Monday, June 29, 2009

United 2-for-1 Tickets to Canada from Select U.S. Cities

With clear air, sunny skies, and warm weather, there is no time like the present for making a trip north of the border. Throw in an excellent fare sale, and you’re good to go.

Right now, United Airlines is offering a FREE companion ticket with the purchase of a ticket to Canada at regular price.

The catch? You have to depart from Denver, Chicago, or Washington DC.

The offer is valid through July 5th, 2009 for travel through September 30th. It’s too cold after then to travel here anyways! :)

I saw prices for two from around $400 – a steal for a Canada-bound flight. Book your tickets today!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wild Burros, Gunfights, and a Haunted Hotel!

Here's your chance to spend a day back in time in a location reminiscent of the Old West as it used to be. And if you just happen to be lucky enough, you may even catch a glimpse of a ghost!

If you've ever traveled Interstate 40 from eastern California into far western Arizona, you know it can be a desolate and intimidating drive! I've often driven through here on my way to Laughlin, Nevada, a small but popular gaming resort 90 miles south of Las Vegas. But if you're looking for something to do where you can take the whole family along and not gamble away your cash, give Oatman, Arizona a try. It's not one of those typical tourist traps that requires you to pay a fee to get in, such a California's Calico Ghost Town. This place is the real deal - authentic and entirely free to roam around in and explore. It's located right on Old Route 66 just west of Kingman, or about a 15 minute drive north of I-40 in northwest Arizona. Oatman consists of about 30+ gift, craft, and antique shops, a restaurant, a bar, and even a hotel (which we'll talk about later).

Oatman began in the late 1800's as a mining tent camp that quickly became a thriving gold-mining center. In the year 1915, two miners struck a $10 million gold find, and within a year, the town's population exploded to nearly 3,500. But both the population and mining booms were somewhat short-lived. A fire back in 1921 burned down many of the smaller buildings in town, and just a few years later, the main mining company shut down operations for good. In any case, the town was quickly rebuilt. After that, Oatman catered mostly to travelers commuting Route 66 who frequented the hotel, restaurant, and various other shops. The city nearly died in the 1960's when Interstate 40 was built through this area. Today it thrives pretty much entirely on tourism.

As your drive takes you closer into the town, there's a chance you may encounter some stopped traffic. How could this be out in the "middle of nowhere"? Well, this town is full of roaming wild burros! The burros are tame and occasionally wander out of the town a bit onto the roads leading into Oatman. They love to be hand-fed, so make sure you bring with you a bag a their favorite munchies - carrots! But don't worry if you forget, almost every shop in town sells them. So why are these animals out here anyways? Oatman's "wild burros" are the descendants of burros brought here by the miners back in the late 1800's. When the community was abandoned for mining purposes years later, the burros were turned loose. Their population continued to thrive. They wander the city streets by day before heading back to the hills before sunset. In fact, shopkeepers have a difficult time keeping them from popping their heads into the front doors of their businesses! Kids and adults alike love petting the burros and they fully enjoy all the attention! You must remember to bring your camera ... and be careful where you step!

Weekends can be a little crowded, but it's still the best time to visit Oatman if you're able. This is when Main Street turns rowdy in the afternoon as mock "Wild West" shootouts take place in the middle of town, right on Route 66. Shows are put on at various scheduled hours. Also, don't be surprised if you get pulled in by one of the actors to participate in the show! I know because this happened to me once! These gunfights also take place weekdays, usually at about 1:30 p.m. It can get very hot here in the summer, so bring a hat and wear lots of sunscreen. Summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. In fact, every fourth of July weekend, Oatman hosts a Sidewalk Egg Frying Contest in between gun fights on Main Street!

I'm usually skeptical when I hear stories about ghosts and paranormal phenomena, but I became a little less so on my last visit to the Oatman Hotel. This building is said to have not just one, but multiple spirits haunting the grounds, two of which are famous. Until just a few years ago, you could still rent a room for the night in one of the half-dozen or so units at the property. This city's only hotel was built back in 1902 and lies smack-dab in the middle of town.
Way back in 1939, celebrities Clark Gable and Carole Lombard came into Oatman to spend the night at the old hotel after just having been married in Kingman, Arizona. Over the next few years, both often returned here to enjoy the peaceful quiet and spend time together in the place where they spent their honeymoon. In 1942, just 3 years after their wedding, Carole Lombard was tragically killed in a plane crash. Their time together was short-lived. The room in which they stayed has since been very haunted! Former guests and staff have told stories of hearing faint whispering and giggling coming from their old room, particularly at night, when it was vacant. Lights sometimes flicker on and off and toilets are heard to flush in the empty bathrooms. A former chambermaid and a former live-in (an Irish miner) have also been known to haunt this hotel. The miner's former room is often found to be a mess by those working there. The bed sheets are frequently discovered to be thrown off the bed onto the floor and windows that were closed will mysteriously be found open! This spirit is known by the present day staff as "Oatie". People also frequently observe imprints on the bedding and pillows in rooms that are off limits to visitors. You'll definitely want to walk upstairs through the corridors and peer into each of the rooms. On my last visit here I took some snapshots. I swear to this day that in one of my photos, I caught what appears to be an image of a woman's face in the right-hand corner of a portrait! Just look for the room with the portrait of a "reindeer" in it ... Maybe you'll see it too!
For a fun way to spend an afternoon without the need to empty your wallet, I would highly recommend a visit to this unique place called Oatman. Check it out when you're passing through the area ... there's something here for all ages!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Big Cities That Deserve More of Your Attention!

We're all familiar with the major tourist destinations that draw the most tourist dollars. Las Vegas, Southern California, Orlando, Chicago, and the Washington-Boston corridor see heaps of international and domestic visitors alike. But what about other big cities, ones that are just as exciting but are often neglected (and even forgotten)?

Here are my picks for the five best under-rated big cities around us. I hope you'll consider something different on your next vacation and try one of these out. Each of them is perfect for a weekend getaway.

5. Jacksonville, Florida, USA

It's often forgotten that this huge city, the largest in the United States by area, is even a part of Florida. Perched on the banks of the St. James River, 15 miles inland from the Atlantic and just 30 miles south of Georgia, Jacksonville is a city set apart, with a much different 'feel' than other cities in Florida. Once you appreciate this, it becomes instantly likeable. Like its motto states, this is "Where Florida Begins".

Start your journey in the Jacksonville area with a visit to the coastline, just a short drive east of the city. On the roughly thirty mile stretch parallel to Jacksonville, you'll find Amelia Island & Ferdinanda Beach, Big Talbot Island State Park, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jacksonville Beach. These locations offer a great alternative to the busy, jam-packed beaches further south; you're guaranteed to have a bit more room to stretch out here.

Heading back to Jacksonville, tour the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens - lauded as one of the southeastern USA's best. This 73-acre park features mainly African wildlife - the kids will love the elephants, lions, rhinos, and cheetahs. It'll take you around three hours to fully explore this park. Don't miss the train ($4.00) that circuits the entire zoo, providing some great viewing opportunities. Not much of a zoo person, try out a museum - Jacksonville has several. From the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, to the Museum of Science and Industry, you are sure to find something to your liking around the city.

For dinner, visit the beautiful Jacksonville Landing, located in the heart of downtown on the banks of the river. This shopping, entertainment, and dining complex is Jacksonville's answer to Miami's Bayside, or Tampa's Channelside. You'll find plenty of restaurants here, as well as great views of the downtown skyline and the river. Take a stroll through a few of the galleries here, learn the history of the city on the interpretive signs along the river, or just relax with friends and family over drinks at sunset.

4. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

This industrialized city probably wouldn't make this list if it were not for its beautiful setting - perhaps the most beautiful setting of any large city in the United States. Downtown Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, surrounded by rounded mountain peaks, and framed by a series of arching bridges.

The historic incline railways (funiculars) provide a lift up Mount Washington to some of the best views of the city that you'll ever hope to see. Start with the Monongahela Incline, which is nearer to downtown and will give you a good sense of the downtown skyline for a mere $2.00 round-trip. Then, visit the more scenic but pricier ($3.75) Dusquene Incline, perched right above the point of confluence of the three rivers. You'll be facing the Golden Triangle head on here, and your camera will surely be happy. If you feel like checking out the confluence from ground-level, visit the aptly named Point State Park, right at the tip of the Golden Triangle of downtown Pittsburgh. The massive fountain at the tip of the point is quite impressive.

In the need for some history? Check out the Carnegie Museums, a group of four unique museums that will need a good day or two to explore thoroughly. These include the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Science, and the Andy Warhol Museum. Prefer to animal-watch? Check out the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium, home to a great children's section.

Nightlife needed? Head for The Strip District (the old warehouse district) or Station Square (the old train station, converted into an entertainment complex). The latter is located right across the street from the Monongahela Incline, so park here and walk over for some sunset viewing before heading back down for a great dinner.

3. Atlanta, Georgia, USA

I've known plenty of people who have called Atlanta "the most boring city in the USA". I'm not sure where they are visiting to become so unimpressed - truly, Atlanta is one of the most vibrant and entertaining cities in the United States. I went here for a rainy Spring Break in 2005 with friends, and yes, we were scorned for not joining the crowds in Panama City and Daytona Beach - but I don't regret it for a minute. There is TONS to do here, at any time of the year.

Downtown holds the majority of attractions, but there are plenty of sights further afield that you'll need a car or public transportation for. Starting downtown is a great idea - begin with the excellent Underground Atlanta shopping center, located (you guessed it) under the downtown core. Here, the streets of Old Atlanta are preserved, with original storefronts, historic automobiles on display, and even a couple of dancing cows. You'll need at least an hour to appreciate everything it has to offer.

Continue your downtown tour with a visit to the World of Coca-Cola, learning everything you'd ever want to know about Coke and how it evolved into the company it is today. You'll especially like the end of the tour - the visit to the tasting room - where you will be able to try around 25 different types of soda from around the world. I recommend the lychee-flavored Lychee Mello soda from Thailand. Steer clear of the nausea-inducing Beverly (a bitter apertif) from Italy.

Located right next to the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium is sure to please young and old alike. It's the world's largest aquarium, so you'll need a full day to explore. The great thing about the Georgia Aquarium is how interactive it is - you'll be able to touch and feel plenty of undersea creatures, including stingrays and horseshoe crabs (just watch those fingers).

Other attractions you will want to include on your itinerary to Atlanta include the Georgia State Capitol, CNN Center and Studio Tour (the global headquarters of CNN News), the Martin Luther King National Historic Site (the historic church of MLK, and his final resting place), the excellent Zoo Atlanta (highly recommended - you will need a full day here), Centennial Olympic Park (with wonderful run-through fountains on hot summer days), Stone Mountain Park (gondola ride to the top of Stone Mountain, with trains, laser light shows, and great views), and Six Flags Over Georgia (amusement park).

Save money on most attractions in Atlanta by visiting a branch of AtlanTIX. They offer same-day, non-refundable tickets at steep discounts. I purchased a zoo admission using their service, for around half the cost of retail.

2. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Edmonton, the northernmost city in the world with a population of over one million, is truly one of Canada's best. Located roughly 6 hours north of the US border (Montana) on Interstate 15, it's well off the beaten track, but rewards those who seek it out and make an effort to discover it with some of the best attractions in North America.

Edmonton's main claim to fame is the West Edmonton Mall, which was the World's largest mall until 2004 (the current record holder is in China). Currently, the West Edmonton Mall holds the title of the largest mall in North America, beating out Minnesota's Mall of America by over 1.1 million square feet. If you've been to the Mall of America, you know how impressive it is to have a theme park at its core. But imagine a larger theme park, a regulation-size skating rink, the world's largest indoor waterpark, a sea lion and flamingo habitat, a full-size model of the Santa Maria for children to explore, several themed avenues (ie. "Bourbon Street", "Chinatown", and "Europa Boulevard"), over 800 stores for your shopping pleasure, a full service casino, and an on-site family-oriented hotel, and you've got the West Edmonton Mall. You can spend days here and always find something new to do.

But, it doesn't end with a shopping mall - Edmonton is a beautiful city in its own right. It has the most urban green space of any other city in North America, highlighted by its expansive river valley. This endless sea of green, bisecting the city just south of the downtown core, is over 22 times larger than New York City's Central Park. It's truly a whole other world, with over 100 miles of hiking trails within the city limits, all of which yearn to be explored.

Be sure to check the events calendar before making any trip to Edmonton. It's the self-proclaimed Festival City, home to over 30 annual festivals, from Shakespeare-in-the-Park to Indian culture, from jazz to bluegrass, to the popular Fringe Theater Festival, everything is represented here. The highlight of the summer is the Capital Exhibition, roughly equivilent to a State Fair in the United States, with thrill rides, shows, and exhibits.

Needing more reasons to visit? Check out the nightlife of the hip-and-historic Old Strathcona district, the history within the Royal Alberta Museum, or the fragrant tranquility of the Muttart Conservatory (an indoor botanical garden). Also, be sure not to miss the stately (and decidedly British) Alberta Provincial Legislature (ie. State Capitol); a tour of the plush interior will not dissapoint.

1. Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Oh, how I love Kansas City. There isn't anywhere else that I know of that holds such amazing sights, but gets the cold snub on family vacations or romantic weekend getaways. And can it get any better?

Let's start with the obvious - Kansas City BBQ. It's simply a necessity, and you won't find a better place to sample it than at the flagship restaurant of the world-famous Arthur Bryant's Barbecue, just east of the 18th and Vine Jazz District south of downtown (1727 Brooklyn Avenue) . It might not be in the best neighborhood (don't leave valuables in your car), but this tiny hole-in-the-wall is one of the best restaurants in the USA. Skip the plate and ask for your order to be wrapped to go - you'll recieve more food for the same price, and given the portions here, you'll definitely have leftovers. Saunter up to the counter and ask for the two meat combo (I prefer brisket and pulled pork). A pile of white bread will be casually tossed onto a piece of butcher's paper, followed by a good mess of meat thrown onto them, finished off with a huge pile of fries and pickles to garnish. It's then slathered in sauce and wrapped for your consuming pleasure. You don't come here for the presentation, you come here for the flavor. A decent meal will cost you no more than $12 or so. Do not miss this place. It would be like missing heaven itself. After your meal, take a while to view the history on the walls, including several visits by famous actors and Presidents.

Be sure to head on down to the south end of the city to take in Country Club Plaza. Now, when I first heard this horridly uninviting name, I pictured yuppies and golf carts, but this is not so. In reality, you'll find Kansas City's main entertainment and nightlife district, featuring the stunning fountains the city is famous for, leafy, relaxing plazas, and beautiful Andalusian Spanish architecture (including a replica of Seville's Giralda tower). It's charming, romantic, and a beautiful place for an evening stroll with your significant other on a calm summer evening. Dining tip: Head for McCormick & Schmicks for their happy hour menu ($1.95 entrees with any drink purchase, even non-alcoholic selections). Happy hour is 3:30 PM - 6:30 PM, or 9 PM - close, daily.

In the mood for sightseeing? Head for the Liberty Memorial, a 217 foot tower within Penn Valley Park. The views of downtown Kansas City from its observation deck are superb. After the views, visit the National World War I Museum, housed within the memorial. If you're a jazz lover, you will want to visit the excellent 18th and Vine Historic District and the American Jazz Museum, checking out the old jazz theatres therein, including the Gem and the Blue Room. It's located (you guessed it) at the corner of 18th and Vine, just southeast of the city center.

Other sights worth considering around town include the many riverboat casinos, the surprisingly large Kansas City Zoo, the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun theme parks, the historic City Market, and the Hallmark Cards Visitor Center (literally everything you ever wanted to know about greeting cards :))

As you can see, there is much more out there than the ordinary!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cheap Eats In Vegas You Can Always Bet On!

Okay, you're thinking about doing that Vegas trip and perhaps you've figured out where you're going to crash at the end of the night. So that's all fine and dandy, but when you blow all that cash and nearly max out your bank cards in the casinos, how do you go about budgeting for the remainder of your trip? One way is by not having to spend an arm and a leg on meals and snacks! Fortunately for you, Vegas is just the place for finding dirt cheap meals, buffets, and other miscellaneous eats!

Chow Down on Some Fried Twinkies and Oreos
No, I am not making this up! Head on over to Mermaids Casino (32 Fremont Street) in Downtown Las Vegas for a treat you're not likely to find anywhere else on the planet! If you don't mind filling up on a zillion calories and artery-clogging trans-fats, sample one of these fried Twinkies or fried Oreos for a mere 99 cents each! If fried foods aren't your thing, why not have yourself a chocolate-dipped banana or a half pound hot dog here! Or heck, for a complete, well-rounded meal, why not buy yourself one of each! Each item is again, only 99 cents. This is one of the only places I know of where you can have yourself a margarita served up for just a buck!

Hot Dogs, Beer, and More Health Food
I never go to Vegas without stopping at Slots-A-Fun Casino in the middle of the Strip for one of the tastiest 99-cent half-pound hot dogs known to man! You eat one of these and I promise you won't want anything else for 2 days! For an extra 50 cents, try smothering your dog with chili! The place is a bit ghetto and you certainly don't go there for the ambiance, but you can't beat the cheap price on alcoholic drinks. For $1.75 try a lime margarita, or have yourself a bottle of Heineken for $2 each. You can also purchase a shrimp cocktail among many other items. For those wanting to fork over a few more bucks for a meal easier on the stomach, Subway is another option located in this casino. Locate this fun place at 2890 Las Vegas Blvd. South.

All-You-Can-Eat Buffets (The Affordable Ones!)
Why spend $25 at the Bellagio for stuffing yourself silly when you can do just the same somewhere else for a third of the price? Just as with hotel rates, an "off-strip" hotel will charge you much less for an all-you-can-eat feast for nearly the same cost as a fast food joint or a Denny's restaurant. These buffets are generally good, but without all the fancy frills. They offer you plenty of basic meat and potatoes, some seafood, and a wide variety of desserts and beverage.
Here's a Tip: By joining a hotel's player's club and obtaining a player's club card at the casino (which is free), you will often be charged a dollar or two less for your buffet than the regular price listed. These bucks will add up if you're like me and only eat at the buffets! Arizona Charlie's (Both the Decatur and Boulder locations) offer some of the lowest prices at roughly 5 bucks for breakfast, $6 for lunch, and $8 for dinner (With Players Card). Compare this with one of the cheapest-priced "Strip" buffets at Circus Circus Hotel where breakfast will set you back about $10, lunch about $12, and dinner about $13.

Skip the Denny's and check out this place!
(The Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge)
I hesitated about mentioning this place for the simple reason that it's not the cheapest of Las Vegas eats, but you must give this one a try! Spend some of those gambling winnings here ... it's well worth it! This popular restaurant/lounge, very well known and visited by locals and tourists alike, serves up some of the tastiest meals 24 hours a day/7 days a week at competitive prices!
For those of you slightly inebriated folks (and you sober ones) out and about at 4 a.m. searching the strip for that late night/early morning meal, look no further! The Peppermill offers diners a variety of breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare that will make you think you just left the buffet! I especially recommend you try one of their big fat, stuffed omelettes or a huge plate of pancakes that you likely won't be able to finish! Their moist, delicious blueberry muffins are mouth-watering awesome and the sundaes and banana splits ... legendary! Seriously, skip the Denny's and try this place. Okay yes, the decor is quite cheesy on the inside, just like stepping into a time capsule back into the '70s, but who cares! Overlook the blue and purple neon lights and the lounge's pink upholstery and treat yourself to something fun! The Peppermill Restaurant and adjacent lounge is a must-visit! Also check out their very unique fire-pit. You'll need to visit to this place to see what that's all about. I hope this post peaks your curiosity just enough to pop in for a visit! Just head on over to the center Strip (2985 Las Vegas Boulevard South) for an unforgettable experience.

Happy Eating!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Guidebooks - Your Best Friend and Your Worst Enemy

Relying on a guidebook while travelling can be either a blessing, a curse, or a little bit of both. Follow them to a T and you're sure to find yourself bored very quickly, stuck in the same routine that millions of other travelers will engage in. Ignore them altogether and you might be faced with a very risky and dangerous situation in a hurry. Ideally, the perfect trip maintains spontaneity as well as structure. Guidebooks should be used for learning how to properly do things the way YOU want. Guidebooks are incredible resources for giving you that foundation to build your trip upon, but the key to success is to not rely on them too terribly much. This week, I'll share some of my thoughts on guidebooks and describe what I've found to be useful on my own travels around the World.

The Uselessness of Guidebooks

Guidebook "Recommendations": (Mostly) Ignore Them, Locals Know Best!

I can honestly say, in the roughly one hundred guidebooks I've read on my travels over the past ten years, I haven't once been overly impressed by any hotel or restaurant recommendation. In fact, most recommendations have outright ruined my day (and I usually try at least a few of them!). Most reviews are as vague and uninspiring as possible - sometimes, I suspect they use the same 15 reviews, alternating them for every restaurant and hotel in every guidebook.

I am the King of Indecision. I rarely am decisive enough to choose a restaurant out of a bunch and settle on it. Dinnertime abroad usually involves wandering the streets of the city for a couple of hours looking for something that catches my eye, but eventually I give up and resort to my guidebook. I dig my own grave, at this point. Fade in the shot of me sauntering into a sad-looking establishment with grumpy waiters, inedible food, and then the added perk of being overcharged upon leaving. Places like these do not deserve to be described with terms like "trendy" and "up-and-coming", and they are almost never "popular among locals".

I remember walking into a nightclub in South America, which my faithful Lonely Planet guidebook assured me was "THE place for hip twentysomethings to congregate, featuring live music and an energetic atmosphere". I walked in to find myself alone, with the exception of one grumpy Octogenarian thrown in for good measure. No live music. No hip twentysomethings. Just warm beer and an atmosphere that would make most people seriously consider getting on the airplane and heading home.

Need any more examples? I took up the "Hotel Merhaba" Lonely Planet recommendation on a recent trip to Tunisia, Africa. Lonely Planet called it one of the best options in the area, "perfectly located". What they did not mention were the swarms of mosquitoes, hurrying cockroaches, and dirty bedsheets that I had to ensure for one evening. The next day, on a local's advice, I checked in to the wonderful Hotel Bretagne two blocks away - it was clean, cozy, and just $2 more than the Hotel Merhaba. Lonely Planet didn't mention this nice place. Why? I have no idea. Surely they can do better.

So, take guidebook recommendations with a grain of salt, and consider doing this: ask a local. Even your hotel concierge or receptionist (assuming there is no in-house restaurant) should be able to lead you to better restaurants than your guidebook ever could. If you need a hotel, check out what fellow travellers havs said on Tripadvisor or other review sites.

Prices: Add at least 20% in most cases

Guidebooks are often researched up to three years before the book itself ends up in your hands. Prices change like the wind, the economy of the country may falter or strengthen, but it's very, very rare for any price to be accurate in a guidebook. Usually, prices will be higher - my rule of thumb is around 20%, and I've rarely been wrong using that.

If a guidebook claims that entrees are $10-$15, expect to pay 20% more. If a hotel is quoted at $50, expect to pay at least $60.

Opening Hours and Times: Use them as a rule of thumb only

Like prices, hours may fluctuate. ALWAYS check online (and at your hotel) before setting out. There is nothing worse than paying a steep cab fare only to find yourself in front of a closed attraction. Do you research. Don't depend on your guidebook.

The Usefulness of Guidebooks

Maps: God's Gift to the Traveler (but bring a compass!)

Depending on the brand of guidebooks, maps can vary from shockingly poor to meagerly adequate to out-of-this-World. I've found that Lonely Planet produces the BEST maps - they haven't led me astray yet. Other guidebooks like Rough Guides and Let's Go are somewhat more limited in the maps department, but produce generally likeable results. I find Fodor's and Frommer's maps to be the least detailed and descriptive.

A map is as only good as knowing which streets are which when you are standing on an obscure street corner. This is why a compass is a necessary thing to have on your person at all times. I remember arriving in the city of Caracas, Venezuela after midnight. I successfully negotiated my way by subway into the downtown core, but once there, I had no idea which way was north, and the streets lacked any obvious road signs. I looked at my Lonely Planet map, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out where I was. Thankfully, I remembered I had tossed a compass in my pack on a whim, and immediately put it to good use. Once I had north, I was set, following the necessary path to get to my hotel, a few blocks from the subway station. If you ever consider travelling internationally, please bring your compass.

Safety: Know what to avoid

No one wants to be stuck overseas in a foreign land without any idea of what to do, where to go, and how to get around. I cringe at the thought of being dropped off an unfamiliar place without a guidebook and with no idea of what would lie before me. I know many people who actually take the risk and go without a guidebook for the principle of exploring the land, unassisted. This can be a very dangerous prospect. Not only will a guidebook be brutally honest about which areas are safe and which aren't, but they'll provide the maps you need to orient yourself so that you don't end up looking down the end of a barrel in some dark alley that you mistakenly thought was the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, having to part with your wallet moments later.

I can't even begin to count the number of times my guidebooks have recommended to avoid areas of certain cities that I may have explored otherwise. Sometimes I ignore the advice, sometimes I heed it. But, I'm always glad to consider their warnings. Again, take the info with a grain of salt, and always ask locally, especially in volatile areas. What was once safe in a guidebook may no longer be, and what was once unsafe may now be quite pleasant.

History: Educate yourself about your location

Guidebooks are the perfect resource to provide you with the history of the area you are travelling to, placing each attraction in context. I can't imagine looking at say, Angkor Wat, without learning about WHO it was that built the ancient city, WHY they built it, and HOW it was discovered. But, still, many friends of mine cheerfully travel with no context at all - to me, this would be extremely boring, and I'd only be getting half the story. No thank you.

Most guidebooks have detailed chapters on the history of the country, its government, the culture, the food and drink, and the local handicrafts and souvenir choices. Be sure to read these before embarking on your next trip. On a trip to Morocco, I'd have never known how effective holding your hand on your heart is when dealing with locals if I hadn't read it under "culture". I certainly recieved more respect and less hassle from the locals when I approached them in this manner. So, be sure to read up and understand the country or city that you are travelling to. Your trip will be that much more enjoyable because of it.

Phone Numbers, Addresses, and other facts

Let's not forget the more prosaic reasons why guidebooks are a necessity. A good guidebook will be packed with miscellaneous information that you definitely will need when you least expect them - phone numbers for attractions, the police, ambulance, airlines, and other major necessities.

Also, most guidebooks will have a decent language section, with easy-to-point-to phrases, in English, transliterated local language, and the local language and alphabet. Always be sure to learn please, thankyou, hello, and goodbye.

So, on your next visit to Borders or Barnes and Noble, take some time to peek around the different kinds of guidebooks. Pick one that is well organized, interesting to read, and that has clear, descriptive maps. Once you have the book, treat the information within it casually. Consider their ideas, but don't limit yourself to them.

Happy Travels!

PS - be greener by investing in a handheld device like an Iphone or an Ipod Touch. Lonely Planet is in the process of creating digital copies of its guidebooks for use on those devices. Not only will you help the environment by saving paper, you'll also have a lot less weight on your shoulders (literally) when travelling. Those books can be heavy.

And, for a limited time, enjoy your free copy of the San Francisco Lonely Planet City Guide for use on the Iphone or Ipod Touch.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Vegas Budget Hotels ... The Good and the Just Plain Bad!

Headed to Las Vegas? Don’t want to spend a lot of cash? (yeah right! … it’s Vegas!) Well here’s a handful of my top picks of “Best Value” hotel choices in Sin City (and while I’m at it … a few of the worst!).

We all hate being reminded of the simple reality of life … “you get what you pay for!”. Nearly 90% of the time, we can expect this to be the case. However, I’ve discovered on my numerous visits to Las Vegas, when you search around carefully, there are many opportunities to acquire MORE than what you’ve paid for! Bargain hotel accommodations can be found throughout this sprawling tourist community, and if you play your cards right (no pun intended), you can go back home with just a bit of extra cash left in your wallet.

Here’s a few tips when headed out to this desert oasis that I’m hoping will assist you in choosing from a variety of more-than-adequate hotel accommodations. These bargain hotels combine the lowest possible prices with the highest possible quality. Whether you’re looking to stay close to the action, or away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds, there is certainly no shortage of options available to you during your stay in Las Vegas!

Tip: Staying “off-strip” (in many cases just a few blocks away) will save you a bunch of money.

Many hotels are walking distance or just a short drive away from Las Vegas Blvd. (a.k.a. the Strip). These places are great options for those of you who have wheels to get around. While most of these properties are not too particularly exciting or visually stimulating, they do offer cheap, clean rooms with easy access to the casino floor. If you prefer inexpensive food, low limit gambling, and not having to deal with large crowds of rowdy tourists, this type of accommodation may serve you well. Here are a handful of my recommendations in no particular order of preference:

1. Sam’s Town Hotel/Casino
It’s a city in itself! This hotel houses a large, sky-lit atrium known as Mystic Falls Indoor Park, with a creek and pathways winding among trees and flowers. There are well over 3,000 slot, keno, and video poker machines here. If gambling isn’t going your way, consider visiting this hotel’s 56-lane bowling center, 18-screen movie theatre, or check out the laser-and-water show put on several times during the afternoon and evening hours.

2. Boulder Station Hotel/Casino

3. Palace Station Hotel/Casino

4. Arizona Charlie’s (Decatur)

5. Arizona Charlie’s (Boulder)
Yes, there are 2 Arizona Charlie’s properties … one just a bit west of the Strip (Decatur), and the other on Boulder Highway (an extension of Fremont Street), a few miles east of the Strip

6. The Orleans Hotel/Casino

7. Main Street Station

8. Somerset House Motel
This is one of my personal favorites most have never heard of. It’s an older 50’s style motel located just 2 short blocks east of the Strip on Convention Center Drive, and within walking distance of the Las Vegas Convention Center! It’s quiet, inexpensive, and quite well-maintained for an older property and is located in a safe neighborhood. This motel features elevators and interior corridors which are totally secured and locked at night … accessible only to guests. Many of the rooms even contain small kitchens! The staff couldn’t be any nicer which makes this place my “home away from home”, and frequent choice when in town. Sorry, no casino here.

9. Gold Coast Hotel/Casino

10. Silverton Hotel/Casino

The Silverton is located quite a bit further out of town than most hotels in Vegas, but with such low prices and such abundant amenities, it certainly deserves a mention! This one is another property great for seniors visiting Vegas who may not be too interested in the noise and hype of the Strip.

All of the above properties offer tremendous value in terms of lodging, cheap eats, gambling, and on-site entertainment … just a stone’s throw away from the Las Vegas Strip.)

Feel like being in the center of the action for a slightly higher price?
Here are my picks for the top three “On-Strip” Hotels

1. Treasure Island
This is an all-around nice hotel with comfortable rooms. I highly recommend checking out the nightly pirate show, “Sirens of TI”, which is performed just in front of the hotel (weather permitting). This performance is somewhat risque and may not be especially suitable for younger children. The old former pirate battle consisting of shooting cannonballs and sinking ships has been replaced by a more adult-themed show consisting of half-naked pirates getting pretty close to those scantily-clad sirens! I love the line by one of these sirens when she shouts out loud … “Who are you calling AHOY?” I believe her name is Cinnamon, or “SINamon.”

2. The Mirage
Check out “The Volcano” outside which spews fire into the air every several minutes nightly! Great for families!

3. Excalibur
This is a great place to stay when bringing the kids to Vegas. I highly recommend it!

My Pick For Best Hotel Downtown (Fremont Street)

1. The Golden Nugget Hotel/Casino
This hotel is located in the heart of the “Fremont Street Experience”. This is an enclosed pedestrian mall and attraction in Downtown Las Vegas which occupies the westernmost 5 blocks of Fremont Street. Spectacular light and sound shows are presented here nightly at dusk. This is a must-see!

My Picks for Las Vegas Hotels Best Avoided

1. Wild Wild West Gambling Hall/Hotel/Casino
Been there … done that … GROSS! Nothing like walking barefoot in your room only to step in a wad of previously-owned chewing gum or awakening to the sounds of a police raid on some of the local live-ins!

2. Ambassador East Motel (and most anything on Fremont Street east of “The Strip.”)
Drug pushers and hookers abound! It’s always a joy to take that leisurely stroll to the nearby Fremont Street casinos Downtown only to be approached by peddlers offering you gold watches for 10 bucks and hear the faint whisper in your ear of “hey baby … lookin’ for some?” Fremont Street west of the Strip is what you’d want.

3. Knights Inn Airport (formerly Howard Johnson) on Paradise Rd.
This all-around dump is situated adjacent to the McCarren International Airport Terminal. My experience here was not good. Besides the obvious air traffic noise, this hotel is not walkable to anything of importance such as gambling and restaurants … unless, of course, you’d care to purchase a couple of day-old corn dogs and a fountain drink from the corner gas station/mini market! I never did find out what that substance was splattered all over those bathroom walls in my room!

4. Riviera Hotel/Casino
Hopefully this hotel will meet a fate similar to that of the Stardust, Sands, and the Desert Inn! The only thing slightly appealing to me was the name … and that’s sad!

Vegas rooms have never been cheaper!

I Hope these tips help you snag a room that’s just right for you!