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Present Tense?

November 15, 2006
Shopping for the holidays doesn't have to be stressful: Here are nine ideas that are way better than geese a-laying

Luggage tags are a smart idea now that we're checking bags again. Flight 001, the travel minichain that just opened outposts in Brooklyn and Berkeley, has cool ones. Flight001.com, $10 each.

This extraordinarily light and flexible stainless-steel wallet, designed by Theo Stewart-Stand, is yet another good gift idea from MoMA Design Store. Momastore.org, $95.

Moleskine is introducing a clever new line of City Notebooks, which come with maps and other info. Currently available for 12 European cities. Kikkerland.com (for stores), $17.

Tigo's Mini Suede Colored Pencil Set holds pencils, a pad, and a sharpener in a tie-up package. Elsewares.com, $23.

This three-foot-tall model of the Empire State Building is made with wooden pieces that link together without glue. Also available: the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Conran.com (search "puzzle"), $54.

If we don't say it, who will? A one-year subscription to Budget Travel makes a great gift for anyone who loves to travel. BudgetTravelOnline.com, $12.

The 2007 Hannah Travel Poster Calendar is a collection of 12 loose sheets celebrating the "Golden Age of Travel." Linneadesign.com, $28 ($37 with frame and gift wrap) .

If you can't drink the water, then ice is out of the question--unless you bring your own! Ice Rocks are prepackaged freezable ice cubes. The CEO swears they'll be available this fall. Icerocks.com, $5 for 48 cubes.

For her new book Monkey Portraits, photographer Jill Greenberg took a break from her usual subject--celebrities--to shoot something more sophisticated. Barnesandnoble.com, $25.

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Baby Steps to Save the Earth

Everyone knows there are things they should--and shouldn't--do to help the environment. Even so, most people aren't going to completely avoid planes as a way of reducing greenhouse gases. Here are a few reasonable courses of action that every traveler can and should take. Unplug your appliances Many TVs, DVD players, microwave ovens, computers, cell-phone chargers, and other devices drain electricity even when they're not in use. Also, lower your thermostat before leaving for winter vacation, and make sure the air-conditioning is off while you're away in the summer. Turn the hot water heater down to its lowest setting--or shut it off completely, though that'll require you to relight the pilot light when you get home. Think about how you travel Takeoff and landing account for a large portion of the fuel use and emissions of flights, so go with direct flights when you can. If possible, take the train instead of a short-haul flight. If you're on a road trip with a group, squeeze into as few cars as possible. Forget disposable products Nix the single-use camera, as well as take-out meals with wasteful packaging and plastic utensils. Instead, choose sit-down restaurants or food from the local market. Bring reusable containers for water, coffee, and leftover food. Refilling a bottle at a water fountain is much more eco-considerate than buying water that's been shipped from France or Fiji or somewhere else far away. Think before you buy Rather than buying stuff that you'll use sparingly--tents, beach chairs, voltage converters--borrow them from friends. (And offer your gear to friends for their vacations.) At trip's end, give maps and guidebooks to other travelers, or leave them at the hotel for future guests. When shopping during your vacation, take a tote or backpack--people tend to reuse plastic bags a lot less while they're away from home. And remember that souvenirs that look kitschy and fun on the shelf often end up in a landfill. Eat with a conscience Think about where the food on the menu actually comes from. Ask your waiter what's local and choose something produced nearby over something that had to be trucked in. Treat your hotel room like it's your own house Turn the lights off when you leave, and while you're at it, turn off the air-conditioning, too. It may mean 10 minutes of being uncomfortable upon your return, but you'll survive. The fact that you're not paying the hotel's water bill is no reason to let the faucet run when brushing your teeth. Reuse your towel You don't wash your towels and sheets every day at home, right? (If you do, maybe you should reconsider.) You don't need them changed daily when traveling, either. Tell the hotel that you're fine using linens a few days in a row. In many hotels, it's understood that if you fold your towel and hang it neatly, housekeeping won't replace it. But just to make sure, let housekeeping know by calling the front desk or leaving a note. The detachable card at right should help get the message across. Ditch the car Walking, riding a bike, and taking public transportation are all better than riding in a car. With the money saved foregoing taxis and rental cars, book a nice hotel within walking distance of the sites you want to see. Use rechargeable gadgets They have less environmental impact than ones that require disposable (alkaline) batteries. Should a device go haywire, don't just toss it in the trash. Batteries contain toxic materials, so you should recycle them when you get home. For recycling locations, go to rbrc.org or earth911.org. If you have the option, choose a digital camera: You'll print only the photos you actually want, and they use fewer chemicals than film cameras. Speak up! Hotels, resorts, airlines, and tour companies actually do read comments left by customers. So take a moment to scribble your disappointment in the recycling program--or lack thereof. And by all means, encourage companies doing the right thing to keep up the good work.

Hotel Reward Clubs Get Personal

A few months ago, I had to go to the Big Island of Hawaii for a last-minute assignment. I called the Fairmont Orchid to book a room for that evening. When the reservation agent asked for my President's Club number, I told her I wasn't a member. After all, I'm rarely lucky enough to stay in such luxurious digs, and I assumed there was an annual fee or some other requirement. The agent informed me that the lowest of Fairmont's three-tier memberships is complimentary, adding, "There are several in-hotel benefits available on your first stay after enrolling." In two minutes I was enrolled. The agent then asked, "Now what room item preferences would you like?" Preferences? The agent explained that I could opt for down or foam pillows, and either a lightweight comforter or a heavy bedspread. I could also have a half-dozen beach towels in my room, she said--that way, I wouldn't have to grab one at the pool every time I hit the beach. All of my selections were in place when I arrived later that day. I've since learned that it's pretty much always a good idea to sign up for a hotel's rewards program--even if you're not planning on staying with the chain more than once. Most programs are free and easy to join, and the perks begin during your first visit. Members of programs from major hotel companies like Hilton, Starwood, and Marriott have access to express check-in and checkout, a daily newspaper delivered to their rooms, late checkout, and a choice of pillow and bed types. In addition to the usual extras, Hyatt Gold Passport members can use the gym for free and cash checks of up to $250 per stay. Fairmont members receive free high-speed Internet connections and, though I didn't have the chance to take the company up on it during my assignment on the Big Island, a complimentary shoe shine. Even economy-brand programs have their perks: Red Roof Inn's RediCard members are allowed to pay by check and to fax five pages at no charge, and a free USA Today arrives daily. In the hopes of differentiating their programs from others, hotel executives have been stepping up with bonuses that are increasingly personalized. Wyndham's ByRequest program boasts 2.6 million members, each of whom fills out a preference form when joining. Wyndham then tailors rooms to guests' specifications, including their choice of newspaper and pillow. All members also receive gifts on arrival: bottled water, a snack, and a beverage--depending on the guest's requests, that might mean Diet Coke and peanut M&Ms or fresh fruit and a small bottle of chardonnay. It may seem obvious to travelers, but when Wyndham was creating the program, it consulted focus groups and market research to find out that guests want "to be remembered with customized service, like foam pillows in their rooms if they're allergic to feathers," says Kevin Rupert, Wyndham's vice president of marketing and strategy. "Others want a snack and drink waiting for them." To varying degrees, many rewards clubs now let guests customize their stay. Hilton HHonors members choose in advance which bonus gift they'd prefer--either two bottles of water, free breakfast at the hotel restaurant, or 750 extra points. With the Marriott Rewards program, members who request so can always stay on the ground floor (or a high floor) and in a room with a refrigerator. Marriott hotel personnel are also trained to note members' habits in their files; as a result, guests sometimes receive extra towels without having to ask. Omni Hotels, which operates 40 luxury properties in North America, keeps a profile of preferences for each of its 500,000 Select Guest members. Among other benefits, members receive two complimentary beverages--their choice, of course--every morning while staying in the hotel. In September, Omni inaugurated a Sensational Wednesdays program, with weekly giveaways for members of its Select Guest club. So far the gifts have included the semiliquid chocolate Lava Bar, Archive aromatherapy soap, and Worry Stones, which you hold and rub for relaxation. The gifts may not exactly be personalized, but members sure aren't complaining. Check out the perks Fairmont President's Club Your choice of down or foam pillows, free shoe shine Hilton HHonors Pick a gift: free breakfast, two bottles of water, or 750 bonus points Hyatt Gold Passport Free use of the gym, late checkout, checks of up to $250 cashed Marriott Rewards In-room refrigerator, express check-in, choice of pillows Omni Select Guest Turndown service, two free morning beverages, special gifts like chocolate and aromatherapy soap Red Roof Inn RediCard Fax five pages for free, OK to pay by check, free newspaper Wyndham ByRequest Handwritten welcome note, choice of snack (candy, fruit, cookies) and beverage (beer, wine, soda)

Trip Coach: November 14, 2006

Budget Travel editors: Welcome to this week's Trip Coach. Let's get to your questions! _______________________ Minneapolis, MN: Five girlfriends are going to San Diego in January. Any recommendations for us? Budget Travel editors: Yes! Head straight to the happening Gaslamp Quarter for cute boutiques, restored Victorian buildings, and many of the city's best and trendiest restaurants. You'll find sophisticated Mexican dishes at Candelas and Moroccan lamb skewers and Mediterranean fusion at the Solamar Hotel's Jsix. The nearby W Hotel doubles as a bona fide nightclub, with a velvet rope and a swinging scene on the second floor terrace beach bar--complete with a sand-covered floor. Explore Little Italy and Balboa Park, home of the world-class San Diego Zoo, a cluster of museums, a lily pond, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where you can catch a free concert on Sunday afternoons. The sprawling red-roofed Hotel del Coronado, made famous in Gene Wilder's Some Like It Hot, is just a short ride across the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. A trolley tour can take you there, too. The city's downtown is easily walkable and cabs, including popular pedi-cabs, are common; a car rental isn't necessary unless you want to venture off to places such as La Jolla. For more tips on how to make the most of your trip, check out our special Girlfriend Getaways magazine. _______________________ Chicago, IL: Three of my best girl friends and myself have decided to spend New Years Eve in London, England. We arrive on 12/29 and stay until 1/6/07. Besides ringing in the New Year, how do we find out what else is happening in London that week? We plan on visiting the usual tourist stops, but we would like to venture off the beaten path. Any suggestions? Budget Travel editors: When I was in London my friends and I relied on Time Out London. Every Wednesday a new edition of the exhaustive listing magazine goes on sale for £2.50. Also check out our London snap guides for information on where to eat, drink, sleep and play. As for off the beaten path, I enjoyed strolling through St. Katharine Docks and gawking at the expensive yachts I'd never be able to afford. The area's tree-lined streets are filled with places to eat and shop and its one place you can escape bustling, tourist-ridden London. _______________________ Dallas, TX: What is the best time of year to visit England and Ireland? Budget Travel editors: That totally depends on your definition of "best." If you're looking to save money, avoid the summer months of June, July, and August, when transatlantic airfares, car rental rates, and hotel prices across Europe are at their highest--plus popular destinations like London, Dublin, and the Ring of Kerry will be mobbed with tourist hordes. Stick to the shoulder seasons of April through May and mid-September through October when you'll most likely luck out with prices, weather, and crowds. _______________________ Oak Park, IL: I will be in London the last week of December. I noticed that there are some great day trips to Paris via train/chunnel. I just found out that the chunnel will be closed that week. Is their another reasonable way to get to Paris for a day? Budget Travel editors: With an ever-increasing number of low-cost carriers popping up throughout Europe, there's no reason why you can't fly easily--and affordably--around the continent. On easyJet, for example, flights from London's Luton airport to Charles de Gaulle in Paris start at $32 each way, departing on December 26, with one-way flights around the holidays rarely exceeding $55. For more information, visit easyjet.com. _______________________ Riverdale, MD: My wife and I are both in (electric) power wheelchairs...Do you have any information about accessible vacations? Budget Travel editors: There are a number of tour operators that specialize in accessible travel throughout the world. Depending on your ability and interest, one of these specialists just might have the right trip for you: Epic Enabled (011-27/21-782-9575, epic-enabled.com) runs wheelchair accessible safaris in South Africa; Jubilee Sailing Trust (011-44/23-8044-9108, jst.org.uk) operates sailing excursions in the Caribbean, U.S., and Europe on ships designed with wide decks; Wilderness Inquiry (612/676-9400, wildernessinquiry.org) books adventurous outdoor vacations, like canoeing the Florida Everglades; Colorado Discover Ability's Integrated Outdoor Adventures (970/268-5700, cdaioa.com) offers skiing trips for amputees in Colorado; and Handicapped Scuba Association International (949/498-4540, hsascuba.com) runs diving trips in the Caribbean. _______________________ Stoughton, WI: How to find a moderate price, safe, clean hotel in NYC (4/12/07 thru 4/15/07) for Self, wife, daughter and two teen-aged grandaughters? Budget Travel editors: Since there are five of you, look into a short-term apartment rental. New York Habitat or and CitySonnet have a good selection of apartments. Note that New York Habitat has a minimum stay of three nights; CitySonnet four nights. Or, try looking in the financial district, where hotels frequently offer weekend discounts (weekends are considered off-peak). The Exchange Hotel near South Street Seaport has undergone a complete and quite stylish renovation. Spring rates start at $259/night; suites are available from $329. Lastly, try HotelConxions, a New York City-based agency, which we recently wrote about here. HotelConxions recently announced that it would promise "exclusive deals" to customers who book over the phone through the end of the year (800/522-9991, hotelconxions.com). Although we found mixed results, it only reinforces that you need to shop around to ensure you're truly getting a deal. For more hotel ideas, check out our New York City Snap Guide, chock-full of places to sleep, eat, shop, and play. And read "My New York is Better Than Yours" for some places you musn't miss. _______________________

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