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airplane sky writing loveThe Deal: JetBlue has announced a bargain that both couples and singles can enjoy this Valentine’s Day: a one-day Love-A-Fare sale with flights starting at just $39 each way, including taxes and fees. (Note that the advertised fare on the JetBlue site is $49, but if you check out the list of city pairings, you’ll see $39 and $40 fares in the mix too.)

Flights are available from gateways around the U.S. (like New York, Orlando and Boston), plus a few in the Caribbean (San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Croix). Travel is good between February 21 and April 3.

The Catch: For most destinations, travel is only valid on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (but check the fine print on the JetBlue site for a few exceptions).

The Competition: Southwest is running a U.S. domestic fare sale with flights priced from $65 each way, including taxes and fees. Like the JetBlue deal, this one is also good for travel on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But you have a few extra days to think about these fares — the deal doesn’t expire until February 16.

Find more bargains like these in our Airfare Deals.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On a recent trip, I test-drove a set of packing cubes for the first time — and discovered that despite all the raves I’ve read about them, they’ll never make it into my “must-pack” pile. To paraphrase an old break-up cliche, the problem wasn’t the packing cubes. It was me.

Packing cubes are lightweight fabric bags that you can use to separate your suitcase into manageable sections. The ones I tried were an attractive green three-piece set from eBags, with cubes ranging in size from 17.5 by 12.75 by 3.25 inches to 11 by 6.75 by 3 inches. The set is currently available for $26.99 both from eBags and Amazon.

ebags packing cubes

One of the main advantages of these packing cubes is their versatility. You can put pants in the large one, tops in the medium and socks/undies in the small. The Baby Bear-sized bag could also make a good home for a pair of shoes or some toiletries; meanwhile, Papa Bear can hold a decent-sized pile of dirty duds. For the organized traveler, the possibilities are endless.

Trouble is, I’m not a particularly organized traveler. Or, to be more precise, keeping things organized is less important to me than maximizing every inch of suitcase space. I typically roll my clothes into compact bundles that can be wedged neatly into gaps between other items, a strategy that’s allowed me to travel solely with a carry-on even on trips as long as two weeks. With the packing cubes, I found myself trying to work around three bulky rectangular shapes that, yes, kept things compartmentalized — but also left me with lots of wasted space.

And frankly, I didn’t really need a special organizer for my dirty laundry. Instead, I used what I always use: a plastic bag from the grocery store. (Cost: free.)

4 Packing Mistakes You’re Probably Making

That said, here are a few examples of travelers who might benefit from using packing cubes:

-Partners who share a suitcase: Stow your clothes in blue bags and your hubby’s clothes in red ones so you can easily tell whose stuff is whose.

-Travelers who will be moving a lot from one hotel to another: Sort your outfits accordingly and you’ll only pull out what you need in each place, rather than turning your whole suitcase inside out.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without
The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We take a break from our regularly scheduled grumbling about the airlines to bring you this toe-tapping video of a Delta Air Lines flash mob, featuring employees shaking their groove things at airports in Atlanta, New York and Detroit. (TOC, the fourth location mentioned in the video, is Delta’s Technical Ops Center in Atlanta.)

Be warned that the first minute is a bit of a snooze — but we promise you’ll be smiling by the end. Take a look:

Can’t get enough dancing airline employees? Don’t miss Finnair’s Bollywood performance and Richard Simmons’ in-flight safety video.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airport departure gates signThere’s good news in the air for U.S. travelers: The TSA’s PreCheck program — which allows fliers who’ve been vetted by the agency to scoot through security lines faster — has been such a success during a trial phase that the agency has decided to expand it to 28 more airports nationwide.

Among the airports slated to get PreCheck by the end of the year are those in the Washington D.C. area (Reagan National, Dulles and BWI), the New York City area (Newark, LaGuardia, JFK), Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago O’Hare.

According to the TSA blog, “Eligible participants include certain frequent [fliers] from participating airlines as well as members of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS) who are U.S. citizens and fly on a participating airline.” That means not everyone can get in on the fun; up to this point, participating airlines consisted of Delta and American only, but WLKY reports that Alaska, United and US Airways may be added later this year.

Here’s how it works: After a traveler is pre-screened, info is embedded in the barcode on his or her boarding pass. Passengers can then use one of the special PreCheck lanes, where they may not be required to take off their shoes, belt or coat and remove their laptops from carrying bags. Visit the TSA’s blog for more information and how to enroll.

For our part, we’re always in favor of ways to get through security faster (presuming no safety is compromised), and you can check out these tips to do it: 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster.

— written by John Deiner

venice map woman lostAn hour is a long time in politics. It can also be an interminable unit of time on a train or when cooped up in a meeting.

But hurrying, lost, through Venice‘s maze-like streets, coming up against dead ends, blocked off by opaque green canals with a less-than-helpful map and a heavy bag, with under an hour before you’re due on a cruise ship or at the airport … well, then an hour can seem very, very short indeed.

With its bustling cruise port — Europe’s fourth busiest, in fact — and glorious history, Venice is a tourist magnet. Which may explain why getting away from it can be difficult.

As soon as I arrived in Venice, I took a short vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. It’s from there that I realized that it’s definitely still a working town. I saw boatloads of fruit and vegetables being unloaded into supermarkets, while police, taxis and firefighters rushed about in specially equipped boats. Amid the crowds of tourists, everyday people went about their everyday business.

Still, I couldn’t help but wish that I had the place to myself.

So I decided to put my map back in my rucksack and walk. Venice isn’t a big city, right? Though I’d never be able to see it all in such a short space of time, I was certain I’d be able to find my way back to the central station in time for my train to the airport.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in Venice

I quickly lost the tourist crowds and, before long, was walking alongside the wide-open lagoon, watching the afternoon sun lighting the tips of gentle waves and looking at the far-off islands where Venetians have traditionally buried their dead.

But as darkness came, my curiosity went out the window. This had been fun, I thought, but I needed to get back. Now. But the streets got narrower and darker. The shadows stuck together behind me like cobwebs. No one else was around and I was getting worried.

I wandered urgently through narrow alleyways, crossing bridges over water that looked as though it had been used to clean someone’s paint brushes. The crowds of tourists I’d passed before were long gone. Getting lost in a foreign city is an excellent way to step away from the obvious and have a unique and memorable experience. In a city like Venice, you are almost guaranteed to bump into something new and astonishing around every corner.

But there is also something to be said for knowing where you’re going and being able to find your way out again.

11 Best Italy Experiences

By chance, I made it to the only part of Venice that had cars and managed to catch a taxi to the airport. I was lucky, but I was also stupid. I was so keen not to be a typical tourist that I ended up being even more of one by taking the place for granted. I presumed that once I’d had enough, the way out would be plainly signposted and easy to see.

And chasing after a taxi while sweating under a heavy bag, map flapping like a sail, is, I suppose, probably not the best way to see a city either.

— written by Josh Thomas

When I touched down in Los Angeles for the first time, with only three days to sightsee and no car to get around, my first priority was to figure out how to make the most of my time. There’s no better way to get oriented quickly in a new place than by taking a tour — or, in my case, a couple of them.

As an L.A. virgin, I felt it was my duty to join the starstruck faithful on a two-hour Movie Stars’ Homes tour from StarLine, a well-established company that also runs double-decker sightseeing buses and a wide selection of other excursions around the city. It’s the kind of touristy-but-fun activity that’s practically a must-do for L.A. first-timers looking to snap a photo of the Hollywood Sign, wander amidst Spiderman impersonators on the Walk of Fame and gawk at opulent Beverly Hills mansions. (Get the details at StarLine.com.)

marilyn monroe house los angeles

But I also wanted to try a tour that was slightly less traveled, so in the afternoon I made my way to the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, a quirky little place filled from floor to high ceiling with retro movie posters, actor autobiographies and photos of all things cinema. This was the meeting point for the Hollywood Tragical History Tour, which focuses on crime, scandal and death in the City of Angels. (See DearlyDepartedTours.com.)

Like the StarLine tour, the Tragical History excursion served up plenty of celebrity gossip (for example, both guides swung by Michael Jackson’s estate to offer an in-depth account of his demise). But I soon discovered that this tour wasn’t for the faint of heart. At one point, our guide read from a graphic police report about the “Black Dahlia,” a 22-year-old woman who was killed in gruesome fashion back in 1947. (The tour provides police photos of her body too, but after hearing the stomach-turning description I opted not to look.) They’ve also got audio of the panicked 911 call made by Joaquim Phoenix as his brother River lay dying of an overdose in front of the Viper Room nightclub. And the pit stop halfway through the tour comes at the public restroom where George Michael was arrested for soliciting a police officer.

george michael urinal

Here are a few more favorite tidbits from the tours:

Movie Stars’ Homes: I had an immediate flashback to childhood when we stopped in front of the house featured in the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Hollywood Tragical History: Our fast-talking guide was a font of fun (if useless) trivia. Where else would you learn that Billy Bob Thornton is afraid of clowns, bright colors and antique furniture? Or that Britney Spears once kept a 30-day loaner car for nine months and returned it with 120 cell phones in the trunk?

viper room los angeles

While there was some overlap between the two tours, I was surprised by how different the experiences actually were. If you’ve got the time on your next trip to Los Angeles, take ’em both: there’s no better way to get the full L.A. experience, from the sublime to the seedy.

The StarLine tour is $49 per adult when prebooked online, while the Tragical History excursion will set you back $40. Don’t forget to budget an extra $10 per person for tips.

Our Favorite Los Angeles Hotels

— written by Sarah Schlichter

queen anne bed and breakfast denverHere’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 $215 per night. Greti, who gave the first correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

The room pictured was Local Artist Suite 2 at the Queen Anne Bed & Breakfast in Denver, Colorado. It’s one of several suites designed by local artists (this one was the work of Tuyet Nguyen). The Queen Anne is a haven for eco-friendly travelers, with 100 percent organic cotton bedding, recycled paper products and low-flow showerheads. (Even the mattresses are sustainable, made of recycled metal coils and green tea insulation foam.) But the hotel doesn’t scrimp on perks like hot tubs, fireplaces and park views.

To check rates and read about other properties in Colorado’s capital city, see our favorite Denver Hotels.

— 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 price of a night in an eco-friendly suite designed by a local artist? 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 accommodations — in the hotel’s local currency — without going over wins an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Here’s the property:

And here are three hints to help you win:

-The room offers multiple options for relaxing, with a cast-iron antique bathtub and a hot tub for two.

-Included with your stay are bicycles to use around town, off-street parking and organic breakfast.

-This property is located in one of America’s leading beer-producing cities.

We’re looking for the maximum nightly price based on double occupancy as listed on the property’s Web site for high season, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, February 5, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airlines behaving badlyThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

Spirit Airlines wants your help. Proving that there’s more than one way to view just about everything, Spirit is asking consumers to pressure their government representatives to end consumer protections.

Spirit Airlines has been having a rather public hissy fit, ever since the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) new regulations took effect last week that require airlines and ticket agents to include all mandatory taxes and fees in their advertised airfares, and to disclose baggage fees.

Some airlines complained; most just changed their advertised prices to include taxes and fees and also changed the asterisk next to the airfares to reflect that change. Consumers now know the actual price of their purchase, just as they do when they buy a gallon of gasoline or a pack of cigarettes.

Spirit, however, dug in its heels. Perhaps distracted by its campaign to overturn the regulations, the airline simply didn’t advertise prices on its site for several days. The dollar signs and asterisks were still there, just no numbers. Instead, Spirit.com greets prospective passengers with a bold warning graphic next to the statement: “New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares. More info here.”

warning graphic

Clicking on “more info” takes you to a “say no to hidden taxes!” petition with links to representatives and senators. In the appeal, Spirit claims that by “hiding” taxes in airfare, the government can then “quietly increase their taxes.” And as “the transparency leader and most consumer-friendly airline,” Spirit doesn’t support the new DOT regs and asks consumers to help “stop this injustice.”

Yet the DOT’s mandate to show actual costs isn’t what really got Spirit’s knickers in a knot. The new regs also allow consumers to hold a reservation without payment or cancel a booking without penalty for 24 hours — provided the reservation is made one week or more prior to the departure date. In a press release dated January 31, 2012, Spirit posits that the new regulations regarding the 24-hour hold and no cancellation penalties will result in “unintended consequences” and cost consumers “millions” by forcing the airline to hold seat inventory for those who may not pay for it, leading to unfilled seats, and, somehow, lost American jobs. Spirit maintains that the 24-hour hold rule is consumer-friendly, “but comes at a cost all must bear.” And when Spirit says “all” it apparently means its customers.

Despite the fact that the new rules have only been in effect for a week and it’s unlikely there is hard data yet on costs to the airlines, Spirit is being proactive and has introduced the “DOTUC (Department of Transportation Unintended Consequences) fee,” a $2 each-way surcharge on the consumer.

When we tried booking a flight on Spirit, we did not see this fee listed with the rest of the taxes and fees. (Perhaps because it’s not a government-mandated fee, Spirit doesn’t have to disclose it?) Ironically, of all the extra charges that applied to our ticket, the highest by far was Spirit’s own “Passenger Usage Fee,” which you can only avoid by purchasing your ticket at the airport.

passenger usage fees

Gotta love such a consumer-friendly airline.

— written by Jodi Thompson

piggy bank airline ticketsI’ve just booked the kind of deal that makes me feel like I’m a great explorer.

I’m Marco Polo stumbling onto an overland trade route to China or Magellan finding his way around Cape Horn. In my mind, I have discovered something truly sensational — dare I say something that could even change the way that people look at the world … of great deals on airfare.

I’ve booked a deal for a roundtrip transatlantic flight for more than $1,400 less than the normal ticket price by adding on a rental car.

Normally, if you’re booking a trip for a week or so, you only get a cheap fare if you stay over at least one Saturday. Book a Monday – Friday flight, as many business travelers do, and the airlines gouge you. However, if you fly British Airways and book a package deal through its Web site (flight + rental car, hotel, etc.), you are granted access to the super-secret cheapo rates.

Evidence my booking. I was looking for a flight from London to either Philadelphia or New York, and after a few hours of searching, the lowest fare I found was £1,497 (a little over $2,300) on the British Airways Web site. But when I clicked on the “flight + car” package option, the total price dropped to £555 (about $880).

Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

Unable to believe my eyes, I called one of BA’s agents, who confirmed that, indeed, you can get this kind of deal routinely by booking a package. “When we’re selling holidays, we’re a tour operator and we have preferential rates, which we’re able to pass … on to the consumer,” said Tracy Long of British Airways Holidays. “If you’re booking anything more than just a flight, you’re able to take advantage of deeper discounts.”

In my case, booking a package may also have dropped me into the leisure travel category, which usually offers cheaper rates than those for business travelers.

So enjoy your discounted flight and rental car or hotel stay courtesy of IndependentTraveler.com, and when you brag about the deal to your friends, be sure to claim the discovery for yourself.

See Our Latest Airfare Deals

— written by Jamey Bergman