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U.S. Renews Travel Alert to Mexico

Washington (CNN) |  The United States has renewed a travel alert to Mexico, citing increased violence in the country.

The alert, issued Sunday by the State Department, is in effect until August 20 and supersedes an alert issued August 20, 2009.

"Recent violent attacks have caused the U.S. Embassy to urge U.S. citizens to delay unnecessary travel to parts of Michoacan, Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua ... and to advise U.S. citizens residing or traveling in those areas to exercise extreme caution," the alert says.

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UPDATE: Lufthansa Strike Suspended

Frankfurt, Germany (CNN) |  Both sides in a pilots strike against Lufthansa have agreed to suspend the standoff —which has canceled hundreds of flights—at midnight (6 p.m. Monday ET).

The suspension is set to expire on March 8, barring the reaching of an agreement before then, both sides said in a Frankfurt labor court.

"The judge was very clear," airline spokesman Klaus Walther said. "He recommended the union to stop the strike action and to return to the negotiation table."

Walther predicted the two sides would reach a final agreement "pretty fast."

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Lufthansa Pilots Strike, Upend Air Travel

New York Times - Associated Press |  Thousands of travelers scrambled to find flights, trains, hotel rooms or rental cars on Monday after Lufthansa pilots began a four-day walkout over job security that grounded at least 800 flights and upended travel across the continent.

Deutsche Lufthansa AG quickly rushed to get a court injunction to halt the strike and send 4,000 pilots back into their cockpits before more harm was done to passengers and shareholders.

The court in Frankfurt said a decision could come as soon as Monday night. (...) The strike disrupted travel plans for some 10,000 passengers worldwide.

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TSA to Swab Airline Passengers' Hands

CNN (Washington) |   To the list of instructions you hear at airport checkpoints, add this: "Put your palms forward, please."

The Transportation Security Administration soon will begin randomly swabbing passengers' hands at checkpoints and airport gates to test them for traces of explosives.

Previously, screeners swabbed some carry-on luggage and other objects as they searched for the needle in the security haystack—components of terrorist bombs in an endless stream of luggage.

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Two Proposed Laws Fight Travel Fees

eTurbo News |  If you've ever been hit with a surprise fee when you rented a car or booked an airline ticket and found yourself saying, "There ought to be a law," I have some good news for you: There is. Or at least, there could be.

There could be two laws, actually. The Clear Airfares Act is a Senate bill that would require airlines and online travel agencies to disclose any additional fees before you buy a ticket. And the End Discriminatory State Taxes for Automobile Renters Act would prohibit states or localities from collecting a discriminatory tax on motor vehicle rentals.

Just one problem: Neither of these bills have been passed.

But these proposed rules could make your next trip better, and they deserve our attention.

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Zagat Vancouver: Right on Time

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If you happen to be one of the lucky 2.3 million predicted spectators for this year’s Winter Olympics (starting tonight!), the latest pocket-sized Zagat guide ($6.95) has arrived just in time for your trip.

Zagat Vancouver 2010, released on December 16, covers nearly 300 restaurants surveyed by over 2,700 consumers.

It seems the Olympics have helped keep Vancouver on top of its culinary game,” says Zagat editor Tim Pawsey. To start, two internationally renowned French chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, have brought their talents to the city: Jean-Georges with a second branch of Market, his wildly popular Parisian restaurant, and Boulud with a new db Bistro Moderne (the first is in New York).

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Fly Standby on American and Pay $50

Los Angeles Times (Associated Press)  |   Next time you think about flying standby on American Airlines, be prepared to give the gate agent your name and $50.

The days of hanging around the agent's desk, hoping for a free switch to an earlier flight are over at American for many passengers.

The nation's second-largest airline said Wednesday that starting with tickets bought on Feb. 22, only elite frequent fliers, travelers in first or business class, military personnel and people who bought pricey coach tickets will be allowed to fly standby for free.

Everyone else switching flights on their day of travel will have to pay $50 to get a confirmed seat.

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American to Charge for Blankets

New York TimesAmerican Airlines quietly announced last week that it would eliminate free blankets in coach and sell an $8 packet that includes a pillow and blanket starting May 1.

According to Joesentme.com, a subscription travel site that reported the move last Friday, the airline based its decision on consumer surveys. Joe Brancatelli, the site’s publisher, raised a skeptical brow. “American executives run focus groups on blankets?,” he said. “You think they’d look for customer focus group data on what fliers think about American’s worst-in-the-nation on-time performance, its atrocious baggage-handling ability or the hideous condition of its planes.”

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Valentine's Day is for the Dogs—Really!

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For all you singletons out there, fear not that you might find yourself sitting home alone on Valentine’s Day sipping champagne and eating an entire pint of chocolate chip ice cream. But as anyone who has a pet knows, you're never really alone.

There are options—and good ones—that allow you and your dog to spend some real quality time together and get your respective paws pampered at the same time. While exploring spas for me and my dog Max, I came across a company called Specialty International Tours who offers a program called “Voyages with Dogs.” I’m already liking the sound of this.

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UPDATE: Snow and Room Rates Fall in D.C.

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If watching the video of last Saturday’s gleeful, well-attended snowball fight at Dupont Circle makes you as envious as it makes me, maybe you’re ready to head to D.C. for some cold comfort.  The Jefferson, a posh Beaux-Arts hotel between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, has dropped the rates on their deluxe rooms from their usual $380 to $195 for the next couple of days.

So, own your own piece of the Snowpocalypse (or, D.C. residents, wait out the approaching storm in luxury, no snow shovels required).  Call the Jefferson directly at (202) 448-2300 and ask for the Winter Storm Special. Pack your snowpants and mittens.

(By the way, you can keep up with plans for the next organized snowball fight by going to the Official Dupont Circle Snowball Fight page on Facebook.com.)

UPDATE:  The D.C.-area Kimpton hotels (including the Hotel George, Hotel Helix, Hotel Madera, Hotel Monaco, Hotel Palomar, Hotel Rouge, and Topaz Hotel) have jumped on the wagon with a special snow-day rate that starts at $99.  Use SNW as the booking code.  (See if you can talk them into combining the snow special with the Rub the One You're With spa treatment package!)

Ann Shields is an online senior editor at Travel + Leisure.

Photo credit: Stirling Elmendorf

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