10 Secret Spots in America's Top National Parks

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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

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

Spruce Flats Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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

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

Toroweap Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park

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

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

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

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

Artist Point, Yosemite National Park

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

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

Point Sublime, Yellowstone National Park

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

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

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

Related: 10 National Parks You Never Knew Existed

Lulu City, Rocky Mountain National Park

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

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

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

Beach 1 and Beach 2, Olympic National Park

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

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

Related: 10 Crowd-Free National Parks

Petroglyph Canyon, Zion National Park

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

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

Bradley Lake, Grand Teton National Park

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

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

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park

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

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

Related: 27 Places That Will Restore Your Faith in Travel

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Glacier National Park, Montana via Shutterstock)

10 Things You Need on Every Road Trip

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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

SuperVizor

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

Related: 7 Safety Tips for Road Trips

Bobble Water Bottle

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

Reed's Ginger Chews

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

Pet Safety Harness

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

Related: Expert Tips for Pet Travel

Just Ahead App

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

BiteSizers Portable Food Scissors

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

Scout App

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

Secur Products 6-in1

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

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

AAA Emergency Road-Assistance Kit

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

Portable DVD Player

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

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

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

The Best Travel Bags for Guys

Posted July 1, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Man With Messenger Bag via Shutterstock)

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

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

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

  • Access: You want to be able to get your gadgets in and out of the bag easily without having to empty the whole bag.
  • Construction: Invest in something well-made, especially if you travel a lot. Remember this thing will be shoved under airplane seats, manhandled by the TSA, and possibly crammed into an overhead bin.
  • Right-Sized, Not Super-Sized: Make sure you can fit what you need, but don't choose a bag that's unnecessarily cumbersome or bulky (unless you travel with the complete Song of Ice and Fire series in hardcover—in which case, valar morghulis, and you'll probably need a larger bag).
  • Comfort Counts: This will likely be the bag you use while exploring your destination. Can you imagine hauling it around Barcelona all day? If not, look for something more appropriate.

(Photo: Genius Pack)

Genius Pack Intelligent Travel Backpack

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

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

(Photo: Brenthaven)

Mercer Messenger Bag from Brenthaven

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

(Photo: Oliberte)

Oliberte Flora Rustic Brown Pullup

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

Related: How to Travel Without a Bag

(Photo: Fossil)

Men's Estate Saffiano Leather EW Messenger Bag from Fossil

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

(Photo: Nixon)

Swamis Backpack from Nixon

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

Related: Travel Essentials That Are Worth the Splurge

Brixton Camera/Laptop Messenger Bag

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

BaileyWorks 253 Courier

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

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

Ticket-Change Fees: Time for a Change?

Posted June 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the specific recommendations made by the fee detractors:

  • Cap change fees for international tickets at $100. (The DOT has more discretion in regulating international fares and fees.)
  • Fees for cancellations or changes made more than five to 10 days before departure should be dropped altogether.
  • Where fees are charged, they must be more clearly and prominently communicated.

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

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

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

Smart Ways to Carry Money While Traveling

Posted June 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Carrying money on vacation is a balancing act between safety and utility. Making money difficult to access deters thieves, but when it comes time to pay for something, you still want to be able to get to it without stripping off clothes or playing hide-and-seek with a bag's hidden pockets. With that in mind, here are 10 tips for carrying money safely and elegantly when you travel.

Divide Money

Even if you disregard all other advice about carrying money, take this tip to heart: Whenever possible, divvy up your travel cash and even credit cards into multiple safe spots. If you've got all your money in one place, it only takes one time for a thief to totally wipe you out. You can even apply this idea when you're out and about by keeping some money attached to your person and some in a bag you carry. That way, if your bag gets lost or snatched, you'll still have enough to get to a police station or back to your hotel.

Related: 8 Carry-on Packing Tips That Will Change How You Travel

Favor on-Body Storage

Under-clothing storage accessories have come a long way since neck pouches and money belts came onto the scene. Though those classics are still in favor, newer options include bra stashes, as well as long johns, underwear, and undershirts with built-in pockets for safe storage. On-body storage accessories are particularly useful if you're sleeping somewhere that doesn't have a secure place for cash and other valuables. Note that on-body storage isn't a good wallet alternative, since fishing around under your clothes for money advertises where you're hiding the goods. And lest you think a fanny pack is a substitute for a money belt, realize that it can actually make you more vulnerable to thievery since it marks you as a tourist.

Keep Small Bills Handy

Changing or withdrawing large amounts of money minimizes the fees you'll pay to get local currency, but it also means you'll be traveling with far more cash—and larger bills—than you'd have on you at home. We've already talked about the virtues of dividing your money, but it's also wise to make smaller denominations of currency easily accessible. That way, you won't pull out the local equivalent of a $100-dollar bill while attempting to buy a 30-cent souvenir. You also won't have to reach down into your jeans to get more money from an under-clothing money pouch. Make money preparation part of your morning routine: As you're packing your bag, make sure you've got a variety of small bills and coins at the ready for purchases such as food, souvenirs, and attraction entry fees. Squirrel away larger bills in your under-clothing money pouch, or tuck them into a secure part of your wallet or bag.

Related: 6 Things You Should Never Wear at the Airport

Carry an Anti-Theft Bag

If garbage-bag commercials have taught us anything, it's that some bags are tougher than others. The same goes for travel purses, backpacks, and bags—some, designed specifically for travel, have features such as cut-proof, steel-cable-reinforced shoulder straps; slash-proof fabric; and locking zippers. Since elements like these slow down thieves, they can do a decent job deterring opportunistic pickpockets. Anti-theft bags are available online from Pacsafe, Travelon, Magellan's, and other retailers. Consider your purchase an investment that might save you some money.

Trim Your Wallet

Are you going to need your library card when you're 6,000 miles from your local branch? Probably not. Before you leave, take the time to go through your wallet and take out everything except the necessities (a universal credit card and a backup, an identification card, an insurance card, etc.). Not only will it help you travel lighter, but if your wallet does get lost or stolen, you'll have less to replace.

Related: 8 Secrets of Ultralight Packing

Use a Dummy Wallet

If you're traveling in a place known for pickpocketings or muggings, consider getting a cheap wallet that looks just real enough to keep in your pocket or bag. Pad the wallet with some small bills and make it look more real by slipping in one or two of those sample credit cards you get with offers in the mail. A dummy wallet can stop pickpockets before they get to your real wallet. And in the scary and unlikely case of an actual mugging, it also gives you something to throw and run, buying you time to escape with your safety and your actual wallet.

Buy a Travel Wallet

In addition to a dummy version, you might also consider a wallet that you reserve specifically for travel. There's one simple reason for this: If you're the type of person whose day-to-day wallet is packed with cards—gym memberships, pre-paid coffee cards, frequent-buyer punch cards, and the like—the pockets are likely to be stretched out when you minimize the contents for travel. By having a travel-only wallet, your cards will have snug pockets that they can't slip out of accidentally. As an added bonus, you won't have to unpack and repack your day-to-day wallet; you can simply transfer what you need for your trip to your travel version.

Related: 10 Things You Should Never Pack in Your Checked Bag

Adapt to the Local Money Culture

Being prepared to pay your way on vacation means different things depending on where you are. In a cash economy, you'll need to make sure to have a variety of bills and coins on hand at all times, but your credit cards will likely just collect dust. However, in much of Europe and parts of Asia, where automation is common and chip-and-PIN credit-card technology is standard, having a compatible credit card will come in very handy, especially if you find yourself at an unattended gas station late at night or a train station after-hours. Also keep in mind that in some countries, U.S. dollars are an official or unofficial secondary currency, so it's wise to keep a few greenbacks at the ready.

Use Money Alternatives

In high-traffic settings such as metro stations and close quarters like bus lines, it's nice to be able to forgo cash or credit-card transactions totally and rely instead on a multi-use ticket or other cash alternative. If you're in a city where the public-transportation system offers multi-use cards (for instance, London's Oyster card or San Francisco's Clipper card) or where you can buy a bunch of tickets at once (like a "carnet" on the Paris metro, which gets you 10 single-ride tickets for one discounted price), then take advantage. You'll reduce your chances of losing your wallet simply by retrieving and stowing it fewer times.

Related: 10 Things You Should Pack (But Probably Won't)

Stow Valuable Securely

Sometimes the best way to carry money is to not carry it at all. Hotels' in-room safes are generally pretty secure, and if you've got an item (or a wad of cash) you're particularly nervous about, check to see if the hotel has a safe-deposit box behind the desk. If you do use a hotel lockbox of any sort though, remember to retrieve your items when you leave. In the rush to pack up and depart, out of sight can easily mean out of mind—until you're on your way to the airport. If you're a forgetful type, leave a colorful note on top of your suitcase.

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Read the original story: Best Ways to Carry Money While Traveling by Christine Sarkis, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Clutching Blue Purse via Shutterstock)

This Is Why You Can't Sleep on the Plane

Posted June 26, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

When boarding a plane, you have the purest of intentions: You're going to use this rare empty stretch of time to catch up on much-needed sleep. You'll land at your destination bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to take on the world!

But things aren't ever that simple, are they? In reality, you end up doing all the things that keep you from floating into dreamland. By the time you deplane, you're tired, disheveled, and your carefully planned trip is off to a shaky start.

To prevent thwarting yet another vacation or business meeting because you're overtired, figure out what you're doing that's making it difficult to sleep—and cut it out. Whether your goal is to squeeze in a catnap during a quick commuter flight or a half dozen REM cycles on a red-eye, these are all the ways you might be sabotaging your mile-high shuteye.

You Stare at a Screen

Who among us hasn't gone down the social-media or Web-surfing rabbit hole when we should be resting our eyes and brain? It's an easy mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless, especially considering that smartphone, tablet, and laptop screens emit a bluish hue that messes with your body's natural sleep hormones.

"Essentially what blue light does is interfere with melatonin production in our brains," says Shelby Harris, the director of behavioral sleep medicine at New York's Montefiore Health System. "Melatonin makes us sleepy," she adds, "but needs darkness to work. And blue light reduces melatonin even more than plain old full-spectrum white light."

If you can't slow down your thoughts unaided, get into a paper book (or Kindle e-reader) instead. "Reading on an airplane is one of the best possible rituals you can do to help you fall asleep," says Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and wellness author. "It helps put your mind at ease, making you feel relaxed and distanced from the hustle and bustle of traveling."

Related: 9 Things You Should Never Wear on a Plane

You Booze Before You Snooze

Sure, having a stewardess-stirred cocktail might make you nod off quicker (thanks, adenosine). But don't fool yourself into thinking that a nightcap will help you sleep better. In fact, dozens of studies have confirmed that any form of alcohol consumed within an hour before shuteye will dehydrate you, leave you groggy when you wake, exaggerate jetlag, and, worst of all, disrupt your overall sleeping pattern, since you get fewer REM cycles during alcohol-induced sleep. (Besides, you'll have to get up to pee.)

You know yourself best, of course, but if you're like most humans, liquor is pretty much guaranteed to mess up your circadian rhythm so that you won't sleep as long and you won't get much real rest from the sleep that you do get.

You Drink Coffee

As tempting as a steaming cup of joe might sound as the flight attendant asks for your drink order, especially if that roasted-bean smell is wafting through the cabin, resist the urge if your goal is to sleep.

The fact that coffee keeps you awake hardly needs expanding upon (a typical eight-ounce cup packs 95 milligrams of caffeine), but it's astounding how many passengers order it even if they intend to doze. Don't do that.

Instead, request room-temperature water, herbal tea, or warm milk. Beware the airlines' go-to Lipton tea, though—a bag steeped in eight ounces of water delivers 55 milligrams of caffeine. Steer clear of Coca-Cola and chocolate, too, both of which will buzz you up on caffeine and sugar.

Related: 8 Foods You Should Never Eat Before Flying

You Pick the Wrong Seat

If you've ever been stuck in the middle seat between two strangers, you know the near impossibility of achieving sleep status there. And if you're in the aisle, you'll get awoken whenever your row mates need to visit the loo or the flight attendants need to deliver service. Your most nap-optimal option, then, is always the window seat. You've got the wall to lean against, the shade to close, and the luxury of being left mostly alone.

Book your window seat when making your flight reservation. Or if you're flying an airline like Southwest whose seats are first-come, first-served, set your alarm for as soon as you can check in online. The earlier you check in, the earlier you can board the plane—and the likelier you are to nab a window seat.

As for other seat-related factors, Clint Johnston, founder of Triphackr.com, recommends using SeatGuru to suss out your most comfortable spot: "A seat away from the lavatory and the galley is a must," he says.

Wherever you end up sitting, buckle your seat belt atop your blanket or jacket so that the flight staff won't need to wake you to confirm that you're safe.

You Come Unequipped

Don't expect to be able to sleep well if you don't bring the proper equipment. "Before your flight, pack a small sleep kit and toss it into your carry-on," recommends Alanna McGinn, a certified sleep expert and the founder of the Good Night Sleep Site. "Earplugs and an eye mask can help minimize distractions and let you drift off a little easier," she adds.

The other experts I surveyed for this piece recommend bringing noise-canceling headphones, thick socks, a neck pillow (some prefer to use it under the chin instead of behind the neck), a blanket, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and your contact case and solution if needed. If you don't have an eye mask, sunglasses work in a pinch and can double as a do-not-disturb sign.

If you know they work for you, you can take sleeping pills—Ambien is popular—or better yet, a natural sleep aid like melatonin or magnesium citrate powder. "Magnesium is an anti-stress mineral and sleep aid that will help you relax and fall asleep," says Carolyn Dean, a women's health expert. "You can take travel-size packets and pour one into your water bottle and sip throughout the flight," she adds.

Related: 7 Ways to Get a Free Upgrade

You Don't Prep at the Airport

There are certain things you can do before you get on your flight that'll make your time in your seat more restful. First of all, go to bathroom before you board. Also, eat a normal-sized meal—not too big, not too small—and get to the airport with enough time to get through security so that you don't arrive at your gate flushed and stressed.

While you still have Wi-Fi, and before you put your phone on airplane mode, download a few relaxing songs and apps. Johnston recommends Sleep Machine, which, he says, "offers soothing sounds, like the forest, the ocean, or a campfire that you might prefer over blocking noise with earplugs." Roger Brinkley, CEO of Pac2Go, a travel-accessory company, swears by the Ambi Science Pure Sleep app:"It uses a combination of binaural and isochronic entrainment," he says. (That just means it plays two kinds of tones that get your brainwaves to calm down.) "Think of it as white noise on steroids."

You Don't Make Yourself Comfortable

There are so many little ways you can create your own comfort aboard an aircraft, yet most people don't do it. For maximum coziness, don't forget your pillow, take off your shoes, and slip on a pair of clean socks. If you need legroom, store as much as possible in the overhead bin; or, if you prefer a leg rest, use your carry-on to prop up your feet. A few travel experts recommend placing a pillow or your backpack on your open tray table for a comfortable place to rest your head, if you don't mind leaning forward.

The day of travel, don't wear anything constricting or stiff—except for compression socks or tights, if needed. Instead, dress yourself in clothes that are as loose and comfortable as possible without it looking like you're wearing pajamas. On a long-haul flight, consider bringing actual pajamas to change into after taking off.

"Another tip is to layer up," says Heather Richardson, a luxury travel advisor. "Cabins are always too hot or too cold, so make sure you can take off layers or put them on as required." And a jacket can double as a pillow if you roll it up.

The eternal question of whether to recline your seat remains as controversial as ever—but if no one's sitting behind you, or if that person is reclined, don't hesitate to lean on back.

Related: OP-ED: It's My Right to Recline My Seat

Your Timing Is Off

Avoid scheduling flights for the time of day that you tend to be most awake and alert. Early-morning flights are great for this reason, so long as you don't have your usual cup of coffee. Otherwise, book a ticket that departs right before bedtime. Either way, the key is to board the plane tired. If that means you need to wake up extra-early that morning, or get in a hardcore workout during the day, do it.

"On short, transatlantic flights eastbound to Europe where flight times might be as little as six hours, the key in any class of service is to get to sleep right away," says Kyle Steward, who owns a travel agency called Trip Sherpa. "You will have a chance at five to six hours of sleep, but getting a head start is key."

You Fly Coach

Yeah, we know, this isn't something most of us can control. But if you happen to have the money, miles, or charm to get up front, use it. For better chances of an impromptu upgrade, arrive at your gate early, dress sharply, and ask nicely. The worst they can say is no.

And if the flight staff ever asks for a volunteer to give up their economy-class seat to accommodate other passengers' needs, raise your hand—there's a decent chance they'll escort you into business or first.

So long as you don't indulge in the free champagne and chocolate, you'll have a much better chance at getting longer, higher quality sleep where you have more space around you, fewer people, and seats that basically turn into beds.

Related: How to Get the Best Seat in Coach Every Time

You Chat up Your Neighbor

On an airplane, even a friendly greeting can be misconstrued as a signal that the conversational door is open. And then, if you're seated next to a chatty Cathy (or a talkative Tom), you're at risk for an hours-long back and forth when what you really need to be doing is sleeping.

When acknowledging your seatmate, keep it quick and polite, then quickly put on headphones or an eye mask. To solidify your chances of silence, say something like, "Hey, if the flight attendant comes by to take drink orders, would you mind telling her I don't want to be woken up?" This'll send the loud-and-clear message—without having to outright say so—that you're not up for a gabfest.

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Read the original story: 10 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Ability to Sleep on a Plane by Avital Andrews, who is a contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Airline Passengers in Their Seats via Shutterstock)

The Best People to Ask for Help at Every Hotel

Posted June 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

Here's what we think: the folks at our sister-company Oyster are true hotel experts. Last fall, I spent a week in Japan with an Oyster photographer and was amazed at her ability to see things that most people miss. Where most people saw a hotel hallway, she saw hidden clues about maintenance. Where I saw a breakfast buffet, she saw a way to gauge how a hotel was faring against the competition.

So when we decided to do a tip series focused on hotels, we knew just who to ask. This summer, we're teaming up with Oyster to bring you tips to help you get the very best out of each hotel stay. Our first topic: how to find the right people to ask for help at any hotel.

The Golden Rule of Asking for Help at Hotels

Here it is: Never be afraid to ask for help. Oyster editors advise that you'll never get what you don't ask for, so even if asking for things is out of your comfort zone, it's worth pushing yourself. You can be as friendly as you like, but don't feel like you need to apologize for asking. Because, as Oyster reminds us, "Hotel staff is there to assist you."

At any hotel, you have two primary resources—one is obvious but the other may surprise you.

First off, ask hotel staff. The front desk can help direct your question to the right person, and even if, Oyster says, "the person you first come into contact with can’t help you, he/she will often know who can and get you to the right person." Many people also favor hotel bartenders, who tend to offer more candid suggestions than, say, a concierge might.

Your other best resource is other people staying at the hotel. Many of your fellow guests "may have stayed at the hotel before, or visited the area before, and therefore will likely have suggestions on everything from what the hotel front desk can provide to the must-visit tourist spots." So strike up a conversation with the person you meet in the lobby, and if they seem like your type of traveler, ask them for advice.

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Read the original story: The Best People to Ask for Help at Every Hotel by Christine Sarkis, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Airlines to Shrink Carry-ons?

Posted June 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

You know those carry-on bag "sizers" strewn around airport ticketing and check-in areas? The ones that say "If your bag doesn't fit in here, check it"? The ones routinely ignored by both flyers and airline personnel?

If the International Air Transport Association has its way, they could be about to be replaced by even less capacious sizers.

IATA, which "represents some 260 airlines comprising 83% of global air traffic," on Tuesday proposed a new standard maximum size for carry-on bags.

Working with airline members of IATA and aircraft manufacturers, an optimum size guideline for carry-on bags has been agreed that will make the best use of cabin storage space. A size of 55 x 35 x 20 cm (or 21.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches) means that theoretically everyone should have a chance to store their carry-on bags on board aircraft of 120 seats or larger.

Bags that adhere to the new specification would be allowed to display an "IATA Cabin OK" sticker.

For context, the standard in place at American, Delta, and United—and hence the de facto industry standard in the U.S.—is 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Which raises the question: Could shaving just a half inch off of most dimensions really make a significant dent in the problem of overstuffed overhead bins?

IATA didn't share the calculations underlying the revised spec's alleged impact on bag stowage, and without more compelling proof, the proposal certainly warrants skepticism on the part of both airlines and travelers.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the new standard will be widely adopted. According to IATA, "A number of major international airlines have signaled their interest to join the initiative and will soon be introducing the guidelines into their operations." The Washington Post reports that eight carriers have committed to the new guideline: Air China, Avianca, Azul, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Qatar. So far, Air Canada is alone in publicly declining to follow IATA's recommendation.

If the proposal does gain traction, the winners and losers are clear to see. The airlines stand to reap even more in checked-bag fees, which amounted to $3.5 billion in 2014 for U.S. carriers alone. And bag manufacturers will enjoy a sales windfall, as travelers are forced to replace their newly out-of-spec bags.

The only bright spot for consumers: deep discounts on bags that no longer adhere to the airlines' new standard. But any up-front savings could be offset by fees to check those cheap bags when flying on airlines that adhere to the IATA guideline.

For now, travelers considering the purchase of new carry-on bags should hold off until there's more clarity regarding size restrictions.

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Read the original story: Airlines to Shrink Carry-on Size? by Tim Winship, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers

Posted June 18, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

The best travelers develop habits and routines that make their trips more rewarding. Adopt these seven tricks to take your vacationing skills to the next level.

Taking Advantage of Flight-Tracking Apps

One of the smartest things you can do with your smartphone is to download a good flight-tracking app. We recommend TripIt—with the pro version, you'll get instant alerts about flight delays, cancellations, and gate changes. You'll also get alerts letting you know as soon as online check-in is available, whether your airfare is eligible for a refund, and you'll get help finding a new flight if yours is cancelled. At $49, it's definitely pricey, but there are many other free apps worth your time, too. Make a habit of inputting your itinerary into a travel app before you take off, and you (or at least your smartphone) will be on top of the travel game.

Packing Smart

Do you travel a lot? Make it a habit to keep your suitcase stocked with travel toiletries and a carry-on bag packing list. Even if you're not away every weekend, having the essentials ready to go and an idea of what you need to check off can save you lots of pre-vacation stress and prevent overpacking. Plus, if someone ever offers to whisk you away at a moment's notice, you'll be prepared!

Checking in ASAP

With airlines trying to squeeze every last penny out of flyers by turning exit-row economy seats into "premium economy," your chance of snagging a good aisle or window seat (without paying extra) is dwindling. Get in the habit of setting an alarm on your phone or email to remind you exactly when your airline's online check-in starts. If you weren't able to select seats when you booked, this will give you the first shot at what's open. If you already picked a seat, remember that oftentimes it's the passengers who check in last who get bumped from oversold flights. Print your boarding passes at this time, too, and you'll be able to ditch the long check-in lines at the airport.

Integrating with Locals

Make a new tradition and have one of your first stops on each trip be a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant frequented by locals and not recommended by any guidebooks. While you're there, chat up friendly natives for their tips on what to do. By starting off every trip like this, you'll often discover things you would have missed by sticking to a guidebook or concierge's choices. Why not start a routine of dropping your bags at the hotel, then immediately heading out for refreshment at the quirkiest local establishment you can find? It's a fun and informative way to ease into your vacation.

Doing Your Homework

Spontaneity is great on trips, but doing a little homework before you go can vastly enhance your getaway. A few weeks before you travel, try signing up for daily deal sites (like Groupon or LivingSocial) for your destination. You'll get offers for local restaurants and activities that you can redeem once you're there—all at a deep discount. Read up on the place that you're traveling to, too—there's nothing worse than finding out about an amazing event or attraction after you've returned home.

Calling Your Credit Card Company

Another important habit is calling your credit card company and bank before you head off to any far-flung destination. Many companies will freeze your card if it's used outside of your home country, thinking that it's fraud. A few days before you leave, give them a call and let them know the dates you'll be gone so you'll still be able to access all your funds abroad.

Building Downtime Into Your Schedule

It's tempting to try to pack a million different activities and sights into your trip, because who knows when you'll get a chance to come back? Get in the habit of leaving some downtime in your schedule. Without it, you'll be overexerted and tired, and you'll never have time to just wander and discover the unexpected delights that can be the best part of any trip.

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Read the original story: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers by Caroline Morse, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

(Photo: Woman Looking Out Window, Standing with Carry-on Bag via Shutterstock)

Top 7 Budget Destinations for Summer 2015

Posted June 11, 2015 by SmarterTravel.com

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Summer seems sweeter when it's affordable, and these seven destinations offer sunny fun at a fraction of the costs!

New York City, New York

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple—especially during summertime—isn't generally a cheap endeavor, but it is doable if you're in the know.

Free events, attractions, and museums with complimentary admission abound, among them the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Federal Reserve Bank; plus pay-what-you-want all day on Wednesdays at the Bronx Zoo and from 5 p.m. until close every Tuesday at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

The City That Never Sleeps is known for its world-class performances, and during summer, those offerings are in refreshing alfresco settings. The free summer concert series for 2015 has opened up its stages for performances by top music acts the likes of George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic, Biz Markie, Afrika Bambaataa, and Lucinda Williams, among many other talents. Also at the free park concerts, the Metropolitan Opera has recitals on six separate occasions peppered throughout the month of June, and a tribute festival for jazzman Charlie Parker is held over the fourth weekend in August.

Free screenings of major films, too, are held during summer at various city parks throughout NYC's different boroughs.

Search for low prices on New York City packages here!

Las Vegas, Nevada

It's very important to establish goals before heading to Las Vegas. Strategies on how to beat the house in this desert oasis' casinos are clever, but because the house never loses, just beating the desert heat during a summer visit will do.  Luckily, ice-laden drinks, AC-vented casinos, and especially pools aplenty are everywhere.

Get poolside pronto at some of the Strip's hottest places-to-be-seen: Party hearty at the Hard Rock Hotel's Rehab or the Palms' weekly Ditch Fridays pool parties; soak in the opulence at the Palazzo Azure Pool or at the Caesars Palace Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis; and enjoy live entertainment at the Mandalay Bay's Beach Concert Series, hosted all summer at the resort casino's ultimate water world (think 11 acres of sand-and-surf beaches, lazy and wave pools, and basically a no-holds-barred water park for the 21+ crowd!). Get a cabana, get bottle service, get crazy—after all, "what happens in Vegas …"

Search for low prices on Las Vegas packages here!

Detroit, Michigan

The kiddies will get a kick out of Detroit's The Henry Ford Museum, where some of the nation's most renown vehicles are exhibited, including JFK's limousine and the bus that Rosa Parks' made her historical stand in. Timely for the summer is the museum's John Margolies photography exhibit, one that pays homage to the all-American road trip.

What better place for a car race than in Motor City?! Detroit and its neighboring areas are hosting Autopalooza from late May through September this year. That's 16 horsepower-pumping events featuring speedway races and classic-car shows.

Search for low prices on Detroit packages here!

Texas Gulf Coast

Whatever it is they do, Texans do it BIG. And in the Texas' Gulf Coast area, that usually means being beachside in Galveston, the area's top vacation destination.

Sitting atop a pier that juts out more than a thousand feet into the Gulf of Mexico, even the fussiest child will be immensely entertained with a visit to Pleasure Pier. Hop on amusement rides (some with state-pride names like Texas Star Flyer, Big Wheelin', and Texas Tea), dine at any of the plentiful dining options, and shopping galore. Pleasure Pier is open every day during summer, but only on weekends the remainder of the year.

Search for low prices on Texas Gulf Coast packages here!

San Salvador, El Salvador

El Salvador's been on the travel map for surfers and backpackers for some time now, but cost-conscious adventurous types should also try their hand at this hidden gem.

A favorite activity—self-guided or with a tour operator—among those visiting the tiny Central American nation is the "flower route." Itineraries are dependent on the provider, but stops on these tours generally include visits to colonial towns, coffee plantations, colorful produce markets, and craft-making co-ops. El Salvador's lush countryside passes serenely by as visitors make their way from one mountaintop village's artisanal workshop to a candle-lit market to a 16th-century church.

Making flights to San Salvador international airport more affordable, low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines increased capacity to four weekly nonstop flights as of May 2015.

Search for low prices on San Salvador packages here!

Chicago, Illinois

No need to fear Chicago's wind during summer. The Windy City stays at a temperate low-80 degrees Fahrenheit during its popular June-through-August summer season. With the warm weather, too, come the many outdoor festivals. Main events include Chicago Blues and Chicago Pride festivals in June, the foodie-fave Taste of Chicago in Grant Park and Square Roots Festival in Lincoln Square during July, the Chicago Air & Water Show at North Avenue Beach in mid-August, and the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend. The Jazz Fest culminates summer's festivities at Millennium Park, and does so gratis

Search for low prices on Chicago packages here!

Miami, Florida

Known the world over for Ocean Drive's art deco architectural structures, Miami's South Beach is the real attraction here. Along this man-made beach you'll find candy-colored lifeguard huts, warm waters, soft sand, and plenty of sunbathers, including the topless variety. But it's not until the blazing sun sets that it gets truly hot in South Beach, home to one of the most happening nightlife scenes in the world. For South Beach's international movers and shakers, the party doesn't end until dawn.

Search for low prices on Miami packages here!


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