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germbana scarf womanNobody likes being sick — and it’s even worse when you’re holed up in an impersonal hotel room thousands of miles away from your doctor, your mom’s cure-all chicken soup and your own comfy bed.

Unfortunately for travelers, public places like airports, train stations and hotels are prime places to pick up germs. The potential for illness grows even higher when you board an airplane; close quarters and ultra-dry air mean that “colds may be more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground,” Ed Hewitt reports in Avoiding the Airplane Cold.

We all know that using antibacterial gel and washing your hands frequently can help minimize your chance of spending your vacation sneezing, coughing or hunched miserably over a toilet bowl. But we want to hear other, more creative ways that you stay healthy while traveling. Share yours, and you could win a GermBana scarf, made of an innovative antibacterial fabric that kills germs on contact.

Just leave your best travel health tip in the comments below by August 19 at 11:59 p.m. ET. (Editor’s Note: We’ve extended the deadline to give more readers a chance to win!) The person who offers the most creative, practical advice for staying healthy on the road will win the scarf. Be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you comment.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

convertible mountains scenic road trip 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.

Road trippers, take heart: there’s still a month of summer left! Not to mention that fall, my favorite season for hitting the road, is right around the corner with all its leaf-peeping goodness.

As you plan your itinerary, spare some thought for your vehicle. Instead of putting hundreds of miles on your own clunker, consider renting some wheels instead — it could significantly enhance your trip, as we advise in Five Features of a Fantastic Road Trip:

“If you’re renting a car, consider your route when you book your rental. Sure, Highway 1 is gorgeous through the window — but just imagine it in a convertible. If your trip is taking you to the mountains, consider an SUV. Do your homework and you may only end up paying a little more for a specialty car than you would for a compact.”

While an economy car is almost always the cheapest type of vehicle to rent, car companies sometimes offer free upgrades or limited-time discounts on specialty vehicles. See our Car Rental Deals for a sampling of these discounts.

Keep in mind that a fancier class of car might also set you back a little extra in gas. Convertibles lose fuel efficiency when driven with the top down, and SUV’s and minivans guzzle a lot more gas than their compact counterparts. Be sure to budget accordingly and check out our tips for saving gas and money.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

uncertainty ahead road sign“THE FEAR’S BACK,” blares a CNNMoney headline over a graph showing the stock market’s latest plunge. Other news stories are filled with phrases like “volatile markets” and “economic uncertainty.”

But despite the turmoil, one thing is certain: we still want to travel. (If nothing else, I need a vacation from these scary headlines!) Here are a few ways to hedge your next trip against economic uncertainty.

1. Buy travel insurance. Maybe you can afford your trip to Thailand now, but what if you lose your job? Not all policies offer refunds if you have to nix a trip for this reason; look specifically for lay-off protection, or choose a policy with a “cancel for any reason” clause.

2. Keep an eye out for prices that go down after you buy. You’ll have to check for change fees and cancellation penalties first, but often you can update your reservation — or cancel and rebook — to take advantage of better rates on airline tickets, hotels and the like. See Watch for Falling Hotel Rates for more information.

3. Read reviews. When every vacation dollar is precious, you don’t want to waste any of them on a fleabag hotel, a rotten restaurant meal or a chronically late flight. You can find hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.com and big booking sites; restaurant reviews at Yelp.com and Urbanspoon.com; and airlines’ on-time records at FlightStats.com. JDPower.com is a good resource for ratings of car rental companies and airlines.

4. Have a back-up plan. Dealing with a lost passport or stolen wallet can eat up valuable vacation time. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards (in a separate place from the originals, of course), and leave one with a friend or family member at home. You may also want to consider sending a PDF copy to your e-mail, where you can access it from any computer around the world. Having a few spare passport photos on hand is also a good idea. See How to Take On Travel Trouble for more advice.

5. Know your exchange rates. Economic volatility can make it difficult to tell just how much you’re really paying for that gorgeous Murano glass souvenir. Stay up to date with currency fluctuations by checking XE.com or Oanda.com, both of which offer smartphone apps. (See also our story on how to Get the Best Exchange Rate.)

6. Allow some wiggle room. It’s sad but true: every trip ends up costing more than you expect. Avoid sticker shock on your credit card statement by setting aside extra money before you leave to cover unforeseen expenses. Our Travel Budget Calculator can help you plan.

A few resources for cutting costs on your next trip:

Travel Deals
15 Ways to Get a Better Hotel Rate
Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
Weekend Getaways Under $500

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

DublinEvery 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: Save $400 ($200 per person) on Virgin Vacations’ low-priced Ireland escorted tour package, which bundles airfare, six nights’ accommodations, transportation and even meals into one convenient clump of an Irish adventure. The whole itinerary is preplanned. Travelers will start in Dublin (roundtrip airfare from select U.S. cities is included), and then travel by motorcoach to Waterford, Killarney, the Cliffs of Moher and Galway.

Prices start at $1,399 per person before the discount, bringing your package total to $1,199 plus taxes and fees after the $200 savings is subtracted. Taxes, which are additional, generally amount to about $96 per person. (Gratuities are extra as well.) We went through the booking process, used the promotion code and found that the final cost of the air-inclusive package came to $1,295.21 per traveler, departing from New York.

The Catch: This discount is only available for departures on November 19. You’ll need to pack something warm. Still, with the world economy in its current state, we’re growing fonder of the idea of cut-rate off-season travel. (Same experience. Lower price. Less sun.) Plus, the Irish make a mean hand-knit Aran sweater.

The Competition: Do package tours and motorcoach transfers make you want to burn your suitcase? (If you’re nodding, check out Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours.) Aer Lingus is offering a discounted seven-day fly and drive package that combines roundtrip airfare and a car rental, but leaves the rest of the planning to you. Prices start at $729 per person plus taxes and fees for travel in September and October.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

Senior TravelerWhile senior airfare discounts are not as common as they used to be, some airlines still offer travel deals exclusively for passengers of a certain age. A few airlines offer senior discount booklets with one-way tickets, while others offer a fixed percentage off the fare.

Here’s a list of what major airlines currently offer elderly passengers as incentives to fly:

American Airlines: Senior citizen fares are offered in some American, American Eagle and American Connection domestic markets for seniors ages 65 or older. Travelers should call American Airlines at 1-800-433-7300.

Delta: While Delta offers senior discounts on certain itineraries, the discounts aren’t available online, so travelers should call 1-800-221-1212 to check eligibility.

Delta Shuttle: Senior fares are offered for travelers ages 62 and above. Delta Shuttle operates 16 daily flights between New York and Boston, and 15 daily flights between New York and Washington D.C., from Monday through Friday. Call reservations at 800-221-1212 and tell the agent that you are interested in the senior fares, or check with an agent at any Delta ticket office.

Southwest Airlines: Discount fares are available to those 65 years or older. For details on fares and limitations, call 1-800-I-FLY-SWA (1-800-435-9792). As an additional benefit, senior fares are also fully refundable on Southwest.

Continental: Senior fares are offered to certain destinations for passengers ages 65 and older. Ask when making reservations or, when booking online, select the seniors (age 65 and older) category. Call 1-800-523-3273 for more information.

Air France: Senior fares are reserved for passengers 60 years of age or older within metropolitan France. Proof of age must be shown, and the tickets are neither changeable nor refundable. The airline can be reached at 1-800-237-2747.

US Airways: Open to those ages 65 and older, senior fares are available online. Click on the Promos link on the US Airways home page to see if a discount applies to a particular flight. Only certain flights are eligible. For more information, call 1-800-428-4322.

United Airlines: United offers senior citizen discounts in certain markets. Contact United’s reservations department at 1-800-241-6522 to find out if a senior discount is applicable for a particular flight.

Some airlines don’t offer discounts on flights, but have partnership agreements offering senior discounts on hotels, rental cars, and attractions and events. Organizations like AARP have an active discount travel program that covers car rentals, hotels, tours and cruises, so check them out before booking.

Many of the airlines’ regular discount fares are cheaper than senior fares. If you’re not able to find a senior discount, there are still ways to find low-cost airfares:

-Sign up for airline and travel newsletters and deal notification alerts.

-Be flexible with your dates. The savings can often be significant if you’re willing to depart on a Tuesday morning rather than a Friday evening.

-Be aware of fees. Airlines nowadays are charging fees for everything, so think ahead by packing only a carry-on, dodging change fees and bringing your own snacks onboard.

One last thing to remember: While senior fares may sometimes cost more than the airline’s online-only specials, the difference is rarely more than a few dollars and there are advantages to booking as a senior. Senior fares may not be as restrictive as other fares and are usually refundable. If you are flexible about when you fly or you have missed out on the online special fares, senior fares may be your best option.

— reprinted with permission from Cheapflights.com

shutters on the beach 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 $875 a night. Dorinda, whose guess was right on the money, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured was a full ocean-view king room at Shutters on the Beach, a hotel located in Santa Monica, California. This luxury property features rooms with balconies overlooking the California coast, as well as a full-service spa and a beachside pool. Guests at Shutters can partake in a variety of organized on-site activities (for an additional fee), including private surf lessons and yoga by the ocean. Read more about Shutters on the Beach in Los Angeles Essentials.

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).

Here’s how to get that prize: 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 helpful hints:

-This room offers full ocean views and has a balcony and a king-size bed.

-This hotel is located in a popular beach town near Los Angeles.

-This luxury property has a pool, a spa and a fitness center, in addition to several restaurants.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

and the winner isLast week, we marked our blog’s one-year anniversary by giving away a travel prize pack to one randomly selected subscriber. Well, we’ve chosen our winner and are ready to send out that swag! Congratulations to Elizabeth R., who received a Train Reaction Luggage Stabilizing Device, a Powerstick USB-powered portable charger, a travel toiletry organizer, and an IndependentTraveler.com travel neck pillow and logo T-shirt.

Thanks to everyone who signed up during the contest period. But don’t worry — we’re not done bestowing goodies on our readers just yet. Stay tuned, as we’ll be giving away even more prizes in the weeks to come.

Sign up for our blog e-mails and be the first to know about future giveaways.

— written by Caroline Costello

beachIf you haven’t noticed, the rush to the beach is on. The final two weeks of July and first two weeks of August are traditionally the busiest for the nation’s beaches, which means that your little piece of sun comes at a premium. For 15 years, I went to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and always made a point not to go during these doggiest days of summer.

Still, there’s no denying the siren call of the surf when the temperature soars and the cheesy paperback beckons. It’s been a brutal summer for millions, so any solace near a body of water has come as a great relief. Dr. Beach, the self-proclaimed “America’s Foremost Beach Expert,” (hey, I want that job!) named his Top 10 U.S. beaches for 2011 a while back, and I was happy to see that I’ve been to two of them: Cape Hatteras, N.C. and Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.

But here’s the rub: Beach days are a rare commodity for most, so it’s always a drag and a half when someone else puts a damper on your chill time. I was at Delaware Beach State Park a few weeks ago for a lone day (sigh), but it was nearly perfect: sunny and temperate, packed but peaceful, water cool but refreshing. Though it seemed as if there were more people underfoot than grains of sand, the place was eerily quiet mid-afternoon while everything from tots to seagulls were napping.

Slideshow: The World’s Best Beaches

It could have gone the other way, of course. Here then are my five tips for beach etiquette, though it all comes down to just having a little respect for your fellow sunburn victim:

– Don’t smoke upwind of me. Yes, you’re outside, but I’d rather smell the salt air than something akin to a bingo hall. (Yeah, I’ll go there: Bravo for outdoor smoking bans.)

– Don’t play Frisbee (or football, or volleyball or fill-in-the-blank-ball) over my head or inches from my chair. You may be having a good time, but I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for something to whap me on the noggin.

– Drag your blanket to that empty stretch of beach where no one is near the dunes and shake it out. Nothing’s worse than unwanted Lasik. And, while we’re at it, I’d prefer you walk around my towel and not over it and on top of my lunch.

– Keep your music to yourself. I beg of you.

– This one’s for you boogie boarders: Watch out for the little ones (and the big ones, for that matter) when you’re, uh, boogie-boarding. You’re not the only ones in the water.

Not so hard, right? But don’t worry about your kids laughing and screaming as they run in and out of the waves — at the beach, that particular sound is music to the ears. What bad beach behavior irks you?

— written by John Deiner

switzerland glacier express train railEvery 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.

There’s nothing like the freedom of riding the rails around Europe, visiting the sophisticated cafes of Paris one day and the cobblestone streets of a tiny French village the next. But while the Continent’s wide variety of rail passes can save you a pile of euros, don’t assume that you should whip one out for every single train trip you take. In European Train Trips, we offer the following advice:

“Plan your itinerary carefully before you purchase your pass. Flexipass holders may save money and travel days by purchasing separate tickets for shorter trips. For example, say you’ve purchased a Eurail Italy Pass, valid for seven days of travel in a two-month period. At $329 for a second-class pass, your average cost per travel day is $47. Instead of wasting a travel day for a trip from Florence to Pisa — which costs just $9 — you can buy an individual ticket for that trip and save the travel day on your rail pass for a night train or longer journey.”

You can check prices for rail passes and individual tickets at RailEurope.com.

If your itinerary includes any lengthy trips, you also may want to consider flying. There are quite a few discount airlines that crisscross the Continent for surprisingly low fares (though you have to watch out for unexpected fees and inconvenient airports). We break down the options in Europe — By Plane or By Train?.

— written by Sarah Schlichter