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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

dream of vacationWith temperatures dipping as low as 10 degrees the last two days here in IndependentTraveler.com’s neck of the woods, we’re thinking about ways we can pretend we’re someplace warmer — without emptying our wallets or burning vacation time so early in the year. The result is a list of tongue-in-cheek ideas for how to bring the sun and sand to us. Read on for a five-step plan to travel without leaving home.

Step 1: “Pack” for a week’s worth of beachy fun by bringing all those summer clothes to the front of your closet. Put together the most crazy, touristy outfit you can find — Hawaiian shirts, board shorts, white athletic socks, hats, sunglasses, lanyards and even some zinc oxide for your nose.

How to Pack for a Beach Vacation

Step 2: Create a menu of tropical drinks and mix ‘em up. Then set up beach chairs in your living room, and invite several friends to lounge and sip with you. You get bonus points for playing ocean sounds on your iPod or scenes of beaches and palm trees on your television.

Step 3: Dig the kiddie pool out of the basement, fill it with sand — colorful play sand is always fun — and pick up a bucket-and-shovel set to make yourself some sandcastles.

Step 4: Crank the heat up to 85 degrees, put on your tiniest bikini or Speedo, and set up a “beach” volleyball tournament in your dining room. (Use a beach ball so as not to break anything.)

Step 5: Soak your feet in a warm foot bath to get that ocean sensation while applying self-tanner. (Keep your swimsuit on while you do it, as tan lines add to the authenticity.)

Living room party just not enough? Plan a real getaway with our slideshow of 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

canceled delayed airport departure boardIf you’ve ever wished for a crystal ball, you might be in luck — at least as far as air travel is concerned. Imagine the scenario: You’re flying home for Christmas, presents crammed carefully into your carry-on. After arriving at the airport, you learn that due to impending snow, your flight has been delayed by hours or, worse, canceled completely. Talk about a holiday headache. That’s where KnowDelay comes in.

The new service, which covers 36 of the United States’ busiest airports, uses a combination of weather tracking and airline flight schedules to predict when your flight might be impacted by impending bad weather.

It’s free to sign up, and when you create an account, you can have “Captain Delay” — the mastermind behind the site — track your flights and send you alerts, allowing you to know as far as three days in advance whether you should attempt to rebook before your flight is canceled.

Airport Delays: 6 Ways to Cope

KnowDelay will also provide you with a list of alternate flights that are available, should you choose to change your plans. Keep in mind that you may face change fees for rebooking or canceling your itinerary in advance (although airlines often waive these during severe weather events). For some travelers, paying a change fee may be cheaper in the end than having to shell out for a hotel during a weather delay or missing an important client meeting.

If you’re a last-minute traveler and you’re booking your flight within three days of your trip, you can use KnowDelay proactively to determine which flights are ideal and which ones to avoid.

Here’s a more in-depth look at how the service works:


Have you had a flight delay fiasco in the past? Share your story below.

Winter Travel Tips

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Home of the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole is one of the best places on Planet Earth to see wildlife in winter. This is not to slight nearby Yellowstone National Park. It’s just that the “hole” that is Jackson Hole concentrates a lot of animals in a relatively small, convenient space. So on a recent day off from skiing, my wife and I tried to see how many furry critters we could spot in one day.

bighorn sheep


Because we were staying at Spring Creek Ranch, which overlooks the town of Jackson, we took a wildlife tour with Kurt Johnson, Spring Creek’s chief naturalist. Armed with a BS in wildlife biology, an MS in natural resources and a van full of optical gear, Johnson knows wildlife better than Batali knows pasta.

Before we’d even left the ranch Johnson spotted some long-eared mule deer, including a 400-pound buck. Mule deer, like many animals in cold habitats, grow larger than their cousins in more temperate areas. But there are exceptions to every rule: We also passed a northern shrike, a tiny, innocuous-looking songbird that impales its prey on thorns until they bleed to death. Tough neighborhood.

Winter Vacations Without the Skis

Our first stop was on the eastern edge of the flat, rectangular National Elk Refuge,
where about 7,000 elk spend the winter. You see extremely healthy specimens here: elk cows that weigh up to 500 pounds and bulls of almost 900 pounds. Just 100 feet from us, a bull with huge antlers picked a fight with another bull. For a minute or two they banged heads, popping rim shots we could hear over the howling wind. But then, with the females long past their September estrous period, the boys suddenly forgot why they were fighting, and resumed grazing side by side.

elk fighting national refuge


To the north of the elk stood a few bison, notwithstanding signs indicating that this is an elk refuge. Johnson lends his clients binoculars and a telescope so powerful that we could see vapor from the bisons’ breath. Farther to our right, on a bluff near the road, four bighorn sheep watched us warily. That 200- to 250-pound animals with NFL chests can scamper up these cliff faces is an unlikely adaptation, but that’s why it works.

In less than an hour we’d seen four large mammals on our wish list, plus trumpeter swans and adorable Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks. “Think we’ll see any carnivores?” I asked. Johnson said, “Maybe.” Good answer.

Cozy Winter Getaway Ideas

He drove us to the Gros Ventre River, where two moose waded in the frigid water. I’d watched moose wading here in summer, green water dripping from their fur, but now it had started to snow, and these moose had iceballs clinging to their coats.

Moose weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. A huge bull moose rested on a bank near us, blinking stoically as icy flakes pelted its eyes. It’s their overlapping upper lips that make moose look dim-witted, but watching one of these hump-backed creatures wait out a squall, you understand its ability to survive without mastering rocket science.

moose gros ventre river snow


Our return route led alongside the refuge again. Suddenly, Johnson pointed to a coyote on the field. Coyotes are elusive creatures: We hear them at night near our house in Pennsylvania, and we find their scat in the morning, but they never show themselves in daylight. This one paraded right past us, offering as good a look at Canis latrans as you’ll ever get outside a zoo. It was a big one, too. “Coyotes are so large here,” said Johnson, “visitors think they’re wolves.”

A local had told us about a pack of especially ambitious coyotes that had attacked an elk a few days earlier. This coyote, though, trotted toward an elk that was already dead. Just as it got there, a bald eagle swooped down to the carcass. When the food is this good, the most unlikely companions will do lunch.

Our 10 Favorite National Parks

– written by Ed Wetschler, executive editor of Tripatini

airport airplane snowEvery 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.

Fliers, grab your scarves and brace yourselves. Winter starts tomorrow, ushering in the season of snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain and other weather conditions guaranteed to make your life miserable at the airport. And if it’s anything like last year, this winter could be a doozy. (Here in New Jersey, I didn’t see my front lawn for two months straight.)

Don’t let the season snow on your parade this year. Delayed and canceled flights are almost a given during winter storms, so if the 10-day forecast looks grim before your departure date, consider the following tip from Ed Hewitt:

“Most hotels don’t charge your card until you show up at the front desk, so you can usually safely book a room and cancel if your flight does take off reasonably on time. If you’re stuck in an airport without easy Internet access, a good tactic is to have on hand the phone number of your preferred booking Web site. … Check out airport hotels first. Subsequently look for off-airport hotels that offer shuttle service to the airport so you can ditch your rental car or otherwise count on a ride to the airport without too much trouble or expense.”

For best results, book that airport hotel several days before your scheduled departure date, and then cancel the reservation if you don’t need it; it’ll be much easier to find a room in advance than on the day a foot of snow closes your airport and leaves thousands of travelers stranded. Just be sure to check the hotel’s cancellation policy.

For more advice, read Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope and Winter Travel Tips.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

It’s the most accessible winter sports destination in the United States: You can fly nonstop to Salt Lake City from any major gateway, take a 35-minute van ride to Park City, and hit the slopes that same day. Moreover, Park City’s three ski resorts — Deer Valley, the Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort — offer free lift tickets to first-day arrivals. Between the three resorts you’ve got 9,000 acres of downhill terrain (Vail, the largest single ski resort in the U.S., has 5,300) and accommodations at all levels (starting at $40 a night at Chateau Apres). Plus, you don’t even need a rental car because Park City has the best shuttle system in ski country.

Pretty sweet. But the three resorts have found ways to make things even better this year. Here’s what’s new:

1. The Orange Bubble Express
The Canyons is huge — 4,000 acres huge — and its endless glades are a big draw for advanced skiers and snowboarders. But up until this year, everyone had to take one gondola up from the base village; not only was the line huge, but getting to the gondola — located at the very far end of the village — was a hardship. And these boots were not made for walking. So this year the gondola has been moved to the center of the village, which is also where the cabriolet from the parking lot ends. Moreover, there is now a second lift, the Orange Bubble Express, which has heated seats (ahhh) and a bubble top to keep out the elements.

orange bubble express



2. Zip Lines
Canyon Mountain Sports (435-615-3440) at the Canyons has two new zip lines: an intermediate zip line that takes you on an 800-foot tree-top ride through the Red Pine area, and an advanced zip line that flies across the canyon between Lookout Peak and Red Pine Lodge, spanning more than 2,111 feet. Ticket prices haven’t been released yet; expect something like $20 for the longer run. Not to be outdone, Park City Mountain Resort has a new summer and winter Flying Eagle Zip Line ($14) as well as a ZipRider ($20) on which you can race your friends (just in case skiing or snowboarding don’t provide enough thrills for you).

zip line



3. New Restaurants at the Canyons
There are several new restaurants — and they’re both kind of surprising. The Farm, which features locally sourced, seasonal cuisine like the entree shown below, is the sort of place you’d expect to see at Deer Valley, the zillion-star resort at the other end of Park City. The Farm’s executive chef, John Murcko, was recently named the best chef in Salt Lake City. A second place, Bistro at Canyons, is the first certified glatt kosher restaurant at any American or European ski resort. It has an Orthodox synagogue next door, too, so you can finally find out if davening really does stretch your leg muscles for skiing.

the farm



4. Deer Valley Resort’s Better Grooming
Deer Valley, which readers of “Ski Magazine” have named the best resort in North America for four years in a row, has slopes so flawless that my Colorado friend wonders if they bleach the snow. Even so, the place has four new snowcats, including two Prinoth Beasts that upgrade trail grooming by 40 percent. Improving Deer Valley’s grooming by 40 percent is like boosting Scarlett Johansson’s attractiveness by 40 percent.

trail grooming



5. Kids’ Stuff
Deer Valley is decidedly not snowboard friendly, but in every other way it’s exceedingly family friendly, so this winter the resort is rolling out a new children’s outdoor play area next to the Snow Park Lodge as well as a trail map designed just for children and families. The map is light on the snowcat and heli-skiing, but strong on more parent-approved ways to enjoy the place. Deer Valley has also installed four new conveyor belts to transport kids and beginner skiers up the mountain. Meanwhile, Park City Mountain Resort has a new Beginners Zone with two conveyor belts for ski and snowboard students of all ages.

ski school



6. The Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort
The new dirt-work foundation for Park City Mountain Resort’s 22-foot superpipe doesn’t sound that important. After all, you can’t even see it. But it will allow the resort to open the facility earlier in the season; that’s pretty remarkable, because even without this new foundation, onthesnow.com had singled out Park City Mountain Resort for having the best terrain parks in America. (Of the three resorts, P.C.M.R. is also the one with a lift that’s right in town.)

superpipe



7. Snowmamas Rock!
Snowmamas.com, a new microsite sponsored by Park City Mountain Resort, is an online community of moms (and dads) who live in town. They’re real people, too; their faces are on the site, and you’ll run into some of them in town. They tell visitors about local deals and offer insiders’ tips to us flatlanders. And best of all, there’s an “Ask a Snowmama” widget on the site, so you can get answers to specific questions about gear, baby sitters, shopping, child-friendly restaurants, anything.

snowmamas



– written by Ed Wetschler, the executive editor of Tripatini.com, the travel social media site a.k.a. “Facebook for travelers.”

assistance aheadWith many parts of the Northeast still reeling from last weekend’s freak snowstorm, we’re all thinking: Is this a harbinger of things to come? Are we in for another three or four months of delayed flights, bitter-cold commutes and slush up to our ankles?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s winter outlook is all over the place (could be bad, could be ok), but I know this much for sure: As long as there are travel angels out there, we’ll survive.

Oh, you know what a travel angel is — it’s that person who sweeps out of nowhere to help you when you’re on the road. It’s the old lady who helps keep your restless child occupied on a crowded plane, the shopkeeper who gives you directions to the cathedral when you’re looking particularly lost, the cab driver who cuts you a break when you’ve discovered you don’t have enough local currency to pay the fare.

How to Solve 4 Common Travel Disasters

I had my own experience with a travel angel a few days ago when my wife and I drove through the Great Halloween Nor’easter en route to a wedding in Northwest New Jersey. We left just as the storm intensified and, quite frankly, it caught us off guard. We’d anticipated wet roads and a minimum of inconvenience, but before long we were dodging falling branches and sliding cars. (I know what you’re thinking: We should have turned back. But our desire to get to the black-tie wedding got the better of us, so we continued on.)

Hours passed as the expected 90-minute drive became a six-hour odyssey. Finally, as we neared the ski resort where the wedding was taking place, the snow began falling even harder and the skies grew darker. That’s when we came to a dead halt on the hill leading to the main entrance, stuck behind four other cars mired in the snow and ice.

After 45 minutes of sliding around, we were about to ditch the car and walk the final half mile to the resort, even though we weren’t quite sure where it was. That’s when … he appeared.

A man dressed in a bright orange shirt banged on my window and pointed down the road at a barely visible snow plow — he was the driver and wanted to help get everyone on their way. He asked if I had a snow shovel on me (why, yes I did!), then spent the next half hour shoveling under everyone’s wheels and pushing them off the road to make way for his plow. When he cleared the hill, he returned and made sure we could get onto the freshly plowed asphalt.

We called him the Great Pumpkin (hey, he was wearing an orange shirt!), but he was really a travel angel — and the very best kind at that. He came out of nowhere, vanished as quickly as he appeared (we didn’t even have time to tip him), and turned what could have been a disaster of a trip into something special. We will never forget him.

Have you encountered a travel angel? Share your story in the comments.

– written by John Deiner

cancelled canceled airport departure board flight statusJust a week after snowstorms grounded air traffic across Europe, the U.S. Northeast found itself besieged by a blizzard of its own. The storm has forced the cancellation of nearly 10,000 flights over the past few days — and a columnist for Daily Finance, Peter Cohan, notes that many of these flights were canceled even before the snow started.

Cohan’s flight was one of them. “On Sunday, my family had been expecting to fly back home to Boston from Milwaukee,” he writes. “But Frontier Airlines … canceled our flight, cheerfully notifying us that we could catch another one five days later.” Rather than sitting around in Milwaukee for the better part of a week, Cohan and his family rented a car and drove home instead. Even though his plane would have arrived before the worst of the blizzard that hit Boston, Cohan instead had to shell out extra money for the rental car, gas, hotels and meals for the two days it took him to drive across the country.

The early axing of Cohan’s flight is part of a growing trend that New York Times aviation reporter Matthew Wald calls “pre-cancellation.” Hoping to keep their planes from being stranded at airports where bad weather is expected, many airlines are opting not to fly to those airports at all, instead canceling the flights and sending the planes to other unaffected destinations. It’s good news for some travelers, as Wald explains:

“The advantage is suppose you have a plane that was supposed to go from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Orlando, if they [had] flown into New York, they could not have gotten back to Charlotte and then they couldn’t gotten from Charlotte to Orlando. This way, at least, they can fly back and forth between Charlotte and Orlando.”

This strategy also helps protect the airlines from financial losses by keeping people moving (and seats full) instead of leaving planes stranded for days at snow-struck airports. And it makes it easier for the airlines to avoid the hefty fines that the Department of Transportation has instituted for planes that sit more than three hours on a tarmac — up to $27,500 per passenger.

But is this strategy fair to passengers like Cohan, whose plane could have arrived safely before the blizzard hit? Is his anger justified, or are the airlines simply making the best of a bad situation? Let us know what you think in the comments.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s nothing pretty about vacation-shattering winter weather, especially in light of the monster blizzard that blanketed the East Coast of the U.S. yesterday. But in the spirit of optimism, of searching for the silver lining in this frigid cloud of ice, I got inspired to take a moment and appreciate the beauty of the delicate piles of powder sculpted by the bitter wind outside my window. (The IndependentTraveler.com office is located in New Jersey, which, as of this posting, remains in an official state of emergency because of the storm.) Snow so often casts a quiet spell on its surroundings, whether in frosted Scandinavian cities or dramatic Alaskan landscapes. Even the humdrum undeveloped fields near our office appear ethereal and serene after a good snowfall.

Below are some charming snow photos snapped by fellow travelers in wintry locales. Do you have a favorite snow white winter destination? Share it with us in the comments!

Juneau ice climbing



Ice climbing on Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, courtesy of Dan Askin.

Helsinki



Ferries in Helsinki, courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.

new york snow



Snow in New York’s Central Park, courtesy of Catherine Sweeney (see more photos of New York during winter on Traveling with Sweeney).

peru winter



Andes Mountains, Peru, courtesy of WackyHeathen.

– written by Caroline Costello