9 Last-Minute Summer Deals Under $150

Posted August 14, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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Summer's fleeting, but you can create more memories before you have to hunker down for the fall by getting in one last getaway. Check out these nine deals—all offering steep last-minute discounts in major metropolitan cities.

 

Las Vegas: 20 Percent Savings at Popular Strip Resorts

Get your last hurrah in before summer's end—and what better place than in the Strip! Alaska Airlines is currently offering 20 percent off hotel-night stays at eight popular Las Vegas resorts. Among the accommodations options are top-rated popular hotel/casinos, including Caesars Palace (awarded TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence in 2013), the Francophile-fave Paris Las Vegas, Rio All-Suite Hotel (each room option is a suite and all promise great views), and the centrally located LINQ Hotel and Casino.

Stays are valid through June 30, 2016, but all bookings must be made by 11:59 p.m. PT on August 25, 2015.

Search more low prices on Las Vegas packages here!

 

Walt Disney World Vacations: Air, Stay, Play at 30 Percent Savings

Delta Vacations is offering savings of up to 30 percent off room rates whenever booking hotel-and-flight Walt Disney World vacation packages. The trip bundles include round-trip airfare, onsite Disney report accommodations (which come with extra theme park hours and transportation), Magic Your Way tickets, and Delta frequent-flyer bonus miles.

Tickets must be booked by August 31, and are applicable for travel through October 3. To get an idea of what pricing looks like, we sampled round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Orlando from $773 per person, which includes three-night stays, three-day theme park tickets, and taxes and fees. Other departure cities are available.

Search more low prices on Orlando packages here!

 

San Antonio: Riverwalk Stays from $143/Night

Need one last summer fling before you can bid the sunny season farewell? Then say "hello" to the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, which is offering 30-percent savings on two-night stays. Rates (before discounts) start at $143 per night.

According to TripAdvisor, the Valencia is the fourth-ranked hotel in all of San Antonio, and one right in the middle of the Riverwalk action.

Search more low prices on San Antonio packages here!

 

Honolulu: 4th Night Free on the Shores of Waikiki Beach

The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, on the picturesque shores of Honolulu's Waikiki Beach has welcoming promotions right now, one of the best of which is the "Sunsational Savings" offering every fourth night free and complimentary buffet breakfast.

The room category selected must be SUN and accommodations must be booked by December 22.

Search more low prices on Honolulu packages here!

 

New Orleans: 15 Percent Off Historic Hotel, Free Wi-Fi

Enjoy savings of 15 percent and complimentary Wi-Fi at the 4.5 blubble-rated Omni Royal Orleans. The historic St. Louis Street hotel ranks within the top 10 of all New Orleans accommodations and has received the TripAdvisor 2015 Certificate of Excellence award. August hotel stays start at $143 per night.

To get the 15 percent discount and free Wi-Fi, use code CRPTRP by December 31.

Search more low prices on New Orleans packages here!

 

New York City: 20 Percent Off Midtown Hotels

The official New York City tourism organization, NYC & Co. has teamed up with several hotels to offer discounts throughout the city. In Midtown, find Sanctuary Hotel New York discounting 20 percent off room rates, plus free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and gym passes; DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Metropolitan—New York City, also with 20-percent discounts off room rates and sightseeing cruises; and two free tickets to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck with stays at New York Marriott East Side. Various other hotels are available.

Search more low prices on New York City packages here!

 

Chicago: 20 Percent Off Summer Stays

The "Slammin' Summer" deal at Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel on North Michigan Avenue promises 20 percent savings off the best available rates, plus two free welcome cocktails. For the promotion to take effect, redeem code PROTRIP by September 30.

Search more low prices on Chicago packages here!

 

San Francisco: 25 Percent Off Summer Rates

Save 25 percent from the Best Available rate when spending two or more nights at the Days Inn San Francisco Downtown/Civic Center. Bookings must be made by August 31, and check-in must happen between Sunday and Thursday—perfect timing for a last-minute summer getaway.

Search more low prices on San Francisco packages here!

 

Seattle: 35 Percent Off Hotel Stays

Save up to 35 percent hotel rates at the four-star Westin Seattle. Discounted rates are applicable during select dates in August and September, but they must be booked by August 31.

Search more low prices on Seattle packages here!

How to Check a Bag for Free

Posted August 13, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

How to Check a Bag for Free

Dodging bag fees is getting harder and harder. Ever since American introduced checked-bag fees in 2008, nearly every major U.S. airline (and plenty of international airlines) have followed suit. Checked-bag fees are now the industry norm. Even industry darling JetBlue broke our hearts and added the dreaded surcharge.

But not all hope is lost! Checking your bags for free is still doable. Here are seven ways you can avoid checked bag fees on your next flight.

Fly Southwest

Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that lets you check a bag for free. Repeat: Southwest is the only major U.S. airline left that doesn't charge a bag fee. Heck, they'll even let you check two bags for free. Like most airlines, Southwest does levy a surcharge for overweight bags, but with two free bags available to you that shouldn't be an issue.

Related: There's One Big Problem with Southwest's New Seats

Be a (Really) Frequent Flyer

Elite status is difficult to earn for a reason, but if you manage to fly, say, 25,000 miles a year, a whole world of perks opens up to you. In addition to a free checked bag, elite travelers often enjoy access to upgrades, reduced fees, priority boarding, and more. Unfortunately, 25,000 miles per year is unattainable for many leisure travelers (though good for you if you travel that much).

Explore Different Fare Tiers

Many people simply grab the cheapest ticket possible, but these tend to be nonrefundable base fares that entitle you to a seat and nothing more. Higher-priced tickets are often refundable and offer additional perks such as "free" checked bags.

For example, JetBlue introduced an entire new ticketing system when it unveiled its bag fees, and its BluePlus and BlueFlex fares include one and two checked bags, respectively, along with reduced change and cancellation fees. Other airlines, including Virgin America and Frontier, offer similar fare tiers, so it's worth investigating your options. Of course, the price difference can exceed the cost of a single checked bag, so do the math.

Related: How to Get a Refund on a Nonrefundable Flight

Go Minimalist and Carry It On

This one's obvious, but while checked-bag fees are now the norm, most major airlines have resisted adding carry-on bag fees (with notable exceptions including Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier). So if you can travel light, this is one of the simplest ways to ditch the bag fee—plus you know your bag won't get lost in transit.

There are countless ways to get the most out of your carry-on, from vacuum bags that compress your clothes to ingenious organization solutions for your electronics to the suitcase itself. Remember, too, that you get a carry-on and a personal item with most airlines, so use that second bag wisely and you might find yourself able to handle a four- or five-day trip on carry-ons alone.

Get an Airline-Affiliated Credit Card

Many airline-affiliated credit cards grant cardholders free checked bags in addition to other perks and (of course) the ability to earn miles. There are, naturally, a few catches associated with these cards. For example, most airline-affiliated credit cards carry hefty annual fees of around $100, though some waive the fee for the first year. With the typical first-bag fee hovering around $25, you'll need to check a few bags just to break even, and a few more to really benefit from the perk. Also, airline-affiliated cards by nature lock you in to a particular carrier, so you'd better be a fan of American if you pick up its credit card.

Related: Best Credit Cards for Every Type of Traveler

Play the Gate-Check Game

If you're the gambling sort, you can always try the ol' gate-check trick, which involves bringing a carry-on that—oops!—is a bit too large for the overhead bin and has to be gate-checked. There are a few pretty good arguments against doing this, first and foremost being that it will slow down the boarding process while you and a (likely irritated) flight attendant try to cram the thing into the overhead bin on a crowded plane. You don't want to be that passenger, do you? More importantly, airlines have gotten wise to shenanigans like this and are cracking down on oversized carry-ons, meaning you may end up paying a fee anyway. Hardly seems worth the effort, but air travel has a way of making people do strange things.

Related: 7 Things That Are Cheaper to Buy Than Pack

Ship It, But at What Costs

Shipping your bags is a popular tip among the bag-fee averse, but there are a lot of factors to weigh when considering the option, starting with price. I priced out shipping a 45-pound suitcase from my home in Massachusetts to Seattle and got a one-way estimate of $75 from UPS. That's considerably more than just about any bag fee, and in fact is more than I'd pay in bag fees for both legs of my journey. For a trip to Chicago I was quoted $44, still more than a bag fee but closer in range. For a trip to Philadelphia I was quoted $31.

Beyond raw dollars, you also have to consider time. For my Seattle trip, UPS estimated 5 days via its basic ground shipping (faster options were substantially more expensive). Chicago and Philadelphia were both estimated at two days. This means you'll need to pack earlier and make an extra trip to drop off your suitcase a few days before you leave. It also means you'll have to make a drop-off trip at the end of your vacation as well and then wait around for it to arrive (hope your keys aren't in the suitcase!). If you do decide to ship, see if there's a drop-off at the airport you'll be traveling through. You can also ship in one direction and check your bag in the other.

More from SmarterTravel:

Read the original story: How to Check a Bag for Free by Carl Unger, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Happy Businessman via Shutterstock)

One Weird Way to Relax on a Plane

Posted August 12, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

There are many ways to distract yourself on a flight: Read, watch something, listen to music or a podcast. But if you're seeking a more dynamic activity—one that keeps you busy and imparts a least a small sense of accomplishment—we have an idea.

Get some crayons. Get a coloring book. Get coloring.

You may have already heard about the millennial-fueled adult coloring book craze, which various media outlets have covered over the past year. We're talking about adults using coloring books—not adult-themed coloring books (though those do exist).

Coloring helps cut stress, experts say. Psychologist Antoni Martínez tells the Huffington Post, "I recommend it as a relaxation technique. We can use it to enter into a more creative, freer state. We can also use it to connect with how we feel, since depending on our mood we choose different colors or intensity. I myself have practiced that. I recommend it in a quiet environment, even with chill music. Let the color and the lines flow."

Related: Stop Manspreading on Planes

Think of it as a little art therapy while you're stuck in a plane seat.

Since coloring is an acceptable pastime for adults now, you can find plenty of designs appropriate for your advanced age group. There's no need to resign yourself to black-and-white outlines of Disney princesses and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (unless that's your thing). There are lots of adult-coloring books for sale at bookstores everywhere. Here is a Ryan Gosling coloring book. Here is the Hipster Coloring Book for Adults. Here is a Star Wars coloring book with accompanying 3-D glasses that is certainly not for adults, but no one is stopping you from wearing 3-D glasses that have the Star Wars logo on them on the plane. YOLO.

As far as crayons go, we recommend traveling light with a modest set featuring mostly primary colors. A small pack of good old Crayolas is a good bet. This eight-pack set costs $2. Or just steal your supplies from the hostess station at a local Red Robin.

Would you color in a coloring book while on a plane?

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Read the original story: One Weird Way to Relax on a Plane by Caroline Costello, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

Summer and Early-Fall Getaways for Under $200

Posted July 10, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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Ft. Lauderdale Vacation Fun from $103/Day

Soak some sun and do so while saving with Priceline’s air-and-hotel deals. We found rates from $102.33 per person, per day ($614 for six days) from Philadelphia (other departure cities available) at the beachside Sonesta Ft. Lauderdale Beach hotel.

For even bigger savings, take advantage of the useful Ft. Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau lengthy list of two-for-one offers.

Search more low prices on Ft. Lauderdale packages here!

Denver: Deeply-Discounted Vacations Offer $125 Savings

Savings on flight-and-hotel Denver vacations are as high as, well, a mile. Use promo code 125TRIP at Orbitz and save $125—a steep discount, but only applicable for bookings made by September 30 and with a minimum-four-night stay.

We found early-fall vacation-package deals from Syracuse starting at $115.63 per person, per day ($925 total per person) at the Inn at Cherry Creek. Other dates, hotels, and departure cities are available.

Search more low prices on Denver packages here!

 New England Air/Hotel/Tours from $192/Day

From sights that mark this nation’s infancy to museums that depict all-things Americana, experience a bit of everything-New England with this offer. Among the monumental sites toured in this 10-day vacation are Plymouth Rock, Boston’s Old North Church, Herman Melville’s and Normal Rockwell’s homes, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory.

The Gate 1 Travel package is priced at $1,919 round-trip ($191.90 per person, per day) from Chicago, and includes air, hotel, motorcoach transfer between sites, 12 meals, taxes and fees, and entrance fees. Other departure cities are available, as are land-only packages.

Search more low prices on Boston packages here!

 Chic Chicago Vacations from $135/Day

Five-day vacations through Travelocity at the chic 4-star Chicago Athletic Association start at $134.60 per day ($673 per person)—that includes airfare during early August.

This rate is priced for departures from Boston during August 6 through 10, but other departure cities, travel windows, and even other hotels are available.

Search more low prices on Chicago packages here!

London Fly & Drive Vacation from $94/Day

Explore England at your pace with Go-Today’s “England Fly & Drive” package, including round-trip airfare from the U.S. to London, England, a car rental with unlimited miles for seven days, and airfare taxes and fees. What’s more, use promo code GTUK715 to save $50 off the package.

Search more low prices on London packages here!

 Minneapolis: 20 Percent Off Hotels

TripAdvisor and the Millennium Hotel Minneapolis have teamed up to bring guests 20-percent savings off rack rates this summer. The centrally located hotel is rated four out of five TripAdvisor bubbles. Use promo code TRIPAD by August 31.

Search more low prices on Minneapolis packages here!

Puerto Rico Air-and-Hotel Vacations from $65/Day

JetBlue Vacations has worked out an exclusive deal with San Juan’s four-star Condado Plaza Hilton for four-day air-and-hotel vacation packages from $259 per person ($64.75 per person, per day). What’s more, the fourth night-stay is free; but for this added perk, a four-night minimum stay is required, and blackout dates exclude travel on July 3, 4, 17-19, 24, and August 21-27.

Prices are per person based on double occupancy, and include accommodations, round-trip airfare, and taxes and fees. The promotion’s travel window falls between July 20 and August 15. The cited rate is for travel from Boston on July 23, though many other departure cities and dates are available.

Search more low prices on San Juan packages here!

Atlantic City: 30 Percent Off Hotels

You’ve just hit the jackpot and you haven’t even stepped into a casino yet! Available through August 18, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City is running its Semi Annual Sale for stays through March 31, 2016. The promotion discounts rates by 30 percent whenever using code SEMI15.

Search more low prices on Atlantic City packages here!

 

Free Things You Can Get at Hotels

Posted July 9, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Add this to your list of Golden Rules of travel: You don't get what you don't ask for. Hotels don't necessarily offer all they have to give, so it's up to travelers to know what's available. Ask and you can receive everything from workout gear and kids' toys to vegan toiletries and flat irons. Even better, if you know what to expect in advance, you can trim your packing list and borrow upon arrival. Now that's what we call smarter travel.

Kimpton

Nightlights. Super Glue. Fashion tape. Collar stays. Welcome to Kimpton's magical lending closet. The Forgot It We Got It program offers both the standards (dental floss, mouthwash, etc.) and other items that you may not even know you need until you suddenly need them urgently (for instance, Super Glue). Extension cords, stain-remover wipes, even re-sealable plastic travel bags solve problems of all kinds for guests in need.

Related: 10 Free Things Hotels Provide in Case You Forgot

Candlewood Suites

Candlewood Suites focuses on the extended-stay experience, so it makes perfect sense that its Lending Locker is geared a little less to forgotten toiletries and more to the comforts of home away from home. The locker is stocked with items like reading lamps, board games, small kitchen appliances, and even hand tools. The initial pilot program was such a success that now, all Candlewood Suites have Lending Lockers, stocked and ready for guests in search of crockpots, desk fans, and Monopoly.

Conrad

Whether you've got sensitive skin, prefer certain brands, or simply don't like the scent of the default toiletries in your room, Conrad Hotels has you covered. Conrad Hotels offer all guests a range of toiletries brands, including Tara Smith Vegan Hair Care, Aromatherapy Associates, Shanghai Tang, and geared-to-men Refinery. According to Roys Laux, vice president of marketing for Gilchrist & Soames, many hotel brands are expanding their toiletries offerings, though guests often have to know to ask in order to sample them. This is good news, particularly for guests looking for "clean" products. Laux says, "Hotels have largely adopted the 'good for you, good for the Earth' mindset that is so prevalent now, meaning that having products readily available for environmentally conscious guests has become a necessity."

Marriott

No longer will hotel guests in the know have to settle for bad television. Marriott has just debuted a partnership with Netflix that allows guests to sign in (or sign up) to their Netflix accounts on the hotel's internet-connected guest room televisions. By the end of the year, Marriott will offer in-room streaming Netflix at 100 hotels, and plans to offer it at nearly every property by the end of 2016. Wondering if your Marriott is one of the first hotels to debut service? Ask.

Related: 10 Hotel Chains with the Best Free Bath Amenities

Hyatt

If you are a forgetful person who travels a lot, you should consider a close relationship with Hyatt. Its Hyatt Has It program offers an impressive list of complimentary items to borrow. In addition to the standards such as mouthwash, sewing kits, and combs; you can call for deodorants, hairspray, lint rollers, nail polish remover, sanitary products, and makeup remover. Hyatt also has you covered on laundry soap, baby shampoo, curling and flat irons, free weights, humidifiers, power adapters, steamers, tea kettles, yoga mats, and more. Really, there's more.

Related: Top Hotel Loyalty Programs

W Hotels

If you're the type of traveler who has to try every pillow in your hotel room just to find the least uncomfortable option, the Pillow Menu at W Hotels is your dream come true. Designed for princes and princesses in the pea who just don't sleep as well without a great pillow, the Pillow Menu program is part of W Privileges, a set of comfort- and convenience-oriented offerings. Simply make your request to receive a body pillow, neck roll, firm foam PrimaLoft pillow, or 100 percent goose-down feather pillow.

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Read the original story: Free Things You Can Get Just by Asking at SmarterTravel.

10 Dream Trips You Can Actually Afford in 2015

Posted July 8, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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(Photo: Adam Burton/Visit Faroe Islands)

This is the year to go someplace epic. In 2015, exotic places are trending and new destinations are emerging. And several of them are more affordable than you might think. Catch a total solar eclipse in the Faroe Islands, see The Hobbit movie set's Hobbit holes on a New Zealand farm, or check out the new ecotourism hot spot dubbed "the next Costa Rica." This roundup of dream trips also takes you to Cuba and a few other emerging destinations where travel restrictions are loosening and the U.S. dollar goes a long way.

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(Photo: Romtomtom via flickr/CC Attribution)

Cuba

Travel to Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades, but U.S. government restrictions are loosening, giving the curious a first glimpse at the country just 90 miles to the south. Last month, President Obama announced that—for the first time since the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in the 1950s—talks have begun to restore full diplomatic relations. For now, Americans can travel to Cuba only with a tour company that holds a special government cultural-exchange license through the newly established People-to-People program. Take a trip sooner rather than later to see Cuba in its most authentic state, before McDonald's and Starbucks find their way onto street corners.

If You Go: Natural Habitat's Undiscovered Cuba tours give you the chance to experience Old Havana's restored architecture, lively salsa music, and big 1950s American cars cruising the streets. You'll tour tobacco farms and hike virtually unknown national parks as you talk politics and issues with Cuban scientists, naturalists, academics, farmers, community activists, artists, business owners, and more.

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(Photo: Adam Burton/Visit Faroe Islands)

Faroe Islands

About halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are one of only two places in the world where you'll be able to see the 2015 total solar eclipse from land. On March 20, the moon will appear to block out the sun and enshroud the islands in darkness for a few minutes at 9:41 a.m., just as it did in the year 1612, according to the old Faroese legend. The remote archipelago country governed by Denmark will mark the event with a major celebration, featuring the symphony orchestra, choirs, dancing, tours, activities, and local cuisine specialties.

If You Go: Ask a local to tell you about the legend of the eclipse. Also keep an eye out for the aurora borealis in the Faroe Islands' clear winter sky. Located near the Arctic Circle, the islands are popular places to spot the lights. This year also debuts a new knitting festival in the small village of Fuglafjørður, the first knitting festival in the area that takes place in people's homes.

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(Photo: Christopher Eden via flickr/CC Attribution)

Oman

On the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula next to the United Arab Emirates, Oman is a peaceful Middle Eastern gem with stunning beaches, mountains, forests, and deserts that stretch for miles. Only since 1970 has the oil-exporting country established an infrastructure of roads and ports, and then resorts, gradually emerging as a tourism destination. Visitor statistics show a 32 percent jump over the past few years, and Oman tour operators expect to see more growth with several recent new developments: the Opera House in Muscat, international standard golf courses, the Alila hotel opening, luxury catamaran boat trips, and luxury tented beach and desert camping.

If You Go: Get an authentic Arabian experience with Mountain Travel Sobek's Oman Explorer tour, one of the tour operator's new bucket-list trips for 2015. The trip takes you "Wadi bashing" along rocky river beds in a four-wheel drive. You'll also camp in luxury tents on the beach and stroll through Omani villages without a trace of Western influence.

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(Photo: Getty Images/esboon images)

Singapore

In 2015, this Asian country of 63 islands celebrates 50 years of independence since separating from the Federation of Malaysia, and the nationwide commemoration lasts all year long. Golden Jubilee events in Singapore began with a New Year's Eve fireworks display in Marina Bay and continue with a 50th-themed parade in February and a National Day Parade in August. In the fall, the new National Gallery Singapore opens and the National Museum of Singapore will revamp its permanent galleries. As a lasting tribute to the year, a new Jubilee Walk is under construction to connect and mark historic monuments in the civic district and Marina Bay area. A new pedestrian bridge will link Merlion Park to Marina Promenade. Singapore is also the host of the 2015 Southeast Asian Games/Para Games.

If You Go: Between 50th anniversary events, save time to sample the country's national dish: stir-fried chili crabs with tangy gravy. Another authentic food experience is at the open-air hawker center's food stalls. Don't miss Singapore's Chinatown trishaw night tour.

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(Photo: Paul Arps via flickr/CC Attribution)

Myanmar

As this isolated Southeast Asian country has begun opening up to visitors over the past few years, tourism has exploded. "We believe that 2015 might be the last year to see a more innocent Myanmar that hasn't been strangled by overdevelopment," says Elias Garcia of Global Basecamps tours. Garcia says you can still visit some areas and be the only foreign traveler, a rare experience in the world today. Although it is quickly modernizing, Myanmar has held onto its traditions. Locals still wear sarong-like longyi attire and prefer to travel by canoe or horse-drawn carriage. The temples of Bagan are a true must-see, on par with the pyramids in Egypt or Angkor Wat.

If You Go: Both the Global Basecamps' Trekking & Temples tour and the Go Ahead Tours' Myanmar: A Cultural Journey through Burma tour take you to Bagan to see one of the world's largest collections of Buddhist temples. The tours also include visits to the gold-plated Shwezigon Pagoda, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site where sacred relics are enshrined.

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(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Nicaragua

Tour companies are calling Nicaragua the next Costa Rica. This verdant ecotourism hot spot has untouched rainforests for hiking, an active volcano where you can go "ash boarding," and quiet beaches that draw international surfing competitions. In Nicaragua, you'll avoid the crowds of neighboring Costa Rica and find prices that are nearly half of what you'd pay across the border. The country also just opened its first five-star resort, Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa, and ocean-view villas are surprisingly affordable. In spite of Nicaragua's war-torn past, perceptions of the country are changing. Nicaragua scored the highest for security levels among Latin American countries in a 2013 Gallup poll.

If You Go: Wander the charming Spanish colonial city of Granada, home to the new boutique Tribal Hotel. The Inn at Rancho Santana opens on the southwest coast this March. In November, the new Emerald Coast Airport opens, offering connecting flights to the beach from Managua's international airport.

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(Photo: Robben Island, South Africa via Shutterstock)

South Africa

A perennial bucket-list favorite, South Africa shows up on the travel radar this year because 2015 marks 25 years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom. Honor the hero with a visit to the Apartheid Museum or Robben Island (where he spent 18 years), and you'll feel South Africans' sense of pride in their progress. Once you pay for airfare, this country is an excellent value destination, especially as the U.S. dollar is strong against the South African rand. Last year, Cape Town was named the 2014 World Design Capital and was transformed by more than 460 design projects. The initiative spurred tremendous growth in the city's arts and culture, says Shaheed Ebrahim of Escape to the Cape tours. Don't miss the new iconic sites, revamped public squares, quaint neighborhood markets, and design quarters.

If You Go: The smarTours South Africa Highlights & Safari tour hits the Nelson Mandela sites as well as Cape Town, Table Mountain, and Kruger National Park. It also includes a safari experience in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve.

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(Photo: Shiraz, Iran via JPRichard/Shutterstock.com)

Iran

Iran is still an unexpected destination for most Americans, but the tide is definitely turning. With the 2013 election of a new president in this Persian country, visa restrictions have relaxed and more tourists are visiting Iran. Last year, the inaugural rail journey to Iran with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains sold out in three weeks, prompting the company to add several new departures in 2015. Michigan-based Journeys International also added three guided trips to Iran for 2015 in response to increased demand. "Experienced world travelers are planning trips to Iran as a destination that will help them understand the world more clearly," says Will Weber, founder of Journeys. "Until recently, there was no way to gain firsthand knowledge of Iran."

If You Go: Don't miss Shiraz, the city of poets and gardens. The ancient city of Yazd, known for high-quality silk weaving, rises out of the high desert plateau with homes made of mud brick. Both places are stops on Journeys International's Persia Past & Present tour.

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(Photo: Vilnius, Lithuania via Shutterstock)

Lithuania

The European Union welcomed Lithuania into the Eurozone on January 1, 2015, when the country became the last of the three Baltic states (after Estonia and Latvia) to officially adopt the euro. Now that it's easier to make electronic payments and access cash via ATMs, tour companies anticipate that an influx of travelers will visit this relatively undiscovered gem. "Lithuania is like a piece of Old World Europe you haven't seen before, yet it's very sophisticated, fresh, and new," says Barbara Banks of Wilderness Travel.

If You Go: Wilderness Travel will debut a new cruise route this year that includes Lithuania: Summer in the Cities of the Baltic. It will stop in Klaipeda, a center for amber jewelry and home to one of the largest amber museums in the Baltic. If you're touring on your own, take a side trip to the country's capital city of Vilnius to see the beautiful architecture in Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the European cities that was never bombed in World War II.

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(Photo: Sara Orme)

New Zealand

Last December, a week after the third Hobbit film in the popular series debuted worldwide, London's Daily Telegraph announced that New Zealand (the real Middle-earth) was voted "Best Country" by readers in the newspaper's annual Travel Awards. Tourism officials expect to see an upsurge in travel to the country and its filming locations, as they did with the release of the first two movies. Also highly anticipated this year, the Cricket World Cup will take place in New Zealand in February and March, and a new luxury Sofitel hotel will open in Wellington to fill a hole in the five-star market.

If You Go: On a picturesque farm, you can tour the Hobbiton movie set, kept intact from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. See Hobbit holes, the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill, and other gardens and structures that appeared in the movies. Then go meet New Zealand's indigenous Maori people, learning their customs and sharing a traditional feast. Collette's A Down Under Adventure and Audley Travel's New Zealand tours include these experiences.

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Read the original story: Best Dream Trips for 2015 at SmarterTravel.

10 Secret Spots in America's Top National Parks

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

America's National Park Service runs more than 405 sites, including national seashores, recreation areas, historical sites, and national parks. Collectively, these sites receive about 70 million visitors a year—with more than 10 million of them heading to just one national park in particular (Great Smoky Mountains).

Short of visiting in winter and hiking deep into the backcountry, the parks' popularity can make it tricky to find your own slice of solitude. Tricky, but not impossible. Here are 10 scenic spots you can have all to yourself inside the country's most-visited national parks.

Spruce Flats Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw more than 10 million visitors in 2014. That's more than the Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined. But given that the majority of those visitors saw the park from the scenic highway that winds its way through the mountains, you'll have an easier time finding your own area of the park if you're willing to get out of the car.

More than 800 miles of hiking trails carve their way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which sprawls across North Carolina and Tennessee. One of the best secret gems is the short, moderately steep trail to the hidden Spruce Flats Falls. The trail, not shown on most park maps, begins behind the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. After parking at the visitor center, head up the gravel path that leads toward the staff housing area. When the trail splits, head right and make your way downhill to the base of the falls. You may pass school groups, but the quick two-mile round-trip hike is worth it to see the nearly 30-foot multi-tiered waterfall.

Toroweap Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park

Nearly 5 million people visited Grand Canyon National Park in 2014. About 90 percent of them head to the South Rim, while the remaining few drive the extra distance to the North Rim. But just because you head north doesn't mean you're out of the woods (or crowds) yet. Finding a secret slice of Grand Canyon National Park requires you to think beyond the developed rims.

One of the best spots, kept secret mostly because it requires navigating 60 miles of the unpaved Country Road # 109 and has no services, is the Toroweap Overlook. Located in the northwest of the park, abutting the just-as-remote Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, the Toroweap Overlook (also known as Tuweep) offers visitors to the primitive area views of one of the narrowest and deepest portions of the inner canyon. In addition to the Colorado River 3,000 feet below, you'll see remnants from the area's volcanic activity.

A high-clearance vehicle is must for the last three miles, and it's worth booking one of the nine campsites (available by permit) so you can take in the view at sunrise and sunset while still having time to explore the area's two hiking trails.

Related: 10 Must-See Natural Wonders Near the Grand Canyon

Artist Point, Yosemite National Park

While nearly 4 million visitors come to Yosemite National Park each year, most of them never leave Yosemite Valley. Granted, the seven-mile-long canyon—carved from a river and later enlarged by glaciers—is worth the visit because of its views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. But the real beauty of Yosemite National Park lies in the acres of unspoiled nature it preserves.

Let the hordes of tourists unload for a quick photo op at Tunnel View. You can use this as your parking area to reach the just-as-spectacular view at Artist Point. The trailhead starts on the uphill side of the road. You'll walk along the Pohono Trail for about a half-mile before hanging left when it meets up with the old stagecoach road that leads into Yosemite Valley. After another half mile, you'll know you've arrived when you hear yourself inhaling deeply. Return the same way you came.

Point Sublime, Yellowstone National Park

The world's first national park attracts just over 3.5 million annual visitors, many of which unload from tour buses, wait on Old Faithful, and depart shortly thereafter. Depending on your crowd tolerance, it may feel like there are 3.5 million people sitting right around the geyser at any given point. But with more than 2.2 million acres and over 900 miles of hiking trails, Yellowstone National Park holds a ton of hidden-in-plain sight trails that remains relatively unused despite their easy access.

Travel just over half a mile on the South Rim Trail before heading the additional half-mile to Point Sublime. You'll arguably have better, more expansive views of the yellowy, pink, and orange-striped canyon, the Yellowstone River, and the Lower Falls than you can find at any of the made-for-car viewpoints.

Whatever you do at Yellowstone, as long as you get out of the car and head away from the roads, you'll likely find wildlife, aquamarine pools, mudpots, and waterfalls that the majority of park visitors didn't even know existed.

Related: 10 National Parks You Never Knew Existed

Lulu City, Rocky Mountain National Park

Of the hundreds of trails available to hikers, most visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park opt for summit hikes (the park has 60 peaks that tower more than 12,000 feet) or trails that lead to lakes or waterfalls. The trail to Lulu City doesn't lead to any of these, but it gets bonus points for taking you to the site of a late 1880s mining camp.

You can find the ghost town by starting at the Colorado River Trailhead. You'll parallel the river and, if you're looking, will spot tailings from the Shipler Mine about two miles into the hike. Pass by meadows before reaching remains of cabins and old building foundations on this fairly easy 3.7-mile one-way trail.

To extend your hike and see Little Yellowstone (the park's miniature version of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone), stay right when you come to the fork for Lulu City. Once you're at the canyon, follow the Grand Ditch until you meet the stage road that will take you to Lulu City for a total loop of nearly 14 miles.

Beach 1 and Beach 2, Olympic National Park

Most visitors stick to the rainforest and mountains—Hoh Rainforest, Hurricane Ridge, Lake Quinault—when they visit the Olympic National Park. Those that do opt to visit the coast usually head to well-known beaches like Kalaloch, Ruby, and Shi Shi. All of these places have, indeed, earned their reputation and demand a visit. But for your own strip of sand with easy access that doesn't require a miles-long trek, pay a visit to Beach 1 and Beach 2 before Kalaloch when heading north on Highway 101, or Beach 3 and Beach 4 after Kalaloch (but before Ruby Beach).

Don't confuse these with First, second, and third beaches near The Forks, unless you want to hang out with rabid Twilight fans. Look carefully on the right side of the road for small pullouts where you can park. Some may mark which beach you're at, but it's easy to drive past. Short trails through the woods open up to vast expanses of some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Washington (and sandier than some of their more famous counterparts). As with any coastal visit, check the tides beforehand, look for any signs marking overland trails, and watch for high waves that make the tree trunks scattering the beach quite dangerous.

Related: 10 Crowd-Free National Parks

Petroglyph Canyon, Zion National Park

Most visitors to Zion National Park come for the natural wonders as seen from popular hikes like Angel's Landing, the Narrows, and even the lesser-known-because-it's-so-hard-to-get-a-permit Subway. But if you're not most visitors, consider adding a visit to one of the park's cultural wonders: Petroglyph Canyon.

The canyon is very hush-hush—even if you ask a ranger about it—likely because touching has already eroded some of the other areas in the park known for petroglyphs. Plus, deliberate vandalism continues to threaten the delicate rock art. This particular archeological site features more than 150 figures, nearly all petroglyphs (incised images) with one small red triangle pictograph (painted image). Instead of giving convoluted directions to the site, we urge you to respect the preservation efforts of the National Park Service and consult a park ranger at the visitor's center if you're interested in this piece of history.

Bradley Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Fortunately for visitors to the Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park sits below Yellowstone, drastically reducing the number of people that actually stop. For a relatively flat hike leading to iconic Teton scenery, head to Bradley Lake. You can opt to start from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead or the Taggart Lake Trailhead. From either trail, there are multiple paths that stray off, so it's easy to get lost. But the beauty in this is if you have a map, you can make it to Bradley Lake and shake off some of the other hikers—if there are any.

From the Taggart Lake Trailhead, you can make this into about a six-mile loop hike or opt to go a bit further and look for the Avalanche Canyon trail. Unmarked on maps, enough people travel this trail that it's fairly noticeable, despite debris from avalanches sometimes blocking portions of the path. Look for the trail on the north shore of Lake Taggart. As you move up the canyon, cairns mark the path that eventually leads to Lake Taminah. However, if you've made it that far, you have (hopefully) planned for an overnight trip and have bear canisters—this is grizzly country, after all.

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park

Most people associate a visit to Acadia National Park with a visit to Mount Desert Island. But even though the majority of the park is located there, opt to visit the only section of the park that's connected to the mainland. The Schoodic Peninsula, in particular Schoodic Point at the peninsula's tip, offers quintessential views of waves throwing a salty spray into the air as they crash against granite cliffs.

The park also includes several islands, many favored by birds for nesting, including Little Moose Island, visible from Schoodic Point. Rent a kayak to paddle there, or access it by foot at low tide (just make sure you head out before the tide turns). Paddling to the Porcupine islands—off the coast of Bar Harbor—is another great option.

Related: 27 Places That Will Restore Your Faith in Travel

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road is considered by many to be one of the world's most spectacular drives. But off this road (the main highway through Glacier National park) you can find one of the most remote sections of the park: Bowman Lake.

Don't get discouraged based on the long trek down pothole-laced roads. The ride is worth it, with a campground at one end of the eight-mile lake and a backcountry campsite at the other. Use the spot as a launching point for day hikes like the Numa Ridge Lookout trail that leads to a fire watch cabin and views of several area peaks and lakes. Or just use the off-the-beaten-path location as an excuse to zen out.

But perhaps the biggest secret of Glacier National Park is to visit now: Fewer than 25 of the park's 150 glaciers remain, with the lingering glaciers expected to permanently disappear by 2030.

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Read the original story: 10 Secret Spots in America's Top National Parks by Kate Sitarz, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Glacier National Park, Montana via Shutterstock)

10 Things You Need on Every Road Trip

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Load up the car—summer is here, which means it's time to indulge in the classic American road trip. Whether you're just heading a few hours away to the beach or venturing cross-country, you shouldn't take your car out of park until you've packed these 10 essentials. 

SuperVizor

Designed by a New York City Paramedic, the SuperVizor could save your life. Store this little gadget on your car's sun visor in case of an emergency—it's got a stainless steel seatbelt-cutting blade and a carbide tip window punch that will help you escape your vehicle if there's an accident.

Related: 7 Safety Tips for Road Trips

Bobble Water Bottle

Unsure about the quality of water you're getting when you re-fill your bottle at a rest stop? Ease your worries with the Bobble, a reusable water bottle that comes with a replaceable carbon filter designed to make tap water cleaner and better tasting.

Reed's Ginger Chews

Motion sickness can put a damper on any journey. Pack a big bag of Reed's Original Ginger Candy Chews to help stave off nausea. (Ginger root is proven to help with digestive issues.)

Pet Safety Harness

Your pet deserves to be safe in the car, too. Buckle your cat or dog in with a Pet Safety Harness, which works with all pet leads and car seat belts to keep your animals restrained in case of an accident.

Related: Expert Tips for Pet Travel

Just Ahead App

If the national parks are on your itinerary this summer, download the Just Ahead app, a set of audio travel guides that will alert you when attractions and things to do come up as you drive through areas. You don't even need cell phone or internet coverage for this app to work.

BiteSizers Portable Food Scissors

Bringing healthy snacks with you on the road? The BiteSizers Portable Food Scissors eare travel-friendly food cutters. Cut up fruits and veggies into convenient snack-sized portions, and save money and time by not stopping for fast food.

Scout App

Download the Scout app and you'll feel like you've got an expert guide riding shotgun with you. This app can find the cheapest gas stations near you, read aloud turn-by-turn directions, and find the best parking options near your destination.

Secur Products 6-in1

This little device has everything you need in case of an emergency—a window breaker, seatbelt cutter, a built-in LED flashlight, a flashing emergency red light, and a power bank to charge all your USB devices.

Related: Tiny Travel Gadgets You Didn't Know You Needed

AAA Emergency Road-Assistance Kit

Be prepared for anything with this 42-piece emergency road-assistance kit from AAA. It contains everything that safety experts say you should keep in your vehicle (like a flashlight with batteries, booster cables, duct tape, an emergency poncho, and first aid supplies) all packaged in a handy carrying bag.

Portable DVD Player

Kids aren't quite known for their patience on long drives. Keep them entertained (and quiet) with this super-affordable portable DVD player. It's even got an integrated handle to make it easy for little hands to carry.

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Read the original story: Don't Leave Home Without These Road-Trip Essentials by Caroline Morse, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

The Best Travel Bags for Guys

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Man With Messenger Bag via Shutterstock)

I don't know about you, but I don't travel as light as I used to. Between my books, magazines, phone, iPad, and a rat's nest of chargers, cords, and accessories, preparing for a flight is no longer a simple process.

Guys, a good backpack or shoulder bag is a must—something that fits all your gear and looks halfway decent while you're carting it around the airport. Sure, you could borrow your nephew's hand-me-down Jansport, but you're a classy adult male, right? Try to look the part.

Here you'll find seven bags that are perfect for seven different kinds of travelers. But before we get to the list, let's review a few tips for shopping for the perfect travel day bag:

(Photo: Genius Pack)

Genius Pack Intelligent Travel Backpack

For the organization nut: This is the bag for guys who need everything in its right place. Tiny (labeled) pocket for your keys? Check. Zippered pouch for sunglasses? Check. Integrated pop-out micro umbrella? You bet. The Genius Pack Intelligent Travel Backpack also includes a laptop sleeve, mobile device charging capabilities, and a compact integrated speaker. (From $59.)

Related: 8 Tiny Travel Gadgets You Didn't Know You Needed

(Photo: Brenthaven)

Mercer Messenger Bag from Brenthaven

For the stylish gadget lover: The Mercer Messenger Bag from Brenthaven hides a nerdy soul beneath its classy leather exterior. The bag features an integrated portable charging supply, padded sleeves for your laptop and tablet, and plenty of pockets for your cords and other accessories. The Mercer even boasts added padding on the bottom of the bag for that extra gadget-cradling effect. (From $299.)

(Photo: Oliberte)

Oliberte Flora Rustic Brown Pullup

For the socially conscious explorer: Oliberte focuses on sustainable sourcing and supporting its workers’ rights in sub-Saharan Africa. They also happen to make some great, rugged bags. The Flora is a simple leather rucksack, but the quality and care is undeniable. It's a bag that should last as long as you do, and you'll feel good about the purchase as well. (From $125.)

Related: How to Travel Without a Bag

(Photo: Fossil)

Men's Estate Saffiano Leather EW Messenger Bag from Fossil

For the traditionalist: There's nothing basic about the Estate Saffiano Leather EW Messenger Bag from Fossil, but its straightforward look appeals to guys who appreciate simplicity. The spacious interior has plenty of room for a laptop or tablet (or both), plus books, headphones, and other travel essentials. Exterior pockets keep your phone, passport, and keys at hand, and the leather and brass details are a nice, understated touch. (From $298.)

(Photo: Nixon)

Swamis Backpack from Nixon

For when you just have to be a little different: The Swamis Backpack from Nixon is a little funky. It's a roll-top backpack, for starters, and it comes in a number of bold patterns. It's also the least-expensive option on the list and offers a lot in terms of space, comfort, and versatility, not to mention a lifetime warranty. It's a unique bag for a unique gentleman, and also a pretty good bag for the avid traveler. (From $58.)

Related: Travel Essentials That Are Worth the Splurge

Brixton Camera/Laptop Messenger Bag

For the photographer: Whether you're a professional photographer or just an avid amateur, this may be the most stylish bag for transporting all your gear. The Brixton features padded compartments designed to hold a camera, two to three lenses, and a laptop (up to 13-inch); plus two front pockets for cords, chargers, lens caps, and anything else you might need. There's even a sleeve for a tablet. Oh, and it's handsomely constructed, either of waxed canvas with leather details or fully of Italian tanned leather. (From $289.)

BaileyWorks 253 Courier

For the fixie-riding (but mature) skater punk: All this leather and waxed canvas is great, but for a different look try the BaileyWorks 253 Courier. Popular with the bike messenger crowd for its rugged construction and thoughtful details like a reflective strip and waist strap, these bags are handmade in the USA and highly customizable. Choose from almost 20 colors plus add-ons like cell-phone koozies and a water-bottle holder. I’ve had one for 10 years and during that time I’ve never boarded a plane without mine. Oh, and your Black Flag pin will look great on it, trust me. (From $119.)

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Read the original story: The Best Travel Bag for Guys by Carl Unger, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

Ticket-Change Fees: Time for a Change?

Posted June 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

How much should travelers be charged to change their airline tickets?

As much as $200 for a domestic ticket, and hundreds more for an international ticket, according to the airlines.

Much less, according to two consumer-rights groups, Flyersrights.org and the National Consumers League.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection, the two sides made their opposing cases.  And in the coming weeks, the Committee will make a recommendation to the DOT, which is charged with ensuring that fares and fees are "reasonable."

The airlines' argument is a familiar one: Change fees are actually a consumer benefit, since they're only imposed on cheaper tickets, which save travelers money.  And as to the fee amounts, market forces are sufficient to keep airlines from imposing fees that are egregiously high.  In other words, it's all good.

The counterargument is that the fees do not reflect the true cost to the airlines of changing tickets, and are therefore a gouge.  As a Flyersrights.org representative put it, "They're clearly unreasonable.  They are a penalty or fine."

Among the specific recommendations made by the fee detractors:

U.S. airlines reported that 2 percent of their total revenue came from change fees during the 1st quarter of 2015, up 5.8 percent during a period when airfares only rose 2.4 percent.

If the airlines have their way, the sky's the limit, and flyers will be the losers.

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Read the original story: Ticket-Change Fees: Time for a Change? by Tim Winship, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.


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