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10 Endangered State Parks

By Valerie Rains
October 2, 2012
Valley and River at Blackwater Falls State Park West Virginia
Joseph Rossbach
They're beautiful, they're close to home, and they're steeped in history. But the best reason to vacation in one of our state parks? They're fast becoming an endangered species.

California's Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve has made big news twice in the past two years. The first time came in December 2010, when scientists thought they'd discovered an unusual form of bacteria that devoured arsenic while it lurked in the mud around the lake's knobby limestone spires. But it was the second headline, five months later, that was really scary. That was when California's state parks department announced that Mono Lake itself was about to be wiped out—though by a far more mundane force.

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Mono was one of 70 parks targeted by the state in an effort to cut $22 million from California's budget gap, which totaled $9.2 billion at the time. Also on the list: Jack London's former home and writing studio in Sonoma County and a handful of old-growth redwood forests along the northern coast. All told, California was talking about mothballing about 25 percent of its 278 parks. The news hasn't been much better elsewhere. New York, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Virginia, and Idaho have contemplated closing parks in recent years; Ohio has considered leasing some state park lands for oil and gas drilling to help raise money; and Virginia has explored corporate partnerships to keep park gates open.

What gets lost in this game of budgetary Russian roulette is how precious these lands can be. State parks, such as the ones you'll see here, often rival their national-park cousins in sheer beauty: Did you know that Niagara Falls is actually a New York state park? Last year, the nation's 6,624 state parks attracted 720 million visitors, more than twice what the national parks see, and they do it with almost $1 billion less in annual operating revenue. "Some states have had cuts of 30, 40, 50 percent or more in their operating budgets, and some budgets have been cut twice in one year," says Rich Dolesh, the vice president for conservation and parks at the National Recreation and Park Association.

Yet, true to their more-with-less ethos, state parks are finding imaginative ways to hang on. Michigan has seen some success selling annual passes to its parks system, and other states have made arrangements with communities and nonprofits to share the financial burden—at least for a while. In April 2012, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $89 million for repairs and improvements to his state's parks. As for California: As of press time, 65 of the 70 endangered parks had been temporarily spared—including Mono Lake—thanks to help from the communities that depend on them. They've cobbled together private donations, volunteer staffing, and funding by city and county governments and nonprofits to try to bridge the gaps. We may not be out of the woods yet, but we're certainly sniffing out the trail.

1. MONO LAKE TUFA STATE NATURAL RESERVE 

California

This park's namesake tufa towers, limestone formations that rise from its 65-square-mile lake, are impressive from wherever you're standing. But to fully apprecate them, you've got to approach like an osprey might: coming in low over the water. Can't fly? Then bring a canoe. Up close, the spires resemble white-chalk skyscrapers, a kind of surreal city that's visited by more than a million migratory birds each year. Just don't get too close to the ospreys themselves. From April through August, the birds nest on the towers, and it's forbidden to come within 200 yards.

Like anything else this old—the lake has been around for anywhere from 760,000 to 3 million years—Mono Lake endured its share of woe long before the latest California budget struggle. Between 1941 and 1981, Mono lost half its volume and doubled in salinity after four of its five tributaries were diverted to supplement Los Angeles's water supply. Even now, it's almost three times as salty as the ocean. Yet, thanks to the Mono Lake Committee, which rallied to reclaim those lost streams in 1978, the lake is slowly filling up again. And now that the nonprofit Bodie Foundation has stepped in to help keep Mono Lake open to the public, you'll be able to witness the lake's gradual climb back to a healthy level—however long that takes. Let's hope we can say the same for the rest of California's parks.

Where to Stay: There's no camping at Mono Lake, but you'll find a range of accommodations in Mammoth Lakes, a ski town 40 miles south. The pet-friendly Mammoth Creek Inn Hotel and Spa has a new spa and fitness center and 26 renovated rooms (themammothcreek.com, doubles from $109).

While You're There: You can't very well travel to Mono Lake and not tack on a visit to Yosemite National Park, just 13 miles west. Although, with nearly 12,000 square miles to explore, you'll need more than a brief detour to tackle it all (nps.gov, admission $20 per car).

How to Help: Make a donation to the Bodie Foundation, specifying that you'd like the money to go toward Mono Lake (bodiefoundation.org).

Park Info: 1 Visitor Center Drive, Lee Vining, Calif., 760/647-6331, parks.ca.gov, hours vary (call the park in advance to check), admission free, parking $3.

2. NIAGARA FALLS STATE PARK 

New York

Niagara Falls has an image problem. Really. Start with the fact that almost no one knows that this crown jewel of the state park system is a state park—not to mention that, at 127 years old, it's also the nation's oldest. The American side has long played second fiddle to the casino-and-hotel-lined Canadian section, due in part to New York State's $1 billion park-repairs deficit, which has left its falls in desperate need of pedestrian bridges, railings, walkways, and upgraded water and electrical systems. Last year, the New York Times had one word to describe the 400 acres surrounding Niagara: "shabby."

But even in reduced circumstances, Niagara is worth the trip. There's actual nature on the American side—it feels like a park, not a Vegas Strip knockoff. And that nature has a pedigree: The park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York's Central Park. In April, the state launched a $25 million project that will address the park's urgent infrastructure needs as well as restore elements—native plantings, intimate overlooks—outlined in Olmsted's plan. Today, prime viewpoints can be found on Goat Island, which sits between the American and Canadian falls. But the best bang for your buck is the $1 elevator ride up the Observation Tower at Prospect Point, which yields a priceless view from 220 feet. No raincoats necessary.

Where to Stay: The 39-room Giacomo, in a 1929 Art Deco building, opened three years ago with modern furniture and abstract art; rooms also have free Wi-Fi, Keurig coffeemakers, and refrigerators (thegiacomo.com, doubles from $139). The Giacomo is two blocks from the park, and you can see the rapids from the hotel's 19th-floor Skyview Lounge.

While You're There: If you've brought your passport, the Butterfly Conservatory at Canada's Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens is worth a border crossing. Its 2,000 airborne inhabitants (from 45 species) have been known to alight on certain lucky visitors (niagaraparks.com, admission $13, parking $5).

How to Help: Donate to any New York state park via the Natural Heritage Trust (nysparks.com), the Alliance for New York State Parks (allnysparks.org), Parks & Trails New York (ptny.org), or any individual park's website.

Park Info: First St. and Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 716/278-1796, nysparks.com, open 24 hours daily, admission free.

3. LUDINGTON STATE PARK 

Michigan

Michigan's Recreation Passport Program, a $10 annual park pass, has pumped $6 million into the state and local parks system since it launched in 2010. The bad news: Collectively, parks around the state still need more than $300 million in repairs. The roof at Ludington's nature center buckled under heavy snow in 2009, and it still hasn't been fixed. Now the entire building has to be torn down. Sadly, there's no money for that either.

Ludington deserves better. Snug between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, the nearly 5,300-acre park has seven miles of sandy, dune-strewn beaches, a historic lighthouse you can climb, more than 20 miles of hiking trails (plus paths for biking and cross-country skiing), and the shallow, clear Big Sable River, which is perfect for drifting down in an inner tube. No wonder Ludington has been a Great Lakes-area favorite since it was established 76 years ago.

Where to Stay: Ludington's four campgrounds fill up quickly; reserve campsites six months in advance or cabins and yurts one year out, when openings are posted (midnrreservations.com, camping from $16). You can also try the Lamplighter Bed & Breakfast, an 1892 home with an original oak banister, leaded-glass windows, and a porcelain-tiled fireplace (ludington-michigan.com, doubles from $115).

While You're There: Explore downtown Ludington, a onetime logging-town-turned-beach-retreat, or go further back in time at Historic White Pine Village, two miles south. The site has a collection of 29 restored (or re-created) 19th-century buildings, enhanced with educational exhibits (historicwhitepinevillage.org, adults $9).

How to Help: Make a tax-deductible donation to a specific park or purchase a gift certificate (for camping fees, mooring fees, and merchandise) at michigan.gov.

Park Info: 8800 W. M-116, Ludington, Mich., 231/843-2423, michigan.gov, open daily 8 A.M.-10 P.M., admission $8.

4. CACHE RIVER STATE NATURAL AREA 

Illinois

There are more famous swamps than the one in Cache River State Natural Area, a nearly 15,000-acre Illinois state park 30 miles from the Kentucky border. The Everglades, say, or Okefenokee. But who wants a crowd along? One of the northernmost examples of a true Southern swamp, the delightfully under-the-radar Cache River park gets only about 200,000 annual visitors—that's about one visitor per acre per month.

Other life forms aren't nearly so scarce here: The park's wetlands, floodplains, forests, and limestone barrens harbor more than 100 threatened or endangered species. It's best explored by canoe, along six miles of paddling trails that bring you face-to-face with massive tupelo and cypress trunks. There are also 20 miles of foot trails in the park and a floating boardwalk that leads to the center of Heron Pond, which is carpeted in summer with a bright-green layer of floating duckweed. BYO boat, or rent one from White Crane Canoe and Pirogue Rentals in Ullin, Ill., about 12 miles west (whitecranerentals.com, canoe rental $15 per person per day).

Where to Stay: A half-hour drive west of the park, Anna, Ill., has a handful
of antiques shops, a pottery museum, and the Davie School Inn, an 11-room, all-suite B&B in a converted 1910 schoolhouse (davieschoolinn.com, doubles from $100).

While You're There: Work in a detour to Metropolis, Ill., a.k.a. Superman's hometown. The Super Museum has more than 20,000 TV and movie props and other collectibles amassed by owner Jim Hambrick (supermuseum.com, admission $5).

How to Help: Join the Friends of the Cache River Watershed nonprofit (friendsofcache.org).

Park Info: 930 Sunflower Lane, Belknap, Ill., 618/634-9678, dnr.state.il.us, visitors center hours Wed.-Sun.
9 A.M.-4 P.M., admission free.

5. RED ROCK STATE PARK 

Arizona

When the grandest of canyons is in your backyard, it's easy to take your lesser landmarks for granted. That seemed to be the case in Arizona, which targeted 13 of its 22 parks for closure in 2010, including Red Rock.

Fortunately, not everyone was so quick to write off the little guys. Red Rock's lifeline arrived via the Yavapai County and City of Sedona governments and the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park, which jointly raised $240,000 to temporarily finance the park. That will keep this 286-acre nature preserve open at least until June 2013.

Among the best ways to take in the rust-colored canyon are the park's five miles of hiking trails and one mile for biking and horseback riding. Birding is big here, too: Every Wednesday and Saturday at 8 A.M. (7 A.M. in summer), guides lead aviary walks along the banks of Oak Creek, and guests can follow along with the park's checklist of feathered regulars: black-chinned hummingbirds, great blue herons, and the occasional yellow-billed cuckoo.
Everything in Red Rock is colorful!

Where to Stay: Sedona's hotels can be pricey, so try an apartment or casita rental on vrbo.com, with over 150 local listings—some under $100 per night.

While You're There: Get your massage fix. Sedona regulars favor Stillpoint...Living in Balance, naming its massage the "Best of Sedona" in a local poll the past four years (stillpointbalance.com, 70-minute massage $90).

How to Help: Visit benefactorsrrsp.org to make a donation, or sign up for a subscription to Arizona Highways magazine: $5 of the $24 cost will be directed to the park of your choice (arizonahighways.com).

Park Info: 4050 Red Rock Loop Rd., Sedona, Ariz., 928/282-6907, azstateparks.com, open daily 8 A.M.-5 P.M., admission $10 per car or $3 for individuals.

6. BLACKWATER FALLS STATE PARK

West Virginia

Blackwater Falls's namesake cascade isn't just the most picturesque spot in this 2,456-acre park—it's also one of the most photographed places in the state. The area is equally eye-catching when it's dressed in the bright greens of spring, the Crayola-box colors of autumn, or silvery winter, when parts of the falls freeze into man-size icicles. The falls themselves—more brown than black—get their distinctive hue from tannic acid that leaches into the river from hemlock and red spruce needles upstream.

But there's something potentially more serious darkening the future of West Virginia's state parks: hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) wells that could be built on ecologically significant public lands. Surface rights don't always include the mineral rights when park land is acquired; in West Virginia, the mineral rights under approximately 40 percent of the state parks, including Blackwater, are privately held. It's those split-custody parks that experts say are at greatest risk. Chief Logan State Park, about 200 miles away, already lost a fracking battle when the state's Supreme Court, over the objection of the W. Va. Department of Environmental Protection, voted unanimously in 2010 to allow natural gas drilling in the park—a process that typically calls for not just drilling, but also the construction of roads and the clear-cutting of trees. Almost the entire state of West Virginia sits atop the Marcellus Shale, the natural-gas source targeted at Chief Logan, which means that a dozen or so other parks could soon find themselves fighting for their rights, too.

Where to Stay: Outdoorsy types can pitch a tent at 65 campsites, or upgrade to one of 26 deluxe cabins with full kitchens, private bathrooms, and fireplaces—but not A/C. For that creature comfort, you'll need to book a night in the 54-room lodge, which also has a game room and an indoor pool (blackwaterfalls.com, camping from $20, lodge rooms from $84).

While You're There: Plan a day trip to the small yet lively town of Elkins, W. Va., taking the hour long scenic route through Blackwater and Canaan Valley State Park. In Elkins, the Randolph County Community Arts Center hosts free concerts, arts workshops, and traveling exhibitions year-round—its third Smithsonian exhibition just came through this summer (randolpharts.org).

How to Help: Donate cash, stock, or even office supplies to Friends of Blackwater, a group focused on preserving the ecosystem of Blackwater Canyon (saveblackwater.org).

Park Info: 1584 Blackwater Lodge Rd., Davis, W. Va., 304/259-5216, blackwaterfalls.com, open 6 A.M.-10 P.M., admission free.

7. HONEYMOON ISLAND STATE PARK

Florida

You'd expect a place called Honeymoon Island to be dreamy, and with four miles of white beaches and two more of nature trails (where osprey, terns, and bald eagles nest), Florida's most popular state park is tailor-made for romantic strolls. Even back when it was known as Hog Island—before a 1930s developer put up a string of beach cottages and renamed the spot to lure newlyweds—visitors to the tiny barrier island were all but guaranteed dolphin sightings and stunning sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. The cottages are gone now, but more than a million people still cross the bridge to the island each year to spend the day swimming, surfing, kayaking, and collecting shells along the north shore. The only thing you can't do is sleep under the stars. Last year Florida proposed adding a privately run RV campground to Honeymoon Island State Park, citing high demand for more camping opportunities in state parks. However, area residents protested the campground and its potential disruption of the park's ecosystem, and the plans were dropped. For now, at least, the beaches close at sunset, with only those osprey, terns, and eagles to look after them.

Where to Stay: Hotels and vacation rentals abound in the adjacent towns of Dunedin and Clearwater. Frenchy's Oasis Motel, 11 miles south of the park, gives the old-fashioned motor lodge a Mid-Century Modern spin with starburst clocks, a bright, citrusy palette, and free Wi-Fi (frenchysoasismotel.com, doubles from $119).

While You're There: Before a hurricane divided them in the 1920s, Honeymoon Island and neighboring Caladesi Island were a single land mass. Today, you can only reach car-free Caladesi by boat (or Jet Ski). The only public ferries leave from Honeymoon Island; rides take 20 minutes and run every half hour starting at 10 A.M. (caladesiferry.org, $14 round-trip).

How to Help: Make a tax-deductible donation through Florida's Help Our State Parks (HOSP) program (mailed to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation and Parks, 3900 Commonwealth Blvd., MS 540, Tallahassee, FL 32399).

Park Info: 1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, Fla., 727/469-5942, floridastateparks.org, open daily 8 A.M. to sundown, admission $8 per vehicle ($4 for solo drivers) or $2 for pedestrians and cyclists.

8. KATY TRAIL STATE PARK 

Missouri

The largest rails-to-trails conversion in America, the 240-mile Katy Trail spans Missouri's midsection, from Clinton in the west to Machens in the east, along the former track of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad (a.k.a. the Katy). The mostly flat path is open to hikers and cyclists—and in some sections, horseback riders—and traverses historic railroad bridges, tunnels, forests, valleys, and open fields. In spots, it skirts the edge of the Missouri River. Some hardy souls tackle the whole trail (a roughly five-day undertaking for an experienced cyclist). Those who prefer a more leisurely trek should consider a daytrip between Rocheport and Boonville, two early-19th-century towns (the latter established by Daniel Boone's offspring) separated by 12 miles of nature preserves, vineyards, and river views. Of course, all those miles of pathway—including 500 bridges and 60 buildings—don't just tend themselves, and it is estimated that the Katy Trail has $47.5 million in deferred maintenance projects, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total $200 million backlog of repairs needed in Missouri's parks.

Where to stay: There are no campgrounds in the park, but you can have your pick of small-town inns along the route. Some cater to cyclists with extras such as free laundry service, double-size whirlpool tubs, and free bike storage and tune-up tools. Rocheport's School House Bed & Breakfast, in a three-story brick schoolhouse from 1914, sweetens the deal with fresh-baked cookies at check-in (schoolhousebb.com, doubles from $149).

While you're there: Missouri's 100-plus wineries produce nearly half a million cases of wine each year. Les Bourgeois Vineyards and Winery, the state's third-largest, is just outside downtown Rocheport on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River (missouriwine.com, open daily 11 A.M.-6 P.M.). Bonus: The School House Bed and Breakfast gives rides to guests who are too tired to make the uphill trek.

How to help: Donation boxes are posted at all trailheads; you can also "adopt" a section of trail or a bike rack or make a tax-deductible donation at katytrailstatepark.com.

Park Info: Clinton, Mo., to Machens, Mo., 800/334-6946, katytrailstatepark.com, open sunrise to sunset, admission free.

9. VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK 

Nevada

In the past four years, general funding for Nevada's state parks has been reduced by roughly 60 percent, with almost $3 million cut in 2011 alone. While no closures are planned, the parks are suffering from reduced maintenance, and staffing levels have been cut by 19 percent, even as attendance has grown. One of the state's best-loved parks is the Valley of Fire, 42,000 arid acres about an hour's drive northeast from Las Vegas. The park delivers its own kind of high-stakes drama, trading neon and nightclubs for 150-million-year-old sandstone formations and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs (images carved in rock). You could even say it has star quality: The surreal, burnt-sienna landscape stood in for Mars in the 1990 movie Total Recall.

If you're embarking on your own photo safari or DIY sci-fi flick in Nevada's largest state park, don't miss Arch Rock, Elephant Rock, or the Beehives, all of which are essentially solid-stone versions of exactly what they sound like. And be sure to take snapshots with and without people in the frame—the structures are even more outstanding when you can get a sense of their scale. Most important of all: Bring lots of water with you. There are few
facilities within the park, and the sandy stretches of some hikes make them more strenuous than you'd think, particularly in the summer, when Mojave Desert temperatures top 120 degrees. Best to come in spring or fall for a more comfortable trip.

Where to Stay: The park contains 72 campsites, including RV spots with water and electrical hookups (campsites $20 per night plus $10 for hookups; $2 discount for Nevada residents). If that's not your speed, the family-run North Shore Inn has a pool, in-room fridges, and powerful air conditioning (northshoreinnatlakemead.com, doubles from $85).

While You're There: When you've had your fill of heat, the waters of Lake Mead are about six miles away. Boat rentals for fishing and water skiing are plentiful; the nearest outfitter is Echo Bay Marina, on the lake's northern reach (echobaylakemead.com, five-seat fishing boats $60 for a half-day rental).

How to Help: There's a donation jar in the visitors center where you can deposit a contribution.

Park Info: Interstate 15 at Highway 169, Exit 75, Overton, Nev., 702/397-2088, parks.nv.gov, open daily sunrise to sunset (except for campers), admission $10 per vehicle (or $8 for Nevada residents).

10. OHIOPYLE STATE PARK 

Pennsylvania

If ever there were an all-purpose park, southwestern Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle State Park is it. Looking for waterfalls? It has four (including the one in our slide show, which seems as if
it must have inspired Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house, just five miles away). Trails? Hikers get 79 miles of them—plus 27 miles for cyclists, 11 for folks on horseback, and nearly 40 for cross-country skiers. And why not throw in a natural water slide or two? The lifeblood of the 20,000-acre park, however, is the Youghiogheny River Gorge-a.k.a. the Yough. The Middle Yough, which flows to Ohiopyle from Confluence, Pa., is the gentler
section, with Class I and II rapids for rafters and kayakers; the Lower Yough, downstream, gets up to Class IV whitewater. Combined, they attract a good chunk of the 1 million people who visit the park every year.

But if Ohiopyle has a little something for everyone, there's a lot more to the park than meets the eye—and that's just the problem. Like some 60 other Pennsylvania state parks (as well as West Virginia's Blackwater Falls, on page 60), Ohiopyle is situated atop the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale-and the state doesn't own the mineral rights underneath the park. In fact, the mineral rights to about 80 percent of Pennsylvania's state park lands are privately owned (or available for lease), and under current legal precedent, mineral rights are given precedence over surface rights. Parks advocates fear that it won't be long before a drilling rig is erected in a state park. Sound alarmist? Well, Pennsylvania issued its first lease for oil and gas extraction on state forest lands back in 1947 and drilling continues today.

Where to Stay: The quietest campsites in Ohiopyle's Kentuck campground are the walk-in sites numbered 51-64 and 103-115; however, some folks have found the camp's firm 9 P.M. quiet hours a little too restrictive. If your brood tends to get livelier as the night wears on, consider a vacation rental in Hidden Valley, Pa., or Seven Springs, Pa., both less than 30 miles to the northeast; these two ski towns have solid selections of rental condos and homes that can be deeply discounted in the off-season (vrbo.com).

While You're There: Two Frank Lloyd Wright homes are within a 10-minute drive of the park: world-famous Fallingwater, designed in 1935 (fallingwater.org, admission $8), and the lesser-known Kentuck Knob, built in 1956 (kentuckknob.com, tours from $20).

How to Help: Send a donation through paparksandforests.org, or pick up a 16-month (Sept. 2012-Dec. 2013) Civilian Conservation Corps wall calendar, the profits from which are reinvested in parks (888/727-2757, $8.50).

Park Info: 124 Main Street, Ohiopyle, Pa., 724/329-8591, dcnr.state.pa.us, open from dawn to dusk, admission free.

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OUR FAVORITE HOTEL NH Punta Cana is a colorful and stylish resort on Bavaro Beach with plenty of modern perks like complimentary Wi-Fi and satellite TV (nh-hotels.com; doubles from $60). #8 BARCELONA, SPAIN  Barcelona beats Madrid for the top city in Spain visited by U.S. travelers, especially 20-somethings on holiday in Europe. It's an arty, youthful city on the sea with a labyrinth of narrow streets and gorgeous plazas, branded by fairy-tale architecture from the quirky godfather of modern Catalonian architecture, Antoni Gaudi. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLas Ramblas This wide boulevard slopes through Barcelona from Plaça de Catalunya in the city center all the way to Port Veil on the shore. The tree-shaded sidewalks are lined with shops, cafés, and souvenir kiosks; in the center of the road, street performers entertain the daily parade of tourists. Barceloneta The seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta is a perfect spot for an afternoon of wandering the quaint channel streets with a view of the ocean through gaps between tenements. Once you find your way to the beach, sit down and enjoy a glass of vino and tapas at Bar Electricitat in the market square.Parc Güell Set on the outskirts of the city, Barcelona's version of Central Park is a storybook land of strange stone pavilions designed by Gaudi among the green hills and trees. The park trails meander through the 37 wooded acres with mythical mosaic sculptures and curved terraces that look out over the city. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSEl Born This lovely neighborhood of narrow labyrinthine streets is a great spot to hang out with the locals, shop for vintage fashions, and taste the best of Catalonian cuisine at cubby-hole cafés and bars such as Casa Delfin.Sagrada Familia Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the sight of Gaudi's gargantuan drip-castle cathedral wherever you are in Barcelona. So if you skipped a visit the first time, it's worth a trip to the neighborhood of Exiample for a view of Sagrada Familia up close. It's a playful and profound structure that blends the whimsical curvature of Art Nouveau with the dark angularity of Gothic architecture. Barri Gotic This historic neighborhood of Gothic monuments reminds visitors of Barcelona's medieval past, before Gaudi put his stamp of eccentric modernity on the city. The wide plazas provide impromptu venues for Dark Ages-themed street performers. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Curious is a friendly boutique hotel near Las Ramblas in central Barcelona (hotelcurious.com; Doubles from $115). #7 MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA  The all-inclusive resorts on Montego Bay (and a chance to experience Rastafarian culture) make Jamaica one of the top Caribbean destinations for U.S. travelers. "Liming" (otherwise known as relaxing) on the beach is the order of the day and many vacationers don't venture far from their umbrella-shaded lounger. But if you do, there's plenty to explore on this Caribbean island. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLiming on Doctor's Cave Beach and Seven Mile Beach Doctor's Cave Beach is the most popular beach in Montego Bay and chances are your hotel will be within flip-flop distance. If you have wheels, Jamaica's most famous stretch of sand, Seven Mile Beach, is a short drive away in Negril. On either beach, be sure to look out for the famous jerk stands and kick back Jamaica-style with spicy grilled chicken and the national beer, Red Stripe.Montego Bay Marine Park The coral reef from Tropical Beach to Rum Bottle Bay is an underwater nature reserve that's shelter to a wide array of exotic fish and sea anemones… and great snorkeling territory for visitors. Watch out for the Lion Fish, cute but poisonous!Dunn River Falls Nearby in Ocho Rios, a short adventure into the rain forest will bring you to Dunn River Falls, a 180-foot waterfall that you can climb down, passing from lagoon to lagoon as the river rambles downstream. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSLiming in Port Antonio So you've seen the tourist beaches of Montego Bay and you're looking for something more low key? Head east to Port Antonio and its magnificent beaches for a day in the sun.Rose Hall Great House One of the oldest plantation estates on the island, the 18th-century Georgian mansion on the hill is a glimpse at the colonial past of Jamaica when it was a British stronghold for the export of sugar cane. Beware: The house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, a voodoo practitioner and wife of the plantation owner, who was murdered in her sleep during the slave uprising of 1830. If you're feeling brave, book the night tour ($30 per person for a two-hour tour).Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park A hike through the forests of this misty mountain park will introduce you to the oldest inhabitants of Jamaica—its species of exotic birds, monkeys, lizards, and the rare Giant Swallowtail Butterfly. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Casa Blanca Beach Hotel is a classic Jamaican hotel with old-world styling situated in the middle of Montego Bay's Hip Strip near Doctor's Cave Beach (876-952-0720, doubles from $80). #6 ROME, ITALY  A modern city risen among the ruins of the greatest empire in history, Rome is No. 6 on our list as Italy's most popular destination for U.S. travelers. From the stone amphitheater of the Colosseum to the Roman Forum, where Caesar once spoke, and the immaculate Vatican City, Rome is a living monument to the ancient history of Europe. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSAncient Highlights: the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon Follow the shouts of the tour guides and trinket hawkers to the ruins of the Colosseum, where the spectators of ancient Rome cheered on gladiator death matches and lion fights from the stands. The historic steps of the Roman Forum and the House of Nero just around the corner, and the massive temple dome to the pagan gods, the Pantheon, is a short walk west with many lesser ruins along the way.Vatican City One of the most beautiful plazas in Rome leads to St. Peter's Basilica and the entrance to Vatican City. Of course, we sinners aren't allowed inside the Holy See, but the soaring marble interior of St. Peter's Basilica is a marvel worth its copper and no stop to Rome would be complete without a gander inside the Sistine Chapel at Michelangelo's Last Judgment.Villa Borghese North of the city center is Rome's largest public park, which is just as grandly designed as any of Rome's wonders, with 148-acres of trees from all over the world, lakes, and ancient villas. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSMAXXI The 21st Century of the Arts museum, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid and opened in 2010, is Rome's grand foray into the modern art world. There are two museums here: the MAXXI collection of contemporary art featuring the likes of Maurizio Cattelan, and the MAXXI museum of architecture, dedicated to the art of architectural design and the modern-day wonders of the world (entrance $14 per person).Circus Maximus & Avertine Hill The former chariot-racing grounds aren't much to look at these days when compared with the other ruins, but the verdant Avertine Hill above Circus Maximus is an amazing lookout perch and great retreat from the tourist hordes.Testaccio & Ostiense These twin neighborhoods across the aqueduct from the ancient city center are the perfect place to wander, eat, drink, and experience modern-day Roman life (click here for a quick guide to the neighborhoods.) OUR FAVORITE HOTEL:  Hotel Mimosa is a cheery 14-room palazzo within a short stroll of Vatican City (hotelmimosa.net; doubles from $92). #5 TORONTO, CANADA  The modern city of Toronto straddles the shore of Lake Ontario with its blocky downtown of skyscrapers and needle-nose CN Tower. The fifth largest city in North America, the diverse population creates a vibrant cultural scene with many culinary delights. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSKensington Market Squared between Dundas Street W. and Spadina Avenue, this market neighborhood lined with ethnic groceries, fresh produce and spice stands, and tiny cafés is a great place to taste Toronto's amazing food scene. Be sure to stop by on Sunday when Kensington Market becomes a no-car zone.CN Tower The CN Tower, an olive-on-a-toothpick skyscraper rising 1,122 feet up into the Toronto skyline, has breathtaking views over the city, especially from a glass-walled elevator that takes you to the top at a snail's pace. There's even a rotating 360-degree restaurant for a sit-down meal afterward, if you can stomach it without getting dizzy.Distillery District The 19th-century warehouses and distilleries that once produced the famous Gooderham & Worts Canadian whiskey have new life as a meandering 13-acre complex of vaulted-ceiling restaurants, patio cafés, and art galleries set inside the historic brick buildings. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSHockey Hall of Fame Even if you're not a fan of the game, this hallowed hall of hockey inside Brookfield Place is a uniquely Canadian experience. Moody lighting fits the cathedral-esque interior, where visitors wander halls of lithograph portraits of NHL greats like Wayne Gretsky, gander at trophies and jerseys from championship games, and perhaps try their puck skills in the Be a Player exhibit (entrance $18 per person.)Queen Street West The center of the Canadian broadcast television and film industry, the neighborhood of Queen Street West has more than its share of artsy cache in a clutch of contemporary galleries, hip bars and restaurants, and trendy boutiques.Art Gallery of Ontario The turn-of-the-century museum holds the largest collection of Canadian art in the world, with more than 80,000 works from the first century A.D. to today, including a sculpture center dedicated to the work of Henry Moore. Especially impressive is the new glass-façade by Frank Gehry on Dunda Street West. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Victoriais a century-old grand dame with a modern interior in central Toronto (hotelvictoria-toronto.com; doubles from $130). #4 PARIS, FRANCE  Millions of U.S. travelers flood the city of Paris every year to walk the romantic cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter, kiss on the pedestrian bridges over the River Seine, marvel at the Gothic facade of old Notre Dame, or ride the elevator up the elegant iron legs of the Eiffel Tower for a grandstand view of the City of Light.  And then, of course, there's the food… whether it's nibbling a fresh baguette from a riverside bakery or tucking into steak béarnaise at a tiny Montmartre bistro, everything tastes better in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSExplore the Latin Quarter It's hard not to fall in love with Paris's famous Latin Quarter. Whether you're sipping espresso at the Café de Flore (once the squatting grounds of Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre), listening to jazz at the underground club on Rue de la Huchette,  or browsing books at Shakespeare & Company, you'll soon be lost in the nostalgia of Paris's storied past.Visit the Eiffel Tower You don't have to visit the Eiffel Tower to appreciate its 1,050-foot-high majesty of iron; it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. But you should: The lines can be long and the surrounding area mobbed with tourists, but it's worth a ride to the top to see the City of Light from above ($11 to the 2nd floor observatory, $18 to the top). Wander Jardin des Tuileries and check out the Louvre (if you can get in) Musée du Louvre is by far the most famous museum in Paris (if not in all of Europe), so don't be surprised if you wait for hours to explore the Egyptian collection or for that glimpse of Mona Lisa behind glass (entrance $13 per person, closed Tuesdays). If you tire of the wait, don't distress: the grounds of the Louvre Palace and its adjoining Jardin de Tuileries is one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSNotre Dame The cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité is something to behold even if you're just passing by on your way to the Latin Quarter. Inside, the soaring Gothic chamber of stained glass, pillars, stone crosses, and statues of the saints high above the grand altar are a treasure that the city holds dear.Rodin Museum The Rodin Museum is elegant in its simplicity, especially when compared with the Louvre Palace across the River Seine (entrance, $8). The 18th-century mansion of Hotel Biron holds a collection of Rodin's greatest work inside and out in the estate's gardens where visitors can explore and ponder for a while with The Thinker and other sculptures. Nightlife in La Bastille Still an icon of the French Revolution, the neighborhood of La Bastille is a nightlife playground for the youth of Paris, chockful of bistros, bars, music venues, and tiny nightclubs, especially along Rue de la Roquette. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: But wait, what about the Montmartre? Well, if you take our advice, you'll be staying in Montmartre at Ermitage Hotel Sacre-Coeur, a 12-room B&B set inside a turn-of-the-century apartment building that's within walking distance to that beautiful white cathedral on the hill, the Sacre-Coeur (ermitagesacrecoeur.fr; doubles from $130). #3 SAN JUAN, PUETRO RICO  Yes, it's a U.S. territory, but Puerto Rico can feel like a world apart. The laidback atmosphere of San Juan with its narrow cobblestone streets and pastel-color houses will make any traveler feel at home, especially after a night in Old San Juan, where young and old drink, play music, and dance to salsa music until the early hours. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSNightlife in Old San Juan It can get rowdy late at night in Old San Juan, especially on weekends, when everyone and their uncle mobs the streets for a wandering bar crawl with drinks in hand. But there's no better time to drink up the culture alongside the locals—join in with the locals at bars like Bodega Chic and Nono's and possibly get silly enough to participate in a sing-along in Plaza del Mercado (a.k.a. La Placita).El Morro This beautiful old citadel fort commands a sweeping view of the Caribbean Sea on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico and has held its own against time and the island's seaborne enemies since the 16th century (entrance $3). Beaches of Condado The seaside neighborhood of Condado has the most popular beaches in San Juan proper, a stretch of golden-sand shore on the eastern side of the city. Arrive early on the weekends to claim your beach-towel territory against the droves of resort guests and local families. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSSalsa Dancing at the Nuyorican Café Hidden off an alley inside a former Spanish convent, this tiny nightclub has been an Old San Juan institution for decades, renowned for its jazz music and weekend salsa dancing. A eclectic crowd of locals and tourists brave the crowds on the weekend to test their moves on the dance floor; if the line is too long or too tedious, pop over to Rumba, a newer salsa club down the street. Catedral de San Juan Bautista The second oldest Cathedral in North America is a rather modest Spanish colonial structure. Inside, you'll find the hallowed chambers of stained glass and statues worthy of worship (and the tomb of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon underneath). Day trip to Vieques Island In a paradise like Puerto Rico, where do the locals go to vacation? The answer is the castaway island of Vieques, a 45-minute ferry ride from the port of Farajado on the east coast. The main town of Isabella is quiet and pretty, but the real reason for the trip is the pristine beaches on the south coast (be sure to pack a picnic basket… there are few places to eat nearby the beaches). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Numero Uno Guesthouse is a darling 15-room inn right by the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan (numero1guesthouse.com; doubles from $99). #2 LONDON, ENGLAND  London certainly hasn't lost its regal charms in the long march to modernity. And because the city is a gateway for further excursions into Europe, millions of travelers spend at least a day or two visiting the historic sites on the red double-decker lorries, attending theatre performances by Britain's greats, and enjoying a cool English pint (or three) while munching on fish-and-chips at one of the city's famous pubs. Just remember to mind your manners and your wallet: The British pound reigns supreme, at nearly twice the value of the U.S. dollar. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSRoyal Highlights: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Tower of London The throne of the British Empire and the city's most famous historic sites are clustered within a short walk of one another in central London. Commoners can tour Buckingham Palace from July through September (or sneak a peek through the gates any other time of year); just down the road is Westminster Abbey, the iconic Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. A short cab ride along the Thames brings you to the Tower of London (which arguably offers the best tour and a chance to see the Crown Jewels).West-End Theaters London's West End neighborhood is the Broadway of England, known affectionately as "Theaterland." New London Theatre and Queen's Theatre are two great venues for new plays performed by Britain's greatest thespians, while smaller theaters like the Noel Coward Theatre often showcase well-known plays by British playwrights (like, say, Noel Coward), including new productions of Shakespeare plays. British Museum It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and this museum dedicated to British history is true to that globe-spanning scope, with a collection that ranges from the armor of William the Conqueror to the 19th- and 20th-century colonial history of British ambitions. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSTate Modern Converted from a riverside power station on the Thames, the Tate Modern is a marvel of contemporary architecture and one of the most impressive art museums in the world, famous for its enormous (and often interactive) art installations and a collection of modern art from the early 1900s to today (entrance is free).East End Nightlife The once-gritty East End has been gentrified into the new epicenter of London nightlife—a haven of hip pubs, edgy art galleries, and nouveau restaurants, especially in the neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Hoxton.  The London Eye Who wouldn't want to get into a Ferris wheel that soars up over 400 feet in the air? Don't worry, the wheel moves at a turtle speed and the bird's-eye views over London from the enclosed-glass observatories are absolutely spectacular ($24 per person). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Umi Hotel is a simple and fashionable hotel comprised of adjoining 150-year-old townhouses in London's Notting Hill neighborhood (umihotellondon.co.uk; doubles from $99). #1 CANCUN, MEXICO  Cancun remains the No. 1 top destination for U.S. travel abroad, thanks to cheap flights from the States, 14 miles of beaches, and carnival-style nightlife that transforms the Z-shaped islet off the Yucatan Peninsula into a 24-hour party scene for college students every Spring Break.  But if you think this former Mayan trading city is just a sloppy boozefest on the beach, you haven't experienced the real Cancun. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSSun, Sand, and Waves at Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines The beaches of Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines offer the full-spectrum of the Cancun beach scene: Playa Tortugas is a festive party beach with calm, tranquil water and bungalow restaurants/bars under the palms; Playa Delfines is an escapist beach with white sand for travelers looking to get away from the crowds (and perhaps catch a few waves).Day Trip to the Mayan Ruins Integrated into the downtown area, the plaza ruins of El Ray remind travelers of the city's ancient history as a Mayan trading port and give the urban layout a uniquely mythic look (and a kitschy cache to bankroll tourist dollars). But for a more immersive experience, take a day trip drive down Riviera Maya to the beachfront ruins of Tulum and the jungle temples of Coba (they're far less crowded and closer than Chichen Itza).Coco Bongo It would be a shame to leave Cancun without a glimpse of the most explosive, extravagant club the party city has to offer. Coco Bongo is a temple of excess to ridiculous proportions—a massive 1,800-person nightclub with nightly trapeze acts, rock-star impersonators, a rainbow blitz of roving spotlights, and hundreds of partiers dancing to DJ-spun hits on any platform they can climb onto. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSIsla Mujeres This tiny island off the coast of Cancun is a quiet escape from the madness of the mainland. The palm-shaded beaches are perfect for laying out in the sun after an intimate lunch at one of the island's restaurants, and the azure water seems made for an afternoon swim.Dipping Into the Cenotes The rain forest of the Yucatan peninsula creates a unique experience for travelers looking for adventure in the form of sunken cenotes—subterranean rivers and lakes that you can access via rappelling into caverns.Underwater Museum of Art Sure, Cancun and the Riviera Maya have plenty of offshore dive sites. But if your tank skills are up to par, one of the coolest spots to scuba dive is the Underwater Museum of Art, designed by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, which, true to its name, is an underwater museum of sculptures laid out at the bottom of the sea. New to scuba? No problem. Scuba Cancun can set you up with a beginner's diving lesson and then a museum dive for $80. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: The Royal Islander is a beachfront resort with humdrum décor but a great location (and a seaside pool) in the Zona Hotelera of Cancun (royalresorts.com; Doubles from $120).

6 Simple Questions That Will Save You Money on Vacation

When it comes to saving money on travel, we all know to check discount sites, follow our favorite airlines on social media, and monitor our frequent flier points. But did you know that you can save big bucks just by opening your mouth? It turns out that some honest-to-goodness human-to-human interaction can help you win discounts on hotel, cruise, and flight bookings. We asked four travel experts—Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com; George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com; Jaime Freedman of Travelzoo.com; and Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com—for simple questions every traveler should be asking to save money. Their answers, er, questions, are below. Is there an upgrade available? Though it may not be in our nature as Americans to haggle or barter for a deal, never feel too shy to request upgrades at airports and hotels. "Just ask all the time," says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com. "Ninety-eight percent of people simply don't ask. The worst answer you'll get back is no." Jaime Freedman of Travelzoo.com says, "I've seen instances where at the very last second they had business class available, so they offered it as an up-sell incredibly inexpensively." George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, notes that airlines would rather up-sell you a seat in business or first class at a fraction of the cost than be forced to give away those expensive seats for free to members of loyalty programs. US Airways, for example, runs a last-minute program called GoUpgrades; beginning 24 hours before your flight, unsold first-class seats can be purchased for ­between $50 and $500 depending on the length of the flight. When it comes to hotels, the same policy applies: Ask and you (may) receive. "Always say what you're celebrating," says Freedman. "Drop that it's your honeymoon, your birthday. You just never know what kind of little special things a hotel has in store." If you have kids, she says, ask about a suite upgrade. And if you're a member of a hotel chain's loyalty program, Bason recommends asking for waived fees, free parking, kids' meals, breakfast, or Wi-Fi. Has the price changed for my seat/room? "Most people don't realize that there's a pretty good chance that a hotel booking is going to go down in price between the time you book it and the time you arrive," says AirfareWatchdog's George Hobica. Hotel rooms and airline seats fluctuate in price, so once you've booked, it (literally) pays to check the price for a ticket or room every day until your vacation. If you see that the price has gone down, call the airline or hotel directly to see what they can do for you. In many cases, you may be able to cancel your reservation and rebook at a lower price. According to a 2011 post by Hobica on AirfareWatchdog.com, airlines like JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska Airlines may offer you a travel voucher for the difference in price. Others, depending on policy, might simply allow you to cancel your flight and rebook at the lower rate. But buyer beware: Change fees can apply to rebooked flights, so be sure your discount is worth it. Are you running any local deals? Being savvy with social media can obviously pay off when traveling. Restaurants, spas, and museums may use local deal sites—like Groupon or LivingSocial—to offer discounts on admission or services. It's always a good bet to sign up in advance for such websites to begin tracking where deals are occurring in your vacation destination. "Go where the deal is," says Freedman. "More and more companies are starting [to offer local deals] as the competition increases." Don't know where to start? Ask your friendly neighborhood concierge, says Bason. This especially applies at resort hotels, he says, where the concierge is likely to have or know about promotions and specials that might not be otherwise advertised. The added benefit is that you get to experience your destination like a local. "When [deals] are sourced locally, it means you're going to places that aren't designed for tourists," says Freedman, and are consequently less expensive. Hey, why should locals have all the fun? What's the resident rate? What you don't know about booking a cruise can cost you. One hidden savings gem: the resident rate. You may be able to cruise for less if you're willing to depart from a port in your own state. And with ports of departure now in over a dozen states, you have a better chance than ever before of being able to leave from your home state. If you live reasonably near a cruise port, ask your agent about the rate for in-state residents, which Freedman says cruises offer at a deep discount to increase sales. "It's wonderful when you can cruise from home. Basically you're going on a Caribbean vacation with no airfare." Freedman notes that while discounts for residents can vary, in-staters may be able to save up to 25 percent on a cruise. In addition, when it comes to cruises, negotiate with your travel agent when you cruise, says Hobica. Agents are offered incentives from the cruise line and can pass that along to you. Don't be afraid to ask for perks like shipboard credits, which will help you save you on amenities. Is there a tourism card available? Matt Kepnes of NomadicMatt.com suggests always asking at the tourism office about a city pass. Popular destinations like Paris, London, and New York offer passes that include admission to high-profile attractions. Some even include free public transportation or allow you to skip notoriously long lines at tourist hotspots. New York City offers several varieties of passes that allow you to tailor your experience. The CityPass ($89 for adults, $64 for children) gets you admission to six main attractions including the Empire State Building Observatory, the American Museum of Natural History, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. You save 46 percent on combined admission—that's $76 per adult! Where are you going tonight? Ok, that question may sound a little creepy. But don't let that stop you from asking tourism board or visitor center staffers for their own personal recommendations—not where they send tourists, but where they go themselves. They'll know where to find the best off-the-beaten-path venues and cultural events, says Freedman, as well as which ones are running deals. When it comes to sustenance, chances are they won't point you in the direction of expensive tourist traps. As Kepnes says, "You're not going to find New Yorkers eating in Times Square." Eating at local restaurants or buying at markets the locals use will save you a huge mark-up and give you a more authentic taste of the area.

The Right—and Wrong—Way to Pay for Your Dream Trip

I'm short on cash. Should I put my vacation on a credit card? Nooooooooo! Unless the trip is someone's dying wish, charging travel expenses that you can't immediately pay back is not the way to go. "You end up paying much more than the cost of the trip," warns Mackey McNeill, a Kentucky-based CPA and author of The Intersection of Joy and Money. "When you factor in double-digit interest rates and the months—or years—it may take you to pay it off, you can end up spending 50 percent or even 100 percent more." That goes for other kinds of  borrowing as well. Don't let an excuse like "We deserve it" prompt you into a home equity loan. Financial expert Grant Cardone, star of the television series Turnaround King, offers a simple rule of thumb: "If you're too ashamed to ask Mom and Dad for travel money, don't ask a bank or a credit card company." That said, Cardone notes that if you are able to pay off credit card charges before interest or fees kick in, it's an efficient way to keep track of your expenses and can often nab you bonus points for future discounts or upgrades with a hotel chain, rental car agency, or airline. McNeill suggests that if you use a card, ask for an introductory, no-interest period beyond the usual 30 days and make sure you understand exactly what your deadline is. READ ABOUT 5 CREDIT CARDS YOU SHOULD CONSIDER! Does it make sense to set up a vacation savings account? Yes, and the best way to make it work is to have money automatically deducted from your paycheck or checking account each month and tucked away in an account that you pretty much forget about until you need it. "Don't worry about how much interest it earns," says McNeill. "It won't be much, but the point is that it's more effective than stuffing bills in a cookie jar." The first thing to do is determine how much you can afford to stash away each month, and don't be stingy. Try a little creative visualization—would the $4 you'd spend on a latte this afternoon and the $20 you blew on pizza last night be better spent, say, at next year's Mardi Gras? Those kinds of sacrifices can quickly add up, often netting you an extra $100 a week in travel savings. BT reader Vickey Allen upped the out-of-sight-out-of-mind factor by setting up her vacation savings account at a bank 30 miles from her home and opting out of e-banking. "I just withdrew enough to pay for a Mediterranean cruise on the new Carnival Breeze!" she says. READ BUDGET TRAVEL'S CRUISE SAVINGS CHEAT SHEET! How do I know what I can afford to pay for a vacation? The old rule of thumb is that a once-a-year vacation should cost about one week's salary, but there's really no algorithm that's right for everyone. It's a personal decision that depends on your fixed expenses (housing, cars, student loans, insurance) and lifestyle choices. "For some people, travel is important enough that they choose to live in a smaller house and keep a lot of their discretionary expenses down so they can see the world," says McNeill. But Cardone warns that the most common mistake in vacation budgeting is underestimating costs. As you research your trip, remember to include not just airfare and hotels but also meals, cabs, shuttles, dry cleaning, souvenirs, tips, and a cushion for those great—or awful—OMG moments. (Cardone suggests setting aside an extra 25 percent for the unexpected.) Then figure out when you want to go and set up a monthly savings schedule. For retirees on a fixed income, budgeting for bucket-list vacations can seem daunting. McNeill suggests that you put them on the calendar as part of your long-term financial plan and be as specific as possible. She helps her retiree clients to identify which years will require extra money for dream trips and which trips will be more affordable, so a walk on the Great Wall of China can become just one of many predictable expenses instead of a calamitous hiccup. CHECK OUT 11 BUCKET LIST VACATIONS YOU CAN ACTUALLY AFFORD! Is there such a thing as vacation layaway? You may associate the word layaway with refrigerators and sofas, but prepaid travel plans are on the rise. Similar to socking money away in a vacation savings account, the big difference here is that you make regular payments to a tour operator or financial services company prior to your trip. Think of it as adding another layer of forced discipline. The thought of sending money to strangers may give you the willies, so it’s vital to choose a layaway operator that isn’t going to fold or skip town. Happily, that venerable institution, Sears, just entered the vacation layaway business in June. Searsvacations.com lets you make reservations with major hotel chains, cruise lines, car rental agencies, and airlines, and offers 100 vacation packages for under $399 through International Cruise & Excursions. In many cases Sears can offer savings—such as 40 percent off family packages—and there’s no fee for paying in installments. But you should make sure you understand when payments are due and whether there are late-payment fees. The major advantage to a layaway plan like this is that it essentially forces you to save by paying in advance—but if late payment fees add up, it’s just as bad an idea as using a high-interest credit card. Another reputable plan is elayaway.com. It will automatically deduct money from your bank account each month toward the purchase of a gift certificate from select hotel chains (Hyatt, Marriott, and Best Western), car rental agencies (Avis and Budget), airlines (American and Southwest), and websites (Travelocity and bedandbreakfast.com). You’ll pay a processing fee of 1.9 percent of the gift certificate. (You basically pay a hefty premium to impose a savings plan on yourself.) Gate 1 Travel lets you reserve a spot on one of its 400+ packages for as little as a $100 deposit per person as soon as the package is released (which is usually 12 to 18 months in advance), then pay off your trip in as many advance payments as you like. The catch is that your vacation must be completely paid for at least 45 days prior to your departure or you will forfeit your reservation and deposit. What if I’m never going to have the cash for the trip I want? You may be able to secure lodgings without going completely broke. For $10 a month, you can list your home on homeexchange.com for a swap. (Basically it gives you the opportunity to find someone in your dream destination who’s hankering to visit your neck of the woods.) The more detailed your home description (including photos and house rules), the more likely you are to attract a swapper. Similar sites include digsville.com and homelink.org.Another cash-free option is to trade your services for lodgings. This won’t work on a major chain hotel—go for a B&B or small hotel where you can speak directly with the owner, and consider in advance whether you can offer the kinds of services they might be interested in bartering for. (If you’re an accountant, landscaper, or IT pro, you’re on solid ground; a poet, investment banker, or nuclear physicist, not so much.) It’s also possible to “bank” bartering services with a barter exchange, such as ITEX, where small businesses can register for a fee and perform services for other members of the exchange, accumulating dollars that are yours to spend as you please.

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