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Cheap amusement: Parks that won’t break the bank

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

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

Awesome Mardi Gras parties that aren’t in New Orleans

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

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

How to see Hawaii for less

Thursday, January 29th, 2015
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

Urban escape for the holidays: Cheap rates in big cities

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Gifting yourself an urban getaway during the winter holidays could have you singing “Cha-cha-ching” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

Hotels in big cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco silently unleash some of their lowest prices of the year over the holiday season.

This is especially true during the week of Christmas and the week after New Year’s, when folks are occupying their parent’s house and business travel essentially comes to a halt. While you’re trying to squeeze onto your old twin bed wrapped in My Little Pony sheets, hotels are desperate for guests.  In some cases, expect to save more than 50% what you’d regularly pay.  (Just don’t expect that on New Year’s Eve.)

Below are cities extending the steepest hotel savings during Christmastime, plus a few favorite no-cost holiday traditions to soak up seasonal ambience during this specific winter travel period.

Chicago

Average hotel savings: 60%

Yes, Chicago can get cold.  But the chill, paired with a hot chocolate held between warm mittens, is part of the holiday ambience in Chicago – where architectural marvels, world-class museums, amazing cuisine and these holiday favorites await.

ChrisKindleMarket; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

ChrisKindleMarket; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Christkindlmarket Chicago (Nov. 21 – Dec. 24)

Downtown Daley Plaza is transformed into a Bavarian-style Christmas market filled with artisan shops, food stands, a beer hall, musical performers and, of course, Santa.

Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier (Dec. 5 – Jan. 11)

One of Chicago’s top family-friendly attractions hosts a dazzling indoor winter wonderland that includes ice-skating and rides.  Note: Activity wristbands are an additional cost.

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo (Nov. 28-30; Dec. 5-7, 12-23; Dec. 26 – Jan. 4)

Even the animals get into the holiday spirit.  Stroll through a zoo decked out in brilliant, colorful lights from 5 to 9 p.m.  The holiday-inspired ambience also includes musical light shows, ice carving demonstrations and Santa’s Safari.

Spectators at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Spectators at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival + Macy’s Holiday Windows (Through early January)

Two of Chicago’s most famous shopping streets provide a festive backdrop to holiday and post-holiday shopping: Michigan Avenue and State Street.  Linger outside the Macy’s Windows, a Chicago holiday tradition, before heading inside for a meal beside the Great Tree at the Walnut Room.  (Arrive early to beat the crowds, as reservations are not accepted Nov. 8 – Jan. 1.)

 

Las Vegas

Average hotel savings: 50%

The bright lights of The Strip glow a little brighter during the holidays, when resorts and casinos try to outdo each other with festive decorations.  With temperature highs hovering in the upper 50’s, it’s unlikely that you’ll be singing, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens Holiday Display (Dec. 6 – Jan. 5)

Prepare to be dazzled as the setting is transformed into a shimmering, sparkling holiday wonderland.  Even the dancing fountains outside of this famed Las Vegas resort are choreographed to a selection of Christmas music – always a crowd pleaser.

Freemont Street Experience (December-January)

Be prepared for seasonally inspired sensory overload at this five-block entertainment district in downtown Las Vegas.  Christmas-themed stage shows, plus a holiday-inspired Viva Vision light show on its massive video screen are among the attractions.

The Ice Rink at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Photo credit: Denise Truscello ©

The Ice Rink at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Photo credit: Denise Truscello ©

The Ice Rink at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)

The resort transforms its Boulevard Pool into a winter wonderland reminiscent of a Central Park ice skating rink. Only, this one overlooks the Las Vegas Strip and will include holiday films playing on its digital marquee on Mondays. Admission is free to visitors, although taking a twirl on the ice – yes, its real ice – is $15 per person, with a $5 skate rental fee.

Magical Forest at Opportunity Village (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)

When a setting boasts “A Forest Filled with Hundreds of Dazzling Trees,” how can you say no?  This family-friendly attraction includes numerous rides and nightly entertainment, including storytellers, friendly characters, parades and choirs.  Note: There is an admission fee (check website), but all proceeds benefit Opportunity Village’s services and programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

 

Washington, D.C.

Average hotel savings: 45%

When Congress goes on winter recess and the city’s less abuzz with political wheeling and dealing, visit famed national attractions such as the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building and Smithsonian museums (all free!), along with these seasonal attractions.

dcchristmas copy

The National Christmas Tree and the Pathway of Peace (Dec. 5 – Jan. 1)

With the White House as a backdrop, President’s Park hosts this seasonal attraction open to the public. The pathway around the National Christmas Tree features 56 more trees representing each U.S. state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia. Musical performances by choirs, bands and dancers will be held nightly through most of December.

ZooLights at the National Zoo (Nov. 28 – Jan 1, except Dec. 24-25, 31)

More than 500,000 environmentally friendly LED lights transform the zoo into a festive wonderland from 5 to 9 p.m.  Live music performances and a new light show this year add to the ambience.  Most animal houses remain open for special animal keeper talks, too.

Downtown Holiday Market (Nov. 28 – Dec. 23)

This outdoor market filled with food, music and good cheer takes place in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery.  Browse for gifts amidst a rotating group of 150 regional artisans, crafters and boutique businesses.

Union Station (December)

The historic building (home to an upscale shopping mall and train station) decks the halls in December with holiday ambience inspired by Norway.  It addition to a giant Christmas tree, it will boast a Norwegian-inspired holiday market and a holiday model train display that winds through Norwegian towns and fjords.

Waterskiing Santa on the National Harbor; Photo credit: Waterski Santa Show ©

Waterskiing Santa on the National Harbor; Photo credit: Waterski Santa Show ©

Waterskiing Santa (Dec. 24)

Head down to National Harbor for this annual event.  Before taking to the skies in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, Santa skis the Potomac River alongside some special guests.

Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship (Dec. 26, 4-9 p.m.)

Nearby Frederick, Maryland, hosts this annual event celebrating religious diversity, as a dozen houses of worship welcome guests with choirs, nativity scenes and more.

 

New York City

Average hotel savings: 40%

Just walking around New York City is a festive feast for the eyes during the holiday season.  Consider these free attractions the start of an otherwise very, very, very long list.

Midtown Christmas © NYC & Company/Joe Buglewicz

Midtown Christmas © NYC & Company/Joe Buglewicz

Holiday windows (through winter)

Chanel your inner Holly Golightly for a stroll down iconic streets where store windows are a main holiday attraction.  On Madison Avenue, ogle the windows of Barneys New York before strolling over to 5th Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue windows dazzle passersby.  Finally, head down to 34th Street, where Santa awaits at the flagship Macy’s.

Holiday markets (various times, see website)

You may not find big bargains on Madison or 5th Avenues, but the pop-up holiday markets throughout New York City offer reasonably priced artisan gifts and food amidst decadent holiday ambience.  Favorites include Winter Village at Bryant Park and the Union Square Holiday Market, both of which also feature ice-skating.  To stay indoors, head to the Grand Central Holiday Fair.

Rockefeller Center (Dec. 3- Jan. 7 )

No visit to New York around the holidays is complete without a stop at Rockefeller Center, where the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and ice-skating just below it provide a great backdrop to hot-chocolate strolls and selfies.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights (December – early January)

To see some of the most over-the-top holiday light displays, head to Brooklyn.  Those in the Dyker Heights neighborhood attempt to “outdo” each other each year and the spectacle was most recently seen on TLC’s Crazy Christmas Lights.

Queens County Farm Museum Holiday Open House (Dec. 26, 27 & 28, 12-4p.m.)

Tour a decorated farm … in New York City!  With history dating back to 1697, Queens County Farm occupies New York City’s largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland.  This free event also features kid-friendly craft activities and plenty of mulled cider.

Wollman Rink in Central Park © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

Wollman Rink in Central Park © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

Free Central Park tours (through winter)

Central Park transforms into a real-life winter wonderland, especially with a fresh blanket of snow.  Take advantage of free escorted tours to learn the stories and legends attached to America’s largest urban park.

TKTS

OK, this isn’t exactly free.  But – waiting in this line at either the Times Square, South Street Seaport or Downtown Brooklyn locations can save you 20 to 50 percent on same-day tickets for popular holiday-themed shows.

 

Boston

Average hotel savings: 40%

Holidays in Bean Town beckon with a colonial-inspired atmosphere authentic to this city steeped in American history.  While free attractions such as the Freedom Trail – a must-do walking tour that strings together 16 historic sites – and the Sam Adams Brewery tour are perennial favorites, these seasonal highlights below delight visitors and locals alike.

Ice skating on Frog Pond; Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Ice skating on Frog Pond; Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Candlelight Carols at Trinity Church (Dec. 13 at 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.)

A Boston tradition since 1909, the popular musical performance is offered twice to the public free of charge.  (Donations are welcome.)  Doors open an hour prior to the performance for those anxious to snag a seat in this historic church located in Copely Square.

BLINK! A Light and Sound Extravaganza (Nov. 22 – Jan. 4)

The free show, which illuminates the Boston skyline to the songs of the Holiday Pops, takes at Faneuil Hall Marketplace a dozen times daily between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.  The iconic open-air marketplace is also home to the largest Christmas tree in New England and live performances from Broadway shows, dance troupes and holiday carolers.

Downtown Crossing Holiday Market (Nov. 27 – Dec. 24)

The sixth-annual Downtown Boston Holiday Market returns to Summer Street Plaza after Thanksgiving for holiday shopping hoopla.  Situated across from Macy’s, the giant white tent will feature a new weekly collection of artisan vendors, gourmet food makers, artists and more.

Harvard Square Holiday Craft Fair (Dec. 5-7, 12-14, 18-23)

Ivy League ambience adds collegiate charm to this holiday fair in Cambridge.  Browse unique gifts for you and loved ones before strolling Harvard’s campus.

Boston Common Frog Pond

Although taking a twirl on its iconic ice skating rink is not free, the holiday ambience at this winter favorite is spectacular.  Simply walking through the heart of Boston Common, the oldest U.S. park, especially after a light sprinkling of snow, can be magical.

 

San Francisco

Average Hotel savings: 30%

It might not be a white Christmas in the City by the Bay, but one of the most beloved holiday stories of all time takes place in San Francisco, The Nutcracker.  Although performances by the SF Ballet come with a price, here are some seasonal activities that don’t cost a dime.

San Francisco City Hall; Photo credit: Hugh Grew ©

San Francisco City Hall; Photo credit: Hugh Grew ©

Lighted Boat Parade (Dec. 12)

Experience the largest boat parade on San Francisco Bay by staking out a vantage point from Aquatic Park, PIER 39 or the Marina Green. More than 60 boats will be decked out with lights and holiday décor.

San Francisco Hotel Lobbies (December – early January)

Tour the grand hotels of Nob Hill and Union Square for opulent lobbies decked out for the holidays.  Favorites include the Westin St. Francis, The Palace and the Fairmont.

SantaCon 2014 (Dec. 13)

Dress up as Santa or one of his helpers to join this popular and often tongue-in-cheek pub-crawl through the city, where interesting interpretations of popular Christmas carols abound.

santacon2 copy

Santacon; Photo credit: Roy Asneeded

24th Annual Union Street Holiday Program (Dec. 6-31)

Holiday entertainment and merriment comes to Cow Hollow, one of San Francisco’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods.  The month-long celebration along Union Street comes with validated parking and store open houses complete with holiday refreshments. Join the group holiday caroling on Dec. 21.

SF Ballet’s Nutcracker under the Dome  (Nov. 20-Dec.31)

The iconic dome of the Westfield San Francisco Centre springs to life each night with an innovative 3D light show that includes digital performances by the San Francisco Ballet.  In addition to this show, enjoy live entertainment and performances throughout the holiday season.

Ice Skating (various, through mid-January)

Although none of the ice-skating venues in San Francisco are free, the holiday ambience swirling around them make them a must-visit during the winter season. Favorites include the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center; the San Francisco Zoo’s “green” holiday skating rink made of recycled materials; and the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square.

24 HoliDAYS on 24th Street (Dec. 1-24)

Free holiday hayrides on Saturdays are just one of the many free attractions at this month-long celebration in the charming Noe Valley neighborhood.  Carolers, activities for kids – even live reindeer – are among the other anticipated attractions along the festively decorated shopping street.

Top 5 travel destinations with cheap and enjoyable off seasons

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The same way Canadian geese fly south in late fall, we travel-lusting people of the world all seem to flock to the same locations at the same time—Mexico and the Caribbean in March, Europe in June, Hawaii pretty much anytime of the year.

Fighting the instinctual urge to travel during peak season means cheaper rates and smaller crowds. Avoid paying an arm and a leg; here’s a list of travel-friendly shoulder seasons to take advantage of year-round.

Utah in summer

The Rocky Mountains in general are breath-taking during the summer. Salt Lake City and Park City draw in large numbers of skiers and snowboarders in the winter, so that’s when they make their bread and butter. The summer months see smaller crowds. Ski-centric towns usually drop their hotels rates by $100-$200 during summer and fall. To the southeast and less elevated part of the state, Moab is home to nature-carved red rocks not to be missed. Strike out on a more frugal outdoorsy vacation from June-September to experience some of the best mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting and outdoor concerts in the nation.

moahb

Arches National Park, Moab, Utah; Credit: Gautam Dogra ©

New Orleans in late summer and fall

Mardi Gras may only come once a year, but New Orleans is full of life year-round. The absolute cheapest time to go is in the peak of summer, but it’s hit or miss on if you’ll enjoy yourself. It depends on how you feel about extremely damp heat. So let it cool down a tad; plan your jazzy trip for the tail end of summer or early fall. The 4-star JW Marriott New Orleans has rates as low as $149 in August, while they reach a high not at $289 during February festivities. The party on Bourbon Street never actually stops, so be sure to pack your party pants.

New Orleans; Credit: Jeff Turner©

New Orleans; Credit: Jeff Turner ©

Ireland in March

You’d think with St. Patrick’s Day in March, Ireland would be a giant island of festivities and high hotel prices. Actually, the holiday in its homeland isn’t the drinking day it’s become in the U.S. It can cost $200-$300 less to travel during early spring, namely March, than in the summer. Don’t worry about the weather; it’s rare to have anything more than an occasional flurry in Ireland’s winter due to The Gulf Stream, and by March, some of that famous green is starting to regain it’s hue. Book now so you can start planning your itinerary.

Muckross Head, County Donegal, Ireland; Oisin Mulvihill ©

Muckross Head, County Donegal, Ireland; Oisin Mulvihill ©

Mexico in summer

Northern Americans and anyone who shares their latitude, know that the only thing getting them through winter is the dream of a beach vacation in the spring. To Mexico they go! Spring breakers, families, couples, girls weekends, everyone. Except you, you savvy little cheapo, you. All-in-one packages for July travel will only set you back about $800-$900, while the same package in February and March clocks in at $1,000-$1,100. Hold off on the all-inclusive Cozumel package until June or July. It’ll be hot, but you’ll have constant access to a pool and/or beach, and your tan will be legend. Be careful of hurricane season, which is known to pick up in August toward the end of the summer.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico; ramonbaile ©

Playa del Carmen, Mexico; ramonbaile ©

Costa Rica in July and August

Central America is a beautiful destination where most nations are affected by a wet and dry season. Costa Rica’s wet season runs June to November, which leaves it pretty empty of tourists. No one wants to go and get rained on, true, but this wet season acts a lot like an isolated daily shower. July and August typically see the least amount of rain within this time period. The short-lived rains sometimes happen over night and if they strike during the day, it’s usually not enough to ruin your plans.

La Fortuna Falls, Costa Rica; Credit: Kyle May ©

La Fortuna Falls, Costa Rica; Credit: Kyle May ©

 

Tee time during your Disney vacation: Golf Disney like a local

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

World-class champions like Nicklaus, Woods and Singh play Disney's Palm Golf Course. You can, too.

By Amy Drew Thompson

The PGA Merchandise Show comes to the Orange County Convention Center Jan. 25-28, along with the year’s best golfing weather. Mercifully, you don’t have to be Arnold Palmer — or even staying at Disney — to experience play at Walt Disney World’s phenomenal courses, so golfers booking cheap Orlando vacations need not settle. Cool quotient: Carts come equipped with the latest GPS technology. Plan accordingly and enjoy reduced late-afternoon rates for even more savings.

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Fall into Orlando: Festivals, food and sports

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Crowds at the Mt. Dora Craft Festival. Credit: mountdoracraftfair.com.

By Derek Brown

Professional golf, a juried craft show and master winemakers aren’t normally what come to mind when people think of going on a cheap Florida vacation.  However, fall’s an excellent time to discover a grown-up Orlando. October 21-23 will bring all of the above to The City Beautiful, Orlando. (more…)

Luxury for less at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Resort pools at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Credit: Waldorf Astoria.

By Derek Brown

Cheap luxury hotels exist if you find the right deal.  The Waldorf Astoria Orlando, which offers direct access to the Walt Disney World resort, has rates for less than $170 per night this summer.  A recent deal allowed me to enjoy the Waldorf’s airy marble entrance, refined rooms and relaxing pools during the Memorial Day weekend.  (more…)

Best deals for top destinations in 2011

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Savvy travelers know the key to affording a getaway to just about any place in the world is in picking the best off-peak time of the year to visit. Pairing the right destination with the cheapest time to travel there can sometimes mean hitting the beaches a little later, the ski lifts earlier, and avoiding the rates associated with high-season hotel stays.

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Top vacation destinations: Off-season deals

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Off-season-travel When it comes to top vacation destinations — those looking for cheap vacations can find good travel deals during off-peak times.

Cheap off-season travel often means fewer crowds and good travel deals on hotels and flights. So how do you know where to go? Each season we identify the top vacation destinations for off-season travel deals, and here are the latest:

Cheap Colorado vacation: As spring comes to the Rockies and prime ski season winds down, Colorado becomes a smart vacation destination for active travelers. Off-season travel in Colorado means you can hike and bike in the mountains; shop, dine and relax at popular ski resorts with a bit more elbow room; even enjoy the culture and entertainment scene in Denver — all with cheap hotel rates. One example: Hotel Teatro in Denver, rated one of the top 500 hotels in the world by Travel+Leisure magazine, is offering 35% off stays of three days or more through July 31. You'll also find cheap hotels in Aspen, Steamboat and other top Colorado vacation destinations.

Cheap Florida vacation: Sunny Florida becomes a little less crowded in the spring, as the rest of the country starts to warm up — which makes it a great time for a cheap Florida vacation. You'll likely find less crowded beaches and attractions, and cheap Florida hotels. Like the Gulfcoast Inn Naples, which is offering 20% off each night for stays through June 1; and the Regal Sun Resort in Orlando with travel deals including 50% off stays.

Cheap Puerto Rico vacation: Cheap off-season travel deals abound now in this Caribbean nation famous for its beaches, casinos and golf courses. Save 20% on stays of three days or more through September 30 at Gran Melia Puerto Rico. Or try the Golden Sands Villas, with its infinity pool and signature golf course, for 50% off.

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