Going to Orlando and its Parks

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Helsinki City Guide

Helsinki, recently awarded as ‘City of Design’ by UNESCO, is the capital of Finland. Unlike the Nordic winter, the temperature of this city is quite livable, and life continues throughout the year. It has four seasons, and the temperatures vary from 32 degrees in the summer and about -20 degrees in the winter. With the More »

Tricking Out Your Jeep

Tricking out your Jeep is easier than you might think. No matter your budget, there are a number of accessories and parts that you can purchase to trick out your Jeep the way you want it. From roof racks such as the Jeep jk roof rack, lighting, flares, engines, etc. you can have the Jeep More »

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Connecticut tourism gets boost from filmmaker Ken Burns

5 hrs.

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s tourism industry is getting a boost from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Burns announced Wednesday that he has partnered with a luxury tour group, Tauck Tours of Norwalk, on a redesigned eight-day tour of New England’s “hidden gems,” which will include a two-day stop in Hartford. The company said it added the Hartford stop at Burns’ urging.

Best known for his award-winning documentaries on the Civil War and baseball, Burns and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made the announcement at the Mark Twain House, which will be highlighted on the tour along with the home of 19th century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“The tourism industry employs about 110,000 people, generates more than $1 billion in state and local tax revenue and brings more than $11 billion in spending to our state,” Malloy said in a statement. “While our ‘Still Revolutionary’ marketing campaign is already paying dividends, the addition of this overnight stop in Hartford demonstrates that there is still much untapped potential for tourism in the coming years.”

The bus tour will run from June through the fall foliage season, and also include stops at Lexington, Concord, and Fenway Park in Massachusetts, a Shaker community in New Hampshire, the Green and White mountains, and at Burns’ studio in Walpole, N.H.

“My mission in making films has always been to explore who we are as Americans,” he said. “Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe had a similar goal, at a time when the experience and definition of ‘being an American’ was entirely dictated by the color of one’s skin. These two remarkable individuals asked difficult questions of their country, and we became a better place for it.” 

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Southwest Airlines shuts down automatic check-in site

2 hrs.

Courtesy Nikil Viswanathan

“This is a much better experience than trying to wake up in the middle of the night or the early morning, remembering to check in,” Nikil Viswanathan said of his automatic check-in site.

To be among the first passengers to board a plane is often so crucial to keeping your sanity while flying that many travelers are willing to pay for it.

But what if you could have an edge over other fliers for free?

A recent Stanford University computer science graduate who came up with a way to boost passengers’ odds of boarding early on Southwest Airlines flights found lots of takers, but also drew scrutiny from the airline, which ordered him to shut down the project.

“It was funny because I actually didn’t think that anyone wanted to use this at all. I literally thought that it was something no one cared about,” Nikil Viswanathan told NBC News.

He was wrong. Thousands of travelers were captured by Viswanathan’s simple idea: to automatically check in for a Southwest flight the second you are able to, thereby improving your chances in the carrier’s first-come, first-serve competition for boarding times.

Viswanathan, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., began the project while visiting his sister on the East Coast earlier this year. He kept forgetting to check in for his flights, so Viswanathan, 25, decided to create a tool that would automatically do it for him on Southwest – the airline he flies most. It took him less than an hour to write the code, which he incorporated on his website, Checkintomyflight.com.

Here’s how it worked:

Southwest passengers don’t receive assigned seats, but they board in groups that are labeled either A, B or C, with the A group boarding first and getting the pick of overhead bin space and the best seats.

Passengers who buy Business Select fares are guaranteed an A boarding pass, while Southwest’s frequent fliers and travelers willing to pay a $10 fee for “EarlyBird Check-In” are checked in before everyone else, boosting their chances of getting into the A group. The rest dukes it out starting at 24 hours before departure.

Passengers who used Viswanathan’s website would be checked in the moment the process opened, virtually guaranteeing a spot in the A boarding group. There was no charge for the service.

Viswanathan unveiled the website on his Facebook page on October 2. It was featured on Hacker News three days later, and then picked up by two travel blogs. More than 10,000 people have visited Checkintomyflight.com since and about 1,500 flights have been entered into the site.

“People were getting really, really good boarding passes,” Viswanathan said. “This is a much better experience than trying to wake up in the middle of the night or the early morning, remembering to check in.”

But Viswanathan also soon heard from Southwest, which sent him a cease and desist letter last week. Programs like his violate the company’s terms and conditions of use, he found out.

“Southwest places a very high value on customer service and our personal relationship with customers,” said spokeswoman Katie McDonald in a statement to NBC News. “By intruding on that relationship and removing a touch point with the customer, check-in sites take away the ability for Southwest to provide its services in accordance with its policies and legendary personal touch.”

Viswanathan said he suspects Southwest is most upset that passengers who used his website didn’t see the ads on the airline’s check-in page.

He shut down Checkintomyflight.com on Wednesday, even though travelers have put in flights all the way until May of 2013. He’s hoping Southwest will allow him to honor those requests.

The project has even garnered Viswanathan a job offer from Expedia. He has declined, preferring to work on his “own stuff,” he said.

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Decompress in the world’s best airport spas

1 hr.

Courtesy OM Spas

High flyer Karen Zuckerman, president of Maryland-based marketing and advertising agency HZDG, has a secret weapon for avoiding the air terminal blues: treating herself to a facial or massage while waiting to board her plane. No, Zuckerman doesn’t travel with a beauty entourage. Rather, she’s just one of many travelers taking advantage of the proliferation of airport spas around the world.

A spa aficionado in her leisure time, Zuckerman often visits high-end beauty temples like the Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and Canyon Ranch. While none of these luxurious spas have opened airport outposts (yet), plenty of other brands are helping make flying a whole lot more Zen these days.

“An airport spa gives me the ability to multitask and do a little something for myself,” explains Zuckerman, who travels about 30 times per year for work within the U.S. and Europe. Depending on what’s available, she’ll book a facial, massage or quick mani-pedi at whatever terminal she finds herself in. “When I’m really stressed and can sneak in a 20-minute neck or back massage, that’s a huge bonus,” she says.

Sunny Kortz of OraOxygen—whose spas in the Calgary International and Detroit airports attract travelers, airport employees and the odd civilian (the Calgary branch is located pre-security)—reports that many clients come for combined oxygen/massage treatments. “The oxygen refreshes your body and mind after a long plane trip,” she says. “When used together with a massage treatment, people can go energized to that business meeting or trip with the kids.”

Jill Bryan, regional manager for the Absolute Spa at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel, constantly receives glowing feedback from guests (many of whom are pilots and flight attendants) who indulge in a spa session between flights. “Aside from reading a book or playing on your smartphone, there’s not a whole lot to do in the airport,” she says. “We find a lot of guests that didn’t have time to get their last-minute pre-holiday treatments done are extra appreciative.”

The spa offers a range of treatments pitched at frequent flyers, including a color gel no-chip manicure that lasts up to three weeks, and a spray-tan application that’s hugely popular with vacationers heading to tropical destinations.

Whether you’re stuck in transit, quailing at the prospect of boarding a long-haul flight or just whiling away the hours between check-in and takeoff, there are now countless ways to relieve the tension, stress and ennui of traveling before you’ve even taken off. Check out our list of terminally fabulous airport spas, from Calgary to Dubai, and prepare to give travel-induced stress a send-off.

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High-speed rail efforts gain momentum across the country

6 hrs.

The fields of north-central Illinois may seem like an unlikely backdrop to showcase the future of the nation’s transportation system, but for fans of high-speed rail, they may have done just that.

On Friday, a train on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor traversed those fields at a speed of 111 mph., 40 percent faster than the line’s normal top speed of 79 mph and faster than any U.S. train outside Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

“It was interesting to see how smooth the transition was from 79 to (111),” said Josh Kauffman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, who was on the train, along with other officials, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

“It was an historic ride,” said Kauffman, “and we’re extremely pleased with the results.”

It was also, perhaps, an unintended acknowledgment of the fact that, after years of high hopes, high-speed rail in the U.S. remains a slow-going affair. Despite the celebratory mood aboard Friday’s train, it’s worth noting that the “historic” high-speed ride only covered 15 miles of the 285-mile route and that extending the service will take years and billions of dollars.

“People keep talking about top speed, but what really matters to travelers is average speed — the trip time itself,” said Kenneth Orski, publisher of transportation newsletter “Innovation Briefs,” and a former DOT official. “Even with billions of dollars in improvements, the average speed won’t improve that much.”

Still, efforts to expand the nation’s high-speed rail offerings continue. Among the most recent developments:

  • Last month, Amtrak ran several tests along its Northeast Corridor, running Acela Express trains at speeds of up to 165 mph — current top speed is 135 mph — on four sections of track in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as part of efforts to raise regular service speeds to 160 mph by 2017.
  • Earlier this year, trains on Amtrak’s Wolverine service between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., began running at 110 mph on a 90-mile section between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo. At build-out, officials hope to cut travel time between Chicago and Detroit to less than four hours.
  • In California, plans to build an 800-mile high-speed train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco moved forward last month after the federal government approved a section of the route between Merced and Fresno. Construction is expected to start next year, although several lawsuits have already been filed against the project.

Ironically, perhaps, such projects come at a time when train travel in the U.S. in general is at a crossroads. On the one hand, Amtrak carried 31.2 million passengers during the last 12 months, the highest annual ridership total in the company’s 41-year history. On the other, funding for multi-billion-dollar projects is increasingly uncertain at a time of budget cutbacks, ballooning deficits and a presidential election defined by two diametrically opposed views of government.

In the meantime, riders on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor may take solace in the fact that Amtrak expects to begin offering regular 110 mph service on that 15-mile stretch by Thanksgiving and on 75 percent of the route by 2015, cutting trip times by more than an hour.

“The difference between 79 and 110 mph isn’t necessarily all that much, but at 110, the number of people they can carry improves dramatically,” said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. “At that point, it really begins to compete with short-hop air travel.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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Google cameras map popular Grand Canyon trails

3 hrs.

Rick Bowmer / AP

In this photo from Monday, Google product manager Ryan Falor walks with the Trekker during a demonstration for the media, along the Bright Angel Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

Google and its street-view cameras already have taken users to narrow cobblestone alleys in Spain using a tricycle, inside the Smithsonian with a push cart and to British Columbia’s snow-covered slopes by snowmobile.

The search giant now has brought its all-seeing eyes — mounted for the first time on a backpack — down into the Grand Canyon, showcasing the attraction’s most popular hiking trails on the South Rim and other walkways.

It’s the latest evolution in mapping technology for the Mountain View, Calif., company, which has used a rosette of cameras to photograph thousands of cities and towns in dozens of countries for its Street View feature. With a click of the mouse, Internet users are transported virtually for a 360-degree view of locales they may have read about only in tourist books and seen in flat, 2-D images.

“Any of these sort of iconic, cultural, historical locations that are not accessible by road is where we want to go,” said Ryan Falor, product manager at Google.

Google announced the trekker earlier this year but made its first official collection of data this week at the Grand Canyon.

The backpacks aren’t ready for volunteer use, but Google has said it wants to deploy them at national forests, to the narrow streets of Venice, Mount Everest and to ancient ruins and castles.

The move to capture the Grand Canyon comes after Apple chose to drop Google Maps from its mobile operating systems and opted to use its own mapping program that was derided for, among other things, poor directions and missing towns.

Steve Silverman, operations manager for Google didn’t directly address the competition in saying: “Just trying to document a trail, it’s going to be hard to beat this.”

Google launched its Street View feature in 2007 and has expanded from five U.S. cities to more than 3,000 in 43 countries. Google teams and volunteers have covered more than 5 million miles with the Street View vehicles on a scale that other companies haven’t approached, said Mike Dobson, president of Telemapics, a company that monitors mapping efforts.

“You could safely say that it’s a standout, well-used application and they don’t really have any competition,” he said.

As the sun rose Monday, Luc Vincent, Google engineering director, strapped on one of the 40-pound backpacks and set down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River — a nearly 10-mile hike that goes from 6,900 feet in elevation to 2,400 feet. He hiked back up from Phantom Ranch, which can be 30 degrees warmer than at the rim, through the South Kaibab Trail and also gathered data on other trails.

The so-called trekker captures images every 2.5 seconds with 15 cameras that are 5 megapixels each from the rest areas, the steep switchbacks, the change from juniper trees to scrub brush and the traffic that moves aside as a courtesy to mule riders.

The GPS data is limited, so Google must compensate with sensors that record temperature, vibrations and the orientation of the device as it changes, before it stitches the images together and makes them available to users in a few months, Falor said.

Hikers that were on the trail when the data was gathered will have their faces blurred — an attempt by Google to ensure privacy. Street View has run into problems in places like Europe and Australia for scooping up information transmitted over unsecured wireless networks.

A removable hard drive on the trekker stores the data gathered at the Grand Canyon. Tourists looked at the trekker strangely this week, as if it was something from outer space.

Sharon Kerfoot, a first-time visitor from Alberta said being able to view the terrain ahead of time, gauge the difficulty of the hike and know just how wide the path is would benefit those considering a trip to the Grand Canyon. She and a group of friends headed down the same path as Vincent but on mules, not foot.

“I think it’s an excellent idea to give people a broader perspective on what they’re getting into,” she said.

What the images won’t tell visitors is how much water they should carry down the trails, how to prepare for temperature changes, what type of food to bring and how much, and how best to protect the natural resources, park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

“Stitched together with other information out there, the technology could be valuable,” she said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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