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Flowers, chocolates, Champagne and … Mickey Mouse?

If Disney characters don’t exactly top your list of prerequisites for romance, you might be surprised by the findings of a recent Orbitz survey on Valentine’s Day travel. Based on bookings for the coming weekend, the site named its three most popular destinations for Valentine’s Day getaways: Las Vegas, Orlando and Cancun.

I’m not too shocked that Sin City made the list, considering that some 100,000 couples tie the knot there each year. But fighting the kiddie hordes at Disney World or getting trashed with a bunch of coeds in Cancun doesn’t really strike me as the epitome of romance.

If you’re dreaming of a getaway just for two, uncluttered by casinos and crowds, we have a few less-traveled alternatives to recommend:

1. For a truly serene desert getaway, forget about Las Vegas and head for Sedona, Arizona. Winter is one of the quietest times of year here, and the area’s trademark red rocks are often lightly dusted with snow. This is the perfect season for you and your partner to cozy up together in a romantic bed and breakfast, or indulge in a couples’ massage at one of the area’s many spas.

sedona red rocks snow winter arizona


2. Just a few hours southwest of Orlando, the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island feel a world away. By day, you can go kayaking, explore the secluded shores of Lovers Key and collect seashells as mementos of your trip (this part of Florida is one of the country’s best spots for shelling). By night, you can sit on the sand with your sweetheart and watch the sun sink down into the Gulf of Mexico. Learn more in Florida’s Many Faces and Places.

fort myers beach florida


3. Skip the mega-resorts and hard-partying atmosphere of Cancun and head instead to St. John, the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two-thirds of the island is protected within Virgin Islands National Park, including the soft sands of Trunk Bay; its calm, clear waters and wide, white beach make this a perfect spot for snorkeling, swimming and relaxing in the sand. Couples can go hiking in the national park or take a scenic horseback ride through the mountains. Learn more in St. John Essentials.

trunk bay st john usvi


Don’t miss our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

romantic beach couple Every 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 (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: This Hotels.com promotion features discounts of up to 60 percent at hundreds of hotels in destinations around the world, for travel from February 10 through February 21. Plus, at select properties, Hotels.com is throwing in extra savings like complimentary movie passes, free nights and other perks. We like this offer because it covers travel during coveted Valentine’s Day weekend — the perfect time for a few romantic nights in a big-city hotel or a whirlwind Caribbean getaway.

This deal includes bargain rates for stays at all-inclusive resorts in addition to hotels. Prices at the beachfront Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica have been slashed by 60 percent, with nightly rates starting at $204 per person (including meals, activities, entertainment and accommodations in charming guestrooms with balconies overlooking the ocean).

The Catch: Discounts vary by property — by a lot. For example, at the Courtyard Marriott on Fifth Avenue in New York City, book a weekend stay and you’ll receive, er, two free movie passes. There’s nothing wrong with a free flick, but it’s no 60 percent discount.

The Competition: Travelocity is currently running a spring hotel sale with discounts of up to 30 percent at urban properties in domestic and international destinations (valid travel dates include stays over Valentine’s Day weekend).

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Group, an operating company of Expedia, Inc., which also owns Hotels.com.


– written by Caroline Costello

hotel gift cardYes, it’s time to panic. With only a few days before Christmas, you may be scratching your head and wondering how to fill in the blanks on your gift list.

Enter the lowly gift card. Purists say you might as well stick a wad of cash in an envelope and call it a day, while the boxes-and-bows set sniff at the idea of a gift that has about as much stage presence as a lump of coal. Still, there’s no denying that at this stage of the game, they may be the way to go. And they’re an even easier choice if the cards come with a little bonus — for either the recipient or you. Here are a few travel-related gift cards that fit the bill:

At BedandBreakfast.com, if you order a gift card of $100 or more through December 23, you get a bonus card and free FedEx overnight shipping. Spend $100 to $249 for a $25 bonus, and $250+ for a $75 bonus. If you want the B&B lover in your life to think you’re even more generous than you are (and who doesn’t?), Costco.com has $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift cards for $69.99 — and that includes shipping. Actually, that may make a good gift for yourself once you weather the holidays! Order by December 26.

The Best Western hotel chain has a similar deal: Purchase a $100 gift card through December 31 and you can choose from a list of bonuses, including a $10 Best Western Travel Card or $10 gift cards for Amazon.com, Home Depot or Walmart. If you need to put your in-laws in a hotel over the holidays or you’re planning a getaway to chill, Choice Hotels is offering a $50 Walmart gift card if you stay for three consecutive nights in select cities (including Anaheim, New Orleans and Orlando). Book before January 6 and complete travel by February 15. And members of the Marriott affinity program will be happy to know that through December 31, they can get 10 Marriott Rewards points for every dollar spent on gift cards.

What travelers can resist the gift of food? Chain restaurants may not be the way to get a real flavor of a place, but there’s no denying they’re convenient, and they usually dot the boulevards leading to airports. Many chains have bonuses attached to gift cards, including Macaroni Grill ($5 bonus for every $25 gift card purchased; valid for in-restaurant purchase before January 5) and Applebee’s ($10 bonus when you buy $50 in gift cards at participating locations through February 28).

– written by John Deiner

big ben snow london blizzard gray englandWintry weather wreaked havoc across Europe this weekend, canceling flights, snarling traffic and leaving thousands of travelers stranded. And it’s not over yet.

CNN reports that although London’s Heathrow Airport has reopened (after being closed all weekend due to severe conditions), travelers should continue to expect major delays throughout the week — perhaps even beyond Christmas Day. Other airports across the Continent are also canceling flights today, including Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris, and Germany’s Frankfurt Airport.

The timing of the winter storms has exacerbated the misery for many travelers. “The only thing I want for Christmas is to hug my daughter,” one stranded passenger told CNN.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the last time we see major flight disruptions over the next few months, as blizzards are an all-too-common winter travel hazard. So how can you protect yourself if you’ve got a trip planned for this winter? A few tips:

1. Buy travel insurance. If you’ve prepaid for the bulk of your trip and your itinerary includes airports that could be hit by wintry weather, travel insurance is a vital purchase. (Just keep in mind that it’s too late to be covered for this particular winter storm if you’re headed to Europe in the next week or two.)

2. Build in a little extra time. If you’re trying to get to an important meeting or catch the beginning of a cruise, schedule your arrival for at least a day in advance to allow for unexpected delays.

3. Fly direct when you can. The more connections and layovers are involved, the more chances there are that something will go wrong.

4. If you must connect, route your trip through a warm-weather city.

5. Know your rights. It may be a boring read, but don’t ignore the fine print in your airline’s contract of carriage. Are you entitled to a full refund if your flight is canceled? What will the airline give you (if anything) if your flight is delayed?

6. Book through a travel agent. Having an experienced travel professional on your side can be a huge boon when things go awry on a trip. Your agent can help you find a hotel room or make alternate flight arrangements.

7. Be polite. At the height of a winter storm, airline and airport staff will be feeling just as harried as you are. Treat them kindly and they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile for you.

For more ideas, see Winter Travel Tips.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport line crowd crowded air travelAre you flying tomorrow for Thanksgiving? Brace yourself. Standing between you and your turkey dinner at Grandma’s could be a perfect storm of long lines and ticked-off travelers at the airport.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving has always been one of the year’s busiest travel days (to give you an idea, Boston’s Logan Airport is expecting 100,000 fliers tomorrow — about 30,000 more than normal). But this year, the combination of the TSA’s new security procedures and a traveler-led protest of those procedures could make the usual long holiday lines even worse.

Virginia resident Brian Sodergren created National Opt-Out Day to urge fliers to opt out of the TSA’s new full body scanners and go through a more time-consuming pat-down instead. He encourages fliers to be patted down in public because “Every citizen must see for themselves how the TSA treats law-abiding citizens.”

Frankly, considering that videos of the pat-downs have been splashed all over the media already for the last few weeks, I can’t imagine that the protest is going to raise too much awareness — or do much beyond irritating travelers who simply want to catch their flight and get home for Thanksgiving.

There’s no way to know how many travelers will take part in National Opt-Out Day until it happens, but here are some tips for getting through the airport as swiftly and smoothly as possible tomorrow:

Allow plenty of time. I generally recommend arriving two hours early for a non-peak domestic flight (longer for an international one). Tomorrow I’d allow three or four hours, just in case.

Know what to expect. The new scanners haven’t made it to every security line in every U.S. airport yet, so you may go through the same old metal detector that you’re already used to. But you’ll want to read up on the pat-downs and full body scanners as well so that you’re familiar with all of your options. The TSA offers a list of airports that have the new scanners (though there have been rumors that the list is not 100 percent accurate).

Be polite. Arguing with or abusing the security officers at the checkpoint is not only a great way to slow down your screening but also an unfair way to treat people who are simply carrying out policies they had no hand in creating. Many of them don’t like the TSA’s new procedures any more than you do. Consider a little Thanksgiving kindness to help get all of us through a potentially very rough day.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

holiday trafficOver the river and through the woods and . . . into a horrific travel nightmare?

Maybe. According to AAA, the number of Americans traveling over the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 24-28) is expected to increase more than 11 percent over last year. That translates into 42.2 million travelers driving at least 50 miles from home. Last year, 37.9 million Americans made the jaunt.

Tellingly, that’s significantly lower than the 2005 peak of 58.6 million travelers.

AAA says it all goes to show that distant family and friends still matter (that’s no surprise, is it?) and, more importantly, that wallets have a bit more cash in them this November. According to AAA President Robert L. Darbelnet, “While Americans remain cautious with household budgets and discretionary spending amidst high levels of unemployment, many are in a better financial position this Thanksgiving than a year ago.”

The automotive club explains that the increase “appears to be the result of modestly improved economic conditions since last year, including an increase in gross domestic product, real disposable personal income and household net worth combined with a decrease in consumer debt.”

Bottom line: When all is said and done, a little more traffic on the roads will be a good thing. Unless, that is, you’re stuck in traffic, in which case you’ll rue the day you decided to pack up the green-bean casserole and hit the road. I’ve been traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City for years, often on busy holiday and summer weekends. Here are some things I always try to do to avoid the rush — or what I have on hand when I can’t.

Avoid peak times. Easier said than done, I know, but I hate traffic so much I’ll wake up at dawn or take a nap in the evening and head out at 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. if I have to. I’d rather move at my own pace than sit behind an oil tanker for 13 miles. Conversely, if you can’t change the time of travel, consider changing the day — returning home on Monday or leaving Tuesday night could make a big difference.

Pack a GPS, a smartphone or a good atlas. Seems obvious, but I’m always surprised when I’m in a car that has none of them. My wife and I have gone to the atlas countless times and plotted workarounds when traffic reports paint a dire picture. (Better yet, pore over the map beforehand so you have a Plan B or C before you walk out the door.) There are also numerous smartphone apps (e.g. Google Maps Navigation) that track traffic flow, and don’t forget about dialing 511 when you’re stuck in a jam for the latest info about what lies ahead.

Fill up and stock up. Sure, highway rest areas are convenient spots to fuel up, but the lines can be a real drag if you hit them at the wrong time. I always hop off the highway (even toll roads) and get gas that way. And be sure there are snacks, bottled water, car games, DVD’s, etc., in the vehicle — you never know when nuisance congestion will become an epic wait.

Pay tolls electronically. Many regions have programs that allow you to affix a device to your car and whiz through toll plazas. How come more people don’t use these? In my experience, the E-ZPass lanes in Delaware, New Jersey and New York are frequently car-free; even better, some toll areas establish E-ZPass-only lanes well in advance of the plaza itself, while others have overhead transponders allowing cars to drive through at full speed.

What are your tips for hassle-free holiday driving? (“Stay home” doesn’t count.)

Read More: Holiday Travel 2010: What You Need to Know

– written by John Deiner

rockefeller center christmas tree angels holiday new york cityFor anyone planning a holiday trip to New York City, a fully packed schedule awaits. New York’s holiday celebrations number in the hundreds, and include everything from world-famous events, like the Times Square ball drop or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to Christmas shows and community concerts. The following 10 events are some of our favorites, but to see a more complete list of seasonal activities in the Big Apple, check out the NYC.gov Event Calendar.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade marks the start of New York’s holiday celebrations. The parade, which marches in on November 24, features bunches of fantastical balloons, dozens of mega-floats and performers strutting down the streets of Manhattan. To get the best views of the parade, book a hotel room facing the street on Central Park West or Broadway (these rooms fill up well in advance, so make reservations early). If it’s too late to snag a room with a view, you can always wake up early and stake out a spot on the street where the parade comes through.

Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair
For the 12th consecutive year, Grand Central’s beautiful Vanderbilt Hall will convert into a bustling holiday fair this season. This urbane market isn’t exactly your local holiday bazaar selling pine cone wreaths in the elementary school gym. The fair, presented by the New York Times, features 76 unique vendors offering tasteful, eclectic gifts, from hand-crafted jewelry to fine art and photography. Shops are open daily from November 15 through December 24 (with the exception of Thanksgiving Day).

Radio City Christmas Spectacular
The Rockettes kick-start the season with a colorful, eye-popping musical extravaganza featuring dancing armies of Santas, festive holiday tunes and a living nativity scene with real animals. The G-rated performance is popular with families with young children, but the show works for anyone who isn’t too old to enjoy Christmas songs and sky-high leg kicks. Performances are going on now and run through the end of December.

Hanukkah Concert
On December 12, the second night of Hanukkah, Town and Village Synagogue at 334 East 14th Street will host a sing-along Hanukkah concert with a reception to follow. The concert includes a Hanukkah candle lighting, and everyone is invited to sing along to traditional Jewish folk songs.

New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show
From November 20 through January 9, the New York Botanical Garden exhibits a charming half-mile train track with G-scale model trains and more than 100 hand-constructed mini-New York City landmarks, which are all crafted of plant materials. Grab some hot chocolate and ginger snaps in the Botanical Garden Cafe and spend an afternoon exploring the festive 250-acre display.

George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”
The New York City Ballet’s world-famous “The Nutcracker” performance has been a New York holiday tradition since the 1950′s. Stunning costumes, an iconic score and even a massive one-ton Christmas tree transport viewers to a dreamy fairy-tale world in which toys dance and reindeer fly. There are roughly 45 “The Nutcracker” performances each year between November 26 and January 2, and it’s best to book your tickets early to snag prime seating.

Rockefeller Center
On November 30, thousands will gather to witness the lighting of Rockefeller Center’s iconic Christmas tree. There will be special musical performances during the lighting ceremony (this year Susan Boyle, Mariah Carey and other celebrities will be putting on a good show), but if you can’t make it on that day, it’s always fun to rent some skates and take a spin on the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center next to the sparkling tree.

The Pond at Bryant Park
Waiting for a ticket to get into the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center can take an hour or longer, as only 150 people are allowed on the rink at a time. A nice, less touristy and free (that’s right — admission is free!) ice skating alternative is the Pond at Bryant Park. The outdoor rink stays open from the end of October through the end of February, and skate rentals are available on site.

The World’s Largest Menorah
The lighting of the biggest menorah in the world — the monument is 32 feet tall — happens at 4 p.m. on December 11 at the Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan (Fifth Avenue at 59th Street). The ceremony will include dancing, Jewish foods and performances by folk singers. Admission is free.

New Year’s Eve in Times Square
Okay, this one’s obvious. The Times Square New Year’s Eve ceremony pretty much marks the end of the city’s holiday festivities — and it’s the world’s most famous New Year’s Eve party — so we had to give it a mention. If you want to get in the action, you’ll have to arrive in the square pretty early on December 31 to stake out a good spot. No public restrooms are available, and there are no food or drink vendors, so make sure to do your business before you head to the square, and pack a snack.

For more information on the Big Apple, don’t miss our Top 25 Ways to Save on New York City Travel.

–written by Caroline Costello

thanksgiving turkey meal mashed potatoes asparagus side dishes holidayThis Thanksgiving, a trip to enjoy turkey and all the trimmings with your loved ones will cost you — especially if you choose the wrong days to fly.

Travelocity has analyzed average domestic airfares for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday to see which travel days offer the best deals for fliers. The results?

The lowest average fare that Travelocity found was for flights departing on Thanksgiving Day and returning the following Tuesday, November 30. Flights on these days would set you back just $293 roundtrip. Compare that to the most popular dates to fly: depart the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Sunday after, and you’ll pay $463 — a difference of $170. (You can see the full fare chart by visiting the link above.)

If these numbers look a little high, it’s not your imagination. Travelocity reports that fares are about 10 percent higher than they were at the same time last year.

Unsurprisingly, avoiding the most popular travel days is the key to finding an affordable flight — but for some of us, a lower fare isn’t worth an inconvenient schedule (or a few extra days with the in-laws). What’s your Thanksgiving travel strategy? Will you be flying on peak days or off-peak days … or will you be staying home to avoid the whole mess?

–written by Sarah Schlichter