Guide to a Perfect Everglades Weekend Escape

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Crow 911, Flickr

One of the great dualities of Florida is the presence of spectacular natural places and wildlife within easy striking distance of the most people-packed urban areas. And Everglades National Park – covering more than 1.5 million acres in South Florida – is as off-the-charts-wild as U.S. parks get. While the most remote areas of the park are largely inaccessible, there are plenty of spots within a stone’s throw ofMiami and Naples (around the small towns of Florida City and Everglades City) where you can get a real feel for the “River of Grass.”

The Everglades was originally given protected status in 1947 in order to preserve its extreme biodiversity, and the vast sub-tropical wilderness here continues to flourish as a habitat for alligators, Florida panthers, manatees and crocodiles as well as hundreds of species of plants and birds. For one of the wildest Florida escapes, this is the place.

See the full itinerary on MapQuest Discover>>

Win the trip of a lifetime from Lonely Planet and Bing

bing lonely planet sweepstakesYour dream vacation could become a reality through a new holiday sweepstakes hosted by Bing and sponsored by Lonely Planet.

The Grand Prize winner and a guest will work with Lonely Planet staff and authors to devise a customized 15 day/14 night itinerary exploring up to four destinations around the world, up to a value of $30,000.

The sweepstakes kicks off on December 29th at midnight PT/3 am ET and lasts for 24 hours. To enter, just log onto Bing’s Magical Holiday Calendar, which is offering sweepstakes and giveaways throughout the month of December.Not sure where you’d go if you won? To spark your imagination, LP’s U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid put together five dream itineraries based on specific interests.



Music:

  • Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, home of Graceland and the blues
  • Havana, Cuba, for a taste of the son music scene
  • Liverpool, England, birthplace of the Beatles
  • Berlin, Germany, for underground cabaret
  • Yakutsk, Russia, home to Ysyakh, a surreal festival filled with teepee-like structures and throat-singing contests



Outdoors:

  • Rocky Mountains, Canada, for a two-day tour of the Canadian Rockies by train
  • Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, for out-of-this-world landscapes
  • Coastal Wales, to walk the new All Wales Coast Path, opening May 2012
  • Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, to stay in an upscale salt hotel 3656m above sea level
  • Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, Australia, Lonely Planet’s #1 ‘glamping’ spot for 2012



Movies:



Art:

  • Arles, France, to step into a post-impressionist Van Gogh painting
  • Barcelona, Spain, to take in Gaudi’s whimsical genius
  • Bristol, England, where Banksy has left his mark and is rumored to live
  • Mexico City, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived and worked
  • French Polynesia, for a glimpse of Paul Gauguin’s tropics



Food:

And that’s just a taste of the possibilities! Mark your calendars for December 29th and don’t miss out.

[image via Colin Grey on Flickr]

Fortnighter launches, providing customized expert travel advice

travel adviceEver wish you could have a travel magazine or guidebook written just for you, catering to your specific interests and full of up-to-date travel advice? The new travel website Fortnighter offers just that–customized itineraries written by professional travel writers.

How does it work?
Start with a destination, specify who you’re traveling with (solo, as a couple, or with friends), and the number of days (currently 3, 5, or 7). You’ll be quoted a fee of $100 – $200 depending on the number of days and given a questionnaire to fill out with your interests and specifications. One week later, Fortnighter will send back a PDF with a detailed run-down of what to do and where to eat and stay (check out a sample itinerary here).

How can I trust the travel advice on Fortnighter?
The contributors have written for all the big travel outlets, from the New York Times to Condé Nast Traveler to Fodor’s guidebooks, travel frequently both for a living and because it’s what they love. All itineraries come without writer bylines, to ensure that their advice comes without bias or influence from hotels or restaurants. Plus, we can personally vouch for the site – it was founded by writer Alexander Basek, a friend and colleague to many of Gadling’s contributors.

Why should I pay for travel advice?
If you’ve ever spent time on Trip Advisor or other user-generated websites, you’ll know that sometimes you want expert advice from people who travel extensively, not just people who want to complain about the airplane movie or that their towel wasn’t folded into the right animal. Just because Joe Blow loves a restaurant featured in all the guidebooks doesn’t mean a single local would eat there, and you might miss out on a great small hotel if they don’t have a fancy website optimized to come to the top of your Google search. Fortnighter writers are selected based on their personal expertise and experience, and are often located in the destinations they write about to provide local recommendations. It’s a fraction of the cost of a customized tour, and you can do it independently and at your own pace.

Sound good to you? Check it out at www.fortnighter.com and share your experiences with us.

Map and highlighter are essential – Packing tip

Wherever, however, you go traveling, there are two easy essentials you must pack:

The first is a map of the destination(s) you will be visiting. It’s easy to feel disoriented on solo trips — or even a guided tour!

The second essential item is a highlighter. A map that you can mark with a highlighter allows you to see exactly where in the world you are. Just mark the major cities or towns you’ll be visiting beforehand, and then connect the dots as you travel the local roads.

This is especially helpful in Europe where countries are only the size of American states and distances traveled are much less than you might imagine.

[Photo: Flickr | Adam NFK Smith]

Road testing the Cranky Concierge

I’ve known Brett Snyder aka The Cranky Flier for a few years now, so when he started up The Cranky Concierge, an itinerary management service this past month, I was naturally intrigued.

The concept goes sort of like this: most people hate booking and micromanaging their itineraries, figuring out where and how to catch and connect to their flights and lacing their travel together. As a self-professed airline nerd, The Cranky kind of digs it, and for a small fee, he’ll do it for you and help you along your way.

So on the way to Portland last weekend for a (lovely) drive through Oregon, I agreed to take it for a test run.

Below I’ve detailed how it went. Note that despite getting the service for free, I reserve no judgment.

Original flight: Chicago O’hare – Salt Lake City – Portland – Seattle – Minneapolis – Chicago O’hare.

Day of departure, Friday, October 16th.
Cranky sent me an email yesterday asking whether or not I wanted my updates via SMS or email. Even though I have a web-enabled iPhone I chose SMS, as I don’t have Gmail pushing email to my phone.This morning’s communication started off with a welcome e-mail, basically reminding me of my flight that day then giving me specific itinerary information including flights, flight numbers and weather along the route. The message even gets into the minute details naming arrival and departure gates, in my case telling me that when I landed in Salt Lake City that I needed to turn right out of the gate to get to my next flight.

At 3:30PM on my way to the bus, I received my first text message:

“Your plane will be arriving to Chicago at 5:49PM, so I would expect to be about 10 to 15 minutes late. Your gate is staying the same in Salt Lake (C3) – the plane is now in the air from Newark and will be gasp 20 minutes early – you should be on time.”

As predicted, my flight from O’hare left a few minutes late, though we arrived a little bit early due to some crafty routing by the pilots.

In Salt Lake City I was actually meeting up with my friend Al, who was starting in Santa Fe and who would be visiting Oregon with me. Pulling into the gate, I thought that I might surprise my friend getting off of the plane, so I sent an SMS to The Cranky asking where I could find his gate, including his rough flight plan and airline. Almost immediately I received a reply:

“Welcome to Salt Lake – Your friend landed at 822p WAY on the other side of the airport – gate E66 – flight 4696. BTW, your airplane [to Portland] has arrived, still at C3 departing on time”

By this time I was already on the move in the terminal headed for the Delta Skyclub, which when queried earlier, my concierge told me was just adjacent to terminal C. Locating Allan just short of the lounge, we pulled in for a few brief White Russians before heading down to C3 for our quick flight.

***

Two evenings later the cycle started again, with The Cranky sending me an SMS several hours before flight speaking on the weather, inbound flights and the general state of my upcoming journey. My unfortunate connections through Seattle and Minneapolis meant that I would be traveling through the night, but The Cranky stayed through Seattle, where he expertly guided me out of my gate, towards the S terminal and through the Skyclub. Before long, I was at work in Chicago with a massive headache, two hours of sleep and an internal promise to never fly a redeye from the west coast again.

***

Onto the real question though: was it worth it? I see the big advantage of the Cranky Concierge in the management of complex or multiple itineraries. Whenever problems arise at the airport, its always nice having someone behind a computer who knows the right numbers to call, where the closest Subway is and how to get you home fastest.

The term “complex” also depends on the traveler. One can image a first time passenger, lost at an airport who needs to know what gate to head to. On the other side of the coin, a million mile businesswoman could not have enough time to manage her itinerary and may only want to follow directions from her dedicated concierge. Both could easily find value in this service.

For a person like me who knows how to work the system and is used to micromanaging itineraries, it’s not as useful. At least not on this trip. I’ll admit that I’ve been in the situation once or twice where I’ve been stone cold lost and hungry at a strange airport in a strange part of the world and have needed help, but this weekend was not that time. Perhaps some day I’ll need that safety blanket.

***

Brett Snyder, aka The Cranky Flyer offers per trip itinerary management from The Cranky Concierge. Services include flight planning, flight monitoring, delay and cancellation assistance and post-trip dispute assistance. Prices range from $30 to $80 per trip, while a subscription-based service is in the works.