The Nominees for America's CoolestSmall Towns
Phoenicia, N.Y. (Pop. 388)
Two and a half hours north of New York City, this tiny town in the Catskill Mountains is a smaller version of nearby Woodstock: quiet and rural, with a hippie vibe and an artsy edge. Phoenicia's main drag is humbled by panoramic views of the magnificent 286,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve, but surprisingly trendy stores line the street, like Mystery Spot Antiques—packed with vintage clothing, out-of-print books, and quirky housewares—and the Arts Upstairs, a seven-room gallery of original works, often by local artists. Thanks to a wealth of ex-Manhattanites who settled here a decade ago, Phoenicia has plenty of quality restaurants. Sweet Sue's may look like a regular diner, but the line of locals out the door should tip you off: The brunch menu includes renowned home fries and 25 types of pancakes, like pumpkin, mixed berry, and even carrot.
Clayton, N.Y. (Pop. 1,890)
This historic shipbuilding center lies on a tiny peninsula in the middle of the Thousand Islands, a remote archipelago dotting the St. Lawrence River along the Canadian border. Known for its lush greenery and surprisingly clear waters, Clayton thrived as a millionaires' retreat in the late 1800s. Today, those lavish homes are a draw in themselves. The city's historic downtown boasts restored brick buildings clad with original window crowns and cast-iron cornices, many of which house shops and hotels like the red-and-white Thousand Islands Inn, built in 1897, and the River Rat Cheese Shop, where you can pick up local white cheddar from nearby Gold Cup Farms. In the summertime, the old ferry terminal, which once shepherded wealthy visitors to their island cottages, now hosts waterfront concerts. Out on the river, the family-run Ferguson Fishing Charters offers morning fishing trips, followed by picnics on a deserted island, where a guide cooks the day's catch over a fire. For dessert: Eggs, sugar, cream, and bread are tossed into the hot grease, creating a French-toast-like puff pastry that's topped with butter, maple syrup, cream, and brandy.
Wiscasset, Maine (Pop. 4,489)
In this village along the tidal Sheepscot River, U.S. Route 1 serves as Main Street, crowded with gourmet food shops and antiques dealers. In the warmer months, the brick walkways and 18th-century buildings are adorned with brimming flowerpots. Tourists wander in and out of the town's nearly two-dozen antiques stores, where locals hawk American folk art, quilts, and 1950s board games. Wiscasset is planning to edge into the future soon with a new hydropower plant, which will be the largest clean-energy development in the history of the state. The town's main attraction, though, is Red's Eats, a rickety hut on the water that serves up lobster rolls stuffed with a pound of fresh meat. Bed-and-breakfasts dot the surrounding area, the most notable of which is the family-friendly Snow Squall Inn, owned and run by a former chef who now prepares breakfasts for his guests each morning. For those who want to sleep under the stars, Chewonki is the crème de la crème of campgrounds. It has a pool, a tennis court, boat rentals, and 47 spacious sites along Montsweag Brook.
Newtown Borough, Pa. (Pop. 2,384)
Located in Pennsylvania's rural Bucks County, between NYC and Philadelphia, Newtown Borough was founded by William Penn in 1684—and hasn't changed a whole lot since. The area is surrounded by peaceful, rolling farmland, and the two-lane roads are frequented by Amish horses and buggies. In town, State Street is lined with wide sidewalks, flower gardens, and boutiques like the Rose Cottage Needlepoint Studio crafts shop and Ned's Cigar Store, a tobacco outlet run by two friends who won the lottery (one the Cash 5, the other a scratch-off) and bought the store with their winnings. Newtown is also home to the oldest movie theater in the country, with just one screen, along with some standout restaurants: As one of our readers noted, "Oishi, for instance, is the best Japanese restaurant I've ever been to—and I live in Manhattan!"
Alpine, Tex. (Pop. 6,460)
Alpine is surrounded by the rugged trappings of an old Hollywood western—high desert scrub, red mountains, canyons, and vast cattle ranches. But while it may look like a movie set, this small West Texas outpost is actually an authentic center of cowboy culture, with spots like the Big Bend Saddlery just waiting to fulfill all your belt and buckle needs. February brings the annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a three-day celebration of the fireside oral tradition. Just outside of town, at Woodward Ranch, amateur gem hunters can dig for semiprecious stones—the ranch charges for finds by weight. Back in Alpine, locals cool off at the Murphy St. Raspa Co., a funky spot specializing in raspa, or Mexican shaved ice. The adventurous can spice up their snow cones with outlandish toppings like chili powder, Fun Dip, chamoy (a mix of pickled apricots and plums), and even diced pickles.
Lewisburg, W.Va. (Pop. 3,497)
This Allegheny Mountains town is heralded for two major food events: In April, the mayor dresses up like Willy Wonka for the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival, which celebrates all things cocoa with a week of chocolate-themed tastings and dinners. October brings the Taste of Our Towns (or TOOT, as the locals call it), when restaurants dish out their best-known items at food stands scattered downtown and live bands play on three open-air stages. Annual favorites like the General Lewis Inn's pecan pie disappear fast. The town is also home to one of only four Carnegie Halls (carnegiehallwv.com) in the world, which draws big-name musicians and theater productions to the remote area. And just this past September, rock-violin band the Dueling Fiddlers shot a music video at local wine bar Red Key 3.
Cedar Key, Fla. (Pop. 954)
While much of Florida has become overrun with theme parks, strip malls, and luxury condos, the fishing village of Cedar Key—with its abundance of pelicans, palmettos, and Spanish moss—is a vivid reminder of the state as it once was. Two long-forgotten forms of architecture dominate the cay: 19th-century wood-frame cottages with wraparound porches, and tabby houses, made with a combination of sand, water, and crushed shells. Cedar Key also holds the distinction of being the nation's number one producer of farm-raised clams. Locals swear by the award-winning chowder at Tony's Seafood Restaurant, and there are dozens more dockside eateries where you can sample fresh Gulf shrimp, oysters, and grouper. Outside of town, 13 islands make up the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, where kayakers can spot frigate birds, ibis, and bald eagles.
Eureka Springs, Ark. (Pop. 2,390)
As the only town in the country with its entire zip code listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this southern Ozarks hamlet celebrates its past, from the immaculate Victorian houses lining Main Street to the painstakingly preserved homes hugging the cliffs outside town. There are zero traffic lights and shopping malls within city limits. The Springs—as locals call the town—was once the stomping grounds of Jesse James and his gang, before cleaning up its act and becoming a spa destination at the turn of the 20th century. Today, some 60 natural hot springs still make Eureka Springs a magnet for health centers: There are six spas and more than 50 registered massage therapists and alternative healers. In between spas and Victorian mansions, old-fashioned trolley cars zip along the streets, providing free rides. Outside the city limits, Pivot Rock Park's deep ravines, caves, and natural bridge draw hikers, while the nearby Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge—the world's largest sanctuary for big cats—allows visitors to see white Bengal tigers, cougars, and lions up close.
Greensburg, Kans. (Pop. 1,200)
Around 9:30 p.m. on May 4, 2007, a category EF5 tornado—the strongest designation twisters can receive—ripped through the tiny town of Greensburg and leveled everything in its path. Winds reached 205 mph, destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg's buildings, and severely damaged the remaining 5 percent. That kind of destruction would be enough to knock most towns off the map. But in Greensburg, locals in the tight-knit community dug their heels in and immediately set to work rebuilding their beloved hometown. The city council voted to rebuild all structures according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum standards, making Greensburg the first town in the U.S. to do so—and effectively creating a new model for green, small-town redevelopment. And its environmental strides even encompass the arts: Greensburg's 5.4.7 Arts Center, the only public art museum between Wichita and Dodge City, is entirely solar- and wind-powered.
La Pointe, Wis. (Pop. 285)
The only town on the only inhabited island in Lake Superior's Apostles archipelago, La Pointe is a close-knit community filled with galleries and artists' workshops. The heart and soul of the town, though, is Tom's Burned Down Café, a lakeside "bar" consisting of nothing more than a large tent covering an open-air deck. Opened in the 1950s by a notorious Chicago divorcée, Tom's burned down in the '90s—rumor has it, the owner set it aflame to collect the insurance money. But still, the bar prevailed: By noon the next day, a local had cleared away the ashes and filled the deck with beer. Patrons were back that very night. Now, each year, the tent goes up around Memorial Day, and all summer, residents and tourists come for nightly music that ranges from Celtic fiddles to country rock. In January, when the lake freezes over and the ferry can no longer make the 25-minute trip to Madeline Island from the mainland, people drive cars across Lake Superior, following a trail marked by locals' old Christmas trees.
Ripon, Wis. (Pop. 7,479)
Set smack in the middle of Wisconsin, about 90 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, Ripon is a traditional, rural community steeped in history. Leading up to the Civil War, the pro-abolition Republican Party was founded here, and many original buildings from that era still stand. For the past 20 years, an aggressive downtown revitalization program has transformed Ripon's historic district into a vibrant retail center, and more recently, a Milwaukee-based developer announced plans to invest at least $40 million in downtown renovations, including purchasing old storefronts and converting them into upscale restaurants and apartments—and installing a Wi-Fi system that will cover the entire town. When the weather is warm, Ripon's locals congregate for special events, like the Friday-night free concert series, the blowout sidewalk-sale weekend on Maxwell Street, and an Oktoberfest in September, complete with microbrewed beer, brats, and classic car shows. But perhaps nothing is celebrated more here than baked goods: Rippin' Good Cookie bakery is a local favorite with undergrads at Ripon College, and in 1994, the town collectively set a record for baking the world's largest cookie—measuring in at 907.9 square feet—a feat now commemorated every summer with a big festival.
Victor, Idaho (Pop. 1,159)
Across the rugged Teton Valley, the tonier ski town of Jackson, Wyo., tends to get all the attention (and the celebrity visitors). But locals here make a clear choice for the more low-key community of Victor. The jagged peaks of the Tetons loom over Victor's meadows and streams, and the broad Main Street is flanked by Old West–style storefronts. The Victor Emporium has been serving its famous huckleberry milkshakes for more than 50 years, and Pierre's Playhouse hosts movies, concerts, and plays. In the summer, there's golf at Teton Springs' Headwaters Club, fly-fishing on the Snake River, and open-air movies screened at the Spud Drive In. In the winter, Victor's resident ski-film companies head to the nearby slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Grand Targhee Resort.
Cooke City, Mont. (Pop. 142)
Just four miles from Yellowstone National Park's seldom-used northeast entrance (no long lines—even in peak summer season!), Cooke City shares the park's renowned geography and wildlife. Bears, moose, buffalo, and elk roam the pristine Alpine forests just outside town, and the trip into Cooke City is an epic introduction: From the city of Red Lodge, you drive along the Beartooth All-American Road, which swoops up and over the snowcapped Rockies on the way into Cooke City. Main Street anchors a loose gathering of locally run outfits like the general store, and log cabins are scattered all over town. Some are private residences, while others are for rent, like the Antlers Lodge's 18 structures, which surround a central 1913 cabin. Despite its tiny size, Cooke City hosts a massive fish fry every summer, an annual tradition since the 1920s. Year-round, the family-run Buns "N" Beds offers fresh BBQ smoked right on the premises.
Salida, Colo. (Pop. 5,433)
This adventurer's paradise, three hours southwest of Denver, is an unexpected oasis of activity surrounded by abandoned mining communities. Salida's unique setting helped it escape the fate of its ghost-town neighbors: Of the 50-plus mountains in Colorado that rise above 14,000 feet, 15 of them encircle Salida, creating a climate ripe for year-round outdoor sports, including biking, skiing, kayaking, and—what the city is best known for—white-water rafting. Each year, Salida hosts FIBArk on the Arkansas River, the oldest white-water festival in the country, run since 1949. Recently, the town has been gaining just as much attention for its burgeoning arts scene. Blocks lined with colorful Victorian buildings make up the largest historical district in Colorado, a fitting spot for the annual Art Walk, a three-day showcase of local talent. Salida's food offerings can be just as creative. New grocery store Ploughboy sells only organically grown, local foods, including tilapia produced in the prison aquaculture program in nearby Canon City. Former Iron Chef America contestant Kurt Boucher puts French and Asian touches on fresh ingredients and wild game at the Butcher's Table. And for a slight change of pace, visitors can retreat to the Tudor Rose B&B, a country manor with Rockies views.
Bluff, Utah (Pop. 320)
Many consider Bluff to be a lot like Moab before it took off. The community is located in the verdant San Juan River valley, bordered by 300-foot-high sandstone bluffs, rolling ranchland, and the Navajo Nation. In fact, some of the most sacred Native American sites in the country, like the rock art and ruins of the ancient Anasazi culture, are just outside the city limits. In Bluff, there are carefully restored old pioneer homes open for tours, along with a surprising number of quality lodges and B&Bs for such a tiny town, like the Desert Rose Inn, a timber lodge with a two-story wraparound porch and expansive red-rock views. In recent years, white-water rafting enthusiasts have discovered Bluff, and a number of outfitters, like Wild Rivers Expeditions, have set up shop here, offering outings to the Class IIIs along the San Juan.
Bolinas, Calif. (Pop. 1,238)
Tucked away among coastal eucalyptus groves an hour north of San Francisco, Bolinas is the sort of fiercely independent bohemian community people have come to expect from northern California. Once home to counterculture luminaries like '60s rock band Jefferson Airplane and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this hamlet has only grown feistier in the decades since. Bolinas can be reached solely by unmarked roads—and that's by design. The unofficial "border patrol" is so dedicated to keeping the town locals-only that its "officials" steal any highway signs that make it easier for tourists to invade. (Reportedly, no sign has lasted longer than 36 hours.) It's not hard to see why residents want to keep Bolinas a secret. Its peaceful beaches are a favorite of novice surfers, as well as large populations of herons, egrets, and harbor seals, and its bars and eateries are as good as any you'd find in the Bay Area: Smiley's Schooner Saloon is one of the state's oldest continuously operated bars, established in 1851, and the Coast Café serves super-fresh mesquite barbecued oysters, sourced from nearby Drakes Bay.
Astoria, Ore. (Pop. 9,738)
Consider this small Pacific Coast town a miniaturized version of San Francisco—its architecture is dominated by Victorian homes clinging to steep wooded hillsides, its weather is mild year-round, and its hip local hangouts make for a hot nightlife scene. Astoria sits at the mouth of the Columbia River, and the area's temperate rain forest is home to bald eagles and brown pelicans. As the oldest town west of the Rockies—the area was first settled by none other than Lewis and Clark—Astoria started out as a roughneck port, populated by sailors and cannery workers. Today, that crowd has largely been replaced by artists and indie-rock musicians, but the freewheeling vibe remains. Nightly shows at live-music venue the Voodoo Room bring in big-ticket acts, and artisanal coffeehouses, galleries, and boutiques occupy the 1920s buildings downtown. One highlight: The waterfront Columbia River Maritime Museum has stirring exhibits devoted to hundreds of shipwrecked boats, victims of the Oregon coast's sometimes violent swells.
Port Townsend, Wash. (Pop. 9,136)
Set on Puget Sound, with the jagged Cascade Range as its backdrop, postcard-perfect Port Townsend is a bustling seaport and artists' community rolled into one. Along the water, kayakers bob between industrial ships ferrying wares to Seattle, 40 miles southeast, and beyond. In town, the streets are lined with 19th-century architecture, including the Jefferson County Courthouse, a redbrick stunner considered one of the best-preserved Victorian structures in the country. Down the block, the Fountain Café serves fresh seafood and homemade pastas out of a mint-green 1889 building, alongside countless galleries. In the warmer months, local artists set up easels around town to paint the surrounding landscape: The peaks and rain forests of Olympic National Park are a few minutes west, and the San Juan Islands are a quick boat ride to the north.
Talkeetna, Alaska (pop. 1,062)
This former gold-mining hub, about two hours north of Anchorage, is best known as the base camp for the adventurous hoping to climb all 20,320 feet of nearby Mount McKinley—North America's tallest. Somewhere between 500 to 800 climbers summit the peak each year, but not all of them fare so well. In fact, Talkeetna's cemetery contains a Mount McKinley Climbers' Memorial to those who perished in their attempts—scattered throughout, in place of regular tombstones, visitors will find propellers poking out of the ground, which mark the graves of bush pilots. For those who like their adventures a little less daring—but just barely—the West Rib Pub & Grille offers the five-pound Seward's Folly burger, made up of two pounds of caribou, sliced ham, 12 slices of bacon, and 12 slices of cheese. Each year, residents look forward to the Moose Dropping Festival, a singular gambling event in which varnished pieces of moose dung are flung from a helicopter after residents bet on where they will land. (In 1989, Talkeetna made national headlines when an outraged PETA representative misunderstood and thought live moose were being dropped from helicopters.) No wonder this undeniably quirky town is said to be the inspiration for Cicely, the fictional setting of the '90s cult-classic comedy Northern Exposure.
Haleiwa, Hawaii (Pop. 2,285)
This North Shore beach town is less than an hour's drive from Honolulu, but it's far enough removed to retain a low-key vibe all its own. The resident surfers and artists are completely laid-back and unpretentious. Anything other than flip-flops looks way too fancy, and anything other than a beach-cruiser bike on the little oceanfront path looks way too intense. In the morning, everyone gets their caffeine fix at Coffee Gallery, a locally owned nook that also serves baked goods like maple blondies topped with bacon crumbles. In the afternoon, the surfers head to Surf N' Sea to get their boards waxed or to replace their leashes before taking on the legendary North Shore breaks, while the more mellow head to the beachside Shark's Cove Grill food cart to load up on peanut-butter-and-banana smoothies or a platter of Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice, and then watch the waves from the safety of the sand.
How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?
The town must have a population under 10,000—we're talking small towns, not big cities. It's also got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention—and new residents—because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature. And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores.
How to Haggle Like an Expert
The savviest budget travelers are ruthless in their quest for value, searching for fare sales and squeezing every last freebie out of loyalty programs. So why is it that once we're actually at a destination, we're so quick to pay the full amount advertised on a price tag? The price is the price is the price—or is it? Market-research firm America's Research Group estimates that consumers who haggle are successful 80 percent of the time, and not just in foreign markets. Winning tactics, like the ones we outline below, can be just as useful in department stores or souvenir shops. To help you up your odds of scoring a bargain, we sourced advice from six people who make a living haggling, including a hostage negotiator, a furniture buyer, and a hotelier. You might be surprised by how much money a few choice words—in just the right order—can save you. "That looks interesting"It doesn't matter if the item is the perfect gift for your fiancé or the dreamiest necklace you've ever seen. Curb your enthusiasm by using the adjective interesting, which casually denotes interest, while still indicating some detachment. "Once a vendor sees how much you like something, game over: there's no more bargaining," says Kimberley Yant-Dominguez, a furniture buyer and merchandise manager for World Market, a chain that specializes in international furniture and home accents with more than 260 outlets nationwide. In her 12 years of experience as a buyer in places such India, Hong Kong, and Italy, Yant-Dominguez's best advice is to remain reserved: "Make them sell to you." "May I speak to the manager?"In settings where you wouldn't ordinarily expect to haggle, like in small boutiques, department stores, or electronics shops, it's important to find the staff person who has enough authority to bend the rules. Then try to speak to him or her out of earshot of other customers. Busy salespeople will be more likely to budge on prices if they don't fear having to do so for the 15 others who overhear your requests, says Greg Daugherty, who, as the executive editor of Consumer Reports, specializes in arming consumers with the information they need to get the best price. Daugherty suggests taking timing into account—salespeople generally have more time to talk during morning or evening hours, and near the end of the month when they may be trying to meet quotas. "In this economy, stores have heard everything," he says. "You're not going to be the first person to ask for a discount." "Can you help me on this?"Don't give the impression that the sale is all about you, says Frank Acuff, author of How to Negotiate Anything With Anyone Anywhere Around the World. "Shrinking your ego by asking for help—people will respond to that," he says. "It's not 'I can't afford that' or 'I need a lower price.' And above all, never start with 'I want to negotiate.'" Acuff advises striking a friendly tone from the beginning to establish the haggling as more of a conversation than a transaction. Greet the seller like a friend, ask about his or her day, compliment the shop. "People may think it's naïve, but establishing a rapport at the beginning allows you to be firm without seeming bullheaded once things get heated," Acuff explains. [Silence]Sometimes the most effective thing to say is nothing at all. Professional negotiator Allan Stark, whose company Negotiate4U helps consumers haggle for lower prices on everything from cell phone bills to car insurance, recommends a few simple rules. No. 1: He who talks first loses. "When you reach an impasse, don't say anything—just listen," he advises. The person you're negotiating with will often make a concession just to end the uncomfortable silence. Stark also suggests asking lots of questions. "If someone says, 'How much do you want to pay for this?' respond with, 'How much do you think it's worth?'" he says. That kind of verbal tennis forces the seller to define his or her terms, putting you in a more educated bargaining position. "Thanks so much for helping me. I'm sorry that we couldn't get together on this"As a former hostage negotiator and author of You Can Negotiate Anything, Herb Cohen knows how to make the best of a bad situation. He channels Kenny Rogers in advising travelers to "know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, and when to walk away." Cohen suggests saying, "Thanks so much for helping me. I'm sorry that we couldn't get together on this." Calling attention to the good-humored time spent together on the negotiation might soften up a seller and result in a price reduction. Cohen also says that vacationers have an advantage because time is on their side. Being able to negotiate at leisure forces the seller to invest more time in the relationship. Cohen adds, the more energy spent in pursuit of something, the harder it is to give it up. "Let me give you my phone number"Imagine that you've fallen in love with a vintage-cut-glass chandelier at a Parisian flea market, but the seller really can't meet you on price. Love it and leave it? Nope. Alex Calderwood, co-owner of the Ace Hotel chain, who has traveled from L.A. to Brooklyn to source objects for the four properties, says you should always leave your number behind. "A lot of times it's easier for sellers to off-load items for less than they'd like at the end of the day instead of having to pack everything back up, transport it home, and store it," he notes. That means late afternoons at flea markets can often be a bargain bonanza. If you don't get the price you want at the end of the day, there may still be hope. Sure enough, Calderwood says he's been contacted after the fact by sellers who had a change of heart. 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What Your Bank Won't Tell You About Currency Conversion
When it comes to navigating exchange rates, it pays to know all your options. From buying money online to grabbing it on the go at the airport, we've assembled a handy guide to the seven most common methods for foreign exchange. Each has its pros and cons (some of which can feel like legal swindling), so we've evaluated the options for you with the euro as our base tender, using an Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter from 1 to 5. After all, we can think of far more fun ways for you to spend your money. Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 1 Go for it! 2 Watch closely for fees. 3 Depends on your situation.4 Avoid if possible.5 Run away! Far, far away! Swipe a Credit Card Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 1 How it works You can use your credit card just as you would at home; card issuers typically tack on currency-conversion fees of 2 to 3 percent for international transactions, you'll get the best exchange rate and fees that are lower than those associated with exchanging cash. If you want to get the best rate, sign up for a Capital One card, which levies no fees for international transactions. *$100 buys €74.24.Best for The majority of your big purchases, hotel bills, and restaurant tabs. Basically, it's convenient enough to use instead of cash wherever possible.Exception! Don't use it to take money out of an ATM—ever. You'll be hit with hefty fees (up to $20 in transaction fees or 4 percent of the amount of the advance, along with any local ATM fees), plus you'll be charged interest starting on the day you withdraw the money. Withdraw Cash With an ATM Card Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 1 How it works Depending on your bank, your American debit card can also be used in international ATMs to withdraw local currency. Most banks tack on fees that can add anywhere from 3 to 8 percent. But a few, like Citi and Bank of America, have international branches or partners that allow you to use your ATM card fee-free in most cases. Bank of America is particularly attractive, thanks to a large number of global ATM alliance member banks—more than 20,000 locations in all. Check with your specific bank about its policies, and here's a tip: If you do have to pay international transaction fees, minimize them by withdrawing larger amounts less often. $100 buys €70.81.Best for All purchases, big or small.Exception! If you use an ATM outside your bank's global membership, you run the risk of incurring outrageous fees. Exchange Cash at Your Bank Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 2 How it works Most large banks sell foreign currency, and if you have a bank account, you can order cash over the phone or online; with a few days' notice, it can be delivered to your local branch for pickup. Watch out for delivery fees on this option—they can be as much as $10, cutting into your take-home amount. Note: Some banks will waive this fee for their best customers (Citibank, for example, does so for its CitiGold members), so be sure to ask before ordering. One thing to keep in mind is that exchange rates for banks tend to be slightly better than exchange rates elsewhere, as banks receive wholesale rates that aren't available to the general public. $100 buys €71.81.Best for Those who want cash on hand before a trip.Exception! If you have a premium bank account with a high balance, you'll get a better exchange rate, making this deal more attractive. Buy Cash Online Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 3 How it works You can order currency in advance of your trip from websites like oanda.com, and they'll ship it to your home using a secure two-day delivery service. $100 buys €64.Best for Having cash on hand for immediate purchases like cab fare or a bottle of water when you land; be warned that the high delivery fees eat into the bang you get for your U.S. bucks.Exception! If you are looking to get large amounts of cash (say $1,000 or more), delivery fees can sometimes be waived if you ask. Buy Traveler's Checks Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 4 ange Rate Ripoff Meter 4 Exchange Rate Ripoff Meter How it works Travelers' checks function just like U.S. dollars, except they can be replaced if they're lost or stolen. Once you get to your destination, you still have to find a place that will exchange the checks for local currency, and you'll pay any associated fees, which can add up to $9 per check. Bottom line: Not convenient. $100 buys €63.11.Best for Those who don't want to use credit or ATM cards or carry large amounts of cash. Also, if you're worried about theft and loss, this option comes with peace of mind—if, for example, your American Express traveler's checks are stolen, the funds can be replaced anywhere in the world and usually within 24 hours.Exception! If you're going to China, traveler's checks are an excellent value. Fees are low, and the exchange rate is regulated by the Chinese government, making this one of the safest and most inexpensive ways to exchange U.S. dollars for yuan (especially in more rural locations, which are less likely to have ATMs). Buy a Prepaid Foreign Currency Card Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 4 How it works Launched by foreign-exchange company Travelex in 2007, these cards can be used just like credit or ATM cards, but travelers preload them with a set amount of euros or British pounds (the only two currencies available for now). This seemingly nifty convenience comes at a cost—numerous fees (for withdrawals, inactivity, and to close the card) and restrictions (withdrawal minimums and limits per day). One plus: If the card is lost or stolen, Travelex will replace it; however, the company won't refund the money lost, and it will charge a fee for the replacement card. *$100 buys €68.34. Best for Purchases big or small (it works as a debit or credit card would).Exception! Though not very flexible, this option would work nicely for those on a set budget or for those who are sending kids off on a European vacation but don't want to hand over a wad of cash. Foreign Exchange Desk (Airports, City Centers, Hotels) Exchange Rate Rip-off Meter 5 How it works Most international airports have at least one foreign-exchange desk where you can swap U.S. dollars for the local currency. You hand over your dollars; the clerk deducts fees—sometimes up to 20 percent! You can also exchange American cash for local currency at your hotel; commissions and rates there will vary widely. Some currency-exchange desks located in city centers offer better rates than the ones at airports, but proceed with caution: Even those that advertise 0 percent commissions probably have hidden fees. $100 Buys €59.65.Best for At this rate? Save it for emergencies.Exception! None—with all the other options available for exchanging currency, we say avoid this scenario. *All calculations were done on the same day and are based on the interbank euro to dollar rate of 1.2994. Exact figures will vary depending on the situation. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 8 New Wonders of the World 7 Travel Secrets of Top Show Dogs Confessions of a Hotel Housekeeper
Top 10 Ski Deals This Season
Stratton Mountain, Vermont Prepaid discount cards can often be a racket, but not so at Stratton, a 600-acre southern Vermont standby that hosts the top terrain park in the East. Stratton's $79 X2 card, which you can buy online, pays for itself in a single visit: Card carriers get a one-day lift ticket free with the purchase. What's more, they'll save $10 to $30 off any additional day passes and get to skip the ticket window lines—a big perk considering that the wait can be nearly a half hour on busy weekends. stratton.com, adult passes from $65 (online). Winter Park, Colorado The closest major resort to Denver (only 67 miles away), this bump-skiing paradise has added upgrades worth $170 million, including an ice-skating pond. What hasn't changed? The wallet-friendly lift-ticket prices, such as an $82 two-day child's pass over spring break. The nearby town of Fraser has the best affordable restaurants and hotels, such as the Rocky Mountain Inn & Hostel, which runs free shuttles to the slopes (therockymountaininn.com, from $79). winterparkresort.com, adult passes from $65.* Saddleback, Maine Once down on its luck, this resort in Maine's Rangeley Lakes region, two and a half hours west of Portland, is back in a big way. Saddleback has increased its terrain 60 percent in seven years and recently added a new lift, three new trails, more snowmaking, and a beginner's area—all without raising lift-ticket rates above $40. New England–area students who make the honor roll are eligible for $99 season passes, and all kids will love Saddleback's quirky free events, such as the annual Cardboard Box Race (March 26). saddlebackmaine.com, adult passes from $35. Bridger Bowl, Montana Bridger is one of the biggest mom-and-pop mountains in the U.S., and this year it replaced its two main lifts with one triple chair, increasing the number of skiers served by 7.5 percent and reducing undue stoppages. Single storms here can bring more than 70 inches, and the terrain goes from beginner to expert (the famed Bridger Ridge features steep, 500-vertical-foot chutes where avalanche beacons are necessary). The world-class ski school for kids plus numerous blue and green runs keep the place from getting too hard-core. bridgerbowl.com, adult passes from $47. Whistler Blackcomb, B.C. With 8,171 acres of skiing, $91 lift tickets, and a bevy of luxury hotels, Whistler Blackcomb is one of the biggest, priciest megaresorts in North America. But it's also a destination everybody needs to see at least once, and for budget travelers, the time is right now. The post-Olympic hangover has left a multitude of new restaurants, hotels, and activities (think bobsled and skeleton tracks) coping with a lower demand. To wit: Hostelling International opened a lodge, HI Whistler, in the former Olympic athletes' village, with 14 private rooms and rates starting at $156 in peak season (hihostels.ca). Also, if you buy your lift ticket online at least three days in advance, you can save up to 20 percent. whistlerblackcomb.com, adults from $91. Ski Santa Fe, New Mexico Just 16 miles up the road from New Mexico's capital, Ski Santa Fe may be the most blissfully undervalued mountain in the Southwest. What sounds like a local hill is actually a 12,075-foot peak in the Sangre de Cristos, making it one of the highest resorts in the nation. The snow is similar to the bone-dry powder in Taos, but lift tickets are 15 percent cheaper, and the runs are just as striking—the longest is three miles. With Santa Fe so close, visitors will want to fuel up on a breakfast burrito with spicy chorizo from Tia Sophia's on West San Francisco Street before driving the 10 minutes to the slopes (505/983-9880, burritos from $6.50). skisantafe.com, adult passes from $60. Grand Targhee, Wyoming Skiers at Jackson Hole might share the slopes with locals like Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford, but they'll pay for the privilege. For the same ridiculous snow (500 inches per year) and sweeping Teton views, savvy locals opt for nearby Grand Targhee, where the lift tickets are 25 percent cheaper. It's also far less crowded, averaging just one skier for every two acres. Targhee is 45 miles from the town of Jackson, and the drive is easy enough that you can do it as a day trip. The hotel selection in Jackson is better anyway: Try the family-owned Antler Inn, a block away from the popular Town Square area's bars and restaurants (townsquareinns.com/antler-inn, from $55). grandtarghee.com, adult passes from $69. Kirkwood Mountain, California Bay Area skiers know that while the party may be in South Lake Tahoe, the powder is an hour south at down-home Kirkwood. This massive mountain gets buckets of snow (up to 600 inches a year) and has steep chutes sure to please intermediates and experts. Best of all, lift tickets cost 10 percent less than those at resorts farther north. Intermediate snowboarders should take advantage of Kirkwood's backcountry courses, the only West Coast powder-instruction program accredited by Burton. kirkwood.com, adult passes from $74.* Revelstoke Mountain Resort, B.C. North America's newest ski resort is one of its most promising: It's 5,620 feet tall, set in the Banff-like Columbia River valley, and gets up to an astounding 60 feet of snow every year. But Revelstoke is still somewhat of a work in progress, so lodging in the base area is being offered at discounted rates. (The lesson: Go now, while it's still affordable!) You can book a room in the resort's ecofriendly Nelsen Lodge for as little as $131 per person per night, including a lift ticket, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary fruit and coffee (250/814-5000). Head down the Last Spike for one of the biggest sustained vertical drops on the continent, at 9.5 miles long: Two laps top-to-bottom here, and your quads will beg you to cancel yoga classes for a month. revelstokemountainresort.com, adult passes from $74. Mt. Bachelor, Oregon At many resorts, cheaper lift tickets during the shoulder months often means poorer skiing. Not so at Mount Bachelor, a long-dormant volcanic cone in the Cascade Range, where the off-season is prime. In early December and May, lift tickets are discounted, but the slopes are still excellent: Christmastime is often celebrated with base depths of four feet of snow, while May temperatures reach into the 60s for ideal spring skiing conditions. To boot, last year the resort instituted a new pricing structure based on how many lifts it anticipated opening each day. No snow? Tickets could be $50. Total whiteout? You'll be happy to pay the full $70, which, for 3,365 vertical feet spread over 3,683 acres, is still a bargain. Early- and late-season deals at the Riverhouse (riverhouse.com, doubles from $125) in nearby Bend offer free breakfasts, a free night with a two-day purchase, and a free mountain shuttle. mtbachelor.com, adult passes from $50. *Last season's prices. This year's rates were unavailable at press time.
Ship StatsOasis: 225,282 tons; total capacity of 6,296 cruisers, akin to the population of Hailey, Idaho. Epic: 155,873 tons; total capacity of 5,183 cruisers, akin to the population of Moab, Ut. >SCORE: 1 for Oasis! Sometimes size really does matter—at least when it comes to providing space for fun activities, meals, and more. At over 225,000 tons, Oasis dwarfs the Epic, which is sizeable in its own right. Most Notable FirstOasis: Central Park is not only the first open-air park but also the largest green space on any ship, at 62 feet by 350 feet. It has more than 12,000 trees and plants (including fern pine and golden bamboo), as well as gardens of calla lilies and rabbit's foot ferns. Epic: Svedka, the first-ever ice bar at sea. Parkas are loaned out at the door to patrons (maximum capacity: 25), and there's usually a line to get in. The $20 cover charge includes two Svedka-based cocktails. After that, each one costs $8.75. >SCORE: 1 for Oasis! While an ice bar at sea is certainly cool and all, the actual experience—more like being in a walk-in freezer than in a club—is somewhat of a letdown. Meanwhile, the airy park actually delivers and is free for all. Most Awesome EntertainmentOasis: Ice shows at the ship's Studio B ice rink (free); diving and synchronized swimming spectaculars at the AquaTheater (free); and Disco Inferno Street Party theme nights during which partygoers boogie to the Bee Gees. Epic: Shows by members of the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe, where Tina Fey and Dan Aykroyd got their starts; the Cirque Dreams and Dinner acrobatic dinner theater ($20–$30); free Blue Man Group shows; and a Legends in Concert show with impersonators including Elvis, Michael Jackson, Shania Twain, and Cher. As many as 10 shows are offered daily. >SCORE: 1 for Epic! You can count on Epic for both quality and quantity. Norwegian really went the extra mile to bring in first-rate acts and to guarantee that there are enough shows daily to grant everyone access. Most Exciting Kid-Friendly FunOasis: Baking-soda volcanoes and Crayola-sponsored coloring for the under-12 set; a Boardwalk with a full-size wooden carousel; Nintendo Wii consoles; and DJ lessons for teens. Epic: A twice-weekly Nickelodeon Slime Time Live event—during which kids compete for the chance to end up green and goopy—plus dance parties with Dora the Explorer. >SCORE: 1 for Epic! There's simply no contest here. As every kid knows, being slimed comes with bragging rights. Most Adrenaline-Pumping ThrillsOasis: Two FlowRider simulated surfing platforms, where you can borrow either surf boards or boogie boards, plus the first-ever zip line at sea. Epic: A 2,112-square-foot climbing wall with a waterslide that cuts right through it to a swimming pool below, along with bungee jumping and the Spider Web, a 24-foot-tall enclosed climbing cage. >SCORE: 1 for Oasis! This was a tough one. Epic clearly outdid itself with that unimaginably massive waterslide, but based on novelty alone, we just can't ignore the cool-factor of surfing or careening down a zip line 80 feet above the ocean. Most Comfortable CabinsOasis: Among the 37 cabin options, the average stateroom size is 182 square feet. Guests are given the option of looking out over the ocean, the park, or nowhere at all. Epic: The average room size is 216 square feet, and guests rave about the ample storage space and the fact that toilets are separate from showers. Unlike on all other cruise ships, solo cruisers can get their own room without paying a surcharge. The 128 Studio staterooms are smaller—at 100 square feet—but are equipped with the same amenities, full-size beds, and give guests access to a special solo cruisers' lounge. >SCORE: 1 for Epic! We are totally on board with the fact that Epic treats solo and budget cruisers best. So much so that we gave Norwegian Cruise Line an Extra Mile Award this year for offering the solo cabins. Most Satisfying Dining ChoicesOasis: Of the 24 restaurants—including a sushi bar and a Spanish-themed wine bar—cruisers eat for free at 12. The 150 Central Park restaurant is the priciest: $35 covers all food and some non-alcoholic drinks like coffee and tea; wine pairings cost extra and complement the six- to eight-course tasting menu that changes twice each voyage and seasonally each year. Epic: Of the 20 restaurants—including a 24-hour sports pub and Shanghai's, a Chinese restaurant that has a noodle bar—cruisers eat for free at 11. Brazilian steak-house Moderno Churrascaria is the most popular option, where diners pay $18 for the salad bar and unlimited selections of meat. >SCORE: 1 for Oasis! We did the math. On a seven-day cruise, you could eat every single meal in a different restaurant on the Oasis—no repeats. What's more, that extra free restaurant option really counts in our book. Smackdown Verdict! Oasis Wins 4 to 3Royal Caribbean is clearly doing something right. Not only is its Oasis the ruler of the seas when it comes to megaships, we know Budget Travel readers prefer it above all other lines. In our 2010 Readers' Choice poll, it was ranked No. 1. Get the scoop by reading profiles of real-life RCI-loving cruisers (on a different ship). BOOK ITOasisMost affordable itinerary: A five-night Western Caribbean cruise in an interior room for $749 per person. The ship departs December 18, 2010, and docks in Cozumel, Mexico, and Nassau, Bahamas. EpicMost affordable itinerary: A four-night Western Mediterranean cruise in an interior room from $509 per person. The ship departs May 18, 2011, and docks in Barcelona, Marseille, and Mallorca.