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excess baggage payment sign airport overweight luggageWith airlines charging hefty fees for overweight bags, the small difference between a 49-pound suitcase and a 51-pound one could add up to a big hit on your wallet. (Delta, for instance, charges $90 each way to check a bag weighing 51 to 70 pounds.) But what if your bag’s excess weight isn’t caused by what you’ve packed, but by a quirk of the luggage scale at your airport?

A reader wrote to us a few days ago on this very topic: “An airline recently tried to charge an enormous fee for [a suitcase that was] five pounds over [the weight limit]. We moved one very light fleece vest to another piece and ended up seven pounds under. That vest did not weigh 12 lbs; maybe it weighed 2. If they are going to charge such prices, shouldn’t they have to calibrate the scales?”

Unfortunately, a recent report from CBS Los Angeles shows that this sort of discrepancy is not unheard of. While most of the scales tested in the report passed inspection, one faulty scale at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) displayed a reading of 53 pounds for a 50-pound weight, and 109 pounds for a 100-pound weight. Although scales at airports are supposed to be calibrated on a regular basis, missed maintenance or normal wear and tear can sometimes lead to flawed readings.

So what’s a traveler to do? We recommend purchasing your own small luggage scale to use at home when packing; you can pick one up at a travel supply store for $10 – $20. These offer a quick way to make sure you’re not getting too close to your airline’s weight limit. Just be sure to allow for a little variation between your scale and the one at the airport. (Is your suitcase tipping the scale at 48 pounds? It’s time to lose that extra guidebook or pair of boots.)

Once at the airport, if you suspect that a scale is inaccurate, ask the airline employee to test your bag on another scale nearby.

For more information, see Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

During spring, when frozen fields evolve into painterly kaleidoscopes of color, certain destinations shine. While Holland is arguably the most famous spot for flower aficionados, with Provence, France being a close second, there are plenty of domestic destinations that can compete with the big bloomers. Here are a few of our favorite places to see roses and rhododendrons in the U.S., with bonus travel deals to match.

1. Philadelphia International Flower Show

The Philadelphia International Flower Show, the world’s largest indoor display of flowers, is a world-renowned affair (the show is even highlighted in that famous book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”). The event takes place each spring at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which transforms into a wild array of eye-popping floral exhibits, featuring everything from fantastical arrangements to full-on gardens brimming with colorful blooms. This year, the theme is “Springtime in Paris,” and the show will take place from March 6 through March 13.

The Deal: The Windsor Suites Philadelphia is currently offering a special flower show package, which includes accommodations, two tickets to the show and breakfast for two, starting at $169 per night.

Philadelphia flower show

2. Yellowstone National Park

Carpets of wild irises, shooting stars, yellow violets, ladies’ tresses and countless other wildflower species take over Yellowstone National Park from May through August (head to the park in June and July to catch the peak). Expect rolling meadows full of flowers and shocks of electric-pink blooms growing from forest floors during late-spring and summer months. Take a ranger-guided hike to learn about Yellowstone’s variety of flowers from a park expert.

The Deal: Parade Rest Guest Ranch, which is located near the Yellowstone park entrance, is currently offering special spring rates for stays from May 20 through June 12.

 Flowers in Yellowstone National Park

3. Portland Rose Festival
Portland, the “City of Roses,” an urban center where pretty gardens seem to sprout on every corner, welcomes spring with its annual Rose Festival. This year’s celebrations take place from the end of May through mid-June. The high point of the whole shebang is the Grand Floral Parade, a must-see frenzy of floats, flowers and music. Other fun events include a rose lighting ceremony with fireworks and a heart-pounding dragon boat race on the Willamette River.

The Deal: The Red Lion Hotel Portland, which is located right on the Grand Floral Parade route, is offering special Rose Festival rates starting at $99 per night.

Portland Rose Festival

4. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

Vibrant orange, yellow and red blankets of poppies appear in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, located about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, in early spring. Look for blooms to arrive as soon as March. The peak period for viewing eternal fields of flowers generally happens in mid-April. The reserve has eight miles of quiet trails that are perfect for hiking, photography, wildlife spotting and picnicking.

The Deal: When you stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Lancaster, California (the city of Lancaster is next to the Poppy Reserve), save 20 percent on your weekend stay.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

5. National Cherry Blossom Festival
Our nation’s capital transforms into a breathtaking blush-pink panorama of blooming cherry trees each spring. Thousands of trees popping with color near icons like the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial make for stunning photographs. On top of that, the Cherry Blossom Festival features more than 100 performances and events — many of which are free — including guided tours, fireworks and even a 5K run. The festival runs from March 27 through April 11.

The Deal: Book a Cherry Blossom Festival package at the Melrose Hotel and get accommodations, dinner for two and a late check-out with rates starting at $156 per night.

National Cherry Blossom Festival

— written by Caroline Costello

aruba Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Ever since snow dusted (or, in some regions, buried) 49 out of 50 U.S. states last week, the Caribbean, with its balmy temperatures, pink sunsets and skin-warming sunbeams, has been looking downright mouth-watering. But with spring break just around the corner, you can safely expect prices for tropical hotel stays and flights to the Caribbean islands to rise in February, March and April.

If you must travel to the Caribbean during the busy spring break season — and really, we don’t blame you — one of the best ways to save money is by picking the right island. In Top 25 Ways to Save on Caribbean Travel, IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter writes, “Airfare is one of the key expenses of any Caribbean trip, and some islands are much easier — and cheaper — to get to than others. For the lowest fares from the U.S., look for destinations served by low-cost carriers such as JetBlue (Nassau, Montego Bay, Barbados) and AirTran (Aruba, San Juan). Keep in mind that more competition usually leads to lower fares; you’ll pay less to fly to Jamaica, which is served by dozens of airlines, than you will to fly to an island like Dominica, where the only major carrier from the U.S. is American Airlines.”

We’re not denying that each Caribbean island has its own unique, worthwhile array of attractions. If you want to see rolling sugar cane fields and drink home-grown rum, head to Martinique. Seeking Vegas-style casinos and duty-free shopping? Nassau‘s a good pick. But if you really just want to sit on a beach with a sugary pina colada and you’re on a tight budget, price flights to various islands, and then pick your destination based on whichever’s cheapest. We promise you won’t be disappointed. There are no second-banana islands in the Caribbean.

— written by Caroline Costello

England lake district Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: We’ve found it — a rare Europe travel deal that features discounts during the summer high season, which is decidedly the most popular time for travel to the Continent. Book one of Brendan Vacations‘ Escorted Europe packages by February 28, and you can save $500 per couple on land-only trips or $1,000 per couple on air-inclusive vacations.

We checked prices for the “Taste of Britain” package, which includes six nights’ hotel accommodations; transportation between U.K. destinations including London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and York; various tours, some meals; and airport transfers. The package also includes roundtrip nonstop airfare from New York to London on British Airways, departing on August 12 (airfare from other U.S. gateways and on other dates is also available). After the $500-per-person discount, the ultimate price for a summer Europe vacation for two came out to $4,510.58, including all taxes and fees. Roughly $2,255 per person for a U.K. vacation ain’t bad, considering airfare to Europe in August typically costs well over $1,000 roundtrip — and considering that lousy dollars-to-pounds exchange rate to boot.

The Catch: Pay attention to this deal’s long list of restrictions. To get the greatest discount, $1,000 off a trip for two people, you must fly on British Airways; fly with other eligible airlines and receive $800 off. In addition, this deal isn’t valid for trips to a handful of European destinations, including Greece and Turkey. Traveling solo? Sorry. This offer is available for couples only.

The Competition: Monograms is currently offering a similar deal, but the discounts aren’t quite as steep. Book with Monograms by February 15 and receive up to $400 off (that’s $200 per person) select air-inclusive Europe vacation packages.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Brussels, Belgium! The statue pictured here is the Manneken Pis, one of the city’s most beloved landmarks. The 22-inch bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain dates back to the 17th century, and is regularly decked out by locals in a variety of costumes made just for him (he’s dressed up as Santa Claus and Elvis Presley, among others). Learn more about the statue and the city of Brussels in Brussels Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified place here, on our blog. Think you know where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Monday to see if you were right! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Hint: Locals have fun dressing this little statue in fanciful costumes, such as pirate garb or judo attire.

Leave a comment below to guess the destination!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

vineyard grapes chorizo olives manchego cheese mediterranean mealLast week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:

It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.

It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.

Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?

— written by Dan Askin

eiffel tower paris sunset sunrise franceFor some travelers, trying to choose a favorite place is like trying to choose a favorite child — how can we pick just one when we love them all? But we recently asked members on our travel message boards to make that tough decision and share their favorite destinations in Europe.

Our members mentioned dozens of beloved places, from major capitals to remote mountain regions. (And true to form, most of them didn’t choose just one!) But in the end, we weren’t too surprised by the winner: Paris was mentioned 11 times, blowing away the rest of the competition (runners-up Amsterdam, Rome and Barcelona had three votes each).

“My favorite place in Europe is Paris,” writes member kayling05. “The mix of old and new architecture is wonderful; I stayed in a building that’s older than my own country … how crazy is that?? And the Eiffel Tower is not something to be missed. I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype but it so did. The view from the top is amazing!”

Member canuck82 agrees: “Aside from London/Wales, the only other place I’ve been in Europe is Paris — and I could go back every week.”

Naturally, though, not every traveler is looking for the same thing. Writes member jocap, “When I was young, it had to be London, Paris or, these days, the capital of cool, Barcelona. Now [that] I’m old, I prefer the small towns and villages. Anywhere in France — a quiet village with a good restaurant. A happy little town in Germany. … Or by a lake in Sweden/Norway, just boating around.”

What’s your all-time favorite destination in Europe? Tell us in the comments or join the discussion on our boards!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

vacation cottage britain england united kingdom travel house cozyTravelers can find cozy, convenient lodging for $50, $20 or even free in virtually every destination — as long as they know where to look.

Aside from airfare, lodging is typically the expense that takes the biggest bite out of a vacation budget. But there’s no need to rack up hotel stays for $100 – $200 a night or more. Creative travelers who are willing to consider alternatives to hotels could pay a fraction of that price — or nothing at all — by taking advantage of the following options.

Short-Term Room Rentals
This is a relatively new trend in the travel world — a cross between vacation rentals and homestays. Using Web sites like Airbnb.com, iStopOver.com and Crashpadder.com, travelers can rent a room in someone’s house, a cottage or a private studio apartment for low nightly rates (it’s not uncommon to see prices under $50 per night). It’s a way for hosts to open up their homes and make a little extra money, while giving travelers a great deal and a local’s-eye view of a destination.

Religious Housing
Depending on where you’re traveling, there may be affordable lodging offered by religious organizations — such as convents and monasteries in Italy (see MonasteryStays.com), or Christian or Jewish guesthouses in Jerusalem. An Internet search or a visit to the local tourist board’s Web site can help you find these options.

Though they’re commonly known as “youth” hostels, this form of accommodation can be ideal for budget travelers of any age. Even if you’re not up for the cheapest option — a bed in a shared dorm — you can often get a basic private room at a hostel for significantly less than the cost of a low-end hotel.

Sleeping in someone’s spare bedroom or on the living room couch is by far one of the cheapest ways to travel. In many cases, it’s free, and it’s also a great way to meet locals. You can organize a homestay through long-established hospitality networks like Servas International, or check out newer sites like CouchSurfing.com. For more information, see our guide to Homestays and Farmstays.

Vacation Rentals
A Paris apartment, a villa in the Caribbean, a log cabin in Vermont … vacation rentals offer unique and affordable lodging around the globe. Because they tend to be more spacious than hotel rooms, they’re a particularly good bargain for families and groups who can divvy up the cost. And having your own kitchen can save you big bucks on restaurants. Learn more in Vacation Rentals: Right for You?.

Academic Housing
When students go home for the summer, many colleges and universities open their dorms to visitors. Expect basic but very affordable accommodations (bathrooms may be down the hall, for example). There are few central databases of this type of lodging — University-Rooms.com is one to try — but it’s worth calling a few local campuses directly to see if anything might be available during your trip. The local tourist board may also be able to help.

From rural B&B’s to working ranches and cattle farms, this type of stay can cover a wide range of accommodations — and you don’t necessarily have to be willing to milk a cow to take advantage of it. Farmstays are particularly popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Learn more in Homestays and Farmstays.

Sleeping under the stars can be a magical experience — and it’s one of the cheapest options on our list, especially if you cook your own meals over a campfire instead of eating in restaurants every night. And don’t worry … you can opt for cabins or luxury tent camps if you’d rather not be slapping mosquitoes away all night. Get inspired with our Top Seven Spots for a Camping Trip.

B&B’s with Shared Bathrooms
Bed and breakfasts can often save you money over hotel rooms, especially if you’re willing to use a bathroom down the hall. And it may be less inconvenient than you think: A few years back, I stayed in a New Mexico B&B where the bathroom was supposed to be shared between my room and one other down the hall — but because the other room wasn’t booked for either of the nights I was there, I ended up having the bathroom all to myself.

Home Exchange
Swapping houses with another traveler is an ideal way to enjoy the comforts of home while traveling — and it’s practically free. To become a member of a home exchange network, you’ll typically pay an annual fee that costs about as much as a night in a hotel room, so after the first couple of nights of your vacation, your membership has paid for itself and then some. Learn more in Home Exchange: A How-To Guide.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

beach ball suitcaseEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

The one thing you should always pack on your travels is … a beach ball? In Must-Pack Items from Our Readers, Eileen H. says, “I never travel without a small blow-up beach ball. It can become a pillow of any size, a back support or a soft seat on a long journey, and is a great connector with little kids around the world.”

It sounds somewhat crazy to pack a beach ball unless your final destination is, well, the beach. Your travel partner might get confused when he sees you packing a deflated beach ball for that ski trip to Aspen. But Eileen has me sold. As I wrote in The Most Embarrassing Travel Gear, an inflated beach ball could function similarly to the SkyRest airplane pillow, allowing fliers to bend forward and rest their faces on a cushy pocket of air.

What’s your take? Will you pack a beach ball on your next trip? If not, what’s the one item you never travel without?

— written by Caroline Costello