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We here at IndependentTraveler.com have seen some crazy airline safety briefings in our time (Richard Simmons, anyone?), but this one definitely caught our attention. Featuring 11 Air New Zealand crewmembers and surprise appearances by “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” producer and “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson, plus J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandsons Mike and Royd, this Middle-earth-inspired video tells passengers the standard need-to-know information from seatbelt-fastening to oxygen mask application. Take a look:

Air New Zealand has partnered with Jackson to promote the new “Hobbit” trilogy; the first movie in the series, shot in New Zealand, is due in American theaters in December.

Do new twists on standard briefings make you any more likely to pay attention? Sound off in the comments below.

Watch more fun airline videos:
President Obama Appears in Air New Zealand Video
Delta Flash Mob
Finnair Goes Bollywood: Jai Ho!

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

hotel front deskOn a recent solo trip to Montreal and Quebec City, I booked stays at a couple of B&B’s, figuring that the communal breakfast table would be a good place to meet fellow travelers and feel a little less isolated. Turns out I was (mostly) right.

My first morning in Quebec City, I sat awkwardly at the table with three older travelers from France, trying to communicate using a combination of their limited English, my dozen words of French, and a few evocative facial expressions and hand gestures. After a few brief attempts at conversation, we subsided into silence; we’d reached our linguistic limits, and they clearly felt it would be a breach of etiquette to speak French among themselves while I sat there, uncomprehending.

Dining Solo: Terror at the Table for One

The next morning, I braced myself for the same, but this time I met a friendly young English-speaking couple (he was from Vancouver, she from Australia) who kept me company while the French travelers chatted with each other. When they found out I was planning to take a bus to Montreal the following day, they invited me to tag along with them in their rental car instead. That half-day road trip through the foliage-dappled countryside turned out to be one of the highlights of my week.

I’d known this couple less than 30 minutes before they extended their invitation. It might seem risky or naive by everyday-life standards, but I’ve found that this sort of kindness is more the norm than the exception when I travel. I can’t count the number of people who’ve made my trips better with simple acts of kindness: the locals who pointed me in the right direction when I was hopelessly lost. The fellow traveler who shared a few pills from her aspirin stash when I was sick with a fever. The flight attendant who gave me a reassuring smile when our plane hit a patch of turbulence. The German hikers who offered me extra water when I felt light-headed on a relentlessly humid day. The waiters and shopkeepers who heard my tortured Spanish/Dutch/French and switched to English to put me at ease.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

I may not have ever seen these people again, or even learned their names. But my encounters with them are just as vital to my fond memories of a trip as the museums and monuments I initially traveled to see.

How have you experienced the kindness of strangers while traveling?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday morning doldrums? Whether you’re hunkered down on the U.S. East Coast waiting for Hurricane Sandy or in a different part of the world facing the beginning of another work week, you could probably use a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. That’s where our new series of Monday Inspiration posts comes in. Each Monday, we’ll offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s offering was snapped in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

gobi desert mongolia

Mongolia Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

To our readers affected by Hurricane Sandy, stay safe!

Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos

— written by Sarah Schlichter

yardley pa canalWelcome to our new Friday Free-for-All here on “Have Tips, Will Travel” — a dedicated discussion post where we invite your responses! This week, we’re chatting about what to see in your home town.

There’s nothing better than arriving in a new place and getting advice and insight from a local. So if a traveler from afar came to your own neck of the woods, how would you use your expert knowledge to give him or her the best possible experience?

I’ll start. My home town is the sleepy riverfront borough of Yardley, PA, population 2,434. On a nice day, the first place I’d take a visitor would be the towpath beside the Delaware Canal, part of a state park that runs all the way through town and beyond. The towpath is a favorite spot for locals to jog, bike and walk their dogs — and it’s a great place to look for wildlife too. Aside from the perennial ducks and geese, I’ve seen turtles, deer, great blue herons, swans, raccoons, even a fox.

Now it’s your turn. What would you show a visitor in your home town?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

rome spanish stepsStrolling the historic streets of Rome while savoring a few creamy scoops of gelato is one of travel’s most delicious pleasures. But if you’re visiting the Eternal City any time soon, don’t try to sit down on the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain with that ice cream — a new Roman ordinance prohibits eating and drinking near the city’s historic, architectural or cultural treasures, reports the New York Times.

The ordinance, designed to protect landmarks such as the Pantheon and the Colosseum from potential damage (it also prohibits camping on the monuments), follows similar statutes elsewhere in Italy. The New York Times notes that it’s illegal to eat a bag lunch while sitting on the steps around St. Mark’s Square in Venice, while this summer Florence banned visitors from the steps of its cathedral.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Of course, Italy isn’t the only country where tourists could be tripped up by unexpected laws. You’ll want to watch your step in the following places around the globe:

1. Germany: Drivers who run out of gas on the Autobahn could face a fine.

2. Singapore: You won’t find chewing gum for sale anywhere in this city-state, nor are you allowed to bring it into the country yourself (except for medicinal/therapeutic reasons). Violators could face fines, stints of community service or even jail time.

3. Thailand: You may not step on or destroy any part of the local currency. It’s considered an insult to the king, whose face appears on all coins and bills.

4. New York State: You might want to reconsider that vacation fling. Adultery is illegal here (it’s on the books as a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or $500 in fines).

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

car keysTraveling is a pricey proposition, and flying adds even more nickel-and-dime expenses to your tab. Checked baggage fees. Extra leg room fees. In-flight movie fees. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get someone else to pay for your airport parking while you globetrot?

FlightCar, a new company based in California, may soon match up travelers looking for rental cars with travelers who have cars sitting, unused, in long-term airport parking lots.

According to the company’s Web site, the idea hasn’t yet come to fruition, but the service is slated to launch later this year in Oakland and San Jose.

10 Things to Do Before You Travel

What’s in it for renters? Cars rented through FlightCar will supposedly be up to 50 percent cheaper than cars rented through standard rental companies like Hertz, Avis or Enterprise.

What’s in it for rentees? Your car will be earning you money — instead of costing you — while you travel. Plus, FlightCar will even clean your vehicle for you, pre- and post-rental. When you register online, you can set the daily rate and the mileage limit, and each car is insured up to $1 million, according to the company’s Web site.

For more info, check out the video:

What’s your take? Would you let a stranger drive your car while you’re out of town? Share your comments below.

An Airline Fee We Might Actually Want to Pay

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

what people have forgotten at hotelsEver forgotten you were traveling with your mother and left her behind at the hotel after you checked out? How about your spouse? While you may have wanted to leave him or her behind, a poll by LastMinute.com of 500 hotels around the world found that these scenarios actually have happened.

In Prague a man left his wife behind – the hotel didn’t say if it was accidental or planned! And a hotel in Ireland reported a traveler forgot that his mother was with him and left without her.

Perhaps even odder are items left behind that someone probably shouldn’t have been traveling with in the first place. For instance, a man left behind snails in a Budapest hotel room. Maybe he was planning on asking the chef to cook him some escargot? Another guest, in a U.S. hotel, left behind $10,000 in cash.

Snails aren’t the only animal guests have left behind. A hotel in Washington discovered a customer had forgotten his snake, while a dog was left behind by its owner in a Milan hotel.

“You Want What?”: Bizarre Hotel Requests from Guests

Another big “oops”: a police officer forgot his gun and badge in Las Vegas. I guess what goes to Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Of course, more commonly left behind are cell phone, camera and laptop chargers. Passports are another oft-forgotten item.

Reading about what other people have forgotten in their hotel rooms got me to thinking, what kinds of stuff have I left behind?

I’ve been pretty lucky. The worst thing I’ve forgotten was a favorite pair of black evening pants (which I still miss very much, by the way). But I remember a time, back when I was a kid, when my family discovered on the drive home from New England that my sister had left behind her beloved stuffed duck, Engineer. I don’t know how far from the hotel we had gotten, but we turned right around to go back and get him.

Finding Hotel Rooms: No Vacancy? No Problem

Overall, the writers here at IndependentTraveler.com are pretty good about remembering to check their hotel rooms before leaving. But a few of us learned this the hard way.

Adam Coulter, the senior editor at the U.K. office of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, recently left behind his iPod speakers, an electric toothbrush charger, a hooded sweater, several T-shirts and his swimsuit at a hotel in New Jersey.

Another CruiseCritic.co.uk staffer, Jamey Bergman, and his wife left their laptop behind in a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Luckily all turned out well as the hotel FedExed the computer to their final destination free of charge (though they still argue over whose fault it was).

What have you left behind in a hotel room?

— written by Dori Saltzman

hayden lake idaho bikerThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from
Emily Bahr, who wrote, “I’ve got a sinking feeling…” Emily has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“You can’t Schwinn em all!” — Michael Marino

“But my GPS says to ride straight ahead…” — Karen

“Deep end … DEEP end … I’M not going off the deep end … we’ll SEE who’s going off the deeeee…” — pupnpony

To see all of the submissions, click here.

This week’s photo was snapped at Hayden Lake, Idaho, by reader Nancy James, who said, “I watched and wondered if he could ‘ride on water’. He was successful.” Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this funny travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

hayden lake idaho biker

To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, October 21, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Tuesday. Remember, keep it clean; please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

Today’s photo was snapped at Hayden Lake, Idaho, by IndependentTraveler.com reader Nancy James. Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

united airlines airplaneI was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500’s and $600’s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!

Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.

Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?

Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”

Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.

FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.

See the Latest Worldwide Airfare Sales

A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.

Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?

— written by Sarah Schlichter