Creepiest Things You Can Do on a Plane

Posted March 6, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

There's one on every flight: that super-creepy flyer who thinks all social norms disappear once the plane reaches cruising altitude. Don't be that guy (or gal). Here's our list of the creepiest things you can do on a plane. Add your own in the comments at the end.

Hit on Someone

"Perfect," you think to yourself. "I'm seated next to a hottie in a confined space where she has no chance of escape for the next few hours. How about I make her wildly uncomfortable by hitting on her? Oh wait … let me slip off my wedding ring first. Now it's go time."

If you really think you've met the love of your life on an airplane, keep the conversation light and non-creepy. To keep your prey from feeling uncomfortable, wait until you're getting off the plane to slip him or her your contact information or propose a date.

Related: 10 Signs You're the Worst Person on Your Flight

Utilize Virgin's Seat-to-Seat Chat

Hey, remember Internet chat rooms? The cool '90s places inside your '90s desktop PC where you could strike up a conversation just by asking A/S/L? Let's bring that back to people stuck inside an airplane! We're not sure there's any possible way to use Virgin America's Seat-to-Seat Chat (a messaging system that lets passengers initiate conversations with each other) without being creepy. What do you even say? "Hey there, 16A, I've been watching you from the back of the plane for the last hour, and I wanted to say hi …"

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

Watch Porn

You know that your computer screen isn't only visible to you, right? We (and the people in the seats next to and behind you) are wondering why you thought this was a good time and place to view that porn you've got downloaded on your laptop. Bonus creepy points if you think you're being subtle, like this guy.

Related: America's 10 Scariest Airports

Send a Drink

It's a sleazy move when you do it in a bar, and it's even creepier when you enlist a flight attendant to send a drink to an attractive passenger. We're not going to condemn this one completely, because lots of people would be down for some free booze on a plane. But at least ask the target of your affection if he or she wants a drink, rather than randomly depositing a Bloody Mary on his or her tray.

Related: 10 Tricks for Sleeping on a Plane

Get Wasted

Speaking of in-flight drinks, getting completely inebriated is always a weird thing to do on a plane. One wrong move and you're going to wake up with a hangover and a court summons. Drunken behavior is not tolerated on airplanes, and for good reason. Charming as you think you are, your fellow passengers probably aren't enchanted by your loud slurring.

Related: Is It OK to Go Barefoot on the Plane?

Invade Personal Space

Falling asleep on your seatmate's shoulder, manspreading, pressing your arm up against the person next to you on the armrest—the list goes on. Do what we were all taught in kindergarten and keep your limbs to yourself.

Related: 6 Ways to Humiliate Yourself in Europe

(Photo: Getty Images/Peter Cade)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title The Creepiest Things You Can Do on a Plane.  Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Secrets of Ultralow Airfares

Posted March 4, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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Finding the lowest fares isn't a crapshoot—it's science! Use these seven insider secrets the next time you book and we promise you'll pay less for your flight.

Only Fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays

This is a guarantee: The same route, same aircraft, same airline, same everything will cost you more if you depart on a Monday than if you depart on a Tuesday. Why? Because Monday is a peak travel day when most people, including business travelers, need to fly. Tuesday is far less busy. Wednesdays and Saturdays are equally inexpensive; Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays are equally pricey.

The basic rule is that if you fly on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday, you will save money. That's why I always advise people to schedule their vacations from, say, Tuesday to Tuesday rather than Sunday to Sunday. It's supply and demand. Fly when other people aren't likely to fly and you're going to pay less.

Related: 9 Things Not to Wear on a Plane

Don't Fly in the Afternoon

In addition to avoiding flights on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays, you should also cast a wary eye toward afternoon departures. This is the travel industry's version of rush hour. The skies are congested, delays are common, and fares are highest because it's when most people want to fly. To avoid high fares and delays, always look for the earliest possible departure.

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

Know Your Blackout Dates

It's critical to know which airlines are offering sales and for which time periods and blackout dates, in order to gauge how to find the lowest fares. Nearly every week, the major U.S. airlines launch competing promotions. Be sure to read the fine print within these promotions, and you'll find a wealth of useful information, such as whether or not you'll need to spend at least one Saturday night at your destination or return within 30 days.

As I type this, four domestic airlines (Southwest, Delta, American, and United) are currently offering sales. Each airline's route network and hub airports are different, yet their sale restrictions are strikingly similar: The purchase date is the same, the blackout dates are similar, et cetera. When you start searching for fares within these restrictions, you will almost certainly find a cheaper flight than if you take a shot in the dark.

Most sales end by Thursday or Friday in a given week, so avoid booking on a Saturday or Sunday. Many airlines pull their discounted airfares ahead of the weekend shopping period, only to offer them again by the middle of the following week.

Related: 10 Worst People You Meet in the Airport

Take a Connecting Flight

I am not advocating the controversial practice of hidden-city ticketing, in which you buy a ticket that connects in your end destination and do not take the continuing flight. This is against virtually every airline's rules of carriage. But you sometimes can save money simply by booking a flight with a connection rather than a direct or nonstop route. Connecting flights take longer (at least two additional hours), but if you're looking for absolute dollar savings, you may find it with this strategy. (Caveat: Connecting flights can occasionally increase the total price because there are more airport fees.)

Related: 9 Tips for Traveling with Kids

Book a One-Way Flight

Here's a tip that may save you money on a complicated or long-term trip: Many airlines drastically increase fares for stays longer than 30 days, so if you're planning a long stay you may do better booking a one-way flight rather than a round-trip. It used to be true that one-way fares were not the equivalent of 50 percent of a round-trip fare, but that's no longer the case. Many major U.S. carriers (and some international airlines) today sell one-way fares for half of the cost of the lowest-priced round-trip airfare.

Related: 10 Important Safety Tips for Travelers

Get a Refund on a Nonrefundable Flight

Nonrefundable flights are generally the least expensive because they come with a steep penalty for changes or cancellation. But here's a helpful little secret: Nonrefundable flights actually are refundable, without penalty, for 24 hours after you book. They are also fully refundable if the scheduled flight is delayed or canceled or if the flight's schedule is dramatically altered after you book. The biggest takeaway, though, should be that 24-hour window. See a nonrefundable fare that looks good? Book it—but don't stop looking for something better until 24 hours later.

Related: 11 Things You Should Never Delay Before Your Trip

Know Your International Gateways

When flying overseas, it's important to know your gateway airports. In Europe, for example, Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, London, and Vienna are served by major airlines from both sides of the Atlantic, which in turn generates more price competition.

Another tip is to learn which international carriers fly directly from your home airport to their home country. For international trips, I usually depart from Boston, which offers great prices to Ireland because it's served by Aer Lingus. I see similarly cheap flights from Boston to the Azores offered by SATA International (known as Azores Express in the U.S.) and to Iceland offered by Icelandair and Wow Air, again because of direct flights to each carrier's home country.

Related: 7 Shameless Ways to Get an Upgrade

(Photo: Woman Shopping Online via Shutterstock)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Secrets to Booking Ultralow Airfares.  Follow Josh Roberts on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

7 Vacations Under $200 to Enjoy This Spring

Posted March 4, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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Atlanta, Charleston, Savannah, and More Southern Charm for Under $87/Day

Virgin Vacations’ “8 Day Southern Culture” package features two nights each in Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah, and one in Hilton Head. The land-only package starts at $689 (that’s just under $87 per day) and includes an eight-day unlimited-mileage car rental.

If a plane ride is needed, pricing starts at $939, includes the above, plus airline taxes and fees.

Search more low prices on Atlanta packages here!

Miami, Key West, and Bahamas Tour – 8 Days for $182/Day

Yet another travel deal for the southeast section of the U.S. is found in the “8 Day Southern Florida & Key West” package—this time with a three-day Bahamas cruise. Starting at $182 per day ($1,449 for land and sea; $2,079 land, sea, and air), the offer includes two nights each in Miami and the Florida Keys, plus three nights aboard the Norwegian Sky. All transfers, most meals, plus sightseeing in an air-conditioned coach bus, are included.

Among the excursions are an airboat tour, the Coral Castle, South Beach’s Art Deco District, plus more.

Search more low prices on Miami packages here!

Search more low prices on Key West packages here!

$100 Savings on St. Pete/Clearwater Vacations

Put back into your pocket a cool Benjamin bill simply by booking a Gulf Coast Florida vacation. Add promo code WARMVACA in Southwest Vacations’ reservations page by 6:00 p.m. CT on March 9 for air-and-hotel packages for travel April 13 – October 30.

Additionally, several hotels are sweetening the deal with free-night stays on four-plus vacations. See the sale provider for fine details and for the listing of the participating hotels.

Search more low prices on St. Petersburg packages here!

Waldorf Astoria Stay in Puerto Rico for Under $200/Night

Five-day stays at San Juan’s El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, can be had for under $198 per night. To take advantage of 4.5-rated resort with CheapCaribbean.com—the sale provider in this case—stays must happen between April 25 – June 30 and be booked by March 11. This package doesn’t include meals, but does indeed include airfare.

Search more low prices on San Juan packages here!

Maui Air and Hotel from $90/Night       

Get more Maui for your money. Alaska Airlines Vacations has three-night air-inclusive stays at the Aston at the Maui Banyan from $268—broken down to $90 per night. The sale provider’s starting rate is from Seattle, though other departure cities are available. Vacation packages must be booked by April 30.

Search more low prices on Maui packages here!

Aruba from $192/Night

Spring and summer air-and-hotel packages to Aruba’s Mill Resort & Suites are only $192 per person per night. Tickets must be booked by March 12 to take advantage of the $959 rate but travel can be had until August 31. As a bonus each booking comes with a $25 food and beverage credit.

Search more low prices on Aruba packages here!

Hollywood, Wine, and Sequoias from $193/Night

Gate 1 Travel’s “8 Day California’s Gold Coast & Yosemite” does a good job of covering the Golden State. For $193 per person per night, features include two nights each in San Francisco, Monterey, Los Angeles, and a single night in Mariposa. The included sightseeing tours navigate Yosemite National Park, aquariums, gold-rush towns, wine country, and world-famous L.A. landmarks. Entrance fees, many meals, and tour bus and guides come with the package.

 Search more low prices on Los Angeles packages here!

 Search more low prices on San Francisco packages here!

Top 10 Beaches in the U.S.

Posted March 4, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: St. Pete Beach via Shutterstock)

We have the perfect sunny cure for your winter-weather gloominess. TripAdvisor, our parent site, just released its 2015 Travelers' Choice Awards for Best Beaches. The list, based on feedback from readers like you over a 12-month period, rounds up the absolute best beaches in the U.S., from hidden snorkeling spots in Hawaii to family-friendly favorites in Florida.

Ah, democracy. Who knew you could be so sunny?

Related: Best Places to Go in Florida

(Photo: Siesta Beach via Shutterstock)

Siesta Beach

This Gulf Coast beach is a forever favorite for its unbelievably white sand and crystal-clear water. (You'd think you were in the Caribbean.)

What to Do: Siesta Beach is as calm as its name implies, perfect for reading, relaxing, walking, or catching a sunset.

Where to Stay: The Capri at Siesta (rates from $149 per night).

Related: Best Beaches to Keep the Winter Blues Away

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

St. Pete Beach

St. Pete Beach, also on Florida's warm and sunny Gulf side, is known for its soft white sand and seashelling opportunities.

What to Do: Aside from the beach, a buzzing restaurant scene and plenty of boutiques are big draws in this popular haunt.

Where to Stay: Gulf Tides Inn (rates from $89 per night for efficiency apartments or $109 per night for full apartments).

Related: 10 Beaches That Should Be on Your Bucket List

(Photo: Ka'anapali Beach via Eddy Galeotti/Shutterstock.com)

Ka'anapali Beach

This beach is on Maui's stunning western coast. It offers natural beauty for miles, so it never feels too crowded.

What to Do: Swimming and snorkeling around Black Rock are two must-dos, and during the right season whale watching is a popular pastime.

Where to Stay: Aston Mahana at Ka'anapali (rates from $295 per night).

(Photo: Wai'anapanapa State Park via Shutterstock)

Wai'anapanapa State Park

Another Maui pick, Wai'anapanapa State Park's ancient black-sand beaches and lava formations are unbelievably unique.

What to Do: Explore the old coastal trail, hidden caves, and tide pools, or just sink your toes into the deep black sand.

Where to Stay: Aina Nalu (rates from $212 per night).

(Photo: Pensacola Beach via Shutterstock)

Pensacola Beach

Another Gulf-side winner in Florida, Pensacola Beach is known for its fun pier and family-friendly amenities.

What to Do: People flock to Pensacola year-round for its fishing—and then to nearby restaurants for delicious Gulf seafood.

Where to Stay: Margaritaville Beach Hotel (rates from $229 per night).

Related: 10 Best Beach Towns in Florida

(Photo: La Jolla via Shutterstock)

La Jolla Cove

Coves, caves, craggy rocks: This rugged and picturesque coastline in La Jolla offers plenty of Instagrammable sites.

What to Do: See an array of marine animals, including seals lounging on rocks and playing in the protected waters.

Where to Stay: Hotel La Jolla, a Kimpton Hotel (rates from $209 per night).

Related: World's Most Unusual Beaches

(Photo: Patrick Rudolph via flickr/CC Attribution)

Kailua Beach Park

A long, gently curving stretch of golden sand, Kailua (literally "two currents") has some of the prettiest blue water in the Hawaiian islands.

What to Do: One word: windsurfing. The perfect coastal gusts make windsurfing and kite flying a breeze (forgive us).

Where to Stay: There are no hotels in Kailua, but vacation rentals like this one (from $125 per night) are available.

(Photo: Clearwater Beach via Shutterstock)

Clearwater Beach

Situated on a barrier island in South Florida, Clearwater Beach has nearly three miles of spacious white sand for visitors to enjoy.

What to Do: Clearwater is an active beach town best suited for shopping, dining, fishing, or taking a charter cruise.

Where to Stay: Coconut Cove Resort (rates from $299 per night).

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

St. Augustine Beach

In the historical city of St. Augustine (the nation's oldest), find this striking beach known for its clean, soft sand.

What to Do: Bring Sir Barksalot! St. Augustine Beach is exceptionally dog-friendly, and it's the perfect place for a long walk or a Frisbee toss.

Where to Stay: Ascend Collection Castillo Real (rates from $129 per night).

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Panama City Beach

Rounding out the list is one more Florida pick: Panama City Beach, with some 20 miles of world-class coastline. (It's often considered among the world's best.)

What to Do: Swimming, parasailing, and snorkeling are all popular activities; shuttle service can take you to nearby Shell Island for further adventures.

Where to Stay: Legacy by the Sea (rates from $89 per night).

 

 

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Top 10 Beaches in the U.S.  Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Worst Shoes for Travel (and What to Wear Instead)

Posted March 3, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Let's talk about shoes. They're the hardest pieces of a travel wardrobe to get right. How do you strike a balance between shoes that are easy to pack and sufficiently comfortable for miles of walking and ones that are fashionable enough that they don't call you out as a tourist? We'll show you which shoes are the worst for travel, plus the best alternatives for men and women.

Toning Shoes

The companies shilling toning shoes make such lofty promises: Wear them and get an amazing workout without doing anything extra! Unfortunately, as recent settlements have made clear, those claims are nothing but lies. As one podiatrist told the Huffington Post, toning shoes can actually hurt your feet by causing tendonitis, stress fractures, and sprains.

Alternatives for Women: Pick a shoe that offers all of the cushioning of a toning shoe with none of the false advertising. Ahnu's Crissy Shoe is a stylish alternative with a dual-density sole that provides extra shock absorption for heel and arch support, an antimicrobial sock liner to keep things fresh, and adjustable crisscross straps to keep your foot secure. All Ahnu shoes use a patented neutral-positioning system called Numentum Technology, which helps promote a stable and balanced stride.

Alternatives for Men: Try Ahnu's Harris Lace-Up Sneaker, a more dignified take on the running shoe. It's got a supportive arch and a Vibram outsole to provide traction and durability.

Related: Clothes That Do Double Duty

Ballet Flats

Ballet flats were billed as the answer to women's high-heel problems. Sadly, these cute, easy-to-wear shoes tend to go a little too far in the other direction, offering almost no arch support or protection. According to one expert, cheap flats can be the equivalent of "walking on cardboard."

Alternatives for Women: Luca Chiara's Carmela flats have a sturdy sole with a mini heel for support and cushioning. The insole has an extra-thick pad for added comfort, and the shoes are ultralightweight for easy packing. The Carmelas are also made from water-resistant nylon, just in case you encounter some unexpected weather.

Alternatives for Men: Okay, so men don't generally rock ballet flats, but Luca Chiara makes some great travel-friendly shoes for dudes, including the Andrea loafer, a sleek, ultralightweight option that doesn't sacrifice cushioning or comfort.

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

Rain Boots

Rain boots are a perfect storm of foot problems—their moist environment can be a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria, plus heavy boots can cause foot fatigue and uncomfortable rubbing. Skip the thick, non-breathable rain boots and look for regular boots that offer water resistance.

Alternatives for Women: Arcopedico's Liana boots are water resistant but still breathable. The upper is made from Lytech, and the interior lining contains the antimicrobial Sansmell deodorizing system. They're also lightweight and flexible, perfect for maintaining your natural stride.

Alternatives for Men: Sorel's 1964 Premium T Boot has laces to keep your feet secure, as well as a felt inner lining that keeps you warm and dry down to 40 below zero.

Related: World's Best Travel Shoes

Flip-Flops

Flip-flops are the ultimate vacation shoes—fun, cheap, and easy. Unfortunately, if you plan on wearing them beyond the beach or the pool, they can turn on you quite quickly. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), flip-flops can cause major foot pain due to a lack of arch support, heel cushioning, and shock absorption. Plus, insufficient traction on the cheap rubber soles can cause slipping on wet surfaces. Don't worry: You can still have the fun parts of flip-flops without the pain if you look for a pair that offers support. The APMA has given their seal of approval to our two recommendations.

Alternatives for Women: Vionic's Bella II Sandal features podiatrist-designed Orthaheel Technology, which gives these sandals orthotic support. The Bellas can help reduce overpronation (which causes pain everywhere from the lower back to the knee to the foot). There's also a patterned bottom tread to give you traction in slippery situations, a lightweight midsole to absorb shock, and a microfiber-covered footbed for comfort.

Alternatives for Men: The Walking Company's ABEO B.I.O.system Austin sandal offers three different footbed types, depending on the kind of support you need. How do you know which style is best for your feet? You can visit one of The Walking Company's stores for a free digital foot analysis before ordering. All styles offer a channeled rubber outsole built for traction and shock absorption.

Related: 7 Ways to Fit More Stuff in Your Suitcase

Pointed-Toe Shoes

Pointed-toe dress shoes have made a fashion comeback for men and women, which is bad news for your feet. This type of footwear can put pressure on the front of your foot, causing problems like nerve pain, bunions, blisters, and hammertoes. When traveling, opt for something with a wide, rounded toe box instead.

Alternatives for Women: LifeStride's Parigi Pump has a wide toe box and a comfortable heel height.

Alternatives for Men: Orthofeet's Gramercy lace-up oxfords have plenty of room in the toe, plus they come with two sets of removable spacers to adjust the shoe to your perfect fit.

Related: Our Favorite Travel Clothes Ever

(Lead Photo: Thinkstock/iStock; Featured Products, in Order: Ahnu Crissy Shoe, Luca Chiara Carmela Flat, Arcopedico Liana Boot, Vionic Women's Bella II Sandal, Gramercy Lace-Up Oxford)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title The Worst Shoes to Wear While Traveling.  Follow Caroline Morse on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Can the TSA See You Naked?

Posted February 27, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

I was in a security line at Boston Logan Airport, preparing myself for the old song-and-dance of removing shoes, cardigan, laptop, basically anything I was wearing or holding that wasn't attached to my body at birth. In front of me, a pair of fabulous silver-haired ladies was discussing the various indignities of airport security. The first was of the opinion that no one should see her nude. The second cracked, "I don't mind if they want to see me naked, but I hope they took a drink first."

That amusing comment got me thinking about the backscatter debacle and where we stand now.

Related: 9 Nasty Germ Zones to Avoid When Traveling

A bit of background: Between 2009 and 2013, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) used scanning machines that produced very detailed images of passengers' bodies. A company called Rapiscan manufactured the machines, commonly referred to as backscatter scanners. The machines used X-rays, a form of ionizing radiation that reflects off of organic material and forms an image, thereby producing an essentially nude photograph of the passenger standing in the scanner. See the image at right. It doesn't leave much to the imagination.

After much media attention and public outcry, the TSA claimed that employees would not be able to identify passengers based on the near-naked photos. But privacy activists (and Congress) were nonplused. In 2013, bowing to legislative pressure to protect flyers' rights, the agency pulled the Rapiscan backscatter machines. Since Rapiscan was unable to substitute the nude images with generic images, and because of questions regarding the safety of X-rays, the backscatter machines were replaced.

Related: 10 Pro Tips for Surviving a Long Flight

So what kind of X-ray are you walking through now? Most likely, not an X-ray at all. These days, U.S. airports screen passengers using a machine called a millimeter wave unit. These devices bounce electromagnetic waves off flyers standing inside the scanner with hands raised overhead. If threatening items (weapons, chemicals, liquids, and so on) are detected on an individual, the machine pinpoints them on a generic, cartoon-like outline of a human body that appears onscreen. If none are detected, the screen says simply "OK" and the flyer is waved through. In September 2014, the TSA reported that there are about 750 millimeter wave scanners in use at 160 U.S. airports. So chances are, that's the kind of machine you will experience. They are purported to be safer than backscatter machines, and the images they produce are obviously not as violating.

(These machines, in use since 2013, generate a generic image. Photo: TSA)

That still doesn't answer the questions of whether millimeter-wave machines are dangerous. Scientists are on the fence. Electromagnetic waves are low-frequency and non-ionizing, which means they can't directly produce charged ions. But other studies claim that exposure can have negative effects on cellular survival and lifespan, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified all electromagnetic radiation as "possibly carcinogenic." Consider the answer to this one "probably not harmful, but the jury is out." PhysicsCentral.com does an admirable job of explaining the science and risks, if, like me, your eyes go a bit crossed when you see a term like "frequency in gigahertz."

Related: 10 Safety Tips Every Traveler Should Know

As for the question of privacy, that's up to you, readers. Knowing that the images produced by millimeter wave scanners are generic outlines, do you think the security procedures are still a violation?

Of course, no matter which machine you waltz through, if something suspicious is found on your person, the TSA reserves the right to administer a pat-down or body search. The scanner at Logan determined that a wayward bobby pin of mine was very suspicious. Yay.

Related: 8 Words You Should Never Say Overseas

(The top photo shows the old backscatter scanners with the full body outline. These machines are no longer in use. Photo: Getty Images/Scott Olson)

(The top right photo is of a full body outline, which is no longer in use. Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Can the TSA See You Naked?  Follow Dara Continenza on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

8 Tricks for Better Travel Pics

Posted February 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Memories might be the best souvenirs from a trip, but photographs are a close second. We asked some of our favorite photographers for simple tips any traveler can use to take better photos. From lighting suggestions to advice on how to blend in while capturing a moment, here are easy ways to up your photography game and come home with great memories and fantastic images.

Related: How to Take Great Photos on Your Smartphone

Michelle Yam: Embrace the Camera You Have

"'The best camera is the one you have with you.' I heard that quote somewhere, and it's true. Don't get caught up with the idea of having the latest and greatest of cameras. Ninety-nine percent of my photos posted to my Instagram are shot with my camera phone. By the time you set up your fancy camera settings and tripod, you might have already missed the sunset shot. Travel light, practice more, and have fun!"

Follow Michelle Yam around the globe: @michelleyam on Instagram.

Related: 15 Awesome Travel Photographers You Should Be Following on Instagram

Jason Houston: Learn How to Approach Strangers

"My work takes me all over the world photographing communities and cultures that are often quite different from mine. It's the people I'm most interested in, yet it's also difficult to approach a stranger with your camera. Here are some techniques I've learned over the years that work for me: Be friendly! Interact first, photograph second. Never hide your intentions to make a photograph. It immediately makes you look suspicious and like you're up to something you've decided is wrong. Seek permission. This is different than asking permission, which makes people self-conscious. This is related to showing your intentions. Let them know you want to take a photograph while giving them the opportunity to ask you not to. Honor their privacy. Treat people with curiosity and respect and they'll open up!"

Follow Jason Houston's various assignments around the world on his Instagram feed @jasonbhouston.

Related: 10 Most Problematic Things to Pack

Tim Calver: Make Your Camera Water-Ready

"When we travel, my family is always looking for ways to get wet. Therefore I am always ready to take my camera in the water. With inexpensive housing for my iPhone like the ones made by Watershot, Inc., not only can I get pictures of my family swimming with dolphins or diving in the backyard pool, but I am also ready for rain, spray from the boat, or just fun in the sprinkler."

Tim Calver is a travel and underwater photographer.

Related: 8 Secrets of Ultralight Packing

Rob Howard: Slow Down to See the World

"I'd have to say that my best advice is simply to walk; walk a lot, and life around you will reveal itself. Slow down to see the world. Key word: See! That's it. Simple.

"This photo is of Huli warriors, involved in a real war, up in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. It took me three days of walking to happen upon this scene … there were upwards of a few hundred guys fighting, and I felt like I'd traveled in a time machine to the Bronze era."

Rob Howard has photographed in 140 countries and all 50 states.

Related: 10 Surreal Places You Have to See to Believe

John Torcassi: Look at People, Not the Lens

"While photographing friends and family, I never use a flash—I just don't take pictures in places where my camera needs too long an exposure to handhold. With friends and family, I also rarely look through the lens—I like to not step out of the situation and make people feel on the spot or that they should pose. You can also lower the lens to children's heights more easily that way. Be one of those people who clowns around with a camera and is part of the fun. They get the best shots."

John Torcassi lives in Italy and is one-half of the Seed Communications team.

Related: Best Dream Trips for 2015

Molly Feltner: Put the Light Behind You

"When I first started studying photography, I learned a very simple but highly effective technique for taking better pictures: Put the light behind you. Whether your light is coming from the sun, a lamp, or a window, put your back to the source so the light can illuminate the front of your subject. If you're photographing a person, ask them to move if necessary. If you are photographing an animal and can't move yourself, be patient and wait for them [to move] so you can get to better light. You will be rewarded with a great-looking subject without any ugly backlighting or sun flares."

Molly Feltner helped the Rwanda-based Gorilla Doctors organization document its work conserving wild mountain and eastern lowland gorillas.

Related: Best Travel Clothes Ever

Oriol Cara: For a Great Pic, Rapport Is Everything

"Try talking with people and establishing a rapport before taking a picture. We're often tempted to 'sneak' photos of people we think represent or epitomize a preconceived notion of that place. Instead, get to know who they are and what it is they are doing—language barrier is not an excuse, and friendliness is universal! Try to have a real experience before you document a person, a place, or a situation. Your images will greatly benefit and if you are lucky, you will see that positive interactions very well may lead you to other photo opportunities."

Oriol Cara is a photographer from Barcelona.

Aaron Osteen: Zoom with Your Feet

"When my wife and I travel, we are often exploring remote villages in Southeast Asia by scooter and try to keep our gear to a minimum. I usually just carry my Nikon D4 with a 35mm lens and use my feet to zoom. Doing this not only saves my back from carrying heavy camera bags but also makes me get close to my subject. The closer you are to your subject, the more dramatic the shot, and it also forces you to explore the outer limits of your comfort zone. The image above was taken in a village in Bali, Indonesia. I saw this lady working in a distant rice field but she was much too far for the 35mm. So, I took my shoes off, walked out to her, smiled, and took the shot."

When they're not traveling the world together, Aaron Osteen and his wife Jillian run Aaron & Jillian Photography, specializing in weddings.

(Photo: Carolyn Cochrane/Getty Images)

This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos from Photographers We Love.  Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

How to Beat Hotel Bidding Sites in 9 Steps

Posted February 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Opaque buying can cut your costs substantially. But the trade-off is that you have to pay the full nonrefundable price before you know which hotel you're booking. You get no refund if you are dissatisfied with your room (unless you can prove it was materially misrepresented). Yes, there are other risks, too, but you can minimize those if you know how to play the game.

Although both Priceline and Hotwire are opaque, Priceline is the more opaque of the two. With Hotwire, you see the price, ratings, key amenities, and some indication of customer satisfaction from the get-go, but you don't know which hotel you're booking until after you buy. With Priceline, you "name your own price" by bidding on the basis of star ratings and general location. Beyond that, both systems work in about the same way: In a large city, you can narrow down your search to one or more specific areas. If you want a hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip, for example, you won't find yourself on Fremont Street. Both sites promise a room that accommodates two adults. Both sites let you specify a star classification. Both deal with pre-tax prices, and both charge their own booking fees.

Within that framework, you can easily work out a plan for buying opaque. Here are nine simple steps to getting a great price when you bid on hotels.

Step 1: Consider the Risks

Buying a room through Hotwire or Priceline entails some real risks of disappointment. Both agencies promise only a room that can accommodate two travelers. That could mean a room with a double bed. Although that might not happen often, it's something of a gamble when seeking a low-priced room outside the U.S. or Canada. And the location promise is just to a general area, not to a particularly upscale or quiet neighborhood.

If you really need some special feature, such as free Wi-Fi, a pool, air-conditioning (a problem in a few areas), or an elevator (if you have a back problem), and you don't see it on Hotwire's posting, you should probably confine your search to hotels in the upper star categories, where unpleasant surprises are less likely to occur than at the budget end of the scale. And if your requirements are deal breakers, such as wheelchair access, you probably shouldn't use an opaque buying source at all.

Although hotels treat guests who have opaque reservations with their usual service standards (as far as we can tell), don't expect miracles. You won't get the largest room or a room with the best view. If you're not happy with the bedding arrangement—say you got a single queen bed and would prefer twins—you can ask for a change but you can't demand a change. Even when you book opaque, your treatment will likely improve if you show membership in the hotel chain's loyalty program.

With Priceline, one of the biggest risks is bidding too high. Reports show that hotels sometimes accept really low prices.

Related: 10 Scams Every Traveler Should Know About

Step 2: Consider Last-Minute Alternatives

Overall, as far as we can tell, Hotwire and Priceline consistently offer the lowest buy-in-advance hotel rates. But last-minute booking systems, usually available as smartphone apps rather than websites (including Hotwire's and Priceline's own apps), sometimes offer better deals than opaque systems. Unless you decide to travel just a day or two in advance, waiting for a good last-minute rate risks missing an even better opaque rate.

Related: 10 Hotel Booking Mistakes You're Probably Making

Step 3: Check the Going Rate for Your Hotel Type

Before you make a bid, check to see the going rates for the type of hotel in your preferred location. Hotwire and Priceline both arrange transparent bookings, too, so check for prices. But you should also check a few other online hotel search engines.

As another guide, log onto Hotwire's TripStarter database, which shows a one- to two-year daily average of actual prices for 3-, 3.5-, and 4-star hotels booked through Hotwire's transparent system in dozens of major U.S. and international cities. These data show surprising consistency year to year, reflecting seasonal pricing patterns at many destinations.

Related: Do Booking Sites Raise Prices Based on Your Search Habits?

Step 4: Check Actual Bidding Results

Several online sources post opaque-buying results submitted by actual travelers: BetterBidding.com and HotelDealsRevealed.com cover both Hotwire and Priceline deals; The Bidding Traveler and BiddingforTravel.com cover only Priceline. These sites show the name of the hotel and dates of booking and, for Priceline, both "winning" and "losing" bids. Keep in mind that rates can change dramatically depending on the season and whether some big event is happening in your destination.

Related: 7 Secrets of Ultralow Airfares

Step 5: Suss Out the Hotel

Sometimes, by comparing hotel locations, star ratings, and (on Hotwire) key amenities, you can identify a supposedly hidden hotel. But you probably won't be successful most of the time.

Step 6: Select a Preferred Hotwire Option

Even if you intend to bid on Priceline, determine what you would do if you were to use only Hotwire. That price, for your preferred location and star level, is either what you'll accept or a benchmark for a future bid on Priceline.

Step 7: Develop a Priceling Bid Strategy

Start bidding on the low side—maybe around half of the transparent rate you've seen posted for a comparable hotel. Or bid at 10 to 20 percent below your preferred Hotwire price, based on the urban legend that Priceline's prices are up to 20 percent lower than Hotwire's prices. Or base your bid on records of recent successful sales. Don't be distracted by Priceline's automated response that your bid is likely to fail.

If Priceline rejects your first bid, its system does not permit you to rebid immediately at a higher price level if you use your original bidding parameters (location and star rating). But you can submit instant rebids if you change any of the parameters, even slightly, and you can also rebid with the original parameters after waiting a few days.

Related: 7 Trends That Will Change Travel in 2015

Step 8: Consider Insurance

If you're worried about losing your payment because of an unexpected need to change your trip later, you can partially offset the risk by buying cancellation insurance, which both Hotwire and Priceline offer. That insurance, however, is pretty restrictive about the "covered reasons" for canceling a trip and typically doesn't cover work-related causes at all. But if you plan on buying insurance, factor the extra cost into your bidding/buying strategy.

Step 9: Make the Deal

Unless you decide to wait for a huge last-minute reduction, either buy the best Hotwire deal or bid an even lower price on Priceline; it's your call. Once accepted, figure you got a good deal, and don't have a nervous breakdown obsessing about whether you might have scored a slightly lower price some other way.

(Photo: Getty Images/Larry Washburn)

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This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title How to Beat Hotel Bidding Sites in Nine Steps.  Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

Southwest Flyers, Prepare for Higher Award Prices

Posted February 20, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

The travel blogosphere is all aflutter today after it was discovered that Southwest had posted the following ominous announcement to its website concerning the pricing of Rapid Rewards award flights (my emphasis):

We created Rapid Rewards because we think you deserve to actually feel rewarded. And, from time to time we must make some updates to our program. Beginning April 17, 2015, the number of Rapid Rewards Points needed to redeem for certain flights will vary based on destination, time, day of travel, demand, fare class, and other factors.

So many questions ...

  • Southwest's award prices are already keyed to 1) the price of a comparable revenue ticket, and 2) the fare type. Aren't all the variables referenced in Southwest's announcement already baked into the market price of a ticket?
  • Which flights will be affected?
  • How much will the prices for "certain" award flights rise?

In response to my query to Southwest's corporate communications team for elaboration, I received the following:

In an effort to stay competitive in the current market conditions and provide the most Customer-friendly redemption policies in the airline industry, Southwest Airlines has slightly increased the number of Rapid Rewards Points needed to redeem flights. The number of points needed will vary based on destination, time of day, demand, fare class, and other factors, though, in many cases, the current redemption rate will remain the same. Rapid Rewards continues to provide its Members with the most flexibility to redeem their points with no minimum point balance requirement to redeem for reward travel, no blackout dates, and no fees for booking close in to your travel date... This truly is primarily a change to the way we calculate the rate that we don't plan to make again.

What that means, in P.R.-speak, is that the company has no further comment at this time. When can Southwest's customers expect a more robust explanation of the new pricing scheme? As we go to press, the company spokesperson is checking.

What We Know

Southwest's cryptic pronouncement leaves much to imagination—too much.

What we know is that prices for at least some Rapid Rewards awards will increase, and that the system for pricing awards will not only be more complex but will be stripped of whatever transparency it currently possesses. The price of an award ticket will no longer be predictable. It will be whatever Southwest says it is.

Last year, Southwest reduced the value of Rapid Rewards points by around 15 percent. This upcoming change to award pricing is certain to further cut into the value of those points. And it will make the program that much more complicated and cumbersome in the process.

Rapid Rewards was once one of the simplest, most straightforward of the airline loyalty programs. It was also, not coincidentally, one of the most popular. What remains of that popularity today will take a significant hit on April 17, when the program moves even further from its roots.

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This article was originally published on SmarterTravel and FrequentFlier.com under the title  Southwest Flyers, Prepare for Higher Award Prices.

Travelers to Airlines: "Enough, Already!"

Posted February 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Peter Finch's classic line from the movie Network may have been about television, but it seems appropriate for airline travelers as well. Two prominent airline user groups have recently asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) to correct two egregious abuses that the big airlines apparently decided to ignore.

Excessive Ticket-Change Fees: Last week, FlyersRights.org, the big advocacy group for air travelers, petitioned the DOT to limit the amount that international airlines can charge to change nonrefundable tickets, at a cap of $100. When airlines first started assessing change fees, they were a reasonable $25 to $50, but in recent years, fees on international tickets have risen to a typical $300 and as high as $700 in some cases, which is clearly unreasonable.

Nobody has a quarrel about the basic idea of change fees. Originally, when airlines first started issuing nonrefundable tickets, they were really nonrefundable: Change the trip; lose the ticket (except for a few specified reasons, mainly medical). But with the rise of "desktop forging," the airlines couldn't cope with the flood of phony "doctor's letters." In response, the airlines adopted a new approach: You won't get your money back, but if you cancel a trip, you can retain the cash value, less a fee, and apply it to a future ticket. This was a sensible market-based solution, fair to everyone. Unfortunately, the airlines later decided to view change fees as a cash cow rather than keep fees reasonable, and they raised the fees to current gouge levels.

Despite deregulation, the DOT retains the authority to require that fees in international air travel be "reasonable." In the past, the DOT has chosen to ignore that authority. But as a result of failure to enforce reasonability, airlines have raised fees well above a reasonable level. In effect, FlyersRights is saying to the DOT, "It's time to step up and do what you're supposed to do."

Outrageous Fuel Surcharges: Earlier this month, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) asked the DOT to investigate excessive airline fuel surcharges. BTC cited a case where the fuel surcharge exceeded the "base fare," and I've noted many similar cases. Clearly, these levels of fuel surcharges have nothing to do with the real cost of fuel or any other identifiable cost. Instead, they're just a way to keep base fares artificially low. And, as such, they're a scam.

Splitting a true fare into a phony low-ball base fare plus a surcharge doesn't scam the typical consumer who is buying a ticket. Although airlines originally tried to separate fuel charges, the DOT said, "No, you can't do that; you have to include all the fees in what you post as the fare." But consumers are scammed in other situations: On a "free" companion ticket, for example, the companion has to pay the surcharge, often more than the coupon covers. Frequent flyers on some lines—mainly foreign—have to pay the surcharge on supposedly "free" award travel.

High phony surcharges scam business travelers more than consumers. A company with a contract providing, say, 10 percent discounts, can take the discount only on the low-ball base fare, while paying the full surcharge. That's one reason BTC is involved. And BTC says its case remains valid even when an airline renames a fuel surcharge as a "carrier-imposed fee."

Airline Response: At this writing, airlines haven't responded to either proposal yet, but you can bet they will whine along the line: "More unnecessary regulation—more government interference in our business. We should let the marketplace decide these issues."

It's hard to see how airline managements can remain so tone-deaf about these abuses, but they are. The sad fact is that most airline consumer-protection regulation has been in response to serious airline abuses. The airlines knew about those abuses, could have handled them as market responses, but didn't. I'm a firm believer in a free market. But when the market fails, the only recourse is government action.

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This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title Travelers to Airlines, "Enough, Already!".  Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.


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