafts, stocking stuffers, small pieces of furniture and even specialty foods and fashions. Need to know the location of the Christmas market in the city you're visiting? Check with your hotel concierge; he'll probably even have a few tips on the kiosks with the best goods. And make sure to bring your shopping list and leave a little room in your carry-on bag.

THE GOOD CAUSE: Giving Back Miles for the Holidays
For all our complaints--fares are too high, service stinks, the wait in the lobby was too long--frequent flyers live lives of incredible privilege. We should never miss the opportunity to give back something. And leave it to Randy Petersen, the master of miles and points, to give us the chance. His Mile Donor Web site is a one-stop spot for contributing frequent-travel miles and points to worthy causes worldwide. Make your first stop on the way to doing something good for someone else this holiday season.

DOLLAR WATCH: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Giving your family or that special someone the gift of travel is a noble sentiment. But do it right: Plan the travel somewhere where the Almighty Dollar is still Almighty. That's the gift that keeps on giving because the strong dollar makes shopping, dining and accommodations in that country all the more affordable. That allows you to give the gift of a longer trip or a more elaborate holiday than you could otherwise afford. So where is the dollar almighty? Canada, of course, where the beleaguered Canadian dollar is only worth about 65 U.S. cents. That makes a luxury hotel in Toronto or Montreal, or a ski lodge in British Columbia, a gigantic bargain. Or consider going Down Under. The Australian dollar is selling for about 55 U.S. cents and the U.S. Dollar is buying two New Zealand dollars. The dollar is also strong throughout Latin America. Sadly, Europe is not as good a deal as it has been in the last two years. Although airfares and hotels are available at or near record lows, the Euro has surged against the U.S. dollar in recent months. In fact, it is essentially at "parity," meaning one Euro is worth one dollar. That's a far cry from the beginning of the year, when the U.S. dollar was buying as much as 1.15. What's that mean? Anything bought in Euros--restaurant meals, cab rides, shopping sprees--costs Americans 15 percent more today than it did at the beginning of the year. The dollar is also weak against the British pound.

SEASONAL STRATEGIST: Turning Points and Miles Into Presents
For almost as long as there have been frequent-travel programs, there have been people insisting that frequent-travel points and miles are the nation's second currency. But it's only now that you can actually exchange the second currency for goods and services that you can give as presents. Several major hotel frequent-stay plans have mailed glossy holiday catalogs that allow you to cash points for gifts. MilePoint permits you to pool points and miles from many frequent-travel programs into free magazine subscriptions and merchandise discounts. And don't forget American Express Membership Rewards and Diners Club Rewards. Both offer extensive catalogs that are stuffed with electronics, food, business gifts, travel packages and sports gear, all available for points rather than dollars. Is trading miles and points for presents a good value? Generally, no. But if you've got more of the "second currency" than the first, or if you think you can never use all the miles and points you've accumulated, then you've got very little to lose.

CYBERTRAVELER: Links to Tips to Better Holiday Travel
Harriet Baskas, who may know more about negotiating airports than anyone on the planet, has pulled together a useful story on holiday shopping at airports worldwide. You can find it at Yours truly has posted a special edition of The Brancatelli File that offers 13 sure-fire tips to reduce your holiday travel stress. And while I don't want to go all preachy on you, please read a column of mine from last year, Beyond Denial: The Reason for the Season. We can all use a little perspective this holiday season.

A note to the readers: Tactical Traveler will not be published next week in observance of Thanksgiving Day. I wish you a happy, peaceful and serene holiday. And I'll see you back here on Thursday, December 5.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.