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crazy driverRemember that infamous scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in which the parking lot valet takes a 1961 Ferrari for a freewheeling joy ride once the keys have been handed off? Well, it looks like life is imitating art.

Mimi and Ulrich Gunthart, a pair of travelers who had left their car in the long-term parking lot at Kennedy Airport, returned from vacation to find that their vehicle’s mileage had mysteriously increased — by 724 miles. According to the Associated Press, “Ulrich Gunthart said he was ‘flabbergasted’ when he saw the number.” To make matters worse, the stereo blasted on at full volume when the Guntharts started up their vehicle (a BMW, according to the New York Post).

The manager of the AviStar parking lot said the company looked into the matter and saw no indication of foul play. The couple has not yet received a refund from AviStar, reports the New York Post.

This story is bound to strike fear into the hearts of luxury-vehicle-owning travelers everywhere (whereas those of us driving around in 1985 Yugos will probably be spared the regard of naughty parking lot attendants). After reading this, do you feel safe leaving your car in an airport parking lot while you travel? Did you ever?

mount rushmore south dakotaWould you travel all the way to China to visit the Beijing Museum of Tap Water, or take a break from touring Egyptian pyramids to catch the highlights of Cairo’s scenic Garbage City neighborhood?

These are just two of the don’t-see sights in the new book 101 Places Not to See Before You Die by Catherine Price. This “anti-bucket” list — a response to the recent bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” — offers a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the world’s truly unappealing attractions.

While it’s not hard to see why a Latvian prison hotel or Montana’s annual Testicle Festival made it into the book, the list is not without controversy. Price turns up her nose at many popular tourist attractions, including Stonehenge, Mount Rushmore and the Blarney Stone — which is oh-so-hygienically smooched by some 400,000 visitors a year. And there’s bad news for our readers in Nevada: Price has consigned the entire state to her “do not visit” list. (Feel free to defend the many wonders of Nevada in the comments below!)

What places would you recommend that other travelers avoid?

rolf pottsCould you travel around the world without a single piece of luggage — not even a small backpack or a purse? Just how necessary are those guidebooks or that extra pair of shoes?

Ask travel writer Rolf Potts. On August 22, he embarked upon the No Bag Challenge — a six-week, 12-country trip around the world during which his gear will be limited to whatever he can stuff into the pockets of his cargo pants and travel jacket. (The trip is partially sponsored by SCOTTEVEST/SeV Travel Clothing, which is supplying much of Potts’s wardrobe, including an 18-pocket Tropical Jacket.)

Items on Potts’s initial packing list included some basic toiletries, a few ultra-small gadgets (camera, iPod Touch), a couple of lightweight T-shirts and pairs of underwear, and some concentrated detergent … since he’ll be doing a lot of laundry!

Now four days into the trip, Potts is holding strong on his resolution to go bagless — and his body odor hasn’t gotten him thrown out of a restaurant yet. In addition to soaping up his dirty undies and T-shirts each night before bed, he also notes in a blog post that he plans to shower twice a day when the opportunity allows.

On the surface, it seems like Potts is taking the time-tested idea of “packing light” to a ridiculous extreme. After all, not everyone finds washing clothes in the sink every night to be a worthy use of precious vacation time. But is his journey really so outlandish? The challenge of packing less is sure to appeal to those of us who are sick of paying the airlines’ ever-increasing baggage fees, and it’s also an intriguing experiment to see how much stuff we really need when we travel.

We want to hear your opinions: Is Potts’s suitcase-free sojourn a heroic stance against consumerism and airline baggage fees — or is it just silly? Would you ever want to try traveling without a bag?

galveston Want to help counteract the devastating effects of the BP oil spill … and save money to boot? Pack some sunscreen and head to the Gulf Coast, where travel deals are as plentiful as spicy shrimp gumbo.

According to the Associated Press, Gulf Coast tourism continues to deteriorate as a result of the BP oil spill. Even though any parts of the Gulf shoreline that had been affected by the oil are now clean, tourism rates are still about 20 percent lower than normal, and many local businesses are suffering.

The problem is perception. In spite of the reality — that the Gulf Coast is still an excellent vacation destination offering pristine beaches — travelers are wary of booking trips to a destination branded by the worst oil spill in history. Nowadays, the term “Gulf Coast” evokes notions of tar balls and oil slicks, whereas six months ago it signified fresh seafood, sport fishing and lazy days on the beach.

Local businesses and visitors’ bureaus have been working hard to boost the Gulf Coast image, launching positive advertisements and rolling out tons of travel deals across Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. This is good news for anyone considering a trip to the Gulf. We trolled the tourism Web sites of some Gulf area locales and came across quite a few noteworthy offers. Here’s a small sample of what we found:

- Days Inn is offering 20 percent off stays of three or more nights at participating properties on the Gulf Coast.

- Get your fourth night’s stay free at A Beach Bungalow on Siesta Key, Florida.

- Save $200 per week or get your seventh night’s stay free when you rent with A Paradise Vacation Rentals on Anna Marie Island in Florida.

- Stay for five nights and receive an additional two nights’ lodging for free at McCarter Lane Guest House in Long Beach, Mississippi.

There’s no need to feel guilty about capitalizing on the BP oil disaster to save some cash on your vacation. Dozens of Gulf Coast communities depend on the tourism industry, and spending your money in the region is a great way to boost local economies — even if you are paying discounted rates. So start traveling! And if you’re looking for even more ways to help, check out these volunteer resources.

Has the Gulf Coast oil spill affected your travel plans? Will you be heading to the region anytime soon?

airplane seatsIt’s nice to snag a seat in the front row of a plane and exit early … but is it worth 20 bucks?

With American Airlines’ recently announced Express Seats service, travelers can now select seats in the front of the plane for quick and easy debarkation. This new program also includes Group 1 boarding, which means passengers who sign up for Express Seats can be among the first coach fliers to board the plane. This is an especially beneficial product for those impatient travelers who bypass the line and slyly sidle up to the gate opening moments before the flight attendant calls their group number (and yes, we see you cutting the queue).

Surprise, surprise: This will cost you. Prices vary based on mileage, but introductory fees start at $19 each way. For example, buying an Express Seat on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago will cost $19, and on a flight from New York to Los Angeles the cost jumps to $39 (the service is available for domestic flights only).

American is one of the last big-name airlines to jump on the pay-for-priority bandwagon. US Airways, Continental, United, AirTran and several others have similar systems, charging coach passengers more for earlier boarding, seats that are near the front of the plane, or window and aisle seats.

Airlines have long been advocates of the class system, forcing proletariat passengers to wait in lines and wedge into shoebox-size seats while the elites fully extend their legs and ponder the in-flight wine list. But we have to wonder: Has this gone too far? In ancient times when checked bags were free and front-row coach seats were first come, first serve, a passenger who purchased a standard-fare ticket was qualified for a comfortable, pleasant flight. These days, a “comfortable flight” costs way more than the airlines’ published fares — and budget-minded travelers who simply wait in line and book ahead are denied the perks once to credited to early birds.

Will the airlines continue to split coach seats into sub-classes, forcing passengers to pay a fee for virtually everything but the smelly row next to the bathroom? Such a scenario isn’t realistic (well, we hope it isn’t), but there are still plenty of free onboard features, from tray tables to reclining seats, that could cost extra in the near future if this trend continues. Tell us what you think!

historic clock doylestown pa pennsylvaniaEarly this week, I was called to report for jury duty in Doylestown, Pennsylvania — a town I’d never visited, even though it’s only about 40 minutes from my home. Of course, most of my day was spent twiddling my thumbs within the gray confines of the jurors’ lounge at the courthouse, but a 1.5-hour lunch break gave me a much-needed chance to escape the building and explore.

The courthouse is in the heart of Doylestown’s downtown district, with its handsome historic buildings and flower-bedecked iron lampposts. An hour and a half wasn’t much time to grab lunch and wander around, but my brief stroll was long enough to pass several intriguing sights — a used bookstore, a local brewery — which I filed away in my head for a future visit.

I ate lunch outside on the patio of Cafe Alessio, an Italian restaurant on the corner of Court and Main Streets, then whiled away the rest of my break in the small park next to the courthouse. This green, quiet space is dedicated to “Bucks County Hometown Heroes” — local soldiers who’ve died overseas in the last decade. (Among the photos was a man from my own home town, who died in Iraq at age 25.)

I’d stuffed a few travel magazines into my bag that morning to help me kill time, but here in the park I found myself less interested in glossy photos of exotic places than in watching what was going on right in front of me: people streaming in and out of the courthouse, a postal worker emptying a blue mail receptacle, a man setting up a ladder to work on the facade of a 19th-century building.

As I sat there, soaking in my surroundings and wishing I had my camera, I was reminded that traveling isn’t just about going far away from home. On a deeper level, traveling is a way of observing the world, of seeing and appreciating with fresh eyes — even just a few miles from your own home town.

What nearby places have you enjoyed lately?

boston fall New England and Canada are immensely popular autumn destinations — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fall deals to be found in these parts of the world. You just have to know where to look. We did some travel deal detective work and unearthed several exceptional bargains in harvest-time havens from Maine to Montreal. Travelers can look forward to blazing foliage, crisp autumn weather and fun fall festivals when visiting these regions in September and October.

Third Night Free on Maine’s Coast
This October, get a free night’s stay at Cedarholm Garden Bay Inn, an oceanfront property located in the Camden, Maine area. The inn’s guest cottages, which start at $225 per night, all have private decks overlooking the water. Guests wake up to a complimentary Continental breakfast served each morning.

7-Night Canada/New England Cruise from $549
Pay less than $80 per night — that’s roughly half off standard fares — for a week-long Caribbean Princess cruise sailing roundtrip from New York on September 18. This leaf-peeping cruise stops in scenic ports including Halifax, Bar Harbor and Newport.

Save 25% in Montreal
Receive 25 percent off weekend stays at the Hotel Omni Mount-Royal, a centrally located Montreal hotel set in the city’s popular Golden Square Mile neighborhood. Discounted nightly rates start at $104.25 CAD for travel before December 30.

U.S. Fares from $44 OW
AirTran‘s latest systemwide sale includes low-priced flights to fabulous fall destinations like Boston; Portland, Maine; Rochester; and Buffalo. These sale fares are valid for travel through mid-December, and must be booked by August 24.

Save 25% on Northeast Regional Train Travel
Travelers departing from New York, Washington D.C., Boston and Philadelphia can get discounted Amtrak tickets to lovely New England towns like Providence, New Haven and Stamford. Discounted tickets start at just $10 each way when booked 14 days in advance.

Save 30% on Boston Hotels
For a limited time, travelers heading to Beantown this autumn can take advantage of reduced rates at dozens of local hotels. Book with Hotels.com by August 30 and save up to 40 percent on accommodations in Boston. This deal features nightly rates as cheap as $58 (for the Westgate Hotel and Conference Center), plus discounts at upscale properties including the Copley Square Hotel and the Langham, Boston.

Find more bargains in our Discount Travel Deals.

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc, which also owns Hotels.com.

delta facebook Now travelers can book a flight on the same social networking site where they update their status, connect with friends and post photos of their pets’ silly antics.

As of Thursday, Delta is the first airline to allow passengers to book flights directly on Facebook. Fliers can purchase tickets through Delta Ticket Window, a tab on Delta’s Facebook page, without clicking away from the popular social networking site.

In a press release posted on the Delta Web site, the airline boasts, “Delta’s Ticket Window allows any of Facebook’s 500 million users to complete a full travel booking using a dedicated ‘tab’ at facebook.com/delta without navigating to delta.com.”

While I’m certainly impressed by Delta’s trendiness and technical prowess, I must admit I’m a bit underwhelmed by this new development — and it looks like I’m not the only one. Facebook user Scott Hilton commented on Delta’s Facebook page, “Cool, now [I] can book a flight that won’t get in on time from here!”

Of course, Delta is arguably no less reliable than any other airline. But does the option to book flights on Facebook really improve our overall air travel experience? When fliers have to put up with an overkill of inconveniences from sky-high baggage fees to shoddy customer service, and flight attendants are pulling the emergency chute and jumping off planes, just how significant is the ability to buy a flight without navigating away from Facebook? Tell us what you think!

eiffel tower paris france happy couple travel travelersThis week, the New York Times reported on an emerging trend in America: that spending money on experiences is more rewarding — and contributes to greater consumer happiness — than spending money on material goods.

For those of us who love to travel, this is hardly a revolutionary idea. Sure, a vacation may last only 7 or 10 days, but the photos and the memories (not to mention those oft-embellished anecdotes about haggling in Honduras or getting hopelessly lost in a Moroccan medina) last a lifetime. Why wouldn’t we spend money on a trip to someplace new instead of some high-tech gadget that will be outdated within a year?

But while most of us globetrotters can agree that the experience of traveling beats sitting at home on a brand-new couch, the reality of a satisfying and memorable trip is a little different for everyone. For some travelers, there’s nothing better than spending a week hiking in the backcountry without seeing another soul. For others, it’s being invited to join a local family for a home-cooked meal, drifting in a hot-air balloon above a patchwork of Napa vineyards, or seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

What kinds of travel experiences speak to you? What’s your most vivid memory from your travels?

plane maskThis weekend, after I boarded a Continental Express flight and plopped down in my designated seat, a rotten smell wafted my way. It reeked of body odor with delicate top notes of stale cigarettes, and it was utterly nauseating. Following some subtle investigation (arching my neck in various directions and sniffing), I surmised that the smell was probably coming from the passenger sitting directly behind me.

I didn’t want to make a stink or embarrass anyone by requesting a seat change on a full plane. So I spent the rest of the two-hour flight mouth breathing, meditating on pleasant-smelling things and thinking of ways to turn objects in my carry-on bag into odor-blocking face masks. Would fellow passengers stare or become frightened if I tied a sweater around my face?

Turns out I’m not the only traveler to experience pungent problems in flight — and the solution might have been easier than I expected. A reader recently wrote to us with a similar issue: “What do you do when a person very near your seat is wearing quite a lot of perfume and you are allergic to perfume? Once I was able to change seats — once I tied a bandanna over my face for a five-hour flight. Is there any better solution?”

IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter answered: “Switching seats is certainly the best solution, though it can be difficult if your flight is very full. Explaining your reasons to the flight attendant may help; another passenger may be willing to switch seats with you if he or she is aware that you have a health issue.

“In case you’re not able to switch seats, it’s a good idea to have a bandanna or face mask on hand as a last resort. One other idea that may help: turn the overhead air spout in the direction of the offending scent — that may help divert the problem, at least a little.”

Eureka! The overhead air spout is an excellent defense against offensive odors; if only I had thought of that during the flight. Has this ever happened to you? How do you cope when you’re seated next to a noxious smell on a flight?

– written by Caroline Costello