You can bet traveling has its share of downs to go with the ups.
The once-mighty greenback has become the 90-pound weakling of the currency beach, with the euro, Japanese yen and British pound all kicking sand in its face.
The sticker shock of prices on my overseas trips was just one of the downsides of my journeys in 2004. I travel anonymously and accept no freebies, so my experiences will come as close to those of a "normal traveler" as possible.
Most of the time I get good service and value. But every year there are a few sagging mattresses, burnt entrees, surly flight attendants and other bits of bad news that are worthy of notice in my annual Christmastime "naughty" list.
UDead dollar: The dollar tanked against other currencies the way a pug hits the mat in a fixed prizefight. I am sure there is some Ph.D. out there who can explain how a nose-diving greenback is good for our exporting stuff overseas, but as a traveler I want to hurl when a no-big-deal bed and breakfast in England costs $200 a night. But it's making the exchange rate math easier. One British pound is now roughly worth $2 at commercial exchange kiosks in London.
UGas gouge: The dollar is dead overseas, while at home we have gas prices that seemed pedal to the metal. On a trip to the San Bernardino mountains, I paid $2.91 a gallon. Prices have actually been falling the past seven months -- but I have that sinking feeling we'll be hearing all the usual excuses for price spikes come summer vacation.
ULuck runs out: After 10 years of renting cars with nary a scratch, some doofus whacked my Hertz sedan in Akron, and, surprise, left no note. Every streak must come to an end.
ULeast favorite book trend: The list of books telling you where you have to go "before you die" has grown wearisome. My least favorite is "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." Thanks for cutting down the list for me.
USurly skies: Some flight attendants seem to have become even angrier or more absent in the past year. Blame it on teetering airlines. Nearly half of all U.S. airlines were in bankruptcy, considering Chapter 11 or trying to come out of it. Many are laying off flight attendants and trying to cut their pay. The men and women in the aisles are where customer meets company, and often these days it seems we're the ones who pay for the displeasure with the corporate kingpins.
ULeast favorite city: Kahului, Maui. I love Hawaii, and Kahului is about as anti-Hawaii as you can get. Strip malls, big-box stores and chain fast-food joints have grown up to serve the burgeoning population on the tourism-driven island. Call someplace "paradise," and you can kiss it goodbye.
ULeast favorite airport: Los Angeles International. You can count on epic lines at check-in and security on your way out of town. Then rest assured that upon arriving after an 11-hour flight from London, you'll be sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours to get back to Orange County. My favorite local airport: Anywhere but LAX.
ULeast favorite hotel experience: Ahwahnee. The luxurious Yosemite lodge is often described as historic, venerable, a treasure. That also means old. I had the misfortune of arriving last summer during a once-every-20-years roof renovation that had the building pulsating with the whack-whack-whack of hammers. I could see Half Dome from my window -- if I just looked beyond the half-dozen workers laying roof tile every morning inches from my window. Management claims it sent a letter outlining the renovations when I made my reservations. I never got it. And the hotel didn't bother to lower its nearly $400-a-night price tag while the noise and views it is famous for were on hiatus.
UResort fee rip-off: Paid a $23.96 resort fee at Kauai Sheraton for things like two buffet breakfasts -- when I was traveling alone. The wait for the buffet the next morning was a half-hour, despite dozens of empty tables inside. That said, at least I didn't have to pay for local phone calls, which at W Hotel in Honolulu had run $2 a crack. Resort fees -- for things that should be free or wrapped into the regular rate -- are an ongoing scam against the traveling public.
URental-car woes, Take 2: I was almost stranded in Honolulu over the summer. After paying for my nonrefundable ticket, I found out a rash of conventions in Waikiki had swooped up every car in sight. Sold out at Hertz, Budget, Alamo, National and every other one I tried. Luckily Avis had a few cars. Maybe they really do try harder.
UThe last roll call: The Castaways Hotel in Las Vegas closed, shuttering the nation's largest bowling alley. This might have been a boon to Orange County, had not Regal Lanes in Orange -- formerly the nation's No. 2 -- been shuttered months earlier to make way for a car-dealer parking lot.
UBest worst flight: Northwest to Memphis. It starts with a long drive to LAX. Horrible lines at check-in. Two hours to run the gantlet of security. I arrive at the gate to find I don't have a seat, though luckily my wife and two kids do. My family is worried for poor old Dad. I wait quietly and patiently while other passengers without assignments fume and sputter. Everyone gets a seat. I'm last, and the ticket agent hands me my boarding pass and says, "This is for being so nice when everyone else was not." It's a business class seat. I'm bumped up! My family is no longer worried about Dad. They're a bit miffed that he's in the lap of luxury while they are squeezed into the cattle car in the back.
UFavorite travel joke: Dennis Miller on bankrupt airlines considering cutbacks to their frequent-flier programs: "Those 265,000 miles you were saving for a dream vacation to Europe can now be exchanged for free headphones on Lufthansa."