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Take a tax holiday — on Uncle Sam

Tax season is almost over! Now that filing is nearly complete, it’s time for many of us to start looking forward to our refunds. This year alone, U.S. taxpayers already received an average of $2,831 per person in refunds, a significant amount of money that could whisk you away on an exotic vacation!

For that reason, I came up with a few suggestions for how travelers can get the most out of their newly acquired cash.

If you’re on the more conservative side of the refund spectrum or want to pocket some of the extra money, here’s my list of tax-refund trips travelers can take for under $2,000, including airfare.

  • Explore Exotic Ecuador for $1,399: Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, boasting more than 300 species of mammals alone. Visitors can tour the natural hot springs in Baños, view the volcanic peaks of Cotopaxi National Park, and explore the world’s most biologically diverse rainforest — the Amazon. Journey back in time with a visit to Quito, the nation’s capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and explore the city’s Spanish colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. A trip to Ecuador is like immersing yourself in the world’s greatest biology class, and one that visitors will never forget.

The flavors of Greece

Feta, olive oil, pita bread. Need I say more? Greek food is some of the tastiest in the world. As a peninsula with a warm Mediterranean climate, the Greeks’ access to fresh and healthy ingredients allows them to create the classic Greek fare prized by diners worldwide.

Greeks are fanatics about fresh-grown organic vegetables and herbs. They pluck their fish directly from the sea. They raise meats, including lamb and goat, on nearby fields to move meat quickly from farm to table. Then there’s the olive oil and the wine.

Greek olive oil is among the most pure, and believed to be the magic ingredient in the Mediterranean diet — the food regime shown to promote heart health and longevity. But I suspect the wines also have something to do with it. After all, what could better promote long life than drinking wine fermented from the fruit of hundred-year-old grape vines?

If that description doesn’t get you hopping on the next flight to Greece or, at the very least, running to your local Greek taverna, then my list of top Greek dishes surely will:

1. Moussaka (pronounced Moo-sa-KAH)

Moussaka is one of Greece’s most famous and traditional entrées. The dish begins with a layer of meaty eggplant, and is topped with a mixture of sautéed beef, tomatoes, and spices. Finally, the casserole is crowned with a thick layer of creamy béchamel sauce and baked until golden brown.

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Why now is the time to visit Greece: Q-and-A with our favorite Greek tour guide

Greece is a richly complex country, filled with unmatched natural beauty, antiquities, a warm and welcoming culture, and world-class cuisine. To truly appreciate the wonder that is Greece, I sat down with a long-time friend and awesome Greek tour guide, Aliki Karvelas, to discover, from the perspective of a true professional, what makes Greece a destination of a lifetime for tourists.

For more than 23 years, Aliki has been introducing English-speaking visitors to the people, history, and beauty of Greece. Her unmatched passion for the country makes her the perfect ambassador for this nation, which is now finally reemerging as a top European destination.

Here’s what Aliki had to say about the country she loves.

1. Friendly Planet Travel: How would you compare tourism in Greece before the 2010 and 2012 Greek protests, during the protests, and now? Do you think tourism is on the rise?

Aliki Karvelas: The Olympics returned to Greece in 2004, and the international attention spurred Greek tourism for the next few years. Then the 2010 economic crisis hit, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations in Athens that generated a great deal of negative publicity from the international media. Yet much of the story was misrepresented. Few people realized that the demonstrations and protests only took place in specific areas in Athens, and the majority of demonstrations were very peaceful. Because of the negative publicity, Greece suffered three years of low tourism, drastically reducing visitor numbers. As a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism, this decline bankrupted many restaurants, hotels, and stores.

Today, things are almost back to normal in Greece. We’re very optimistic about the return of our tourism sector. Last year alone, around 17.9 million people visited. For a country with a little more than 11 million residents, that’s a significant number. Visitor numbers are looking equally favorable this year, with experts predicting around 18.5 million people visiting Greece in 2014. If the tours I’ve already booked are any barometer, 2014 will be a great year for Greek tourism.

2. Why is Greece a fantastic destination for travelers?

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Picture yourself winning our 9-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isle Cruise grand prize!

If I had to choose one destination for the trip of a lifetime, Greece would rank high on the list of my all-time favorite places. Greece is as old as antiquity and as alluring as Aphrodite herself. With more than 6,000 islands, cast out like stars upon the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, Greece beckons with its ancient ruins, turquoise waters, fishing villages untouched by time, and whitewashed villas, crowned with bright blue dooms.

That’s why I chose Greece as the destination for our latest Facebook contest. One lucky Facebook fan will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise group tour. So visit our Facebook page, “Like” us, and enter your information in the Great Greece Giveaway tab for your chance to win this prize, worth up to $6,100.

If you win, what would you see? Where would you visit? I chose some of my personal favorite images of Greece to inspire your imagination. Scroll down to see what awaits:

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An American traveler in Cuba: Q-and-A with blogger Megan McIntyre

We’ve sent thousands of travelers to Cuba over the past few years through our people-to-people programs, offering Americans one of the few chances they’ll ever have to soak in the vibrant people, culture, and arts of this island nation. We found that these excursions not only open our traveler’s minds to the wonders of a diverse nation, but they return with transformed views of Cuba as a whole.

We recently interviewed Cuban traveler and blogger Megan McIntyre to uncover her take on her recent people-to-people cultural excursion. From visiting a primary school in Old Havana to exploring the urban farms of Terralismo to meeting Julio Munoz, known as the Cuban horse whisperer, Megan gained a deep understanding of a complex country that has been paralyzed by economic hardship, yet is still passionate about life and optimistic about the future.

Here’s what Megan had to say:

Friendly Planet: Why did you decide to travel to Cuba?

Megan McIntyre: My husband and I love to travel. We find no experience more rewarding than exploring different places, cultures, foods, and adventures. When choosing our most recent trip, we weighed the pros and cons of numerous destinations. Did we want a more active or relaxed trip? How far did we want to travel? Should we return to an old favorite destination or explore somewhere new? With these qualifiers in mind, we opted for an active, new experience that would minimize travel time. From that, there seemed to be only one logical option — Cuba.

2. What did you think about Cuba before your visit?

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Friday’s Friendly Funny: Ancient contractors

Check out this week’s Friday Funny from cartoonist Dave Blazek! Also remember to enter our Great Greece Giveaway for a chance to win a free trip to Greece!

Friday’s Friendly Funny by Dave Blazek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blog.friendlyplanet.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://blog.friendlyplanet.com.

Win a FREE trip to Greece and the Greek isles through the “Great Greece Giveaway”

Have you ever wished to walk among ruins dedicated to ancient gods, lounge on black sand beaches, and lose yourself in a maze of quaint shops overlooking the Aegean Sea? Well you’re in luck. Today we’re unveiling our next Friendly Planet Travel sweepstakes, which will transport two lucky travelers to the birthplace of Western civilization — Greece!

Greece unites the wonders of the ancient past with the beauty of the modern present to enchant visitors and keep them dreaming of this breathtaking destination for years to come. The Greek Isles speckle the Aegean and Mediterranean as pinpoints of paradise. With whitewashed villas and bustling tavernas nestled high on bluffs overlooking the azure sea, these beautiful islands are everything a traveler could ask for in a vacation destination. Meanwhile, Athens, awesome and inspirational, uniquely integrates Eastern and Western influences resulting in a lively metropolis, renowned for its food, music, friendly people, and shopping.

This terrific trip could all be yours for free through our “Great Greece Giveaway.” One lucky Facebook fan will win a free trip for two on our nine-day Athens & 4 Day Greek Isles Cruise group tour. All you have to do is visit our Facebook page, Like us, and enter your information in the Great Greece Giveaway tab for your chance to win this prize, worth up to $6,100. Since this is a brand-new contest, you’ll have to enter your information (whether or not you participated in a previous Friendly Planet Travel sweepstakes) to be eligible to win.

The grand prize includes,

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Myanmar through the eyes of a Friendly Planet traveler

EXPERIENCE MYANMAR: A trip to Myanmar opens eyes and changes perceptions

A trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma, introduces visitors to an ancient culture barely touched by modern life, where spirituality, gentle people, and unmatched tropical beauty abound. Opened to tourists just a few years ago after a series of dramatic government changes, those who have been fortunate enough to visit have fallen in love with this exotic country, and count themselves blessed to have seen it before modernity changes it forever.

Traveler Ann Young recently visited Myanmar on a Friendly Planet Travel tour and recounted her experience in an article on JournalStandard.com. Ann marveled at the country’s spectacular Buddhist temples, watched the sunset on the world’s longest teak bridge, and most notably, took part in helping feed 250 rural schoolchildren a lunch of chicken, mango salad, hard boiled eggs, and corn soup with rice.

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5 reasons to travel internationally with your kids

FAMILY TRAVEL: International family travel from Friendly Planet broadens minds and expands horizons

Forget Epcot’s World Showcase. Families today want to go beyond the ‘been there, done that’ summer vacation to see the real China, Italy, Japan, and Africa. You might be one of them — a parent who has always dreamed of traveling internationally with your children, but didn’t think it was possible because of the cost, stress, and planning required to put a trip together. There’s a lot to consider: choosing hotels, scheduling intra-country travel, knowing what sightseeing spots to visit, not speaking the local language, and the ultimate question: Will my children be OK (and actually have fun!) on this trip?

That’s why I’m so excited that Friendly Planet now offers families safe, affordable options to travel internationally this summer with our new family-friendly group tours. We handle the details, so you can concentrate on enjoying the spectacular beauty, culture, and history of some of the most jaw-dropping places on Earth with your kids (along with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, too!), making memories that will last a lifetime.

You might be thinking: Is international group travel right for my family? One of the best parts of these tours is that every detail has been thought of. We’ve selected kid-friendly hotels with amenities that they’ll love, scheduled touring that kids and parents will enjoy, and picked talented guides who specialize in making sightseeing interesting for the entire family. And, by traveling with other families in a group, you and your kids will have plenty of opportunities to make new friends and share this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

But there are many more reasons to travel internationally with your kids. Here are just five:

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How you can help build sustainable high schools worldwide

Alyssa Ramos (we call her Ali) is a member of our operations team. She is also one amazing woman, who has taken herself from homelessness to college graduation on the strength of her own guts and brains, both of which she has in abundance. Ali’s dream is to build sustainable schools in places around the world that offer little opportunity for kids. According to Ali’s dream, kids not only learn the basics of language, history, math, and science, but they also learn about sustainable living on every level, and then go on to work in new industries that will be critically needed in our modern, environmentally challenged world.

Ali and her team have created a short video as part of a competition for $30,000 in funding for her project. The public is asked to vote for the project they deem most worthwhile, and it is possible for everyone to vote once a day. The other contestants will be assembling their own team of supporters, but I want Ali to have the strength of our readers’ collective efforts, to make sure her video gets the votes needed to win.

I regularly watch a segment called “The Good Stuff” on CNN, where people like Ali are featured. In another year or so, once Ali’s school project is further advanced, she will probably be one of those amazing people featured. Today, I am asking everyone who believes in personal success stories to help us get the winning number of votes for Ali’s project. Here’s how to vote:

STEP 1) Click this link to register: http://www.phillyinfocus.com/channel/philly-dogooder-ii/ 

You have to create an account in order to vote! To create an account you need to submit a username and email.

STEP 2) Check your email in order to confirm your account. Note: the password is generated for you.

If you do not see the email, please check your Spam/Junk Folder.

STEP 3) Follow the link in your email. Sign in with your username and the password they generated for you.

STEP 4) VOTE FOR US HERE:

Our video is called – Schools for Sustainability

http://phillyinfocus.com/video/schools-for-sustainability/

Click VOTE!

It will take just a few  minutes but will make a huge difference. Your support is greatly appreciated!

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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