Home

Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Forums Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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

cormorant fisherman yangshuo china


Population: 1.4 billion

Currency: Yuan renminbi

Phrase to Know: Xie xie (thank you — pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”)

Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was not actually invented in China; it’s believed to have been created in the early 20th century in California. In fact, Wonton Food attempted to establish a fortune cookie factory in China in the 1990s, but had to close it because the cookies were considered too American.

We Recommend: Cuddle a panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s an extra fee and you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

12 Best China Experiences

Have you been to China? 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 fort that was erected in 1891 to defend the city and protect its palm groves, and now hosts a permanent exhibition with works by a British adventurer?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 4, 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.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

person's hand holding several passportsCan you guess which country’s passport is the most powerful?

We bet you can’t!

GoEuro, a travel technology company, analyzed the passports of 50 countries and ranked them by a combination of visa-free access to other countries, length of validity and the cost of obtaining one — both in terms of price and how many hours at minimum wage a person must work to obtain the passport — to determine which passports are the best to have.

If you thought the United Kingdom or the United States topped the list, you’d be wrong. Sweden comes out on top when you factor in all the pieces.

Sweden, along with the U.K. and the United States, will get you into 174 countries without a visa, but it’ll only cost you $43 versus $110 in the U.K. and $135 in the U.S. In terms of minimum hours worked, that translates into 1 hour for a Swedish citizen, 11 hours for a Brit and 19 hours for someone in the U.S.

13 Best England Experiences

If you’re curious, a U.K. passport is the fourth most powerful passport in the world, while a U.S. passport is fifth.

Rounding out the top five passports are Finland at number two and Germany at number three. Both will get their citizens into 174 countries without a visa. Finland’s passport costs $56 and would require a minimum-wage worker to work five hours. German’s passport costs $69, which translates to seven minimum-wage hours worked.

12 Best Germany Experiences

On the other end of the spectrum, Afghani, Iraqi, Liberian, Indian and Chinese passports are some of most powerless passports out there. All get their citizens into less than 55 countries, with Afghanistan only getting citizens into 28 countries without a visa and costing $104, which requires an astonishing 183 hours of minimum-wage work to pay for it. Iraq’s passport only gets its citizens into 31 countries visa-free but is the most affordable, costing just $20 and requiring only three hours of minimum-wage work to pay for one.

Other passports popular among those asked which nationality they’d like to have (in addition to their own) were Canada, which ranked number seven on the list, and Australia, which ranked number 22. Canada’s passport gets Canadians into 173 countries and costs $133, which would require a minimum-wage worker to labor for 15 hours. Australia’s passport gets Aussies into 168 countries and costs $206, which also translates to 15 hours of minimum-wage work.

11 Best Australia Experiences

Which passport would you like to hold in addition to your own?

–By Dori Saltzman

rendering of a new kind of airplane seatFrom infants to overweight adults, there are plenty of people who don’t fit in the stereotypical airplane seat mold. That’s why we’re tipping our proverbial hat to the SII Group of Germany, which has developed adjustable plane seats.

Known as the SANTO (Special Accommodation Needs for Toddlers and Overweight passengers) Seat, the concept involves extra-wide seats, which can be used for larger passengers or divided into an adult/child combo for parents traveling with babies or small children.

The invention makes use of space at the back of the plane, where cabins are generally narrower.

Complete with proper arm rests and seatbelts, which can be easily installed and adjusted by cabin crew, the idea earned SII a recent award in the “Passenger Comfort Hardware” category at the Crystal Cabin Awards.

The seats haven’t been installed on any aircrafts yet, but we’re waiting to see which airlines will be the first to bite.

What are your thoughts on this idea? Share your comments below.

–By Ashley Kosciolek

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

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

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

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Cayce L, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Sri Lanka. Cayce has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

– 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