Home

Explore. Experience. Engage.

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

Last month, we gave our readers a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card by submitting a review of a recent trip. We loved reading their submissions, which inspired us with tales of volunteering with elephants in Sri Lanka, cruising around the Mediterranean and tasting wine in South Africa.

hallgrimskirkja blue lagoon reykjavik iceland


Deciding on the winner was hard, but in the end we chose Iceland: A Magical Mystery Tour by Sarah Eaton. Here’s an excerpt from her winning review:

“As we arrived at the secluded farm and looked up into the clear sky, glimmering with thousand of stars, the performance above us was extraordinary. Green lights seem to sway above us in a movement I can only compare to the inside of a lava lamp, slowly wavering across the night sky.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give away, we also wanted to recognize a few runners-up whose reviews are also well worth a read:

Anything for the Elephants! by TS Buchanan: ” Let me introduce Ranmenika. She’s a 40-year-old beauty (elephants can live as long as 80 years) who fell into a well when she was just six. … Ranmenika is currently one of seven elephants under the care of MEF.”

A Third Roman Christmas by Host Ciao: “I walked to visit the Pantheon and then on to Piazza Navona where I planned to wander the huge Christmas fair held there. What a sad sight I found! Instead of booths offering all kinds of food, Christmas decorations, Nativity set pieces, and games, I found exactly six booths of games and a merry-go-round. No one was trying to win a huge stuffed animal at the games or enjoying the ride. A few people were wandering around the famous fountain and only a few were at the restaurants that border much of the square.”

How to Spend Three Perfect Days in Cape Town by Rachael Taft: “Excuse me while I gush, but South African wine is to die for! I wish America would figure this out and stock more of it in regular stores! If you’re looking for a classic South African wine to try, the Pinotage (a red) is a great place to start.”

Two Weeks on the Mediterranean: The Vision of the Seas by Justin Boot: “Montenegro took me by surprise in the best way. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most naturally beautiful and serene places I’ve ever seen. Coming from someone that lives in California and has been to Hawaii multiple times, that’s really saying something. The cruise ship had to navigate a narrow inlet for over an hour, passing by numerous small villages and hills that gracefully sloped up into mountain ranges. The water was clean, calm, and looked almost like a perfect mirror. It’s as if we’d somehow traveled back in time, to a medieval European era.”

Feeling inspired? Write a review of your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We’ve all been there: You take the time to carefully plot out your transportation during a perfect trip. You get everything lined up and it seems like nothing could go wrong.

Or so you think.

lost tourist with map on side of road


As the following travelers prove, despite the best possible planning, something can always go wrong when you’re far from home and trying to find your way.

Train Track Trek
During a Europe trip, Nicky Sundt of Washington D.C., kept all his important documents together in a plastic pencil case to ensure they were protected from wear and tear. While on a train in Grecce, however, a friend accidentally tipped his bag over, and the pencil case slipped between the baggage rack slats and fell out an open window.

The conductor and engineer stopped the train to let him and his friend out. They retraced the route and found his travel documents. It was perilous, however, because it was a single track route, and he had to cross a narrow bridge.

“Let’s just say,” Sundt explained, “that sprinting on railroad ties across a trestle bridge with a train bearing down on me was one of my greatest athletic achievements.”

An Uphill Battle
On the first day of a meticulously planned, two-month, 2,300-mile bike trip last summer, Paige Metzman of Ithaca, New York, cycled 30 miles up a rather steep hill in Washington state, believing it would lead to a mountain pass.

“We got nearly to the top before a kind stranger informed us that in fact there was no ‘down’ side. At the top of the mountain was just a ski resort and a U-turn,” Metzman said. Apparently, she missed an important turn just five miles into her epic ride.

Seeing how dejected she looked, the stranger crammed Metzman and her friend, plus their gear and bikes, into his car and drove them to the starting point.

Ditched
Colin Birge of Vancouver remembered seeing a warning in his guidebook: “Eventually, if you are driving in Provence, you will end up in a ditch.” Near the village of Lacoste, that very thing almost happened.

He and his wife drove up a hill to catch the view, and the narrow lane simply stopped with no warning. “I tried a three-point turn,” he explained. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the road clearly, and the back wheels slipped off the road bed.” The rear-wheel-drive vehicle ended up with the rear wheels dangling off the ground.

Who came to his rescue? Oddly enough, a group of American muscle car owners, who heard the commotion from their gathering in a nearby park. “Of course we stopped by the show afterwards to thank them,” Birge said. “My favorite was the guy with the ’60s Mustang who had reupholstered seats wrapped with the American flag.”

Missing the Boat, Part I
During a trip to Italy, John Rega of Brussels planned to meet several cousins. His ancestors had emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, and this was the first time that any family members were meeting in person.

Rega and his wife spent the night in a hotel less than an hour away from a port, where they’d catch a boat to his cousin’s village. They woke early, packed and proceeded to the lobby to check out and get a cab, with ample time to spare.

Yet the hotel desk remained unattended all morning, and they couldn’t find a taxi. They ended up missing their boat and showing up four hours late. “Lesson learned: Pre-arrange any tight logistics, especially if someone is waiting on the other end,” Rega advised.

Directionally Challenged
Agie Yatsko of Alexandria, Virginia, dutifully packed her GPS unit to prepare for a driving trip across Costa Rica. After picking up her rental car and heading out of San Jose, she and her friend realized the GPS wouldn’t work. After a few days, they returned to San Jose and tried to find the car rental agency. They got so lost that they had to pay a taxi driver $20 to lead them to the agency — which was less than a mile away.

Missing the Boat, Part II
Usually conscientious when it comes to small details, Robyn Porter of Rockville, Maryland, admitted that she misjudged her cruise’s departure time from Puerto Rico. “We ran up to the ship screaming as they were pulling in the gangplanks. Luckily they allowed us to board as they were pulling in the last gangplank.”

Beached on the Wrong Beach
Marsea Nelson of Falls Church, Virginia researched in advance New Zealand’s best beaches before she and her friend settled on the one they wanted to visit. They purchased bus tickets, packed a bag and embarked on their trip.

“Except there were TWO beaches with that name, which we learned because we got dropped off at the wrong one,” Nelson said. “They weren’t close enough to each other to correct our mistake. We were bitterly disappointed.”

But they decided to make the best of it. Following a hike to a waterfall, some great meals and a night in a spectacular hostel, Nelson said the unexpected detour led to “one of the best and most memorable experiences” of their New Zealand trip.

“That’s one of the things I love most about traveling,” she said.” Mishaps can turn into the greatest adventures.”

4 Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them
10 Simple Tips for a Smoother Trip

See? You’re not alone. So admit it: Despite your best-laid plans, what mistakes have you made while traveling?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s puzzle is a word scramble. Below are the jumbled 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.

RIIANBO, YAENK

LEASLRIEM, FCRAEN

TIQOU, OCRDAUE

OKBAKGN, NAAIHDTL


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 23, 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.

— created by Sarah Schlichter

Catch up on the travel stories you may have missed over the past week.

airport security bin


The TSA Is a Waste of Money That Doesn’t Save Lives and Might Actually Cost Them
Vox makes a provocative case against the beleaguered TSA, which has been under fire in recent weeks for extra-long lines. Not only does the TSA not ensure our safety, the author argues, but it actually causes more deaths (because travelers elect to drive instead of fly to avoid the hassle of security, leading to more road accidents).

The World’s Most Polite Country?
BBC Travel investigates the Japanese concept of omotenashi, a combination of “exquisite politeness” and “a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.” From toilet seats that spring up when you enter a bathroom to people wearing masks to protect others from catching their colds, politeness is a Japanese way of life.

EasyJet Develops a Vibrating Smart Shoe to Help You Navigate a New City
European discount airline won’t just fly you from one city to another, reports Travel + Leisure — it’s also trying to get you from one neighborhood to another using vibrating sneakers that tell you when to turn. The shoes, called “Sneakairs,” sync up to your smartphone to help direct you with GPS.

Malaria Vaccine Protects Half Who Try It
NBC News reports that an experimental new malaria vaccine protected 55 percent of the volunteers who tested it — which beats out the performance of the current vaccine on the market, which protects just 30 percent. This could benefit future travelers to malaria-stricken regions, but the new vaccine is still years away.

Life on the Other End of an Airline Reservations Line
An AFAR writer got a chance to work as a customer service agent for Delta Air Lines, and discovered the most efficient way to raise a complaint, what the agent can see about you when your call pops up on his or her screen, and how much power a phone agent actually has.

This Is 2016. Why Can’t We Still Book Specific Rooms in a Hotel?
Skift raises a good question: We can book a certain seat on a plane, so why can’t we choose our own hotel room? The answer is that we can … sometimes … and that there are a couple of sites out there that are working to make this capability more widely available.

How Travel Insurance Saved My Life
If you skip buying travel insurance on some trips, you may change your mind after reading this piece from Conde Nast Traveler. After coming down with dengue fever on a trip to Vietnam, the author didn’t get adequate medical treatment until her travel insurance company stepped in to advocate on her behalf.

In the face of government warnings against travel to Iran, these travelers show another side of the country in this thought-provoking video.


10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security
16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

— written by Sarah Schlichter

With the U.S. National Park Service celebrating its centennial this year, national parks are in the spotlight — not just here in the States but around the world. We love national parks because they protect a country’s natural scenery and unique wildlife for all of us to enjoy, whether you’re driving through in a car, hiking a trail or camping in the backcountry. Check out these six national parks we want to visit around the world.

grand teton national park


Grand Teton National Park, U.S.A., offers magnificent mountain vistas.

elephants in etosha national park


On safari in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, you’ll spy lions, elephants, zebras and much more.

waterfall lamington national park


Located in Queensland, Australia, Lamington National Park encompasses miles of lush rain forest.

horses torres del paine


Torres del Paine National Park protects some of Patagonian Chile’s most stunning landscapes.

komodo dragon


Komodo National Park in Indonesia is home to the endangered Komodo dragon, along with a variety of marine wildlife.

northeast greenland national park



Northeast Greenland National Park is the world’s biggest national park, but it’s so difficult to reach that very few people actually visit it.

Planning an African Safari
National Park Vacations

Which national park tops your must-visit list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Passports are technically property of the government, but rarely are expired ones kept by any government official. So what should you do with an expired passport?

We’ve come up with five reasons why you should stash them, and three reasons to trash them.

passport stamps


First, the reasons to keep your expired passport in a safe place:

The passport may be expired, but some of the visas aren’t. Some countries issue single-entry visas that expire as soon as you depart. Others offer multiple-entry visas that could be valid for several years, well beyond when your passport expires. So if you travel to that country, you’ll need to bring your expired passport with your valid one.

You may need a record of your travels for a visa application. When applying for visas, some applications require you to detail all of the countries you’ve visited over the past five to 10 years. Larry Irving of Washington D.C., who travels frequently on business, encountered that recently on a visa application for Russia. “I can’t remember always, but the passport stamps help,” said Irving, who has visited more than 50 countries. He stores expired passports in a safe place in his office because having a record of his travels helps him complete the applications more efficiently.

How to Get a Visa

They make memories. Television news producer Yvette Michael has spent her career on the road. She’s attempted multiple times to write a travel journal to document her adventures. “But it really became too much work,” said Michael, who lives in New York, “so the passports double up as diaries!”

They inspire children. Lisa Bolton of Frederick, Maryland, gave her old passports to her son to play with. “It gave me an opportunity to talk to my kid about the wonders of traveling and experiencing cool stuff,” she said.

The expired passport still proves your citizenship. The U.S. State Department recommends on its website that you keep your passport because “it is considered proof of your U.S. citizenship.” As this USA Today article points out, there are many scenarios in which an expired passport cannot be used as a valid ID. But if you need proof of citizenship — such as to get a replacement if you lose your current passport — even an expired passport will suffice.

And now the reasons to trash your passport — or, more specifically, to shred it or turn it into something else:

An expired passport could lead to identity theft. Expired U.S. passports are punched with holes; other countries’ government officials alter them as well to void them. However, there are some clever thieves out there, and in the wrong hands, even an expired passport could be doctored into a fake ID for someone else.

They make cool art. With all the colors and stamp shapes, passport pages can make interesting art be used in craft projects. Pinterest user Becky Kemps deconstructed her passport and framed the pages. Artist Leonard Combier uses old passport pages as the medium for his art. Etsy seller The Nic of Time turns them into coasters. You could even put your passport on your Christmas tree.

They just add to clutter. Are you someone who keeps all your old tax returns dating back decades? If you have no good reason to keep old documents, then you should get rid of them. Not that keeping your passport makes you a hoarder, but if you’re not nostalgic about the passport, why bother keeping it?

10 Things You Don’t Know About Passports

— 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 mosque is currently the site of the world’s tallest minaret.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 16, 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 Wendell Prins, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. Wendell 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

Catch up on the travel news and features you may have missed this week.

flight attendant plane


Attention Passengers … Can You Hear Me?
Think things are bad in the sky for passengers? Flight attendant and author Heather Poole offers her own perspective from the other side of the drink cart — and we fliers don’t exactly come out smelling like roses. “Twenty years ago, when I first started flying, almost every passenger said hello during boarding. Oh, how times have changed,” she writes.

Canadian Teen Locates Lost Mayan City Using Satellite Images and Ancient Astronomy
We’re always looking for attractions that are off the beaten path — but a 15-year-old boy in Quebec has one-upped us by discovering a previously unknown Mayan city in Mexico, reports the International Business Times. He theorized that the Mayans, who worshipped the stars, based the locations of their cities on constellations; this analysis led him to find the lost city on Google Earth. Editor’s Note: It turns out that the discovery wasn’t actually a lost city after all, reports Wired.

Signature Scents at Hotels: Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em?
USA Today reports on the surge of customized fragrances being pumped into hotel lobbies. While they’re designed to create a delicious-smelling first impression, guests with allergies and asthma aren’t so jazzed about the trend.

Revealed: The Secret Lives of Your Fellow Plane Passengers
We love this story from CNN about a traveler who decided to pass a notebook around a flight to learn the stories behind each passenger’s trip. She discovered multiple honeymooners, a woman visiting her elderly parents and a man traveling to San Francisco to propose to his girlfriend.

Does Travel Actually Make You Well Traveled?
This essay from Headspace investigates the transformative benefits of travel, from reducing the risk of heart disease to stimulating creativity. Of course, there are a few drawbacks too — can we say “jet lag”?

The Stories Behind Some of Last Year’s Most Iconic Travel Photos
Travel + Leisure investigates the process that went into three striking photos from the recent Photography Show in New York City. One shot of the Grand Canyon is actually an incredible amalgamation of 50 different photos taken at different times throughout the day.

VisitScotland recently put out a call for canine applicants to be Scotland’s official “Ambassadog.” The winner, announced this week, is a golden retriever from Glasgow; you can watch his adorable application video below.


16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel
12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid

— written by Sarah Schlichter

What do you typically ask for when staying at a hotel — a few extra pillows? A toothbrush or phone charger if you left yours at home?

One traveler goes well beyond such reasonable requests on his business trips, asking for things like “a picture of a dog dressed as a boat captain” or “a fort [built] out of pillows,” reports the Daily Mail. He even asked the hotel staff to draw a picture of what they thought he looked like. The requests were all granted, and a friend of the businessman posted photos of the results in a thread on Imgur.

hotel request


My first reaction was the same as that of several commenters on Imgur: Let’s hope this guy tips well! Because while many people seem to find the businessman’s behavior hilarious, I’m not sure I agree.

Sure, the requests are essentially harmless and might bring a smile to the face of a hotel staffer on a slow or tedious day. But do you feel comfortable imagining an underpaid, overworked housekeeper who only has 15 to 20 minutes to clean each room having to waste time building a pillow fort for a grown man for no reason other than the fact that he’s bored on a business trip? And don’t most concierges have better things to do than troll the Internet for pictures of the grandma from “Family Matters” or a dog in a boating costume?

While it seems to be meant in fun, it feels a little mean-spirited to make more work for other people just because you can.

15 Things Your Hotel Won’t Tell You
“You Want What?” Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

What’s your take — are this business traveler’s requests hilarious or a disrespectful use of the hotel staff’s time?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

My friend Diane Quigley spent the past week in Paris. She enjoyed an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower from her mom’s Airbnb rental. On Tuesday she took a chilly boat tour on the Seine. On Wednesday her mom took a tumble and spent the morning in an emergency room. On Thursday Quigley ordered French onion soup for lunch and then visited Montmarte.

eiffel tower view paris


How do I know all this? Quigley posted on Facebook — and she’s not the only one. According to a new study, the majority of travelers share photos and vignettes about their adventures on social media.

Two-thirds of travelers say they post on social media while they’re away, according to a survey by TravelOnline.com, an Australia-based travel agency. (Survey results were sent in an email press release.) And 25 percent post daily.

“Whether it’s to share their special memories with family or to make their friends a little envious, it seems that social media does in fact play a large part in enhancing the holiday experience for most people,” Glenn Checkley, TravelOnline.com’s managing director, said.

Quigley said she enjoys posting during her travels so that she can share the experiences with her friends and family. “My husband’s grandmother, who will not likely make it to Paris given her age, thoroughly enjoyed all the posts, living vicariously through our trip,” she said.

For a variety of reasons, 44 percent of respondents said that how their vacation appears on social media is important to them, and 15 percent admitted that how their destination would appear to their friends and family on social media influenced their decision to go there.

Social media also serves to inspire others when considering where to travel. One-third of people say that the posts they see on social media influence their destination choices. Like her aging relative, I also lived vicariously through my friend’s photos of Paris, and I’m now more interested in visiting France after seeing her posts.

Social Media: The Ultimate Travel Guidebook
Sharing or Showboating? Travel Posts on Social Media

Do you post to social media during your vacations?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma