Worst Airplane Seat Ever

Posted July 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

 

If you thought your coach-class seat was just a little too cozy, those armrests just a little too soft, then you're in luck. Flying could get even less comfortable than before.

News broke earlier this week that Airbus filed a patent for what might be the least comfortable airplane seat in the sky. The new design features saddle-like seats that can fold up when not in use. Illustrations show a three-seat configuration in which passengers would sit upright, with a small seatback supporting the lower spine. Gone are cushions, padded armrests, and tray tables. Gone, too, is personal space: The new seating plan would likely allow airlines to cram more passengers into the limited space of the cabin.

In the patent, Airbus asserts, "Reduced comfort remains tolerable for the passengers in as much as the flight lasts only one or a few hours." Says who, we wonder? Even the shortest commuter flights are already cramped and uncomfortable.

But Airbus gets at something essential in their statement by using the word "tolerable." Airline passengers (especially those in coach) tolerate an increasing amount of discomfort, while paying ever-increasing fees, for the luxury of flight. A long time ago, "enjoyment" became "toleration." With this new seat design, are we at the point where "toleration" becomes "outright suffering?"

Thankfully, we've heard whispers of this type of seat design before, and it hasn't yet been implemented. In 2010, an Italian design firm floated the same idea with its SkyRider model, designed so that planes could fit rows 25 percent closer together, placing the passenger's legs at an angle beneath them (not in front). The seat, which would presumably cause a fair amount of discomfort, was met with widespread criticism, and passengers were spared.

This latest indignity from Airbus also made waves online, with would-be passengers deriding its torture-device-like configuration. One commenter on the Washington Post suggested "Why not just suction cups that line the ceiling and latch onto your head? You could probably dangle 400, maybe 450 people on your average size plane. Plus any wallets or loose change that falls out of your pockets legally becomes the property of the airline, creating a new revenue stream on turbulent routes."

Shhh. Don't give them any ideas.

What do you think, readers? Ready to ride or this seat going too far?

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Worst Airplane Seat Ever.

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

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8 Must-Have Apps to Prevent Travel Problems

Posted July 21, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: bSafe)

Staying safe and healthy while traveling isn't always easy. Despite your best intentions and most thorough preparation, disaster can strike, whether it's as small as a rental-car fender bender or as serious as a hurricane. Thankfully, technology can help. Prevent on-the-road catastrophe—or learn how to cope when it occurs—with these must-have smartphone apps.

 

(Photo: Smart Traveler)

Smart Traveler

Be the savviest world traveler with this mobile app from the U.S. Department of State, which rounds up official country information, travel alerts, travel warnings, maps, U.S. embassy locations, and more. Check your destination for updated safety and security alerts or access a list of embassies should you need help recovering a lost or stolen passport. You can access the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which can help your family and friends reach you in the event of an emergency, such as civil unrest in a foreign country. Best of all, the app features a great airport time-waster: Simply shake your device and get official information about a random country.

 

(Photo: bSafe)

bSafe

This personal-safety app is packed with features designed to keep you secure on the road or at home. Set up a personal network of friends and family, and send notifications of your location using GPS-enabled service. Use the timer mode to send automatic alarms if you have not checked in to pre-appointed locations, and even set up a fake incoming call to remove yourself from unwanted conversations. Live GPS tracking makes it easy to meet up with friends or family and to ensure that everyone gets to their destinations safe and sound, especially in unfamiliar cities. If an alarm is triggered, your phone can even transmit a siren sound and record video.

Available for free on Android and Apple devices; GetBSafe.com.

 

(Photo: American Red Cross)

Hurricane by American Red Cross

Traveling to a hurricane-prone destination? A weather app is a great basic for your garden-variety rainy days, but in the event of more serious weather events, you'll want a more serious app to match. Get the American Red Cross's Hurricane app to track and monitor conditions for your area, download simple checklists for hurricane preparedness, access a toolkit with a flashlight, a strobe light, and an audible alarm, and use a one-touch "I'm Safe" messaging system to alert loved ones in the event that a storm hits and you can't be reached. You'll also receive NOAA weather alerts when location services are enabled.

Available for free on Android and Apple devices; RedCross.org.

 

(Photo: Travel Safe)

Travel Safe

Everyone knows that you dial "911" for help in the U.S., but do you know the emergency numbers in your travel destination? You needn't write them down or look them up. Just download the seamless Travel Safe app, which features a list of emergency numbers in your location on an easy-to-access home screen that features one-touch dialing. Simply enable the location services and the app will automatically detect your location to access medical, fire, and police numbers; if you don't have Wi-Fi, you can manually set your location. You can also create a custom list of emergency contacts and personal information for emergency responders.

Available for $0.99 on Android devices and $1.29 on Apple devices; LKapps.com.

 

(Photo: iWrecked)

iWrecked

Driving can be a scary undertaking even at home. Now add the stress of a strange destination and an unfamiliar rental car, and even the best drivers among us can be at risk for a dustup on the road. Be prepared for the worst with the iWrecked app. Create a fully detailed accident log and import photos of the damage as well as vehicle numbers and insurance information of other drivers. You can find nearby taxi and towing companies for assistance, or, in the case of injury, access one-touch emergency-department calling.

Available for free on Android and Apple devices; VurgoodApps.com.

 

(Photo: American Red Cross)

First Aid by American Red Cross

Another essential tool from our friends at the American Red Cross, this first aid app contains everything you need to know about emergency medical intervention, whether you're battling bush snakes in Australia or simply a sprained muscle at the Magic Kingdom. Access step-by-step medical-care instructions for a number of injuries and illnesses; preloaded content means that even if you lose a data or Wi-Fi signal, you can still access safety information in the event of an emergency. Best of all, fully integrated technology allows users to make emergency calls directly within the app at any time.

Available for free on Android and Apple devices; RedCross.org.

 

(Photo: GateGuru)

GateGuru

Simply getting to your flight on time, with all bags accounted for, can be a challenge. The GateGuru app helps avert airport disaster with a number of features designed to keep you organized—and sane—while traveling. The JourneyCard stores your itinerary and displays security wait times, flight delays, gate changes, and layover adjustments on one easy-to-find screen. The AirportCard gives you easy-access airport-amenity information, maps, weather forecasts, and traveler tips. Never again will you be surprised by a terminal change, a nasty thunderstorm, or another vacation-ruining revelation.

Available for free on Android, Apple, and Windows Phone devices; GateGuruApp.com.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor)

TripAdvisor Offline City Guides

This app's new offline functionality, which launched earlier this month, is a great asset when Wi-Fi access is spotty or an overseas data plan impossible. Simply download the data for your destination before you arrive. Even if you lose your data or Wi-Fi signal, you'll still be able to access reviews, photos, and city maps—meaning you won't get lost in a strange destination (or have to rely on strangers for help). The app contains dozens of offline city guides available for download, with more in the works.

Available for free on Android and Apple devices; TripAdvisor.com.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Best Apps to Prevent Travel Disasters.

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

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JetBlue to Phase Out the Check-in Process

Posted July 18, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

JetBlue is shaking up the check-in process as we know it.

The low-cost U.S. carrier will eliminate the online or airport check-in requirement for passengers flying in Even More Space seats starting immediately. The airline is calling this "automatic check-in." JetBlue plans to offer a check-in free experience to more of its passengers by 2015.

Instead of having to check in online or at the airport within 24 hours of departure, Even More Space flyers will now get an e-mail from JetBlue that contains their boarding passes—simple and easy. So if you don't have any bags to check and you've booked an Even More Space seat, you can just show up at the airport and go to the gate with your boarding pass. No checking in required. Better yet, passengers with the JetBlue app on their phones can use e-boarding passes at select airports, no printing necessary. (The email JetBlue sends will give details on all of these options.)

According to Blair Koch, JetBlue Vice President Commercial and Shared Development Services, "The idea of asking customers to jump an additional hurdle before their flight is an increasingly antiquated concept. By having the right systems in place, we can remove this step, and even help identify and prevent issues that can hinder customers from fully enjoying their travel experience."

Eliminating one more hassle in the flying process is a step in the right direction. It's one less thing to remember. Some carriers already offer an automatic check-in option; Lufthansa is one example. The German airline gives flyers the option to select an automatic check-in when booking flights. A few other international carriers provide automatic check-in, but JetBlue is the first U.S. airline we know of that is beginning to offer this option for its passengers.

JetBlue's current plan for Even More Space flyers is just a trial. Although automatic check-in will likely save money for the airline by helping to cut airport-service costs, we'll have to wait and see if the scheme is here to stay.

Are you onboard with JetBlue's new automatic check-in system?

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title JetBlue to Phase Out the Check-in Process.

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

Like this story? Join the 1 million other travelers who read our free Deal Alert newsletter. It's full of our best tips, trip ideas, and travel deals. Subscribe here today!

(Photo: Angelo DeSantis via flickr CC Attribution)

Strange Things Found by Airport Security

Posted July 16, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

Don't feel bad about forgetting to toss your bottled water before the airport security checkpoint. That's nothing compared to what some of your fellow travelers have been up to. You won't believe these 10 bizarre things found by airport security. And you might learn a thing or two about what you can't bring on board a flight, too.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Human-Skull Fragments

Carefully check your vacation purchases before heading to the airport. You never know when they may end up containing human-skull fragments. Passengers in Ft. Lauderdale were seriously delayed in 2013 when the clay pots they'd checked in their luggage were found to contain fragments of human skull. According to the TSA, the flyers claimed they didn't realize that their souvenirs came with bonus body parts inside. The pieces weren't considered a security threat by the TSA but were instead treated as evidence in a crime scene.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Image Work/amanaimagesRF)

Flames

Nobody ever intends to pack fire (we hope), but you could accidentally start one in your luggage if you pack the wrong stuff. Take, for example, this incident in Atlantic City, when a flyer's checked bag exploded into three-foot-high flames. The fire was caused by a combination of a leaking can of hair spray and a lighter, which sparked when the bag was being loaded onto the conveyor belt. Even if you're not packing a lighter, it's a good idea to stow all liquids and aerosols (like hair spray) in a plastic bag in case of leaks.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

A Dead Body

Come on, people, Weekend at Bernie's is a comedy, not a great source of inspiration to help you avoid paying extra to transport a corpse. We're shocked at how many people have tried to pass off a body as a "sleeping" passenger, like the family that tried to haul a dead body through airport security in a wheelchair in order to avoid paying a fee, or the mother-and-daughter team that tried to smuggle a 91-year-old dead man onto a flight by putting him in sunglasses and dumping him in a wheelchair.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Cannonball

Did you know that cannonballs can retain their explosiveness for years and then randomly detonate on their own? Neither did we, but we still wouldn't pack them in our luggage. (Think of the overweight fees alone.) And, unfortunately for the 290 passengers who were delayed at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport in 2012, neither did the diver who tried to bring home an old cannonball he found near a shipwreck.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

240 Live Fish

Hey, we're not here to judge—maybe you went on an amazing snorkeling vacation and were overwhelmed with the urge to start your own aquarium. And maybe you couldn't wait to get home to buy your new pets. That's fine. Most airlines will actually let you ship your new fishy friends home via cargo. But don't be that guy who decides to transport 240 fish in four large hard-sided suitcases—suitcases filled with nothing but water and fish.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Boomerangs

G'day, mate! Bringing home a boomerang as a souvenir from Australia? You can carry it on Australian flights, but once aboard your U.S.-bound plane, you'll need to transfer that boomerang to your checked baggage. It's considered a deadly weapon stateside. Airport security has confiscated boomerangs in the past, so you'd better check it.

 

(Photo: Hotel Particulier Montmartre)

Venomous Snakes

We bet the writers of The TSA Blog get some super-weird comments (maybe even weirder than the comments we get here)—which is probably what prompted this update to a story: "A container of dead venomous snakes was found in checked baggage at Newark (EWR). Updated 3/3/12 to add that dead snakes are not prohibited. The snakes were permitted to travel. The large liquid jar holding the snakes needed to be inspected due to an explosive-detection system alarm. No dead snakes were harmed during the making of this post. We just took advantage of the photo op." So take note, travelers. You can totally pack your dead snakes, just be careful if you store them in liquid.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

18 Severed Heads

Packing 18 severed heads in your luggage? Not a problem, as long as you have the right paperwork. Packing 18 severed heads in your luggage and then losing them? Totally a problem. In 2013, some misplaced human craniums made, um, headlines when they were misplaced at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. (They were medical specimens, and there was a mix-up with some paperwork.)

Security kept a cool head about the incident, though. As Brian Bell, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Everybody here is, 'Oh my gosh, you got a box of heads,' and everybody thinks that it's unheard of. It is a potentially legitimate medical shipment. We've seen it at various ports in the nation."

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

A Baby

Parents: Please do not put your baby through an X-ray scanner. Airport security will probably notice that there is a living human inside there. One couple was busted at an airport in the United Arab Emirates when they tried to smuggle their young son (who did not have a visa) into the country by packing him inside a carry-on bag. Unsurprisingly, the jig was up when officials spotted the boy on X-ray.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Samurai Sword

Remember, people: If you're in doubt about what you can bring on board a plane, you can always go to the TSA's website or mobile app and use the "Can I Bring?" feature. Simply type in whatever you're wondering about and you'll get an immediate answer. This would have saved the person who tried to take a samurai sword aboard a plane at Boston's Logan International Airport earlier this month a lot of hassle.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Strangest Things Ever Found by Airport Security.

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

Like this story? Join the 1 million other travelers who read our free Deal Alert newsletter. It's full of our best tips, trip ideas, and travel deals. Subscribe here today!

Gorgeous Hotel Bathrooms Around the World

Posted July 14, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Big Sur Cabin at Glen Oaks (Photo: James Hall)

The bathroom is arguably the heart of any hotel room. Whether serving as a respite from frenetic city streets or as a romantic spa-like sanctuary for two, the hotel salle de bain can make or break a stay. With that in mind, we're paying homage to some of the best. Discover deep copper soaking tubs, swaths of marble, beautiful views, and soothing rain showers in these unforgettable hotel bathrooms.

While a few of these properties fit firmly in the luxury category, we've left expensive presidential suites and Las Vegas penthouses off the list. These hotels are, for the most part, within reach of the average traveler's budget.

 

(Photo: Jade Mountain)

Jade Mountain, Soufriere, St. Lucia

Chromatherapy (a healing method that uses light and color to soothe and balance) whirlpool tubs are the highlight of the huge bathrooms at Jade Mountain. Grab a glass of Champagne and relax in full view of St. Lucia's most famous vista: From the large pedestal-mounted tubs, which are partially in the open air, bathers can enjoy the sight of St. Lucia's storied Pitons. These very special bathrooms also have spacious six-head rain showers and double sinks.

 

(Photo: Tree House Lodge)

Costa Rica Tree House Lodge, Punta Uva, Costa Rica

The bathroom of the Beach Suite at the nature-focused Costa Rica Tree House Lodge looks like something built for a mermaid. Sand-colored stone forms a double shower and a large central Jacuzzi. Colorful stained-glass windows filter rays of sunlight into the vast room. A giant seahorse statue perches on the edge of the deep tub. Tropical plants flourish. It's surely a fun fantastical space in which to wind down after a day of hiking in the surrounding rainforest.

 

(Photo: Amangiri)

Amangiri, Canyon Point, Utah

The designers of Utah's Amangiri clearly kept the dramatic environs in mind when they dreamed up this ethereal property. Fittingly, windows abound, as the resort sits among the colorful mesas of Southern Utah. The gorgeous bathrooms of the property's Mesa-View Suites contain deep tubs stationed in front of tall windows overlooking the magnificent landscape, which takes on rose and gold hues when the sun sets and rises. Two-person rain showers, green limestone tiles, and locally sourced artisan bath products enhance the experience.

 

(Photo: The Yeatman Hotel)

The Yeatman Hotel, Porto, Portugal

A copper tub with unparalleled World Heritage-site views sits in the appropriately named Bacchus Suite at The Yeatman Hotel. Here, the wide Jacuzzi rests steps from a freestanding fireplace, a rotating bed, and a private double terrace. While relaxing in the deep, round soaking tub, turn one way to take in views of the River Douro and the ancient cityscape (a World Heritage site), then turn another direction to face the warming fire. Now those are what we call options.

 

(Photo: The Louise)

The Louise, BArossa Valley, South Australia

Want to stargaze under an invigorating veil of warm water? Shower under the stars in the Australian Outback. In Marananga, South Australia, guests at The Louise can cleanse in private outdoor showers beneath sunny or starry skies. The lodge's Stonewall Suites are outfitted with unique open-air rain showers, plus en suite bathrooms with two-person spa tubs and additional indoor walk-in rain showers. This remote food-and-wine-focused resort is nestled among thousands of acres of olive groves and vineyards in the Barossa Valley, a popular Australian wine region.

 

(Photo: The 1900 Inn on Montford)

The 1900 Inn on Montford, Asheville, North Carolina

Although an image of the bathroom of the Fitzgerald room has gotten a lot of attention on Pinterest, we also love the pretty and enormous bathroom of the Cloisters room at The 1900 Inn on Montford. In addition to the remarkable tub in this 1,300-square-foot guest room, there is a six-by-eight-foot rain shower that is enclosed by etched glass and has seats for those who wish to take a steam bath. There are even speakers in the shower!

 

(Photo: Hotel Particulier Montmartre)

Hotel Particulier Montmartre, Paris, France

Wash away your cares in the attic of an old, elegant French mansion. Each artist-designed room at this Parisian boutique hotel is unique. And each room, of course, has its own twist on luxury bathing. Our favorite: Hotel Particulier Montmartre's top-floor deluxe suite, artistically named "Curtain of Hair." The loft space in the attic of this once-private mansion offers priceless panoramic views of Paris. And a beautiful Napoleon III claw-footed bathtub, which sits smack in the middle of the suite, affords bathers the suite's magnificent Parisian city sights. For privacy, head to the en suite bathroom, which contains a shower and has a sliding door.

 

(Photo: Hotel 1000)

Hotel 1000, Seattle, Washington

When you arrive in your guest room at Seattle's Hotel 1000, you'll notice a regular-looking spacious bathtub. But this isn't just any bathtub. It's a "fill from the ceiling" bathtub. In the property's luxe rooms, a glass wall divides the main room from the bathroom, where, at the touch of a button, water flows from the ceiling into a very roomy freestanding pedestal tub.

 

(Photo: Mainport)

Mainport, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Private saunas, sweeping views, spacious bathing areas, and sleek, minimalist design—Mainport's guest rooms have it all. The property's sauna and spa rooms, in particular, wow with over-the-top bath and spa amenities. In addition to availing of walk-in showers, mirror-mounted TVs, and Jacuzzis, guests get to relax in the soothing steam of their own private saunas.

 

(Photo: James Hall)

Glen Oaks Big Sur, Big Sur, California

An affordable Big Sur property with unforgettable guest cabins and bath facilities, Glen Oaks Big Sur is as unpretentious as it is luxurious. At the lodge's Big Sur Cabin, two outdoor soaking tubs sit side by side in front of a fire pit in a private courtyard. A forest of skyscraping redwoods rising above the courtyard's wooden fence creates a breathtaking scene. To put it simply, this setup allows you to take a bath next to your favorite person in the middle of a redwood forest. Better yet, Glen Oaks is one of the more budget-friendly options for accommodations in the area.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Strangest Things Ever Found by Airport Security.

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

Like this story? Join the 1 million other travelers who read our free Deal Alert newsletter. It's full of our best tips, trip ideas, and travel deals. Subscribe here today!

12 Must-Pack Essentials for Your Summer Carry-On

Posted July 11, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Savvy travelers know how to pack a week's worth of wardrobe changes into one carry-on year-round, but even the most packing-challenged among us can do it like a pro when summer rolls around. See ya later, bulky sweaters and jeans, make room for gauzy tops and easy dresses. Summertime shoes and sandals are light, so you can always get away with bringing an extra pair. The key is zeroing in on pieces that work together and in different ways. We've packed a carry-on full of ideas that will take you from the beach to the museum to dinner, with enough room left over for a few little luxuries.

(Photo: Helen Kaminski Australia)

Keep on Top of It

Whether you're stretched out at the beach or beating the big-city pavement, a physical shield between you and the sun not only keeps you cool and shaded, it's an absolutely necessary barrier that prevents sun damage. (And, we admit, hats really come in handy on those less-than-perfect hair days.) We love the rollable, packable, crocheted raffia Helen Kaminski Caicos Hat ($195), with its rounded crown that offers SPF 50-plus protection and a casual, angled brim. It comes in several colors and has a detachable lightweight cotton lining in the crown, a sateen elastic inner band for a secure fit, and hand-rolled raffia string for adjusting the size.

(Photo: Sundance)

Free and Breezy

If you're looking for a piece to pull double duty day in and day out, a cotton tunic is as versatile as it gets. It can go from poolside, where you can throw it over a bikini as a cover-up, to a casual dinner, where you can wear it with leggings. If yours is a little longer, pair it with sandals or flats for an easy dress. One of our favorite looks is a tunic worn over wide-legged pants for a casual-but-polished outfit. We're crazy about this Moroccan Dreams Tunic ($118), with its bold colorful accents, twisted ties, and sequined medallions for a little extra kick.

(Photo: Novica)

It's a Wrap

Who knew anything this simple could be so indispensable? Whether called a pareo, sarong, or shawl, this large oblong stretch of cotton is the do-all workhorse in your luggage. On the plane, you can wrap it around your neck for warmth. Once you land, it hits the ground running, too. It's a quick cover-up over a swimsuit—just wrap it around and tie or tuck it in the front. Wear it as a shawl in the evenings. We even use ours to sit on for impromptu picnics and, in a pinch, as a towel. Best of all, you can simply wash it out and hang it up and it will be dry in a matter of minutes. We like the crisp white Shadow Fish Cotton Shawl ($62.99) because it goes with so many different items in our bag.

(Photo: Sesto Meucci)

Jute Rocks

Espadrilles are a summertime classic, evoking sailboats, tanned legs, and Greek islands. We particularly like the way Sesto Meucci has gussied up the traditional kicks with his Jose Metallic Espadrille Wedges ($95), by adding a 1.75-inch heel and stretchy silver metallic fabric where the utilitarian canvas cloth used to be. The relatively modest heel height makes it sporty enough for day (with pants and casual dresses), and the metallic glint lends some pop to nighttime dressing.

(Photo: Ray-Ban)

Shady Business

Do you know anyone who has only one pair of sunglasses? We don't either. But if we had to choose just one to put in our bag, it might very well be these Ray-Ban Cat-Eye Sunglasses ($145). These sturdy but stylish glasses have a more sophisticated look than the brand's classic Wayfarer style, making them a strong choice for casual and dressy occasions. And unlike some trendier styles, these are flattering to most face shapes. And let's not to forget how these soft-brown-colored lenses will make your eyes go "ahhhhh" with relief the second you slip them on.

(Photo: Anthropologie)

Dress Success

We're going to assume that wherever you're headed, you're probably going to take a sundress with you. And since you can easily roll a sundress up into the size of a deluxe burrito, it leaves room for a dress that's classy enough to take you from day to night. This Capuchina Dress ($138) by Vanessa Virginia flatters almost every figure, with a V-neck that's not too plunging, sexy straps that cross in the back, a sash that self-ties at the waist, and draping fabric that hides almost all bumps and bellies. It comes in both tried-and-true black and a gorgeously rich blue print. For daytime, add some cute flats and simple earrings, and step it up for night with metallic sandals and bold jewelry.

(Photo: Supergoop)

Skin in the Game

The best thing about buying travel-sized toiletries is that it allows you to test products before going "all in" and paying for the full size. One to try is Arcona's Basic Five Travel Kit ($87), part of a skin-care regimen that promotes fresher, glowing skin. Golden Grommage scrub and White Tea Purifying Cleanser are particularly popular, and the kit also includes Magic White Ice moisturizer, Gentle Solution nighttime treatment, and Desert Mist for hydration. Need a lift after a long flight? Klorane's Dry Shampoo with Oat Milk ($9) has been a bestseller for more than 40 years: A few well-placed sprays of this all-botanical formulation will lift out oil and restore volume to your jet-lagged locks. And we always throw in a few sticks of Burt's Bees Replenishing Lip Balm with Pomegranate Oil ($3.30) to add moisture and just a touch of color to lips. Last but not least, make sure you bring along a good sunscreen, such as Supergoop's SPF 50 Antioxidant-Infused Sunscreen Mist with Vitamin C ($13 for three ounces).

(Photo: EMU)

Where the Leather Hits the Road

When we travel, we want sandals that not only look great but are as pleasing to our toes as they are to our eyes. Flats, wedges, chunky heels—choose the style that works best for you, but whatever you do, wear them a few times to make sure the pair you take isn't going to chafe or give you hot spots after a full day of sightseeing. (Providing the fit is right, we like a sandal with a toe thong because it helps keep the foot from sliding in the footbed, which can cause blisters.) These Burnberry Zip Sandals ($114.95) from Emu Australia fit our sandal criteria to a T: seriously stylish, with textured nappa leather contrasted by oiled-leather straps. As for road testing, we put literally dozens of miles on these, and they only got softer and more comfortable with time—so we bought another pair.

(Photo: Michael Stars)

The Long and Wide of It

Skinny jeans are a staple of most closets, but they're not always the best choice for travel, especially if you'll be hand-washing your garments in your resort or hotel room. That's why we opt for a pair or two of wide-legged cotton or washable linen pants. And of course, they're as easy to wear as they are to care for—they look equally smart with silky camis or boho blouses or tunics. Michael Stars makes his Solid Linen Drawstring Pants ($128) in a heap of colors, so consider buying one pair in a neutral shade and one in a fun, bright hue.

(Photo: Philippa Roberts)

Pretty Little Things

Just because you're traveling light doesn't mean you can't travel pretty. Statement necklaces and chandelier earrings are good for a bit of drama but can feel a little heavy when the weather heats up. Oakland-based Philippa Roberts crafts just the kind of jewelry we want to wear all summer long, especially from her Fig Collection. The green amethyst on a gold vermeil chain ($156) casts a lovely light-green or light-blue reflection, depending on the light, and the gold vermeil drop earrings ($110) complement it perfectly. The watery-blue chalcedony and silver earrings bring a little bit of the beach with us wherever we are.

(Photo: Mophie)

Juice to Go

If there's one thing more frustrating than helplessly watching your smartphone or tablet bleed its charge before your very eyes, it's the mad search for the nearest place to plug it in. That's why we never leave home without the Mophie Powerstation Duo ($99.95). With two USB ports, it can simultaneously and fully recharge both a smartphone and a tablet (or any other device with a USB charger) in an hour or less—while you're on the go. Trust us: At under 12 ounces and just slightly larger than a deck of cards, this sleek little beauty has proven to be a lifesaver many times over.

(Photo: Ultimate Ears)

Sound Advice

There are times when you just don't want to—or can't—put your headphones on. The UE Mini Boom Bluetooth speaker ($99.99) is one of our favorite travel luxuries, and at a mere 10.6 ounces, there's no reason not to pack it. A tough rubberized shell protects the speaker, which comes in several fun colors (we're partial to the cheerful green), and the up/down volume controls are big and easy to adjust. We use it to listen to live radio or podcasts (using the Stitcher app on our smartphone or tablet) while getting ready for the day, or we set it to an iTunes playlist while poolside with friends.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 12 Must-Pack Essentials for Your Summer Carry-On.

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21 Clever Little Air-Travel Tips

Posted July 9, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

You, our readers, have the tendency to surprise us with ingenious, out-of-the-box travel tips. And we love it! Air travel is no exception: You're upgrade-grabbing, airport-conquering, seat-selecting gurus, with lifetimes of advice to share. So we thought we'd put your collective wisdom in one place. The following are some of the best air-travel tips left as comments on our site.

Airlines

"The Dubai stopover offered by Emirates has been a wonderful way to break up very long trips from Phoenix to southern Africa. After one long flight from L.A. or Houston to Dubai, Emirates provides a transit visa, hotel (ah, the joys of getting horizontal after a long flight), shuttle, dinner and breakfast, and a night to start getting the body acclimated to the new time zone before setting out on the second leg of the journey. Thank you, Emirates!" —Papa Dave C., Best Airlines for Free Stopovers

"On the surface, Spirit looks like a cheaper flight, but they charge not only for luggage but carry-ons as well, and even here, you have to prepay online to get the 'low' baggage fee of $30 and $35 for the carry-on, then they get you for more money if you do not pre-check in online. In flight, the plans were as basic as you get, no entertainment at all, no snacks or even a soda. The difference between Spirit and JetBlue in the up-front price was only about $60 on the round-trip; by flying Spirit it ended [up] costing me twice that amount, and I took advantage of the online savings on the baggage. You know what they charge for a bag at the gate? $100!" —William C., Nine New Airlines You Haven't Heard of Yet

Booking Flights

"Big tip! If you can find multicity flights [when flying to Europe], do it! U.K. has the second-highest departure tax in the world! For me, it is around $200. When I fly using miles, I fly on American, into London, to Paris on Eurostar, stay awhile, then leave from [Paris]." —Jeannie G., 10 Cheapest Airlines for Flying to Europe

"A good amenity comparison for flights is found on Routehappy.com. It recently helped me weed through dozens of choices to find the 'happiest' flight from the U.S. to a small European city. Happiness included seat size, swiftness, service, entertainment, Wi-Fi, flyer rating, and price." —Pat L., 10 Consumer Issues in Travel That You Need to Know About

Seat Reclining

"When I fly with my husband, we buy window seats, one in front of the other. I have a bad back, so I sit in front of my husband, who doesn't mind if I recline into his space." —Pat G., 10 Signs You're the Worst Person on Your Flight

"Whatever happened to letting the person know the issue and politely asking if he/she would be willing to readjust the seat just a little so you would have more air space? If you are afraid to do it, you can ask the flight attendant to ask the person if he/she would be willing. I've done this, on occasion, and have never been met with a rude response." —Sandy M., 10 Signs You're the Worst Person on Your Flight

How to Treat Flight Attendants

"Never argue with or ignore a flight attendant's instructions when boarding a flight. Whatever the flight attendant says is the rule you have to abide by, whether it's an FAA rule or not. Arguing your point once on board is futile and just creates ill will." —Sandy M., 10 Things Your Flight Attendant Doesn't Want to See (or Hear)

"I love to hear it when a passenger says good morning to me … it shows they acknowledge my existence on Earth … and as far as bags, I have to work to make money, and my airline does not pay me for an injury on a policy that I have broken … so I choose not to help … because in the end, if I get injured and work doesn't pay me … I highly doubt the passenger will." —Zach M., 10 Things Your Flight Attendant Doesn't Want to See (or Hear)

Staying Safe

"Register with step.state.gov so that if you get into trouble abroad (like losing a passport or becoming a victim of crime) the nearest embassy or consulate will already have all of your information at hand." —Gregory W., Best Ways for Travelers to Prevent Identity Theft

"You've all seen how long it takes to board a plane with all the carry-on items people are bringing on board these days. The only way to evacuate quickly [in the event of an emergency] is not to take anything with you. Rummaging for your things in overhead bins can waste too much time and slow down the whole process, putting yourself and others at unnecessary risk. … If you ever find yourself in such a situation, move quickly to the exit and down the slide, but leave everything. Your life or your seatmate's life is worth more than the value of your purse or your laptop. Just get out immediately." —Donna C., How to Survive a Plane Crash

In-Flight Snacking

"I fly about once a month within the U.S. and always have my own food. Veggies like celery, carrots, radishes; apples or cherries; a box of raisins; some sliced baked chicken; nuts; trail-mix bars; a small bag of chips; etc. It helps to put it into a restaurant carry-out box that looks like you picked it up at the airport! I have an empty plastic bottle I fill with water after security. I also keep a plastic fork in my little box. No sauces or condiments." —Patsy D., 10 Flight-Friendly Recipes You Can Make Yourself

"A delicious [plane snack] is snap pea crisps (Harvest Snaps). They are made out of 70 percent green peas with 100 calories and very low salt! So good and crunchy." —Rose S., Healthy Plane Snacks Under 250 Calories

At the Airport

"One thing I have learned is that the best and most knowledgeable agents are usually assigned to the airline lounges. And they have a lot of freedom in how much time they can spend on helping you with your flight arrangements. I have had one agent spend 30 minutes on a sticky overseas-travel ticketing challenge. Imagine having that luxury at the ticket counter! That to me is one of the unheralded advantages of membership in the lounges." —Robert W. A., Seven More Dirty Little Secrets of the Travel Industry

"Recheck available seats at a kiosk upon arriving at airport. Bulkhead and other prime seats are sometimes released shortly before departure time." —Ben H., How to Get a Better Seat Next Time You Fly

"Get to the airport early for that early first flight of the day. TSA seems to understaff and often open late. Plus they are still having their morning coffee and chatting with coworkers much like [at] your office." —David G. W., 101 Clever Travel Tricks for 2014

Checking Baggage

"It is a good idea to take pictures of your luggage before handing it off at the airport or when boarding or disembarking a cruise ship, so that if it goes missing you have pictures to show." —Vickie L. L., Worst Travel Mishaps (and How to Avoid Them)

"One warning. If your flight includes a plane change and your carry-on had to be gate checked (when the overhead bins were full), it may not arrive at your final destination." —Jane S. B., 10 Cures for the Chronic Overpacker

Missed Flights

"Good advice about calling the airline while waiting in line because of a canceled flight. I did that once and snagged the last open seat on the next flight. In fact, it opened up while I was on the phone." —Sherri S., Worst Travel Mishaps (and How to Avoid Them)

"Like almost everything in life, 'attitude determines altitude.' Sometimes you have to recognize that you have no control over events such as a delayed or canceled flight. Just go with the flow!" —Geraldine T., Airport Amenities That Make Everything Better

Getting Upgrades

"If there are open seats in first class or business, don't hesitate to ask the flight attendant. The gate agent is in charge of collecting for upgrades while the aircraft is on the ground, but once you're in the air, the crew owns the plane … and if you're pleasant, they often have no problem moving you forward." —Don A., How to Get a Better Seat Next Time You Fly

"Just make sure you never ask in front of customers who have paid for those seats. You'd be surprised how often people make this mistake, and when that happens, the answer always has to be no. A letter from a paying customer demanding his upgrade payment back because flight attendant X was giving nonpayers the same seats for free can cause a lot of problems for that attendant, so most won't stick their necks out and risk this." —Donna C., How to Get a Better Seat Next Time You Fly

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 21 Clever Little Air-Travel Tips from Our Readers.

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

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(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

These Awesome Airlines Will Make You Love Flying Again

Posted July 7, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Can flying be fun? The answer depends on your carrier of choice. Certain airlines are shaking up the industry with creative flyer-friendly amenities, comfortable cabins, and pleasant service—and they're keeping prices low too. Some are rolling out onboard magicians. Others are reinventing economy cabins. All in all, it's some really cool stuff. Find out which airlines, from small carriers to major international ones, are infusing air travel with comfort and joy.

Turkish Airlines

I flew on Turkish about a month ago. I couldn't get enough of the special little touches that distinguish the flying experience on this Star Alliance carrier, which flies to more countries than any other airline on the planet (257 destinations in 107 nations). High-quality onboard service includes a varied array of special meals cooked by fancy-hat-wearing sky chefs and a seatback screen system that allows passengers to check email and send text messages. One of the airlines' most exciting innovations is its recently expanded state-of-the-art business-class lounge at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. It is, arguably, the world's greatest airline lounge. The two-story megalounge is outfitted with a playground, showers, massage beds, a golf simulator, food stations serving fresh regional foods, and even private little rooms with beds for naps. It's worth repeating: nap beds!

Porter Airlines

Picture a plane with 32-inch economy-class seat pitch and no middle seats. Throw in amenities like lounge access for all passengers (Porter lounges have free Wi-Fi) and complimentary beer and wine. At this point, economy class—normally a hell on earth of sorts—isn't looking so bad. Furthermore, fares are consistently affordable: Porter regularly offers percentage discounts on already-low base fares. In the past, we've seen promotions featuring 45 and even 50 percent off ticket prices. Given all this, is anyone surprised that Conde Nast Traveler picked Porter as the world's best small airline in its 2013 Readers' Choice Awards?

Emirates

Emirates is on its way to becoming the world's largest airline within a decade. However, the ever-expanding international juggernaut manages to balance profits with pizzazz, promising an upscale, comfortable experience for passengers of all classes, despite its size. This is especially true for those flying on the airline's awesome jumbo jets. On the Emirates Dallas-to-Dubai route, for example, double-decker A380 planes feature premium-class onboard lounges, shower spas, and complimentary wine and cocktails for even the economy set. Emirates' commitment to customer-friendly travel extends to families, too. From a wide array of children's TV shows to complementary activity backpacks for kiddos to a special frequent-flyer program for young travelers, Emirates makes an effort to improve the air-travel experience for flyers big and small.

JetBlue

I have to admit, I love JetBlue. The following features are likely to place you firmly in the JetBlue fan camp with yours truly: one free checked bag, free DIRECTV, friendly employees, and super-fast Wi-Fi (JetBlue calls it "Fly-Fi") on some planes. (The airline is working on installing Fly-Fi on its entire Airbus fleet by the end of the year.) But beyond all this awaits something even greater: lie-flat transcontinental seats for really cheap prices. JetBlue's new Mint class features fully flat seats on flights between New York and Los Angles, starting at the phenomenal promotional rate of $599 each way.

OpenSkies

Comfortable transatlantic flying at affordable prices—that's the OpenSkies war cry in a nutshell. Once an all-business-class airline, OpenSkies rolled out a comparatively comfortable economy class in 2012. The British Airways subsidiary, which dubs its coach section "Eco Class," offers personal preloaded iPads and leather seats for economy travelers. Furthermore, the coach section is pretty small, so it feels more like an intimate upper class than a teeming cattle car. But the best part, arguably, is the hassle-free experience at the airport. OpenSkies passengers flying out of Newark and Paris Orly get to skip longer security lines for a special, much shorter TSA security processing. And the fares? They're great. Right now, for example, OpenSkies is selling PremPlus fares (the seats recline a full 130 degrees) between New York and Paris starting at $1,299 round-trip.

Virgin America

Virgin America is a true pioneer when it comes to the flyer experience. The airline was one of the first to wow passengers with mood lighting and comprehensive onboard entertainment. If you've been on a Virgin plane, you know what I mean: There's Wi-Fi. There are plugs. There are cool tech features like touch screens that permit passengers to order drinks and food without having to wait 45 minutes for a flight attendant to pass by. And the purple lighting—whether you love it or hate it—definitely sets this flyer-friendly carrier apart from the legacy pack. New in Virgin's world is a redesigned boarding pass that easily fits into a pant pocket and a revamped website (currently in beta) that Virgin hopes will ease the booking process. And Virgin recently celebrated its first year of profitability, so with any luck, its customer-friendly business model is here to stay.

Asiana Airlines

Asian airlines often dominate Skytrax awards and readers' choice lists, and Asiana, the Star Alliance South Korean airline, is no exception. Asiana just revamped its A380 planes, adding first-class suites that have doors, closets, and beds; starlit cabin ceilings; real ovens for cooking food; and even social areas with bars and lounges. But what really sets this carrier apart from the pack is the addition of flying magicians who perform magic shows for kids. (Or anyone who wants to watch, really.) We can't think of a more joyful and unique way to pass the time on a long flight.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title These Awesome Airlines Will Make You Love Flying Again.

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

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(Photo: Image Source/Getty Images)

Best Free Museums in the U.S.

Posted July 2, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

National Museum of Natural History (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Cultural discovery doesn't always come cheap. While admission fees support and sustain museums, they can add up for tourists looking for artistic experiences on a budget. To help you save a few bucks while on the road, we've rounded up a list of 10 great (and totally free) museums across the country.

 

(Photo: Eric Long/National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Not content with one free museum? How about 19 (plus a zoo)? The Smithsonian, surrounding the National Mall, comprises some of the best and most varied collections of art and Americana in the world. See contemporary works by Rothko and de Kooning at the groovy, cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, lust after the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History, or fly an airplane simulator at the National Air and Space Museum. And, of course, don't forget the giant pandas at the National Zoo.

 

(Photo: Tim Arai via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike/Noncommercial)

Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

TripAdvisor users rank the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) higher than that other big attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, for good reason. Not only is admission free for all guests, but the museum also houses one of the most comprehensive art collections in the country. Located in Cleveland's bustling University Circle neighborhood, the CMA offers plenty of exhibitions and cultural enrichment experiences for all ages, plus a popular festival during which museumgoers can create classical works in a medium of sidewalk chalk.

 

(Photo: The Bronx Museum of the Arts/Lauren Click)

Bronx Museum, New York City, New York

Manhattan certainly isn't hurting for museums, but one of the New York art scene's brightest stars resides in an outer borough. Since the early '70s, the Bronx Museum has played a vital role in connecting the local community with the art world, and to celebrate its mission, the museum implemented universal free admission in 2011. Take the D train to the museum to view its galleries of contemporary art from a number of cultures, including works by African, Asian, and Latin American artists.

 

(Photo: The Getty Center)

The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

This museum icon is a work of art itself, all contemporary design and bright open spaces perched high above Los Angeles. In the center's four pavilions, explore extensive collections of photography, sculpture, and European art. Outdoors, carefully manicured gardens feature massive modern sculptures (and beautiful vistas of the hills). And at the Getty Villa, a short drive away, the ancient societies of Greece and Rome come alive with a fascinating array of artifacts and antiquities, including coins, gems, and jewelry.

 

(Photo: James Ewing)

The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

Founded in 1914 with just one painting, The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) now plays home to some 90,000 pieces spanning from the 15th century to the present (including the largest collection of Matisse works in the world). A brand-new renovation, set for the end of spring 2015, aims to add new technology and thoughtful design to the museum. And this year sees the return of BMA's stolen Renoir On the Shore of the Seine, on public view for the first time in more than 60 years.

 

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

Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, Washington

A part of the Seattle Art Museum, this innovative—and environmentally friendly—sculpture park is free and open to the public 365 days per year. Pick one and explore the park not just for its collection of Claes Oldenburg and Louise Bourgeois pieces but also for the ocean air that blows in from Elliott Bay. It's hard to believe that this picturesque spot, where summer months bring live music, food trucks, and yoga classes, was once nothing but a dirty industrial site.

 

(Photo: Hickey & Robertson)

The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas

One of Houston's top sights is this totally free museum that was founded by John and Dominique de Menil, who believed in the spiritual power of art. They amassed a collection of some 10,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books, now housed in an airy, chic space created by Renzo Piano, who also designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The collection is shown via "whimsical" rotation, so no visit is quite the same as the last.

 

(Photo: TanMan23 via flickr/CC Attribution)

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is an encyclopedic museum, which means that it offers an array of art and artifacts from cultures far and wide. In the main building, view African masks, 18th-century French cabinetwork, and photography by Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus, all under one roof. Head outdoors to meander through a sculpture garden and then see the famous, oversized Shuttlecocks installation by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

 

(Photo: sea turtle via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike/Noncommercial)

Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington

Charles Frye, the son of German immigrants, and his wife Emma were two of Seattle's earliest patrons of the arts, dedicated to collecting and curating art for public view at the turn of the last century. View their Founding Collection, some 230 paintings mostly of German origin, the way the Fryes always intended—for free. Tours and some lectures at the museum are also complimentary, and musical performances by local and visiting artists take place monthly.

 

(Photo: Courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

The Museum at FIT, New York City, New York

This spot at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 27th Street bills itself as the most fashionable museum in New York City. Its permanent collection contains some 50,000 notable garments and accessories ranging from the 18th century to now, while rotating exhibitions focus on celebrated designers, lasting trends, and even specific articles of clothing (a current exhibition considers lingerie and its various innovations). The main-floor Gallery FIT also features work by students and faculty.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Amazing Free Museums in the U.S. 

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

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What You Should Know About VAT Refunds

Posted July 2, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

When visiting Europe, you'll find that many goods and services are assessed a "value added tax," or VAT. It's a tax on consumption rather than income, and it ranges from 15 to 25 percent. If you pay this tax when shopping abroad, you can often get your money back after you've returned home, since travelers are typically entitled to a refund for the VAT portion of prices for goods. But getting that refund can be a headache. Here are 10 things you need to know about claiming VAT refunds.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Refunds from Goods, Not Services

Countries generally exempt exports from VAT. So when you buy merchandise or other goods as a tourist, what you take home is considered an export. Accordingly, you are entitled to a refund for the VAT portion of the price.

On the other hand, when you stay in a hotel or eat a restaurant meal, those services are consumed locally rather than exported. Accordingly, tourists are not entitled to VAT refunds on those purchases. Some business travelers are allowed to recover VAT on services, but the process is so complicated that only large corporations with heavy business travel ever try to recover it.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

VAT Can Be Big

VAT is the English-language term; other terms include IVA, TVA, moms, MwST, and a handful of unique local terms. EU (much of Western Europe) rules require that member countries impose a VAT of at least 15 percent; most rates are in the range of 19 percent to 25 percent. Many countries exempt some purchases entirely or apply reduced percentages on "essential" purchases such as food, rent, transportation, and medical services. A few countries also exempt certain regions from VAT or apply reduced rates because of quasi-independent status or to encourage economic development. Among Europe's reduced- or no-VAT areas are the Aegean Islands, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the Channel Islands.

VAT rates in Europe's four non-EU countries are 25.5 percent in Iceland, 25 percent in Norway, 8 percent in Switzerland, and 18 percent in Turkey, again with some exempted or reduced rates. Check here for rates in all European countries.

Keep in mind that the VAT rate is the amount added to a pretax base price, not a percentage of the final price. Thus, a 20 percent VAT rate amounts to 16.7 percent of the purchase price.

 

(Photo: Daniel Farrell via flickr/CC Attribution)

It's Included in the Price

As a practical matter, merchandise prices you see in stores almost always include VAT. So do posted hotel rates and restaurant prices. The general rule is that what you see is what you pay. Online travel agencies (OTAs) usually post hotel prices inclusive of VAT—but not always, so check the fine print! Also, some localities impose the equivalent of sales taxes, in addition to VAT, on hotel accommodations, but they do not include these in the posted price; these additional taxes are usually quite low.

 

(Photo: U.S. Customs & Border Protection)

Your Goods Must Leave the Country

Most European countries allow you to recover VAT when you "export" an item. But you must prove that the goods actually left the taxing authority before collecting your refund. (For countries in the European Union, this means you must leave the EU, not just cross an internal EU border.) If you leave by plane, you have to show the goods after you pass through the customs formalities.

To qualify for a refund, the goods must be new and unused. If you buy some high-fashion accessories in Paris, for example, you shouldn't use them until you leave the EU.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Bananastock)

There Are Minimum Qualifying Amounts

Many countries establish a minimum price per item or daily value per store to qualify for a VAT refund. This minimum ranges from zero in Ireland, Germany, and the U.K. to CHF 300 (about $333 USD according to XE.com) in Switzerland, €175 (about $237) in France, €155 (about $210) in Italy, €125 (about $169) in Belgium, and €90 (about $122) in Spain. Check here for detailed rates throughout the EU.

 

(Photo: Shops in Milan, Italy via Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock.com)

Where to Buy

Buy from stores that handle VAT-refund paperwork. Most stores that do this post a "Tax Free" or similar sign somewhere on a door or window; big department stores often have special VAT offices. On the other hand, street vendors, sidewalk artists, many small-town stores, and such generally don't provide this service, so you're out of luck when you buy from them.

When you buy, have the merchant provide the necessary paperwork, sometimes called a "cheque," and complete the paperwork before you leave the store. (You'll probably have to prove that you're from outside the country or VAT area.)

When you leave the EU or the country in which you bought the items, take the merchandise and the paperwork to the border station and have the documents stamped by a local customs agent. Typically, the agent will ask to see the items, so don't pack them in checked baggage—or, at least, be able to check bags after you've cleared customs. This is critical: You won't get the refund without the stamp.

 

(Photo: Paying with Credit Card via Shutterstock)

Work with Your Merchant

The easiest way to get a refund is to have the merchant handle it at the point of sale. Some merchants ask you to sign two credit card chits: one for the pre-VAT price and another for the VAT. You still have to do the paperwork and have it stamped, but when you clear the checkpoint, you just mail the completed paperwork to the merchant to prove that you really took the goods out of the area. When the merchant gets the paperwork, he or she tears up the credit card slip for the VAT. Alternatively, you sign one chit for the full price and the merchant later refunds the VAT to your card.

You can also avoid VAT by having a merchant ship the goods to you directly at your home address. In most cases, however, this isn't a good solution. Shipping charges can be very high, and you have to pay U.S. duty, even if you haven't used up your import allowance.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Let the Pros Do It

Two agencies specialize in facilitating VAT refunds. Typically, you want to shop at stores that participate in one of these agencies' programs; this will be displayed on a sign. Go through the purchase and customs paperwork, as described. Then, after passing through customs and getting your paperwork stamped, find an agency office to process the refund. The big agencies maintain refund desks in the departure areas of major international-gateway airport terminals, at some ship and ferry terminals, and at some downtown offices. Typically, you have a choice of getting a cash, check, or credit card refund. These outfits generally deduct as much as 30 percent of the refund amount as a fee for services.

Global Blue is the largest; it operates throughout Western Europe, as well as in several Eastern European countries, Argentina, Japan, Morocco, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and Uruguay. Premier TaxFree operates in a limited number of European countries but covers Jordan. Check the agencies' websites for more details.

 

(Photo: Sankarshan Mukhopadhyah via flickr/CC Attribution)

Buy at Tax-Free Airport Stores

You can avoid paying VAT by waiting to buy in a "tax-free" airport store, usually located after the departure formalities at major international airports. The post-customs areas of many big European airports are now more like upscale shopping malls than airports. But store prices at most airports are pegged to be just a little below local "high street" VAT-inclusive prices, not at the local price minus the VAT. Those fat markups help fund the airport.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

Beware of the Gotchas

As noted, the paperwork and the customs stamp are critical to the process. Unfortunately, you can sometimes miss out on the chance to comply. One way to miss out is to buy from a supplier who doesn't do the paperwork. Independent artists, street merchants, and many other sellers don't participate in the programs and don't provide paperwork.

You can also miss getting the paperwork if you cross an unattended border. These days, you can pass out of a tax zone without encountering any customs office or official at all—for example, when you drive a rented car or take a train or bus through a lightly used border crossing. If you fly home from Geneva but return a rented car on the French side of Geneva International Airport, you'll find that the customs kiosks in the corridor between the French and Swiss lobbies of the terminal building are generally unattended by either country.

Some countries have work-arounds for these problems. Check the agency websites for details, preferably before you encounter a problem.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Things You Need to Know About Getting a VAT Refund.

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