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Fall getaways: Splurge or steal?

Nilou Motamed of Travel + Leisure tests the TODAY anchors’ travel smarts by sharing four great getaways, from sunny beaches to mountain retreats, to see if they can tell the splurge from the steal.

Whether you want to escape to wine country or a Caribbean beach, we’ve found a hotel to match your budget.

1. Southern Retreat

Courtesy The Willcox

With crown moldings, four-poster beds and fireplaces in rooms, you’ll see plenty of antebellum charm at The Willcox hotel in Aiken, S.C.

Steal: The Willcox, Aiken, S.C. (from $185/night)
Travel + Leisure readers ranked the hotel No. 3 on the 2012 World’s Best Awards list of Top Inns and Lodges in the Continental U.S. And it’s easy to see why, as rooms have plenty of antebellum charm: crown moldings, four-poster beds and fireplaces. The Willcox even has its own food truck serving dishes such as spicy fish burritos and fried chicken biscuits. Fuel up and then head outdoors to enjoy local parks or go for a horseback ride.

Splurge: Inn at Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton, S.C. (from $475/night)
This atmospheric plantation-style resort has Spanish moss dripping from low-lying oak branches and egrets soaring overhead. The rooms within 29 cottages are outfitted with pine floors, gas fireplaces and private screened porches. Bird lovers can paddle a complimentary kayak or canoe through the lagoon to see more than 100 species, including bald eagles, great blue herons and snowy egrets. Guests also keep busy with activities like golf, fly-fishing and naturalist-led alligator “hunts.”

Related: Best affordable beach resorts

2. Vineyard Vacation

Steal: Gaige House, Sonoma, Calif. (fall getaway special from $195/night beginning Oct. 28)
Set on three lushly landscaped acres, Gaige House actually has two parts: an original 1890 building with 15 rooms, and eight new stand-alone spa suites. All are decorated with Asian-themed minimalist chic, meaning dark-wood platform beds, rice-paper screens and black-granite baths. There’s a heated outdoor pool, as well as spa services that can be enjoyed in your room, on a creek-side deck or in a cabana surrounded by greenery.

Splurge: Carneros Inn, Napa, Calif. (from $505/night)
Sophisticated cottages with outdoor showers and decks await in one of Napa’s most pastoral landscapes: the rural Carneros wine region. (The spa incorporates local ingredients in treatments like the Chardonnay Antioxidant Wine Therapy Facial.) Book a garden cottage for views of the vines from your enclosed patio. Take advantage of complimentary bikes to tour the area.

3. Caribbean Fantasy

Steal: Rosalie Bay, Dominica (from $149/night)
Twenty-eight gingerbread-trimmed cottages look out onto either a rocky beach or the Rosalie River. One of the world’s few carbon-negative resorts, Rosalie Bay not only relies on solar panels but also has its own wind turbine and organic gardens—and just received a Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award for responsible tourism. There’s also a restaurant, where most dishes are made from regional ingredients, from the Kalinago porridge with cassava root to the smoked cod on fried green plantain.

Splurge: GoldenEye, Jamaica (from $560/night)
Jet-set bohemians and creative types have flocked to GoldenEye since the mid 20th-century, when it was the cliff-top retreat of Ian Fleming, who wrote 14 of his James Bond novels here. A two-year overhaul (completed in 2010) has transformed the property from a private villa rental to full-fledged 22-room hotel on the waterfront amid gardens of banyan and mango trees.

4. Mountain Escape

Steal: Waldorf Astoria Park City, Utah (from $199/night)
Fireplaces, balconies and mountain views are a few of the in-room perks that come with staying here. The hotel’s restaurant, Spruce, is one of Utah’s best—order a hearty dinner of elk and roasted potatoes—and you won’t want to miss a warm-stone massage at the 16,000-square-foot Golden Door Spa. Outside, there are patios with fire pits and year-round heated pool and whirlpools.

Splurge: Washington School House, Park City, Utah (from $395/night)
With creamy white wainscoting, vintage chandeliers and French and Swedish antiques, this renovated 1889 schoolhouse is more Alpine chic than Rocky Mountain rustic. Staffers offer spot-on recommendations for restaurants and boutiques and instantly coordinate the complimentary transportation to your mountain of choice (though Park City’s Town Lift is steps away).

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Forget fancy hotels! Hostels catering to families

Courtesy HostelBookers.com

The five-star Danhostel Copenhagen City hostel in Denmark has fine views and is within walking distance of major attractions and the city center.

Zenos Dupuis, from Saginaw, Mich., does not like fancy hotels or spending $200 a night for a room. But he does likes a good value, a central location, and clean and comfortable accommodations. So when he travels with his extended family these days, he prefers hostels.

“I like the huge restaurant-style kitchen, where you can bring your own food,” said Dupuis, who stayed at the Chicago Getaway Hostel several times recently with his wife, grandchildren and children, including an infant son. “The employees treat us like family; they make you feel at home.”

He also likes that the hostel is just a short walk to the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Many people associate hostels with lone backpackers, traveling groups of students and even older singles, but these days, more families than ever are vacationing at hostels, industry experts said. They are located in a diverse range of locations, too, including urban centers, like London, where they are close to museums and parks; in resort areas like Orlando or beach towns; and in exotic locations, like a “tree house” style hostel in Olympos, Turkey.

“Hostels are becoming increasingly appealing to cost-conscious travelers with children,” said Giovanna Gentile, public relations executive for London-based HostelBookers.com, which specializes in budget accommodations internationally. As the demand continues to increase, she said, “hostels are adapting themselves to offer the types of accommodation and services that traveling families are seeking.”

“Most hostels offer games rooms and where children can watch TV and families can relax in the comfortable lounge areas after a busy day of sightseeing,” said Gentile. And “hostels often organize free activities such as city tours or movie nights, which are also popular with families.”

Other family-friendly features include common kitchens to make packed lunches or dinner for tired (or finicky) kids, which is both cost effective and convenient; private rooms with en suite bathrooms, so the entire family can sleep together in one room; bike and skate sharing programs; pingpong tables; and movie rooms. There are also amenities to keep the parents happy, like on-site bars. “You won’t have far to travel once you have put the kids to bed and settle down for an evening drink,” the HostelBookers.com website notes.

The site designates a number of family-friendly hostels, but not all. So if a destination is not listed, Gentile recommends reading the description and customer reviews to determine which property is most suitable, and to ask about things like location, elevators, on-site facilities like swimming pools and if the hostel provides cots or highchairs. Some hostels, she said, provide baby-sitting services. At the Villa Saint Exupery Gardens, in Nice, France—located in a residential area in a converted monastery—“there are plenty of activities on offer to keep the children happy including canyoning, sailing and horseback riding,” the listing reads. “The hostel offers a free baby-sitting service and parents can enjoy some much needed time to themselves on a free city tour.”

Courtesy HostelBookers.com

Stay in a tree house style hostel at Saban Treehouse in Olympos, Turkey.

Dupuis, the Michigan father and grandfather, said some guests at the Chicago hostel were initially surprised to see young children.

“You do get a few looks, like, ‘Why are the kids here?’ But I never got the feeling that we were annoying anyone,” he said. “And many would break the ice by asking, ‘How old is your baby?'”

Overall, guests and employees were welcoming, Dupuis said. “A guy from Dublin asked if he could sing to my son. He actually got down on his knees and sang my son an Irish lullaby.” And when his 4-year-old granddaughter began to play with one of the white pool balls in the game room, “an employee racked up the balls for her,” he said. “They made her feel like she belonged there.”

Dupuis said he also enjoys mingling in the common areas and the diversity of guests. “You always hear a variety of languages and meet people from all over the world. I think that’s what I enjoy the most. You never know what accent you are going to hear,” he said. “It opened my eyes.”

That’s exactly the philosophy behind hostels, said Mark Vidalin, marketing director for nonprofit Hostelling International USA. In recent years there has been a trend toward smaller, more private sleeping areas. “And hostels are far less rustic and far more service-oriented than 20 years ago,” and there are more worldwide now than ever, he said.

“But come with an open mind,” as hostels are not intended to replicate hotels. The goal has always been “to intentionally create a shared space, an environment to connect. It’s all about the international, intercultural experience,” he said.

In addition, what is unique about hostels is that no two are the same. Many are historic landmarks, or are located in quirky or fun places, like former lighthouses or Norman castles. Vacation at a place like that, Vidalin said, and the “kids will never forget it.”

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Yikes! Get up close to the real creepy crawlers

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Courtesy Natural History Museum at Los Angeles County

The world’s largest orb-weaver, Nephila maculata from Malaysia, is as large as the palm of an adult’s hand and able to weave webs up to six feet across.

In addition to the zombie, sexy nurse, super hero, political candidate and Disney character outfits for sale this time of year, novelty and costume shops stock plenty of very realistic-looking spiders, spider webs, cockroaches and worms.

But why bother with plastic, rubber or animatronic arachnids when museums and attractions around the country offer a chance to get up close – in some cases perhaps a bit  too close – to tarantulas, goliath bird eaters and other creepy crawlers. Here are five seasonal spots to meet the beetles, sup with snakes and explore your inner insect. 

Beetles in Boulder
On Oct. 12, the Natural History Museum at the University of Colorado in Boulder holds an opening reception for a year-long exhibition about beetles, which have existed for millions of years and make up 25 percent of all known species. In addition to all manner of meet-the-beetles materials, there will be tubes mounted on the walls filled with about 1,000 live beetles.

Trick or treat? On Oct. 18, the museum is hosting “SSSupper with Snakes.” A reptile expert will bring live snakes for guests to touch and the kitchen will serve a slithering spaghetti dinner.

Spiders take Manhattan
In the Spiders Alive! exhibition running through Dec. 2 at the Natural Museum of American History in New York City, the spiders really are alive. Along with a 40-foot model of a web and artwork inspired by the handiwork (or is that legwork?) of spiders, there are at least 20 live species in residence. Among them: a western black widow, a desert hairy scorpion and a goliath bird eater, one of the world’s largest spiders, which, despite the name, is known for snacking on snakes, mice and frogs.

While many people are spooked by spiders because they are often “hairy and can move quite quickly over short distances,” exhibition curator Norman Platnick insists there’s really no reason to be afraid. He said despite the scary spiders in the exhibit “the proportion that are dangerous to people is certainly less than 1 percent.”

Trick or treat? If you’ve ever had a spider crawl on you, you can turn the tables: the exhibit has a climbable spider model that’s 50 times life size.

Pittsburgh is crawling with bugs
Through the end of July, the BugWorks exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh offers bug’s-eye views and bug models, videos and illustrations along with terraria of live insects that include giant water bugs, an Emperor scorpion and a tarantula. The exhibit “is great fun for bug lovers and haters alike,” said museum entomologist John Rawlins. “It teaches basic entomology using pictures eight feet tall…thousands of real beetles …and colorful images of living bugs.”

Trick or treat? In the exhibit photo booth, visitors can strike a pose with a butterfly, a beetle or another creature projected on the wall.

Free range spiders in Los Angeles
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County doesn’t just have a spider exhibit; through Nov. 4, visitors are invited into a walk-through temporary Spider Pavilion and watch more than a dozen “free-range,” local and exotic spiders series spin, weave and feed. Resident spiders include brown and black widows and the world’s largest orb-weaver, Nephila maculata, a Malaysian spider that can span the palm of an adult’s hand and create webs measuring six feet across.  

Trick or treat? The museum also has a permanent Insect Zoo with 30 terrariums and aquariums filled with cockroaches, millipedes, scorpions and, of course spiders.

Buggy year round
Exhibits at Insectropolis, a year-round “bugseum” in Toms River, N.J., range from the “Creepy Tavern,” where tough-looking tarantulas hang out, to the “Battle Zone,” a home to insects that use armor, camouflage and scare tactics to stay alive. “We have lots of pinned and live specimens,” said group coordinator Diane Redzinack, “but being able to touch bugs that include the Madagascar hissing Cockroach, the emperor scorpion and the rose hair tarantula is definitely the highlight for most people.”

Trick or treat? On Oct. 12 and 13, the museum is hosting “Boo at the Zoo with Scooby Doo,” an interactive Halloween-themed mystery tour.

Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter.

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No long US airline delays at close of summer

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Updated at 12:48 p.m. ET: U.S. airlines closed the summer travel season without any lengthy tarmac delays in August, the government said Thursday, a sharp reversal from a month earlier.

There were more long delays in July on airport tarmacs than in the previous eight months combined.

In August one international flight was stuck for more than four hours. On Aug. 15, a Caribbean Airlines flight sat on the tarmac at New York’s JFK Airport for four hours and 28 minutes before it took off for its destination, Trinidad and Tobago.

U.S. airlines are subject to huge fines if they keep passengers on a grounded plane for more than three hours. Violations start at four hours for international carriers at U.S. airports.

Almost four in five flights were considered on-time in August, meaning they arrived within 15 minutes of their posted schedule. At a rate of 79.2 percent, U.S. airlines were just slightly less on-time than a year earlier but better than July’s 76 percent on-time rate.

Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines held their traditional top spots in the rankings. Delta was the most efficient major network airline, with an on-time rate of 83.9 percent. United was the worst.

Cancellations fell from both the month and year before. Fewer travelers complained about lost or damaged bags in August as well.

At the end of August, there were 56 flights that were chronically delayed — 30 minutes late more than half the time — for two straight months. Flights were mostly operated by regional carriers doing business for bigger airlines. Many of them were departing from congested airports like Newark Liberty in the New York area or San Francisco International. No flights were chronically delayed for three consecutive months or more.

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

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Airlines eye subway-style self-boarding

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American Airlines to continue reducing flights in November

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American Airlines says it will cut passenger-carrying capacity by 1 percent in the first half of November as it tries to recover from widespread delays and a spike in cancellations.

American said Thursday that the pullback will give it more time to return to normal operations without affecting holiday travel.

Delays and cancellations soared in September, which American blamed on a work slowdown by some pilots. The pilots’ union denied the charge.

Although American has boosted its on-time arrivals from September’s 59-percent mark, flight-tracking service FlightStats.com says American still trailed other large U.S. airlines in delays on Wednesday.

American cut capacity in September and October by up to 2 percent. Airlines reduce capacity by eliminating flights or using smaller planes.

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

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