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The popularity of the word “staycation” is directly proportional to the price of petroleum. Gas prices go up, and suddenly every other travel publication is touting the virtue of the glorious staycation — a vacation that takes place close to one’s home (thus saving travelers from budget-busting prices at the pump).

Although the current high gas prices are expected to come down in coming months, rates remain at about $4 per gallon; this doesn’t bode well for Memorial Weekend travelers who aren’t interested in staycationing at the local pool or the nearest state park.

Yet today, AAA reported that despite costly gas prices, travelers are kicking the staycation in the shins and hitting the road. Says Robert Darbelnet, President and CEO of AAA, “There’s going to be a slight increase in travel over the holiday weekend. I guess the bottom line is that paying at the pump will not keep us at home during the holiday.” See for yourself:

AAA predicts that more people will travel this Memorial Weekend than last year, even though gas prices are significantly higher than they were one year ago. The organization forecasts that 34.9 million people will be traveling over the Memorial Day weekend. This is, naturally, good news for hotels, airlines and the whole of the travel industry. But travelers driving to their destinations should be prepared to face traffic, and crowded beaches and full flights should be expected come the holiday weekend. Leave early, and be sure to pack plenty of patience.

Are you planning a weekend trip for Memorial Day? Take our poll.

— written by Caroline Costello

morocco medina marketEvery 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.

For some travelers, haggling is a fine art, honed over years of delicate negotiations and represented by a cabinet full of souvenirs purchased for a song. But for the rest of us — well, sometimes the rest of us could use a little haggling help.

If you often find yourself spending more than you intended, either because you’re afraid to offend a merchant or because you simply covet that hand-carved Buddha statue too much to let it go, you might want to try the following clever trick, taken from our Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide:

“If you’re paying in cash, set aside the money that you’re prepared to spend and keep it in your wallet; move the rest of your bills elsewhere. This serves two purposes. You can give the merchant visual evidence that this amount is the most you can possibly pay (‘See? This is all I have!’), and it also helps prevent you from going over your own self-imposed price limit.”

First, of course, you need to decide what amount you’re willing to spend. Shop around for a few days before committing to buy; this will give you a sense of the average going rate for the item you’re looking to purchase. Then take a hard look at your budget and set your limit. The final piece of the puzzle: Always be willing to walk away.

What’s your best haggling trick?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

man mountain lake view happy success arms raisedClose your eyes and picture the perfect traveler. Would she be toting the finest-quality luggage, speak a dozen foreign languages fluently and have a magical knack for never getting lost?

If you don’t resemble this paragon of travel perfection, don’t fret. I’d argue that the qualities that make for successful and memorable trips are much more mundane — and can be developed by any traveler.

Useful: The ability to read a map.
Essential: The ability to chill out when you inevitably get lost.

Sure, your companions will thank you if you have a knack for deciphering a subway map or navigating a flawless route from Point A to Point B. But even with a map, even with a handheld GPS, even with “you can’t miss it” directions from the guy at the local newspaper stand … I promise that sooner or later, you will wander off course. How you respond to getting lost spells the difference between a sour afternoon of arguing with your spouse over who’s to blame and a serendipitous detour to a place you might never have found otherwise.

Useful: A good bag.
Essential: A good packing strategy.

While I’d never minimize the value of a sturdy, well-constructed suitcase, what’s more important is what you put into it — and what you don’t. Even a “Miracle Bag” can’t save you from overweight fees if you’re a chronic overpacker, or help you remember the umbrella you always seem to leave at home in the closet. Forget buying some $400 piece of luggage and instead invest a little time in improving your packing strategy: create a packing list that you can customize for each trip, and think back over your last few vacations to evaluate which items you really could’ve left at home.

Useful: A stomach of steel.
Essential: An open mind (and a stockpile of Tums, just in case).

If you’ve ever eyed a steaming plate of mystery meat with trepidation, you might have wished you were one of those travelers with an ironclad stomach — like the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain, who munches his way through the street food of the world with almost nary a taste of food poisoning. But according to Bourdain, it’s not his biology but his sense of adventure that keeps him from getting sick on the road: “My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses,” he told WebMD. While I encourage travelers to take reasonable precautions (see our Food Safety Tips for ideas), don’t let fear get in the way of trying those unique local delicacies.

Useful: Fluency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language.
Essential: Fluency in the universal language of hand signals and smiles.

According to a report in the New York Times last year, only 9 percent of Americans speak a language besides English. Guess that explains the sheer number of Yanks bumbling around the world asking, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Knowing the local language can ease your trip in countless ways, which is why I’d always recommend learning as many basic vocabulary words as you can before a trip. (Hint: “Restroom” should be one of them.) But keep in mind that when you hit a language barrier, you can often convey just as much — if not more — with a simple smile.

Which qualities would you add to this list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Brussels 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: Fares to Europe are creeping up along with summer temperatures. A recent search on Kayak.com showed June flights from New York to London topping out at just under $1,000 roundtrip (including taxes and fees). So when we spotted this American Airlines Europe deal, we caught our breath. Less than $300 each way for a flight from New York to Barcelona? San Francisco to London for $339 each way? Sign us up!

This American Airlines late-spring Europe sale is on through May 22, and features discounted flights from select U.S. cities to a variety of European destinations for travel through the end of June. The cheapest total fare we found — including all taxes and fees — was $625.80 roundtrip for an early-June trip from New York to Barcelona. Not too shabby.

The Catch: The lowest fares are valid for travel on weekdays only. You’ll get the cheapest flights by traveling from Monday through Thursday. In addition, a Saturday-night stay is required.

The Competition: Really, there’s not much competition here. These American Airlines fares are some of the most affordable transatlantic June flights we’ve seen this year. But if you’d like to investigate further, Air France and United are also running spring/summer Europe sales, with fares hovering near $900 roundtrip.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

The Mall of America is the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the U.S. It spans some 4.2 million square feet, and is big enough to house 258 Statues of Liberty, 37 Boeing 747′s, seven baseball stadiums — and a theme park. Forty million shoppers descend on the place annually — enough travelers to fill the more than 50 hotels that ring its perimeter.

mall of america

You’d think that something this massive has to include anything you can imagine. Right? Well, almost. On a recent visit to the Mall of America, it was indeed comprehensive. Beyond the usual suspects — stores, restaurants and a food court featuring every fried food under the sun — there’s also a flight simulator, mini-golf course and mirror maze. And the mall is home to Herobot 9000, a 34-foot-tall LEGO robot that holds the record for the world’s largest LEGO sculpture.

Bloomington, Minnesota’s mega-mall is more mid-size town than shopping center, with movie theaters, an aquarium, a comedy club, an amusement park and even a police station with its own K-9 unit. You can get married at the mall. You can go to school at the mall. And somewhere in between your high school graduation and the happiest day of your life, you can shop for new kicks at Lady Foot Locker or purchase “pajama jeans” in the As Seen on T.V. store.

Herobot 9000

More than 5,000 weddings have taken place at the Mall of America’s Chapel of Love, a one-stop shop that sells affordable wedding attire, photography services and flowers.

Minnesota students can earn their high school degrees at the Metropolitan Learning Alliance, a campus neatly tucked next to Dollar Tree. The high school accepts students from several local school districts and offers business-oriented learning programs including, fittingly, retail management. One wonders if M.L.A. students bother to hang out at the mall on weekends like typical Midwestern teenagers.

Basically, all this arena needs is a funeral home and some kind of elementary school program, and a dedicated mall rat could live his entire life within its wide walls.

And get this: Such a scenario isn’t a pipe dream. The mall is expanding to nearly double its current size in approximately 10 years, increasing its area by 5.6 million square feet. In addition to more shops, restaurants and theaters, the extra space will make room for the Mayo Clinic Health Experience, an interactive wellness center that will offer educational classes on fitness (slated to open July 2011).

Nevertheless, I think the mall may be missing a thing or two. Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we’ve debated the pros and cons of features like a clown college and Venetian-style canals (with gondolas a la Las Vegas). Wouldn’t it be nice if you could drop Sir Barksalot off at an in-mall pet obedience school and shop while he’s put through the paces? And we can’t really think of a store it’s missing — aside from Wal-Mart.

You tell us: What would be your must-haves at your ideal mall?

— 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 week’s Photo Friday guessing game is Singapore! Pictured is the view from the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel. A ride on this giant Ferris wheel will take you more than 500 feet in the air for stomach-dropping panoramas over Singapore and Marina Bay. Learn more about Singapore in Top 9 Destinations to See in the Dark.

— 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: Fly high for the best views of this city’s skyline.

Leave a comment below to guess the destination!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Does a woman with stage IV breast cancer hoping to die in her Korean homeland belong on the no-fly list? Earlier this week, Seattle-based Northwest Cable News reported that Korean Air had barred Crystal Kim from flying out of Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport over the weekend — even though Kim presented clearance from doctors and was traveling with her daughter. Ms. Kim has rebooked with Delta and is hoping to make the flight today.

Editor’s Note, May 13, 2011, 11:35 a.m.: MSNBC reports that the Kims did indeed fly yesterday, and that Delta upgraded them to first class.

Korean Air technically has the right, as do all air carriers, to deny passengers if they’re determined to be too sick to fly. The airline said it feared Crystal could die onboard and traumatize other passengers.

Here’s the video report from Northwest Cable News:

While Ms. Kim’s sad story may have something of a positive outcome, you may or may not be surprised at who — and what — else has issues getting airborne:

Bulldogs: Delta announced in February that it would no longer carry American, English and French bulldogs. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, it seems that a disproportionate number of these flat-snouted, respiratory-issue-prone canines were dying in flight.

Pregnant Women: Not all policies are the same, but most airlines restrict women in late-stage pregnancy from flying without a note from a doctor, a special examination from an obstetrician, clearance from an airline’s special assistance team or all of the above. There’s often a distinction between flying on domestic and international flights, so check individual policies.

The Contagious or Comatose: While Ms. Kim’s disease was obviously not contagious, there are other ill passengers airlines can bar from flying. Those carrying a contagious disease or other infections — flashing back to 2009, H1N1, for instance — should always check carrier rules before boarding. Not surprisingly, an airline can also bar a passenger from boarding if he or she is comatose; passengers must be able to follow emergency procedures.

— written by Dan Askin

airplaneWho’s the ace in the battle of the airlines? Consumer Reports released its U.S. airline rankings yesterday, revealing which golden carrier claimed the coveted number-one spot. The verdict? Southwest snagged the top trophy, with JetBlue a close second, and Alaska, Frontier and AirTran trailing respectively behind.

A poll of nearly 15,000 Consumer Reports readers ranked 10 airlines based on factors including seating comfort, baggage handling, cabin-crew service, ease of check-in, in-flight entertainment and cabin cleanliness. The airlines’ total scores were tallied on a scale of 0 to 100. Southwest secured 87, while JetBlue got a healthy score of 84. The biggest loser, US Airways, came in last with a score of 61.

Four of the survey’s five top scores were achieved by discount airlines — a verdict likely influenced by major carriers’ abundant baggage fees. Southwest and JetBlue permit passengers to check at least one bag for free, whereas major airlines charge for checked baggage on domestic flights. Customer service may also have played a part in pushing the big airlines to the bottom of the rankings. American, Delta, United and US Airways, the carriers with the lowest scores, all registered below average in the check-in ease and cabin-crew service categories.

But really, is anyone surprised? In The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines, Traveler’s Ed compares most airlines to a bad friend: “Missed a connection or late to the flight due to bad weather? Too bad for you! We can’t fly due to bad weather? Too bad for you!”

Here’s another revelation that failed to shock me: In the seating comfort category, basically every airline save JetBlue and Southwest bombed — and even our winning discount duo scored average at best. Southwest offers 32 to 33 inches of legroom in its economy-class seats, which, according to stats on SeatGuru.com, beats economy-class seats on loads of major airline-operated planes by an inch or two (and sometimes even three: American Airlines’ leg-cramping Aerospatiale/Alenia 72 planes offer a paltry 30 inches of pitch).

An inch doesn’t sound like a lot. But when your knees are in your face and you’ve got four hours to go, even meager units of length become vital.

What are your picks for the best and worst airlines?

— written by Caroline Costello

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network. The TripAdvisor Media Network also owns SeatGuru.com.

train suitcase woman travel railroad railsEvery 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.

With airfares rising to dizzying (or nauseating!) heights, having to shell out an additional $50 for baggage fees on a roundtrip flight is like piling insult on top of injury. That’s why many travelers are choosing to drive this summer — at least you can bring as much luggage as you want. But do you really want to weigh your car down with extra stuff when gas costs $4 a gallon?

There is another way. Caroline Costello writes, “While airlines are charging left and right for big bags, extra bags and even carry-on bags (we’re looking at you, Spirit), train travel is a different story. Amtrak’s baggage allowance policy says passengers may carry on up to two pieces of luggage (not including personal items like purses, strollers or computer bags) and check up to three pieces of luggage — for free! Additional bags cost a surprisingly low $10 per bag. Plus, for a small fee (usually $5 to $10, depending on your route), train travelers can bring big-ticket items like bicycles, surfboards or musical instruments onboard.”

Five bucks for a bike or a surfboard? Compare that to a budget-busting $150 on American Airlines. And with such a generous checked bag allowance, you can pack as many bathing suits and tank tops as you want.

There’s more good news, too. It may not help you this summer, but over the next few years train service across the U.S. will be improving. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded more than $2 billion to various high-speed rail projects across the country, investing in better and faster service in the Northeast, California and the Midwest.

See six more ways to avoid baggage fees.

— written by Sarah Schlichter