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airport travelersAfter another year of covering the highs and lows of the travel world, we’re taking a look back at the stories that really got our readers talking — or ranting, as the case may be. Below, we count down our five most popular blog posts of 2011.

5. It’s no secret: The airlines are one segment of the travel industry that our readers love to hate. But which ones are truly the bottom of the barrel? Earlier this year, Consumer Reports put out a list of the Best and Worst Airlines. More than a dozen readers responded, including a wry Matt Leonard: “The worst airline to me is generally whatever airline I last flew.”

4. We polled our readers back in April to discover The Hotel Amenity Travelers Want Most. (Hint: The answer is something you’re more likely to find at cheap hotels than at luxury properties.) If you missed the initial vote, it’s not too late to weigh in with your own preferences in our poll.

3. Readers were up in arms over European carrier Ryanair’s plan to remove all but one toilet from its planes, which carry up to 189 people. (Can you imagine the line?) “I wonder if they will be selling ‘piddle paks’ or just ‘Depends’ in the in-flight boutique? Anything to make a profit,” quipped reader Debra in the comments. Reader Jackie said simply, “I will be voting with my feet — which will carry me to a different airline check-in.”

2. More than 550 comments poured in for our post about The Suitcase That Beats Baggage Fees. This petite powerhouse of a suitcase is sized specifically to help travelers avoid Spirit Airlines’ fee for carry-on bags (up to $40), and we gave one away to one lucky commenter. Didn’t win? You can still check out our Five Ways to Beat “A La Carte” Airline Fees.

1. Readers sick of paying big bucks for bland chain hotels flocked to Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay, in which we suggested creative alternatives like monasteries in Italy and farmstays in New Zealand. Reader nassautravellers chimed in to agree with our vacation rental suggestion: “We travel a lot around the Caribbean and most often rent vacation properties — condos, villas etc. We find this to be the most cost-effective way. Usually, the rates are cheaper per night than hotels and we can get our own groceries saving on restaurant meals (and the waistline!!).”

Which topics will get us talking in 2012? Check out our Nine Predictions for Travel in 2012.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

My carry-on bag and I had a long-term relationship. I don’t know our anniversary, but I must’ve traveled with the same plain, green, cheap-brand rollaboard for at least 10 years. I knew how to pack it so all my clothes would fit perfectly for a weeklong trip, and I was confident that it would fit in the overhead compartment of any major airline because that bag had already racked up serious frequent flier miles. It was love.

And then, this summer, it died.

Once I got over my grief, I realized I would need a new carry-on. While my trusty suitcase had probably been a hand-me-down from my mom, I was now overwhelmed with the choice of picking out my own. At eBags.com alone, you can choose from 570 different rolling carry-on bags. From wheeled duffels to colorful hard-sided bags, spinner wheels to roll-aboards-cum-backpacks, the choices were endless. Which would make the best travel companion in the years to come?

Choosing the Right Travel Luggage

Just as I was going cross-eyed from reading too many customer reviews and considering therapy for my loss, I got an e-mail from a PR rep for Lipault of Paris, touting a new bag making its U.S. debut. The Lipault Travel Buddy was described as “light as a feather, ultra-durable and accessibly priced.” (It retails for $189.) I was attracted to its bright colors — red, orange and purple — as I hate straining to figure out which bag is mine on the carousel. And I was most intrigued by the claim that it squishes down to fit into a four-inch case for easy storage. When you live in an apartment and cruise a lot, compressible luggage is key.

lipault travel buddy

So I got a free sample from the company to test out on a recent cross-country flight — a carry-on bag blind date, if you will. While I don’t think the Travel Buddy is the new love of my travel life, here’s my review of its, ahem, performance.

What I liked:

– The bag is definitely lightweight and compressible, made of strong 210-denier nylon twill fabric (I don’t know what that means either). I expected a thinner, floppier material (a la LeSportsac bags or ultra-light camping equipment), but it’s actually pretty sturdy. I carried it onboard one way, and could easily lift and carry the bag, while simultaneously pushing a stroller and carrying a backpack. I checked it on the way back, and it came back to me with no scuffs or tears. And it truly does squeeze down into a compact storage case that would fit easily under a bed, in a closet or in the corner of a cruise ship cabin.

– It’s very stuffable. I used it as my family’s laundry suitcase on the way back from our trip and just kept cramming more dirty clothes in, and the little bag just kept taking them. Though the bag looked full, I think I could have added even more with a little extra squishing.

– The carry-on fit easily in the overhead compartment with room to spare, even in the odd space over the lip between two compartment openings.

– The bag stood out, not only for its bright purple color but because it didn’t look like the typical carry-on. I even got a comment on it from the airline rep at bag check — and you know she sees a lot of luggage every day!

lipault travel buddy

What I didn’t like:

– The bag has official dimensions of 21.6 x 14.2 x 7.9 inches (the PR rep calls it a 22-inch bag, while the Web site lists it as 20 inches). But as you can see from the photo, it appeared much smaller than my husband’s bag, the REI Tech Beast (official dimensions: 22 x 14 x 8.5 inches). As a tall person, I’m not sure I could fit a week’s worth of clothes in there (especially once you add in shoes). The next size up, the 25-inch bag, is not carry-on friendly.

– The outside pocket is in the middle of the bag, yet the pocket runs the length of the bag. It was awkward to pack, and once the inside compartment of the bag was maxed out, it was nearly impossible to squeeze anything into the exterior pocket. Also, while the bag expands to the limits of its flexible material, it does not have a zippered expansion section.

– The $189 price tag is a little high for a small-ish carry-on whose only real feature is its compressibility.

Final verdict: I enjoyed my time with the Travel Buddy, but I think we can only be friends.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

If you know an eligible bag good for a former frequent flier, now toting a tyke, who likes international travel, outdoor adventures, urban escapes, extra legroom seats and long walks through a terminal, let me know in the comments section below.

— written by Erica Silverstein

willie t's restaurant bar key westWhen I first set foot on Key West’s Duval Street, I was greeted by eccentric shops, themed restaurants, pink taxicabs and warm, inviting sunlight. I immediately knew that I was in for a unique experience. I spent a weekend there for a bachelor party, so the itinerary wasn’t really focused on visiting the cultural parts of the town, but simply on finding some great places to get lost in the revelry.

One such place is a small, friendly bar known as Flying Monkeys Saloon. The outdoor atmosphere makes for great people watching, and the small, yet roomy space makes it easy to mingle and make new friends. And don’t forget the frozen drinks, which are some of the absolute best. These cleverly named drinks include: Grape Ape (bourbon, 151 rum and grape punch), Howler (grain alcohol, vodka and lemonade), Ruby Roo (fresh raspberries and 151 rum) and, of course, the titular Flying Monkey (a mix of the Howler and the Ruby Roo). If you find yourself in Key West, be sure to make Flying Monkeys your first stop to get the party started. However, be advised that their drinks, while exceptionally good, are also quite strong. It probably wasn’t the best idea for me to have two Flying Monkeys in a row on an empty stomach while jet lagged. But hey … it was a bachelor party.

8 Warm Weather Winter Escapes

If you’d like to get some food in your system after your arrival, Willie T’s Restaurant & Bar is an excellent spot to do so. The menu consists of American and Caribbean cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. Our time at Willie T’s was both delicious and educational, as one of my fellow travelers and I learned how to say “thank you” in Russian. (Of course, this was done solely in an effort to garner the attention of the attractive Russian waitress tending to us.) One especially fun thing about Willie T’s is the seemingly infinite amount of one-dollar bills stapled to the walls, the ceiling, the bar and even the trees. It’s customary for first-time visitors to write their names on dollar bills so they can be immortalized within the restaurant. If you decide to visit Willie T’s, make sure you find the time (and space) to leave your mark. After you’ve done that, look for a dollar bill marked “Deech” on the wall leading to the outdoor patio to bask in my glory.

While Willie T’s has a full bar with great drink selections, Irish Kevin’s is a much more appropriate place for those looking for a traditional bar scene. It usually attracts plenty a crowd with its live music, great service and all around excellent dive bar feel. There’s no food menu, so it’s best to come here for after-dinner drinks and not-for-kids entertainment.

While we enjoyed the classic bar atmosphere of Irish Kevin’s, we found ourselves yearning for something with a bit more space. This led us to a lively, laid-back spot known as El Alamo. Like many other Key West joints, El Alamo is an outdoor bar with live music and a friendly crowd. However, what sets it apart is its bevy of outdoor games, which include cornhole, beer pong and flip cup. It also serves $1 PBRs and features a pool table in its small indoor shack.

Since our time spent on Duval Street was for a bachelor party, we decided to use the next morning to end it in the manliest way possible: with a breakfast consisting of crepes and mimosas from an adorable French cafe known as Le Creperie. Here you’ll find both savory and sweet crepes, both of which are highly satisfying. I chose to go with a crepe topped with bananas, strawberries and Nutella for a sweet end to an even sweeter weekend.

What’s your favorite spot in Key West?

— written by Mike DiChiara

Woodside InnHere’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 $269 per night. Dale, who gave the first correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

The room pictured was Room 5 at Woodside Inn in Park City, Utah. This property is the closest B&B to Park City Mountain Resort, a Rocky Mountain ski haven that offers 114 trails and more than 3,000 acres of powdery terrain. Travelers hitting the slopes can take advantage of complimentary boot dryers and ski lockers at the B&B, as well as easy access to the free Park City bus system. To learn more about Park City, read 7 Reasons to Fall for Utah’s Snow Scene.

— written by Caroline Costello