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MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR MONEY IN PRICEY EUROPE

The abysmal state of the dollar in Europe has prompted some travelers to rethink their vacation itineraries. But if you still have your heart set on a European vacation, here are a few ways to economize.

- Travel in the off-season. Airfares and hotel rates are much more affordable during the winter or in "shoulder" seasons (early spring and late fall) than they are at the height of summer. Another advantage: smaller crowds.

- Think small: Stay in a family-owned pension or B&B instead of a big hotel. You can save big bucks, and you'll have a more personal experience (and the shared bath won't kill you).

- Stay in hotels that include breakfast in the room rate and fill up on that. Have picnic-type food at lunchtime (pick up bread and cheese at a local market or takeout) and reward yourself with dinner out.

- Visit bargain-centric Eastern European countries that aren't on the euro yet, such as Croatia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. They're less overrun with tourists, but just as packed with culture and great natural beauty.

- Consider a sea or river cruise, where you can lock in the cost when you book and not have to worry about rising hotel and food prices.

Shedd Aquarium gets facelift

The popular Oceanarium marine mammal exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium will be closed for several months starting in September as construction crews renovate existing exhibits and create new ones.

Shedd spokesman Roger Germann said some animals living in the 170,000-square-foot facility will be moved to other institutions while the Oceanarium is undergoing renovations.

The $43-million Oceanarium, with its dolphin and whale shows, turned around the aquarium's fortunes when it opened in 1991, making it one the city's most-visited cultural attractions.

The aquarium regularly attracts more than 2-million people a year, up from fewer than a million visitors before the Oceanarium's debut.

When nature calls in the city

Mizpee.com is a useful Web site that tells you where to go when you have to go.

What's hot: Type in an address and the site will locate the closest public toilets, with distance, rating and whether a purchase is required. You can even get the info text messaged to your cell phone and add your 2 cents by reviewing a facility. Mizpee has listings in Europe, www.mizpee.eu.

What's not: The pull-down menus of states and cities are limited - in Florida, your only choice is Miami.

Vote for fave New Jersey beach

Do you have fond memories of the Jersey shore? Now you can vote for the best beaches in the state, whether it's Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Cape May, Wildwood, Sandy Hook, Seaside or any of the other 60 or so sand-and-surf destinations.

A coalition of environmental and tourism groups is sponsoring the poll to select the 10 best beaches in New Jersey.

Voting will run through the end of April online at www.njtoptenbeaches.org as well as in person at various tourism events.

You'll be asked to rate your favorite beach on accessibility, aesthetics, amenities, water quality and other factors. The state's best beach will be announced May 22 at Sandy Hook.

Sheraton chain bans smoking

Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and Four Points by Sheraton Hotel brands will ban smoking at more than 300 hotels and resorts throughout the United States, Caribbean and Canada.

The new policy follows one implemented at Westin Hotels & Resorts, which became smoke-free in 2006. Westin and Sheraton are both owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Some 8,000 rooms at the hotels will be cleaned, including treatments for air conditioning, walls, rugs, upholstery and hard surfaces.

Smoking will also be banned in public areas in the hotels, but there will be a designated outdoor area at each property for guests who smoke. The hotels expect to be smoke-free in the United States and Canada by Dec. 31.

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