The Ultimate Foliage Report Resource for 2014

Posted September 26, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Peak foliage is entirely dependent on the weather. Ideal conditions for seeing beautiful foliage vary from year to year, so there's no way to pinpoint in advance the prime days to see the changing leaves. In many places, though, state tourism boards, local bloggers, and park rangers keep close tabs on local foliage conditions. If you know where to look, you can get up-to-the-minute information on exactly when and where to see the most vivid fall landscapes.

Below, I've linked to every foliage report I could find for the 2014 season, categorized by region. Some places don't have their updates up yet—especially the more southern locales. Check out Facebook and Twitter pages for national or state parks and destinations for more information. Make a call to a state park or national park and speak with a ranger. The National Forest Service used to operate a foliage hotline, but I called it today and a recorded message said that the information is up to date as of October 2013; that's no good. If it comes back to life this season, we'll let you know. Stormfax posts a list of foliage hotlines in the U.S., but I haven't called them all, so I can't promise they're up to date. You can also check out the following resources:

  • Here's the Farmer's Almanac, which predicts when peak foliage-viewing days will happen in 2014.
  • The Foliage Network is a free service that collects and analyzes data from its own "foliage spotters." It appears to be up to date.

Mid-Atlantic

The official New Jersey tourism website doesn't appear to offer foliage reports as of yet. You can see current images of the leaves changing in the state on the NJ Hiking Fall Foliage Forum.

Here's the 2014 foliage report for New York.

Pennsylvania's official tourism website says the state's foliage reports are "coming soon." Check this page for updates.

Midwest

There are no foliage reports as of yet on the official Indiana tourism website. Brown County Indiana's tourism site, however, displays a pretty cool leaf cam.

Iowa's Department of Natural Resources posts fall color updates here, but they haven't started yet.

Michigan's official tourism site offers this page with a fall color map, and invites travelers to sign up to receive up-to-the-minute foliage reports via email.

Here's North Dakota's foliage report.

Ohio's foliage reports begin October 1.

See Minnesota's North Shore report here.

Missouri's fall-color updates were posted on the state's Department of Conservation site last year, but that page hasn't been updated for this season yet. Check back.

Find Wisconsin's foliage report on TravelWisconsin.com.

New England

See the Connecticut foliage report on the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website.

September 10 marks the "official" launch of Maine's fall foliage season. Expect the most colorful conditions in Maine at the end of September and into the first week of October. See reports on the Maine Foliage website.

Massachusetts operates live foliage feeds throughout the state. View them on the state's InstaFoliage website.

Here's an up-to-date report for New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Here's Vermont's report. The leaves have already begun to change in Vermont.

West Coast

Visit the Oregon Fall Foliage Blog for this season's reports, or get updates via Facebook.

The California Fall Color Blog is a fantastic source for recent photos and updates.

Rockies

Utah has a Web cam and a leaf-peeping blog, and offers foliage alerts on the Utah Fall Colors site.

Wyoming offers an overview of where to see the leaves changing on the Wyoming Office of Tourism site.

South

Alabama doesn't appear to have a 2014 foliage report as of yet, but the state tourism board posts an indicator of when peak peeping happens here.

Arkansas foliage reports begin September 25 on the Arkansas tourism site.

Find Georgia's leaf watch, which kicks off in October, here.

Foliage reports for Kentucky will be posted on the Kentucky Tourism website beginning in October. Expect peak foliage to happen around mid- to late October.

North Carolina representatives say reports are "coming soon;" check back later on this page. Likewise, South Carolina's foliage reports have yet to appear. You can see last year's here; let's hope the site will update this information soon.

Oklahoma's leaves become most colorful in late October, according to the state's tourism website. No reports are available yet, so check back for future updates.

Tennessee's report is not up yet, but you can watch for it on the Tennessee tourism website. Additionally, find a Gatlinburg 2014 foliage report here.

Foliage reports for Arizona and New Mexico are available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service site. The department predicts peak viewing will happen in mid- to late October.

I couldn't find a Texas foliage report online, but according to various sources, the leaves will be at their most colorful in mid- to late October. The Lost Maples State Natural Area website has a foliage report, which will receive updates beginning in October.

Virgina's foliage forecast starts October 1; check back here for updated reports.

West Virginia's foliage updates start in late September. You can check the West Virginia State Parks website for updates, or call 1-800-CALL WVA for reports by phone.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title The Ultimate Foliage Report Resources for 2014.

Follow Caroline Costello on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

World's Weirdest Restaurants

Posted September 24, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

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

Spice up your eating experience at these incredibly weird restaurants around the world. You'll be dodging ninjas and dining out of a toilet in no time! Think we're kidding? Read on, because these restaurants have to be seen to be believed.

 

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

Modern Toilet, Taipei, Taiwan

Normally, your goal while eating out is to avoid spending the night in the bathroom. Not so at Modern Toilet, where you're basically eating in a giant restroom. You'll even sit on a porcelain throne and dine over a sink turned into a table. It's not for the squeamish—food and drink arrive in everything from urinal glasses to toilet bowls. You'll be relieved (ahem) to learn that the serving dishes are merely replicas of bathroom items, not previously used plumbing fixtures.

 

(Photo: jv.resolution via flickr/CC Attribution)

Heart Attack Grill, Las Vegas, Nevada

Gamble with your life at this Las Vegas restaurant. The Heart Attack Grill has been connected to two actual heart-attack-related deaths since it opened—which is not surprising, since the restaurant's signature dish is a three-pound, 9,982-calorie burger. When you arrive, you'll be given a hospital gown to wear as a makeshift bib for your meal. Better not order that big burger if you're not fully committed—you'll be spanked with a large paddle if you don’t finish. Drinks adhere to the medical theme, including shots served in syringes and wine served from IV bags. The good news? If you weigh more than 350 pounds, you can eat for free!

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Ninja New York, New York

Tired of boring waiters who merely deliver your food? Head to Ninja New York, where a team of "ninjas" will cater to your every need. This dark, underground restaurant is spread over 6,000 square feet, so the ninjas will have plenty of places to hide (and surprise you when you least expect it). Sure, Ninja doesn't get the best reviews—but we suggest you don’t mention that to the trained assassins who deliver your food.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Barbie Cafe, Taipei, Taiwan

Are you a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world? Then the Barbie Cafe in Taiwan is your Dream House. This is no knockoff—it's been licensed by Mattel. Expect plenty of pink!

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Dans Le Noire, London, England

How much does sight actually affect taste? Find out at Dans Le Noire, where you will eat in complete darkness. You won't find out what you're eating until the end of the meal (though the kitchen will cater to your dietary requirements and allergies). You'll be guided and served throughout the meal by an entirely blind staff.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

The Airplane Restaurant, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Airplanes are typically places where you tolerate the food, not devour it. Unless you're talking about The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, that is. Housed inside an old Boeing KC-97, this plane serves up first-class lunch and dinner (and you're permitted to use metal utensils instead of plastic).

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Fritz's Railroad Restaurant, Multiple Locations, Kansas and Missouri

Hate interacting with waiters? Why not have your food delivered to you via train instead? At Fritz's Railroad Restaurant, you order your food by phone. Your food then arrives in a toy train delivery car.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

The Chillout Lounge, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It must be tough to enjoy hot food in the middle of summer in Dubai—unless, of course, you're dining in sub-freezing weather at The Chillout Lounge. Dine on hot soups, hot beverages, and other foods while sitting in subzero temperatures. Even the seats and tables are made of ice! Jackets, gloves, shoes, and socks are all provided in order to survive the dining experience.

 

(Photo: Rub City)

New Lucky Restaurant, Ahmadabad, India

Giant produce may not be what you think of when you think of Alaska, but the Alaska State Fair could change that. The fair has already set two world records for massive vegetables; see if it will happen a third time at this year's 19th Annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. There are more than 10,000 exhibits at the fair as well as big-name celebrities like KC and the Sunshine Band, The All-American Rejects, Flo Rida, and the stars of A&E's Duck Dynasty.

 

(Photo: Jeremiah Roth via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Cabbages and Condoms, Bangkok, Thailand

The theme may be a little risque, but it's all for a good cause: The proceeds from Cabbages and Condoms go toward the Population and Community Development Association (an AIDS-prevention and sex-education charity). The decor lives up to its name—prophylactics hang from nearly every surface in the restaurant and there are intricate sculptures made from birth-control methods.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Weirdest Restaurants in the World.

Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

10 Tour Companies That Offer Great Extras

Posted September 22, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: G Adventures)

"So you're going to go here," he said, circling on the map a small monastery tucked into a sleepy neighborhood in Venice, "and knock on the door. They don't usually get visitors, but they'll be happy to let you in. Walk to the back and you'll find an incredible garden along the water." I shook my head in amazement. In five minutes, Igor, my Local Guide—a standard feature on Monograms trips—had turned a common tourist map into a trove of unique and wildly off-the-beaten-path treasures in one of the world's most explored cities. He had helped me find my very own Venice.

This experience got me thinking about how sometimes, it's not where you go, it's whom you go with. There are dozens of reasons to opt for a package or a tour rather than totally independent travel—among them access to places you can't get to on your own, simplified planning, and the chance to join a group of like-minded travelers. But with hundreds of providers to choose from, it helps to know which companies are setting themselves apart with service-boosting extras and cool chances for personalized experiences.

From local experts to airport pickup in a private car, here are 10 great offerings from companies delivering services above and beyond what you'd expect from a tour operator or vacation packager.

 

(Photo: Monograms)

Monograms: Local Hosts

Monograms simplifies independent travel. The company, which creates customized vacation packages, draws on the vast network of its parent company Globus to get good deals on airfare, centrally located hotels in cities around the world, intercity transportation, and activities. Since it offers independent travel, you don't get a tour leader, but you will benefit from the wisdom of the Monograms Local Guide who stations himself or herself in your hotel lobby at key points during the day. These handpicked local experts help guests find the absolute best of a city, from mainstream to obscure.

 

(Photo: Stevie Mann/Abercrombie & Kent Photo Library)

Abercrombie & Kent: Access to World-Renowned Experts

As a company, Abercrombie & Kent is a true citizen of the world. With 52 offices around the globe, the luxury tour company prides itself on its ability to maintain deep roots in many countries. This strong network of local connections paves the way for incredible insider access to some of the world's foremost experts. Consider tango lessons in a Buenos Aires mansion with Tony Award-winning dancers or discovering Machu Picchu with the personal help of the site's former resident archaeologist.

 

(Photo: Collette)

Collette: Private Car Service

Anyone familiar with the frazzled rush to the airport knows that too many trips begin in a whirlwind of stress. With nearly 100 years of tours under its belt, family-owned Collette has had time to really understand how to make people's vacations better: for instance, by offering private sedan service from home to airport (and from the airport back home at the end of the trip) for all guests who book air-inclusive tours and live within 50 miles of a major airport. Now that's bringing vacation home.

 

(Photo: G Adventures)

G Adventures: Empowering Independence

Driven by a desire to help travelers experience authentic adventures in a responsible manner, G Adventures leads small-group adventure trips to far-flung destinations around the globe. At the helm of each trip is not just a guide but a Chief Experience Officer (CEO), whose job it is to teach guests the skills they need to feel confident exploring on their own, rather than only as part of a group. G Adventures tends to attract more independent travelers, and by teaching guests how to manage the customs and navigate local transport early in a trip, the company empowers independent exploration in addition to offering prebooked, shared experiences.

 

(Photo: Butterfield & Robinson)

Butterfield & Robinson: The Best Pace for Everyone

Butterfield & Robinson manages to do the impossible: Orient each group trip to suit the needs and speeds of guests with different interests who move at different speeds. If you've ever been on a group trip and been frustrated by how a single slowpoke can derail a day (or maybe you're the slowpoke who desperately wants people to stop rushing through every moment), you'll likely appreciate this particular bit of tour-leader magic. B&R guides are experts at creating a rich itinerary for people moving at different speeds, and they have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves, including arranging alternate transfers, using extra vehicles, and filling unanticipated downtime with new adventures.

 

(Photo: Backroads/Brenda Ernst)

Backroads: Turn Any Trip Private

Backroads has been specializing in active travel for 35 years, fueled by the belief that the best way to see the world is to experience it with your senses … and your muscles. With trips that feature hiking, walking, rafting, kayaking, and even snowshoeing, the company helps travelers explore gorgeous destinations around the world. And while group trips are the most common, Backroads also offers guests traveling with eight or more family members or friends the chance to make any of its 2,500 yearly departures into a private trip. No strangers—just a knowledgeable guide and your nearest and dearest. It's an intriguing prospect.

 

(Photo: Country Walkers)

Country Walkers: Personalized Guest Experiences

On Country Walkers trips, the personalized service starts even before you pack. Prior to departure, the company reaches out to each guest to learn more about their special interests. This small but impressive step gives tour leaders the ability to craft outings that will be as interesting as possible to individuals. Small group size and a 1:7 guide-to-guest ratio keeps things personal and allows more behind-the-scenes access on tours. Country Walkers also prides itself on making special arrangements and crafting customized experiences for celebrations such as birthdays or anniversaries.

 

(Photo: Road Scholar)

Road Scholar: Answers to Every Question

To travel is to learn about the world. It's a worldview embodied by Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), which has been offering educational trips since 1975. All programs feature instructors who are not only experts in their field but also lifelong learners, and they approach each trip with contagious curiosity. Authors, scholars, engineers, and scientists lead Road Scholar trips. This particular quality won't appeal to everyone—but for the curiosity-driven traveler, guides who take the time to answer every question and engage in further exploration are a treasured perk.

 

(Photo: Pleasant Holidays)

Pleasant Holidays: A Hawaiian Welcome

Pleasant Holidays knows Hawaii. The vacation-package provider, which specializes in Hawaii (and other beachy destinations), has more than 50 years of experience and regularly wins industry awards for the services it provides to its guests. With 24-hour emergency assistance and a complimentary orientation breakfast that includes food, a presentation on local activities, traditional island entertainment, and prizes, its dedication to customer service sets it apart from other vacation-package providers.

 

(Photo: Insight Vacations)

Insight Vacations: Small-Group Dining

One of the usual downsides of packaged tours is that large travel groups tend to make for uninspired eating. Insight Vacations, which specializes in premium and luxury tours in Europe, North America, India, and Nepal, has a clever solve for the anonymity of large-group dining. Its dine-around program offers guests the chance to eat in small groups at local establishments. Travelers choose one of three restaurants and are escorted there by the tour director. Prix fixe menus are standard (though people are free to order off the menu as well), and Insight covers the bill. Voila: dining like a local without any of the hassle or intimidation factor.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Great Tour Companies with Service-Boosting Extras.

Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Top 5 Off-Peak Destinations for Fall 2014

Posted September 19, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Nantucket, Cobblestoned Streets During Fall (Photo: Getty Images)

After August—generally the biggest travel month of the year—summer's annual dispatch of surf-loving, guidebook-toting vacationers packs up and heads home. With peak season over, folks bid good-bye to crowded beach towns and coastal cities, leaving travel providers with plenty of guest rooms, beaches, and restaurants to fill this fall. The following five spots are on our radar, thanks to their attractive off-peak pricing and super seasonal attractions.

 

(Photo: The Cottages & Lofts at The Boat Basin)

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Nantucket is one of our favorite off-peak beach destinations. Autumn in Nantucket brings so many special seasonal activities that one could argue the island's true peak should fall when the leaves do. Restaurant Week, from September 28 to October 4, bestows bargain-priced gourmet meals on fortunate patrons, with three-course dinners priced from $25 to $45.

Better yet, get your fresh seafood straight from the source—for free! October also kicks off recreational scallop season. Beginning the first of the month, folks are permitted to harvest the mouthwatering mollusks right from the beach.

Cook up some pan-seared scallops in your kitchen at The Cottages & Lofts at The Boat Basin. We found rates as low as $328.33 per night for a two-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and a deck that overlooks the water on Swain's Wharf. Comparatively, the same room is, on average, several hundred dollars more per night during the high summer season. This is the standard pricing structure at Nantucket properties. At the Chapman House, for example, rooms start at $319 per night during summer and drop as low as $119 per night come fall.

You can also snag discounted fall ferry tickets to Nantucket, depending on the operator. The Steamship Authority cuts one-way rates for automobiles from $68.50 in summer and early fall to $43.50 beginning November 1.

 

(Photo: Blue Haven Resort)

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

The Turks and Caicos islands have a reputation for luxury. Bruce Willis and Mariah Carey reportedly have homes here. And lavish beachfront resorts far outnumber budget-friendly hotels. The good news is that in fall, you don't have to spend like Bruce Willis to have an awesome vacation. This is a less crowded, more upscale Caribbean destination set firmly off the beaten path, where alabaster beaches are free of those hectic armies of plastic chairs and towels, no matter the season.

Get the royal Turks and Caicos experience at Joe Six-Pack prices with an off-peak stay on Providenciales, the main tourist center of the islands. Airfares to Providenciales drop sharply during fall months. As of press time, JetBlue is offering flights from New York to Providenciales for $134 each way for select Saturday departures in November; compare this to February fares displayed on Kayak, which run roughly double that. Hotels, too, are markedly more affordable in fall. Autumn deals abound, and standard rates are usually lowest for summer and fall stays. At the beachfront Blue Haven Resort, rates for the cheapest garden-view room start at $300 nightly through December 19, then spike as high as $450 per night for stays during winter months.

In addition to pleasing prices, expect balmy temperatures. As the summer heat wanes, average daily temperatures hover around 75 to 85 degrees.

 

(Photo: Dan Queiroz via flickr/CC Attribution)

Miami, Florida

Miami does a lot to court fall travelers. There's Miami Spice, an extended restaurant week that covers the full month of September. Car aficionados can geek out at the Miami International Auto Show or attend the NASCAR Ford championship race in November. And, of course, the beaches and nightlife don't lose their allure when summer ends.

For further incentive, consider the savings. If you're flying, it's often cheaper to get to Miami in fall than in winter. We found flights on American from Boston to Miami in January for as little as $277 each way, compared to the cheapest fares we found for mid- to late-March departures, which came to $342 each way. It's the same story with United: Our search yielded Chicago-to-Miami nonstop flights for $516 round-trip in November; fares jumped to $573 for the same trip in February. If these airfare differences seem trivial, consider the costs if you're traveling with a family or even as a couple. Sixty bucks a ticket can really add up.

Let's look at sailings out of Miami's cruise port. Sure, this isn't technically a Miami-centric thing to do, but if you're in town and you want to tack a long-weekend getaway onto your trip, you'll save a ton by planning a sailing during fall. Norwegian, for example, runs a three-night Bahamas sailing (Friday through Monday) out of Miami. Prices for this sailing start at $469 per person for an inside cabin in March, compared to $219 for the same cruise in November.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Algarve, Portugal

Portugal's Algarve region—a beach destination along the country's southern coast—draws huge crowds of mostly European tourists during summer. Similar to the French Riviera, the Algarve offers quaint historical towns, picturesque beaches, and, during the high season, a hard-partying club crowd. Yet a quieter mood develops here after the summer-holiday throngs have returned home.
Autumn sees a more serene Algarve, with bare beaches and bargains galore. And if you're after more of a culture-centric European vacation instead of an oceanside escape, the Algarve's cathedrals, castles, and cobblestoned villages will meet your needs in spades.

Consider Four Seasons Country Club, TripAdvisor's number-one-rated hotel for stays in the Algarve. Rates at this assemblage of 96 villas, which are rented by the week, start at €1,170 (about $1,510) in July and August and drop to nearly half that price—€610 (about $788)—in November and December. That's huge. Similarly, rates at popular B&B Duas Quintas drop to €75 (about $97) per night in fall, compared to €95 per night (about $123) during summer.

Can you still hit the beach in the Algarve during fall? Maybe. In early fall—September and October—its Mediterranean climate yields mild, summery weather. Those of you dead-set on surf and sand should plan an earlier fall vacation.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Whether you want to watch whales or the autumn leaves, to bike through Tudor neighborhoods or barhop around waterfront pubs, you'll find that Victoria doesn't lack for fall fun. One of our favorite new attractions to see in Victoria this fall is the Float House, which bills itself as the largest floatation center on earth. Book a 90-minute session in one of the center's five tanks filled with water and Epsom salt and float your stresses away.

Another great stress buster: the thought of all the money you'll save when you visit Victoria in autumn. Between sunny summer and ski season exists a great opportunity for budget-minded travelers: the off-peak fall period. Rates drop at hotels and B&Bs. And museums and restaurants get a little less crowded. At Abbeymoore Manor, a B&B in a historical 1912 mansion, low-season rates for stays between October 20 and December 18 start at $159 CAD (about $145). During high season, rates start at $229 CAD (about $209). Again, at the luxurious Villa Marco Polo Inn, rates start at $185 CAD (about $169) during the off-peak fall season and rise to $250 CAD (about $228) in summer.

It's cheaper to stay there, and it's probably cheaper to get there, too. We ran some test dates through Air Canada's booking system and found November midweek flights from Los Angeles to Victoria for as little as $174 each way. In June, the cheapest fares we spotted for the same trip came to $273 each way.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Top Five Off-Peak Destinations for Fall 2014.

Follow Caroline Costello on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

5 Industry Insider Secrets to Booking Holiday Travel Right

Posted September 17, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Holidays-SantaOnComputerHoldingCreditCard-DD

Prices soar, snowstorms rage and airports are packed—it must be holiday travel season! With all of this going on, the last thing you should have to worry about is shooting in the dark to try to get the lowest fares and rates.

So here's our little holiday gift to you: five tips from our industry expert friends over at SmarterTravel. While these won't make things any less stressful around the holiday table, they'll definitely help to make getting there (and leaving) much more merry.

1. No-fly Fridays (and Sundays). Airfares are almost always more expensive on Fridays and Sundays, and this only gets worse during the holiday season—especially the Sunday after Thanksgiving when it seems like every single U.S. citizen is trying to fly home. Spare yourself the sticker shock and don't even try to book for a Friday or Sunday this holiday season.

2. Avoid the bookend days. Speaking of sticker shock, you can expect to get a pretty good case of it if you try to fly on the days that bookend Thanksgiving. Wednesday? <gasp> Friday or Saturday? <double-gasp> If you possibly can, try to space out your travel and fly on the Monday or Tuesday before and after the holiday. The same goes for Christmas and New Years, too—the further away from the holiday you can book, the better.

3. Miss the appetizers. If you you're able, consider flying on the day of the holiday itself. Sure, you might miss brunch with Great Aunt Eunice, or, at worst, the "pigs in a blanket" before dinner, but you'll save a ton on the flight.

4. Not so fast. Waiting it out is a really bad idea for flights—in fact, if you haven't booked yet, you need to start looking right now—but it's actually a good plan for hotels. If you're staying a hotel instead of on your parents' sofa, don't be in a hurry to book just yet. People who booked their hotels for holiday travel as late as even November last year actually saved an average of $50 more than people who booked earlier.

5. Skip your connections. What's the biggest news story every year during the holidays? Yup: Snowstorms and travel delays. So do your best not to be one of those sorry souls who end up on camera explaining that they've been living in the airport for three days—if at all possible, book a non-stop flight. Each connection is a chance for a flight to be delayed or cancelled, and that increases your chances of not making it to your destination on time...or at all.

So there you have it: Our top five tips from industry insiders. But here's one tip from us: You need to book ASAP. Prices are at their lowest now, and as we get into October and November, they're going to skyrocket.

But don't just book the first price you see; prices can vary from website to website—even for the same flight! You can use our search  to input your info and then check the prices all at once across several different sites. Ready? Start searching!

 

Southwest Expands Its International Routes

Posted September 16, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

For most of its 44-year history, Southwest was a domestic-only carrier.

It was only in July that the carrier pushed beyond U.S. borders, with flights to Mexico and the Caribbean.

On September 12, Southwest further expanded the scope of its network with the announcement of service from Baltimore/Washington International airport to San Jose, Costa Rica, beginning on March 7, 2015 (subject to government approval).

Looking north, South has recently signaled its interest in flying to Canada, a more likely prospect given the airline's purchase of longer-range B737-800 jets.

Earlier this year, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly alluded to a list of 50 new destinations under consideration by the airline's planning department, half of which he expected to see launched within three years. How many of those will be outside the country remains to be seen.

Southwest remains committed to maintaining a B737-only aircraft fleet, which limits the airline's flying to what it calls "near-international" countries. That presumably rules out Europe and Asia, but leaves plenty of room for expansion to closer-in destinations.

Along with its route map, Southwest will have to update its tagline. No longer "You are now free to move about the country," it's now "You are now free to move about the countries." Soon to be "You are now free to move about North America."  

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10 Niche Travel Product Companies We Love

Posted September 16, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Urban Junket)

This wasn't a story we could research—we had to wait for this one to come to us. A while back, we decided to keep tabs on some of our favorite smaller brands, the ones we stumbled across in the course of our travels, tried out, loved, and have come back to again and again. And now that we have collected enough of these good experiences with great brands, we're excited to share them with you. They're diverse in their offerings—from toiletry-kit treasures to ultrapackable jackets—but all share the distinction of being great travel companions that we can vouch for firsthand.

 

(Photo: Sea to Summit)

Sea to Summit

Even the strictly urban traveler can find something to love in Sea to Summit. The company—which was started by the first climber to scale the entire 29,000 feet of Mt. Everest, from sea level to summit—specializes in well-made, affordable outdoor equipment. Avid adventurers dig Sea to Summit's backpacking gear, but any traveler looking for lightweight travel accessories will appreciate its Travelling Light line. The range of ultralight travel bags, sacks, and cases is constructed with a special fabric known for its strength and durability. And each item weighs a fraction of what you'd normally expect—think 2.4-ounce daypacks and 2.8-ounce hanging toiletry bags.

 

(Photo: Anatomie)

Anatomie

It's definitely travel-friendly clothing, but you may not recognize it at first since there's nary a front-pleat or zip-off pant in sight. That's because Anatomie takes a different—and very refreshing—approach to the concept. Everything in this line of women's clothing is durable, extremely wrinkle-resistant (even when packed less than perfectly in a suitcase), and comfortable—all musts for travelwear. But unlike the majority of brands that cater to travelers, Anatomie makes elegant, flattering, and stylish clothes. And while this total-package approach to travel-friendly clothing comes with a higher price tag (pants run about $200), the adaptability, utility, and classic style of Anatomie makes any item a wise long-term investment. Plus, the company's dedication to customer service (for instance, you can call and they'll help you decide which pants would be best for your body type) makes the selection and purchase process a breeze.

 

(Photo: Flight 001)

Flight 001

Would it be an overstatement to say that Flight 001 has changed the way we pack? No, it would not. Over the years, we've relied on the company's six U.S. stores and online shop for bags, clever travel toiletries, jet-lag remedies, packing sacks, and endless gifts for the avid travelers in our lives. And we love it for that. But it wasn't until we bought the F1 Seat Pak, a multipocket organizer with a little loop to hang over the tray-table closure doohickey, that we were able to reinvent how we carry on. With zippered pockets to divide up all the things you'd need on a flight (ranging from your passport to your earplugs), you can pull it out when you get on the plane and not have to fumble around in your carry-on for the rest of the trip. And between trips, items like inflatable travel pillows and eye masks can stay packed and ready to go for next time.

 

(Photo: lululemon athletica via flickr/CC Attribution)

Craghoppers

Your clothes should have your back. And your front. And, well, pretty much everything in between. That's what we like about Craghoppers, a British outdoor-clothing company that's been keeping adventurers warm, dry, sun-protected, comfortable, and bug-bite-free for nearly 50 years. Its designs offer surprisingly sleek outdoorsy charm and do double-duty with fabrics designed to protect against the best and worst that nature can deliver. We're particularly enamored of the very lightweight and truly tiny-packing Pumori Packaway Jacket for women and the Compresslite Packaway Hooded Jacket for men, which compresses into a stuff sack that fits easily in a suitcase (or even a day bag).

 

(Photo: Humangear)

Humangear

The very things that have frustrated us for years about travel-sized refillable containers for toiletries—that we could shake them forever and not get that last bit out, that they're nearly impossible to clean, that they leak, and that we can never remember what we refilled them with last—are totally solved by Humangear's clever GoToob. GoToobs are soft but durable silicone tubes that you can squeeze every last drop out of (a key feature when you're traveling with minimal amounts of toiletries) and that can be easily disassembled and cleaned. They've also got a built-in labeling system, which means we never have to guess at what's inside. And they've never leaked. Not once. Humangear also makes GoTubb, a small hard-sided container, and a series of other small, clever, travel-friendly products.

 

(Photo: Urban Junket)

Urban Junket

Fashion-forward. Sturdy. Vegan. Non-toxic. There's a ton we love about the bags produced by Urban Junket, a brand we stumbled across while researching the story Travel Bag Details We Love. These bags win us over again and again with their attractive designs, great internal organization, and cool details like secret middle pockets, portable phone chargers, and pass-through pockets for slipping over the telescoping handles on luggage.

 

(Photo: RockItBot)

RockItBot

Ladies and gents, it’s time to rethink the wallet. That's the idea behind Etsy's RockItBot shop. Its handmade all-in-one Nerd Herder Gadget Wallets hold traditional items like credit cards, IDs, and cash, but a slightly larger design, fitted felt pockets, and a snug elastic loop create additional safe storage for smartphones or digital cameras. An array of pockets can hold earbuds, SD cards, passports, lip balm, USB devices, business cards, and whatever else you've got that needs herding. An integrated clip can be used for a small set of keys or can attach to a wristlet that turns the wallet into a clutch. We love the range of fabrics (some are a bit more masculine, others slightly more feminine). The shop also sells tablet keepers (with storage similar to the wallet) and other related accessories.

 

(Photo: Pad & Quill)

Pad & Quill

Minnesota-based Pad & Quill won over SmarterTravel editors by combining gorgeous craftsmanship, local manufacturing, and a surprising way to keep your gear safe with its bags, wallets, and smartphone and tablet cases. The Odyssey Wallet is sized perfectly for travel and fits a passport, a boarding pass, a few credit cards, and money all in one place. And we like the handmade phone and tablet cases not only because they effectively protect electronics as we're toting them around the world but also because they lend us a bit of class as we're doing so. And since they look more like a leather travel journal than an electronics case, they offer a bit of protective camouflage from thieves (unless you happen to be in a place where words are prized more than gadgets).

 

(Photo: This is Ground)

This Is Ground

There are a lot of handmade products on this list, and that's no accident. Travel is, in many ways, a handmade pursuit, built of personal interactions, individual discovery, and the sorts of experiences that can't be mass-produced. That spirit is alive and well at This Is Ground, a small Los Angeles-based company that makes by hand leather electronics and cord organizers, wallets, and more. We're particularly impressed with the Cordito, a roll-up organizer for chargers, wires, and power cords. While sandwich bags are the lightest option for taming the cord wilderness in a suitcase, the Cordito offers a far more elegant and personal solution—and one that comes in an impressive array of beautiful colors.

 

(Photo: Osprey)

Osprey

Ask people why they're devotees of Osprey backpacks and luggage and you'll usually find it's because the gear is lightweight and well made. Osprey has three options suited to travelers: convertible wheeled packs (most with zip-off daypacks), more traditional wheeled luggage, and backpacking backpacks. Another reason to love the company and its gear? The All Mighty Guarantee, which covers any damage or defect in any Osprey product, regardless of how old it is. Any item that can't be fixed will be replaced. If only all luggage had that kind of protection.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Niche Travel-Product Companies We Love.

Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Foreign Places That Accept U.S. Currency

Posted September 12, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Globe on U.S. Money via Shutterstock)

There are many great pleasures of the globe-trotting life, but dealing with pesky Travelex lines is not one of them. Sick of exchange rates, transaction fees, and coming home with pockets filled with useless coins? Here are 10 foreign destinations where you can pay with U.S. dollars, from the sunny and subtropical to the still-undiscovered.

 

(Photo: Roger Wallstadt via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

United States Virgin Islands

While not technically a foreign country (it's an unincorporated territory), the United States Virgin Islands feel like a million miles away—and we couldn't resist including this Caribbean destination. A speedy 2.5-hour flight from Miami whisks stateside trekkers to the Virgin Islands, where U.S. passports are unnecessary. The popular tropical stop's official currency is the U.S. dollar—handy for those looking to splurge on expensive goods in St. Thomas' portside boutiques. High-end labels like Gucci and Coach crowd Charlotte Amalie, where savvy shoppers swamp the jewelry stores, mining for deals on diamonds and Hublot watches. In fact, shopping sprees are among the U.S.V.I.'s big draws: U.S. citizens can purchase up to $1,600 worth of duty-free merchandise here, whereas the rest of the Caribbean caps duty-free purchases at just $800.

 

(Photo: Baths on Virgin Gorda via Shutterstock)

British Virgin Islands

Much like neighboring U.S.V.I., the British Virgin Islands employ the U.S. dollar as their official currency. This connection makes travel between the two island groups especially seamless—and gives the B.V.I. its reputation as a well-established tax haven. Don't have millions in corporate profits to shore up? You can still find a haven of sorts at the Baths on Virgin Gorda; this unusual rock formation is one of our favorite secret Caribbean attractions (and, aside from the swaying palms, it's a lot less shady).

 

(Photo: Historical Buildings in Quito, Ecuador via Shutterstock)

Ecuador

Ecuador's currency has a long history filled with House of Cards-style political intrigue: First, Ecuador employed the peso, then enjoyed a brief dalliance with the franco, then went back to the peso, and finally adopted the sucre, whose value nosedived in the late 1990s during a near economic collapse. In 2000, in order to stabilize the economy, the Ecuadorian government voted to adopt the U.S. dollar as the official currency. The controversial vote led to the ouster of then-President Jamil Mahuad, but the result was inevitable: U.S. travelers to Ecuador can now use the very same dollars they would at home (although Ecuador produces its own nifty centavo coins).

 

Isla Canales, Panama (Photo: LASZLO ILYES via flickr/CC Attribution

Panama

What's better than one official currency? Two, of course. In addition to its Panamanian balboa, Panama accepts the U.S. dollar "at par" (a rate of 1:1). This means that travelers don't have to worry about exchanging money in foreign airports or dealing with fluctuating exchange rates—making Panama an economical destination, at least for now. In 2014, the nation's large-scale canal expansion will come to an end, opening Panama's pristine beaches to large cruise ships and a surge of value-seeking tourists. So, savvy travelers would be wise to grab a fistful of dollars and head down there sooner rather than later.

 

(Photo: Atlantis Paradise Island)

Bahamas

Like the Panamanian balboa, the Bahamian dollar enjoys a fixed 1:1 exchange rate with the USD (and the two currencies share a name and a familiar symbol, $). Despite the equitable rate, it may not get you far in this popular (and oft-expensive) tropical destination. Accommodations can be pricey, but they are abundant, from superluxe ocean clubs to the family-friendly Atlantis. Plus, the added convenience of businesses accepting both U.S. and Bahamian dollars is worth a pretty penny.

 

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos (Photo: Daniel Ross via flickr/CC Attribution)

Turks and Caicos

Once overrun by pirates, Turks and Caicos is now teeming with tourists drawn to its serene beaches and clear waters. And while Forbes counts Turks and Caicos among the world's top tax havens, the islands have much to offer to the 200,000-some travelers who venture here for pleasure, not business. In addition to its convenient official currency, there is no sales tax or VAT (value-added tax). It may not be the shopping mecca of St. Thomas or St. Maarten, but the island of Providenciales boasts upscale malls and local boutiques, where those U.S. dollars can be spent on handmade artwork and jewelry.

 

(Photo: Martin Garrido via flickr/CC Attribution)

Vietnam

Vietnam's only official currency is the dong (established in 1978 after the fall of Saigon), but U.S. dollars have long been unofficially accepted as payment in this Southeast Asian nation. Urban tourist centers like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer visitors much in the way of museums, temples, sacred lakes, and even the culinary arts; affordable accommodations at dollar-friendly hotels add to the allure. But in recent years, the State Bank of Vietnam has made a concerted effort to limit the flood of American dollars into the already-shaky economy, even fining restaurants for listing prices in USD. What this means for U.S. travelers is still unknown, but many travel resources recommend relying on the Vietnamese dong.

 

(Photo: Angkor Wat, Cambodia via Shutterstock)

Cambodia

We recently crowned Cambodia one of our 10 Places You Should Go While They're Still Cheap for a number of reasons, including its immersive culture and inexpensive lodgings. Not only is the country budget-friendly, but cash is king in Cambodia—American cash, that is. You won't need much of it: Travelers can easily live on less than $50 a day and may never need to change over to the official Cambodian riel. However, Lonely Planet recommends that you always "have about $10 worth of riel kicking around, for motorbike rides and markets."

 

Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua (Photo: Montecruz Foto via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Nicaragua

Another one of our 10 Places You Should Go While They're Still Cheap, Nicaragua has been on our radar this year for its diverse natural wonders and relative affordability. The Central American nation has its own currency, the unusually colorful cordoba, but payment in U.S. dollars is widely accepted throughout the country. Don't be surprised if the price goes up the minute you pull out a stack of greenbacks, though: According to some experts, shopkeepers may charge you a bit more when paying in U.S. dollars. Your best bet may be to carry small bills in both currencies, especially outside of your resort.

 

(Photo: Dock on the Coast of Belize via Shutterstock)

Belize

Belize is a nation that defies simple definition. Technically part of Central America, yet outwardly Caribbean with its laid-back culture and spotless white sands, Belize is a former British settlement that currently holds USD-backed currency. Indeed, the nation has never attached its currency to the pound sterling; rather, its legal tender (the Belizean dollar) has always been pegged to the U.S. dollar at a 1:2 ratio. This makes beachy Belize one of the priciest Central American nations but, curiously, one of the cheapest destinations on the Caribbean Sea.

Note: Though many businesses accept U.S. bills, prices in Belize may be quoted in the official currency or in USD. It's wise to ask your tour operator or shopkeeper about their pricing method before you whip out your wallet—especially since the two dollars share the same symbol, $.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Foreign Countries Where You Can Use U.S. Dollars.

Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Most Entertaining Airports in the World

Posted September 10, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Zurich Airport)

Movie theaters at the airport? Yep, and a skating rink, too. Here are seven international airports that go beyond free Wi-Fi and luggage carts to offer truly entertaining amenities.

 

(Photo: Esther Westerveld via flickr/CC Attribution)

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport highlights: "Holland Boulevard," a library, Dutch Kitchen restaurant, a museum, and Holland Casino.

 

(Photo: Changi Airport Group)

Changi International Airport, Changi, Singapore

Changi International Airport highlights: Nature trails, gardens, a four-story slide, a rooftop pool, and a movie theater (free admission).

 

(Photo: Munich Airport)

Munich Airport, Munich, Germany

Munich Airport highlights: Airbrau brewery and restaurant, free surfing lessons in the outdoor wave pool (summer only), volleyball tournaments, and a Christmas market.

 

(Photo: zionorbi via flickr/CC Attribution)

Incheon International Airport, Incheon, South Korea

Incheon International Airport highlights: "Spa on Air" sauna, Thai massage, the Ice Forest skating rink, a movie theater, gardens, and traditional musical performances.

 

(Photo: Hong Kong International Airport)

Hong Kong International Airport, Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong

Hong Kong International Airport highlights: A nine-hole golf course, the Aviation Discovery Center, the Dream Come True Education Park, and an IMAX theater.

 

(Photo: Larry Goldstein)

Vancouver International Airport, Richmond, British Columbia

Vancouver International Airport highlights: A 114,000-liter aquarium and a jellyfish exhibit.

 

(Photo: Zurich Airport)

Zurich Airport, Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich Airport highlights: Observation decks and a miniature airport for children.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title The World's Seven Most Entertaining Airports.

8 Cheap Ways to Enjoy a Layover

Posted September 8, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Getty Images/Vetta)

Sometimes long layovers are inescapable, meaning you could be stuck at the airport for hours. But savvy travelers know that there are fun, inexpensive ways to entertain themselves between flights. Read on for eight of our favorite activities that are perfect for killing time at the airport.

 

(Photo: athriftymrs.com via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Listen to an Audiobook

Some flyers find it difficult to read at busy, bustling airports. The constant click-clack of rolling bags, the screeching of children, the loudspeaker announcements reminding the Smiths to proceed with the speed of light toward their departure gate—it's enough noise to make reading all but impossible. The solution? Audiobooks. I'm a recent convert to Audible, which has some 150,000 titles to choose from. (New members even get a free trial audiobook, which means skeptical users can give the site a no-strings-attached try.) Just remember to download the audiobooks before you get to the airport, as download speeds can be sluggish.

 

(Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Freewrite

Experts often extoll the benefits of writing. In fact, a 2005 study in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment found that expressive writing improves mood and well-being while reducing stress levels and blood pressure. So what better place to work on your self-betterment than at the airport? Whether you pack a laptop or tablet or go old-school with a Moleskine and pen, find a comfortable spot or workspace at the airport and simply begin writing. Relive your recent travels, begin your memoirs, or start the crime novel that's been kicking around in your brain for years. You'll be surprised how much time will disappear. Some first- and business-class lounges have workspaces with desks.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Eyecandy Images)

Meditate

The great thing about meditation is that you can do it from just about anywhere. First, download onto your iPod or smartphone whatever music you find most relaxing. Then take the time to do some deep-breathing exercises (we like these 10-minutes-or-less recommendations). Carve out your own personal space, whether it's at an empty gate or a quiet terminal corner. Some airports, like San Francisco, have dedicated yoga studios for flyers who need a moment of zen. At other airports, chapels offer peaceful, out-of-the-way places perfect for meditation and prayer.

(Just remember: If a relaxation exercise requires you to close your eyes, make sure your travel partner keeps an eye on your belongings. If you're traveling alone, either sit on your belongings or stick to techniques with eyes wide open.)

 

(Photo: Shardayyy via flickr/CC Attribution)

Stream a Netflix Movie or Series

Unless you really like watching an entire CNN news cycle, the airport television lineup can be a bit bleak. Don't subject yourself to hours of infomercials and not-really-breaking news. Instead, sign up for a Netflix streaming-only account, don your headphones, and zone out for a while. At the beginning of each month, Netflix gets an influx of new movies and television shows, plus the service produces its own original programming. (Trust us, we have watched Orange Is the New Black while stuck in Detroit Metro Airport. For eight hours.) You can check your airport's Wi-Fi speeds in Where to Find the Fastest Wi-Fi on the Road. If you're flying international, Netflix may not work, but here is a sneaky way around that.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Take a Walk

Sure, you may want to stake a claim on the choice seats closest to the gate, but if you've got untold hours to kill, a long walk is a great way to stretch and stay active. Download an airport map so you know where you are going, or if time allows, simply stroll aimlessly from terminal to terminal. A good brisk walk for 30 minutes can burn 100 or so calories, plus you'll familiarize yourself with an airport through which you'll likely pass again on your travels.

 

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

Download Apps and Games

While stuck at Newark Airport on a long layover, I watched a preteen complain to her mother, "I have nothing to do!" … while waving around an iPhone and an iPad. As of June, there are an estimated 1.2 million apps available for Apple users and another 1.3 for Android users, so use them. There are apps for every conceivable hobby or interest. Some favorite time-wasters are QuizUp, for testing your knowledge against random players worldwide; 2048, a super-addictive numbers game; Duolingo, fun, free language software; and SketchBook Express, for all your doodling needs. Just remember to bring a phone charger so you don't drain your battery.

 

(Photo: Holidayextras via flickr/CC Attribution)

Treat Yourself

Whenever I have a layover that lasts more than a few hours, I allow myself one pampering purchase, even if it's small or cheap. That gives me something to look forward to, even during the endless hours spent waiting for my next flight. Before you get to the airport, look up shops and services in your terminal (or check out our list of cool airport amenities). Then set aside a small amount of time and cash for an in-airport treat, whether it's a new book, an express pedicure, or something as simple as a good glass of wine.

 

(Photo: Paul VanDerWerfH via flickr/CC Attribution)

Grab a Rocking Chair

Sleep pods and ergonomic work chairs may be flashier, but a good old-fashioned rocking chair is still a favorite spot for harried travelers, and many domestic airports still have them. Grab a relaxing tea at the nearest Starbucks, find a rocking chair with a view of the arriving and departing planes, and kick back. Some experts say that the smooth, gentle rocking motion releases endorphins and can reduce anxiety—perfect to combat the stress of flying.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Eight Cheap Ways to Kill Time During a Layover.

Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.


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