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6 Affordable Winter Vacations You Need to Book Now

By Jeanette Zinno
October 3, 2019
A lounge chair under a grass umbrella
Birdiegal717 | Dreamstime.com
Escape the cold of winter (or embrace it) with these affordable seasonal getaways.

For many travelers winter is prime vacation time. Those extra days off for the holidays mean that you can sneak in a week-long escape. Whether you’re looking for a warm-weather escapade (we’ve got our eye on you, Florida) or a chill Chicago getaway (bundle up!), we’ve got you covered with a few trips that won’t break the bank.

But remember, booking your flight and hotel arrangements early will have its benefits on your wallet. Plus, you’ll have more time to look forward to that dreamy winter getaway. And if post-holiday travel sounds like the right fit for your schedule, remember that flights and hotel prices start to drop the second week of January.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago may not be your quintessential warm winter getaway, but the food, art and culture scene may sway you to escape there this winter. Plus flights and hotels are extremely inexpensive, for example room rates at the Godfrey Hotel Chicago can be booked for $89 per night from December to February. The best part? They have a rooftop winter wonderland with clear-domed, heated igloos for guests to cozy up and enjoy the fire pit and of course some gooey delicious s’mores.

You can’t go to Chicago without checking out the museum scene, catching an architecture tour by boat (don’t worry, you’ll be indoors) or heading to Millennium Park for a legendary snow-dusted selfie at Cloud Gate aka, “The Bean”.

There are endless food options, but we’d recommend Publican Quality Meats (a butcher shop, cafe and bakery), Frontera Grill for the best Mexican and Roister, a casual restaurant that’s made its way onto almost every “Best of” list. Lastly, since Chicago is a convention destination, make sure you check out this schedule to avoid higher price tags.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Brazil is an ideal winter escape because their summer is our winter in the states. Bonus: Brazil has waived visa requirements for visiting citizens from the US, making travel to the country easier and more affordable.

And while you may think an international destination like this is going to cost big bucks, rooms at the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort are well under $200 per night. Situated between the chic Barra da Tijuca neighborhood and famed Ipanema Beach, the resort is set above a white-sand beach looking out at the tropical South Atlantic.

You may want to lounge out after a busy year, but if you’d like to explore the city there are plenty of exciting options from local souvenir shopping to exploring the street food vendors (try the pão de queijo, aka cheese bread). Sugarloaf Mountain is a popular peak where you can take a cable car ride to catch some epic views. Or take a car for about ten minutes away to explore Copacabana Beach, a famous shoreline dotted with restaurants and bars and some of the best people watching out there.

Lake Chelan, Washington

Located three hours east of Seattle, Lake Chelan transforms into a snow-covered wonderland with seasonal recreation, award-winning wine country (sign us up), with festival fun and small town charm. Nestled among the snow-capped hilltops of the Northern Cascade Mountains, Lake Chelan celebrates 300 days of sunshine a year, making it a great retreat in the winter.

Also, because winter is during the off-season, the area is less expensive. For accommodations, the family owned and operated Campbell’s Resort offers story like lakeside guest rooms for $84 a night. The location is the perfect launch pad for area winter activities, including snow tubing and snowboarding at nearby Echo Valley, wine tasting at over 30 wineries and two fantastic winter festivals – Winterfest in January and Red, Wine and Chocolate in February.

Oranjestad, Aruba

Aruba’s calling our name! Take a quick and affordable flight to this sunny destination where everyone is welcoming. How can you go wrong with a place that’s dubbed “One Happy Island”?

This Caribbean escape is exactly what the doctor ordered. Let’s talk hotels. There are a variety of hotels at all price ranges throughout the isle, so finding reasonable lodging won’t be a problem. Oranjestad is the capital of the city and has a range of hotels close to the airport, but there are different neighborhoods to explore throughout the island.

Explore the Natural Pool (formed by rock and volcanic stone) and the Arikok National Park on a UTV or make a day of it and captain your own motor-powered boat on the open sea. Aruba is a big travel destination, so consider booking your trip as early as possible to secure the lowest rates.

Waterville Valley, New Hampshire

Waterville Valley is a resort community nestled in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, just two hours north of Boston. The town is the epitome of what you think of when imagining the setting of an epic ski trip with friends. The good news is that skiing is actually made affordable here.

The Waterville Resort has a handful of lodging deals that run throughout the winter, like the “Ski & Stay” package that starts at $98 per night. This deal allows you to mix and match to get the lodging and tickets you need for a perfect ski adventure. The package also includes the Freedom Pass at no extra cost, which includes access to other activities like ice-skating, the White Mountain Athletic Club pools, saunas and hot tubs, indoor tennis and dare I say more?

Crystal River, Florida

While droves of people flock to Florida in the winter (hello, snowbirds), why not visit a city just off the beaten path this year? Considered to be the “Original Florida,” Crystal River is a coastal city located about 90 minutes from Tampa without the massive crowds.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy beach hopping, kayaking and just about any other warm weather activity. Stay at the Plantation hotel for as low as $119 a night. Onsite activities include boating, fishing and golfing. All of these physical activities will probably give you a big appetite, so check out the seafood options at local restaurants, some of it is so fresh that it’s coming right off of the boat!

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Travel Tips

Read This Before You Renew Your Passport

When's the last time you checked the expiration date on your passport? If it's expired, you'll have to get it renewed before you can take your next international trip. You might even have to renew your passport before your next flight within the US, as some states are no longer accepting driver’s licenses as ID for flying domestically. The change took effect in 2018 when the Department of Homeland Security began implementing REAL ID Act, which will eventually require all states and US territories to adhere to stricter security measures for issuing state licenses. (Congress passed the law in 2005 in an effort to strengthen national security.) That may explain why US passport demand is at an all-time high, with 21,103,475 passports issued last year, up from 5,547,693 in 1996, according to the US Department of State. Despite all the commotion, many US travelers forget to renew their passports, says Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief at Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry. “Like a tetanus shot, a passport lasts 10 years, but there’s no doctor to remind you it’s time to renew,” Weissmann says. (Note: passports for children under 16 are only valid for 5 years.) Here’s everything you need to know about obtaining and renewing a passport. How to get a US passport If you’ve never traveled abroad, there’s a good chance you don’t even have a US passport. The good news is obtaining one is fairly easy. Your first step is to obtain the right passport application forms. You can pick up an application from any US post office, or download the passport application forms online (travel.state.gov) and print them out at home. If you’re printing the forms yourself, the federal government’s US Passport Service Guide says the materials “must be printed in black ink on white paper. The paper must be 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches, with no holes or perforations, at least medium (20 lb.) weight, and with a matte surface. Thermal paper, dye-sublimation paper, special inkjet paper, and other shiny papers are not acceptable.” Forms completed by hand should be filled in using black ink and submitted using only one-sided pages. You’ll also have to provide proof of your American citizenship, in the form of one of these documents: A certified US birth certificate issued by the city, county or state. (Call the government of the state in which you were born to get an official version with a notary's seal.)Records of birth abroad if you were born outside the USNaturalization certificateCertificate of citizenshipIn addition, you must prove your identity by providing any one of the following: Naturalization certificateCertificate of citizenshipA current, valid driver's license, government ID, or Military IDNext, you have to submit a photo with your application. You can get a US passport photo taken at the post office, or snap and print your own photo. Just make sure you’re wearing your normal, everyday clothes (no uniforms) and nothing on your head. You cannot wear glasses, and you must look straight ahead without smiling. The photo must be 2x2 inches. Passport application and execution fees change periodically. At present (October 2019), passports for US adults age 16 and older cost $145. For an extra $60, plus delivery fees, you can get a “rush” passport delivered within 2 to 3 weeks. (Routine processing takes 4 to 6 weeks.) If you’re applying by mail, you must provide a check or money order – credit and debit cards are not accepted. How to renew a US passport You can renew your passport by mail, using form DS-82 and submitting a new 2x2 inch photograph, if your most recent passport meets these five requirements: Is submitted with your applicationIs undamaged (other than normal "wear and tear")Was issued when you were age 16 or olderWas issued within the last 15 yearsWas issued in your current name (or you can document your name change with an original or certified copy of your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order)If your passport doesn’t meet those criteria, you’ll have to renew by applying in person using form DS-11, and follow the same steps that are required for obtaining a brand new passport (see above). Traveling internationally within the next two weeks? You’ll have to renew your passport at a Passport Acceptance Facility. (You can find the nearest office near you at travel.state.gov.) To avoid waiting in line all day, make an appointment online in advance. Don't dawdle! Your passport doesn’t have to be expired for you to renew it. In fact, some countries require that your passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip, says Tammy Levent, CEO at Elite Travel Management Group. As a result, Levent says the biggest mistake US international travelers can make is waiting until the last minute to renew their passport. Get a passport book – not a card Another common mistake people make, Levent says, is obtaining a passport card instead of a passport book. Passport cards are a lot cheaper – the application and execution fees combined is only $65 for adults 16 and older – but they’re not valid for international air travel; they're only acceptable for land and sea border crossings between the US, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

Travel Tips

What Happens If You Don’t Put Your Phone on Airplane Mode on A Flight?

It’s not that long ago that airlines stopped telling passengers to keep their mobile phones, tablets, e-readers and other devices turned off throughout the flight. Remember the time in 2011 when Alec Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines plane after becoming disruptive when a flight attendant told him to stop playing Words with Friends? Airlines take this stuff seriously for a reason.Why do we have to put our phones on flight mode? We’re asked to turn our devices off or to flight mode because of electromagnetic interference from phones, tablets, e-readers, electronic headsets, and more. Since some planes were built before these became a thing, it took a while for the industry to make sure it was entirely safe to use them. These days, you’ll even see iPads and other tablets in the flight deck, which pilots use to store paperwork instead of lugging around big bags with actual paper in. You’ll see flight attendants using tablets and big phones too, either instead of or in addition to those reams and reams of dot-matrix printed paperwork. All those devices have been tested extensively to make sure there’s no interference. But that hasn’t always been the case! In fact, back in 2011, some parts within specific models of flight deck screen on certain Boeing 737 aircraft proved to be susceptible to interference. How’d we find out that specific combination of planes and monitors — and fix it? During the rigorous testing process to enable airlines to offer inflight internet, that’s how. Part of that testing process is creating enough electromagnetic interference to represent an entire cabin full of devices of a variety of sizes, including some that are malfunctioning. Pretty much every airliner-equipment combo operated by a major international airline has now been tested. What happens if I don't put my phone on airplane mode? For years, safety regulators, airlines, aircraft manufacturers and everyone else in the industry has known that there are dozens of devices left out of airplane mode on every flight. In a way, the fact that planes haven’t fallen out of the sky willy-nilly because someone left their Kindle on is the best demonstration that, for the most part, most devices don’t affect most planes. But most isn’t good enough for aviation. Some folks don’t know that their Kindle even has 3G, or that the Bluetooth on their watch/headphones/other device counts as needing to be in airplane mode. Some forget that they’ve packed one of those devices in the overhead bin. Some even blatantly ignore the rules, assuming that their vital email on that BlackBerry isn’t going to make their plane start to plummet. And it probably isn’t. Here’s the thing: aviation doesn’t work on probablys. One of the reasons why aviation is safer than getting in your car, crossing the street, or even just staying at home (more people are casualties of toilet-related incidents than aviation accidents!) is that airlines and their regulators work with an abundance of caution.

Travel Tips

7 Best Mobile Phones for Travelers

From digital maps to translations to photography to reservations, smartphones have radically changed the way we travel. But when it comes to features, not all phones are created equal. Whether you’re ready to purchase a new device or simply need to swap out a SIM card when you arrive at your international destination, here’s a guide to the best features and phones to help you make the most of your next journey. 1. iPhone 11 Rejoice, Apple lovers. The iPhone 11, with 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR display and powerful processing speeds, is an affordable and legitimately great follow-up to the X. Sure, if you want to get fancy, the pricier 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max offer more premium solutions, like longer battery life and a 2x telephoto lens, but if you’re looking for something that’s easy to tote with access to the new suite of high-quality features, you can upgrade without guilt. The biggest improvements come with the 12-megapixel front facing camera. In addition to an excellent, automatic Night Mode, it touts an entertaining ultrawide-angle effect, which gives you a 120-degree field of view, as well as a Portrait mode for things like super close-up pet shots. And, ahem, we welcome the slofie: a slow-motion selfie feature in video mode. There are three cameras in all, two prominently housed on the back side, making the overall design a little less sleek – but it does come in an array of colors, including delicious pastels like purple, yellow and green. We’re happy to report that the iPhone 11 is a truly solid phone with a reasonable price tag. From $699 or $399 with trade-in; apple.com. 2. Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus This powerful, premium Android phone is the newest addition to Samsung’s Note line and features a giant screen measuring a whopping 6.8 inches. The vertical, angular body and rounded sides present as stylish and cutting-edge, but it’s the new Aura Glow color that will stop you in your tracks. The shiny, highly reflective iridescent chrome elevates the phone to a piece of working art, though without a clear case to show it off, it can also be a fingerprint magnet. The massive HDR10+ certified screen is a Dynamic AMOLED panel and offers vivid, super-bright video with an immersive audio experience – perfect for that long plane ride. But what makes this iteration special is the S Pen. The Note has always been known for its stylus feature and the S Pen, which easily pops out of the bottom of your phone, allows you to precisely and simply navigate all the different tasks and features the 10 Plus has to offer. The newest additions, a gyroscope and accelerometer, allow you to control your phone using the S Pen from up to 15 feet away. We especially appreciated being able to take photos or switch modes in the camera app without being anywhere near the phone. And with 256GB storage and a MicroSD slot, you’ll never have to worry about storing all those images. Speaking of images, the Note Plus has three cameras, two 12-megapixel lenses (one is telephoto) and a 16 megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens, and it offers a Night Mode for low-light situations. Other fun, yet somewhat gimmicky, features include a 3D Scanner, which allows you to scan, then animate any object using motion capture, and AR Doodle, which lets you add augmented reality flourishes to videos using facial recognition. Starts at $1099; samsung.com. 3. Google Pixel 3a This lower-priced phone from Google, which runs Android Pie OS, makes the most of its lower price point – featuring a premium experience including blazing fast speeds. Its plastic back makes it significantly lighter than the Pixel 3 yet it sports the same color schemes as its more expensive siblings. Throw a cover on it and nobody will know it’s crafted from lesser-quality materials. Plus, there’s a headphone jack, which is missing in more expensive handsets. A full HD screen and 24-bit color depth make watching videos a dream, and the camera (which has always been the Pixel’s biggest strength) has the same rear camera specs as the Pixel 3. Its more standard image signal processor makes for slightly less sharp, detailed photos – though portrait images didn’t disappoint. Capturing motion isn’t a problem, however, and the Night Sight mode allows for excellent low-light images. The Pixel 3a may not have the more expensive features of its namesake flagship phone, like wireless charging and free HD photo storage, but it gives you a serious bang for your buck. From $399 or 149 with trade-in; store.google.com. 4. OnePlus 7 Pro This previous cult favorite has gone mainstream, and the current 7 Pro is a stylish phone with all the fixings of a more conventional brand. Though it’s not as clearly budget-priced as its former iterations, the bump up gets you a glass and metal body, a super-fast fingerprint scanner, three cameras and up to 12GB of storage. There’s no headphone jack but OnePlus offers its own version of wireless earbuds, the Bullets 2, for $99 – a steal compared to Apple’s AirPods. The large, 6.67-inch screen is also AMOLED and uses filtration to reduce eye fatigue. To create a better screen-to-body ratio, OnePlus added a motorized camera, which pops up when you want to take a selfie or use facial recognition. And with the advent of Oxygen OS 9, the optimized version of Android 9 Pie, you’ll get super-fast speeds and better rendering of 3D gaming. Another interesting feature is the “zen mode,” which, when activated, completely disables your phone—giving you a reason to take a breather from digital life. One caveat: the new OnePlus 7T was just announced and will be available in October. From $669; oneplus.com. 5. Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL An unlocked phone (meaning it'll work with multiple service providers) with a cutting-edge camera and a built-in interpreter, the Pixel 3 is our overall pick for best smartphone for travelers. Though it's expensive, it’s actually only a few dollars more than the lowest priced iPhone (see below). As smartphones have become ubiquitous, their technology has improved exponentially, and many travelers now opt for their phone’s camera over a stand-alone one. Google has built on that trend with top-notch, dynamic-range cameras. Here you’ll find an advanced 12.2-megapixel sensor on the rear camera, the main one used for your everyday photos and optical zoom, and two additional eight-megapixel front cameras for selfies, including one for wide-angle shots. Other camera features include a flash-free low-light mode called Night Sight,and a Top Shot mode that takes multiple pics around each shot, then automatically chooses the best one. Another new Google-specific feature is the Google Assistant Interpreter Mode, which detects the language you’re speaking and translates it like a third-party interpreter. Also just announced is the AI-powered Duplex (available this summer), a chat agent that allows you to automatically book appointments or make reservations without making a call or opening an app. Finally, as an alternative to mainstream service providers, Google’s own Google Fi wireless service is a lower-cost alternative that includes free international roaming and hotspot capabilities. From $799; store.google.com 6. Moto G7 Power This budget smartphone is a battery all-star. It may not be beautiful, but it certainly is bold – with over 15 hours battery life on a single charge and a 6.2-inch screen with fingerprint scanner. Though the G7 Power won’t win any design awards, due to its bulky specs to accommodate the larger battery, it does have a headphone jack and shares its SIM card slot with a microSD slot for up to 512GB of extra storage. The rear-facing camera is 12 megapixels and the front-facing camera manages 8 megapixels. It won’t replace your DSLR but with good light, you’ll manage accurate photos. In addition to running Android 9.0 Pie, Motorola threw in Moto Actions, a gesture-based interface which lets you do things like unlock the camera by twisting the phone twice or using three fingers on its screen to take a screenshot. But the real beauty of this phone is the knowledge that just one battery charge can last up to three days. From $250; motorola.com. 7. Alcatel 1X If you’d rather save your cash for your next trip than blow it on a phone, check out Alcatel’s feature-rich, unlocked phone for less than $100. The 1X, crafted by TV-manufacturer TCL, has a 5.5-inch screen and boasts bright colors and decent viewing angles. It also comes with a higher-end fingerprint scanner and Face Key facial recognition technology for quick, easy unlocking. The dual rear camera has a 13-megapixel lens and a 2-megapixel lens, and though we wouldn’t suggest using this phone as your primary camera, it’s perfect for social media and can capture respectable portrait shots and selfies. Swipe either way on the viewfinder and you’ll be rewarded with a handful of controls, including a flash and a timer. The 1X comes with 16GB of storage, but we appreciate the microSD slot, which allows you to store up to 128GB of images, videos, podcasts, music, and more. From $95 at Best Buy, Amazon and Walmart; alcatelmobile.com.

Travel Tips

The Most Expensive Travel Mistake (And How Not to Make It)

It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare: A good vacation gone suddenly bad. You may be hiking a beautiful trail in a national park, or practicing your rock-climbing skills, or learning to surf on a gorgeous beach. Then the unthinkable happens: A fall, a head injury, broken bones, or worse. You require a medical evacuation, hospital stay, and, after surviving the ordeal, you are presented with a medical bill for $100,000 - or maybe even a lot more. And the medical insurance you have in your home country? It’s not accepted in your current destination. Oops. Ouch. Sure, we said that accident was “unthinkable,” but the fact is, huge unexpected expenses can be avoided by travelers who do think ahead. The world of travel insurance can feel complex, expensive, and unnecessary, but not having the right kind of insurance, especially when traveling internationally, can be the most expensive travel mistake you can make. Here’s how to prepare in advance. Why travel insurance is worth the investment Why do we think of travel insurance as an “investment” rather than an “expense”? Because when you travel internationally, there is a strong likelihood that the medical insurance you have in your home country will not be accepted in the country you are visiting. In some respects, you are paying for peace of mind, of course: Knowing that, in the event that you are seriously injured or ill, you’ll be prepared with a health insurance policy that local medical practitioners and hospitals accept and are familiar with. In some cases, additional travel insurance can also deliver 24/7 emergency service, coverage against theft or loss of travel documents, and even language-translation services. Travel medical insurance For international travelers, “travel medical insurance” is the coverage that ensures that, in the event of a medical emergency in a foreign country, you are not liable for high out-of-pocket fees. It is a short-term, temporary policy covering health, injury, and emergencies. For example, if you are an international traveler planning to visit the US, it is recommended that you obtain a US-based travel medical insurance plan, which will be recognized by more doctors and hospitals in the United States, leading to an easier experience in the event that you seek medical care, customer service, or need to file a claim. (Note: Most of the better-known US-based insurance companies do not offer coverage to international visitors - coverage is offered by smaller US-based companies that specialize in international travelers.) What is covered by travel medical insurance In general, you can expect a travel medical insurance plan to cover any new illness, accident or injury, medical evacuation, and, in the regrettable event of a death abroad, the return home of the deceased’s remains. Generally not covered are pre-existing medical conditions, routine doctor check-ups, immunizations, pregnancy and childbirth, major dental work, or eye exams. Other travel insurance options In addition to medical insurance when traveling internationally, “trip insurance” can be appealing to some travelers. This kind of policy allows you to recoup some or all of your expenses in the event that you have to cancel or interrupt your trip, your trip is delayed, you miss a connection, lose baggage, car rental, and other specific instances itemized in your policy. A “cancel for any reason” policy, just as its name suggests, is more comprehensive and allows you to recoup some or all of your expenses if you decide for any reason at all that you need to cancel or postpone a trip. Cruise insurance works in a similar way, giving travelers a measure of security when they book a cruise that ends up being threatened by a significant weather event.

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