One oft-forgotten rule of international travel is that many countries won’t allow you to enter if your passport‘s expiration date is less than six months away. It certainly was a rule that I forgot about until I was reminded by a cruise line that my European voyage next month would be null and void if I didn’t have a new passport number, even though I have a few months left to go on the old one.
Which meant I was in “your passport must be expedited” territory.
I assumed my Google search of “need to renew passport” would lead me straight to the State Department’s Web site. It didn’t. Instead, I ended up in the nether regions of a for-profit site called USPassportOnline.com. Clicking along obliviously — the Web site makes it somewhat but not overly clear that it’s not the official State Department site — I registered for the renewal. I checked off the box for the $45 nonrefundable fee even as a flickering in my brain began to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t where I intended to go.
It wasn’t until I started downloading the renewal forms that it twigged: This is a for-profit service with for-profit prices. US Passport Online passes along the State Department’s $170 official fee ($110 for the passport + $60 for expedited service) but then tacks on an additional $54 for processing, the aforementioned $45 nonrefundable reservation fee and $30 for shipping. And that was for service in 8 – 12 business days; charges rise steeply if your turn-around time is shorter. My bill totaled $299.
In contrast, the State Department charges $110 for the passport, $25 for processing, a mere $12.72 for overnight shipping and $60 for expediting — a grand total of $207.72, almost $100 less.
I don’t know about you, but spending nearly $100 extra for nothing special makes me cranky. And while I could have, and should have, paid closer attention while submitting my request, US Passport Online’s Web site, with its red, white and blue color scheme, really could be mistaken for the official “passport” site.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
In a call to the company’s toll-free hotline, I expressed my dismay about the process, and the sales representative’s terse response led me to believe he fields a lot of these calls from frustrated travelers. I canceled the order. The kicker? In an e-mail confirming the cancellation, US Passport Online notes that the refund, minus the $45 cancellation fee, will take a jaw-dropping “12 – 15 business days from your cancellation date” to return to my coffers.
Was it all just a scam? Not necessarily. Using a for-profit expeditor makes good sense if you have a really challenging turn-around time (less than a week) or if you don’t live near a regional passport agency where you can apply in person. (See Passport and Visa Expeditors for more info.) But otherwise, there’s nothing easier or cheaper about using them over the State Department.
In checking out other expeditors for my not-quite-an-emergency needs, I noticed that CIBT.com at least didn’t use US Passport Online’s stars and stripes Web page design to confuse you into thinking it was part of the State Department’s passport services, but it still wasn’t terribly helpful; you have to go through the whole process of registering to find out what the fees are (or call its toll-free number and wait on hold; I hung up after 10 minutes). At G3 Visas & Passports, the pricing info is right up front and seemingly easy to access; my two-week expedite cost would have been $245, but there was no mention of special fees and, yes, you have to go through the registration process to find out what other costs there are.
Ultimately, I was most comfortable with simply going through the U.S. State Department’s passport renewal service. I made an appointment for my nearby office in Philadelphia, planned it around a lunch with an old friend and saved money in the bargain.
5 Common Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown
On a Mediterranean cruise with six port calls in seven days — essentially the tapas restaurant version of European travel — you might only have 10 hours in port to get it right. Ironically, in many ways the half-day visit requires more researching and planning than a lengthier, more stationary stay.
Unless you have a local friend. Or the next best thing: a guide.
If you’re a fan of Julius Caesar, Augustus or Caligula (you weirdo), there’s nothing like Rome, near which our ship docked for the day (in Civitavecchia, a 12-euro train ride away). It’s an easy capital to visit in the sense that it’s eminently walkable. Just wear comfortable tennis shoes and stay hydrated via the fontanellas, the public fountains found in almost every square. But it’s a challenge in that its history is as dense as the Pantheon’s walls, and, as in other epic destinations, tourist traps sprout like barbarian hordes around the 2,000-year-old monuments.
As a wanderer, my previous experiences in the Eternal City comprised just that: ambling for what sometimes seemed like an eternity until I reached a Renaissance-era church or second-century ruin, not knowing what either really meant. This time — my shortest visit — would be different.
Our Favorite Places to Stay in Rome
Our group of three met Teresa, a U.S. expat turned Rome tour guide for Love Holidays (and a long-time friend of one of our fellow passengers). She took us through mini-tours of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter’s Chains), and brought us to a low-key cafe filled with Italians enjoying sandwiches and salads. Bouncing questions off Teresa — did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Should I get the raspberry or apricot gelato? — went a long way toward making me feel like I wasn’t squandering my time.
“What do you guys want to do?” (followed by 20 interesting options) was a welcome conversation starter on more than one occasion.
11 Best Italy Experiences
Finding yourself such a guide, of course, is the trick, but it’s increasingly easy. TripAdvisor reviews, message board recommendations and friends with a penchant for gladiators can all steer you in the right direction. And a private guide isn’t necessarily that expensive; split among a party of four or five, you can expect to pay about 100 euros each (plus museum entrance fees, public transport and tip) for a full, eight-hour day. That’s less than cruise lines charge for the “panoramic” motorcoach tour — you know, those excursions that often leave 40 passengers in that hazy space between sleep and reality, heads thudding against windows at regular intervals.
For more information, see When Do You Need a Tour Guide?
– written by Dan Askin
As frequent travelers, we at IndependentTraveler.com like to think of ourselves as expert packers … but even experts make mistakes. As our special Packing Week continues, we’re taking a look at all those important little things that somehow didn’t make it into our bags.
My own personal bugaboo is sleepwear. I’ve accidentally left my pajama pants at home on a couple of trips, and discovered that sleeping in jeans is just not fun. But I’ve learned my lesson; these days, pajamas are the first thing I check off on my packing list.
Of course, I’m not alone in my forgetfulness. Below are stories from six other IndependentTraveler.com staffers who left home without some vital item — or, in one case, whose luggage left without her! Read, laugh and share your own packing story in the comments.
“As a bald male, I’m generally very conscious to always pack a hat in the winter. But upon arriving in Chicago, in March, I realized I forgot my hat. No problem, I thought. There must be hats aplenty in Chicago. So I walked across the street to the Oak Brook Mall (oddly enough an outdoor mall in Chicago). There were no hats to be found. Store after store, nothing. Finally, I went into Neiman Marcus. I did not want to go in here as I strongly debated if there were any level of frigidity that would cause me to spend what they might charge for a hat. Sadly, I did in fact find a hat, succumbed and bought it. The hat was an enormous furry thing, and I looked like I belonged to the Royal Order of Water Buffaloes (remember the ‘Flintstones’?). My wallet was lighter (read: empty), my pride was hurt, but boy, was I toasty!” – Matt Leonard, Director – Traffic
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing
“I once forgot my toothbrush for a week of camping (ugh). On a different trip, I forgot my shoes — tennis shoes with a suit, anyone? And I once forgot my ID. The only thing I had with my picture on it was a credit/debit card (Bank of America — they take your picture). We went round and round and the TSA finally just let me go through! My mom overnighted my ID to me for the return.” – Jim Walsh, Sales Manager
“I’ve been on several cruises where I didn’t bother to pack a sweatshirt and was freezing. On one, I broke down and bought a sweatshirt in Cozumel. On another, I spent a sea day huddling under the covers because my bed was so comfy and there wasn’t much to do.” – Erica Silverstein, Features Editor for CruiseCritic.com
“I forgot the all-important undergarment: underwear! I ran to Walmart (only store open at 11 p.m.) and was the proud new owner of Fruit of the Loom briefs in fruit-stripe colors. Not my usual style, but it was the only thing packaged in plastic wrap that hadn’t been fiddled with and looked safe for immediate use.” – Kim Gray, Director – Sales
“Back when I was younger I went to the beach with my girlfriends for the weekend. We took two cars because some of us worked later that Friday. Since we arrived late, my friend and I went straight to a local bar to do some dancing with our other friends who were already there. We all had a great time but my friend with whom I drove left early, assumingly to go back to the house. When we arrived back to the house, her car was nowhere to be found and there was no answer on her cell phone. She finally did call us the next morning. She went home — two hours away — with all my luggage still in her trunk. So I got to spend the weekend at the beach with nothing but the clothes on my back . Lesson learned!! Unpack upon arrival.” – Jennifer Kuhn, Community Support
5 Common Packing Problems and How to Solve Them
“On my first river cruise, I forgot my hairbrush — and wondered how Eastern European women ever brush their hair because the stores don’t carry any. And that was when we were in ports that even had stores (many were in the countryside). So, for several days, I went from port to port looking for one (with a rat’s nest above my head, natch). Actually, I did find a makeshift brush in Croatia that was literally a wooden stick with some bristles glued onto it. I charged this one item on my credit card at the supermarket, which netted nasty looks from the cashier. It was a piece of crap. Finally, Serbia saved my butt. I bought a great hairbrush in Belgrade that I still use.” – Melissa Paloti, Director – Product Development
What’s the worst thing you’ve forgotten to pack?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
The pants worked. I wasn’t pickpocketed on a recent Eastern Mediterranean trip.
Whether it was the P^Cubed “Pick-Pocket Proof Pants,” a test sample of which was recently sent to our sister site Cruise Critic to review, is hard to say. Wandering the narrow, cobbled streets and open squares of one Mediterranean city, I noticed a man who could have been a thief — the greedy looking type with a gold tooth and moist eyes. I think he ogled the pants, with their button-secured flaps hiding deep zipper pockets, and secret zipper pockets within zipper pockets, and thought better. You can’t burgle a walking money belt.
Paranoid hallucinations aside, the odds that you will be pickpocketed on the road depend on many factors — most of which the savvy traveler will be able to mitigate, whether he’s wearing pants or not. (Many savvy travelers do don trousers of some sort.)
Money Safety Tips for Travelers
Still, confidence is a valuable asset when visiting a strange, new destination — as those who’ve suffered the sickening violation of being robbed abroad so suddenly learn. PPP Designer Adam Rapp said a near-miss with a team of cut purses at Xian, China’s notoriously congested Bell Tower were the inspiration behind the product.
I haven’t had the pleasure of finding a stranger’s hand in my pocket, so it helps, too, that the PPP’s are about more than just their marketing angle and the system of zipper-, button- and secret-pocket-based deterrents. The front pockets are big — small guidebook-size big — and the light, dense material is stain, water and wrinkle resistant. The “Business Traveler” model (there’s also a cargo-style version, the “Adventurer”) is stylish enough to wear to a restaurant. Add a black blazer and some dress shoes, and you won’t be seated next to the kitchen.
The stain, water and wrinkle claims basically held up — the pants resist all three. If you end up crumpled in a fetal position after a rainy Tomatina, expect the worst. But if you’re just a run-of-the-pants everyday slob, you’re in luck. Hot sauce intended for my mouth streamed off a slice of pizza and onto my lap, where the Teflon-coated fabric rendered the liquid into tiny orange beads. Some sauce sank in, but later, water, mild hand soap and a slightly abrasive towel took care of the remaining splotches.
For me, the one downside was printed on the price tag. If you’ve got a pants ceiling of $30, spending $100, the cost of the Business Traveler, might not be in the cards. But Adam makes the case for flashing your wallet. It comes down to the materials — special zippers, rugged thread that you can’t break “without hurting your hand” (I tried), the highest-grade Teflon and the overall utility of the pant. It also takes 120 minutes of labor to produce one pair, compared to the 20 minutes an average pantsmaker spends on a pair of chinos, said Adam. Am I convinced? Not exactly, but that may speak to why I’ve never been a target for pickpocketing in the first place.
10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip
– written by Dan Askin
I recently returned from a marvelous trip to Amsterdam, where I toured museums, ogled tulips, sipped jenever, ate pickled herring and explored the city’s canals and historical monuments — by myself.
I was informed early on that I’d be on my own for the trip, which was my first to the Netherlands. To put it mildly, I was terrified. I’d heard horror stories about pickpockets and districts of the red-light variety, and I’ll do just about anything to avoid dining by myself. But, as someone who has an abysmal sense of direction, I was most worried about finding my own way through the city without the help of a travel companion.
Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo
Some people cringe at the idea of traveling alone, but overall, I was relieved to discover that in Amsterdam nearly everyone speaks English, maps are plentiful and the train system is easy to use. (I only got lost twice!)
The most important takeaway for me, however, was that I was able to do the trip at my own pace. In addition to spreading myself out in my non-shared hotel room, I went to sleep when I wanted, I woke up when I wanted, I walked everywhere, and I saw/toured/tasted more than 20 of Amsterdam’s most popular landmarks/museums/foods and beverages in just four days. The freedom to go at such a break-neck pace is something I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d brought a friend.
Have you traveled alone? If not, would you consider it? If so, what are some of the fun experiences you’ve had solo? Leave your comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Four new Web sites claim to either save users bundles of money on hotels or match them to the right property based on a variety of personal parameters. IndependentTraveler.com fiddled around with the sites to see which ones are worth your time and which you shouldn’t bother with.
Show Me the Money
Less than a year old, BackBid.com gets hotels to bid on your business.
You start by already having a hotel reservation in a city. You enter your hotel reservation with dates of travel and competing hotels send you bids in an attempt to lure you away. Bids can be in the form of money-saving discounts or value-added services, like upgraded rooms, free breakfasts or parking fee waivers. If you like a bid, you can claim it; if you don’t, just keep your original reservation. Keep in mind, if you take a bidder up on their offer you’ll need to cancel your original reservation – beware of cancellation penalties!
Travelers without hotel reservations simply enter their travel plans to get bids from hotels in their city of choice.
BackBid claims to provide competitor rates that cover all U.S. cities, and plans to expand into other countries eventually.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: BackBid looks promising but we haven’t yet received a bid from a hotel. If bids are few and far between, the site won’t be around for too long. However, it costs only a few minutes of your time to give it a try. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get an offer you can’t refuse!
Want a Hotel Refund? Check This Web Site
Guestmob.com is another relatively new travel booking site, which claims to use algorithms to find deals up to 50 percent off Internet prices – what it calls the “magic price.” The catch: You don’t know which hotel you’re staying at until one to six days prior to check-in.
It’s not as dangerous as you might think since when you do a hotel search, the site returns one or more hotel collections composed of four to eight hotels, all of the same star ranking (as determined by Guestmob). If you decide to book a magic rate, you are guaranteed a stay in one of the hotels within the collection you chose. Additionally, if you find out what hotel you’re staying at and you don’t like it, you can cancel any reservation up to three days before your stay and get a full refund. Of course, if you don’t get your hotel notification before that three-day time period, you’re out of luck on the refund.
A quick search for Seattle for Aug. 9 to 18 returned two collections – one 3.5-star and one 4-star. The magic price for the 3.5-star collection was $160, while the magic price for the 4-star collection was $174. A comparison search on Hotwire for the four hotels in the 3.5-star collection came up with prices $17 to $85 higher.
The site currently only offers hotels in 20 U.S. cities.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: Because you’re not selecting a hotel completely blind, we see no reason not to give Guestmob a chance. The site does claim it offers deeper discounts to people who sign in via Facebook – thus sharing their travel plans with their Facebook friends. However, we didn’t test this, choosing to register via e-mail instead.
Get the Best Hotel Rate
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match
Still in its infancy, CasaHop.com is a social networking platform designed to aid people in finding homeswaps. Unlike other home exchange networks, CasaHop works through Facebook. So for the most part you’re networking with friends, family and friends of friends/family. The more public you’re willing to make your CasaHop profile, the broader the network you can exchange with.
Right now all you can do on the site is sign up via Facebook and enter information about your house, your neighborhood and your own vacation interests. The database and interactive community functions are scheduled to go live over the next few weeks.
In theory, by networking through Facebook, you’re avoiding swaps with “total” strangers. However, for those who are hesitant about sharing personal information on Facebook, CasaHop may not be right for you. In order for the site to work effectively you do need to enter a significant amount of personal information about your home and community, including photos.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: We’re leery of entering too much personal information, but for those who don’t mind, we say go for it.
A second match-making site, seriously in a beta testing phase, is simplehoney.com. This site claims to match users to accommodations based on their travel personality, assessed through a couple of short quizzes. But the site has so few hotels in its database that the matches seem a bit of a stretch right now.
IndependentTraveler.com’s Take: The jury’s out. According to the hotel matching page, they currently offer only hotel matches in California and Hawaii. But at the bottom of every search we’ve done, hotels in Vancouver and Nicaragua appear, which makes us think they’re throwing advertisers into the results. Another bad sign — while free at the moment, it says there will eventually be a one-time membership fee of $100. But for what? The two personality tests do offer a moment’s diversion, but for now we don’t think the site is worth your time.
What Not to Do at Your Hotel
— written by Dori Saltzman
Travel teaches us so many things about the places we go and the people we meet. It also teaches us what we should never, ever do again. Things like ordering from a menu we can’t read with no help — on a squeamish stomach; or renting a car that is just too small for three across the back seat; or not packing swim shoes for a trek through a mangrove swamp.
But we’ve already learned from our plentiful travel blunders, so we asked you on Facebook: What travel mistake have you promised yourself you’ll never make again?
18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion
There were a few stories hidden in some of your gaffes. We can only imagine what happened to inspire Jacqueline Wong Miller to write: “I will always remember to check my carry-on bag for random fruit I may have put in there BEFORE I go through customs, especially if I ever go to Chile again!” Or Shereen Rayle to write: “I will never rent a car out of the country again without looking at the crime rate and researching parking garages/lots nearby.” We wouldn’t want to lose a rental car or be accused of trafficking plums, either.
We’ve all experienced goof-ups that have cost us money. Vida Morkunas learned to exchange currency at a bank, Sara Sarit Nakash discovered the value of travel insurance and Willis C. Self III found out why he shouldn’t forget to validate his ticket on an Italian train.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
Some of your responses were familiar old lessons, well learned. We nodded in agreement when Dalia Garcia promised herself she’d never wait too long to book a flight using miles, always bring a sleep mask and earplugs, and never take more than three pairs of shoes. Elizabeth Hotchkiss Meade and Nancy J. Faria both agreed with Dalia’s last lesson, promising themselves they’d never over-pack again.
There were a few responses that we haven’t yet come upon ourselves, but we’ll certainly take note. Christi Couron will never again book too many tours. Marvin Washington won’t allow Expedia to randomly select a hotel for him.
When Do You Need a Tour Guide?
We do, however, hope that no one will ever have to repeat the mistake Laurie Whitney Willits experienced — a mistake that wasn’t even her own. She wrote: “I will think twice and argue before I ever give my passport to the staff of a cruise ship … we were on the Concordia and they told us they would give us [our] passport back when we got off the ship. But no one was there to hand it to us when we got into our lifeboat!”
We’re glad you’re safe, Laurie. We’re glad you’re safe.
Which travel mistake will you never repeat?
– written by Jodi Thompson
Mother’s Day is just around the corner. (You did remember, right?) Before you reach for that supermarket bouquet, why not consider treating your mom to something a little more special this year — like, say, a trip?
Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we’re big fans of traveling with Mom. Jodi Thompson recently wrote about her trip with her mother to the Grand Canyon, while I’ve taken my own artsy mom gallery-hopping in cities across the country, from San Francisco to New York City.
Of course, there are a few places you might not want to take a parent, as we wrote last year. See Seven Places Not to Take Your Mother for our no-go list.
Have you traveled with your mother? Moms, where would you most want your kids to take you?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
We recently asked our readers on Facebook whether they’d ever lived in a country outside their own. Some responded with truly impressive expat resumes: “Mexico 7 yrs, Australia 1 yr, Kuwait 1 yr, U.A.E. 4 yrs, Qatar 8 months and counting…” wrote Elizabeth Wardle Walker.
“A year in Tanzania. Loved it,” said Kari Alyssa Prassack. “Waiting for the next opportunity to live abroad!”
And Kym Proudnikov weighed in with her own lengthy list: “Italy 3 years, Australia 3 years, Malta 4 years (twice), England 1 year (3 times), Canada 16 years…” Color us green with envy.
But what of the travelers who haven’t had that experience yet? Anne Rodziewicz England sums it up: “We will we will we will…”
If an extended stint overseas is high on your bucket list, read on for a few ideas on how to make it happen.
1. Teach English.
You don’t need to be able to speak a foreign language in order to travel overseas and teach English to non-native speakers. LanguageCorps.com is a good place to start, offering training and paid positions in Asia, Europe and Latin America.
12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place
The Peace Corps is the most famous program for international volunteers, but if you can’t swing the required two-year stint, there are plenty of shorter programs out there. TransitionsAbroad.com and Idealist.org can put you on the right path. To learn more about what to consider when choosing a volunteer opportunity, see Volunteer Vacations.
This is generally considered the domain of college students — but as the rest of us know, learning doesn’t stop after you get your diploma. Language learning schools are a great opportunity to have an immersive experience abroad; they often include homestays with local families. Check out LanguageCourse.net or the aforementioned TransitionsAbroad.com.
Work on an organic farm, join the seasonal staff at a ski resort or even take your current career overseas. There are a variety of opportunities to earn money while you travel, especially if you’re willing to be flexible. BUNAC.org offers work programs in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, while TransitionsAbroad.com offers a wider scope of programs as well as advice for finding a job overseas in your own field.
Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Anyone who’s traveled solo knows that it can be both rewarding and stressful. If you’re like me, you’ve probably discovered that dining sans companions can be one of the most awkward aspects of venturing out alone. (Let’s just say I was pretty discouraged when I ended up eating by myself during the first four nights of a six-night cruise last year.)
In a recent Independent Traveler poll, about 35 percent of voters said they either try not to dine alone or absolutely avoid it at all costs. Females who fall into either of those camps may want to check out Invite for a Bite, a Web site that allows women traveling alone to meet up for meals.
Founder Cressida Howard says on the company’s “about” page that she came up with the idea after listening to a radio broadcast during which several women lamented dining solo. Women who join the site can set up invitations asking for other female dining partners to join them for a bite … or a movie or whatever.
The site includes safety tips (after all, you’ll likely be meeting up with complete strangers), and according to the frequently asked questions section, it’s limited to females for safety reasons — and so as not to be confused with a dating site.
Would having dinner with someone you’ve never met be less uncomfortable than dining alone? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
Want more tips on traveling by yourself? Check out our Tips for Going Solo.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek