For months I had been preparing for my eight-week trip to South America. As I bought new gear, I would toss it into my backpack without a second thought. It wasn’t until the morning of my flight that I dumped everything onto the living room floor — with less than six hours to determine what would make the final cut.
Space was at a premium because whatever I chose, I’d have to haul around on my back for two months. I’m typically a light packer, used to asking myself, “Is this necessary?” The items below answer that question with a resounding yes!
When you find yourself without electricity (Cabo Polonio, Uruguay), without street lights (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile) or simply in a situation where you want to be a considerate roommate (someone WILL be sleeping before you set out your toothbrush and pajamas), a headlamp is worth its weight in gold. Mine proved its worth by day three (of 60).
Hooded Silk Sleep Sack
My silk sleep sack, which folded up into itself and fit inside a quart-sized zip-top bag, felt luxurious … especially in hostels and budget hotels where the alternative was a sheet that was the texture of sandpaper. Bonus: In altitude, it provided me with extra warmth when the temperatures dropped.
Compression sacks are perfect for consolidating less-needed items; when I was in warm-weather locales, the sack eliminated the extra space taken up by my fleece and jeans.
iPod with Customized Playlists
I created a “sleep” playlist that served me well on overnight bus rides and when sharing rooms with snorers. To build up a little anticipation for your trip, you can create a playlist with popular and current music in your destination. When you return, you’ll have an instant souvenir with music you likely just heard on the road.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
Go on, laugh. But don’t take TP for granted, even when you have to pay to use a toilet. In many parts of the world you’ll need to provide your own. (See Five Tips for Bathroom Preparedness.)
I was in an area known for mosquitos and I hadn’t taken any malaria meds. Upon checking into my hotel, I noticed there was a hole in the window screen. I whipped out the duct tape, covered the holes and hoped for the best. (For other uses, see Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find at Your Drug Store.)
Or as I call it, a cover-up, beach towel, pillow, pillowcase, sarong and blanket. Oh, and yes, a scarf.
Quick-Dry Travel Towel
This was a good alternative in spots where bath towels were the size of washcloths. It also proved useful at the beach. Bonus: Sunshine really speeds up the drying process.
Biore Cleansing Facial Cloths
After an overnight bus ride or just a few days sans shower, using one of these made all the difference. I will never travel without facial cloths again.
Thankfully I never used this, but it took up permanent residence in my daypack. It was at the ready if there was an abundance of stray dogs or if I was walking alone in the dark.
I never had to use it as such. Instead, it doubled as a change purse. Had I needed to hand it over, it was heavy enough to be believable, yet it didn’t hold enough to impact my travels.
Money Safety Tips for Travelers
Again, another multi-purpose item: a laundry bag, wet clothes bag, muddy shoe bag, beach bag, shopping bag, snack bag, trash bag … you name it.
And finally, don’t forget your sense of humor and patience.
– written by Lori Sussle
Travel-related gift guides for this year’s holiday season are, no question, a helpful way to get a bead on what’s fun and new for the travelers in your life. They’re also alarmingly efficient, especially those that you find online, because with a couple of clicks on the keyboard, you’ve bought and shipped. Marvelous.
But there’s a downside. These online gift guides are proving to be way too tempting for self-indulgence. Thanks to Cruise Critic, IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, I’ve learned about Gin & Titonic, a ship and iceberg ice cube tray that describes its appeal as “watch the ship sink in your drink.” Price: a paltry $8.65. How could I not treat myself?
Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice
Over at the New York Times travel section, a pack of paper soaps for $5 (great for washing clothes on the road) is a brilliant idea — so brilliant I bought a stash.
And on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Daily Traveler,” the Rimowa Limbo Multiwheel hard-sided carry-on in midnight blue, boasting a breathtaking $875 price tag, would strain my budget — but boy, is it gorgeous.
The first item on CNN’s list grabbed me right off: an iPhone lens dial with three different lenses for $250. I’m thinking of it as an investment in my photo shooting ability (or lack thereof).
Perhaps there ought to be a guilt-relieving gift-buying ratio for the holiday season. What would you think is fair — say, after every five presents bought for someone else, we all deserve a little treat for ourselves?
It’s also only fair to say that the travel gift that got me most excited to give — to others! — is one I found right here on IndependentTraveler.com. (See 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts for the full list.) On Excitations.com, I can pick out fun tours, like kayaking in San Francisco Bay or feeding a big cat in Miami. Best of all? I can personalize each experience to meet the travel interests of my gift recipients.
Sure is a lot more fun than an Amazon gift card.
10 Tips for Holiday Travel
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
Last month, I spent several hours on Shutterfly.com, creating a book of photos from my recent trip to Montreal. Back in the days when I had a film camera, I used to commemorate each journey with a traditional photo album — or, if I was really feeling ambitious, a scrapbook that included not only my own pictures but also ticket stubs, postcards, brochures and more.
Now that all my travel snapshots are digital, sites like Shutterfly (and Blurb, Lulu, Snapfish…) make it super-easy for travelers to upload their best pics and display them in a professionally printed book with customizable backgrounds and layouts. The books are fun to make, easy to share with family and friends, and ideal for leafing through when you’re feeling nostalgic about that amazing trip to Greece or the Galapagos.
19 Tips for Better Travel Photos
We asked our readers on Facebook about their favorite ways to commemorate a trip, and they shared a few creative ideas:
“I love to take pics of my favorite meals on holiday and along with all the pictures I take … download to one of those digital frames,” said Johanna C Kula.
“My husband makes a collage of pics for me and has it printed out at Costco,” Brianne Sirota Kreitman told us. “It’s the best way to spend $6. We have several framed and I love them.”
“I get all the pics I take and put them on a DVD with music and special effects,” said Tanya Searcy.
A Magnetic Travel Hobby
Kenya Hubbard Shirley prefers to keep things old school, creating “a complete scrapbook with menus, tickets and tons of pictures.” Lavida Rei collects postcards, while Cabin Fever Travel creates screensavers.
And we’ll leave you with one that’s seasonally appropriate:
“I collect Christmas ornaments everywhere we go,” said Brenda Ward Bradford. “Lots of reminiscing as we decorate the tree each year!”
Picture-Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer
What’s your favorite way to memorialize a trip?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s an argument that can be all too familiar this time of year: Where should you spend the holidays? Whether your husband’s parents want you to trek cross country to be with them for Thanksgiving or you’d rather skip Christmas with the grandkids and take a Caribbean cruise instead, holiday travel decisions can be fraught with anxiety — and a side helping of guilt.
Christopher, who didn’t want his last name used for fear of upsetting his in laws, says that he and his wife have been dealing with onerous holiday expectations for their entire 19-year marriage. “It’s burned any joy of the holiday season right out of me,” he says.
Although the couple has tried to come up with a compromise — one year they’d pony up for expensive cross-country flights, the next year they’d stay home and celebrate alone — her family isn’t buying it, he says. And forget about taking a vacation with just the two of them during the holiday season. One year when they tried to make excuses, he says, the family decided, without asking, to come to their house instead.
“We have not been able to get to a point with her family where we have been able to break away to do stuff on our own,” he says. “Their point of view around Christmas is that they are going to steamroll you. You either hop on or you get crushed.”
Away from Home for the Holidays
Sometimes the guilt doesn’t come from your family; it’s self-inflicted. This year, I was going to go on a Christmas markets cruise through Europe with my husband over the holidays. When I told my parents about the plan, their silence spoke more than recriminations. I ended up moving the cruise to earlier in December — and inviting my dad.
Emily Harley-Reid threw off her own parental guilt one Thanksgiving and went to Machu Picchu, leaving her husband and son behind. “They LOVED having a guys’ weekend,” she said. (She did bring her mother on the adventure.)
Harley-Reid says that she has tried to get friends to break their own shackles and go in on a T-day mountain or beach rental. So far, she’s had no takers. “I just want to spend a few days bonding and relaxing with dear friends and immediate family instead of driving 1,100 miles in two days, often through snow and ice,” she says. “Everyone turns down the idea because of the massive guilt trips.”
What Not to Do When Traveling Over the Holidays
Has guilt ever influenced your holiday travel plans?
– written by Chris Gray Faust
On a recent solo trip to Montreal and Quebec City, I booked stays at a couple of B&B’s, figuring that the communal breakfast table would be a good place to meet fellow travelers and feel a little less isolated. Turns out I was (mostly) right.
My first morning in Quebec City, I sat awkwardly at the table with three older travelers from France, trying to communicate using a combination of their limited English, my dozen words of French, and a few evocative facial expressions and hand gestures. After a few brief attempts at conversation, we subsided into silence; we’d reached our linguistic limits, and they clearly felt it would be a breach of etiquette to speak French among themselves while I sat there, uncomprehending.
Dining Solo: Terror at the Table for One
The next morning, I braced myself for the same, but this time I met a friendly young English-speaking couple (he was from Vancouver, she from Australia) who kept me company while the French travelers chatted with each other. When they found out I was planning to take a bus to Montreal the following day, they invited me to tag along with them in their rental car instead. That half-day road trip through the foliage-dappled countryside turned out to be one of the highlights of my week.
I’d known this couple less than 30 minutes before they extended their invitation. It might seem risky or naive by everyday-life standards, but I’ve found that this sort of kindness is more the norm than the exception when I travel. I can’t count the number of people who’ve made my trips better with simple acts of kindness: the locals who pointed me in the right direction when I was hopelessly lost. The fellow traveler who shared a few pills from her aspirin stash when I was sick with a fever. The flight attendant who gave me a reassuring smile when our plane hit a patch of turbulence. The German hikers who offered me extra water when I felt light-headed on a relentlessly humid day. The waiters and shopkeepers who heard my tortured Spanish/Dutch/French and switched to English to put me at ease.
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I may not have ever seen these people again, or even learned their names. But my encounters with them are just as vital to my fond memories of a trip as the museums and monuments I initially traveled to see.
How have you experienced the kindness of strangers while traveling?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
I was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500′s and $600′s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!
Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.
Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?
Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”
Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.
FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.
See the Latest Worldwide Airfare Sales
A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.
Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
People who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”
As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.
On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.
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Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.
And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.
The Ultimate Travel Packing Guide
Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”
So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
My entire life my dad has joked that he can say “Everybody loves Saturday night” in five languages. I don’t know how helpful that has been to him, but I do know that no matter where in the world you travel, people love it when you try to speak their language.
It’s not simply polite; it shows that that you are aware that you are the stranger in their land and that you’ve taken the time to learn a few important phrases. It’s even more effective if you say the words from memory and not simply try to read from a phrase book or phone app (though at least that’s something).
Every time I travel to a non-English-speaking country I try to learn a series of words and phrases: “please,” “thank you,” “how much is this?”, “do you speak English?” and the all-important “where is the bathroom?” When I got married in Romania I made a laminated phrase guide for all my out-of-town guests. It was a hit. The Romanians at my wedding loved it when folks from the United States and England said thank you in their own language.
12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place
Believe me when I say just attempting one or two words in someone’s native language goes a long way in fostering good will — especially in an age when so many Anglophones just assume the rest of the world speaks English.
Since “thank you” and “please” are probably the most common words travelers make an effort to learn, I’ve decided to list “how much is this?” and “do you speak English?” in several languages. Audio clips are included where available so you can listen to the pronunciation.
How Much Is This?
Chinese (Mandarin) – Zhe ge duoshao qian?
Dutch – Hoveel kost dit?
French – C’est combien?
German – Wievel kostet das?
Italian – Quanto costa?
Japanese – Ikura desu ka?
Portuguese – Quanto custa?
Romanian – Cat costa?
Russian – Skol’ko eto stoit?
Spanish – Cuanto cuesta?
Swahili – Hii ni bei gani?
Do You Speak English?
Chinese (Mandarin) – Ni shuo Yingwen ma?
Dutch – Spreek ge engels?
French – Parlez vous anglais?
German – Sprechen Sie English?
Italian – Parla inglese?
Japanese – Eigo ga dekimasu ka?
Portuguese – Fala ingles?
Romanian – Vorbitz Engleza?
Russian – Vy gavarite pa angllyski?
Spanish – Habla ingles?
Swahili – Unasema kiingereza?
Know these phrases in other languages? Add them in the comments!
– written by Dori Saltzman
Last month, I finally decided to replace my camera. It had served me well for close to a decade, but technologically it was a bit outdated — and after an unfortunate fall off a cruise ship bed in Alaska, it was literally being held together with a rubber band. The time had come.
When I mentioned to a coworker that I was purchasing a new camera, she told me she no longer uses one, but instead relies exclusively on her iPhone. And she’s not alone. European market research company Mintel released a study earlier this year showing that digital cameras are losing popularity in the U.K. as more people turn to the increasingly sophisticated cameras built into smartphones. The study found that U.K. sales of digital cameras fell 29 percent between 2006 and 2011.
19 Tips for Better Travel Photos
In a recent informal poll of IndependentTraveler.com readers on Facebook and Twitter, several respondents seemed to corroborate this trend. “With the megapixels in cell phones being about the same in a regular camera, using a cell phone works for me,” James Jones told us on Facebook.
“I use my iPhone for vacation photos,” wrote @BetsysBFF on Twitter. “I’m happy with the quality and can tweet or message them easily.”
7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone
“Dropped DLSR for [Samsung Galaxy] S3 on short trips. The quality [is] great. Only switch back for safari/specialist trips,” said @swalwell on Twitter.
But the majority of IndependentTraveler.com readers weren’t ready to ditch their cameras just yet, many arguing that the quality still isn’t up to the standard of a traditional camera. “I have tried numerous times to not use [a] real camera,” @StevePariseau told us on Twitter. “iPhone still no match for the real thing. Zoom, flash, night shots, etc.”
Twitter user @alisonashley7 agreed: “Still using the camera. Better range of settings. Next one will have SLR lens. You don’t get those with a phone!”
Pro Tips from a Travel Photographer
For me, given my current options, it was a no-brainer. My aging flip phone takes small, grainy shots that can’t compare to the beautiful photos I can snap with my new Panasonic Lumix. At least for this traveler, a camera is still the picture-perfect choice.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Those of us stuck in coach on every flight now have a silver lining to console us as we wedge ourselves into those cramped seats: we may be more likely than first-class passengers to survive a plane crash.
This was the primary takeaway from a recent safety study in which scientists crashed a Boeing 727 into a desert in Mexico, reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “During the $1.5 million experiment — which was arranged by Channel 4 and television production company Dragonfly — the first 11 rows of seats ripped out as the nose of the plane dipped and the front of the fuselage sheared off,” says the Daily Mail.
Because the front rows are where first-class passengers are normally seated, the scientists noted that no one in the more expensive cabin would have survived the crash. However, 78 percent of the remaining passengers would have survived — and the farther back in the plane they were, the better their chances.
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The study also found that the “brace” position, in which passengers prepare for impact by bending forward to touch their heads to the seats in front, does offer meaningful protection in the event of a crash. The scientists included dummies in three positions during the experiment: one in the brace position and wearing a seatbelt, one sitting upright with a seatbelt fastened, and one not wearing a seatbelt. According to the Daily Mail, “The dummy in the brace position would have survived the impact, the one not in the brace would have suffered serious head injuries, and the dummy not wearing a [seatbelt] would have perished.”
While the success of the brace position has been corroborated by multiple researchers, the equation of “back of the plane = safer” is not quite as conclusive. One study by Popular Mechanics supports the idea that the rear of the plane is safer, while a British Civil Aviation Authority/Greenwich University study found that passengers near the front of the plane were more likely to escape a crash-induced fire. Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.” Survival rates vary widely depending on the circumstances of each crash.
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So what’s a safety-minded traveler to do? Being in or near an exit row is generally a good idea, and fliers sitting in the aisle seats may be more easily able to escape than those who are in less accessible window seats. Wherever you’re sitting, read the safety card, know the location of your nearest exit, keep your seatbelt fastened and follow all crew instructions in the event of an emergency.
Would this study make you think twice about upgrading to first class?
– written by Sarah Schlichter