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world mapI recently stumbled across a website that lets you create a customized map highlighting all the countries you’ve visited. (You can try it yourself at Traveltip.org.) While I initially considered it merely a fun exercise, I found myself hesitating as I checked off a few of the options — could I really count Denmark if I’d only spent an overnight there between flights and didn’t actually get to see anything besides my hotel? (My answer: Nope.) But I did count Guatemala, which I visited on a day trip from Belize.

Everyone draws the line differently when deciding which countries to count — or not to count — on their own personal lists. In The Politics of Country Counting, Sam Wright Fairbanks of Map Happy offers several different criteria you might use, such as spending at least 24 hours, getting through customs or traveling to more than one city within the country.

And then, of course, there are places that may not technically be countries, such as Taiwan or Greenland — do you count those? What about Scotland vs. England vs. Northern Ireland, all part of the United Kingdom but different in culture and history? Map Happy points to a couple of travel clubs that address this by splitting the world into not only internationally recognized countries but also smaller geographical territories and areas. These include the Travelers’ Century Club — which considers places like Alaska, Hawaii, Prince Edward Island and the Isle of Man to be separate from their parent countries — and Most Traveled People, which slices the world into a whopping 875 regions you can visit. (You must become a member of the club to see the region list.)

No matter which standard you use, counting countries is a fun exercise, though I sometimes have to remind myself not to take it too seriously. While shooting for your 10th or 50th or 100th country can inspire you to plan new adventures, the world isn’t a checklist — and just because you’ve visited a particular country, it doesn’t mean that you’ve “done” that place in the sense that you’ve experienced everything it has to offer.

Of course, none of that will stop me from trying to fill in a few more spots on that Travelertip map.

Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
Bucket List Travel

How do you determine whether you’ve visited a country?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

photographer gardenPhotos are the best souvenir you can bring home from a trip, in my opinion. There are countless resources online to help you take better travel photos, including some excellent articles on our website. (Shameless plug for my favorites: 19 Tips for Better Travel Photos and 12 Things You Don’t Photograph — But Should.)

Here are five new photography resources online:

Beyond the Selfie Stick: A New Angle on Travel Photography: If you’re tired of taking selfies, you can now hire a professional photographer to accompany you on vacation and take magazine-like photos of you. Skift reports on two such companies: Flytographer, which connects travelers with local photographers in 160 cities, and El Camino, a tour company that includes the services of a pro photographer in your vacation package. (Check out our post about Flytographer.)

How to Hashtag Your Photos on Instagram: Want to maximize the number of people who see your travel photography on Instagram? Make sure you’re using the right hashtags, advises Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times. For example, if you photograph a gorgeous tree, don’t just mark your photo #tree; use #treelovers.

Wanderlust Photo of the Year Competition: Looking at professional photographers’ images can be intimidating — but seeing the winning shots from Wanderlust travel magazine’s 2016 amateur photo contest invokes pride. Among the top shooters in the wildlife, landscape, people and icon categories are a police officer, an accountant, a schoolteacher and a minster.

The Natural Photographer: This new site from photographer and nature tour guide Court Whelan of the adventure travel company Natural Habitat Adventures focuses on capturing images of animals and nature. Whelan knows the types of shots travelers like to get — close-ups of cool critters, silhouettes against sunsets, wide-angle landscapes that make your Facebook friends jealous. The site also includes basics on using camera settings, composing shots and choosing equipment.

Getting Started in Travel Photography: The website PetaPixel published this great primer last week by photographer Viktor Elizarov, who gives solid advice on starting out small and growing your skills. You don’t need to book a pricey trip to Southeast Asia to find great subjects for your first foray in travel photography, he advises. You can start in your own neighborhood.

12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid
How to Back Up Photos When You Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

We’re introducing a new type of puzzle this week: a word scramble. Below are the scrambled names of four major cities from around the world, followed by the country where they’re located. Your job is to unscramble them. For example, “IALM, EURP” would be “Lima, Peru.” Identify all four mystery cities to win.

OOGTAB, CIAOMOBL

CHLOOKSTM, ENWSDE

AEARMKSRH, OOCMROC

NUORBMLEE, RAATSAIUL


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 8, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday 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 Lou Pereira, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

MARRAKESH, MOROCCO

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

meroe pyramids sudanWhat travel news have you missed this week? Catch up with our list of the week’s best stories.

The Pyramids Few Tourists Have Ever Seen
Did you know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt? This photo essay from BBC Travel offers a fascinating glimpse at these ancient ruins, which receive only about 10 visitors a day.

A 16-Hour Dreamliner Flight with No Jet Lag? Believe It!
United is launching a new 16-hour route from San Francisco to Singapore aboard an aircraft that could revolutionize the way we feel after a long flight, reports Conde Nast Traveler. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has more humidity than most planes and makes travelers feel like they’re flying at a slightly lower altitude than they would on a standard flight — both of which will help travelers feel less tired and dried-out when they touch down. It should all add up to less jet lag; here’s hoping!

Why 2016 Will Be a Terrible Year for Earning Frequent Flier Miles
Bad news for anyone who loves using their miles for free flights — later this year American will join Delta and United in awarding miles based on the fare you pay rather than the miles you fly, reports Skift. That means that most non-elite travelers and fliers who pay the lowest available fare will likely earn fewer miles. To add insult to injury, the price of award tickets is also going up.

Five Myths About Airline Food
USA Today separates fact from fiction when it comes to airline food. Is it true that all airplane meals are frozen and reheated later? Are they designed to make passengers sleepy? Are all the good meals saved for those in the front of the plane? The story answers these questions and more.

London Lost and Found
We loved reading this thoughtful essay from the New York Times on what it’s like to come back as a tourist to a place you once lived. The author vividly captures that complicated mix of familiarity and strangeness in a city you used to know well.

EasyJet Unveils Plan for “Hybrid” Planes Using Hydrogen Fuel Cells
CNN reports that easyJet (a European low-cost carrier) is trying out a new technology that could save 50,000 tons of fuel each year and reduce its airplanes’ carbon emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells could essentially turn the carrier’s planes into hybrid aircraft, allowing them to take off and land without using any fuel. It sounds promising — but even if it works, the technology is likely at least five years away.

Get your tissues ready for this week’s featured travel video, a heartwarming offering from British Airways.


4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

mazar i sharif mosqueEver dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.

Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.

Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.

The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.

Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.

The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)

Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.

Travel Warnings and Advisories
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Would you consider a trip with Untamed Borders?

libryia jonesWhile Libryia Jones was obtaining a master’s degree, she explored the idea of doing an overseas internship in China. After reviewing the program’s requirements, she quickly realized she didn’t qualify because she had a child. Other programs she looked into had the same rule.

“I thought, ‘Why should it be not for me just because I’m a mom?'” said Jones, an information technology project manager in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jones knew she wasn’t the only person who wanted to live abroad but felt held back for one reason or another — so she decided to do something about it through a new start-up venture called My Wander Year.

From a pool of applicants, Jones and her team will select a group of 30 to 50 people who will live overseas for a year starting this August, basing themselves in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first three months. They then will move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for three months, followed by Cape Town, South Africa, and Panama City, Panama.

The Wander Year team will arrange for flights, lodging in a condo or small inn, a SIM card for a smartphone and group office space for participants who will work remotely. The group will have occasional meetings and excursions, but what participants do with the rest of their time is totally up to them. Some people may have the option of continuing their existing job from abroad. Others may take classes or simply enjoy living in a different city.

The initial application requirements are basic: You must be 21 years or older, have been to another country at least once in your life and speak English. And yes, participants may have kids (though the children must be over the age of 8 to apply). There are a few essay questions and an interview involved, and selected participants will undergo a background check.

“We are looking for people who can articulate a real desire to grow through this experience and who intend to contribute to this community,” Jones said in an interview. “We want to invite cool people who we would love to spend a year with.”

The cost to participate for the year is $2,000 per month, with an initial fee of $3,000. A spouse or child can be added on for an additional cost.

Jones preferred not to reveal how many applications she has received thus far, only saying that they’ve gotten “well over the number of slots available.” Applications are still being accepted on the My Wander Year website. The application fee is $25.

Living Like a Local: Interviews with Expats
10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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: This city is known for a famous mountain and the penguin colony pictured above.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 1, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday 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 Shayla Story, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Cape Town, South Africa. Shayla has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane cloudsCatch up on the latest travel views and news with our weekly roundup.

A Major Study Is Out and What It Says About Trends in Airfares Could Save You Big Bucks
Frommer’s breaks down the highlights from a new study on airfares — including the best days of the week to buy a ticket (Saturday and Sunday) and how far in advance to book depending on where you’re going. The sweet spot for tickets to Europe, for example, is 176 days out.

Enterprising New Yorker Builds Igloo During Blizzard, Lists It on Airbnb
Via Metro.co.uk comes our favorite story of the week, about a resourceful Brooklynite who tried to use Winter Storm Jonas to make a buck. He built an igloo in his yard that he then listed on Airbnb for a whopping $200 a night, describing it as a “chic dome-style bungalow for you and bae.” (As appealing as it sounds, don’t waste time trying to book it — Airbnb has since removed the listing.)

Passport Expiring Soon? Renew It Now, State Dept. Says
The U.S. State Department is urging Americans whose passports will expire in the coming year to renew as soon as possible, reports the New York Times. A perfect storm of various factors could overwhelm the State Department later this year, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time if you’re up for renewal.

WWII Concentration Camp to Be Turned into a Luxury Resort in Montenegro
Okay, who thought this was a good idea? CNN reports that the uninhabited Adriatic island of Mamula, where a 19th-century fortress served as a concentration camp during WWII, will soon be turned into a luxury resort. While the developer overseeing the project promises that the history and architecture of the island will be respected, we can’t imagine many tourists are hankering to stay in a former concentration camp on vacation.

Don’t Mind the Wet Nose: TSA Enlists More Dogs to Screen Passengers
This entertaining story from the Washington Post takes a look behind the scenes at the lives of the TSA’s canine members, who use their sensitive noses to sniff out explosive materials at airports around the country. As one of their handlers describes it, the dogs are playing “the most fun game of hide-and-seek in the world.”

“Airbnbs for Dining” Give Italian Female Chefs Chance to Shine
We’ve written before about websites that allow travelers to dine with locals in their homes (see Beyond Restaurants: Eight Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene), but the Guardian describes this phenomenon from a different perspective: that of the hosts who get a chance to share their cooking skills. This piece focuses on female chefs in Italy, where most restaurants are headed by men.

11 Best Italy Experiences

This week’s featured video will help you take packing to a new level by rolling an entire day’s outfit into a pair of socks(!).


The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

lisieux In this month’s winning review, a traveler to France mixed visits to religious sites (such as shrines and convents) with secular experiences (such as a boat ride on the Seine). “Upon arrival in Lisieux, we had some down time before we were taken to the Basilica of St. Therese for our opening Mass in a chapel; then we were able to tour the basilica and grounds plus go into the gift shop after Mass was done,” writes Janet Marie. “It was amazing to see all of the various artwork and photos related to St. Therese. To be there was a true blessing, and something I wanted to experience as St. Therese is my favorite saint.”

Read the rest of Janet Marie’s review here: Catholic and Secular France Pilgrimage/Trip. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.

longyearbyen svalbard


Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.

ice zodiac svalbard norway


From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.

Photos: 9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

polar bear churchill manitoba


Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.

Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.

churchill manitoba sunset


The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.

11 Best Canada Experiences

grand teton national park wyoming


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.

Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.

National Park Vacations

birds in alaska


Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

What are your favorite cold-weather destinations? Post them in the comments below.

— written and photographed by Elissa Leibowitz Poma