15 Things You Didn't Know About Ireland

By Kathleen M. Mangan
March 12, 2012
Courtesy <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/visentico/917531303/" target="_blank">visentico/Flickr</a>
Literature buffs, golf nuts, and Guinness fans all have good reason to book an Ireland vacation—and they do, by the millions every year. But how well do you know this iconic spot? Take this quiz to test your knowledge of the Emerald Isle!

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11 New Hotel Wonders

If the best architecture aims at eternity, to paraphrase famed English architect Christopher Wren, then these new hotels are bound to be immortal. The 11 hotels on our list all opened within the last four years, and each is an example of awe-inspiring design in its own right. You can stay in a wave-like skyscraper in Chicago, a stack of cantilevered cubes in Portugal, or a hotel tucked into the wild cliffs of an Australian island. And, even better, it won't cost a fortune to spend a night in these architectural wonders. Seven of the 11 are under $200 a night. SEE THE WORLD'S MOST AMAZING NEW HOTELS 1. BELLA SKY COMWELL  Copenhagen, DenmarkThe two structures that make up the Bella Sky each incline at a slightly different angle. Or as the architects sweetly put it, the towers are drawn to each other, "yet seem a little shy." In fact, the creative use of angles is employed both inside the property and out—geometric angles give the exterior a filigreed look, while inside the hotel there are rooms where there are no 90-degrees at all (there are over 200 different room shapes in the 812-room hotel). The location, in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Orestad five miles from the city center, actually inspired the leaning-tower design. The buildings are so close to the airport that height restrictions dictate that they must not exceed 246 feet. 011-45/3247-3000, bellaskycomwell.dk, from $155 per night. 2. JUMEIRAH AT ETIHAD TOWERS HOTEL  Abu DhabiQueensland architecture firm DBI Design won the World's Leading New Hotel Award for 2011 for this stunning $1 billion residential and retail center. The complex is made up of five towers on a beachside stretch on a peninsula in Abu Dhabi. Constructing the buildings that now dominate the modern skyline posed structural challenges. The towers all curve, meaning each floor slab is a different shape. The 382-room Jumeirah hotel takes up 66 stories of one of the towers. 888/645-5697, jumeirah.com, from $192 per night. 3. HOTEL CONSOLACIÓN  Teruel, SpainPerched atop a ridge, this collection of 10 freestanding, wood-clad modernist cubes, or "Kube" suites, opened in 2009. Located in the rural mountain town of Teruel (a three-hour drive from both Barcelona and Valencia), the sleek cubes create a beautiful juxtaposition with the groves of olive and almond trees that surround them. Each suite has a sliding glass wall that opens onto a private terrace, and, inside, sparse interiors combine slate, copper-treated pine, and metal sheeting. The hotel incorporates some classic elements as well: a converted 14th-century hermitage serves as a communal area for guests. 011-34-978/85-67-55, consolacion.com.es, from $185 per night. 4. SOUTHERN OCEAN LODGE  Kangaroo Island, Australia Architect Max Pritchard designed this lodge to blend into the dramatic surroundings of Kangaroo Island. Tucked back behind cliffs, the hotel opened in 2008 and consists of 21 suites cascading down a windswept slope, following the natural curve of the land, each with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and sweeping views of the Southern Ocean. Suites were constructed from lightweight materials—steel screw piles, timber framing, iron cladding—that could be carried in to create minimal disturbance to nature, and which also could handle the challenge of building on precarious soil conditions (several feet of sand atop solid limestone). Inside are environmentally sound sandblasted limestone floors and recycled spotted-gum walls. The off-the-grid location led to innovations such as sculptural containers for collecting rainwater. 931/924-5253, southernoceanlodge.com.au, from $1,000 per person, per night with a two-night minimum. 5. MARINA BAY SANDS  SingaporeThis trio of 55-story towers opened in 2010 and hold an incredible 2,561 hotel rooms, plus a museum, casino, convention center, waterfront promenade, shops, and restaurants. Architect Moshe Safdie has said that his challenge "was to create a vital public place at the district-urban scale-in other words, to address the issue of megascale and invent an urban landscape that would work at the human scale." His way of dealing with that was to design the complex around two central axes to give a sense of orientation. The towers are connected at the top by the cantilevered, two-and-a-half-acre SkyPark, home to gardens, 250 trees, a public observatory and a 492-foot swimming pool—all perched high in the sky like a fantastical cruise ship forever suspended in midair. 011-65/6688-8868, marinabaysands.com, from $350 per night. 6. YAS VICEROY HOTEL  Abu Dhabi This 499-room hotel was the first to be built straddling a Formula 1 racetrack (it opened in 2009 and was renovated in 2011 to become a Viceroy). The structure consists of a pair of 12-story towers joined by a sweeping, 700-foot curvilinear skin of glass and steel—actually 5,800 pivoting, diamond-shaped glass panels that reflect the sky by day and are illuminated up by an LED system at night. The architects' aim was to reflect artistry and geometries associated with ancient Islamic art and craft traditions, and from a distance the panels create the appearance of a spectacular veil. 888/622-4567, viceroyhotelsandresorts.com; from about $210 per night. 7. RADISSON BLU WATERFRONT HOTEL  Stockholm, SwedenThe piece de resistance at this 414-room hotel of white polished stone and rough black stone is its attached conference center—a glass structure with an exterior made up of 13 miles of semi-transparent stainless steel rods. They reflect the sky and water, radically change the skyline, and are what architect Hans Forsmark describes as "a reminiscence of the Nordic Light." The interiors of the hotel, which opened in 2011, follow straight lines and geometric precision. 800/333-3333, radissonblu.com, from $155 per night. 8. AXIS VIANA HOTEL  Viana do Castelo, Portugal The 88-room Axis Viana Hotel was a striking addition to the folkloric village of Viana do Castelo when it opened in 2008. The exterior is made up of reflective aluminum, black glass, and green stone, and the cantilevered design changes the shape of the hotel depending upon your vantage point. The contrasting interior consists of white finishes and materials including wood and stone. It's all edged by a shimmering outdoor pool and surrounded by views of the Lima River and Mount St. Luzia. 011-351/258-802-000, axishoteis.com, from $100 per night. 9.HÔTEL AMERICANO  New York, New York The 10-story Americano sits on the site of a former parking garage in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Neighbors were likely pleased with the swap when the hotel opened in 2011. The building looks like a massive metal sculpture—perfect for the gallery-filled neighborhood—with floors connected by catwalks and wrapped with stainless-steel mesh. The industrial façade holds 56 rooms plus two restaurants, a lobby café and two basement bars; for urban escape, there is a roof deck with a pool, bar, and peaceful garden terrace. 212/216-0000, hotel-americano.com, from $295 per night. 10. MIURA HOTEL  Celadná, Czech Republic Rising like a geometric spaceship in the Beskydy Mountains is this distinctive hotel made of concrete, sheet metal, violet glass, Corian, and stone. Miura opened in 2011 and is divided into three parts, one of which seems to levitate above the ground, plus two side wings containing the 44 rooms. The arrangement means that all of the rooms have views of the surrounding mountains. The striking hotel also has an impressive art collection, with works by Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Czech sculptor David Černý. Known for his large-scale installations, Černý's works here include an almost 30-foot-tall stainless-steel man pushing against the exterior of the hotel. 011-420/558-761-100, www.miura.cz, from $126 per night. 11. RADISSON BLU AQUA HOTEL  Chicago, Illinois Architect Jeanne Gang literally made waves in a city full of iconic skyscrapers with her showstopper building. The 82-story glass structure's exterior has undulating concrete balconies resembling the swirls and ripples of nearby Lake Michigan. Such a unique design brought with it a unique construction challenge—each floor plate is a different shape, which means a different concrete pour was required for every story. To manage it, the concrete was poured into a specially designed flexible metal edge that was reused over and over again—an important detail for green architecture. Much of the building is designated for private residences, but the 334-room Radisson Blu Aqua opened on 18 floors in November 2011. 312/565-5258, radissonbluchicago.com, from $175 per night.   SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 12 Elevators You Have to See to BelieveWorld's 16 Most Picturesque Villages15 International Food Etiquette Rules the Might Surprise You12 Hot Springs Worth Traveling For


The 14 Most Beautiful Home and Garden Tours in America

You might think home and garden tours are merely a superficial pleasure (the kind Grandma might enjoy), but you're only half right. Sure, these estates offer their fair share of sensory pleasures—the scent of blossoming flowers, the gurgle of fountains, the warmth of the sunshine as you traverse the grounds—but their beauty is far from skin-deep. To make our list, a property had to be as interesting as it is beautiful, and the result is a collection of homes with real stories to tell. A Georgian Revival mansion that housed descendants of Abraham Lincoln, a palatial, Charles II-style mansion so striking that three classic Hollywood films were shot there—these are the kinds of places you'll still be talking about long after you've left. And then there are the gardens—romantic, Italian-inspired grounds, tropical forests, the gardening world's versions of the Mona Lisa and David. Yes, Grandma would like these places, but who wouldn't? 1. FILOLI, WOODSIDE, CALIFORNIA Husband-and-wife gold-mine owners built this Georgian-inspired 36,000-square-foot house between 1915 and 1917, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. But the property's star feature is the 16-acre English Renaissance garden, which was completed in 1929. The 654-acre Filoli estate is known for its bonsai and magnolia collections, as well as the largest heirloom orchard in private hands in the United States. Best time to visit: In February through August on the fourth Wednesday of every month (and the third Wednesday in September and October), Filoli hosts afternoon teas, where visitors snack on scones with fresh lemon curd and sip tea out of china cups. Open Tuesdays-Sundays (except holidays) until October 21 in 2012, 86 Cañada Rd., 650/364-8300, filoli.org, admission $15, tea $45 (including admission). 2. HILDENE, MANCHESTER, VERMONT The 107-year-old Hildene is a must-see for presidential-history buffs: After all, it was built by Robert Lincoln, the only son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive into adulthood. Set on a promontory 300 feet above the Battenkill Valley in Vermont's southwest corner, the Georgian Revival mansion housed descendants of the president until 1975 and still contains Lincoln family heirlooms, such as a 1,000-pipe organ installed in 1908, as well as one of only three of the President's iconic stovepipe hats in existence today. Hildene's gardens are notable for their multi-colored flowers, including more than 1,000 peony blooms, planted to resemble a cathedral-style stained-glass window. Best time to visit: Mid-June marks the start of peony season; visit the Hoyt Garden to see Hildene's massive collection of the flowers (many from the original plantings) in bloom. Open daily (except for major holidays), 1005 Hildene Rd., 800/578-1788, hildene.org, admission $16. 3. VILLA TERRACE DECORATIVE ARTS MUSEUM, MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN Built in 1923, the Villa Terrace was once owned by Lloyd Smith, president of the A.O. Smith Corporation, which made bicycle parts, hot water heaters, and later heavy munitions during World War II. The place now serves as a decorative arts museum, housing pieces from the 15th to the 18th centuries, including an extensive collection of artisan iron crafts. The estate's grounds, which overlook Lake Michigan, are known for the Renaissance Garden, which was modeled after 16th-century Tuscany and restored in 2002. Highlights include bushes that sprout culinary and medicinal herbs and the Scaletta d'Aqua, a water stairway that flows down past three terraces of crab apple trees into a fishpond.Best time to visit: Every year, on the first Sunday in June, the Renaissance Garden celebrates its official opening with free admission. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., 414/271-3656, villaterracemuseum.org, admission $5. 4. MONTICELLO, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA Designed by Thomas Jefferson in the neoclassical style, this plantation home sits on a mountaintop 70 miles northwest of Richmond. From oval flowerbeds to winding paths, Jefferson designed every fruit, vegetable, and flower garden over two centuries ago. Today, those gardens are planted up to three times per year to let seasonal flowers shine, including bee balm and calendula. Don't miss the home itself, where you can see Jefferson's 18th-century furniture, books, and gadgets such as the polygraph, a device which used pens and ink to make exact duplicates of his letters as he wrote them.Best time to visit: Spring and early summer bring the prettiest blossoms. Vibrant tulips reign late April; ornamental Sweet William and delicate Canterbury bells bloom in May. Open daily except Christmas, 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, 434/984-9822, monticello.org, admission $17-$24 (depending on the season). 5. BILTMORE ESTATE, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA Set against the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Vanderbilt's 250-room chateau-style estate ranks as the largest private home in America. The 75 acres of formal and informal gardens—from a tree-specked shrub garden with meandering paths to a manicured Italian garden dotted with pools—were designed by master landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for creating New York City's Central Park. There's also a conservatory filled with tropical plants and a rose garden, which houses more than 250 varieties of the flower.Best time to visit: During the annual Festival of Flowers (April 7-May 20), Biltmore's gardens burst with color as tulips and azaleas start to bloom. Open 365 days a year, 1 Lodge St., 800/411-3812, biltmore.com, admission varies by season and ranges from $35-$64. 6. BARTRAM'S GARDEN, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA Located less than 15 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, this 45-acre farmstead's bucolic vibe belies its urban surroundings. Not only do the grounds hold native species of ferns, wildflowers, and trees, including America's oldest gingko, but they're also home to the country's oldest living botanical garden, which botanist John Bartram started in 1728. Best time to visit: In past springs, boats to Bartram's have departed from Philadelphia's Central City, though prices and dates have not been set for this year. After a cruise down the Schuylkill River, visitors are led on a tour of Bartram's grounds. Open year-round (except holidays), 54th St. and Lindbergh Blvd., 215/729-5281, bartramsgarden.org, admission $10; boat tour tickets available at schuylkillbankstours.tix.com. 7. MAGNOLIA PLANTATION & GARDENS, CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA A former slave plantation established in 1679, Magnolia contains America's oldest public gardens. They were constructed in 1840 by John Grimké Drayton, the original estate owner's great-great grandson, and opened to visitors three decades later. Today, the English-style gardens feature winding paths lined with native azaleas (Grimké Drayton is said to have introduced the flower to the U.S.) and antique camellias, as well as a pre-Revolution-era plantation house and a petting zoo with African pygmy goats and whitetail deer.Best time to visit: Magnolia is known for its azalea collection—the biggest in the U.S.—so go in late March or early April when the flowers start to pop. Open year-round, 3550 Ashley River Rd., 800/367-3517, magnoliaplantation.com, admission $10. 8. VIZCAYA MUSEUM AND GARDENS, MIAMI Biscayne Bay glitters just beyond the 10 acres of European-inspired gardens and native forest at Vizcaya, an opulent, European-style villa built in 1916 as a winter home for agricultural industrialist James Deering. The mansion-turned-museum houses international antiques and art from the 15th through 19th centuries. But the real scene-stealer is the outdoor sculpture garden, which features artifacts like a Roman altar from the second century AD and the 290-year-old Sutri Fountain, imported from Italy especially by Deering.Best time to visit: Romantics will dig Vizcaya's moonlight garden tours, which offer live music and a chance to gaze at flowers under the stars and are scheduled around full moons. Check the website for dates. Open daily (except Tuesdays and Thanksgiving/Christmas), 3251 South Miami Ave., 305/250-9133, vizcayamuseum.org, admission $15. 9. NAUMKEAG, STOCKBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS This Gilded-Age mansion in the Berkshires was completed in 1886 as a summer retreat for prominent New York attorney Joseph Choate and his family. The 44-room house—which contains the Choates' furniture and artwork from Europe and Asia—sits among 10 acres of terraced gardens designed by America's first Modernist landscape architect, Fletcher Steele. Of particular note are the Blue Steps, four tiers of fountain pools surrounded by a grove of white birches.Best time to visit: The fall foliage in the Berkshires is considered some of the most stunning anywhere in America. The leaves hit their peak in October so head to Naumkeag as close to the end of the season as possible to see the leaves beginning to turn. Open daily, Memorial Day through Columbus Day, 5 Prospect Hill Rd., 413/298-3239, thetrustees.org, admission $15. 10. OLD WESTBURY GARDENS, OLD WESTBURY, NEW YORK Hollywood has made good use of this palatial, Charles II-style mansion on Long Island's Gold Coast: North By Northwest, The Age of Innocence, and Cruel Intentions were all shot here. The estate was built between 1904 and 1906 for financier and lawyer John S. Phipps, with elements borrowed from classic British country estates and the medieval Battle Abbey. The collections of English antiques, American furnishings, and Chinese porcelain were amassed over the family's 50-year residence. Westbury House sits on a 200-acre property that once held a number of Quaker farms, surrounded by eight formal gardens, plus wooded paths, ponds, and more than 100 species of trees.Best time to visit: Over 40 flower varieties (from lilacs to irises to tropical water lilies) bloom April through July, but leaf-peeping is a must in October, when Westbury's grounds burst with bold red, orange, and yellow fall foliage. Open daily (except Tuesdays), April 30 through October 31, 71 Old Westbury Rd., 516/333-0048, oldwestburygardens.org, admission $10. 11. HERMANN-GRIMA, NEW ORLEANS Built in 1831 by a German-Jewish immigrant, who made his fortune in cotton, the pink-bricked Hermann-Grima house—which still includes its original mahogany dining table and hurricane shades—contains the only horse stable and functional outdoor kitchen in the French Quarter. Outside, the grounds include Versailles-inspired ornamental parterre filled with antique roses and citrus trees.Best time to visit: Every October, Hermann-Grima commemorates 19th-century Creole mourning rituals with a "celebration" called Sacred to the Memory. The house is draped in black crepe, and a coffin is stationed in its parlor. It's morbid, sure, but it also happens to be the house's most popular annual event—and the closest you'll get to reenacting a scene from 1800s New Orleans. Open Monday-Saturday, 820 Saint Louis St., 504/525-5661, hgghh.org, admission $12. 12. GREEN ANIMALS TOPIARY GARDEN, PORTSMOUTH, RHODE ISLAND Have you ever seen a tree that looks like a teddy bear, or a reindeer, or a unicorn? You will at Green Animals Topiary Garden, one of the oldest of its kind in the country. Here, more than 80 plants (including California privet, yew, and English boxwood) have been clipped to resemble mammals, birds, and geometric shapes. The garden, which sits on seven acres overlooking Naragansett Bay, shares its land with a rose arbor and fruit trees. The grounds also include a white clapboard house that cotton manufacturer Thomas Brayton bought in 1872—a charmingly meager counterpoint to the ostentatious mansions of Newport, about 10 miles south of here.Best time to visit: Summertime at Green Animals brings sensory overload: The herb gardens are fragrant, the on-site orchards brim with fruit, and Naragansett Bay is guaranteed to be a picturesque shade of blue. Open May 12-October 8, 380 Cory's Ln., 401/847-1000, newportmansions.org, admission $14.50. 13. HISTORIC DEEPWOOD ESTATE, SALEM, OREGON The 4.2 acres of formal English gardens and nature trails at Deepwood—a multi-gabled, Queen Anne Victorian home built in 1894—were designed by Lord & Schryver, the Northwest's first female landscape architecture team. The gardens, which are surrounded by the Rita Steiner Nature Trail, are full of romantic touches: gazebos, ivy-covered arbors, and fleur-de-lis-adorned gates.Best time to visit: TheDeepwood Wine & Jazz Fest takes place in the estate's gardens on June 30; for $10, guests can stroll among the flowers while jamming out to local musicians. Oregon wine and gourmet snacks are on hand, too. Open daily (except Tuesdays), May 1-October 15; open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, October 16-April 30, 1116 Mission St. SE, 503/363-1825, historicdeepwoodestate.org, admission $4, though access to the grounds is free. 14. TALIESIN WEST, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and studio, where he lived from 1937 until his death in 1959, sits at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in the Sonoran Desert. (The 550-acre property is now the main campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the international headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.) The house, considered to be one of the architect's masterpieces for touches like the cabaret theater and shaded pool, was constructed with native materials such as desert rocks, and its translucent roof and slanted windows let natural light flood in. Wright was so energized and reinvigorated by Taliesin's desert landscape that he designed some of his most renowned buildings, like New York's Guggenheim Museum, in the abode's drafting room. Outside, the grounds include a sculpture garden filled with bronze statues and desert plants.Best time to visit: The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Taliesin, and the milestone is being celebrated throughout the year with a series of symposiums, fundraisers, and concerts (check website for dates). If you want to skip the fanfare, sign up for the Night Lights tour, which runs Fridays from February through October. The two-hour trek starts at twilight and lets you experience Taliesin's grounds under the dusky desert sky. Open daily (except major holidays), 12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., 480/627-5340, franklloydwright.org, admission varies by tour ($18-$60), Night Lights, $35. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 15 International Food Etiquette Rules That Might Surprise You To Go or Not to Go: 11 Places With a Bad Rap Secrets of the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports World's 16 Most Picturesque Villages How to Do America's Most Scenic Drive—Without the Traffic

Upgrade Secrets from the Experts!

I have a long, transcontinental flight coming up. I dread being cramped in a coach seat, but I can't afford first class. What are my chances of getting bumped up for free? They're actually better now than ever. To cut costs, some U.S. airlines have been offering fewer flights in recent years, and coach can be overbooked. If a carrier bumps passengers, it's frequently required to provide either a substitute flight or a refund or both, per government regulations. The airline may not want to bump people if first-class seats are available. So how do carriers select the lucky few who get ferried to first class? It's all about the miles. Computers track frequent-flier and program miles and upgrade passengers automatically, based on who has earned the most. About 95 percent of those in first class on domestic flights last year were upgraded or used frequent-flier miles (sometimes with an additional fee), according to Joel Widzer, author of The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel. But you need a lot of miles to qualify: Delta requires you to fly at least 25,000 a year to qualify for its entry-level Silver Medallion level. On the other hand, you can sometimes find upgrade certificates for sale online, courtesy of frequent fliers who can't use them before their expiration date. For instance, some United/Continental vouchers on eBay start with bids as low as $1. But even if you don't travel often, simply being a member of the airline's frequent-flier program helps your chances. It indicates some level of brand loyalty. Having an airline-sponsored credit card in your name helps, too, though those may come with hefty annual fees. Does dressing up so that you look like you'd belong in first class improve your chances of getting upgraded? Looking polished helps, but not as much as it once did. There's one outfit that seems to work better than even the finest couture: a military uniform. In the past few years, it's not unusual to see a first-class passenger give up his or her seat for military personnel. Any other tips for flights? Remember that gate agents deal with a lot of demanding, obnoxious passengers, and offering a few kind words and a smile goes a long way. John E. DiScala, founder of travel-advice site johnnyjet.com, reveals that chocolate helps him get upgraded-or at least moved to a better coach seat-about half the time. DiScala says he brings one-pound chocolate bars for the gate agents and flight crew, who have discretion on seating after the cabin door closes. Some people swear by the sob- or celebration-story strategy. Personally, I wouldn't go this route unless you really are a newlywed, on your way to a funeral, etc. Karma, you know. Showing up late might work, but it's risky. A man sitting next to me once in business class on Air New Zealand was huffing and puffing-he confessed to being intentionally late for every international flight, because then they rush you on the plane and into any available seat. Of course, the downside is you'll be turned away if the flight is already full. One big  upgrade advantage is flying solo. Airlines try to put families together, and they may need your coach seat to do that. Chances are there's only one empty seat in first or business class. Finally, before you book the flight, you may want to consider trading in your frequent-flier miles for an upgrade, though the numbers may be steep: On Delta, it takes 10,000 miles for an upgrade on domestic round-trip tickets and 30,000 miles for flights from the U.S. to Europe-but that's not applicable on certain discount fares. That said, there are more opportunities now than ever to earn frequent-flier miles, not only by traveling but also through credit cards, hotel stays, car rentals, and online shopping sites. "When you consider that one can earn three points per $1 spent on a credit card, 10,000 miles seems less daunting," Widzer points out. A friend of mine ended up getting upgraded to a suite at a hotel in Vegas. She's not a high roller, so how did she land that freebie? Just as with airlines, brand loyalty really helps. If you're visiting a chain hotel, sign up for its frequent-traveler program. Also, according to Widzer, you're more likely to get upgraded if you book directly with the property, on the hotel's website or by phone, rather than with a third party, such as hotels.com. "Booking direct is by far the biggest thing you can do to get an upgrade," Widzer advises. If you see a lower price online, call the hotel and ask them to match it. Unlike with the airlines, however, you are most likely to get a hotel upgrade if you travel during a low-occupancy time, such as weekends at business-oriented hotels. When vacant suites are available, the hotel may bump you up, hoping to impress you and gain future business. You also may have better luck at a new property that's angling to create good word of mouth. The time of day matters, too. It helps to check in later, once the hotel has a better handle on its occupancy for the night. If you arrive at 8 p.m. and their suites still aren't full, they may upgrade you for free or for very little, since few new guests are likely to come and pay for them. Another strategy DiScala says has worked for him: Befriend the bellman. "I visited Vegas at a not-busy time once and tipped the bellman well," he says, "so he gave me a free upgrade." The same tactic may work with the concierge. What about rental cars? Is it true you're most likely to get upgraded if you book the cheapest car at first? Yes, and here's why: The cheapest rental cars tend to sell out first, leaving the company no choice but to upgrade you. That said, the check-in clerk may try to sell you an upgrade for a discounted fee. Say no. If they don't have the car you reserved, they usually give you a better model at no extra charge. Arrive early in the day, before most people return their cars, for the best shot. Loyalty also counts. Join a car-rental company's membership program, and you may get special offers for upgrades. You should also search online for coupons. The site carrentalupgrade.com is worth bookmarking, in particular. Some car-rental firms also run their own promotions for upgrades through organizations such as AARP and AAA. And always remember to ask: Politely requesting an upgrade is often the best, easiest bet. Reader's Best Upgrade Strategies What's it take to get out of the cheap seats? We asked BT readers to share their favorite upgrade strategies. Volunteer to Get Bumped: My flight from JFK to Amsterdam was over-booked and someone was in my seat. He was adamant: He wouldn't move. I was so embarrassed by his behavior that I told the flight attendant if I could catch my plane from Amsterdam to Glasgow I'd be OK getting bumped. After 15 minutes she said "follow me" and turned up a flight of stairs. I had never even seen first class before! —Cyndi Armstrong, South St. Paul, Minn. Speak in Romance Language: My hubby and I got upgraded to business class to Ireland for our honeymoon. We just mentioned the purpose of the trip during check-in and the flight attendant did it-no questions asked. Another time, we got upgraded to a suite at a Crowne Plaza because we mentioned we were there for Valentine's Day. It was a nice surprise, since we'd scored the hotel on Priceline for a song. —Caroline Dover Wilson, Greer, S.C. Rent at the End of the Week: Most compact and midsize cars are rented out early in the week to business travelers, so if you try to rent closer to the weekend, you have a good chance of getting upgraded because they are out of "business" cars by then. —Megan Cushman Dezendegui, Miami

8 Cool New Tools for Finding the Perfect Hotel

If you book hotels online, it's time to face facts: Your favorite travel website probably isn't cutting it. In the past decade, some of the best-known travel sites have lost their fastball. They're not as smart and nimble as the new kids on the Web that now have tools for smarter comparison shopping, searches for smaller B&amp;Bs and niche neighborhoods, and access to blocks of rooms reserved for its members. Before you try these, one word of caution: No single site is the be-all-and-end-of-all of hotel booking. We recommend using at least two search tools, such as your current favorite online travel agency and one of the hotel shopping engines we've named here, to max out your chances of nabbing the perfect room or upgrade. Happy shopping!   BackBid (backbid.com) Best for: Travelers who like the idea of hotel owners competing for their business. What it does: Hoteliers often hold back a handful of rooms to sell to last-minute guests, but they don't always fill them. You can book one of these rooms as they're released by logging on to BackBid, which enables hotels to sell rooms to travelers who already have confirmed bookings at rival properties. How it works: Book a refundable reservation at a hotel through your favorite website, and then create a free account at BackBid. Forward the email with your confirmed hotel reservation to the site, and it will shoot your reservation details—minus your credit card information—to dozens of hotels at your destination. BackBid will then share with you any counter-offers rival hotels may make, such as a comparable room at a lower rate. Recent steal: In a test, an editor forwarded to BackBid a confirmation email for his $199 a night reservation at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Seattle. A day later, bids poured in from 17 Seattle hotels, which included a pitch from the Hilton Seattle, only 1.5 miles away and with better amenities, for a comparable room with a king size bed for $179 a night rate. All things considered, it's a reasonable inconvenience for a 10 percent or better savings. Snags: Launched in November 2011, the site remains limited to a few hundred properties in 20 major U.S. cities.   DealBase (dealbase.com) Best for: Travelers who want an independent source to vouch for the honesty of vacation package prices. What it does: Many hotels tout packages that include perks, such as valet parking and a spa treatment, claiming that the package prices represent deep discounts over buying the components separately. DealBase vets each package for its true value. How it works: Use DealBase to pick a hotel package at your destination, then click on the listing for a breakdown of the estimated costs of the package's components. (The site even publishes a list of the "worst" hotel deals.) Recent steal: In California, the Ventura Beach Marriott recently showcased a "Ventura Shopping Package" that came with a $50 Visa gift card, breakfast for two at the property's restaurant, valet parking, and a welcome gift, bookable any day of the week through 2012. DealBase highlighted the package, which it discovered on the hotel's site, and calculated that travelers could save a third off by booking the package instead of its parts one by one. DealBase showed how it did its math, noting the costs of the valet parking ($15), the breakfast ($60), and the welcome gift (containing a city map, some gourmet candy, and bottles of water) at $30. The site said the overall package represented a 36 percent discount off it's à la carte value. Snags: DealBase includes sponsored listings and identifies them as such. Readers have to take on faith that the site reviews all packages impartially, including ones it has been paid to mention.   HotelSweep (hotelsweep.com) Best for: Travelers who prefer staying at independently owned properties. What it does: Founded this year, HotelSweep lists more than 50,000 U.S. hotels, motels, B&amp;Bs, and guesthouses, scraping listings off countless websites. (A British version, hotelsweep.co.uk, does the same thing for lodging in the United Kingdom.) One of the perks of the site is that it lists mom-and-pop properties—places that generally aim to attract budget-conscious travelers, but are too small to afford the costs of being listed with multinational travel agencies. How it works: Punch your destination into HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool, and the site will fetch a quick-and-dirty list of properties, which you can sort by nightly rate or distance from a particular location. A Google Street View image of the property is provided, but it's up to you to take the next step and contact the managers and book a room. If that is too much work, HotelSweep also has a "live price comparison" tool, which is a standard booking engine powered by HotelsCombined.com, an Australian rival to Kayak, though it doesn't include all of the mom-and-pop listings that turn up in the "direct hotel search" tool. Recent steal: In a hunt for New York City lodging, HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool dug up more than a thousand properties. The cheapest listing was Hostelling International, a property with rates from $29 a night per person. Surprisingly, the hostel has earned decent user ratings and reviews with TripAdvisor and a review from Lonely Planet, even though Expedia hadn't heard of it. Snags: HotelSweep isn't vetting properties. It simply lists any place that has a Web presence. So, it puts you in hardcore "buyer beware" territory. Also, the live comparison tool doesn't include all the properties in the hotel search tool, so you might have to work harder to make a booking.   Hipmunk (hipmunk.com) Best for: Culture vultures and nightlife fans who want to stay in the buzziest neighborhoods. What it does: Previously a metasearch site for airfare, Hipmunk last year added hotels to its repertoire. One of its signature tricks is to allow a traveler to name his or her favorite interest, such as nightlife, shopping, and museum-hopping, and the site will filter its listings to only display hotels in neighborhoods with an especially high number of relevant venues, such as bars, boutiques, and museums. How it works: Run a search for a hotel like you would on any travel site, and Hipmunk retrieves real-time rates from booking sites, such as Orbitz, Getaroom, Hotels.com, HotelsCombined, and vacation rental platform Airbnb. Hipmunk also assigns an "ecstasy" rating to each hotel, based on an evaluation of the property's rates, amenities, and user reviews on TripAdvisor. Recent steal: A recent search for hotels in L.A. turned up dozens of hotels that Hipmunk gave high "ecstasy" scores. A click on a button labeled "nightlife" revealed a map with a downtown district near Pershing Square that has a dense concentration of clubs and bars. Clicking on the neighborhood on the map revealed a few properties with a high "ecstasy" rating, including the Miyako Hotel for $116 a night. Snags: The site is primarily map-driven, and people who find maps confusing might find Hipmunk equally off-putting.   Momondo (momondo.com) Best for: Travelers booking hotels overseas who have been disappointed by the selection on U.S.-based travel agencies. What it does: In 2010, Momondo, moved beyond being a flight metasearch engine and now lists hotels from major overseas hotel booking sites, such as Escapio and Hotelopia, which tend to be overlooked by U.S.-based travel sites like Expedia. It also includes an option to search for hostels. How it works: Like Kayak, you enter your search query, and the site draws up a list of rates from various online travel agencies and hotel sites. Recent steal: In a search this winter for hotels in Zurich, Momondo uncovered 185 hotels (and about 330 other types of lodging, such as hostels), compared with 133 hotels on Booking.com and 125 on Orbitz. Momondo put at the top of its search results properties with the most central locations, highest star ratings, lowest prices, and best user reviews. Its top pick: Hotel Rothaus, on Langstrasse in the city's entertainment district, with room rates from $104. Booking.com had the hotel buried in its search results for $140 a night on the same dates, and Orbitz had it for $139. Snags: Compared with American giants, such as Hotels.com and Priceline.com, Momondo wasn't great at finding hotels in the United States.   Room 77 (room77.com) Best for: Travelers whose priority is a room with the most amenities. What it does: Room 77 is unique in researching room-by-room amenities and floor plans for hundreds of three- to five-star hotels in about 30 North American, European, and Asian cities. It then facilitates booking a particular type of room. How it works: Room 77 works like a typical hotel search engine, only it goes into much greater detail about the amenities available in individual rooms at hotels, such as what the view might be from any given window. Guests who book directly through Room 77 can take advantage of its free "room concierge" feature, in which it contacts hotel managers on a guest's behalf to request a room matching his or her preferences, such as "connecting rooms" and "distance from elevators." There are no guarantees, but the site claims that its customers have a high satisfaction rate with its concierge service. Recent steal: A recent search on Room 77 for a hotel stay in Seattle turned up a list of properties, matched with their rates. One listing was for Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, and Room 77 included specific booking tips, such as the fact that rooms with numbers ending in 3 (i.e., 1003) above the tenth floor are among the most spacious and have some of the prettiest views. Room 77 also reveals blueprints of rooms, overlaid on a Google map. Clicking on the silhouette of room 1105 at the Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, for instance, reveals that it is 28 feet from the elevator, has 300 square feet of space and a view of Puget Sound. Room 77 lists current rates through multiple websites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, including taxes and fees. Snags: The site only lists specific details for about 5,000 properties, most of which are from major U.S. chains. Room 77's room descriptions are also fairly generic and positive. For truly warts-and-all insights like "room smells of blow dryer and dead mouse," turn to TripAdvisor user-reviews.   Room Key (roomkey.com) Best for: Travelers who prefer the consistency and quality control of U.S.-owned chain hotels, and don't want to be distracted with information about other places. What it does: Seven hotel chains—Best Western, Choice Hotels (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn), Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo), Marriott, and Wyndham (Howard Johnson, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8)—are listing their rooms together in a new search engine. Unlike major online travel agencies like Expedia and Priceline, Room Key limits its selection to chains, eliminating most of the uncertainty about what kind of hotel you might end up with. How it works: Punch in your destination and travel dates and the site brings up a list of relevant hotels, which you can winnow down using the standard tools, such as distance, price, and star rating. When you decide to book, you're sent directly to a hotel owned website, where you'll need to enter your credit card number to book the room. Booking directly with the hotel cuts out the middleman and earns you customer loyalty points. Recent steal: In a recent search, the Hilton Atlanta turned up for $179 a night on Room Key, compared with $219 on Expedia, for the same dates and type of room. Snags: Only about 27,000 hotels—with limited international choices—are currently listed, compared with the more than 100,000 posted on the major online travel agencies.   YourRoomKey (yourroomkey.com) Best for: Travelers looking mostly for American business-type hotels. What it does: Finds the cheapest rooms at major-brand hotels located at America's largest airports and financial districts—and nearly nowhere else. How it works: This consolidator has access to rooms at a volume discount with major brands like Hyatt and Marriott at most major U.S. airports (especially Chicago, Denver, L.A., Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.). By only allowing members to see deals, the site is able to offer rates much lower than major chains and websites with lowest-price guarantees offered to the general public. Recent steal: A recent search on YourRoomKey for a room near Chicago's O'Hare Airport on less than a week's notice turned up a room at the Holiday Inn with a queen-size bed, free Internet, and a free airport shuttle ride, for $52 a night. A comparable room at the same hotel on the same date went for $97 on Kayak and $109 on Travelocity. Snags: You have to create an account with the site to be able to see any of its listings. Membership is free, but it can take a day or so to activate.   SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 12 Elevators You Need to See to Believe 15 Food Etiquette Rules That Might Surprise You Secret Hotels of Paris 21 Girl Trips You Absolutely Love A Coffee Addict's Guide to the World