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Miscellany Road Trip

Driving Between States During the COVID-19 Pandemic? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most states have issued shelter-in-place orders and instructed residents to stay put in their homes to help flatten the curve. However, some people are still required to drive to reach jobs that have been deemed essential (or who work in states that have relaxed shelter-at-home ordinances). Others have driven to be with family or to hunker down at second homes. But is driving between states safe—or even allowed? There is some uncertainty as to whether Americans can drive domestically. Here’s what you need to know.

Can I legally drive between states during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Technically, yes. The U.S. Constitution protects the right to travel and move freely within the country, so it would be unconstitutional to prevent Americans from crossing state borders. However, the federal government does have the authority to impose quarantine orders on travelers to combat the spread of contagious diseases. State governments and local authorities also have the power to enforce such measures within their borders, and are doing so.

If you plan on driving within the United States, the only restriction you may face is a mandatory self-quarantine upon arriving in another state. This is particularly true for those driving out of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. At the time of publication, these states have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country.

For instance, governors in Rhode Island and Texas have implemented interstate travel restrictions. These measures stop drivers at the border to remind them of quarantine requirements. In other states, municipalities have added their own restrictions within their borders. Newark, New Jersey (and the nearby towns of Irvington, Orange, and East Orange) is turning around drivers when they suspect nonessential travel. In March, the Outer Banks in North Carolina closed its bridges and opened roadblocks and police checkpoints to prevent secondary home owners and renters from entering the isolated islands. The closures are an attempt to keep the virus out, but have also been enacted because the remote islands have limited hospital beds and grocery supplies.

Note that no states have blocked drivers from passing through on their way to their final destination.

Will I have to quarantine if I drive between states?

States are discouraging interstate travel by imposing quarantine requirements or recommendations for travelers or people returning home from other states. Many states, like Wisconsin, recommend residents cancel or postpone all nonessential travel, and if it can’t be avoided, to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning to the state. In Arizona, new arrivals from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are required to self-quarantine for 14 days or the duration of their visit—whichever is shorter. Arrivals are not allowed to self-quarantine with anyone they did not travel with, including family and friends.

Florida has enforced a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period for anyone arriving from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as Louisiana. Meanwhile, states like Hawaii and Alaska are requiring all arrivals to self-isolate regardless of which state they are arriving from (though it goes without saying that you can’t drive to Hawaii).

What should I consider before I drive between states?

First, is your drive essential? COVID-19 has been reported in all states, and some areas are experiencing rapid community spread of the disease. Staying home is the best way to flatten the curve and save lives. If you still must get behind the wheel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks you to keep some things in mind. First, is COVID-19 spreading where you live? You may not realize that you are infectious, especially if your symptoms are mild or you don’t have a fever. Before you drive to another state, consider the risk of passing COVID-19 to others during travel, particularly if you will be in close contact with older adults or those who have a serious underlying medical condition.

Second, if COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be more likely to get infected if you travel there than if you stay home.

Which states have enforced border screenings?

Florida, Rhode Island, and Texas have set up checkpoints along interstates and border crossings. Keep in mind that these stops don’t restrict entry to out-of-state travelers. Drivers are required by State Troopers and the National Guard to fill out a form and declare where they plan to shelter in place for the duration of their 14-day quarantine (if required). That information is then relayed to the state’s health department and allows public health officials to follow up via a call or an unannounced visit at a later time to make sure that you followed self-quarantine orders.

In Texas, travelers who exhibit any symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, coughing, etc.) will be escorted by an officer from the Department of Public Safety to their place of quarantine. There are exceptions, though: commercial vehicles, law enforcement, emergency personnel, and essential workers who work in the state or are passing through to get to their place of employment are allowed to bypass checkpoints.

What is the punishment for driving between states?

There’s no punishment for driving between states, but the added roadblocks are in place to discourage non-essential travel. Anyone found guilty of providing false information may face fines or serve jail time as punishment. Citizens who disobey local government’s social distancing and self-quarantine orders could face either jail time, a fine—or possibly even both. Some states have announced even higher fines, such as $5,000 in Maryland and $25,000 in Alaska. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that anyone who was caught ignoring stay-at-home orders in New York would face a maximum fine of $1,000.

How can I safely drive between states?

If travel is essential, driving is safer than taking commercial flights or public transportation. Renting a vehicle is still an option, though safety concerns need to be addressed. Renters should disinfect high-contact surfaces such as the steering wheel, dashboard control, and seatbelts, and should avoid touching their faces while driving.

Driving your own vehicle poses the least risk. However, you should remember that risk increases as you make stops to eat, fill your car with gas, or sleep in rented accommodations. Limit your interactions with other people as much as you can, and pack enough food and water for the trip to avoid having to make multiple stops.

If you have to leave your vehicle during the drive, maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people. To further protect yourself and others from infection, it’s best to wear a face mask—this is especially important if you are traveling to a state where wearing face masks in public is mandatory. States such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and certain counties within California all legally require face masks in public.

Before you decide to drive out of state, visit the destination state’s government website to find updated information on whether you are allowed to cross the state’s borders. Remember, staying home is still the safest option.

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Health & Wellness Road Trip

7 Ways to Stay Awake on Long Drives

When you hit the road, don’t rely on rumble strips to keep you alert and on target. Here’s how to stay awake while driving no matter where your next road trip might take you.

Drink Something Caffeinated

Whether you brew your coffee at home or buy it on the road, drink it black if you can tolerate it. The coffee’s bitterness will provide a quick jolt before the caffeine even enters your bloodstream. As a backup, keep something like a 5-Hour Energy drink or NoDoz pills in the glove compartment.

Eat Healthy Snacks

Keep a few snacks within reach, but make sure they’re not just empty calories. Treats with less sugar and more protein tend to distribute energy at a more constant, even pace—rather than a jolt followed by a food coma. Examples include trail mix and protein bars.

Bring a Buddy

A road companion is probably the best thing you can bring with you on a trip. Have your friend DJ or chat with you throughout the ride, but mostly have your pal keep you honest when the sheep want to start jumping overhead. Consider enjoying some audiobooks together as well.

Be Cool

Warm, cozy temperatures are synonymous with the arrival of the Sandman, so keep the vehicle just a few notches below your ideal temperature—though not enough to make it too uncomfortable, of course. Cracking a window open for a burst of fresh air can also help keep you awake.

Do Some Facercise (Facial Exercise)

The original purpose behind facercise is to reduce wrinkles and tone lax facial muscles, but it’s also great for waking up. Here are some techniques to get you started:

  • Hyper-extend your lower jaw, then wiggle it side-to-side
  • Suck in your cheeks
  • Open your mouth very wide, then tightly purse your lips
  • Hyper-open your eyes, then raise your eyebrows
  • Repeat the above or create some facercises of your own

Too silly for you? Consider other small movements such as tapping your fingers on the steering wheel or tightening your thigh muscles.

Get a Vehicle with a Lane-Departure Warning System

For those with extreme road doze, consider investing in a car with a lane-departure warning system, which will notify you when the vehicle drifts out of its lane without a turn-signal indication.

Take a Break

Even if you’re running late and you still have a long stretch of driving ahead of you, make time for a break. When the scenery starts to lull you into a stupor, pull over—at a rest stop, preferably. It’s always better to arrive late than never at all.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Family Travel Outdoors Road Trip Sustainable Travel

Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time will take your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset, as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. But planning a trip to the Grand Canyon requires more than just booking a hotel and packing your camera.

Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon

When should you travel to avoid the heaviest crowds and the most intense heat? Should you visit the North Rim or the South Rim? Where’s the best place to stay? For answers to these questions and more, read the following tips for planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Editor’s note: Many Grand Canyon facilities and tour operators have temporarily closed or made other modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check each provider’s website for full details before making plans.

South Rim vs. North Rim vs. Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon National Park is split into two sections: the South Rim and the North Rim, located more than four hours apart by car. Then there’s Grand Canyon West, located on the Hualapai Native American Reservation, four hours from the South Rim and nearly seven hours from the North Rim. If you’re planning a trip to the Grand Canyon and your time is limited, where should you go?

The South Rim is the most visited part of the Grand Canyon for a reason. It has more viewpoints than the North Rim, with more expansive views of the canyon’s depth, as well as a wider range of lodging options and other visitor services. It also has plenty of hiking trails and activities like river rafting and mule rides. If you’re looking for classic Grand Canyon views, this is the place to go.

Popular with hikers and photographers, the North Rim is the South Rim’s quieter, more heavily forested cousin. While the views may be less spectacular, many travelers prefer the North Rim for its undisturbed wildlife and pristine trails.

The key draw at Grand Canyon West is the Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet over the canyon for dizzying views on all sides—including right under your feet. (Important note: The Skywalk does not permit cameras or phones. Professional photos are available for sale.) This isn’t the best bet for avid hikers, as there are only two (relatively easy) trails here, but other activities include zip-lining, pontoon boat rides, and touring a Native American village. Grand Canyon West is the closest part of the canyon to Las Vegas, making it a convenient, though long, day trip.

Note that because Grand Canyon West is located on Native American land, it requires a separate entry fee than the North and South Rims, which are administered by the National Park Service.

When to Visit the Grand Canyon

planning a trip to the grand canyon

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, consider visiting the South Rim any time other than summer—especially if you’re hoping to hike all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, where temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Summer is also the busiest time of year; lodging in the park is expensive and sells out quickly, and viewpoints along the rim can be jammed with crowds.

The South Rim is open all year round, and you’ll find pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall). Even a winter visit can be rewarding; bundle up and enjoy the sight of the canyon dusted with snow.

Thanks to its higher altitude, the North Rim has a cooler climate and is closed between mid-October and mid-May. Fortunately, this part of the park sees fewer visitors and isn’t usually crowded even during the summer high season. Consider visiting in the fall, when the Kaibab National Forest erupts in vibrant colors.

Grand Canyon West, open year-round, is less crowded outside the summer months.

Getting to the Grand Canyon

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon fly into Las Vegas or Phoenix. There’s also a small airport in Flagstaff, just an hour from the South Rim, and some North Rim travelers fly into Salt Lake City. No matter where you land you’ll need to rent a car, as public transit is extremely limited in this part of the U.S.

Once you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you might need to park your car and take a shuttle bus to get around. Grand Canyon West is closed to private vehicles and operates a hop-on, hop-off shuttle around the park, while certain parts of the South Rim are only accessible by bus. A shuttle service makes the 4.5-hour trip between the North and South Rims; it’s particularly handy for rim-to-rim hikers. The North Rim is fully open to private vehicles.

One fun alternative way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs from the town of Williams, Arizona, into the heart of the park, allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon Lodging

The most convenient Grand Canyon lodging options are within the national park or Grand Canyon West rather than in nearby towns, but these options tend to book up quickly—sometimes months in advance. When planning a trip to the Canyon, reserve your accommodations first.

The South Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park is home to half a dozen lodges, including the venerable El Tovar, which dates back to 1905 and has hosted former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Another option is the Bright Angel Lodge, situated at the top of the park’s most popular trail. There’s also an RV park near the main visitor center, as well as two campgrounds.

If you can’t find lodging within the South Rim section of the park, there’s a handful of options in nearby Tusayan, as well as dozens of hotels (mostly chain motels) in Williams and Flagstaff, each a little more than an hour from the park entrance gates.

The North Rim has just two places to stay inside the park: the Grand Canyon Lodge, which offers motel rooms and cabins, and the North Rim Campground. If these are booked, consider the Jacob Lake Inn, 45 miles away, or head farther afield to Kanab, Utah, or Page, Arizona.

The most unique place to stay at Grand Canyon National Park is Phantom Ranch, located on the canyon floor. The only ways to get there are to hike or ride a mule down.

If you want to stay overnight within Grand Canyon West, you can book a cabin at Hualapai Ranch; each one features a front porch where you can relax and enjoy the desert views.

Grand Canyon Hikes

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, leave time for a hike or two.

The simplest walk at Grand Canyon National Park is the Rim Trail, which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible, and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top.

The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail, which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade, but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom, you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

The North Rim offers a variety of day hikes ranging from less than a mile to about 10 miles round-trip. It’s possible to hike into the canyon from the North Rim on the North Kaibab Trail and back out of the canyon via one of the trails on the South Rim (or vice versa); this is recommended only for fit, experienced hikers.

For information on all the trails listed above, see the day hiking information page on NPS.gov.

The National Park Service strongly recommends against hiking down to the river and back in a single day, even if you’re a veteran hiker. Instead, plan to overnight at Phantom Ranch or one of several backcountry campgrounds within the canyon.

Keep in mind that it usually takes twice as long to come back up the trail as it does to go down, and that temperatures at the bottom of the canyon can be up to 20 degrees higher than those at the top. Hundreds of hikers are rescued each year from the canyon due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, or injury.

Grand Canyon West offers just two hiking trails, one easy and one moderate, and neither one goes into the canyon.

One intriguing Grand Canyon hike to consider is the 10-mile (each way) track to Havasu Falls, the famous turquoise cascade you’ve probably seen on your Instagram feed. It’s located on Native American land between the South Rim and Grand Canyon West. Reservations are required (and limited). To learn more, see the NPS website.

Mule Rides, Rafting Trips, and Helicopter Tours

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, don’t forget about other activities besides hiking, like riding a mule into the canyon. (Why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses.)

From the South Rim you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch, or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. (See GrandCanyonLodges.com.) From the North Rim you can take one- or three-hour rides along the rim or part of the way into the canyon. (See CanyonRides.com.) Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Dreaming of rafting the Colorado River? You can take a guided trip in the national park with options from a half-day to more than two weeks, or plan your own trip with a permit from the National Park Service. To plan a one- or two-day rafting trip at Grand Canyon West, visit GrandCanyonWest.com.

Finally, one of the most incredible ways to view the Grand Canyon is from the air. Numerous companies operate helicopter tours over the canyon, including Grand Canyon Helicopters and Papillon.

General Grand Canyon Travel Tips

As soon as you arrive, stop by the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunrise and/or sunset.

The desert heat can be deadly, so hikers should pack plenty of water as well as salty snacks. Bring a reusable bottle that you can fill up at water stations located throughout the national park. Start hiking early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. If you get a headache or start to feel dizzy or sick to your stomach, stop to rest and rehydrate.

The South Rim is located at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the North Rim is at nearly 8,300 feet. Some travelers may experience fatigue, headaches, or other symptoms of altitude sickness.

Stick to the trail. Not only does this protect the landscape, but it also protects you. Numerous tourists have died after falling from the rim of the canyon.

The most crowded viewpoints at the South Rim are those nearest the parking lots and bus stops. To avoid getting a hundred other people in every photo, walk along the Rim Trail in either direction. Often you can snap great shots along the trail or find your way to a less congested viewpoint.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Arts & Culture Frequent Flyer Historical Travel In-Flight Experience Packing Road Trip

10 Engrossing Audiobooks for Travelers

Stuck at home, in a car, or on a long flight? There’s no better way to pass the time than by enjoying a book hands-free. Here are some of the best audiobooks for travelers.

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True West, Sam Shepard

Heading west on a road trip? Kick off the adventure with True West, a dark comedy and American classic about a sibling rivalry that plays out in the California desert. A screenplay about a film script, True West might be a better listen than it is a read, and it doesn’t hurt that actors Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn are the narrators.

Length: 87 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Kit Harington (Games of Thrones) and Johnny Flynn (Beast) smolder and burn as sparring brothers in Sam Shepard’s darkly comic 1980 drama. The Cain and Abel conflict is a showdown of sibling rivalry, to be sure, but also bears witness to a legacy of booze-fueled family brawls.”–Amazon

Heads Will Roll, Kate McKinnon

SNL fans and comedy connoisseurs alike will love and laugh at Heads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne—which is not to be listened to within earshot of kids. The SNL star and her sister steer this 10-episode theatrical audiobook comedy with the help of big stars ranging from narrator Tim Gunn to Meryl Streep.

Length: 4 hours

What People Are Saying: “The series stars McKinnon as a malevolent monarch and her sister, Emily Lynne, as a scatterbrained minion. It appears to poke fun at tired tropes of the evil queen and the hero’s journey while also relishing in their theatrical value. In terms of plot, the story focuses on McKinnon’s character, Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm, who catches wind of a potential peasant uprising and realizes that in order to put down the rebellion, she and her assistant JoJo (played by Lynne) must go on a quest.”—PopDust

The Buried, Peter Hessler

The telling of the most recent Egyptian revolution through the lens of ancient archaeology, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution is authored by New Yorker writer Peter Hessler, who moved to Cairo with his family just before the Egyptian Arab Spring began in 2011. History, politics, and cultural norms converge through the lives of the locals Hessler meets, and link today’s Egypt with ancient times in a satisfying explainer of Egypt’s rich past and complex present.

Length: 16 hours, 44 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Seen from afar, tectonic political shifts often look as if they consume a society. But have you ever been someplace in the middle of momentous political events and found everyone around you getting on with daily life? Few reporters seem better placed to fathom the complexities of this dynamic—ripples of disquiet permeating routine existence—than Peter Hessler.”—The Wall Street Journal

The Pioneers, David McCullough

History buffs can revel in the years during which the first band of settlers set out from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin to conquer the American Northwest, with David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. The real-life accounts are drawn from rare diary entries by the subjects of the novel.

Length: 10 hours, 23 minutes

What People Are Saying: “McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, and no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.”—Amazon 

Life Will Be the Death of Me, Chelsea Handler

The latest memoir by talk-show comedian Chelsea Handler surprises audiences with its rawness that transcends comedy by addressing the state of American politics. Life Will Be the Death of Me … and You Too is Handler’s sixth book.

Length: 5 hours, 25 minutes

What People Are Saying: “You thought you knew Chelsea Handler—and she thought she knew herself—but in her new book, she discovers that true progress lies in the direction we haven’t been.”—Gloria Steinem

Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

HBO’s hit show might be over, but you can go back to the beginning with Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1. Or choose from the entire series, which are some of the best audiobooks for road trips even if you’re new to the saga—although you will need a lot of time to get through them all.

Length: 33 hours, 46 minutes (Book 1)

What People Are Saying: “There have been many fantasy sagas published in the last half century, but few can boast the scope, depth, and attention to detail of A Song of Fire and Ice.”—Common Sense Media

From Scratch, Tembi Locke

Travelers of all backgrounds will appreciate this romance about cross-cultural boundaries, love at first sight, family, food, and death. From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home also ends with a collection of recipes (included in text form).

Length: 10 hours, 17 minutes

What People Are Saying: “The writing in From Scratch is sublime. Locke allows her readers to revel in the sensory experiences of Sicily. She offers a peek into her deeply satisfying relationship with her daughter, her husband, and their family.”—The Associated Press

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

A book-club favorite of late, The Night Tiger: A Novel follows a hardworking dressmaker whose small Malaysian village encounters a series of puzzling deaths and rumors of men who turn into tigers. It’s a dense but fantastical tale that makes it one of the best audiobooks for road trips spanning many hours.

Length: 14 hours, 8 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Choo narrates this richly complex novel herself, her gorgeous writing delivered in a voice that is deep and precise and lovely, both British and not quite. Her tone and words transport us.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Elizabeth II: Life of a Monarch, Ruth Cowen

Queen Elizabeth’s early private life and public reign still read like a blockbuster movie, whether or not you’re headed for the U.K. anytime soon. Elizabeth II: Life of a Monarch is written by British journalist Ruth Cowen and narrated by respected British royal correspondent Jennie Bond.

Length: 3 hours, 47 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Wife, mother and head of state, who is the real Elizabeth? What do the headlines hide? How close to reality are the television interpretations? … Admired by many, she has reigned through a period of unprecedented change, steering the monarchy through the end of an empire, public scandals and private losses.”—Goodreads

Before She Knew Him, Peter Swanson

A tale of paranoia and unsolved murder in a suburb of Boston,  Before She Knew Him: A Novel is a complex crime novel that will keep you guessing as to what’s reality and what’s not.

Length: 10 hours, 15 minutes

What People Are Saying: Before She Knew Him is a wicked thriller that does not disappoint. Peter Swanson has written another gem that pulls the reader in and never lets go, even as the story comes to a close. This is a book that will keep you up at night and haunt your thoughts. A fun, chilling read.”—Manhattan Book Review

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Road Trip

The 10 Best Road Trips in the U.S.A.

Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.

A road trip is as American as a barbecue on the Fourth of July. The open highway. Sing-along playlists. A cooler full of sodas and snacks. Unforgettable conversations about nothing and everything.

The United States has a grand variety of road trip-suitable routes, from straight shots across deserts to stomach-churning switchbacks through the mountains. Whatever type of adventure you seek, however much time you have, and whatever you want to see, there’s a road out there for everyone. Read on to see the top road trips in the U.S.A.

Best Romantic Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway, CA

pacific coast highway

Route: Route 1, from Monterey to Morro Bay (123 miles)

Let’s hope your partner makes your heart soar; if not, the unimaginably gorgeous views from the Pacific Coast Highway will. Frequently coined the most romantic road trip in the U.S.A., the highway jogs alongside California farms and cliff-edged beaches, across high bridges and near groves of towering redwood trees. Tour the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, enjoy lunch at a posh Carmel-by-the-Sea cafe, see the famous waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (check the updated status of the park here), and take a romantic sunset stroll at Big Sur. There are plenty of romantic Victorian bed and breakfasts where you can spend the night.

Where to stay to start your journey: Munras Inn, Monterey

Runner-up road trip: Charleston to Savannah, South Carolina

Best Road Trip in the Middle of Nowhere: Marathon to Presidio, TX

canyon with river flowing through

Route: U.S. Highway 385, FM-170 (160 miles)

The only companions you’ll have during long stretches of this paved, two-lane road through Big Bend National Park are cacti and migratory birds. This is one of the most isolated of all U.S. national parks, but it’s also one of the most dramatic, with desert, canyon, and mountain landscapes. Santa Elena Canyon is worth the detour from the main park road to see its 1,500-foot drop-offs. Stop for lunch at the 1930s-era Starlight Theatre in the historic Terlingua Ghost Town. Movie buffs will marvel at the abandoned Western film sets at Contrabando.

Where to stay to start your journey: Holland Hotel, Alpine

Runner-up road trip: Great Basin Scenic Highway, Nevada

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Best Thrill-Seeking Road Trip: The Road to Hana, HI

road to hana view of cliffside highway and ocean with green lush mountains lanscape

Route: Routes 36 and 360, from the town of Kahului to Hana and a little beyond (68 miles)

Brace yourself—literally—for the ride of your life. Maui’s Hana Highway may sound tropically dreamy, with its lush rainforests, multi-tiered waterfalls, and scenic turnouts, but it’s not for the faint of heart—or weak of stomach. The winding, narrow road encompasses hundreds of curves and dozens of bridges (many of which are one lane), and the first time a fearless local in an SUV zooms by you, you’ll wonder where your breath went. Good places to stop and find it? The Ke’anae Arboretum (just past mile marker 16), Upper Waikani Falls (mile marker 19), and Ka’eleku Caverns (mile marker 31).

Where to stay to start your journey: Maui Seaside Hotel, Kahului

Runner-up road trip: La Ruta Panoramica, Puerto Rico

Best Wildlife Road Trip: Jackson to Yellowstone National Park, WY

elk in yellowstone national park

Route: U.S. 191 (82 miles plus mileage within the park)

Bison, elk, wolves, moose, bears, and dozens of bird species live in America’s first national park, making it one of the best places in the United States to view wildlife. While animals are abundant inside the park, you’ll likely see some species on the short drive from Jackson to the park’s south entrance, and at Grand Teton and Jackson Lake along the way.

Where to stay to start your journey: Mountain Modern Motel, Jackson

Runner-up road trip: Seward Highway, Alaska

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Best Foodie Road Trip: Stowe to Rochester, VT

Route: Route 100 (49 miles)

Farms, breweries, wineries, creameries, gourmet shops, and restaurants are nestled along the rolling pastures of Route 100, which bisects the prettiest state in New England. Take a leisurely drive along the north-south artery and its side roads, stopping to nibble artisanal cheeses at various farm shops and creameries. Sip apple cider and buy maple syrup at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, and taste robust red wines at Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge. Browse Weston’s Vermont Country Store—its retro candies are worth the stop alone. And the grand finale? A tour of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury.

Where to stay to start your journey: Town & Country Resort Motor Inn, Stowe

Runner-up road trip: North Carolina Barbecue Society Historic Trail

Best Motorcycle Road Trip: Los Angeles, CA to Taos, NM

motorcycle riding on highway

Route: Interstate 40 (916 miles)

Aching to be your very own counterculture hippie on a soul-searching odyssey? Billy and Wyatt (a.k.a, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) covered this course and then some in the 1969 film Easy Rider. They were headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras; if you don’t have it in you to make such a lengthy trip, we suggest just covering the section from California to New Mexico (or at least Flagstaff, Arizona), with a detour to the Grand Canyon.

Where to stay to start your journey: Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel, Los Angeles

Runner-up road trip: Trail of Tears, Tennessee to Alabama

Best Fall Foliage Road Trip: Lead Hill to Hot Springs, AR

waterfall and swimming hole in forest autumn

Route: Arkansas State Highway 7 (179 miles)

I’d normally select New England for autumn’s most kaleidoscopic colors, but even its most out-of-the-way back roads can be congested during peak periods. Instead, drive along Arkansas’ first state-designated scenic byway to Ozark National Forest, which has 42 different species of oak trees, plus hickories, maples, beech, and ash, among others. Such a vast variety of trees results in unimaginable colors painting the region’s low river valleys and hillsides. If you get an early enough start, have breakfast or lunch at Cliff House Inn and Restaurant overlooking Arkansas’ version of the Grand Canyon, in the town of Jasper.

Where to stay to start your journey: Hotel Seville, Harrison

Runner-up road trip: Anywhere in New England (see Scenic Autumn Drives in the Northeast)

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Best Classic America Road Trip: Beartooth Highway, MT

beartooth highway mountain view

Route: U.S. Highway 212, from Red Lodge to Cook City, Montana (68 miles)

A zigzagging road with countless switchbacks, endless views, and steep climbs, the Beartooth Highway seems to have changed little since Civil War General Philip Sheridan led 120 men along the route. Certainly, the views are the same: snow-topped rocky mountains, the bluest of blue skies, and bypasses through Custer National Forest, Shoshone National Forest, and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. No wonder longtime road tripper Charles Kuralt, the late CBS correspondent, called it “the most beautiful drive in America.” Note that the road is only open mid-May through mid-October.

Where to stay to start your journey: The Pollard Hotel, Red Lodge

Runner-up road trip: Pierre to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Best Out-of-This-World Road Trip: Dark Sky Parks, Panguitch to Torrey, UT

highway on dark road with bright sky stars

Route: Scenic Byway 12 (270 miles)

Utah has 11 certified International Dark Sky Parks, so why not create a road trip to all of them? In addition to the well-known Bryce Canyon, other parks with an IDA-certified designation include Capitol Reef, Goblin Valley, Cedar Breaks, and Kodachrome Basin. Along the way, you can glamp in a Conestoga wagon and yurt. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can start at Zion and make your way through the state’s five national parks, ending at Arches in Moab.

Where to stay to start your journey: Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale

Runner-up road trip: Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona

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Best Mountain Road Trip: Beaver Creek to Keystone, CO

highway in rocky mountains

Route: Interstate 70 (70 miles)

Whether you’re planning an epic ski vacation or an outdoor adventure trip to these mountains off-season, the Rocky Mountains are your best bet for a mountain road trip. Start in Beaver Creek and then head to Vail. During summer Vail is home to “Epic Discovery,” where you can zip-line, alpine coaster, summer tube, and more. Make stops at Cooper Mountain, Frisco, and Breckenridge, then end in Keystone. Just don’t leave without having dinner at the Ski Tip Lodge.

Where to stay to start your journey: The Osprey at Beaver Creek, Beaver Creek

Runner-up road trip: Asheville, North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.

Categories
Booking Strategy Health & Wellness Money Road Trip

9 Nasty Truths About Car Rental Insurance

No matter how often I cover the problems that come with collision damage under car rental insurance, consumers continue to share their frustrations. A reader recently emailed me:

“I’m interested in finding a complete bumper-to-bumper, ‘drop off the keys at the counter’ car rental coverage when I travel. I recently thought I had complete coverage though a credit card, but when my car suffered a small dent, the car rental company flat-out refused to document that it actually lost income from having the car rental in the shop (which took three weeks to repair a small dent). I was left with responsibility.”

Car Rental Insurance: 9 Nasty Truths

This experience is uncommon, but not unique. Car rental companies desperately want you to buy their collision damage waiver, or CDW (sometimes also known as loss damage waiver, or LDW), and will go to great lengths to make you pay for even the smallest damages if you don’t. Here’s what you need to know before you shell out for car rental insurance on your next vacation.

The One Way to ‘Drop the Keys and Forget It’

When you buy a CDW, the rental company surrenders its rights to charge you for damage to a car rental—with a few exceptions, such as tire damage or gross negligence. (CDW terms and conditions vary by car rental company, so you’ll want to read them carefully before committing.) But otherwise, no matter how banged up the car could be, you’re off the hook: Just turn it in and be on your way. No other approach—your own insurance, your credit card, or a third-party policy—is as comprehensive or convenient. If you want that full flexibility and peace of mind, pay for CDW.

CDW Insurance Is Ridiculously Overpriced

Typically, a CDW starts at around $30 per day and can go higher. It sometimes costs even more than the base car rental rate. The actuarial cost to the rental company—the amount it would allocate toward a damage pool based on risk experience—is probably just a few dollars a day; the rest is theirs to keep. No wonder the agents push it so hard: It’s clearly a lot more profitable than the car rental alone.

You’ll Pay Up Front for All Damage

You can cover your major damage responsibility by relying on your own insurance, a credit card with insurance, or a third-party policy. But in all of those cases you have to pay a damage claim up front, then recover as much as you can (all of it, you hope) by filing a claim afterward. That means signing a credit card bill for hundreds or even thousands of dollars when you return the damaged car, and not knowing if you’ll get that money back.

That’s why many rental companies won’t accept rentals via debit card, or a credit card with a small limit. If you can pay the initial rental fee with a debit card, you’ll still need to provide a credit card to cover a possible damage claim, which would be filed before you can leave the return counter.

‘Damage’ Is More than Fixing a Dent

If you don’t buy CDW, rental companies can charge for more than just fixing the damage. They also charge for:

  • “Loss of use,” meaning the potential revenue lost while the car is out of service being fixed, even if the company had lots of other cars available. And they generally figure that daily loss at the full retail rate.
  • Towing charges, if you are unable to drive the car back to the return station.
  • “Diminished value,” or the potential loss of the car’s resale value (because of your damage) when the rental company disposes of it, usually within two years.
  • Administrative fees associated with the claims process.

Most non-CDW car rental insurance will cover those extras. But, in some cases, coverage depends on cooperation from the rental company—and it may not be forthcoming, as our reader’s above wasn’t.

Alternative #1: Pay with Your Existing Car Insurance

In many cases, if your regular auto insurance covers collision damage to your insured car, it also covers damage to a short-term rental. But this coverage is generally limited to driving in the U.S. and maybe Canada, and won’t cover car rentals in Mexico, Europe, or anywhere else. So, before you plan on using your own insurance, check its coverage. If it does cover rentals, you can place a claim on it. Still, you must typically pay your policy’s deductible, and any claims may cause your rates to go up.

Alternative #2: Use Credit Card Benefits

These days, most credit cards provide “free” collision coverage for car rentals, provided you use the card to secure the rental. A sample credit card benefits statement describes coverage as:

“Physical damage and/or theft of the covered rental vehicle. Valid loss-of-use charges assessed by the rental company while the damaged vehicle is being repaired and is not available for use, as substantiated in the company’s fleet utilization log. Reasonable and customary towing charges related to a covered loss to take the vehicle to the nearest qualified repair facility.”

Note that this typical Visa card’s benefits do not cover diminished value or administrative costs. A few premium credit cards offer primary collision coverage, meaning the card takes full responsibility for the payment. But coverage on most cards is secondary, meaning the card picks up only what you can’t first recover from your own insurance. And you still have to pay the rental company up front, then file for reimbursement from your card issuer.

Another gotcha in the above fine print: This card (and many others) pays for loss of use only if verified by the rental company’s log. Unfortunately, some rental companies don’t cooperate with credit card issuers in providing this type of documentation in a timely manner.

Alternative #3: Third-Party Car Rental Insurance

If you rent a car through one of the big online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia or Priceline, the agency normally offers you the option to buy collision coverage for around $10 a day. That coverage is provided by a third-party insurance company such as Allianz. The cost is a lot less than the rental company’s CDW, but, as with credit card coverage, if you damage the car, you have to pay up front and claim later.

Typical third-party collision coverage includes about the same contingencies as credit card coverage, but because it’s grouped with the booking you won’t have to make any other claims. You can also buy collision coverage independently: Bonzah, for example, sells coverage at around $9 per day.

You Need General Liability Protection

You should never get behind the wheel of a car—or lawnmower, for that matter—without liability protection. But you don’t buy that from a car rental company: It usually comes with household, homeowner, or tenant insurance, and it covers far more than a car rental. And if your net worth is in six figures, you probably need an “umbrella” liability policy that covers a million dollars or more.

Car rental companies in most countries are required by law to include liability insurance. In the U.S., required coverage can be ludicrously small (usually only the minimum required by the state)—it’s usually much better in Europe. If you don’t have substantial liability insurance, you might consider buying the rental company’s offering. Still, your best bet is to make sure you’re covered 24/7 with your own insurance so you can forget about the rental company’s overpriced insurance.

The Uncertainty Principle

The takeaway from all this: No alternative source of collision damage coverage—your auto insurance, your credit card, or a third party—completely isolates you from risk. Lots of travelers successfully rely on lower-cost alternatives to CDW without encountering any problems, sure. Occasionally, however, your own insurance, credit card, or third-party policy may not cover an unusual charge a rental company might impose.

If you’re unwilling to accept any risk at all, you might want to buy that overpriced CDW. For most travelers and circumstances, credit card or third-party coverage is sufficient, and primary coverage is a lot better than secondary.

What to Pack on Your Next Road Trip

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Arts & Culture Entertainment Outdoors Road Trip

10 Strangest Places to Stop on a U.S. Road Trip

America is full of bizarre and strange things—supersize meals, pennies, obsession with Starbucks, you name it—but these 10 tourist stops along popular U.S. road trip routes take the cake. From a graveyard for ice cream flavors to a palace made out of corn, here are some of America’s weirdest pride and joys.

California: Salvation Mountain

This clay-straw mound covered in over 100,000 gallons of colored paint was created by struggling artist Leonard Knight. What you see today was actually his second attempt at creating the structure—he used concrete to build his first mound, which eventually collapsed. He painted religious phrases, prayers, and Bible verses over the clay-straw mixture in all sorts of colors and now it’s a trippy, hippie-looking rainbow hill. There’s also a section that Leonard called the museum, modeled after a hot air balloon, where visitors and friends leave small objects and pray.

Today, visitors bring paint to donate to the project and there is even a public charity, Salvation Mountain Inc., that was created to maintain and protect the site. Coldplay filmed the music video for its song Birds here and the site was also featured in the film Into the Wild.

You can find Leonard’s mountain in the Colorado Desert in Southern California, which is in Imperial County, about an hour and a half from Palm Springs.

South Dakota: Corn Palace

While the palace—which looks like something from czarist Russia—is built from reinforced concrete, the exterior is completely covered with thousands of native South Dakota corn, grain, and grasses arranged into themed murals every spring. (2016’s theme is “Rock of Ages”). It is over 120 years old and recently underwent a renovation complete with interactive exhibits.

The palace is actually an auditorium and sports arena, and is also the headquarters of Corn Palace Week, which marks the end of the harvest. So stop by to check out the architecture, its annual August festival, or any of the concerts and events.

You can find this oddity off of I-90 in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Nevada: Area 51 Alien Center

It’s a gift shop, diner, gas station, and yes … an alien center (and a brothel too). Area 51 basically has it all. While TripAdvisor reviews rave about the gift shop and diner (no comment on the brothel), the Alien Cathouse is located behind the alien center and offers free tours if you so desire to check it out. Located right next to the World’s Largest Firework on Highway 95, you can visit two cheesy tourist attractions in one.

Vermont: Ben and Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard

What happens to an ice cream flavor when it is no longer made? Ben & Jerry’s has created both a virtual and physical “Flavor Graveyard” for all retired ice cream flavors. Each flavor has its own tombstone, complete with a flavor description and cheeky poem about why it failed and the years it was in production. So, if you’ve had a favorite flavor that’s been de-pinted, you can visit them here. RIP Holy Cannoli.

You can find the graveyard at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, Vermont off of I-89.

New Jersey: Lucy the Elephant

Lucy the Elephant is a six-story, 90-ton elephant-shaped building made out of wood and tin, located in Margate City just outside of Atlantic City. Inventor James V. Lafferty conceptualized the elephant, which was built in the late 1800s, and he brought real estate customers up to the top to show them properties available for sale. Over time the elephant has had numerous owners and has been a restaurant, business office, cottage, and tavern.

Today, you can take a guided tour through the spiral staircase in the back left leg up into the interior and further up into the top for views of Atlantic City and the ocean. The elephant has survived both a lightning strike and Hurricane Sandy, and is featured in numerous commercials, books, films, and TV shows and is a designated National Historic Landmark

New Mexico: World’s Largest Pistachio

While there are dozens of large and bizarre man-made sculptures across the world, and in particular the U.S., this one stands out along U.S. 54 from Alamogordo and Tularosa. The giant pistachio was created by Tim McGinn, owner of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch & Arena Blanca Winery, as a way to honor his late father and the farm’s founder. The 30-foot-tall nut is located on the farm so you can get some snacks and wine (to enjoy when you’re done driving of course) for your journey, too.

Utah: Hole N” The Rock

Hole N” The Rock is a home, zoo, and trading post carved out of a massive rock in Canyonlands Country along U.S. Highway 191. The home is about 5,000 square feet with 14 rooms built by Albert and Gladys Christensen. To create the structure, Albert excavated 50,000 cubic feet over a period of 12 years, complete with a sculpture of FDR on the face of the rock above the home. He passed away before it was finished and his wife completed the project, opening a gift shop and offering tours until her death in 1974.

Today, for 6 dollars you can take a 12-minute tour of the home and see zebras, bison, and camels at the exotic animals’ zoo. The Hole N” The Rock store also sells unique souvenirs and the trading post has locally made Native American pottery and jewelry.

Alabama: Unclaimed Baggage Center

Warning: this pit stop might take longer than a quick photo-op in front of the world’s largest ball of twine. It’s a center that buys and sells unclaimed baggage from airlines, and a visit here can lead to some great bargains. Now, before you freak out that your lost luggage could end up for sale, I’ll explain how this works. If an airline loses your bags, there is a three-month process of trying to reunite the bag and passenger. If that doesn’t work out, and only after claims are paid to the passenger, airlines are allowed to sell the bags to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. From cameras to wedding dresses, the 40,000 square foot space receives hourly inventory, so plan your visit accordingly.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is a little bit out of the way, but well worth the stop—it’s accessible from I-65, I-59, and I-24 in Scottsboro, AL.

Missouri: Nuclear Waste Adventure Train and Museum

What was once the largest explosives factory in America is now an adventure trail found in Weldon Spring on I-64, just outside of St. Louis.

The former explosives factory was occupied by a plant that refined uranium for Cold War nuclear bombs. The plant was abandoned in the late 60’s, and when the US Environmental Protection Agency showed up 20 years later, they decided to entomb all the left over contaminated materials. Now you can climb this man-made mountain for fun.

Apparently this spot is popular for birdwatchers and astronomers, offering a great view from the top. If you’re curious about the history of the site, there’s a visitor center that shows a cross-section of the hill where you can see all the protective layers of the entombment. While there’s some controversy regarding health risks, it’s deemed safe and open to the public, so enjoy at your own risk.

Arizona: The Thing

If you’re driving along I-10 you’ll start seeing “The Thing” advertised for miles, luring in visitors by its ambiguous name. The gas station, gift shop, and nearby Dairy Queen make for a useful rest stop, so you might as well pay the $1 entrance fee and see what all the hoopla is about. Read on if you want to know what The Thing is, but you’ve been warned: spoilers ahead.

Turns out “The Thing” is actually a collection of items (with unverified claims and origins I might add) that were “The Thing” of their time—covered wagons, antique cars, phonographs, books, a Rolls Royce rumored to have been used by Adolf Hitler—the list goes on. The main weird “thing” that started it all is a mummified mother-and-child in a glass-covered coffin. Theories state that the mummy must have come from another curiosity museum in the 50’s (so don’t think you’re looking at a real mummy, as it’s most likely fake).

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Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

(Photos: TripAdvisor, LLC)

Categories
Entertainment Road Trip

What Happens to Items Left Behind in Hotels?


When you forget something in a hotel room, what happens to it? We answer this question plus others on coronavirus, Japan, packing, and more in this month’s edition of our travel advice column, Check Your Baggage.

Q.“I left my phone charger plugged into my hotel room in Paris and didn’t realize until I returned home. It’s not worth the expense for me to have it returned, but I’m curious—what happens to things that are left behind in hotels? Do they get thrown away?” – DC

A. Think of your phone charger as a gift to the next hapless traveler who forgot their own. Most hotels will keep a box of lost chargers, converters, and adapters at the front desk to loan out to travelers in need.

Policies vary by hotel—as a Hilton spokesperson told me: “Each property has an individualized approach on how they support our guests’ unique needs including managing when items are left in one of our hotel rooms during their stay. If a guest discovers they’ve left an item behind, we recommend they contact the hotel directly as soon as possible to best enable our Team Members to try and assist. Some properties have extended lost and founds—we also have dedicated customer care support lines to help assist 24/7, but most properties will keep lost items for a certain amount of time before donating any unclaimed items.”

If you do want that item back, give the front desk a call to see if they have it—the hotel may ship it to you for free, or charge you for the cost of shipping and handling.

Just don’t wait for the hotel to call you about your lost item—here’s why they may be reluctant to reach out.

Q. “Between coronavirus and the flu, I’m getting nervous about my upcoming trip (even though it’s just a domestic flight). How can I avoid catching something while flying?” – BD

A. You’ve already gotten your flu shot, right? That’s the best (and most obvious) way to protect yourself from the flu, but it’s not 100 percent effective. There isn’t a vaccine for the coronavirus, but the CDC recommends you do the following to prevent respiratory viruses:

  • Wash your hands (the correct way) after using the restroom and before eating.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. (This one is tough to do on a plane. However, you can use the air vent to help blow away any airborne microbes.)

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Q. “I like to work out whenever I travel, but I struggle with packing running shoes since they take up so much space. (And I refuse to wear them on the plane, because I want to look nice, even in the airport.) Any advice?” – CS

A. Start with a lightweight shoe to make packing easier. I like to shop on Zappos because it allows you to filter by shoe weight, so you can look for one that weighs between one and five ounces, for example. Although bright colors are trendy right now, I invest in running shoes that are a neutral color like black or white, so that they will go with more things in my travel wardrobe in case I need them to pull double duty.

For packing, stash your shoes in a washable shoe bag that will keep your dirty sneakers from contaminating the rest of your clothes. Use the space inside your shoes to pack small items like socks or underwear, which will help minimize the footprint your shoes take up inside your suitcase.

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Q. “Every time I open Instagram, someone else I know is going to Japan. Am I imagining things or has Japan exploded as a tourist destination recently?” – JT

A. You’re not making it up—Japan is on the rise as a tourist destination. According to Japan Rail Pass (a booking site for Japanese rail travel), 2019 was a record-breaking year for tourism in the country, with over 32.5 million foreign visitors. Prepare yourself to see even more shots of ramen shops on your feed in 2020, as Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics, and the country is bracing for an estimated 40 million visitors for the year.

Q. “My friends and I are looking to take a vacation with our (young) kids, but are having trouble finding a vacation rental that’s safe for children. Is there a filter or something I’m missing?” – MM

A. Check out KidandCoe.com, a vacation rental search engine that only features child-friendly properties. It even offers baby equipment rentals and itinerary help if you need it.

Q. “I’m planning a trip to Ireland that involves renting a car. Do I need an international driver’s license?” – PH

A. As long as your trip to Ireland is less than a year long, you don’t need to get an international driver’s license—your U.S. one will work. To decide if you need to get the international driver’s license, check the U.S. State Department or embassy website for the country that you’re visiting. Here’s the page for Ireland.

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Q. “My friends live in Syracuse and I live in D.C., and we want to meet up somewhere halfway for a reunion. Any suggestions for a good spot?” – JM

A. Check out the website Whatshalfway.com, which will calculate a meeting spot that’s exactly halfway between you and your friend. The suggested town (in this case, Schnecksville, Pennsylvania) might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but it will give you a good starting point to start your search. In your case, I’d recommend New York City as the closest midway meeting spot with plenty to keep you busy.

Traveling? Consider These Carry-On Options

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

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Categories
Road Trip

The 16 Best Car Rental Booking Sites for 2020

What’s the best website to use when you want to rent a car? The quick answer is that there’s no one best car rental booking site, but there are a bunch of great ones worth comparing prices on. And the best ones for you will depend on what exactly you’re looking for in a car rental.

As with so many other travel buys, like the best hotel booking sites and the best airfare booking sites, to find the very best car rental deals you’ll need to cast a wide net. Still, some places tend to do better than others, at least some of the time.

The Best Car Rental Booking Sites in the U.S. and Europe

Here’s a quick roundup of the candidates for best car rental booking sites, based on detailed car searches in both the U.S. and Europe. (Find more details below on the perks and downfalls of each.)

I tested base rental car rates by searching only for economy or compact cars, for a rental period of one week, and only for picking up and returning the car at the primary airports for a number of city destinations in both the U.S. and Europe. All quoted rates (except for opaque rates that hide car specifics until after you purchase their lower-priced deal) are fully cancellable, although some require an advance payment with the option of a refund given upon cancellation. Some vendors offer lower nonrefundable rates. All rates include air-conditioning and all U.S. rates include automatic transmission; European rates are for manual, since automatic comes at a premium there.

For the most part, the search-and-buy sequence is roughly the same for all car rental booking sites. No one rose out of the mix as especially easy or dropped as especially difficult. Therefore, my comparisons are based almost entirely on my ability to locate the best deals.

Check out SmarterTravel’s roundup of the best in booking sites for 2020. Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to SmarterTravel on YouTube!

AutoRentals.com

autorentals.com screenshot.

Overall, AutoRentals.com is an excellent place to start a search. It’s a metasearch system that displays a matrix of prices for up to 25 model options available through more than two dozen different sources, including a mix of other metasearch car rental booking sites, online travel agencies, and rental company home pages. Price displays include both the posted daily rate and the all-up cost of the requested rental. The display also indicates which rental locations, if any, are off-airport—which is important. This matrix feature is especially helpful in comparing options quickly.

Pros: Coverage of major cities is worldwide. Once you select an option to check, AutoRentals links you through to the vendor’s web pages to make your booking, and it includes many rental companies and search systems you’ve probably never heard about, let alone would find on your own.

Cons: Some of the “best deals” reported are not actually the true total price; they exclude some taxes and fees. And some are not fully cancellable—they’re either nonrefundable or entail a cancellation fee. This information is not disclosed until well into the booking process, and even then you have to dig for it.

Rentalcars.com

rentalcars.com screenshot.

Rentalcars.com consistently yielded good prices for my searches, though it didn’t always win every test. The site covers rentals in 160 countries worldwide.

Pros: As with AutoRentals.com, Rentalcars.com is a metasearch system that makes it easy to compare offers. In some cases it offers opaque rates for lower prices if you don’t mind not knowing the exact car type.

Cons: Because some of the booking sites Rentalcars.com works with may be unfamiliar to you, the site shows user ratings for each so you can decide whether you’re comfortable booking. Unfortunately, some of them don’t have particularly high ratings (in one search, many of the results on page one were from providers rated just 5.9 out of 10).

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Hotwire

hotwire screenshot.

Car rentals on Hotwire offered some of the lowest rates by way of “opaque” rates in most of my U.S. tests. Opaque means that you don’t find out about the rental company until after you pay the nonrefundable price. Given the sameness of cars, however, you risk very little disappointment with an opaque rate.

Pros: Hotwire’s leadership in low rates is confirmed by the AutoRentals matrix, where it shows up as the best buy on a regular basis.

Cons: I did not find as many opaque rates for Europe on Hotwire.

Priceline

priceline car screenshot.

Like Hotwire, Priceline car rentals list opaque rates as the lowest options in many U.S. cities. Although Hotwire posted lower ones more often, Priceline was a winner in some cases. So if you’re looking for the lowest, you have to try both.

Pros: The chance of it having the true lowest price. If you already use this site for hotels or airfare, it’s also easy to add on a car (as with the other big search engine booking sites).

Cons: I didn’t find any opaque rates for Europe in my Priceline searches.

Expedia

expedia cars screenshot.

Expedia consistently offered or matched the lowest or near-lowest rates as frequently as Priceline and Rentalcars.com did. Plus the option to bundle with your airfare or hotel is easy and could save you money (as with other price comparison engines), if you already use Expedia for those, as many do.

Pros: In almost all cases, rates were the same as through the rental company’s own system. And if you already use this site for hotels or airfare, it’s easy to add on a car.

Cons: Expedia doesn’t seem to offer opaque rates, which is only truly a con if you’re looking for them.

Low-Cost Car Rental Booking Sites

alamo screenshot.

In general, prices directly from low-end renters such as Alamo, Payless, and Thrifty were always less expensive than the top-name rental companies, usually with a difference of $100 or more per week.

Pros: The obvious benefit is you’re paying a lot less. But…

Cons: The trade-off is that the low-end outfits and third-party agencies generally don’t include the bells and whistles that top-end company loyalty programs provide. I also sometimes found lower rates on metasearch sites such as AutoRentals.com or Rentalcars.com than I did when booking directly through the low-cost car rental booking sites.

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Sixt Rent a Car

sixt screenshot.

For European cities, the Sixt booking site is proof that higher-end companies occasionally offer specials better any other source. At the time of my search, the German company was running a “special” found to be the cheapest option in some cases, but didn’t specify the rental company.

Pros: Another strong chance of finding the lowest price.

Cons: The blaring black and orange color scheme of the results page is a bit difficult to read.

AARP Partners

avis screenshot.

If you qualify for them, AARP’s car rental partnership with the Avis Group (Avis, Budget, and Payless) promises discounts up to 30 percent, and in some cases I did find prices lower than those I’d seen anywhere else.

Pros: AARP rates could end up saving you money over all your other options.

Cons: Even with a “discount,” you might not be getting the lowest rate, so you still have to shop around.

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Auto Europe

auto europe screenshot.

In Europe, Auto Europe generally matched all other sources, including self-described “discounters,” for offering the lowest rates. Think of it as the AutoRentals.com or Rentalcars.com of Europe.

Pros: I’ve used Auto Europe in the past, and found its customer support to be outstanding. It can also help with difficult rentals, such as finding a rental agency in Ireland that accepts drivers over age 70. It’s a good place to start any European rental search.

Cons: As you’d expect from its name, Auto Europe is best for bookings in Europe. This car rental booking site does offer rentals in the U.S. and elsewhere, but usually won’t get you the best price for them.

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Rentcars.com

rentcars screenshot.

Rentcars.com is another metasearch system that raises similar results to those search engines that were included in my original tests. Like the others, it manages to dig out some good deals.

Pros: It scans more than 100 rental car companies and confines the search display to the most useful prices.

Cons: As with many other sites, the best prices it finds are sometimes pay-in-advance, including full or partial nonrefundability, meaning you need to know ahead of time that your plans are concrete unless you want to lose prepayments.

Kayak

kayak car rental screenshot.

Kayak is best known for airfare metasearch, but it offers a good product for car rentals as well. It searches numerous car rental agencies and booking sites and came up with some of the best prices in my tests. It includes opaque options advertising a “surprise agency” if you’re willing to take a risk.

Pros: The site has lots of handy filters, including “pay now” and “pay at counter” as well as an option to show only hybrid vehicles.

Cons: Kayak works with a wide variety of booking sites, which means you’ll sometimes be pointed to companies you’re not familiar with. Search for reviews before booking with vendors you haven’t used before.

CarRentals.com

carrentals.com screenshot.

CarRentals.com is owned by Expedia, but it didn’t show the exact same results as its parent company in the tests I ran, so it’s worth checking both. (Neither one came out consistently ahead of the other.)

Pros: The site has some interesting filter options, including “station feedback” on clean cars and friendly staff, and the ability to reserve without a card.

Cons: Making a booking through this site automatically signs you up for emails about “special offers,” with no way to opt out until the first email arrives.

The Car Rental Booking Site Gotchas to Avoid

No matter where you rent, you have to check out the terms and conditions of any rental before you make your final purchase. Among them:

  • Great-looking deals that are nonrefundable or entail a stiff cancellation penalty.
  • Cancellable deals that require upfront payment rather than payment at the end of a rental.
  • Best deals that apply to tiny “economy” or “mini” cars that are not practical for anything other than running errands around town.
  • Occasional deals with a mileage cap instead of the unlimited mileage you normally expect.
  • Supposedly all-up prices that exclude some local taxes and fees.

What to Pack on Your Next Trip

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

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10 Essential Civil Rights Movement Historic Sites to Visit


The story of the African-American civil rights movement runs from the kingdoms of Africa to the Jim Crow South, through the Black Panther movement, and into current-day events across the country. Each year, the history, present, and future of racial justice in the U.S. comes into focus with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January and Black History Month in February.

10 Essential Civil Rights Movement Historic Sites to Visit

But these exceptional museums, monuments, and historic centers dedicated to the civil rights movement deserve the attention of travelers seeking the story of America all year long.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

In D.C., the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 with much pomp and circumstance and ticket lines that ran around the building. If you still haven’t gone, you’re in for an exceptional experience: Exhibits span five floors and explore topics ranging from pre-slavery kingdoms in Africa to Jim Crow Segregation, and beyond, to modern day issues and achievements. The museum does a great job of bridging the job of informing without overwhelming, but trying to do it all in one visit will be tough. Timed entry passes are required on some days; check online for advance tickets or take your chances on a same-day request line at the museum.

African American Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This dedicated museum predated Washington D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by 40 years, and was the first in the country to be dedicated solely to exploring African-American heritage. The African American Museum in Philadelphia is a fantastic visit for all ages, but does a particularly good job of communicating with the under-12 set who will engage with exhibits like the hands-on Children’s Wall, which details the lives of historic African Americans. The permanent “Audacious Freedom” display details the contributions of people of African descent in Philadelphia during the years immediately following the founding of the United States.

[viator_tour destination=”906″ type=”1-mod” tours=”3958P47″]

The Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama

Gain insight into the rise and fall of segregation in Alabama with a visit to this well-appointed museum. Your self-directed exploration through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will take you through various timelines and details of the movement. When you’re done, cross the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in September 1963, a bomb was set off killing four African-American schoolgirls who were attending Sunday School. The church still holds Sunday service each week at 11.

[viator_tour destination=”34184″ type=”1-mod” tours=”56778P2″]

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

It’s been over 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: In 1968 the world-respected leader was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when he was shot. Since 1991, that former motel has housed the National Civil Rights Museum with a goal of sharing the lessons of the movement while also addressing the goals of equality and freedom around the world. Thanks to a $27.5 million investment in 2013, interactive exhibits have been added that enrich the visit.

[viator_tour destination=”783″ type=”1-mod” tours=”2674P5″]

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington. D.C.

Frederick Douglas started his life as a slave; then taught himself to read, outsmarted his captors, and escaped. He used his newfound freedom to become one of the most famous abolitionists in history and gained the respect of President Abraham Lincoln. Cedar Hill, the home he lived in from 1877 until his death in 1895 is now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Daily ranger-led tours offer a glimpse into the impressive man, his family life, and his work alongside five American Presidents.

[viator_tour destination=”657″ type=”1-mod” tours=”193957P1″]

Missouri History Museum, Missouri

The Missouri History Museum offers a glimpse into how one city has made an impact on the national story of civil rights. Here you’ll find exhibits on the story of the four precedent-setting Supreme Court civil rights cases that had their start in St. Louis, as well as artifacts collected during the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. Don’t miss the section of live exhibitions, where actors bring historic events and people to life right in front of your eyes. Admission is free.

Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.

This iconic family-owned fast-food spot opened in 1958 with a simple take on the chili dog. Today, Ben’s Chili Bowl’s half-smoke—a half-pork, half-beef sausage topped with onions, cheese, and the restaurant’s signature chili—is a D.C. must-eat. But beyond the food and friendly service, the Chili Bowl on U-Street—in a historically African-American area of Washington D.C.—also has a place as an important part of the American civil rights movement. It was at ground zero of the 1968 race riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, the restaurant—at the request of famous Black Panther Stokely Carmichael—stayed open despite curfews in place to feed protestors and police officers alike. Today, the walls of the shop hold photos of celebrities, public figures and local icons. And a mural on the wall outside features celebrated figures in the community. Though patriarchal namesake Ben Ali passed away in 2009, the property remains in the hands of his wife and children. And the half-smoke is still on the menu.

[viator_tour destination=”657″ type=”1-mod” tours=”231627P1″]

Freedom Rides Museum, Montgomery, Alabama

The African American civil rights story depended in part on allies from other races, communities, and countries. It’s a story that is diverse in class, age, and race. The Freedom Riders—groups of volunteers who drove into segregated areas in 1961 with a goal of desegregation—are a prime example of exactly that. Before venturing off, Freedom Riders often wrote wills and goodbye letters to their families. Many of them would be killed and none of them was older than 22. The Freedom Rides Museum shares the story of 21 of these young people who took on the nonviolent protests encouraged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and sacrificed for the movement.

Civil Rights Memorial Center; Memorial to Peace & Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

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While in Montgomery, don’t miss a chance to visit the Civil Rights Memorial and Civil Rights Memorial Center. The monument chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement, while the memorial plaza offers a contemplative place to remember those killed during this turbulent period of American history. And nearby, the massive new Memorial to Peace & Justice from the Equal Justice Initiative aims to remember the thousands of African American men, women, and children who were lynched in America.

[viator_tour destination=”22212″ type=”1-mod” tours=”41627P1″]

Oakland Museum of California, California

The southern and eastern states get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to Civil Rights, but California played a role too. Famous Black Panther members Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the party in Oakland. You can still tour the neighborhood where things began, and alongside a former Black Panther thanks to the Oakland Museum of California’s ongoing exhibition series about the group. More exhibitions and dates can be found here.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

[viator_tour destination=”657″ type=”3-mod” tours=”6349P19,40048P5,40048P29″]

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on GlobeTrottingMama.com.

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Booking Strategy Health & Wellness Outdoors Road Trip

SmarterTravel Spotlight: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise


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You’ve probably seen the jaw-dropping pictures of Lake Louise’s emerald waters on Instagram, and yes, it’s really worth visiting in person too. Between the lake itself, its national park location, and surrounding peaks and glacier, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Canadian Rockies deserve a spot on your bucket list.

Here’s why staying at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the best way to visit Lake Louise and what time of year is the best time to go if you want to avoid the crowds.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: The Location

You can’t get any closer to Lake Louise in Banff National Park than with a stay at the Fairmont Chateau. The hotel was first built as an attraction along the Canadian Pacific Railway for tourists to visit in the summer. Since its beginnings in the late 1800s, the property has welcomed royalty, celebrities, artists, filmmakers, world-famous skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

As part of the Canadian Pacific Hotels division, the property became a Fairmont in 1999. The property has a rich mountaineering history that’s seen through the design, service, and activity offerings at the hotel.

The Fairmont grounds directly abut the UNESCO World Heritage site, which means hotel guests don’t have the property to themselves. Busloads of tourists visit the lake every day, but that shouldn’t stop you from staying here. Tourists are allowed in parts of the hotel, but priority is given to hotel guests at the onsite dining options and the new spa.

In fact, staying at the hotel will give you time in the morning and evenings to enjoy the lake in a rare moment of solitude. Plus, not many tourists stay long enough to enjoy the dozens of hiking trails surrounding the lake and hotel. I recommend the Plain of Six Glaciers and Big Beehive hikes for intermediate hikers. You can also participate in outdoor actives via the Mountain Adventure Program.

Shoulder season (early spring and throughout the fall and early winter) are ideal times to visit for less expensive room rates and fewer crowds. I stayed at the property in mid-October and was able to enjoy the property without crowds for the better part of the day. Plus, you get to see the surrounding mountains with a dusting of snow contrasting the jagged granite peaks. It really is the best of both worlds.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: The Rooms

The rooms are updated, spacious, and decorated in traditional Fairmont style. I stayed in a suite room with views facing the lake. The suite was spacious, even by suite standards, and has plenty of space for a family. Since you visit for the view, I recommend spending extra on a lake view room. In total, there are 539 rooms at the chateau.

Fairmont Gold members receive an exclusive experience, with signature suite rooms on the seventh floor reserved only for Gold member guests. Other perks include arranging dinner reservations, transportation, and access to the private lounge. Gold members can head to the Fairmont Gold Lounge for a complimentary breakfast buffet and access to books, games, coffee, and tea, as well as an honor bar and complimentary cocktail canapes from 5 to 7 p.m. 

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Dining

The Fairmont Chateau has many dining options ranging from a gastropub and a breakfast buffet to fine dining overlooking the lake. Guests can also enjoy a 24-hour deli-style counter for quick meals and snacks. Restaurants include the Fairview (fine dining), Lakeview Lounge (lounge area serving tapas and cocktails), The Wallister Stube (European alpine inspired restaurant and wine bar), The Chateau Deli, Poppy Brasserie (breakfast style buffet restaurant), the Alpine Social (gastropub), and the seasonal Italian cuisine kitchen Lago (usually opened regularly during summer).

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Extras

Guests have access to all of the surrounding trails and equipment (for a fee; crampons are free for guests). There is also an adventure center, where guests can book guided hiking tours on trails around the lake. The entire staff is  friendly and helpful with activity recommendations. You also aren’t far from the small town of Lake Louise, but you really don’t need to leave the property to explore all the Canadian Rockies have to offer. Winter activities include ice skating, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. Summer activities include canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, and biking.

For skiers, some of the best Canadian Rockies skiing is only three miles away at The Lake Louise Ski Resort. The mountain is home to the Lake Louise World Cup every November and gives the area international fame in the skiing world. Free ski storage is also available at the hotel.

There is also a newly renovated spa and fitness center featuring a heated indoor pool, steam room, and complimentary fitness classes. The hotel is also well known for its all-inclusive wellness retreats offered in the shoulder season.

I recommend continuing on to Jasper National Park and staying at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, as well as a night at the Fairmont Springs Banff to complete your Canadian Rockies vacation. All three hotels are unique in that they’re located in national parks and each property works closely with the Canadian Park Services to uphold standards in nature preservation, sustainability, and respectful tourism.

For reference, Lake Louise is located about two hours from the Calgary International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the town of Banff, and about one hour from the entrance of Banff National Park. From the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to the Fairmont Jasper is about a three-hour drive.

Price and How to Book: Nightly rates start at $275 and can be booked on TripAdvisor or Fairmont’s website.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:186815″ /]

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Ashley Rossi stayed as a guest on behalf of the Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

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7 Secret Amtrak Tips That Could Save You Money


If you’re considering a trip on Amtrak, you could be eligible for a discount you don’t know about. Amtrak routinely gives up to 30 percent off bookings for an array of reasons, some based on status, some on when you buy, and some on short-term promotions. Here are the Amtrak tips you need to know to save money on a rail journey.

Amtrak Tips You Need to Know

First, it’s important to know what services Amtrak discounts typically apply to, and their terms:

  • Discounts are almost always confined to coach class and ordinary (not high-speed) trains, though there are occasional business-class discounts on Acela. Amtrak only rarely discounts its sleeper class or Acela first class seats, and typically highly publicizes those.
  • Discounts usually apply to all or almost all long-haul and regional routes, although seats are subject to availability and holidays/blackout dates.
  • Discounts often exclude routes where Amtrak does not use seat reservations: typically Keystone and Pennsylvanian trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pacific Surfliner trains, Auto Trains, and some Thruway Bus.
  • Most discounts do not apply to the Canadian portion of cross-border trains operated by Amtrak and Canada’s VIA Rail.
  • Some discounts are combinable; others are not. Some discounted fares allow upgrading with payment of fee; others do not. Check individual programs for details.

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Most discounted fares are nonrefundable, but are exchangeable with a 25 percent fee. In addition to discounts on regular tickets, Amtrak tips listed here include its version of a rail pass as well as rail-hotel package details, which can be useful for some travelers.

Status Discounts

Several ongoing Amtrak discounts depend on who you are; appropriate ID may be required when you travel. Status discounts are combinable with some other discounts but not all.

Seniors age 65 and over receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares. The senior discount is 50 percent on Downeaster trains between Boston and Maine. Kids age two through 12 receive 50 percent discount when traveling with a fare-paying adult. Military on active duty and veterans receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares.

Travelers with disabilities and companions receive 10 percent discounts on most coach tickets. All Rail Passengers Association members receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares; three-day advance purchase is required.

Purchase-Based Discounts

Advance Purchase: Amtrak offers a variety of advance-purchase discounts of 20 to 25 percent. The most general is a 20 percent “Saver Fare” discount, nationwide, on its most popular long-distance trains. Purchase tickets seven to 14 days in advance, depending on route.

Smart Fares: Each week, Amtrak posts specific routes with 30 percent coach discounts. Fares post on Tuesdays for purchase during the next four days and for weekday travel starting the following week, ending after three weeks.

Short-Term Promotions

Amtrak frequently posts short-term promotions, with a specified cutoff date, on its deals page. They take several forms:

Conventional coach percentage discounts in limited regions, on specific trains, or to specific traveler groups such as seniors and students. Discounts are typically 15 to 25 percent—no better than “Saver Fares,’ but with either no advance purchase requirement or a shorter period.

Buy-one-get-one or companion offers; sometimes the second ticket free, sometimes the second ticket at 50 percent off.

“Share Fares” for a group of up to six traveling together requires the first traveler to pay full fare, the second to pay 15 percent off, and the third through sixth to pay 60 to 70 percent off the adult fare.

One current temporary 15 percent discount applies to seniors age 62 or over on regional trains within California: Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquins. This promotion expires January 31, 2020. Route-specific sales can come and go.

Multi-Rides and Passes

Amtrak sells monthly and ten-ride tickets for trips between two specified stations, as well as six-ride tickets for students, limited to a few trains.

Amtrak’s rail pass comes in three sizes: eight segments over a 15-day period, $499; 12 segments over 30 days, $689; and 18 segments over 45 days, $899; half fare for children ages 2-12. Travel is valid on most trains.

There’s also a California pass, $159 for travel on any seven days out of a 21-day period. Children pay half, for travel on Capitol CorridorSan Joaquins and Pacific Surfliner, and Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Dunsmuir, California.

Flash Sales

Amtrak periodically runs flash sales, usually with a purchase period of only a few days, valid for travel over several months. It just completed its fourth annual “Track Friday” sale offering 35 percent discounts on most trains. Last year flash sales offered 35 to 60 percent off some long-haul trains; one sale even included sleeper class. Flash sales also included some BOGO deals and one $10 fare deal.

Packages

Amtrak offers a range of vacation packages, some incorporating both rail travel and hotel accommodations, others concentrating just on destination packages at cities Amtrak serves. As is the case with air/hotel, packages, rail/hotel packages can often cost less than buying rail tickets and hotel accommodations separately. You have to check each specific trip to determine whether packages are good deals.

Making Sure You Get Your Deal

The regular Amtrak website is very good about offering discounts automatically. The booking page accepts inputs about your status and the search system automatically displays discounted fares. Very occasionally, you may need to enter a promotional code. You can arrange discounted Amtrak tickets in person, online, and through Amtrak’s free iPhone or Android app.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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18 Winter Travel Tips for Flights and Road Trips


Successful winter travel is all about successfully navigating the weather. In winter, most travelers hope to get to and from their destinations with minimum trouble and maximum enjoyment—and, most importantly, to always arrive safe and sound, no matter what sort of snow, ice, sleet, or freezing rain you may encounter. To that end, here are some winter travel tips and tactics to help you avoid spending the season stuck in airports or on roadsides.

Winter Travel Tips for Flying

[st_content_ad]1. The worst winter travel problems for travelers frequently occur at connecting airports. If your first outbound flight is canceled and you end up returning to your own home from your local airport, that’s not too bad; if you are stuck in your vacation hotel hoping to get a flight home, that’s a bit worse. But when you’re stuck in a connecting airport in Texas calling hotels and praying for a place to stay, you’re in what I would call your worst-case scenario.

For this reason, you should fly nonstop whenever possible. To find nonstop flights, do all your initial flight searches with the “Nonstop Flights Only” button checked on your favorite booking engine. If you also use search options like “Show Nearby Airports” and “My Dates Are Flexible,” you’ll have a very good sense of how best to get from Point A to B without any Point C for connection.

2. If you absolutely must fly with a connection, watch your layover times carefully. If a weather delay causes you to miss your connection, you might be out of luck; the airline is not necessarily obligated to find you a seat on the next flight, and often cannot logistically do so if flights are full or unavailable. If you have a really tight connection time and your flight is running late, tell a flight attendant who may be able to make arrangements to hold your next flight, or at least get you off your first flight quickly.

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3. Check the weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. You’ll want to know what the weather is like for the departure and arrival airports (particularly if we’re traveling on vacation), but for the same reasons stated above you’ll want to know what is going on at your connecting airport as well. If the weather looks threatening, contact your airline to see if it can reroute you; it may be in its best interest to do so, and save you a lot of grief. 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. Don’t count on a gate agent to know about or search the schedules of other airlines.

4. Try to book your connection through a southern city where weather shouldn’t be an issue. There are no guarantees here, as northern airports tend to be better equipped to deal with winter conditions, and a snowstorm can almost wholly shut down an airport that more often suffers from too much sun. However, your odds are better in places that rarely see ice or snow.

5. Choose a morning flight. For two reasons: First, you are far less likely to have your flight affected by problems at other airports. Second, if your flight is canceled or badly delayed, your options for alternate flights are greatly increased, improving your odds for getting on a different flight by the end of the day.

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6. Consider alternative airports. Very often the problem is not solely weather, but also the overall volume of passengers and flights. In places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston, second-tier airports aren’t too far out of town and are tied into the transportation grid.

7. Get ahead of the game at security. Before you even get in line, put all your gear and spare coins into a pocket of your carry-on bag. With so much valuable stuff getting dumped into plastic bins all day, every day, it’s inevitable that stuff gets left behind, dropped, damaged, broken, or even stolen. If you take 15 seconds to stow everything, you’ll make the time up twice over on either side of the security gate, and won’t risk losing cell phones, wallets, keys, and other essentials. Find more airport security tips here and here.

8. The annual holiday travel rule: Don’t wrap gifts—security will have to rip them open. With the TSA searching checked bags as well as carry-ons, this applies to all of your luggage; not just what you bring onto the plane with you. Consider shipping your gifts ahead of time or wrapping them once you get to your destination. Find more holiday-specific winter travel tips here.

9. Finally, avoid peak travel dates as best you can, particularly holiday weekends. Find out the best and worst days to travel around the holidays here.

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Winter Travel Tips for Driving

1. Put some extra clothing and emergency items into your vehicle; these will come in handy if you break down in cold weather. Assemble a basic kit including a pair of gloves, weather-resistant pants and/or coat, maybe an old pair of boots, a blanket, jumper cables, a flashlight with some extra batteries, and a windshield scraper (and maybe a de-icer), and you should be in good shape. You might also toss a few nutrition bars in as well; things that won’t spoil, are packed with calories, and can bail you out in a pinch.

2. Make sure your car is checked over for winter weather readiness. In particular, you or a mechanic should inspect your tires before the first big winter storm.

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3. Once your vehicle is inspected and equipped, follow this advice I heard a while back from a Montana snowplow driver: “See and be seen. Keep your headlights and taillights clean, especially in stormy weather. Keep windows clean and make sure defrosters work well. If snow has built up on your vehicle overnight or after a break from driving, clear it away so it doesn’t blow off and obscure your windows.”

4. Slow down. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends slowing down by about 50 percent in bad weather. Also leave extra space between you and the car in front of you in case of slippery roads.

5. Remember that not all stretches of road are created alike. For example, many recently built small bridges and overpasses have been designed to blend into the surroundings, with a gradual or nonexistent change in elevation. These bridges nonetheless remain susceptible to icing over much more rapidly than regular blacktop. Look out and look ahead for these short stretches of road when temperatures approach or drop below freezing. If you don’t know the ropes of driving on icy surfaces, here’s how to drive on black ice.

6. Some features of modern automobiles may actually serve you poorly in bad conditions. In some SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for example, you may have better traction when the vehicle is under way, but the four-wheel drive won’t help you stop any faster. Also, skip the cruise control; your cruise control feature may accelerate when you least want it to, such as when you are climbing an icy bridge.

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7. Some safety experts recommend putting a bag of kitty litter in the trunk, both for added ballast to offer better traction, and to put under the wheels if you need to get yourself out of a slippery spot.

8. If you’re stranded and have to stay in your car, you can run the engine for heat, but make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed by snow or mud. If you prefer not to have the engine running the whole time, close the windows to keep heat in, and run the car for 10 minutes every hour, cracking open a front window when you do so.

9. If you are parking at your hotel or near attractions in bad weather, opt for a spot in an indoor parking garage when available.

Readers: What winter travel tips would you add? Post them in the comments.

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Editor’s Note: This story was written in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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7 Surprising Places to See Stunning Fall Foliage Overseas


Looking for a fall foliage getaway that’s a little less New Hampshire and a little more Japan? Shoulder season is a great time to snag a steal on international travel, and these bucket-list-worthy destinations are even more beautiful in leaf-peeping season.

Unexpected Destinations for Fall Foliage

Here are the most unexpected places abroad to enjoy autumn colors just as vivid as the ones in the States.

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Nikko, Japan

fall foliage in nikko, japan.

Want your fall foliage with a side of waterfalls? Nikko’s mountainous climate and terrain make for not only a lengthy leaf-peeping season, but also scenic highways (like Irohazaka Winding Road, pictured) swathed in fall foliage, and towering waterfalls to view it all from. The most famous waterfall in the region, Kegon Waterfall, even has a nearby 330-foot-high observation deck accessible via elevator, for sweeping vistas of the surrounding area sans the hike. Colors typically peak between mid-October and early November.

Where to Stay: At Hoshino Resorts KAI Nikko, a hotel that’s within walking distance to Nikko National Park.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1093170″ /]

 

Uttarakhand, India

fall foliage and elephants in uttarakhand, india's jim corbett national park.

If India doesn’t come to mind when you think about autumnal getaways, the Himalayan peaks of Uttarakhand might change your mind. Fall foliage ranging from golden yellow to deep red makes a mountain-top or lakeside stay in Uttarakhand the perfect break from India’s bustling megacities. Visit Nainital Lake to leaf peep by boat, or head to wildlife sanctuary Jim Corbett National Park for the chance to spot tigers and elephants among the fall foliage.

Where to Stay: The Riverview Retreat is a top ranked property near Jim Corbett National Park. The hotel’s inviting outdoor spaces will keep you connected to nature throughout your stay.

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Transylvania, Romania

fall foliage at dracula's castle, romania.

The land of Dracula and Gothic castles exists in real-life Romania, a destination that isn’t on the average traveler’s radar—but is on many a Halloween lover’s. Bran Castle in Brasov, Transylvania, is said to have inspired the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and thus referred to simply as Dracula’s Castle. The most-visited site in Transylvania, it’s nestled in a sea of red and orange fall foliage come leaf-peeping season.

Where to Stay: If a quaint hotel is your cup of tea, try the historic Bella Muzica located in Council Square.

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Nanjing, China

fall foliage in nanjing, china.

For a later fall foliage season that spans mid-November through December, Nanjing is a bustling city that’s home to a surprising number of vibrantly colored scenic areas. Among them is the aptly named Purple Mountain (named for its plum-tree foliage), home to the Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty that’s guarded by life-sized stone sculptures of elephants, camels, and horses. Nearby Niushoushan Cultural Park is also a sprawling natural area hiding temples and pagodas you can access up and down the mountain via tram. A modern and college-centric Chinese city, Nanjing is also set to open a brand-new Ritz Carlton Nanjing in late 2019. And if craft beers are a fall staple for you, don’t miss Master Gao Brewery’s beloved green tea- and jasmine-infused options.

Where to Stay: The new Ritz Carlton is worth the wait. Or, have a delightfully historic stay at The Grand Mansion Nanjing, which was designed by the late I.M. Pei, the Chinese architect behind The Louvre.

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Budapest, Hungary

fall foliage in budapest, hungary.

Fall is perhaps the best time to visit Budapest. Fall foliage makes hilly Buda a canvas of color easily viewed from the Pest side of the city—where thermal baths bustle with use once again after the heat of summer settles down. The city rests on thermal springs that feed the city’s many spa options, from the famous yellow-painted Szechenyi Baths to the Art Nouveau thermal pools at historic Hotel St. Gellert.

Where to Stay: Aria Hotel Budapest is a property that has been racking up awards left and right. Who wouldn’t want to rest their head at a hotel that was named the #1 hotel in the world by TripAdvisor in 2017?

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Patagonia, Chile and Argentina

fall foliage in patagonia.

Turn leaf-peeping season upside down by heading to South America between late March and mid-April for peak autumn colors. The region is colder and wetter in these months, which makes hiking a challenge but also means smaller crowds. The fall foliage, however, is considered by many to be worth the weather: deep red, orange, and yellow leaves take over the mountains, and you’re more likely to see animals thanks to the reduced number of visitors.

Where to Stay: Inside the Cerro Alarken Nature Reserve at Arakur Ushuaia. This Argentinian hotel is a 2019 TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice winner.

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Melbourne, Australia

fall foliage in melbourne dandenong ranges national park, australia.

Traveling Down Under in late April to mid-May also yields dazzling Southern-Hemisphere colors in outdoorsy Melbourne, which sees a wide range from golden-yellow leaves to deep reds. Dandenong Ranges National Park is a favorite for waterfalls and bridges in a lush forest home to wildlife, like wombats and cockatoos. For the ultimate leaf-peeping experience, kick back on a train ride via Melbourne’s historic Puffing Billy steam engine, which meanders through the Dandenong Ranges peaks and fern gullies. 

Where to Stay: Enjoy the bustling restaurant scene around Treasury on Collins, a historic refurbished hotel in a prime area. Dandenong Ranges is a quick 25-minute drive from the hotel.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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Fall Scenic Drives for Each U.S. Region


Fall is perhaps the best season to pack up the car and head out on a scenic drive to enjoy the season’s colors and flavors. Here are the best fall road trips, one for each U.S. quadrant. Be sure to peruse the listing at the story’s end for resources on finding peak-season foliage throughout the nation.

Northeast: Cape Cod, Massachusetts

cape-cod-bridge-fall

New England is a foliage seeker’s paradise, and a drive down any local roadway from late September through early November is a sight to behold. Focus on specific parts of the Northeast, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best fall road trips, with a broad range of leaf colors.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism’s fall page lists nine seasonal drives, each chosen for its historic significance and natural beauty. The  Cape Cod route from Bourne to Brewster is an easy drive filled with working cranberry bogs, the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum—dedicated to the 35th president’s life in the Cape—and a stop at Scargo Hill Observation Tower (located on the Cape’s “inner elbow”) for sweeping panoramas of the area’s foliage scenery with views as far as Provincetown, the Cape’s “fist.”

Before your next weekend getaway, get a peek at what awaits you up the road with this live foliage map.

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Midwest: Southwest Michigan

red-lighthouse-holland-michigan

The state of Michigan has put together a comprehensive list of driving tours perfect for the road trip aficionado. Choose from various themes, including food, wine, heritage, fall, and others.

The one-tank trip around Michigan’s southwest region starts at Battle Creek, winds through wine country in Paw Paw, continues past roller coasters in St. Joseph, and offers side trips to South Haven and New Buffalo.

Make time for various unique experiences along Michigan Great Lakes roadways: seasonal swills at the state’s oldest microbrewery at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo; a car-friendly flick at Capri Drive-In Theater; and Dutch heritage a la Americana at the DeKlomp Wooden Shoe & Delft Factory in Holland (Michigan, that is), with its very own authentic windmill, brought here from the Netherlands and reassembled bit by bit. End the voyage at the artsy area of Saugutauk-Douglas, a town awarded the 2016 Best Small Town Weekend Escape by USA Today.

The people behind the Michigan Tourism Offices make organizing a road trip through their state a breeze with the ever-useful interactive trip-planning map. Leaf peepers will appreciate the site’s Fall Colors Tours page, dedicated to roadways that best highlight the season’s vibrant foliage offerings.

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South: Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia

blue-ridge-parkway

Known for striking vistas as far as the eye can see, the Blue Ridge Parkway stretches out over 469 miles between the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks, zigzagging along the Appalachian Highlands. With a maximum speed capped at a a leisurely 45 miles per hour, cruising along the road is encouraged.

Along the way, make a point to stop at Humpback Rocks at milepost 5.8 in the Shenandoah Valley for gravity-defying rock formations, plus a small museum highlighting Appalachian life within the visitor center. Take a break from the manmade roadway to feel the force of Mother Nature at Linville Falls, located at mile marker 316. This is a popular stop along the Parkway, but you can skip the crowds by visiting the falls during the week. Fun fact: The Linville Gorge was the nation’s first designated wilderness area. For those who wish to break up their drive with a trail walk, there are some 370 hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of which is the revered Appalachian Trail.

Driving the parkway is always free of charge, but check for Blue Ridge Parkway road closures (mostly due to inclement weather) before packing up the car.

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West: Tioga Road, Yosemite National Park, California

yosemite-half-dome-fall

You can’t go wrong with any fall scenic drives through Yosemite National Park, and perhaps the most spectacular is Tioga Road.

It’s easy to see why Tioga Road is so attractive, too. Not only is it in the Sierra Nevadas, but it’s California’s highest roadway. And at a brief 47 miles, it cuts across the heart of Yosemite for one of the most picturesque drives imaginable. (It’s sure to yield the most double-clicks on your Instagram account. #travelenvy, anyone?)

Head to the lesser-known, yet just as amazing Tuoloumne Grove off Tioga Road for one of the best fall road trips in the West. As with most other trees, these giant sequoias put on quite the colorful show in autumn. On Tioga Road you’ll have access to Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake, plus a close-up view of Clouds Rest, and beyond that, Half Dome. Hikers rejoice, as this is the roadway connected to the most hiking trails.

You’ll have to time this voyage carefully because Tioga Road closes when the snow starts in October or November. See the Yosemite National Park road conditions page before heading off for this adventure.

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Fall Foliage Forecast Resources

blue-ridge-parkway-fall

What to Wear on Your Scenic Drive

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Patricia Magaña looks forward to eating her weight in apple cider donuts this fall. Follow her on Instagram @PatiTravels.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.