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feecationDo you feel as though you are nickel and dimed — or more like $10′d and $25′d — to death when you travel? It seems that as you plan your trip budget, you have to allow for about one-third again of the costs in fees. Of course, many charges you can avoid. But wouldn’t it be nice to throw budgets to the wind and treat yourself to that $8 airline meal or $15 late hotel check-out?

With the new online subscription rebate service Feecation.com, you can. Here’s how it works: You pay a membership fee of $14.97 per month. Within 30 days of incurring a fee while traveling (consult the list of payable fees under the site’s terms of service), you send proof of payment via either e-mail (use your smartphone to take a picture of the receipt and e-mail it while still on vacation to streamline the process) or the U.S. Postal Service. Then, within three to six weeks, you should receive your refund.

Travel Budget Calculator

How much will that refund be? Feecation.com will cover $10 per instance of incremental airline fees up to $500 per year, and $10 for each hotel, car rental and Wi-Fi fee up to $250 per year in each category. Theoretically, you could be reimbursed $1,250 each year, which more than covers the cost of membership. To make the cost of membership worth the $179.64 a year, you should travel often enough to incur at least 18 charges and also be organized enough to actually send in your receipts.

Caveat emptor: Travelers should remember that while fees are annoying, information gathering is an even bigger money-maker than charging you to check a bag. Not only are you providing your contact and credit card information, but you’re also providing a lot of information about yourself via the receipts you send in for reimbursement. Be certain to read and understand all 3,000 words of the company’s privacy policy before you provide any personal information. It does state that you can opt out of the company’s information database, but that option isn’t comprehensive. Feecation.com offers a 30-day trial, but you still must provide all your information and cancel it before the 30 days is up.

Would you be willing to give Feecation.com a try?

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

– written by Jodi Thompson

uncertainty ahead road sign“THE FEAR’S BACK,” blares a CNNMoney headline over a graph showing the stock market’s latest plunge. Other news stories are filled with phrases like “volatile markets” and “economic uncertainty.”

But despite the turmoil, one thing is certain: we still want to travel. (If nothing else, I need a vacation from these scary headlines!) Here are a few ways to hedge your next trip against economic uncertainty.

1. Buy travel insurance. Maybe you can afford your trip to Thailand now, but what if you lose your job? Not all policies offer refunds if you have to nix a trip for this reason; look specifically for lay-off protection, or choose a policy with a “cancel for any reason” clause.

2. Keep an eye out for prices that go down after you buy. You’ll have to check for change fees and cancellation penalties first, but often you can update your reservation — or cancel and rebook — to take advantage of better rates on airline tickets, hotels and the like. See Watch for Falling Hotel Rates for more information.

3. Read reviews. When every vacation dollar is precious, you don’t want to waste any of them on a fleabag hotel, a rotten restaurant meal or a chronically late flight. You can find hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.com and big booking sites; restaurant reviews at Yelp.com and Urbanspoon.com; and airlines’ on-time records at FlightStats.com. JDPower.com is a good resource for ratings of car rental companies and airlines.

4. Have a back-up plan. Dealing with a lost passport or stolen wallet can eat up valuable vacation time. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards (in a separate place from the originals, of course), and leave one with a friend or family member at home. You may also want to consider sending a PDF copy to your e-mail, where you can access it from any computer around the world. Having a few spare passport photos on hand is also a good idea. See How to Take On Travel Trouble for more advice.

5. Know your exchange rates. Economic volatility can make it difficult to tell just how much you’re really paying for that gorgeous Murano glass souvenir. Stay up to date with currency fluctuations by checking XE.com or Oanda.com, both of which offer smartphone apps. (See also our story on how to Get the Best Exchange Rate.)

6. Allow some wiggle room. It’s sad but true: every trip ends up costing more than you expect. Avoid sticker shock on your credit card statement by setting aside extra money before you leave to cover unforeseen expenses. Our Travel Budget Calculator can help you plan.

A few resources for cutting costs on your next trip:

-Travel Deals
-15 Ways to Get a Better Hotel Rate
-Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
-Weekend Getaways Under $500

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

hotel room man laptop bedEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

You’ve shopped around, read hundreds of reviews, scrutinized neighborhood maps and finally booked a great hotel — with a great rate to match. Now you can sit back, relax and dream about how fantastic your stay is going to be, right?

Wrong. If you want to get the lowest possible rate on your stay, your work isn’t necessarily done after you’ve made your initial booking. As we recommend in Get the Best Hotel Rate, “Once you’ve booked your hotel, don’t just rest on your laurels. Call back or check online in another month or so and see whether rates have gone down. If they have, cancel your booking and rebook your stay at the lower rate. (Read the hotel’s cancellation policy carefully before doing so to make sure you won’t have to pay any penalties.)”

Yapta.com is well known for monitoring airfare and alerting travelers when prices drop, but the site recently added hotel tracking as well. Before or after you book, you can select specific hotels for the site to keep an eye on. If the rate drops, you’ll get an immediate e-mail, enabling you to act quickly to make or change your reservation.

Of course, you may be out of luck if you’ve already put down a hefty nonrefundable deposit on your hotel, or if the property has a stringent cancellation policy. But if you’ve got a little wiggle room, checking for falling rates is an easy way to trim your vacation budget.

Don’t miss 14 more ways to save on your hotel.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

australia Australia is one of those epic destinations — a vast place we need plenty of time to explore. But a weeks-long Australia trip isn’t cheap (especially for travelers who must purchase airfare from the U.S.), and if you want to spend any kind of extended time there without the aid of a trust fund, you’ll either need to save significant cash before your trip — or find a way to make some money while in Australia. Enter the working holiday visa.

If you’re a resident of the U.S., Canada, France, the U.K., Germany, Italy or one of several other countries and are between the ages of 18 and 30 at the time of your application, you can secure an Australia working holiday visa, which grants permission to stay in the country for up to 12 months, paying taxes at a rate of 29 percent (some of which can be recouped once you leave). And if you end up finding a job you love, no worries, mate. Your employer can help you stay for an additional four years after your initial visa expires.

The visa — which generally costs a few hundred dollars — doesn’t guarantee you a job, just the right to work and live in Australia for up to a year. You’ll still need to arrange your flights to Australia and find your own work. Some companies will set up a few nights’ accommodations for new employees, but after that, you’re on your own in Oz.

What are your job options in Australia? You can stay in a major city, working in a hostel or restaurant, or make your home in a picturesque country spot like one of Australia’s wine regions, where you can help with the annual harvest. You can work on a cattle ranch in the Outback, or take a job at a ski resort in the mountains. You’ve got some choices to make.

If you meet the requirements to get that visa, a working vacation can help you fund your extended stay in Australia, giving you the time and money to explore the beautiful land Down Under.

– written by Katie Hammel, the editor at BootsnAll.com, where you can search for cheap flights to Australia or learn more about the best places to be an expat.

high gas prices sign arm leg expensiveEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

With U.S. gas prices hovering around a budget-busting $4 a gallon, that summer road trip you’ve been anticipating may be looking pricier than you’d originally planned. While we can’t promise that gas prices will plunge just in time for you to hit the road, we can offer a few hints for cutting costs when traveling by car. For example, IndependentTraveler.com Ed Hewitt gives the following advice about where to stop and refuel:

“Choose an exit with several gas stations. You can usually tell these from the amenity signs on the highway leading up to the exit. If the sign lists two or more stations, you will often benefit from the simple fact that there is competition for your business. Upon exiting … choose the station that is farthest from the exit ramp. Typically [it] will have the lowest prices, simply due to the inability to gouge outsiders looking for a quick off-and-on fill-up (the locals often use this station).”

Hewitt goes on to point out that even if you have to pay a few cents more to drive to the farther station, your savings per gallon will easily help you make that back — especially if your tank was nearly empty before you stopped.

Got a smartphone? There are heaps of apps out there that will help you check for the best local gas prices: GasBag, Cheap Gas! and Local Gas Prices are just a few.

See more ways to save gas and money.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

washington dcAs the capital of the U.S., Washington D.C. is full of amazing things to see, fascinating history to explore and delicious restaurants to draw your dollar from your purse. But your budget holiday in Washington D.C. doesn’t have to break the bank. There are lots of free activities to enjoy, some perfectly priced restaurants and great-value accommodations in the District of Columbia.

Cheap Sleep
The District Hotel in the Logan Circle Historic District is less than six blocks from the White House, the National Mall and Chinatown, and it’s just a five-minute walk to restaurants, bars and Embassy Row. All rooms have cable TV, air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms. There’s also free daily continental breakfast and space for parking (for a fee). Private rooms start from $119 per night. There are also plenty of other cheap hotels and hostels in Washington D.C. for travelers on a budget.

Bargain Eats
As a university town, Washington D.C. has plenty of budget eateries to satisfy hungry students, of which thrifty travelers can take full advantage. There are many great value restaurants around the campuses, such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, famous for its chili dogs and chili half-smokes (Bill Cosby cites it as his favorite restaurant in Washington).

Or try the award-winning Hank’s Oyster Bar. The restaurant’s fresh New England beach-style seafood dishes include such delights as crab cake eggs Benedict, smoked salmon platter and seafood omelet — all for fantastic prices. And of course, a variety of oyster dishes are on the menu, as well as a flavorsome selection of wine, microbrews and seasonal beer.

Free Things to Do
- Most of the museums and historic sites at the National Mall are free, including the Smithsonian museums. The tree-lined Mall extends from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building and has plenty of green space for you to set up a picnic and enjoy the architecture from the comfort of your blanket.

- Admission to the National Zoo is free. Travelers of all ages will love the pandas, gorillas and monkeys that call the beautiful Rock Creek National Park (where the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is set) home. Apart from the zoo, there are spaces to picnic, hike, play tennis, ride horses, join animal talks and enjoy the crafts at the nature center in Rock Creek National Park.

- Every evening at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center, Washington’s premier concert hall, puts on free performances. Regular stars include the National Symphony Orchestra, jazz musicians and dance troupes, so keep an eye on the listings.

- Go for one of the daily free tours around the U.S. Capitol building — but get there early, as they’re first come, first served. Otherwise, just browse the galleries at the Capital Visitor Center, where you can watch a live video feed of House and Senate floor proceedings. Visit the U.S. Botanic Garden next door; it houses roughly 4,000 seasonal, tropical and subtropical plants.

- Check out the National Gallery of Art, which has a vast free sculpture garden. Enjoy a guided tour around the center for — you guessed it — free!

- Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of American servicemen and women. You can walk the grounds for free (but to find the most interesting graves, take a guided tour bus for just $7.50).

- The Bureau of Engraving and Printing runs free tours around the factory where money is printed, cut and examined.

- No visit to Washington D.C. is complete without a tour of the White House. You must make a request through your Congressperson at least 21 days in advance. (Visitors from outside the U.S. should contact their embassy in Washington to submit a tour request.) Otherwise, you can visit the White House Visitor Center for free.

– written by Shing Mon Chung, SEO Executive of HostelBookers.com

old crown london London is full of free things to do. A bunch of world-class museums, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, offer free admission. There’s no charge to watch cheeky orators embarrass themselves and others in front of large crowds at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. And it’s free to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Travelers to London can also enjoy complimentary comedy shows in the heart of the city, which I accidentally discovered on a trip earlier this week.

Searching the Web for something budget-friendly and fun to do on a weekday night, I came across an online listing for “The Ideas Factory,” a free comedy show at a bar in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. On a whim, I showed up at the bar (Old Crown on 33 New Oxford Street), and was directed to a small room upstairs. It was a tiny, dimly lit space with two beat-up couches and some folding chairs. There were just three or four people standing about drinking beer. The place looked like a sad and poorly attended party hosted by college students in a studio apartment — no stage, no audience and no microphone; this didn’t seem promising.

Despite my unease, I stayed, expecting a mediocre show at best, and an embarrassing flop ending in violence at worst. Yet the show was brilliant. The comedians, who hammed it up just inches from a tiny group of roughly 10 people, were polished, professional and delightfully clever. Performers included Matthew Highton, Paul Duncan McGarrity and Jay Cowle, established British comedians who also do standup at the “real” comedy clubs — you know, the ones that charge admission.

During a break in the show, I asked one of the performers why he bothered to appear at a free show in such a dark and diminutive room above a bar. He explained that this kind of intimate performance is common in London, where comedians arrange small events for the purpose of testing new material in front of an audience.

Spending the evening as a comic guinea pig in London was an unforgettable experience. To find free comedy shows in London, check out Time Out London (www.TimeOut.com/London).

– written by Caroline Costello

farmerIf the recessionary mindset has taught us anything, it’s that delivering suspicious packages is not the only way to travel cheaply. Enter the working vacation, where callous-palmed travelers don the sun hat and gloves of the temporary laborer, and pay for their camp grub, modest accommodations and instructional lessons on trail maintenance by picking heirloom tomatoes or keeping leaf-eating beetles at bay. Below are two ingenious ways to take a vacation for next to nothing.

(Editor’s Note: If you already have a full-time job upkeeping trails or cultivating organic crops, we don’t recommend the following options.)

WWOOF
Harvest 22 varieties of figs in Malibu. Help build an off-the-grid dwelling situated at 10,000 feet in Colorado Springs. Rake wild blueberries and make wine in Phillips, Maine. What is this strange bourgeois migrant labor, you ask? There are some 1,200 farms associated with WWOOF U.S.A., the American chapter of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (There are thousands more across the planet, but costly flights make extreme penny pinching more of a challenge.) The exchange: You work for a half day, and the farm owners, which you’ve hopefully vetted (and they you, crazy eyes), provide food and shelter. No previous experience extolling the virtue of the soil is needed, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to work on your own. (Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)

The length of a farmstay is determined by you and your host, and can vary from a few days to a season. Gaining access to WWOOF’s online database of farms costs $30.

Appalachian Trail Work Crew
Working as part of a volunteer crew to build and protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a decidedly couch-free affair. Trail crews tackle large-scale projects such as trail relocations and rehabilitation, and bridge and shelter construction. The work is rigorous and there are no “vacation days” if you’re working for the minimum week-long stint. But what you do get, if you’re so disposed, is the chance to pass on the 75-plus-year legacy of a 2,181-mile trail that runs from Georgia through Maine, the pursuit of which has given men, women and children the freedom to grow wizard-like beards without recoiling in society’s mirror. As part of the bargain, you also get food, transportation to the work site, the chance to share a group tent, work tools and equipment, and crew leadership. Volunteers are responsible for providing their own camping gear.

Apparently, there are quite a few hardy noble souls ready to take on the task — there’s often a waitlist for the first-come, first-served positions, which are filled in equal parts by men and women, with ages ranging from 18 to 80.

Not interested in sleeping on a stranger’s couch or getting your hands dirty on vacation? Check out these nine creative ways to save big on your next trip. And don’t forget to use our handy travel budget calculator for planning a wallet-friendly getaway!

Ever been on a volunteer or working vacation? Tell us about it below.


– written by Dan Askin

piggy bank airplane air travel vacationYour vacation is planned, your bags are packed and you’re ready to fly. But did you know that even after you’ve purchased your plane tickets, you could still incur fees on your flight? It’s true. Baggage fees are the best-known a la carte charges, but there are many others, big and small, that can crop up once you reach the airport. Here are five ways to avoid them.

1. Pack light and save up to $50 in checked bag fees each way. While a few airlines still allow you to bring checked luggage without a fee (such as Southwest and many international carriers), most U.S. airlines will charge you to handle your bags. The best way to bypass this is by taking fewer things and packing them all into a carry-on bag. Do you really need a dozen shirts for a five-day trip? Chances are, you’ll only wear half of those and wish you had left the rest at home. Bring pieces that mix and match with each other. That way all the tops go with all the bottoms, and you can make three or four days’ worth of clothes last two to three weeks without wearing the same outfit twice. Women can toss in a simple dress and use easy accessories to make it seem totally new if it needs to be worn again. For men, it’s even easier: just bring a variety of ties, which take up almost no room.

Limit yourself to two pairs of shoes that look great whether dressed up or down and that are comfortable to walk in. Shoes can take up way too much space in a travel bag, which isn’t helpful when you have limited space to work with. I find shoes that go with everything in my bag and then I pack one pair and wear the bulkier of the two on the plane.

Editor’s Note: Get more space-saving ideas in What Not to Pack.

2. Bring your own food. Most flights don’t offer free meals anymore. Heck, you’re lucky if you get a free drink and a snack. If there are meals or more substantial snacks offered on a flight, they generally cost quite a bit more than you would pay if you picked them up at the grocery store (think $8 – 10 for a sandwich, $6 for a “snack box”). These are things you could make for a fraction of the price at home and bring with you. Security has no problem with food, as long as you aren’t trying to also pack pudding and a drink. I tend to stock up on 100-calorie packs before my trips and then take a nice variety in my carry-on to snack on throughout the flight. Granola bars are also easily packable and can keep you full until you reach your destination.

3. Go totally wireless. Almost all the airlines offer Wi-Fi services on their planes, but it isn’t free. Is it really that necessary to update your Facebook status mid-flight? Keep your credit card in your wallet and opt for a good book or magazine. You’ll save a minimum of $10 for each leg of your flight.

4. Bring your own headphones. If you’re lucky enough to get on a flight that offers onboard entertainment, you’ll need some headphones to participate. Remember just a few short years ago where the flight attendants practically threw handfuls of headsets through the cabin like Mardi Gras beads? Well, no more. Now if you want to watch the movies or listen to the same 12 songs on their airline radio station, you’ll be expected to shell out $3 – $5 for a pair of those less-than-optimal headphones that practically break before you’ve touched down. Most people bring an iPod or handheld gaming device on their trips, so make sure you include your own better-constructed pair that doesn’t have to be vacuum-sealed for freshness.

5. Skip the upgrade. If offered an upgrade upon check-in, think twice — especially if it’s for a relatively short flight. Being in first or business class would be nice, but the upgrade fee can leave you $50 – $100 poorer. Gripe about your loss of extra legroom if you must, but that money could go a long way toward doing something more fun than sitting while you’re actually on your trip.

– written by Shereen Rayle, Editor of Shereen Travels Cheap

aruba Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Ever since snow dusted (or, in some regions, buried) 49 out of 50 U.S. states last week, the Caribbean, with its balmy temperatures, pink sunsets and skin-warming sunbeams, has been looking downright mouth-watering. But with spring break just around the corner, you can safely expect prices for tropical hotel stays and flights to the Caribbean islands to rise in February, March and April.

If you must travel to the Caribbean during the busy spring break season — and really, we don’t blame you — one of the best ways to save money is by picking the right island. In Top 25 Ways to Save on Caribbean Travel, IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter writes, “Airfare is one of the key expenses of any Caribbean trip, and some islands are much easier — and cheaper — to get to than others. For the lowest fares from the U.S., look for destinations served by low-cost carriers such as JetBlue (Nassau, Montego Bay, Barbados) and AirTran (Aruba, San Juan). Keep in mind that more competition usually leads to lower fares; you’ll pay less to fly to Jamaica, which is served by dozens of airlines, than you will to fly to an island like Dominica, where the only major carrier from the U.S. is American Airlines.”

We’re not denying that each Caribbean island has its own unique, worthwhile array of attractions. If you want to see rolling sugar cane fields and drink home-grown rum, head to Martinique. Seeking Vegas-style casinos and duty-free shopping? Nassau‘s a good pick. But if you really just want to sit on a beach with a sugary pina colada and you’re on a tight budget, price flights to various islands, and then pick your destination based on whichever’s cheapest. We promise you won’t be disappointed. There are no second-banana islands in the Caribbean.

– written by Caroline Costello