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August in Phoenix? Absolutely! Here Are 10 Reasons Why.

Posted by David Landsel on Wednesday, August 13, 2014

By David Landsel of Airfarewatchdog

Ever wonder what 114 degrees feels like? Phoenicians can tell you -- in fact, they just felt it the other day. Yep, August in the Valley of the Sun is, well, sunny. At a certain point, all the dryness in the world can't distract from this kind of heat.

Here's the thing, though. Summer in Arizona can be a whole lot of fun -- you just have to work with it. Make sure to wake up early. Early as in, pre-dawn. Go get coffee, go take a walk, whatever you like -- just make sure to accomplish as much as you can before mid-morning. Then, move it over to the pool -- or, if you don't have access to a pool, take it inside. Make sure to nap at some point, too. (If you're dropping in from a humid climate, you'll quickly discover that desert naps are the best.) Then, once the sun begins to lose power, emerge from your hiding place for an evening on the town.

Sound fun? Pack your sunglasses, your weight in sunscreen, and the biggest, floppiest hat you've got. It's time for a trip to Phoenix, and here are 10 really good reasons why. For the best fares available to PHX right now, click here.

1. You can stay at the Four Seasons for $139. (No, that's not a misprint.)

There are discounted hotel stays, then there's Phoenix/Scottsdale in August. Check into one of the best Four Seasons resorts in North America for just $139, down from hundreds more during winter. The rooms are beautiful, the pool is great, a pristine location high above it all makes this one of the valley's best places to stay.

2. You can play one of the top courses in the world for $39.

There's a reason why -- as previously stated, it's hot -- but the bucket list-worthy Pinnacle Course at Troon North (incidentally, that's the planned community where the Four Seasons is located) goes for a fraction of the normal cost on summer afternoons. Prefer an early tee-time? That's only $69, still quite the steal.

3. Then again, there's always a hike. Those are free.

Sunrise from, say, Camelback Mountain, or Pinnacle Peak, is impressive year-round, just as hiking in this part of the world is fashionable. During summer, though, you're obviously going to get an earlier start. Make sure to bring water and a hat.

4. Speaking of staying hydrated...

As you might imagine, taking things easy is a popular summer pastime in Phoenix -- luckily, you're never far from a very good watering hole. Downtown, for example, Bitter & Twisted is one of the latest in a crop of class-act cocktail parlors around town that are worth your time. Great happy hours are abundant, too -- at Barrio Queen Tequileria in Scottsdale, house margaritas are just $3 every day from 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. More of a beer drinker? Papago Brewing Company's Orange Blossom Ale is a refreshing summer favorite -- you'll find it on tap along with 29 other great beers at Papago's Scottsdale pub.

5. Hungry? There's plenty to eat.

The Valley is still fairly big on the kind of restaurant that feels as if it were dreamed up in a corporate boardroom, but chilled-out neighborhood spots like Tuck Shop and the more recently-added Urban Vine have lately been offering a more authentic, ingredient-focused antidote to so much "concept" dining. Of course, if you're a first-timer to Phoenix, your dining adventure must begin with at least the caprese sandwich at Pane Bianco on N. Central Avenue, if not a pizza at one of two locations of the world-famous Pizzeria Bianco. Yes, Chef Chris Bianco's food is hyped. Yes, it's that good.

6. Of course, there's more to do than eat

The Sonoran Desert is among the most beautiful on the planet. Luckily, it's all around you. Get an eyeful without leaving town by visiting the airport-adjacent Desert Botanical Garden, which comes pretty close to near-essential status on any Phoenix itinerary. What's that, you say - too hot for a summer visit? The garden offers in-depth Flashlight Tours every Thursday and Saturday at 7p.m. Problem solved.

7. Spend a romantic evening with Frank Lloyd Wright

Back in the 1930s, Wright bought a patch of desert outside of Scottsdale, constructing the Taliesin West campus, which famously blends in with its stunning surroundings. A two-hour Night Lights Tour is offered twice on Friday evenings. Architecture buffs shouldn't miss this.

8. Or, perhaps you prefer a little air conditioning.

From climate-controlled galleries at the Phoenix Art Museum (not to mention the fascinating Heard Museum) to Diamondbacks games in air-conditioned comfort at Chase Field, this is one town that'll keep you cool when the weather outside is another kind of frightful. Not to worry.

9. Unless, of course, you're the sweat-it-out type.

Seasoned types already know this as one of the best spa destinations in the country. Curious? Summer's a great time to get introduced - the renowned Sanctuary Camelback Mountain offers 50 percent off a second 60-minute treatment when you book one, Monday-Thursday. Mondays, the Omni Montelucia Resort offers an "All Day Happy Hour" deal -- a 50-minute massage or facial for $95.

10. Need a real cool off? Flagstaff's just two hours away.

Visitors sometimes forget -- there are places in Arizona that aren't nearly as, well, oven-like at this time of year. For example, take the college town of Flagstaff. An easy drive up I-17, this pleasantly walkable city rests at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by forests and mountains. Sure, it warms up, but not like Phoenix. Tip: Make the very-worthwhile detour through Sedona along the way for a glimpse of those famous red rocks.

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9 Reasons Why You Should Fly to Cleveland Right Now (No, Really!)

Posted by David Landsel on Friday, June 20, 2014


Cleveland can be a tough nut to crack. It is easy to lump the city in with the rest of the Rust Belt, to write it off as one of those towns whose best days are far behind it. In some ways, this might be true. The city's last population boom happened before a lot of us were born; it is one of those places that has long struggled to figure out just how to retool in the post-industrial era.

To be blunt: You can easily find what it is you're looking for, if you come to Cleveland expecting the worst. The city is, after all, half empty now, down from its post-WWII peak population of more than 900,000. People are still leaving.

Still, today's more diminutive Cleveland is by no means some total basket case, out for a pity date. Times have been tough, sure, but anyone who really knows the city will tell you that in spite of everything, this is still in many ways a terrific town, full of great neighborhoods, world class cultural institutions, plenty of excuses to drink beer (a.k.a. a slew of sporting events) and, of course, it is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

There's a lot to see here, a lot to like here. Particularly if you show up on a sunny summer weekend. Here are just of a few of the reasons I keep going back.

One of the best public markets in the country is here.

Cleveland has all sorts of impressive monuments to its heritage, but this living, breathing relic of days gone by -- as vibrant as ever more than 100 years on, perhaps more so after recovering from an electrical fire last year -- is one of many reasons Cleveland is special. This isn't some tourist trap, this is a working market, full of people running down their grocery lists at more than 100 vendors.

Bonus: There's great beer next door.

As you'd expect from a town in this part of the world, there's plenty to drink. The city's most celebrated craft brewery is conveniently located directly across the street from the market -- grab a seat on the pleasant front patio at Great Lakes Brewing and start sampling some of the Midwest's more popular microbrews. The Burning River, a pale ale, is a not-so-subtle wink toward one of Cleveland's more legendary embarrassments.

There's a national park, right on the edge of town.

Speaking of the Cuyahoga River -- it's come a long way from the old days. Not only is it not catching fire anymore, the river is actually the centerpiece of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a sizable greenbelt stretching south out of the city and into some very pretty territory. Hop the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, drive the Ohio & Erie Canalway Byway or get up on your feet and hit the trails -- the trail through the woods from Stanford House to Brandywine Falls makes for a solid workout and a great half-day adventure.

Some very good, non-annoying celebrity chefs cook here.

Hungry from all that hiking? Luckily, the food around here is pretty decent. These days, Cleveland is well-known as the home of Iron Chef Michael Symon, who co-hosts "The Chew," ABC's foodie chatfest. In real life, he oversees some of Cleveland's most popular restaurants, which run the gamut from fancy night out (Lola) to a chainlet of burger joints (B Spot). Also making a stir in recent years is Jonathan Sawyer -- his Greenhouse Tavern has made an name for itself with a locally-influenced menu of both surprising fine dining and comforting but elevated pub fare. His casual Noodlecat joints are great for a quick lunch.

Eat your lunch, then lose it on the best roller coasters around.

Do you like being scared out of your mind on a series of death-defying rides? Then you really should be on a plane to Cleveland as soon as possible. Less than an hour from the airport, the Cedar Point amusement park occupies a spit of land reaching out in to Lake Erie -- it's the perfect place to spend a steamy afternoon, sampling some of the country's craziest coasters, drawing in what seems to be half of the Midwest on many summer days. Go anyway. It's terrific.

Question: Does your town have an indoor Costa Rican rainforest? Didn't think so.

Weather acting up? Leave the coasters for another day and disappear into the Cleveland Botanical Gardens' grand Glasshouse, home to an expertly-recreated environment designed to simulate the Central American rainforest. Colorful butterflies, birds and slithering reptiles keep you company as you explore. When you're done with Costa Rica, take a 9,000-mile trip to the spiny desert of Madagascar, one of the most exotic environments in the world, right under the same roof.

Cleveland still has one of the best orchestras in the country.

The city may be much smaller than it was half a century ago, but the Cleveland Orchestra is still counted among the finest in the world, with a home venue (Severance Hall) that's equally impressive. Buy a ticket and go. In summer, find them on stage at the Blossom Music Center, a scenic outdoor amphitheater south of town. The popular concert venue relaxes the rules considerably on orchestra nights -- bring your own wine, as extravagant a picnic as you'd like, kick back on the lawn and enjoy.

Here, every day is a "Christmas Story" marathon.

Cleveland takes its connection to Jean Shepherd's timeless holiday tale very seriously. Visit the Christmas Story Museum, located next door to the home in the 1983 film, which is also open to the public. There's a Christmas Story Run (5k and 10k) each December and an annual auction where the prize is an overnight stay in the house that Ralphie made famous. The museum even has an official Chinese restaurant nearby. And don't forget to visit the gift shop -- maybe you don't need a leg lamp for your living room, but, hey, just in case.

After dark, things get really fun.

Cleveland is home to some impressive nightlife. Tremont, the neighborhood where you'll find the Christmas Story home and museum, is responsible for its fair share of late night good times. On the second Friday of each month, come here for the Tremont ArtWalk, featuring open galleries, special events (and special deals) at area businesses, including the Prosperity Social Club, one of the city's niftiest hangouts. Eat dinner, grab a cocktail and try your hand at a little bowling; come back weekly for Old World Wednesdays, paying tribute to Cleveland's ethnic heritage with polka, pierogies and Polish beers.

For the lowest available fares to CLE right now, click here.


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A Private Pool above the Pacific for Less Than $200/Night (and Other Reasons Acapulco Is Awesome)

Above images courtesy of and Great Lakes Brewing.

A Private Pool above the Pacific for Less Than $200/Night (and Other Reasons Acapulco Is Awesome)

Posted by David Landsel on Monday, May 19, 2014

By David Landsel of Airfarewatchdog

Were Frank Sinatra to lay his Ol' Blue Eyes on Acapulco Bay today, it's a safe bet he'd be pretty keen to fly, fly away someplace else. The years have not been terribly kind to the Mexican beach resort that once attracted Rat Packers, Hollywood starlets and various Kennedys to its shores - what was once a bucolic beach town of 50,000 has morphed into a seething metropolis plagued by poverty, violence and natural disasters.

Sound like the sort of place you'd like to go on vacation? Most Americans no longer think so – barely 10,000 passengers arrived on the lone nonstop flight from the United States (United Express, out of Houston) last year. Cruise lines don't call so often these days, either. It's their loss, honestly – Acapulco remains one of Mexico's most enjoyable places, a rowdy antidote to the country's often-default conservatism.

The city's magnificent location on the Pacific Ocean hasn't changed, either - that famous bay, the mountains towering over, the city sprawled every which way. It's an appealing blend, one that still manages to hook in plenty of travelers, many of them from Mexico City, just three and a half hours up the road. Overall, however, tourism numbers remain far too low, considering how much the city depends on visitors. Bad news for the locals, good news for travelers who bother to show up: Acapulco can be remarkably good value, particularly when it comes to hotels. Here are four very good examples.

Check into an episode of Mad Men from $109

The Hotel Boca Chica, a modernist gem tucked into an older residential area, would make a perfect set for an episode of AMC's hit TV show. But this shrine to a bygone era isn't stuck in the past entirely, thanks to a period-sensitive upgrade and oversight from Grupo Habita, known for unique little hotels throughout Mexico. The location, not far from the cliff divers at La Quebrada, isn't for everyone - it's not the most upscale of areas - but I spent a happy few days here and grew quite comfortable hanging around the neighborhood. The property is secure, offering a private dock and swimming area, but here you're also adjacent to busy Playa Caleta, which provides some great photo opportunities.

Get a private pool in the sky from $142

Another mid-century beauty, Las Brisas is a pink-and-white relic perched high above the drama. You'd be pardoned for wondering if anything had changed at all in the hotel's sixty-ish years of operation. (The answer is yes - there were renovations, completed in 2008, but the decor is still very much a throwback.) The hotel itself isn't the thing – the front desk staff was hopeless during my visit, the restaurant retains a morgue-like quality. Leap past these hurdles and get to what's really important: Those views. Most rooms offer their own private pool, where you can splash around on a sweltering summer afternoon with the entire region at your feet. When you can book affordably, Las Brisas is an absolute must.

Do it like J. Paul Getty from $132

The refined, low-rise Fairmont Pierre Marques is definitely a more typical beach resort, catering to international travelers. Still, there's a subdued elegance about the place, which comes as a breath of fresh air on Acapulco's slightly-faded Playa Revolcadero. Inaugurated in the 1950s on the site of J. Paul Getty's oceanfront retreat spot, the hotel sits amid rather lush tropical gardens, giving a feel more of Old Hawaii than you might expect in this corner of Mexico.

Crash some rich guy's beach pad (well, sort of) from $229

There's nothing retro-anything about the Hotel Encanto, an intimate property that at first glimpse appears to be the private ocean villa of an exceedingly wealthy individual. Except that it's not - packed in here are 44 guest rooms, a restaurant, a spa and one of the more impressive pools you'll likely ever splash in. An exceedingly minimal look is given a pleasing warmth in this privileged setting, high above the ocean and away from, well, pretty much everything. Half the rooms offer small, private pools, but no matter which suite you book, you're kind of winning at life.

How to go

United Express serves Acapulco nonstop from Houston in just 2.5 hours. Alternately, frequent connections are available in Mexico City.

For a look at current deals to Mexico, visit our fare pages for Mexico City, Cancun, Los Cabos, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, and Acapulco.

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Which Popular American City Is Secretly an Amazing Outdoor Adventure Destination?

Posted by David Landsel on Thursday, May 15, 2014

By David Landsel of Airfarewatchdog

Quick question: Which western city is a short drive from this, and has one of its major boulevards quite suddenly turn into this...

brags a location less than an hour from unforgettable trails like this...

plus, one more hour from both this death-defying hike...

and the lowest point on the North American continent?

That's right -- we're talking about Las Vegas.

Yep, the city of wild nightlife...

of dancing fountains...

limitless neon...

decadent buffets...

fake Venice (and Paris and New York)...

and some of the world's largest hotels...

is also not far from enchanting desertscapes...This is Mesquite Dunes at Death Valley National Park.

Valley of Fire State Park, 50 miles from town, offers a diverse array of hiking options -- plan on spending at least a day out here.

It's surrounded by Joshua trees. You'll find full-blown forests where you least expect them.

There are cool ghost towns to explore. Death Valley Junction dates back to the 1920s and was built as a company town by the Pacific Coast Borax Company; here you'll find the famous Amargosa Opera House, an art gallery and other surprises.

Plenty of inspiring drives. This is Valley of Fire again -- truly a must-see.

Otherworldly landscapes. Zabriskie Point is the easiest destination to reach within Death Valley National Park, just 140 miles of open road (mostly) from the Las Vegas Strip.

Chances to push yourself to the limit. Angel's Landing, a precarious razorback hike within Zion National Park, is bucket list material and just over two hours from Las Vegas.

Vegas really does have it all. Really, what's better than this...

unless you can have that and still be back in time for the likes of this...

For the lowest fares available to Las Vegas right now, click here.

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Showgirl and aerial strip photos courtesy of Las Vegas News Bureau, Bellagio fountains courtesy of Bellagio. All other images by David Landsel.

The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Alaska

Posted by David Landsel on Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Alaska is big. Extreme weather is kind of its thing. The state is full of bears, moose and other animals you really don't want to tangle with. It's no accident there are reality shows dedicated to highlighting just how dangerous/remote/weird Alaska can be. No wonder so many travelers prefer to let a middleman sort things out. Whether a cheap cruise or an expensive fishing trip, if you want to have your hand held -- or if you just feel like blowing a bunch of cash -- operators are standing by. It doesn't have to be like that, though. Anyone with a bit of common sense (and maybe a bit of water-resistant gear) can easily cobble together a great introductory visit to the 49th state on their own. Here's how you do it.

First, fly to Anchorage.

More than half of Alaska's population can be found in or around this surprisingly normal city. Anchorage is an easy flight from major gateways in the West and a not-terrible connection from many other major population centers in what Alaskans refer to as "the lower 48." (For a list of the lowest fares available to ANC right now, click here.) Upon landing, pick up a rental car at the airport and point it towards your hotel, just as you would anywhere else. There's no truly great place to stay in Anchorage; go with what gives you the best value for your money. For example, a handful of new-ish properties in the Midtown area (the SpringHill Suites, located on scenic University Lake, is fine) offer free wireless internet, parking and breakfast, plus larger rooms and suites -- perfect for families.

Good. Now, stay.

Alaskans who do not live there are fond of saying (over and over again!) that Anchorage is just thirty minutes from Alaska. Dumb joke, yes, but also a statement of fact -- the array of adventure on the city's doorstep is mind-blowing. Not that you even need to leave town to get your nature on -- cyclists will see plenty of wildlife on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a paved, 11-mile stretch leading out of the center of town and down along Turnagain Arm, the giant body of water that stops the city in its tracks on three sides. Rent some wheels (Trek Store -- in Midtown, next to the Embassy Suites -- is the real deal) and go. For more adventurous types, Flattop Mountain (elev. 3,510 feet) is a popular spot for a bit of exercise. Here, you're basically rock scrambling by the end; winds can whip up so fast on the treeless peak, you may have to squat to keep from being blown over. When all's said and done, you might feel a little like Shackleton, but to many Alaskans, this 1.5-mile climb is a mere stroll in Central Park.

Now, go hike a glacier.

Feeling like a big man or lady? As previously stated, Flattop's nothing. To really up your street cred, go for a glacier hike. Nothing fancy required -- just get out of bed, grab a coffee at one of Anchorage's many fine caffeine dispensaries (SteamDot Coffee and Side Street Espresso are best, while we're on the subject) and drive out north (two hrs.) along the Glenn Highway, past the town of Palmer, toward Matanuska Glacier. Some people drive to the beach in the summer, Alaskans go hang out on glaciers. All you need is the proper footwear and the admission fee (it's up to $20 per person nowadays, still worth it) and you're set. For a more in-depth experience, outfitters near the glacier will get you all geared up with crampons, helmet and trekking pole, but it's not essential. For an even softer adventure, head south of town (2.5 hrs) to Kenai Fjords National Park, where Exit Glacier can be viewed via a tame, one-mile loop from the visitors center.

Next, see the rainforest.

What better way to follow up a glacier hike with a day in the rainforest? In winter, the town of Girdwood, a little over half an hour from Anchorage, is ski central; in summer, you come for the outstanding hiking. A five-mile loop through Winner Creek Gorge takes you into coastal rainforest that'll have you feeling as if you've stepped into a more temperate Jurassic Park, but with bears instead of dinosaurs. Some hikers prefer to go the guided route, and that's fine -- for $69, guides from The Ascending Path will take you out on a fun, two to three hour excursion.

Now, go rafting. Or floating.

Ever been floating? Not in your pool, but on a raft, down a river? It's the ultimate lazy man's adventure, but you've already hiked on a glacier and through a rainforest, so go ahead, take the day off. Two-hour tours ($59) down the Upper Kenai River with Alaska River Trips are the sort of thing anyone could handle, while the more adventurous and easily bored should definitely look into NOVA's challenging Six Mile Creek whitewater trip in the Chugach National Forest. The half-day trip down Class 1V-V rapids (that's some serious rapids) costs $99-$149 depending on the tour. Not only is it a great trip, the guides do all the thinking for you, providing any necessary gear and guidance. Bonus: On a warm day, you can go swimming before and after. Both of these excursions are, once again, a reasonable drive out of Anchorage.

Finally, make sure to hit Prince William Sound.

You know those pictures of everyone out on the deck of a ship, gawking at glaciers? (Like the one above?) And you think to yourself, oh, my, that would be nice, to just cruise past a bunch of glaciers? Here's a tip: To get to the really good stuff, you've got to get off the big boat and on to a little one. So why not just book the little one yourself? One of the better glacier viewing cruises you can do in Alaska is the one through Prince William Sound. Phillips Cruises & Tours operates out of the weird little town of Whittier, about an hour and a half from Anchorage. Two cruises are offered, one at $99 and one at $149; the latter takes in no less than 26 glaciers during the five-hour sailing. Either way, you're getting face time with one of the most incredible bits of real estate in what you've already gathered is a pretty incredible state. Lunch is included.

Remember to make time for the city itself.

There are plenty of things to do in Anchorage that don't involve nature -- it's a real city, one that can be a lot of fun, particularly in summer, when festivals and farmers markets crowd the calendar. Eating and drinking here can be a lot of fun as well -- if you can, get down to the mostly tourist-free (for now) Midnight Sun Brewing Co. for solid beers and beer-appropriate eats. See-worthy attractions are a little scarce, but the Anchorage Museum, with its David Chipperfield-designed expansion, a large collection of Alaskan art and artifacts, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and a great planetarium shouldn't keep you away from the great outdoors for too long, but this is definitely worth a visit if time allows.

For a list of the lowest fares available to Alaska, see our fare pages for Anchorage ANC, Fairbanks FAI, Juneau JNU, Kodiak ADQ, and Sitka SIT.

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All photos courtesy of Travel Alaska and the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau.

14 Things You Need to Know Before Driving California's Big Sur

Posted by David Landsel on Wednesday, April 16, 2014


The rugged stretch of California coastline between San Simeon and Carmel has always done its best to ward off interlopers. Even the otherwise-ambitious Spaniards gave it a miss at first. Centuries later, there was still no road through the land that explorers referred to as "el país grande del sur," which may or may not translate roughly as "that place where the parking was so bad, we left and went somewhere else." When the project to build what would become the most adored segment of California's Highway 1 was finally started, it took 18 years to complete. Residents, what few there were, remained largely off the grid until the 1950s.

Today, visitors to Big Sur can glide through roughly 85 miles of stunning scenery in a couple of hours, but the region remains an overwhelming and somewhat unknowable place to many. It's crowded, for starters -- Big Sur after all, is right up there with New York's Times Square on the list of must-sees for many visitors to the United States, let alone us Americans. In addition, many attempt to simply wing it, not realizing how easily the best bits can be missed entirely. Muddling through is fine, but to really get something out of the experience, it's best to come prepared. After years of driving this fabled stretch of road pretty much every way it can be driven, here's what I wish I'd known at the outset.

#1. If you're in a rush, take the freeway.
Big Sur is not something to be checked off on a list of things to do in California. California takes a lifetime to experience properly. That's what makes California great. Give Big Sur at least a day, for goodness' sake. If you can't do that, you're not going to get much out your visit.

#2. Plan ahead.
Forget Google Maps, forget the apps, forget your phone entirely -- service drops off pretty much instantly and stays scarce the entire route. If you want to know what the best hikes are, where the best food is, which state parks you can skip and which ones you absolutely have to brake for, you need to find that out in advance. Just like in ancient (pre-2007) times.

#3. Overnighting is not essential.
While you shouldn't rush through, a full day is actually plenty of time for a first visit to Big Sur. Some people will disagree, but some people have a lot more time on their hands than most, which is really nice for them. Staying over is great but it's inevitably going to be too expensive. Maybe you'll love that $300/night rustic rental cabin 20 minutes from the coastline, or that $1,000 room at the Post Ranch Inn. Perhaps you'll go home and tear your house apart because you liked the retro-fab interiors at Glen Oaks so much and want to copy them. That's great. But there's no denying the fact that your money's going to go a lot further, the moment you leave. And, when you leave, it's not like you're crossing the Hudson River into Secaucus. You're heading toward other parts of California's incredible coastline. Don't be mad.

#4. If you do stay over, be smart.
On the high end, it's always the Post Ranch Inn over Ventana -- Post Ranch has the best location of any hotel along the coastline. On the low end, it's probably Treebones Resort above all else, but don't overspend there. It's essentially camping -- sometimes it's literally camping. Beyond that, the classic Big Sur Lodge, inside Pfeiffer State Park, is a good bet when you can get a decent rate. For a place of your own, take a look at and, where you can sometimes find views for a fraction of what you'll get at a hotel. Finally, consider the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery with a prime mountainside location. New Camaldoli is not for everyone -- actually, it's not for most people -- but if silence, simplicity and a total disconnect from the outside world is what you're after, a stay here can be a remarkable experience.

#5. There's no such thing as the "perfect" location in Big Sur.
It's not a town, it's a region. Things are quite far apart. Wherever you stay, you're going to be far from something. Sometimes, a lot of things. Also, that oceanfront perch you're dying to check into, the one that looks so pretty in the pictures? More often than not, it's on the other side of Highway 1. Yes, the road gets quiet at night. Until it doesn't. If the resort or hotel or campground doesn't have a map posted on their site, ask.

#6. No matter how beautiful, Big Sur is a tourist trap.
This is an extremely popular tourist destination with a shallow labor pool. As such, too many service employees here are amateurish at best. (And don't think you're safe on the high end, either, far from it.) To be blunt: It's all highway robbery -- the point is to get taken for as little as you can. Just accept that your business isn't all that important to these places, and you'll be fine. If you can't deal, step aside -- half of Germany would like to check in and/or order an $11 sandwich, please.

#7. Staying at either end often offers great value.
At the northern gateway is the Monterey Peninsula, which has plenty of traps of its own, both of the sand and the tourist kind. Still, here you'll find Pacific Grove, a quaint town in a prime position at the tip of the peninsula. Asilomar, a historic YWCA conference center in a state park, sits on a remarkable, rocky stretch of coastline. Rates can run quite low, even though you're just across the street from the world-famous Pebble Beach golf industrial complex and the beginning of their 17 Mile Drive toll road. (Sidenote: Save your $10 and go for a walk along Spanish Bay instead -- it's practically out Asilomar's front door, and that's one of the drive's best bits anyway.) If Asilomar is booked up or too pricey, a collection of affordable (and sometimes quite charming) motels just across the street will work as well. The Rosedale Inn, for example, has fireplace rooms for as little as $79, plus free continental breakfast. At the southern gateway to Big Sur, the little beach town of Cayucos may be a short drive from the action, but there's something so breezy and pleasant about this seaside village, entirely walkable and with a handful of very good dining options. (At Ruddell's Smokehouse, they take tuna straight off the boat and smoke it, serving it up in giant tacos and over very good salads. Eat here.) Lodging isn't necessarily up-to-the-minute, but that's kind of the point. If Cayucos is too busy or too rich for your blood, Morro Bay is a couple more minutes to the south and possesses its own kind of charm.

#8. Stagger your start time.
You're going to wake up wanting to get right to it in the morning, and that's fine, but be aware that everyone else who's overnighted nearby is going to be thinking the same thing. Also be aware that people have to commute to their jobs on the same road you'll be trying to drive. Stagger your travel, either waiting until the smoke clears, or stopping a lot along the way until things clear up. There's no real hurry, anyway -- nothing quite like the late afternoon light when it collides with wisps of coastal fog. Plus, driving the last patch of road after dark isn't the end of the world, either, should you decide to stick around for the sunset. And you should.

#9. Don't be a snob. The highlights are often highlights for a reason.
The likes of stunningly scenic McWay Falls (pictured up top -- I snapped that on my iPhone, those colors are 100 percent real) and Pfeiffer Beach don't need to justify themselves to you. The former doesn't require paying state park admission; you can find a spot along the highway, right above the Waterfall Trail that takes you to the viewing area. At Pfeiffer Beach, suck it up and pay the $5. Of course, all these admission fees can add up. Unless you're going to give it the time it deserves, Andrew Molera is safely skipped -- it's a long walk through some rather dry, average scenery (it gets hot in there, too) to the beach (Pfeiffer is better) and the more impressive Headlands Trail, but to do it all, you're looking at three miles, which is more than most people feel like walking. Unless you're going to go the distance, save your $10. (Though you can always park on the road and sneak in, like many do.) The same goes for Point Lobos State Park, which besides often being so busy they won't even let you in, is just too crowded considering there are plenty of coastal bluff walks and unmarked little coves you can venture into on your own, just a short drive to the south.

#10. Getting off the beaten path is really, really recommended.
There are, believe it or not, other roads besides Highway 1. Explore them. Narrow Palo Colorado Road disappears into a redwood forest dotted with envy-inducing Hobbit houses, while superbly treacherous Nacimiento Road (be careful!) makes a spectacular climb up and over the coastal range and down into a remote valley, where the remarkably primitive Mission San Antonio de Padua sees few visitors. Note: The campsites on federal land along a scenic creek running parallel to the road about 45 minutes away from Highway 1 make a fine alternative to the overcrowded coastal options -- $15 a night and no reservations required.

#11. There is actually some good food here.
The list is short, but potent. At the southern gateway is Sebastian's General Store, located at Hearst Ranch in San Simeon. They open at 11 in the morning; this is a fine place to eat an early lunch. Get the burger or the roast beef sandwich. It's historic, it's charming -- you'll like it. Up at the heart of what passes for an actual village of Big Sur (just barely!) is the justifiably famous Big Sur Bakery, perhaps your best bet along the entire route. Their sweets are superb and sell out too soon. The actual menu -- flatbreads, entrees, soups, salads -- is far more serious than you might expect in such a casual location and generally very good. Caveat: If they're busy, be prepared to wait, sometimes too long. Impatient types can always just grab some goodies at the counter and keep moving. (Be aware that this is the only proper espresso bar along the entire route. There are other places to get coffee, sure, but this is the one you want.) If you require a proper sit-down meal, Sierra Mar's up-in-the-sky location at the exclusive Post Ranch Inn cannot be beat, here in Big Sur or in most places, to be honest. A $50 prix-fixe lunch menu is available to the public; reservations are a great idea. The food is fine, the service can be tepid. (A great way to get their attention: Try to walk off onto the resort's very private property. They usually wake right up.) For a sit-down lunch experience that's more low-key, the Big Sur Roadhouse serves three meals daily, straight through until 9 p.m., making it the best option for people who don't like to plan ahead. Good food, good drinks, nice vibe. Breakfast is good too, but if you're coming south from Monterey at that hour, it's tough to beat pastries and coffee at the Big Sur Bakery.

#12. And if you're hungry when you get out...
Southbound, I always save my appetite for Robin's in Cambria. Touristy, but popular for good reason. Even if you just go in for the salmon bisque, some very good garlic bread and a glass of Central Coast wine, you've done good. Service is usually nice and the prices are fair. Northbound, Restaurant 1833, just a few minutes off the highway in Monterey, is a classy kind of place -- stop in for a cocktail and a bit of chill time by the fire pits, at least. If you want something quick, it's fun to stop in at the market and deli operated by Earthbound Farm (yes, that Earthbound Farm), a few minutes off the highway in the scenic-in-its-own-right Carmel Valley. A wander through the you-pick herb garden out back can be just the thing, after all that driving.

#13. When you're done, be done for the day.
Rushing off to San Francisco or Los Angeles when you're through with Big Sur is a crime. There's too much else to see. The drive from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along Highway 1 deserves a day of its own. Santa Cruz itself is a must, so are the Santa Cruz Mountains -- think wineries and great redwood hikes. Southbound, don't miss Morro Bay for exemplary garlic fries (Giovanni's) and local seafood down by the docks, or quiet coves and forests of eucalyptus tucked away inside Montaña de Oro State Park in nearby Los Osos. Santa Barbara's wine country is also along the way -- that takes a day to do correctly, but if you've only got a little time, hit Zaca Mesa for a bottle of crisp and refreshing Viognier in their pleasant courtyard, stop at Martian Ranch to taste of some of the region's latest hits, then do lunch at Bell Street Farm, or early dinner at Full of Life Flatbread -- either way, you'll be eating some of the best food on the Central Coast.

#14. One last time: Slow down.
It's easy to get into a rut of trying to make time, trying to overtake people, trying to break free from traffic snarls. The only thing to do when you get to this point is to pull over at one of the many (many!) turnouts and chill for a minute. If all you're taking away from your visit to one of the continent's most beautiful places is that the traffic was terrible, you did it wrong.

Our Best Fares to the Area (as of April 16)

Seattle to San Jose $178 round-trip, including all taxes

Phoenix to San Jose $260 round-trip, including all taxes

Portland to San Jose $138 round-trip, including all taxes

Salt Lake City to San Jose $198 round-trip, including all taxes

Boston to San Francisco $297 round-trip, including all taxes

Dallas to San Francisco $242 round-trip, including all taxes

Milwaukee to San Francisco $258 round-trip, including all taxes

Minneapolis to San Francisco $269 round-trip, including all taxes

New York to San Francisco $298 round-trip, including all taxes

Newark to Los Angeles $266 round-trip, including all taxes

Ft Lauderdale to Los Angeles $262 round-trip, including all taxes

Houston to Los Angeles $296 round-trip, including all taxes

For a complete listing, visit our fare pages for San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, and Los Angeles.

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Got a Little Free Time This Spring? Maybe Go Check Out Pittsburgh (Yes, Really)

Houston is one of the country's coolest cities. So why haven't you been yet?

Got a Little Free Time This Spring? Maybe Go Check Out Pittsburgh (Yes, Really)

Posted by David Landsel on Tuesday, April 8, 2014


There are many ways in which Pittsburgh is not like other cities -- let's start with the grand entrance. Whether you're coming in from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, or shooting under Mount Washington on their way in from the airport, you can't help but notice: Here is a city with a lot going on in the looks department.

The setting, along those famous three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela) at the foot of those dramatic hills, is pretty great. That impressive skyline is a constant reminder of a time when Pittsburgh was one of the world's most important industrial capitals.

Of course, today's Pittsburgh is slightly less mighty. Still, of all the faded rust belt cities, none come even close to wearing diminished status quite so well. Pittsburgh is the master of keeping up appearances. The downtown, or, as it's called around here, the Golden Triangle, remains one of the most walkable and appealing city centers in the country, offering one pleasant streetscape after another.

In some ways, it's like a little slice of Manhattan, streets filled with people on sunny weekdays, pouring off buses (and even a subway!) in the mornings and back on again at night. Pittsburgh feels busy, it feels alive. Industry has given way to research, health care, education and the arts. Smart people are moving in, or simply moving home. The city feels young again, promising, like a place that has a future, one brighter than just about any of its contemporaries.

It is spring, now -- a good time to go take a look. Here are just a few reasons why.

#1. It's kind of..all over the place.

The 'Burgh's bizarre topography -- San Francisco appears almost orderly by comparison at times -- makes for close-knit neighborhoods that often function almost as if they were their own cities. To really get to know Pittsburgh, you've got to hustle a bit. It's worth it, though. Go see the bustling South Side, with its wide selection of bars along jammed East Carson Street, the Brooklyn-ish scene up the Allegheny in Lawrenceville, the small-town-at-the-top-of-the-world vibe in Mt. Washington. There are many Pittsburghs, all in very close proximity to each other, but each their own universe. East Liberty, for years one of the city's trouble spots and all but abandoned by the end, is a major happening these days, with tons of shopping and other developments that include a Google campus.

#2. There's a lot of art. Like, a lot.

From big-ticket shows at the Carnegie or the Frick to the avant-garde at the North Side's Mattress Factory, a site for unusual installations created by resident artists since the '70s, Pittsburgh knows from art. Just as it knows from music, theatre, opera, dance and pretty much any other cultural indulgence you can name. If you just want to stare at canvases, you need more than a weekend to see everything worth seeing here -- the Carnegie is a good place to start, functioning as sort of a mini-Met, with its Roman and Chinese artifacts, its Degases and Monetses.

#3. The food is terrific.

To some, Pittsburgh dining means overstuffed sandwiches topped with french fries and coleslaw. You can eat that sort of thing, if you must, but save an appetite for the city's quickly evolving culinary scene, from little neighborhood bistros to buzz-garnering fine dining. Justin Severino is the guy everyone talks about these days. He's the chef at Cure, a charcuterie-focused spot on Butler Street that attracts all kinds of national attention for good reason.

#4. The one-of-a-kind Strip District is the coolest.

Imagine if there was enough space in Manhattan's gentrified Meatpacking District for all that new stuff as well as the original businesses that gave the neighborhood its character -- that pretty much describes the Strip District, a sprawling, 24-hour jumble of discount produce, late-night dance clubs, vintage Italian cheesemongers, third-wave coffee joints and trucker bars, abandoned warehouses and upmarket apartments. Easily walkable from the downtown area, the Strip gets its share of tourists, and as such, sustains its share of tourist dreck. Step into the growing Pittsburgh Public Market for a glimpse of what's now, what's good and what's local.

#5. The outdoors are truly great.

As complicated as Pittsburgh can be to navigate, there's still plenty of it that's easy to figure out on foot, from the museums and sports stadiums of the North Side to the bars and restaurants of the South Side, all the way out the Strip District and, of course, right downtown. When the weather's nice, there's nothing better than exploring on two feet -- particularly along the increasingly developed riverfront. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail is a many-segmented and growing trail network that covers an impressive 21 miles; pretty much any direction you want to go from the center of town, there's a path for that. If you prefer an upper-body workout, Kayak Pittsburgh, which reopens May 1 for the summer season, provides affordable rentals in its downtown location under the Sixth Street Bridge.

#6. And so are the indoors.

Spring not moving forward fast enough for you? Get a jumpstart on summer indoors at the gorgeous Phipps Conservatory up in Oakland, where 19 indoor and outdoor gardens, representative of many different types of habitats, have been thrilling Pittsburghers for more than a century. While it takes a little less than two hours to do the site justice, stick around for lunch in the airy café. If you get in to town early enough on a Friday, note that the gardens are open all the way up until 10 p.m. An easy hike from most Downtown hotels, the surprising National Aviary, an all-bird zoo that features 600 winged-things from the world over in a lush indoor garden setting, is an only-in-Pittsburgh must. (They have pink flamingos -- how cool is that.)

#7. Wait. You've never been to Fallingwater?

It must be said that few of the museums in Pittsburgh can quite compete with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, one of the most iconic residences in the free world, located just an hour or so from town, in the heart of Western Pennsylvania's beautiful Laurel Highlands. Designed as a weekend spot for the Kaufmann family, local luminaries who most famously owned that big department store downtown that is now a Macy's, Fallingwater is reason enough to make the trek to this part of the world.

Flights to Pittsburgh

Atlanta to Pittsburgh $220 round-trip, nonstop, including all taxes

Boston to Pittsburgh $138 round-trip, nonstop, including all taxes

Chicago to Pittsburgh $200 round-trip, nonstop, including all taxes

New York to Pittsburgh $239 round-trip, nonstop, including all taxes

Ft Lauderdale to Pittsburgh $282 round-trip, including all taxes

For a complete look at current fares, visit our fare page for Pittsburgh PIT.

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Houston is One of the Country's Coolest Cities -- So Why Haven't You Been Yet?

Photos via David Landsel (1, 5, 6, 7) Tripadvisor (3, 4) Andy Warhol Museum (2)

Houston is One of the Country's Coolest Cities -- So Why Haven't You Been Yet?

Posted by David Landsel on Monday, March 31, 2014

By David Landsel of Airfarewatchdog

Pop quiz: Largest cities in the United States. Go. We all know New York is number one, right? And most are hip to the fact that Chicago ought to be called the Third City, because the number two spot has long been owned by Los Angeles. Who's in fourth, then? Houston's in fourth, that's who, now home to nearly 2.2 million people. Chicago ought to watch out - the bayou boomtown seems intent on getting a whole lot bigger, real soon. Not that you should wait around to get to know this fast-growing free-for-all, a diverse and unique place where, generally, the thing to expect is the unexpected, which always makes visiting a whole lot of fun. Here are just a few of the many reasons I keep going back.

#1. Houston is…different.

Example: For nearly thirty years, locals have been decorating their cars and registering them in what's now the world's largest Art Car Parade, an event that draws around 250,000 people (that's a lot of people!) for a weekend of fun that includes car shows, a drag race and, of course, the parade. If you can't make that weekend (this year, the parade is on May 10), some great specimens can be viewed in the city's Art Car Museum. Because, you know, cars converted into giant bugs or birds or monsters need their own museum, right?

#2. No, really – it can be a little out there.

Disney World may not be located in Houston, but Jeff McKissack figured his unique monument to the orange might eventually rival the House of Mouse in popularity. Founded on a small lot in a humble neighborhood just out of the shadow of the downtown skyline, The Orange Show represents years of painstaking effort on the part of McKissack, a postman with dreams of welcoming what he estimated to be at least 90 percent of the American population to his unique installation, comprised mostly of reused materials. The crowds never showed up, but a group of local bigs - including the guys from ZZ Top - made sure that McKissack's highly unusual work would be with us for a very long time.

#3. Speaking of out there…

What is it about Houstonians and turning cars and houses into art? John Milkovisch is another local who took a look at his modest bungalow on Malone Street one day and figured that what it probably needed was coat of paint, but that painting was boring, so why not take about 50,000 used beer cans and give the neighbors something to talk about? Okay, he probably didn't think that far ahead, but when Milkovisch's master work was completed, the house would be sided entirely with flattened beer can bodies and draped in curtains made from the tops.

The yard itself is a work of art, utilizing stone, marbles and other bits of salvaged junk. (Milkovisch was really into recycling.) "As long as he doesn't start on the inside," his wife Mary once said. Today, the property is operated as a museum.

#4. …and of things you don't see every day, everywhere else…

David Adickes' Sculptureworx Studios isn't exactly on the beaten tourist path, but his giant (nearly 20 foot) busts of presidential heads in an unkempt lot just off busy I-10 (it's not jokingly called Mt. Rush Hour for nothing) are, to many Houstonians, an essential stop for visitors. They're not wrong. Oh, and if you don't care about having your picture taken with, say, George H.W. Bush, don't worry - The Beatles are there too, because of course they are.

#5. But seriously - some of the art is, well, pretty serious.

John and Domenique de Menil amassed a rather epic collection of art in their time; the de Menils were, like so many wealthy people in Houston over the years, in the oil business. That'll buy you a lot of Magritte, Miro and Matisse. The deceptively-modest, Renzo Piano-designed museum sitting on a pretty patch of the Montrose neighborhood is bucket list-level stuff for lovers of very good little art museums.

#6. For a city not widely-known for architecture, some of it is pretty great.

As happens with boomtowns, Houston has been stuck with some seriously ugmo buildings over the years. But every now and then, the city will smack you upside the head with something amazing, from magnificent mansions in River Oaks on over to the WPA-era City Hall. If you don't like waiting around for surprises, skip ahead to Philip Johnson's stunning little Rothko Chapel (pictured above), complemented handsomely by his work on the pleasantly walkable St. Thomas University campus, just across Yupon Street.

#7. Enough sightseeing. Time to go drinking.

Houston may appear to be a serious city, filled with serious people doing real work, but this is still a Gulf Coast town that likes to kick back and relax, early and often. As such, there are some terrific watering holes here, from the honky-tonk West Alabama Ice House (bring your dog, grab tacos from next door, order a Lone Star tallboy and kick it in the backyard) to sophisticated spots like The Pastry War, a buzzy mezcaleria with Dia de los Muertos decor and some very talented bartenders. (Watch it with the mezcal, though. That stuff'll sneak up on you.

#8. The food here is so good, Beyoncé rapped about it.

There's a lot to eat in Houston – in fact, food may be the single best reason to come here right now. Start, however, at Frenchy's, down on Scott Street, a place hometown girl Beyoncé has name-checked more than once. Don't go after church on Sunday, when half of Houston has the same idea. Actually, do, that way you get, besides some of the best Cajun-spiced fried chicken you'll ever eat, a primer on which styles are crushing it these days in the church hat space. When it is finally your turn at the window, get the chicken, get some dirty rice (make sure they don't forget the jalapeno on the side) and then go to town on one of H-town's best cheap meals.

#9. Save room for donuts at Shipley's, though.

You can get them in other places, but there's something very Houston-y about running over to pick up a few of these glazed beauties, fresh out of the fryer. Since you bothered, ask to try a kolache, a fluffy, bun-like creature introduced into Texas' edible lexicon by Czech immigrants. They come filled with various sweet and savory things - one Shipley's location north of downtown has long been famous for its weekends-only boudin kolaches, a solemn but also joyous marriage of Texas and Louisiana tradition.

#10. Tacos, too. Don't forget tacos. And banh mi. And queso. And Peking duck.

The city is getting good notices on the fine dining front - and you should totally check out the likes of Chris Shepherd's Underbelly, or Justin Yu's Oxheart - but don't get stuck over there on the high end. There's simply too much good, affordable food around here. Save room for Peking duck and pork ribs at Shanghai Restaurant in Bellaire, Houston's sprawling Chinatown. Or perhaps you're more about a vat of chile con queso at El Real, a veritable temple to Tex-Mex. And don't forget bowls of steaming pho, or overstuffed banh mi, which you can find all over these days - Houston's famous for its large Vietnamese community. And, of course, Mexican food. All kinds of Mexican food. Everywhere.

#11. Make sure to take a break from getting fat to do other things.

Houston's got all that traditional culture - the ballet, the symphony, the opera. But it's still Houston, though – you might find some pretty unusual stuff on stage. The Houston Grand Opera, for instance, is big on thinking outside the box, constantly dabbling in new ideas - the world's first mariachi opera, for example, debuted here in 2010. The opera also works hard to make new fans through a variety of outreach programs, including free outdoor shows in city parks. Catch one, if you can.

#12. Then again, maybe you're more the rodeo sort.

The city welcomes spring every year with Rodeo Houston, which began in 1931 as The Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition and grew into the biggest party of the year. Concerts, contests, fun stuff for kids, a barbecue cook-off, a parade, you name it - if it's fun and it's legal, it's probably on the schedule. Bonus: Tons of cute kids in cowboy outfits.

#13. Or maybe you just want to explore.

Forget its reputation as a city that happened yesterday. Houston has plenty of historic neighborhoods, some of them completely charming. Be ready for serious house envy in enclaves like the Old Sixth Ward, an almost-secret pocket sandwiched between Buffalo Bayou and the increasingly vibrant nightlife found along formerly windswept Washington Avenue, just minutes from downtown.

#14 It's also just a great place to hang out.

The best neighborhoods here boast some really great hangouts - pictured is Blacksmith, down in super-cool Lower Westheimer. Blacksmith is not only one of the city's finest coffee bars, it's also one Houston's top people-watching spots. There's a great breakfast menu, too - totally go for the Vietnamese steak and eggs. Should you tire of the scene inside (not likely), plant in front of the windows facing Westheimer Road and watch the world go about its day.

#15 Need a break? Disappear into the wild, without leaving the city.

Memorial Park is, at 1,500 acres, twice the size of New York's Central Park. It's pretty big. As such, you can get fairly lost in the woods over here, if you like - some of the park trails can take you quite far away from people. For a more curated experience, the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, located within the park, has some terrific walks - stick around for the After Dark program, which features night hikes and wine tastings (talk about a fun combo).  

#16 Then again, perhaps you prefer something a little more genteel.

Bayou Bend may claim but 14 acres next to Memorial Park's 1,500+, but that's not such a poor showing for one homeowner in Houston's exclusive River Oaks area. This historic estate is renowned for its collection of American furnishings and art, but the gardens are some of the most magnificent in this part of the world.

#17 Then again, sometimes, wild is the most fun.

Did you know there is surfing in Houston? Whenever the Gulf gets a little crazy, local surfers drive down to nearby Surfside Beach, struggle into their wetsuits and rush to catch some of the impressive waves between the two coasts. Even if you've no inclination to join them, a long walk to the end of the jetty can be awfully invigorating when a storm whips up. (Warning: You might get a little wet.)

#18. So, really -- check Houston out sometime. You'll be glad you did.

For a look at current deals to H-Town, visit our fare pages for Houston IAH and Houston HOU.

Photos by HCVB/Julie Soefer (7,9,14) Nick de la Torre (2), David Brown (3), HCVB/Hugh Hargrave (4), RODEOHOUSTON/Facebook (12), David Landsel (8, 17)

24 Ways to Have the Best 24 Hours Ever in Los Angeles

Posted by David Landsel on Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Los Angeles! It is big, weird, crowded and often daunting, particularly if you are only here for a short stay. Still, you don't need a ton of time, or even a car (no, seriously) to get the hang of America's second city. With just 24 hours and a sense of adventure, you can have one of the best days ever, not only in Los Angeles, but anywhere.

1. It all begins at the beach.

It's kind of a thing, here in Southern California. Doesn't matter how, doesn't matter where, just go. (The closest one to LAX is Dockweiler State Beach, four miles from the terminals.)

2. Get relaxed, then take on the town.

This is Union Station, LA's historic (and quite handsome) rail hub. Comfortable FlyAway express buses connect the airport and the station 24 hours a day for $7.

3. Cross the street to see the oldest blocks in Los Angeles.

On this stretch of Main Street - officially referred to as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument - you can catch a glimpse of a very different kind of Los Angeles than the one the world knows today. Containing some of the city's oldest buildings, the local mission church and the kitschy but cute Olvera Street shopping area, the neighborhood is at its best on weekends, when churchgoers, performers, people watchers, old men taking naps and camera-wielding tourists mix it up in the central plaza, which at times feels like it was yoinked straight from a small town in Mexico.

4. Walk a couple of blocks up Broadway for some of the best food in town.

Out behind the mission complex, you'll see the giant Chinatown gate, off to the right -- pass through and stroll up to the retro-fab Far East Plaza. Tucked away inside is Chego, Roy Choi's tiny lunch counter, serving food that is a happy hybrid of three of the main culinary influences in LA right now -- Asian, Latino and stoner. From killer burger specials to grilled veggies to intensely good rice bowls, you really can't go wrong.

5. Explore downtown's impressive collection of architecture, old and new.

Grand Avenue can seem a bit lonely at first -- sorry in advance, but the walk over here from Chinatown can be a bit windswept and terrible, we are working on this -- but when you climb the stairs into the bouquet of silver petals that comprise Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, you'll be glad you made the trek. There's an elevated walkway that goes around the exterior of the entire building. It's not well marked, but worth finding.

6. Check out Broadway's historic Grand Central Market.

In continuous operation since 1917, one of the West's best public markets is like Seattle's Pike Place if Pike Place had never become a tourist attraction. At least for now -- plans to renovate the market are proceeding, meaning that for now, you get everything from legit tacos de cabeza (at Tumbras a Tomas) to some of the city's best hipster coffee (at the super-friendly Glanville & Babinski).

7. Next, ride the subway to a mountain.

Did you know that you can do this? Did you know that there was a subway? There is -- almost 100 track miles and many more to come in the future. For just $1.50, you can ride the Red Line subway to Griffith Park, where Mount Hollywood offers some of the most incredible views in the city. Buy a $5 Metro Day Pass from a machine in the train station; you'll put it on your TAP card, which you buy for a buck, also from the machines.

8. First, you ride the train to Hollywood.

It only takes a few minutes. Hop on board at Pershing Square -- there's an entrance out the back of the Grand Central Market, on Hill Street -- and jump out at Hollywood & Western for the short walk up Western Avenue, towards all those trees. (Pro tip: Turn right off Western at Franklin Avenue, then take the first left on to Oxford Street and walk a block up to Los Feliz Boulevard. Cross over at the light -- you are now in Griffith Park.)

9. From here, it's an easy hike up to the Griffith Observatory.

Not much more than a mile and a half from the train station (sunscreen is a great idea, BTW, so is a bottle of water) and you'll be scoping out the sweet views from the Observatory. Make sure to go inside for a self-guided tour of the excellent exhibits, or to catch the popular show.

10. If you're not already worn out, head up Mount Hollywood.

It'll add another three miles or so to your walk, but it's completely worth it. Just walk to the opposite end of the parking lot behind the Observatory and follow all the hikers heading past the metal gate. The 360 degree views of the Los Angeles region from up top are terrific.

11. Head back down and take a much-deserved break at Trails Cafe.

The cutest little café of all time award goes to this little spot, tucked inside Griffith Park, opposite where you began the hike up to the Observatory.

12. Next, it's time for a tour of the town - by bus!

Head back down the hill and ride the Red Line to Wilshire and Vermont, one of the city's busiest corners. Out on Wilshire, you'll see the stop for the Rapid Bus -- you want Line 720, which will take you Santa Monica. With your TAP card in hand, all this running around is a breeze.

13. Hop off at LACMA.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art isn't just a place to go look at paintings, it's a world unto itself, right off Wilshire Boulevard, featuring great sculpture (you're looking at one of the most famous pieces, Urban Lights, above), multiple buildings, a great restaurant and bar and even a good coffee shop and bakery. Next door, the famous La Brea Tar Pits offer a glimpse of ancient life in the Los Angeles basin.

14. Then, it's back on the bus for a rolling tour of Beverly Hills.

Hello, Rodeo Drive. (Fun fact: We'll probably all be old, but there's going to be a subway station at the corner of Wilshire & Rodeo some day, right next to the "Pretty Woman" hotel, otherwise known as the Regent Beverly Wilshire.)

15. You'll know when it's time to hop off.

When you can go no further, you're on Ocean Avenue, in the civilized (and very pedestrian-friendly) seaside city of Santa Monica.

16. Every day's pretty great out here by the beach, but Wednesday might be the best days.

That's when one of the country's best farmers markets takes over the intersection of Arizona and Second, just off of Ocean. Come early and see some of Los Angeles' top chefs snapping up the good stuff.

17. Walk down to the beach, obviously.

The famous pier can wait -- go like a local and grab a table at Back on the Beach, at the totally public Annenberg Beach House. The most pleasant way to do the walk down is to take the stairs at the foot of Montana Avenue. Once you hit the beach path, turn right and you're a short walk away.

18. If it's open, go admire the killer pool -- also open to the public.

(Don't tell anyone, it's busy enough already.)

19. Next, hit the trail.

Renting bikes is a popular option, but walking's great too (and cheaper).

20. Head south to see Santa Monica's coolest new park.

Designed by James Corner Field Operations -- same as New York's instant-classic High Line -- Tongva Park creates a curious and beautiful new open space with some great ocean and city views, just steps from the hubbub of the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade.

21. Next, get down to Venice, because Venice.

The giant skate park is just one piece of the famously odd (and increasingly cool) puzzle that is Venice.

22. Make sure to stroll down Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Between Brooks Avenue and Venice Boulevard, you'll find one of the hippest strips in the entire country and one of the city's most pleasantly walkable areas, an unbroken string of interesting shops and very good restaurants.

23. Make sure to see the Canals.

Hiding between Abbot Kinney and Pacific Avenue, a developer gimmick became a Los Angeles treasure. An stroll along the narrow walkways that tie the area together makes a perfect way to decompress after a busy day.

24. Wherever you end up, stop to admire the sunset.

It's only, like, the best thing ever.

Headed elsewhere? Check out Airfarewatchdog's layover guides to 20 of the most-visited places in the world.

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10 great tours you can take on your next layover

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Get connected! Your guide to airport wi-fi

Worth the Flight: Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California

Posted by David Landsel on Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Want to know where to find the next great wine country? For a large chunk of the American population, it's right under your nose. A quick hour and a half from the San Diego airport, Baja California's Guadalupe Valley offers miles of unspoiled scenery, a dry, sunny climate and limited-release wines that are coveted by oenophiles across Latin America, not to mention an up-and-coming selection of aged cheeses and olive oils bright and raw and peppery enough that you'll brave smuggling large quantities back over the border.

Visually calling to mind Central California's equally dry and sunny Santa Ynez Valley before the movie "Sideways," the Guadalupe Valley can be a bit deceptive – there may be a lot of dirt roads to traverse and a strikingly sleepy vibe, but tucked away within the valley are some of Latin America's most terrific restaurants, most notably the farm-to-table Laja, where weekending Mexico City foodies mingle with the ladies who lunch, down for the day from La Jolla, and the impressive Corazon di Tierra, perched above the vineyards in a rustic-modern glass box and serving up very modern multi-course tasting menus and practicing, as at Laja before it, the art of hyper-local sourcing.

The clincher, though, is the valley's striking new Hotel Endemico, featuring 20 environmentally-sensitive modular mini-suites, scattered across a rocky hillside and featuring beautiful valley views. This is one of the newest projects from Mexico's now-legendary Grupo Habita, which brought Mexico City its first true design hotel more than a decade ago now. Designed by the Tijuana and San Diego-based Gracia Studio, the hotel's daring architecture calls to mind something you'd find in Spain, or Chile, or Argentina's wine country, than anything in Southern California or, for that matter, Mexico. Décor is minimal, but the perfect kind of minimal, refusing to distract from the surrounding landscape, which you can admire from a private patio, complete with blazing chiminea.

How to go: The valley is reached most easily (or, rather, most pleasantly) via the low-key border crossing at Tecate, barely an hour from the San Diego airport. If you prefer not to go it alone, tours are available through Club Tengo Hambre, led by a group of influential bloggers from both sides of the border. For a more casual affair, link up with the excellent Turista Libre – founder Derrik Chinn, an American living in Tijuana, runs periodic trips down to the valley. Both organizations offer private tours upon request. Rooms at the Hotel Endemico begin at $185.

For flights, check out our current fare listings for San Diego (SAN).

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