Ultimate Holiday Packing List

Posted November 21, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

No matter where you're headed this holiday season, you're going to need to pack smart. After all, overweight and oversized bags could cost you dearly (and who wants to cut into the presents-and-eggnog fund?).

Luckily, readers, you have us on your side. We developed this handy packing list for holiday travel. Never again will you overpack! No longer will the TSA confiscate your beautifully wrapped gifts.

Simply click on the image below (it'll pop out into a new screen). Then print it out, tack it to the fridge, and consult it while you pack.

Happy holidays—and of course happy travels from all of us at SmarterTravel!

Like this packing list? Check out our other lists below.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Ultimate Holiday Packing List. Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Detroit: Why You Need to Go Now

Posted November 20, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: william stuben via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Currently undergoing a major transformation, Detroit is the little big city that has the drive to be the next comeback kid. Here are seven great reasons to put Motor City on your must-visit list.

 

(Photo: Dave Sizer via flickr/CC Attribution)

It's the City That Can't Be Stopped

Speaking to the essence of Detroit is the striking 8,000-pound, 24-foot-long bronze Monument to Joe Louis sculpture. The Fist, as it's also known, symbolizes the heavyweight champion's formidable might, both in the ring and outside it. Joe Louis was a hometown hero and a lifelong fighter for racial equality, and as such, Detroit pays tribute to him with both The Fist and a second sculpture outside of the Joe Louis Arena. He's also featured on several murals throughout the city.

Philly has Rocky, Boston has Paul Revere, and Detroit has Joe Louis—all personalities emblematic of the cities they represent. Like Joe Louis, Motor City is driven, and though beaten and bruised, it can't be stopped.

 

(Photo: GollyGforce - Living My Worst Nightmare via flickr/CC Attribution)

Cruise the Neighborhoods

Greektown, Mexicantown, Corktown: Detroit offers a variety of neighborhoods, each with a culturally diverse feel. Find the best Mexican cuisine in Mexicantown. The same goes for Greektown, where the architecture is Greek influenced. Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood and now on the National Register of Historic Places, has Irish influences. It's known for its colorful row houses and popular Detroit establishments, including Slows Bar-B-Q and The Sugar House—the latter a 100-year-old pre-Prohibition craft-cocktail bar that makes all its sumptuous juices and drink syrups in-house.

 

(Photo: DDohler via flickr/CC Attribution)

Entertain the Arts

Detroiters are quick to boast that their city has "the second largest theater district in the nation." An impressive second to New York City, Downtown Detroit seats more than 13,000 patrons at more than half a dozen theaters within a two-block radius. The Fox Theatre alone accommodates 5,132 seats in an acre-and-a-half theater.

 

(Photo: Patricia M. Magaña)

Jazz, Motown, Soul, Blues

Undeniably, Detroiters are a talented bunch.

Detroit's Motown neighborhood has the distinction of being the birthplace of, well, motown. Hitsville U.S.A., the house-turned-music-studio and now museum where Berry Gordy launched careers for so many musical greats, can be toured for $15 per adult (lamentably, no photos are allowed of the interior). The tour's thrills include the opportunity to sing "My Girl" in the famed Studio A where The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson all made sweet music, as well as standing before Michael Jackson's encased, blinged-out white glove and fedora.

Before motown music, there was jazz and blues, both of which are cemented in Detroit's roots. The historical Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the world's oldest continuously operating jazz club in the world, is famous as the stage for some of the greatest jazz and blues performances since 1934. Among many other claims to fame, Baker's was a set location for the 2012 movie Sparkle as well as Anita Baker's music video for "Same Ole Love." The club/restaurant's bar is in the shape of a piano, which is said to have inspired Liberace to commission his Beverly Hills home's pool in the same likeness.

 

(Photo: Patricia M. Magaña)

Let's Play Ball

Championship-winning Detroit sports teams are wildly popular. You have the Tigers, the Lions, the Red Wings, and the Pistons; and the venues for all but the city's basketball team are within a five-mile radius of each other in Downtown Detroit. Additionally, the Red Wings' new 18,000-seat arena broke ground this past summer and is slated to open its doors to Hockeytown (yet another nickname for Detroit) fans in 2017.

One of only 12 cities in the nation to host all the top four major sports, there's always a game on in Motor City.

 

(Photo: Greektownnew2 via Wikimedia Commons via CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Take a Gamble on Detroit

Three casinos—MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino Hotel, and Greektown Casino Hotel—have taken a gamble on Detroit, and as we all know, the house never loses. These three casino hotels opened their doors in 2007 and 2008, after watching gaming money float across the river to Canada's casino hotel, the Caesars Windsor.

 

(Photo: Michael Kumm via flickr/CC Attribution)

Now Accepting Applicants

Priced out of New York City or Los Angeles? Don't have enough beans to live in Boston? Chicago's windswept real estate market too volatile for you? Better motor over to Detroit.

Accounts of finding absurdly cheap real estate investment opportunities in Detroit are real. Sadly, so is the news of the foreclosure and unemployment epidemics, as the city struggles with a $20 billion bankruptcy. Still, Detroit is attracting a lot of fresh, young, urban professional blood, as evidenced by innovative programs like Write A House, which gifts rehabbed homes to writers, and Opportunity Detroit, an initiative that promises to create "an urban environment that attracts businesses, residents, and visitors." And mega employers like mortgage-lender giant Quicken Loans are sweetening the deal for employees that live within city limits through the Live Downtown stipend program.

Everyone's abuzz about the city's exciting energy and upward trajectory. As Detroiters tell it, "By the time the new Red Wings stadium is complete, Detroit will be well on its way." Surely, Detroit's renaissance is long overdue.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Detroit: Why You Need to Go Now. Follow Patricia Magaña on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Virgin America to Scale Down Perks and Comfort

Posted November 19, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Among the 10 initial public offerings scheduled for this week, Virgin America's isn't among the largest. The airline hopes to raise a relatively modest $300 million by selling 13.3 million shares at between $21 to $24 per share, giving it a market cap of around $1 billion.

Here's the NASDAQ quick take on the airline:

Virgin America (VA), one of the few major airlines to remain private, positions itself as a low cost carrier with a loyal customer base. Mainly flying in and out of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the company plans to expand its fleet and increase service to new cities. Virgin remains a relative newcomer in a highly competitive space that has recently benefited from favorable fuel costs.

That "loyal customer base" has been built through the company's insistence on delivering an especially robust package of perks at Southwest-level prices.

The cost of all those extras, combined with its competitive pricing, has left the carrier at a disadvantage as a profit generator. For all the love it inspires among its customers, Virgin America is widely viewed as a business laggard by financial analysts.

So long as the company remains private, the pressure from Wall Street to squeeze more profit from operations can be safely ignored. But once its shares become publicly traded, the financial pressure to improve its financial metrics will soar.

Those nicer meals? Maybe there are some cost savings to be had by making them a bit less nice. Those comfy seats? Maybe they can be nudged closer together, to make room for an extra row. That state-of-the-art inflight entertainment system? How much could be saved by downgrading to less extravagant hardware?

With an eye toward increasing the value of their investments, Virgin America shareholders will push the company to bolster its bottom line, by increasing revenue (higher ticket prices, more nuisance fees) and cutting costs (fewer amenities). No one expects Virgin America to be reconstituted in the image of Spirit. But neither should Virgin America loyalists assume that their airline will survive the arrival of Wall Street unscathed. The Almighty Dollar is so-called for good reason.

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This article was originally published on SmarterTravel and FrequentFlier.com under the title Popular Low-Cost Airline to Scale Down Perks.

10 Rules for Planning Round-the-World Trips

Posted November 19, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Traveling 'round the world (RTW) isn't for everybody. A RTW trip takes more time and money than the average traveler might have. But for a fortunate few, it's a great way to explore a range of destinations—new and old, exotic and mundane—that you might not ever be able to visit on individual trips.

My recommendations are based both on my own experience and reports from other travelers. I've done it four times—probably more than most. Two of the trips were for business, but the trips on my own provided great experiences. Here are 10 key lessons I learned while planning RTW travel.

Figure Out the Basics

A good RTW trip requires a lot of planning, starting with making a list of what you really want to see and do. "Around the world" isn't a destination; it's a set of flights. Start by cataloguing your top must-visit places. The most popular RTW trips seem to be limited to North America, Europe, and Asia, although longer trips can also include the South Pacific, Africa, and South America.

Unless you're doing a full year abroad, spring and fall are often the best times to do RTW trips. During transitional seasons, you'll avoid the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Of course, near-equator stops like Bangkok and Singapore are hot all the time.

On my latest RTW trip, I decided to travel in the spring. I started off with interesting places I had never been to, then I ended the journey with a relaxing stop in a longtime-favorite European area. But you could follow special interests, hook up with international friends you've made, visit the "10 most-something-or-other" destinations you saw on an intriguing list, or plan your trip based on just about anything.

Take Enough Time

If you're going to be flying 25,000 miles or more—that's at least 50 hours in the air—you should spread it out a bit. My recommendation is to spend at least a month on the road; any less than that, and you're going to be in a state of perpetual jet lag. The longer the trip, the better you'll feel overall.

Give Each Stop Ample Time

Avoid too many short stops. These days, any single flight takes up most of a day, door to door: packing, checking out of your hotel, schlepping to an airport, going through the airport hassles. I have a tough time thinking of any destination worth visiting that you can cover in a single day. (That's one of the big problems with cruises.) You usually need at least a day to get a feel for a destination, then extra days to visit the sites you want to see and do the things you want to do. Even an itinerary full of one- or two-night stops will yield a trip centered on catching flights and checking in and out of hotels. Overall, my recommendation is a minimum of three nights per stop—or better yet, four.

Move In One Direction

You'll want to keep traveling generally in one direction, east or west. That's a requirement on some RTW tickets, but even if your ticket or tickets do not impose that requirement, you should do it anyway. Doubling back adds time and expense to your trip.

Most reports (and my own experience) show that traveling westward is easier on jet lag than traveling eastward. Extending a day is easier than compressing a day.

For Easy Booking, Get a Single Ticket

The easiest way to arrange a RTW itinerary is to buy a single-price RTW ticket. Only one airline, Air New Zealand, can fly RTW entirely on its own routes. But the itinerary is so limited that it's virtually worthless.

Each of the three big alliances, Oneworld, Skyteam, and Star Alliance, offers RTW tickets, and they provide user-friendly (if tedious) online RTW planners. Fares typically start at about $4,500 for up to 29,000 miles and limit you to Asia, Europe, and North America, with maybe a dip into North Africa or Central America. Expect to pay up to $7,000 for the 39,000 miles you'd need for an extensive trip that covers the South Pacific, South Africa, and South America.

RTW tickets typically require voyagers to complete travel within a year and are limited to 15 or 16 stops or flight segments. They also limit the number of stops or flights in any given region, and most RTW tickets limit you to a single stop in any city (unless you're making a connection).

Several less-inclusive airline partnerships also sell RTW tickets. Prices are somewhat lower than alliance tickets, but stops and routes are more limited.

To Save Money, Get Individual Tickets

For most RTW trips in economy class, you can cut the total cost a lot by buying individual tickets for each flight. Customizing a set of individual tickets is the cheapest way to do a RTW trip. You can arrange those flights through a specialist travel agency, or you can book them yourself through one of the big online metasearch systems. Individual tickets also provide ultimate flexibility on routes and stops—something you don't get when you have to confine yourself to the airlines in a single alliance.

One agency recently reported on a typical minimal RTW itinerary: Chicago–London–Milan–Istanbul–Delhi–Bangkok–Chicago, which was priced out at $1,547–$2,117 by several RTW specialist agencies for individual point-to-point tickets. By comparison, alliance RTW tickets cost $4,418–$4,710. Although you can buy your tickets online, RTW travel is one case where calling a real live agent is probably a better bet.

Fly Business Class

Spending 50 hours or more in a tiny, narrow economy seat with no legroom is not an attractive prospect for anyone. Individual tickets are prohibitively expensive for most travelers, but the alliance RTW business-class fares are about double economy fares—a lot, but nowhere near as pricey a premium as for individual tickets. A RTW business-class ticket can cost less than a simple round-trip on some routes.

A business-class ticket also gets you into premium lounges at most major world airports, along with no-charge checked baggage, preferred boarding, and sometimes express airport lanes. All in all, business class takes the stress out of flying like nothing else can.

Use Miles If You Have Them

All three big alliances offer RTW frequent-flyer awards in both economy and business class. In Star Alliance, the economy-class RTW award is 200,000 miles; requirements are similar on the others. The best way to use miles for RTW travel, however, is to use them for business class—provided, of course, that you have the miles. Star Alliance, for example, requires 350,000 miles for a RTW-travel award in business class.

My most recent RTW trip was in business class on Star Alliance, which I arranged when the requirement was at 280,000 miles. I was fortunate to have accumulated lots of miles over the years and was well pleased with the extravagance. And with miles worth just a tad more than one cent each, it was a real bargain compared with buying tickets. As a footnote, I had no problem booking every flight I wanted (except for the return flight to my hometown on United).

Don't Overlook the Paperwork

If your usual overseas haunts are in Europe or the Caribbean, it's easy to forget that lots of the countries you're likely to visit on a RTW trip require visas. With some, you can arrange a visa on arrival, but with others you have to apply in advance, the old-fashioned way. Check the State Department's information page for each country you plan to visit, and leave lots of time to complete the process. Those last-minute visa services can get the job done, but they're expensive.

Use All the Resources

BootsnAll, a self-styled RTW "community," is a good place to start. Several online agencies in the U.S. specialize in constructing RTW itineraries by booking individual flights. Among them are AirTreks, World Travellers' Club, AroundTheWorldTickets.com, and Ticketsroundtheworld.com. These websites have useful information even if you decide to book flights yourself.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Considering a Round-the-World Trip? Read This First. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

Make Your Complaint Work for You

Posted November 14, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Overcharged? Misinformed? Didn't get what you paid for? Travelers with a gripe against an airline, a hotel, an online travel agency, a credit card issuer, or some other travel seller often copy me on their complaints. And I never cease to be surprised at how many of those complaints are rambling, unfocused, and weak. Certainly, there's no "sure thing" way to have a complaint resolved in your favor, but you can improve your odds of success fairly simply.

First, establish what you want—what would be the ideal solution, from your viewpoint.

Money or Equivalent: If you are actually out some money, you will almost surely want reimbursement. And if a supplier caused great inconvenience, you might also decide that the mistreatment warrants a monetary compensation.

A Black Mark: If you conclude that your problem, however annoying, does not rise to the level of warranting a monetary resolution, you can still give the supplier a black mark.

An Apology: Apparently, some folks just want a seller to tell them, "Yes, we goofed. Sorry." If that's what you really want, fuggedaboutit. Suppliers' lawyers don't want them issuing any statements that might provide fodder for a future lawsuit.

Next, make sure you know where to complain. Often, that's not an issue; the guilty party is obvious. But in a monetary dispute involving two or more distinct parties—an airline and an online agency, for example—each typically blames the other. Here, you need to determine (1) which organization actually caused the problem and (2) which one has your money.

Ask for something! If your complaint rises to the level of warranting compensation, ask for compensation. The most ineffective complaints I see exhibit the same fatal flaw: not asking for anything specific. Instead, they present their complaint—often a long, rambling laundry list of grievances—but wind up with a weak "What do you plan to do about this?" or "I trust you will provide an appropriate response" or an even weaker "How did I go wrong?"

If you can demonstrate that the supplier's misconduct left you with an out-of-pocket loss you can document, you should certainly ask for at least that amount. Even if you can't show an out-of-pocket loss, you can set some reasonable cash value on inconvenience, especially loss of work or vacation time.

Keep in mind that when you ask for compensation, suppliers hate to cut checks. An airline, hotel, or cruise line will likely be more generous with vouchers for future services than with cash. Similarly, airlines will be more generous with frequent-flyer miles. If you're willing to accept vouchers or miles, say so in your complaint. You might even want to ask for more value in vouchers than cash. In any event, however, before you accept a voucher, make sure it doesn't include restrictions or an expiration date you can't accept.

If you can't reasonably expect to receive cash compensation, you can at least give the supplier a black mark. The most effective places to post black marks these days are all-purpose sites such as Yelp or traveler-review sites such as TripAdvisor.

With an airline problem, you can submit a complaint to the Department of Transportation (DOT). Unless you show violation of a law, DOT won't help resolve your complaint. But it does score your complaint in its ongoing monthly and yearly "Consumer Reports." And a DOT complaint carries a surprising amount of weight: In 2013, only 13,000 total complaints were filed, against all airlines, which means that each individual complaint represents more than 6,000 passengers. And these DOT scores are important: The media regularly report on them, several widely used airline-rating systems incorporate them, and airlines really do try to minimize them.

I'll have more detail on pursuing a monetary complaint in a future column.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Make Your Complaint Work for You. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

The Most Interesting Public-Transit Rides in America

Posted November 10, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via Shutterstock)

Certain public-transit rides offer a lot more than plain conveyance. Great scenery, technological innovation, and historical significance await on ferries and funiculars around the U.S. The following are some of the most enjoyable and interesting public-transit offerings in the country. Our list is confined to public-transit systems, including bus, metro, and suburban rail, used primarily by local residents. (We exclude the many short legacy streetcar lines that have been developed in recent years primarily for sightseeing.) This east-to-west list is bookmarked by two systems known to much of the civilized world, but it includes a few surprises, too.

(Photo: Kevin Button/Getty Images)

Staten Island Ferry, Staten Island, New York

This ride offers fabulous views of the lower Manhattan skyline, some renowned bridges, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty—and it's free! What's not to like? The Staten Island Ferry operates 24/7/365, every 15 minutes during commuter rush hours, and every 30 minutes during off-peak times and on weekends. It connects Whitehall Street, on the lower tip of Manhattan Island, to St. George, on Staten Island, New York's isolated and relatively rural borough. The trip takes about 25 minutes each way for the five-mile journey.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons via CC Attribution)

Personal Rapid Transit, Morgantown, West Virginia

This WVU Personal Rapid Transit is unique among U.S. public-transit systems, as it's sort of like a horizontal elevator. You get into a small single-unit automated cab and push a button for the destination station you want, and the vehicle takes you to that stop while bypassing any stops for which nobody pushed the button.

The five-mile line connects three distinct areas of the University of West Virginia. (The campus is attractive, in a hilly area about 75 miles south of Pittsburgh.) Because it's designed for WVU, it runs on an academic schedule and is completely closed during holidays and semester breaks.

(Photo: Tourism Media)

Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mt. Washington sits across the Monongahela River from downtown Pittsburgh. The hilly neighborhood is 367 feet higher than Steel City. Pittsburgh used to operate dozens of inclines, or funiculars, in the area. Today, only two remain: The Duquesne Incline, built in 1877, and the Monongahela Incline, built in 1870. Both are now integrated into Pittsburgh's extensive public-transit system. They carry people in flat-floor cars up tracks at angles of 30 to 35 degrees.

The Monongahela Incline is the more accessible, with its lower station adjacent to the rail-transit system, but the view from the Duquesne may be a bit better. Travelers who don't mind a bit of walking can go up one and down the other. The reward at the top is a great view of the central business district's skyline, many classic bridges, and the Golden Triangle park, where the Allegheny and Monongahela join to form the Ohio River.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the country's only inclines: Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has one that's even steeper, and Los Angeles has the short Angel's Flight. But the two in Pittsburgh are the most authentic public-transit examples.

(Photo: Jerry Huddeston via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

South Shore Line, Chicago, Illinois

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) operates the nation's last remaining electric interurban line. It originated as the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, commonly shortened to South Shore Line, during the great interurban boom in the early 20th century that saw hundreds of these railroads blanketing much of the country. Many went bankrupt during the era's frequent financial panics, and most of the survivors were done in either by the Great Depression or by competition from automobiles and buses. Rather than let the South Shore die, however, public interests in Indiana elected to buy it out and operate it as a commuter system.

For visitors, the most interesting destination is the Dune Park station for access to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The scenery between Chicago and Dune Park is mostly a depressing reminder of the decline of the area's once prospering steel industry, but the Indiana Dunes park is a deservedly popular visitor attraction. Trains operate all year, with better service on weekends than weekdays.

(Photo: St. Charles Streetcar, New Orleans via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

St. Charles Streetcar, New Orleans, Louisiana

Since 1835, the Perley Thomas streetcars on the St. Charles line have rolled past stately houses beneath a canopy of oaks. Today, historical cars built in 1923 still carry locals and visitors along Canal Street, past the French Quarter, through the Garden District, and past restaurants, boutiques, and parks. At one point, the line formed a complete loop, but now it's U-shaped. The line runs 24/7, including holidays. Other lines travel along Canal Street, but the St. Charles line is the longest and most interesting.

(Photo: Bixby Bridge, Big Sur via Shutterstock)

22 Big Sur-Monterey, Monterey, California

Arguably the nation's most scenic public bus trip, the Monterey–Salinas transit route 22 Big Sur–Monterey runs from the Monterey Presidio and city center through terminally quaint Carmel, then along legendary Highway 1 to Big Sur and Nepenthe. You even cross Bixby Bridge, the spectacular concrete arch pictured in so many movies, TV episodes, and car commercials. Although you don't see the entire coastline, you see enough of the spectacular coast to make the trip a scenic blockbuster. Or, if you prefer, stop at one of the parks along the way.

(Photo: Nonsequiturlass via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Bremerton Ferry, Seattle, Washington

Every day, thousands of commuters ride ferries linking Seattle's downtown with communities across the Puget Sound. Washington State Ferries operates 10 different routes, but for Seattle visitors, the Seattle/Bremerton route is probably the best choice. The 60-minute trip crosses usually-calm waters and provides views of Seattle's imposing skyline plus distant mountains and emerald islands. These large ferries include onboard food and beverage service, and you can ride inside or out, depending on the weather.

(Photo: Mobilus in Mobili via flickr/CC Attribution)

F-Market & Wharves Line, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's F Line operates heritage streetcars along a route linking two of the city's iconic neighborhoods, the colorful Castro district and Fisherman's Wharf, by way of bustling Market Street and along the waterfront Embarcadero. This trip provides great views of the city's many striking buildings, the busy bay, and Telegraph Hill. Muni, the local Municipal Transportation Agency, owns and operates a fleet of historical streetcars that is likely the envy of every railway museum in the country. The fleet consists mainly of post-World War II Presidents' Conference Committee cars and also includes 11 Peter Witt cars dating from 1928. Locals really use this line: Rush hour finds it seriously overcrowded.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons via CC Attribution/Share Alike)

RTA Red Line, Cleveland, Ohio

Air and rail buffs will appreciate riding this public rail-transit system, which was the first in the U.S. to have a station integrated into an airport terminal. The rail extension to Hopkins International Airport opened in 1965 as the world's third such service. The Red Line runs from the airport to the Terminal Tower (the unofficial center for everything in Cleveland), then eastward on to Cleveland Heights.

There isn't much to see along the way unless you're a fan of declining industrial areas and railroad systems, and Cleveland Airport is not particularly outstanding in any way. This is admittedly one of the weaker entries on this list, but it still holds some interest.

(Photo: Chris Garrett/Getty Images)

Cable Cars, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's famous cable cars rattle along two primary routes: the Powell Street lines, between the Union Square area and either Fisherman's Wharf or Aquatic Park, and the California Street line, between the Ferry Building area and Van Ness Avenue. Both lines climb and descend steep Nob Hill, and the two lines cross at the foot of the historic Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels. You'll find lots of visitor-oriented facilities at the terminals of both Powell Street lines, but not so much at Van Ness Avenue and California Street.

At $6 a ride, the cable cars are intended to be used mainly by visitors rather than residents, although locals often use them anyhow. A reduced $3 senior fare applies only between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. For more flexibility, you can buy an all-day unlimited-ride "visitor passport."

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title The Most Interesting Public-Transit Rides in America. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

The 10 Busiest Airports This Holiday

Posted November 10, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents American airlines, today released it annual forecast for air travel during the Thanksgiving period (Friday, November 21 - Tuesday, December 2). If you flew over Thanksgiving last year, this year will be pretty much deja vu all over again. Passenger numbers are expected to tick up only slightly, by 1.5 percent, to 24.6 million. The 10 busiest airports, from most to least busy:

  1. Atlanta
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Chicago
  4. Dallas - Ft. Worth
  5. New York JFK
  6. Denver
  7. San Francisco
  8. Phoenix
  9. Charlotte
  10. Houston International

Again, no surprises there. The most actionable of A4A's forecast may be the most and least busy travel days. The busiest days, as you'd expect, will be as follows:

  1. Sunday, November 30
  2. Monday, December 1
  3. Wednesday, November 26

And the least busy days:

  1. Thursday, November 27 (Thanksgiving)
  2. Friday, November 28

So, if a comfortable, low-stress travel experience is a priority, book away from the heaviest travel days. Otherwise, be prepared for long lines and full flights. Just like last year. 

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This article was originally published on SmarterTraveland FrequentFlier.com under the title The 10 Busiest Airports This Holiday.

Americans Have a Vacation-Time Problem

Posted November 10, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

My fellow Americans, we have a vacation-time problem. As a workforce, we've got among the fewest paid vacation days of any developed country. In fact, we're one of the only countries that has zero—compare that to 28 days in the U.K., for instance—paid public holidays. But too few vacation days isn't actually our main problem. The real issue is that we don't even use all of the vacation days we have. Every year, we're giving up more than 400 million hard-earned days of beach reading, museum going, adventure trekking, and new-city exploring.

This will not do. Luckily, there's a solution. It starts with you checking your vacation balance. If you're among the 51 percent of people Skift recently surveyed, you may have not yet taken a single vacation day in 2014. Yikes.

Taking your vacation time isn't just financially smart, it's also a good choice for your health. Study after study proves that vacations are good for you. WebMD says people who take vacations reap health benefits like a lower risk of heart disease, lower stress levels, and a more positive outlook on life. Vacations give people the room to reconnect, recharge, and find new inspiration. Even planning a vacation delivers a big happiness boost that can start up to eight weeks in advance of a trip.

Excuses, Excuses

In many states and at many companies, vacation time can't be rolled over from one year to the next. Let unused vacation days expire and you're essentially paying your company for the privilege of working.

And here's the truth: Unless you're the only person in the world who can do a certain life-saving and very time-sensitive surgery and you've got a line of patients out the door, you can probably take a vacation without everything falling apart.

Worried that it's too late to pull together a trip before the end of the year? The great news is that, outside of peak holiday periods, November and December tend to brim with travel deals and discounts to places that are great—if a little cold—to visit at this time of year. Need inspiration? Check out our recent stories on the Top Five Off-Peak Destinations and Top Five Bargain Destinations for fall 2014.

If you really can't swing a trip before 2015, take the vacation time to do that project you've been putting off. On my list this year: a wildly disorganized basement and a writing project I've been putting off all year.

Break the Cycle

Make 2015 the year you stop giving away your paid vacation time. Here's how:

  • Start the year knowing exactly how much vacation time you have and whether you get it as a lump sum in January or you accrue it over the course of the year. If you've been at the same company for a few years, remember that you may be entitled to more vacation time.
  • Early in the year, sketch out a tentative vacation timeline. Research the best times to go to the destinations you're interested in. You may also need to factor in school vacations, your travel partner's schedule, and historically quieter times at work, depending on your industry.
  • Check in with your manager well in advance if you want to take time off during a busy work period or a popular vacation month. Do you need to do this? No. But it's a way of getting your vacation on your manager's radar early, and it can help manage workflow expectations during your anticipated absence.
  • Check in on your vacation-time balance at intervals throughout the year to see how you're doing. Don't wait until November 1 to realize you've got more vacation time than work hours left in the year.
  • Remember how wonderful it is to take a break from daily life.

(Photo: Woman Taking Photo at Sunset via Shutterstock)

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Unused Vacation Days and Why You Should Use Them.Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Low-Fare Airlines to Europe Next Summer: Early Look

Posted November 6, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

"Fly to London for $99!" You probably saw those excited press reports about the spectacularly low fares that WOW Air hyped for its new flights starting next March. By now, those ultra-low fare seats have probably sold out, but the line will still have some pretty good deals. In any event, if you're thinking about a trip to Europe next summer, it's not too early to start checking out the prospects for low-fare alternatives to the giant lines.

WOW Air, based in Iceland, operated a few flights from the United States last year, but says that starting in 2015 it will fly from Boston to Reykjavik all year and from Baltimore seasonally. Initially, it's promoting nonstop deals to Reykjavik, and through fares only to London/Gatwick and Copenhagen. But the line flies from Iceland to 18 European destinations, so you can expect it to post through fares to other cities over the next few months. And, for the long term, it expects to fly from other as yet unnamed U.S. gateways.

Flights from the U.S. are in A321s certified for ETOPS (extended twin-engine operations); most trips from Iceland to Europe are in A320s. The 321s include a few "extra legroom" seats, at exit rows, and preferred seats at the front of the cabin. Unfortunately, you can figure on a sleepless night eastbound: At least for now, all flights to Reykjavik are overnight red-eyes, even though they take only five hours.

You may still be able to catch one of those $99 seats to London and the slightly higher return (thanks to the hated U.K. passenger duty), but I couldn't find any left when I tried last week. I did find, however, some pretty low peak-season fares, including a Boston–London round-trip for about $560 for travel from July 7 to July 23; nearby dates were several hundred dollars higher. But, for most of you, that $560 would be elusive. WOW charges a lot more than other low-fare lines for just about everything: One checked bag, up to 44 pounds, would cost $125 round-trip, and even a carry-on more than 12 pounds would cost $70. I suspect not even the most frugal U.S. travelers could head for Europe without at least one suitcase. And you pay separate fees for seat assignments on each leg of the trip, or four times for the round-trip.

For now, even with the stiff bag fee, WOW's summer fares look good compared with what the giant lines are currently posting: $1,234 Boston to London nonstop and $1,019 via Reykjavik on Icelandair. But you can expect a lot of fluctuation between now and July, and WOW will likely sell out its lowest-fare seats before long.

As far as I can tell, WOW isn't offering the no-charge Iceland stopovers for which Icelandair is famous. Those may come later. And, for now, the fare just to Reykjavik is higher than the through fares to the Continent.

Meanwhile, WOW is by no means your only low-fare option to Europe:

  • Currently, the most ambitious low-fare transatlantic operation is Norwegian, with planned flights to Scandinavia and London/Gatwick from Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Orlando. Posted New York to London round-trips for July start at $960, compared to more than $1,600 to $1,800 on American, British Airways, Delta, and Virgin Atlantic. These flights will operate regardless of Norwegian's current problems with setting up an Irish subsidiary. If it can set up in Ireland, you can look for vigorous expansion.
  • Air Transat will offer low-fare nonstops from a bunch of Canadian cities to key European destinations, although mostly with a sub-economy charter-style product.
  • Several of the big European-based charter-style airlines—affiliated with big tour operators—will also feature Florida, as well as a few other U.S. destinations.

All in all, if you can score a really good deal on WOW and possibly Norwegian, buying now might be a good idea. Otherwise, you're probably better off waiting for promotions from the giant lines next spring.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Low-Fare Airlines to Europe Next Summer: Early Look. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

Where Does Your Unclaimed Luggage End Up?

Posted November 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Where does your luggage go when an airline loses it? You might imagine that it simply disappears into a black hole behind the conveyer-belt curtain, somewhere akin to the mysterious void where all of your missing socks end up when they disappear from the dryer.

But the truth, of course, is much stranger.

Lost bags and all of their contents eventually find their way to a retail store/warehouse in Scottsboro, Alabama, called the Unclaimed Baggage Center—a facility so large that it's bigger than a city block. All are welcome to peruse and shop a wide selection of goods culled from unclaimed luggage and cargo delivered from commercial airlines, buses, trains, trucks, and other transportation venues. The Unclaimed Baggage Center is open Mondays through Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturdays.

What You Can Buy There

So what can you find there? The short answer: everything. "If it's packed in a suitcase or left on a plane," notes the facility's website, "it could wind up for sale at Unclaimed Baggage." Think: clothes, books, cameras, electronics, jewelry, and sports equipment. The store stocks more than 7,000 new items daily.

And if you're imagining a filthy thrift store crawling with bedbugs, think again. All of the clothing is professionally cleaned before being put on the sales floor; electronics items have their memories wiped and are tested to make sure they work.

Keep an eye on the upcoming events page for special themed promotions such as the annual ski sale. The Etc. building, located next to the warehouse, stocks household goods, beauty supplies, and more.

Where It All Comes From

If an airline or other transportation provider can't track down the owner of a bag, it sells the contents to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Airlines work for 90 days to find someone to claim lost items before turning them over. (Friendly reminder: Always label your luggage in multiple places.)

By now you're likely wondering if you might find any of your long-lost luggage at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. The answer: Maybe, but it's not yours anymore. Sure, you can comb the shelves for something that once belonged to you, but even if you find it, you'll have to buy it back. According to the Huffington Post, this sometimes happens: A man once unwittingly bought back his wife's ski boots after she lost them on a ski trip years prior.

Best and Weirdest Finds

People pack (and lose) almost everything imaginable. Some of the good: a Versace gown, an $18,000 Limoges vase (sold at the center for $80), a 5.8-carat diamond ring, and a 40.95-carat emerald.

The weird: 50 vacuum-packed frogs, a full suit of armor, a camera from a space shuttle (returned to NASA), a missile-guidance system for a fighter jet (returned to the Air Force), a shrunken head, someone's ashes, and an engraved headstone (which someone actually bought and turned into a macabre coffee table).

You can view some of these bizarre items at the Unclaimed Baggage Center's museum, located inside the store.

Trash or Treasure?

Only the best stuff is put out on the floor, and anything that doesn't sell is either tossed or donated. Eyeglasses are donated to the Lions Clubs International's SightFirst program, broken wheelchairs are rebuilt for charity, medical supplies are given to developing countries, and suitcases are hand-painted and turned into "Luv Luggage" and given to children who are moving to foster homes.

So the next time you're in Scottsboro, Alabama, why not pay a visit to the Unclaimed Baggage Center? You never know what you might find!

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Land of the Lost: This is Where Unclaimed Luggage Gets Sold.Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.


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