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There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.

The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)

punxsatawney phil lonsome george

Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

currency exchange money foreignWhen it comes to international travel, getting the most for your money is a big deal. While we usually recommend withdrawing local currency from an ATM as soon as you arrive, there are certain times when it makes sense to purchase currency in advance.

Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, explains that buying in advance allows travelers to shop around for the best rate and hedge against exchange rate fluctuations that might affect their buying power. Buying in advance can also give you peace of mind if you’re traveling to a place where ATM’s might not be prevalent, or if you’re concerned about your card being declined.

Below are Rowlands’ tips for getting the best deal when buying foreign currency.

1. Shop around — and shop online. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many people assume their friendly travel agent or supermarket will look after them. Think about it: They are in business to make money, and you are a captive audience. Politely decline and go and surf the net. You can cover the whole marketplace from the comfort of your home.

2. Plan ahead. Don’t leave buying your currency until the last minute. When buying online, you need to allow enough time for your payment to go through, your identity to be confirmed and your currency to be delivered.

Get the Best Exchange Rate

3. Beware of “free delivery” offers. What really matters is how much currency arrives on your doorstep. What’s the point saving five bucks on delivery if it costs you $15 worth of currency? Look out for extra hidden charges, and try to find out how much you are paying in total and exactly how much currency you will receive. The benefits of a great exchange rate can be totally negated by commissions and handling fees.

4. Avoid Saturday delivery. There is often an extra charge to get money delivered on weekends. Some companies will deliver to your work address during the week, but make sure you have a secure place to keep your travel money safe.

5. Get together with friends. If you order your currency in bulk, you will have greater buying power. Even online bureaus are happy to negotiate for larger amounts. Call or send an e-mail asking for their best deal.

6. Ask for a price match. If you’ve found a better deal elsewhere, ask a company to match it.

7. Check the money market. Compare the deal you are offered to the market rate. Visit XE.com and look at how much profit margin has been added. You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.

8. Beware of the credit/debit card trap. The bureau will probably inform you it has a small charge for debit cards. This is quite reasonable with such tight margins. But very often that’s not the end of the story; most credit cards and many debit card providers will treat your transaction as a cash advance. Check the small print or call your provider. If someone tells you there is no additional charge, get that person’s name. Sign up for Internet banking and pay using a bank transfer to avoid hidden charges. The last thing you want is a 3 percent charge plus interest on your statement when you return from your vacation.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

9. Don’t be fooled by buy-back “guarantees.” Read the small print: Is what you are getting really worth paying for? You might be better off shopping around for the best deal for unwanted currency when you get back home. Never assume you have to take your unwanted currency back to where you got it from. Take it home, cash it in and shop around for the best buy-back rates available.

— written by Mark Rowlands and Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is a view of Mount Otemanu in Bora Bora, French Polynesia.

bora bora mount otemanu

French Polynesia Trip Reviews

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

snow carHere in the Northeast, we’re bracing for a winter walloping. A storm moving into the region today could bury New England in several feet of snow and has already forced the cancellation of thousands of flights into and out of area airports.

While past winter storms have resulted in notoriously bad experiences for fliers — like being stuck in a JetBlue plane on the tarmac for up to 11 hours back in 2007 — the Associated Press reports that airlines are now taking a more proactive approach, canceling flights in advance whenever bad weather is expected. Keeping fliers out of airports and planes safely on the ground may lead to a backed-up schedule after the storm, but should minimize those agonizing tales of hours stuck on a plane or sleeping in the airport for days at a time.

Essential Winter Travel Tips

For today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about the worst weather-related experience you’ve suffered while traveling. A extra-long flight delay? A hurricane-soaked week in the Caribbean? Post your story in the comments below.

And for all those in the path of today’s storm, stay safe!

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— written by Sarah Schlichter

mount rushmoreQuick quiz: Can you name all 44 U.S. presidents? Er … neither can we. But that won’t stop us from using their special day as an excuse for a mid-winter long weekend getaway!

In honor of George and those who came after him, here are five presidential-themed U.S. destinations to consider.

Washington D.C.
It might seem like an obvious first pick, but if you love all things presidential then you can’t beat Washington D.C. Beyond the White House, the Capitol and the world-class network of the Smithsonian museums are plenty of other ways to fill a long weekend. To learn more about the city’s fascinating history, take a walking tour with Free Tours by Foot (the company offers an interesting option focused on Lincoln’s assassination) or Walk of the Town.

If you’d prefer to eat your way around the city, try DC Metro Food Tours, or browse the ethnic offerings in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Our Favorite Washington D.C. Hotels

Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington and his wife Martha called this estate home for more than 40 years. Learn about George and Martha’s life and enjoy their legacy at their home along the Potomac River. In honor of Washington’s 281st birthday, admission is free on February 18, and the estate will open one hour early. There are several events scheduled over the weekend including book signings, discussions, musical salutes and a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb.

Mount Vernon is located in Northern Virginia, just 16 miles from Washington D.C. The estate is accessible by car and public transportation.

Mount Rushmore
The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to an incredible granite sculpture of four past presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. There’s more to do here than just ogling the big heads; guided tour options include a Ranger Walk, Sculptor’s Studio Talk and a Heritage Village tour that highlights the customs of local Native American communities.

Other activities in the area include the Black Hills National Forest, which boasts the highest point east of the Rockies, and Badlands National Park, with its amazing landscapes. Crazy Horse Memorial, the largest sculptural undertaking in the world, is also nearby.

The 10 Best U.S. National Parks

Gettysburg National Military Park
The year 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the military park’s calendar is filled with events to commemorate the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. President Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American History, the Gettysburg Address, on the property.

Events scheduled over Presidents’ Day weekend include educational talks, an art exhibit, tastings at a nearby winery and the chance to “meet” President Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.

Washington Crossing Historic Park
On Christmas night in 1776, George Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River and marched to Trenton, New Jersey, in a surprise attack against the Hessians during the Revolutionary War. The area is now a historic park, which will hold a birthday party for Washington on February 17 — complete with a cake cutting at 1:30 p.m. (Admission is a measly $1.)

Washington Crossing is a bucolic village located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just down the road from the artsy riverfront community of New Hope.

— written by Lori Sussle

man scratching headWe’ve all heard about the funny questions cruise passengers ask on big ships. “Do the crewmembers sleep onboard?” Or “What time’s the midnight buffet?” And so on. But what about the more rugged independent traveler types who favour small expedition ships? Let me tell you, the ask-before-you-think mentality is just the same. Here are some gems picked up on a recent expedition cruise.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

12. Passenger to guide while embarking on hike from the beach: “Do I need to wear my life jacket for the walk?”

11. Passenger to naturalist guide on bird-watching hike: “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us to bring our binoculars.”

10. Passenger on crowded Zodiac on leaving the ship for a hike: “Should I extend my retractable walking poles now or shall I wait till we’re ashore?” Bear in mind that a) retractable walking poles have a spike on the end and b) Zodiacs are inflatable.

9. Man to officer as the small ship spins gently around its anchor chain in a secluded but windy bay: “Are you deliberately making it do this? Is it to make it shake off the barnacles or something?”

8. Man to marine biologist on snorkel expedition, having surfaced and waved his arm: “Hey! What’s this fish down here?” (Marine biologist, quietly, through gritted teeth, from some distance away: “There are hundreds of fish ‘down there.'”)

7. Passenger to crewmember as we head for an uninhabited island with a broad sweep of empty beach: “Will there be bathrooms when we get ashore?”

6. Passenger to crewmember on viewing a pod of hundreds of dolphins surrounding the ship: “Exactly how many are there?”

“You Want What?” Bizarre Hotel Requests from Guests

5. On leaving the ship for a donkey trek across a remote and uninhabited area: “Will I need ID for the donkey ride?”

4. Passenger to naturalist: “If we drive the ship (all 1,200 tons of it) at those three dozing sea lions floating in the water over there, will they wake up?”

3. On boarding a fishing boat to go whale watching: “How wet am I going to get?”

2. A puzzling one while on the whale watching boat: “Is the whale under the water?”

1. And perhaps my favourite, again, from passenger to hapless naturalist: “Is that the same whale we saw earlier?”

We all ask foolish questions from time to time — what are your funniest stories about silly travel questions? Submit them in the comments below.

— written by Sue Bryant

chinese zodiacWith Chinese New Year coming up on Sunday, I was once again reminded of my “other” zodiac sign — the Rat. In checking out what being a Rat says about my personality, I was struck by how much of the description also translated into how I like to travel.

Rats, according to ChinaHighlights.com, are versatile, curious and quick to adapt to a new environment, and while this description is meant to be applied to a Rat’s attitude to life in general, in my case it also says a lot about my travel preferences. I am driven to visit new places, like a huge variety of travel styles and am generally quick to adapt to any destination I’m visiting.

So I began to wonder: is this true of the other 11 signs, as well? As I began to read the personality descriptions of each sign, I could easily see how they could be applied to a person’s travel style.

And so, in honor of Chinese New Year, I’ve put together a completely unscientific list of Chinese Zodiac travel personalities. Have fun with it!

China Travel

Rat (Birth Years: 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008) Because people under the sign of the Rat are resourceful and versatile, they enjoy the challenge of travel and are more likely than others to just pick up and go. No packaged tours for Rats. They prefer to plan (or not plan!) their own journeys and, driven by a strong curiosity, seek out new places even when visiting a destination they’ve been to before.

Ox (Birth Years: 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009) With a strong attachment to their home country, people under the sign of the Ox enjoy exploring the travel possibilities of their native lands. And as family-oriented folk, they are partial to vacations with their spouses and children. Oxen also prefer planned travel with detailed itineraries to simply winging it and are less likely to travel last minute.

Tiger (Birth Years: 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010) Brave and competitive, people under the sign of the Tiger like to stand out from the crowd, so they seek out bragging-rights destinations when traveling. Tigers are often the first of their friends to visit a destination, usually some place slightly off the beaten path. Tigers also take great pride in traveling with few plans in place, enjoying the challenge of figuring it all out as they go.

Rabbit (Birth Years: 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011) People under the sign of the Rabbit are often described as artistic, so travel to places known for art, cooking and fashion appeal to them. Rabbits also tend to be quieter and more serene than other signs, so they enjoy trips in which quiet time is purposely built in.

Dragon (Birth Years: 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012) Courageous and tenacious by nature, people under the sign of the Dragon particularly like active travel, often in the form of extreme adventure (think bungee jumping and mountain trekking) as they seek out the next thrill. But Dragons have little patience for cultural expectations, so they should avoid countries in which dress codes and humble behavior are expected.

Snake (Birth Years: 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013) Because they are private but also enjoy keeping up with the Jonses, people who fall under the sign of the Snake search for understated yet upscale travel. Snakes prefer Four Seasons to the W, Abercrombie & Kent to Globus and Crystal Cruises to Royal Caribbean. As intellectuals, Snakes also enjoy learning about their destinations and, if given the chance to attend a lecture during their travels, will jump at the opportunity.

Horse (Birth Years: 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002) Because people under the sign of the Horse love to be part of the herd, they seek busy destinations like cities and party resorts, and they’re much more interested in escorted touring than others. “The more the merrier” is a sentiment Horses have taken to heart, and nothing pleases them more than a friends’ getaway or multigenerational vacation with the extended family.

Goat (Birth Years: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003) Often described as mild-mannered and shy, people who fall under the sign of the Goat like to travel solidly on the beaten path. Goats are just as happy to travel alone as they are in a group (so long as someone else is the leader), and they enjoy destinations that provide food for thought. Goats also are partial to first-class travel options.

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

Monkey (Birth Years: 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004) Intelligent, curious and mischievous, people who fall under the sign of the Monkey want to dig into a city’s unknown history, see what’s hidden in the back room of the popular museum and get past the “Restricted Access” sign. Monkeys, therefore, seek out behind-the-scenes tours and exclusive access opportunities when traveling. Additionally, their destination choices trend toward cities, as their interests are too varied for a non-urban environment.

Rooster (Birth Years: 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005) Frequently described as showoffs, people who fall under the sign of the Rooster enjoy traveling in groups, either with friends or with an escorted group tour, so that they can put themselves at the center of attention. Though Roosters aren’t picky about their travel destination, they prefer to visit places in which they can remain well-groomed and show off their duds — whether it’s the latest cocktail dress or best climbing gear.

Dog (Birth Years: 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006) With fiercely people-oriented personalities, people who fall under the sign of the Dog prefer to travel with others, and especially with close family or friends. Dogs mostly don’t care where they go so long as their spouses, best friends or children are with them.

Pig (Birth Years: 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007) Because people under the sign of the Pig tend to be sympathetic and generous by nature, volutourism opportunities appeal to them. Additionally, in general terms, Pigs tend to remain calm when facing difficult situations, so travel to developing countries in which tourism infrastructures are less modern is easier for Pigs than for people under other signs.

Do you fit your zodiac sign’s travel style? Tell us how similar or how different you are to our predictions.

— written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot isn’t something out of a fairy tale — it’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany.

neuschwanstein castle bavaria germany

Slideshow: The World’s Coolest Castles

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

8 Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

— written by Sarah Schlichter

florence view woman italyHave you studied or volunteered abroad, or worked as an expat in a foreign country? In this week’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about your experiences of living in a country outside your own. Your story could be used in a future IndependentTraveler.com article!

We’re looking for answers to the following questions:

1. Where did you live, and for how long?

2. How did you do it? (Examples: study abroad program, teaching English as a second language, Peace Corps, etc.)

3. What’s one piece of advice you’d give another traveler who wants to live in that country?

Leave your answers in the comments below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, February 4, 2013. We’ll choose one commenter at random to win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can notify you in case you win!

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

— written by Sarah Schlichter