10 Tiny Travel Accessories Fit for Your Keychain

Posted August 29, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Your bag is packed. Your carry-on is arranged. But is your keychain ready? With so many travel-friendly items that can ride along with your keys, customizing your ring for each trip can be the highlight of your travel-prep routine.

Bauble-sized items spanning the spectrum from speakers to sunscreen mean it's easy to grab and go when you're on vacation. Here are 10 of our favorites.

 

(Photo: LaCie)

Key-Shaped USB Drive

Talk about going paperless. Add this key to your keychain and you'll always have the information you need. A flash drive shaped as a key discretely holds four to eight gigabytes of confirmation documents, scans, presentations, and whatever else you might need on your travels. Look for one that's water- and scratch-resistant, so your data will remain safe even if you drop your keys or leave them in a soggy pocket.

Try: The LaCie Key Flash Drive, from $23.49 on Amazon.

 

(Photo: Amazon)

Speaker

The party is always within arm's reach when you've got a tiny speaker to plug in to your smartphone. Turn a trip to the beach into a dance party, or an airport layover into a dance party, or a short wait at the bus stop into a dance party. You'll either make a lot of friends or many enemies with this kind of power harnessed to your keychain.

Try: X-mini's line of tiny speakers starts at $12.99 on Amazon.

 

(Photo: Handmade Classics)

Using Incorrect Arrival and Departure Dates

A night out. A day at the beach. Anytime you want a bit of money, a credit card, and a spot to stash a small item or two without lugging an entire bag along on your adventure, look to the humble change purse. Long a fixture of bus-riding grandmothers and elementary schoolers, this keychain pocket has gotten a style update in recent years.

Try: Choose your fabric and let handmadeclassics turn it into a sturdy, lined change purse with an attached O-shaped key ring, from $9 on Etsy.

 

(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Flashlight

Mini flashlights might just be the best thing to ever happen to keychains. They take up almost no space and come in handy all the time. Say you've arrived at a vacation rental after dark and you're trying to unlock the door without the help of a porch light. Or you're trying to get to the bathroom in an unfamiliar hotel room but you don't want to turn on the light and wake anyone else up. Or you need a little extra help navigating a poorly lit sidewalk on a dark night. Tiny flashlight to the rescue!

Try: The Energizer LED Keychain Light, from $4.88 on Amazon.

 

(Photo: Leatherman)

Multiuse Tool

You can't fly with it on your keychain, but once you arrive, wherever you arrive, you'll be prepared for picnics and fix-its with a keychain-sized multiuse tool. Scissors, tweezers, bottle openers, files, and more are built into the folds of these tiny tool kits. When they're not needed, they fold up small and stay out of the way.

Try: Leatherman has five keychain-sized multi-tools to choose from, while Victorinox offers the MiniChamp, a compact Swiss Army Knife.

 

 

(Photo: Amazon)

Pen

When you need a pen, nothing else will substitute. It's a lesson learned by travelers thousands of times every day, in customs lines at airports and on rail-pass trains rattling through faraway countries. A small keychain pen won't run out of batteries and will be there whenever you need to jot down a vital piece of information in a hurry.

Try: The Trekker Fisher Space Pen, from $22.47 on Amazon. We're big fans of the Space Pen, and this one is meant to be a trusty keychain companion, there for you even in zero gravity (should that situation arise).

 

(Photo: Christine Sarkis)

Hand Sanitizer

When it comes to eliminating germs, nothing beats soap and water, but hand sanitizer can be a good on-the-go substitute. The CDC recommends an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Carry a small bottle on your keychain and you'll be ready the next time you're in a place where running water is scarce but, say, delicious street food is plentiful.

Try: Purell's Hand Sanitizers in Jelly Wrap Carriers are one-ounce bottles cradled in stretchy webbing that you can attach to a keychain. For these, you're likely to find better prices in drugstores than online.

 

(Photo: Amazon)

GPS Locator Device

Find your way back to your hotel in an unfamiliar city, a campsite or fishing hole in the great outdoors, or your car in a vast theme park lot using a keychain-sized GPS position locator device. A reverse-navigation system, it allows you to mark the location you want to return to and then wander away with confidence, knowing you'll be able to find your way back.

Try: The Navin miniHomer, from $74.95 on Amazon.

 

(Photo: Amazon)

Lip Balm

There are few things more chronically distracting than dry lips. But when you've got lip balm attached to your keychain, the only time you'll find yourself without a quick fix is if you forget your keys. And if you've forgotten your keys, dry lips will likely seem like a minor issue in comparison.

Try: Adapt your existing lip balm by using a holder with a keychain attachment, such as the Zip Stick Retractable Lip Balm Holder, from $6.80 on Amazon.

 

(Photo: Rocky Mountain Sunscreen)

Sunscreen

Never sunburn again. With just enough sunscreen to protect you from a fierce midday sun, you'll be toting the backup skin care you need when you find yourself without a larger bottle. Surprisingly, there are only a few companies making small-sized sunscreens for your key ring. But simply refill one of these keychain-ready bottles with your preferred brand, and you'll be ready for any sunscreen reapplication eventuality. Your dermatologist will be so proud.

Try: Rocky Mountain Sunscreen's one-ounce tube with a carabiner, from $4.45 on Amazon.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Tiny Travel Accessories for Your Keychain.

Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

How to Fly Like a Pro

Posted August 27, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

Ever wonder what the pros know that you don't? How they get the best seats, save time and money, and avoid hassles? We've queried travel writers, industry insiders, and other ultra-frequent flyers to get their tips, sometimes from things they've learned the hard way—so you don't have to!

It Pays to Be Last

If carry-on luggage isn't a consideration and the flight isn't sold out, one tactic for getting that coveted "extra seat" is to be the last person to board—that way, you can look around to see if there are any empty rows or two empty seats next to each other. If you do have carry-on luggage and you don't want to chance losing space in the overhead bin (or you don't like cutting it that close), try waiting 10 minutes before boarding starts, and politely ask the gate attendant if there are any seats with empty ones next to them. At that point—that close to boarding time—it's unlikely those seats will fill up, and you can move to one of the open ones.

Cut Out the Middleman

If you are flying with someone else and you're able to choose your seats, book one window seat and one aisle seat in the same row. The middle seat is usually the last one people want, so they'll avoid it and you'll have a seat's worth of extra space in which to spread out (because every extra inch of legroom is precious). If your flight is full or nearly full, this probably won't work. But even if someone does claim that middle seat, they'll probably be more than happy to switch to the aisle or window, and you'll be able to sit together.

Carry-On? Check!

If waiting for luggage at baggage claim isn't a huge deal to you, consider this tip: You can often ask the gate attendant to check your carry-on, especially if the flight is full or nearly full. If you have checked another bag and will need to go to baggage claim anyway (for instance, on an international flight), then it's one fewer thing to carry around. And you won't have to jockey for space in the bins along with everyone else. (And if you're one of those people who can travel internationally for a couple of weeks with just a carry-on, more power to you!)

Cover Your Tracks

A lot of attention is given to the fact that sites deposit "cookies" on your device that can track your interest in and intention to book a particular flight. Typically, on any given day, you might see the same seat offered at many different price points, and prices can change from minute to minute. There's a question of whether these price changes are a nefarious price-gouging scheme or the result of airline pricing technology. Either way, the pros use a few different browsers, if not devices—laptop, tablet, and phone—to search flights, and then they book through the one that shows the best price. And it never hurts to delete your cookies, just in case. This link will walk you through the process.

Power to the People

Whether you're working on your laptop, reading on your tablet, or playing games on your phone, finding power for your devices is always at a premium, especially on longer flights. Most pros never leave home without an external charging device to carry them through. And here's a genius hack if you have time between connecting flights: Instead of charging your devices one at a time—or worse yet, being that person who hogs multiple outlets at the airport charging station—carry a lightweight power strip with you. And once you're in your destination, a power strip is great to have in hotel rooms that skimp on outlets. We think this one is particularly nifty because its flexible shape means it can pivot for bulky chargers and it can be packed up small.

Special Delivery

This one may not be for everyone, but it comes in handy on long-haul flights when you want to get as much sleep as possible before hitting the ground at your destination: Consider ordering one of the airline's "special" meals. These usually include vegetarian, low-sodium, and kosher options, and sometime more. These meals are served (and cleared) first, giving you extra time to slap on the eye mask and catch some z's.

Keep It to Yourself

In-flight theft: Statistically, it's not a flying crime wave, but it's more common than you think. We tend to assume that since we're in a confined space, our possessions are safe. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Valuables, including passports, have been known to disappear from luggage in overhead bins. We know someone whose passport was lifted on the plane and, as a result, he was deported at his destination. You do not want this to happen to you. Keep your passport, wallet, and any other critically valuable items on you at all times. If you have to stash items in a bag under the seat, take the bag with you when you get up to stretch or use the bathroom. If you have valuable items, such as camera equipment, in your carry-on overhead, check on them just before the "fasten seat belt" sign is turned on prior to final descent. That way, in the unlikely event that something has gone missing, you can alert an attendant.

Water, Water Everywhere

We all know that if there's one thing we need to do on a flight, it's stay hydrated. Bring an empty reusable water bottle with you that can be filled at a water fountain once you're past security. If you need more, you can ask the attendant to refill your bottle (never, ever fill it up in the plane's bathroom). And once you've arrived, you'll have a water bottle for the rest of your trip.

Bag It

Have a few TSA-approved quart-sized plastic baggies stashed in the front pocket of your suitcase or carry-on at all times, so you'll never be caught by surprise without one. Sounds simple, but we've seen people have to surrender their 3-1-1 liquids because they don't have a bag to put them in. Some security lines keep extras on hand for this kind of situation, but not all.

For Crying Out Loud

Kids? We love them. Honest! But that doesn't mean we necessarily want to sit next to them on a plane. One way to reduce the chances you'll be within ear range of an unhappy toddler or uncomfortable infant is to choose a seat at least a couple of rows removed from the bulkhead seats, which are favored by parents with little ones. But bring earplugs just in case. (You're welcome.)

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title How to Fly Like a Pro.

How to Remove Your Name from the No-Fly List

Posted August 25, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

You're about to catch a flight when you get a message to "see agent," in place of a boarding pass. That agent says you can't get on your flight. Congratulations! You're on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) No-Fly List. Although this unhappy event doesn't occur often, it's devastating when it does.

Presumably, if you're a terrorist or intend harm to the country, you already know why the government listed you. But government lists have been known to contain errors. People sometimes get on the No-Fly List without any apparent cause—and without knowing why. That's why a group of travelers recently sued the government, charging lack of due process, with legal support from the ACLU. A federal judge in Portland, OR agreed, ruling that an inability to challenge the list in any meaningful way is unconstitutional. (Several other similar cases are in the pipeline.) In response, the DHS says it plans to change the system within the next six months.

Actually, DHS maintains more than one list. People on one No-Fly List won't get on a flight, period. People on another list can fly, but with additional airport screening. Both lists are completely opaque. For starters, you can't log onto a DHS website and check to see if you're on a list or why you're on that list. The DHS specifically states, "Please note that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can neither confirm nor deny whether an individual is on the watch lists because this information is derived from classified and sensitive law enforcement and intelligence information." All DHS will say is that, last year, some 48,000 travelers were banned from traveling.

The only way you can find out that you're on the No-Fly List is to be unable to print a boarding pass at home or to be refused boarding when you try to catch a flight. A website purporting to post the no-fly list calls itself the Terrorist Security Administration: It's what you get when you Google "no-fly list," but it's a fake. It may be an accurate hack, it may be a scam, or it may be a joke—but it is not official.

DHS implemented an appeals process in 2007, but that process remains Kafkaesque. DHS calls its system "DHS Travelers Redress Inquiry Program," or DHS-TRIP (clever, those bureaucrats), and you start the process by logging on to the DHS-TRIP website. There, you fill a complaint form and apply for redress online. You will need, at a minimum, a passport or the equivalent photo ID required to board a flight. E-mail the completed form and scanned copies of required ID documents to the DHS, or do the whole deal by mail. In due time, the DHS will either bounce your appeal immediately or issue you a "redress control number," which you use initially to track your application and later as a supplementary ID when you make a flight reservation.

In the end, the DHS may or may not resolve your issue. Presumably, if the problem is something simple like a mix-up in names or an incorrect number somewhere, you will be allowed to fly. But the procedure remains opaque. The DHS will not tell you why your name was on the list or how it got there. It will only tell you, if successful, you're OK to fly.

Whatever revisions may come, the result will have to be better than the present system. But how much better remains a question.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title New Rules Allow You to Remove Your Name from the No-Fly List.

Follow Ed Perkins on Google+ or email him at editor@smartertravel.com.

New App Lets You Trade for a Better Airplane Seat

Posted August 22, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Stuck with a middle seat? Want to sell a first-class upgrade? A new app can help.

The startup app AirrTrade, which appears to have launched earlier this month and is still available via invite only, provides a marketplace through which flyers can trade, sell, or buy airplane seats. Users can search their flight via the app and find users who are willing to part with or bargain for a more desirable seat. Then, they simply purchase the seat they would like and pay the seller directly.

The app is run by a third party, which means a) the airline isn't involved in seat swapping, and b) official boarding passes won't change. At security checkpoints, both flyers will show their original boarding passes; once on the airplane, the seller and buyer are free to swap seats themselves.

Our take? AirrTrade could be a neat way to avoid paying for premium seat perks or getting stuck in an undesirable seat, turning the fees-for-all airline industry into something of a free market. However, like many other third-party apps that rely on consumer participation (such as FaceBelt, which served as an in-air matchmaking service), we imagine that downloads could be low and selection scarce. Often, we find that these apps have trouble taking off. We say, if you simply must have an exit row seat, you should just want to pay ahead of time for the privilege.

But if you don't mind the gamble, AirrTrade could offer some bang for your buck.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Neat New App Lets You Trade for a Better Airplane Seat.

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

America's Best State Fairs

Posted August 20, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Nothing says America like deep-fried food, butter sculptures, and dubious carnival rides. Whether you like livestock, musical shows, or food on a stick, there's a state fair out there for you. Here are 10 favorites across the country.

 

(Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Iowa State Fair

More than a million people from all over the world attend the Iowa State Fair every year. We bet they're coming to see the fair's butter cow, an annual tradition since 1911 in which a sculptor uses around 600 pounds of Iowa butter to create a life-sized cow. Don't worry, the butter isn't wasted—much of it is recycled and reused for up to 10 years. (That's some shelf-stable butter!)

Not into cows, but still into butter? A different "companion" sculpture is featured every year alongside the cow. Previous years' artwork has included Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, Harry Potter, Elvis Presley, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

 

(Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via flickr/CC Attribution)

New York State Fair

The New York State Fair draws big crowds and even bigger musical stars every year. This year, you can catch performances by Brad Paisley, Jason Derulo, and the Doobie Brothers. The food at this fair goes beyond the standard fare, too—the Taste NY tent is stocked with libations from local wineries and breweries as well as regional foods. Or, for a simpler snack, hit the Potato Booth for a baked potato smothered with your choice of toppings for just $1.

 

(Photo: kc7fys via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Minnesota State Fair

Bring your appetite to the Minnesota State Fair, where there are about 500 different foods available at 300 concession stands. Some standout items: beer gelato, deep-fried breakfast on a stick (a sandwich with two pancakes as the buns, stuffed with two types of cheese, a sausage patty, eggs, and Canadian bacon, and then fried), and Jell-O salad ice cream. The Minnesota State Fair is surprisingly eco-conscious as well—at this year's Eco Experience, you can see things like the world's largest wad of paper, a climate-change exhibit, and an urban garden.

 

(Photo: Steve Rainwater via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

State Fair of Texas

Everything's bigger in Texas, including the state fair (and its mascot, a 55-foot-tall cowboy). This fair goes on for 24 days and packs in plenty of entertainment, including concerts and cooking competitions. Of course, no Texas event would be complete without football: The Cotton Bowl Stadium inside the fairgrounds hosts college football games during the fair. There are plenty of non-sports games and rides for daredevils, too—be sure to check out this year's new 500-foot Top o' Texas Tower ride.

 

(Photo: Selena N. B. H. via flickr/CC Attribution)

North Carolina State Fair

Fair food can be healthy, too: The North Carolina State Fair's Field of Dreams is a miniature farm where fairgoers can pick their own crops (like apples, strawberries, and cucumbers). This year is the Year of the Horse, so there will be plenty of equine-themed activities, including horseback-riding lessons, polo, and parades.

 

(Photo: Eve Hermann via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Ohio State Fair

The Ohio State Fair boasts one of the world's longest portable sky rides—the SkyGlider, which takes you a half mile above the fair on a ride that's more relaxing than adrenaline-pumping. There's also the Giant Slide (144 feet long), and there are more than 60 rides on the Mountain Dew Midway to enjoy. For families, there's a special park just for kids (aptly named Kiddieland) that features rides for smaller fair fans.

 

(Photo: Katherine Johnson via flickr/CC Attribution)

Illinois State Fair

Which do you think is the bigger draw: disgraced "Blurred Lines" singer Robin Thicke or a 500-pound butter cow sculpture? You'll find both at the Illinois State Fair this year. Need more reasons to visit? Check out the fair's food-vendors map, which lists where you can find delicacies such as quarter-pound bacon on a stick, fried peaches, alligator on a stick, deep-fried turkey sandwiches, and pork chops on a stick.

 

(Photo: Andrew Petro via flickr/CC Attribution)

Arizona State Fair

The Arizona State Fair's eclectic concert lineup means that there's something for every type of music fan. This year, there will be performances by Sublime with Rome, Darius Rucker, Wiz Khalifa, and the Barenaked Ladies. There's also a Milking Parlor, where you can watch an educational video about Arizona's dairy farmers; or for something slightly more exciting, check out the midway rides, featuring roller coasters, a Tilt-A-Whirl, and more.

 

(Photo: Jay Galvin via flickr/CC Attribution)

Alaska State Fair

Giant produce may not be what you think of when you think of Alaska, but the Alaska State Fair could change that. The fair has already set two world records for massive vegetables; see if it will happen a third time at this year's 19th Annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. There are more than 10,000 exhibits at the fair as well as big-name celebrities like KC and the Sunshine Band, The All-American Rejects, Flo Rida, and the stars of A&E's Duck Dynasty.

 

(Photo: Jason Meredith via flickr/CC Attribution)

Kentucky State Fair

Kentucky is world famous for horses and bourbon, and you'll find both at the Kentucky State Fair. There's the World's Championship Horse Show, Quarter Horse Show, Miniature Horse Show, and 4-H Horse Show to satisfy the equine category, and there's the "Bourbon: America's Native Spirit, Kentucky's Liquid Soul" exhibit, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Congress' recognition of bourbon as a unique product, to satisfy the spirits category.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title America's Best State Fairs.

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

7 Epic Walking Trails Around the World

Posted August 19, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Trekking via Shutterstock)

Nothing beats exploring a new place on your own two feet. Getting out into the countryside, climbing mountains and wandering along wooded trails, fording rivers and stumbling onto untouched natural wonders—that's what travel means to the millions who choose to lace up their hiking boots and put their feet to work on vacation every year. It's my preferred mode of travel, too. In that spirit, here are seven of my favorite long walks from around the world.

 

(Photo: Hiker Above Glacier Mountain via Shutterstock)

Tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy, and Switzerland

More than 10,000 people hike the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) route each year, making it the most popular long-distance walk in all of Europe. Typically completed in about 10 days, the traditional TMB circuit is hiked counter-clockwise—beginning and ending in France while passing through the Swiss and Italian Alps along the way. The complete route includes 11 high mountain passes and about 32,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. It's not for the weak of heart. But for anyone who wants to experience authentic European alpine culture, there's nothing better.

Make It Happen: Hiking season in the Alps is generally determined by the previous winter's snowfall, which affects both the amount of snow on the ground and the strength of the glacial runoff in the summer. The conditions should be excellent into September this year, so there's still time to hike the TMB before 2015. G Adventures' 10-day trip on the Chamonix to Chamonix loop departs on September 11 and is currently being offered at a 10 percent discount. Departures are offered next year from June to September as well.

 

(Photo: High Cup Nick, England via Shutterstock)

Pennine Way, England

Often called the most physically challenging trek in the United Kingdom, the 268-mile Pennine Way walking trail follows the mountainous backbone of England through the moors of Bronte Country, over limestone cliffs and glacial valleys, past Hadrian's Wall, and across the wildest stretch of land in the nation before concluding at the Scottish border.

It takes about 18 days to complete, but many walkers prefer to break it up into smaller sections. Some forgo the southern and northern extremities altogether and focus on the more accessible middle section of the trail, the highlight of which is a breathtaking glacial valley called High Cup Nick (pictured above).

Make It Happen: Brigantes Walking Holidays and Baggage Couriers offers door-to-door baggage transfers for the entire length of the trail. It will also provide individual quotes for shorter stages. The Sherpa Van Project also operates door-to-door deliveries, except along the southernmost portion of the trail. Footpath Holidays runs guided trips of the south, middle, and north sections.

 

(Photo: Landmannalaugar, Iceland via Shutterstock)

Laugavegur Route, Iceland

At 34 miles long, Iceland's famed Laugavegur Route only takes a few days to complete. But it's still one of the best backcountry trails in the world. A walk through these volcanic highlands takes in raw scenery like nowhere else on Earth: obsidian lava fields, steaming hot springs, gurgling pools, raging waterfalls, moss-covered foothills, snow-speckled mountain ridges, and massive valleys without a single tree in sight. And don't forget the sunlight: At the height of summer, the sun never sets.

Make It Happen: The Laugavegur Route is only open for hiking in the summer months (usually from the end of June until the beginning of September), when its network of mountain huts is in operation. (In the Middle Ages, Iceland's worst criminals could earn a pardon by surviving in the backcountry for 20 years. No one ever made it. The moral of the story? Don't try the Laugavegur Route in winter.)

The official website of the Iceland Touring Association, which maintains the Laugavegur Route and its mountain huts, is a great place to start your trip planning. You can take in a portion of the Laugavegur and also go off-trail with an experienced guide by booking the "Iceland Volcano Hike" package through Adventure Center.

 

(Photo: Great Wall of China via Shutterstock)

Great Wall of China, China

Nobody hikes the Great Wall of China by accident. It takes nearly a full day by air just to reach China from North America, and once there, you can't take in any significant portion of this epic walk on a lark. But it's so worth it for the thrill of experiencing one of the world's great wonders in a way that most tourists never do.

The most accessible sections of the wall are outside of Beijing, and there they cling to the mountainous borderlands at vertigo-inducing angles. Sections of the wall are well restored and easy to envision as they were hundreds or thousands of years ago, serving as a last line of defense against invading armies. Others are gloriously ruined, speckled with trees and punctuated by crumbling watchtowers and loose rubble, with no one and nothing to see but wilderness for miles and miles.

Make It Happen: To take in the best sections of the Great Wall, including some that are off-limits to ordinary travelers, you'll need to go with a group. G Adventures' new-for-2014 "Walk the Great Wall of China" trip is your best bet. It's a small-group trip with an average size of 10 like-minded travelers. (I've written in more detail about it here.)

 

(Photo: Franconia Notch via Shutterstock)

White Mountain Traverse, New Hampshire

The only thing that beats hiking New Hampshire's White Mountains is hiking them in the fall during peak foliage season. While small by some standards, they're more than tall enough to offer some of the best wilderness views in North America. And they're rugged, too: The 53-mile White Mountain Traverse hike is arguably the most scenic section of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, and it takes about six days to complete. The highlight is an epic ridge walk along the spine of the Presidential peaks, punctuated by jagged rocks, tumbled boulders, and hardy alpine scrub, with views that seem to stretch on forever.

Make It Happen: The best part of the White Mountain Traverse is a nine-mile stretch called the Bridle Path Loop, which takes in the Presidential peaks of Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. It's a straight shot from Boston (about three hours by car), and it can be hiked in a single day. You'll need about a week to do the entire White Mountain Traverse. For that, you should book your alpine accommodations in advance through the Appalachian Mountain Club hut system.

 

(Photo: Steall Fall, Scotland via Shutterstock)

West Highland Way, Scotland

At a distance of about 96 miles, Scotland's West Highland Way is long enough to cover a variety of terrain—think moors and mountains, rolling hills and thick woods and lonely lochs—but short enough to be manageable in about a week. Some of it is walked at altitude and some at sea level. It's typically done between April and October, when the fickle Scottish weather is most likely to cooperate. The scenery is spectacular year-round.

Make It Happen: The official website of the West Highland Way offers plenty of practical advice for walking the route on your own. If you'd prefer a guided trip, try Wilderness Scotland's seven-night self-guided trip. North-West Frontiers offers seven-, eight-, and nine-night versions of the trek as well.

 

(Photo: Machu Picchu, Peru via Shutterstock)

Inca Trail, Peru

Is there any long-distance hike in the world with a more spectacular payoff than the Inca Trail? Although it's not easy to do—the altitude alone makes it a challenge, and the days of hiking up and down (and up again) among Peru's highest peaks is not for the unfit—this is the one trail that any serious walking enthusiast must do. And when you finally reach Machu Picchu, sweaty and sore on your fourth day of hiking, you'll have the satisfaction of passing through the Sun Gate and arriving at the Lost City of the Incas the authentic way: on foot.

Make It Happen: Typically walked in four days, the classic Inca Trail route to Machu Picchu tops many people's bucket lists. (That's a nice way of saying the trail is a bit crowded.) The Peruvian government restricts the number of people who are allowed on the trail at any given time, so you'll need to travel with an outfitter that has already secured the necessary permits. Most major adventure-tour operators who market to U.S. travelers offer such trips.

What's the best walking trip you've ever taken? Which trails are still on your bucket list? Share your recommendations and suggestions in the comments area below.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Seven Epic Walking Trails Around the World.

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7 Shameless Ways to Make a Flight Comfortable

Posted August 15, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Ed.ward via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

There is no shame in correcting the indignities of coach-class flying by way of an offbeat travel product. If an item makes your flight more comfortable, it's worth using—even if it makes you look a little silly in a public space. With that in mind, here's a list of travel products that get the job done, in spite of their (sometimes) goofy appearances. Below are seven shameless ways to make your flight a little more comfortable, from booze-filled flasks to foldable footrests.

 

(Photo: Betabrand)

The Sweatpants That Supposedly Look Like Regular Pants

Trick humanity into thinking you're not a slob with comfy soft pants that have been designed to look like more respectable outside-the-house pants. There's a version for men from Betabrand that are eloquently called Dress Pant Sweatpants. These Dress Pant Sweatpants, made from French terry, will deceive anyone who can't spot the difference between plainly dissimilar types of fabric. There's also Pajama Jeans (read our review), the classic infomercial legwear that fits like your favorite knit PJs, yet looks like your favorite knit PJs dyed a jean color.

 

(Photo: Magellan's)

The Butt Pad

This is a thing, I guess. I haven't seen anyone use this product before, so I can't offer empirical data on the popularity of seat cushions and other items meant to support a flyer's posterior. I'd venture to guess that, in light of the uncomfortable contortions to which the legs and necks of coach flyers are subjected, measly padding under the butt is comparatively not so unpleasant. But Magellan's has an entire section for seat cushions in its in-flight-comfort category, where it sells an inflatable version that promises to "cushion your ride" and "provide support." And SkyMall sells a gel-filled one that costs a lot of money. So this must work for some folks.

 

(Photo: Eric F Savage via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

The Wearable Blanket

Why is a wearable blanket better than a traditional one? Good question. I don't know the answer to that. But for some people, it seems, the strange fusion of clothing and bedding that is The Slanket or the more elegant Pajancho reaches the apex of comfort. Clearly, you don't have to bother with rearranging the thing after you get up and go to the bathroom; I guess that's a plus. You could also wear it around the airport if you're comfortable with public humiliation.

 

(Photo: European Sleep Works)

The Less Embarrassing Travel Pillow

I've curated a list of more socially acceptable travel pillows. These are not conversation starters. These are normal-looking travel pillows that will have a neutral effect on your personal cool factor. First there's the oxygen pillow, a small, white latex foam number that converts into an easy-to-carry bundle. The Magniflex Sushi Pillow is a more expensive option, but it becomes an even tinier bundle when rolled up.

 

(Photo: Studio Banana)

The Embarrassing Travel Pillow

For the truly shameless, a range of creatively designed, weird-looking travel pillows is available. These are products that would make even your Captain Kirk pajamas set cringe. They may allow you to get more comfortable, but they will not help you win first prize in any popularity contests to be held on the aircraft. There's the notorious Ostrich Pillow, which slips over your entire head and makes you look like a praying mantis. Then there's the telephone-shaped Travelrest, my personal favorite and one of our best-reviewed items of 2012. I received some judgmental looks while inflating my Travelrest on a plane; I'm happy to report that this had no bearing on the efficacy of the pillow.

 

(Photo: Magellan's)

The Footrest

Some aircraft seats come with little metal fold-down footrests. Some don't. So for petite passengers whose legs dangle above the floor, compressing their upper thighs into the seat, a footrest comes in handy. You could just put your feet on your carry-on bag, which is what I do. Or you could buy a special product. Here is a little fold-up plastic one from SkyMall. Also, Magellan's sells a squishy inflatable one called the Business Class Foot Rest, as if the only thing that stands between the economy experience and upper-class bliss is an inflatable PVC cube.

 

(Photo: Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge via flickr/CC Attribution)

The Flask

I'm not a doctor. But I'd argue that the best way to get more comfortable on a flight is to have a drink or many drinks. Alcohol relaxes the muscles, boosts the mood, aids sleep, makes you cooler. To get in on the action, book a flight that serves free drinks to economy-class passengers (Alaska and Hawaiian come to mind) or go the Charlie Harper route and tote a hip flask. This 3.5-ounce flask is the perfect size for post-TSA booze consumption.

Drink responsibly! Plenty of water will stave off dehydration. And too many gimlets could result in a police-inflicted Tasering, which is not a comfortable way to end a flight.

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Shameless Ways to Make Your Flight More Comfortable.

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

Is It OK to Go Barefoot on the Plane?

Posted August 13, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

In an airplane cabin, among recycled air and tightly packed passengers, unpleasant body odors are a cause of great torment. Smelly feet are top offenders. If you have ever been stuck next to a passenger who made himself a little more comfortable by removing his grungy sneakers and airing out his sockless, sweaty extremities, you will likely agree with my take on this issue: It is not OK to go barefoot on a plane.

Denial is the prime source of the problem here. Folks with smelly feet never seem to realize that they have smelly feet. Most people, excepting the uttermost shameless among us, would avoid shoe removal if they were aware that their feet reeked.

But even if you are sure that your feet are indisputably pristine and smell-free, keep them covered. The sight of strangers' naked feet bothers a lot of people. It's unsanitary to put uncovered soles on airplane surfaces. And, most importantly, bare feet are banned in aircraft cabins. In most U.S. airlines' contracts of carriage, you'll find a small stipulation that says airline staff can remove you from the plane if your feet are exposed. For example, here is American's rule, under "Acceptance of Passengers."

The airlines' bare-feet ban provides an easy fix for passengers stuck next to shoeless offenders. You could politely ask a seatmate to re-shoe, or you could try to blast foot odors away by way of the overhead air vent. But if all else fails, alerting a flight attendant to the situation should solve the problem.

On the other end, I've thought of some solutions for those who want to remove their shoes on planes. These are obvious fixes to most of us, but maybe these ideas could help some of the more shoe-averse flyers:

* Bring packable slippers. Travel-supply stores sell slippers to take on the road, but, really, they're not all that different from regular ones. Pliable, soft-sided slippers are pretty easy to stuff into the side pocket of a suitcase.

* Socks exist. Wear them. Throw a sock ball into your carry-on if you're wearing sandals on the plane.

* No socks or slippers in your carry-on? If you're sitting in coach on a long-haul flight, politely ask a flight attendant if there are extra pairs of socks or slippers available on the plane. Many first- and business-class amenity kits contain socks or slippers, and a friendly attendant might be willing to bend the rules a bit to help you keep your feet cozy and covered.

What do you think? Is it OK to go barefoot on a plane?

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Is It OK to Go Barefoot on the Plane?

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

10 Hotel Booking Mistakes You're Probably Making

Posted August 13, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Getty Images/E+)

Booking a hotel seems pretty straightforward, right? And most times it is: Pick a destination, choose your dates, enter payment info, and voila, happy travels!

However, there are some big blunders you could be making when it comes to hotel reservations. From booking on the wrong sites to forgetting to check some vital information, these mistakes could easily make or break your trip. Read on to find out what you must avoid when booking that hotel room.

 

(Photo: Checking Into Hotel via Shutterstock)

Always Expecting the Best Room

I was recently chatting with a front-desk agent about how her hotel chain distributes rooms at check-in. Curious, I asked what method her staff uses to determine who gets the best-located rooms. She revealed this surprising tidbit: Those who book through the hotel website or are hotel loyalty members usually get first dibs on room assignments, with the better views and quieter locations. Travelers who book through online travel agencies (OTAs), like Priceline, often receive "run of the house" rooms (what she called "ice-machine rooms," or basically whatever is left). The agent couldn't tell me just how many hotel chains do this, but she said it was a "fairly common practice" and that it sweetens the deal for travelers who book at regular rates.

The Fix: Joining hotel loyalty programs is often free (we rounded up the top loyalty programs for you), and being a member can guarantee better room placement, free nights, or helpful amenities like complimentary breakfast or Wi-Fi.

If having the best possible room is key to happy travel, then book directly through the hotel's website. But when those low, low OTA prices can't be beat—we know the feeling—you can always make a request for a certain type of room or location.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Expecting Requests to Be Guaranteed

King bed or two doubles? High floor or low? Non-smoking? Water views? Three single red M&Ms? When reserving your hotel, most booking engines will allow you to make requests or add comments regarding your stay. However, in the teeny-tiny fine print, most hotels also say that your requests aren't guaranteed.

The Fix: The old adage "Expect nothing and you'll never be disappointed" holds true here, but it's cold comfort when you really wanted a certain amenity. First, know that hotels will generally try to honor your requests. If, at check-in, you find your double beds have become one or you were placed in a smoking room, speak to the front-desk agent and request a change—politely. Also, it's well worth calling the hotel before you arrive to confirm your requests, especially if any were made for medical reasons.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Using Incorrect Arrival and Departure Dates

Of this travel sin, I am guilty as charged. On an overseas trip several years ago, I noted that my flight left on May 14th, so I booked my destination hotel starting the night of May 14th. Rookie mistake. I completely neglected to check that my flight was a red-eye that landed early in the morning of the 15th. This means I paid for an expensive (and nonrefundable) room that I didn't need.

The Fix: Unlike your hapless writer, make sure you have your flight itinerary on hand when booking, and double-check the dates of your arrival and departure. Also consider time zones. If you're crossing the International Date Line in transit, yes, your check-in dates could be different than you expect. It's also not a bad idea to have someone look over your booking before you hit "confirm" or "pay," just to ensure that the dates you have selected are correct.

 

(Photo: Thomas Kohler via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Not Using a Credit Card

When booking a hotel, credit cards are king. Not only do credit cards offer rewards like airline miles, free night stays, or cash-back bonuses, but they also offer certain guarantees that debit cards and cash do not (such as fraud protection or immediate refunds for mischarges).

Another tip that many travelers don't know? Most hotels will require an incidental deposit if you use a debit card to protect themselves against overdraft fees if your account has insufficient funds. These additional deposits can add up: I once paid a $100 deposit in Las Vegas that wasn't refunded to my account for two weeks.

The Fix: If you are wise with money management and choose the right type of credit card, you could see plenty of benefits when booking accommodations. NerdWallet rounds up the top credit cards with travel benefits. Also make sure to scope out Tim Winship's Miles & Points column, which we run each week. In it, Winship lists current credit card promotions.

 

(Photo: Airport Hotel via Shutterstock)

Making Reservations for the Wrong Hotel

Travelers, beware: A misleading hotel name or location description could lead you to book an airport hotel when you think you're getting centrally located accommodations. You would be surprised how often travelers see the name of the hotel and reserve it quickly without checking to see if it's located in the right place. After all, some hotels may call themselves "located near the heart of downtown," but a quick search could reveal that it's located at the airport … two hours away.

The Fix: Check the mailing address and find the hotel's exact location on Google Maps. Always enter the hotel's address and see how far it is from popular attractions and restaurants by foot, by car, or by public transport. Try entering the addresses of some attractions you'd like to see while in your destination and map the route. You may also want to explore the neighborhood with Google Maps Street View. And if there are multiple hotels by the same chain in that city, make sure you have booked yourself at the property in the correct neighborhood—the Hyatt Times Square and the Hyatt Flushing are very different indeed.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Not Accounting for Taxes and Resort Fees

Back in March, contributing editor Ed Perkins reported one of the most outrageous resort fees we'd seen yet. At a hotel in Colorado, the decent $170 room rate was artificially inflated with a $35 cleaning fee, a $40 resort fee, a $10 pool-and-spa fee, and a $5.10 processing fee. Ouch.

The Fix: You may be able to fight some fees, such as housekeeping or newspaper delivery, if you don't wish to avail yourself of such services. Others, like resort fees, are mandatory, so you need to account for the additional cost when you book that hotel. Hotels are expected to display resort fees clearly, but OTAs may not and instead include vague language like "additional fees may apply." So call the resort and ask point-blank about additional resort fees before you book.

As for taxes? Much like security lines, you aren't getting out of those.

 

(Photo: Future Publishing/Contributer/Getty Images)

Not Checking Reviews

If you've ever taken a spin on Oyster's Photo Fakeout feature, you know that hotels go to great lengths to make their properties seem perfect. But upon arrival, that infinity pool could really be the size of a postage stamp, and those sumptuous linens could feel like sandpaper. Take anything a hotel says about itself with a grain of salt (or sand).

The Fix: Do your research. Reading user reviews is a tricky balancing act. You want to read as many reviews as you can without suffering from information overload. You also want reviews to be unbiased and recent. The best way to get an accurate picture of the resort is to choose your review sites wisely. TripAdvisor and Oyster (which, like us, is owned by TripAdvisor) offer pretty accurate previews of what your hotel has to offer; Oyster's room photos are a great resource if you wonder how your room stacks up to the hotel's own slick—and possibly Photoshopped—images. Be suspicious of reviewers who have overly effusive praise, and the converse holds true, too: If you see that Bob Grump has given one measly star to every hotel he's ever checked in to, feel free to question Bob Grump's judgment.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Booking at the Wrong Time

As most procrastinators will readily admit, waiting until the last minute to make travel plans can have dire consequences for your credit card balance. Hotel rates can soar in the days leading up to a particular date, and you could be left without a room if everything books up (or if nothing left is within your budget). On the other hand, being an advanced planner can have its own disadvantages: Sure, you may want to have all of your travel ducks in a row as soon as possible, but it can actually cost you money to book your hotel room too early.

The Fix: There are no easy answers as to when, exactly, is the best time to book a hotel room. Rates depend on many factors: location, seasonality, convention crowds, even weather. As a general rule of thumb, booking more than 21 days ahead of your arrival date is a no-no for the most popular destinations; you'll be putting yourself at risk for jacked-up prices. Your best bet is to start checking prices at least 40 days in advance and monitor the trend. If prices seem to go up, book.

If you want to make sure you get the lowest rate, the hotel booking site Tingo (our sister company) will automatically monitor your hotel and rebook you at the new lower rate if prices drop. Of course, if you have waited until the 11th hour and hotel pickings seem slim, check out the Hotel Tonight app for truly last-minute deals.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Not Comparing Prices

Saw a hotel you loved advertised at a "great price!" and immediately plunked down a credit card number and booked? Wrong: Without doing proper research, you could be missing out on big savings.

The Fix: When it comes to prices, compare, compare, compare. Use websites that have metasearch functionality (which means that they show multiple prices from multiple booking sites in one window). Compare the rates on the property's website to the rates you find on Priceline, on Expedia, on Groupon Getaways, or in travel brochures. Also look into the types of booking discounts that are available and which ones can save you the most money. (For example, you may get 10 percent off with a hotel chain's summer sale, but your AAA discount could be larger.) As a general rule of thumb, you should check at least three different sites for each hotel booking.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Bananastock)

Booking Nonrefundable Rates

Every wondered why nonrefundable rates are cheaper than the regular rack rates, even if the room is the same? It's because the hotelier benefits from the lower price, too. Locking you in at that low rate guarantees she or he won't have an empty room, which would cost the hotelier money. Of course, trying to pinch a few pennies will end up costing you if you need to cancel.

The Fix: If there is any chance at all that you'll need to cancel your hotel reservation—bad weather, difficult connection, chance of illness—then forgo the nonrefundable rate. Yes, you'll pay more up front, but you won't be out much bigger bucks should you need to put your trip on hold. And, if you book your hotel through a flash-sale site or online travel retailer (OTA), triple-confirm the site's cancellation policy; these low prices are often not refundable, and no amount of begging will bring your money back.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Hotel Booking Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making.

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

How to Check a Hotel’s Wi-Fi Speed Before Checking In

Posted August 8, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

Connected travelers have two questions when it comes to hotel Wi-Fi. First, is it free? And second, how fast is it?

The pricing question is easily answered by visiting the hotel's website, or with a call to the hotel.

The second question is considerably more confounding, however. Generally, hotels describe their Internet access as "fast" or "broadband," and leave it at that. But such overly broad descriptors are as applicable to sluggish 3 Mbps (megabits per second) download speeds as they are to blazing-fast 50 Mbps speeds.

If you're transferring large files, Skyping, or streaming a Netflix video, the numbers matter. The difference between lower and higher speeds can be the difference between getting a headache and getting the job done.

Enter Hotel Wi-Fi Test, "a leading company for collecting, analyzing and distributing data about Wi-Fi quality in hotels around the world."

From the company's webpage:

You can be instrumental when it comes to persuading hotels to invest in fast and reliable Wi-Fi. When you stay at a hotel, simply connect to in-house Wi-Fi and run a speed test at www.hotelwifitest.com. Then, you can share the results via a number of social media sites with one click. Because social media is such a big part of everyday life, the value of a tweet or venue tip on foursquare should never be underestimated. Your comments provide a valuable service to other travelers who figure in fast and reliable internet when booking accommodation.

The results of user's speed tests are also combined with other users' input to create hotel Wi-Fi profiles viewable on the Hotel Wi-Fi Test webpage. In New York, for example, 167 hotels have been tested, and the results are sorted into hotels offering speeds of at least 2 Mbps (93 hotels), hotels offering at least 5 Mbps (51), and hotels with at least 10 Mbps (35 hotels). Scrolling through the list of hotels with the fastest speeds, you'll see that the Da Vinci hotel was tested at 53.1 Mbps (although with a confidence level of just 9.2 percent, due to limited input), and the Midtown Hilton scored a second-best 52.6 Mbps (with a 98 percent level of confidence).

It's great information to have when choosing a hotel. And at some point, given the importance of the subject, it's inevitable that Wi-Fi speeds will be incorporated into user-review sites such as TripAdvisor.

For now, Hotel Wi-Fi Test is a welcome step in the direction of much needed transparency.

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This article was published by SmarterTravel under the title How to Check a Hotel's Wi-Fi Speed Before Checking In.


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