Explore. Experience. Engage.

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

camping canada When I realized just how cold it was going to get in the Canadian wilderness that night (less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit after the sun set), I layered on nearly everything I had packed. My makeshift camping pajamas consisted of leggings, yoga pants, sweatpants, several pairs of socks, a T-shirt, a flannel shirt, a sweatshirt, a fleece, gloves and a hat. Were a wild animal to sink its teeth into my leg as I waddled to the bathroom in the dark that night, I wouldn’t feel a thing.

Despite my armor of cotton and fleece, I woke up in shivers more than once throughout the night. I had gone to bed with wet hair, my head soaked from a full-moon whitewater rafting excursion on the Ottawa River. Curled up on a cot in a tent at Horizon X base camp in Bryson, Quebec, I dreamed of hair dryers and warm laundry. This experience was, I had been told, “glamping.”

Like “staycation” or “tourist-tastic,” the term “glamping” is one of those awkward pop culture word fusions that people either love to state or love to hate. Clearly, it means “glamorous camping.” But beyond that, its definition is vague. Does it involve butlers? Gourmet meals in deluxe heated cabins? Pedicures under the stars?

My luxuries at Horizon X included cots, tented cabins with wood floors, hot showers in non-potable water (which could be no longer than four minutes or there wouldn’t be enough water for the rest of the camp!), and, thankfully, a Jacuzzi. There were beds in a few of the tented cabins, but I was not ruthless enough to claim one. This was a step up from conditions at some other campsites, many of which don’t even offer tents or cabins. Was I glamping?

I looked into some luxury camping options to compare. Tour company Abercrombie & Kent houses travelers on African safaris in mobile tents with king-size beds and en-suite private bathrooms that have running water. Multi-course meals are served to guests in a candlelit dining tent. Global Expeditions in Arizona offers tents with queen beds and daily turndown service in the Rockies and other U.S. destinations. Turndown service in the great outdoors — surely this is glamping.

Spending a night in the bush on a fancy king bed sounds amazing, but I wouldn’t trade my stay at Horizon X for a thing. A hot, albeit short, shower, a cot and good company were sufficient for me. The campsite was rugged and beautiful. The full-moon whitewater rafting excursion was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. And after spending two chilly nights in the remote Canadian wilderness, my own bed at home, my private heated bathroom and that leftover slice of pizza in the fridge never looked so glamorous.

–written by Caroline Costello

southwest airlines airplane air travel sky airlineTwo of the biggest discount airlines in the U.S. will merge next year when Southwest Airlines buys AirTran in a $1.4 billion deal, reports the Associated Press. The acquisition has been approved by the boards of both companies, but is still subject to shareholder and regulatory approval. Assuming everything goes through, the deal is expected to take effect in the first half of 2011.

What does this mean for travelers? Airline mergers typically spell reduced competition and higher fares — and this may well occur in cities where Southwest’s routes overlap with AirTran’s (such as Baltimore/Washington and Orlando). But there are a few silver linings too.

Travelers who’ve been waiting for Southwest to extend its low fares to cities outside the U.S. will get their wish; the airline will absorb AirTran’s current routes to Cancun, Punta Cana, Montego Bay and other vacation destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. In total, Southwest will gain access to 37 new cities, including Atlanta — which has been the biggest hole in its network. The airline will also strengthen its existing presence in major cities like New York and Boston.

Perhaps the best news of all? Once the airlines are fully integrated, Southwest does not plan to keep AirTran’s checked baggage fees (currently $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second).

What do you think of the proposed merger — will it help or hurt travelers?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

thanksgiving turkey meal mashed potatoes asparagus side dishes holidayThis Thanksgiving, a trip to enjoy turkey and all the trimmings with your loved ones will cost you — especially if you choose the wrong days to fly.

Travelocity has analyzed average domestic airfares for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday to see which travel days offer the best deals for fliers. The results?

The lowest average fare that Travelocity found was for flights departing on Thanksgiving Day and returning the following Tuesday, November 30. Flights on these days would set you back just $293 roundtrip. Compare that to the most popular dates to fly: depart the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and return the Sunday after, and you’ll pay $463 — a difference of $170. (You can see the full fare chart by visiting the link above.)

If these numbers look a little high, it’s not your imagination. Travelocity reports that fares are about 10 percent higher than they were at the same time last year.

Unsurprisingly, avoiding the most popular travel days is the key to finding an affordable flight — but for some of us, a lower fare isn’t worth an inconvenient schedule (or a few extra days with the in-laws). What’s your Thanksgiving travel strategy? Will you be flying on peak days or off-peak days … or will you be staying home to avoid the whole mess?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

the amazing race 17 teams castWho doesn’t love watching 22 stressed-out people racing (or sometimes simply bumbling) their way around the world? The drama returns this Sunday when “The Amazing Race,” our favorite travel reality show, kicks off its 17th season.

This year’s cast of 11 teams features a few intriguing pairings, such as beach volleyball partners, home shopping television hosts and a mom racing with the daughter she gave up for adoption 21 years ago. Of course, they’ll be accompanied by the usual young, attractive dating couples (including not one, but two blonde beauty queens!).

If you’re a fan of the show, don’t forget to stop by our Amazing Race message board each week for polls, discussions and speculation about each episode. You can weigh in with your early predictions about the teams on the Amazing Race 17 thread.

The 1.5-hour premiere of “The Amazing Race” airs this Sunday on CBS at 8:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Central.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

guidebooksI’m currently in the final stages of booking a New England leaf-peeping vacation for October. In my trip-planning pile, alongside a few maps and an ever-expanding packing list, I’ve got a stack of at least five area guidebooks that I’ve checked out from my local library.

Will I lug all those heavy guidebooks with me on my trip? No way; even though I’m driving, not flying, I’m still aiming to pack as lightly as possible. But I’ve relied on this array of guidebooks to help me find hotels and plot out my itinerary, and you can bet that one or two of my favorites will find their way into my suitcase on departure day.

To some travelers, this probably seems perfectly logical. To others, I must sound like a dinosaur.

Last month, London’s Financial Times issued a lengthy report on the declining sales of traditional print guidebooks and the rise of new technology (such as mobile apps and iPad guides) that is emerging to replace them. Why would someone need a guidebook, asks the article, when you can use an “augmented reality app” like Google Goggles on your smartphone to find a wealth of free, up-to-the-second information about your destination?

The media has been prophesying the death of guidebooks for years now. Back in 2006, the Guardian speculated that podcasts would be the newcomer to knock guidebooks off their perch. In the past decade, Web sites offering thousands of traveler-generated hotel and restaurant reviews have tried to drown out the opinions of a few professional travel writers. And of course there have always been detractors who suggest that guidebooks are a crutch standing in the way of getting to know a place in a truly genuine way, by relying solely on one’s own eyes and experiences.

Despite all this, I still feel that guidebooks play an important role — though not the only role — in planning and taking a trip. The combination of maps, recommended itineraries, comprehensive reviews and historical context is something I haven’t found in any other single source, so I’ll continue to use guidebooks as long as they continue to be printed.

What about you — do you still use print guidebooks to help you plan a trip, or have you turned to other resources?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

toilet A reader recently wrote to IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter with concerns about one of our feature stories, The World’s Best (and Worst!) Toilets:

“Dear Sarah,

You don’t write about toilets in this way! Shows that you are poorly educated and low class. Helping people finding decent restrooms would be better rather discussing the worst. Those should be avoided.”

Admittedly, our story on noteworthy toilets around the world (and its sequel, The World’s Best and Worst Toilets: The Sequel!) probably won’t win any Pulitzers. But let’s face it: Sometimes traveling can get messy — especially when nature calls and you’re faced with a dirty hole in the floor on an Indonesian ferry or a disturbingly public urinal in Amsterdam. A sense of humor is a traveler’s best resource when it comes to coping with scary bathrooms.

We did mention several excellent restrooms in both of our toilet stories — but to find more, check out The Bathroom Diaries or Sit or Squat, both top-notch resources for finding sparkling clean toilets around the world. Sit or Squat even has mobile apps for various kinds of phones that help travelers seek out bathrooms on the go.

–written by Caroline Costello

skyrider seat aviointeriors saddleAs if jet lag and traveler’s tummy weren’t enough, imagine adding “saddle sores” to the list of things you have to worry about when traveling!

A new type of airplane seat called the SkyRider, which will be revealed at an aircraft interiors conference next week, is shaped similarly to a horse’s saddle, reports USA Today. Its design would perch passengers at a slight angle, leaving only 23 inches of space between their seat and the one in front of them. (Compare that to the standard economy-class seat pitch of 30 – 32 inches, which already strains the joints of anyone taller than six feet or so.)

The “ultra high density” seat (in the words of its creator, Italy-based Aviointeriors) is intended to offer airlines a way to pack more passengers onto each plane and therefore reduce ticket prices. Several budget airlines, including Ryanair and Spring Air in China, have already proposed adding standing-room-only sections for ultra-cheap fares; the new SkyRider seats could operate in a similar fashion, with airlines charging less for passengers to squeeze themselves into this cramped section of the plane. (Whatever shall we call it — cowboy class?)

Aviointeriors director general Dominique Menoud suggests that the seats would be most appropriate for shorter flights, perhaps up to three hours. Whether any airlines will decide to adopt the new seats remains to be seen.

How low would fares have to be to get you to saddle up?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

christoph niemann red eye Award-winning artist, author and New York Times blogger Christoph Niemann recently turned his talents to the subject of travel, chronicling an uncomfortable transatlantic flight in his hilarious graphic blog, Abstract City. I asked Niemann, a veteran globetrotter who frequently flies between Berlin and New York, to tell us more about his thoughts on air travel.

IndependentTraveler.com: Your illustrations shine a humorous light on the petty annoyances of air travel. Do you think flying has gotten more irritating than it used to be?

Christoph Niemann: I hope that despite all the grievances I list in my blog, it is obvious that my main observation is how flying somehow turns us into self-pitying neurotics. As much as I dislike the boredom, the discomfort and the food, I still think it is amazing that I can hop on a plane and cross an ocean in a few hours for a few hundred dollars.

I am not sure that travel has gotten worse, but I am rather shocked and amazed that it hasn’t gotten any better. When you think of all the advancement in other areas (trains, cars, hotels), it is amazing that flying (at least in coach) hasn’t changed AT ALL. I don’t want to keep picking on Delta (the people who work for them are very nice), but they don’t even have seat-back monitors. How can I keep track of where we are if I am forced to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the whole plane?

IT: On that note, do you ever fly first class?

CN: I think I have a secret sign on my forehead that says “DO NOT UPGRADE THIS MAN. EVER.”

I fly a lot and have a good number of miles on various cards. But they all seem conveniently expired or invalid on that particular day.

IT: What other elements of air travel do you find absurd?

CN: I could easily write a Russian-novel-length thesis about the Delta terminal at J.F.K. — from the ridiculous walk from the air-train to the terminal to the absurd check-in lines to the depressing disrepair of the whole facility. Then there’s of course the insanely terrifying flushing sound of an airplane toilet — though I wasn’t able to come up with a good metaphor for that.

IT: What inspired you to turn your talents to the subject of air travel?

CN: I am writing this on seat 12E on flight 97 from Berlin to EWR. My kneecaps are crumbling away, I have crumbs and stains all over my shirt and I can barely open my laptop at a 45-degree angle, which forces me to type vertically. This is all the inspiration I need.

IT: Does turning life into art help pass the time on a horrible flight, or does creativity flow best after you’ve made it home?

CN: I always try to get some work done on flights, and taking notes for the blog is certainly more enjoyable than studying the terrible ads for steakhouses and celebrity dentists in the in-flight magazine. But the real work happens back at the desk.

IT: Are there any destinations in particular that have inspired your work?

CN: The Berlin-New York flight is where I travel most often.

Just to end on a positive note: Berlin Tegel is my favorite airport! On a trip back from Switzerland last year it took me six (!) minutes from the wheels of the plane touching the tarmac to opening the door of the taxi.

Read more about Christoph Niemann’s work at ChristophNiemann.com.

–written by Caroline Costello

sos sand beach helpEarlier this week, the world’s longest round-the-world cruise — a 335-night epic on Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus — was unceremoniously cut short in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about six months before its scheduled end in February 2011. Cruise Critic reports that Cruise West (best known for its small-ship Alaska voyages) has canceled the rest of the world cruise, will sell the ship and will “work towards a restructuring of the company and its operations” in response to recent financial woes.

World cruises are typically sold in segments, so it’s likely that many passengers were already planning to disembark in St. John’s. But any cruisers who were planning to stay aboard the ship for the next segment, as well as the hundreds of other passengers who were booked on future segments of the cruise, are now left scrambling for options (and refunds).

If the “stranded traveler” story sounds familiar, it should; just a few weeks ago, Mexicana Airlines suspended its operations, leaving passengers high and dry in Mexico and many destinations beyond. And Kiss Flights, a British airline, disrupted the plans of some 70,000 passengers when it folded last month.

Getting stranded far from home is a worst-case scenario for travelers. So how can you protect yourself against the bankruptcy of an airline, tour operator, hotel or cruise line? A few suggestions:

-Always pay for your travel purchases with a credit card so that it’s easier to dispute charges and get refunds if necessary.

-Buy travel insurance — and do so through an independent source, not through your travel provider. This way you’re protected if that provider goes belly up. Be sure your policy includes protection in the case of travel supplier default.

-If you reserve your trip through a travel agency or booking site, program its number into your cell phone so you can call for help at the first sign of trouble.

-Look for alternatives. Other travel suppliers often step into the void when a company ceases operations. For example, both AeroMexico and American Airlines added additional flights and offered personal assistance to aid accommodate passengers who’d been stranded by Mexicana.

What suggestions would you add? Have you ever been stranded by a travel company?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

airfare deal U.S. airlines are courting shoulder season travelers by slashing fares on fall flights to as little as $34 each way. Carriers including AirTran, Virgin America, Frontier and American have announced significant fare reductions for domestic routes (plus some flights to Mexico and the Caribbean). But buyer beware: Restrictions — from baggage fees to blackout dates — can make an airfare deal, well, not so much of a deal.

How do you get the best price for your particular itinerary? It all depends on which cities you’re flying between, what your travel dates are and how many bags you want to check — so it’s important to search for your itinerary on multiple airline Web sites to see where you can find the cheapest rates (and check out our airline baggage fees roundup for info on different airlines’ checked bag charges). To give you an idea of which bargain may be best for you, here’s a brief rundown of what’s on offer:

AirTran Airways
This systemwide sale includes hundreds of discounted routes with fares starting at $54 each way before taxes. Available travel dates are broad: fly through the end of January on any day of the week except Fridays and Sundays.

What’s the Catch? There are some holiday blackout dates, and your first checked bag costs $20.

Virgin America
Travelers heading to California or Las Vegas can book flights for as little as $39 each way before taxes. This includes noteworthy coast-to-coast fares like Washington D.C. to Los Angeles for $109 each way.

What’s the Catch? Travel dates are limited. You’ll only get the very cheapest fares by traveling between September 14 and October 6 on select days of the week. Plus, each checked bag costs $25 each way.

Frontier’s offerings include discounted flights to cities throughout California, the Midwest, the Rockies and other U.S. regions, starting at $34 each way before taxes. Travel is good through December 15.

What’s the Catch? Flights are not available on Fridays or Sundays, and a $20 fee applies to each of your first two pieces of checked luggage.

American Airlines
Fares start at $59 each way plus taxes, and this deal encompasses a wide range of travel dates. You can fly through the end of January.

What’s the Catch? Look out for numerous holiday blackout dates, including seven blackout days in November. You can only fly on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Keep in mind that American charges $25 each way for your first checked bag and $35 each way for your second checked bag.

To see more cheap flights, check out our Airfare Deals. Which deal do you think is the best? Will you be booking fall travel with any of these airlines? Post your comments below!

–written by Caroline Costello