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hotel front desk receptionEvery 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 the vast majority of properties offering some form of online bookings these days, picking up the phone to book a hotel may seem so … last-century. And yet, sometimes there are benefits to calling the front desk and talking to a live human being.

As we advise in Choosing a Hotel, “Calling a hotel directly … might get you a room at the last minute or during peak travel times. National reservations desks often have a cap on the number of rooms they can fill at any given hotel, with the rest left to the specific hotel staff. Those working at the front desk have a better sense of the hotel’s capacity and will be more likely to check for cancellations or no-shows. … Avoid calling in the morning or mid-afternoon, when front desks are busiest.”

While you’re on the phone, you can also ask for information that might not be readily available online, such as which rooms or floors have better views, how safe the neighborhood is if you’re arriving after dark, and which amenities will be available in your particular room.

If price is a concern, this is your chance to negotiate for a better deal. Ask if the hotel is currently offering any specials, or if they have discounts for seniors, AAA members and the like. The worst they can say is no.

See more ideas for lowering your hotel rate.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

jack the cat missingWhen the cat’s away, its owner will worry — as American Airlines discovered after a kitty named Jack mysteriously vanished at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Thursday. Jack went missing from the baggage claim area shortly after his owner, Karen Pascoe, checked him and another cat in for a flight to California with AA.

According to Pascoe, when she last saw her cats, an American Airlines employee was putting plastic ties around the kennel door. After she went through security, she got a call from AA to tell her that Jack was gone. Pascoe helped with the search for more than an hour before leaving on a later flight, assured that AA would keep looking for her cat. Days later, Jack is still missing — and no one can tell her how he escaped.

The search has spawned a Facebook page, Jack The Cat is Lost in AA Baggage at JFK, which has more than 9,000 feline-loving fans as of this writing. Many have chimed in with messages of support (“He looks like a wonderful fellow. Hope he’s found safe and well,” writes Laurie Mayer), while others have directed vitriol at American Airlines for, well, letting the cat out of the bag. “AA would not want to deal with my wrath if they lost one of my cats,” writes Stacy Spieker. “I hope, Jack, you are found safe and unharmed. Shame on AA. There is NOOOOOO excuse!!!”

5 Travel Ideas for Pet Lovers

American Airlines has responded to the torrent of bad publicity by posting updates on its own Facebook page about its efforts to recover Jack. To name a few: Humane traps have been set, footage from CCTV cameras in the baggage claim area is being studied and Pascoe will be flown back from California this weekend to help with the continuing search.

Jack may be evading the army of airline employees on his tail, but he’s found the time to set up shop on Twitter. “One thing @AmericanAir hasn’t thought of … litterbox. Hope this green dress wasn’t important. #luggage” tweeted @jackthelostcat yesterday.

Joking aside, the incident offers a troubling cautionary tale for traveling pet owners. While many animals fly safely every year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 17 pets were killed and 5 injured on U.S. airlines between January and June 2011 (the latest dates for which statistics were available). If your pet is small enough, it’s almost always safer to carry him or her onboard with you rather than take a chance on the cargo hold.

See more tips for keeping pets safe while traveling. And if you find yourself at JFK in the next few days … keep an eye out for Jack.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hotel saleEvery 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 or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Hotels.com is running a short-lived promotion that will satisfy those travelers addicted to flash sales and private discount travel sites. For just 48 hours, the hotel booking site is slashing nightly rates at select properties by as much as 50 percent. But the clock is literally ticking on this limited-time offer (there’s a digital countdown clock spinning away on the Hotels.com home page).

Noteworthy discounts featured in this sale include half off stays at the Nouvel, Barcelona (reduced nightly rates start at $106); 40 percent off two-night stays at several properties in Las Vegas; and 40 percent off rates at The Alex, an upscale Manhattan property (with discounted nightly rates from $298). Travel dates range from the end of August through September 27.

The Catch: There’s not an enormous variety of hotels here (far less than the typical sweeping Hotels.com sale). Most of the hotels included in this sale are U.S. properties, with the exception of a few places in Barcelona. Additionally, you’ve got to meet some minimum-night-stay requirements before you can snag the discounts at certain hotels.

The Competition: Travelocity is having a one-day sale today, which is worth looking into. We did some digging and found 40 percent off rates in Miami (for stays in September), and even 33 percent off an ecolodge in Costa Rica. Check both sites to search for a decent hotel discount in your destination.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

travel planWhen it comes to planning a vacation, there’s one big issue on which my travel partner and I always disagree. No, it’s not the classic traveling couples’ clash over who gets the better plane seat. (I’m shorter, so I take the middle seat every time. And I expect to be canonized after I pass.) We can’t agree on the value of the post-vacation vacation day.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

When we sketch out our trip plans, my travel partner, Dan, insists on adding an extra at-home vacation day to the end of our itinerary. So if we fly home on a Monday, he argues that we need to take off the following Tuesday for “recovery.”

In my opinion, this is a waste of a solid day off. Vacation days are for traveling. If I’ve packed, planned and paid hundreds to fly to my destination, I want to spend as much time there as possible. Plus, a day on the road trumps a day at home no matter what. Squandering a good vacation day on the couch at home is like choosing to sit in coach after you’ve been upgraded to first class.

I’ll let Dan explain his side, in his own words: “I need a buffer day to get back into something of a non-vacation routine before I resume real world activity. Otherwise, the transition from vacation to reality is too abrupt, too painful.”

Who wins? Ultimately, we usually end up going with whichever dates allow us to snag the cheapest fares.

Where do you stand? Post your opinion in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

AppleWood Manor Inn Here’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $230 a night. Nicola Comunian, the first person to post the correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured was the Winesap Suite at AppleWood Manor Inn, a B&B in Asheville, North Carolina. The Southern inn features wide porches with rocking chairs and porch swings, and it’s just a five-minute drive from the Biltmore Estate. Guests are served a complimentary three-course breakfast every morning. (Recipes for some of AppleWood’s most famous dishes, like lemon bread and oatmeal cake, are posted on the B&B’s Web site.)

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.

— written by Caroline Costello

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified hotel here, on our blog, and we want you to guess how much it costs to stay there. Leave your guess in the comments below and you could win a prize. Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Can you predict the price of this unique Southern hotel room? 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). The first person to guess closest to the price of the room without going over wins an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. Here’s the room:

As always, here are three hints to help you win:

-This room is located on the third floor, in the part of the inn that was originally the servant’s quarters.

-This property is located in the historic Southern town that boasts the largest private home in the United States.

-Wi-Fi, fresh flowers and a three-course homemade breakfast are all free during your stay.

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, August 28, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Caroline Costello

travel healthWhat’s the number-one way to stave off loathsome airplane colds, stomach-turning viruses and other scourges of the traveling set? That’s the question we posed to our well-traveled readers, who, in response, posted a cornucopia of practical health tips on our blog earlier this month.

As promised, we’re awarding a GermBana scarf, which is made of germ-annihilating antibacterial fabric, to the reader who submitted the best travel health tip. Congratulations to Nick, who shared an excellent piece of advice that reminds us why it’s great to make a date with the doc:

“I totally agree with several of the previous posts, but would need to top my list with a visit to a doctor — preferably a travel specialist — prior to taking a long flight. This literally saved my mom’s life: she couldn’t get an apt. with her regular [primary care physician], so she visited a travel specialist. During the check-up [she] mentioned a slight pain in her leg — only hours later she was in the hospital due to a blood clot that the doc had found. The trans-Atlantic flight she had planned needed to be postponed, but I can’t say how glad I am she saw that doc!”

Blood clots caused by immobility and cramped conditions on planes, also known as Deep Vein Thrombosis, are a serious risk for air travelers. In 2007, the New York Times reported on a study that connects flying with an increased risk in D.V.T.: “Life-threatening blood clots and flying have been linked for more than 50 years, but a new study of business travelers confirms the risk, particularly for those who take long flights or fly frequently. … People who fly four hours or more, the study found, have three times the risk of developing clots compared with periods when they did not travel.”

As Nick says, it’s smart to visit a doctor prior to your flight if you have a history of developing clots or if you have symptoms that could indicate blood clotting; these include unexplained pain, swelling and redness (most often in the legs). Additionally, travelers should see a doctor to get any immunizations that are required or recommended before visiting certain destinations. For more information, read Travel Immunizations.

We received plenty more ingenious tips for staying hale and hardy on the road. (Picking a winner was tough.) Our readers revealed clever on-the-go cold remedies, explained how to avoid “the dirtiest object around” and extolled the virtues of sanitizing wipes; read the tips here.

What’s your best travel health tip? Share it in the comments!

— written by Caroline Costello

produce grocery store fruit colorful europe supermarketEvery 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.

As a student backpacking across Europe, I lived on convenience store sandwiches, fruit, nuts and baguettes. (Oh, and gelato. Lots of gelato.) Fancy sit-down restaurants were for older, wealthier travelers; I rarely paid more than five bucks for a meal.

Nearly a decade later, my travel partner and I often find ourselves blowing $100 a day on restaurant meals during a trip. We’re gainfully employed and a little more grown up than that cash-strapped college kid I used to be, but I’m still a budget-conscious traveler. Surely I can enjoy great food without the painful price tag?

Writes Caroline Costello, “Especially in European destinations, where many decent restaurants are expensive and authentic local food can be purchased at affordable prices, getting your food from a local grocer is a great idea. Grab a fresh baguette and some cheese in Paris, bring them to the Tuileries Garden for an outdoor lunch, and you’ve got an authentic yet affordable Parisian meal with one of the best views in town.”

Picnics aside, grocery stores are also a great place to stock up on everyday needs such as water (I like to pick up a gallon jug and refill my smaller bottles each morning) and snacks. If your hotel doesn’t offer free breakfast, skip the $14 waffles and pick up some fresh bread and fruit at the local grocer’s; it’ll only cost you a couple of bucks.

See more ways to save on your next trip in Backpackers’ Secrets: Top Tips for Cheap Travel.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hurricaneSummer travelers set to visit the Bahamas or just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard from North Carolina to New England have been glued to the Weather Channel. Thank Hurricane Irene for that. The major storm has been pummeling the Caribbean with 120-mile-per-hour winds, upending travel plans for those heading to the Bahamas by ship or plane. If the forecast from the National Hurricane Center holds up, most of the 13 original colonies are in for some serious bluster.

When a storm blows in, especially a beast like Irene, what should a savvy traveler do? Keep your eye on airline change fees, cruise ship itinerary scrambling and, if you have one, your travel insurance policy.

Travel Insurance and Storms
If you don’t have a travel insurance policy by now, nothing you purchase at this point will save your trip from Irene. For the next time around, know this: Not all travel insurance policies are created equal, but a good one will cover travelers for trip delay, interruption and cancellation in the event of a major storm — minus any compensation you get from a cruise line or airline.

For a general insurance overview, check out our Guide to Travel Insurance.

Magnanimous Airlines?
Let’s not get carried away, but with Irene looming, a number of U.S. carriers have temporarily adjusted their flight change fee policies. “Typically, the airlines allow you to change your travel dates without the usual fees, with no change in fare, and usually without limitations on your original fare bucket [during a major hurricane],” says Ed Perkins, writer for our sister site Smarter Travel. For example, United passengers originally booked to fly to select destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel within seven days, and may have to check on seat availability in their original fare bucket (economy, business, etc.). Continental is being a little more generous. Passengers scheduled to fly to certain destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel by the end of ticket validity (up to one year). These temporary policies do vary somewhat significantly, so check your carrier’s Web site for more information.

Many East Coast airports will close this weekend in preparation for the storm, and more than 1,000 flights have been canceled; check with your airline.

Cruises: Diverted but Never Canceled
Mobility is the cruise lines’ secret weapon against hurricanes. Nassau, to which Irene seems drawn, cannot relocate. Cruise ships can, even if it means a Bermuda sailing becomes a voyage to New England, which happened in 2005. More than a dozen Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships have scrambled their originally scheduled itineraries. Bahamas-bound ships have temporarily redeployed to the Western Caribbean, trading Nassau for Cozumel and the like. Worst case scenario: If a punishing hurricane makes a debarkation port inaccessible, the line may have to lengthen the cruise by a day, which of course impacts the 3,000 passengers waiting to board for the next sailing. This, however, is rare.

For regular updates on Irene’s impact on cruising, visit our sister site Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone, which is updated regularly.

— written by Dan Askin

 Glacier National Park If you’re traveling domestically within the next four months, take heed. Now might be the best time to book your flight.

A cluster of U.S. carriers have rolled out rival fare sales, offering fall plane tickets starting at $39 each way. Which airline wins the war? It depends where you’re flying. Travel dates vary by sale, as do prices for select routes. Run your itinerary through multiple airline sites and book what works best for you. Don’t forget to factor in those checked bag fees. (See Airline Baggage Fees for the scoop on your carrier.) Here’s what’s on sale:

JetBlue: Select domestic routes are on sale with fares starting at $39 each way plus taxes. Travel is valid in September through early November, and a two-week advance purchase is required.

Southwest: This three-day sale features fares from $39 each way before taxes for travel between September and mid-December. Southwest, we must add, has a pretty decent baggage policy. Passengers may check up to two bags for free.

American Airlines: American’s offering $39 fall fares on select routes (taxes are additional). Travel dates stretch from now through mid-December. A two-week advance purchase is required.

AirTran Airways: AirTran isn’t offering that golden $39 fare, but the airline’s systemwide sale features a wide range of discounted routes and some competitive prices. Travel is valid on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from late August through mid-December. Additionally, AirTran’s sale includes cut-rate fares to destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico.

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

— written by Caroline Costello