10 Places You Shouldn't Go If You're Phobic

Posted October 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/Hemera)

Afraid of clowns? We suggest you steer clear of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Can't stand bats? Maybe Austin isn't the city for you. In this, our most macabre month, we're taking a look at 10 places known for the kind of spectacles that many people would travel the world to see … and a few would go to any lengths to avoid. So if you're terrified of darkness, lightning, underground spaces, and other phobic "delights," we suggest you avoid these 10 otherwise lovely destinations around the world.

Fear of Lightning: Catatumbo Delta, Venezuela

The flickering sky triggers an intense physical reaction in people with astraphobia, the fear of lightning and thunder. Hands down, the worst destination for anyone afflicted with this malady is Venezuela's Catatumbo Delta, where a massive storm rages nearly every night over the Catatumbo River. The Catatumbo Lightning can last for up to 10 hours per night, producing an estimated million lightning strikes each year. A number of tour companies run lightning-watching trips to the area, some as part of longer itineraries.

Fear of Clowns: Baraboo, Wisconsin

Clowns: To some, they're a source of constant delight, to others, endless horror. The small town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, should be approached with extreme caution by anyone with coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. In the 19th century, Baraboo earned the name "Circus City" as it was the headquarters of several circuses, including the Ringling Brothers Circus. Today, the town remains home to Circus World, a museum complex featuring the largest library of circus information in the United States.

And while there are plenty of other things to do in Baraboo (including a railway museum and a big-cat rescue center), beware: Circus artifacts are sometimes part of town festivals and parades.

Fear of Heights: Grand Canyon National Park

When you've got a severe fear of heights, the best view is always the one from ground level. And because heights are everywhere when you travel—from the flight itself to fun-for-most activities like coastal cliff walks and skyscraper city views—for acrophobes, panic-inducing moments lurk in the shadows of even the sunniest vacations.

While it's absolutely possible to enjoy the best of the national park system even with a fear of heights, acrophobes should consider skipping the Grand Canyon in general and, specifically, not even think about taking a stroll on the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway suspended 4,000 feet about the canyon floor.

Fear of the Dark: Tromso, Norway

Nyctophobia, more commonly known as fear of the dark, is so common in childhood that even the most unflappable adult likely remembers a time when nighttime felt scary. Each winter, a nyctophobic nightmare plays out as polar night blankets the far north in constant darkness that stretches for days or weeks. Tromsø in Norway, known as one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, makes the most of its polar-night season—which stretches from November 21 to January 21—with festivals and cultural events. This period of darkness and twilight may frighten some, but night owls and party people rejoice with an extra-lively nightlife scene in winter.

Fear of Water: Venice, Italy

Aquaphobia, the fear of water, is not an easy affliction to live—or travel—with. Especially not in Venice, Italy, where water is everywhere. You must cross over water to enter the city, and once there, it's nearly impossible to get around without crossing over canals large and small. In this city without cars, water buses and taxis are the primary ways to get around.

Even sitting still, water feels close, lapping up against the stones of the canals and overflowing onto sidewalks and streets during the acqua alta.

Fear of Bats: Austin, Texas

Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge is the ultimate test for recovering chiroptophobes. Few other cities on Earth offer such a dramatic—and to anyone with a fear of bats, utterly alarming—nightly spectacle. Each evening between March and October, crowds gather at dusk to watch as 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats leave their daytime home under the bridge and emerge like a swirling black ribbon up into the sky.

Ready for some serious exposure therapy? Try a kayak tour that puts you under the bridge to watch the show.

Fear of Small Spaces: Budapest, Hungary

Don't know if you're claustrophobic? Here's a test: Imagine wiggling through tight spaces no larger than a sturdy pair of hips in order to get to more small spaces. The visceral aversion to small spaces is among the most common phobias, and for sufferers, even hearing the word "claustrophobia" can make it hard to breathe. Caving, naturally, tends not to be a favorite pastime of the claustrophobe, which is why sufferers should make sure to stay aboveground while in Budapest, Hungary. Under its city streets sits the large Palvolgyi-Matyashegyi cave system.

Urban thrill seekers can don headlamps and helmets and spelunk their way through the subterranean labyrinth. Claustrophobes can stay aboveground and sip coffee. Everyone wins.

Fear of Crabs: Christmas Island, Australia

No one wants to get pinched by a crab while wading in the ocean, but for people with a strong fear of crustaceans, the possibility is enough to ruin a trip to the beach. Even the thought of seeing a crab may be too much to bear, which is why anyone suffering from this fear should never go to Australia's Christmas Island in October or November. It's around this time that the island's massive red crab population makes its annual migration from the rainforest to the coast to breed. Millions of crabs—each up to five inches across—gather together in broad streams, flooding roads and scaling cliffs to reach the ocean.

Fear of Crowds: Megacities of the World

Agoraphobia, enochlophobia, ochlophobia … there are actually a number of different types of phobias focused on the fear of crowds. No matter what you call it, if the mere thought of crowds pressing in all around you sends you into a panicky tailspin, then you'll do well to avoid the world's densest cities.

As of 2013, 28 cities around the world fit the "megacity" criteria of having more than 10 million people. And while some of these massively populated urban areas are spread out, others, like Mumbai, India, have incredibly high population densities, causing them to feel crowded in a way most North Americans have never experienced.

Fear of Sharks: Guadalupe Island, Mexico

Whether Jaws is to blame or there's a more primal survival instinct that triggers the extreme fear of sharks, there's no doubt that galeophobia can seriously compromise beach vacations, ocean sunsets, and three-hour cruises. And unless it's an act of extreme exposure therapy, the shark-averse should not visit Mexico's Guadalupe Island. Its waters are famed for great white sharks and attract cage divers, photographers, and shark nuts from around the world.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Places You Shouldn't Go If You're Phobic.Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Ways Social Media Can Make Your Trip Amazing

Posted October 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images)

Tagging. Trending. Latergram. #Selfie.

If these terms make you break out in hives, you're not alone. Social media often gets side-eyed as a way for bored teenagers to communicate or a receptacle for Aunt Beth's cat photos. But social media can actually help you have a better trip, if you know how to use the tools that are at your fingertips. 

Whether you're crowdsourcing recommendations, chatting with your airline through Twitter, or connecting with locals via Instagram, there are countless ways you can wield social media to have a more personal, memorable vacation experience.

Make Your Voice Heard

Companies use Twitter to engage with users and promote their brands as engaging, accessible, and current. And this is exactly why you should always follow your airline.

Not only do airlines tweet updates about weather conditions, closures, and airfare deals, but most do great jobs of interacting with followers (and some, like JetBlue, are even pretty funny). Twitter is the perfect platform for airing a complaint, voicing a concern, or even applauding an airline's good work to a large audience. I've had success in the past tweeting at my airline to ask for an update on a delayed flight or to check if an upgrade is available; often, the response is instantaneous. Why? Because airlines know it makes them look good and it makes travelers feel positive about them—it's a win-win for traveler and travel provider.

Just don't take your tweeting too far, like this Southwest passenger did—he ended up getting booted from the plane. Always be polite and constructive in your communication; a real live human is behind that account, after all.

Create Memories, Get Followers

In an ever-rising sea of social media, Instagram remains my favorite platform: It's low-investment, easy to use, and inspiring. When taking photos on the road, I generally hashtag and geo-tag my location. That way, I can compare my photos to those from other users, scout for other cool spots and photo ops in the area, and connect with amazing travel photographers around the world. Other users, tourism departments, and publications may regram your photos, meaning thousands of people could see your artwork. And you'll be making memories as you go.

Not yet an Instagrammer or not sure where to start? Follow us to get an easy introduction. We love hashtags.

Let LinkedIn Do the Job for You

Twitter isn't the only channel for reaching a customer-service agent. You probably have a LinkedIn account in order to stay current in the job market, but the professional network and social media channel can also help you get in touch with your airline. In July, KLM announced that it was launching 24/7 customer service through the platform. Ticketholders can use their LinkedIn accounts to chat with customer-service agents, reserve seats, rebook flights, and even make arrangements for additional baggage. No more hold music? We'll take it.

Crowdsource

Whether you're still in the planning stages or already on the ground, it's a good idea to pick the brains of your fellow travelers. The easiest way to do this is via Twitter: Send out a tweet to your followers and the world at large asking for dining, attractions, and hotel advice. Tweet at and follow the tourism department of your destination as well; they may blast out recommendations and deals you won't see elsewhere. And participate in recurring travel-related chats; you can follow us to see when discussions take place and provide your own recommendations, tips, and photos.

You may also want to check Reddit or download a Reddit app and subscribe to your destination's subreddit. The /r/Travel subreddit is also a great resource for researching flights, restaurants, pricing, and seasonality.

Stay Current

In recent years, Twitter and other social media platforms have been instrumental in shaping world events, allowing users to share important and often lifesaving information. For any destination—but especially for the ones where unrest may break out or weather may turn dangerous—use Twitter to stay in the know. Follow your destination's news and media outlets and weather stations. If you're concerned about international safety, follow the U.S. Department of State and the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. The latter account blasts out travel warnings and safety information; the responder can also help with passport-related questions and emergencies. You can activate Twitter alerts via highlighted tweets, text messages, or push notifications as well.

Score Free Perks

We recently rounded up a number of ways that the average traveler can leverage their social media accounts, no matter how small, to score free stuff. Airlines, hotels, and other travel providers often offer special deals to followers. For example, Starwood offers points to loyalty-program members who link their Facebook and Foursquare accounts with their Starwood accounts; these points can be redeemed for hotel nights and flights. Other hotels or restaurants may offer free goodies if you check in on Foursquare or Yelp, or they may blast out special Twitter- or Facebook-only deals for followers. And still other vendors hold periodic contests in which users can enter to win prizes for retweeting, regramming, or checking in. Deals and contests come and go, of course, so it's best to follow and monitor your provider in the hopes of getting lucky.

Stay Safe

Users' safety and privacy is often a concern when it comes to social media. Disclosing too much personal information on the Web can be dangerous, whether you're at home or on the road. (We recommend making accounts private, limiting direct messages, and never displaying your phone number or address.) But there's a bright side to maintaining an online identity: It can actually help keep you safe. Airbnb, for instance, offers Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn verification for renters and users alike. I always connect with vacation-rental owners through social media before a stay; it reassures me that both owner and apartment are legit.

In general, both Facebook and Twitter offer the benefit of allowing travelers to stay in touch with loved ones (helpful in foreign countries where you may not have cell service). In times of unrest, natural disasters, or bad weather, you can reach out to followers, friends, and family and get up-to-the-second information on developments.

Readers, do you know any other ways to use social media to make your vacations better? Share with us in the comments below or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Pinterest.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Ways Social Media Can Make Your Trip Amazing.

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

Review: Air Canada's Automated Bag Handling

Posted October 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

What Is It: At Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport, which serves as Air Canada's hub, a simplified baggage handling process sends checked bags directly on to connecting flights so that travelers no longer have to retrieve and recheck bags for U.S. Customs inspection.

Price and Where to Buy: This is a free service offered on all flights that connect in Toronto and continue on to Air Canada's U.S. destinations.

Pros: Ease of use! I came away fully impressed with the service. No waiting in long lines, no fretting about missing a connection, no stress of any kind. I connected in Toronto en route from Beijing to New York, and I was responsible for my carry-on bag alone; my checked luggage made it from Asia to the U.S. with no difficulty. As I had a relatively tight connection for an international route, this was a real game changer for me.

When I talk about this Air Canada experience with friends and family, I always contrast it with the experience I had with United in Newark about a month later. In that case, I was traveling home from Frankfurt to Boston via Newark. My flight arrived in Newark with about 2.5 hours between connections. Thankfully in this case I'd traveled carry-on only, because the line to claim and recheck bags through U.S. customs was about a mile long and showed no indication that it was actually moving at any point during my observations.

Would I have made my connection with United? Possibly. I actually doubt it, but I don't discount the potential for a miracle, so for the sake of argument let's suppose I did. Would I have boarded my plane stressed and angry? Absolutely. The contrast between Toronto's fully automated baggage handling process and Newark's medieval claim-and-recheck gauntlet was a real eye-opener.

Cons: As far as I know, the fully automated baggage handling is still only available at Toronto and not any of Air Canada's other U.S. gateway airports.

How it Rates:

  • Comfort: 10/10. No dragging my luggage through the airport.
  • Convenience: 10/10. I experienced no hitches with the process.
  • Value: 10/10. It's free!
  • Cool Factor: 10/10. Nothing's cooler than returning stateside without the usual airport hassles.

Final Verdict: I will connect through Air Canada's Toronto hub at every opportunity. This is a great service. Other airlines could learn a thing or two from it!

Editor's Note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, durability, value, and "cool factor." Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email editor@smartertravel.com.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Product Review: Air Canada's Fully Automated Baggage Handling.

Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Airport Food Trends That Will Make You Love Your Layover

Posted October 22, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Pop-Up Indoor Park (Photo: Heathrow Airport)

As a general rule, I hate airport food. But once in a while, a culinary gem appears between the Starbucks and the Burger King, elevating terminal eating with the fresh, the organic, the artful plate garnished with sweet tomato chutney and a sprig of mint. I'm happy to report that such finds are becoming increasingly commonplace. Travelers passing from gate to gate are no longer considered a captive audience, forced to consume whatever's available. From food trucks to farmers' markets, airports are offering more enjoyable choices to hungry flyers. These awesome airport dining trends—some brand-new, some old but solidly growing—will take your next airport culinary experience to new heights.

Food Trucks

What's the airport's answer to food trucks? Food carts, of course; they're more practical for indoor use. Whatever the vehicle, it's about time that locally owned food trucks brought their portable, fun street fare to the terminal (which needs all the fun it can get). Popular Portland, Oregon, food truck KOi Fusion opened a cart at Portland International Airport this month. The Asian-fusion truck, which serves tacos, burritos, and kimchi quesadillas at locations around the city, has set up shop, cart-style, before the security checkpoint at PDX. Next to KOi Fusion, you'll find the mobile version of Michelin-starred chef Andy Ricker's Pok Pok restaurant. The carts will operate on a six-month rotation, so look for new setups if you're heading through Portland International after spring.

Local Flavors

This isn't a new thing, as you probably know. Airport restaurants have been riffing on local culinary specialties for quite a number of years. At this point, it's rare to find a major hub bereft of restaurants serving popular regional foods. But there are noteworthy newcomers to the town-to-terminal food scene. We're not talking about weak facsimiles of local specialties; these are authentic homegrown food brands with established community followings. Here are just a few examples: Caplansky's Delicatessen, an old-school deli in Toronto's Little Italy, has just opened a location in Terminal 3 at Toronto Pearson International Airport. You can take your Reuben to go and make your seatmate either jealous or annoyed with the smell. Noted Denver hot dog spot Steve's Snappin' Dogs has come to Denver International's B Concourse this year. And look for an outpost of The Country Cat to open at Portland International in early 2015. 

Farmers' Markets

Imagine picking up something fresh, seasonal, and good for you moments before a flight, instead of a pile of stomach-turning, greasy lo mein on a plastic tray. Thanks to the Berkshire Farms Market at Boston Logan, which opened in spring, flyers can grab made-to-order smoothies from South End Buttery, just-baked Iggy's bread, or home-brewed Fire Cider in Terminal B. These days, you'll find market-style operations at several other airports, too. The restaurant group that operates Logan's Berkshire Farms Market is called Tastes on the Fly, and it also runs the popular Napa Farms Market in San Francisco International's Terminal 2. And in June, Los Angeles International Airport welcomed an outpost of the Original Farmers Market to Terminal 5.

Airport Restaurant Month

It's Airport Restaurant Month! The first-ever Airport Restaurant Month, in fact. Right now, this October, travelers can get special meals for special prices at participating restaurants in the U.S., just like a typical city restaurant week. Twenty airports have signed up for the program and are offering multicourse menus for between $17 and $25. Those costs don't include alcohol, but recommended wine parings will accompany most menus. This program was set up by restaurant operator HMSHost; see the full list of participating airports on the company's website.

Pop Up Restaurants

Hallo Hello, a restaurant that encourages strangers to share meals with one another, opened a pop-up location at Copenhagen Airport that ran for four weeks in September. On Restaurant Day last August, Helsinki hosted pop-up versions of local dining joints in four sites around its airport. London's Heathrow was the fleeting home of a pop-up ceviche restaurant in the airport's Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. We smell a trend. With ever-changing crowds of travelers passing through, plus plenty of space for retail and dining across terminals and airline lounges, airports are prime settings for pop-up dining venues. These events are typically short-lived, so it's difficult to plan ahead for attendance. But stumbling upon a really cool temporary eatery while passing through a terminal would be quite the culinary win, I think. Many of the pop-ups are announced on airport Twitter pages. Keep your eyes peeled and your smartphones at hand.

High-Tech Restaurant Tables

Do you prop up your laptop beside you whenever you sit down for an airport meal? Well, you're in luck. A handful of airport restaurants are installing iPads at their tables. The purpose of these flat-screened dining companions: You can read the menu, check your flight status, and even order and pay for your food via the touch-screen device. According to a report from the Washington City Paper's blog, restaurants under construction in Reagan National Airport's Terminal A will feature iPads at tables. Denver International is also getting this innovative upgrade at dining establishments in Concourse C by mid-December. I hope we can succeed in not getting ketchup all over the screens.

Onboard Picnics

Lots of airports offer to-go meals for in-air consumption. London Heathrow, however, is taking the takeaway concept to new levels—the grab-and-go has gone gourmet. Passengers can purchase prepared fine-dining meals at 118 restaurants at Heathrow, including that famous contrivance of Gordon Ramsay, Plane Food. The program offers a virtually unlimited range of takeaway options for travelers, and prices vary wildly. You can grab a sandwich at Pret and pay just a few pounds. The King Seafood Platter at Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar, by contrast, costs £145.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Delicious Airport Fare That Will Make You Love Your Layover.

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

What's New in Premium Economy?

Posted October 17, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Lufthansa is the latest major holdout to join the group of giant airlines offering premium-economy class. All newly delivered 747-8s incorporate the new cabin, with initial routes linking Frankfurt with Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington. The airline will start offering premium economy on its A380s and A340s next spring, with installation completed by the end of next year. Lufthansa's product will closely resemble that of Air France.

Lufthansa's announcement suggests an overall update of premium economy. The basic idea is simple: The gap between economy class and business class has become immense over the last decade, in both product quality and cost. Here's how:

* Among the world's major airlines, business class has become opulent beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The emerging norm is seats that convert to fully horizontal lie-flat beds for overnight flights, elaborate meal service, generous baggage allowances, and special ground facilities and services; airlines currently operating business class with seats that convert to flat beds at an angle are rushing to convert to the lie-flat design. Business class has become so lavish that many lines have completely abandoned first class.

* Economy class, on the other hand, keeps getting worse: ever-tightening legroom, narrower seats, minimal cabin service, fees for practically everything, and general cattle-car treatment.

* The difference is reflected in the fares: From Boston to London in mid-November, for example, current economy round-trip fares for nonstop flights start at $800, while business class starts at $6,000, more than seven times as much.

Enter premium economy: better than regular economy, cheaper than business class. But different airlines have implemented this idea in different ways. Most big Asian, European, and Pacific lines have opted for what I call "genuine" premium economy. Seats are 2–3 inches wider at shoulder level than seats in regular economy, meal and beverage services are better, extras do not require fees, and most lines provide preferred check-in lines. Standard layouts are 2-2-2 in 767s; 2-3-2 in A330-340s, A380 upper decks, and 787s; and 2-4-2 in 747s and 777s. Seat pitch (front-to-rear spacing of set rows) of 37–40 inches provides 6–8 inches more legroom than conventional economy. Air Canada is the only North American line to offer genuine premium economy on a few planes.

Fare differences are inconsistent, but premium is typically 60 percent to 90 percent higher than regular economy. Here are some sample round-trip fares for nonstop travel in mid-February:

* From Washington to Frankfurt on Lufthansa: $1,635 in premium compared to $1,237 in economy.

* New York to Paris on Air France: $1,479 in premium compared to $1,239 in economy.

* New York to London on British Airways: $1,526 in premium compared to $973 in economy.

* Los Angeles to Taipei on EVA: $1,608 in premium compared to $973 in economy.

No U.S. airline offers genuine premium economy; instead, many now offer what I call semi-premium economy—regular narrow economy seats with an extra 3–6 inches of legroom—at fares up to $150 or so more than regular economy. KLM also uses this system.

I know of only two airlines that offer a premium-economy approach in 757s: OpenSkies, with what seems to be above average service at good prices (although I haven't been able to try it), and Icelandair, which touts its equivalent service as a business class but is really about the same as other lines' premium economy. And the "business class" featured by the several charter-style airlines that fly across the Atlantic is actually about what other lines would call premium economy.

All this leads to three conclusions:

* Premium economy generally seems to target business travelers whose companies won't pay for business class. Prices are too stiff to appeal to all but the most affluent vacation travelers.

* But when it's on sale, as currently with Air France, premium economy can look attractive enough to tempt leisure travelers who are fed up with the miseries of regular economy. If you're interested, keep on the lookout for premium "sales."

* No U.S. airlines seem likely to switch to genuine premium economy anytime soon. But they sell it—and you can access it—on flights operated by codeshare partners.

These days, most big metasearch engines and online travel agencies provide price searches for premium economy. And airline-seating websites such as SeatGuru post seating details.

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

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Premium Economy: What's New in Airline-Seating Classification? Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

11 Things You Should Never Delay Before Your Trip

Posted October 16, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

You want to wait until the last minute to pack? Go for it. Prefer to read up on your destination only when you're on the plane? Sounds good. But there are some things that even the most fly-by-the-seat traveler must do before setting off. Here are 11 planning pitfalls—irksome oversights and full-on show-stoppers—that are brilliantly avoidable, as long as you address them well in advance. From getting the proper immunizations to breaking in new shoes, here's what you need to be thinking about in the days, weeks, and months before your next trip.

Get Immunizations

Heading to Argentina? Make sure you have your typhoid shot. Going to China? You'll need a hepatitis A vaccine. Since getting the proper vaccinations means booking medical appointments and sometimes requires more than one dose (often spaced a few weeks or months apart), it's not something you can do at the last minute. The CDC's Travelers Health tool offers comprehensive information about vaccination recommendations by country.

Keep in mind that even in countries where special vaccinations aren't necessary, it's important to make sure you're up-to-date on all your routine vaccinations—including measles-mumps-rubella and diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis.

Break in New Shoes

Breaking in new shoes, especially the pairs you'll be using intensively on your travels, should never be left to the last minute. It can take days or weeks of short-term wear to effectively and painlessly get a new pair of shoes vacation-ready. Try to cram the breaking-in process into a few days pre-trip and you may end up with blisters that will not only make you hate the shoes but can also make walking uncomfortable right from the start of your trip.

Download Movies

Traveling with your own entertainment is great. Layovers, long flights, and delays simply aren't as bad if you can fill the time catching up on movies. But even with a fast Internet connection, downloading movies is still a surprisingly slow process. As a general rule, it's a good idea to prepare your tablet (or phone, or laptop) at least a day in advance, giving your device plenty of time with a fast connection so you can add whatever movies, TV shows, or books you want to take. Because waiting for a movie to finish downloading is a terrible reason to miss a flight.

Order Special Meals for the Plane

If you're expecting a vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, halal, or other special meal on a flight, you can't leave it to the last minute. Most airlines require at least 24 hours' notice to accommodate alternative meals. In fact, the best time to make your request is at the time of booking, when you're already on the website or phone and already thinking about it. Your hungry future plane self will thank you for it.

Update Your Operating System

Downloading the latest operating system for your phone on the way to the airport can throw a major wrench in the works. Not only does it mean rebooting at a time when you're likely to need the device to make last-minute phone calls or check your flight status, but your phone's fresh outlook on life means you may need to re-log in to some of your apps. And if you're a person who doesn't know all of your passwords off the top of your head, this can leave you without travel vitals like itinerary information and access to communication tools.

Book House Sitters and Pet Sitters

It's always wise to lock in your preferred house sitter or pet sitter well in advance of your trip. This goes double during the summer and around the holidays, when home-care providers are in high demand and book up quickly. Even if your plan is to souvenir-bribe a family member to pick up your mail or pay a neighbor kid to clean the litter box, you'll need to make sure they'll be around to manage the home front while you're away.

Download and Update Apps

Without a fast connection, downloading and updating apps can be frustratingly slow. And deciding which new apps you'll need (which HDR camera app? Which map app? Which public transportation app?) can be a time-consuming process. That's all to say that it's a good idea to download new apps and update any apps you'll rely on while traveling (since older versions may crash or just not work as they should) the day before you leave, at the latest.

Sort Out Your Adapter and Converter Needs

Will your electronics simply require an adapter, or will they need both a converter (also called a transformer) and an adapter? These are important questions to clear up well before you travel. Many electronics (such as Apple phones and tablets) have a converter built into the charging plug, so if you're traveling somewhere with 240 V current, you'll just need an adapter for the plug shape. But if you try to plug in something (for instance, a hair dryer or white-noise machine) that doesn't run on dual current, you'll break it. Figure this out before your trip and avoid electronic meltdowns.

Book Popular Restaurants

If you've got your heart set on eating at a specific restaurant in a city you're visiting, you should seriously consider reservations. Because if a restaurant is popular enough for word of it to have reached foreign shores, chances are it's going to be hard to get into. Brush up on your language skills and make the phone call, or if you have a credit card with a concierge service, you can enlist the help of a professional. OpenTable allows you to book online at many restaurants in the U.S., as well as an increasing number of spots in 19 countries and regions including the U.K., Japan, and Mexico. Or use a country-specific restaurant-reservation site such as Lafourchette in France.

Check Your Passport's Expiration Date

Are you traveling anywhere within the next year? Then stop reading this, go find your passport, and make sure the expiration date isn't within six months of your travel dates. Take this small but vital step because some countries won't allow you in if your passport expires too close to your travel dates. Known as the six-month passport validity rule (and the similar three-month passport validity rule), it can ruin a vacation even before it begins. USA Today has an overview of countries and regions that enforce validity rules.

Check Baggage Restrictions of Connecting Airlines

On some connecting flights, you only need to know the baggage restrictions of the airline you booked through. But other times, you'll be expected to abide by multiple airlines' baggage policies. And if you book a separate flight at your destination, you'll need to make sure your baggage abides by those rules or risk paying a hefty fee. It's an irritating process, and on some foreign carriers without clear information posted online it may require a phone call, but think of it as better than getting to the airport and discovering you'll need to pay an extra $50 to bring your toothbrush and clean socks.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Pro Tip: Don't Leave These 11 Things Until the Last Minute. Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

How Vegas Is Reinventing the Boutique Hotel

Posted October 15, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

The next big thing has arrived in Vegas, and it's surprisingly … small. Whether you see Las Vegas' wave of boutique-inspired hotels as an adaptation, a reinvention, or a perversion of the small-hotel concept, there's no doubt that boutique is reshaping the city. With the recent opening of three high-profile hotels that rely heavily on the boutique angle to differentiate themselves from what's come before, it's clear that the hotel trend has reached critical mass in Vegas.

But as with everything else, Sin City does things its own way, and it has taken the core concepts of boutique hotels—individuality; personalization; quirkiness; fewer rooms; and destination restaurants, bars, and spas—to new and different heights than the rest of the world.

So what's Vegas boutique? Since the concept is constantly being reinvented, there's no single profile. Some properties occupy a few floors within major casino hotels, others fill high-rise towers that help define the skyline; some eschew gaming, while others embrace the casino floor. But similarities exist: When bigger isn't the point, all that manic Vegas energy is channeled into the small things—like subtle and sophisticated scents, high-end toiletries, sumptuous fabrics, and cool communal spaces with the trendiest coffee in the morning and cocktails in the evening. 

Here's a tour of the latest boutique offerings in Vegas.

 

(Photo: MGM Resorts)

Delano Las Vegas

Delano debuted on Labor Day of this year, bringing an "all-suite boutique offering" that draws on the spirit, the name, and the vibe of the original Delano South Beach, all adapted to Las Vegas. The underlying design theme is desert chic. The hotel was previously THEhotel Mandalay Bay.

Vital Stats: 1,117 suites fill the Delano's 64-level golden tower. Since there's no casino, the ground floor is given over to a series of beckoning modern spaces where guests can hang out, mingle, and eat and drink.

Part Of: MGM Resorts International and Morgans Hotel Group.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

SLS Las Vegas

SLS has all the focus of a boutique hotel—service, luxury, creativity, and community—but presents it on a massive scale for grand Las Vegas.

Vital Stats: 1,600 rooms and suites fill the former Sahara Hotel & Casino. The hotel includes a casino as well as Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres, the latest restaurant by the renowned chef.

Part Of: SLS already has hotels in upscale hot spots South Beach, Beverly Hills, and New York, and in August, the brand opened the SLS Las Vegas.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

The Cromwell Las Vegas

The Cromwell, which opened in May of this year, touts itself as the Strip's first boutique hotel.

Vital Stats: With 188 rooms that mingle modern and vintage design elements, The Cromwell is also home to one of the city's hottest new restaurants, Giada, helmed by celeb-chef Giada De Laurentiis.

Part Of: Caesars Entertainment Corporation.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Nobu Hotel

Nobu Hotel opened in the spring of 2013, mingling Japanese and Asian design elements with a bit of Vegas flair. The hotel was imagined into being by its namesake, Chef Nobu, as well as actor Robert De Niro and designer David Rockwell.

Vital Stats: Part of the much larger Caesars complex on the Strip, Nobu Hotel occupies the former Centurion Tower and has just 181 rooms.

Part Of: Caesars Entertainment Corporation.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

SkyLofts

Crowning the top two floors of the MGM Grand, SkyLofts defines the hotel-within-a-hotel subset of the Vegas boutique trend. With chauffeured airport service and butlers on 24-hour standby, service is paramount.

Vital Stats: 51 two-story lofts offer incredible views and luxurious amenities like in-room espresso machines, pillow menus, and Dream Butlers (who will draw you a bath and make you tea).

Part Of: MGM Resorts International.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Rumor Hotel Boutique

The off-Strip Rumor Hotel Boutique is an all-suite, low-rise hotel with a pool-and-cabana scene and dog-friendly rooms.

Vital Stats: The two-story hotel, which opened in 2010, has 150 suites, many with private balconies or patios.

Part Of: The Siegel Group, which also operates the off-Strip Artisan Hotel Boutique.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Artisan Hotel Boutique

The off-Strip Artisan Hotel Boutique is the wild child of the boutique hotel set in Las Vegas. A favorite for bachelor and bachelorette parties, the hotel plays up its sexy/naughty vibe with a top-optional pool and nonstop weekend parties.

Vital Stats: Each of the 64 rooms and suites at this 21-and-up hotel is unique.

Part Of: The Siegel Group.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Hotel 32

Since 2009, the 32nd floor of the Monte Carlo has been home to the stylish but low-key Hotel 32. The small boutique hotel within the larger casino distinguishes itself with amenities such as limo service from the airport, on-call personal assistants, and a private lounge.

Vital Stats: Hotel 32 has 50 rooms and a check-in process that's entirely separate from the bustle downstairs at the Monte Carlo.

Part Of: MGM Resorts International.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

El Cortez Cabana Suites

The vintage classic El Cortez Hotel & Casino was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, and now it can claim its own part of the boutique hotel market with the El Cortez Cabana Suites. Located across the street from the original hotel in downtown Las Vegas, El Cortez Cabana Suites is brimming with funky, playful, modern design.

Vital Stats: The hotel has 64 rooms and suites.

Part Of: The hotel is an extension of El Cortez Hotel & Casino, but it isn't part of one of the mega-hotel groups.

 

(Photo: MGM Resorts)

Aria Sky Suites

Another boutique-hotel-within-a-hotel concept, Aria Sky Suites maintains its separation from the main property with a VIP entrance, a private elevator, and private check-in. Opened in 2009, the luxury hotel has earned both a Forbes Travel Guide Five Star rating and a AAA Five Diamond award.

Vital Stats: Aria Sky Suites has 442 one-, two-, and three-bedroom rooms and suites.

Part Of: MGM Resorts International.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title How Vegas is Reinventing the Boutique Hotel.Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Special Perks for Social-Savvy Travelers

Posted October 14, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Simone Becchetti/Getty Images)

Travel providers lure social media stars with special perks, discounts, and freebies nowadays. Check-ins on Foursquare or Facebook, tweets, retweets, and Instagram posts are traded as currency in exchange for loyalty points or discounted rates. In most cases, the more followers you have, the larger your reward. But even an everyday traveler with a less-than-impressive fan base can leverage tweets and likes to save money on travel.

Many of these influencer promotions come and go. Last year, American Airlines gave complimentary airport-lounge passes to passengers with high Klout scores. In 2012, United ran a promotion bestowing airline miles upon Foursquare users who checked in at airports. Official tourism boards often run limited-time offers on sites like Pinterest and Facebook; follow your favorite destinations to keep an eye out. For the best offers that you can use now, I've focused on active promotions, many of them permanent (or at least semi-permanent) loyalty or reward programs that compensate social media activity.

 

(Photo: Hotelied)

Hotelied

Here's the premise behind just-launched booking site Hotelied: "Taste makers"—folks with heavy social media followings—receive customized discounts on hotel stays. Hotelied does the dirty work by negotiating cheaper rates for online influencers. You link your social media accounts to the site, and Hotelied asks hotels to give you reduced rates based on your popularity. The company's website puts it plainly, if tactlessly: "Hotelied recognizes the fact that not all travelers present the same value to hotels and provides hotels with a platform to specifically target and customize their offerings to their most desirable traveler segments." The notion of straight-up linking customer value with social media clout is disturbing; apart from that, Hotelied might make some sense for travelers who spend a lot of time on sites like Twitter or Facebook. The largest discount available is 50 percent, yet Hotelied doesn't specify how many followers a person must accumulate before getting half off a stay.

 

(Photo: 8 Hotels)

The 'Instagram Hotel'

The 1888 Hotel in downtown Sydney is known as the "Instagram Hotel" thanks to the property's willful spotlight on the culture of snapping and sharing, in addition to the tangible rewards it offers social media connoisseurs. Its well-designed guest rooms are clean, graphic, and picture-perfect—ideal for Insta. Guests with more than 10,000 Instagram followers are eligible to receive a complimentary overnight stay, and Instagrammers who share property pictures tagged #1888hotel are entered to win a free night. If you like being the center of attention, this really is your place. 1888 has a "Selfie Space" with a special backdrop in the lobby. Give your selfie the hotel's signature tag and your image will appear on a screen near the reception desk. Smile and say "me"!

 

(Photo: teamstickergiant via flickr/CC Attribution)

Foursquare Freebies

Foursquare, the location-sharing app that allows users to virtually check in, blast their activity to friends, and trade tips about visited spots, is a terrific resource for travel coupons. Businesses around the world, from hotels to restaurants to attractions, offer discounts or perks via the app. (Users are awarded points and special badges for check-ins; discounts are often offered to those with points.) In the past, airlines have offered lounge access to avid Foursquare users. Although big-ticket Foursquare promotions from travel providers aren't as common today as they were a few years ago, there are still deals to be snagged. Right now, for example, Boston's Midtown Hotel offers free parking and Wi-Fi to guests who check in with Foursquare. Discover more up-to-date offers for various destinations by using the search tool on the Foursquare website or app.

It's important to note: Be careful about sharing check-ins on Foursquare when traveling. As a rule, it's unsafe to divulge up-to-the-minute location-based data on social media. You don't want the world knowing that your home is unattended and that you're on vacation. Use your Foursquare privacy settings wisely.

 

(Photo: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.)

Starwood's SPG Program

Starwood's loyalty program SPG offers Starpoints for enrolled travelers who link Facebook or Foursquare pages with their Starwood accounts then post check-ins to Starwood properties. You can redeem your Starpoints for hotel stays, flights, merchandise, and other stuff. There are a lot of strings attached, though. To get the points, your property must be offering a special check-in promotion during your stay. You can't book through a third-party booking engine such as Expedia or Orbitz; those bookings don't count as "eligible stays." And sometimes you might need a confirmed reservation to get the points—it all depends on the specific promotion. Check Starwood's Facebook or Foursquare pages to see what kinds of check-in promotions are available.

 

(Photo: m01229 via flickr/CC Attribution)

Marriott Rewards Plus Points

The social media angle of Marriott's rewards program is very similar to that of SPG. Connect your rewards account to your social pages, perform a "qualifying social action" (known to humans as a tweet or a Facebook or Instagram post), and earn points. Marriott Rewards points can be redeemed for stays at Marriott properties worldwide. Marriott has a handy little chart that tells just how many points a person will get for each post; see it here. A social check-in on Facebook, for example, is worth 25 points. Guests can even earn points for retweets, likely destroying any illusion of authenticity in the realm of personal social media accounts. If your Facebook friend begins obsessively posting about Marriott using the appropriate corporate-approved hashtags, you'll know why.

 

(Photo: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants)

Kimpton Karma

Through Kimpton's new rewards program Karma, hotel guests can earn points for room upgrades, free stays, and other perks by spending money at Kimpton properties—and also by Facebooking or tweeting about Kimpton. It's a free program, and members get complimentary Wi-Fi and a $10 minibar credit during each stay, so it's worth joining whether you're a social media user or not. Unfortunately, though, Kimpton rewards for social media activity are not exactly guaranteed. Though Kimpton says you "might earn some additional Kimpton Karma love" through social media shout-outs, no real promises are made. And no language in the loyalty program's terms and conditions states a quid pro quo of points for posts. I get the feeling that having large numbers of followers will up the likelihood of Kimpton taking notice of your posts.

 

(Photo: Aloft Hotels)

Tweets as Tips When the Bellhop Is a Robot

You might run into a waist-high, screen-faced robot gliding around the halls of Silicon Valley's Aloft Cupertino Hotel. This robotic bellhop is called Botlr. Botlr accepts tweets as "tips" when performing menial tasks like bringing snacks or a toothbrush from the front desk to a guest room. Although Botlr doesn't care how many followers you have (for now, at least), the robot embodies the newfangled social-posts-as-currency model. You'll even save a few bucks by tweeting via Botlr's touch-screen face instead of having to hand actual money to an actual working person.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Special Perks for Social-Savvy Travelers.

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

What's New in Credit Card Technology

Posted October 9, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Diners Club, the original Travel and Entertainment" (T-and-E) card, is reopening in the United States. That's the biggest news in the always-turbulent credit card world. For some reason, the pioneering card has been dormant in the U.S. for several years, servicing prior holders but not adding new ones. Now, it is again accepting applications, and it offers four key advantages over most other cards:

  • Transfer of points to Air Canada, Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, and Southwest among the domestic airlines, plus British Airways, El Al, EVA, Frontier, Icelandair, Korean, SAS, South African, Thai, Virgin Atlantic, Amtrak, and several hotel programs. Diners provides much better transfer options for domestic airlines than American Express.
  • No-extra-charge primary rental-car collision insurance—available on a few other cards, but unavailable on most.
  • Chip-and-pin security, making the card useable in some cases where other cards may not work.
  • Access to more than 500 airport lounges around the world.

Diners is offering two versions: Premier, at $95 per year ($35 for a second card), earning one point per dollar on all purchases, and Elite, at $300 per year ($150 for a second card), earning three points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drugstores, plus one point per dollar on all other purchases.

Both cards include the "usual suspects" list of other credit card benefits, including the increasingly common "no fee on foreign transactions" feature on travel-oriented cards. And Diners Club cards carry the MasterCard logo, so they're useful just about everywhere.

The big advantages of transfers to many airlines, primary rental-car insurance, chip technology, and lounge access move Diners Club near the top of your list of prospective travel cards. Even the Premier version outperforms some much more expensive cards from other issuers. Check it out and apply at dinersclubus.com.

If you haven't been looking lately, the formerly "strictly domestic" Discover card has expanded well beyond U.S. borders. It's accepted in much of Europe, Central and South America, and Asia, plus New Zealand and South Africa. The biggest exceptions in Europe are Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Discover owns Diners Club International, so any outfit displaying a Diners Club sign will honor Discover, although that's a lot fewer than accept MasterCard or Visa. With its relatively high dollar-payback level, Discover is an attractive option for anyone who doesn't need airline miles. Check it out at discover.com.

Slowly but surely the United States is catching up with the rest of the world in adoption of chip (EMV) security for credit cards. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa have established a deadline of October 2015 to complete migration. This isn't an absolute deadline, but after that date, banks that do not issue chip cards and merchants that do not accept them will be accountable for any fraudulent charges. As a result of this "fraud liability shift" incentive, the industry estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. cards will have chips by that deadline date.

But not all chip cards are alike. Most chip cards issued in the U.S. are "chip-and-signature" cards, meaning that when you charge something, you still sign a conventional charge slip or an automated remote terminal. The rest of the world is focusing on "chip-and-pin" cards: Instead of signing for a charge, you enter a PIN, as you do at ATMs. Only a few U.S. card issuers currently use that system: Diners Club, as noted, along with some cards from Barclaycard, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and a few company-branded cards. But U.S. banks will ultimately move to chip-and-pin, too.

The industry claims that chip technology is inherently more secure than the older magnetic strip system, and their arguments are convincing. The big advantage of the chip system is that it makes counterfeiting cards harder, and the pin system prevents use of a lost or stolen card by an unauthorized person. But banks warn us that not even the best card technology can prevent hacking of merchants' databases and other assaults on your security. Even with a chip card, you have to remain vigilant. But you knew that.

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

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title What's New in Credit Card Technology. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

Frequent-Flyer Programs for Infrequent Flyers

Posted October 8, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Mighty Travels says American has the most generous frequent-flyer program among the three giant lines and Delta has the worst. IdeaWorks says Southwest and JetBlue are best among lines in the United States, followed by United, Alaska, American, and Delta. Some insiders like Alaska's program because it has good award deals on partner lines. Consumer Reports found Spirit was pretty bad, but didn't find any clear winners. Given the range of opinion, what should an occasional traveler do? Here are some considerations.

Location Rules: No matter what the relative merits of individual airline programs, your choice may well be dictated by where you live and where you usually travel. You have to go with that, no matter what.

Elite Status: Fuhggeddaboudit. Delta and United have already announced a switch from the miles you fly to the dollars you spend on airline tickets as a basis for elite status, and American will probably follow once its program fully merges with US Airways. Alaska and Hawaiian may follow. Elite status, with its access to upgrades, is the main goal of real frequent travelers. But occasional travelers, by definition, don't fly enough to earn elite status under the old rules and they surely don't spend enough to make it via the dollars. Occasional travelers will not get upgrades—period.

Special Treatment: Lacking elite status, the other way to get preferential treatment is to use a credit card cobranded with an airline. American's AAdvantage World MasterCard, Delta's Skymiles AmEx card, and United's Mileage Plus Explorer Visa card, all $95 per year after the first year, offer one no-charge checked bag each per trip for a couple (up to four travelers on some) and other benefits; Hawaiian's World Elite MasterCard offers the no-charge checked bag to just the cardholder. United's card provides primary rather than secondary collision coverage for rented cars, a big plus. Even if you don't travel much, one of these cards could easily pay for itself in reduced fees—especially United's, if you rent cars. Cards from Southwest and the smaller lines also offer benefits, many tied to faster earning of credit.

Mileage Basics: For now, the general formula that 25,000 miles gets you one domestic coach round-trip looks pretty safe for Alaska, American, Delta, and United. First class generally requires double. For an economy round trip to Europe, American's 40,000-mile off-season award is a lot better than the 60,000 miles on Delta and United. Business class to Europe is 110,000 to 125,000 miles. As an occasional traveler, you'd probably take two to three years to pile up enough miles for a domestic round-trip, and far too long for the bigger awards.

The Value of Miles: These days, long-haul coach round-trips cost around $400 and often more, so as long as the basic domestic coach award remains at 25,000 miles, the value is inching up past 1.5 cents per mile. Of course, you have to adjust the value of miles to reflect the difficulty—sometimes extreme, on Delta—of getting an award seat when and where you want it. You get at least double that value when you use miles for first or business class.

Augmenting Miles: The only practical way to augment your airline miles is to use a credit card that pays one mile per dollar charged to the card (two miles for airline tickets), as several airline cards do. If you put as much as you can on a mileage credit card, say $1,500 a month, you'd earn that award trip in about a year and a half.

Dollars or Miles: Good cash-back cards pay 1.5 to 2 cents per dollar charged, so charging that same $1,500 a month would earn $270 to $360 each year, which you could use to buy tickets with no limitations. Whether to go with airline miles or cash back is a close call for earning domestic coach tickets, but miles are a no-brainer if you use them for business-class or first-class awards anywhere.

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

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Frequent-Flyer Programs for Infrequent Flyers. Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.


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