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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.

What’s the price of a sumptuous stay for two? 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:

To help you in your quest for that T-shirt, we have a few hints:

-This romantic room offers a private patio, a stone fireplace and a bathroom with a colorful mosaic tile shower.

-The property is located in a small city known for its scenic mountains and thriving arts community.

-Included in the nightly rate are Wi-Fi, in-room refreshments, valet parking and hot, cooked-to-order breakfasts.

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, October 2, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

steering wheel speeding car blurWhen it comes to driving, are you a slow-lane sort of person, or do you immediately head to the left and make everyone else eat your dust?

Now comes word that Maine is about to become the only state east of the Mississippi River to legalize a 75-mile-an-hour speed limit. Starting Tuesday, October 4, locals and travelers heading to Canada can take advantage of the power boost on a lonely stretch of Interstate 95 in the far northern reaches of the state, from Old Town to Houlton.

According to a Reuters report, the 110-mile stretch of asphalt “could handle the increase from an engineering standpoint, and … studies showed most people were already driving comfortably at 74 to 75 miles per hour there.”

The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

While Maine may be the first Eastern state to okay a 75 m.p.h. speed limit, it’s not a ground-breaker. A number of Western states also top out at 75 m.p.h., while Texas allows 85 m.p.h. on some segments.

The legislation, which flew through the Maine legislature, was introduced by Representative Alexander Willette, who said that his constituents had been nagging him about making the change. “Their main reasoning is, everyone is traveling 75 anyway and they are already not getting pulled over,” he told Reuters. “Why not make it official?”

I’ll tell you why not: If you can tell people they can go 75, then they’ll go 85. I’ve driven through that area a number of times, and I agree it’s a long, straight, boring haul. But if people weren’t routinely getting pulled over, why give them the (indirect) license to go faster? Does anyone really think that 85 or 90 m.p.h. won’t now be the norm?

Enter the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Anne Fleming, who holds the same view. As she told the Associated Press: “People do pay attention to speed limits. Whatever they’re flying along at, whenever they raise the speed limit, they fly along faster.” Furthermore, she said higher speeds often lead to more (and worse) accidents.

So what do you think? Vote in our poll or speak up in the comments.

— written by John Deiner

sun hat suitcase vacation travelEvery 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 or signing up for our newsletter.

Last week, we blogged about a nifty new suitcase that beats baggage fees — and gave readers a chance to win it by submitting their smartest packing tips. More than 500 people weighed in, offering a wealth of practical, travel-tested advice.

We discovered that our readers are avid proponents of doing laundry midway through their trips, rolling clothes rather than folding and using compression bags to squeeze a few extra outfits into their carry-on. (We also decided that we might not want to sit next to a few of you on the plane, based on how many times you apparently re-wear your clothes before washing!)

It was almost impossible to pick just one reader to win the CarryOn Free rolling suitcase, but in the end our favorite tip came from a reader named Bruce:

“Always bring a hat [even] if you think you won’t need one. In the hotel, place it on the nightstand and empty your keys, wallet, passport, etc. into it before bed. When you get up (or God forbid if you need to leave in a hurry due to fire, or some other emergency) you’ll already know where everything is — secure and ALL in ONE place, and so won’t have to search around to make sure you haven’t left something essential behind!”

While Bruce is our big winner, we’ve also got something cool for the rest of the travelers who played along: a special coupon code from the folks at CarryOn Free that readers can use for the next two weeks to get 10 percent off any product in the company’s store. Just enter discount code P092811 during check-out.

We couldn’t resist sharing a few other creative tips out of the hundreds we received:

“Scan your passport, passport photos and paper tickets (if not the [electronic] type). Store this … in your Web-based e-mail account. You can also store the details of your emergency ‘lost card’ telephone numbers in your Web-based e-mail account so you know who to contact if your credit card or ATM card is lost or stolen. This way, even if you lose everything, you have immediate access [to] your all important information.” — Dan Freeman

“For women who love perfume — I tear out the paper perfume samples from the fashion magazines and trim them to just the width of the folded scent sample; they last forever, [and] take up/add minimal space and weight.” — Martha Meier

“I have seen very expensive plastic padded sleeves for sale to carry bottle wines. I have been bringing wine and liquor bottles from all over the world using two pairs of socks (putting the bottle inside the socks, it gets protected by four layers), then inside a regular plastic supermarket bag, and then a T-shirt wrapped around. Then I place the bottle in the center of the suitcase. I never had a broken bottle.” — Angel

For more indispensable packing advice, check out Packing Tips from Our Readers.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Almost six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated much of coastal northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, I found myself on an express train bound for Fukushima, to see for myself what had changed, what stayed the same and what is gone forever.

I lived in Fukushima for many years, in a place called Iwaki City, where I was a participant on an international exchange endeavor called the JET Program. I was fortunate to be placed in Fukushima, for it is a beautiful place full of fascinating people.

In the days and months following the quake, Americans frantically canceled their travel plans to Japan, refusing even to lay over in one of Tokyo’s airports for a brief few hours. As if one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history and the catastrophic tsunami weren’t enough to make visitors leery, the blown-out nuclear facilities at Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant complicated matters even more. To date, tourism in beleaguered Fukushima prefecture is down more than 60 percent, according to Hisashi Ueno, a director at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

fukushima rice field overgrown car japan

Taking up about as much land area as the Bahamas, Fukushima is one of Japan’s larger, rural prefectures. But prior to March 11, there were probably even Japanese people who couldn’t find Fukushima on a map. It’s tragic and unfortunate that Fukushima went from relative obscurity to international infamy. But there is a charm and a beauty to Fukushima that must not be overshadowed by radioactive fear.

Autumn in Japan

When I returned to America from my most recent trip, a colleague offhandedly commented that I’d best keep my irradiated self away from her vicinity. She was joking, of course. But her wry sentiment is reflective of a larger social stigma growing around the word Fukushima. And while people’s apprehensions about going anywhere near a place with a melted-down nuclear reactor are reasonable, it’s important to emphasize that Fukushima is not in a state of apocalyptic nuclear fallout.

shoe hirono beach fukushima japan

Half a year after the quake, Japan is back on its feet. It’s not even wobbly. Trains and buses operate to the usual standard of perfect punctuality. The iconic temples of ancient Kyoto (far, far from the epicenter) have remained open to visitors. The neon city of Tokyo still bustles and flows with life and activity, albeit in a slightly more energy-conscious manner. The sumo and baseball seasons are well under way, stadiums packed with cheering fans.

Right now I would not discourage anyone from traveling to Japan — for it is a fascinating country and its people are the most hospitable and generous on Earth.

Fukushima is no exception. As I traveled through the prefecture for one week in mid-September, I saw so much that had changed, and even more that was exactly the same as I left it. Fukushima’s rolling green mountains and warm summer nights were as familiar as Sapporo beer and cheap sushi. The residents I encountered, both foreign and Japanese, did not seem discouraged or beaten, but rather cautiously optimistic about the future to come.

rice field iwaki city fukushima japan

There is a phrase in Japanese — it’s the motto of the elementary school where I worked for three years — Makeji Damashi; an accurate translation of that might be Undefeated Spirit. And spirit is one thing that runs in no short supply in Fukushima.

Hearts of Cherry Blossoms (Japan)

Yes, a significant nuclear disaster took place along the prefecture’s northeastern coast. And today there is still a mandated no-go zone encompassing a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear reactor. But that area is small when compared to the prefecture as a whole.

Outside of the evacuation zone, life has largely returned to normal for much of the prefecture. Clean-up efforts are well under way, children have been back in school since April, and the shortages of water, gasoline and supplies that crippled the region in the weeks following the quake are all a thing of the past.

So if you make a trip to Japan (and I encourage you to do so, particularly in the spring or autumn, when the scenery and weather are most lovely), do not be afraid of traveling north of Tokyo. For more intrepid travelers, Fukushima might just become the next big thing off the beaten path.

iwaki city sunset japan

Here are a few recommended places to see:

Tsurugajo: An ancient castle in the old samurai town of Aizu-wakamatsu, it’s astonishingly beautiful in the spring when more than 1,000 cherry trees burst into bloom.

Mount Bandai: Topping out just under 6,000 feet, Bandai is a relatively easy hike with rewarding views to be found on any of its six major hiking paths. Make sure you find the old hot spring, bubbling steamy water just off the main route.

Goshiki-numa (Five Colored Lakes): These lakes were formed 123 years ago by a volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai, which deposited minerals into the lakes, giving each of them its own mysterious color that changes with the seasons.

Aquamarine Fukushima: Iwaki’s famous aquarium was hit hard by the tsunami but has reopened to the public, featuring a re-creation of the nearby Shiome sea, where rivers flow into the ocean and meet colliding currents. The result is a diverse and fascinating biome that can be viewed in the 540,000-gallon centerpiece tank.

— written and photographed by James A. Foley, www.jamesafoley.com

new england mill fall autumnEvery 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: Fall has arrived, and so has this year’s crop of shoulder-season travel deals. Especially ripe for the picking is AirTran’s latest three-day sale, which launched this morning with fares as low as $43 each way. The airline is offering reduced-rate flights to destinations all over the U.S. as well as to Aruba, Bermuda, Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

Travel is good between October 7 and December 14 — ideal dates for catching some fall foliage or booking a tropical getaway before the busy winter season. The cheapest domestic flights we saw were between Boston and Baltimore ($43 in either direction), while you can escape the continental U.S. to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from as little as $69 each way (from Tampa).

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The Catch: The lowest sale fares are only available for domestic travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; on any other day of the week you’ll have to pay peak prices. Fortunately, travel dates for international itineraries are a little less restrictive: You can fly Monday through Friday. And of course, sale fares are unavailable on the most convenient Thanksgiving travel dates (November 22 – 23 and 26 – 28).

The Competition: Southwest Airlines is offering a similar three-day sale with matching fares on competing routes. Southwest doesn’t fly to any international destinations, but it’s worth checking out this deal if you’re flying within the States, as the airline covers some cities and itineraries that AirTran doesn’t.

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Mexico‘s gotten a bad rap lately. Most people hear the name and automatically think violence. But the truth is, while certain cities in Mexico are unsafe right now, like Ciudad Juarez, there are many areas, like Cancun, Riviera Maya and Playa Del Carmen, that could be considered some of the safest travel destinations in the Caribbean. Even if that doesn’t ease your mind, consider this: the distance from Ciudad Juarez to the Riviera Maya is more than 2,100 miles. That’s greater than the distance from Dallas, TX, to Detroit, MI. You wouldn’t tell a foreigner not to come to the U.S. because Detroit can be dangerous.

The Riviera Maya, located on the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, is one of the most eco-friendly destinations in all of Mexico, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and preserving the environment. The area, which is home to many historic sites, is full of beautiful beaches with dozens of luxury all-inclusive resorts and many fine dining options. Following are four off-the-beaten-path activities for you to try during your next visit.

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1. Rio Secreto: The longest semi-sunken cave in the Yucatan Peninsula is a stunning, 7.5-mile-long underground river with thousands of ancient stalactites and stalagmites. Before 2007, almost no one had entered Rio Secreto — translated as the “Secret River” — except for the man who first found it. But now, there are guided tours available (starting at $59) that allow you to hike and swim through a 600-meter route, providing you access to some of the most dramatic mineral formations in the world. (See RioSecretoMexico.com.)

rio secreto cave riviera maya

2. Annual Whale Shark Festival: The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, extends along the coast of the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and continues south alongside the Riviera Maya, making the area a hot spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. But if you’re looking for something truly unique, attend the annual Whale Shark Festival in July. Guests can swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean and an endangered species. The festival kicks off with the whale shark afuera, when hundreds of these gentle giants migrate near the coast of Isla Mujeres. (See WhaleSharkFest.com.)

whale shark

3. Water Journey at Grand Velas Spa: This hour-long relaxation ritual in the Water Lounge of the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Spa is built around the use of eight specially designed water-based facilities (picture a steam room and sauna on steroids). Led by a personal spa valet, the Water Journey is a truly relaxing hydrotherapy experience that alternates between various hot and cold rooms and pools — like the Clay Room, a circular steam room with a fiber-optic “starlight” ceiling, and the Ice Room, with floor-to-ceiling windows. You can also recline and relax in the central infinity pool, which has massaging faucets throughout and carved-stone chaises with jets set just underneath the surface of the water. (See RivieraMaya.GrandVelas.com.)

water journey grand velas spa riviera maya

4. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Beginning on October 31 with festivities continuing through November 2, this Mexican holiday, rooted in Aztec culture dating back thousands of years, is marked by lively gatherings, colorful costumes and ancient traditions to honor the souls of the departed. Dia de los Muertos festivities begin with All Saints Day, which honors infants and children, and is commonly referred to as “Dia de los Angelitos,” or “Day of the Little Angels.” Celebrations continue with All Souls Day, which honors adults who have passed on. Though customs vary throughout the country, common traditions include visiting the gravesites of deceased loved ones, building altars in their honor, and offering symbolic tokens such as sugar skulls and marigolds. Visitors to the Riviera Maya can attend the “Life and Death Traditions Festival,” held each year at the eco-archaeological park Xcaret, where festivities include plays, dances, cemetery tours and art exhibitions. (See FestivaldeVidayMuerte.com.)

dia de los muertos life and death traditions festival riviera maya

Find Mexico Travel Deals

— written by Kate Parham

compass point beach resort nassau elevated seafront hutHere’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog.

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $341. Reader jjb701, who guessed the rate right on the nose, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured was an elevated seafront hut at the Compass Point Beach Resort in the Bahamas. The resort is located adjacent to Love Beach and offers 18 colorful huts just outside of bustling downtown Nassau. All of the huts are equipped with flat-screen TV’s, microwaves, refrigerators, and DVD and CD players — but the best amenities of all are the white sand beach and crystal-clear waters right outside your front door. Read more about the Compass Point Beach Resort in Nassau Essentials.

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

What’s the cost of a breezy seafront stay? 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:

Here are three hints to get you closer to that T-shirt:

-The room, which features a king-size bed and full bathroom, is raised on stilts to provide sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.

-Under the second-floor balcony is a ground-level patio with a wet bar, picnic table and refrigerator.

-This resort is located just a few minutes outside of the country’s glitzy capital city.

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, September 25, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

To put it mildly, my packing skills leave something to be desired. According to our Packing Personality Quiz, I’m a “Systematic Suitcase Stuffer.” I pack for a trip by trying to shove most of the things I own into a suitcase. This strategy doesn’t get me too far.

Enter the Eagle Creek Pack-It Compression Sac. I’ve wanted to try travel compression sacks, also known as Space Bags, for ages. They’re airtight, space-saving bags that compress your items by allowing most of the air inside the bag to be pushed or sucked out. Some bags, like most Space Bags, require a vacuum nozzle for air removal. Other brands, such as the Eagle Creek bags I purchased, don’t need a vacuum; these are more useful for travelers who won’t have access to vacuums in their destinations.

The list price for the Eagle Creek Pack-It Compression Sacs is $20; I bought mine on Amazon.com. My set came with one small and one medium bag. Here’s the product:

eagle creek bag

I’m traveling to Europe for 10 days, so I need a lot of clothes. Here’s what my suitcase looked like before I used the compression sack. You’re looking at a bag packed with eight shirts, two jackets, one dress and one raincoat:

Suitcase packing clothes

I folded everything in a sort-of neat fashion and slid the clothes into the large compression sack. According to the instructions on the package, you have to “roll to expel air and compress.” The bag is designed so that air gets pushed out when the bag is rolled. As I twisted and rolled, I could hear the air shooting out of the far end of the bag. Toward the end of the rolling process, things got a little difficult, and I had to use my knees (and a coworker’s knees) to push out the remaining air.

rolling compression sack

I’m impressed with the results. My clothes are condensed into a tight bundle, and now I have tons of space left in my suitcase.

 Compression Sac Results

There are, however, two things you should keep in mind when using compression bags. First, I get the feeling that my clothes are going to be as wrinkled as raisins by the time I arrive at my hotel. Second, this bundle of clothes is like a brick — it’s very heavy. Watch out for airline weight limits when packing with compression sacks.

Have you packed with a compression sack? Would you try it?

— written by Caroline Costello

couple chairs argue 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 or signing up for our newsletter.

You love the beach, but your best bud would rather shop. You could happily spend hours wandering through an art museum, but after half a dozen Rembrandts and Raphaels, your husband is ready to head for the hills. Is your trip doomed?

Mismatched interests are common between travel companions — and vacationing, like life, is an exercise in the delicate art of compromise. If you’re traveling solo, you can do everything you want to do and nothing you don’t; for the rest of us, a trip is a time for a little give and take.

To keep things going smoothly, Ed Hewitt advises travelers to do their own legwork for the attractions they’re most interested in: “Want to go to a museum? Find out on your own what tickets cost, how to get there and when it’s open. Then when you drag your companion along, he or she doesn’t have to worry about all the logistical hassles and might actually enjoy the experience. Sweeten the pot by paying the admission fee or treating your companion to lunch as well.”

Also helpful: having the less enthusiastic partner bring along an alternate form of entertainment. I once spent an hour contentedly scribbling in my journal while my partner, a geologist, hunted for fossils.

And don’t disregard the value of going your separate ways. After playing solo traveler for an afternoon or a day, you and your companion can meet up again for dinner and appreciate all the reasons you really do love traveling together. It’s the best of both worlds.

See 17 more ways to keep the peace with your travel companion.

— written by Sarah Schlichter