The Fun File
Mardi Gras World, New Orleans, La.
If you've ever harbored dreams of starring in the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, or just want to know how participants construct such elaborate floats, check out Mardi Gras World. The museum showcases the best floats from past years (a giant sea dragon! a 15-foot Cleopatra bust!) and houses a workshop where workers glue and hammer together next year's creations. Even locals can't resist romping among the Mardi Gras masterpieces. "I took my brother there during his recent visit, and we had more fun than two adults should—playing dress up in the costumes, then taking photos beside our favorite floats," said Melissa Combs of New Orleans. "We laughed like we were kids!" (233 Newton Street, 800/362-8213, mardigrasworld.com, $17, kids $10) PHOTO
Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona Border
The Hoover Dam is colossal...and cool. The dam, completed in 1936 and 726 feet tall, is composed of enough concrete to pave a 16-foot-wide highway from San Francisco to New York City. "It's really a fascinating tour, and the enormity of the structure is awesome," said Sally Ridenour of Salem, Ore. But she especially liked the dam's tongue-in-cheek mementos: "The souvenir t-shirts are great—I WENT ON THE DAM TOUR AT HOOVER DAM." (30 miles southeast of Las Vegas on U.S. Hwy. 93, 702/494-2517, www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam, tour $30, children under 8 not allowed on the tour.) PHOTO
Zorb Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Where some people see a hillside, others see a thrill ride. The popular New Zealand activity of Zorbing—in which you tumble down a slope while inside a plastic bubble—has arrived in the U.S., at Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Before you start, there's a two-page waiver to sign, five different courses to pick from, and two Zorb options: You can sit strapped into a seat or flip head over heels in a ball filled with water. ("It's like white-water rafting without the rocks," says CEO Craig Horrocks.) The 12-foot spheres reach speeds of up to 35 mph; the view is a blur of trees, sky, and your limbs, punctuated by the occasional scream of "Awesome!" (865/428-2422, zorb.com, from $37 per ride.) PHOTO
Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island, Mich.
Following the American forces' unexpected success in capturing British outposts during the American Revolution, the British moved Fort Mackinac, brick by brick, from the Michigan mainland to Mackinac Island. It remained in British hands until 1796. The fort closed in 1895; today it stands as a public monument to its long history as a military outpost. Carol Feider of Midland, Mich., says: "Mackinac Island is a total tourist trap, and I love it. Renting a bike and riding around the island. Touring the fort and watching the guides shoot the cannon. Taking the horse-and-buggy ride. And, of course, buying fudge." (231/436-4100, mackinacparks.com, adults $10, kids 5-7 $6.25) PHOTO
Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, Key West, Fla.
Sword swallowing plus chainsaw juggling plus a dog on a tightrope equals the perfect sunset stroll? Clearly Key West's nightly ritual offers more than just another pretty photo op. Streets fill up with performers like Jace and Jean the Juggling Machine, Bible Bill, and local legend Will Soto, who's been juggling and tightrope walking in Mallory Square for 20 years. "It is such a wonderful tourist trap, but the sights are well worth it," wrote Patti Porco of Chantilly, Va. "The sunsets are always something special to watch, but the fun is in watching the street performers as well as their audiences, who both entertain while you wait." (305/292-7700, sunsetcelebration.org) PHOTO
Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, Prospect, ME
The first Penobscot bridge, completed in 1931, was crumbling into the Penobscot River, so everyone agreed it was time for a new-and-improved bridge—if not on much else. "At first, the city wanted something that looked like the old structure," says Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner for Maine's Department of Transportation. But area residents rejected every proposal, eventually coming up with a one-word idea of their own as inspiration: granite. "To lifelong Mainers, granite is rugged and timeless, and it matches the state's rocky coast," says Van Note. Made primarily of local Freshwater Pearl granite, the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory is one of only three cable-stayed bridges in the world to also have an observation tower (the others are in Slovakia and Thailand). No matter which direction you look from the glass-enclosed deck, the views are postcard-worthy. (207/469-7719, penobscotnarrowsbridge.com, $5, tower open May 1-Oct. 31.) PHOTO
Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona
More than a few visitors to the Grand Canyon Skywalk at Grand Canyon West white-knuckle their way around the 70-foot-long, U-shaped glass structure, never letting go of the railing. Others jump up and down for the Skywalk's photographers, unbowed by the view of the jagged canyon about a mile below. The $30 million attraction opened last spring after years of collaboration between a Las Vegas businessman and the local Hualapai tribe, which owns much of the canyon's western rim. The surrounding area remains a work in progress, as a theater and a restaurant are under construction--so is the 14 miles of as yet unpaved road that leads to the entrance, making for a rather bone-rattling approach. (grandcanyonskywalk.com, $60 includes admission to the reservation and the Grand Canyon Skywalk, cameras not allowed. Bus tours depart daily from Las Vegas, about two hours west (702/878-9378, destinationgrandcanyon.com, from $189)). PHOTO
Expedition Everest, Walt Disney World, Fla.
When Walt Disney World's Expedition Everest opened in the Animal Kingdom in 2006, it was the culmination of six years of work by Disney Imagineers, combined with 1,800 tons of steel and an estimated $100 million. Based on the myth of the yeti, the Abominable Snowman and protector of Everest (which Disney scaled down from a height of 29,000 feet to 199 feet—still enough to make it the second-highest summit in Florida), the ride speeds passengers down an 80-foot drop and spirals them forward and backward through foggy ice caves. The real heart-stopper, though, is a very close encounter with the yeti itself. The audio-animatronics that power the beast are the most sophisticated Disney has ever produced. (407/939-1289, disneyeverest.com, $71.) PHOTO
U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Not only is the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., the biggest man-made white-water park in the world, but the course—which was designed by engineer and four-time world-champion kayaker Scott Shipley—shares its DNA with great rapids across the globe. "I wanted to improve upon existing elements in nature and those found in Olympic white-water parks in Europe and Australia," says Shipley. "A part of the big rapid was inspired by the one in South Carolina that Deliverance was shot on." Fueled by pumps that circulate 536,000 gallons of water per minute (enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 70 seconds), the river provides consistent Class II, III, and IV rapids throughout four channels of varying difficulty. When kayakers and rafters reach the end, they're whisked back to the top by a 180-foot-long conveyor belt. "It's like a ski lift for boats," says Shipley. An official Olympic training site, the U.S. National Whitewater Center will also host the 2008 Olympic kayak team trials. But it has been open to the public since last September 2006, so you too can learn how it feels to train like a champion. (704/391-3900, usnwc.org, from $39.)
Top of the Rock, New York City
The Empire State Building? The ape can have it. Top of the Rock—the observation decks atop the GE Building in Rockefeller Center—is superior in every conceivable way. First, there are the views: Instead of the Empire State Building's jailhouse bars, you get glass panels that look like they were washed that morning; the first floor (of three total) also has large indoor areas for those who'd rather not venture outside. Second, the top floor, because it's set back from the edge of the building, has totally unimpeded views. Third, the art deco details will take your breath away; wandering around, you feel a bit like Lex Luthor in his evil (but sumptuous) aerie. Fourth, the visitor experience is infinitely better: The workers treat you like a human being, rather than use the fact that you're waiting in line as an opportunity to give you the hard sell. Fifth, even the marketing partnership is neat: In the Target Breezeway, all the surfaces are covered with lights that follow you around. Finally, there's the elevator ride. Stand in the back of the car, to the right as you enter. Then look up. (877/692-7625, topoftherocknyc.com, $20.) PHOTO
Natural History Museum, New York City
A sleepover program at the American Museum of Natural History allows families with kids ages 8 to 12 to have their own Night at the Museum adventure. The dinosaurs don't rampage like they do in the movie, so kids wander around with a flashlight to find the beasts themselves. (They're on the fourth floor.) "Everything is dark and creepy in a good way," says 10-year-old Alex Mattei of Irvington, N.Y. Even for adults, the planetarium show will feel extra trippy because it's so far past bedtime. But there's a fine line between thrilling and scary when you're a kid, so parents would do well to arrive early enough to claim cots with a view of, say, cute harp seals, as opposed to a sperm whale and giant squid locked in combat. The $129 price tag (regardless of age) includes a cot, snacks, breakfast, admission to the museum the next day, and a goodie bag with a key chain and stickers. (212/769-5100, amnh.org.) PHOTO
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Mass.
Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art cuts a dashing figure, thanks in no small part to the galleries that are cantilevered four stories above the edge of Boston Harbor. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the museum was built to showcase the institute's first-ever permanent collection, but the most popular spot has quickly become the Mediatheque, where 18 computers display digital media related to the artists and exhibitions. It's not the computers that are drawing crowds, however; it's the fact that the media center points down at a 24-degree angle from the underside of the cantilever. At the end of the room, there's a 21-foot-wide picture window framing a mesmerizing view of the water's surface. (No surrounding land or sky is visible.) "We describe the experience as vertiginous," says Jesse Saylor, a member of the architects' design team. "When you enter the room, you all of a sudden realize you're floating above the water." (The Institute of Contemporary Art, icaboston.org, $12.) PHOTO
The Official Marx Toy Museum, Moundsville, W.Va.
During the 1950s, Marx Toys was one of the largest U.S. toy manufacturers. Time magazine named company founder Louis Marx "America's toy king" and put him on a 1955 cover. Now, just a mile and a half away from the site of the former Marx Toy Factory in Glen Dale, W.Va., The Official Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville, W.Va., presents a complete history of the popular toy company. The collection focuses on the 1920s through the 1980s and consists of dozens of different Marx play sets, including a life-size version of a Western town, metal wind-up toys, trains, dollhouses, and the all-time kid favorite—the Big Wheel. (915 Second St., Moundsville, W.Va., 304/845-6022, marxtoymuseum.com, $6.50.)
The Star Toys Museum, Linthicum, Md.
A few weeks before Thomas Atkinson's 13th birthday, Star Wars changed his life. Seventeen years later, Atkinson opened his home to visitors, so all can witness his impressive collection of all things Star Wars. The Star Toys Museum occupies the first floor of Atkinson's home and comprises more than 12,000 items, like the original 1977 set of Kenner figurines that includes Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and R2-D2, as well as magazines, apparel, cards, memorabilia, and the ever-popular six-foot-long Millennium Falcon Extraordinaire, which was used in an advertising display in 1997. Tours are available by appointment only. (811 Camp Meade Rd., Linthicum, Md., startoysmuseum.org, free, (donations accepted).)
Trip Coach: June 3, 2008
Margaret Lyons:Hi, this is Margaret Lyons, and I'm excited to talk to everyone about Chicago! Let's get started, shall we? _______________________ Denver, Colo.:Hi, Margaret. I'm coming to Chicago June 24 for the first time. What exactly is Chicago-style pizza and where are some places to get the "authentic" stuff? Thanks, Dave Margaret Lyons: Ooooh, boy, that's a good one. Chicago-style pizza typically means deep dish, with a very doughy crust and unlike East Coast pizza, the sauce is on the top (crust // cheese // sauce // toppings, instead of crust // sauce // cheese // toppings). As far as best places to get it, I'm partial to Pequod's and Gino's East. But places like Giordano's and Lou Malnati's, which have spots all over the city, are pretty good, too. _______________________ Savannah, Ga.:I am planning a trip to Chicago during the Food Festival that the city has every year, but I am still not sure if I will drive or fly with the gas prices being so high. My son wants to fly because he has never been on a plane. But on the other hand I wanted to have a nice road trip to show him the different states on the way there. What should I do? Margaret Lyons:If you're worried about needing a car to get around Chicago, don't be. I don't even have a drivers license! Chicago is very pedestrian-friendly, and the public transit system is pretty easy to navigate. (And if either of you like bikes, there are bike rentals available, too, which is a great way to get around town.) As someone who's road-tripped around the Chicago area a lot, I'll admit there's not a whole lot to see. _______________________ Washington, D.C.:Hi, Margaret. I will be taking a trip to Chicago from July 4-7 with my husband and another couple. We'd love to spend a few hours relaxing at a spa—can you recommend a good one that won't break the bank? Margaret Lyons: My favorite spa is Continuum. It's relatively affordable, and to me a really quintessential Chicago business: small, neighborhood-oriented, and unfailingly kind. I also got the best massage and facial ever there. :) It's pretty far off the beaten path—way on the North Side—so it's also a good see-the-city trip. _______________________ Murfreesboro, Tenn.:My partner and I are going for our very first time in July for a conference, and we have a few days to spend with off-and-on free time. We have tickets to see "Wicked" at the Ford Center on a Sunday afternoon, but other than that, we're not sure what to do. We'd like to eat "up high" (if that makes sense) with a view of the city, and besides going to see the Crate&Barrel flagship store on Michigan Avenue, what other "must-see" stores are there? Thanks! Margaret Lyons: Go see some live comedy! I'm a fan of Second City's etc stage which tends to be a bit more edgy and adventurous than the main stage show. If you like improv, you can see shows at iO pretty much any night of the week, and the later you go, the cheaper it gets. As far as must-see stores go, the Mag Mile has the real mega overwhelming giganto places, but don't skip the State Street drag further south. The old Marshall Fields, which is now a Macy's, is worth visiting for the architecture alone. _______________________ San Francisco, Calif.:Hi, Margaret. My boyfriend and I are traveling to Chicago next week (6/11-14), and one of the things we're looking forward to seeing is the architecture of Chicago. We're huge fans of Frank Lloyd Wright, and we'd love to see the Prairie Avenue House District. Also, we're adding other things to our itinerary such as visiting the Field Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and Millenium Park, so we don't have too much time. What's the best way to see Chicago's well-known architecture? A tour? Thanks, Jen Margaret Lyons: I sometimes worry that tours sound corny, but the Chicago Architecture Foundation is really the way to go. They run all kinds of great tours (including a FLW one), and their website is also a solid resource for planning a trip. I'm partial to the Robie House in Hyde Park. _______________________ San Francisco, Calif.:Heading to Chicago for a few days next weekend, June 10-13. Are there any local events, exhibitions or festivals I should not miss? Thanks. Margaret Lyons: If you want the most culture for your buck—who doesn't?—I'd say Grant Park Music Festival is the way to go: fantastic classical music in a gorgeous park, and it's free! The Pritzker Pavilion is also its own kind of architectural marvel. _______________________ Highland, Calif.:What are the "Don't Miss", and sometimes overlooked, local restaurants for the best breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Not the popular tourist places, but places where the locals eat when they want a bargain with lots of quality food. Not just downtown, but around the Chicago area, too. Margaret Lyons: I'm nuts about Lula Cafe in Logan Square. The menu changes every week, and I've never been anything less than thrilled with the food there. If you like burgers or beer, Kuma's Corner is fabulous. When I quit being a vegetarian after 10 years, that's the first place I had a burger. _______________________ Jupiter, Fla/:After visiting family in Decatur, Ill., my 16-year-old daughter and I are spending July 11-16 in Chicago. Looking for best transportation from Decatur, Ill. to Chicago & back. Also, any insider scoop on SAFELY experiencing the essence of Chicago in a short period of time is appreciated! Have been researching like crazy and the myriad of options is positively mind boggling. Considering seeing "Wicked", staying at Hotel Indigo, thrift stores are a passion, getting around the town is an unknown challenge to conquer, daughter loves affordable fashions and is considering interior or architectural design as a career. Discounts and bargains are going to be a big help. Is exquisite food in small portions at reasonable prices just a dream? Thanks, I know that's a lot! Cordially, Liz Margaret Lyons: Chicago is a very safe city, so please don't worry about being able to enjoy yourself. The CTA can seem daunting, but get yourself a five-day CTA pass for $18 and a map and you'll do fine. Shopping-wise, in terms of sheer density of stores (and stores that'll appeal to a 16-year-old), I'd say Wicker Park is a good bet. Lots of boutique-y places, a recent influx of used-clothing stores, plus a smattering of higher-end shops, too, make for a very solid day of shopping and wandering around, plus there are dozens of great restaurants right in the area. _______________________ Atlanta, Ga.:I realize this is very generic, but another girlfriend and I are planning to meet in Chicago to visit a 3rd friend (sometime this summer—date undetermined) and would like recommendation for a decent budget hotel in the city. Is airfare from ATL cheaper certain times? Thanks. Margaret Lyons: I had friends in town a few weeks ago and they stayed at the Wicker Park Inn, which is a B&B but isn't like...all up in your business/too cozy. :) If you're planning some quality girls' nights out, it might be worth it to stay more in a night-life zone rather than downtown, where nightlife is pretty limited. Wicker Park (again!) has a ton of bars/restaurants/shopping and tends to be pretty popular. I'm not sure about airfares, but I use kayak and farecast when I'm planning a trip. Also, consider flying into Midway rather than O'Hare—often times flights are cheaper there, and the airport is much, much nicer. There's no real difference in terms of convenience getting into the city, either. _______________________ Detroit, Mich.:We are from metro Detroit and would like to visit Chicago (we plan to drive) to celebrate 15 years of marriage the third weekend in June. We have been to Chicago before but we never seem to do anything exciting or interesting. We pretty much have been to the major attractions in Chicago (at least I think). He is an architecture buff and I love gardens. We are not into the club or mall scene. We do not want to spend a fortune but we do recognize prices have risen. Any suggestions? Margaret Lyons:First off, congratulations. Second off, I'm not into the club or mall scene either. I hear ya. If you've already hit the major attractions, I'd say go out for a fabulous fancy dinner (Blackbird maybe?) and hit the Green Mill for live music. It's a very relaxed, non-sceney place; think romance, not pulsing club beats or anything. _______________________ Newtown, Conn.:Hello, going to Chicago for a long weekend/business trip solo and I have time for 1-2 tours either on Monday June 9th or Thurs June 12—everyone raves about the architectural river tour but which company offers the best version? Should I do one that goes out over Lake Michigan and views the skyline as well as the river tour or just stick with the river tour? Any other "must-dos" or good tours to take (asking because I have a very limited time). I'm staying at the Palmer House Hilton. Thanks for your advice! Margaret Lyons: I'd stick with just the river tour and use the rest of your time for a museum trip. I'd go with Chicago Architecture Foundation tour and skip the Lake Michigan part—I've done it once, and it's cool, kinda', but not at all essential. I like the Museum of Contemporary Art, but my must-see museum in the city has always been the Museum of Science and Industry. _______________________ Margaret Lyons:Thanks, everybody! Chicago's home to some of the best restaurants, theaters, museums and stores in the country—and some of the kindest, most interesting people I know.
Luxe in the Afternoon
Want an Upgrade? Enter here. The upgradee "My sister, my mother, and I are going to Amsterdam to see the tulips in bloom. The trip is in honor of my sister's birthday, but the three of us love to travel together and do so whenever we can. We always have such a blast." –Angela Lootens, Houston, Tex. Using our powers for the good of the people Since tulips are the favorite flower of Houstonians Angela Lootens; her mother, Virginia Lootens; and her sister, Alison Putman, a spring trip to the Netherlands was an ideal way to celebrate Alison's birthday. After a stroll through the Keukenhof gardens, next on the women's agenda was a canal tour through Amsterdam—so we chartered them an antique boat for a private sunset cruise. "It was so nice to sit back, relax, and chat with Captain Joost about what it's like to live in Amsterdam," says Angela. ("And what a good-looking guy!" adds Virginia.) As an extra treat, we arranged for a private tour of Gassan Diamonds, where the women got to try on exquisite jewelry from the company's collection. "I went straight for the biggest rock on the tray," says Angela. "It was a diamond ring worth fifty thousand euros!" The tour ended with champagne, and at the bottom of each flute was what appeared to be a diamond. An expert was called in to examine the stones: Two were cubic zirconias, but the third was real. "I was the lucky one!" says Angela. "And it wasn't just a speck of a diamond, either!" Many thanks to... The Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (holland.com), Classic Canal Charters (classiccanalcharters.com), and Gassan Diamonds (gassandiamonds.com).
What's your best travel tip? Send us your tips, and if we publish one, you'll get a one-year subscription (or a renewal) to Budget Travel. You can e-mail them to us at Tips@BudgetTravel.com. Best Tips Ever The cleverest tips we've ever run are in The Smart Traveler's Passport, a handy book available at Amazon.com and select bookstores. Send us a tip: If yours is one that we illustrate, we'll send you a free book (and a year's subscription to the magazine). 1. Dog trick My Chihuahua, Maq, hates getting into his dog carrier, but he loves peanut butter. So I smear a little peanut butter on the back wall of the carrier, and when Maq goes halfway in to lick it, I nudge his bottom in and quickly close the door. Sandra Traub, Tamarac, Fla. 2. Scents sensibly Fragrance beads are a safe alternative to incense or scented candles when you want to cover up odors in hotel rooms or cruise-ship cabins. Just pack them in a sealed container and open the lid when you get to your room. Julie Nyhus, Eugene, Ore. 3. Suit yourself Scuba divers know how difficult putting on a wet suit can be. My wife and I figured out a solution: Place a Ziploc bag on your hand or foot before you slide it into the suit's sleeve or leg. The smooth surface of the bag helps you slip the wet suit on easily. Eugene L. Dubay, Pigeon Forge, Tenn. 4. Neighborhood watch When my wife and I did a house swap, we asked for lots of photos—not just of the interior and exterior of the place, but also of the area around the house and the front and back yards. We even used Google Earth to check out the neighborhood. Russ Phillips, Ottawa, Ont. 5. Pay as you go Anytime I travel to a country that has an exit tax, I put the cash in an envelope labeled "exit money" and keep it in my carry-on bag. This saves me from having to go to an ATM at the last minute, and it ensures that I have the exact amount necessary to leave. Jason M. Evans, Washington, D.C. 6. Don't fly without wings For lumbar support on a long flight, use a pair of kids' inflatable water wings. They're only $1 per pair at Wal-Mart, and they don't take up much room in your carry-on. Colleen Rule, Wrenshall, Minn. 7. Charge car If you'll be driving in Europe, you don't have to bring a converter to charge your cell phone and camera batteries. Before you leave the States, buy an inexpensive inverter that you can plug into the rental car's power outlet. It'll convert the 12-volt DC car power into the 120-volt AC you need for charging. Jeff Keller, Bend, Ore. 8. Pass the power I've discovered that battery-powered devices can vary greatly in their need for fully charged batteries. For example, even though my camera identifies a pair of AA batteries as dead, they still have enough power for my flashlight. Then, when the flashlight gets too dim, my travel clock will run on the batteries for months. David Johnson, Kingston Springs, Tenn. 9. BT for everyone! Most people know by now that you can keep your frequent-flier account active by ordering a magazine subscription through the airline's program. If you don't need any more magazines, you might consider sending a subscription to someone in the military who's based overseas. Soldiers are always thrilled to get current reading material from home. Michelle Buchecker, Chicago, Ill. 10. DIY room service My mom and I were exhausted after a long day of sightseeing in New York City. Our hotel offered free Wi-Fi and I had my laptop with me, so instead of trekking out again for dinner, I went to menupages.com and looked up the menus of nearby restaurants. You can search the site by neighborhood and sort by the restaurants that will deliver. Jessica Bishop, Tuscaloosa, Ala. 11. Alarming situation If you want to use your cell phone as an alarm clock on vacation but don't plan to make calls, turn off the wireless capabilities. I had to pay roaming fees in Spain because my phone was accessing the net­work. Bonnie Schuenemann, Brookfield, Ill. 12. Island style When vacationing in Maui, save money on aloha shirts and dresses by shopping at Ross Dress for Less near the airport (200 E. Kamehameha Ave., Kahului, 808/877-5483). We got a shirt for $12 and a dress for $15. Marc Smith, Austin, Tex. 13. Go your own way We were going to take Royal Caribbean up on the offer to transport our family of four from Houston to the Port of Galves­ton in Texas before our cruise, but the fee it quoted us was expensive. I searched car-rental company websites and booked a car for a reasonable rate. I then found prepaid parking at the Port of Galves­ton. Even after paying for a car rental and a week of parking, we saved more than $120. Jeanette Boyd, Richland, Mo. 14. Sippy pup When you're traveling with your dog and you don't have a bowl with you, fill a quart-size Ziploc bag with water and hold it open on the ground to make the water easy to drink. Anabel Nogueiras, Miramar, Fla. 15. Lost at sea? Every time we go on a cruise, my wife blows up a red balloon and tapes it to the door of our stateroom. That way we never have any trouble finding our room in the ship's long hallways. Eli Rose, Tampa, Fla. 16. Top tip While I was on vacation in the Caribbean, the plastic hook on the back of my bandeau bikini top broke. Most of my friends throw their bathing suits away when this happens, but I didn't want to give up so quickly. Instead, I threaded a key ring through the loops to hold the top together. It turned out to be a great quick fix, and I was able to mend the top as soon as I returned home. Kaye Powell, Washington, D.C. 17. The money tree My husband and I decorate our Christmas tree with foreign currency. We select the most colorful bills from our trips abroad, date and laminate each one, punch a hole at one end, and loop a ribbon through to hang it on a branch. The notes always bring back memories while we're trimming the tree, and they're easier to pack away than regular ornaments. Joyce Vognild, East Wenatchee, Wash. 18. Stuck with a bill Be sure to ask about any extra charges before you book a service on a cruise. I decided to try acupuncture when I was on a Caribbean cruise, and I saw on my receipt that I had been charged a 15 percent gratuity. Since when do acupuncturists get tips? Gary Hines, Louisville, Ky. 19. Greatest hits When my wife and I travel overseas, we always keep our hotel television on MTV or another music station so we can listen to the local favorites. We make a list of the songs we like throughout the trip and buy them from iTunes when we get home. We use the songs as a soundtrack for our travel photos or burn them onto a CD as a reminder of our trip. Creating our own collection of music is much more personal—and cheaper—than most souvenirs. Charles Price, Edmond, Okla. 20. Valuable advice My boyfriend recently bought a GPS navigator. He doesn't like to leave it exposed while his car is parked, but he doesn't want to carry it around everywhere, either. Now he hides the navigator in the first-aid kit that he always keeps in his car. The kit is a great hiding spot, since no one would ever suspect there's anything more valuable than Band-Aids in there! Lucy Wojnicki, Schaumburg, Ill.
New prize! August's prize is an eight-night road trip across Tasmania, Australia, including airfare, courtesy of Tourism Tasmania and Goway Travel. How to enter E-mail us at TrueStories@BudgetTravel.com or mail us at True Stories, Budget Travel, 530 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10018. For a complete rundown of the contest guidelines, please see BudgetTravel.com/truestories. The winner of April's contest is Lyn Simonton of Cody, Wyo. Her prize is a seven-night trip to Greenland, courtesy of Air Greenland. After a long winter, my husband, my best friend, and I warmed up in Key West, Fla. Our B&B, a beautiful old mansion, hosted nightly cocktails by the pool. The first evening, we were shocked to be the only people wearing clothes. (I had never even heard the term "clothing optional" before.) We did our best to make friendly conversation with the other guests. But we were even more shocked when, the night we returned home to Wyoming, we switched on C-Span and saw the gentleman whom we'd nicknamed Naked Bill addressing Congress. He was a U.S. congressman! May's winner is Cindi Noyes (pictured third from left) of Millbury, Mass. Her prize: a five-night trip to Panama from Tara Tours. My grandfather was from Italy, so when I saw a town with my maiden name, Tricarico, while researching a trip, I e-mailed the town's website asking for help locating lost relatives. A woman offered assistance, so I gave her my grandfather's name. She replied with a list of five family members still living in Italy, including some in Prato, near Florence. A few days later, I got a call from the daughter of my father's second cousin. When my husband and I got to our hotel near Prato, the family met us and took us over to their home. My father's cousin brought out a stack of old photographs. As soon as I looked at the first one, I started to cry: It was of my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and me on Christmas, 34 years earlier, with my grandmother's writing (in Italian) on the back. We'll return to Italy soon to spend more time with our new family. So that's where Yahoo Serious has been hiding My family, my best friend Katie, and I wanted to see flowing lava on a visit to Hawaii's Big Island. But when we got to Volcanoes National Park, we learned that we'd have to hike several miles. Instead, we drove around Kilauea caldera, hoping to snap a photo of a "real" volcano to show Katie's 10-year-old son back home. Braving the gusts of wind and rain, Katie ran over to the caldera's edge. The volcano didn't do much, but we did get an eruption of another kind. Kim Stickler, Reno, Nev. World's cutest zombies Our group was under strict orders not to come within 15 feet of any wildlife while at a penguin rookery in Antarctica. I was looking at the birds through a tele­scope when a little Adélie penguin came up out of the water and started waddling his way toward me. I lay down on the ground and took out my camera. Before I knew it, five more birds were scampering in my direction. "Scott, you're all right!" the expedition leader called out. "Everyone else, step back!" A moment later, I found myself surrounded by six penguins, flapping their little wings to keep balance. I just clicked away. Scott D. Churchill, Irving, Tex. Speaking of Swift: He would have found this amusing I was totally enchanted with Ireland while hitchhiking around the country for two months. All the wonderful things I'd heard about it were true. As I bent to kiss the famous Blarney Stone, however, I was struck by how stained and odorous it was. Not being able to resist the gift of gab, I kissed it anyway. Later, back at the youth hostel, I picked up a book of short stories someone had left behind. One of the stories describes the local tradition of peeing on the stone after the tourists have left for the day. The application of soap to my lips was swift. Jeff Drake, Galveston, Tex. Or maybe he has a brain the size of a macadamia nut The chickens of Oviedo, Fla., have been roaming freely around the downtown area for years. Returning from breakfast one morning, I spotted this guy hanging out at a Popeyes fried-chicken restaurant. He had nestled into the dirt just under the drive-through menu. He was either very brave or a very fast runner. Liz Cummins, Terrytown, La. Now you know why God invented Photoshop While on a trip in Aruba, I was excited to start taking pictures of all the flowers, birds, and iguanas with my new digital camera. I was amazed at how the colorful iguanas were everywhere and would come right up to people. So when I saw this rather colorful, large iguana on a pole, I inched as close as I could without getting too scared and snapped away. Later, as I was bragging to my husband about the photo shoot, I was surprised to see the iguana hadn't moved an inch. My husband began laughing hysterically. The iguana was fake! I was even more embarrassed when I printed the photograph and saw that the screw in its foot was clearly visible. Cindy Sturtevant, Woodstock, Ga. And yours is Blushing Bride I thought I had dreamed up pretty good outfits for my now-fiancé and me to wear to the costume party on our senior singles cruise. (I called his the Reluctant Fiancé.) While the ship's photographer was taking this photo, however, I learned it was a masquerade party, not a costume party. The people throwing the party offered us both masks, but we quickly went back to our rooms to change, giving fits of giggles to the folks we passed on the way. Darla Coyle, Salem, S.C. Mrs. Moneybags, I presume? When I complained about the exchange rate at my hotel in Djibouti, the concierge confided that the best rate is on the street, where women sit with bags of cash waiting for customers. I figured he was messing with me. The next day, en route to Lake Assal, I told the guide I needed to exchange some dollars. "No problem," he said. He drove a couple blocks and stopped by two women on the side of the road, one of whom had a large sack. He signaled, and they came to the window. Not only did I get the best rate yet, but it came with drive-through service. Berti Pozo, Key Biscayne, Fla. It was all a distraction, and your gang is chilling in Amalfi with Clooney and Pitt In Petrópolis, Brazil, my friends and I went to the Museu Imperial to see the crown jewels. We had to put booties over our shoes so as not to scuff the floors. We scooted along until we reached the crown. Wanting a better look, my friend Anita kept getting closer and closer. Then her feet slipped out from under her, and her head banged into the glass. The alarms blared, and a giant cage descended over us. Men with automatic weapons filled the room. I don't speak Portuguese, so I tried to explain by reenacting Anita's fall, but that angered the men more. After a tense half hour, we were escorted off the premises and told never to come back. Kemuel DeMoville, Honolulu, Hawaii There were others? In Baja California, I saw a lot of whales—but I really wanted to stroke one. Our guide suggested singing to the animals, so in my best soprano, I sang, "You are my baby whale, my only baby whale, you make me happy when skies are gray." A mother and her baby loved it! I even got the award for Best Whale Singer. Diane Shneer, Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. Well, isn't she cheeky! An older gentleman and I were sitting on a bench in Oslo, waiting for a bus, when an elegant, elderly woman approached. She walked with a limp. After the man and I stood up, the woman said something in beautiful, lilting Norwegian. Neither of us understood the language, though. She promptly switched to perfect English and said, "My bum's not so wide that the three of us can't fit on this bench." Dean Aulick, Silver Spring, Md. Perhaps you can parlay them into a 100 Grand bar We got a luxurious suite when my boyfriend's band performed at Atlantis in the Bahamas. The welcome basket was filled with wine, fruit, and even five $100 casino chips. Later, at the casino, I asked a change girl for some $5 tokens in exchange for the chips. She gave me a funny look and directed me to the main cage. I placed my chips on the counter, asked for change, and got another funny look. The cashier called for her supervisor. I was starting to get annoyed. "Madam," the supervisor replied, "these chips are chocolate." Joanne Pompeo, Escondido, Calif. And something blue... I was at a small beach in Positano, Italy, when a couple showed up, accompanied by a two-man camera crew. The man was slim, trim, and wearing a soccer jersey, so I thought he might be on the national team. When filming began, the couple lay on the sand and tried out several compromising positions, gradually removing their clothing. They worked their way into the water, kissing frantically. I asked the photographer if he was shooting a TV show or a movie. "Oh no," he replied. "They are engaged, and this will be shown at their wedding next month." Janet Kroupa, Santee, Calif. Proving that smoke clouds can have a silver lining, too We were settling in on the beach at our resort in Mozambique when we heard a crackling sound. The resort was in flames! We ran back, rescued our belongings, and joined guests and employees on the side of the road and watched the fire spread. There were no other available rooms in the area, and it was a two-hour drive to the next town. A young South African who'd been watching cricket in the hotel bar offered to let us sleep "in a tent in my yard." The "yard" ended up being a fish camp with tents and trailers. Over plenty of grilled meat and beer, our new friend told us all about life in southern Africa. It was the highlight of our entire trip. Molly Darragh, Oakland, Calif. The top one is a stickler for the union's no-smiling-without-compensation rule My husband and I wanted to have lunch at our favorite Italian place, Venezia, on our final day in New Orleans. By that point, however, our daughters were tired and whiny—at least until the party next to us sat down. It was a group of clowns who had just finished a gig. They posed for pictures and pulled candy and balls from behind my kids' ears. I didn't hear a peep out of the girls for the rest of the meal. Sheri Hammond, Bella Vista, Ark.