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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Eating cheap (and good!) in San Francisco

Affordable rent is hard to find in San Francisco. But cheap eats? No prob. With just a couple bucks, you can taste city classics (including clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf) and off-the-beaten-path discoveries (think Chinese fusion in The Mission). This is an indie city with character, so forget fast food and head to these deliciously healthy, budget-friendly and wholly original eateries.

SF street car shutterstock_93864763

 

For breakfast: Honey Honey Cafe & Crepery
Sweet or savory, you can’t beat the from-scratch crepes at this comfy, Union Square fave — especially at $6.25 a crack. Line up at the counter to place your order (banana, strawberry, apple, etc.) and the batter pourers will get to work. A little sizzling and a few flips later, your wafer-thin masterpieces arrive at your table. No long waits. No complicated menu. Just a classic breakfast à la francais. In addition to the $6.25 crepes, there are gourmet varieties like Miami Heat (cheddar, avocado, chicken, scallions, hot sauce) and Half Moon Bay (cheddar, tomato, mushroom, crab cake), if the ordinary just won’t do.

Photo courtesy of Honey Honey

Photo courtesy of Honey Honey Cafe & Crepery

 

For Lunch: The Crab Station at Fisherman’s Wharf

You have to try San Francisco clam chowder at least once in your life, and this bargain option won’t disappoint. One of Fisherman’s Wharf’s original seafood stands serves its clam chowder in a hot sourdough bread bowl for $6. This is true grab-and-walk food, best enjoyed on the docks where you can watch boats drift in and out. There are also benches on the Pier 43 Promenade, if you prefer to sit and slurp.

Bread Bowl _ shutterstock_89011093

 

For a Snack: Garaje

A list of must-eat tacos in SF could run as long as Market Street, but we whittled down the best to this ultra-affordable option. Garaje is a SoMa neighborhood taqueria-meets-burger joint with casual counter service (booths are abundant) and excellent food. Street-style tacos are just $3 each, but we recommend splurging (for a modest $5) on the Como Se Llama taco that has both hard and soft shells and is filled with refritos, pico, guacamole and chicken or steak. With old road signs and license plates as decor, you’ll be fooled into thinking this spot is a Route 66 pit stop.

Grilled fish and guac taco. Photo courtesy of Yelp

Grilled fish and guac taco. Photo courtesy of Yelp

 

For Dinner: Mission Chinese Food
If it weren’t for the lines that snake outside its door, this unmarked Mission neighborhood spot would likely go unnoticed (the awning actually reads “Lung Shan Restaurant”). A mash-up from both corners of the world, the excellent “Americanized Chinese food” is all $20 or less. Start with beer-brined Sichuan pickles ($5), move on to Kung Pao Pastrami ($14) or Salt Cod Fried Rice ($13) and go home with leftovers (portions are indeed that big). It’s a crowded, no-frills spot where the sound of heavy metal music drowns out conversation. No matter: You’ll be enjoying the food too much to care.

Kung Pao Pastrami. Photo courtesy of Yelp

Kung Pao Pastrami. Photo courtesy of Yelp.

 

Story by Kelly Aiglon

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Cheap City, USA: Miami

 

Cheap City, USA is a CheapTickets blog series where we show you that any city can be enjoyed on a budget if you know where to look. In this breakdown of Cheap City, USA, we take a look at Miami.

Key Biscane

Key Biscane

Miamis most prized possession: the beach

Sun-worshipers flock to Miami’s picture-perfect white sand beaches and tranquil aquamarine waters. Not only is the beach one of Miami’s most famous attractions, it’s free — you only have to pay for parking.

Key Biscayne: This secluded island paradise is just a few miles from downtown, yet worlds apart. Check out Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park with its historic lighthouse — it’s the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County. The vistas from above are simply breathtaking.

Sunny Isles Beach: With it’s laid-back casual vibe, Sunny Isles Beach is a great spot for families. Visit the Newport Fishing Pier for great fishing and spectacular water views.

Sunny Isles

Sunny Isles Beach

South Beach: Take a stroll along Ocean Drive and you’ll find Art Deco buildings with alfresco cafés on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Stretching from 1 Washington Avenue to around 21st Street, this is the party beach with the funky multi-colored lifeguard stands that you’ve seen on TV.

South Beach

South Beach

 

Go for a walk on the wild side

There’s so much to do in the 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park. Made up of warm mangrove waters and sawgrass prairies, this giant river (yes, it’s a slow-moving river not a swamp) is home to a rare community of tropical plants and animals. You might even see manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and more than 350 species of birds.

Everglades-Kara-Franker

The combination of fresh, salt and brackish waters makes Florida Bay the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles (in this case, the rare American crocodile) live together.

Take a self-guided or ranger-led tours at the Visitor Center at the park’s southeastern entrance, or journey deeper into the Everglades for a more extensive experience in the Florida wilderness. To the north, the Shark Valley entrance to the park offers one of the best places to observe wildlife in a natural habitat. A 65-foot observation tower provides a spectacular bird’s eye view.

Everglades-Alligator-Kara-Franker

 

Local art scene

From eclectic street art to upscale contemporary art galleries, there are a number of free art walks hosted across the city.

Wynwood: Famous for it’s vibrant graffiti art painted by internationally renowned street artists, Wynwood is truly one of Miami’s most unique and artistic neighborhoods. Art walks happen every second Saturday of the month between 6 and 10 p.m.

Wynwood. Image by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Wynwood. Image by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Little Havana: Experience Miami’s rich Cuban heritage at Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) in Little Havana. Enjoy live music, dancing under the stars, cigar rolling and domino games on bustling Calle Ocho. And make sure you stop by Café Versaille for Cuban coladas and pastelitos. The event is held on the last Friday of every month from 7 to 11 p.m.

Cafe Versailles. Photo by Jeremy Franker

Cafe Versailles. Photo by Jeremy Franker

Coral Gables: Head to picturesque Coral Gables with it’s tree-lined streets and elegant boutiques. Dubbed “The Great Gables Gallery Stroll,” wander through a myriad of local art galleries on the first Friday of every month from 6 to 10 p.m.

 

Free concerts and Miami’s museums

In Miami Beach is the New World Symphony Center, where the New World Symphony broadcasts free, live concerts on a soaring 7,000-square-foot “Wallcast.” Additionally, the City of Miami Beach Arts in the Parks program shows free movies on the wall on select Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

New World Symphony

New World Symphony

The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (MOCA) offers free live jazz concerts on the last Friday of every month at 8 p.m.

A number of museums in Miami offer a number of free days throughout each month:

  • Peréz Art Museum Miami — free on the first Thursday and second Saturday of the month
  • Bass Museum of Art — free on the last Sunday of the month
  • Gold Coast Railroad Museum — free on the first Saturday of the month (except in March)
  • HistoryMiami — free on the second Saturday of the month
  • Jewish Museum of Florida — free every Saturday
  • Lowe Art Museum — free the first Tuesday of the month
  • Miami Children’s Museum — free the first Friday of the month
  • Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (MOCA) — free the first Sunday of the month
  • Miami Science Museum — free the first Friday of the month
  • Wolfsonian-FIU Art Museum — free every Friday night
  • The MDC Museum and Galleries of Art & Design — always free
  • The Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum — always free
  • Bay of Pigs Museum — always free
Perez Art Museum. Photo by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Perez Art Museum. Photo by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

People-watch on SoBes two best Catwalks

People-watching is hands down one of the best free activities in sun-drenched Miami. The most important thing you need is a camera. Watch people strut the catwalk known as Ocean Drive, where you’ll find bikini-clad beach bunnies, iron-pumping hunks and everyone in between.

Or visit pedestrian-friendly Lincoln Road, lined with alfresco cafés and trendy boutiques. This lively magnet for entertainment and shopping is another great place to people watch, especially if you want to mingle with the locals.

Ocean Drive. Photo by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

Ocean Drive. Photo by Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

Story by Kara FrankerA purveyor of the coastal life and a self-admitted beach addict, Kara is a travel writer based in Miami. Follow her on Twitter @KaraFranker.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Awesome Mardi Gras parties that aren’t in New Orleans

The Big Easy might be “it” when it comes to Mardi Gras. But it definitely isn’t the only. Colorful celebrations happen across the U.S. — and they come with a lot of the same bells and whistles you get in the French Quarter. We’re talking Zydeco bands, great Cajun food and parades that seem to go on for days. Oh, yes, and beads. Lots of ‘em. If you can’t hop a flight to New Orleans, save some cash and hit a party near you. Here are six of our top picks.

mobile alabama mardi gras

MOBILE, ALABAMA
NOLA’s southern neighbor hosts a dizzying 39 parades over 19 days. Standing idly by isn’t an option; onlookers clamor for beads or go for the ultimate catch: moon pies (chocolate-coated graham cracker cookies with marshmallow in the center). Apart from parade mania, touring the local Carnival Museum is a must and puts the partying in perspective by showcasing the history of Mardi Gras and how it originated in Mobile. For a real insider feel, grab a ticket to a Mardi Gras ball. It’s not uncommon for Mobillians to have a closet full of ball gowns and for men to own a set of tails. Most balls are invite-only, but some bigger groups, like Mystics of Time and Stripers, may open ticket sales to the general public. Mardi Gras celebrations are held through Feb. 17.

 

universal orlando mardi gras

UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT – ORLANDO, FLORIDA
If you’re traveling with kids, this tamer celebration is the one to hit. After all, it takes place on Universal Studios property — home to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The spirit of N’awlins sweeps in from February 7-April 18, when days in the theme parks are capped off with Cajun food, a parade and live concerts. Every week there’s a major headliner, and this year’s lineup includes Jessie J, Kelly Clarkson and Trey Songz. On a smaller stage, New Orleans bands bring Bayou sound to the scene.

 

st louis mardi gras

SOULARD – ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
On any given day, jazz and blues music steams from the many nightclubs in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood. It gets especially happening during Mardi Gras, which the historic French district actually turns into a month-long affair (January 6-February 17). Parades wend past the Anhauser Busch Brewery, Cajun cook-offs add sizzle, and even dogs get involved; on the second Sunday before Mardi Gras there is a pet parade (yep, the pups get dressed up, sparkly boas and all). Anyone is free to have a float in the parade, as long as you register your “krewe” (organizations, clubs or groups of friends). That said, it’s just as fun standing on the sidelines, cheering on the drag racers, musicians and costumed merry-makers.

 

MAGIC HAT – BURLINGTON, VERMONT
For 20 years, local brewery Magic Hat has thrown a Mardi Gras shindig, which is known for its parade down Main Street. Trumpets blare, jugglers wow, floats roll by and drums keep the beat as hundreds of people look (and drink) on. The parade is followed by after-parties on Church Street and throughout downtown Burlington. For true local flavor, venture a few minutes from downtown to Magic Hat’s Brewery and Artifactory, where tours are led and revelry is at a peak. Not only is this Mardi Gras a fantastic party, but it’s one with a purpose: This year’s proceeds benefit the Vermont Foodbank. Held Feb. 27-Mar. 1.

 

gaslamp district mardi gras

THE GASLAMP QUARTER – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
The second largest Fat Tuesday celebration in the U.S. is more street party than cultural immersion — but it’s alluring all the same. The GasLamp Quarter, with blocks of bars, clubs and restaurants, is San Diego’s major entertainment district. On February 17, it kicks into overdrive with five outdoor stages, DJs and a night parade with bands, floats, classic cars, belly dancers and Brazilian entertainment that could rival that of Carnival. Snoopadelic headlines the event, so crowds are expected to be thicker than a bowl of gumbo.

 

breckenridge mardi gras

BRECKENRIDGE MOUNTAIN  – BRECKENRIDGE, COLORADO
More than 15 years ago, a group of New Orleanians moved to this mountain paradise and brought a little bit of NOLA with them. Their modest celebration has expanded to the whole town of Breckenridge and includes live music, fire dancers and snow play. On Fat Tuesday, several blocks of Main Street shut down for a street party featuring Chris Daniels & the Kings, a jazz and swing act that’s performed with B.B. King. Larger-than-life puppets and harlequin-masked bon vivants light up the night as the sun sets behind the peaks of Breckenridge Ski Resort. New Orleans-themed food and drink specials are available at restaurants throughout town. Held Feb. 17.

 

Story by Kelly Aiglon

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Cheap spring break: where to go and when

It’s a college student’s rite of passage to make the pilgrimage to the closest and warmest beach with a hefty crew of cronies. Fifty-five percent of college students are planning to travel for spring break this year, with Las Vegas, Cancun and San Diego topping the list of the hottest destinations, according to the latest booking and survey data from CheapTickets.com. Spring breakers are also flocking to Florida as the state’s beaches occupy five of the top 15 spots.

To help students find the most popular places to go and get the most bang for their buck, the CheapTickets College Crowdometer maps the spring break schedules of 50 of the largest U.S. colleges.

CTIX_CollegeCrowdomenterFINAL

The CheapTickets spring break list below identifies top college spring break destinations and calculates average hotel and flight prices.

CheapTickets.com top 10 college spring break destinations

2015 average daily hotel prices

% difference year-over-year

2015 average airfare

% difference year-over-year

Las Vegas, Nevada

$99

-12%

$337

-13%

Cancun, Mexico

$298

21%

$533

-4%

San Diego, California

$152

22%

$362

-7%

Los Cabos, Mexico

$242

7%

$489

-13%

Miami, Florida

$212

16%

$433

2%

Nassau, Bahamas

$368

42%

$509

7%

Daytona Beach, Florida

$155

8%

$349

0%

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

$104

7%

$309

-15%

Fort Myers, Florida

$248

48%

$353

-5%

South Padre Island, Texas

$143

14%

$377

-2%

 

Price is the biggest factor in deciding their spring break destination. College students are inherent cheapsters, after all. Party scene and weather also come into play. Seventy percent of students plan to spend less than $1,000 and are stretching budgets by buddying up and road-tripping:

CTIX spring break blog graphic

Be safe out there, you college cheapsters. Have a fun and cheap spring break. Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do. ;)

Story by Kelsie Ozamiz

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to see Hawaii for less

Hanakapiai Beach on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii. Courtesy of Jeff Kubina.

Hanakapiai Beach on the Na Pali Coast in Kauai, Hawaii. Courtesy of Jeff Kubina.

Visitors from around the world flock to Hawaii for its sandy beaches, tropical climate, volcanoes and waterfalls. The state is part of the Hawaiian Archipelago, which actually spans 1,500 miles in the Pacific. The mountainous and volcanic islands, which nearly straddle the equator, are tropical and warm, with temperatures rarely deviating from the 80 degree mark down at sea level. Up on the mountains, however, snow and lower temperatures are not unheard of. Because of these variations, the Hawaiian islands are home to more than 150 ecosystems — many of which are becoming more and more fragile — and at least 10 of the dozen sub-climate zones found in the world.

Hawaii has gained a bit of a reputation for being expensive for tourists. The price of food imported nearly 2,000 from the mainland, combined with expensive flights and hotels can add up fast. But once you have arrived, activities on the islands don’t have to put a hole in your pocketbook. Let’s take a look at eight affordable activities in Hawaii — each one in a different sub-climate zone.

Tundra — Hike Mauna Kea ($0)

Sunset from Mauna Kea. Courtesy of Paul Bica.

Sunset from Mauna Kea. Courtesy of Paul Bica.

Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s tallest mountain. The peak of the dormant volcano reaches higher than 13,000 feet, although much of the hiking is actually done below sea level. Visitors to Hawaii can experience the tundra climate zone at the top of the mountain, where daytime temperatures typically hang below freezing. Hiking up Mauna Kea is free, although certain hiking equipment is recommended and precautions are necessary. At altitudes that high, the temperature drops fast and high-altitude storms can sweep in unexpectedly, bringing blizzard-like conditions, driving rain or whiteouts. The round-trip hike to the summit of the mountain, which is located in the northeastern portion of the big island, takes experienced hikers about 10 hours to complete. The National Park Service warns hikers to be finished before nightfall, when temperatures experience an even sharper drop. In ancient Hawaiian lore, Mauna Kea was home to the snow goddess Poli’ahu. She was one of the most beautiful gods, the lores say, but she was also known to freeze people to death. Something to keep in mind during your hike. The views, however, are utterly spectacular.

Desert — Visit Ka’u Desert ($0)

Crack in the Ka’u Desert. Courtesy of Matt Midboe.

Crack in the Ka’u Desert. Courtesy of Matt Midboe.

Ka’u Desert is a little untraditional as far as deserts go. It’s not technically a desert, because rainfall exceeds 39 inches a year, but it does lack vegetation, mostly due to acid rain. The desert covers an area near the Kilauea Volcano along the Southwest Rift zone, where rain mixes with the sulfur released by the volcanic vents. The landscape is comprised mostly of volcanic ash, volcanic rock, sand and gravel. It’s a popular spot for tours and hikes when the volcanoes are inactive. To get there, follow Highway 11 south east from Kona and enter the trailhead at Crater Rim Drive. Although the desert is inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the trailhead is actually a 15 minute drive west of the park’s entrance, meaning you can avoid the national park fee. But beware, when there is high volcanic activity, the area will be off limits to visitors, as potentially poisonous gases may fill the air.

Monsoon — See the cliffs on the Hamakua coast ($0)

Cliffs on the Hamakua coast. Courtesy of rjones0856.

Cliffs on the Hamakua coast. Courtesy of rjones0856.

One of the reasons Hawaii has such a vast array of sub-climates is the trade winds that often blow in from the east. Due to these winds, only one part of the Big Island experiences the monsoon climate zone — a small section along the Hamakua coast on the north side of the island. Monsoon climates are created from seasonal winds that blow for months and usher in the rainy season. The harsh winds and relentless monsoon rains have created rugged cliffs along the cost that vary from the tropical, sandy beaches that typically come to mind when one pictures Hawaii. Infused with rock turned dark from the island’s volcanoes, the cliffs are certainly something to behold. Just deviate off your drive along Highway 19 somewhere between Honokaa and Paauilo and head for the coast.

Continuously Wet Tropical — Check out Akaka Falls ($5)

Akaka Falls. Courtesy of Jean Synodinos.

Akaka Falls. Courtesy of Jean Synodinos.

Along the southern side of the Hamakua coast and not too far from Highway 19 (a highway that goes around nearly all of the Big Island) is Akaka Falls State Park. It’s located on the windward side of the island and receives rainfall year round, giving it a tropical climate. Akaka Falls State Park displays those tropics in all their glory. There’s an entrance fee since it is a state park, but it’s only $1 per person (if you’re on foot) or $5 per car. Caveat: Vehicles with more passengers can get a little pricier. The 0.4-mile path back to the falls is paved and self-guided, and the 442-foot falls spilling into a stream-eroded gorge is surely worth more than any amount of exertion you could spend getting to it. Take your time and notice the flowers — tropical climates like that are few and far between.

Steppe — Watch a hula performance ($0)

Hawaiian hula dancers. Courtesy of Travis Jacobs.

Hawaiian hula dancers. Courtesy of Travis Jacobs.

Also known as a dry/semi-arid climate, the steppe sub-climate zone is a dry grassland where temperatures can reach 104 F in the summer and dip to -40 F in the winter. It doesn’t get that cold in any of Hawaii’s stretches of steppe, which reach around the northwestern coast of the big island and encompass the port of Kailua Kona and the Kona International Airport. Clearly, Kona is a big tourist area, and they have plenty of activities for visitors to partake in, including free hula shows. The local dancers dawn their leis and take to the stage at the shops at Mauna Lani for a free 30-minute show at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. every Monday. Schedules may vary depending on the season.

Dry Summer Tropical — Drive the Kohala Mountain Road ($0)

Kohala Mountain Road. Courtesy of Andrew K. Smith.

Kohala Mountain Road. Courtesy of Andrew K. Smith.

This is a sub-climate of humid tropical, marked by (as the name indicates) a dry summer. The northernmost and southernmost tips of the Big Island experience a dry summer tropical climate. The only other places on earth with this type of climate are parts of southern India and Sri Lanka. Driving the Kohala Mountain Road from Hawi in the northern tip of the island to Waimea, a town further inland, will give a good taste of the climate. Route 250 travels along nearly undeveloped land and its elevation varies thousands of feet. Passersby often spot wild turkeys and pigs, among other fauna. The best part? Driving the road and seeing all those sights is free, assuming you’ve already forked out the dough to rent a car.

Continuously Wet Temperate — Tour a coffee plantation ($0)

Greenwell farms. Courtesy of wfabry.

Greenwell farms. Courtesy of wfabry.

This climate zone covers most of the island inland from the beaches and below the mountain tops. The nearly year-round rainfall is conducive to coffee growth in these areas, and some of Hawaii’s coffee plantations can be found in the mountains just above Kona. Greenwell Farms, about 10 miles south of Kailua-Kona on Highway 11, offers free tours of its operation from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. Guests can take a walking tour of the coffee fields and processing facilities, taste free samples of the coffee, and learn about almost every process in the production of Kona Coffee.

Winter Dry Humid — See the black sands at Milolii Beach Park ($0)

A black sand beach in Hawaii

A black sand beach in Hawaii

This limited sub-climate zone stretches down the southwestern beaches of the island. The climates change with the altitude, so those that experienced a dry winter at Captain Cook or Kealakekua could be disappointed at the constant rain in the towns that lie higher up the mountain. The climate zone only lies along the beaches, down near sea level, making it easy to experience. Milolii Beach State Park, just off Highway 11, is free to visitors and quite the beauty. It’s black rocks and sand that line the beach are evidence of the volcanic nature of the island, and stand out starkly against the blue Pacific waters.

Story by Ally Marotti

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Get away and get warm: 5 cheap all-inclusive getaways

warm beach chair

It’s cold outside. Unbearably cold, really. So cold there’s no other option than to migrate south, to a place so perfectly tropical it makes you warmer just thinking about it.

All-inclusive resorts across the Caribbean have made it easy even for those of us still a little cash strapped from Christmas spending to find affordable getaways. And with the packages they offer – which often include airfare and a three- or four-night stay – getting time off work shouldn’t be much of a barrier.

Check out our list of five affordable and blissfully warm all-inclusive getaways, but first, here are a few tips to remember before you book:

  • Check around when picking your travel dates and see if the resorts are offering any promotions that could save you some cash. CheapTickets offers a new promo code for hotel discounts every week.
  • Book your reservations and flight at the same time for an even better deal.
  • Factor some extra excursions into your budget. Although some packages do include tours of the area, some excursions you might regret missing out on cost a little extra.
  • Double check which drinks are free and which are included. Typically, you have to pay extra for the more high-end alcoholic beverages.

Majestic Elegance Punta Cana – Dominican Republic

Sunrise in Punta Cana. Courtesy of Sasvata (Shash) Chatterjee.

Sunrise in Punta Cana. Courtesy of Sasvata (Shash) Chatterjee.

On the eastern-most point of the Dominican Republic lies Punta Cana. There, the sea breeze rustles the leaves of the long skinny palms, which reach out high and far over the Caribbean. It’s an oasis of resorts surrounded by the rich culture of the Dominican Republic, and packages at the all-inclusive Majestic Elegance Punta Cana incorporate both aspects of the area. Adventurers can explore nearby semi-deserted islands, visit the historic city of Santo Domingo or traverse the several natural parks that are close by. If venturing out isn’t your thing, there’s really no reason to have to leave the resort. There are six restaurants, nine bars and 24-hour room services. There are rooftop bars with panoramic views of the beach and cabanas to escape under if the sun gets too hot. The resort hosts fashion shows and beach parties some nights, and if guests need a reprise from the salt water, they can take a plunge in the resort’s Turkish baths.

Rooms average $354 per night when booked through CheapTickets.

Riu Negril – Jamaica

Riu Negril in Jamaica. Courtesy of Channone Arif.

Riu Negril in Jamaica. Courtesy of Channone Arif.

The Caribbean water is so clear in Negril, you can see what color your toenail polish is beneath the calm waves. One of Jamaica’s go-to beaches, Negril is nestled between coves on the west side of the island. Riu Negril resort has three restaurants and five bars (three of which are poolside), and they’re open 24 hours. The restaurants are themed – there’s a gourmet restaurant, steakhouse and Italian restaurant – but we recommend trying the local flavors. You’ll never taste jerk sauce like you will in Jamaica, and a taste of that is almost worth the trip itself. Of course, the other all-inclusive perks at the resort don’t hurt. There’s a club (a discoteque, as they call it), with admission and all drinks included in the package (try a Red Stripe, you won’t regret it). Venturing out of the resort is a must as well, with rich Jamaican culture at hand and mountain activities available. From the resort, you’ll have a view of Booby Cay, known for its birds and wildlife. Just up the beach, Rhodes Hall Plantation offers horseback rides along the beach. And don’t forget, Montego Bay is just over an hour’s drive away, teeming with markets and Rastafarian culture.

Note: The wifi in the room is not included in the package. But all that time online can probably wait until you’re back in the cold north, right?

Rooms average $341 per night when booked through CheapTickets.

Omni Cancún Hotel and Villas – Cancún, Mexíco

A beachfront in Cancún, Mexíco. Courtesy of Ricardo Diaz.

A beachfront in Cancún, Mexíco. Courtesy of Ricardo Diaz.

Not only is it warm in Cancún, relaxation is part of its culture. That’s evident in the atmosphere of this ocean-front resort. Tiki huts on the beach mingle with palm trees swaying in the wind. Most rooms offer private, ocean-view balconies with views of the Mexican sunrise. Surrounded on water on two sides, guests can stay in the hotel or in a villa at this Mayan-inspired resort. Three pools connected by waterfalls flow into each other at the resort and are open 24/7. (And there’s a separate pool for the kids). There’s a jacuzzi bar guests can swim to and sit in while imbibing in a drink. The resort has a spa and beach cabanas that can be reserved for the day. The Cancún sands have become home to four of the eight species of sea turtles, and guests can witness their nesting season May through September. Female turtles migrate from feeding areas and lay an average of three nests per season. Cancún’s turtle program keeps guests at a distance safe enough for the turtles, but close enough for the experience.

Rooms average $265 per night when booked through CheapTickets. 

Barcelo Maya Beach – Riviera Maya, Mexíco

Barcelo Maya Beach. Courtesy of kartfamily.

Barcelo Maya Beach. Courtesy of kartfamily.

On the shores of the Yucatán, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Cancún, lies Playa del Carmen. The area was a port for ancient Mayans pilgrimaging to Cozumel, a sacred island with a shrine to the goddess of fertility and childbirth. It is the capital of the Riviera Maya, where open-air restaurants and shops mingle with Mayan ruins. Nearly everything about this resort, located just south of Playa del Carmen, was inspired by the ancient Mayans. The three restaurants and three bars, which were recently renovated with Mayan-inspired architecture, serve Mayan-inspired food, along with other international cuisines. Guests can get a Mayan spa treatment at the resort’s spa. The sand is white and the water is clear – so clear guests can see the stunning coral reef separating the mainland and Cozumel. And on a clear day, guests can see the island so many Mayans visited in their search for fertility.

Rooms average $332 per night when booked through CheapTickets.

Royal Solaris Los Cabos – San José del Cabo, Mexíco

Royal Solaris Los Cabos. Courtesy of Michael Allen Smith.

Royal Solaris Los Cabos. Courtesy of Michael Allen Smith.

San José del Cabo is located on the southern most tip of Baja California, near where the Gulf of California blends in with the Pacific Ocean. If guests get bored of staring out at the Pacific Ocean, they can turn around and enjoy a backdrop of the Sierra de San Larazo Mountains. Touristic growth has remained on the outside of the San José del Cabo town center. Guests venturing out of the resort to experience the Baja culture can see the cobblestone streets, adobe houses and a square that sits in front of a church from the 1700s that remain in the town center. The resort itself is kid-friendly, with a waterpark and an ocean-view hot tub. With Baja being a favorite getaway for American celebrities, you may spot a star among all the tropical beauty.

Rooms average $201 per night when booked through CheapTickets. 

 Story by Ally Marotti

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 breathtaking cruise ports around the world

It’s “wave season.” That means from January-March every year, cruise lines and cruise distributors offer their cheapest rates in an effort to get people to book their cruises early in the year. Cheap cruises–we’ll take it! Here are some cruise ports that will take your breath away from the deck of the ship as you glide into port.

Port of Venice, Italy

Venice's grand canal at night. Courtesy of Kosala Bandara.

Venice’s grand canal at night. Courtesy of Kosala Bandara.

By land or sea, Venice is one of the most beautiful cities you’ll ever see. People visit Venice to see the canals, to eat the food, to experience the culture and learn some history, before it all sinks beneath the Adriatic Sea. But what visitors don’t necessarily expect is how the water weaving between each and every block plays with the light. In the daytime, the blue of the canals contrasts the color of the architecture, making its orange hue even more vibrant. At night, the lights play on the water, dancing and illuminating the canals to the point that almost becomes a second light source. The best time of day, though, is twilight. That time of day when the sun has dipped below the horizon but it’s not quite dark yet. A purple hue falls over the city and envelopes everything in a way you can’t experience anywhere else. Plan a cruise that docks just as the sun sets to experience the magic.

Port Vell, Barcelona, Spain

A view of Port Vell in Barcelona from Montjuïc. Courtesy of David Merrett.

A view of Port Vell in Barcelona from Montjuïc. Courtesy of David Merrett.

Continuing around from Italy and through the Mediterranean, is Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Barcelona is steeped in history that remains visible today and is evident as soon as your cruise ship begins making its approach toward Barcelona’s Port Vell (that means “old port” in Catalan). If you can peel your eyes away from the beautifully blue Mediterranean waters and palm trees gently blowing in the sea breeze (and maybe a few topless women on a beach nearby, because, well, this is Europe), you’ll be taken aback by Barcelona’s architecture. To your right as you approach the port, you’ll see the outlines of Antoin Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, the famed yet unfinished church that’s been under construction for decades. To your left, you’ll see the ancient fort perched atop Montjuïc, which served as a lookout for invaders from the sea. The ship will dock at the base of La Rambla, one of the most vibrant and well-known boulevards in the city. When you step onto that Barcelona soil, your adventure really begins.

Port Santorini, Greece

Santorini port. Courtesy of Shane Gorski.

Santorini port. Courtesy of Shane Gorski.

The whitewashed buildings stand out starkly against the vibrant blue of the sky and sea as you approach the Grecian island by way of the Aegean Sea. Tales of Greek monsters are nowhere near your mind as you sail toward Santorini, but you wonder if maybe this is Mt. Olympus because only the gods could tread somewhere this beautiful. The crescent-shaped island is southeast of Greece’s mainland and is the remnants of a volcanic eruption that destroyed the earliest dwellers. As you approach the island’s main port, Athinias, you’ll see the remnants of the centuries-old eruption in the dark, steep cliffs holding up the white towns and villages.

Papeete port, Tahiti, French Polynesia

Tahitian palm with the island of Moorea in the background. Courtesy of Lori Branham.

Tahitian palm with the island of Moorea in the background. Courtesy of Lori Branham.

You may feel as though you’re a castaway finally washing ashore in Tahiti after the hundreds of remote miles you traveled through the South Pacific to arrive. But at least you’ve arrived to paradise. The largest in the Windward group of French Polynesian islands, Tahiti is an explosion of green among the vast blue, with mountains jutting upward and palm trees framing the port. Tiki huts line long docks jutting out into the pristine waters. The island is centered on volcanic mountains, and is famous for its black sand beaches, formed with bits of lava fragments. Much of Tahiti’s beauty also lies beneath its waters. Farming for the Tahitian black pearl is a huge part of the countries economy, and coral reefs surrounding the island teem with colorful wildlife.

Misty Fjords port of call, Alaska

Misty Fjords, Alaska. Courtesy of Andrew Malone.

Misty Fjords, Alaska. Courtesy of Andrew Malone.

Although there are dozens of ports of call in Alaska (and most Alaskan cruises hit several per trip), Misty Fjords is not to be missed. The cruise ship is dwarfed by the rising, snow-capped mountains seemingly enveloping the fjord on all sides. A fjord is a narrow inlet lined with steep cliffs that was formed by a glacier. And this one will take your breath away. There are 1,000-foot waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, pristine lakes and low-hanging mist in this remote section of the Alaskan panhandle. While you are awe-inspired from the landscape, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife such as bald eagles, grizzly bears and moose peeking out toward the ship.

Kona Port, Kailua Kona, Hawaii

Kailua-Kona after sunset, with volcanic rocks on the beach in the foreground. Courtesy of Steve Dunleavy.

Kailua-Kona after sunset, with volcanic rocks on the beach in the foreground. Courtesy of Steve Dunleavy.

There are about 150 distinct ecosystems throughout the Hawaiian islands, and you’ll be able to see a slew of them as you cruise into the port in Kona. Ships use the port at Kailua Kona, on the western side of the Hawaiian island. The Kona Coast has been distinguished by recent lava flows that continue to build on top of each other. Lush vegetation grows in over the flows as time goes by, making it possible to go from lush vegetation to a landscape of barren, hardened lava just by turning a corner. Some beaches also feature black sand. Whales are likely to be seen on cruises traveling now through April.

Reykjavik, Iceland

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. Courtesy of O Palsson.

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. Courtesy of O Palsson.

For being the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik offers some surprising small town charm. Nordic settlers founded the town that has grown up along the pristine Atlantic coastline in 874. Iceland seems to have a little bit of everything, as far as geologic formations go, and cruising into Reykjavik will give you an introductory taste. There are inlets and peninsulas, straits and islands, mountains and glaciers. There are volcanoes and hot springs, ice fields and thermal pools, all engulfed in a bubbling yet sophisticated culture gathered around fresh seafood. Iceland offers snapshots of landscapes that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world, and Reykjavik is the beautiful gateway. Make sure you look up at night for a potential glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

Story by Ally Marotti

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

20 travel resolutions you can actually achieve this year

Sure you could make a resolution to stop falling asleep while streaming Netflix shows, but let’s dream bigger. Here are 20 cheap-inspired New Year’s resolutions to make you a better-traveled person.

CTIX travel resolutions 1.7.14

Story and graphic by Kelsie Ozamiz

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Friday, December 19, 2014

5 cheap ways to spend New Year’s Eve in Vegas

Sin City is one of the hottest destinations in the world to ring in the new year. There are more than a dozen official parties planned throughout Las Vegas’ casinos and venues, and 300,000 people are expected to roll into town. You can see shows and concerts from performers like Britney Spears or comedians like Joel McHale. The Strip shuts down and the entire town turns into a giant block party, with a coordinated fireworks show as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrities and normals come together to rage for one night in a Bacchanalia of glitter that no one will fully recall the next day.

Courtesy of Justin Brown ©

Courtesy of Justin Brown ©

The debauchery and celebrations will seem endless, the hotels are already booking up fast, and most of the shows, parties and clubs require a ticket to be purchased in advance. It sounds daunting, but with a little advanced planning, you’ll be able to handle the night of festivities. But will your wallet?

For those who want the Vegas New Year’s Eve experience but can’t afford to fork out hundreds of dollars for a few hours of entertainment, here’s a list of five free (or reasonably-priced) activities available on NYE in Las Vegas:

1. The fireworks

Courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust ©

Courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust ©

Casinos up and down the strip coordinate to set off a fireworks show so dazzling that some people shell out thousands for a good seat to watch them from. (For example, you can pay a minimum of $2,500 for a seat in the High Roller. The more you pay, the higher your cabin will be, and the more booze, champagne and cupcakes it’ll be stocked with.) But it’s free to watch down on the Strip, among the people. For a more awe-inspiring view, try to get to a higher elevation, like the top of a parking garage or other building that will allow you to go to the top for free.

If you’re willing to pay a little extra for a better view, $30 will guarantee you admission and skate rental at the New Year’s Eve Celebration at the Ice Rink at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Some early bird tickets are available for $20, and cabana and fire pit reservations, which offer the best view of the display at the rink.

2. New York-New York Hotel and Casino

Courtesy of Prayitno ©

Courtesy of Prayitno ©

They might not have a world-renowned DJ dropping the beat, but entry is free to the public (over age 21) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and you can partake in all the revelry famous to Vegas. There will be a live DJ, dancing, drinking and fireworks. If you do feel like treating yourself, there is an all-you-can-drink champagne bar for $40 starting at 6 p.m. and available through 4 a.m. The service will be available at the Center Bar, The Lobby Bar, The Chocolate Bar and Pour24.

3. New Year’s Eve Party at Center Bar

Courtesy of Frank Gruber ©

Courtesy of Frank Gruber ©

This party at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino isn’t just free to get into, they also offer free stuff. Party favors will be offered at the main entrance. There will be a countdown until midnight and a balloon drop when the clock strikes 12. A live DJ will perform at Center Bar, and patrons can receive free liquor samples and glasses of champagne at other designated areas throughout the bar.

4. Paint the Town Gold Party

Courtesy of petecheslock ©

Courtesy of petecheslock ©

The alchemists will transform Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino into a golden palace for the second year of this masquerade-style party. The free event is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., when gold-themed models will take their place among the golden decor, food, specialty cocktails and party favors. Golden balloons will drop from the ceiling at midnight, and select bars and lounges throughout the resort will have golden giveaways and special gold-themed menus. But remember, all that glitters isn’t gold.

5. New Year’s Eve at XS with ZEDD

ZEDD performs at UIC Pavilion in Chicago in 2012. Courtesy of swimfinfan ©

ZEDD performs at UIC Pavilion in Chicago in 2012. Courtesy of swimfinfan ©

With tickets starting at $20, this is one of the cheapest shows with a big name you’ll find in Vegas this New Year’s Eve. ZEDD will be the headliner of this show at XS Nightclub at Encore. If you plan on staying at Encore or Wynn Las Vegas, you have the chance to book tickets with preferred entry.

 

Story by Ally Marotti

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Best places to ride a dog sled in the lower 48

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

With barely 1,000 miles of highway to Alaska’s more than 570,000 square miles, dog sledding is not only a popular sport, but a convenient means of transportation throughout the state.

It is a tradition for most and a lifestyle for some, namely those who take part in the treacherous 1,150 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome (which is basically the Olympics of dogsled racing). There are companies in Alaska that offer a taste of that brutality year-round, allowing tourists to take dog sleds out for a spin.

But lucky for those of us that live in the lower 48, you don’t have to traverse the Great White North to try your hand at mushing. Here’s a look at the best places to ride a dog sled this winter that are a little closer to home.

Wintergreen Dogsled LodgeEly, Minnesota

The folks at Wintergreen invite people of all ages and fitness levels to participate in their dogsled experiences, which take customers through the boundary waters in northern Minnesota. The tours are crafted according to the customer’s skill levels, but no experience is necessary. Wintergreen’s website says its been operating for more than 25 years and had customers as young as 6 and old as 85 riding across the frozen wilderness.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

Photo courtesy of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

You can go full Balto and do multiple-night trips where customers dog sled from lodge to lodge, or opt for a simple day trip. There are dozens of trips to choose from that vary in length, skill level, and route. There are parent-child trips, where the pair gets their own dogsled on which to explore. There are even trips aimed at improving customers’ photography skills.

Each of those categories has options for different skill levels, of course, and offers training – not just in dog sledding, but in dog care and harnessing, snowshoeing, camping, outdoor cooking, winter ecology, backcountry skiing, cold weather comfort and more.

The prices vary among experiences, age of participant and time of year, but an 8-hour day trip costs about $250 and the multiple night trips can cost more than $1,000. Prices for children are discounted. Book in advance, as some experiences are already full.

Nature’s KennelMcMillan, Michigan (Upper Peninsula)

One owner of this dogsled business has raced in at least seven Iditarods, which means the place is legit.

If you are looking for a small taste of dog sledding and don’t want to spend more than $100, Nature’s Kennel in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may be your best bet. They offer a slew of sledding experiences, but the best deal is the half-hour trip.

Photo courtesy of Nature's Kennel

Photo courtesy of Nature’s Kennel

During the half-hour trip, which cost $75, guests are given a ride around Boyne Highlands Resort near Harbor Springs, Michigan. This option is available on all winter weekends and holidays. Pay double the price for the full hour.

Nature’s Kennel is owned by a husband-wife duo (and their two toddlers). They spend most of the summer getting ready for the winter, when they bring in a couple people to help guide the tours. This year, the helpers are a woman from Newark, Ohio, who owns her own kennel of Alaskan huskies, and a woman from New Zealand, who names the Himalayas as one of the most beautiful places she’s ever been.

Adirondacks region – New York

Home to the first Olympic dog sled demonstration and its own popular dog sled race, the Adirondacks can be the perfect place to take to the sled. Several resorts throughout the mountain towns offer sled rides to their guests, and some year-round residents still use dog sleds as a reliable form of transportation.

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

Photo courtesy of Lake Placid Office of Sustainable Tourism

And the sleds they ride on are often made near home. Local craftsmen fashion sleds out of strong and lightweight ash trees native to the Adirondacks, ranging in size from children’s sleds to those meant to carry heavy loads.

Winter in the Adirondacks is a thing of beauty. There are cozy towns and inlets around nearly every remote turn. It’s hard to pick one little town in which to stay (they all have their allure at any time of the year, really), but Lake Placid is by far one of the most visited cities in the mountains.

The quaint town, populated with outdoor gear shops, snug breweries and inviting coffee shops, envelops Mirror Lake, which freezes over in the winter. When the snow falls and the lake freezes, dog sled drivers line Main Street and offer passers-by a ride across the lake. Prices vary, and mushers always check the safety of the frozen lake before taking out passengers. Notable places to dog sled: Golden Arrow Dogsled Rides and Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours.

Yellowstone Dog Sled AdventuresBig Sky, Montana

In Yellowstone National Park, winter is a nine-month experience, making the terrain excellent for mushing. In the high altitude and cold, the Alaskan Huskies thrive. Even during the three blissful months of “summer,” when most of the snow melts, Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures is operational and the dogs are running.

Photo courtesy of  Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

Photo courtesy of Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures

This company offers two options – a one-hour trip and a half-day trip (cost is $95 and $195, respectively, for adults. Kids rates are $45 and $150.) The half-day trip seems the more desirable of the two. It takes riders through the mountains of Montana and offers scenic views and photo opportunities. There are different options within the half-day trip, in which patrons can choose to ride with a guide (cuddled up in a sleeping bag on the back), tandem (you drive while another person in your group rides), or drive your own sled.

The owners warn that these trips are not for the faint of heart or lung. Even at the lowest altitude in Yellowstone, you are still at an elevation about a mile high. Although the sledding trips probably won’t take you from the highest to lowest point in the park, the high altitude and thin air make the trips inhospitable to inactive folks.

Mountain Musher Dog Sled RidesVail Valley, Colorado

The Mountain Musher tour runs a private trail through Aspen groves and pine forests in the Rocky Mountains. The trails aren’t shared with snowmobiles or cross-country skiers, although they may be shared with wildlife such as elk, fox, coyote and deer.

There are several sledding businesses operating throughout the Rockies, at least one of which recently underwent animal abuse accusations. Mountain Musher has been in business since 1989 and often receives positive reviews.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Photo courtesy of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides

Two trips leave daily – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – and last about two hours. Two people (or one adult and two small kids, or three small kids) are allowed per sled, and a musher stands behind the passengers and controls the dogs. The ride is about six miles and costs $175 a person. But you get a snack of homemade pumpkin bread and hot cocoa midway through the trip, plus a nice photo opp. If you want the sled to yourself, it’ll cost you the price of two people ($350). Holiday prices are also elevated, so if you’re looking to get the experience on a budget, avoid the end of December, MLK Day weekend and Valentine’s Day weekend.

Reservations are required, but make sure you’re committed – you’ll be charged if you cancel your trip.

Story by: Ally Marotti

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