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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Beyond the beach: 5 free things to do in Florida

With approximately 800 miles of beaches, Florida offers plenty of free fun in the sun. But when you’ve gotten your fill of vitamins D and “sea,” consider these other amusements that don’t cost a dime.

SummerJazz on the Gulf via Pat Shapiro

SummerJazz on the Gulf via Pat Shapiro

Catch a free concert: Year-round warm weather means perennial outdoor concert season, so pack a picnic basket and a blanket. Options range from the Florida Orchestra’s Pops in the Park concerts in St. Petersburg and Tampa, to the SummerJazz on the Gulf series in Naples, to Springing the Blues in Jacksonville. In South Florida, free is chic, as with the New World Symphony Wallcast concerts projected onto a 7,000-square-foot wall in Miami Beach SoundScape. Sounds like music to our ears.

Southermost Point via nathanmac87 at Flickr Creative Commons

Southermost Point via nathanmac87 at Flickr Creative Commons

Get the picture: The best souvenirs also happen to be the cheapest: photographs. Florida is home to some prime photo ops, so grab that selfie stick and start making your Facebook friends jealous. Begin your shutterfest in St. Augustine, where you can catch the free ferry to Fort Matanzas National Monument in all its 16th-century glory. Then make your way down to Sarasota‘s Ringling Museum of Art on a Monday for free admission to its gorgeous estate. And finish up in Key West with a quintessential photo at the Southernmost Point buoy marking 90 miles to Cuba.

Loxahatchee Slough Natural Area stretch of the Florida Trail via Winnie Lo

Loxahatchee Slough Natural Area stretch of the Florida Trail via Winnie Lo

Take a hike: Keep that camera handy for a jaunt along the Florida National Scenic Trail. The 1,300-mile path stretches from the Everglades all the way up to historic Fort Pickens. Some parts of the trail are more developed than others, but plenty are suitable for hikers of all ages and fitness levels looking to get up close and personal with the Sunshine State’s flora and fauna.

Wynwood Walls via Phillip Pessar at Flickr Creative Commons

Wynwood Walls via Phillip Pessar at Flickr Creative Commons

State of the art: Warm weather is perfect for evening art walks, where you can gallery-hop and sometimes enjoy free wine and entertainment. If you’re in Miami, definitely head to Wynwood – a trendy neighborhood with a concentration of vibrant, larger-than-life murals. If you happen to be there on a Tuesday evening, stop by Wood Tavern for two free tacos — no catch.

Gulf of Mexico via Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater

Gulf of Mexico via Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater

Celebrate the sun: Floridians take our sunsets quite seriously. Whether we’re sitting on a beach, out for an evening stroll or even just stuck in traffic, we take a moment to appreciate the ever-changing cotton candy skies. There are even formal events to mark the end of the day. Two of the best-known take place at Mallory Square in Key West and Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach. Both events feature live entertainment, vendors and a family-friendly atmosphere against the backdrop of the setting sun.

 

Story by Dalia Colon

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Friday, March 20, 2015

March Madness: The cost of beer in tourney game cities

There are a few good reasons to have a cold brewski in March. Once everyone has recovered from their St. Patrick’s Day bar hops, it’s the NCAA college basketball tournament that dominates television screens in sports bars across America. In a matter of weeks, 64 teams will be whittled down by 54 single-elimination games. It’s madness. We collected data from sports bars in the 14 cities where these mad matches take place in 2015 to compare the cost of beer. Here’s what we found:

06_MarchMadnessBeer_v03[1] copy500

Oregon may not be favored in the tourney, but when it comes to the cost of a cold one, Portland is #1 in all three beer categories. If you’re into local brews, Indianapolis and Jacksonville hold a close second. Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Syracuse hold the next best price for imported beer, like Heineken and Stella. No surprise to any big city dwellers, L.A. had the most expensive beer in all three categories. If you’re heading to a tourney game, keep these stats in mind and choose your winning beer wisely.

Story by Ally Marotti

Graphic by Ramiro Olmos

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The 5 types of selfies you’ll see on spring break

Pack your bikinis, trunks, sunscreen, flip flops, and don’t you dare forget that smartphone. It’s your selfie soulmate; the only way your can prove to your social following that you’re having the best spring break ever. Spring break trelfies (as in, travel selfies) are your time to shine. Enter our CheapTickets Spring Break Trelfie Contest with one of these five trelfie types for a chance to win a free trip.

roadtrip selfie small copy

 

Beach and poolside

The better part of any proper spring break is spent on the beach or lounging by the pool. These selfies are easy to spot because the dress code is strictly swimwear, shades, and the occasional florescent inner-tube.

beahc selfie small

 

Group

Candid is key. Group selfies are great because everyone’s too worried about fitting the whole crew in to think about their most flattering angle. It’s like a spring break team building exercise. The result is always awesomely unstaged, so get weird with it. That one’s a keeper!

group selfie small

 

Clubbing

A night out–what’s not to selfie? Everyone is looking spiffy and of course the mid-dance pose is an impressive feat that only the most seasoned selfie takers can accomplish.

clubbing selfie small

 

Roadtrip

The possibilities are endless on the road. Any thing road-side that has a sign starting with “world’s biggest…” deserves a selfie. Or keep it simple and snap one with your backseat buddy.

Car selfie small

 

Adventure

Okay, so you didn’t make it to the coast for spring break, but that’s because there are mountains to hike, trails to bike, and extreme backdrops to take selfies in front of. Remember bears are camera shy, so ask them before you selfie.

Adventure selfie small

 

 

 

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cheap amusement: Parks that won’t break the bank

Taking a vacation to hang with the world’s most famous mouse and his fairy tale friends may not be in the budget this year, but that doesn’t mean that adventurous, family-friendly fun is out of reach. Check out these comparatively budget-friendly options that offer everything from free parking and drinks to complimentary preview days.

Adventureland, Altoona, IA
Located just east of Des Moines, Adventureland entertains visitors with over 100 rides, live shows and attractions, including some of the nations most exciting coasters that challenge even the most avid thrill-seekers. Beyond the large-scale coasters, there’s also an array of water attractions at Adventure Bay, like Iowa’s longest lazy river, 20 water slides, pool with swim-up bar for both parents and little ones, 25,000-square-foot wave pool, sand beach sundeck, kid’s activity pool, splash pad and children’s rides throughout the park.

Adventure Bay

Photo: Adventure Bay via altoonachamber.org

The newest attraction to the park is Storm Chaser, a giant swing ride that takes riders 260 feet off the ground and spins them at 35mph. We recommend testing your bravery on this one with an empty stomach.

Discount coupons are usually available at Iowa HyVee and Taco John stores, so check them out when you’re in the neighborhood.

General Admission: $40 (ages 10+); $35 (ages 4-9 and 69+)

Lake Canobie Lake

Photo: Lake Canobie via ZelenyOko on Flickr

Canobie Lake Park, Salem, NH

Canobie Lake Park got it’s start in 1902 as a trolley park, which were parks created by U.S. rail companies, typically at the end of their lines by lakes, rivers and beaches, to drum up weekend business and provide a resting place for weekday commuters.  It’s also one of only a handful of family-owned amusement parks remaining in the country.  A strong sense of nostalgia remains in the park with their carousel that’s been running since 1906 and the 1930’s Dodgems bumper cars; but, the vintage charm is tempered by the thrilling appeals of a modern-day amusement park.

Canobie Ferris

Photo: Canobie Lake Park Ferris Wheel via milst1 on flickr

Wooden coaster, Yankee Cannonball, with it’s stomach-in-the-throat, air-time hills and the 97-degree drop of the steel behemoth, Untamed, provide the much-needed juxtaposition to the gentle rides remaining from the parks earlier, gentler days.

While Canobie doesn’t offer a full-scale water park, Castaway Island’s interactive play station with water slides, a tipping bucket and a variety of sprayers and water cannons provides the perfect cool-down spot for toasty travelers. For more water fun, hop on the Policy Pond log flume or get dunked like a tea bag on the Boston Tea Party splashdown ride that unleashes a gigantic plume of water guaranteed to drench the camera-toting bystanders.

Unlike most parks, parking is always free. Before visiting, check their Specials page for online-only promotions or to join CanobieClub for access to email promotions.

General Admission: $36 (over 48”); $27 (under 48” and age 60+); ages 3 and under are free; $25 (after 5pm)

Coney Island Nathan's Famous

Photo: Coney Island via drpavloff on Flickr

Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY

Clear your schedule for a rite-of-passage journey to the sacred birthplace of the hot dog. Come packing a Costco-sized supply of Pepto with stomachs empty as there’s no shortage of vendors eager to sell their version of this American culinary icon.

Located in the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island is a neighborhood and beach well-known for it’s amusement area that includes more than 50 rides and attractions. It’s unique in that since it’s inception, it’s never been a singularly owned entity but rather a collection of independent owners, operators and vendors. For this reason, admission to enjoy the grounds is free and rides are pay-as-you-go, allowing the budget conscious to control their spend.

Coney Island Wonder Wheel

Photo: Coney Island Wonder Wheel via wallyg on flickr

While its true Coney Island suffered setbacks and seemed to be headed for permanent closure, the passion of several organizations has helped to revitalize this important piece of Americana. Luna Park opened in 2010 and new rides and shows have been attracting the world’s most curious to this uniquely urban play land.

Hours of operation vary and depend on the crowd and the whim of the owners. Enjoy a spectacular fireworks display every Friday starting the last weekend of June, running until the Friday before Labor Day.

General Admission: Free, pay as you go for rides and games

Hersheypark, Hershey, PA
Hershey, Pennsylvania is a fun-packed destination committed to preserving the well-respected legacy of Milton S. Hersey, founder of an American favorite, The Hershey Chocolate Company. Initially built as a place for Hershey Chocolate Company employees to relax, Hersheypark draws visitors from all over the world with over 70 rides and attractions, including 12 coasters, 14 unique water attractions in The Boardwalk at Hershey and 20 kiddie rides.

Hershey Water

Photo: Hersheypark via Joe Shlabtonik on Flickr

New this year is Laff Trakk, the first indoor, spinning, glow-coaster in the U.S. Riders spin through an exhilarating sensory adventure of sights and sounds with glimpses of colorful characters and a dizzying hall of mirrors.

Hershey Park’s website offers insider money-saving tips from where to get coupons to information on their preview program, which allows visitors to enter the park the night before their scheduled date of entry for a free 2 1/2 hour preview.

General Admission: $61.95 (ages 9-54); $38.95 (ages 3-8 and 55-69); $24.95 (ages 70+)

Lake Compounce

Photo: Lake Compounce via milst1 on Flickr

Lake Compounce, Bristol, CT

Not only is Lake Compounce the oldest, continuously-operating amusement park in North America, it’s home to Boulder Dash, which has been consistently voted as the world’s #1 wooden roller coaster. Known as a terrain coaster, Boulder Dash uses the mountain as it’s base and follows it’s thrilling topography past trees and boulders with 115’ drops and speeds up to 60mph.

Boulder Dash

Photo: Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce via milst1 on flickr

Surrounded on three sides by a mountain and boasting a lake, the park stays in synch with the natural beauty of its setting. The Mark Twain sternwheeler cruises the lake, while a vintage open air electric trolley transports guests to the base of Southington Mountain where they can board gondola cars with promises of breathtaking views on Skyride’s 700-foot climb to the summit.

Crocodile Cove Water Park is included in the price of admission and offers guests an opportunity to cool down on those hot summer days. While not as large as some other water parks, this watering hole is unique in that park-goers can choose to ride traditional slides that empty out into the lake or soak up the sun on the sandy beach.

The Dino Expedition attraction is the latest addition to this park and guests of all ages will come face-to-very-large-teeth with lifelike animatronic dinosaurs up to 40 foot long on self-guided pathways. Even the smallest paleontology-enthusiast can get in on the action with the open-air fossil dig where they can unearth fossils.

Those looking to trim costs will be happy to hear this park offers free water and sodas all day.

General Admission: $40.99 (52” or taller); $30.99 (under 52”)

Michigans Adventure

Photo: Michigan’s Adventure via Roller Coaster Philosophy on Flickr

Michigan’s Adventure, Muskegon, MI

Having the distinction of being Michigan’s largest amusement park, Michigan’s Adventure doesn’t disappoint with over 60 rides and attractions, including Wildwater Adventure. The price of admission gives park-goers access to both parks, good news for those watching their bottom line.

This park appeals to all ages with their balance of family-centric rides, like bumper cars, go-karts, and paddle boats fashioned to look like swans, with thrill-seeking rides like mile-long Shivering Timbers wooden coaster that reaches heights of 125 feet. It’s also one of the only coasters in the world to feature a crooked trick track that unexpectedly tosses riders from left to right.

Shivering  Timbers 2

Photo: Shivering Timbers at Michigan’s Adventure via Roller Coaster Philosophy on Flickr

Like most parks, eating onsite can leave you scraping the bottom of your pocketbook, so many visitors chose to pack a cooler and picnic in the parking lot. General admission, food and drink discounts are available when purchased online and local retailer, Meijer, often offers in-store discounts.

General Admission: purchase online for $29.99, ages 2 and under are free

Palace Playland Ticket Booth

Photo: Palace Playland via Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr

Palace Playland, Old Orchard Beach, ME

With free admission and ample parking, New England’s only beach-front amusement park covers 4 acres and lets vacationers set their own budget. Pay for rides individually by purchasing tickets or splurge for the all-day pass that gives your unlimited access to over 25 rides and attractions. The park delivers fun for all ages, with gentle giants such as the carousel and Ferris wheel to the hold-onto-your britches pendulum swing of the Adrenalin. The steel Italian-made coaster, Galaxi, taxis riders several stories up for the best views of the beach before sending them careening back to solid ground.

The 24,000 square foot arcade contains more than 200 games, with such classics like Skeeball and Fortune Tellers and the modern coin-operated video games.

Palace Playland Arcade

Photo: Palace Playland Arcade via Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr

Palace Playland lets attendance and weather be their guide when setting a daily closing time, creating the romantic illusion of an endless summer.

General Admission: No fee for admission. $32 day pass with unlimited rides, $24 kiddie pass recommended for kids under 42” tall. $1.30 single ticket (each ride takes 2-4 tickets)

 

Story by Maria Barnes

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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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