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cancelled canceled airport departure board flight statusJust a week after snowstorms grounded air traffic across Europe, the U.S. Northeast found itself besieged by a blizzard of its own. The storm has forced the cancellation of nearly 10,000 flights over the past few days — and a columnist for Daily Finance, Peter Cohan, notes that many of these flights were canceled even before the snow started.

Cohan’s flight was one of them. “On Sunday, my family had been expecting to fly back home to Boston from Milwaukee,” he writes. “But Frontier Airlines … canceled our flight, cheerfully notifying us that we could catch another one five days later.” Rather than sitting around in Milwaukee for the better part of a week, Cohan and his family rented a car and drove home instead. Even though his plane would have arrived before the worst of the blizzard that hit Boston, Cohan instead had to shell out extra money for the rental car, gas, hotels and meals for the two days it took him to drive across the country.

The early axing of Cohan’s flight is part of a growing trend that New York Times aviation reporter Matthew Wald calls “pre-cancellation.” Hoping to keep their planes from being stranded at airports where bad weather is expected, many airlines are opting not to fly to those airports at all, instead canceling the flights and sending the planes to other unaffected destinations. It’s good news for some travelers, as Wald explains:

“The advantage is suppose you have a plane that was supposed to go from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Orlando, if they [had] flown into New York, they could not have gotten back to Charlotte and then they couldn’t gotten from Charlotte to Orlando. This way, at least, they can fly back and forth between Charlotte and Orlando.”

This strategy also helps protect the airlines from financial losses by keeping people moving (and seats full) instead of leaving planes stranded for days at snow-struck airports. And it makes it easier for the airlines to avoid the hefty fines that the Department of Transportation has instituted for planes that sit more than three hours on a tarmac — up to $27,500 per passenger.

But is this strategy fair to passengers like Cohan, whose plane could have arrived safely before the blizzard hit? Is his anger justified, or are the airlines simply making the best of a bad situation? Let us know what you think in the comments.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s nothing pretty about vacation-shattering winter weather, especially in light of the monster blizzard that blanketed the East Coast of the U.S. yesterday. But in the spirit of optimism, of searching for the silver lining in this frigid cloud of ice, I got inspired to take a moment and appreciate the beauty of the delicate piles of powder sculpted by the bitter wind outside my window. (The IndependentTraveler.com office is located in New Jersey, which, as of this posting, remains in an official state of emergency because of the storm.) Snow so often casts a quiet spell on its surroundings, whether in frosted Scandinavian cities or dramatic Alaskan landscapes. Even the humdrum undeveloped fields near our office appear ethereal and serene after a good snowfall.

Below are some charming snow photos snapped by fellow travelers in wintry locales. Do you have a favorite snow white winter destination? Share it with us in the comments!

Juneau ice climbing

Ice climbing on Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, courtesy of Dan Askin.


Ferries in Helsinki, courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.

new york snow

Snow in New York’s Central Park, courtesy of Catherine Sweeney (see more photos of New York during winter on Traveling with Sweeney).

peru winter

Andes Mountains, Peru, courtesy of WackyHeathen.

— written by Caroline Costello

hotel gift cardYes, it’s time to panic. With only a few days before Christmas, you may be scratching your head and wondering how to fill in the blanks on your gift list.

Enter the lowly gift card. Purists say you might as well stick a wad of cash in an envelope and call it a day, while the boxes-and-bows set sniff at the idea of a gift that has about as much stage presence as a lump of coal. Still, there’s no denying that at this stage of the game, they may be the way to go. And they’re an even easier choice if the cards come with a little bonus — for either the recipient or you. Here are a few travel-related gift cards that fit the bill:

At BedandBreakfast.com, if you order a gift card of $100 or more through December 23, you get a bonus card and free FedEx overnight shipping. Spend $100 to $249 for a $25 bonus, and $250+ for a $75 bonus. If you want the B&B lover in your life to think you’re even more generous than you are (and who doesn’t?), Costco.com has $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift cards for $69.99 — and that includes shipping. Actually, that may make a good gift for yourself once you weather the holidays! Order by December 26.

The Best Western hotel chain has a similar deal: Purchase a $100 gift card through December 31 and you can choose from a list of bonuses, including a $10 Best Western Travel Card or $10 gift cards for Amazon.com, Home Depot or Walmart. If you need to put your in-laws in a hotel over the holidays or you’re planning a getaway to chill, Choice Hotels is offering a $50 Walmart gift card if you stay for three consecutive nights in select cities (including Anaheim, New Orleans and Orlando). Book before January 6 and complete travel by February 15. And members of the Marriott affinity program will be happy to know that through December 31, they can get 10 Marriott Rewards points for every dollar spent on gift cards.

What travelers can resist the gift of food? Chain restaurants may not be the way to get a real flavor of a place, but there’s no denying they’re convenient, and they usually dot the boulevards leading to airports. Many chains have bonuses attached to gift cards, including Macaroni Grill ($5 bonus for every $25 gift card purchased; valid for in-restaurant purchase before January 5) and Applebee’s ($10 bonus when you buy $50 in gift cards at participating locations through February 28).

— written by John Deiner

big ben snow london blizzard gray englandWintry weather wreaked havoc across Europe this weekend, canceling flights, snarling traffic and leaving thousands of travelers stranded. And it’s not over yet.

CNN reports that although London’s Heathrow Airport has reopened (after being closed all weekend due to severe conditions), travelers should continue to expect major delays throughout the week — perhaps even beyond Christmas Day. Other airports across the Continent are also canceling flights today, including Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris, and Germany’s Frankfurt Airport.

The timing of the winter storms has exacerbated the misery for many travelers. “The only thing I want for Christmas is to hug my daughter,” one stranded passenger told CNN.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the last time we see major flight disruptions over the next few months, as blizzards are an all-too-common winter travel hazard. So how can you protect yourself if you’ve got a trip planned for this winter? A few tips:

1. Buy travel insurance. If you’ve prepaid for the bulk of your trip and your itinerary includes airports that could be hit by wintry weather, travel insurance is a vital purchase. (Just keep in mind that it’s too late to be covered for this particular winter storm if you’re headed to Europe in the next week or two.)

2. Build in a little extra time. If you’re trying to get to an important meeting or catch the beginning of a cruise, schedule your arrival for at least a day in advance to allow for unexpected delays.

3. Fly direct when you can. The more connections and layovers are involved, the more chances there are that something will go wrong.

4. If you must connect, route your trip through a warm-weather city.

5. Know your rights. It may be a boring read, but don’t ignore the fine print in your airline’s contract of carriage. Are you entitled to a full refund if your flight is canceled? What will the airline give you (if anything) if your flight is delayed?

6. Book through a travel agent. Having an experienced travel professional on your side can be a huge boon when things go awry on a trip. Your agent can help you find a hotel room or make alternate flight arrangements.

7. Be polite. At the height of a winter storm, airline and airport staff will be feeling just as harried as you are. Treat them kindly and they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile for you.

For more ideas, see Winter Travel Tips.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tsa disability notification card airport security“I have two titanium plates in my foot. How can I ease the process of going through security?” wondered an IndependentTraveler.com reader in a recent e-mail. These days, she’s not the only traveler who’s concerned. Since the highly publicized incident in which a bladder cancer survivor’s urostomy bag was ruptured during a TSA pat-down, leaving him covered in his own urine, travelers with various medical conditions have been worrying about how they can prevent their own nightmarish encounters at airport security.

The TSA has come up with one idea that should help (or so we hope!): new disability notification cards (PDF) that travelers can print, fill out and bring with them to the security checkpoint. The cards have a space to enter information about any relevant health conditions or medical devices, though they also include the following caveat: “Presenting this card does not exempt you from screening.”

I’ve long advised travelers with disabilities or medical devices to bring a doctor’s note (preferably on letterhead) explaining their condition — so I’m glad that the TSA has now introduced an official and discreet way for travelers to educate and inform security screeners. But will this truly put an end to the health-related horror stories we’ve been hearing for the past few months? We’ll have to wait and see.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

map travel scared traveler“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” said Albert Einstein. As travelers, we couldn’t agree more.

We asked our well-traveled colleagues, readers, Facebook fans and Twitter followers to tell us about the biggest travel mistakes they’ve made while touring the globe. It turns out they’ve tried lots of “new” things, from sweet talking immigration officers to getting tangled up in timeshare schemes. (The most common mistake? Choosing the wrong travel partner.) Here’s a selection of 20 answers we received — but we want to hear from you too! Share your worst travel mistake with us in the comments.

“I think this happens to a lot of people, but we once booked the wrong return flight from a trip and it ended up costing us hundreds of dollars to rebook at the last minute (i.e., we thought we were going to leave on a Sunday morning but the flight we booked was actually for a Monday morning). D’oh!” — John Deiner, CruiseCritic.com

“Packing TOO much. Happens every time.” — Stacy Small, Elite Travel International

“Not having extra cash for emergencies.” — unerasia

“Forgetting my passport in my London apartment, and only realizing after stepping off the Eurostar in Paris. What did I do? Put on the charm! Sweet talked the exit officer in Paris and the immigration officer in London to get back into the U.K. Sadly, I’ve had more difficulty getting into bars, than back into the U.K.! That was [before the London bombings of July 7, 2005] though!” — funkstop

“The second time I ever flew, the TSA had just put the liquid and gel rules into effect, and I had packed full-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner and hairspray without realizing that was a no-no. So I checked in and went through security, at which point I was told I’d either have to throw away my $30 shampoo or check my bag. With 30 minutes left till takeoff, I tried to check my bag, which meant I had to go back downstairs (and, later, back through security) and wait in HUGE lines. I was so stressed out about it that I started crying, and an airline worker took me right to the front of the line, where the lovely woman at the counter tagged my bag for Fort Lauderdale. (Too bad I was Miami-bound.) I made my flight by the skin of my teeth, and when I got to Miami, I had no clothes for three days.” — Ashley Kosciolek, CruiseCritic.com

“Going to Krakow without any Polish money before ATM’s existed and not being able to buy anything (it was Sunday, maybe?).” — Holly Fink, The Culture Mom

“Opening a window in a hotel in London! … At 3 a.m., I was startled awake when I saw a light come into the room. … I woke up and saw a very dark hooded figure moving in our room. I screamed which woke my husband up and then he screamed too. The intruder quickly climbed back out the window, and he and his accomplice that was still on the stairs ran off. We called the front desk to let them call the police. And then we weren’t able to sleep until we could see daylight.” — Deb B.C., via Facebook

“I’ve made so many it’s hard to single this out. Probably the most recent worst mistake was not reading the fine print (or frankly any print) on an airline ticket from Helsinki to Copenhagen with an overnight, then on to New York. The overnight, which came at the tail end of a very relaxing vacation in Finland, got the big kibosh when I misread the date and missed the flight entirely. Twelve hours later I realized, to my horror, what I’d done and we were lucky enough to get on the first flight to Copenhagen the next morning (at a grand price tag) so I could catch my New York-bound plane, but the frenzy was expensive and erased the vacation mood. And I lost out on my time in Copenhagen.” — Carolyn Spencer Brown, CruiseCritic.com

“When I went to Kamakura from Tokyo, I didn’t write the correct station and left the train in the wrong place. I had to wait about an hour for the next train.” — ferussa

“Overpacking — definitely. EVERY time. I pack 20 oufits — I wear 5. Major major major problem.” — Natalie Eshaya

“I was traveling by myself in Maui and I stopped at one of the discount tour kiosks they have all over downtown Lahaina. The guy was offering a cool snorkeling excursion for a really cheap price. The catch, he said, was that I had to go to a hotel where they’d give me free breakfast and give a spiel about their property. How could free breakfast be bad — so I signed up. The hotel was actually a timeshare property and I had to meet one on one with a salesman, lie to him about how I owned my own apartment and had lots of money while he asked me probing questions, and then take a tour of various condos on site. Breakfast was a muffin and a slice of pineapple. I hate lying and spent a very uncomfortable hour or two there, wasting a morning of my vacation. The snorkel trip was fun — but not THAT fun. I won’t fall for that trick ever again.” — Erica Silverstein, CruiseCritic.com

“Went to the WRONG airport in London and missed one day of our vacation in Cannes. AHHH!!!” — Allyson Blake, Crossing This Pond

“Hanging my purse on the back of a restaurant chair in Paris. It was stolen!” — Veronica Stoddart, USA Today

“Booking the hotel for the day after I arrived — and arguing that their reservation system was wrong — turns out I was wrong!” — Julia Rosien, GoGirlfriend.com

“Years ago, as a college-age backpacker, I used a hostel booking site to reserve accommodations in Florence. I was vaguely aware that the hostel was a little outside the city center, but I didn’t worry about it — I liked to walk, after all. When I arrived in Florence, I followed the hostel’s directions and hopped on a bus … and didn’t get off until 45 minutes later. The hostel was more than a dozen miles out of town on winding country roads, which I’d have known if I’d taken a closer look at a map before booking. Having prepaid, I was stuck commuting an hour and a half a day for the four nights I stayed in Florence. Lesson learned.” — Sarah Schlichter, IndependentTraveler.com

“Inviting the wrong person to go with me (never again)!” — Laurie Weed, Songlines

“Four people, six bags, one bad back. Booked a hotel in Seville Barrio — all roads to hotel were pedestrian only; no cars, no parking. BIG mistake.” — Julie Reynolds

“To fly from New York to Bristol, England, I tried to save money by booking a cheap Aer Lingus flight to Dublin for about $500, and then a 40-minute Ryanair flight to Bristol, which cost one cent plus taxes. A real bargain! Of course, I got delayed in New York, missed the Ryanair flight and then had to spend $250 dollars to get from Dublin to Bristol — which made the trip much more expensive than the direct flight I could have taken in the first place.” — Carrie Gonzalez, IndependentTraveler.com

“Accidentally matching a high-risk profile. My parents, who live in another state, gave us a car. We bought one-way tickets, checked no luggage and, due to a misread of our departure time, arrived at the gate very early. We were pulled out of line and subjected to a VERY thorough screening. We barely made the flight!” — Meg A., via Facebook

“The worst travel mistake I ever made was because I was a new traveler going abroad for the first time. I didn’t put any clothes in my carry-on, and I put my coat, hat and gloves into my checked luggage. My first flight was heavily delayed and I narrowly missed my connection. As the passenger in front of me congratulated me on just making it, he wished me luck that my luggage would, and then I realized there was no chance. I spent my entire trip worried about where my luggage was. It truly spoiled my trip. But it was a blessing in disguise. I realized that no one cared that I wore the same black sweater and jeans all week and that I didn’t need to bring a change of clothes for every day, rather a few pieces that could be mixed and matched to change up my look (if only for photos!).” — Lissa Poirot, FamilyVacationCritic.com

— written by Caroline Costello

prague winter This week just might be the best time to book your 2011 winter flight to Europe.

A cluster of airlines have rolled out some pretty impressive competing Europe fare sales; we’ve listed a selection of the best offers below. Most of these low-season deals cover travel through the end of March, so you’ll have to pack a coat. Some boots or gloves wouldn’t hurt either, depending on how far north you’re heading. But don’t overthink the bitter temperatures. Europe is a fantastic destination throughout the year, and winter’s chill does little to diminish the appeal of shimmering Venetian canals, just-baked Parisian baguettes or the soaring spires of ancient castles in Prague.

Before you book, a word of advice: We recommend searching for flights on multiple sites before purchasing anything. An advertised low fare may look like your best bet upon first glance, but day-of-week travel restrictions or extra fees could be lurking behind that shiny ticket price.

American Airlines Europe Fares from $265 OW

Travel from select U.S. gateways to cities like Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Brussels for as little as $265 each way plus taxes and fees. Departures are valid through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? This deal has some pretty significant day-of-week travel restrictions. You may only fly from Sunday through Thursday for most destinations, with the exception of travel to the U.K., which must take place from Monday through Wednesday.

Aer Lingus Europe Fares from $169 OW

These are some of the lowest prices we’ve seen for travel to Europe this season. Flights start at $169 each way plus taxes and fees for travel through the end of March. In addition, these fares don’t require a roundtrip purchase, which makes this offer ideal for travelers planning multi-city trips to Europe.

What’s the Catch? Direct flights are few and far between. For flights from the U.S. to most cities in Europe, you’ll have to stop over in Dublin.

Lufthansa Europe Fares from $198 OW

Depart from 16 U.S. gateways and travel to a variety of popular European destinations starting at $198 each way plus taxes and fees. Travel is valid through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? We’ve seen a few fares from other airlines that beat some of Lufthansa’s prices. For example, Aer Lingus is offering $199 one-way flights from New York to Amsterdam, while Lufthansa charges $284 each way for the same route on similar travel dates.

Air France Europe Fares from $202 OW

This sale includes a wide range of travel dates (fly through March 31), plus a pretty good number of destination and departure cities — and with fares starting at $202 each way plus taxes, prices are competitive. Plus, you can add a free Paris stopover to any Air France flight.

What’s the Catch? Weekend surcharges of $20 to $30 apply. And you’ve got to hurry if you want to snag these fares, as this sale ends December 16.

Alitalia Europe Fares from $590 RT, Including Taxes and Fees

Alitalia’s Europe fares start at $590 roundtrip … and taxes are included. Enough said. The price listed on the airline Web site is the final amount you’ll pay for these tickets, which cover travel to cities like Milan, Venice and Rome through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? These cheap fares will only get you to Italy; other European countries aren’t covered in this sale.

To find more air bargains, visit our Discount Airfare Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

Brilliance of the Seas In the early a.m. hours Sunday — Alexandria, Egypt time — 2,060 Royal Caribbean passengers awoke to the shatter of glasses falling off shelves and the sensation that their beds had turned into soapbox derby cars racing back and forth across the cabin. The spirits of ancient Egypt had summoned a Mediterranean squall producing 70-knot winds and 30-foot waves, and with Brilliance of the Seas’ stabilizers disengaged as it approached the port of Alexandria, the ship lost control and listed violently several times.

“The closet door in our balcony cabin ripped from its hinges and flew across the room,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on our sister site Cruise Critic. “My wife narrowly missed being hit by the airborne closet door, which weighs 50+ pounds.”

There were only 30 injuries, the most serious of which were two fractures, according to a statement from Royal Caribbean. Damage to the ship included broken furniture, a gym left in shambles (the “ellipticals looked like monkey bars,” said a Cruise Critic reader) and a smashed piano. The ship’s seaworthiness was unaffected, and the cruise surges on — albeit with a slightly shaken passenger base.

In exchange for experiencing what can only be described as a moment of existential terror, Royal Caribbean initially offered $200 in onboard credit to each passenger ($400 for those in suites). Some passengers argued that $200 wasn’t nearly enough, and a Cruise Critic reader reported seeing at least one complaint letter circulating on the ship. Then, just as the compensation debate was heating up, Royal Caribbean upped the ante from $200 to a full refund for the 12-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise. A similar cruise in late October 2011 costs more than $1,600 per person for the cheapest cabin.

Why the sudden sea change?

“Once the team was in the office, and able to assess the situation, we decided that a full refund was warranted,” said Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.

Some onboard offered a slightly different perspective. “The captain admitted in his first address within 30 minutes of the incident that a ‘mistake’ had been made by slowing down in harbor traffic, causing the stabilizers to disengage,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on Cruise Critic. “[He] described the incident as a ‘mistake’ more than once.”

I put the question to Martinez: Did the line switch gears and offer the full refund because the captain admitted that a mistake had been made?

“Not at all!” she said.

A mistake indeed. But does a free cruise really make up for minutes of sheer terror at sea? Tell us what you think!

— written by Dan Askin

airplane food airline mealEgg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?

For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.

DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.

According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.

Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).

For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

spa roomVisit Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (and you should, come to think of it), and you may find yourself in the tiny village of San Marcos. With only a few hundred residents, cheap food and labyrinthine pathways contoured by stone walls, fences and trees, it’s one of the more unexpected New Age communities you’re likely to encounter — and with an international population at that.

It’s here I realized a few years ago that one of the best ways to get the rub on a place is to, well, get a rubdown in the place. You can choose from any number of massage therapists, but I picked one on the outskirts, where the heavily traveled path wasn’t so well worn. I wrote my name next to a time on a piece of paper tacked to a post, then showed up at my self-determined appointment, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Not to worry: With thunder rumbling in the distance, the masseuse showed up precisely on time at the front door, led me to a lovely little room overlooking a garden and chatted about life in Guatemala in broken English as she provided the best $20 massage money can buy.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, if I could find the place again.

Since then, I’ve eagerly jumped at any chance to spa out, though nothing has topped my Atitlan experience. There’ve been massages at Utah’s Sundance resort, as well as in Vegas, London and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I had a claustrophobic aromatherapy session in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia (think fragrant steam pumped into a phonebooth). I took the waters on a soaking tour of Saratoga Springs’ mineral baths in Upstate New York.

And now, a pedicure — in the middle of the ocean. During a recent spin on Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, a loquacious charmer named Kim gave my weary toes some much-needed attention while she shared stories about her family back in Jamaica and recounted tales of working on a cruise ship. Bottom line: She misses her homeland, loves her floating workplace. While my toenails are still shiny from Kim’s efforts, the effects of the hot-rock leg massage and the cooling gels that followed it have, sadly, long disappeared.

(In case you’re wondering — and you are — I am not the only man to ever receive a pedicure at sea. Kim told me that about 20 percent of her clients are men. And when I asked her what sorts of pedial horrors she sees on a typical day, she just sort of shuddered and said, “I don’t want to think about it.”)

What’s next on my spa bucket list? I don’t know. I do know that you live and learn when you sit and soak, so I’m up for anything. Well, except for this:

To be honest, I’d rather talk to a human and learn something than have doctor fish nibbling dead skin off my big toe. But if you want to know more about this treatment, check out Seven Extreme Spa Treatments from Around the World.

— written by John Deiner