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It’s Friday! That means, of course, that you’re itching to play How Much Is This Hotel? before you can kick of your whirlwind weekend of exciting international adventures (or your sleepy weekend of reading about exciting international adventures online). After all, there’s an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt at stake.

Guess the maximum standard nightly rate of the hotel room pictured below. Enter your guess in the comments, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address (so we can contact you in case you win). With a nod to “The Price Is Right,” we’ve added this condition: whoever guesses closest to the price of the room — without going over — wins a free IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. Here’s the room (or in this case, cottage — the pink ones in front):

As always, hints are in order:

-These private oceanfront cottages are a new addition to this hotel.

-Each cottage has its own kitchenette and sleeps two people.

-This hotel is located in the capital city of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

We’re looking for the maximum nightly price for two people as listed on the property’s Web site, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, June 12, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Caroline Costello

roller coasterAs if amusement park rides weren’t scary enough, now comes word of two incidents — one fatal — over the past week involving thrill-seekers in New Jersey and Ohio.

First, the good news: According to a report in the Asbury Park Press, your “odds of being seriously injured at one of the United States’ 400 fixed-site amusement parks are 1-in-9 million.” It goes on to quote a rep from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as saying 280 million people visit U.S. parks annually, taking 1.7 billion rides.

The Asbury Park story was printed in reaction to the death of an 11-year-old girl on June 4 at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, N.J. The girl, who was visiting the park on a class trip, fell almost 100 feet from a Ferris wheel. No fault has been determined, though officials say the 156-foot Giant Wheel recently passed state inspections and no mechanical problems were found. The next day, seven riders on the WildCat ride at Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park were injured when a car failed to brake at the end of the ride, causing it to slam into another loaded car. The injuries were minor.

The back-to-back incidents are coincidental, of course. There’s no telling right now how the girl fell from the Ferris wheel gondola (Did she stand up? Did the door unlatch unexpectedly?), but it’s frightening nonetheless. I’m an amusement park junkie, and every time I’m strapped into a ride I wonder if I’m going to make it off alive. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

I draw the line at rides at carnivals and fairs — something that arrived on a truck the day before and was assembled in the predawn hours just screams “Avoid!” to me. And I’m never quite sure if I can trust that creepy dude at the controls.

That said, good Jersey boy that I am, I’ve been to Morey’s Pier dozens of times, and I’ve never thought twice about jumping on the attractions (that Ferris wheel has always been too tall for me, however). I also frequent the boardwalk rides up the coast in Seaside Heights. You may know it as home to the “Jersey Shore” crew. I know it as home to the scariest ride I’ve ever been on.

It’s a roller coaster tucked into the nether regions of Seaside’s Casino Pier. It’s not tall or particularly fast, but it always looks rusty to me. The cars are cramped and don’t seem particularly well affixed to the track. The coaster’s metal frame shakes when you’re going up the first hill, and the chain pulling the cars makes an ungodly drone. Each turn at the top makes you feel as if you’re going to be dumped into the ocean, which is perhaps 70 feet or so below. The ride ends with a screech and, I swear, the smell of burning rubber.

I have to go on it once a year, or my summer isn’t complete.

— written by John Deiner

bike tourSummer vacation planning is in full bloom, and money-saving travel options are as varied as June flowers. A long-established choice is the standard vacation package, a three-pack of airfare, hotel and rental car bought on some hulking brand-name travel booking engine. You could cross all appendages and apply for membership at exclusive private sale travel sites. And, yes, you could always put on your special travel agent hat and plan your own trip, speaking empty bluffs to the booking agent at that beach-front hotel in your quest for a better rate.

These options are fine if they work for you. But allow me to introduce a fourth alternative: Find a less common, off-the-beaten-path kind of package — at a reduced rate. There are tons of unique packages that, for one easy, affordable price, include cheese-making classes, desert tours or accommodations in tiny historic B&B’s. I’d like to think of these as packages for people who don’t like packages (a spin-off of our well-loved 8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours). But this time, there are deals to boot!

Save Up to $700 on New England and New York Bike Tours

Explore bucolic New England or the Hudson Valley by human-powered two-wheeled vehicle (also known as a bike). Pedal through colonial towns, covered bridges and riverside meadows as you embark on an environmentally-friendly tour of the Northeast. You’ll sleep in historic inns. You’ll tour vineyards and working farms. You’ll get in shape. And the best part? You can save up to $700 per person on the price of select Great Freedom Adventures summer tour packages when you book by July 15.

Save $126 on Sedona B&B Package

Settle into guestrooms with breathtaking red rock views at Arizona’s Casa Sedona. This B&B serves scrumptious Southwest-inspired breakfasts (think huevos rancheros and quiche verde) on the house, and offers easy access to Sedona’s burnt-orange desert landscapes. Book the two-night Great Escape Package at the B&B and receive a Sedona SuperPass coupon booklet, two T-shirts or hats, bottled water, hors d’oeuvres and tickets to a Pink Jeep Broken Arrow Tour (an excursion through surrounding canyon lands). The package costs $595 for two people, which includes $126 in savings.

Save 25% on International Vacation Packages

Are you a less-traveled type of traveler? Trek to exotic destinations like Peru’s Inca Trail, the Galapagos, Ethiopia or Cambodia this summer, and save up to 25 percent on the price of your package when you book with Gap Adventures. The international tour company is touting this offer as a “last-minute special,” but I beg to differ. Many of the discounted tours take place in July, August and September, so it’s not like you’ll have to stuff some hiking boots in a backpack and head to the airport this week.

Mountain Goat Lodge Cheese-Making Package for $75

Why should you fraternize with goats on vacation? Well, for one, the animals can carry your camping gear during a pack goat hiking excursion in the Colorado wilderness. And goats produce some really delicious dairy products. At Mountain Goat Lodge, a rustic B&B set near the Arkansas River in Salida, Colorado, guests can partake in an assortment of surprisingly fun goat-centric activities. Our favorite is the B&B’s cheese-making class, during which guests learn to make their own chevre, mozzarella, ricotta and Greek yogurt from fresh goat’s milk. The four-hour class costs $75 per person. But reserve your summer stay on BedandBreakfast.com and you can save $25 on the cost of your booking.

Save 25% on Grand Canyon Train Packages

Got an AARP membership card? Good. That makes you eligible to save 25 percent on Grand Canyon train packages this summer. Book a two- or three-night package with Grand Canyon Railway and save 25 percent on rates when you upgrade to first class. It’s a good excuse to add a little opulence to your vacation, no? Packages start at $242 per person (that’s before the first-class upgrade) and include accommodations, roundtrip train travel from Williams, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon, plus breakfasts and dinners.

— written by Caroline Costello

boarding pass suitcase travel tripEvery 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.

After your latest and greatest trip has come to an end, you find yourself glumly unpacking your suitcase. Your dirty unmentionables go straight into the laundry hamper, your shampoo and conditioner return to their usual perch in the shower, and your used airline boarding passes get tossed in the trash … or do they?

Not so fast, writes Ed Hewitt: “Your boarding pass can serve as proof of travel if your airline fails to give you the proper credit for frequent flier miles; this type of problem is particularly common if you’re flying on a codeshare partner of the airline in question. Your boarding pass can also be useful as a receipt for tax purposes, particularly if you’re self-employed.”

This advice holds true even if you’re using those new mobile boarding passes for smartphones — don’t delete that boarding pass e-mail from your airline until you’ve seen your frequent flier miles safely credited to your account.

Of course, there are more fun reasons to keep your boarding passes too, at least if they’re the good old-fashioned paper kind. Crafty types can create a collage, pin them to a wall map or include them in trip photo albums or scrapbooks.

See nine more tips for a smoother trip.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

New York central park 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: Sometimes it pays to book a few months in advance — especially when an early-bird sale like this three-day Southwest deal comes along. Plan ahead and enjoy significant savings on late-summer and fall travel with this domestic fare sale. More than 1,000 discounted routes between U.S. cities are featured in this offer, including cut-rate flights to popular vacation destinations like Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Orlando and more. Fares start at $29 each way plus taxes and fees — and don’t forget that Southwest allows passengers to check up to two bags free of charge.

To be clear, only one route is priced at $29 each way: Birmingham to/from Louisville. But bunches of affordable $39, $49 and $54 fares (and up) are on offer for a nice variety of domestic routes.

The Catch: This deal’s distant travel dates are probably its biggest drawback. You’ve got to book by Thursday, June 9, but travel is valid from late August through mid-November. And, as is the case with most airfare sales, these tickets are nonrefundable.

The Competition: AirTran has initiated a similar 72-hour sale, which features fares starting at $54 each way plus taxes and fees. AirTran’s current sale includes international fares to destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico, while Southwest is selling discounted tickets to U.S. destinations only. AirTran’s limited weekly travel dates (to get the cheapest fares, you have to travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays) are a drag. But AirTran beats Southwest’s prices on select routes, so be sure to check both sites before booking your flight.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

stress travel stressed out traveler businessman suitcaseCountdown to departure: three days. Before I board a flight to Vancouver on Thursday, I have to finish packing, call my credit card company, do laundry, print boarding passes, clean out the fridge, confirm my reservations … so many details, so little time!

Am I curled up, knees to chest, in a stress-induced stupor? Not exactly. I’ve adopted a few strategies for handling the pre-trip panic phase:

1. Make a list — or several.
This weekend, I jotted down a clothing inventory for each day of my trip, a more general packing list (medications, umbrella, etc.) and a list of everything I had to do before I left. Having everything laid out in writing helped me get organized … and gave me the satisfaction of whittling down my mountain of tasks one by one. (Our handy interactive packing list can help with this step.)

2. Start early.
Dumping drawers on the floor in search of your passport hours before your departure is, to put it mildly, poor planning. I headed off last-minute panic attacks by starting the packing process several days before my flight. As it happened, I discovered that my passport was indeed where I left it — score! — but that I was missing a few other odds and ends. Luckily, I still have a couple of days to run to the store. Crisis averted.

3. Have a plan.
As Ed Hewitt points out in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel, the first day of a trip is often the most nerve-wracking as you figure out how to get around an unfamiliar new place. He suggests making a plan before you leave: “Sketch out a walk near your digs, which can help you get oriented as well as shake off travel fatigue and jet lag. Also, check out any nearby amenities — like a rooftop lounge nearby, a balcony with a choice view or a heated pool for maximum chill-out at the end of a harried travel day.”

As for me, I looked up public transportation options from the airport to where I’m staying, so I know exactly where to go once my plane touches down. And I’ve scribbed down a few yummy-sounding neighborhood restaurants for that first night’s dinner.

4. Let go.
Once you’ve taken care of all the important stuff (the passport is packed now, right? RIGHT?), try not to waste too much energy on the rest. Slow down, take a deep breath and focus your fevered brain on how much fun you’ll have on your trip, rather than all the tiny little details you might have forgotten.

If you’re looking for me on Thursday, I’ll be in one of those airport massage chairs — having my last few twinges of travel tension gently rubbed away.

What do you do to reduce pre-trip stress?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

turtle inn belize seafront cottageWe have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $425. With his guess of $399, Justin was the closest to the correct answer without going over. He has won a free IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt!

The room pictured in Friday’s post is a Seafront Cottage at the Turtle Inn, a luxury resort on the coast of Belize. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor, the Turtle Inn offers 25 individual thatched cottages overlooking the Caribbean. Seafront Cottages (located right on the beach) cost $295 – $350 a night for singles and $385 – $425 for couples, with the lowest rates available during the summer and fall. (If you really want to splurge, check out the two-bedroom, two-bath Pavilion House, which comes with its own swimming pool, dining terrace and private attendant; it’ll set you back a whopping $1,600 – $2,400 a night.) Read more about the Turtle Inn in Belize Essentials.

Check back on Friday for another shot at winning a prize!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We had so much fun with last Friday’s How Much Is This Hotel? challenge that we’re bringing it back this week — and once again, you’ve got a chance to win a fun prize!

Here’s the scoop: We want you to guess the maximum nightly rate of the hotel room pictured below. Enter your guess in the comments, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address (so we can contact you in case you win). Remember, a la “The Price Is Right,” the person who guesses closest to the price of the room without going over wins a free IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. Here’s the room:

A few hints to help you along:

1. The room is part of a luxurious cottage on the beach, just steps from the sea.

2. Each cottage has its own private garden, screened porch and Japanese-style bath.

3. The decor may be inspired by the beach cabanas of Bali, but this property is located in the only Central American country where English is the official language.

Remember, we’re looking for the maximum nightly price for two people as listed on the property’s Web site, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, June 5, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane plane seats woman hat passengers air travelDuring a recent United Airlines flight from Washington D.C. to Ghana, one passenger reclined his seat and was introduced to his rear-seat neighbor — with a slap to the head. A fight ensued.

According to The Washington Post, which broke the story, a flight attendant and a fellow passenger stepped in to stop the tussle. Then, upon learning that violence had broken out among his passengers, the pilot turned the plane around and headed back to Dulles International Airport.

Before the plane could land, the pilot had to circle for roughly 25 minutes. The Washington Post reports that while the plane, a Boeing 767, can take off with up to 16,700 gallons of fuel, it can’t land with it — hence the pilot had to lighten his load. As the aircraft flew in loops, two Air Force fighter jets arrived to escort the plane back to Dulles.

Once the plane landed, you’d think the police would have booked the belligerent duo. But get this: No one was charged with a crime. Not even the guy who started the fight (the one who throws the first punch is usually to blame, isn’t he?). Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, told the Post that officers did not feel the incident warranted an arrest.

Ultimately, jet fuel was wasted, the Air Force was beckoned and people were inconvenienced because a couple of hot heads wanted to go to war over the loss of a few inches of seat space. Now here it comes: the Great Seat Back Debate. Clearly, mid-air violence is unacceptable, but what, exactly, is the appropriate course of action when cruising altitude is reached and the seat back button beckons? Is it rude to recline?

In The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room, Ed Hewitt offers a simple compromise: “I believe there is a time for upright seats, and there is a time for reclining fully. Everything in its season, I read somewhere.” Hewitt suggests that travelers glance to the rear before reclining. (Don’t do it if the passenger behind you is eating a meal or is extremely tall.) Furthermore, says Hewitt, “You don’t have to push your seat all the way back to get a snooze; only take what you need.”

John Deiner, Managing Editor of IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site Cruise Critic, argues for a more compassionate approach to seat back reclining: just don’t. Says Deiner, “When people put their seat back it bothers the heck out of me, so I always assume it does the same to the person behind me. I’m 6’1″, so putting the seat back doesn’t really improve my legroom that much at all anyhow. One way my wife and I deal with it: She gets the seat in front of me, and if someone puts the seat back in front of her, it’s not such a big deal because she’s shorter. I’ve tried talking to people who put their seat back expecting me to perform dental work on them, and sometimes we come to an agreement, sometimes they wave me off. When they do that, I aim the cold air from my seat vent at the top of their head.”

Better to aim cold air than a few punches at the guy pushing that seat in your face. My opinion? I recline whenever I feel like it. I paid for the seat. It’s my right to transition from a stiff upright position to a stiff mostly upright position if and when I so choose. It’s not like the seats recline all that much anyway. The difference between a reclined seat and an upright seat on an airplane is the difference between a quiet hum and a whisper. (Okay, I’ll admit it. As a petite person who barely scrapes 5’3″, I’m probably somewhat ignorant to the plight of the statuesque air traveler. Maybe I’ll reconsider my position on this. Maybe.)

Now it’s your turn. Whose side do you take?

— written by Caroline Costello

hotel door do not disturb signEvery 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.

We know that travelers judge their hotel rooms on a wide variety of criteria — like how great the view is (or isn’t), how comfy the mattress feels, and whether the Wi-Fi is a) functional and b) free. But did you know that your hotel room — specifically, where it’s located — could also determine how safe you are during your stay?

Here’s the scoop, from our own Hotel Safety Tips: “Don’t accept a room on the ground floor if you can avoid it. Many safety experts recommend staying somewhere between the third and sixth floors — where rooms are high enough to be difficult to break into, but not so high that they’re out of the reach of most fire engine ladders.”

It’s not something travelers should obsess over, but hotel break-ins and fires do happen — so taking a few precautions to safeguard yourself is just common sense. Before you book, call the hotel to find out what it does to protect its guests. Surveillance cameras, round-the-clock security staff and elevators that won’t take guests to upper floors without a keycard are all good safety measures to look out for.

For more ways to stay secure on your next trip, check out Money Safety and Seven Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly.

— written by Sarah Schlichter