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Alec BaldwinAir travel, as we all know, is stressful. Add alcohol, fear and a celebrity or two, and you’ve got the makings of an industry that churns out more dramatic stories than Jackie Collins.

You’ve likely heard about the latest flight-induced fracas: a tit for tat between Alec Baldwin and the recently-bankrupt American Airlines. On Tuesday, Baldwin, star of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone. The actor was caught up in a game of “Words with Friends,” which he continued to play as the plane sat at the gate, despite requests from cabin crew to turn off all electronic devices.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Yesterday, American Airlines posted a statement on its Facebook page in response to the hullabaloo. The airline elected not to mention Baldwin by name, lending its scold, er, statement a passive-aggressive tone: “The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked.” American goes on to accuse “the passenger” of verbally abusing the airline crew and using foul language.

Baldwin released a less ambiguous response, criticizing the airline in a letter on HuffPost Travel, “A Farewell to Common Sense, Style, and Service on American Airlines.” In the essay, which was published yesterday, the actor offers an apology to the other passengers who were on the flight, but derides the airline industry for sub-par service “that would make Howard Hughes red-faced.” Baldwin argues that the airline’s shortage of common sense and customer service was the catalyst to his aggression.

We agree with Baldwin on one point: anyone who’s paid $30 for the privilege of carting a carry-on bag knows there’s an unmistakable demand for common sense in the airline industry. But is the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety rule regarding electronic devices on planes the place to start? John Deiner tackled this issue on our blog earlier this year, writing about his own encounter with a Baldwin-esque passenger. Deiner became nervous when his airplane seatmate refused to turn off his cell phone before takeoff, and subsequently sought out the answer to that industry-old question: Is it really necessary for passengers to turn off our phones and computers during takeoff and landing? Well, according to the FAA, yes. Writes Deiner:

“So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: ‘The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.'”

There’s a slight chance that cell phone waves could cause complications with plane functionality. But just how slight is slight? Deiner cites a Discover Channel “MythBuster” episode that put the odds of such a happening at one in a million. Let’s be honest: If there was a bona fide probability that cell phone waves could take down a plane, we wouldn’t be permitted to bring them onboard in the first place. Or, at least, we’d have to dismantle our devices and carry them through security in clear, quart-size zip-top bags.

When our common sense tells us that a game of “Words with Friends” won’t harm a thing, but the cabin crew is instructing us to power down, should we listen — or keep placing tiles onto our virtual game boards? Your answer ultimately depends on whether you’ve joined Team Baldwin or Team AA in this latest industry feud. Tell us where you stand in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

gift cardGift cards are foolproof presents for the travelers who don’t fall into the “gadget,” “book” or “hilarious SkyMall purchase” categories of your holiday gift list. You buy the card. They book the excursion, hotel room or spa day, and send you contented Facebook status updates of thanks when their vacation comes around.

But here’s the best part: You get a little something, too. We’ve unearthed five travel gift card offers that sweeten the deal with discounted prices (hint: the amount on the card isn’t the amount you’ll have to pay), bonus gifts and other goodies.

Free $10 Gift Card with Best Western Travel Card
Receive a free $10 gift card with every $100 Best Western Travel Card you purchase. The $10 bonus card can be cashed in at the establishment of your choice (options include Amazon.com, Best Buy, Darden, Walmart and — naturally — Best Western). The Best Western Travel Cards can be loaded with several currencies (perfect for the continent-hopping jetsetter in your life) and are valid at Best Western hotels around the world.

Free $50 Hertz Voucher with Marriott Gift Card
They get no-cost accommodations. You get some cash knocked off the price of your next rental car. Receive a free $50 voucher to use toward any Hertz rental car with the purchase of a Marriott GiftCard worth $250 or more. Marriott GiftCards can be used for hotel stays, restaurant meals, spa services, golf and more at participating Marriott properties. Plus, if you’re a Marriott Rewards member, you’ll receive 10 rewards points for every card you purchase.

Get Deep Discounts with Costco Gift Cards
Costco.com sells legions of discounted gift cards for everything from gym memberships to movie theaters. And travel is no exception. The wholesaler offers cut-rate cards for hotel stays and excursions galore. Some of our favorites include $75 for a $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift card as well as Go Cards for several major U.S. cities. The Go Cards, which start at $59.99, offer free admission to a long list of attractions, as well as discounts at retail stores and restaurants. To get these offers, you have to be a card-carrying Costco member. (Annual memberships start at $55.)

$100 Spa Gift Card for $90
If you have someone on your list who’s traveling in North America soon, this gift will instantly upgrade his or her vacation — while simultaneously saving you money. For a limited time, Spa Week is selling $100 spa gift cards for just $89.99 each. You can purchase the cards in other denominations, too, and the more you spend, the more you save. Get a $50 gift card for $45, a $250 gift card for $225 or a $400 gift card for $360. You get the idea. The cards are valid at more than 4,500 spas in the U.S. and Canada.

10 Unique Holiday Gift Ideas

— written by Caroline Costello

passports map sunglasses keys 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.

In the run-up to my last vacation, I spent hours hunched over my laptop, a dozen windows pulled up on the screen and a couple of guidebooks open at my side. I was slaving over my trip itinerary, a Word document peppered with hotel names, important Web sites, parenthetical notes to myself (“Must check in by 8 p.m.!!”) and booking confirmation numbers marked in bold.

The document, dubbed “FINAL ITINERARY.doc,” was a step up from leaving my booking information scattered among 15 different messages in my e-mail inbox — but it was still a rather inelegant way to organize all the bits and pieces of my trip schedule. In How to Create the Perfect Itinerary, Caroline Costello and Ed Hewitt offer another strategy:

“Get crafty on the computer by using software to make your own itinerary. Owners of Microsoft Office can download free itinerary templates at Office.Microsoft.com, which are basically blank schedules with spots for you to record your travel information. Outer Level offers Knapsack, an itinerary program for Macs. The program’s features, from interactive maps to printed itineraries that appear professionally designed, make trip planning more fun than an in-flight movie.”

I decided to give it a whirl. I chose a template from the Microsoft site called “Family Travel Itinerary,” which offered a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet into which I could enter items like lodging details (arrival date, destination, number of nights, name of hotel, reservation number and notes), transportation schedules and even a packing list. It included a few additional fields I wouldn’t have thought to put on my own itinerary, such as emergency contacts and the blood type of each traveler. And it was aesthetically pleasing too, with color-coded charts and an orderly layout.

How do you keep your travel itinerary organized?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

 Le Blanc Spa ResortEvery 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: After all the cooking, wrapping and relatives, you might be seeking a soothing kind of post-holiday vacation. Our advice? Relax and say “Spaah” at Le Blanc, an all-inclusive luxury resort in Mexico, and enjoy $1,500 worth of dinners, spa treatments, games of golf and more — for free.

Cancun’s Le Blanc Spa Resort is offering up to $1,500 in resort credit with stays of five to eight nights through December 2012. Stay four nights and receive $750 in resort credit, or stay three nights and receive $500 in resort credit. You can use the credit toward a long list of special perks that aren’t covered by the resort’s all-inclusive rates, like a dolphin swim excursion, spa treatments, a romantic lobster dinner on the beach, room upgrades, Champagne and wine, and even wedding packages.

If destination nuptials aren’t on your 2012 to-do list, you can still enjoy the much-lauded service and plush accommodations at LeBlanc. The resort is ranked number one out of 169 Cancun hotels on our sister site TripAdvisor, and it was even selected as one of TripAdvisor’s 2011 Travelers’ Choice winners. The adults-only beachfront property features five restaurants, two golf courses, three outdoor pools, and a fitness center that offers yoga and Pilates classes.

The Catch: LeBlanc is an all-inclusive luxury resort, which means it’s not exactly the best place to go for a bargain-basement vacation. The lowest rates we found came to $296 per person, per night for an autumn stay. Prices are more expensive in winter and early spring.

The Competition: JW Marriott, Renaissance and Marriott Resorts are offering $100 in resort credit plus a free companion ticket with their “Stay Here, Fly There” promotion. This deal isn’t valid in Mexico, but you can snag the offer at select properties in other balmy beach destinations like Florida, California, Texas and Hawaii.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

pet carrierTraveling cats, dogs and other animals in carriers aren’t an unusual sight at airports around the U.S. But when Lynn Jones, a baggage handler at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, saw a hunting dog with bloody paws and sores all over its body, she couldn’t bring herself to carry out business as usual. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Jones felt strongly that the animal was in no shape to fly and refused to load its carrier on the plane. After more than five years on the job, Jones says, she was fired then and there.

Editor’s Note, December 7, 2011: According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Airport Terminal Services has apologized for the incident and offered Jones her job back, including retroactive pay. Jones has not decided whether to accept.

Jones was employed by Airport Terminal Services, a contractor at the airport. According to Jones, her supervisor instructed her to put the dog on the plane because there was nothing wrong with its paperwork and its physical condition was irrelevant. But as a pet owner herself (she has three dogs, three cats and a bird), Jones felt she had to speak up. “Everyone who saw it, the TSA people, the Airport Police officers, the girls at the ticket counter, was concerned,” she told the Gazette-Journal. “The dog was so weak and torn up. It didn’t look like it could survive the flight.”

Thanks to Jones’s conviction, airport police reported the incident to a local animal services organization, and the dog was given medical care before being sent back to its owner (a hunter in Texas).

Traveling with Pets

It’s been a tough year for traveling animals. In August, a cat named Jack made headlines when he escaped his carrier at JFK Airport. Although he was found two months later, he had developed a severe illness brought on by malnourishment and eventually had to be euthanized.

Do you think pets should be permitted to fly in airplane cargo? Speak your mind in the comments!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Rendezvous by the SeaHere’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 $5,350 per week. Kim, whose guess of $4,500 was the closest answer without going over, has won an IndependentTraveler.com neck pillow.

The property pictured was Rendezvous by the Sea, a private oceanfront villa on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This beach house sleeps up to eight people and has a pool that overlooks a coral reef in the ocean. Guests can spot sting rays, turtles and other sea creatures right from the pool! The house is rented by the week, and you’ll get the most affordable rates by traveling in low season, from mid-April through mid-December. Read more about traveling to St. John in St. John Essentials.

— 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 week in a private beach house in the Caribbean? 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 weekly price of the accommodations without going over wins an IndependentTraveler.com travel neck pillow. Here’s the property:

Here are three hints to help you win:

-This private oceanside villa has three bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a kitchen and a large living room.

-This villa is located on the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands.

-Daily maid service is not included in the rates.

We’re looking for the maximum weekly price for up to eight people as listed on the property’s Web site, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, December 4, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Caroline Costello

Christmas Box holidayDecember’s a month of family get-togethers, giving … and giveaways. Lots of giveaways. A multitude of companies are handing out festive freebies in celebration of the holiday season, and travel brands are no exception. In exchange for an e-mail address or a “Like” on a Facebook page, lucky globetrotters can snap up free vacations, cool travel gear, gift cards and more from their favorite blogs and travel providers. Below are seven fantastic holiday contests and giveaways that are on right now. Good luck!

Win Tons of Cool Travel Gear & Gifts
The Prize: Okay, we had to start off with a nod to our sister sites, Family Vacation Critic and Cruise Critic, both of which are running fabulous holiday giveaways for globetrotters. Enter to win a travel prize each day through December 9 on Cruise Critic’s blog, the Lido Deck, and snag some free family-friendly travel gear each day through December 12 on the Family Vacation Critic Blog.

How to Enter: To get that kid-friendly travel loot, submit your e-mail address on the Family Vacation Critic contest page daily through December 12. If seafaring’s more your thing, subscribe to the Lido Deck Blog and you’ll be automatically entered to win a succession of cool cruise gear every day through December 9.

Win a Trip to for Two to the Galapagos
The Prize: Red Mangrove Lodges, which has properties in the Galapagos and Ecuador, is giving away a free trip for two to the Galapagos Islands. The prize includes four nights’ accommodations at Red Mangrove Lodges, guided tours, local transportation and meals. The only part of the trip that’s not included is your flight to the Galapagos.

How to Enter: Sign up for the Red Mangrove newsletter by February 12 and you’ll be automatically entered to win.

Win $500 in Free Hotel Stays at Choice Hotels
The Prize: Close your doors to visiting relatives and encourage out-of-towners to get a room at the nearest Choice Hotels property — for free. But first, you have to get lucky. Enter the “Little White Holiday Lies” giveaway to win a $250 or $500 gift card valid for stays at Choice Hotels, which include Quality Inn, Comfort Inn, Cambria Suites, EconoLodge and other chains, in addition to a VISA gift card of $250 or $1,000.

How to Enter: “Like” Cambria Suites on Facebook and you’ll be automatically entered to win a $250 hotel gift card and a $150 VISA gift card. Take it a step further and share your “little white lie to avoid holiday houseguests” on the Cambria Suites Facebook page, and you could win a $500 hotel gift card and a $1,000 VISA gift card.

Win a Family Vacation for Four on TravelingMom.com
The Prize: TravelingMom.com is partnering with Capital One to offer travelers a second chance to redo their not-so-successful travel experiences. Just share your story of a vacation that went awry on TravelingMom.com and you could win a do-over trip for four to the destination of your choice (within the continental U.S.). The grand prize includes roundtrip airfare from your local gateway and four nights’ accommodations.

How to Enter: Simply post your vacation disaster story as a comment on the TravelingMom.com contest page. You may enter once a day through December 10.

HostelBookers.com 24 Days of Christmas Giveaway
The Prize: HostelBookers.com is giving away a travel-related prize a day for 24 days in December. Each prize is revealed daily, so you’ll have to come back to the site each day to see what you can win. Today’s prize is an iPad2, and future prizes include InterRail tickets and an around-the-world flight.

How to Enter: You must “Like” Hostelbookers.com on Facebook, and then answer a trivia question each day to get a shot at winning. New questions will be posted daily at 12 a.m. Mountain Time on the Hostelbookers.com Facebook page through December 24.

Win a Weekend Getaway to Asheville
The Prize: The Asheville tourism board is giving away a whirlwind two-night vacation to its home town. The winner of this contest will receive accommodations at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, a $100 gift card, two passes to Biltmore, a brewery tour, a gift certificate to a local restaurant and more. Transportation to Asheville is not included.

How to Enter: Watch a video of a dancing Santa, then share said video on Facebook. After you’ve helped the groovin’ Claus go viral, you need to enter your contact information on the contest page.

Know of any holiday travel giveaways not listed here? Share them in the comments!

— written by Caroline Costello