5 best suitcases for kids and teens for $100 or less

best suitcasesIt’s hard to say whether these suitcases are meant for the kids or the parents. Adorable enough to entertain kids and stylish enough to appeal preteens, and teens, these five affordable carry-ons may be just the thing to encourage children to roll their own gear through the airport.

Isabella Fiore
Italian designer Isabella Fiore launched a hard-shell suitcase this fall that proves that suitcases don’t have to come in boring black. The floral pattern is sophisticated enough for preteens, teens, and adults alike. Bonus: The 20-inch polycarbonate wheelie bag weighs a mere 6.5 pounds — and with a stylish bag like this, your precocious child may even start looking forward to packing.
Cost: $100 for a 20-inch suitcase; available in white, pink, and blue floral prints
Where to Buy: Dillard’s stores

Beatrix New York
With whimsical designs such as a robot, an owl, a monkey, a ladybug, and a dinosaur, I only wish that these 16-inch wheelie bags also came in grown-up sizes. Bonus: The handle is perfectly sized for kids, but the height cleverly extends a bit longer for adults who may need to take over wheeling the bag through the airport.
Cost: $94
Where to Buy: www.dantebeatrix.com

Ecozoo Rolling Series by Ecogear
Ecogear’s Rolling Monkey is the latest animal to join the Ecozoo menagerie, which already includes a panda, puppy, pig, and frog. Padded shoulder straps transform the rolling bag into an easy-to-carry backpack.
Cost: $50
Where to Buy: www.ecogear-products.com

Trunki
I recently spotted a pair of the tiger-shaped Trunki suitcases at San Francisco International Airport. The pint-size wheelie suitcases can be filled with toys, games, and other distractions — and best of all, kids can hitch a free ride by sitting on the hard-case suitcases. And when your flight is delayed, the suitcase is certainly a cleaner place to sit than the airport floor.
Cost: $39.99
Where to Buy: www.melissaanddoug.com

Hello Kitty by FAB NY
The beloved Sanrio character is still going strong after 35 years. And even if your little one eventually outgrows her Hello Kitty obsession or decides that pink isn’t for her, the 16-inch wheelie bag is one of the most affordable suitcases of the bunch.
Cost: $39.99
Where to Buy: www.toysrus.com

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How to find affordable ski deals this winter

ski dealsSkiing isn’t the most budget-friendly winter activity, but you can find affordable ski deals if you know when and where to book lift tickets.

Evan Reece, co-founder of Liftopia.com, reveals how to save on lift tickets at popular ski resorts around the U.S.

Buy lift tickets in advance and pick your days carefully.
If you buy a lift ticket through Liftopia at least the day before you plan to ski, you can typically save an average of 35 percent when compared to booking a one-day pass in person at the ticket window. Mid-week lift tickets are generally cheaper, and skiing on Sundays typically costs less than Saturdays. “Many customers will go up for the weekend and intend to ski both days, Reece says. “But they’ll end up being tired on Sunday. And faced with a four-hour drive, they’ll just say, ‘Let’s go.'”

Ski on Christmas Day.
When everyone else is preoccupied with opening gifts on Christmas morning, hit the ski slopes and save. Based on last year’s data, the average price of all lift tickets booked in advance through Liftopia for Christmas Day skiing was 39.7 percent less than what you’d pay at the window, Reece says. Other bargain days include New Year’s Day, Jan. 2, and Super Bowl Sunday.Seek out smaller ski resorts.
Rather than following the crowds to Breckenridge or Vail, venture to smaller ski resorts for a more intimate experience. Though you may sacrifice the big-name glitz and apres-ski scene, let’s face it: most of us aren’t skilled enough to take advantage of all the ski runs to justify an $80 lift ticket.

Look into combo passes with added value.
Some resorts, such as Keystone in Colorado, add in meal credits with the purchase of a lift ticket. For example, a one-day lift ticket plus a $15 lunch credit bought through Liftopia will save you about 11 percent when compared to buying the same package on-mountain. Even the resort food will taste better than “eating a smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Reece adds.

Consider packages that bundle ski rentals and lift tickets.
Other than saving on checked baggage fees, many resorts now carry top-of-the-line rentals that are most likely newer and better than anything you have stashed in the garage.

How Liftopia Works: Tickets purchased through Liftopia are nontransferable, nonrefundable, and date specific. Or as Reece explains it: “You can’t buy a Friday concert ticket and expect to show up the next day.”

[Photo by Amy Chen]

Topguest travel app review: Check in and earn more airline and hotel loyalty points

travel appAre you the type of traveler who checks in on Foursquare when you’re at the airport or your hotel? If so, your social media addiction can now translate into extra loyalty points, thanks to the free Topguest travel app.

Topguest rewards your Foursquare or Facebook Places check-ins by linking your hotel or airline loyalty programs with your social media activity. Nothing is posted publicly without your permission, so you can reap the rewards without worrying about divulging your whereabouts.

While in San Francisco for Thanksgiving, I tested out the Topguest app, which has expanded since its summer debut.

After downloading the free app, I was able to add my membership numbers for Virgin America (25 Elevate points for each check-in to a Virgin America terminal, clubhouse or ticket counter) and Hilton HHonors (50 points for each check-in at a Doubletree). Don’t know the numbers by heart? I was able to easily copy and paste the loyalty numbers from account statements in my e-mail inbox. Once your accounts are linked, you can just check in on Foursquare or Facebook Places like you normally would.Kimpton Hotels are another Topguest partner — you can earn an InTouch loyalty credit after your first check-in at any Kimpton hotel, restaurant, or bar, but you need to enter your loyalty number by visiting topguest.com on a computer. Unlike the other hotel loyalty programs, the app doesn’t currently let you enter your Kimpton number from a mobile device. (I had to e-mail the support desk to figure this one out — at least my questions were promptly answered even over the holiday weekend.)

Other hotel loyalty programs include Wyndham Rewards and Priority Club Rewards (50 points for check-ins at an InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, or Candlewood Suites). Repeat visitors to luxe hotels like the Standard may earn “elite travel perks” like free drinks and spa passes, according to the website.

So far I only saw Virgin America listed as an airline partner, so it’d be nice if the Topguest program eventually expanded to JetBlue and other major carriers.

Though checking in is just one more thing to remember to do when traveling, using the Topguest app is also a relatively painless way to supplement your loyalty program account balance.

The Topguest app works on the iPhone and Android. Points are capped to one check-in per person per day.

[Photo by Amy Chen]

Holiday Travel: 5 wacky winter activities and traditions

winter activitiesSpice up your holiday traditions with one of these wacky winter activities in Paris, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities around the world.

Lighted Farm Implement Parade
Where: Yakima Valley, WA
Holiday parades are a dime a dozen, but this one can’t help but make you smile. More than 50 farm implements (as in tractors), trucks, and floats participate in this 21-year-old tradition in Sunnyside, WA.
Cost: Free
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 4, 2010

Roving Snowcat Food Trucks
Where: Mammoth Mountain, CA
Starting Dec. 18, Roving Mammoth snowcat food trucks will serve breakfast, lunch, and snacks (including churros, burritos, and calzones) to skiers and snowboarders on Mammoth Mountain. Non-alcoholic beverages will also be sold, but you’ll have to save your après-ski cocktails for after you unstrap your skis and snowboards.
Cost: A one-day ski lift ticket is $92 for adults, $69 for teens, and $46 for kids 7-12; kids 6 and under are free.

Snow Bar
Where: Paris
The Hilton Arc de Triomphe, about a 10-minute walk from the world’s most famous arch, has transformed its outdoor courtyard into a winter wonderland. Expect snow makers, a cozy chalet bar with cocktails, and hostesses dressed up like Mrs. Claus.
When: Dec. 2, 2010-Jan. 1, 2011
Cost: Rooms start at 295 euros ($385) per night in December.

Pool-Turned-Ice Skating Rink
Where: Los Angeles
The W Los Angeles-Westwood has once again transformed its pool deck into an ice skating rink. The hybrid ice rink means that if you fall, you won’t feel cold or wet. The Snowy Snack Bar also lets you decorate your own gingerbread men or mini holiday cupcakes (add $10 per person).
Cost: $10 for a one-hour session with skate rentals; open to the public
When: Until Jan. 2, 2011

Chocolate Carousel
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada
A life-size (and fully functional) carousel made with chocolate and sugar is part of the annual Holiday Village at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. Alas, the drool-worthy carousel isn’t meant for rides, but you can admire the intricate handiwork up close.
Cost: Free and open to the public
When: Until Dec. 25, 2010

[Photo: Courtesy Daily Sun News, Sunnyside]

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Do Thanksgiving deals make hotels more appealing than staying at home?

Thanksgiving dealsI’m going home for Thanksgiving for the first time since moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York City. And rather than agreeing to sleep on the futon, I’m springing for a hotel room. Does choosing to stay in a hotel make me a bad person since the whole point of the holiday is to be with family?

As much as I love my family, I’m not too crazy about the idea of my 9-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew rousing me out of bed at 6 a.m. every day. And though my sister tries her best to keep them occupied until I’ve woken up, the guilt — and their adorable pleading (“Will you play with me?”, “Are you still sleeping?”) — inevitably drives me to get up with the rest of the family.

To be honest, I didn’t plan to stay at a hotel over Thanksgiving. But as a Kimpton InTouch loyalty member, I received an e-mail blast several weeks ago for weekend deals. When I discovered that the deal wasn’t blacked out over Thanksgiving weekend, I ended up booking three nights at the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco’s Union Square for $109 per night. Is the extra sleep worth that much money? In my case, yes.
For my last night, I found a last-minute deal at Sonoma‘s Farmhouse Inn: $177 (regularly $295-$375). Unfortunately, the online deal required a minimum two-night stay. Since I had already prepaid my Sir Francis Drake hotel reservation, I decided to call up the inn to see if there were any other deals. It turns out that if I was willing to take a smaller room, I could book the $177 rate for just one night. Done. Looks like I’ll get my turkey and a little wine tasting, too.

So you see, I didn’t intend to stay at a hotel over Thanksgiving. But at these low rates, how could I resist all these Thanksgiving deals?

Though staying in a hotel will be a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the futon, maybe I will miss the chaos of staying at home (and the convenience of opening the fridge to pick at the leftover turkey).

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[Photo by Amy Chen]