Explore. Experience. Engage.

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

farmerIf the recessionary mindset has taught us anything, it’s that delivering suspicious packages is not the only way to travel cheaply. Enter the working vacation, where callous-palmed travelers don the sun hat and gloves of the temporary laborer, and pay for their camp grub, modest accommodations and instructional lessons on trail maintenance by picking heirloom tomatoes or keeping leaf-eating beetles at bay. Below are two ingenious ways to take a vacation for next to nothing.

(Editor’s Note: If you already have a full-time job upkeeping trails or cultivating organic crops, we don’t recommend the following options.)

Harvest 22 varieties of figs in Malibu. Help build an off-the-grid dwelling situated at 10,000 feet in Colorado Springs. Rake wild blueberries and make wine in Phillips, Maine. What is this strange bourgeois migrant labor, you ask? There are some 1,200 farms associated with WWOOF U.S.A., the American chapter of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (There are thousands more across the planet, but costly flights make extreme penny pinching more of a challenge.) The exchange: You work for a half day, and the farm owners, which you’ve hopefully vetted (and they you, crazy eyes), provide food and shelter. No previous experience extolling the virtue of the soil is needed, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to work on your own. (Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)

The length of a farmstay is determined by you and your host, and can vary from a few days to a season. Gaining access to WWOOF’s online database of farms costs $30.

Appalachian Trail Work Crew
Working as part of a volunteer crew to build and protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a decidedly couch-free affair. Trail crews tackle large-scale projects such as trail relocations and rehabilitation, and bridge and shelter construction. The work is rigorous and there are no “vacation days” if you’re working for the minimum week-long stint. But what you do get, if you’re so disposed, is the chance to pass on the 75-plus-year legacy of a 2,181-mile trail that runs from Georgia through Maine, the pursuit of which has given men, women and children the freedom to grow wizard-like beards without recoiling in society’s mirror. As part of the bargain, you also get food, transportation to the work site, the chance to share a group tent, work tools and equipment, and crew leadership. Volunteers are responsible for providing their own camping gear.

Apparently, there are quite a few hardy noble souls ready to take on the task — there’s often a waitlist for the first-come, first-served positions, which are filled in equal parts by men and women, with ages ranging from 18 to 80.

Not interested in sleeping on a stranger’s couch or getting your hands dirty on vacation? Check out these nine creative ways to save big on your next trip. And don’t forget to use our handy travel budget calculator for planning a wallet-friendly getaway!

Ever been on a volunteer or working vacation? Tell us about it below.

— written by Dan Askin

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Newgrange, Ireland! This 5,000-year-old tomb mound in County Meath predates the Pyramids at Giza and Stonehenge in England. Though it’s known for the way light illuminates its chamber for 17 minutes during every winter solstice, visitors can see this phenomenon recreated with artificial lights on other days throughout the year. Learn more about Newgrange, about an hour outside of Dublin, in Dublin Essentials.

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified place here, on our blog. Think you know where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Monday to see if you were right! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Hint: An inner passage of this prehistoric monument, famous for its spiral carvings, is illuminated with light for about 17 minutes during the winter solstice each year.

Leave a comment below to guess the destination!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

world of coca cola taste it coke boyI have a confession: I can’t stand the taste of Coke.

Fortunately, this character flaw didn’t get me booted out of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta when I visited a few weeks ago. (To be fair, I don’t like Pepsi either.) Despite my bias, I didn’t want to miss out on one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, so I tagged along with a few Coke-loving pals. Part museum, part advertisement, the World of Coca-Cola offers visitors a chance to watch the bottling process, meet the company’s famous polar bear and catch clips of old Coke commercials.

Frankly, I found all the exhibits and films a little hyper-promotional — but one part of the tour I did enjoy was the “Taste It!” exhibit, where you can sample more than 60 different Coca-Cola beverages from around the world. I discovered that I may not like ordinary Coke, but I do like South Africa’s fresh, fruity Bibo Kiwi Mango, as well as Estonia’s berry-flavored Fanta Magic. Of course, there were some duds too; my travel companions and I universally panned Italy’s Beverly drink, with its yucky chemical aftertaste. All told, Coca-Cola offers a staggering 3,500 different beverages worldwide (which gives a whole new meaning to the old slogan “Always Coca-Cola” — you can’t escape the stuff!).

Coke isn’t the only brand that looks a little different when you encounter it overseas. Take McDonald’s. The first thing that springs to mind when I think of the Golden Arches is a hamburger and fries — but as we note in Strange International Foods: Our Top Seven, the restaurant has tailored its menus to fit regional tastes around the globe. Its Indian franchises have replaced the traditional Big Mac with a “Maharaja Mac” made from chicken instead of beef (to accommodate Hindu diners). The “McArabia” is popular in Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and features either chicken or kofta (spiced beef) wrapped in a pita-style bread.

I’m the type of traveler that generally tries to avoid big-name chains and products when traveling overseas; I’d rather sample local flavors and support homegrown businesses. But maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a familiar place and seeing it through a foreign lens. Maybe sometimes, even when you least expect it, it really is “the real thing.”

— written by Sarah Schlichter

The next time you step up to the sink at an airport bathroom, your own face may not be all you see in the mirror. Two companies, Clear Channel Airports and Mirrus, have teamed up to design digital ads that are now being displayed on bathroom mirrors at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

The high-definition ads look like large posters until you step up to the mirror, at which point they shrink into one corner — allowing you to see both the ad and your own reflection while you wash your hands, adjust your combover or touch up your lip gloss. You can see how the ads work in the following video from Mirrus:

Relentless advertising is nothing new to air travelers, of course. In recent years, several airlines have experimented with putting ads on airplane tray tables, and the TSA has put them in some of its bins at security checkpoints. At least they’re not appearing inside the bathroom stalls — yet.

What do you think of the new ads?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s been a tremendous amount of talk lately among various travel outlets about hotel rooms. Not the rooms themselves, mind you (though that’s always important), but the views out the windows.

Ostensibly, all the chatter is linked to the arrival of Room77.com, a California-based Web site that purports to show you what you’ll be looking at from the window in your accommodations, thus helping you choose a specific floor or even a room when you book. You put in your specs and the site creates a virtual shot of the view. There’s also an iPhone app that lets you know on the spot (read: at check-in) what to expect when you open the door, thus allowing you to request an immediate room change and negating that annoying trip back to the front desk.

It’s all very cool, and very much in the nascent stages. Only three-star hotels and above will be offered, and only 16 cities are represented so far (though that translates to a rather impressive 425,000 rooms). You can’t book directly on the site yet, but that’s reportedly going to change soon. All in all, it has the potential to be a powerful force once it catches on — and it’s great fun playing around on the site to see how it measures up at hotels where you’ve already stayed (I, for one, am mightily impressed by its accuracy).

crowne plaza boston newton massachusetts turnpike hotel room view

For its part, USA Today conducted a recent poll asking readers if they cared to see the view from their hotel room prior to arrival. A whopping 88 percent indicated that they would.

I wonder: What’s up with the 12 percent who don’t?

A huge fan of hotels, I’m always a bit anxious at check-in, as much over the quality of the room as the scene on the other side of the glass. My strategy to avoid disappointment? I always ask for a room on an upper floor. Even if the hotel is three stories, it’ll keep me from being at eye level with the Winnebago in the parking lot or the kids racing around the pool. I also routinely request a “quiet” spot, which means nowhere near the ice machine or elevator bank, and away from the main drag.

How to Get the Best Hotel Room

That backfires on occasion, inasmuch as the dumpster is usually out back, leading to a fair (unfair?) share of garbage-filled vistas. And there’s no accounting for construction eyesores (which even Room 77 may not be able to avert). Once in Las Vegas, I was psyched to get a suite near the peak of the Venetian, a soaring monolith on the Strip. But when I got to the room and opened up the curtains, a giant crane was swinging a girder bound for the Palazzo, the sister resort under construction next door.

dumpster view starlite hotel miami

Room 77 wouldn’t have done much to help ward off the worst view I’ve ever had, at a bed and breakfast in Chincoteague, VA. Promising a “waterfront location,” the inn was actually plunked in the parking lot of a neighboring marina. A huge truck for storing fish — with a bellowing refrigeration unit that ran 24/7 — sat about 10 feet outside my window. When I asked to move, the only other choice was … the other side of the truck. I stayed put and kept the shades drawn.

What’s the worst view you’ve ever had?

— written by John Deiner

tired man suitcase traveler travel airport sleep waitEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

One hour, one day: That’s the ratio many experts use to explain how quickly your body recovers from jet lag. If you cross two time zones, allow yourself two days to adjust to your new schedule. If you’re headed from the West Coast to Europe, you could be dealing with the lingering effects of jet lag for a week or more.

Of course, no one wants to feel sleepy and disoriented for their whole vacation — so we asked our readers to share their best strategies for adjusting quickly to a new time zone. In Fighting Jet Lag: Tips from Our Readers, Host Bonjour offers one suggestion:

“When I got to Australia after nearly 24 hours in the air plus almost a day at LAX, it was 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I was all set to go to sleep. My innkeeper, a lovely woman, told me I wasn’t going to take a nap. I was going to have a shower and get changed, and she’d map out a fine walk for me that she knew would keep me out long enough — to try to get me on local time. Oh, how I wanted that nap, though it couldn’t match the feeling I had when the vista came up before my eyes — the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, sites I’d only ever seen in pictures.”

Other long-haul travelers swear by sleeping pills or homeopathic remedies containing melatonin (the naturally occurring chemical that helps your body regulate its sleep cycles). Get more information in our story on Jet Lag.

What’s your top tip for fighting jet lag?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

voyager of the seas royal caribbean cruiseEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Can you imagine paying just $33 per person, per night for a cruise? That’s the starting price for this 14-night transatlantic cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, departing from Galveston, Texas, on May 1. The cruise ends in Barcelona and includes port stops in Ponta Delgada, Azores; Malaga, Spain; and Cartagena, Spain. The cruise also features quite a few days at sea, which you can spend enjoying the ship’s many activities, such as rock climbing and ice skating.

The fare starts at $499 per person for an inside cabin. If you’re concerned about feeling claustrophobic during so many days at sea, consider upgrading to an oceanview cabin ($649) or balcony cabin ($799). These per-person rates are based on double occupancy, and do not include taxes and fees.

The Catch: Before you start salivating over the eye-poppingly cheap fare, keep in mind that you’ll also need to budget for one-way airfare from Barcelona back to the U.S. — which could be pricey. (See How to Save on One-Way Flights for tips.)

The Competition: Norwegian Cruise Line is offering a 13-night transatlantic cruise in the reverse direction (from Barcelona to Miami) this coming fall. At $1,799 per person, the fare is significantly higher, but it includes airfare, transfers and several nights of accommodations. And the ship, Norwegian Epic, is the newest in the NCL fleet.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Cruise Deals.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

On Friday, passengers waiting for a delayed flight in Buenos Aires’ Jorge Newbery Airport were treated to a surprise song by none other than ’80’s pop icon Cyndi Lauper. The songstress belted out “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on an airport terminal public address system, soothing waiting travelers with her melodic voice. A passenger captured the moment on camera, and the video’s been sweeping the Internet:

This reminds me of the time a group of stranded travelers joined together in a Beatles sing-along with a guitar-strummin’ fellow passenger at Newark International Airport. (Check out the video below.) This also reminds me to keep my flip video camera close at hand when killing time in the terminal. Who will be the next talented hero to entertain bored fliers? Justin Bieber? Celine Dion? Busta Rhymes? Share your thoughts!

— written by Caroline Costello

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Acadia National Park, Maine! Pictured is Jordan Pond, one of the most popular areas of the park. Hikers can walk the easy 3.2-mile loop around the pond before rewarding themselves with the famous buttery popovers at Jordan Pond House, the park’s only restaurant. Learn more about Acadia in The 10 Best National Parks.

— written by Sarah Schlichter