Experience Your America

Still looking for a summer vacation destination? How bout looking somewhat closer to home.... at one of our countries fine National Parks?

"The National Park System comprises 391 areas covering more than 84 million acres in every state (except Delaware), the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House." according to the US National Park Services website.

Some National Parks will require a significant advance reservation, such as Yosemite. Most are readily available.

NPS Director Mary Bomar said, “Your national parks pay homage to our ancestors and inspire our children to become better stewards of the parks for tomorrow. National parks provide incredible opportunities to experience the marvelous natural and cultural heritage of our country. I welcome you to come out and enjoy your national parks this year and every year.”

Last year over 276 million people visited the various National Parks. Were you one of them? What is your favorite park?


Ahhh... Summer Vacation (now a roadtrip!)

Remember National Lampoon's Vacation? Talk about a classic... whether you appreciate this humor or not, it's pretty much how most will probably travel this summer. Road Trip!
Hopefully your roadtrip doesn't involve putting Aunt Edna on the roof of your SUV or visiting crazy Eddy in Kansas. And... I really hope that Wally World doesn't close the day you get there.
With airfare being so high, we are not going to forgo travel or our vacations! We need travel now more than ever. Travel and the escape it offers us, brings most away from the stale cubicles they sit in 45-50 hours every week.
Thank god I no longer sit in a cubicle. I will always feel the need though for escape, to travel, to venture, to explore new and familiar places.
And fortunately, living in Arizona both Vegas (#1 destination in the world I believe) and Southern California are a 5 hour drive away.
"You may think you hate it now, but wait til you drive it." - Clark Griswold

Headlines for European Travelers

Lufthansa faces major strike next week; flights will be impacted (USA Today)

Buckingham Palace state rooms will be open to the public for two months (BBC)

Britain's National Parks Week features picnics, festivals and spectacular walks (The Guardian)

Guided tour of Athen's new Acropolis Museum (The Guardian)

Stretching your Dollar in Europe

Greenback Blues

T+L’s Andrea Bennett tells you how to stretch your dollar in Europe.
From May 2008

When it comes to saving money in Europe, the advice I most often hear is: go during “shoulder season,” discover alternate destinations, or take a cruise (and eat on the ship, even when it’s docked). But sometimes, only Paris in the springtime at the Four Seasons Hotel George V will do. To mitigate the pain of the current exchange rate without compromising your ultimate trip, follow my six-step plan. More money-saving ideas can also be found in “Strategies”, and in “Three Affordable European Itineraries”.

Avoid ATM fees
Cash machines are still the best way to get local currency—if you can get around the exorbitant fees. Lately, some banks have hiked their flat rate of $2 per withdrawal to $5, or added a conversion surcharge, or both. Check to see what your bank levies before leaving home—and before making a withdrawal (you can find a list of costs at Bankrate.com).

Find a Local Partner
Even if your bank has substantial fees for withdrawals, many institutions now work with partners abroad and allow customers to take out money at no charge. Bank of America imposes $5, plus 1 percent of the withdrawal amount, at unaffiliated overseas ATM’s, but nothing at those of partners like Barclays (United Kingdom), BNP Paribas (France), and Deutsche Bank (Germany). Some banks, such as Citibank, have their own branches in Europe.

Do fewer exchanges in larger increments
Travelex currency-exchange kiosks (located at most airports) provide a lower service fee for larger transactions—for a $100 exchange, the charge is 6 percent, while it’s about 1.5 percent for sums of more than $500. Some companies (Travelex and Marks & Spencer) have “buy-back” programs, where consumers can sell their leftover currency at a favorable rate, often waiving the service fees, so you won’t have to dump your leftover money on duty-free Toblerone bars (although you’ll often have to return to the place of the original transaction).

Make major purchases with a credit card
Using your plastic abroad often guarantees you the lowest exchange rate and protects you from unauthorized charges. But the fees (for currency conversions and foreign transactions) are often the same as those on the issuer’s debit card. Only a couple of cards don’t charge extra (check before you go). Or, consider opening an account in euros to escape transaction fees altogether. Lloyds TSB Offshore (lloydstsb-offshore.com) or HSBC Premier (hsbcpremier.com) are two options.

Minimize transportation expenses
It’s possible to cut costs on getting around. Autoeurope (autoeurope.com), for example, guarantees car-rental rates in dollars. Eurostar (eurostar.com) usually charges far less if you purchase your rail trip through its United States Web site. At press time, we found a three-day, London-to-Paris trip on the U.S. site for $424; the same trip from the U.K. site was $654.

Watch out for dynamic currency conversion
Often, a merchant will present a credit card bill for purchases abroad in dollars, rather than euros, as a “convenience” to the customer. But since he’s free to pick any exchange rate for the transaction, you could end up losing money. And travelers aren’t aware that they can turn down this “service.” It’s generally safer when you buy using the local currency.

Frustrating Frequent Flyer Points...

I tried to book a free roundtrip ticket this morning to Minneapolis; I have over 30,000 points.... more than the 25,000 free roundtrip price.

But... apparently there must be alot of people using mileage right now. The flight was quoting $500 - - ouch, considering I used to pay around $200 R/T. So why not use my points, right? Ha! That 25,000 option wasn't even available... I had to go w/ the 50,000 premium award trip.

I'm booking the flight 3-4 weeks in advance for a trip in August! Not enough points... so I'll be extending my trip, got the price down to $385 (w/ taxes).

Still pretty high for Mpls... flights to Chicago on the same airline are $218 R/T.

Moral of the story - - I think everyone is cashing in their points while the fuel prices are over the top; so plan ahead or pay extra!

Yes, I could have flown a couple other airlines that were about $80 less... but I'm "loyal" to the airline partner I've built my status with. The free upgrades and perks still mean something to me I guess, even though it takes DOUBLE miles now. Ugghhh. :)

Here's an article from Travel+Leisure on secrets of Frequent Flyer points. http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/fly-free-frequent-flier-miles-secrets

No snacking near Rome's monuments, please

ROME, Italy (AP) -- Cappuccino by the Trevi Fountain? Gelato on the Spanish Steps? Such small delights have run afoul of the guardians of Rome.

A ban on snacking is in effect at some of Rome's famous sites, including the Spanish Steps.

City Hall has banned snacking near its famous monuments in the historical center. Violators face an $80 fine.

Officials say they want to preserve artistic treasures and decorum in a city that has millions of visitors every year.

The ordinance also bans the homeless from making makeshift beds and takes to task people who loiter in central areas at night, who, "often drunk, not only leave all manner of litter on public grounds and in the fountains, but also disturb the peace."

The ban was passed July 10 and remains in effect until the end of October.
Since the ban went into effect last weekend, police have patrolled sites such as the Spanish Steps, asking tourists to move out and preventing them from sipping their drinks while sitting on the 18th-century stairway that is one of symbols of the city.

They handed out the first fines, too, City Hall said. Corriere della Sera reported that among the first to be fined were three Tunisian men eating and drinking beer on the Spanish Steps.
According to city figures, 7.6 million people visited Rome in the first five months of the year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Another way to Save money when you Travel -- for Pet Lovers

Okay, so we've always brought our two mini-dachshunds to this great Doggie Daycare when we travel. Our dogs absolutely LOVE it... and they spoil them rotten!

But... the prices for boarding keeps going up, AND.. we're are trying our best to keep costs low when we travel (which is frequently).

So I checked the online business directory of my local Chamber of Commerce and found several licensed and bonded "Pet Sitters". Pet Sitters will come to your house once or twice a day (maybe more or overnight if you'd like)... and they are considerably less expensive.

For example, the local kennel is around $50-60/day for our dogs while the Pet Sitter is $30/day for two visits and up to 3 dogs.

So now our dogs will be in the comfort of home, while we're out drinking Mai Tais! :)

Icelandair's giving away 120,000 award points!!!

Join the Icelandair Saga Club today and you will automatically receive 1,000 free award points and be entered to win 120,000 free award points*

Even if you don't travel with Icelandair frequently, you can benefit from membership by using points with our partners like Points.com, Marriott, Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Hertz and more.

Through Points.com you can use your award points towards other airline programs like JetBlue TrueBlue or even on your next trip to Starbucks. Trust us, 120,000 points will get you a lot of Mocha Frappuccinos!

Offer details:+ Valid from July 9 - 29, 2008.+ Valid for new Saga Club members only.+ Valid for US and Canadian residents.+ Points will be granted after the July 29, 2008.
*Click here to view Icelandair Official Rules.

No free water on US Airways

"US Airways will begin charging for soft drinks on Aug. 1. That includes bottled water. Yes, bottled water. The airline is completely unapologetic about the new charge. “We’ve chosen to be more aggressive than our competitors,” Doug Parker, the airline’s chief executive, told his employees in an internal memo."

By Christopher Elliott
Travel columnist
MSNBC contributor


Travel Checklist

Need help planning what to pack? Here's a great travel checklist found on Oprah.com

Italy Well Worth the Effort in 2008

By Rick Steves
Tribune Media Services

(Tribune Media Services) -- Bella Italia, my favorite country in Europe, is a wonderful work in progress. Here's a look at what to expect in 2008.

Rome's Altar of Peace, which kicked off the Pax Romana, is housed in the first new building in central Rome since before World War II.

Italy is gung-ho for restricted traffic zones in its city centers. This is great for pedestrians, but not for drivers who are finding $100 fines in their mail when they arrive home. If you drive in Rome, Florence, Milan, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Orvieto or Verona -- in restricted areas marked by a Zona Traffico Limitato sign -- your car's license plate will be photographed and you can be fined without ever being stopped by a cop. Pay attention to signs, get parking advice from your hotelier, and park outside restricted areas.

With a revolution brewing among the throngs of tourists stung by the Vatican Museum's stingy hours, the museum has agreed to stay open longer in 2008: Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (last ticket sold at 4:00 p.m.); as usual, it'll be closed on Sunday except for the last Sunday of the month, when it's free and open 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (last ticket sold at 12:30 p.m.). While some Catholics would love a private audience with the pope, those passed away with John Paul II -- Pope Benedict XVI doesn't do them.
It's a good time to be a fan of ancient Rome. On Palatine Hill, the Augustus Rooms, four newly restored rooms in a house from the era of Emperor Augustus open in March 2008 (entry included in the Colosseum/Palatine Hill ticket). At Trajan's Forum, a new Museum of the Imperial Forum just opened, offering ancient artifacts and computers showing how the forum was built.

Nearby, a small part of Nero's Golden House has reopened, but it's in a sad state of ruin -- more historically significant than interesting. And travelers are rediscovering the Ara Pacis -- the first-century "Altar of Peace" built by Emperor Augustus to kick off the Pax Romana. It's wonderfully displayed in a state-of-the-art exhibit housed in a starkly modern building -- the first new construction in Rome's old center since 1938.
If you're planning a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, the more-popular-than-ever showcase of Italian Renaissance paintings, reserve a ticket and entry time at least a month ahead (to avoid the two-hour-long ticket-buying line at the gallery). The simplest option is to ask your hotelier to make the reservation (most will do this for free or for a small fee). You can try to make the Uffizi reservation yourself by phone (from the United States, dial 011-39-055-294-883), but the line is often busy, and once you get through, it seems that they almost enjoy keeping you on hold and then disconnecting you.

The Clock Tower on St. Mark's Square has finally opened, giving visitors a close-up look at the clock innards, as well as expansive views of the square and beyond from the terrace. Unfortunately, you can only see it with a reservation-only guided tour (12 euros, includes Correr Museum). You can make the reservation in person at the Correr Museum, from the States by dialing 011-39-041-520-9070, or online at

The glorious dome of Venice's La Salute Church will likely be covered in scaffolding in 2008. The proposed 10-year, multi-billion-dollar Moses Project, designed to protect Venice from flooding through the use of underwater barriers, was funded several years ago ... but construction has yet to begin. Meanwhile construction is under way on the Grand Canal's new, ultra-modern fourth bridge, made of glass, steel and stone. The Calatrava Bridge will connect the Santa Lucia train station with Piazzale Roma as early as this summer, if it's finished on time.
In nearby Vicenza, 2008 promises to be a great year as the town celebrates the 500th birthday of Palladio, the homegrown architectural genius (

Reservations to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper still book up long in advance. It's better to book by phone than online. If you call, you'll have a greater selection of days and time slots to choose from, since their user-unfriendly Website doesn't reflect cancellations (from the United States, dial 011-39-02-8942-1146,

Milan's new Museum of Art and Science offers a hands-on look at Leonardo's work -- sketches, paintings, and models of inventions -- during the 20 years he spent in Milan. The cathedral's Duomo Museum is still under renovation and may be closed for the first part of 2008, as is the train station (expect chaos until the dust settles, and even after that).
From Milan to Rome, Italy is working hard to spiff up its sights, draw more tourists, and keep the gelato-slurping masses moving as smoothly as possible. It's hot, crowded, expensive ... and well worth the effort.
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Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.