Has your trip ever been saved by a stranger?

By Andrea Minarcek
October 3, 2012

As all seasoned travelers know, it's the people just as much as the place that makes a trip exceptional. Whether it's a cabbie divulging the best hole-in-the-wall dim-sum joint in town or, simply, a hotel receptionist who's particularly kind after you arrive four hours later than scheduled because of flight delays, more often than not, locals are the key element that can make a good vacation fantastic.

And sometimes, the people you meet don't just enhance your trip—they make it possible, a point that was proven in a recent news story.

A 24-year-old woman named Catherine Li has spent the last seven months traveling by herself across America—on foot!—with little more than the clothes on her back, a direction guide printed off of Google maps, and a tent. She hauls her belongings in a shopping cart that was given to her by a sympathetic mall security guard at a Sears store in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Already Li has trekked some 3,000 miles on her way to New York City—a real-life Forrest Gump!—but what makes her story really interesting, I think, is how much other people have aided her on her journey. From the concerned cop who checks in on her weekly by phone to the guy who let her crash on his couch and the mall security guard who let her take that shopping cart, countless strangers she met along the way have helped make her dream trip a reality.

Watch an interview clip with Li, during her short stay in Philadelphia:

All of this got us thinking: How have your trips benefited from the help of locals? We'd love to hear your stories!


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5 last-minute leaf-peeping deals

All across North America, shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown herald autumn's arrival. While many big, multicity fall foliage tours sold out months ago, there are still small-scale deals to be had that make for great weekend getaways. Here are five ways to peep your local leaves while they're still alight. Boston, Bike/2 Nights, From $315 Stay for two nights at the Midtown Hotel, located in the center of Boston's Back Bay, and use it as your home base for exploring the city on two wheels during a classic New England autumn. Includes free parking, daily breakfast, and 24-hour bike access, with helmets, maps, and locks. When: Through October 2011 Contact: Midtown Hotel, 800/343-1177, midtownhotel.com Mackinac Island, Mich., From $159 a Night Mission Point Resort's "Ghost Hunter" package includes accommodations for two in a standard garden room; a ghost-themed tour of the rumored-to-be-haunted hotel grounds, featured earlier this year on Syfy's Ghost Hunters; round-trip ferry tickets on Arnold Transit Co., which travels through the Straits of Mackinac; dinner for two at the resort's restaurant, Chianti; and daily breakfast; from $159 a night for a minimum two-night stay, plus taxes of 18 percent. When: Through Oct. 23, 2011 Contact: Mission Point Resort, 800/833-7711, missionpoint.com Mammoth, Calif., 2 Nights, From $49 a Night Experience autumn in California's Lakes Basin with a cabin rental, complimentary bottle of wine, daily breakfast, complimentary two-hour boat rental, fishing-rod rental, and access to Tamarack Adventures' guided activities (like hikes, bike tours, and fishing clinics), from $49 per person per night (two-night minimum stay), plus taxes and fees. When:Through November 7. Contact: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, 800/626-6684, mammothmountain.com Seattle, Wash., and Victoria, British Colombia, Ferry/Hotel, From $99 a Night Enjoy a round-trip Victoria Clipper cruise from Seattle to Victoria, Canada, and one night at the Harbor Towers hotel in Victoria, from $99 per person per night. Plus, "like" Clipper Vacations on Facebook and get a promo code good for an additional 10% off. Extend your stay to 2 nights for a discounted $123 per person per night. When: October 1, 2011- January 2, 2012 Contact: Clipper Vacations, 800/888-2535, clippervacations.com Virginia, Resort/Horseback Ride, From $99 a Night Includes one night in your choice of tree house, yurt, cabin, chalet, or hotel room at the Shenandoah Crossing resort, plus one 45-minute trail ride for two people. Extend your stay from $63 per night for up to three additional nights; extra horseback rides for other members of your party can be added for a discounted rate of $18 per person. When: Through November 18, 2011 Contact: Shenandoah Crossing, 888/760-8188, otdestinations.com MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 5 Fall Foliage Drives North America's Most Charming Fall Islands 8 Fall Foliage Cruises


The Budget Travel Convert: Reporting from...Tuscany

Hobart Fowlkes, our "Budget Travel Convert," is a high–end jetsetter by trade, budget globetrotter by choice. He reports regularly on the best (and most affordable) experiences and hotels around the world. Today he updates us on a recent trip to Florence and Tuscany's Versilian Coast. See photos from my trip to Tuscany. FIRST STOP, FLORENCE… Before waxing poetic about my trip to Tuscany's Versilian Coast, I must warn readers about renting cars in Italy. I have rented cars in many countries, and I must say that I am still perplexed by what went down at the Hertz Counter at the Pisa Airport on my recent visit to the Tuscan "riviera". I booked my car through Delta so that I would receive miles, and was offered a reasonable price for a new Fiat 500 of 23EUR/day, which seemed reasonable. The total should have been 207EUR, but somehow with all of the extra taxes and fees it came out to something closer to 500EUR. Of course I am well aware of the 20% VAT which exists in all of the EU countries, but I did not expect a 20% Pisa Airport Tax, plus the compulsory base insurance package. Ultimately, my rental car ended up costing me more than almost anything else on the entire trip. (I wish I had read this article before I left: 6 Foreign Car Rental Fees to Watch for on Vacation.) Arriving in Pisa at midday, I picked up my rental car and made a beeline straight to Florence to meet my friends. We had a rendez-vous at Stazione di Santa Maria Novella, which is easy to find, but traffic patterns in cities built prior to the Middle Ages can sometimes be perplexing, so I spent an unnecessary amount of time driving in circles whilst texting in an effort to find those whom I was meeting. Where I stayed: I chose a place called "The Old Bridge." The locals call it a "bed & breakfast" but it is not exactly a B&B; at all, it is just an apartment owned in the building directly across from the Hotel La Scaletta—a place I stayed once before and found to have very reasonable rates. Via Gicciardini, 22 nero, 011-39/055-265-4262, florenceoldbridge.com How much I paid: The total cost of the room was $101 (70EUR) per night. Why I recommend it: The location is great—it is exactly equidistant between the Palazzo Pitti and the Ponte Vecchio. Also, the roof terrace at La Scaletta has awesome views of the city and backs right up against the Boboli Gardens and the Fortezza del Belvedere. When Hotel La Scaletta is fully booked, since it seems to be quite popular, they offer rooms at even better rates at The Old Bridge, which is where I stayed this time around. Each of the six rooms in Old Bridge is perfectly clean and comfortable each with its own bathroom, AC, TV and WiFi. On the down side, you will have to cross the street to go to breakfast at La Scaletta. Otherwise, I was perfectly happy. Where I ate: Tuscan cuisine is exquisite though somewhat uniform in its content. All over the region no matter where you go, you will be offered a variety of dishes featuring wild boar and porcini mushrooms, and the menu will most definitely include a giant Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is priced per kilo. I don't believe there is such a thing as a Bistecca alla Fiorentina that weighs less than a kilo, I guess theirs is a region with particularly heavy cattle. Having eaten in a wide range of restaurants, my favorite was Trattoria Quattro Leoni. It is just steps from the Hotel La Scaletta and has one of the coziest atmospheres and best food in all of Florence. Other places to check out are Osteria Santo Spirito which is located directly on Piazza di Santo Spirito. Il Latini is a place loved by both tourists as well as Florentines themselves. THEN, ON TO THE VERSILIAN COAST… At the recommendation of some Milanesi friends, we headed straight for a town called Torre del Lago Puccini on the Versilian Coast. The Puccini is tacked on to the end of the name, since it was the birthplace and home of the famous operatic composer, so the town is also known for its annual Puccini Festival. It is also known for its vibrant nightlife (but take note—although the town might wish it could compete with the more popular international destinations such as Ibiza and Mykonos, it can't). The beaches are nice and entertaining, though crammed with beds and umbrella, which you reserve and pay for as you cross the dune. Never a dull moment, one feels as if one has entered into a Fellini movie in which a range of characters stroll onto and off of the screen randomly...some fighting, some billing and cooing, some wanting to sell you jewelry, others wanting to cover you in henna tattoos, some might want to braid your hair, there is just no telling what might turn the corner next, but it kind of makes you feel like you just plopped yourself into a busy marketplace and that you have to keep a constant eye on your belongings. I guess what I am trying to say in a diplomatic way is that the beaches in Torre del Lago are not at ALL relaxing, but they are extremely entertaining. Where I stayed: There are several places to stay in Torre del Lago, though I believe we ended up in the most appealing. It is a bed and breakfast called B&B; Libano. Libano is the Italian word for Lebanon, so I kind of wondered what the connection was until I met the adorable owner and found that he just happened to be named Libano. Via Tabarro, 23, 011-39/058-435-0322, bedandbreakfast-libano.it How much I paid: My room was big and comfy and cost me $87 (60EUR) per night. Why I recommend it: I believe that Libano inherited this large house (it can accommodate up to 60 people), which he turned into a beach guest house that caters mainly (though not exclusively) to the Gay and Lesbian crowd—a lot of Torre del Lago's nightlife tends to be somewhat "homocentric." An adorable human being, Libano makes you feel instantly at home upon your arrival. There is an onsite restaurant that serves a sumptuous included brunch daily from 9AM to 1PM, a small gym and AC, TV and WiFi thoughout the house. While I really found Libano and his staff to be very kind and sweet and hospitable, their efforts to try to foster friendships between guests and have evening social hours might seem slightly awkward for some. Mr. Libano takes his evening happy hour so seriously that besides merely providing complimentary olives, nuts, and local wines, he serves massive Italian dishes like Lasagna and Spaghetti alle Vongole. Brunch, happy hour, drinks, the impromptu pasta dishes are ALL included in the price of your room which is very cheap. The only requirement of the guest is to try to remain cheerful and sociable and play along with the vibe of the place. Where I ate: On our first night in Torre dl Lago we went to the most highly recommended restaurant in town, La Buffalina. It is very nice, but knowing that that was the best that the town had to offer we began to look elsewhere and discovered that the Versilian Coast is actually awesome with tons of great places to see. For example, a 20 minute drive from Torre del Lago will take you to the gorgeous Medieval town of Pietrasanta which for centuries has been the center for marble sculpting in Italy given its proximity to Carrara. The town is beautiful, full of great restaurants and shops, and became our favorite haunt in the evenings. The very best restaurant in town, in my humble opinion, is called Ristorante Filippo. Filippo himself is probably the kindest, most accommodating restaurateur in the entire town of Pietrasanta, and he, too, runs a bed and breakfast directly adjacent to his restaurant called Le Camere di Filippo where I will most definitely stay the next time I find myself in that region. About 15 more minutes up the coast and you will come to the crown jewel in the Versilian Coast—Forte dei Marmi. This is the spot where all the fashionable Florentines go to see and be seen. There is really nothing to be had in that town for the "budget" traveler, but it is definitely worth taking a look. Built entirely in the 1930s by Mussolini, Forte dei Marmi is a spectacle in many ways should not be missed. Next stop: Barcelona and the beachtown of Sitges, possibly followed by a short trip back to Tuscany to spend an autumn weekend on the Island of Elba where Napoleon Bonaparte was once sent in exile. "Able was I ere I saw Elba" is the apocryphal palindrome supposedly uttered by the deposed emperor himself. Stay tuned.


Honeymoon travel: How to find an overwater bungalow bargain

Overwater bungalows are an escape fantasy made real, with water lapping under a hut poised on stilts in a serene, aquamarine lagoon. A new site, Overwater Bungalows, makes it easy to comparison shop for a resort where you can walk in your bare feet and admire romantic sunsets out the open door. The site lists every single overwater bungalow in Bora Bora and beyond. French Polynesia offers the most romantic of overwater getaways, but $800 is the typical starting price. Thankfully, Overwater Bungalows has found resorts that are both better priced than Tahiti and still within a belly flop of the ocean. Here are a few for under $300 a night or so, now through January. Panama Near the San Blas Islands, about a half-hour by plane from Panama City (around $70 round trip), the Coral Lodge's six casitas all sit over the water. They boast soaring roofs and creature comforts like Jacuzzis and air-conditioning. The tiny, remote resorts do a marvelous job of re-creating the magical thatched-roof South Pacific look and vibe. 011-507/317-6754, corallodge.com, from $240 a night per couple (including tax of about 15 percent) through October (the off season), and then $263 a night for dates in November through Christmas. French Polynesia, Raiatea A South Pacific bargain, comparatively speaking, can be found at the " target="_blank">Raiatea Hawaikik Nui Hotel, whose lodgings are 120 miles northwest of Tahiti by speedboat. The lodgings have high ceilings and oversize verandas. Trade winds make up for the lack of A/C. 800/657-3275, pearlresorts.com/hawaiki, overwater bungalows at $291 a night, including tax, for stays during October. French Polynesia, Moorea Popular Moorea (within easy reach of Tahiti by ferry or plane) is home to Club Bali Hai, which arguably invented the overwater bungalow in the 1960s. Says Overwater Bungalows, based on an inspection: "Being perfectly honest, the Club Bali Hai is only a good choice for those who want an affordable and novel accommodation with a stunning view. The facilities are quite dated and will disappoint those who come with high expectations. On the other hand, the location near many other restaurants and bars makes it an extremely easy and cheap place to stay on an island with very few choices in this price category. The location is deep within Cook’s Bay with amazing views of Moorea’s mountains." 877-426-7262, clubbalihai.com, from around $250 a night (including taxes) if you book for a week or so. More gorgeous overwater bungalows can be found at OverwaterBungalows.net. That said, the site's operator, Roger Wade, cautions that "$300 is just a bit below the sweet spot for some really nice places. Those who can go up to $400/night have loads of great options, and even $350/night gets some good choices." Budget Travel Tip: Once you're at these resorts, you're truly at these resorts: They're remote, and dining on-site is usually the only option. So include a budget for food costs as you comparison shop. Another tip: Ask for the most secluded hut because sound carries far over water and you don't want to be hearing your neighbor's sounds. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL How safe is your hotel room safe? Get discounted travel by buying gift cards Solo travel websites worth checking out


Culture Fix: 3 unique museums from around the world

This month, we take a look at three museums that share one thing in common—their specificity. Focusing their curatorial efforts on video games, antique race cars, and Glasgow's history of transportation, respectively, these three museums outclass more general museums through their old-school attention to detail. COMPUTER GAME MUSEUM Berlin goes geeky with this ode to the playful side of technology. If you think Pong was the first video game—and, more importantly, if you care about such things—Berlin’s newest (and nerdiest), the Computer Game Museum, is for you. Rebooted in January after a decade-long force-quit, this surprisingly informative history of the medium contains over 300 consoles and 14,000 games in its archives. All your favorites are here—Mario, Donkey Kong—as well as the real granddaddy of them all, the 1951 Nimrod. Guests can test tongue-in-cheek prototypes, such as a human-size Jumbo Joystick or PainStation, which ups the ante with a Pavlovian twist: It doles out heat, shock, or a tiny whip whenever you miss the ball. Admission $11. MUSEUM OF THE AUTOMOBILE Turin’s titans of industry get a shiny new pantheon. In Italy, Ferraris and Lamborghinis may not be as revered as Michelangelos and Botticellis, but the race is closer than you’d think. It’s no wonder Turin's Museum of the Automobile, which reopened in March after a major renovation, treats cars like works of high art. Nicknamed the Detroit of Italy, this Alpine city embraces its industrial heritage with a collection of over 200 vehicles from across the globe, including the first Fiat, built in 1899. Witty, conceptual pieces range from a forest of international street signs (Australia: koala crossing) to an installation that places some of the most notoriously speedy race cars (Fiat 500 Sporting Kit, Lancia Delta Integrale) behind bars. Admission $11. RIVERSIDE MUSEUM An architectural master drops anchor along Glasgow’s Clyde River. Every “starchitect” worth her blueprints needs a world-class museum to call her own. Zaha Hadid may have found her Bilbao-like moment with the June opening of Glasgow, Scotland’s Riverside Museum, a zigzag-roofed snake built along a previously dingy stretch of docklands. The collection of vintage trams, carriages, and steam locomotives isn’t roped off. Instead, it’s spread out in its natural habitat: re-created street scenes from different periods in Glasgow’s history, from the Edwardian 1890s through the gas-guzzling 1980s. Outside, the zinc-and-glass building looks onto the Clyde River and the Glenlee, a 19th-century sailing vessel that now serves as a maritime museum. Museum free; tall-ship admission $8. What's your favorite highly-specific museum? Let us know below! MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Greece's new Acropolis Museum opens New Dali Museum opening in St. Petersburg Mexico to debut the largest underwater museum in the world