Budget Travel helps you plan a nonstop Caribbean getaway

As the northern half of the US starts to get cold and skies turn grey with threats of snow, thoughts naturally begin to turn to weekend getaways to warmer climes. The Caribbean is calling, but when it takes two or more connections to get there from your city, it’s hard to escape for a quick weekend warm-up.

If you don’t know which islands can be reached in one flight from where you live, Budget Travel can help. The magazine has a new online tool that can help make planning a trip to the Caribbean islands a little easier. Their “Nonstop Caribbean” destination finder shows you which islands are accessible via nonstop flight from your city. It also tells you which airlines make the flight and how long the flight lasts. The tool can even help you plan your vacation, with suggestions on which hotels to stay at and what activities to do on the island.

SkyMall Monday: Sand Names Print

Times are tough. The economy is still struggling and the holiday season makes our bank accounts hemorrhage money. I’ve even had to make cuts at the SkyMall Monday headquarters. I’ve stopped purchasing a new King-sized bed every three months and found a new way to sleep comfortably. Everyone’s budgets are tight and discretionary income is hard to find. It’s difficult to take women out on dates, let alone impress them with opulent gifts and vacations. So how do you survive these trying fiduciary times and not let the winter doldrums leave you feeling defeated and alone? How can you let people know that you’re not only surviving the financial crisis but thriving in it? How can you do all of these things while handsomely adorning your home? Well, you should know by now that you can do all of these things by turning to the ol’ SkyMall catalog. Save your money, don’t get on your employer’s bad side by taking vacation days and don’t seek comfort in the supportive embrace of a loved one. Instead, pretend to do all of these things by showing off your Sand Names Print.Your friends, family and coworkers will think that you’re living a storybook life when they see that you and someone very special not only went on a tropical vacation but proclaimed your love for one another in the permanence of sand. They’ll never know that you simply chose a random name (or, more likely, the name of that bitch in high school that turned you down when you asked her to the Winter Ball) and had it digitally inserted into a photograph. You’ll be able to hold your head high knowing that all the money you would have spent on dates, jewelry and gifts for a girlfriend is instead being invested in Mountain Dew and sweet shirts.

Don’t believe that simply ordering a fake vacation photo replaces the experience of traveling with a loved one and preserving your moment of tender declarations? Where’s your sense of whimsy? I suppose I can indulge your cold, dead heart by sharing the product description with you:

No wave will ever remove this memory. Showcase your love for each other with this personalized within the sand heart.

No wave will ever remove this memory because no wave was actually involved in it. But that’s just semantics. Who needs waves or sand or human interaction when you have the largest pornography collection in the tri-county area, right? Relationships are for suckers, Vacations are for the lazy. You’re too clever for all of that nonsense.

So, the next time someone asks you how you’re managing in this economy, point to your framed Sand Names Print and tell them, “Mind your own business, jerkface!” Then open your Double Umbrella and tell them about your fancy model girlfriend who they’ve never met because she lives in Canada.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Coming Attractions: Panama

Watch out world, ‘cuz here comes Panama–that skinny little land-bridge of a country that’s famous for straw hats, yellow-fever infestations and American meddling.

Just how skinny a country is it? From the time the pilot lowers the landing gear to the time your flight actually lands in Panama City, that’s how much. One minute you’re looking down at the turquoise Caribbean and exactly four and a half minutes later, you’ve landed on the other side of the country, where–if you can see past the skyscrapers–you’ll observe mammoth cargo ships lining up in the Pacific Ocean to enter the canal.

Imagine a 13-year old mixed-race girl from a broken home who spends her childhood in a reform school later to discover that her abusive deadbeat father left her a massive trust fund. That’s Panama: young and eager, a little messed up, filling out nicely . . . and ridiculously rich.

Now that Panama gets to keep the cash she earns from her famous canal, the country has gained the kind of newfound respectability that comes from having new clothes and holding democratic elections. Witnessing Panama’s overnight transition from banana republic to middle-class retirement haven is like watching the Univision version of Extreme Makeover: it feels so tacky but you can’t change channels because you just have to find out what happens next.What’s happening now is this: a LOT of money is flowing into Panama, some of it from legit investors and some of it from Colombian entrepreneurs (and such as). Until recently, dysfunction and dictators kept away the Bills and Carols from Oklahoma City so that Panama’s nature remained underappreciated and remarkably intact. Meanwhile, neighboring Costa Rica has turned into another Orlando but with ziplines and monkeys. Panama’s real estate boom threatens a repeat of that trend, but for now, the real nature lovers and hardcore birdwatchers are all heading down to Panama’s vast network of well-protected national parks. They quickly realize that this is a beautiful, safe and fun place to travel.

The time I spent in Panama was filled with virgin tropical rain forests that were packed with amazing wildlife but wonderfully devoid of annoying tourists. Also, the beaches are phenomenal: literally hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline line the Atlantic and Pacific. Yes, all you scuba divers-you can dive in both oceans on the same day and enjoy two completely separate experiences.

The great Panama Canal is an awesome attraction in and of itself. Canal cruises are exploding in popularity so that nearly every major cruise line now tries to work it into their annual itinerary. If you prefer to head off the beaten path, then check out the deepest darkest Darien region or the San Blas islands and the Caribbean homeland of the Kuna Indians-Panama’s indigenous population. The fascinating Kuna culture is definitely one of the more exotic elements that has fortunately begun to be included in the country’s growing tourist development.

As a former American colony, English is widely spoken alongside Spanish, so that in many ways, Panama is a bilingual country. Other benefits include relatively good roads, a surprising collection of fine hotels, and a greater degree of rule of law than your average Central American country.

But is it really so peachy in Panama? Pretty much. Obviously, there’s a bunch of shady stuff going down–when Panama City billboards advertise savings accounts in Russian, well then, that’s got dodgy written all over it. And yet this kind of minor-league, white-collar stuff actually encourages all the stuff tourists love: lower street crime, good restaurants, and broader acceptance of credit cards. The fact is that nobody really knows what’s going on in Panama–the important thing is that it’s going and the sign in the window says, “Open.”

Helpful hints
The worst thing about getting to Panama is that you might have to switch planes in Miami-a two-hour flight away. Better options include direct flights from Houston (2 hours), Washington, DC (4 hours) or Los Angeles (5 hours). Panama’s Tocumen International Airport feels like an upscale Orange County mall minus the skateboarders. If you go shopping, remember that real Panama hats are made in Ecuador, so check the label. Another quick tip: get out of Panama City. Other than the old city (a romantic, yet tumbledown cluster of Havana-like architecture), the city is trying its darndest to be the next Las Vegas. Better to trade the traffic jams for the nice villages and tropical landscape of the countryside.

Collect Marriott freebies with “Trick or Tweet” promotion

As Halloween approaches and the weather gets cooler, we realize that winter in the northern US, with its short hours of daylight and negative wind-chill factors, is just around the corner. Suddenly, it seems like there’s no better time to book a tropical vacation. If you’re thinking about a trip to a sunny island paradise, log in to Twitter and start following Marriott Resorts.

Now through the end of October, the company will be giving away daily coupons for perks at Marriott Resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico. Even if you aren’t planning on traveling until the temps dip a little lower (or even until next year), you can still take advantage of the freebies. The vouchers are good through December 20, 2010.

All you need to do is follow Marriott Resorts on Twitter and watch for their “Trick or Tweet” tweets. Click the link and download your voucher, which will be good for deals like free drinks, free rounds of golf, discounted spa services and more. Each voucher is good at a specific resort, so follow along and collect the deals that work for you.

Free drinks in Grand Cayman or a cheap spa treatment in Aruba? I’m feeling warmer already.

Airlines Touting Brazil as New Hotspot

South America’s destinations are hard to travel to. For people with samba fever outside of a few major hub cities (like Miami), a trip to Brazil means at least one connecting flight in the US. Anyone who plans to spend time outside of the major cities of Sao Paulo or Rio will have to catch another flight once they arrive in the metropolises. These extra flights can add up.

Soon, it will be easier (and cheaper) to get to Brazil’s cities from the US. And just in time for the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. American Airlines is offering flights to the northeastern city of Salvador beginning in November. AA is also planning on providing service to the nearby coastal town of Recife. Delta is taking it a step further, offering flights to the Amazonian city of Manaus from Atlanta beginning at the end of the year. American is offering introductory rates for people traveling from major east coast cities like Boston and New York. Prices average $425 one-way if purchased before December 2nd.

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