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5 best lightweight travel bags for under $40

When it comes to traveling with a lightweight bag, not all bags are created equal. Canvas totes that many people use for grocery shopping are often too bulky to pack as a spare travel bag, and many don't have zippers to keep your valuables secure.

Consider packing one of these lightweight bags on your next trip -- each bag costs much less than LeSportsac's $98 classic Travel Tote, and all of these nylon bags are compact enough to fold up until you need them. Let the souvenir shopping begin.

The Reisenthel Mini Maxi Carryall ($15.95, www.reuseit.com) is the most stylish -- and affordable -- of the bunch. To close the bag, use the zipper or the drawstring. Best of all, the bag folds flat into a zippered pouch for tidy storage.

Timbuk2's Hidden Messenger ($30, www.timbuk2.com) is much lighter than the company's signature ballistic-nylon messenger bags. This version, which launched in July, is mostly made with materials from recycled plastic bottles. Stylish, rugged, and good for the environment -- imagine that.

Sea to Summit's Ultra-Sil Sling Bag ($29.95, www.seatosummit.com) debuted this month. The bag (also with a zippered top) has a strap that's long enough to wear diagonally across your body like a messenger bag. When not in use, the bag balls up into its own pouch and can be attached to a key chain or tossed in your suitcase to help corral those last-minute purchases.

The RuMe ALL ($26.96, www.rumebags.com) has simple yet thoughtful touches -- a zip-top closure, outer pockets for a water bottle or an umbrella, and an exterior zippered pocket for stashing a cell phone or subway card. Whether you're putting your bag on the conveyor belt to go through airport security or you're sliding the bag under an airplane seat, the zipper helps ensure that your stuff doesn't go flying.

The North Face's Flyweight Map Bag ($39, www.thenorthface.com), which can also fold up into its own pocket, has an adjustable shoulder strap and its coated nylon fabric can withstand light rain. Perfect for sightseeing, the bag will be available until February, when it will be replaced by the new Flyweight Shoulder Bag ($25).

  • Reisenthel Mini Maxi Carryall
  • Timbuk2's Hidden Messenger
  • Timbuk2 Hidden Messenger
  • Sea to Summit's Sling Bag
  • RuMe ALL
  • The North Face's Flyweight Map Bag

Stay at the Hard Rock San Diego hotel in December, get a free hybrid car rental

Travelers who stay at the Hard Rock San Diego from Dec. 1 to 30 will get a free hybrid car rental during their stay. Considering that the fees for renting a car can quickly add up, this affordable deal gives you more for less.

The "I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas" package starts at $149 per room per night. The one-day hybrid car rental (either a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Altima Hybrid from Enterprise-Rent-A-Car) is worth at least $70.

Perfect for families, the Hard Rock San Diego hotel is about a 10-minute drive from the San Diego Zoo, a 15-minute drive from SeaWorld, and a 40-minute drive from LEGOLAND in Carlsbad.

Details: Book at least 24 hours in advance. Mention promo code GREEN or check availability at www.hardrockhotelsd.com/greenxmas. Limit one 24-hour car rental per stay.

How to keep your house plants alive when you travel

There are pet sitters, of course, but do you hire someone to water your house plants while you're on vacation?

Since I live in a New York City apartment building, I don't usually bother asking anyone to pick up my mail or to water my plants when I'm gone. I hate to inconvenience friends, so unfortunately, I pay the price with dead plants (and stolen newspapers).

Though I rarely travel for longer than a week, I've killed two potted basil plants since June and recently had to throw out an orchid plant, which had shriveled up during my absence and was beyond salvation.

After feeling like a terrible person for neglecting my orchid, I was happy to come home from a recent trip and find that my two Clearly Good soil-free plants were still very much alive. Sadly, the rest of my plants looked a little parched. (R.I.P. orchid).

Small enough to sit on a windowsill, the Clearly Good plants help brighten apartments or office cubicles without the mess or maintenance of typical potted plants -- and the leafy plants look a little more cheerful than, say, a cactus. The see-through vases also clearly indicate the water level, which only needs to be replenished once every 10 days.

These Clearly Good plants, which were introduced at select Lowe's retail stores in August, are being rolled out to Lowe's stores nationwide over the coming weeks.

Price: $12.98 each

Where to Buy: Go to lowes.com to find a Lowe's location near you. According to a Lowe's spokesperson, the Clearly Good plants will become available for online purchase sometime next year.

Have you found other hardy house plants that can survive when you're on vacation? Feel free to share.

[Photo by Amy Chen]

How to travel overseas with an iPod touch

Rather than face exorbitant cell-phone roaming charges, my travel companion and I recently traveled to Europe with just an iPad and an iPod touch. Though that meant that we could only look up restaurants or things to do when we were in a free Wi-Fi spot, I enjoyed the break from my inbox. And rather than being tethered to Facebook updates, we both paid more attention to the scene at hand -- though as soon as we landed at JFK, my travel partner immediately turned on his iPhone to check Facebook.

Over the course of eight nights, I stayed in six hotels that all had free Wi-Fi access. Here's what I learned about traveling overseas with the fourth-generation iPod touch:

The iPod touch is an affordable way to stay connected while on the road. For the newest 8GB version with FaceTime, the iPod touch starts at $229, compared to the iPad's $499 starting price tag. Since there is no data plan for the iPod touch, you don't have to worry about incurring a monthly bill. Also, since both devices are light and compact enough to carry, I didn't have to fret about leaving a laptop in our luggage, which we left with the hotel's front desk during the day before moving on to the next one. Though I normally travel with a netbook in order to back up digital photos and clear memory cards, I solved the memory problem by bringing 18GB's worth of SD cards, which was more than enough even when shooting RAW files.

Sometimes the iPod touch was able to log on faster than the iPad. For whatever reason, we sometimes couldn't get the iPad to connect right away. Having two devices that could access the Internet also proved invaluable when plotting our next destination. I used the iPod touch to check simple things like the weather, the time (I still don't wear a watch), and the train schedule. I also downloaded the free Oanda currency converter app, which I used to calculate exchange rates. Conversely, we used the iPad for booking hotels and travel entertainment.

Travel Technology: No Netflix streaming outside the U.S.

During my recent European vacation, I left my netbook at home and instead relied on my iPad for travel entertainment and on-the-road research.

With no individual in-flight entertainment screens aboard my Delta 767 flight, I was especially grateful for the TV episodes that I had downloaded onto the iPad. Other than the fact that my iPad kept toppling over when the person in front of me shifted in his seat, it was like having a personal seat-back entertainment system.

It is easy, however, to forget that the tools that I rely on for domestic travel aren't always readily available for international travel. For example, instead of forking over $8 for the hotel's pay-per-view channel, I often use my Netflix account to stream movies in my hotel room. (After spending hours walking around during the day, I find it relaxing to fall asleep while streaming a movie or some TV shows.)

Unfortunately, when I logged into my Netflix account from my hotel room, I received this message: "Watching instantly is not available outside the U.S. We noticed that the computer that you are using is not located within the 50 United States or the District of Columbia. Due to studio licensing reasons, movies are available to watch instantly only in those locations."

I ended up downloading more episodes from iTunes, which was painfully slow using the hotel's Wi-Fi.

As it turned out, Netflix wasn't the only travel tool that was unavailable on my trip -- I couldn't access Yelp in many cities (I kept getting the message that there were no nearby restaurants even though that clearly wasn't the case). Interestingly enough, Foursquare had a few check-ins -- unfortunately many check-ins appeared to be several months old, so I didn't feel like I could trust that as a travel resource.

Lessons Learned: Had I known that I wouldn't be able to use my Netflix account while overseas, I could've saved time by downloading extra movies and TV shows before I left on my trip. I also should've done more advance research on where to eat instead of assuming that Yelp restaurant reviews would be available. Instead, I had to resort to Google searches, old New York Times travel articles -- and following the crowds (a travel tip that never seems to let me down).

[Photo by Amy Chen]

New York City: 5 best restaurants for affordable brunch

Brunch in New York City is a classic weekend experience, but ordering $20 eggs benedict at Jean-Georges' Nougatine or $18 brioche French toast at Pastis doesn't fit into everyone's travel budget. Here are five affordable brunch alternatives to help start your day off right.

1. Le Pain Quotidien, Central Park

I know Le Pain Quotidien is a chain, but it's not like its Belgian Waffle dusted with powdered sugar ($4.95) is settling for an Egg McMuffin. There's even a Waffle Window at the Central Park location, which opened in May near Sheep Meadow. The Central Park location will be open until November and then re-open in the spring.

2. Cafeteria (Chelsea)

An oldie but goodie, Cafeteria delivers solid brunch options at reasonable prices. The Silver Dollar Pancakes ($10) come with fresh berries and sweet Chantilly cream. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this Chelsea favorite also draws a late-night crowd.

Washington, D.C. hotel booking tips for the Oct. 30 rally

Like thousands of people who are either fans of Jon Stewart and/or Stephen Colbert, I'll be D.C.-bound for the Oct. 30 rally. And like so many travelers, I intend to keep costs low for the spontaneous trip. Or at least I'll try to.

Here are 3 strategies to help you (and me) stay on a budget:

Tip #1: Cash in any frequent-flyer points, hotel loyalty points, or other rewards that you've accrued.

The day after Stewart announced the rally, I checked the meager balance of my Starwood Preferred Guest account and was thrilled to see that I had actually earned a free night from a previous promotion. (Spending two nights at the Element Hotel near Houston earlier this summer had qualified me for a free weekend night.) I was skeptical about my chances of redeeming the points but called the 800 number anyway. I could hardly believe it when I found out that yes, I could redeem the points and better yet, I had enough to nab one of the last rooms at the W Hotel (the going rate at the time about $300; that hotel has since sold out).

Tip #2: Check B&Bs, but expect a two-night minimum.


Before I could crow too loudly about my free night, I learned that the rally would start at noon. My plan to take an early Amtrak train down to D.C. was derailed when I saw that all the morning train tickets from New York City had sold out. The only tickets left meant that I would arrive at Union Station well after the rally started.

Because I'd dawdled when it came to booking, I'm now forced to head down on Friday night and pay for an extra night's hotel. And that's when I ended up with the same problem that many travelers are facing: many D.C. hotels in convenient locations are already sold out, or the only remaining rooms are well over $300 per night. So much for traveling on a budget.

I did manage to find some $150 rooms at www.bedandbreakfast.com, but was disappointed to see that many required a minimum stay of two nights. I wasn't about to cancel my existing hotel reservation in order to book two nights at a B&B... which leads me to Tip #3.

Hotel booking tips: 5 things you need to know before reserving group rates

While in Los Angeles for my brother's wedding, I was looking forward to staying at the Westlake Village Inn. But unfortunately, things went downhill even before we could check in.

Though the wedding itself was held off-site at a country club, a block of rooms were reserved at a discounted rate. With the group rate, I decided to treat myself to a suite with a king-size bed and gas fireplace (a little out of place in sunny L.A. but charming nonetheless).

But as I learned, hotels that cater to weddings and other special events can sometimes be under-staffed, leading guests who are not part of the event to fall through the cracks.

Here are 5 things you should know before reserving a group rate, which isn't necessarily the best deal.

1. Your room might not be ready at check-in. Plan accordingly.


My family arrived promptly at check-in, which was at 3 p.m. The wedding rehearsal started at 5 p.m. at an off-site location. My family disbanded to shower and change, but my room wasn't ready. So I left my cell phone number with the front desk so someone could notify me as soon as it was. I killed some time at one of the hotel bars, but an hour later, it was clear that the front desk wasn't going to call.

While walking back to the lobby, I called the front desk, was put on hold, and then informed that my room was ready. By then I was already standing outside the lobby. But somehow during the few minutes when I hung up the phone and appeared again at the front desk, I was then told that my room still wasn't ready. Sloppy service, but not a big deal, right?

After sorting out the confusion, I asked the front-desk manager what caused the delay. She told me that the hotel was fully booked the previous night and that "housekeeping just didn't make it." Hmm. You'd think that a hotel that caters to large wedding parties would anticipate the demand and be prepared with all hands on deck.

2. Group rates may equal inadequate service.

Under any other circumstances, these are minor inconveniences at best, but when you're trying to get ready for a special event, you really do need the hotel to fulfill its end of the bargain. Or you may need to lower your standards.

After receiving my room key, I asked what the hotel typically offered guests whose rooms were not ready by check-in. Rather than apologizing for not having the room ready, the front-desk manager asked rather snottily: "What do you want? A bottle of wine or something?"

After I responded that I would accept anything that the hotel typically offers, she handed me one drink coupon even though there were two people staying in the room. I accepted the voucher, but didn't end up redeeming it because we had already wasted an hour at the bar.

By the time I brought my luggage to the room, it was 4:15 p.m. -- no time to shower. I threw on a dress, changed my shoes, and left the hotel annoyed but more concerned about not being late.

New York City restaurant grades: would you eat at a place with mice?

I was in the East Village last night and encountered my first sighting of New York's new restaurant grading system.

Starting last month, every New York City restaurant is now required to post a letter grade that corresponds to its health-inspection score. (Los Angeles has already successfully implemented the system.)

Based on the new system, a restaurant is awarded an A for scores between 0-13, a B for 14-27, and a C for 28 and higher. (Each health-code violation earns a certain number of points, so lower scores equal fewer violations.) Though all signs must be posted in a place that's visible to people walking by, I found that the Department of Health also has a handy online tool that lets you look up restaurants by name.

So I started inputting a few of my favorite restaurants, and my stomach started turning when I saw the history of violations, including "evidence of mice or live mice present in facility's food and/or non-food areas." Surprisingly, some of the affordable restaurants that I searched for did better than the fine-dining type of places. Though many of the restaurant inspections in my search were completed as recently as in May, most of the corresponding letter grades haven't yet been posted so you can only see recent health-code violations.

Perhaps it's better not to think about it, but I have the feeling that I'll be periodically checking up on my favorite places as the final letter grades are awarded and publicly posted. Otherwise, I'm going to have to finally learn how to cook.

Of course, this makes me wonder if health-code violations will just become relative: If I really love a restaurant but it only gets a B, does that mean that I should find a new favorite? Or will B become the new standard?

Would you still go to your favorite New York City restaurant if you knew there were mice?
Of course, a trip to New York City isn't complete without a stop at my favorite restaurant.91 (26.8%)
No way, there are too many restaurants in NYC to settle.215 (63.2%)
Only if I were starving.34 (10.0%)


[Photo by Amy Chen]

Test driving the Zipcar iPhone app

My brother got married last weekend in Los Angeles, which meant that I had to fly out Thursday night and back to New York City on Sunday. Rather than deal with getting off a long flight and renting a car from the airport -- I didn't think navigating an unfamiliar city at midnight when your body thinks it's 3 a.m. was the best idea -- I cabbed it to my hotel and retrieved a Zipcar the next morning.

I'd also been meaning to test out the Zipcar iPhone app, which lets you unlock your rental straight from the phone. This seemed like the perfect time to give it a whirl.

Here's what I learned:

Make sure you still bring your Zipcar membership card. Once you activate the app, you need to unlock the car first with your membership card by waving it over the designated area on the windshield. Next, you have to enter your membership number into your phone. Don't know your number? It's on your membership card. Though these preliminary steps seem to defeat the purpose of ditching the membership card, your iPhone is now all set to start unlocking and locking your car.

Using the iPhone app to unlock the car isn't always the most efficient. There were a few times when it took longer to unlock the car with the iPhone -- as in, it was much faster for me to open my bag, dig out my wallet, and wave the key over the windshield. Once the novelty wore off, I ended up using the keycard about half the time and the iPhone app for the other half.

Zipcar isn't necessarily the cheapest option, but it can be more convenient.
My two-day rental cost about $180, including gas and insurance. And unlike major car rental agencies where you reserve a certain vehicle class, Zipcar lets you call dibs on a specific make and model, so I knew exactly what I was getting. The last time I was in L.A., I used Zipcar to rent a Mini Cooper. Unfortunately no Minis were available on this trip, so I settled for the Toyota Prius.

Zipcar requires a $50 membership, which I auto-renew each year. Unfortunately, I've only used my membership once so far this year, so I haven't yet maximized the value. If I factor in the membership cost, the two-day $180 rental increases to $230 -- pricey. Tack in the $50 cab ride to and from the airport, and you're looking at $330. But I've long believed that traveling on a budget isn't always about finding the cheapest price -- it's also picking the smartest option to reduce your stress level. And since I was traveling to my brother's wedding, I figured it was worth paying a little extra money to preserve my sanity.

The Bottom Line: Consider the Zipcar app as an alternative to your keycard, not a total replacement. I will say the app is good for at least one thing -- making sure that I didn't leave my cell phone in the car (or lose it).

[Photo by Amy Chen]

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