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One "STEP" Every American Can Take to Stay Safe Overseas

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 12, 2022
Lonely Planet - Paris, Ile-de-France
Lonely Planet

For the second year in a row, The U.S. Department of State has issued a worldwide travel alert just as the holiday season is approaching. Last December, of course, it was in response to the hostage crisis in Sydney. This year the alert cites the threat of attacks from ISIS/Daesh, Boko Haram, and isolated terrorists in the wake of recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali, and the downing by ISIS/Daesh of a Russian plane over Egypt.

Besides general common-sense travel tips, such as avoiding public demonstrations and crowded hubs and staying up-to-date on local news and warnings from the country or municipality you’re visiting, the State Department recommends one very concrete "step" every American travel can easily take: Sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive travel alerts, find help in an emergency, and use the Smart Traveler app to access maps and the locations of U.S. embassies. We want you to continue traveling, and we urge all Budget Travelers to enroll.

TALK TO US! Has the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or Smart Travel App helped you in an emergency overseas?

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Travel Tips

How to Skip the Longest Lines: Disney, Vegas, and More

This article was written by Stephanie Gaskell and originally appeared on Yahoo Travel. For many, the holidays are a time to do something special. But choosing to visit a popular tourist attraction means one thing—long lines. While it might seem like an occupational hazard, there are ways to skip the lines and avoid standing around with the masses. Here are some insider tips for getting VIP access. Let technology lead the way When it comes to skipping lines—there’s an app for that. In fact, there are several apps that will let you hire someone to stand in line for you. TaskRabbit is a service where you can hire people to do all kinds of tasks—including waiting in long lines (even at the DMV!). Another popular service is SameOleLineDudes, which currently only operates in New York City. But beware. Many businesses are pushing back against paid line-waiters. Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, which is famous for its lines around the block, recently banned professional line-waiters. Related: This Is How Much Time You Waste Standing in Line at Tourist Attractions Look for a pass Let’s say you’re trying to get into a major theme park where the lines are notoriously long. Many of them offer special packages that allow you to plan your trip in advance, so you don’t arrive to find yourself standing in line. Disney World has a Fastpass program that prints out a pass telling you exactly what time to come and enjoy the attraction. This frees you up to walk around or grab a bite in the meantime. Likewise, Sea World offers a service called Quick Queue Unlimited for just $19 that allows you to skip to the front of the line. Use your connections If you’re heading to the ritzy Las Vegas night club scene, there are a couple of ways to bypass the velvet ropes and get right in. One trick is to ask your concierge to book a reservation for you. As a local, they often have connections that can help you breeze right in, especially if a nice tip is involved. Another option for skipping lines is to purchase special passes through sites like Vegas.com or Best of Vegas. Related: Forget the Wait! 9 Ways to Spend Less Time in Line at Disney World Be a VIP If you decide to forego the Elvis impersonators and head to the real thing, Graceland, the home-turned-museum of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tenn., allows visitors to purchase VIP tickets to skip the crowds. The King would approve. Let’s say you’re heading somewhere more subdued like The Vatican, a place where millions of visitors flock each year. You can avoid long lines here by buying a “fast-track” ticket through a travel agency, like Viator, which offers packages that let you bypass the lines at the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms, and St. David’s. The lines at the Empire State Building are almost as vast as the views. Cut to the front by purchasing a VIP Main Deck Experience package that will take you right to the 86th floor observation deck with no waiting. Now that you know the secrets, get out there and enjoy the sites without waiting. And once you’re at the front of the line, look for us…we want cutsies!

Travel Tips

Vancouver: Tim Zagat dishes travel tips

In synch with the Winter Olympics, Zagat has released its latest Vancouver guide. The 2010 Vancouver survey covers ratings and reviews for 298 of the area's finest restaurants, hotels, nightspots, and attractions, including locations in Vancouver, Whistler, Vancouver Island, and Victoria. As usual, the guide shows the cost of each establishment, spotlighting the best values. I recently interviewed via e-mail Tim Zagat, cofounder with Nina Zagat of Zagat Survey. He shared the latest travel recommendations for Vancouver. What's new to eat in Vancouver? According to surveyors, Maenam, a reasonably-priced Thai restaurant located on the West Side is the top newcomer. Other exciting fresh faces include the affordable French Au Petit Chavignol, Downtown's Cibo, West End's Nook, and Les Faux Bourgeois on the East Side. Vancouver surveyors also report a revival by Spanish-style tapas specialists like Mis Trucos and Café Barcelona. What are Zagat's top bang for the buck restaurants in Vancouver? In order: 1. Nat's New York Pizzeria 2. Pajo's 3. Go Fish Ocean Emporium 4. Vera's Burger 5. Tomahawk Barbecue 6. Café Medina 7. Saravanaa Bhavan 8. Nuba Restaurant/Café 9. Vij's Rangoli 10. Gyoza King Where are the most affordable excellent restaurants in Vancouver? The West Side has become the focus for not only new restaurants, but for great values. While some top restaurants have opened affordable "siblings" on the West Side—including Trattoria Italian Kitchen (sibling of Italian Kitchen)—meanwhile, Fuel, has scaled back to re-open as refuel, with a more moderately priced menu, joining a trend among some other eateries. Biggest change in a Zagat rating for any one property/restaurant, that's eye-catching, from a previous edition? Blue Water Cafe & Raw Bar appears to have made a prominent jump into the Top 10 on our Top Food list and Top 5 on our Most Popular list for Vancouver restaurants. Has there been any overall trend in how people have been rating restaurants? The current state of the economy has certainly left surveyors more focused on how to get the best meal at the best value. But, in terms of categories, we've continued to see service as an industry weak-link, with 79 percent of surveyors making it their top restaurant complaint. We've found that more surveyors are voting via their mobile phones, too. Any other must-see sights in Vancouver, beyond the Olympics? Perhaps some of the Olympic venues post-Olympics? According to surveyors, the most popular attractions in Vancouver include: 1) Stanley Park 2) Vancouver Aquarium 3) Museum of Anthropology at UBC 4) Capilano Bridge 5) Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden ZAGAT is offering free access to the Vancouver book through the microsite zagat.com/olympics MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL My Town: Vancouver Canada's Secret Slopes

Travel Tips

New York City: Get a taxi in a jiff

There are thousands of cabs on the streets of New York City, right? Hard to believe when you're stranded at Grand Central Terminal on a Saturday night, in the rain, with a big suitcase*. But thanks to a recent study, there's now some scientific data—and a smartphone app—based on the day-to-day flow of taxi cabs in this vibrant city. The NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, the agency that regulates the city's yellow cabs, used GPS to track taxi pickup locations during a six-month period in 2009, resulting in data for 90 million real rides (who knows, maybe you were one of them?). Sense Networks, a software analyst company in the city, took the data and created a free app, CabSense, that was released earlier this month for iPhone and Android phones. The app will come in handy if you're visiting the city and a bit marooned—CabSense will map your location and then show you the nearby corners where you are most likely to hail a cab. You can also use the "Time Slider" to plan trips ahead of time—ideal for that mad airport rush at 4 p.m. The New York Times also took some of the data and created a cool interactive map that shows the taxi patterns across Manhattan during a typical week. Where do cabs pick up most? Penn Station, a major hub for New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, and many subway lines. The city's taxi system is a hot-button topic right now: Back in March, the Taxi & Limousine Commission announced that about 3,000 cab drivers had routinely gouged passengers over two years, costing each one between $4 and $5 per trip. The TLC said drivers were flipping the wrong switch on their meters, kicking in higher out-of-town rates. But drivers hit back, arguing that the meters were often hard to read and that the accusation was unfair because the sample size in the report was too small. The argument is ongoing. In other news, the commission also recently launched a taxi-sharing program. For more on taxi cabs, including a nice list of FAQs and a Bill of Rights, see the TLC's website. *Scenario based on actual, personal events. Oh, and it was cold.

Travel Tips

San Francisco: A veteran cable car driver's best tips

Leonard Oats, a driver on San Francisco's cable car lines, has been riding the rails along Hyde Street for the past decade. Oats is also the multi-year champion of the cable car bell ringing contest, which draws crowds to Union Square every summer. Drivers are judged on rhythm, originality, and style—and there's even a category for amateurs. Try your hand at ringing an iconic cable car bell on Thursday, June 17, at the 48th annual contest. Oats drives on the Powell-Hyde line, possibly the city's most famous, which traverses the steepest hills from Powell in Union Square north to Fisherman's Wharf, going by landmarks like Lombard Street. We caught up with him to ask him some tips on how to get the most out of riding the cable cars—because he would know! What are your favorite parts of the job? The challenge of driving the car on the hills; getting to meet people from all over the world; and everyday getting to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean. It's a great view and a beautiful city. I love it. What's the best stretch of your route? Lombard Street is by far your best view all the way down. You can see Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and Berkeley. Where's the best seat? When you're going down to the water on Hyde Street, the right side is the best if you want to see it all. On the left side, all you see is the Golden Gate Bridge. But remember, when you sit down, there might be people in front of you, so try to get on early. What's the best way to avoid the lines? The secret is, unless you absolutely have to have a seat, you can walk one block up from the turnarounds (like the one at Powell and Market streets, or the one at Bay street and Fisherman's Wharf) and get on there, where it's less crowded. That's what the locals do. [Editor's note: Very few locals actually take cable cars—they offer scenic views but are not very efficient.] Should people tip the driver? You certain don't have to, but we can accept tips. Just make it clear that you're offering a tip and not the fare. What mistakes or faux pas do people make? People make a lot of mistakes. First, you should pay the conductor in the back and not the driver in the front—I'm trying to drive! A lot of people think the cable cars are like a ride at Disneyland, but it's not. You have to be safe. When you get on, take off your backpack and put it by your feet. Otherwise, if it's sticking out of the car, it can get stuck on something and pull you right off. Believe me, it's happened. I think folks see people leaning out of the cars in the movies, but it can be dangerous. Locals do ride by "hanging off", but that just means they stand on the side. What are the best sites for visitors to see? A lot of people really like Alcatraz. I haven't gone, but my wife has, and she said it is scary. I was a sheriff before this and worked in a jail, so I don't really need to see another prison. But I do really enjoy the ferry trip over to Tiburon, where you can see the city from the water. I also like going to Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in the city. A lot of tourists don't know about it because it's a little bit tough to get to. But there are some city bus tours that go up there now, or you if you've rented a car, it's worth a stop.