Photo: PhotoDisc

Each year, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (a.k.a Dr. Beach), Director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research, releases his list of the 10 best beaches in America. Dr. Leatherman ranks beaches based on 50 individual characteristics, including the color and texture of the sand, strength of undertow, and whether or not pests, such as mosquitoes, are a persistent problem.

But what you really want to know is which beach came in first. So without further delay, here are the top 10 beaches for more»

United New Plane (Photo: United Airlines)

A few years ago, the concept of "too big to fail" meant nothing to most people, but several bailouts and a one massive recession later, the term seems as commonplace as "would you like fries with that?" Now, some are worried that the mega-merger between United and Continental could result in an airline industry dominated by huge carriers that are simply too large to live without.

The New York Times reports that at a hearing focused on the United merger in Washington yesterday, William J. McGee, a consultant with the Consumer’s Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, made the case: "Just as we have seen with the banks, with financial services companies and with automobile manufacturers, we are now seeing the domestic airline industry evolving into an oligopoly of 800-pound gorillas.

"In the past, Wall Street investors and executives at competing airlines have decried any form of assistance to financially struggling carriers, asserting the government should let the marketplace decide which airlines survive and which airlines fail. In the future, these same parties will reverse that argument claiming that a megacarrier such as United-Continental will be too big to fail. And they will be right."

The man has a point. Along with Delta, a merged United would control just over 40 percent of the domestic air travel market—that's a lot of real estate for just two carriers. If just one of Delta or United succumbed to some form of economic calamity, the resulting void in domestic air service would be severe. And while it's difficult to contemplate a circumstance that would vanquish both Delta and United, it goes without saying that the loss of both airlines would be more»

Travel Warning (Photo: Molly Feltner)

There are a number of travel alerts in effect at the moment for some fairly popular travel destinations, including Thailand and Kingston, Jamaica. Here's the key section of the Kingston alert (current as of May 24):

"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Kingston, Jamaica and its surrounding areas because of escalating violence, shootings, and unrest.  Jamaican Defense Forces are engaged in an operation to arrest an alleged drug and weapons trafficker.  Access to the Norman Manley International Airport has been blocked on an intermittent basis by gun battles between criminal elements and police.  A number of air flights into and out of Kingston have been canceled.  The Government of Jamaica has imposed a State of Emergency in Kingston and St. Andrew.  The possibility exists that unrest could spread beyond the general Kingston area. "

And here's the travel warning for Thailand, issued May 15:

"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens traveling to and residing in Thailand of ongoing political demonstrations and unrest in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  Due to escalating violence in central Bangkok, including gunfire near the U.S. Embassy, demonstrations in Chiang Mai, and other incidents throughout Thailand, U.S. citizens should defer all travel to Bangkok and defer all non-essential travel to the rest of Thailand."

There's an important distinction to make between travel alerts and travel warnings. Per the State Department, Travel alerts are "issued to disseminate information about short-term conditions, generally within a particular country, that pose imminent risks to the security of U.S. citizens. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, anniversaries of terrorist events, election-related demonstrations or violence, and high-profile events such as international conferences or regional sports events are examples of conditions that might generate a Travel Alert."

Travel warnings, on the other hand, are "issued to describe long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable. A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. Government's ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff." more»

Woman in orange using laptop (Photo: Index Open)

Since announcing our Editors' Choice Awards last Sunday, we've gotten a lot of good feedback from readers agreeing, challenging, and adding to our top more»

American Airlines planes wait at their gates (Photo: Index Open)

Tensions have been growing at American for the past few weeks as negotiations between the airline and its cabin crew union have failed to produce an agreement. Basically, American is trying to trim its labor costs, which it claims are considerably higher than its competitors'. The union is skeptical, and anyway has spent two years fighting for pay raises and other changes it feels are overdue.

Now, both sides are at an impasse. The most recent round of talks ended a week ago with no resolution, and it's up to the National Mediation Board (NMB), an independent government agency that facilitates labor negotiations for the railroad and airline industry, to decide what happens next. It can either schedule more talks, or declare a 30-day "cooling-off period," after which the union could strike.

American, however, isn't taking any chances. The airline is in the process of training management as backup flight crew in the event of a more»

Cyclist's view of bike trail (Photo: Index Open)

Full disclosure: I have never done a multi-day bike ride. But I still love the idea, and squirrel away interesting long-distance bike path information for the day I plan my first big cycling adventure.

So when I heard about the Iron Curtain trail, a proposed 4,350-mile-long trail extending from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, I was intrigued. The goal is to turn the former "death strip" into a "living space," and though it looks like only parts of it are complete, you can read about the entire route—which wends through national parks, historic villages, and more—on the Iron Curtain Trail website.

Another bike trail that caught my fancy recently was Le P'tit Train de Nord path, which starts in the town of St. Jerome, about 35 minutes by car outside of Montreal. This old train line turned bike path (and in winter, cross-country ski and snowmobiling trail) is referred to as a linear park, and stretches 143 miles past villages, lakes, and forests. The tourism board provides a booking service that includes bike rentals, baggage transportation, and more»

Photo: United Airlines

Don't ask me how this happened, but apparently a sleeping passenger was left behind on a United Express flight for more than three hours after the plane had landed. According to Ben Mutzabaugh at USA Today, the flight landed a bit after midnight, and the woman remained aboard in peaceful slumber until a cleaning crew came onboard around 4:00 a.m.

Must have been quite a surprise for the cleaning crew, huh?

Aside from the weirdness of the story, there's a legitimate safety issue here as well. Why wasn't the plane properly cleared before crew left for the night? What if this person wasn't sleeping, but hiding? I'm not an alarmist by any stretch, but it seems rather sketchy that someone could dodge the crew and then have the plane to his or herself. Fortunately that wasn't the case here.

But for United, the incident is yet another embarrassing gaffe. In fact, this isn't even the first time United abandoned a passenger this more»

Airport: Security Bin with Shoes (Photo: iStockphoto/Sean Locke)

USA Today reports that in addition to terrorist watchlists and no-fly lists, the government is tracking airport threats of another kind: Frustrated (but otherwise harmless) passengers. Or, more specifically, frustrated travelers who let their emotions get the better of them.

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it is keeping records of people who make its screeners feel threatened as part of an effort to prevent workplace violence," writes Thomas Frank, meaning "airline passengers who get frustrated and kick a wall, throw a suitcase or make a pithy comment to a screener could find themselves [on the] little-known Homeland Security database."

Now, the list is small, meaning two things: Incidents like this are rare, and incidents bad enough to warrant placement on the list are even more so. The list presently consists of roughly 240 incidents, some 30 of which involve attacks against TSA officials. So, what gets you on the list? Anything from verbal threats to physical bullying, pulling a weapon, or intentionally scaring TSA employees by punching or kicking things.

Still, the potential privacy violations have people concerned. According to USA Today, "A TSA document published in February says database information can be given to government agencies and to airports, airlines and rail and bus systems in cases involving their workers or job applicants." American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Michael German told USA Today, "there's a potential for the misuse of information or the mischaracterization of harmless events as potential threats." more»

<a href="" target="_blank">Kate Sitarz</a> is an Editorial Assistant at SmarterTravel. In addition to fact-checking and copy-editing, Kate keeps the hotel, vacation package, and car rental deal sections up-to-date with the latest discounts and offerings. The best travel memories Kate has are of the 12-hour family road trips taken in her youth to places like Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Acadia National Park. Though she has fallen in love with the sights, sounds, and culture of Paris (and dreams of living there one day), Kate first wants to explore all of the vast and diverse 50 states. 

<ol><li>Take a classic road trip, hitting every state in the U.S. and stopping at American landmarks along the way like Mt. Rushmore, the Alamo, Gateway Arch, the Seattle Space Needle, and the Everglades.</li> 
<li>Spend an entire year living in Anchorage, Alaska. See the aurora borealis, Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley, Fairbanks, and plenty of reindeer.</li> 
<li>Hike the Appalachian Trail. From Spring Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, this trail meanders through 14 states along its 2,000+ mile course.</li>
<li>Visit Auschwitz.</li>  
<li>Take off to Fiji and stay in a hut with a hammock.</li> 
<li>Herd sheep in New Zealand. With more sheep than people, I can't think of a better place to be amongst wooly companions.</li>
<li>Go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.</li>
<li>Snowboard the Swiss Alps. While trekking through the Alps is on the do to list, I first want to leave the icy New England trails behind for some first-class riding.</li>
<li>Go backpacking in Patagonia. Highlights I'd want to hit include the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina and the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.</li> 
<li>Walk the Great Wall of China. Maybe not all 5,000 plus miles of it, but enough to get a sense of just how large it is.</li></ol>

Do you have a favorite stop along the road? Is there anything else you would add to Kate's list? Please leave comments in the field below.

(Photo: iStockphoto/Andrew Penner)

AAA is out with its annual summer travel forecast, and one word comes to mind: Busy.

First, let's start with Memorial Day, which is just a few days away. AAA says "the number of Americans traveling on vacation this Memorial Day holiday weekend will increase 5.4 percent from 2009 with approximately 32.1 million travelers taking a trip away from home. Last year, 30.5 million Americans traveled during the same period."

Of those 32 million, 28 million will be traveling by road. Memorial Day is always a big driving holiday, as folks head off for that first weekend at the beach or in the mountains. Gasoline isn't expected to top $3.00 nationally, which is good, but prices are roughly $0.30 higher than last year.

AAA says the rocky economy and uncertainty over the gulf oil spill could affect travel for some, but overall travel trends should be positive.

For the summer as a whole, AAA is forecasting an increase in international travel compared to last year. "AAA expects 25.1 million Americans will be travelling internationally this summer, an increase of 2.6 percent over the 24.5 million who were estimated to have traveled overseas last summer." more»

Oil - Oil in the shape of a dollar sign (Photo: iStockPhoto/ Mark Evans)

USA Today's Dan Reed reports that fuel surcharges on flights to Europe are on the rise, and have already increased more than $100 on average compared to last summer. Reed notes that these surcharges are on top of airfares that, in some cases, are double what travelers paid last summer.

"A passenger can pay a $182 fuel surcharge to go from Dallas/Fort Worth to Dublin and back," Reed writes, "compared with just $14 last year before oil prices climbed." He also notes a $320 surcharge between Los Angeles and Paris, compared to $224 last year.

Of course, there is also the matter of $10 to $30 "peak travel" surcharges implemented by several carriers for most of the summer.

Reed explains that fuel prices have been on the rise, after hitting relatively low levels last spring and summer. "Airlines began imposing fuel charges on international routes two years ago when oil prices surged. They tapered off as oil prices sank at the end of 2008 amid the global financial collapse. But prices hit an 18-month high of $87.15 a barrel three weeks ago." Prices have come down a bit since, but the overall trend still stands.

But fuel prices are only part of the more»