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rockefeller center christmas angels starsEvery 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.

No other city does the holidays like New York. The Rockettes kick up their heels in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, angels blow their golden trumpets at Rockefeller Center, department stores vie for the title of the most impressive window display — and a flood of visitors arrives to soak up every second of the spectacle.

With bigger crowds come higher prices, but there’s no need to blow your holiday shopping budget on entertainment while you’re in the Big Apple. As we write in Top 25 Ways to Save on New York City Travel, “There are free or inexpensive concerts, readings, art exhibits and other events happening all over the city on any given day; the only challenge is finding them. Check out nymag.com/agenda, New York Magazine’s online event search feature that lets you filter results by cost (try ‘$10 & Under’ or ‘Free’).”

I did a quick search for events the weekend of December 9 – 11 and turned up several comedy shows, a Brooklyn brewery tour and a Native American art exhibition in a SoHo gallery — all free.

If you’re visiting the Big Apple in the next six weeks, it’s also worth checking out New York’s official tourism Web site at nycgo.com. There you’ll find a list of popular seasonal events, including the lighting of the world’s largest menorah on December 20 and nightly performances of “The Nutcracker” by the New York City Ballet (running through December 31). Note that some of these events do carry a price tag; check nycgo.com/free for the most budget-friendly options.

Get more help planning your trip with our New York travel deals and complete New York travel guide.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Prague Christmas MarketEvery 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: ‘Tis the season to book an incredibly low-priced flight to Europe. Right now, Lufthansa is selling tickets across the pond for as little as $470 roundtrip; that’s including all taxes and fees, mind you. So the price that’s going to show up on your credit card statement is $470, end of story. A roundtrip flight to Europe for less than $500 is a rare thing indeed.

It’s currently the off-season for travel to Europe, which is why we’re seeing prices this low. But don’t let cold weather stop you. Christmas markets, winter festivals, the northern lights and Alpine skiing are just a few reasons to keep Europe in mind as a winter travel destination.

The Catch: As is usually the case with winter fare sales, there are some blackout dates around the holidays. That $470 ticket we spotted was for a flight from New York to Dublin departing on December 4 and returning on December 12. The same route can cost as much as $1,066 if you travel during the blackout period, which is from December 15 through January 8.

The Competition: Aer Lingus is running a winter Europe fare sale that features flights starting at $249 each way; however, taxes and fees aren’t included in this price. With roughly $200 in taxes added to the cost of your ticket, you can expect to pay more than $700 for your fare.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

money justiceA few weeks ago, we blogged about three planes that were left stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours in Hartford. So today, admittedly, we felt a pang of satisfaction when we learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has slapped a major fine on an airline for, lo and behold, leaving passengers stuck on the tarmac.

According to the Associated Press, American Eagle, a regional carrier operated by American Airlines, was fined $900,000 for weather-induced tarmac delays of more than three hours on 15 flights that arrived in Chicago on May 29. This fine includes damages to be paid to the fliers who were inconvenienced. Up to $250,000 of the $900,000 fine can be credited to passengers in the form of refunds, vouchers or awards miles. There were 608 people onboard the stranded flights.

This is the first tarmac-delay fine to be imposed by the Department of Transportation since the federal agency initiated new passenger protection laws in April 2010; those rules state that passengers stuck on the tarmac on a domestic flight for more than three hours must be offered the chance to deplane. Any airlines that fail to comply will face penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger. (To learn more, read Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights.)

A government-issued fine for passenger inconvenience is a fresh change for an industry in which petty fees and crummy customer service are de rigueur. But whether or not the $900,000 fine will serve as a warning for the airlines and save future fliers from the torments of epic tarmac delays remains to be seen. In How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?, Ed Hewitt suggests that some airlines might simply preemptively cancel more flights in order to avoid having to pay steep penalties for multi-hour tarmac delays. Writes Hewitt, “Clearly not everyone is sold on the tarmac delay rules; if cancellations really are higher as a direct result, then the problem is just being moved around, not solved. However, few will argue with the notion that multi-hour strandings with no relief, no recourse and no basic human necessities is a worthwhile trade-off.” And indeed, according to CNN Travel, cancellations are up since the passenger rights regulations took effect.

What’s your take? Did the airline get what it deserved — or should the government do more to protect passengers? Sound off in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

Breakfast at Ray's Bucktown B&B ChicagoHere’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 $179 per night. Dale, whose guess of $179 was right on the money, has won an IndependentTraveler.com neck pillow.

The room pictured was the Da Vinci Room at Ray’s Bucktown B&B in Chicago. This 11-room bed and breakfast is located in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, a lively area filled with art galleries and unique boutiques. The property is only about four miles from downtown Chicago, and free on-site parking is available. Every morning, Ray treats guests to a complimentary home-cooked breakfast of omelets, pancakes and French toast, cooked to order. Read more about traveling to the Windy City in Chicago 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.

What’s the price of a night in the Windy City? 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 travel neck pillow. Here’s the room:

Here are three hints to help you win:

-This hotel is located in the largest city in the Midwestern U.S.

-This room has a queen-size bed and a full-size bed, a private bathroom with heated floors and a jetted tub, and a sitting area with a desk.

-A hot made-to-order breakfast is included in the rates.

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, November 13, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Caroline Costello

Tewkesbury, EnglandIf you’re planning on visiting the U.K., you and your fellow travelers might be torn between the bright lights of London, the highlands of Scotland, the sheer beauty of Cornwall or the castles of Wales. But with some careful planning, you will be able to keep everyone happy.

If you book a self-catering cottage, you can save some money too. Many holiday property owners in the U.K .rent their properties independently, thereby avoiding agency fees (typically 20 – 25 percent), and the savings are passed on to you. Sites like Independent Cottages have hundreds of independently owned holiday cottages for rent and cover all of the U.K.’s most popular destinations, including the Cotswolds, the Lake District, New Forest, Cornwall, Devon and the Scottish Highlands (to name just a few).

25 Ways to Save in Europe

For a first trip to the U.K., consider a central location in the English countryside such as the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds encompass parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. Many view the Cotswolds as quintessentially English, with very pretty “chocolate box” villages, near perfect pubs and a beautiful rolling countryside (“wold” means hill). The history of the Cotswolds dates back to the medieval days of the 13th century. Lots of local buildings were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, so they’re very old and full of character. Many structures have oak beams, stone floors and original fireplaces. Some even boast thatched roofs. It’s a very clean, pretty and well-maintained area, and, of course, the locals speak English!

The airports of London Heathrow and Birmingham are suitable hubs for traveling to the Cotswolds (both being a leisurely one- or two-hour drive away). The Cotswolds’ central location in England makes the region a very convenient base from which to explore the country. London is also close (about 90 minutes by train from Moreton-in-Marsh), so you can plan some days in the city and return to the peace and seclusion of the English countryside, or, more importantly, the English pub. Places like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) are also accessible by car. There are many very pretty towns and villages in the Cotswolds, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Broadway and Burford, as well as the dubious-sounding Lower Slaughter. Visit Independent Cottages for a selection of privately owned holiday cottages in the Cotswolds.

If you do take a day trip to London, some advanced planning could help you save money. The train stations at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham both serve London Paddington. Make sure that any train tickets you purchase include the London Underground (London’s subway), also called “the tube.” Discounts are available for young people and senior travelers.

Here are some more tips on booking a holiday cottage in the U.K.:

– First of all, the term “self-catering cottage” means just that: a cottage where you cater for yourself. This means that no food is provided. But you can expect the kitchen to be fully equipped with cooking utensils. Some owners provide a welcome hamper (milk, eggs, etc.), while others don’t, so always check with the owner.

– Make your enquiries via e-mail at first, but when you find a cottage that you like, consider phoning and speaking to the owner (be aware of the time difference or you might hear some quaint old English words that could easily offend the less worldly!). Arranging flights and coordinating arrival times can be difficult, so be sure to ask any questions that you might have.

– Check to see if your cottage has laundry facilities. Nobody goes on holiday to do laundry, but the ability to freshen up travel-weary clothes will allow you to pack lighter.

– If you’ll be driving with a GPS unit, ask the owner for the property’s postcode (the U.K. equivalent to zip code), as this can help guide you to the door.

– Make sure that all towels, linen, heating, cleaning services, etc. are included. Agree upon all costs up front.

– Independent cottage owners will often want to receive payment in advance of arrival (usually six weeks or so). Do not worry; this is quite normal. However, if you do have any concerns, consider speaking to or e-mailing a customer service representative at the holiday rental site with which you’re booking. Ask how long the property owners have been with the rental site and if there have been any complaints about the property.

– Many independent rental owners cannot take credit card payments. If this is a concern to you, ask the owners if they accept PayPal (many do).

– Check and double check the arrangements for picking up the key — especially if you are arriving late at night.

– There are many different types and styles of accommodations in the U.K. If you are staying in a period property, remember that people were a lot shorter back in the 1600’s! Again, check with the owner about suitability and accessibility.

— written by Steve Jarvis. Jarvis manages holiday cottages in the U.K. as well as running Independent Cottages.

family vacationEvery 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.

A few weekends ago, I went to Kentucky to be part of a friend’s wedding. She’d rented out an entire B&B for the bridal party, and our group stayed up late into the night chatting and laughing in front of the huge outdoor fireplace.

As I drove back home at the end of the weekend, I wondered why I didn’t travel with friends like that more often. It was incredibly fun — and as Caroline Costello points out in The Seven Cheapest Ways to Travel, it could actually save me money:

“Vacation rentals may not be your best bet if you’re a solo traveler or you like to eat out. But if you’re traveling with a family or another couple, a vacation rental could save you big bucks over a hotel. Staying in a vacation rental with a number of people is less expensive because each person you add to your party cuts costs significantly.

“For example, on HomeAway.com, we found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom ocean-view villa in Maui that sleeps four for just $195 per night — that’s less than $50 per person per night if you can find three travel buddies to bring along. Plus, buying larger quantities of food at the grocery store and cooking in instead of eating at restaurants can help you save even more (who doesn’t love a good barbecue?).”

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Vacation rentals tend to be most popular in kid-friendly beach destinations, where families pile into shore houses with colorful towels hanging from the balcony. But you can find them just about anywhere. Imagine waking up in an apartment on a quiet residential street in Rome and getting your morning cappuccino at the little cafe on the corner … or booking your own private little Maine cabin in the woods just for you and your three best friends.

A word to the wise: Vacation rentals tend to be best for travelers planning to stick around at least a few days, as some have minimum-stay requirements — particularly in the most popular beach destinations.

Still not convinced? See Vacation Rentals: Right for You? And don’t miss our guide to Finding a Vacation Rental.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

plaine foodThis is not just another blog post about how bad airplane food can be. This time, I have a solution.

On a recent Iberia Airlines transatlantic red-eye, I was seated toward the tail. By the time the food cart arrived, they had run out of hot meals. Ten minutes later, something materialized: a seething tray of brown matter masquerading as shepherd’s pie. The potent cocktail of appearance, smell, taste and consistency conjured the primordial soup from whence we all, including the meal, originated. My neighbor wasn’t so lucky. Crew managed to locate something akin to a protein-packed M.R.E. in a Fancy Feast tin, complete with flip top. (It was technically chicken.) He opened it greedily, ignoring my joke about botulism. A woman behind us who suffered the same culinary fate sliced herself — twice — when trying to open her preheated cat food.

5 Foods to Avoid Before Flying

Recently, a colleague offered a simple but brilliant solution: ban hot food on planes. For her, the reheated stench that fills the cabin triggers a flight response. Even for long-hauls or red-eyes, I like the Southwest model: offer flyers a potpourri of individual snacks — Cheez-Its, Oreo crisps, pita chips. (Recycle the packaging.) And if a meal must be served, stick with the cold stuff like sandwiches, salads and packaged desserts. There are some fine products out there. Sahale nut mixes come to mind — and I don’t even mind paying for the privilege, as nearly all U.S. carriers make you shell out for food on domestic flights anyway.

I understand some long-haul economy fliers covet the hot meal — a few terrifically tacky Continental ads bragged about their commitment to it several years back (check it out below) — and experienced fliers know which airlines take dining more seriously than others. But the weak ratio of good to noxious is still an indisputable fact. Period. End of story, as Herman Cain’s beleaguered top advisor and I are prone to saying.

Back to Iberia. The “light dinner” on my return flight — a cold ham-and-cheese bocadillo — fit our prescription perfectly. There was no festering mass, no smell, and it kept hunger at bay until we landed at JFK.

Let’s talk airplane food: Sound off about our proposition or share your best and worst cabin meals in the comments.

— written by Dan Askin

PumpkinsEvery 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: This Thanksgiving, Hotels.com is tempting travelers to ditch the kitchen and take a vacation. The booking site is offering up to 58 percent off Thanksgiving accommodations, as well as free nights and complimentary dinners at select properties. Travelers must hit the road November 22 – 29 to take advantage of this deal.

There are some pretty remarkable discounts on offer here, such as 49 percent off all-inclusive rates at Smuggler’s Cove Resort and Spa in St. Lucia. Nightly prices, which normally start at $525 and cover everything from meals to water skiing, are on sale for as little as $269. Other big markdowns include 57 percent off rates in the Dominican Republic, half off Lake Tahoe hotels and free fourth-night stays in Jamaica. Bottom line: If you’re thinking about taking a last-minute getaway around Thanksgiving, this deal is worth a look.

The Catch: At some properties, you’ll have to meet minimum-night-stay requirements to save. For example, you can receive 58 percent off your accommodations at Wyndham Nassau Resort, but you’ll have to hang around for three nights or longer; unless you’re planning a whirlwind weekend getaway, this shouldn’t be a huge deterrent.

The Competition: So far, this deal is the most comprehensive Thanksgiving hotel sale we’ve spotted. But you can find more Turkey Day discounts in our Holiday Travel Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

It’s the most accessible winter sports destination in the United States: You can fly nonstop to Salt Lake City from any major gateway, take a 35-minute van ride to Park City, and hit the slopes that same day. Moreover, Park City’s three ski resorts — Deer Valley, the Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort — offer free lift tickets to first-day arrivals. Between the three resorts you’ve got 9,000 acres of downhill terrain (Vail, the largest single ski resort in the U.S., has 5,300) and accommodations at all levels (starting at $40 a night at Chateau Apres). Plus, you don’t even need a rental car because Park City has the best shuttle system in ski country.

Pretty sweet. But the three resorts have found ways to make things even better this year. Here’s what’s new:

1. The Orange Bubble Express
The Canyons is huge — 4,000 acres huge — and its endless glades are a big draw for advanced skiers and snowboarders. But up until this year, everyone had to take one gondola up from the base village; not only was the line huge, but getting to the gondola — located at the very far end of the village — was a hardship. And these boots were not made for walking. So this year the gondola has been moved to the center of the village, which is also where the cabriolet from the parking lot ends. Moreover, there is now a second lift, the Orange Bubble Express, which has heated seats (ahhh) and a bubble top to keep out the elements.

orange bubble express

2. Zip Lines
Canyon Mountain Sports (435-615-3440) at the Canyons has two new zip lines: an intermediate zip line that takes you on an 800-foot tree-top ride through the Red Pine area, and an advanced zip line that flies across the canyon between Lookout Peak and Red Pine Lodge, spanning more than 2,111 feet. Ticket prices haven’t been released yet; expect something like $20 for the longer run. Not to be outdone, Park City Mountain Resort has a new summer and winter Flying Eagle Zip Line ($14) as well as a ZipRider ($20) on which you can race your friends (just in case skiing or snowboarding don’t provide enough thrills for you).

zip line

3. New Restaurants at the Canyons
There are several new restaurants — and they’re both kind of surprising. The Farm, which features locally sourced, seasonal cuisine like the entree shown below, is the sort of place you’d expect to see at Deer Valley, the zillion-star resort at the other end of Park City. The Farm’s executive chef, John Murcko, was recently named the best chef in Salt Lake City. A second place, Bistro at Canyons, is the first certified glatt kosher restaurant at any American or European ski resort. It has an Orthodox synagogue next door, too, so you can finally find out if davening really does stretch your leg muscles for skiing.

the farm

4. Deer Valley Resort’s Better Grooming
Deer Valley, which readers of “Ski Magazine” have named the best resort in North America for four years in a row, has slopes so flawless that my Colorado friend wonders if they bleach the snow. Even so, the place has four new snowcats, including two Prinoth Beasts that upgrade trail grooming by 40 percent. Improving Deer Valley’s grooming by 40 percent is like boosting Scarlett Johansson’s attractiveness by 40 percent.

trail grooming

5. Kids’ Stuff
Deer Valley is decidedly not snowboard friendly, but in every other way it’s exceedingly family friendly, so this winter the resort is rolling out a new children’s outdoor play area next to the Snow Park Lodge as well as a trail map designed just for children and families. The map is light on the snowcat and heli-skiing, but strong on more parent-approved ways to enjoy the place. Deer Valley has also installed four new conveyor belts to transport kids and beginner skiers up the mountain. Meanwhile, Park City Mountain Resort has a new Beginners Zone with two conveyor belts for ski and snowboard students of all ages.

ski school

6. The Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort
The new dirt-work foundation for Park City Mountain Resort’s 22-foot superpipe doesn’t sound that important. After all, you can’t even see it. But it will allow the resort to open the facility earlier in the season; that’s pretty remarkable, because even without this new foundation, onthesnow.com had singled out Park City Mountain Resort for having the best terrain parks in America. (Of the three resorts, P.C.M.R. is also the one with a lift that’s right in town.)


7. Snowmamas Rock!
Snowmamas.com, a new microsite sponsored by Park City Mountain Resort, is an online community of moms (and dads) who live in town. They’re real people, too; their faces are on the site, and you’ll run into some of them in town. They tell visitors about local deals and offer insiders’ tips to us flatlanders. And best of all, there’s an “Ask a Snowmama” widget on the site, so you can get answers to specific questions about gear, baby sitters, shopping, child-friendly restaurants, anything.


— written by Ed Wetschler, the executive editor of Tripatini.com, the travel social media site a.k.a. “Facebook for travelers.”