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street performer In the same way that a great meal of sausage, sauerkraut and local altbier can be the focal point of a trip to Berlin, the talented guy with the sax and hat on the French Quarter sidewalk can create a powerful imprint from which the rest of a travel memory can build.

We’ve all seen the diminutive Incan flutists who, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sent to proselytize the reverb-filled sound of the Andes. But what about those artists who seem to have no twin, those street performers who take the man-and-guitar concept somewhere new and bizarre? Here are a few of my favorites:

London, England. My head was in a rag-y Metro paper during the busy red line Tube rush. A stubbly pair, one with a guitar, stepped onto the train. Without fanfare, they begin singing in a melodious staccato chant: “If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” After a second of confusion, the car’s commuters were a-grin. I was somewhat suspicious, as the duo wielded a clarity of voice and harmony you might not expect from people used to shearing in a public loo — but it was two minutes well spent either way.

Key West, Florida. Mallory Square is known for sunsets and street performers. I’ve seen your typical magicians, sword swallowers and fire-eaters — but I’ve also watched a man eating a shopping cart piece by piece (or displaying an uncanny knack for sleight of hand) and a talkative chap riding a painful-looking 30-foot-high unicycle while juggling. The most memorable performance was the Movin’ Melvin show.

Melvin appeared with a flat wooden mat for dancin’ on and one of those giant Utz pretzel drums full of dollars. Melvin started tap dancing. Then Melvin stopped, looked at the audience with a smile and said, “People say, ‘Melvin, can you move faster?!'” The crowd repeated the call. Then shouted Melvin, “Now watch me now!” And he moved faster than previously. The whole crowd got involved, and the line, delivered louder and louder in unison, became, “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax came when Melvin could no longer move faster.

New Orleans, Louisiana. In a town where it seems that every third resident has some sort of crazy talent, differentiation is key for street performers. Puppet master Valentino Georgievski, whose show features puppet versions of famous musicians singing and dancing, understands this well. I caught his show on a recent trip to the Big Easy. Sax-playing puppets got down on one knee while growling out that high note. A James Brown-looking puppet in a gray suit fell into a split during the break-down of “The Big Payback.” Another puppet stalked the mic in between the lines of “Low Rider,” a favorite move of more fleshy lead singers. It was all very soulful stuff, and it was just as much fun to watch the puppet master, who grooved along behind his marionettes.

Your turn: What street performer left an indelible mark on your brain?

–written by Dan Askin

toy tour I just got a postcard from my Justin Beiber doll. He’s on vacation, you see, sightseeing in Paris. When he returns, he’ll bring me a souvenir and we’ll laugh together as we look through his vacation photos.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, guess what. You too can send your childhood playthings on fun adventures around the world.

Some out-of-the-ordinary travel companies have popped up in the past few years, offering vacations for teddy bears, toys, Tickle Me Elmo — you name it. These companies sell tour packages exclusively for inanimate objects, which get photographed in exotic places in the grand tradition of Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome. No humans are allowed to come along (except for, of course, whomever it is you’re paying to cart Teddy around the streets of Europe).

Here’s how it works: You mail a toy to the company. Your toy is photographed hamming for the camera in front of the Louvre or receiving a relaxing massage in Prague. Finally, your toy returns to you with the photographic evidence and whatever perks come with the package you’ve selected (some packages include things like souvenirs, daily e-mail updates or travel certificates).

No, I’m not making this up. Here’s a sample of companies offering vacations for toys:

Furry Toy Tours is a French company that sells seven-day Parisian vacations for lifeless objects, starting at 100 euros. Customers seeking an upgrade can select from various extension packages based on their toy’s alleged interests, ranging from a Dan Brown Da Vinci Code tour to an exploration of the Parisian contemporary art scene, for an extra 50 euros.

ToyTraveling, based in Prague, declares on its Web site, “We are tolerant and unbiased. We are happy to welcome all kinds of your toys regardless of their nationality, race, religion, sexual preferences, age or handicaps.” Whew, that’s a relief. I was worried that my gender-ambiguous Raggedy Ann doll, which only has one leg, might face discrimination. ToyTraveling’s Prague tours start at 90 euros, but you can snag extras like a massage and aromatherapy for the Premium Fare of 150 euros.

Teddy Tours Lapland, a Finnish company, offers “teddy bears and other soft toys holiday trips to Finland, Lapland and Rovaniemi.” A standard journey includes a meeting with Santa Claus himself and starts at 90 euros. For those who don’t love any of their current toys enough to buy vacations for them, Teddy Tours Lapland sells Moomins — popular Scandinavian troll/hippo creatures — in desperate need of a holiday.

So far, this appears to be a European trend. But I bet it won’t be long before some guy in Arizona sets up a Web site and starts selling toy tours of the American West. After all, these tours are easy money. Dolls don’t require food, plumbing, polite customer service or comfortable transportation. Just snap a photo of someone’s Beanie Baby in front of a cactus and you’ll be raking it in.

What’s your take on this? Are tours for toys the genius byproduct of capitalist innovation, or is this a wasteful scam for immature adults with money to burn?

–written by Caroline Costello

jets fan football It’s enough to turn you into a Jets fan. Or a football fan. Or a sports fan in general.

Or, really, it’s enough to make you grab your credit card and fly JetBlue next month, which is the whole point of this interesting deal we found: If you use your MasterCard by the end of today (November 2) to book a December flight on JetBlue.com out of the NYC area, you’ll get a full refund of the fare after Feb. 6 — but, of course, there’s a catch.

The New York Jets have to win Super Bowl XLV, which takes place that day in Dallas.

Intriguing? Yes. Likely you’ll cash in? Questionable, though the odds are actually with you on this one. According to VegasInsider.com, which keeps tabs on such things, the odds of the Jets winning the whole enchilada are 8 to 1; they trail only the Baltimore Ravens (7/1) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (5/1) at this point in the season.

Recall that back in August, Jets coach Rex Ryan signed a guarantee that his team would win the Super Bowl. Let’s hope for fliers’ sake, his word is good.

For more details on the deal, visit the JetBlue Web site.

— written by John Deiner

passport boarding pass travelWe’ve all heard the stories of 2-year-olds and little old ladies being hassled at airport security because they share a name with someone on the no-fly list. As of today, the TSA has taken steps toward greater security (and, hopefully, the freedom of flying toddlers everywhere) with the full institution of its new Secure Flight program.

If you’ve made a flight reservation in the last year or so, you’ve probably been prompted to provide your full name, birth date and gender at some point during the booking process. This isn’t your airline being nosy — it’s part of the phasing-in process for Secure Flight. All airlines, booking sites and travel agents must have this information on file in order to send it to the TSA before you fly; the TSA will then use it to check your identity against the government’s official no-fly list. If your identity is cleared, you’ll be issued a boarding pass. If not, you will be subject to further screening at the airport before you can fly.

What does all this mean for you? You must be sure that your airline, travel agent or booking site has the information above on file for you before your trip. If you’ve had issues with the no-fly list in the past, you can also request and supply a “redress number” from the TSA when booking.

The TSA emphasizes that the name on your reservation must match the name on the government-issued ID you plan to use — so if your driver’s license lists you as Margaret, forget about booking a flight as “Maggie.” If you’ve just gotten married or divorced but haven’t changed the name on your passport, book your flight under the last name that matches your ID. (The TSA notes that small differences, such as a middle initial versus a middle name, shouldn’t be enough to keep you from flying.)

It’s important to be aware that the Secure Flight screening process takes place before you ever arrive at the airport, and does not replace the in-person screening of your boarding pass and ID at the security checkpoint.

To learn more about how your next flight could be affected, check out TSA’s Secure Flight Program: What It Means for You.

–written by Sarah Schlichter