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Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

london big ben at nightIn this month’s featured review, reader Adrienne L. shares impressions from her first visit to the famous Harrods department store: “To describe it as massive would be an understatement. It boasts floor after floor of wonderful merchandise, from the scandalously expensive to the delightfully kitschy,” writes Adrienne. “The store personnel were quite helpful and gave us much-needed maps of the store. The highlight for us was visiting the Food Halls — several massive rooms chock-full of beautifully displayed food from all over the world. Choices included meat pies, seafood, cheeses, charcuterie, desserts, olives, pate, caviar and much more.”

Read the rest of Adrienne’s review here: A London Love Story. Adrienne has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two cities with over-the-top architecture.

Would you rather…

… check out Gaudi’s fantastical visions in Barcelona, or …

parc guell gaudi barcelona



… experience the decadence of Dubai?

dubai skyline uae


Visitors to Barcelona can’t miss the influence of architect Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsically designed buildings include the eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia church, the colorful Casa Batllo and the flowing lines of Parc Guell, pictured above. Dubai is home to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper; Burj Al Arab, the first hotel to proclaim itself a “seven-star” property; and numerous other lavish buildings.

Best Cities for Architecture Buffs
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, August 25, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Jay, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

puzzle asking for cities in india


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

ebags exo suitcaseOn a recent 10-day trip to Norway, I packed everything but the kitchen sink into one of eBags’ EXO 2.0 24-inch spinner suitcases. If you’ve been considering a new piece of luggage, you’ll want to read on — not just for a rundown of my experience with the bag but also for a chance to win an EXO 2.0 of your very own.

Exterior
Liked: The exterior of the EXO 2.0 is made of polycarbonate, which means it’s insanely durable. The case I tested made it through four flights with only minor scratches, thanks to the crosshatch-type pattern on the shell, which helps to reduce the visibility of such mishaps.

Didn’t Like: Although functional, the crosshatch exterior design doesn’t exactly look nice. I was initially excited when I learned the bag I’d be trying was red, but I quickly discovered red isn’t as uncommon on airport conveyor belts as you might think. I’d recommend trying one of the other available bright colors like purple or yellow. (Standard colors like black and gray are options too.)

Interior
Liked: There’s a ton of space, and I found that the main compartment’s straps helped to keep my abundance of clothing contained. A separate compartment, offset by a full swath of zippable mesh, was great for separating everything from shoes to dirty laundry from the rest of my stuff.

Didn’t Like: There are no additional pockets or compartments, which can make the packing of smaller items a challenge. eBags touts the fact that the EXO 2.0′s main compartment has a removable, adjustable shelf (attached to the interior of the suitcase via Velcro) to keep packed items from shifting or crushing each other. I didn’t find it to be all that useful because I packed enough to ensure no shifting would take place. It might come in handy for separating clean clothes from dirty ones or your clothes from those of a travel companion if you’re sharing luggage.

Wheels
Liked: The wheels are durable with a double-wheel construction, which means that your bag is less likely to tip over if you leave it upright.

Didn’t Like: Because of the dual-wheel configuration, the suitcase has a wider base, making it a little more difficult to maneuver than one with a single-wheel design. But the wider base is also what keeps the bag from toppling over, so it’s a trade-off.

Handles
Liked: All handles (adjustable handle used for dragging and top/side handles used for lifting) are sleek in appearance and are nearly flush with the sides of the case for a streamlined look. Plus, the extendable handle used for pulling the bag adjusts to three different heights.

Didn’t Like: Because the handles are recessed with little clearance, it can be difficult to get your fingers under them to lift luggage in a hurry (for example, grabbing your bag off of the conveyor belt). Combine that with the suitcase’s rough crosshatch exterior, and you’ve got a recipe for skinned knuckles. I also found the extendable handle to be a little on the flimsy side, given the overall size of the luggage.

Lock
ebags exo suitcase zippers lockLiked: As someone who routinely uses removable luggage locks, I love the idea of a suitcase that’s got a lock built in. No more worrying about losing the lock or fumbling to be sure it’s passed through both zippers when you try to re-secure everything. The built-in version is TSA-friendly, and the instructions for using it are a piece of cake.

Didn’t Like: Although setting the lock’s combination was easy, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the zipper pulls actually slide into openings to the right of the lock in order to secure the case. Beyond that, it took me even longer to discover that the only way to keep the zipper from partially gaping when locked (leaving a small opening into the main suitcase compartment) is to crisscross the zippers and then secure them. (The bag’s specs do mention that it has “patent-pending cross-over X zipper pullers,” but I had no idea what that meant.)

Overall
The EXO 2.0 is a durable, lightweight suitcase that offers some innovative features with the crisscross zippers, interior shelf and crosshatch exterior design. It’s currently available on the eBags website for $160, and it comes with a lifetime eBags warranty, exchange or return. In spite of the minor issues I had, it’s a solid choice overall.

If you’d like to enter to win a brand-new EXO 2.0 hardside suitcase, leave us a message in the comments by 11:59 p.m. ET on September 1, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

If you can’t wait until we pick a winner to do some eBags shopping, click here to get 15 percent off your purchase and free shipping on orders of more than $49. This discount is good through September 4, 2014.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

woman staring out airport windowThe dreaded airport layover has happened to us all — I’m not talking an hour to grab a snack in between flights; I’m talking mind-numbing half-days. Sure, there are shops and sometimes even massage centers and airport gardens to pass the time, but if you’re an antsy traveler like I am, you’re staring longingly out the window and wondering what new adventures await beyond the tarmac. Unfortunately, exploring a new city in a short amount of time with a lot of unknowns can be just cause for hesitation — get lost, get back late, and another long wait for a new flight might befall you.

Luckily for impatient but practical explorers like us, a number of major cities around the world actually offer tours designed to fit within the span of a layover, and get this: some of them are completely free.

Istanbul: Anyone flying through Turkey’s best-known city with a layover of six hours or more is welcome to a historical jaunt about town, free of charge with Turkish Airlines tour operator Touristanbul. Sites include the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.

London: Self-proclaimed “original founders of the layover tour,” London Magical Tours aims to whisk you away from Heathrow or Gatwick on a customized tour of London, Windsor, Hampton Court or Oxford. A private chauffeur may be a nice way to escape to the city, but these tours aren’t free — a price quote will depend on the needs of your group.

Singapore: While Changi Airport is renowned for being one of the world’s best, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing what’s beyond it. If you have just four hours to kill between flights, you can join the Free Singapore Tour, presented by Singapore Airlines in partnership with the airport. During your two-hour guided tour you will see the world’s tallest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer; Gardens by the Bay, an arrangement of three spectacular waterfront gardens; Chinatown; Little India; the Colonial District and more. If you have four and a half hours, consider the City Lights Tour — Singapore sightseeing by night.

Best Airports for Layovers

Reykjavik: Turn your layover in Iceland into a mini-vacation. Icelandair allows passengers to turn layovers into a stopover of up to seven days — for no extra cost. That means a few days, not just hours, to tour Reykjavik and its surrounding sights (hey, you might never be back in Iceland). Tour operator Reykjavik Excursions provides day tours with pick-up from the airport. Popular options include a guided city tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Prices vary by package.

Beijing: An eight- to 14-hour layover in China’s capital city is no sweat with a Beijing Layover Tour. Starting from $60 per person, spend the day with a private tour guide and driver to visit a number of themed destinations such as “Olympic Sites” or “Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.” The value is not as great — just a limited number of stops for the price — but unless you speak the language, a tour is your best way to see some of the things China is famous for, without having to navigate it yourself. (And it beats reading magazines all day in an airport chair.)

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Bogota: All you need is five hours to take a layover tour of Bogota, Colombia, with Bogotravel Tours. For a fee, this local tour operator will arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport, and provide a day trip showcasing the capital’s social, historical and political centers — and, of course, an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee. If you’ve had your share of sitting and want to stretch your legs a bit before flying out, try one of Bogotravel’s bike tours.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two up-close animal encounters.

Would you rather…

… meet penguins in Antarctica, or …

penguin photographer antarctica



… come face to face with a llama in Peru?

arequipa peru llama child


Penguins can be seen by the thousands in Antarctica; the best way to visit is by cruise ship. In Peru, llamas are commonly seen near Machu Picchu and in other areas of the Andes Mountains.

Photos: Amazing, Up-Close Animal Encounters

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

memorial Tuul River


Hint: This memorial with stunning panoramic views resides in the largest city along the Tuul River. Can you name the city and country? (Bonus for the memorial.)

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, August 18, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Paula Roberts, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Zaisan Memorial in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Paula has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Would you pay $1,013 for a salad? How about $2,700 for sushi?

These exorbitant dishes and many others are on a “menu” of the world’s most expensive food, put together by Chris Sibbet of FinancesOnline.com. Sibbet scoured the globe to find lavish offerings like the aforementioned salad, which is made of “beluga caviar, grated truffle, potatoes with gold leaf, Cornish crab and lobster and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar” and can be ordered at the Hempel Hotel in London.

If you’d rather drop a few grand on sushi, head to Angelito Areneta’s Golden Sushi in Manila, where the fish is wrapped in 24-carat gold and crowned with three pearls.

The total cost for all the decadent dishes rounded up by Sibbet (many of which were created as fundraisers for charity) adds up to a whopping $95,065. Bon apetit!

The Most Expensive Dishes In The World: How To Plan The Pricest Meal Ever

Republished from alternatives.financesonline.com — Published by Chris Sibbet — See our Vimeo

International Foods to Try Before You Die
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Sarah Schlichter

puppies and kittens are relaxing to nervous fliersPills, booze, loud music, deep breathing — these are some of the desperate methods employed by the nervous flier to get through takeoff, landing and every bump in between. But one airline is encouraging a remedy that is a tad more … wholesome: puppies and kittens.

Starting this September, British Airways will air “Paws and Relax,” an in-flight channel available on long-haul flights that showcases cute and cuddly domestic animals. As reported by the Telegraph, the programs will include “Simon’s Cat” — an animated series about a man and his cat; “The Secret Life of Cats,” a popular BBC documentary about cat cams; and “America’s Cutest Dog” (think Animal Planet’s “Too Cute! Puppies”).

9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

The channel also features cameos from residents of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the U.K.’s oldest home for dogs and cats, located in London.

British Airways believes the new pet programming will “enhance the wellbeing of customers,” in addition to being just plain endearing. If viral cat videos on the Internet have taught us anything, it’s that people love watching them.

If, somehow, animals aren’t your thing (or you’ve seen every episode on repeat), then switch over to the “Slow TV” channel, which features footage from a continuous, seven-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen. (Potentially a better sleep aid than Xanax.)

Which in-flight channel do you hope they have on your next flight?

How to Cope with Fear of Flying

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

mottarone italyI’ve made plenty of mistakes while traveling. I’ve forgotten everything from a computer charger to a camera, and I’ve scheduled flights so close together that more than once I’ve pulled what I call “the ‘Home Alone’ run,” in which I scurry through the airport like the McCallisters, just barely making it to the gate before it closes.

On a recent trip to Italy, I made one of my biggest mistakes yet — but it led to one of my fondest travel memories to date.

During a trip to Lake Maggiore, a newfound friend and I decided to take a cable car to the top of Mottarone, a mountain that overlooks the lake and the town of Stresa. The experience been recommended to us by a few locals, though one woman warned us not to miss the last ride down the mountain.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Once there, we were rewarded with hiking trails and spectacular views (we could see seven different lakes and even a bit of Switzerland in the distance). We enjoyed ourselves so much that time flew quickly, and guess what? We missed the last ride down.

After we got past the initial “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” we found our way to the nearest business — actually, the only business; the restaurant was the only sign of civilization nearby. The owner, who barely spoke English, made a quick call, then told us it would be an hour before we could even get a taxi; after that, it would be at least a 45-minute drive and 60 euros back to our hotel. We were supposed to meet a group of friends for our last dinner together in Italy in an hour. We’d never make it.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

My friend ordered a beer and started chatting with the owner. Still in a state of panic, I grabbed a beer too, and, at her order, sat down to “try to relax.”

The owner kindly offered us plates of meat, cheese and bread on the house, and began to tell us about himself. It turned out he was the former mayor of Stresa, and he planned to run for office again. The restaurant he owned dated back several generations, and his mother, who also spoke to us, still cooked up some of the area’s best dishes (“People like the meatballs,” she said). The family also owned a hotel (adjacent to the restaurant) that was popular during ski season.

Caught up in conversation, it was actually disappointing to leave when the taxi driver finally arrived. As he whisked the car down hairpin turns, my friend and I agreed: this unexpected conversation with the locals was travel at its best, and an experience neither of us would forget.

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

What’s the best travel mistake you ever made?

– written by Amanda Geronikos