Valentine’s Day Travel: World Wide Bus offers free bus tickets from NYC-Boston

free bus ticketsIf you’re tight on cash this Valentine’s Day, it may still be possible to plan a last-minute getaway to New York City or the Boston area. World Wide Bus, which launched last fall, is offering free round-trip bus tickets from Manhattan to Cambridge, or vice versa.

Too good to be true? Well, if you can take time off work, the free tickets are valid for travel on Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day), Feb. 15, Feb. 16, or Feb. 17. I just checked and found that there are still seats left on the 9 a.m. departure from Manhattan, which would put you in Cambridge by 2 p.m. — that leaves you plenty of time to explore before sitting down to a romantic V-Day dinner.

The company initially set aside 1,000 one-way tickets for this Valentine’s Day promotion, but is now aiming to add buses to accommodate any increased demand. Even so, it’s best to lock in these free tickets now. There are three daily departures from each city. The nearly five-hour bus ride is made a bit more tolerable with Wi-Fi and power outlets at each seat.

The Deal: The round-trip tickets are worth $30 ($15 one-way).

The Details: Limit two round-trip tickets per customer. You must register in advance of the day you’re traveling, and enter each passenger’s name on the ticket. Other free routes between Feb. 14-17 include Manhattan to Newton, Mass., or vice versa.

More Info: www.worldwidebus.com

5 best chocolate factory tours around the U.S.

chocolate factory toursIf you really want to impress a chocoholic on Valentine’s Day, consider stopping by one of these chocolate factory tours in San Francisco, New York City, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and Vermont. Most of these tours are free, plus you’ll score complimentary samples — and extra brownie points for creativity.

But even if you can only give your sweetheart a box of chocolates this year, these tours are available year-round (not that you really need an excuse to indulge on your next vacation).

TCHO
Where: Pier 17, San Francisco
Move over, Ghirardelli. TCHO launched a free factory tour just after Thanksgiving. Though each tour includes complimentary samples of chocolate, cocoa nibs, and biscotti, few people will be able to resist buying the best-selling chocolate-covered mango pieces ($4 for four ounces). And for chocolate lovers who can’t make it to the factory, TCHO is expected to unveil a virtual tour soon.
When: 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily; factory operation may not be in production on all weekends.
Cost: Free tour. Walk-ins are accepted, but there’s a limit of 30 people per tour, so you’ll want to reserve tickets through www.brownpapertickets.com.
Info: www.tcho.com

Big Island Candies
Where: Hilo, Hawaii
Large glass windows let you watch rows of workers as they hand-dip macadamia nuts in milk or dark chocolate. More adventurous chocolate lovers may want to try Ika, dried cuttlefish dipped in chocolate. You’ll also be able to help yourself to chocolate and cookie samples, all of which you can wash down with a complimentary cup of Kona coffee.
When: Factory operation is viewable 8:30 a.m.-3:45 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays
Cost: Free admission; two-ounce box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from $4.
Info: www.bigislandcandies.com

Lake Champlain Chocolates
Where: Burlington, Vermont
The 25-minute factory tour includes free tastings of dark, milk, and white chocolate, plus a featured sample that varies by day. The company’s bestseller? Truffles ($2.25 each; $12 for a four-piece gift box).
When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays on the hour; in the summer, there is typically a tasting session and a video demo on Fridays instead of the tour.
Cost: Free tour. Walk-ins are accepted; limit 30 people per tour.
Info: 800/465-5909 for reservations; www.lakechamplainchocolates.comEthel M Chocolates
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada
If you’re going to be addicted to something while visiting Vegas, it might as well be to chocolate. The free self-guided tour lets you peer into the factory and learn about the chocolate-making process. End the tour with a sample of white, dark, milk, or various seasonal chocolates. Considering that the factory receives about 700,000 visitors per year, that’s a lot of free samples.
When: The factory — in Henderson about a 15-minute drive from McCarran airport — is open daily, but the machinery tends to operate Mondays-Thursdays only.
Cost: Free tour
Info: www.ethelm.com

Mast Brothers Chocolate
Where: Brooklyn, New York
Of these five chocolate factories, this is the only tour that charges for a behind-the-scenes look. Then again, this craft chocolate factory is a much smaller operation than some of the other companies. Made from organically farmed cacao from Madagascar, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, the exquisitely wrapped chocolate bars come in equally delicious flavors like Fleur del Sel ($7).
When: 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Cost: $9.99 per person for a tour; reserve tickets through www.brownpapertickets.com
Info: www.mastbrotherschocolate.com

%Gallery-114486%

How to create a realistic travel budget with Mint.com’s planning tool

A new year often means lofty resolutions, especially when it comes to planning and maintaining a travel budget.

Though there are many personal-finance sites and software out there, this year I’m resolving to use Mint.com‘s free online tool. You can create plans for saving toward retirement and buying a house, but I’ll be primarily using the site for its Travel Goals, which help you set — and stick to — realistic travel budgets.

And though the tool obviously doesn’t do the hardest part (you still have to save the money), it does track how far or close you are to achieving your Travel Goal.

For example, say you want to go to Hawaii for a week this summer. Once you create a budget by filling in the estimates for airfare, hotel, meals, and other expenses, you can then specify how much you will contribute to that Travel Goal each month.

If you underestimate how much you’d need to save per month, the online tool points out: “Oh no! You aren’t saving enough each month to reach your goal on time.” The tool then offers you two ways to fix your Travel Goal: increase your monthly contribution in order to reach your desired travel date or postpone your planned date to fit your monthly contribution.

If you stay on track with saving the specified amount each month, Mint.com’s budgeting tool highlights (and adjusts) the projected date of when you can afford to take the trip. Save more, and you could afford to take your trip a month or two earlier.

But if you slack on your monthly savings, the date will be pushed back — a reality check and an instant motivator. Once you mentally equate an unnecessary clothing purchase or an impulse buy to the consequence of delaying your trip by a month, saving becomes a little more real.

Granted, most people will buy plane tickets and reserve hotels with a credit card several months before actually taking the trip; the tool helps track if you’ll be able to easily pay it all off after your trip. After all, nothing ruins a vacation more than coming home to bills that you’re not financially prepared to handle.

To fund my travels this year, I’ve linked my Mint.com account to an ING Savings Account labeled Travel Fund.

How do you stay on track with saving up for a vacation?

[flickr image via epSoS.de]

%Gallery-112536%

Travel Photography: Krome Photos service edits pictures for you

travel photographyA funny thing happens to my travel photos after a trip. After uploading select pictures to Flickr or Picasa, my photos often languish unedited (and unseen) on my laptop. I tell myself that when I finally carve out some free time, I’ll go back and properly edit the rest of the pictures and create a photo book or scrapbook to remember my vacation.

Unfortunately, the photo folders keep multiplying and I never seem to find the time. Luckily, there’s now an affordable online service that can edit your photos for you: Krome Photos.

How It Works
Sign up for a free trial with 25 photo credits and 1GB of storage at www.kromephotos.com. Another special introductory offer gives you 100 photo credits for $2.50. See here for more pricing plans, including monthly subscriptions.

Download the Krome Photo Uploader to your desktop, and upload any photos that you want to be edited. Go off, live life, and about 24-36 hours later, you’ll get an e-mail notifying that your photos have received the “Krome Treatment,” or the talents of a personal photo editor who may improve your pictures with color correction, red-eye correction, cropping, or other tweaks.

You can accept or reject the photo enhancements; a photo credit is deducted from your account balance if you download or share an edited photo. Though it’s nice to have someone else’s perspective on your photography, if you don’t like how a certain photo is cropped or edited, you can easily undo the Krome Treatment. For each photo that you undo, a photo credit is refunded.

Need help deciding which edited photos to keep? You can click on a Before/After button to see the original picture and edited version side by side.As with iPhoto and Picasa, there are also tagging tools to help you organize your pictures.

You can e-mail a high-resolution edited copy to friends and family straight from the Krome Dashboard, which also has easy access to the requisite social-networking tools of Facebook and Shutterfly.

The Bottom Line
Though Krome Photos is not a replacement for Photoshop, Lightroom, iPhoto, or other photo-editing programs, the photo-editing service is a time-saver and could be just the thing to motivate me to edit the rest of my photos myself. As for creating a photo book, that’s still on my to-do list.

Authentic New York City souvenirs under $20

new york city souvenirsTrying to find authentic souvenirs amid all the mass-produced merchandise can be tough. Here are five affordable New York City souvenirs that make great gifts for foodies — and any traveler who wants to keep a taste of the Big Apple close at hand.

Shake Shack
Danny Meyer’s New York City-based burger empire makes adorable Small Fry onesies for infants and Shake Shack T-shirts for adults — the silhouettes are a nod to the hour-long waits at the original Madison Square Park location, which even has a Shack Cam webcam to help people figure out when to go.
Cost: $18 each
Where to Buy: At any of the five Shake Shack locations (Madison Square Park, Times Square, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, or Citi Field)

Gimme! Coffee
Ithaca, N.Y.-based Gimme! Coffee has a Manhattan location and an outpost in Brooklyn. Perfect for espresso lovers, this 3-ounce porcelain cup’s message is loud and clear.
Cost: $9.95 for a cup and matching saucer
Where to Buy: www.gimmecoffee.com

Broadway gear
You’ve already paid for expensive Broadway show tickets and hate the idea of paying $20 for a souvenir program. Luckily, you don’t have to go home with just the Playbill. Stop at one of the bars in the theater, where you can buy a drink and keep the reusable plastic cup. For example, a Coke in this Wicked commemorative cup costs $5, while a Wicked mug at the souvenir kiosk is $15 (and doesn’t include a drink).
Cost: $5 for soda in a souvenir cup
Where to Buy: Broadway theaters, such as Wicked at the Gershwin Theatre (222 W. 51st St.) or The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre (1515 Broadway)

Magnolia Bakery
Though the cupcake craze seems to ebb and flow, Magnolia Bakery (made famous by Sex and the City) offers a cute alternative to the regular I Heart New York T-shirts. Plus, the shirt will last long after the sugar rush subsides.
Cost: $20 for adults; $15 for teens, toddlers, and infants
Where to Buy: www.magnoliabakery.com

Jacques Torres
Warm up with this deliciously sinful Wicked Hot Chocolate — it’s spiked with cinnamon, allspice, sweet ancho chile peppers, and smoked ground chipotle chile peppers. If you can’t resist sampling the hot chocolate at the store, expect to pay $3.25 for a small 8-ounce cup and $4.25 for a large 12-ounce cup.
Cost: $18 per souvenir tin, which makes 8-10 cups each
Where to Buy: At any of the four NYC locations or www.mrchocolate.com

%Gallery-110403%