Travel Tips

10 Unique City Tours Around the World

Posted May 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Magic Bus)

See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.

 

(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.

Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.

Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.

 

(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)

1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California

It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.

Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.

Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.

 

(Photo: Rob Moody)

Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina

Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.

Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.

Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.

 

(Photo: Berlinagenten)

Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany

Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.

Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.

Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.

 

(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)

City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England

See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.

Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal

This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."

Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.

Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.

 

(Photo: Urban Adventures)

Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco

New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.

Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.

Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)

Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York

With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.

Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).

Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.

 

(Photo: LiveToronto)

Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada

Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.

Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.

Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.

 

(Photo: Vondelsurfing)

Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check Vayable.com and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like Vayable.com connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.

Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.

Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.

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9 Packing Tips for Lazy People

Posted May 2, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Digging out your suitcase, deciding what to bring, panicking that you've forgotten something—it's no way to start a trip. That's why we've distilled the art of packing down to nine essential tips that will transform the way you pack, even if you're a lazy procrastinator.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

You probably won't need your adapter, inflatable neck pillow, or mini laundry bag in daily life, so why bother unpacking them? Leave all of your travel items in your suitcase after a trip. That way, they'll be in your bag and ready to go when you need them. Plus, you won't have to worry about forgetting them if they're already packed.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Commit to a Travel Uniform

I wear the same outfit every time I fly. I know that it's comfortable, presentable, and warm—key elements whether you're in the air for an hour or for 20 hours. Choose something from your wardrobe and commit to making it your travel uniform. That way, you won't have to stress over at least one outfit on your trip—you can just pull it on and go.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

Keep a Basket Handy

Do you wait until the last minute to pack? Keep a basket in your bedroom, laundry room, or bathroom that you can use to throw in items you'll need to pack as you come across them. This makes you less likely to forget these items; plus, you can just toss the contents of the basket(s) into your suitcase when you panic-pack right before leaving for the airport.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Buy Wrinkle-Free Clothing

You won't need to worry about carefully packing your items of clothing if they're made from wrinkle-free fabrics. Ball them up in your suitcase, crumple them at the bottom of your carry-on, whatever—you'll still look fresh and pulled together when you arrive in your destination.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Drop Off Your Laundry at a Laundromat

Anyone who lives in an apartment or a house without a washer/dryer is familiar with the joys of the "wash and fold" service that many laundromats offer. Simply drop off your dirty clothes and return a few hours later to collect your clean, perfectly folded laundry. The beauty of this service? You can simply drop the crisply folded clothing into your suitcase—no need to wash and fold clothing on your own. If you're really lazy, many Laundromats offer door-to-door services: You can have your dirty laundry picked up, cleaned, and delivered to you without ever leaving the house.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Hemera)

Keep Old Packing Lists

Odds are you end up taking trips that require you to pack similar items. Keep old packing lists from former vacations to the beach, ski resort, and city—that way, you'll always have a list of at least the basics. The best way to do this is to save lists on your computer or smartphone, so you're not scrambling to remember where you left handwritten packing lists.

 

(Photo: Toiletries Bag via Shutterstock)

Pre-Pack Your Toiletries Case

You know those small product samples that come free with purchase, after your haircut, or from the dentist (travel-sized toothpaste, anyone)? Keep those in your toiletries bag for the next time you travel. You can even take the hotel toiletries—keep them in your bag and you won't have to worry about decanting all your regular products into 3-1-1-sized bottles for your next flight.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

Schedule a Packing Time

Time can get away from you before a trip, what with making sure that you're caught up at work, at home, and with the other responsibilities of daily life. Schedule a night well in advance of departure to pack. That way, you're not frantically last-minute packing at 1:00 a.m. on the day that you leave.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/Creatas)

Buy Stuff When You Arrive

Decide that at your destination, you'll buy any toiletries or anything else you were too lazy to pack. The downside: You'll waste time, exert effort, and spend money to obtain these things while on your trip. But hey, that's a problem for future you, right?

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Nine Packing Tips for Lazy People.

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

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10 Ways to Prepare Your Cell Phone for a Trip

Posted November 8, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Charge up that phone the night before a trip: Most of us have this straightforward—yet vital—task down pat. But that's not all you need to do before bringing a phone abroad. Here are 10 additional tips that smartphone-wielding travelers should heed before hitting the road, from adding travel apps to guarding against exorbitant roaming charges.

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Know Your Plan (and Your Phone)

Step one: Examine your phone. Only GSM and CDMA phones will work abroad. Check with your provider to verify that your phone is operable overseas. Step two: Examine your phone plan. A thorough investigation of your data and calling contract will reveal exactly how much it will cost to make a few phone calls or download some emails while abroad. It's expensive, right? That's where step three comes in: Consider buying an international calling or data package. If you plan on using your device overseas and don't want to swap out your SIM card (more on that later), an international plan is likely a wise investment. Simply call your provider and request a temporary plan that works in your destination of choice; in most cases, you can cancel the plan upon return (just make sure there's no minimum-length-of-time requirement).

One provider in particular, however, doesn't necessitate the purchase of an international package. Earlier this month, T-Mobile announced that it will get rid of roaming charges for data usage in more than 100 countries, and it will cap international calling rates at 20 cents per minute.

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Consider a Text Package

One or two text messages from the road might be all you need to use during your trip. You might want to text your family to let them know you've arrived safely, text your pet or house sitter, or send a cheery text from the beach to make a friend jealous. Sound good? Then purchase a text package before you leave. For example, AT&T offers Global Messaging Packages that start at $10 per month for 50 messages sent from more than 150 countries. Messages received are deducted from your domestic plan.

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Get the Right Gadgets

From portable batteries to travel-friendly phone cases, a range of gear and add-ons will enhance and protect your phone while abroad. Some of our favorites include the MapiCases leather belt-clip iPhone case; myCharge and New Trent's rechargeable, portable battery packs; and GoSwype microfiber cleaning cloths.

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Turn Off Data

If you don't plan on using data while abroad but plan to pack your phone, there are two steps you need to take before departure: Turn off cellular data and turn off data roaming. You'll find instructions for doing so on an iPhone here, and here for an Android phone. Contact your cellular provider for further details on shutting off data. Fail to shut down the automatic downloads that bring emails, program updates, meeting notifications, and other data to your phone and you'll likely see some very expensive roaming charges on your bill at the end of the month.

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Stock up on Apps

There are umpteen mobile apps that could prove very valuable on your trip. Ideally, you'll want to snap them up well before your departure date, so that you have time to research, compare prices, and, of course, download the apps before you leave. Some of these might include flight-notification apps, map apps, itinerary apps, language-translation apps, destination-guide apps, gas-finder apps, and weather apps. For more ideas, see Nine Apps That May Change How You Travel and 10 Free Travel Apps You've Never Heard of.

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Download Entertainment

Avoid data charges for big downloads on the road by lining up your music and entertainment purchases before you head out that door. Does your airline offer good in-flight entertainment? If not, a few episodes of your favorite show might make coach class a little more bearable. Will your hotel room have an iPod player? If yes, then a new album or two could enliven your stay. Further, there's little that will improve a long cross-country rail trip or an interminable wait at the airport more than a diverting and fun new playlist.

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Pack Chargers and Adapters in Your Carry-on

On the road, chargers and adapters are as important as your phone itself; after a day or two, your device is useless without them. You wouldn't put your iPhone in your checked luggage, right? So your charger and adapter need to go in your personal item or carry-on bag with your other essentials (medicine, wallet, identification, etc.). This way, if your suitcase gets lost, you won't need to pay a visit to one of these airport vending machines to buy a new charger.

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Take Some Important Photos

This tip is more about using your phone to prepare for your trip than preparing your phone; nonetheless, it belongs on your to-do list. Prepare a digital backup in case your identification gets lost or stolen. With your camera phone, take a photo of your passport or driver's license, and email the photo to yourself. You might also want to take a photo of the contents of your checked bag, which may come in handy if the airline loses your luggage. (Use the photo to help document your missing belongings when filling out a claim form.) Throughout your trip, take advantage of the camera on your phone and snap photos of anything that might serve as a helpful reminder, from your airport parking-lot spot to your hotel-room number.

But first, you need to ensure that you have space on your phone to store such images, which brings us to our next tip.

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Check Available Storage

The perfect yet ephemeral travel shot appears: a candy-red sunset or a humpback's tail emerging from the ocean. You aim, shoot … and a message appears on your phone saying that there is no available storage left. You lost the shot! Argh! To prevent this pesky little mishap, check your phone's storage before you leave. On an iPhone, for example, you can do this via the "General" tab within "Settings."

Free up room on your phone by transferring photos and videos to your computer, deleting unused apps, and clearing your Internet cache.

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Get a Country-Specific SIM Card

Will you be spending a lot of time in one particular country? A prepaid SIM card for the region you're visiting is an economical choice for overseas phone usage, and it allows you to make calls and use data exactly as many locals do: through a local provider. Switch your SIM card and you'll have a new local phone number and likely an affordable plan that puts scary-expensive international calling packages to shame. You won't be able to make or receive calls via your usual phone number, though.

Here's how to get one: Either pick one up prior to your departure date or get one from a local store after you arrive. We recommend the former, especially for those who don't want to waste precious trip time shopping around for SIM cards. You can order the cards online from companies such as Telestial and Brightroam.

But remember that not all phones will accept new SIM cards. You must have an "unlocked" GSM phone for this to work.

 

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Ways to Prepare Your Cell Phone for a Trip. 

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

 

10 Best European Castles You Can Visit

Posted October 4, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

580x382_Hohenzollern_Germany

Sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister, Europe's best castles evoke a palpable sense of both melancholy and wonder. Their ancient stones brim with mystery and history—but not the stodgy old history of musty textbooks. Castles are the past brought to life, a visceral reminder that quests and battles and chivalry weren't always the exclusive province of fantasy novels. Go medieval on your next trip with a visit to one of these castles where ancient history is alive and well.


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Carreg Cenne Castle, Wales

Never trust any list of Europe's best castles that doesn't include at least one entry from Wales. Owing to its tumultuous history of war and rebellion, the Welsh countryside is home to more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Our favorite is Carreg Cennen, the only ruined stronghold to make this list. Actually, we like that Carreg Cennen has been in a ruinous state since 1462. Perched on a lonely limestone hilltop in Brecon Beacons National Park and often shrouded in mist, Carreg Cennen is easily the most evocative castle in the land. And while it may not be quite as popular as the larger Caerphilly Castle, Carreg Cennen will always be first in our hearts. It's open daily between April and October.


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Hohenwerfen Castle, Austria

Brooding high above Austria's Salzachtal Valley amid the dramatic peaks of the Berchtesgaden Alps, this stronghold has served alternately as a home to kings, archbishops, and prisoners (it was a state prison for a period of time) for more than 900 years. Today, Hohenwerfen Castle is a popular tourist draw and the site of Austria's foremost falconry center, where the royal hunting art is on full display with daily demonstrations.


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Predjama Castle, Slovenia

Predjama Castle is an easy sell to castle lovers. Most famous for being built into the side of a 400-foot cliff, it may also call to mind visions of Tolkien's Helm's Deep. But this real-world stronghold has the requisite dungeons, secret tunnels, and bloody history to make it a must-see on its own merits. Visit Predjama Castle during the annual medieval tournament, held each July, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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Guedelon Castle, France

Who says the age of castles is over? Take a trip back in time at Guedelon Castle in Burgundy, France, where a team of 50 craftspeople and laborers are currently using 13th-century building techniques and technology (think: horses) to construct an authentic castle from scratch, deep within a secluded forest. Visitors are welcomed from mid-March to early November each year. The project has been running since 1997 and hopes to reach completion in the 2020s.


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Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

It might be the most photographed castle in the world, but there's still nothing quite like seeing Germany's fairy-tale castle in person. The brainchild of "Mad King Ludwig" (or, more generously, "The Fairy-Tale King"), Neuschwanstein has influenced everything from Disney attractions (note the similarity to Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle) to books and computer games. Take a tour of the castle grounds, but leave time for an off-site walk along the myriad nearby trails. That's where you'll find the most stunning views for photographs.


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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

One of the most iconic castles in Europe, Scotland's Eilean Donan Castle is recognized the world over from its appearances on postcards and in movies like the original Highlander ("There can be only one!"). History buffs will appreciate Eilean Donan's rich past as a key site during the 1719 Jacobite Rising, and all will enjoy the stark beauty of its surroundings, where three great lochs meet at the foot of an impressive mountain range. Today nearly every part of the castle is accessible to the public for tours and exploration.


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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

This ancestral home to a line of German emperors would fit in with the fantastical fortresses imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. At 2,805 feet above sea level, Hohenzollern Castle really is a castle in the clouds. The current fortress is actually the third to be built on the site (the first was destroyed in battle and the second fell into disrepair). Today it is a popular tourist attraction.


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Hunyad Castle, Romania

The imposing Hunyad Castle, which once imprisoned Vlad the Impaler (Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula), offers plenty for castle aficionados to sink their teeth into. Marked by myriad towers, multicolored roofs, and exaggerated stone carvings, this Gothic-Renaissance castle was fully and fancifully restored after decades of neglect. What we see today may or may not be authentic (some suggest that modern architects projected their own "wistful interpretations" of a Gothic castle onto the reconstruction), but either way, the end result is memorable.


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Edinburgh Castle, Germany

One of the best examples of a fully restored medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle towers over Scotland's capital city from atop an extinct volcano called Castle Rock. It was built in the 12th century and has passed hands between the English and the Scots numerous times over the course of its bloody history. Today, it's open to the public year-round for tours and events.


Versailles, France

From its origin as an unassuming hunting lodge to its height as the royal court of France under Louis XIV, the Sun King's Chateau de Versailles is arguably the grandest castle in the world. No visit to Paris is complete without at least a day trip to see the gardens, canals, and gilded halls of Versailles.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Best European Castles You Can Visit.

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

8 Free Travel Items That Are More Useful Than You Think

Posted September 19, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Earn your vacation black belt with these hacks that turn free items into quick solves for common travel problems. From using a bar of soap to fix a stuck zipper to repurposing a hotel-room standard as a security device, hone your road-warrior survival skills with these easy tips. We know you've got more clever ideas too, so please share them with us and other readers in the comments section below!


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Shower Cap as Shoe Cover

Flimsy shower cap, or custom shoe cover? You decide. In every suitcase, there's a constant battle between dirty and clean items. Score a victory for fresh-smelling shirts and dirt-free trousers by keeping your shoes contained in a shower cap. Place them in, soles down, and let the shower cap's elastic band cradle the shoes so that any dirt, grease, or unidentified muck stays safely tucked away inside the plastic pouch. Depending on the type and size of your shoes, you may need more than one shower cap, but housekeeping is usually pretty generous with them.


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Bar Soap as Zipper Unsticker

There's nothing quite like the startling claustrophobia that comes from having a stuck zipper. Whether it's on a suitcase, a boot, or an article of clothing, a zipper that won't budge almost seems to be personally reminding you that, when it comes right down to it, it can trap you at any time. Reclaim control by grabbing the little bar of soap that rests on every hotel room's bathroom counter. Rub the dry bar against the teeth of the zipper to lubricate it enough to move. Once the zipper is unstuck, rub the soap up and down against the length of each zipper side, and then zip and unzip a few times to prevent further sticking. Then dust off the flakes and give yourself a high five.


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Doorstop as Security Device

Little rubber doorstops hide out behind hotel-room doors, waiting for fleeting moments of glory. And while the unassuming devices are put there so guests can prop open their doors, they're just as effective at keeping doors shut. So if you want an added level of security when you turn in for the night, wedge the doorstop under the bolted door. Voila, you've just added an additional lock.


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Shampoo as Leather Polish

Travel can be hard on leather shoes, purses, belts, and jackets, so if you find yours looking worse for the wear while you're on the road, turn to your hotel bathroom for a quick fix. Liquid shampoo has an amazing superpower: A small amount, rubbed in circles with a cloth, can clean and restore the rich color of leather. And though we've never tested it, we've also heard that it can be a handy and quick way to protect leather shoes from winter salt stains.


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Bar Soap as Bite Relief

Bugs always seem to be on vacation, which explains why so many people return from their travels covered in bites. Spare yourself a trip to the pharmacy and treat an itchy bug bite with a basic bar of soap from your hotel room. Simply wet the bar a bit, rub it on the bite, and let it dry. Some people recommend rubbing the dry bar directly onto the bite, so experiment to see which method offers more itch relief. Take it with you and you'll have the perfect travel-bite remedy, since as a solid, your trusty miniature bar of soap isn't subject to the TSA regulations that itch-relief gels and creams must follow.


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Airplane Socks as Scratch Protectors

You know the socks you often get on overseas flights? The ones that don't fit quite right and come with weird treads that make them impossible to wear with shoes? Give them new purpose by keeping a pair on hand to protect items from getting chipped or scratched in transit. They're the perfect size to hold the trinkets you pick up on your travels—the ones that don't need to be enveloped in bubble wrap but do need a bit of extra protection before being tossed into your bag. And in a pinch, they can serve as a handy alternative to a glasses case in your bag or purse.


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Baggage Tag as Lint Remover

Didn't bring a lint roller (and don't travel with duct tape)? No problem, you're still likely traveling with an item that can do double duty and help you get out the door fluff-, lint-, and animal-hair-free. Just carefully remove the long baggage-tracking sticker from your suitcase handle, wrap it around your hand with the sticky side facing out, and blot at any area of clothing that needs cleaning.


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Conditioner as Shaving Cream

This nonprofit please-touch museum is actually the world's largest pinball-machine collection. In 10,000 square feet of space, find an assortment of more than 200 pinball machines and arcade games from a half century of gaming history. And every game is playable—including an original Ms. Pac-Man from 1981 and Super Mario Bros. from 1985, plus the wooden 1947 Heavy Hitter. Admission is free, although the games are coin-op (25 or 50 cents per play). Just arm yourself with the knowledge that all excess revenue goes to charity. Who knew doing good could feel like such good old-fashioned fun?

 

This article was originally published by SmarterTravel.com under the title Eight Hacks Using Travel Freebies

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

 

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10 Tips for Nervous Flyers

Posted September 18, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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Fear of flying is a common affliction that cripples countless travelers. Air travel is, after all, the process of tearing through the sky in a winged tube at 600 miles per hour, thousands of feet above solid ground. So to help us keep our natural human anxieties in check, we turned to Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Anxious Brain and The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. Dr. Wehrenberg, who has worked directly with patients suffering from a fear of flying, imparted a few wise tips for managing anxiety in the air. Here are 10 ways nervous travelers can keep calm and carry on when flying.


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Prepare Yourself Mentally

There are basic calming techniques that travelers can use in flight—and even before the start of their trips—to become less anxious. "The first piece of advice," says Dr. Wehrenberg, "is to prepare yourself mentally. When people imagine they're going to be scared, they don't fully envision what is actually going to happen to them; it's a 'deer-in-the-headlights approach' to fear." Recognize that your fears are not based on reality, and you'll be in a better position to take care of yourself once anxiety sets in. Wehrenberg also says that travelers should ask themselves if they are "willing to get through the discomfort [of being afraid to fly] to have what [they] really want, which is the opportunity to be on a plane." If your answer is yes, then it's time to start learning how to manage your fears.


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Prepare to Be Distracted

Dr. Wehrenberg shared a few tips for keeping busy during a long flight. Before you board that plane, make a "panic plan" for yourself. According to Dr. Wehrenberg, "Think about what you are going to do on the flight, whether it's watching a DVD, listening to music, or doing puzzles. Be prepared and have them close at hand. Think about the length of your flight. If your flight is a three-hour flight, do you have enough things to entertain or engage you on your trip? And when [the flight attendant] tells you to turn off your electronics, make sure you have something to keep yourself occupied … when [your devices] are off." Wehrenberg also recommends packing a lavender sachet to sniff or a peppermint to suck on, both of which work well as calming devices for some people.


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Breathe

One basic calming technique endorsed by Dr. Wehrenberg is conscious breathing. "Practice soothing breathing," says the doctor. "Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth as slowly as possible." Although this bit of advice may seem obvious, breathing is arguably the best way to vanquish anxiety. Dr. Wehrenberg tells us that controlled breathing works because "breathing is the one thing that will stop a panic attack."


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Use an App

Dr. Wehrenberg recommends a few apps that help users focus on breathing: "My clients like Breathe2Relax and Relax Lite: Stress Relief, [available on Android and Apple]," in particular, she says. The Mayo Clinic Anxiety Coach app is another reputable option.

"These apps can help you with breathing, to help you keep your focus," says Wehrenberg. "There are probably 200 [related] apps out there, so it's easy to find an app that you like, which you can focus on when you're trying to breathe and calm down."


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Remember That Panic Will Pass

It's important to "recognize that panic will pass," says Dr. Wehrenberg. "A panic attack [usually] doesn't last for more than a few minutes. Then it wanes. So it's not going to last the whole trip. It will pass."

If you feel afraid of losing control and succumbing to fear during the flight, remind yourself that even a full-on panic attack is only a temporary affliction; you'll get through it.


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Find Out What You're Afraid of

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Wehrenberg concurs: "Some people are afraid of crashing, but more people are afraid of having a panic attack on the plane. So what they're really afraid of is being afraid. 'What is the catastrophe? What do I actually think will happen? What am I making a big deal out of? If I panic, what am I afraid will happen?' Answer these questions before you get on the plane.

"When I'm working with my clients I tend to try to lighten up the catastrophe. Usually what they are afraid of is not going to happen anyway. Making a fool out of yourself is not the worst thing that will happen. It will pass."


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Focus on the Positive

Well, this spot has really blown up. With a soundtrack by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, this heart-pounding audio/visual attraction at the Polynesian-themed Mirage spews fire into the Vegas air beginning at 7 p.m. every night. The smoke that the volcano spouts more than 100 feet above the water is actually perfumed with a pleasant pina colada scent (to cover up the odor of natural gas). The spectacle rivals the well-known fountains at Bellagio, just a half mile up the Strip.


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Learn the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

Practitioners of the Emotional Freedom Technique or EFT "tap on their own acupressure points to calm down feelings of fear," says Wehrenberg. And it's easy to learn how to master this particular anti-anxiety method on your own. Wehrenberg recommends books such as The Tapping Solution, Energy Tapping, and Instant Emotional Healing for those who want a primer on EFT.


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Know When It's Time to Seek Professional Help

The only sting here is from jellyfish. Consistently ranked one of the top free attractions in Las Vegas, the massive saltwater aquarium in Silverton Casino will transport you from the parched desert to a vast tropical oasis. Around 117,000 gallons of saltwater house 4,000-some fish and reef plants as well as six species of shark and stingray. Interactive feeding demonstrations and a mermaid show round out the offerings, while the hotel's colossal Bass Pro Shops outpost has more tanks to explore—and Olympic-level window-shopping to undertake.


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Read a Book

Wehrenberg details further calming strategies in her book, The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. She has also developed an online program for managing anxiety and depression through Candeo.

Additionally, "There's a whole 'nother way of looking at anxiety and fear that has to do with just letting yourself embrace your panic," says Wehrenberg. "Reid Wilson's book Don't Panic takes a different approach to [anxiety management]."

 

This article was originally published by SmarterTravel.com under the title 10 Tips for Nervous Flyers

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

 

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12 Ways to Cut Vacation Costs

Posted May 7, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

 

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Unless you have unlimited resources, chances are you're looking for the best value you can find in a vacation. The overarching theme for many of our suggestions is "flexibility." When suppliers are especially eager to earn your business, they typically offer enticements in the form of cut prices or extras, and it's best to go where and when prices are lowest. But even if you don't have full flexibility, you can still manage to visit the places you want without overpaying.

 



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Seek the Promotions

The first thing you see when you log onto SmarterTravel's Travel Deals page is a handful of promotions that provide exceptional value. Most are for airfares or vacation packages. As I'm writing this, one deal features a four-night air-and-hotel package to Amsterdam for select dates in 2013 at $1,699 per person from New York, compared with $1,250 for the airfare alone. Wherever interests you, you'll find a steady parade of promotional deals throughout the year.

 



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Check the Flash- and Private-Sale Deals

We've reported on a handful of online flash-sale, private-sale, and discount-coupon agencies like Groupon that offer a constantly changing mix of destination deals. For example, our sister site SniqueAway currently posts promotional rates of $299 a night at the elegant Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort in St. Lucia for much of April and May, compared with regular prices of $490 per night. One caution, however: Don't always believe what the agencies say are the "regular" prices—they're often inflated. Instead, compare prices with TripAdvisor or some other good hotel-booking website.

 



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Go Off-Season

Most vacation destinations exhibit at least some seasonality, and many offer low off-season prices. At the posh W Scottsdale, for example, you'll pay up to $349 per night in April but as low as $178 for the same room in July. Low seasons vary by destination: The best prices in the Caribbean are in the fourth quarter of the year. The best prices in mountain resorts are found in fall (before the skiing starts) and in spring (after skiing is over but before the summer prices peak). Low seasons in big cities are the month before and during the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Low seasons at Disney resorts are when kids are in school. If you aren't sure about seasonality, check Hotwire's TripStarter, which tracks average prices for airfare and hotels for many popular vacation destinations. Keep in mind, however, that the vacation experience is often very different in low season than in high: Scottsdale in midsummer is not as appealing as during winter-snowbird time.

 



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Stay Close to Home

You don't have to schlep all the way to France for a French experience: For North Americans, Montreal and Quebec City are a lot closer—and when you compare prices, it's even more enticing to stick close to home. For example, the four-star La Maison Favart in Paris starts at $500 per night in April, while the four-star Hotel Nelligan in Montreal is just $175 per night for the same weekend. Sure, the Alps are spectacular, but so is the Grand Canyon. The U.S., Canada, and the nearby Caribbean and Gulf have a lot to offer without having to fly halfway around the world.

 



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Look for a Bundle

Even absent a promotional price, you will often find that air-hotel, air-car, and air-hotel-car bundles can be a lot less expensive than buying the exact same components separately. Just about everybody is in on the bundle act: airlines, hotels, independent tour operators, and major online travel agencies (OTAs). Often, these bundles allow you to specify exactly what you want: flight, hotel, whatever.

 



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Go for Opaque

By far the best way to enjoy maximum value in hotel accommodations and rental cars is to buy through one of the opaque agencies, where you either "bid" on a room or car or accept a price "blind" without knowing the hotel or rental company until after you make a nonrefundable purchase. The two biggest opaque agencies are Priceline (bid) and Hotwire (blind price), but several other OTAs now offer opaque options. You can pretty much get what you want by limiting hotel choices by star rating and, in big cities, neighborhoods. The prices can be as much as 50 percent off. Opaque agencies also sell airfare, but prices aren't much better and the loss of flexibility is an important factor.

 



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Stay in One Destination

If you elect a city vacation, stay put once you arrive in your destination. Roaming around via rental car, regional plane, or train adds a lot to your daily cost. Boston, Chicago, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Vancouver, Washington, Beijing, Berlin, Budapest, London, Madrid, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, or just about any other major world-class city has plenty to keep you occupied for a week or two.

 



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Seek Out the Local Deals

Wherever possible, use public transportation rather than taxis. Look for day- or weeklong transit passes, museum and attraction passes, senior or student discounts (if you qualify), and any other similar deals. Check with the local visitor office, either before you start your trip or as soon as you arrive, for any specials available to visitors. Use the discount theater booths in London and New York or online ticketing agencies that cover events nationwide.

 



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Go Down-Market

These days, you can travel almost anywhere in the developed world by staying at accommodations that are a cut below your usual preference. If you normally stay at four-star hotels, dropping down to three-star properties won't cramp your style much, and even going from midprice to budget is adequate in most places. Similarly, if you feel the need to hit a three-star restaurant, go for lunch rather than dinner. Also try the "best"-rated places only for one or two meals and settle for second-best for the rest. 

 



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In Europe, Stay in the Country

If you want to enjoy France, Germany, the U.K., or any other European country, you'll find that renting a car and moseying through the countryside is both a wonderful experience and a way to slash your hotel and restaurant bills. Also, consider using a vacation rental in the countryside as a base for day trips.

 



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Eat In, Eat Out

Vacation rentals and "suite" hotels and motels that come with kitchens can cut your daily food bills substantially. Either look for hotels with "free" breakfasts or eat breakfasts in your room. Figure on takeout or picnic lunches where feasible. Buy beverages from a supermarket rather than piling up a big bill in a hotel or restaurant. At all costs, avoid your hotel's price-gouging minibar.

 



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Conquer the Urge to Shop

Typical vacation shopping often results in the accumulation of stuff that looked like a good idea at the time but quickly winds up in the back of some closet or in the trash. For anything practical, the U.S. generally has lower prices than you will find anywhere else. Rigorously apply the "where will this be in six months" test to anything that tempts you. Note that many supposed "bargains" in fashion and tech goods turn out to be counterfeit. If you can't tell the difference between a genuine emerald and a piece of a broken Coke bottle, don't buy emeralds. You get the drift.

 

Read the original story: 12 Ways to Cut Vacation Costs by Ed Perkins

 

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Checked-Bag Fees Net Airlines More Than $1 Billion

Posted May 15, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk

Baggage2 I’m happy to give credit where credit is due, especially when it comes to genius money-making schemes. Well, genius legal money-making schemes. Which is why I’m willing to congratulate the airlines on their recent success: over the last year, excess baggage fees have earned airlines over $1 billion.

Now, I know that airline fees haven’t been particularly, oh, "popular" with airline passengers. People don’t like to pay for stuff that used to be free. Plus, for those who don’t happen to follow travel blogs (unlike you, dear reader), those extra fees usually came as a surprise right when it was too late to make alternate plans. If you’re at the check-in counter, it’s a little late to pack light enough to carry your bag on and if you’re up in the air at thirty thousand feet, it’s a little late to pack a sandwich.

However, as with all things, we adapted. We grumbled, but we sure weren’t about to drive from Phoenix to Cleveland just to save the $25 checked-bag fee. And, yes, I’m not crazy about shelling out extra dough for a packet of peanuts, but I’m also not crazy about a crucial industry continuing its nose dive into debt and Chapter 11. The airplanes need us… and we need the airplanes.

So, to this recent news of airlines actually making a little money, I say, “Huzzah!” There still need to be major changes in order to avoid a Detroit-style meltdown, but every little bit (and yes, by “little bit,” I mean a billion dollars) helps. Start setting out tip jars, big airlines, and we’ll see if we can’t make that 2 billion.

(Photo: flickr.com)

Swine Flu Travel Information

Posted April 30, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk

UsentrymaskREX_450x300 It may not be my job to be your go-to girl for potential pandemics, but there seems to be so much crazy information out there regarding the swine flu and the ins and outs, ups and downs of travel, that I thought it might be a good idea to compile a bit of useful information.

First of all, three cheers for new media! Through the uber-easy-to-use media-darling Twitter, real information from valid sources can be disseminated quickly and easily to those who want to hear it. Case in point (and as reported by NPR) the Center for Disease Control has been tweeting like crazy to keep the public up to date about outbreak information.

Also, our good friends over at SmarterTravel have put together a very helpful and regularly-updated article for those travelers who are concerned about swine flu and equally concerned about how it will affect their trips. Find information about current warnings, which airlines and hotels aren’t charging change fees, how to protect yourself en route, and more.

In an effort to come to your aid in as broad of a spectrum as possible, I’ll even present to you information on how to get into Mexico for less. Please note that the government has recommended that you not visit this country for non-essential trips. However, that means that there are lots of empty planes and plenty of cheap flights to Mexico to be found. It goes without saying, of course, but you'll be traveling at your own risk.

Speaking of which, if you’re willing to hedge your bets a bit, right now might be a great time to try to nab a flight to Mexico for several months into the future after (hopefully) the furor has calmed down. It’s somewhat risky in terms of timing and pricing, but I just found a round-trip flight leaving September 21st and returning the 28th from Boston to Cancun starting at $255. I’m certainly no prophet and prices could always go lower if airlines get desperate about trying to recoup losses, but just keeping your eyes open is never a bad idea.

(Photo: www.metro.co.uk)

There’s an App for That.

Posted April 24, 2009 by Katie Blais

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I recently got an iPhone and it's quickly become another appendage. I use it for everything: email, texting, facebook, light saber fights with coworkers and my roommate—you know, real important stuff!   But when it comes to travel the iPhone can be a huge help with tons of applications to help out at the airport and beyond! 

There are a bunch of applications out there that can help you check the status of your flight, maneuver your way through airports, even find another flight if you happen to miss yours.

Also, once you get to your destination, you can use tons of apps to find your way around.  For 10 bucks you can download the newest Zagat Guide and babelingo helps you with those common phrases like "donde esta el baño por favor?"  

Plus, you will feel less like a tourist and more like a super-savvy tech person having all this info contained in your iPhone instead of lugging around maps and guidebooks all over the place.

Even if your “traveling” is just around the city, there is even an application to find taxi services around you.  You can get reviews and even see which cab companies take credit cards, a good thing for people like me who never carry cash.

Get the skinny on a bunch more cool iPhone travel apps at Seat Guru!


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