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10 Most Useful Travel Websites

By Sean O'Neill
August 29, 2011
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Georgejmclittle/Dreamstime
Many websites make lofty promises, but few deliver. From booking a flight to outlining an itinerary to tracking frequent-flier miles, we scoured the Internet for 10 essential websites for today's traveler.

The Web should make things easier for travelers, but the sheer volume of services out there is often more overwhelming than useful. Unfortunately, you don't always know which outfits pay off until you've already invested your time. The Budget Travel team puts websites—new and established—to the test every day. So when it came time to line up our favorites, the task was easy—we just turned to the sites we keep revisiting because they're so darn helpful. Our top picks can help you avoid overpaying for airfare (Bing Travel), bag the primo room at a hotel (Hipmunk), and never miss a deal on a rental-car reservation again (AutoSlash). Some of our favorites are as useful as a mind-reading tour guide (Plnnr); others are as handy as having a personal secretary track your frequent-flier balances (Award Wallet). Put them all together, and they become Budget Travel's picks for the best the Web has to offer.

FOR PLANNING

1. BING TRAVEL 

Buy plane tickets at the best possible time.
Like other booking sites, Bing lets you comparison-shop for tickets across more than a hundred sources. Yet unlike most other sites, it also analyzes historical data to predict whether the price you see on the screen today is likely to rise (or drop) in the coming week, clearly marking the bargains with a big, green Buy Now icon. What's more, Bing is the only airfare search site to have its predictions independently audited. With an accuracy rate of 75 percent, it's not perfect—but those are better odds than blind guessing gets you. bing.com/travel.

2. AUTOSLASH 

Lock in the lowest rate on rental cars.
Here's how it works: Reserve a vehicle from a favorite agency through the AutoSlash site, and the site will instantly begin tracking rate changes for your reservation. If a sale pops up later—snap!—it automatically locks in the lower price on your behalf. You can even use AutoSlash if you've booked independently. Just enter your confirmation number, and the site will notify you when it's found a lower rate (which you'll have to rebook on your own). Neither AutoSlash nor the company you first booked with charges a fee for the service. autoslash.com.

3. FLY OR DRIVE CALCULATOR

Determine the cheapest way to reach your destination.
Coupon site befrugal.com crunches data from sources such as AAA and Google Maps to power its Fly or Drive estimator (found in the site's Tools & Calculators tab). The more details you supply—the make and model of your car, the number of travelers in your group, whether you'd be springing for a taxi to the airport—the more accurate the estimates. For the eco-minded, it even includes a carbon-footprint estimate for each mode of travel. (Note: The calculator only works for trips within the continental U.S.) befrugal.com/tools/fly-or-drive-calculator/.

4. PLNNR 

Get instant itineraries tailored to your tastes.
Whether you have a full week or a few hours, Plnnr can craft a (free!) customized point-to-point trip guide for 20 popular urban destinations across North America and Europe. You supply the length of your stay, desired activity level, and interests (such as outdoors, kids' activities, and culture), and the site spits out a fully formed itinerary, factoring in each attraction's opening and closing hours and travel times between spots by taxi or on foot. You can further fine-tune the results by adjusting the priority level for even more specific subcategories—architecture, breweries, and even cemeteries—or reject individual suggestions outright. (Plnnr won't get its feelings hurt.) plnnr.com.

5. HIPMUNK 

Find a hotel you'll fall in love with.
The folks behind Hipmunk's airfare and hotel searches know that good trips are about more than mere numbers. That's why they've incorporated an "agony" scale for flights with multiple legs and long layovers, and an "ecstasy" rating for hotels based on a combination of a property's amenities, rates, and user reviews on TripAdvisor. Even better, Hipmunk's hotel search tool has built-in color-coded heat maps to display a given destination's best spots for dining, shopping, nightlife, landmarks, and—ahem—"vice." So you'll always end up in a neighborhood that fits your specific needs (or noise tolerance). The site displays real-time prices available on Orbitz, Getaroom, Hotels.com, HotelsCombined, or Airbnb and links out to the appropriate site to close the deal. hipmunk.com.

ON THE ROAD

6. TRIPIT 

Keep every last confirmation number, arrival time, and prepaid reservation fee straight.
Don't have an über-organized type among your travel crew? Don't worry. TripIt consolidates every important detail of your vacation into a single handy document, which you can access on the go via laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Just forward each email receipt from booking a flight, hotel, rental car, or cruise to your TripIt account, and the site will cull and compile the flight numbers, gate information, and other relevant items so you never show up in the wrong place at the wrong time—or with the wrong confirmation code in hand. Not satisfied? The site also supplies seat-selection advice for flights, links to check in online, flight status updates, weather forecasts, and driving directions. tripit.com.

7. TRIPPING

Connect with the locals—through a trustworthy community.
While any old travel site can add some social-networking features and call itself "the Facebook of travel," Tripping paves the way for true face-to-face interactions in about 130 countries across the globe. Primarily a homestay network—but just as effective for setting up a casual coffee meeting or a video chat with a looped-in local—Tripping manages the risk factor with its stringent membership policies and strong user-reference system. (To join, users must display a passport via Skype and prove a home address.) When you're not traveling yourself, you can earn some good travel karma by playing tour guide for visitors to your own hometown. tripping.com.

8. GOOGLE MAPS 

Expertly navigate unfamiliar territory.
Thanks to constant refining by its mapmakers and graphic designers, Google's gold-standard mapping tool just keeps getting better. Live traffic information was recently added for 13 European countries; the site's maps for New York City, London, and other major cities now have public transit options; markings for tunnels and highway signs become easier to read every year; and you can plot your route by car, bicycle, or foot—although the latter two options are still in beta. There's simply no more comprehensive and user-friendly way to explore. maps.google.com.

ONCE YOU'RE BACK

9. AWARD WALLET 

Never let another frequent-flier mile expire.
Consider it the loyalty-program counterpart to TripIt's travel-info collector. Award Wallet streamlines your family's assortment of frequent-flier and loyalty programs, compiling them in a single, simple, point-tracking package. The setup takes minutes. For each account, just enter your log-in information; Award Wallet automatically pulls your points balances and expiration dates—so you know to take action if you're on the verge of losing them. And because the site saves your log-in information, you only need one password to access all your accounts. awardwallet.com.

10. BLURB

Preserve your photographs in a format that people can't keep their hands off of.
Custom book publisher Blurb lets you design and print a soft-cover or hardcover travel photo album using impressive design tools and high-quality inks, paper, and binding. Most important, it also leaves you broad creative control. (No floral borders or faux photo-corners necessary.) Price is based on size, paper stock, cover material, and shipping fees, but single copies start at $11 for a 20-page book. Think your book has potential beyond your own coffee table? Blurb can also share your images as a free online slide show or sell copies of the book through its online shop. blurb.com.

 

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Travel Tips

A Neat Freak's Guide to a Clean Suitcase

We all know that the door handle to the airplane lavatory is a breeding ground for bacteria, but have you ever considered that similar germs might find their way into your suitcase? Before your inner germaphobe lunges for an airsick bag, a dose of reality is in order. "There's really very little disease you can get from germs on an inanimate object," says Dr. Ronald A. Primas, M.D., of TravelMD.com. "Any time you have a lot of people crammed into a small place, like an airplane, bus, or subway, your risk of acquiring disease is somewhat higher but most of the diseases people get when they travel come from contact with other people directly—not indirectly." Still, as any germaphobe knows, the fact that dirty luggage isn't likely to make you sick provides little solace. Plus, what about the very real possibility of picking up bedbugs or grease stains? Five experts share insider tips on treating the most common suitcase disasters—including when to tackle the mess yourself, when to call in the professionals, and the easiest ways to protect yourself in the future. What's living on my suitcase? Should I be cleaning it after trips? Bacteria and germs are everywhere. Since you never know who's been hoisting your luggage handles behind the scenes (not to mention what's taken up residence on the bottom of that carry-on—E. coli, for example), it's a good idea to have a post-trip plan of attack. "Every time you use your luggage, I would take a damp rag with Lysol and just give the bottom of the bag and the handles a quick once-over," advises Chuck Horst, president of Margaret's Cleaner's San Diego, a dry cleaning service specializing in the care of couture clothing, leather cleaning and handbag and shoe repair. In addition, Horst advises keeping luggage out of your bedroom and—above all—off your bed when you're unpacking after a trip. CLEAN IT 1. Buy some Lysol Disinfecting Wipes. 2. Spot test your suitcase in a discreet area to make sure it won't damage the fabric. 3. Wipe down the bottom of the bag (including wheels) and the handles with Lysol wipes. Squeezing Purell into a rag is similarly effective for removing germs. 4. If you want to completely degerm your suitcase, you can also spend $45 for a professional ozone treatment:a process in which an ozone generator is used to oxidize bacteria. Leather, vinyl, and plastic bags will have to be dry-cleaned by hand (costs will vary depending on the size and scope of the damage). AVOID IT Nesting suitcases that can be stored inside of each other might seem handy, but since the outside of a suitcase is the dirtiest place, it's a bad idea to store them this way, says Horst. If you do, be sure to cover a piece of luggage with a plastic garbage bag before placing it inside another suitcase. A bottle of red wine broke inside my bag! How do I clean this mess? "When red wine spills in your luggage, it is not a good day," says Horst, explaining that it's one of the toughest stains to get out. And while spilled alcohol of the clear variety doesn't necessarily cause discoloration, breakage in your luggage can mean glass shards in the crevices and residual odors that conjure "eau de frat house" everywhere you roll. CLEAN IT 1. Empty your suitcase of its contents and use a vacuum with a crevice tool to suck up all pieces of broken glass from the interior (be sure to check suitcase pockets before vacuuming). 2. Newspapers are hygroscopic (meaning they can readily soak up moisture), says Horst, and can be used to absorb some of the wetness from spilled liquids. Roll up a few pieces of newspaper and place them inside your closed bag for two to three days. 3. Canvas and nylon bags can be scrubbed with reasonable force using a toothbrush and a product such as liquid laundry detergent, according to author Barbara DesChamps, whose book It's in the Bag: Your Custom Business and Travel Wardrobe includes a chapter on fabric cleaning and care. 4. To address major odors, Horst suggests purchasing carbon that's used in aquariums from a pet store and placing it inside a sock in your empty luggage. Spraying Febreze Auto in the suitcase interior is another way to freshen odiferous bags. 5. Wine Away, Horst says, is a product that can help with dissolving red wine stains (evergreenlabs.com, $21 for two 12-ounce bottles). 6. If the exterior of your bag is still stained, you'll need to turn to a professional, like Horst. Leather can be refinished at a cost of $120 to $250, depending on the size, extent of detail, and color of the bag. Canvas and nylon bags can be re-dyed for $60 to $120. AVOID IT Wrap bottles in multiple Ziploc bags before placing them into your luggage to prevent leaks in case of breakage. Commercial airline pilot Omar Amin swears by the VinniBag, a reusable bag with inflatable air chambers that protects bottles from breakage (vinnibag.com, $28,). How do I prevent bed bugs from hitching a ride in my carry-on? With even five-star hotels making the news for bedbugs these days, you should be thinking about how to protect your luggage. "The outside of luggage is typically how bedbugs are getting a ride back to somebody's home," says Jeffrey White, a research entomologist with BedBug Central, an exhaustive online resource that shares information (everything from bedbug identification literature to research and development news) and sells products (from traps that go under furniture to luggage sprays) designed to keep the critters at bay. When it comes to their favorite luggage hangouts, says White, bedbugs like to lurk on zippers, on seams, and alongside the rubber ribbing on a suitcase's exterior. CLEAN IT 1. If you suspect bedbugs at your hotel, begin by notifying hotel management and demanding a different room immediately. 2. Even if you switch rooms, you'll want to bag all your clothes for transport back home. It never hurts to have some dissolvable laundry bags handy when you travel—you can place them directly in the wash, which means that anything living on (as well as in) the bags will be killed. 3. Once home, immediately dump everything washable into the laundry for a hot wash-and-dry cycle. 4. If a visual inspection of the outside of your suitcase shows the critters are there, wipe or spray the bag with 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which will kill them on contact, says White. 5. Before putting the luggage away, use a crevice cleaner to vacuum out the entire suitcase; then wrap it in plastic bags for storage. 6. If all else fails, using a product like Nuvan Prostrips is a brawny step to take in the battle against bedbugs. Simply place your empty suitcase in a garbage bag with one of the strips—the strip releases an odorless gas that kills the unwanted bloodsuckers ($50 for a 12-pack). AVOID IT While chances remain slim that your hotel room will have bedbugs, you can take preventative action by using a spray like Pronto Plus (prontoplus.com, $6.75 for a 10-ounce can) before you travel, coating the inside and outside of your luggage to keep bedbugs away, says Michael Colongione, president of GotchA! Bed Bug Inspectors. Yuck, my bag is covered in black grease. What now? Airport baggage systems are made up of all sorts of moving parts lubed with grease to keep them running smoothly. So it's no surprise that many a frequent flier has seen his or her suitcase emerge looking like it's done a lap around a racetrack rather than the baggage carousel. If you have a hardcase or a nylon bag, there's a chance you'll be able to get the stains out yourself; leather and canvas bags require professional treatment. CLEAN IT Hardcase bags 1. On hardcase bags, says Horst, "start with a product like Simple Green and a rag to try to get the grease out," and then move up to products like Formula 409 Glass and Surface Cleaner and Windex Original, which contain ammonia and are more aggressive cleaners (but carry a risk of color and luster damage). 2. Do a color test first on a discreet part of the bag to make sure the product won't damage the suitcase. 3. Then apply Simple Green to a damp, soft rag and wipe it over your suitcase, followed by a swipe with a clean rag to rinse and one with a dry rag to finish. (The ammonia cleaners can be sprayed directly onto the bag and wiped with a sponge or soft rag.) 4. Finally, if your hardcase bag lost its luster in the cleaning process, use Armor All Original Protectant or automotive wax to shine it up again. Nylon bags 1. For nylon or other soft bags affected by grease, DesChamps recommends using dry cornstarch. "Rub the cornstarch into the fabric, let it sit for as long as it takes to absorb the grease, and then brush it off, repeating as necessary," she says. She recommends getting as "much of the grease off as possible this way before you try to clean the suitcase with detergent." 2. After you've done all you can with cornstarch, it's time to break out the soap. Horst recommends mixing Ivory Snow with water—a good option because it won't bleach out the color or degrade the fabric of your suitcase. Fill a pan halfway with warm water and add just enough powder or liquid to make suds with gentle splashing, he says. 3. Next step: Apply the suds to the bag (again, using a soft rag or sponge). Heavy soiling may require a minute or two of scrubbing and repeated applications. Leather bags 1. For leather bags, you definitely want to employ the help of a dry cleaner who specializes in accessories, says Horst, since using wet products to try to lift grease will only cause it to become further engrained in leather and "much harder, if not impossible to get out." The cost starts at $40 and goes up depending on the bag. AVOID IT Using Scotchgard Fabric & Upholstery Protector on your luggage as a preventative measure goes a long way in making it easier to remove grease stains after the fact, says Horst. Keep a distance of about 18 inches from the suitcase when you apply the aerosol spray, he says, and be sure not to apply in heavy coats, as Scotchgard can darken colored fabrics. Help! My shampoo exploded like a bomb inside my luggage! Who hasn't arrived at their destination and found a soupy, soapy mess where once there were shampoo and conditioner bottles? Exploding toiletries are a fact of life for most frequent fliers. And while the mess is inherently clean, cleaning it up often leads to a foamy disaster. CLEAN IT 1. The first thing to know when cleaning up spilled soaps and shampoos is that,in most cases, no additional cleanser is necessary. 2. Horst recommends using a spray bottle with water to slowly lubricate the saturated area. Then alternate between spraying and vacuuming with a wet/dry vac to suck the moisture out. 3. Unless your luggage is a hardcase, avoid getting it really wet as part of your cleaning process, says Horst, as that will only drive the spilled soaps deeper into fabrics. (Hardcases with soiled interior linings can require professional cleaning, which can range from $95 to $165.) 4. If the cardboard bottom of your bag has been saturated with shampoos or other exploding liquids, there's a chance that it's permanently damaged and will need to be replaced—an easy, but not inexpensive, fix at most luggage repair centers, where experts will insert a new base into your bag for $120 or more. 5. Leather bags saturated with shampoos and soaps should be brought in for professional cleaning, which costs between $120 and $250 (you'll pay up to $250 more if the lining needs to be replaced). AVOID IT Those TSA rules that mandate Ziploc bags for liquids in carry-ons make a lot more sense when applied to transporting toiletries in your checked bags. Putting individual toiletries or your entire toiletry bag in a Ziploc bag or two when you travel is a simple measure that can save you a lot of hassle.

Travel Tips

Fireworks Photography in 5 Easy Steps

Support: Be a rock (or find one) Keeping steady is key. When pointed at nighttime fireworks, your camera will naturally reduce the shutter speed in an attempt to capture the bright bursts of light and the explosive movement. The consequence: If your hands shake even a little, you risk a photo that's a blurry mess. And once a firework is gone, it's not coming back. To steady yourself, find something stable on which to rest your camera—a fence or a rock ledge, for example—that will help reduce any movement. Better yet, spring for a small piece of equipment that will yield more predictable results. You don't have to buy an expensive, bulky product. For about $10, you can get a pocket size "bottle top" tripod sturdy enough for a point-and-shoot camera from Amazon.com. Also consider the cute and flexible Gorillapod, whose twistable legs wrap around poles, branches, or railings (joby.com, $25). For a bigger camera, like a single lens reflex (SLR), you'll need the enhanced stability of a tabletop or full-size tripod. If you've never used one, don't be intimidated; when you're shooting fireworks, a good tripod will make the difference between a poor photo and the sharp, vivid one you're after. Location: Serendipity happens Before you start photographing, find your spot, ideally a space where your view is unobstructed. If there is a hill or any high ground, use it to improve your vantage point. When you shoot, as a rule of thumb, at least two-thirds to three-quarters of the frame should be filled with the sky. If you're near water, try including it in your composition, as the water will nicely reflect the color and intensity of the fireworks. (See photo example) Other compositional techniques: Use trees or buildings to frame the image and give it more depth, or incorporate people near the bottom of the frame to create interesting silhouettes. And, of course, serendipity can work magic you never planned for, so take lots of pictures and don't be afraid to experiment. A last bit of advice: If it's windy, try to position yourself upwind of the fireworks. Otherwise, the smoke could waft across your view and make taking the picture difficult. Lens: Wider is better A 50mm lens provides roughly the same field of view as the human eye, but a wide-angle lens works better for fireworks photography. If you can get your hands on a 20mm to 35mm lens, for example, you will increase your field of view—the amount of sky you see through your lens—and have better luck capturing the full effect of the fireworks. A lens that's too long (80mm to 200mm), on the other hand, will almost certainly yield photos that cut out some of the action you want to reproduce. If you are using a point-and-shoot with a built-in zoom lens, be sure to zoom all the way out, which will give you the widest possible lens setting. Settings: Take it slow If you're shooting digital, set your camera's film speed to ASA 100. If you're shooting film, purchase an ASA 100 roll with 36 exposures. It's a slow film speed, so the color saturation will be high, and what professionals call the "grain" (the visible particles that make a photo look fuzzy) will be low—good for fireworks photos. If you use a higher ASA, such as 400 or 800, you will increase the graininess of the film (or the digital noise in a digital file). This is distracting and decreases the clarity of the image. Be sure to turn off your flash; the burst of bright light from the bulb will overwhelm the fireworks. If you have an automatic camera, try shooting images in both daylight and nighttime modes—and check your results as you go to see which setting yields the best results. Timing: It's everything Fireworks move fast. One timing strategy is to push the shutter button while the firework is still rising in the sky. The shutter will stay open longer due to the low light, so the camera should have time to capture the last moments of the firework's trail and the subsequent explosion. If your camera will take multiple images or "bursts," you may also want to try that approach. It'll increase your chances of getting the shot just right. If you're worried about a shaking hand, use your camera's self-timer, ideally along with a tripod. You won't have to touch the camera at the moment the shot is taken. Your camera may have two time-delay settings for the self-timer, usually 2 or 10 seconds. If your camera allows for it, set it to the shorter time delay.

Travel Tips

The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel

1. House-Sitting Take up residence in someone else's home Instead of waiting for your rich aunt in the Hamptons to go away and ask you to watch over her place, look into a service that lists house-sitting opportunities. If things work out, you might be chilling out at a Caribbean villa or caring for cats and hens in an adorable French farmhouse. Since retiring as a university administrator 10 years ago, Grant Thomas of Edmond, Okla., has kept an eye on houses (and pets) in Seattle, Santa Fe, and San Rafael, Calif. "House-sitting has opened up new worlds to me," he says. "I get to know a place much more in-depth, and my experiences have given me a new circle of human, canine, and feline friends across the country." Before signing on for any assignment, ask questions. Namely, who pays the bills? Many homeowners state upfront that house sitters pay for utilities, at the least. If there are pets, find out how many and what their special needs are. If there's a garden, ask how big it is and how much attention it requires. At some point, the work may make the "free" lodging not worth the trouble. Also, ask the owner for the names and contacts of previous house sitters, and grill them about the experience. Where do you find these gigs? Caretaker.org posts more than 1,000 house-sitting openings per year, most of which are in the U.S. ($30 per year to see online listings). At last check, housecarers.com listed 298 opportunities, including 117 in Australia ($45). There's also housesitworld.com, where homeowners can search for registered sitters with availability and skills that match their needs ($40). And sabbaticalhomes.com is a site where the houses are all left behind by academics on teaching assignments (free for house sitters, from $35 to post a home online). —Sophie Alexander 2. Hiking Trail Volunteers Get fresh air without paying for it Most volunteer vacations charge participants for the chance to do grunt work without pay. A few regional trail associations, however, gladly welcome anyone willing to work on hiking paths and don't ask for a dime. As thanks for volunteers' hours of sweat spent clearing debris, building rock steps, or reconfiguring switchbacks, the associations provide free campsites at a minimum. Cabins, bedding, food, and transportation are sometimes included, too. The Continental Divide Trail Alliance runs two-to-seven-day trips with catered meals at A-list national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier (303/838-3760, cdtrail.org). The group's goal is to complete the trail it's named for, which is about two thirds of the way done. Some programs run by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association—which focuses on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana—are free (877/854-9415, pnt.org). From Maine to Georgia, volunteers can join one- or two-week trips organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304/535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). At some locales, workers sleep in cabins with cots and electricity. —Nick Mosquera 3. Sister City Exchanges Spend time with family you never knew you had With a primary goal of promoting cultural understanding, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit network that partners hundreds of U.S. cities with international "sister" cities that have similar climates, industries, or populations (sister-cities.org). The local governments of sister cities might exchange ideas about health care, traffic circles, or playgrounds. There are also opportunities for residents to visit sister cities—sometimes totally on your hometown's dime. Every year, several Tempe, Ariz., high school students are selected to go on five-week trips to sister cities (towns can have more than one) such as Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; and Zhenjiang, China. All expenses are paid, including airfare. "Within a few hours of arriving in Ireland, I felt completely at home," says Sara Bernal, a Tempe high school senior who went to Carlow, another sister city, last year. "I'd give anything to have another experience like it." Sister city visits aren't just for high school kids. Every year hundreds of groups from U.S. towns head overseas to foster bonds with international "family." Participants are expected to be active in sister city projects and host counterparts when they come to town. Travelers should expect to run fund-raisers for trips—most cities don't foot the bill, at least not entirely—though room and board are usually covered by local hosts. —Laura MacNeil 4. Workampers Use your RV to get from one job to the next Millions of RV owners are on the move year-round, and an estimated 750,000 of them couple their travels with short-term work. The wages are enough to get by (typically $8-$12 per hour), and gigs sometimes come with free places to park, including free electric hookup and other perks. The folks on the move are called workampers, and may find themselves checking in guests and overseeing ice cream socials at KOA campgrounds, or dressing up as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. At last check, more than 700 employers posted summer jobs aimed at RVers at workamper.com, the online home of Workamper News, which has been around since 1987. Jobs tend to be at state and national parks, seasonal vacation spots, and big events such as the Indianapolis 500. Most workampers spend fewer than 20 hours per week on the job, so there's plenty of opportunity to relax and explore. —Lisa Rose 5. Driveaways Go on a road trip in someone else's car Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, has hopped behind the wheel of around 50 cars, none of which were his. He's neither a valet nor a thief. Ever since reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road in college, Jankiewicz has volunteered for driveaway duty whenever he could. A driveaway situation arises when a car owner needs his vehicle moved to a new location and either can't or doesn't want to do the driving. Rather than pay to ship the car, the owner signs his ride up for a driveaway program—essentially giving a free car rental to a volunteer. "You encounter places you never knew existed, and meet people with the most interesting stories," says Jankiewicz. "It's cheaper than any other kind of travel. No one believes this even exists anymore." Drivers usually need only to fill out an application form and present a valid driver's license and references, though some situations require that you be fingerprinted or submit a driving history (available through your DMV). For insurance reasons, drivers probably need to be at least 23. Once approved, you're handed the car keys and given a free first tank of gas. All other expenses, including gas and lodging, are yours. With 43 U.S. locations, Auto Driveaway is the country's biggest player, listing about 150 opportunities per month (800/346-2277, autodriveaway.com, $350 deposit). Some offices will even take requests for specific routes and call you if there's a car that's a match. Start inquiring a month in advance of when you'd like to hit the road, and continue checking in. Don't expect to have a completely unrestricted, carefree joyride, however. There are limits on mileage (point-to-point road distance plus 15-25 percent extra), driving time (with Auto Driveaway you're not supposed to be on the road between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 400 miles per day). A driver on a typical 3,000-mile cross-country road trip is given seven to ten days to complete the journey, with a maximum of 3,500 miles logged on the odometer. To eliminate headaches and maximize the opportunity for fun, Jankiewicz carefully maps out his routes ahead of time, checking the Internet for construction delays and weather forecasts. —Michele Schwartz 6. Hospitality Exchanges Crash on couches and make friends along the way To most people, the idea is crazy: heading to a stranger's house to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. Perhaps even loonier: welcoming someone you've never met into your house. But thousands of people take part in hospitality exchanges, as such visits are known. Konstantinos Chalvatzis, a 25-year-old teaching assistant who lives just outside Athens, Greece, joined hospitality club Couchsurfing.com last March; the online community knows him as "Promitheus." Since then, he has welcomed about 40 strangers into his apartment, and stayed on the couches of more than 60 club members. "When people stay with me, they get a real sense of what living in Athens is like," he says. "If I have time I'll show them the big monuments, as well as residential areas, taverns, and underground art galleries." Participants come in all ages, colors, and cultures, though they tend to be male, English-speaking, and in their 20s and 30s, and hail from America, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The upside is not only free lodging but the chance to meet people who tend to be open-minded, curious, and generous. But it's not the equivalent of a free hotel, says Bryan McDonald ("Duke"), a 28-year-old musician born in Mexico who now calls Amsterdam home. "The best thing a Couchsurfer can do is spend time with his host," he says. "I've had guests cook their favorite food, or make something special from their country for me. These little things mean a lot to hosts." There are three major players in hospitality exchanges, none of which charge a membership fee. HospitalityClub.org debuted in 2000, and currently has more than 328,500 members. It features the most comprehensive security procedures; before being accepted as guests, travelers must provide full names and passport numbers. Globalfreeloaders.com, with nearly 62,000 members, pushes the idea of hosting as much as freeloading, advising members not to accept a free stay unless they can host within six months. Couchsurfing, in business since 2004 and home to 754,146 members in 229 countries, has the most technically advanced search ability. Travelers can view every possible open couch in a specified radius, rather than only by city or country, which is how the other two work. For all three clubs, hosts and couch crashers are paired up based on profiles that include languages spoken, location, and interests (from Björk to Frisbee and beyond). Many members clarify what's not acceptable—"no drugs" is a common refrain. Though safety can't be guaranteed, members post messages about how visits went. A recent note on Couchsurfing, from a Californian about an Austrian host: "Joe was my 'host with the most' in Vienna. He likes to cook for guests and even has ketchup for Americans!" —Chelan David 7. Volunteer Farm Workers Trade a day in the fields for room and board For a month in 2003, Gungsadawn Kitatikarn, of New York City, harvested kale, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and fava beans in exchange for food and lodging at a Portuguese farm named Belgais. She worked 9 to 5 most days, with an hour lunch break that usually wound up being a communal buffet for two dozen people, and stayed in a furnished bungalow with hot showers a short walk from the main farmhouse. Someone from the ranch drove her into the nearby town of Castelo Branco when it was time for a break. "The people were lovely and respectful, and the ranch was breathtaking," she recalls. "Since I was out in the middle of nowhere in Portugal it was sometimes too quiet for a city gal. But I became comfortable with the silence, and thoroughly enjoyed it." Belgais is one of more than 4,500 organic farms around the world that provide free food and lodging for guests willing to weed, plant seeds, plow fields, dig trenches, and harvest crops. Nonprofit organization World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms compiles a country-by-country list of participating farms (wwoof.org). Once you pay an annual membership fee, you receive either Internet access or a mailed booklet with contact information for farms in the regions you've selected (fee varies by country; in the U.S., it's $20 for one person, or $30 for a dual membership). You then get in touch with the farm directly to negotiate how long you'll stay, what kind of work you'll do, where you'll sleep, and how much you'll be required to work. Each farm is different, but the standard for volunteers is six hours of work per day, six days per week. That doesn't leave all that much free time, but for many people, working the land in a beautiful, simple setting makes for a nice, healthy respite from their hectic lives. —Laura MacNeil 8. Rotary Club Trips Network your way to somewhere exciting Most people are vaguely aware of the Rotary Club as something local businessmen join so they can trade business cards over lunch. The truth is, the organization is huge and international, with more than 1.2 million members and 33,000 clubs in 200 countries (rotary.org). Rotary International also sponsors travelers on special trips abroad, and there are a few ways even nonmembers can take advantage of the programs. The Group Study Exchange sends groups of four business or professional people—anyone from architects to police officers—to learn about their respective professions in Mexico, Thailand, and dozens of other destinations. Rotary International pays for transportation, including airfare, and local hosts provide meals and accommodations. Applicants are required to have at least two years of experience in their field and, since the idea is to foster future business leaders, be between 25 and 40 years old. Another possibility comes in the form of Rotary clubs that pay for visitors to come into their communities as volunteer consultants of sorts. According to Rotary International, host cities look for people with "a proven level of professional or technical skills," and, depending on the situation, restaurant owners, plumbers, computer programmers, teachers, and business managers may fit the bill. An online database allows you to search the options. Finally, Rotary clubs organize some 8,000 youth exchanges per year, in which students 15 and up are hosted overseas in private homes and camps for stints of few days to several months. Room and board are covered, though airfare is not. Don't expect to jump on any Rotary-sponsored vacation right away, however. Competition for program openings is stiff, and involves a lengthy application process that can take up to a year. —Laura MacNeil 9. Home Swapping Exchange houses and live like a local The concept of home swapping is as simple as it sounds. You trade your pad for someone else's, and everyone gets a free place to stay. "If you have a sense of humor and go with the flow, home exchange will work for you," says T.T. Baker, co-author of The Home Exchange Guide, who has swapped homes five times. "If you have a narrow comfort zone, stay in a hotel." Checking references, talking over the phone with your counterpart, and having contracts clearly spelled out—especially when it comes to bills and damages—alleviate the anxiety. The right situation may require months of planning and a dose of luck. It certainly makes things easier if you live in Miami Beach, or some other spot popular with travelers. Home exchange services charge $35-$110 per year, and by joining more than one club you obviously increase your chances. Reputable companies with listings worldwide include: digsville.com; gti-home-exchange.com; homeexchange.com; intervacus.com; ihen.com; and swapnow.com. —Sophie Alexander Here's to the kindness of strangers After joining one of these clubs, you'll stay for a few dollars or free at members' homes. Most clubs also expect members to host travelers. —Lee Uehara   Educators 800/956-4822, educatorstravel.com, $36 annual fee   Gays and Lesbians 011-49/30-691-9537, lghei.org, $40 annual fee   Mensa Members 800/666-3672, us.mensa.org, $52 annual fee (plus $40 for intelligence test)   Motorcyclists 877/408-0471, motorcycle-travel.net, $30 annual fee   People Over 50 815/456-3111, evergreenclub.com, $60/single, $75/couple annual fee   Tandem Bicyclists tandemclub.org, $15 annual fee   Women 011-44/1494-465-441, womenwelcomewomen.org.uk, $67 annual fee

Travel Tips

David Neeleman

Window or aisle? Jumpseat. When I'm flying on planes I like to hang out in the back with the flight crew and help serve the customers. Some days I'd rather sit and watch TV, but I learn a lot from hanging out with our customers and crew. I think it's time well spent. The last thing I ate from a minibar? I'm a budget traveler. I'm too cheap to buy anything from a minibar. I won't pay two bucks for a candy bar. I won't leave home without... My Blackberry charger and a calculator watch. The charger because if I run out of juice I can stay connected and my watch because I'm always thinking about new deals so I've got to have it to run the numbers. The best trip I've ever taken? And why? Paraty, Brazil. It's an over 400-year-old town with a bunch of little islands off the coast. I was there with my family and on the way home we stopped at the Embraer factory and looked at our new planes being built. It was a great trip. My dream trip? I've been trying to get my wife and family to go to Rome. I'm a Christian history guy so I'm interested in visiting the museums there. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bags? Southwest Airlines annual report. My greatest travel pet peeve? No TV's on airplanes that aren't mine. It's just boring. There's got to be something in the seatback that entertains people, not some three-month-old movie that's ten or twelve rows away. How I deal with jetlag? I don't really get jetlag. When I get to the place that I'm going to, I never sleep out of rhythm. If I've been up all night and I get to my destination at ten in the morning, I don't go to bed. I wait until it's the hour to go to sleep, and even if I go to bed early, like eight or nine o'clock, I just fight through it. Don't ever arrive at noon, go to sleep and wake up at five in the afternoon--you'll never get over it. You'll be up all night and the cycle will continue. If I could travel with any living person... My father. He's getting along in his years and we've got precious time over the next ten or fifteen years. I'd like to spend as much time as I can with him. He travels a lot and knows the world, like every great restaurant to go to. He's a blast to travel with. I'll never go back to _________And why? I'm not a very picky traveler. I'm not someone who needs to stay in the best hotels. Every place I go I find interesting. I can't think of anyplace that I've been that I wouldn't go back to. India's an interesting place. I've never been there, but my dad claims that his best two days in India was the day he visited the Taj Mahal and the day he left for home. If I could be anywhere right now... I wouldn't want to be anywhere but where I am now.

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