Who Won The Budget Travel Readers' Choice Awards?
The results are in for the third annual Budget Travel Readers' Choice Awards. And some of the races were closer than others.
For some categories, it was no contest. Maui won for Favorite Island Getaway with 42% of the vote, Walt Disney World got 43% of the votes for Favorite Theme Park, and Norwegian Cruise Line got the same percentage of votes for Favorite Cruise Line. It's also clear that you guys really love Southwest Airlines. More than half of you voted them Most Reliable Airline, and almost half voted them as having the Nicest Flight Attendants.
There were some very tight races as well. Honolulu International Airport was just 1% ahead of Denver National Airport for Most Beautiful Terminals, while Philadelphia narrowly eked out a win over St. Louis, Missouri as the Most Underrated American City.
To see all the winners, click here to go to the results page. Did your favorites triumph?
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5 Affordable Restaurant Chains in London
Americans visiting London usually want to taste some of the local classic dishes, such as a plate of fish n’ chips and a pint of ale. But even die-hard travelers will admit that London’s iconic dishes are fried and fatty, which can be a bit overwhelming when eaten meal after meal after meal. As an alternative, white-table restaurants are pretty expensive, to the point it can seem like your credit card balance is having liposuction. Visitors needing an affordable restaurant may want to check out the city’s smorgasbord of sit-down, “quick service” chains. These venues have relatively healthy menus, speedy service, and clean bathrooms, making them local favorites. Another plus, the meals are often as tasty as they are affordable. I’m defining “affordable” as a vacation budget of $25 (under £15) per person for two courses, excluding wine or drinks. Here, then, are some picks for the best London quick-service, sit-down chains. Byron Some Londoners insist that the best burger you can get with speedy, sit-down service is from Byron, a gourmet burger chain that’s grown to 19 UK locations since its founding in 2007. But the secret to Byron’s success may lie less with its juicy organic mincemeat burgers than with its tasty chips, served with your choice of garlic mayonnaise or ketchup. Other popularity factors for the mini-chain include its modern decor, lively music, family-friendly bonhomie, and dinners that cost only £10 plus the cost of a pale ale or a craft beer. byronhamburgers.com Masala Zone The British are so devoted to Indian food that some locals joke that chicken tikka masala is the national dish. But Indian food is more than tikka, and the first chain to bring street food and regional dishes to London was Masala Zone, launched in 2001. It now has seven locations in prime areas, such as Soho and Covent Garden. The start of the menu is thali, a complete meal of several small plates served on a metal tray, for about £10. For instance, dhai puri are little pastry cases with a mixture of chick peas, tamarind sauce, and yoghurt. Stuff the one whole in your mouth and bite, so that it explodes with a sweet-and-tangy taste. You can get in and out in under 45 minutes if you want, or linger for two hours. masalazone.com Nandos Ideal pit stop for families with kids, this restaurant has crowd-pleasing food with both spicy and non-spicy dishes, large tables to share food on, a welcoming attitude toward kids and teens, and, unlike anywhere else in London, free refills on soda. The Nando’s signature dish is a half-a-roast chicken doused in a mild chili sauce. The South African restaurant chain specializes in “peri-peri" chicken, a chili dish created by Portuguese settlers in Mozambique. Choose how spicy you like it, and watch your chicken be cooked in the open kitchen. The system is quick, yet you can eat at your own pace. £10 for half a chicken, with two regular sides. Nando’s is the city’s fastest-growing quick-service chain, with 57 prime London locations gaining rapidly in popularity since its 1992 arrival in the UK. (There’s one US location, in Washington, D.C.) nandos.com Wagamama When Wagamama opened in London in 1992, it introduced Londoners to South-East Asian flavors blended with Japanese noodle dishes. Menus were full of edamame (steamed soy beans) with ramen, or else strips of steak laid on beds of soba noodles, dressed in a sweet soy sauce. Today, the menu remains much the same and the prices also remains affordable (meal for two with drinks at under £35, or about $50). Wagamama still has a minimalist setting, such as long communal tables surrounded by white walls and a friendly attitude toward kids and teens. True, London doesn’t have a lock on Wagamama anymore. There are 37 overseas locations, including a few in the US in Boston. But there are 76 in the UK, with three more opening in London this year. wagamama.com Gourmet Burger Kitchen Run by New Zealanders, this chain touts Aberdeen Angus beef burgers, but you can also pick veggie, chicken, lamb or venison versions. Pick your toppings and add chips for about £10 per meal. Think of it as a Chipotle for burgers. gbk.co.uk SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL London's Top Fish n' Chips Shops 15 International Food Etiquette Rules That Might Surprise You 8 Foreign Fast-Food Chains You Need to Know Wendy's Goes Gourmet in Japan
6 Neat Niche Hotel Brands
Last week, InterContinental introduced an interesting new health-and-fitness-minded brand of hotels called EVEN. But it's hardly the only niche hotel brand out there. The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is one of the world's biggest hotel companies, best known for brands such as Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, and Holiday Inn Express. The company has also dabbled in the "boutique hotel" trend with Hotel Indigo, and now, it is launching another niche brand, EVEN. EVEN Hotels, the company announced recently, will be designed to provide "solutions for all aspects of travelers' wellness needs in the areas of exercise, food, work and rest." Specifically, here's what guests can expect in an EVEN hotel stay: • Exercise– Guest rooms designed for in-room workouts with multi-functional room amenities (e.g. coat rack that doubles as a pull up bar); best in class gym with equipment and group exercise activities; “Wellness Wall” for fitness options in walking distance, tips and equipment rental; personalized guest service to offer advice on fitness options, ideas and/or instruction; all baked into the service experience, at no added cost to the guest. • Eat– Nutritionally designed menus with a particular focus on natural, fresh, fit and energizing meals – available anytime; an open air café and bar; free flavored filtered water with glass bottles available to fill up and take back to the room; free coffee & mini-smoothies in the morning. • Work– Rooms with high speed Wi-Fi, multimedia ports, easy access to outlets, ample desk space; and social spaces in the bar and lobby. • Rest- Rooms offer revitalization and relaxation, including hypoallergenic linens, powerful showerheads, natural lighting, LED dimmers and antibacterial wipes. Within the next five years, IHG expects to have contracts signed or already have built 100 EVEN Hotels, with the first opening in a soon-to-be-determined U.S. location in 2013. No information about rates has been released, but most likely EVEN properties will fall into the midscale range. While the EVEN concept isn't perfect for every traveler, it's refreshing to see a brand that has such an easily identifiable personality and focus. Often, it's unclear what a hotel brand stands for, and therefore it's difficult for travelers to tell if the brand is right for them. That shouldn't be the case with EVEN. The brand is designed to appeal to a specific niche, and guests should know what they're going to get. Over the last few years, several other interesting niche hotel brands have entered the marketplace or expanded significantly. Like EVEN, these brands stand out because they mean something very specific, and they'll resonate with certain breeds of travelers. The list of niche brands includes: Ace Hotel: Hip, offbeat minimalist style meant to appeal especially to Gen X and Gen Y travelers, with locations in Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Palm Springs. Cube Hotels: Rigid, unconventional design (giant cubes encased in steel and reflective windows) meets an active, sports-centric feel, with mountainside locations in Europe's Alps that make perfect bases for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and mountain biking. Element: Starwood's green, sustainable brand, with environmentally friendly features from top to bottom, including use of eco-friendly recycled materials in design and construction; 15 hotels are currently open or under construction. Omena: Based in Finland, the chain promises a "new, cost-effective accommodation option," mainly by removing the usual hotel staff and amenities such as breakfast (you're on your own there). The guest experience is almost entirely self-service: After reserving (online, of course), you receive a door code and proceed directly to your room, rather than heading to any check-in desk. There are currently 14 Omena properties, all in Scandinavia, and all with city-center locations. Yotel: The concept combines small, ultra-modern, efficiently-designed, inexpensive rooms with prime locations in pricey cities (two blocks from Times Square in New York) and near major airports (London-Heathrow). MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 8 Cool New Tools for Finding the Perfect Hotel World's Weirdest Hotels, 2011 26 Gorgeous Hotels You Won't Believe Are Under $150
Most Popular Places for Tourism in 2011
The numbers are in, and it was a strong year for tourism. Europe saw a 6% increase in visitors, while Paris and London retained their shared status as the world's most-visited cities. In the US, New York City had a record-breaking 50 million visitors last year, making it the leader nationwide. Which destinations in the US and across the globe were particularly popular with travelers in 2011? Here's a short round-up: USA Hawaii had its best month for tourism visits ever in January, attracting 643,616 visitors, a 7.7% increase from January 2011, thanks to plentiful value-priced vacation packages. In Maui, alone, visitor spending hit an all time high. This trend is part of a year-long surge in popularity for the Aloha State, which will become more accessible this June, when it gets more flights from the East Coast. Florida had a solid year in 2011, with about 86 million visitors, up about 4.4% from in 2010. Warm weather this winter has led to continued record bookings, suggesting that 2012 is off to a strong start, with lots of deals to Orlando and Miami. LATIN AMERICA Mexico had a record-breaking year for tourism, despite the sad headlines from its drug war. Visits were up 10%, to 27 million visitors, with many staying at the drama-free resorts towns of Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya, and Tulum. Our southern neighbor has always been relatively affordable, but the U.S. dollar's exchange rate against the Mexican peso is unusually favorable, so there are plenty of resort deals. Traveler numbers are forecast to rise another 10% this year. Rio de janeiro had the highest hotel occupancy of any city in Latin America in 2011. The Brazilian city can't build hotels fast enough to anticipate the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Expect plenty of deals, such as a current package for five-nights of hotel stays, plus airfare from New York City, from $1,519 per person. Note that this June, the city will celebrate the annual Festas Juninas (also known as Bonfire Festivals), with live music and fireworks on the city's main plazas. EUROPE The three European capitals with the highest growth rate for overnight stays were Berlin, Stockholm, and Ljubljana, according to a new study. Cologne had the best performance of Europe's second-tier cities, with a record-breaking 5 million overnight stays—up 10% from the previous year's total. Greece also had a record-breaking year, with 10% growth, rising to 14 million visitors. Despite a wave of strikes and protests over economic austerity measures, monuments, such as the Pantheon, were a particularly hot attraction for tourists, with visits up 17%. There was a 36% surge in people taking cruises around the Greek islands, a trend that's partly due to newly liberalised laws that have led to competition. In 2012, capital city Athens is one of our picks for the best budget travel destination. Croatia saw an 8% rise in visits to 11 million tourists. The central European country especially was popular for its beaches along the Adriatic Sea. ELSEWHERE Bermuda boomed, with 70,000 more tourists visiting in 2011 than the previous year, for an increase of 12%. With sun, sand as soft as sifted flour, and blue-green water, it's a fantastic destination, now with better air links to the US and plenty of amazing packages, such as three-nights-plus-air from New York City at rates from $640 a person. Iceland saw its tourism numbers rise 17.8%, and that level may be surpassed this year as a new low-cost airline, Wow, is debuting in summer and making the country a more attractive place to visit. The airline plans to launch in time for June 21, the summer solstice, when locals cheer the midnight sun on the longest day of the year. Cambodia witnessed a 15% gain in visitor numbers, rising to 2.9 million—15 times the number it drew a decade ago. Look for independently owned guesthouses because the major resort chains haven't built much here yet, though booking engines like AsiaRooms tout many deals. New Zealand had a record-breaking tourism year in 2011, with 2.6 million visitors. That gain was driven partly by a 2 percent rise in American tourists. Packages are making the film locations for the Lord of the Rings series attractive, such as one deal that includes airfare from L.A. and eight- nights lodging, from $1,799 a person. The Philippines also had a record-breaking year, reaching 3.9 million visitors, up 11% from a year earlier. The country is increasingly in the limelight because many Hollywood celebrities have been staying at its beach resorts. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 U.S. State Department Names the Mexican Resort Towns It Thinks Are Safe To Go or Not to Go: 11 Places With a Bad Rap
15 Places Kids Should See Before 15: Nominate Now!
Last spring we revealed the 15 Places Your Kids Should See Before 15—a collection of important American landmarks debated and researched by our editorial staff—and the feedback we received was interesting. Some of you agreed with us, while others sounded off on our facebook and twitter pages, leaving comments saying we'd forgotten to leave out seemingly obvious places, and urging us to reconsider our choices and adjust our list accordingly. Now it's your turn to set the record straight. This year, we're giving you—our readers and fans—the chance to choose. Visit our official nominations page from now until Tuesday, February 21st, and make a case for a place you think every kid should see before they turn 15—whether it's a national park, monument, famous landmark, museum, or another memorable spot from your own childhood. Choose a place that is fun, educational, and would be especially memorable for a young child. If the place you're thinking of is mentioned already, vote "thumbs up" to make it go higher in the list and leave a comment about why you were going to nominate it. Be careful not to nominate a place that has already won in the past—you can double–check by clicking on the previous winners link on our nominations page—as these places will not be counted in the final tally. So far, the popular choices seem to overwhelmingly be national parks, followed by monuments and museums. Entire cities—like St. Augustine, Florida, and Boston, Mass.,—were nominated this year, as were little known places like the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Space travel seems to be of interest this year as well, with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and Kennedy Space Center both bringing in lots of votes. Don't wait much longer to voice your opinion—voting ends on Tuesday, February 21st. We'll be posting the results in March, so don't forget to check back! MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL 5 Easy Overnight Adventures for Kids A Family Field Trip Around the World Best Reader Tips for Flying with an Infant