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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.

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

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

waterfall chapada dos veadeiros national park brazil


Population: 202.7 million

Currency: Brazilian real

Phrase to Know: Como se chama? (What’s your name?)

Fun Fact: Brazil became the first country to prohibit the use of tanning beds back in 2009, after first banning them only for minors in 2003. (Guess you’ll just have to hit the beach in Rio if you want that golden, sun-kissed look!)

We Recommend: Head to Fernando de Noronha to watch baby sea turtles leave their nests and make their way toward the sea.

10 Best Brazil Experiences

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

– 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!

world destination


Hint: Where in the world is this field that gets its distinctive yellow hue from canola flowers?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 13, 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 prize. 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 Todd Burr, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Luoping, China. Todd has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

hot stone massageAre you the type of traveler that roughs it on every trip, camping or sleeping in budget hotels and making all your own meals instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant dinner? Or are you inclined to pamper yourself a little with a spa treatment or an airline upgrade?

That’s the question we asked our readers recently on Facebook — and as it turns out, most of our readers do occasionally feel the urge to splurge.

YN Leung is willing to pay extra for more comfort on longer international flights, although it’s not just about indulgence: “It’s health, not pampering, but I do upgrade on planes.” (We can’t argue with that, especially if you find it impossible to sleep in those ultra-narrow economy seats.)

Lavida Rei agrees: “A seat that I like on the plane is important.”

Get the Best Airplane Seat

For Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic, a hotel is the preferred place to treat oneself: “I’m very careful about choosing my hotel. Pampering to me is feeling safe, cozy, comfortable.”

The Digital Vagabond is also up for a little luxury, at least once in a while: “Sure, pampering is good to do periodically while on the road. Spending a little more for a high-end hotel or getting a massage — especially in countries where it’s only $15/hour. It’s all good!”

Meanwhile, Michael Cagle has upgraded his entire trip: “I have an Airstream. My days of roughing it are over.”

Johanna Kula brings up one common place to indulge: the dinner table. “Yummy food, wine, desserts … and if chocolate is involved … [of course], yes, chocolate!!!!!” she enthuses.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

There was one dissenting voice in the mix. Wynne Gavin says no to pampering herself while traveling because “the travel itself is pampering!”

My own top source of indulgence? Dessert — and lots of it!

How do you pamper yourself when you travel?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Although the date isn’t known for certain, the celebration known as Hana Matsuri, or Buddha’s birthday, is widely celebrated on April 8 by Buddhists observing the Gregorian calendar. Much like cathedrals are a major attraction across Europe — regardless of your religion — statues of Buddha are typically a must-see; they can be staggering in size, ornately embellished and set amongst expansive yet peaceful gardens, valleys and monasteries.

These five Buddhas will transport you through Asia to our own backyard, and will amaze you with their stature and history.

leshan grand buddha china festival


Leshan Grand Buddha: Sichuan Leshan, China
The tallest stone Buddha in the world, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand (or Giant) Buddha in Sichuan, China, was carved out of a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty between the years 713 and 803. Sources say the idea came from a Chinese monk named Haitong who hoped that the Buddha would calm the rough waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers.

Great Buddha of Thailand


Great Buddha of Thailand: Ang Thong, Thailand
If you’re looking for Buddhas, you will find many of them in Thailand. One you just can’t miss also happens to be the tallest statue in the country, and shimmers with gold paint. Located in the Wat Muang temple in Ang Thong province, the Great Buddha took 18 years to build — from 1990 to 2008 — and sits 300 feet tall. (Beware of nearby “Hell Park,” depicting what happens to sinners in, well, you know.)

Reclining Buddha Chauk htat gyi pagoda temple in Yangon, Myanmar


Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha: Yangon, Myanmar
Several hundred monks study near the pagoda that houses this reclining-style Buddha in Yangon. The statue, built in 1966 to replace the damaged original from 1907, is framed by an iron structure to protect it. Feeling cosmic? Fortune tellers and palm readers are usually available on site to tell you about your future.

buddha park near Vientiane Laos, Xieng Khuan


Buddha Park: Vientiane, Laos
Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan, is a sculpture park on the Mekong River in Ventiane. Rather than one large Buddha, the park contains more than 200 statues of Hindu and Buddhist figures. The darkened skulls and worn sculptures look ancient, but were built in 1958 by Bunleua Sulilat, a spiritual leader who emigrated from Thailand during the communist occupation.

chuang yen monastery new york buddha


Chuang Yen Monastery Buddha: Carmel, New York
If you’re looking for a Buddha in the Western Hemisphere, the largest one (indoors) resides at a monastery in Carmel, New York. At 37 feet tall, the Buddha rests on a symbolic lotus, which then sits on an eight-foot platform. The platform is intricately decorated and colorful, unlike the white statue. The highlight? It’s surrounded by 10,000 skillfully carved smaller Buddhas.

12 Travel Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

desa familyMike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and dclandromomania.blogspot.com.

Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador.

IndependentTraveler.com: What were the most essential things you packed for this trip?
Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.

It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.

IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far?
MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.

child cacao beans ecuadorOur favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.

Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.

Photos: 11 Best Ecuador Experiences

IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel?
MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.

Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip?
MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation

To read more about the DeSa family’s trip, check out our sister site, Family Vacation Critic.

– interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter