MONEY Travel

5 ‘Boutique’ Hostels That Are Better Than a Hotel

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The Freehand Miami hostel in Miami Beach Adrian Gaut

These cheap lodging options are no longer just for grimy backpackers. Here's why you should give the new "boutique" hostels a try.

We get it: You’re not interested in sharing a bunk bed with a roomful of party-hearty 20-somethings. Who can blame you? But blanch every time you see the word “hostel” and you’ll miss some of the county’s coolest lodging options—not to mention some major bargains.

Europeans are way ahead of us on this front. The Continent has roughly 4,500 hostels, according to booking site Hostelworld.com, ranging from spartan, dorm-style accommodations to hip, unique properties that attract older, more sophisticated travelers. In the U.S., the number of hostels is small but growing (about 350), and many of the latest additions are modeling themselves on boutique hotels, with meticulously decorated rooms, cool on-site bars and restaurants, pools, and more. The Freehand Miami, for one, a Miami Beach hostel opened in 2012, “appeals to guests looking for an accessible price point, who still want to experience thoughtful design and a food and beverage destination,” says Roy Alpert, director of the Freehand brand. The company plans to open additional locations in Chicago next year and Los Angeles in 2016.

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel, you might not realize that, along with dorm-style lodging, most offer private rooms (with private bathrooms). Often, these properties will have doubles that are essentially no different from a typical hotel room, as well as private quads with four smaller beds, which can be a good solution for families or groups of friends traveling together.

Budget travelers will find plenty of other things to love. Hostels typically have free wi-fi and breakfast, plus other affordable food and drink options and a dialed-in staff who know the area’s best affordable restaurants, bars, and activities. Many also have a shared kitchen, meaning you can snack or even cook, shaving a chunk off your dining-out bills.

Hostels are more social and less private than hotels, so if you don’t like chatting up your neighbor at the communal breakfast table, it may not be for you. Also, while hostels are starting to draw a more diverse crowd, travelers on the far side of 30 are still likely to be outnumbered by younger folks. At Chicago’s Holiday Jones, for instance, 20-somethings typically make up between half and a third of guests, says manager Madeline Rawski. In some cases, that can mean a loud, rowdy crowd. If that’s a concern, look for properties without a bar or restaurant on site (or at least one that closes early). One other note: some hostels have age restrictions, so check before you book if you’re traveling with young children.

Ready to give high-end hosteling a shot? Here are five to check out:

Holiday Jones, Chicago, Ill. This former SRO in the city’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, opened in 2013, is especially great for solo travelers, since it offers private single rooms. It’s notable for its high percentage of private rooms: about 85%. Doubles start as low as $38, but are typically priced closer to $65 (you’ll pay an extra $10 or so for a private bathroom). A cool perk: On request, Holiday Jones will deduct your train fare from the airport from your bill.

The Wayfarer, Santa Barbara, Calif. This SoCal property just opened in August and is celebrating by offering travelers 20% off their first stay. Private doubles start at $159—not as affordable as most hostels, but still a decent rate for downtown Santa Barbara. The 4- or 5-bed shared rooms start at a more accessible $59 per person. The hotel also has pool and a shared kitchen with private food lockers.

The Crash Pad, Chattanooga, Tenn. Located in a great foliage town, this eco-friendly, LEED platinum certified hostel offers a fridge stocked for make-your-own breakfasts. Several local businesses, including restaurants and outdoor outfitters, offer discounts to Crash Pad guests. Private doubles are $75 to $95.

The Freehand Miami, Miami, Fla. Private doubles start at $150 a night, private quads at $140. The Freehand steps up the usual social hostel vibe with its own trendy bar, pool, and patio lounge area. Double rooms have cable TV, iPod docks, and all the usual boutique hotel amenities.

The Bivvi Hostel, Breckenridge, Colo. This mountain lodge-type hotel is closed for the fall but reopens November 7, when a private double start at $169. The Bivvi caters to adventure travelers and can connect guests with local outfits that do everything from mountain biking and skiing and to yoga and mountain climbing. Afterward, relax in the 10-person outdoor hot tub. Note: The hostel does not allow kids under the age of 12.

 

 

MONEY Tech

Why Siri Is the Worst Backseat Driver

iPhone with Siri on screen
Iain Masterton—Alamy

Two new studies find that Apple's voice-activated virtual assistant is the most distracting hands-free technology to use while driving.

Hoping to arrive at your destination in one piece? Up your odds: Leave Siri out of it. According to two new studies out Tuesday from AAA and the University of Utah, the iPhone’s little helper is more distracting for drivers than any other voice-activated technology.

One study looked at brand-specific automotive infotainment systems, like Chevrolet’s MyLink and Toyota’s Entune, while a second examined hands-free use of Siri. The researchers asked 162 University of Utah students to use the voice-based systems to perform a variety of tasks while in a lab, operating a driving simulator, and actually driving a test route. Each technology was scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the mental capacity required to drive with no distractions and 5 representing the degree of distraction when drivers are asked to solve a complex math problem. Siri received the worst rating: 4.14. To add insult to (virtual only!) injury, two testers actually crashed their simulators while using Siri.

Among the in-car infotainment systems, Chevrolet’s MyLink earned the worst marks (3.7), followed by Mercedes’ COMMAND (3.1) and Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch (3.0). Toyota’s Entune was rated least distracting, at 1.7.

The testers used the infotainment systems for tasks like changing radio stations and making phone calls. They used Siri (version iOS 7) for a different set of activities: navigating, sending and receiving texts, posting to Facebook and Twitter, and using the calendar. All tasks were done without looking at or touching the phone itself.

According to the AP, Apple noted via statement that the studies did not use the company’s CarPlay or Siri Eyes Free, which are integrated into certain new cars and designed specifically for use while driving. (We reached out to Apple for comment but have not heard back as of the time of this posting.)

The researchers concluded that the less complicated technologies proved less distracting in part because they’re simpler to use and more accurate. Some systems proved so challenging to use that study participants “were cursing the systems out,” said University of Utah psychology professor and study leader David Strayer. That’s likely to strike a chord with many Siri users—just check the hashtag #SiriFail on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram—as is the study’s note that “some participants also reported frustration with Siri’s occasional sarcasm and wit.”

As the technologies improve, the study authors say, there’s an opportunity for hands-free systems to get less distracting. In the meantime, Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA, says drivers who want to use hands-free technologies should try to avoid tasks that involve composing messages. While checking messages proved no more distracting than listening to an audiobook, the study found that responding is significantly more complicated. “Our message is, just because technology enables to you to different things while you’re driving doesn’t mean you should,” Nelson says.

MONEY Travel

5 Great Places for Your Fantasy Football Draft

Starting this weekend, fantasy footballers across the country will be gathering to draft their teams. Here are 5 great places to go for the annual ritual, and ways to have (more) fun after you've picked your players.

The arrival of August may mark the middle of summer, but for many people it can mean only one thing: the start of fantasy football draft. Across the country, owners of virtual teams will be gathering to pore over stats, pick their players, and talk strategy. Also drink beer, talk trash, and generally make merry.

Like bachelor parties without the wedding, these gatherings are morphing into full-blown guys’ weekends, complete with travel opportunities and fantasy football-themed special activities. If you want to know where to go to find some of the best action, check out our 5 top picks for draft-weekend destinations.

 

Las Vegas at night
Cindy Costa—Flickr

Las Vegas

Yes, it’s a cliche, but with good reason: Vegas is an awesome place to be a fantasy football fanatic. The city is one of the few to host big draft-day parties and events, drawing sports fans from all over the country. And of course, there’s great food, tons of shows, packed clubs, and raging pool parties. Oh, and did we mention casinos? There are a few of those, too.

Where to Draft
How hardcore does your league want to get? If you want to be immersed in football mania, head to the Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft Party, thrown by the Yahoo Sports and Hard Rock Hotel on August 23. To attend, RSVP here. You can also book a FF package at the hotel, with discounted rates starting at $59 to $149, between August 21 and August 24. Packages include entrance to the party and a slew of other perks, like passes to the Hard Rock’s daytime pool party and nightclub.

If a corporate blowout doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of good ways to “freewheel it,” says Joe Fortenbaugh, a writer for VegasChatter.com and co-owner of news site National Football Post. On the high end, you could rent a suite or cabana. Fortenbaugh recommends cabanas at the quieter pools, such as Boulevard, at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. For something a bit cheaper, he suggests a big table or private room at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant that recently opened at Caesar’s Palace and serves up giant family-style portions of lasagna and chicken parm for about $35. To go with something more bar-centric, try the Eastside Lounge at the Wynn. This low-profile spot has plenty of room to spread out and set up camp. “No one recognizes how great it is,” Fortenbaugh says.

When You’re Done
Well, there’s plenty of gambling to be done, but you already knew that. What you might forget is just how much great food the city has to offer, so be sure to branch out beyond the draft-appropriate spots. John Curtas, author of Eating Las Vegas: The 50 Essential Restaurants, recommends Five50 Pizza Bar, an “absolute must” for everything from your basic margherita to the “Picante,” featuring ghost chili salami. There are also a ton of affordable shows to choose from. For instance, Travelzoo is now offering a deal for the latest Cirque du Soleil, starting at $55, down from $99. Finally, take a break from the Strip. Head over to Fremont Street to check out the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop made famous by the “Pawn Stars” TV show. Fortenbaugh also suggests seeking out Sigma Derby, the old-fashioned horseracing game you’ll still find at The D Hotel and Casino.

Where To Stay
The Hard Rock is far from the only hotel offering fantasy football discounts and packages. Caesars Entertainment, for one, has deals at hotels like Harrah’s, Bally’s and Planet Hollywood (costs vary by date and property). In general, room prices tend to spike on weekends, says Travelzoo editorial director Andrew Young. However, right now the Palms is offering some August weekends for as low $99, he notes. Don’t forget to factor in “resort charges,” which can easily add $20 a day to your booking. To avoid them, try a property off the strip. Young suggests the Platinum Hotel, which lists mid-August rooms starting at around $130 per night.

 

Miller High Life Cruiser
Flickr

Milwaukee

This Wisconsin city has a reputation for cheese and beer, perfect for a weekend draft. But it’s the outdoor activities and proximity to Lake Michigan that make Milwaukee the perfect spot for those fantasy leagues looking for a little activity in between picks.

Where to Draft
If you want to draft next to the beautiful waterfronts in town, then look at Stubby’s Gastropub. With views of Lake Michigan, it has “a nice patio over the Milwaukee River and plenty of TVs,” says Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dining critic Carol Deptolla. They offer 53 craft brews on tap, including some local favorites like Fixed Gear ($5) and the Black Husky Howler ($8). While there, take advantage of a Wisconsin tradition by ordering the cheese curds appetizer ($9.95), with Stubby’s bacon Parmesan dipping sauce on the side.

For a more local sports-scene feel, check out Steny’s Tavern. Located in the downtown area, near many hotels and local attractions, it’s known for chicken wings ($8.99 for 16 wings) and Bloody Marys ($4.50). Plus, after you select that starting quarterback, you can even catch a free shuttle to the Brewer’s game if the team is in town.

When You’re Done
Known as the Great Place on a Great Lake, Milwaukee Bay is ideal for burning off that post-draft energy. You can charter a fishing boat to take you out for an afternoon of reeling in salmon or trout. Silver King Charters charges $500 for five hours, but if you don’t catch any fish it’s free. Big groups take note: the boats only fit six people.

You can also rent your own pontoon boat to take you up and down the Milwaukee River. Edelweiss Boats takes 10 people ($240 for four hours) and you can bring food and any Brew City beverages you would like.

For landlubbers, Milwaukee and its surrounding area is home to over 40 miles of hiking trails. In town, check out the Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park. This two-mile trek will get your mind ready for the regular season, as you wander through rocky trails before hitting a clearing where you can capture views of Lake Michigan.

Where to Stay
You can find some great deals from big name hotels in the heart of Milwaukee for much less than you would pay in other cities. Downtown, the Intercontinental offers double rooms for $150, after taxes. Check out the downstairs coffee bar Clear, which turns into an indoor bocce ball court on Tuesdays and offers live music on weekends.

There’s also the DoubleTree by Hilton, which is located blocks from the Milwaukee Public Museum and Marquette University. Double rooms run about $190 after taxes. But you can save 20% by paying the full amount upfront; you lose your money, though, if you’re unable to make the trip.

 

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Stacy Lynn Baum

Louisville

The Gateway to the South and home to the Kentucky Derby offers nearby beautiful rolling hills and quiet southern living. But for a fantasy draft, it’s the bourbon and food that will have you convinced you made the right pick.

Where to Draft
Louisville has plenty of bourbon and barbeque, so finding spots that offer both—along with Wi-fi—is key to a successful draft in the Gateway to the South. Against the Grain, a brewery and smokehouse in a former train station, has the Louisville Bats minor league baseball stadium as a backdrop. While it’s worth tasting the beer brewed in-house, ATG also offers more than 35 bourbons, all bottled just hours away. It’s great for groups, with space for private events, and the beef brisket ($14) or pulled pork ($10) will leave you in a food coma following your last pick.

Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ is another option. Created by a lover of Kansas City BBQ, the owner took horse race winnings—it’s Derby City after all—to buy a food truck. With its success, he opened a location in the heart of Louisville. In true Kansas City fashion, try the burnt ends ($10 with two sides).

Want a slightly classier setting? Try Sidebar. Choose from more than 50 bourbons and upscale burgers like the Hung Jury ($13), which is layered with bourbon mushrooms, onions, and beer cheese.

When You’re Done
If your group wants to stick with the bourbon theme following the draft, then take a trip out to the Bourbon Trail. Two hours south of Louisville is official bourbon country, with distilleries including Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Four Roses, among many others. They offer daily tours for as little as $5, which often include a taste or two of the local product.

Without a car, getting out to the Bourbon Trail can cost a penny; expect to pay $100 or more for private bus tours. As an alternative, you can stay in Louisville and follow the Urban Bourbon Trail, 20 bars and restaurants with an historical link to Louisville’s drinking tradition, like speakeasys that sold liquor to Al Capone or hotel bars that F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented. And by staying in Louisville, you can honor the end of your baseball fantasy league by stopping into the Louisville Slugger Museum. There you will see how the bats that have been used by professional baseball players since the late 1800s are made. It’s $12 to get into the museum—and don’t forget to pick up your free mini-bat on your way out.

Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of great hotels for cheap in Louisville, like the Marriott Downtown ($179 per night). But if you don’t mind close quarters, there are also a number of AirBnB homes that can accommodate a group of eight or 10. This AirBnB condo sits near the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the owner says it fits 10 beds, so the loser of the draft won’t end up on the floor. It’s an “industrial chic” condo that has glassmaker studios and galleries as neighbors. With all-in charges running $1,611, the split is a reasonable $161 per person.

If you don’t mind sleeping on a couch, this Airbnb option is only an 11-minute drive to downtown and priced at less than $500 total. A steal, about which other large groups have said, “we had plenty of room.” And there’s a fire pit outside, so you can even end the weekend with your own style of BBQ.

 

Baltimore harbor
Ken Stanek—Visit Baltimore

Baltimore

Home to the 2012 NFL Super Bowl Champion Ravens (as well as Edgar Allan Poe and Carmelo Anthony), Baltimore offers fresh seafood and host of entertainment in the Inner Harbor. It’s also an easy 20-minute drive from international hub BWI Airport, making it easy for friends spread across the country to reconnect.

Where to Draft
Former speakeasy The Owl Bar, inside the Belvedere Hotel, offers a host of craft beers on draught, in addition to classic cocktails (think Moscow Mule) and signature drinks. In between sips, you can feast on an assortment of pizzas, like one topped with crab dip ($14), or go for the Umami Burger ($11), which comes with truffle garlic aioli.

Seafood lovers can check out Ryleigh’s Oyster, in Federal Hill. Starters include crab pretzels ($11)—three pretzels topped with a blend of crab, cheese and seasoning—and cast-iron crab pot ($13). For family-style dining, dig into a pound of mussels ($10) or a half-dozen oysters ($12) between roster selections.

When You’re Done
Catch a baseball game at Camden Yards, one of the most aesthetically pleasing ballparks in the country. If you’re still hungry, grab an authentic Maryland crab cake and some Boardwalk Fries.

Or, if you’d rather get some exercise after four or so hours compiling your team, check out the BWI bike trail. It’s a 12.5-mile scenic trail that encircles BWI and passes the Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Aircraft Observation area and the historic Benson-Hammond House, built in 1820.

For the more culturally inclined, there’s the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore’s historic Mt. Vernon cultural district. The museum is free of charge and is currently featuring an exhibition on music in the Middle Ages.

On your night out, sign up for a two-hour tour on the Charm City Pedal Mill. This 16-person bike is a great way to see historic Fells Point in downtown, and with 10 people only costs $31 per head.

Where to Stay
A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the Hotel Brexton offers rooms for $160 a night (with internet and parking included), and is only 10 blocks north of the Inner Harbor. (Wallis Simpson once stayed here.)

Of course, you could also use your group’s numbers to your advantage and stay in a house. This AirBNB.com listing smack dab in Little Italy costs around $240 a person for three nights and sleeps eight to 10 in its three bedrooms. Plus you’re just a quick jaunt from the Inner Harbor.

 

Sea Lions in San Diego marina
JD Lasica—Flickr

San Diego

Want to draft in your flip-flops? You’ve come to the right place. This hopping college town has a gorgeous beach, top-notch Mexican food, and plenty of football fans (go Chargers!). Hops heads will also dig it: San Diego has emerged as one of the nation’s best craft beer destinations.

Where to Draft
San Diego is packed with sports bars. Bub’s @ the Ballpark is hosting draft parties on a couple of August weekends. The bar will be offering food specials and $14 pitchers. The Tilted Kilt is also taking reservations; drafters will get happy hour prices ($3 drafts and $2 to $5 apps) and can connect their laptops to the bar’s big-screen TVs to put the action on full display. Want a spot that focuses on craft beer? Mike Shess, publisher of West Coaster Beer News, recommends The Beer Company, a brewery and restaurant.

When You’re Done
If you’re not tired of beer, take a beer tour. Brewery Tours of San Diego runs a variety of itineraries, starting at $65 a person. Shess suggests choosing a tour that hits spots like The Lost Abbey and Stone Brewing Company.

Now that you’ve got that out of your system, get outdoors and enjoy the SoCal sunshine. San Diego Bay Adventures rents jet skis for $99 an hour. For a more affordable (and quieter) version, try a standup paddleboard ($35 for two hours). Or take an Xplore Offshore tour. You can spot whales, porpoises and other marine life from a “tricked-out” Navy Seal-style boat that puts you very close to the water’s surface, says Ann Wycoff, a contributing writer for San Diego magazine and the co-founder of travel site Wandermelon.com. Prefer to stay on land? Spend a few hours hiking Torrey Pines for amazing views.

Where to Stay
Try The Pines, a “groovy” boutique hotel, says Wycoff. The retro-chic downtown hotel is a quick ride to the bar-packed Gaslamp district. In mid-August, rates start at about $160. If you’d prefer to stay right in the heart of the action, the swanky Hotel Solarmar is another good choice, with August rates ranging from $157 to $400 on the most popular weekends. Don’t miss the property’s swim-up bar, says Travelzoo senior editor Gabe Saglie.

 

MONEY Food & Drink

The Market Says This Bag of Potato Chips Is Worth $49

Bag of potato chips
Fuat Kose—Getty Images

Some junk food is going for big bucks on the secondary market. How much would you shell out for your favorite snack?

Lay’s newest potato chip flavors, Bacon Mac & Cheese, Wasabi Ginger, Mango Salsa, and, yes, Cappuccino, hit stores today. These chips, which have already received myriad mixed reviews, are part of the company’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest. The winner will stick around, while the other three will eventually vanish from shelves.

If you can’t immediately track them down in your local store, however, don’t despair—just open a web browser. Last week, even before the chips officially went on sale, they were fairly easy to track down on the secondary market. On Friday, single bags were listed on eBay for a $11 a pop, plus $6 shipping (the suggested retail price is $4.29). Amazon also showed some options, including a four-pack of the Cappuccino chips for $24. And as the snacks become easier to find in retail stores, the rules of supply and demand should kick in, dropping prices.

Dig a little further into this snack food grey market, though, and you find plenty of options that won’t be popping up on shelves any time soon. One optimistic eBay seller lists a $49 bag of Lay’s Chicken & Waffles flavored chips, one of last year’s “Do Us a Flavor” contest runners-up, which has since been discontinued. You’ll also find other snack chip rarities, such as a $40 bag of Doritos Jacked Test Flavor 404, which one review described as tasting like “oniony vinegar” or “dry cat food,” and Pringles Pecan Pie, a seasonal special from the 2013 holidays, listed at $20.50 for two cans.

If chips aren’t your thing, you might be more interested in a $15 pack of Root Beer Float-flavored Oreos (a new variety that’s reportedly beginning to appear in stores), or $15 bottle of Coca-Cola Blak, a coffee-flavored cola put out of its misery way back in 2008. Marvin Nitta, editor of food review blog TheImpulsiveBuy.com, says that when the limited editon Lebron James Mix 6 Sprite soda came out earlier this year, he saw online sellers listing it for “four or five times the regular price.” (Currently, you can pick up a can on eBay for a cool $12.)

Eric Huang, who writes about snacks on his blog, Junkfoodguy.com, says he thinks the secondary snack food market is driven, in part, by companies’ recent attempts to try out more bold and attention-provoking flavors. Wacky flavors make the news, and adventurous eaters want to sample them, even if that means paying a premium. The fact that they’ll eventually vanish only makes them more enticing. In fact, Huang has his own “white whale”: a Doritos flavor called Wild White Nacho. He says he tried the chips once back in 2007, when they were briefly on the market as part of a contest, and “I’ve been searching ever since.”

International snacks are another thing that drive curious eaters to buy pre-owned junk food, says Huang. American foodies are understandably curious about foreign fare like Lay’s Lobster Hot Pot (3 bags for $25 on Amazon) or Canada’s uber-spicy Doritos Roulette (on eBay listed at $21 a bag).

There are some clear downsides to buying secondhand snacks. Between the mark-ups and shipping costs, you’ll pay more than you ever imagined for junk food. Many of the rarest discontinued products are well past their sell-by dates, though some food scientists say we shouldn’t get too worked up about that. There’s also the squashing and crumbling factor: Not surprisingly, many Amazon shoppers complained that their chips were nothing more than florescent orange dust by the time the snacks arrived on their doorsteps. Then there’s the unpredictability factor. Nitta recalls buying some fried chicken-flavor Doritos from a seller in Japan that were confiscated by customs because they contained an ingredient that’s illegal to bring into the country. Plus, he says, “in the back of my head, it makes me feel weird to buy food from some random person on the internet.”

If the groundswell of eaters chasing a product gets large enough, it can occasionally help put the items back on the market. Earlier this July Hostess announced the return of the Chocodile, a chocolate-covered Twinkie that was discontinued in the late 90s. In a statement, the company said the elusive snack had “inspired a black market following,” while NPR reported that the creme-filled sugar bombs have been listed on eBay for as much as $90 a box.

Still haven’t seen any flavor tempting enough to prompt you to buy some gently used junk food? Just wait: The winning submissions to “Do us a flavour,” the Canadian version of the Lay’s contest, will be announced in August.

MONEY deals

Movie Prices are Going Up. Here’s How to Get Tickets for Less

140724_EM_MovieTickets
PhotoAlto—Alamy

Planning to catch a summer blockbuster this weekend? Use these 6 tips to save big at the movie theater.

The average movie ticket climbed to $8.33 in the second quarter of 2014, up from $7.96 earlier this year, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Why the price creep? Industry watchers blame big summer blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which sold tons of tickets to expensive 3D and IMAX screenings.

Of course, in many parts of the country, an $8.33 movie sounds like a bargain. Take New York City, where it’s not unusual to pay $15 a pop for a regular flick, or $19 for 3D. But don’t let those nosebleed prices force you to settle for summer’s reality TV swill or drive you to—gasp!—go outside. Here’s how to get your movie fix for less.

Join a Club

Most of the big chains offer some sort of loyalty program. If you tend to go to a certain theater regularly, these clubs are an easy way to earn discounted or free snacks and tickets. One program that stands out: AMC Stubs, which costs $12 a year to join but lets members bypass those annoying “convenience fees” you usually pay when you buy ticket online.

Buy in Bulk

If you’re willing to commit to buying a stack of tickets (or, technically, “passes”), you can cut your price to $8 or less. Many theater chains sell bulk passes; Landmark Theaters, for instance, sells packs of 25 at $8 per ticket. Just be sure to read the fine print; passes will sometimes exclude certain theaters or types of screenings.

Go Wholesale

Wholesale clubs offer similar bulk deals and may have bargain options on a smaller scale. Recently, Sam’s Club offered a Cinemark gift card good for two adult tickets for $15.89.

Get a Discounted Gift Card

It’s pretty easy to track down cinema gift cards on eBay or card resale sites like CardCash.com and Raise. To get a quick sense of your options, try GiftCardGranny.com, which aggregates the deals offered by a variety of sites. A search for AMC Theaters, for instance, turned up 420 discounted gift cards.

Check Your Credit Card

Do you have Visa Signature card? If so, check out the deal the card company is offering through online ticket seller Fandango: two-for-one tickets to Friday shows.

Some cards also let you leverage your cinephilia for better cash back or points rewards. The US Bank Cash Plus card, for instance, will allow you to pick movies as one of your 5% cash-back categories.

Try Daily Deal Sites

While bargain sites are unpredictable, most of the big ones feature movie tickets relatively regularly. Both Groupon and Livingsocial have recently offered discounted Fandango deals.

 

MONEY Tech

How Amazon’s New E-book Subscription Service Stacks Up

Amazon Kindle in front of a bookshelf
JHPhoto—Alamy

The Seattle retailer just announced Kindle Unlimited, which will go head to head with existing reader subscription services Oyster and Scribd.

Updated July 18th

This morning, Amazon announced Kindle Unlimited, a new e-book subscription service. But while Amazon is now the biggest name in the “Netflix for books” business, it’s not the only option. So, how does Kindle Unlimited compare with Oyster and Scribd, it’s best-known competition? Here’s the rundown:

Price

At $9.99 per month, Kindle Unlimited is slightly more expensive than the competition. Scribd is priced at $8.99 a month, and Oyster at $9.95. All three offer a trial month for free.

Selection of books

Not surprisingly, Amazon comes out on top in terms of the sheer number of e-books included. The company says Kindle Unlimited includes more than 600,000 titles, plus “thousands” of audio books. Oyster says it has more than 500,000 titles. Scribd, for it’s part, has more than 400,000.

When it comes to the question of which service offers the “best” books, things get a little muddy. Kindle Unlimited includes popular series like the Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games trilogy, as well as a a number of best-sellers, like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and some new titles such as Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. But, as noted by GigaOm, the service does not include books from the “Big 5″ publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House.

Scibd and Oyster, on the other hand, both offer books from HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. In additon, each has a few notable deals with smaller publishers: Oyster has books from McSweeney’s and Rodale, while Scribd offers Lonely Planet guides and reference books from Wiley.

Device compatibility

Kindle Unlimited works with all Kindle devices (obviously!), and, via the Kindle app, can be used on most smartphones, tablets and computers. Scribd has apps for the iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle Fire. Oyster users can access the service on Apple and Android devices, Kindle Fire and the Nook HD.

The takeaway

Kindle Unlimited isn’t a book lover’s silver bullet. Indeed, as noted by Gizmodo, the books offered by the service aren’t that different from what Amazon Prime subscribers can already access. However, if Amazon is able to get the Big 5 onboard, that could change. At this point, the decision about which service is best for you depends largely on which provider’s library you prefer. So, since all three offer a free month trial, why not give each a spin?

A previous version of this story stated that Oyster is available only on Apple and Android devices. It has been updated to reflect the fact that Oyster may also be used on Kindle Fire and Nook HD.

 

 

 

MONEY Tech

Should You Snap Up a (Cheap) Plasma TV Before They’re All Gone?

A visitor looks at a Samsung ultraslim plasma flatscreen television.
Jochen Eckel—Bloomberg

First Panasonic. Now Samsung. With the big makers dropping plasma, now could be a smart time to buy a TV.

Plasma TVs are going the way of the floppy disk, Walkman, and VCR. This month, Samsung announced that it would stop making plasmas by the end of November. Panasonic got out of the game last year. That leaves just LG to carry the plasma torch—and that probably won’t last. Indeed, by 2016, research firm IHS says plasma TVs will be completely vanish from the U.S. market.

So, with plasma on the way out, should you expect to start seeing killer discounts on TVs that use the technology? And, if you do spot a plasma bargain, should you buy it, or will you just end up with a 60-inch doorstop?

Plasma Prices

Let’s start with prices. No need to hotfoot it to Best Buy right now, according to industry watchers. Panasonic’s exit from the market didn’t have a significant effect on prices, says Ty Pendlebury of CNET.com, and Samsung’s move is expected to be similarly uneventful, at least in the short term. However, that may change “at the very end,” Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group. Eventually, retailers will be looking to move those last few plasmas to make room for newer stock and the markdowns will shift into high gear.

The average selling price for a plasma is currently $878, expected to drop 14% to $752 in 2015, according to IHS. On paper, plasmas seem more expensive than LCDs, which have an average price of $735. (A note: Some types of LCD TVs are often referred to LEDs. In this story, “LCD” refers to both types.) That’s misleading, though, because LCDs come in a range of sizes, while plasmas are only made in large (and thus expensive) sizes. When comparing TVs of similar size and quality, says Will Greenwald, who covers consumer tech for PCMag.com, plasma is cheaper.

The takeaway: If you’re in the market for a big TV, plasmas are a good deal and will likely get even cheaper. Just don’t expect to see fire-sale prices.

Is Obsolescence Really So Bad?

People who love plasmas–and they definitely exist–love them because they have great color contrast, a clear, sharp picture, and a wider “viewing angle” than LCD models, meaning you can sit further to the side of the screen without seeing a distorted image. However, they’re also massive energy hogs, and aren’t as thin or bright as other technologies.

The reason so many companies are dropping plasma has little to do with the technology itself. Rather, as LCD models have gotten better and cheaper to produce, it’s become less logical for manufactures to build and maintain factories capable of building only large, pricey plasmas.

Still, if you’re buying a technology that you know is headed for extinction, it’s worth considering what will happen if you need to get a new part for your plasma or have it repaired. Consumer Reports argues that TVs from the top brands are reliable and will continue to support their products. A Samsung rep echoed this, saying the company “will continue to provide support for our plasma TVs and our customer service policy will remain the same as before.” That said, it’s difficult to predict what repair options you’ll actually have.

So You Want to Buy

If you think a plasma could be the right buy for you, check out the Samsung F8500, which CNET dubs “the last great plasma TV.” Starting at $1,800 for the smallest 51-inch model, down from $2,700, “this TV is a very good value and will easily beat any LCD under $3,000 for picture quality,” says Pendlebury.

 

MONEY online shopping

Should You Ditch Amazon and eBay for Alibaba’s 11 Main?

Abandoned shopping cart
Michael Wriston—Getty Images/Flickr

The June 11 launch of 11 Main, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s first foray into the U.S. retail market, set off plenty of speculation about the company’s plans to take on Amazon and eBay. But for online bargain hunters, the real question posed by 11 Main isn’t which corporation will come out on top. It’s, “Should I shop there?”

To find out, I requested an invite (the site is currently invite-only) and pulled out my credit card.

Visually, 11 Main has more in common with crafty marketplace Etsy and flash sale sites like Gilt than the no-nonsense, utilitarian look of Amazon. Rather than sell its own items, the site is a platform for smaller sellers to hawk their wares. 11 Main currently hosts over 1,000 of these sellers, and divvies up their products into categories like fashion, home, tech, toys and jewelry. You can also browse each provider’s shop, and “favorite” items, saving them to a separate page.

Since much as been made of the 11 Main vs. Amazon and eBay showdown, I decided to compare the three by shopping for identical product on each site. I selected five different items: a jump rope, iPhone cover, bottle of pet shampoo, set of children’s socks, and pair of sunglasses (eclectic enough for you?). In each case, the item is sold not by the big site itself, but by a small seller using 11 Main, Amazon, or eBay as a storefront.

Here’s what happened:

On the pure price of the item, Amazon and eBay tied with two winners apiece, leaving 11 Main to bring up the rear.

What really matters to shoppers, though, is the total cost required to get the object of your desire to your doorstep. Now, if you’re Joe Shopper, who just wants to log on and pick up one item, you should go directly to eBay, which won (or tied) on price plus shipping, four times out of five.

But who actually pays shipping on Amazon? If you shell out the $99 a year to be a Prime member, or are willing to stock your cart with $35-worth of must-haves, you can drop those nasty shipping charges on many items. Of our five buys, four qualified for Amazon’s free shipping (the fifth was mailed directly by the seller, and was therefore ineligible). Once free shipping was factored in, the power dynamic flip-flopped, and Amazon came out on top.

Now for returns. When it comes to shipping back a product from 11 Main, you and the seller are on your own: you communicate via email to hash out the details. You also deal with the seller on eBay, though you message back and forth using the site, rather than directly. Amazon provides the most mediation; the site even sent me a printable mailing label, despite the fact that I was shipping the item directly back to the seller. (The actual return policies for each item vary by seller, no matter which site you use.)

The takeaway:

At least in its current form, 11 Main is no match for America’s current online retail kingpins. Can you take advantage of Amazon’s free shipping options? If so, make the Seattle-based retailer your first click.

Stray notes on 11 Main

  • When I logged into 11 Main after making my first purchase, the site had no record of my order.
  • If the items you put in your cart are from different sellers, they are treated as entirely separate purchases, and must be bought individually. Never have I been so happy that Autofill exists.
  • 11 Main has no product reviews or seller ratings. It’s often possible to find them elsewhere online, but adds to your shopping time.

 

 

 

 

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