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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 appealing holiday travel options.

Would you rather …

… stroll through a snowy Christmas market in Europe

stockholm christmas market snowy holiday sweden



… build “snowmen” on the beach in the Caribbean?

beach snowmen sand caribbean


Europe is home to numerous traditional Christmas markets that run throughout the festive season. (Don’t miss this video of Berlin’s market.) But while these markets have charm to spare, they also typically feature gray skies and wintry weather — which means you might be happier having your holidays on the beach instead.

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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, December 22, 2014, 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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

trinidad cubaFor more than 50 years, Cuba has been a travel taboo for U.S. residents. Going there wasn’t technically prohibited — particularly if you were able to get special clearances as a journalist or Cuban expat, or if you traveled with an authorized tour operator — but spending money there was. Sure, there were ways around the restrictions, but this week we’ve gotten closer to the day when independent American travelers will no longer have to make sneaky pit stops in Mexico or Canada along the way.

Earlier this week, after Cuba and the U.S. came to an agreement that released prisoners on both ends and returned them to their home countries, the rules about spending money in Cuba were relaxed. Travelers will soon be able to use their credit and debit cards to make purchases on the island, and lovers of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy knowing that won’t have to smuggle their Caribbean souvenirs back into the U.S. anymore (not that anyone has ever done that, of course).

Congress will discuss lifting further economic sanctions next year.

Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember

What does this mean for Cuba travel right now? Is it likely that you’ll be able to just pack your bags and book a trip on a whim without a U.S.-sanctioned reason? Not just yet. But anyone wishing to explore the country might find it easier to fit into one of the allowable categories (which include family visits, humanitarian projects, educational activities and “support for the Cuban people,” among others).

Are you interested in Cuba travel? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below.

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

With many publications releasing their top destinations for 2015, we couldn’t help but take some time to muse on where the New Year would take us. Watching an inspirational video from travel company Adventure.com helped get us in the spirit of wanderlust with some spectacular imagery from around the world (check it out below!). From family reunions in Ireland to polar bear-spotting above the Arctic Circle, our staff named some destinations they’ve already booked for 2015, and some they’re only dreaming of. I’m personally looking forward to a potential trip to Alaska. Where will 2015 take you?


Who? Kim Coyne, Director of Sales
Where? Ireland, Iceland, river cruise from Amsterdam
Booked or Bucket List? They’re all slated for 2015. When I married my husband, I made him sign a “prenup” (scribbled on a bar napkin) that stated we would always have a next trip planned so that we always have a new or favorite destination to explore.

Who? Masha Uretsky, Social Media Specialist
Where? Greek Islands
Booked or Bucket List? Neither. I’ve been twice (Rhodes, Kos and Peloponnese), but I’m hoping to see more.

Who? Dori Saltzman, Editor at Large
Where? Montreal, Canada
Booked or Bucket List? Booked. Attending the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup to achieve my dream of attending a World Cup soccer game in person.

Who? Jodi O’ Prandy, Senior Search Engine Marketing Specialist
Where? Croatia and Slovenia
Booked or Bucket List? Booked!

How to Tone Your Travel Muscles

Who? Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor
Where? Svalbard, Norway
Booked or Bucket List? Not sure it’ll happen in 2015, but at some point I’m dying to get up to Svalbard in search of polar bears!

Who? Morgan Agesen, Production Assistant, FamilyVacationCritic.com
Where? Barcelona
Booked or Bucket List? Heading out in April, and going to Copenhagen and Amsterdam as well.

Who? Ashley Kosciolek, Contributing Editor
Where? Tibet
Booked or Bucket List? I’d LOVE to go to Tibet — to one of those mountaintop monasteries — but there’s no way it’s happening in 2015. So bucket list for now.

Who? Jamey Bergman, Production Editor, Cruise Critic U.K.
Where? San Francisco/Tahoe, California
Booked or Bucket List? Never been, but I’ll be staying over Christmas into the New Year. It’s not very exotic, but I’m pretty excited. (Jamey is from the U.S. but is currently living in London.)

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

klm amenity kit delft house I’m the worst kind of luxury traveler: I crave the perks of first class, but balk at paying unreasonably high prices, particularly for flights. So unless I get an upgrade, more often than not you’ll find me in premium economy, glaring enviously at the curtain ahead of me.

My luck changed recently on a trip to Athens, where I had the good fortune to try KLM’s World Business Class cabin on a flight between JFK and Amsterdam. The carrier has installed lie-flat seats on all of its 747s, and I knew as soon as I was ushered to my cocoon that I would actually be able to sleep.

While the seat’s features — roomy storage space, a shelf for shoes, a USB and electrical outlet, and noise-canceling headphones — were certainly thoughtful, I was more impressed by the amenity kits handed out by the flight attendants.

The small pouch, created by the Dutch design team Viktor & Rolf, was adorable, with a cute leather bow (the kits are distributed by gender; the male version is dark and has no bow). Contents included lip balm, a small toothbrush and toothpaste, footie socks, ear plugs and eye mask. The kit came with a strap so it could be used as a wristlet.

First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade

I thought that was the end of the swag. But then, as we approached our destination, attendants came around with a basket full of small ceramic Delft houses, based on real properties in Amsterdam. These figures, which are filled with the Dutch liquor jenever, are apparently highly collectible and are often auctioned off on eBay (KLM has its entire collection on view in its Crown Lounge at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport).

Intrigued by KLM’s approach to courting luxury travelers, I took to Instagram to see if other airlines have stepped up their amenity game. Sure enough, there’s a hashtag called #businessclassswag, where high fliers post photos of their comfy corner in the sky. Expect to see pictures of hot fudge sundaes, gourmet meals, complimentary Champagne and tricked-out entertainment systems, uploaded by grinning frequent fliers swaddled in duvets (#businessclass is also popular).

Now it will be even harder to go back to the back of the plane.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear on a Plane

– written by Chris Gray Faust

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 breathtaking bays.

Would you rather …

… sail through the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, or …

kotor bay montenegro



… relax at Bacuit Bay in El Nido, on Palawan Island in the Philippines?

bacuit bay el nido palawan island philippines


Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor is particularly beautiful when approached by boat; you can also drive along it on a day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia. Take time to explore the charming medieval town of Kotor. Bacuit Bay is speckled with limestone islands where travelers can hike or snorkel. You can also take a scenic boat ride out into the bay.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

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 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.

This month we’ve tweaked the puzzle. For each letter, we’re asking for two countries. The key: in one country end-of-year holidays are during the winter, but for the other country those holidays are in the summer. Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 15, 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 Edwin Hendrix, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

country pairs


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

burano italyWe recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $200 eBags gift card. We loved reading the submissions, which spanned the globe from Bora Bora to Buenos Aires.

Choosing the best review was a true challenge, but in the end we went with Wendy VanHatten’s dispatch from Italy, Burano …. The Cheeriest Little Island. Here’s an excerpt:

“The pace is slow here; slower than Venice. Flower boxes, overflowing with flowers, offer sweet scents; laundry, hanging from second story windows, is just as common as open shutters; bikes, sitting by doorways, wait for their owners; cats, posing for their close-up photos, lazily groom their faces. This is a real island with real Venetians living their lives. You just happen to be their visitor for the day.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

The Smiles of Papua New Guinea by Ann Swinford: “The highlight of the trip was the Tumbuna Singsing with dances [by] about a dozen tribes. Their preparations, carefully donning makeup and costumes, [were] part of the excitement.”

5 Days in an Overwater Bungalow on Bora Bora by Jill Weinlein: “Everyone loved Janko, including the slippery smooth stingrays. They would swim up his body and kiss him on his face as he fed them raw fish. He made us an authentic Polynesian lunch with grilled marlin, raw fish marinated in coconut and spices, baked taro and tapioca, a delicious coconut cake, fresh papaya and pineapple.”

Canoeing with hippos and crocs on the Zambezi by Miriam Mircutt: “At dusk each night, we headed for one of the islands in the river and camped on their beaches. We washed behind trees from buckets of water which one of the guides delivered to us straight from the river. We slept under skies spattered with stars and were woken often by the sounds of grumping hippos and screaming hyenas.”

How I Spent My Summer Vacation 2014 by vagabondginger: “My best advice for Yellowstone (and elsewhere) is to not just view it through a camera lens. It’s better to put down the camera and pick up the binoculars and just watch the wildlife in its natural environment.”

Feeling inspired? Share advice from your latest trip!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Details of Delta Airlines’ newest seat classes — Comfort+ and Delta One — were released on Monday. Comfort+ will replace Economy Comfort, the airline’s extra legroom seats, while Delta One is its new Business Elite cabin.

We caught wind of the changes from the blog View from the Wing, which questioned whether the upgrades were noteworthy.

Highlights of the rebranded classes came via a video on Delta’s YouTube channel. While the free drink vouchers known as Have One On Us have been eliminated, Comfort+ will include complimentary beer, wine and spirits. These vouchers were previously available to elites in economy class who weren’t upgraded. Premium snacks will be available to passengers of this class on domestic flights of 900 miles or more. Dedicated overhead bin space has also been added to this cabin. Priority boarding remains a perk.


The main perk in the Delta One class is the flatbed seats on select flights, along with Tumi amenity kits and regional dining selections.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare

Both cabins, as well as First Class, will feature new quilted seat covers.

If you’re a Gold Medallion member, the bad news is you’ll no longer be able to choose Comfort+ at booking for free. Access to these seats will be released 72 hours before check-in for Gold Medallion and 24 hours before for Silver Medallion.

The new cabin classes take effect March 1, 2015. I guess the question is whether these upgrades come at a cost, or if airlines are making a genuine effort to improve the in-flight experience. If that’s the case, when can we expect to see improvement to coach? What do you think? What upgrade is the most important to you?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

sandals beach vacationThis is part one of a two-part series about my experience with a “free vacation” offer. In this segment, I’ll outline how my friend and I “won” and what we had to endure to claim our “gift.” Check back for part two in 2015, when I’ll discuss if we were actually able to book a trip and, if so, how it went, if it’s worth the time and whether it’s really free.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a sporting event or a fair, and someone approaches you to “register for a chance to win a free vacation.” In my case, it was at a concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my friend, who’s had a bit of a rough year, was excited by the prospect.

As she filled in her name and contact information, I snatched one of the entry forms and read the fine print on the back. It was standard legal jargon, stating that Sundance Vacations, the company sponsoring the contest, would have the right to get in touch with entrants using any means provided. I figured it was just a ploy to generate email addresses and phone numbers, so I declined.

Fast forward two months. My friend received a phone call from someone at Sundance, telling her they had “good news” and asking her to call for more information. First she dialed me: “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I never win ANYTHING, but we’re going on vacation!”

A phone call to the company confirmed that we would, in fact, have to sit through a presentation as a condition of acceptance. We assumed a sales pitch would follow, but we were told the whole process would have us in and out within an hour.

Slightly different from companies that offer timeshares, Sundance sells “wholesale vacations,” which it touts as discounted or overstock trips that are less expensive because 1) the company purchases vacations in bulk, and 2) it owns the properties that are available for booking. (I won’t even try to figure out why Sundance needs to “purchase” said vacations if it owns the properties, lest my head explode.)

How to Avoid Travel Scams

During the initial presentation, an attractive and sharply dressed woman attempted to keep the attention of a dozen attendees through witty banter (“I’ll keep this short. I just ran a marathon yesterday, and my legs are killing me”), condescending comments (to a young and slightly disheveled couple with two children: “Surely you’ve never been to Disney World”) and the promise of a “suitcase” of affordable vacations from which we’d be able to draw over a period of several years after signing up and shelling out a modest monthly fee. She went on to explain a bit of math as she clicked through some PowerPoint slides.

polaroids sundance vacationsI had just checked Facebook for the 17th time and was nearly dozing off in my chair when a team of sales representatives came bursting through the back door of the presentation room like an army of Stormtroopers. Each group of visitors was led through a hallway and into a giant room with tables, chairs and, oddly, beach balls — where thousands (literally, we saw the Polaroids everywhere) of customers before us were convinced to purchase vacation packages.

The woman in charge of giving us our first hard sell was actually nice and didn’t pressure us as much as we expected she might. Then her boss came over, asked if we were treated well and turned up the heat by offering us an even sweeter deal. He backed down after we gave him a firm “no” and told him that we had read nothing but negative reviews about the company online. He gave us a couple of weak excuses but eventually realized we weren’t going to budge.

Ninety minutes after our initial arrival, we were taken to meet with our final obstacle, a friendly older gentleman who further lowered the prices and even tossed in meal vouchers. Ultimately, we said no, and he grudgingly gave us the paperwork we needed to claim our four-day, three-night trip to our choice of Cancun, Montego Bay or San Juan.

Apparently we have 60 days to call a phone number (not toll-free), ask questions, gather information (we’d love to see photos of the resort options, as none were provided) and “register” to receive our “reservation deposit invoice.” After receiving it, we have 30 days to send it back with a deposit of $100 each, which is then applied to the imposed taxes and fees of anywhere from about $100 – $185. (Technically the trip is a gift, not a prize, so Sundance isn’t required to cover taxes and fees.) We’re told the deposit is refundable until actual reservations have been made. Stay tuned for part two, coming sometime in 2015, when I’ll tell you whether the trip actually happens.

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

In the meantime, tell us if you’ve ever been a part of a “free vacation” offer. How did it work out?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek