New Year 2012 (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

What better time than the final days of 2011 for a clip show of some of our most popular, best, and favorite stories of the year? Here are 10 worth a second look:

We All Like Free

The story may have been published in early December, but it's not too late to take advantage of many of the deals featured in this year's 10 (Almost) Free Travel Deals. The roundup includes a third airline ticket free to Crested Butte, Colorado; free days at national parks; and up to two weeks of free airport parking with a single night's hotel stay.

Travel Industry Winners...read more»

Travel brochures (Photo: IndexOpen)

Following is our regular summary of the best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car-rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

The Top 10 Travel Loyalty Stories of 2011

It was an eventful year for travelers who collect airline miles and hotel points. Tim Winship takes a look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly....read more»

<strong>Take a Walking Tour</strong>

One of the more affordable modes of transportation is using your own two feet, and walking is one of the best ways to learn about a destination. Plus, many cities offer a wide range of tours&mdash;both independent and guided&mdash;on a slew of different subjects, including history, ghost tales, food and drink, shopping, and sightseeing. And you don't need to know a soul to have a good time.

Start planning by visiting the city's convention and visitor bureau's website, which typically offers free maps, guides, itineraries, and suggestions for walking tours. The visitor's center is also a great place to stop by in person to get tips on where to go to find the type of tour that interests you. Many historical societies provide free guided tours to acquaint visitors with the city's past, so check their offerings as well.

The number of walking tours in a destination like New York City is overwhelming, and you would run your feet raw if you tried to go on even a quarter of them. However, this fierce competition means lower prices and a greater range of subjects to choose from. For instance, you can take a 90-minute <a href="http://www.unionsquarenyc.org/walk.html" target="_blank">Union Square: Crossroads of New York</a> free walking tour and a three-and-a-half-hour <a href="http://www.walkingnyctours.com/descriptions.php" target="_blank">Manhattan Melting Pot Eating Tour</a> for $40, all in the same day.

(Photo: iStockphoto/Vitaly Sokolovskiy)

Comparing perceptions of the notable events of 2011 with a fellow travel industry commentator recently, we found ourselves emphatically in agreement on only a single point: There were plenty of candidates for this year's top-10 list.

Here are mine, in no particular order ...

1. American Airlines' Bankruptcy

When American filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code in November, I suggested that the airline's customers had little to fear, and that their frequent flyer miles were almost certainly safe.

In fact, there was the very real possibility that American's predicament would result in a rush of promotional activity to offset concerns about the company's viability and minimize defections. That prediction proved to be correct with American's unilateral double elite-qualifying mile promotion, and a widely-publicized 50,000-mile sign-up offer for its Citibank AAdvantage credit card.

There's also the prospect of a much less welcome result: American, in its weakened state, could be acquired by US Airways, which has failed in past attempts to acquire both Delta and United....read more»

Western Lowland Gorilla (Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte)

The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is either a daydream or a nightmare depending on if you love wild animals (especially gorillas), or if you’ve seen Planet of the Apes one too many times. It would be hard to plan a trip here without a gorilla sighting. More than half of the world’s Mountain Gorilla population live in this World Heritage-designated site. Beside the gorillas, you can see everything from elephants to butterflies as well.

The non-animal scenery is spectacular, too: The terrain features volcanoes, mountains, and forests. You can walk along a bamboo trail, see waterfalls, and check out the Ruizi River....read more»

Man sleeping in an airport (Photo: iStockphoto)

A few years back, I booked an itinerary that involved a 14-hour flight from my home airport to a hub in Asia, leaving mid-afternoon and arriving at about 9 p.m. local time, with an overnight wait of 10 hours before my morning connection. After being awake for almost 24 hours, I wanted nothing more than a comfortable bed, but where?

I decided to book the hotel closest to the airport, but with baggage, waiting for the shuttles, and re-entering security, I was lucky to get about five hours of sack time. Although better than slumping all night in a seat in the terminal—an alternative approach many of my plane-mates took—it was far from ideal. My final take: "There's gotta be a better way."

Turns out, there is a better way: A few big airports around the world are adding short-term and overnight private minirooms with stretch-out beds on the airside of security. You can rent by the hour for quick naps or overnight for longer stretches:

  • Minute Suites operates installations at Atlanta and Philadelphia airports, presumably with plans for additional locations. Each suite includes a "daybed sofa," bedding, a TV, a desk and chair, and airport Wi-Fi or direct computer connection. The main difference between one of these suites and a conventional mini hotel room is that the suite provides no plumbing—you have to use the airport's facilities. Minute Suites are expensive: $30 for the first hour, then $7.50 for each additional 15 minutes, with 15 percent discounts for stays of four hours or more and 25 percent off stays of eight hours or more. That adds up to around $200 for an overnight, which is more than you might pay for a full-featured hotel room outside the airport, but you can't beat the location for a quick stop. You can book online thorough the website....read more»
England: London, South Bank at Night (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Offering some of the best views, culture, and shopping in London, the South Bank is an argument-ender for locals who argue over whether North or South London is the best. South Bank snakes alongside the Thames River, from Lambeth Bridge to St. Saviour's Dock. You could easily walk the whole length of it in a day, but that wouldn't leave you much time to stop at the many attractions along the way.

Bring a camera, as the South Bank features amazing views across the river, from the Houses of Parliament to St. Paul's Cathedral. Want an even better view? Hop aboard the London Eye for a better look. Get a dose of culture by stopping in at one of the many museums (like the Tate Modern or the Hayward), enjoy some history at the London Dungeon or Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, or just watch the many street performers (including some who make amazing sand sculptures out of the questionably clean riverbank sand). There's plenty of indoor and outdoor cafes and pubs at which to stop along the way for a pint, a coffee, or a spot of tea. Be sure to stop at the famous Borough Market for a fresh and cheap bite to eat. ...read more»

Airport: Woman Stressed at Airport, Flight Screens (Photo: Thinkstock/Eyecandy Images)

December is the perfect time to reflect back and take a moment to appreciate some of the year's most jaw-dropping, double-taking moments in the world of travel. Ridiculous moments came in all shapes and sizes this year, from pilots getting trapped in the bathroom to passengers coming to fisticuffs over reclining seats. Got a story we haven't included in this hall of shame? Add it to the comments below!

2011: The Year of Stowaway Animals

Why is it that when a flight suffers an animal infestation, it's never a stampede of adorable puppies or a tumble of fuzzy bunnies? This year has included some particularly unsavory invasions—we've seen cockroaches, rats, bats, and even bedbugs. What's a squeamish passenger to do? Keep those carry-ons zipped up tight, wear closed-toe shoes, and hope for the best.

Ryanair Proposes Worst Idea Yet

Leave it to Ryanair, the drunk uncle of the skies, to find new ways to offend. This year, the airline's skeeviest idea was to add a porn option to the inflight entertainment lineup. Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary reasoned, "Hotels around the world have it, so why wouldn't we?" Hotels also have room service, bathrooms for every guest, and enough room to actually stretch out and sleep, but we notice O'Leary isn't rushing out to match the hotel experience on those points. For now, no action has been taken on the mile-high film-club proposal. ...read more»

Allegiant Air aircraft (Photo: Allegiant Air)

Allegiant is making a big push at the Niagara Falls, New York, airport. It has already added twice-weekly flights to St. Petersburg-Clearwater and will add four additional weekly flights to Orlando/Sanford in February. Although Canadians from Ontario are probably the primary target market, travelers from western New York State will certainly benefit from this big jump in low-cost service to major tourist destinations.

Allegiant offers some of the lowest fares you’re likely to find, but it is pretty cold-blooded about the cities it serves. If a schedule of flights doesn’t generate enough total revenue—airfare plus hotel packages—it’s ruthless about cutting schedules or even moving out completely. In all probability, the Florida schedules will be reduced come summer. Meanwhile, enjoy while you can....read more»

Argentina: Bariloche (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

See some of the best natural beauty that Argentina has to offer is in San Carlos de Bariloche. From this one city, you can check out mountains, forests, and lakes. Don't worry, you won't be forced to eat trail mix just because there's so much wilderness to explore: The city itself boasts world-class restaurants, nightlife, shopping, casinos, and drinking.

Adventure activities abound. On dry-land there’s hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and skiing; while the water offers kayaking, rowing, and boating. Then there’s the air, with activities like parasailing and ziplining.

It’s easy to see why Bariloche is nicknamed the "American Switzerland," with its impressive mountains and crystal clear lakes. The lake water is so clear that scuba diving is popular (in the warm months, of course.)...read more»

Thailand: Ko Samui, Big Buddha Beach (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Go for a swim with Buddha as your lifeguard. The two-mile beach on Ko Samui, in Thailand, is supervised by a 12-meter-tall golden statue. It's not an ancient relic—this statue is only about 40 years old, and is the centerpiece of a meditation center/temple. Be sure to tear yourself away from the beach long enough to explore the temple grounds.

Despite the holy theme, many people flock to the beach for the nightlife. Open-air bars spill out on to the sand, and live music is always bumping. Come on Sundays for the week's biggest party: a music festival held by Secret Garden Bungalows.

Despite the parties elsewhere on the island, people still like bringing their kids to Big Buddha Beach, as the water is shallow and fairly calm, making it a pretty safe spot for swimming. ...read more»

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