Archive for March, 2011

Houston Hotspots for the Final Four

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Before the shot clock starts for the NCAA Final Four Championship, take some time to explore Houston, Texas for affordable hotel rooms, great cuisine, and a relaxing spa appointment.

Here are some of the ‘staff picks’ on what to check out in Houston:

Where to stay: The Doubletree Guest Suites Houston Galleria near the Galleria Mall is a traditional Doubletree property with a twist. The rooms are huge and feature kitchenettes with a dishwasher, refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. Each Wednesday evening the manager offers a reception that includes light food and complimentary cocktails. And don’t forget the delectable Doubletree Hotel cookies. Just ask Michael at the front desk for a warm, fresh-baked cookie to take up to your room before you turn in for the night!

Where to eat: We recommend eating “in the loop” to be closest to the tournament. The list is hefty, as should be your appetite..

  • Benjy’s - This newly constructed 7,800 square foot restaurant includes a bar and lounge area with a menu featuring Modern American Cuisine.
  • Zelko Bistro - Some of the pleasers here include Captain’s Crunch Fried Chicken, Seared Tuna Salad, Root beer Braised Short Ribs, Lemon Icebox Pie, and even Funnel Cake.
  • El Tiempo/Ninfa’s on Navigation – The original Ninfa’s, this is the place where you’ll find the best Mexican food in town!
  • Subs: Supreme Sandwiches (located downtown and only open for lunch – my friends parents own it and it’s a Houston staple)
  • Tiny Boxwood’s – This rustic café is the perfect spot for a lunch date where you can eat outside in a garden-like setting
  • Uptown Sushi -  Looking for good Japanese food in Houston? This is the place.
  • BRC Gastropub – With a name like this, how can you not try it out?!
  • Branch Water Tavern – This Modern American eatery was recently named ‘Best New Restaurant of the Year’ by Texas Monthly.
  • Brenner’s on the Bayou – Situated on Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, this steakhouse offers an unforgettable food experience.
  • Goode Co. - Offering some of the best Mesquite smoked barbecue in the state of Texas, this is the place that will satisfy all of your food cravings.
  • Niko Nikos – Located in a little stand in the park, this is Greek food at its finest.

Where to shop: The Galleria Mall is the largest shopping center in the area and attracts over 24 million annual visitors. The Galleria is home to 375 stores and restaurants, an ice rink and two hotels.

Where to relaxTrellis Spa at the Houstonian is hands-down the most incredible spa experience in South Texas. The 17,000-square-foot spa features 21 treatment rooms including 12 rooms for body treatments, seven facial rooms, one tanning room, and one couples room.

For other ideas in and around Houston, our friend Lisa Gochman of the Gochman Social Gazette has the 411 on all things Houston.

See ya’ll in H-Town for the Final Four! And don’t forget to leave a Facebook comment, and make sure you read more about Houston on our City Page.



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Looking to Travel this Spring? Take a Weekend Getaway to Santa Barbara

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Santa Barbara is the perfect place for a spring vacation (Photo courtesy of

Spring is the perfect time to take a long weekend jaunt and I know just the place. Santa Barbara is a classic coastal California destination and like its grapes, it’s just ripe for the picking! 

You don’t have to be particular about when you visit Santa Barbara as the weather is fantastic year-round. Couple that with its beautiful beaches, Spanish architecture, Santa Ynez Valley wineries, an urban wine trail, nightlife, and some great restaurants and hotels, and you have a vacation in the making!

Wine on Tap in Santa Barbara

When you ask, “what’s on tap” at Santa Barbara bars, you might be surprised to hear pinot noir and sauvignon blanc in the mix with the beer list. The hottest trend is the growing prevalence of wine on tap. The Wine Cask Bar-Café was the first establishment to go this route and remodeled its bar to accommodate wine kegs. They are more sustainable — think of all of the bottles and corks that are spared — and ultimately benefit the consumer by lowering the by-the-glass price point, ensuring freshness and speeding up service.

The Santa Barbara county wineries are located in the Santa Ynez Valley. If you’ve always wanted to do a wine tasting getaway, I think Santa Barbara is ideal because you can experience the wineries along with the beaches and culture of downtown. A word of caution: Plan ahead. Not all the wineries that you may want to visit are located close to each other. So allow for driving time and drive carefully.

Land of Health and Wellness

You will find a talented collection of local lifestyle gurus in Santa Barbara sharing with you “Sustainable, Outdoor, Momentous Adventures.” SOMAdventures gives you choices from paddle surfing to horseback riding and biking.

Download the Taste of Santa Barbara mobile app

Santa Barbara even has its own free mobile application focused on its culinary tourism. “Sip & Savor: A Taste of Santa Barbara” lets mobile users book restaurant reservations and locate gourmet food shops, as well as download directions to wineries and find foodie-friendly deals.

Santa Barbara Hotels

1. Bacara Resort and Spa – This five-star resort is located just outside Santa Barbara on a pristine stretch of beach. It offers a full service spa and golf course. rates from $289/night.

2. Hotel Oceana Santa Barbara – This beachfront hotel offers complimentary breakfast and Wi-Fi. rates from $157/night.

3. Hotel Santa Barbara – Located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. This hotel is perfectly situated for shopping and dining and is reasonably priced. rates from $159/night.

Let me know if you visit this area. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!



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    None Found Reveals the Latest Trends in Hotel Room Prices

Monday, March 21st, 2011

London keeps the number one spot as Americans' favorite international destination

Today, released its Hotel Price Index (HPI™), which is a regular survey of hotel prices in major destinations across the world. The latest report showed global hotel rates rose 2 percent in 2010, though travel deals and value can still be found in America’s most popular cities.

Among the good news, the HPI found higher occupancy levels for major business centers in London, Paris, Singapore, and New York due to the return of business travel. Hotels in Las Vegas also benefitted, as convention business returned to the desert. International arrivals grew over 5 percent in 2010 and occupancy in luxury properties in the U.S. is running between ten and fifteen points higher than in the lower star categories.

Other Key Findings and Report Highlights include:

  • Las Vegas still holds the crown as America’s no. 1 favorite domestic city to visit in 2010 followed by New York, Orlando, Chicago, and San Francisco while the city of Pittsburgh is slowly moving up to be one of the top 50 cities Americans love to visit.
  • Americans continue to flock to London, Paris, and also book hotels in Rome but Asian cities including Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Manila are quickly becoming new favorites in 2010.
  • Overseas travelers are still enchanted with New York, Las Vegas, and Orlando, making them the top three most-visited cities, but others have been charmed by the laid-back luxury of Honolulu. This city moves up to become the 7th most-visited city in 2010 – three spots up from 2009.
  • Who has the deepest pockets? Americans did not skimp on accommodations when visiting overseas, but did show frugal travel signs when finding rooms close to home. The average price paid per room overseas was $160, $46 more than what they would have paid for a hotel in the U.S.!
  • Best Four-Star Deals at a Steal: Authentic experiences meet affordable luxury. Travelers lounged in splendor for $100 a night when staying in Tallinn, Bangkok, and Budapest.
  • Demand for Luxury hotels: Top U.S. cities that saw significant year-over-year increases at five-star properties in 2010 were: Boston (21 percent), Chicago (20 percent), Miami (10 percent), San Francisco (22 percent), and Washington D.C. (16 percent).
  • Big Easy’s Comeback: New Orleans hotels has been recovering steadily since Hurricane Katrina. Rooms were up 12 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, indicating a healthy comeback for the hotel industry.
  • The Highs and Lows of Hotel Price Index: Bora Bora in French Polynesia averaged at $605 room rates, the most expensive in 2010, while Primm (NV) offers the cheapest rooms at $34 a night.

The following cities offer travelers the best deal for the best room, with the lowest five-star hotel room rates:



Star Rating



































Czech Republic

















Following are charts of America’s top domestic and international destinations.






Las Vegas




New York












San Francisco









United Kingdom


















Let me know your thoughts on these findings and remember to ask me any questions you may have. Happy travels!



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How to Stay Safe and Travel Smart

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Have fun, but be cautious when traveling abroad! (photo courtesy of

Let me begin by sharing my utter anguish for Japan and its citizens in the wake of the worst earthquake for that country in history. Given recent events around the globe, I thought this week would be a great time to touch on a few travel safety tips.  

I don’t want anyone’s travel ambitions to ever be squashed and I have been hearing from many of you with concerns and hesitations about traveling internationally into areas that may either be experiencing piracy at sea, political and religious issues or natural disasters. More than likely, you will have a problem-free trip abroad. But it’s important to remember that first and foremost, You do not want to put yourself in harm’s way. So here are a few things you can do to stay safe and travel smart:

1.Register with the State Department. If you are traveling internationally, register for STEP with the U.S. Department of State. The online process is really quick and easy, and if something newsworthy happens, the State Department will contact you.  

2. Heed Travel Warnings. As of March 13th, the State Department is urging all Americans to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Japan at this time. I cautioned last week in my post on Spring Break Travel Tips about travel to Mexico. These alerts and warnings should not be taken lightly.  Wherever you are traveling to, it is important to check with the U.S. State Department for official alerts and travel warnings for a specific region or country. 

3. Money Matters. When traveling abroad always have cash on you in the local currency. Carry your ATM card as well as a Visa or Mastercard, which are most widely accepted. Now, when carrying cash use common sense about when you take out your money and where you keep it to avoid becoming a victim. Make sure you leave bank and credit card information with a trusted friend or relative while you are traveling.

4. Emergency Financial Assistance. If you should lose your wallet or your purse while traveling out of the country, there is emergency financial assistance for U.S. citizens traveling abroad.

5. Try Not to be a Target. Before you travel to any foreign country, you need to do your homework to see how the locals dress, travel, carry their important personal items such as a wallet, etc. For example, Rome, Italy is one of the most amazing cities in the world but it is also overrun with pickpockets and opportunists waiting for you to put down your luggage.  Be aware of your surroundings, your belongings and your traveling companions. Leave your expensive jewelry at home and pack as light as possible. Need help with packing? Here are some of my top packing tips.

6. Travel Insurance. Remember the Icelandic Volcano that stalled air travel for weeks last May? It was a transportation nightmare. Luckily for those who purchased trip insurance, much of the expense of the additional nights in hotels and re-routing via train was reimbursed. I caution you to read the fine print before you purchase travel insurance and understand exactly when it takes effect. Here are a few tips for traveling during weather events.

7. Travel with a Purpose. I know it sounds romantic to take a spontaneous trip to a country where you have never been but you can also end up having a bad time because you didn’t check into its local customs, store hours of operation, etc. Know how you are going to get around and the safest routes to get where you are going. Be prepared with directions, and make an effort to use the local language, if possible. The local hotel personnel are often great resources for tour reservations, transportation, and dining.

8. Be Aware. Keep a mental note of safe havens, such as police stations, hotels, and hospitals. Use the same common sense that you would use at home.

Have any specific safety questions about traveling abroad? Send them to me and I’ll do my best to get them answered for you here on Travel Smart Blog.



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And the Winner of the Clay Yourself Contest is..

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Grand Prize Winner Leonty M. will star in a commercial recently announced the winner to the Clay Yourself contest, designed for visitors to audition to star in a commercial and create digital clay avatars of themselves. The company had a great response with over 390,000 visitors to the microsite and more than 41,000 headshots uploaded to Facebook.

The Grand Prize winner was named Leonty M (photo seen to the right), a travel enthusiast who lives in Winston-Salem, NC. Leonty entered the contest with a Kelly-green shirt clad, sunglasses wearing and headphone sporting clay avatar who won the hearts of fellow voters and the final judges. He will travel to Los Angeles in April to get a behind the scenes view of the commercial creation. also provided Leonty a complimentary three day, two night stay at a hotel in Los Angeles.

Leonty’s avatar is a fun complement to the cast of clay avatar characters planned for the upcoming commercial. In addition to the grand prize, eight weekly winners received $200 coupon vouchers for The microsite will remain active indefinitely so users can share their avatars with friends and browse the photo gallery.

And remember to follow on Facebook to see the winning clay avatars.



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Spring Break Travel Tips

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Spring Break

Spring Break is right around the corner! (photo courtesy of

It’s that time of year again, Spring Break! According to many experts in the industry, Spring Break Travel is on the rebound. What does that mean for those of you who may not have planned that mid-March sojourn? For starters it means that, like in all peak travel times, you can expect prices for airfare and hotels to be higher. Airline experts are telling me that we will continue to see an increase in airfare due to the rising cost of fuel. Hotels in top destinations are also seeing greater demand for rooms. 

The good news is that travel deals are still out there; even the last minute ones. In fact, is offering 30% off and a free hotel credit in places such as Bermuda, Jamaica, and New Orleans

Here are a few things to think about when planning your Spring Break Vacation.

1. Heed Mexico Warnings. Drug related violence is causing the U.S. to issue a travel warning for Spring Breakers this year in an effort to avoid innocent tourists being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The warning is primarily for border towns but extends to top tourist destinations Cancun, Cozumel and Acapulco. U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Mexico are encouraged to enroll with the Embassy through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) via to obtain updated travel and security information. Enrollment is important; it allows the Embassy and the State Department to assist you in an emergency.

2. Get an education. Why take a total time-out from the chance to learn something if you are traveling with kids this spring break? Here are a few of my suggestions and tips for visiting one of the U.S’s top historic destinations. Any trip can have an educational component. If you are heading out West for a ski vacation, visit some of the mining towns between Denver and the ski resorts.

3. Travel Abroad. March may not seem like the most perfect time to visit Italy but it sure is more affordable! Traveling in the off-season can be quite beneficial. I have been tracking airfare and hotel rates in Europe and I have to tell you, now is the time. You can save simply by traveling a month or two before or after the peak season (which for Europe begins mid-April). Other benefits? Lines are shorter, tours aren’t so packed and you can see London more affordably before all the wedding-goers arrive for the April nuptials of Prince William and Lady Kate.

4. Experience Florida. There’s not much to dislike about Florida in the spring. The temperatures are optimal, the water is refreshing and there’s not a bad beach in the state. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill the state of the Gulf beaches was precarious, at best. Today, the coast is clear – literally! Florida’s beaches consistently rank among the top sands of the world from Santa Rosa beach in the panhandle to St. Petersburg near Tampa and to the southernmost city of Key West.

Grand Canyone

The Grand Canyon is a great place for Spring Break vacations (photo courtesy of

I, myself, am orchestrating a road trip with the family to the Grand Canyon. 15 hours, if we don’t stop along the way, in a car with a four and a six year old.  Crazy? Probably, but this is the stuff that family legends are made of! 

Let me know where you will be traveling to for Spring Break this year or if you have any questions!



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Get Your Green On! Top St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
Chicago dyes the river green in celebration of St. Patrick's Day

Chicago dyes the river green in celebration of St. Patrick's Day

Erin Go Bragh! With just two weeks until St. Patrick’s Day, color yourself Irish for a day and find your way to a celebration complete with dyed dogs and other green things.

As you may know, I had the pleasure of living in Savannah, GA for a few years early in my broadcast career. It was memorable and wonderful for so many reasons including this coastal city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. 

This will be the 187th St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah. It is actually the second largest parade in the world. Over the next two weeks there will be many events, including dying the historic city’s river and many fountains a festive shade of green, culminating with the parade on the 17th. And really, it’s a great time of year and reason to visit Savannah. The city is steeped in history and has an allure that has caused it to be featured in numerous movies and books.

St. Paddy’s festivities can practically be found in every city around the world, from Japan to the week long St. Patrick’s Festival in Dublin. In fact, spread out over a week, you could celebrate in multiple cities. Up for the challenge?? Here are a few of the standouts you might consider right here in the U.S.

  • New York City will host its 250th St. Patrick’s Day parade. The New York Parade consists only of marchers and each year hosts some 250,000 marchers including outstanding marching bands from throughout the United States and from all over the world, plus two million spectators.
  • This year in Boston the parade takes place on Sunday, March 20th in the city’s most Irish neighborhood, South Boston aka Southie. After the parade you can walk Boston’s Irish Heritage Trail, a self-guided three-mile walking tour.
  • In Chicago, the Irish celebration happens the weekend before the actual holiday on Saturday, March 12th. Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is the biggest in the city all year.
  • In Philadelphia, the bagpipes start playing and crowds line the streets for Philly’s longest running parade on Sunday, March 13th. The Pennsylvania Irish first began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in 1771. Don’t forget to set your clock ahead the night before because this is Daylight Savings Time.
  • Seattle is not without its own St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which takes place on Saturday, March 12th. The U.S.’s Emerald City actually paints the traffic stripe of the parade route green. And this is the route I would take with a visit to Puget Sound and whale watching from the San Juan Islands.

And for all you spring training fans, look for some of your favorite baseball teams to break out their holiday-themed uniforms. 

Planning on attending any of the St. Paddy’s Day festivities? Let me know where and share with our TSB readers your Irish insights!



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