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passport controlIf you’ve traveled outside of your own country enough times, you’ve likely encountered all manner of immigration officers – some friendly, some indifferent and some decidedly inhospitable.

I’ve certainly seen my share of all three, including one nasty run-in with power-happy officers at the Manhattan cruise port who treated my husband like a terrorist and accused us of bribery (after we explained that we’d recently paid his Green Card renewal fee). So when my in-laws arrived in the United States from Romania last week for a month-long visit, I nervously awaited word from my husband that they’d gotten through okay. In the end they lucked out, getting a friendly jokester who welcomed them warmly into the United States. What a relief!

Listening to my mother-in-law talk about how the immigration officer gave them a smile and a big thumbs up brought up memories of some of my most memorable immigration experiences — like the time I waited in line for nearly three hours at the JFK airport because it was shift change time, and rather than stagger the closures, they simply shut immigration down for about an hour.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Another time, I was leaving Romania, where I had been living for a couple of years. I did not have a permanent visa, so I left the country every three months for a week or so. Nobody cared, except for one passport control worker who told me as I was leaving that I wouldn’t be allowed back in and that I should stay in my own country. I was shocked and spent several hours in Madrid, Spain, trying to find the Romanian consulate so I could get permission to go back. By the time I found the consulate it was closed. My Romanian fiance told me not to worry (ha! Fat chance of that). But he was right. Coming back, they didn’t even give me a second glance.

Not all my memorable immigration experiences have been bad. My favorite passport control story is the time my sister and I were training it from Prague to Switzerland. Passing through Germany, the train was stopped and several immigration officers got on to check passports. When the stern German officer got to our car he methodically took a passport, looked at the photo, looked at the person and handed it back. Except when he got to one young Italian man. With him, the officer looked at the photo, looked at the man, looked at the passport photo, looked at the man, then kept the passport. He then checked all the other passports. Returning to the young Italian, he repeated the photo, man, photo, man routine. Then with a wink, he simply returned the guy’s passport and left. I guess that was his way of having fun.

Passport Information

How about you? What have been some of your most memorable experiences with immigration and passport control?

– written by Dori Saltzman

jardins secret hotelWe’ve seen some glorious hotel rooms with fine furniture, plenty of fluffy towels and a stunning view. These rooms, when you’re lucky enough to score one, inspire you to throw yourself on the bed, hugging the crisp, white duvet cover around you and wondering whether you’ll ever be willing to leave. Ever. Sigh.

Oh, and we’ve been in some dumps — you know, the places where you won’t sit on the bedspread or take a shower without flip-flops. You lie in bed, fully dressed, waiting for dawn so you can find different accommodations. (See Hotel Horror Stories.)

Believe it or not, there are some hardy travelers who don’t care that much. No bed bugs and a door that locks: that’s about all they require. Others demand a few more bells and whistles. So we wonder what makes a hotel room ideal. Recently on Twitter and Facebook, we asked: If you could design the perfect hotel room, what would it be like?

Get the Best Hotel Room

The perfect hotel room, it seems, requires something that has little to do with the actual room. “Must have: Amazing view!” tweets TravelWithAAA. Diana Bustamante agrees, writing on Facebook: “Comfy beds, squishy pillows, large tub, small fridge and windows overlooking some incredible sight.” Oh, and add a clawfoot tub to a “big sea view,” according to tripalong on Twitter.

Some designs include practical amenities. Lavida Rei wants ceiling fans. ITravelBritain must have a nightlight switch next to the bed and 120-volt outlets. A mini-fridge, microwave, location near transit, plus a clean bed and working bathroom satisfy bgrmosaic. However, to be perfect, bgrmosaic goes beyond the general and delves into specifics, requesting wood or tile floors, which may be a practical matter if you have allergies.

Several would-be hotel room designers are even more detailed. GoPlanetWare tweets that the perfect accommodations “overlook the water [and have a] glass ceiling, marble flooring, rotating bed, flat-screen TV, dining area, his/hers closets.” And Val_GiveThanks must have a king-size bed, Jacuzzi tub and a balcony with a view. Oh, and a butler.

“You Want What?: Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

Remember, we’re designing hotel rooms here, not cinemas or RV’s. Dawn Purtle writes on Facebook that her perfect hotel room would have recliners and a popcorn machine. Dragonflyvans tweets: “It’d have wheels so I put it right next to a river, canyon, cliff or vista.”

Two of our readers claim to have already found their version of perfection. For iTravelBritain it is Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa in Edinburgh. For DecanterTours, it is Jardins Secrets in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. For holidayisfrance, a family suite that sleeps five or six will do. For us: a great view, comfy bed and a clean bathroom. Throw in a ceiling fan and maybe some fresh popcorn — we’re golden.

What does your perfect hotel room have?

–written by Jodi Thompson

hotel bed pillowsYou never know what you’re going to get when you book a bed and breakfast. I’ve had delightful experiences, where I stayed up late with the owners, drinking wine and swapping stories. And I’ve had bizarre visits, such as the time when I watched a cat walk across a table full of food — and the owner did nothing.

So I was a little apprehensive when my husband Don told me that he’d booked a night in a bed and breakfast during a trip we took last year to see his family in Iowa. To make matters weirder, he chose the Heavenly Habitat in Madison County, a church that the owners renovated into a inn. The potential for awkwardness seemed very high.

It turned out that our night at the Heavenly Habitat was one of the highlights of our four-day trip. That’s because the owner, Steve, did a few things right that all B&B owners should keep in mind:

Privacy: No one likes an in-your-face host. We arrived on a rainy Thursday night, carrying a pizza and beer that we had picked up at the local Casey’s (an Iowan equivalent to 7-11). We were tired, hungry and in no mood for chatter. Steve welcomed us into our wing of the church, showed us where the silverware and napkins were and then left us alone, without feeling the need to chitchat. Bliss.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Appropriate decor: The last time we visited Don’s family in Iowa, we stayed at a B&B where the entire room — no lie — was covered in flowers. We’re talking flowers on the wallpaper, flowers on the bedspread, flowers on the carpet. It looked like a greenhouse had exploded.

The Heavenly Habitat had a few themes going on in its decor: Madison County bridges in the living room; roosters in the kitchen; churchy objects, such as a pew, here and there. But it never felt over the top or obnoxious.

Space to spread out: When Steve and his wife bought the church, they took one half — the chapel — as their own to live in. The entire second half, which included the fellowship hall, is available for guests. So we had our own kitchen, living room and bedroom. The inn only has two rooms, and we were the only ones there that night. It felt nice to have some space, without feeling like we were intruding in someone’s home.

A glorious breakfast: It doesn’t have to be fancy. But one of the pleasures of staying at a bed and breakfast is having someone else make your eggs — and when it’s done right, you can stay full through mid-afternoon.

An upbeat, informative host: We had not planned on going to Winterset’s John Wayne birthplace, but Steve talked us into it — and we found it a worthwhile stop. He also made sure that we had maps to find the Madison County bridges. We appreciated Steve’s upbeat attitude as well — a stark contrast to B&B managers we met in Sedona once who told us how much they hated running an inn.

33 Secrets for Sleeping Better at a Hotel

Now, the Heavenly Habitat wasn’t perfect. There wasn’t any Wi-Fi, for example (although the owner said they’d be adding it in the future). But I felt like we got a very good deal, as our room was only $80 (Monday through Thursdays; the price goes up to $100 on the weekends), especially when I saw our next hotel, the rather grim Days Inn in Atlantic, Iowa.

What do you think? What makes a perfect B&B?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

paris photographer birdsFriends recently took a trip to Paris — Paris in the springtime! So romantic, right? I imagined photos of them snuggling on the Pont des Arts snapped by a passerby or those arm’s-length-type shots we all take of ourselves and our sweethearts, perhaps tete-a-tete in a Paris cafe. But these two friends are photographers, so any shots of them are of them taking pictures. They never travel without their cameras, lenses, tripods and gear.

Picture Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer

My husband and I rarely travel — domestically, anyway — without our discs. We’ve played disc golf courses in several counties of our home state and about five other states. We’ve discovered some lovely parks and gorgeous vistas that way, spots intended more for community use than tourism. It’s a great way to get to meet some locals and see another side of a destination.

There’s another hobby to which we’ve just been introduced that also uncovers spots hidden from a tourist’s — or even local’s — view. My brother and sister-in-law got us hooked on Geocaching. What is it? Geocaching.com explains it as “a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices.” It’s nerdy — sorry bro — but addictive.

So far we’ve only cached in our town and neighboring areas. We even dragged our son and daughter-in-law out caching in their town. And what did we find? A beautiful nature trail right down the street from them that they didn’t even know existed. I can’t wait to take this hobby on the road. There are caches hidden in nearly every country — in cities and in rural areas. There are caches in Uruguay, Mauritius and Isle of Man. They exist in Fiji and even France. So the photos we take on our travels will likely be of wild finds that nearly stumped us — and the side discoveries we weren’t trying to find.

But we don’t take all our hobbies along when we travel. Some just aren’t travel-worthy, but this one is (provided you have international service on your smartphone).

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

What hobbies, if any, do you take with you on your travels?

– written by Jodi Thompson

Photo courtesy of K. Bailey Fucanan.

temple of kukulcanIt’s a money-back guarantee like no other: If the world stops spinning December 21, 2012, this hotel will refund double your vacation expenses — surely a welcome relief in the midst of Armageddon.

A group of luxury hotels in the Mexican Riviera Maya is offering this double-money-back guarantee in addition to a free night of accommodations on Doomsday and free roundtrip transportation — well, it could be one-way if the world does indeed end.

4 Unique Activities to Do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

Here’s how it works: Book at least three nights during the winter solstice this year at one of the four Condo Hotels Playa del Carmen and you won’t pay for December 21. They’ll also provide free transportation to Chichen Itza, about three hours away. Room rates start at $175 per night.

Chichen Itza, Mayan for “at the mouth of the well,” is a sacred Mayan site in the Mexican state of Yucatan where the Temple of Kukulcan, a k a El Castillo, sits. The stepped pyramid is said to be the physical embodiment of the Mayan Calendar with 91 steps on each of four sides. Surely, if Doomsday arrives, this spot will be ground zero.

The Maya were skilled astronomers, but NASA states on its Web site that there is no science to support any end-of-the-world predictions. According to NASA, this story began with claims that a planet/meteor is on a collision path with Earth. The proposed impact was set for May 2003, but when June 2003 arrived, the fable was linked to the end of the Mayan calendar and, ta-da, new day for Rapture.

However, just as the calendar we hang on our fridge ends each December 31, the Mayan long-count calendar (a 5,125-year cycle) ends and starts anew. The Maya simply didn’t last long enough to print a new calendar. Just as we see January 1 each year as an opportunity to start anew, an apocalypse alternative is to see the end of the long-count calendar as a time of major renewal and rebirth.

Whether Judgment Day finds you in front of a heavenly authority or acting as your own arbitrator, you might as well celebrate. So, make your Doomsday plans, but book your 2013 adventure, too. Life’s short; it’s a gamble and there are few guarantees.

Which Caribbean Island is Right for You?

–written by Jodi Thompson