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This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 27, 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 logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

woman taking selfie in front of volcanoWe’re a little old-fashioned here at IndependentTraveler.com, but even we acknowledge that the selfie phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. We’ve even indulged once or twice while on our travels. But sometimes we’re struck dumb by the sheer audacity and, yes, stupidity of people who stop to take a selfie in the most downright rude, inconvenient and dangerous places.

Here are just a few places and situations we really don’t think mix well with selfies.

In (or even near!) an erupting volcano: Canadian adventurer George Kourounis was well equipped for the surrounding environment when he stopped to take a selfie as he descended into a boiling lava lake on Vanuatu. Dressed in an extreme heat-resistant hazmat suit, Kourounis survived his exploit, but that doesn’t mean others should follow suit.

On the edge of a cliff: Not all who take such selfie risks survive them. An Italian teenager died after falling while trying to take a selfie on a cliff high above jagged rocks in the seaside town of Taranto, Italy in June 2014. And in August 2014, a Polish couple visiting Portugal in August 2014 fell to their deaths when they ventured too near the edge of a beachside cliff.

With wild animals: Unless you’re a professional animal trainer working with a critter you’ve raised from infancy, we highly recommend skipping the selfie if you’re anywhere near a wild animal. Not only do you risk your life — as these two boys did when they decided to take selfies with a wild elephant, only to be trampled to death — but even if you survive, you may pay a high price for the stunt. A British man who snapped selfies of himself running away from bulls in Pamplona, Spain was fined $4,100 for his stupidity.

Near an object moving at high-speed: Yes, in the right light and with the right shutter speed a moving vehicle can make for a beautiful photograph, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in the pic. Getting too close to a moving train or car is never a good idea. Take this man from Oregon who was killed by an Amtrak train when he walked onto the tracks to pose for a selfie with the train in the background.

Stepping Past the Rope: Stepping over the rope inside a museum to get closer to a piece of art for a selfie isn’t going to kill you, but it certainly could get you into trouble. And it’s definitely going to anger other tourists for whom you’re ruining their view. Some museums, like Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, are putting the kibosh on selfies so that visitors can view art in peace. Most museums continue to allow visitors to snap selfies but have banned the selfie stick, saying it poses a threat to others and the art.

What do you think of the selfie phenomenon, and have you ever seen anyone taking a stupid or dangerous selfie?

–By Dori Saltzman

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!

crocodiles costa ricaIn this month’s featured review, reader Jill Weinlein travels with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to look for wildlife and waterfalls in Costa Rica. “We stopped at a local touristy spot, Tarcoles River, on our way to Quepos to enjoy a refreshing cold coconut and fresh juice smoothies,” Jill writes. “Along the center of the bridge, people gathered to see at least twenty enormous crocodiles basking in the sun along the river bank.”

Read the rest of Jill’s review here: 10 Destinations to Visit in Costa Rica. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review — you could win a $50 Amazon gift card! Just be sure to submit your trip review by May 21.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

road sign that says rewards aheadSwapping unused airline miles for magazine subscriptions is so passe. Forget Rolling Stone magazine — use those miles to go backstage at a rock concert or snag tickets to the 2015 Billboard Music Awards. Music doesn’t interest you? How about an authentic replica of Gandalf’s “Magical Silver Scarf” from the Lord of the Rings movies? Made of 100 percent New Zealand wool, it’s woven by the same weavers who made some of the costumes for the movies.

These are just two of the many unusual rewards frequent fliers can turn their award miles in for nowadays.

Research company IdeaWorks, in partnership with Switchfly, recently reviewed the frequent flier programs of 160 airlines, highlighting 25 of the most unusual and innovative reward options in the report, “Airlines Woo Members with Wild, Weird and Wonderful Rewards.”

Offerings range from unique products to one-of-a-kind travel experiences, and everything in between. Some can be “bought” straight up with miles, while others have to be bid on in auctions or won in raffles.

Here is just a taste of some of the most unique rewards on offer:

* ANA All Nippon Airways: For 15,000 miles you’ll get a four-course meal for two — with Champagne — at the Lexus experience store in Tokyo.

* EVA Air: For 100,000 miles you’ll get access to a flight simulator and trainer for a 90-minute session.

* El Al: For 120 points (plus $60) you can propose to your partner with the line’s Inflight Marriage Proposal Kit, which includes a bottle of wine and two elegant glasses delivered by the flight attendant after she has said yes, plus premium chocolates.

* Cathay Pacific: 15,000 miles gets you a very unique eight-hour Hong Kong handicraft tour that includes visits to a tailor, shoemaker and wood engraver.

* Avianca: A few slices of New York City’s famed pizza can be had for 5,803 miles. It’s part of a walking tour that stops at three pizzerias in several Manhattan neighborhoods.

* Qantas: For a whopping 536,500 points you can take part in Earthwatch’s Conserving Koala Country program in Australia. You’ll spend 10 days in Great Otway National Park in Victoria conducting measurements, collecting samples and tracking koalas by radio. Room and board are included.

* Air Canada: For 128,000 miles parents can purchase a $1,000 (CAD) gift certificate to a Me to We Adventure and Volunteer trip for their child. Participants may lay bricks for a new school, dig for a water project or teach English in a school in destinations like Kenya, Tanzania, India, Ecuador, Ghana and the Amazon.

* Emirates: It only takes 12,000 miles to get a first-level ticket to a Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) football/soccer match with access to the Emirates Club at the stadium.

* Auction and raffle rewards included TAP Portugal’s auction of a four-night cruise; Etihad Airways’ raffle of an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix package for two with four-night hotel stay, VIP race seating and air tickets; and American Airlines’ auction of a Justin Timberlake Live in New York package for two, which included flights, hotel accommodations, transfers, meals and a $600 prepaid credit card.

If you had unlimited air miles, which experience would you select? Or if you could make one up, what would it be?

– written by Dori Saltzman

tsa airport security lineFlying is a process. Getting to the airport. Checking bags. Removing shoes and laptops and toiletries and shuffling along through security checkpoints. Although I sometimes question whether all this adds up to better security or just security theater, it’s nice to think that the TSA agents are looking out for our safety by screening passengers. But who’s screening the TSA agents?

According to the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, it would cost too much and be too logistically difficult to do complete security checks on all of its employees, and full scans wouldn’t help that much anyway since such screenings are “incapable of determining a person’s motivations, attitudes and capabilities to cause harm.”

But wouldn’t that also be true of the system’s effectiveness when scanning passengers — people who don’t have clearances that allow them access to restricted areas?

Apparently the issue of restricted access is being addressed, as well. CNN reports that the number of access points to these areas is being reduced. TSA employees will also have to undergo background checks once every two years and go through the same security screenings as everyone else when traveling as airline passengers themselves. Employees are also subject to random, unannounced screenings, and increased surveillance of baggage handling and cargo areas has been recommended to combat theft of passenger items by employees.

Airport Security Q&A
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

What do you think? Is the TSA doing enough to police its own? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

12 apostles australia


Population: 22.5 million

Currency: Australian dollar

Phrase to Know: Good on ya (well done, good for you)

Fun Fact: Australia is home to the world’s oldest known fossils: cyanobacteria found in the Archaean rocks of Western Australia.

We Recommend: Stay overnight on a remote cattle station in the Outback, where you can participate in a cattle roundup, go for a horseback ride and more.

11 Best Australia Experiences

Have you been to Australia? What was your favorite spot?

– 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 cities 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, April 20, 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 logo item. 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 Laura M., who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

european capitals


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

Well, aren’t these the cutest first-class fliers you’ve ever seen?

qantas koala


Australian flag carrier Qantas recently flew four koalas called Paddle, Pellita, Chan and Idalia from Brisbane to Singapore, where they will live at the Singapore Zoo for the next six months, reports Travel Pulse. The loan is in honor of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence.

qantas koala


The airline shared a few photos on its Twitter account that capture the cuddly creatures in first class (#KoalaClass), being served a delicious snack of Schweppes and eucalyptus leaves by a flight attendant. Travel Pulse notes, however, that the koalas ultimately flew in the cargo hold (standard for transporting animals) in climate-controlled carriers stocked with eucalyptus trees. Qantas will fly fresh supplies of eucalyptus to Singapore every two weeks throughout the koalas’ stay abroad.

qantas koala


All together now: “Awwww.”

Need More Travel Cuteness?
Shetland Ponies in Sweaters
Puppies and Kittens Make Everything Better — Even Flying

– written by Sarah Schlichter

using tax refund on travelWhether Uncle Sam reciprocated with a hefty refund this year, or you’re still scrambling to postmark the paperwork, tax season produces stress and savings funds alike. While most sites will advise what to spend your hard-earned refund on, we have a few travel-related fees you shouldn’t use your bonus bit of cash toward. A room with a balcony instead of just a window? Yes. Your airline’s $25 checked bag fee? Not so much. Budgeting for a dream vacation can be worth all of the withholdings, just don’t bother wasting your precious refund on the following travel fees.

Foreign Taxes
If you plan on shopping abroad, don’t let laziness rob you of repayment. Many countries — mainly in the European Union — offer their own refunds of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is levied on clothing, art and other souvenirs. This tax can range from 10 to 25 percent, so if you’re making purchases beyond a few postcards, it’s likely worth the additional effort to provide your passport, obtain the appropriate receipt while at the store and file it once at the airport. A few things to know before you go: Try not to use the items before claiming them — this may nullify the refund — and also be aware of the spending minimums in each country to qualify for compensation. Ireland requires no minimum purchase, so load up on as much — or as little — memorabilia from the Emerald Isle as you like and submit it for recompense.

Baggage
This may seem like an obvious and overwrought fee to avoid, but don’t let the airlines break you down. Unless you’re headed on a safari and need pounds worth of gear, baggage fees can still be avoided because, well, they suck. Consider packing a lighter carry-on for the way over and bringing two bags home; for a domestic flight, ship your suitcase or additional items in advance (this may sound pricey, but consider your airline’s fees for overweight or additional baggage); or best of all, find an airline that still allows a free checked bag or two. Baggage fees are ever-changing and often vary by destination, so even if you fly with the same carrier routinely, it’s always smart to check current size restrictions and costs before you go.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Prepaid Gasoline
Prepaying might seem like the mark of an organized, well-adjusted traveler — prepaid gratuities, prepaid hotel fare at a discount — but know when you’re saving time and when you’re losing money. Prepaying for gas when picking up a rental car is an expense that is only worth the cost if you’re short on time the morning of drop-off, or you’re confident that you’ll pull up to the rental agency in perfect unison with the gaslight. In this case, paying as you go and refueling on your own ensure that you’re only paying for what you’ve used — and no more.

10 Things Not to Do When Renting a Car

Single Supplement
Traveling independently is a fearless form of travel, so shouldn’t you be rewarded, not penalized, for doing so? Some tour operators and cruise lines don’t see it that way. Based on double occupancy prices, single travelers are often required to pay a premium for occupying a space set aside for two. This doesn’t have to be the case. Increasingly, cruise lines and travel companies are waiving these solo supplements and even going so far as to customize vacations and purpose-build cruise cabins for the solo traveler. Another cost-effective way to travel on your own and even get to know a travel companion is to share a room with another independent traveler — but this option depends on comfort level and availability.

Single Travel Tips for Going Solo

Internet
Internet is reaching the dawn of a new Information Age — one where access is more of a right and less of a privilege. Because of its widespread availability in most of the developed world, Internet access is easier than ever to find for free. Find a hotel, a local cafe, a college campus or even a library where you can plug in or channel some free Wi-Fi. Along with obvious benefits such as checking museum opening hours or finding a great local restaurant, you can also use VoIP apps such as FaceTime to keep in touch with loved ones at home (depending on bandwidth, of course). Internet is still hard to come by in many parts of the world and vital enough to pay for if necessary, so know before you go.

11 Things Not to Do When Booking a Hotel

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

carole rosenblatHow would you like to crowdsource your next travel destination? That’s the premise of DropMeAnywhere.com, whose founder, Carole Rosenblat, puts each of her trips up to a reader vote to find out where she’ll go next. Recent stops have included India, Hungary and Germany. Up next: Who knows?

Rosenblat recently took some time between trips to answer a few questions for us about the hightlights — and challenges — of her project.

IndependentTraveler.com: How did you come up with the idea for Drop Me Anywhere?
Carole Rosenblat: It happened sort of organically. I’d left my job at Disney Cruise Line the year before and vowed not to accept anything I wasn’t passionate about. I was on a Twitter travel chat and the question posed was, “If you had a travel TV show, what would it be called and what would it be about?” I’d never thought of this before, and my fingers just started typing, “Mine’s called ‘Drop Me Anywhere’ and it’s about unplanned travel!” The response was overwhelming. People began telling me that I should make a pilot video and try a Kickstarter campaign. While I’d done many on-camera interviews, writing is my comfort zone. … and in the end, I went with the current blog format.

IT: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of Drop Me Anywhere so far?
CR: The support from friends and strangers alike has been overwhelming. I get emails from people I know and some I’ve never met telling me that I’m inspiring them to step outside their comfort zone and live their dreams. This inspires me to keep going.

Also, I’m not one to travel for monuments or to check countries off my list. I travel for the people. And the people I’ve met have made it worth it. My new friends in Germany, Mexico, St. John’s (Newfoundland), Ireland (the father of someone I met on the plane on the way to Limerick invited me to stay with them for a night and took me on a great tour of their town) and Hungary are among the highlights. I’ve met the most interesting people.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge?
CR: Money. That’s the obvious one. I did the project for a year while living in Arizona and traveling back and forth. It only allowed for four trips the first year, and I knew there was a book in this. So in December of last year I rented out my house, sold my car, sold and gave away my furniture and most of my clothes, and went location independent. I left on 12/13/14 (it seemed like a good number). Money is a constant concern, as I’ve given up so much to do this and am using my savings. I also consider this an international job search — this is truly building my skill set — and hope to find a great position somewhere in the world when I complete the travel part of this project within the next five to seven months.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

IT: Have you had to make adjustments to the project as you’ve gone along?
CR: I made a decision at the beginning of this that I would forgive myself for the mistakes I make as long as I learn from them. I’ve never done anything like this before (I don’t think anyone is doing anything like it). I’ve learned to pay an airport porter if my bags are heavy and possibly overweight, as they’ll sometimes help you avoid extra baggage fees. I’ve learned to research visa requirements before I put a country up for a vote. (The very first vote included Russia, which is difficult to do without a plan due to the visa requirements.)

I’ve also learned that my best experience tends to be when I stay in one area or city for a decent amount of time and don’t jump around. This way I see it well, and get to know the people better. Sometimes I even end up with a regular bar or restaurant.

IT: How do you decide on which locations to include in each vote — and are you secretly hoping for certain ones to win?
CR: As mentioned above, I do check out the visa requirements. Now that I’m location independent, I try not to fly back and forth across the world, as it’s tough on my body and my wallet. I now list the vote to stay on a specific continent for a couple of votes before I throw in other options to move me around.

Yes, sometimes I secretly root for destinations. But it’s not up to me. And I feel that wherever the readers decide, that’s where I’m meant to be.

IT: What role does volunteering play in your trips, and how do you find these opportunities?
CR: I’ve volunteered my whole life. My philanthropic site Rebel-with-a-Cause.org actually predates this project.

carole rosenblat kids mexicoSo far, I’ve helped raise money to preserve a historic building, worked at an organization that feeds the homeless with a restaurant-style model, played and read with kids at a library in Mexico (I spent five days with those kids — I fell in love with them), served on a film crew to promote Gay Pride Week in Limerick, Ireland (I volunteered with three drag queens), fed the hungry and homeless in Budapest, and taught English, math and science to refugee kids in Malaysia.

I find these opportunities by asking people I meet, as well as via Twitter and Facebook. I make it a priority.

IT: What’s one thing you’ve learned from Drop Me Anywhere that can benefit any traveler, even those of us who like to do a little more planning?
CR: One thing? Gosh, I’ve learned so much. Okay, maybe two:

House-sitting is a great way to save money. In Berlin I was a cat-sitter for a very strange cat named Siegfried for two weeks while its owner, an Australian opera conductor, was out of town. I stayed in a lovely flat and could do laundry and cook for myself. I hope to pet-sit again through a house-sitting site I belong to. It’s a great way to save money and get a few furry cuddles here and there.

It’s not really a lesson for me, but it’s one I’m trying to teach people: your best vacations can be the unplanned ones. When you plan every day, you don’t get to wander, and you resist opportunities that present themselves because they weren’t in the plan. Throw the plan out the window and try something different. Few things are fatal.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter