Young Couple with Laptop. (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Every once in a while I get a release touting a new or modified website that causes me to say, "That's a good idea." Here are two current ones:

ZocDoc

"Is there a doctor in town?" Sometimes you may need to find a doctor quickly when you're away from home, and that can pose a problem. Sure, you can get a telephone book, but you really need a doctor who will accept whatever insurance you have, one with some references beyond a blurb in the Yellow Pages, and one with available appointments. ZocDoc, is starting to fill that void. You log in, search for doctors, get information about insurance acceptance, qualifications, and available time slots; and then book online....read more»

Wallet on Grass (Photo: Thinkstock/Hemera)

The giant airlines, concerned about the huge backlog of frequent-flyer miles and their own stinginess with awards, are pushing nonflying uses for miles. As with everything else they do to these programs, the airlines will benefit. But for you, as a consumer—not so much. I've warned about poor nontravel values for miles, and a new report adds some additional reality.

Again, we have to thank Jay Sorensen at IdeaWorks for some great research: The IdeaWorks List of Hotel and Car Rewards for the World's Top-30 Airlines. The researchers calculated the value of each mile when applied to hotel accommodations and car rentals and found some important differences among the big North American lines. Three lines offer reasonable value:

  • One Air Canada mile is worth 1.3 cents when you apply it toward hotel accommodations and 1.4 cents toward rental car awards.
  • One American mile is worth 1 cent for hotels and 1.4 cents for rental cars.
  • Southwest points are worth the equivalent of 0.7 cents when used for hotels and 1.5 cents for car rentals.

The others don't do as well:

  • One United/Continental mile is worth 0.8 cents for hotels and 0.5 cents for cars.
  • And Delta—already renowned as stingy with award seats—scores a dismal 0.3 cents per mile for either hotels or cars.

...read more»

France: Island of St Malo (Photo: Thinkstock/Medioimages/Photodisc)

Wander the narrow bustling streets of today's Saint-Malo and you'll see few obvious signs of its electrifying history of pirates and wartime destruction. The walled port city on France's northern shores was once home to the corsairs, French maritime privateers; and in the 20th century barely survived Nazi occupation and allied liberation in World War II. While 80 percent of the old city was destroyed in the last days of the war, the ramparts, castle, and a few of the 17th-century half-timbered houses survived, and the remainder of the walled city was carefully rebuilt to recapture its original style and skyline.

And while the privateers no longer ply nearby waters demanding "tributes" from passing ships, you can still get a taste of the salty air by venturing down to the sandy flats beyond the ramparts and exploring the nearby forts and small islands accessible only during the low tide. The dramatic tides yield another surprise as well: an ocean-fed swimming pool that's visible only when the waters recede.

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Iceland: Lagoon Mountains (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Who: Travel Deals Editor Caroline Morse, 28, and three friends

Where I Went: Iceland

When: Early November 2011

High Points: We took a two-hour ATV tour with ATV Adventures Iceland through the Krisuvik Peninsula. We rode on a black sand beach and between solidified lava, as well as to a shipwreck. Most of us had no experience with ATVs, but the equipment that the company used was top-notch, and the instructor was great—helping those of us who had trouble driving, as well as pointing out places of interest along the way. Being the only people as far as the eye can see, while driving along a beach full of lava rocks, was an amazing feeling.

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Bedbug Bites (Photo: iStockphoto/Joel Carillet)

Planning to get some shut eye on your next long flight? Don't let the bedbugs bite! Consumer website Elliott.org reports that Patricia Sweeney, a passenger on a Delta flight from Atlanta to New York, claims she was bitten by insects multiple times during her trip. She also alleges that after informing the new flight crew of her bites on a connecting Delta flight to Ireland, the flight attendants told her to either leave the flight and get medical treatment or be moved to the back of the plane (despite the fact that Sweeney had paid extra for an economy comfort class seat).

Since Sweeney's bug bites occurred before her second flight, and were not connected to her seat on the new flight, why would the crew ask her to move to the back of the plane? One theory: Perhaps they wanted to keep any potential infestation confined to the poor schlubs in coach instead of potentially infecting the higher-paying passengers toward the front of the plane. All we have at this point are theories, because the airline is not commenting on its crew's decision to move Sweeney....read more»

U.S. Flag (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Welcome to our new reader mailbag, where you can ask, and get answers to, your questions about travel in general or something you saw on SmarterTravel in particular.

This week, a story on snorkeling destinations generates quite a bit of unexpected controversy, a reader calls us unpatriotic, and we may have ruined someone's ability to eat on a plane forever. Let's dig in, shall we?

Q:  Did We Miss the Grammar Lesson?

Our recent photo gallery of the World's Most Unique Snorkeling Destinations generated a firestorm of criticism—over a point of grammar, that is. Reader C.L. wrote, "Please look up the definition of unique and you'll see why you can't have a heading describing the most unique. Something is either unique or it isn't—the term can't be modified.' Reader M.L. was even more direct: "There is no comparative or superlative form of unique. Ignoramus."

Ignoramus—really? As a card-carrying member of P.O.E.M. (that would be the Paternal Order of English Majors, of course), I feel compelled to defend our use of a modifier in front of the word "unique." According to the Oxford English Dictionary (and articulated beautifully in-house by super copyeditor Jaclyn Liechti), "unique" has been used to mean "uncommon" (and modified as such) since the mid-19th century....read more»

Italy: Porto San Stefano (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Rent a car and leave the crowds baking under the Tuscan sun behind. The beautiful peninsula known as Monte Argentario awaits, full of forts, wildlife, and beaches—but not crowds.

Formerly an island, but now connected to the mainland by sandbars, Monte Argentario is a hidden secret to most Americans, but a well-known holiday spot for Italians. Start off by exploring the easily accessible (and also more crowded) beaches, where you can wind surf, kayak, or kite surf. Then head to the more deserted beaches of the west coast, some of which you'll need to rent a boat to get to.

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<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)

What to do with 1 million Marriott Rewards points?

If that's a question you'd like to wrestle with, enter the Marriott Rewards Facebook sweepstakes by December 31 for a chance to win the grand prize of 1 million Marriott Rewards points. Runner-up prizes include five first prizes of 100,000 points each, and 50 second prizes of 10,000 points each. Plus there are 3,720 instant-win prizes of 1,000 points each....read more»

Vacation Rental on the Beach (Photo: iStockPhoto/Joseph Brewster)

A couple rented a Paris apartment for a week for a "once in a lifetime" visit, only to find that the apartment's hot water didn't work. The owner promised to fix the problem, but the couple wound up staying the entire week without hot water. They've enlisted travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, who reported the story in a recent column to help get a decent refund, but there's been no resolution yet. Although I have a great deal of sympathy for the couple—and confidence in Chris Elliott's dogged pursuit of evil travel suppliers—there's no way this story will have a happy ending. And it again supports my firm recommendation for such situations: If an owner/manager can't fix a serious problem in one day, bail out, find another place to stay, and fight about the money later.

This situation involves the worst possible combination of circumstances:

  • Prepayment in full—probably months in advance—for a sight unseen arrangement.
  • Rental directly from an individual property owner, located overseas, with no financial resources or stake in the United States.
  • Rental selected on the basis of a posting on an online rental listing agency that acts as a bulletin board but is not involved in the financial transaction at all.

The couple complained to the apartment's owner, who offered a trivial amount of compensation: $150 plus a "free" night on a future stay—as if these folks would ever want to set foot in that apartment again. The online rental agency refused to help, despite supposedly offering an extra-cost "rent with confidence" guarantee....read more»

Turkey: Istanbul - Topkapi Palace (Photo: Thinkstock/iStockphoto)

Pretend to be a Sultan for the day with a visit to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. Dating back to 1459, the palace makes other historical sites look almost brand new. The palace is so large that it used to house up to 4,000 residents, but now it only holds artifacts.

The museum is huge, and you could spend your entire day wandering around the grounds (that include a public park) without even making it inside. Whether you like architecture, relics, weapons, manuscripts, or jewels, this museum has all of that and more, most of which date back to the Ottoman Empire. The collection's incredible displays of opulence include massive solid gold and jewel-encrusted thrones and the world's fifth-largest diamond.

...read more»

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