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Sir Richard Branson Embarks on New Virgin Cruise Venture

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Virgin Group founder Richard Branson—the knight best known for his planes, trains, and spaceships—is turning his sights to the cruise industry.

Branson recently told The National he has been interested in launching his own cruise company since he was in his twenties. Now 63, he’s seeking $1.7 billion to finally develop a premier fleet of Virgin liners.

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Bidroom Revolutionizes How Travelers Book Hotels

If you don’t mind putting your hotel plans on the auction block, check out the innovative new booking platform, Bidroom.

Less than two months ago, London-based startup Bidroom created a service that could both save customers money on a hotel room, as well as spare hoteliers the enormous commissions they’ve been coughing up to OTAs. 

Instead of traditional booking websites, which ask customers to input their dates and destinations in order to generate a database of fixed-rate rooms, Bidroom asks hotels to bid on guests.

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America's Bikeshares Mapped Out By DC-Based Blogger

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We're loving this map of the country's largest bikeshare programs of 2013, from the Washington-based blog BeyondDC.

It shows the to-be-expected large players—Boston and DC—plus debuts from New York and Chicago, but while those cities dominate the map with their massive programs, it's the smaller dots that tell a more interesting story.

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JetBlue's GoPacks Offer Major Deals for Group Travelers

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JetBlue makes headlines again with the announcement of their new GoPacks; bundles of 6 or 10 one-way tickets to some of the nation’s most frequented destinations. 

If you’re getting ready to book your family summer vacation, or coral a group of friends for spring break, grab a pack to take advantage of the unmatched rates.

GoPack trips can be booked from March 31 through June 17 travel, and are eligible for True Blue miles. 

While flights from New York to Orlando, and JetBlue’s Intra-California package between Long Beach and the Bay Area scream easy getaways, the $939 stack of tickets for travel between Boston and Washington, D.C. or the GoPack of northbound flights from JFK may be the perfect option for large business trips.

Melanie Lieberman is an editorial intern at Travel + Leisure. 

Photo Courtesy of JetBlue Airways

Travel Companies Urge Arizona Governor to Veto Religious Freedom Act

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A growing chorus of prominent travel companies, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest, and Marriott International, are pressing Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto Senate Bill 1062, the recently passed legislation that would allow businesses to deny service for religious reasons. The bill is meant to protect religious freedom, but would effectively legalize discrimination of religious minorities and LGBT individuals.

Both American Airlines and Marriott International—joined by the Arizona and Greater Phoenix Chambers of Commerce—have written letters (see here and here) to Governor Brewer outlining their concerns over the bill. Delta issued a statement yesterday, available here.

Marriott's regional Vice President Steve Hart and Director of Government Affairs Thomas Maloney believe that if enacted, SB 1062 would “undermine—or worse, counteract” the brand's efforts to boost revenue, particularly from business travelers.

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Ice Caves Form at Lake Superior Thanks to Polar Vortex

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For the folks of northern Wisconsin, the frigid temperatures have, for the first time in five years, caused Lake Superior to freeze over, granting the tough-skinned tourist access to the string of ice caves spanning the shoreline. 

Nearly 40,000 people have already made the mile-long trek across Superior’s frozen surface to see the intricate webs of hoar frost and the dramatic ice formations emerging from the caves’ glittering mouths.  

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State Department Issues Travel Alert Updates for Thailand and Ukraine

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The State Department has updated its travel alerts for Thailand and Ukraine, responding to an uptick in politically-charged violence affecting both countries.

In Ukraine, demonstrations have flared up after the government opted for closer economic ties with Russia rather than with the EU. Since Thursday, over 100 individuals have died in the Kiev street riots. And anti-government rallies in Bangkok claimed their twelfth casulty—a police officer—on the February 18th.

We've been monitoring the Thai situation for months, and the new travel alert sends the same message: US citizens should avoid protest sites and any large gatherings.

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International Tourism is Up, According to Latest World Tourism Organization Data

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The World Tourism Organization recently released its annual international tourism numbers, and—even with the economic hurdles affecting parts of the world—the results exceeded expectations. Overall, an additional 52 million people traveled internationally in 2013, a 5% increase from the previous year. Here’s how the numbers break down:

Biggest Increases
In relative terms, Asia and the Pacific is the fastest-growing region for the third year in a row. It saw the strongest growth (+6%), with an additional 14 million visitors over last year—bringing the total to 248 million. Southeast Asia was the best-performing sub-region, with a 10% increase over 2013. Africa experienced an increase of 6%, reaching a new record of 56 million tourists (three million more than last year).

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New Crowd-Sourced Exhibition Explores Boston's Love Affair with Impressionism

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The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston today is opening a new exhibition, “Boston Loves Impressionism,” showcasing 30 masterpieces carefully curated by…the public.

To choose the artworks for display, the MFA held an online contest that saw a staggering 41,497 votes cast over three weeks in January. And with one of the world’s largest Impressionist collections at their disposal, voters had quite the challenge. Who were the winners?

Among the top 30 scorers are perennial favorites by Cassatt, Cézanne, and Pisarro, with first-place going to Van Gogh’s Houses at Auvers. Water Lilies from Monet and Degas’s charming Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer—the only sculpture in the running—round out the top three.

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Cruising During Norovirus Season

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Cruises have been hit hard this season by the notorious norovirus. In January, a Royal Caribbean voyage was cut short when nearly 700 passengers and crew were sickened by norovirus, and a Caribbean Princess ship aborted its itinerary when 189 cases were reported. An unidentified agent also caused a norovirus-like outbreak on the Norwegian Star in early January. 

Because this gastrointestinal virus is so easily transmitted—it spreads from person to person, or via contaminated food and water—cruise ships (with their close living quarters) can act as powerful incubators. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified the particular strain on the ill-fated Caribbean ships as GHII, a new(ish) Sydney-based norovirus that has been associated with more severe symptoms, and may have a higher rate of infection.

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