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What do you do with your expired passports? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got them sitting in a box in the back of a closet somewhere, along with other fading mementoes of past trips. But one traveler we know has a more creative idea: “Since an old passport has a punched hole in the upper left hand corner, it sounds like a Christmas ornament for hanging to me!”

Old passports aren’t the only souvenirs that Chicago-based travel writer Kit Bernardi has transformed into holiday decorations. “Our Christmas tree has been travel-themed for years with funky, not-meant-to-be ‘ornaments’ that remind us of great travel memories,” Bernardi told us. Below is a snapshot of her family’s freshly decorated Fraser fir tree, which offers a glimpse of some of their favorite journeys.

christmas tree

Here’s what’s on Bernardi’s tree, in her own words: “Next to one of my retired passports there’s a springbok’s horn ‘love potion’ powder carrier with an ostrich egg shell bead strap from Namibia, a gift from the Bushman tribe we camped with; a geisha doll’s shoe from Kyoto, Japan; hanging off the branch left of the passport is a red, mini-devil’s mask from Carnival in Brazil; a dream catcher from a family snowmobile trip in Jackson Hole, WY, is next to a terra cotta ‘kitchen god’ from Santa Fe, NM; a carved bone horn for a necklace from Botswana is sort of behind it; an acacia seed pod from Zimbabwe is hooked over the branch above the passport; a paper Chinese doll from Beijing is below the passport. And that’s just a sampling.”

The Best Ways to Commemorate a Trip

How do you use your travel mementoes to decorate your home, whether over the holidays or throughout the year?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

gift beach palm treeTravel-related gift guides for this year’s holiday season are, no question, a helpful way to get a bead on what’s fun and new for the travelers in your life. They’re also alarmingly efficient, especially those that you find online, because with a couple of clicks on the keyboard, you’ve bought and shipped. Marvelous.

But there’s a downside. These online gift guides are proving to be way too tempting for self-indulgence. Thanks to Cruise Critic, IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, I’ve learned about Gin & Titonic, a ship and iceberg ice cube tray that describes its appeal as “watch the ship sink in your drink.” Price: a paltry $8.65. How could I not treat myself?

Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice

Over at the New York Times travel section, a pack of paper soaps for $5 (great for washing clothes on the road) is a brilliant idea — so brilliant I bought a stash.

And on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Daily Traveler,” the Rimowa Limbo Multiwheel hard-sided carry-on in midnight blue, boasting a breathtaking $875 price tag, would strain my budget — but boy, is it gorgeous.

The first item on CNN’s list grabbed me right off: an iPhone lens dial with three different lenses for $250. I’m thinking of it as an investment in my photo shooting ability (or lack thereof).

Perhaps there ought to be a guilt-relieving gift-buying ratio for the holiday season. What would you think is fair — say, after every five presents bought for someone else, we all deserve a little treat for ourselves?

It’s also only fair to say that the travel gift that got me most excited to give — to others! — is one I found right here on IndependentTraveler.com. (See 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts for the full list.) On Excitations.com, I can pick out fun tours, like kayaking in San Francisco Bay or feeding a big cat in Miami. Best of all? I can personalize each experience to meet the travel interests of my gift recipients.

Sure is a lot more fun than an Amazon gift card.

10 Tips for Holiday Travel

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

guiltIt’s an argument that can be all too familiar this time of year: Where should you spend the holidays? Whether your husband’s parents want you to trek cross country to be with them for Thanksgiving or you’d rather skip Christmas with the grandkids and take a Caribbean cruise instead, holiday travel decisions can be fraught with anxiety — and a side helping of guilt.

Christopher, who didn’t want his last name used for fear of upsetting his in laws, says that he and his wife have been dealing with onerous holiday expectations for their entire 19-year marriage. “It’s burned any joy of the holiday season right out of me,” he says.

Although the couple has tried to come up with a compromise — one year they’d pony up for expensive cross-country flights, the next year they’d stay home and celebrate alone — her family isn’t buying it, he says. And forget about taking a vacation with just the two of them during the holiday season. One year when they tried to make excuses, he says, the family decided, without asking, to come to their house instead.

“We have not been able to get to a point with her family where we have been able to break away to do stuff on our own,” he says. “Their point of view around Christmas is that they are going to steamroll you. You either hop on or you get crushed.”

Away from Home for the Holidays

Sometimes the guilt doesn’t come from your family; it’s self-inflicted. This year, I was going to go on a Christmas markets cruise through Europe with my husband over the holidays. When I told my parents about the plan, their silence spoke more than recriminations. I ended up moving the cruise to earlier in December — and inviting my dad.

Emily Harley-Reid threw off her own parental guilt one Thanksgiving and went to Machu Picchu, leaving her husband and son behind. “They LOVED having a guys’ weekend,” she said. (She did bring her mother on the adventure.)

Harley-Reid says that she has tried to get friends to break their own shackles and go in on a T-day mountain or beach rental. So far, she’s had no takers. “I just want to spend a few days bonding and relaxing with dear friends and immediate family instead of driving 1,100 miles in two days, often through snow and ice,” she says. “Everyone turns down the idea because of the massive guilt trips.”

What Not to Do When Traveling Over the Holidays

Has guilt ever influenced your holiday travel plans?

— written by Chris Gray Faust

busy winter highwaySanta Claus is coming to town — and so are nearly 92 million other travelers. Today, AAA released its annual holiday travel forecast, which predicts a very busy season this year. According to the report, about 91.9 million Americans will be traveling more than 50 miles from home — a 1.4 percent increase over last year’s numbers.

The good news? An active holiday travel season bodes well for the economy — and for the travel industry in particular. In a press release issued by the company, AAA Vice President Bill Sutherland said, “It’s a positive sign for the travel industry that so many Americans are planning to travel this holiday season, collectively contributing to the second-highest year-end holiday travel volume in the past ten years.” According to AAA, the holiday season spans from December 23 through January 2.

Now here’s the rather not-so-good news: if you’re hitting the road at the end of this month, you’ll be sharing planes, trains and roadways with 92 million fellow travelers. Stress levels will be high, and your chances of snagging an upgrade, a good parking space or a discounted plane ticket will be low.

But don’t panic just yet. You can find tips for avoiding crowds and surviving your end-of-year getaway in 10 Tips for Holiday Travel. Plus, learn what to do if you get bumped from a full flight in our Guide to Bumping and Overbooking.

Will you be one of the 92 million Americans in transit around the holidays this year? Take our poll!

— written by Caroline Costello

Paris snow winterEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: There are lots of super holiday gifts one can bestow on globetrotters, from travel gift cards to pet suitcases. Still, we wish we could whip out our credit cards and reserve a flight to an exciting destination for a special person or two on our lists — but we can’t. Or, at least, we can’t without stealing our loved one’s passport and requesting vacation days from his or her boss. All in all, it’s a bit rash to buy a flight for someone without any word of warning.

That’s not the case any longer. Aer Lingus has waived the name and itinerary change fees for flights booked by tomorrow, December 14. Purchase a flight from Boston, Chicago or New York to select European destinations, and you’ll have the option to make one change to the name on the ticket as well one change to the ticketed travel dates through the end of January. Tickets are valid for travel from January 1 through March 31, 2012.

It’s a fabulous gift idea: Present Mom with a flight to Paris, and let her pick her own travel dates! This deal is perfect for the holidays, but it’s also an excellent option for travelers who want to plan a European winter getaway but aren’t ready to commit to a set itinerary just yet.

The Catch: As we said, you may only make one change to the ticketholder’s name and one change to the travel dates for the flight. Further changes will incur a $210 fee each way. Additionally, if you change your dates and end up with a more expensive ticket than the one you originally purchased, you’ll have to pay the difference in fares.

The Competition: We haven’t seen another deal quite like this. But the next best thing is a travel gift card. Don’t miss this roundup of our favorite travel gift card deals.

Find more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

When I was 5 years old, I sat on Santa’s lap at the mall and told him I wanted a pony for Christmas. I can’t recall his exact response — I think it was closer to “Ha ha ha” than “Ho ho ho” — but, needless to say, I didn’t wake up to find a pony under the tree that Christmas morning. It never stopped me from dreaming.

Fast forward a few decades. This holiday season, I find my imagination running wild yet again — but now it’s turned to thoughts of travel. I’ve scoured the Web for five ultra-lavish gifts that any traveler would love to receive. The prices may be outlandish — try not to think about how many trips you could take for the price of each of these! — but hey, a girl can dream.

delta air linesPlane Tickets for Globetrotters
What traveler hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all and embarking on an around-the-world trip? Now even Groupon wants you to go. The daily deal site is offering a Jet Set Adventure from Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM and Alitalia, which includes two around-the-world plane tickets for either $10,000 (economy class) or $20,000 (business class) — plus taxes and fees, of course. Your trip includes anywhere from 3 to 10 stopovers in destinations around the world. The airlines will even throw in a steamer trunk and a couple of safari hats.

henk travelfriendThe Ultimate Carry-On
Designed by a Dutch businessman who wanted to come up with the world’s best suitcase, the HENK TravelFriend pleases with its high-quality materials, sturdy retractable wheels and “lockers” for small valuables. Unlike most suitcases, it opens on both sides for easier access to your goodies. It’s also fully customizable: would you like your case lined with calfskin, horsehair or carbon fiber? Fortunately, the suitcase is carry-on size; imagine your teeth-gnashing if the airlines lost a bag that costs — wait for it — more than $20,000.

penguins antarcticaA Trek Through the Harshest Landscape on Earth
Anyone lacking an adventurous spirit (or an extremely high tolerance for cold) need not apply for this amazing polar expedition. The 18-day trip with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent includes 69 miles of cross-country skiing and trekking across the vast frozen landscape of Antarctica, ending at the geographic South Pole. Sound appealing? You can still book a trip for this January, as long as you’ve got $57,985 lying around.

hasselblad cameraSpoil Your Favorite Shutterbug
Bad pictures, begone! If you find yourself unsatisfied with the photos taken by your old point-and-shoot, give yourself an upgrade (times a million) by picking up the Hasselblad H4D-60 60-Megapixel Digital SLR Camera. The list of specs on this professional-grade camera is about a mile long, and so is its price tag: $41,995. As of this writing, there’s a single review of the camera on Amazon.com, from a user who sold his condo and his car to pay for the thing. He may be living in a box on the street now, but at least he’s got a great camera.

villa yin phuket thailandA Private Villa in Thailand
De-stress after the holidays with a week or two in your very own luxury villa in Thailand. On members-only private sale site Jetsetter.com, you can book a stay at the 7,965-square-foot Villa Yin in Phuket, which offers panoramic views of the Andaman Sea from all four bedrooms and from the private infinity pool. Daily maid service and free Wi-Fi are included in the rates, which start at $4,250 a night in early January — with a minimum 14-night stay. (That adds up to a total of $59,500, in case you don’t have a calculator handy.) The villa sleeps eight.

Can’t afford anything on this wish list? Check out the more reasonably priced options in our 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

gift cardGift cards are foolproof presents for the travelers who don’t fall into the “gadget,” “book” or “hilarious SkyMall purchase” categories of your holiday gift list. You buy the card. They book the excursion, hotel room or spa day, and send you contented Facebook status updates of thanks when their vacation comes around.

But here’s the best part: You get a little something, too. We’ve unearthed five travel gift card offers that sweeten the deal with discounted prices (hint: the amount on the card isn’t the amount you’ll have to pay), bonus gifts and other goodies.

Free $10 Gift Card with Best Western Travel Card
Receive a free $10 gift card with every $100 Best Western Travel Card you purchase. The $10 bonus card can be cashed in at the establishment of your choice (options include Amazon.com, Best Buy, Darden, Walmart and — naturally — Best Western). The Best Western Travel Cards can be loaded with several currencies (perfect for the continent-hopping jetsetter in your life) and are valid at Best Western hotels around the world.

Free $50 Hertz Voucher with Marriott Gift Card
They get no-cost accommodations. You get some cash knocked off the price of your next rental car. Receive a free $50 voucher to use toward any Hertz rental car with the purchase of a Marriott GiftCard worth $250 or more. Marriott GiftCards can be used for hotel stays, restaurant meals, spa services, golf and more at participating Marriott properties. Plus, if you’re a Marriott Rewards member, you’ll receive 10 rewards points for every card you purchase.

Get Deep Discounts with Costco Gift Cards
Costco.com sells legions of discounted gift cards for everything from gym memberships to movie theaters. And travel is no exception. The wholesaler offers cut-rate cards for hotel stays and excursions galore. Some of our favorites include $75 for a $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift card as well as Go Cards for several major U.S. cities. The Go Cards, which start at $59.99, offer free admission to a long list of attractions, as well as discounts at retail stores and restaurants. To get these offers, you have to be a card-carrying Costco member. (Annual memberships start at $55.)

$100 Spa Gift Card for $90
If you have someone on your list who’s traveling in North America soon, this gift will instantly upgrade his or her vacation — while simultaneously saving you money. For a limited time, Spa Week is selling $100 spa gift cards for just $89.99 each. You can purchase the cards in other denominations, too, and the more you spend, the more you save. Get a $50 gift card for $45, a $250 gift card for $225 or a $400 gift card for $360. You get the idea. The cards are valid at more than 4,500 spas in the U.S. and Canada.

10 Unique Holiday Gift Ideas

— written by Caroline Costello

Christmas Box holidayDecember’s a month of family get-togethers, giving … and giveaways. Lots of giveaways. A multitude of companies are handing out festive freebies in celebration of the holiday season, and travel brands are no exception. In exchange for an e-mail address or a “Like” on a Facebook page, lucky globetrotters can snap up free vacations, cool travel gear, gift cards and more from their favorite blogs and travel providers. Below are seven fantastic holiday contests and giveaways that are on right now. Good luck!

Win Tons of Cool Travel Gear & Gifts
The Prize: Okay, we had to start off with a nod to our sister sites, Family Vacation Critic and Cruise Critic, both of which are running fabulous holiday giveaways for globetrotters. Enter to win a travel prize each day through December 9 on Cruise Critic’s blog, the Lido Deck, and snag some free family-friendly travel gear each day through December 12 on the Family Vacation Critic Blog.

How to Enter: To get that kid-friendly travel loot, submit your e-mail address on the Family Vacation Critic contest page daily through December 12. If seafaring’s more your thing, subscribe to the Lido Deck Blog and you’ll be automatically entered to win a succession of cool cruise gear every day through December 9.

Win a Trip to for Two to the Galapagos
The Prize: Red Mangrove Lodges, which has properties in the Galapagos and Ecuador, is giving away a free trip for two to the Galapagos Islands. The prize includes four nights’ accommodations at Red Mangrove Lodges, guided tours, local transportation and meals. The only part of the trip that’s not included is your flight to the Galapagos.

How to Enter: Sign up for the Red Mangrove newsletter by February 12 and you’ll be automatically entered to win.

Win $500 in Free Hotel Stays at Choice Hotels
The Prize: Close your doors to visiting relatives and encourage out-of-towners to get a room at the nearest Choice Hotels property — for free. But first, you have to get lucky. Enter the “Little White Holiday Lies” giveaway to win a $250 or $500 gift card valid for stays at Choice Hotels, which include Quality Inn, Comfort Inn, Cambria Suites, EconoLodge and other chains, in addition to a VISA gift card of $250 or $1,000.

How to Enter: “Like” Cambria Suites on Facebook and you’ll be automatically entered to win a $250 hotel gift card and a $150 VISA gift card. Take it a step further and share your “little white lie to avoid holiday houseguests” on the Cambria Suites Facebook page, and you could win a $500 hotel gift card and a $1,000 VISA gift card.

Win a Family Vacation for Four on TravelingMom.com
The Prize: TravelingMom.com is partnering with Capital One to offer travelers a second chance to redo their not-so-successful travel experiences. Just share your story of a vacation that went awry on TravelingMom.com and you could win a do-over trip for four to the destination of your choice (within the continental U.S.). The grand prize includes roundtrip airfare from your local gateway and four nights’ accommodations.

How to Enter: Simply post your vacation disaster story as a comment on the TravelingMom.com contest page. You may enter once a day through December 10.

HostelBookers.com 24 Days of Christmas Giveaway
The Prize: HostelBookers.com is giving away a travel-related prize a day for 24 days in December. Each prize is revealed daily, so you’ll have to come back to the site each day to see what you can win. Today’s prize is an iPad2, and future prizes include InterRail tickets and an around-the-world flight.

How to Enter: You must “Like” Hostelbookers.com on Facebook, and then answer a trivia question each day to get a shot at winning. New questions will be posted daily at 12 a.m. Mountain Time on the Hostelbookers.com Facebook page through December 24.

Win a Weekend Getaway to Asheville
The Prize: The Asheville tourism board is giving away a whirlwind two-night vacation to its home town. The winner of this contest will receive accommodations at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa, a $100 gift card, two passes to Biltmore, a brewery tour, a gift certificate to a local restaurant and more. Transportation to Asheville is not included.

How to Enter: Watch a video of a dancing Santa, then share said video on Facebook. After you’ve helped the groovin’ Claus go viral, you need to enter your contact information on the contest page.

Know of any holiday travel giveaways not listed here? Share them in the comments!

— written by Caroline Costello

Airfare SaleThe airlines are clearly hitching a ride on the Cyber Monday bandwagon. Today, several major carriers rolled out masses of discounted tickets in honor of this well-marketed pseudo-holiday. Some of today’s fare offers end at midnight tonight, in true Cyber Monday flash sale fashion. Others will last through the beginning of December, giving travelers some time to take a few breaths and consider their options before punching in their credit card information. Here’s a selection of the best fare sales we’ve spotted so far today.

American Airlines Fares from $54 OW
Out of all the fare sales we’ve seen this morning, this American Airlines offer wins the prize for breadth of destinations. You can find discounted tickets to a great selection of gateways across the globe, from Shanghai to Mazatlan. Fares start at $54 each way plus taxes and fees for travel in January and the beginning of February. This deal expires tonight at 11:59 p.m. Central Time.

Save 10% on Frontier Airlines Fares
This Cyber Monday airfare offer is refreshingly simple. Enter promo code CYBER10 and receive 10 percent off any published fare (departing through March 7) booked on the Frontier Airlines Web site. The catch? You must purchase your tickets by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time tonight in order to snag this deal.

Southwest Airlines Fares from $59 OW
Here’s a fairly typical Southwest Airlines systemwide sale, which the airline normally rolls out on Tuesdays. Fares to U.S. gateways start at $59 each way plus taxes and fees, for travel from December through mid-February. There’s more good news: No need to start desperately crafting an itinerary today. This sale’s on through December 1.

AirTran Airways Fares from $59 OW
This AirTran offer mimics the Southwest sale in so many ways: same travel dates, same blackout dates, same expiration dates. (It figures. Southwest acquired AirTran in spring 2011, and the two carriers will soon merge into a single operator.) But there’s one big difference between the two sales. Unlike Southwest, AirTran is offering discounted tickets to international destinations as well as domestic locales, including gateways in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Alaska Airlines Fares from $40 OW
Alaska Airlines advises its customers, “Hurry, sale ends December 5, 2011” — but really, you don’t need to rush. In comparison to many of the Cyber Monday travel deals floating around on the Internet today, this offer features a pretty reasonable expiration date a week from today. Book by that December 5 deadline and you can snap up fares to destinations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada for as little as $40 each way plus taxes and fees. Travel is valid from December through March.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

rain rainy airport 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 or signing up for our newsletter.

As if long security lines and full airport parking lots weren’t enough, there’s another hurdle facing Turkey Day travelers this year: nasty weather. Relentless rain and heavy thunderstorms have already caused flight delays in Northeastern and Midwestern airports this week, and the outlook is still looking a little shaky today.

How can you make your Thanksgiving trip go more smoothly? As Ed Hewitt advises in Winter Travel Tips:

“Check weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. We all want to know what the weather is like for the departure and arrival airports (particularly if we’re traveling on vacation), but you’ll want to know what is going on at your connecting airport as well. If the weather looks very bad, you may want to contact your airline to see if it can reroute you; it may be in its best interest to do so.

“If it does look like you will need rerouting, your chances of getting on a different flight will be greatly enhanced if you’ve already done the research yourself to determine which alternate flights might work best.”

We recommend programming your airline’s 800 number into your cell phone, as well as the contact info for any other airlines that also serve your route. And, of course, you’ll want to arrive as early as possible at the airport and check flight status frequently. Web sites like FlightStats.com can help; many airlines also let you sign up for flight status alerts to be texted or e-mailed directly to your phone.

For more tips, see our Holiday Travel Survival Guide and 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster.

— written by Sarah Schlichter