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tuna sandwichA reader recently wrote to us concerning TSA carry-on rules and a fishy snack. His note was short and savory: “Can I bring three cans of tuna fish through security? Thanks.”

We receive this kind of e-mail all the time. Questions about carrying food on planes appear in our in-box about as often as Google Alerts on TSA pat-downs gone awry. We pondered whether mashed potatoes would make it through the security line in our first blog post ever, and now we’re ready to take on the tuna enigma.

So, are those water-packed cans clear to bring on the plane? Sarah Schlichter, editor of IndependentTraveler.com, explains:

“Because the tuna cans have liquid in them, they may be subject to the TSA’s liquid/gel rules. I’d recommend making sure your tins of tuna are no larger than 3.4 ounces, and putting them into your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag along with your other liquid and gel items. If all three cans won’t fit into the single bag, you’ll need to divvy them up among your travel companions or put them in your checked bag.”

To fly with the fish, you’ll have to buy a small can of tuna and stick it in the bag with your travel toothpaste and mini-hand sanitizer. But there’s another option. Drain the tuna, dice some celery or water chestnuts, and mash it all together with mayonnaise and some salt and pepper to taste (do this at home, as the airport bathroom might be low on celery). Place the salad between two slices of bread. Give your cat any leftovers. Proceed through security.

Now, there’s a chance your tuna salad sandwich will be confiscated by the TSA, as it’s up to the officer at the checkpoint to determine whether such a snack falls into the liquid or gel category. But, with the water drained away and your tuna in solid sandwich form, you’ll probably be okay.

A final note: I implore you not to crank open a can of tuna at 30,000 feet. Not everyone will enjoy being confined in a plane seat as someone aerates a container of fish.

For more information about TSA rules, see Airport Security Q&A.

– written by Caroline Costello

volunteer beach ocean clean trash bagEvery 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.

If teaching English in Peru, planting trees in Costa Rica or helping at a women’s shelter in South Africa sounds appealing, a volunteer vacation may be right for you. But for travelers who want to combine exploring a new place with giving back to the community, it’s not as easy as picking a country and just showing up. With countless volunteer vacation programs across the globe, how’s a traveler supposed to find the right one — and make sure it’s legit?

Writes IndependentTraveler.com contributor Colleen Costello, “Once you have found a company with a project that interests you, consider the caveats and other pertinent considerations. You should have access to program alumni, and you should not have to pay for program information. Do not send money until you have chosen a project and are securing your reservation. If you are browsing an organization’s Web site or program guide, you should see a detailed breakdown of how program fees are used; a reputable organization will use 90 to 100 percent of funds received towards the various costs of the program.”

One good place to start your search is VolunteerInternational.org, which lists only member organizations that meet a strict set of criteria. Among other requirements, qualifying programs must provide safe and clean volunteer housing, offer a clear breakdown of fees and expenses, and encourage local field trips beyond the volunteer’s main work responsibilities.

For more information, see our full story on Volunteer Vacations.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

In honor of the upcoming Independence Day holiday, let’s take a peek at some of the places where the guys who run the country kick back and, um, clear some brush (I’m still not exactly sure what that means).

Regardless of how they choose to spend their vacation time, the leaders of the free world, it seems, have a knack for finding the most gorgeous corners of the country in which to retreat from life in the White House. With a sky’s-the-limit budget and a team of assistants, finding the perfect place to get away probably isn’t too challenging for a commander in chief. But for those of us who do our own trip planning, the presidents’ array of amazing vacation spots can provide some excellent summer travel ideas. Here are four of our favorite presidential destinations, with suggestions for planning your own stately retreat:

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

This summer, the Obamas are once again jetting to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island freckled with sheep, apple orchards and seafood shacks (the Obamas have spent previous summer stays here). The island’s pastoral, timeworn character belies its status as a travel destination for the most stalwart power circles. The Obamas are in solid Democratic company: Previous presidential Martha’s Vineyard vacationers include the Clintons and the Kennedys.

The Obamas are returning to Blue Heron Farm, a 28-acre estate that overlooks the water. According to ABC News, “Tom Wallace, of Wallace and Company Sotheby’s International Realty, said the property, which is home to a five-bedroom main house, also features a Cape Cod guest house, a swimming pool and a half-court basketball court. The Obamas will have their pick of activities on the property, ranging from kayaking on the West Tisbury Great Pond to a simple game of horseshoes.”

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Martha’s Vineyard has a handful of Victorian B&B’s that ooze New England charm and, most importantly, offer reasonable rates for those of us without security details and private planes. We like the Oak Bluffs Inn, a 19th-century home with wicker rocking chairs on the porch and a cool polygonal tower. Rates start at $225 per night for the summer season.

martha's vineyard



Kennebunkport, Maine

In the quiet seaside town of Kennebunkport sits the famed Bush Compound, the vacation spot to which George and George W.’s family members have been returning for generations. I guess it’s called a “compound” due to the prevalence of suited security guys in dark shades — there’s a checkpoint on the road leading to the entrance — but I think “estate” or “mansion” sounds like a less frightening place to take one’s summer break. The compound was originally known as Walker’s Point Estate when it was constructed at the turn of the century. The expansive property features a four-car garage, a pool, a boathouse, tennis courts and a nine-bedroom main house.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Like Martha’s Vineyard, Kennebunkport offers plenty of Victorian B&B’s (it’s a New England thing). The Captain Lord Mansion, a popular B&B, has, without a doubt, the best name for a New England inn that I’ve heard yet. Built in 1812, the inn features lavishly appointed rooms with canopy beds and fireplaces, with summer rates starting at $239 per night.

bush compound



Santa Barbara, California
During his term as president, Ronald Reagan would often retreat to Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, where he spent his time clearing brush, chopping wood and heroically riding around on horses. There’s something, well, sort of paradoxical about traveling to a multi-million-dollar ranch to partake in brush clearing. But hey — that’s what the Gipper liked to do.

The ranch spans 688 acres and provides views of the Santa Ynez Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Amenities include a quirky mix of the rustic and stately: There’s a helipad, a Secret Service command post (the only federal building remaining on the property), a hay barn, and pastures with cows and horses.

Rancho del Cielo



A Vacation for the Rest of Us:
Students who participate in Reagan Ranch programs and members of the Young America’s Foundation’s President’s Club are eligible to visit the ranch by appointment. Is this you? No? Then we recommend a stay at the Santa Ynez Inn, a convenient hub for exploring the region’s vineyards, art galleries and horse ranches. Rates start at $218.33 per night during summer, but the inn also offers various cycling tour and golf packages for bargain prices.

Key Biscayne, Florida
Ah, the beautiful Florida Keys. Nixon may have had a penchant for political sabotage, but he certainly had fine taste in vacation homes. Known as the “Florida White House,” Nixon’s Key Biscayne retreat provided a tropical waterfront escape for the 37th president of the U.S. The compound (there’s that word again) featured six bedrooms, eight bathrooms and oodles of ocean views — but it was razed in 2004 and replaced with a new home. Today, Key Biscayne’s claim to fame is that Nixon once relaxed by the ocean (and occasionally consorted with certain Florida businessmen) on its shores.

A Vacation for the Rest of Us: Key Biscayne is a tiny island close to Miami, where lovely beaches and the occasional Cuban restaurant are the main attractions. There’s a Ritz-Carlton on the key, where rates range from $300 to $1,000-plus per night. For the budget minded among us, Silver Sands Resort offers a cool blue pool and beachfront digs with off-season summer rates starting at $129.

Key Biscayne



– written by Caroline Costello

galapagos crabEvery 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:
Galapagos vacations are famously expensive. The remote volcanic islands don’t lend themselves to bargain-basement independent travel, as they’re best explored by small ship or on a well-run tour package; and these are usually very pricey. With packages, Galapagos travelers are often at the mercy of high fixed rates, especially during the islands’ peak travel season, which is from June through September. But we came across a fantastic shoulder-season deal for travel in the fall, with a price tag that drops well below what we’re used to seeing for Galapagos tour packages.

Friendly Planet Travel is currently running a special on its Galapagos Island Express package, with savings of up to $500 per person. Package prices start at $1,999 per traveler, which covers most meals, roundtrip airfare from Miami, local transportation, six nights’ accommodations, naturalist-led tours and even the $100 Galapagos National Park fee. Departure dates range from mid-August through December.

The Catch: Spots are filling up fast. As of this writing, seven of the nine cheapest tour dates are sold out (those are the tours going for $1,999 per person). You’ll have to make a quick decision if you want to grab this deal before the last two tours are full.

The Competition: We did some more searching and found this package from Gate 1 Travel, which includes six nights’ lodging, roundtrip flights from Miami, some meals and more, with prices starting at $1,999 per person. But this package doesn’t include the Galapagos National Park fee, and the itinerary is slightly different from Galapagos Island Express, with two nights in Quito instead of one.

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

– written by Caroline Costello

vancouver international airport terminalMost airports tend to blur together in my mind into a haze of fluorescent food courts, gray walls and dull-eyed passengers — but every now and then I walk into one that actually makes me want to stay a while. On my last trip, it was Vancouver International. Airy, modern and impeccably clean, its terminals offered a few perks I wasn’t expecting — like recycling bins for bottles and paper, and armrests with cupholders on many of the seats in the gate areas. (I wondered why all the seats didn’t have them until I saw a woman stretched out for a nap across three of the cupholder-less chairs. Aha — smart planning.)

Even Vancouver’s bathrooms were a step above the airport norm. The spacious stalls offered plenty of floor space to maneuver a carry-on or two, and there were multiple hooks on the wall for purses, shopping bags and other paraphernalia. I once had a laptop bag crash down onto the bathroom tiles at the Philadelphia airport when I tried to hang both it and a coat on the only available hook — so you can bet I appreciated the extra wiggle room.

And don’t forget the free Wi-Fi. (Yes, Vancouver has that too.) When we recently asked our Twitter followers which amenities a great airport absolutely must have, that was the top response. “FREE Wi-Fi is a MUST!!” opined @BlkChickOnTour. “To charge for it is just plain greedy.” (See our Airport Internet Tips for more on this topic.)

Another techie traveler weighed in with her own, somewhat related preference: “Outlets! [My] pet peeve is finding [the] only outlets in [the] terminal snagged by people watching movies on [their] computer,” said @CAMillsap. While I didn’t see any in Vancouver, many other airports (such as Philadelphia International and Toronto Pearson) have added special charging stations to help travelers keep laptops, cell phones and other gadgets juiced up when they’re on the go — without having to huddle on the floor beside an inconveniently located wall outlet.

But good design and modern amenities can only take an airport so far. “The perks are the people!” said @johnmill79. “Give me good, clean customer service.” On this one, Canada wins again. I couldn’t believe how friendly the airport security folks were in Toronto, and even the customs person was almost — almost — cordial.

What do you find most essential for a great airport? Vote in our poll:



– written by Sarah Schlichter

lanson place hotel hong kong conciergeEvery Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $347 (2,700 HKD). With her guess of $327 a night, Kathy Jensen had the closest answer without going over. She has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured in Friday’s post is a superior room at the Lanson Place Hotel in Hong Kong. This boutique property offers a range of studios and suites (the room we chose is actually the cheapest at $321 – $347 a night), all including kitchenettes — ideal for families or for travelers who want to save money on restaurants by cooking for themselves. The hotel is located across the street from Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay area of the city. Read more about the Lanson Place Hotel in Hong Kong Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified hotel here, on our blog — and we want you to guess how much it costs to stay there. Leave your guess in the comments below, and you could win a prize! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

It’s that time of the week again! Guess the maximum standard nightly rate of the hotel room pictured below. Enter your guess in the comments, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address (so we can contact you in case you win). With a nod to “The Price Is Right,” we’ve added this condition: whoever guesses closest to the price of the room — without going over — wins a free IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. Here’s the room:



We’ve got a few hints to help you win that T-shirt:

-The hotel is located in a bustling Asian city relinquished by the British in 1997.

-This room’s amenities include a flat-screen TV, an iPod docking station, and a kitchenette with microwave and refrigerator.

-This boutique hotel is across the street from a park.

We’re looking for the maximum nightly price for two people as listed on the property’s Web site, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, June 26, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airportI’ve never missed a flight. I say this with a deep fear that, upon uttering such a bold statement, I’ll jinx myself and end up late for my next departure (which happens to be this afternoon). I’m fixated on arriving at the airport three hours or more before departure — whether for a domestic or international flight — and so far traffic jams, snaking security lines and ill-timed airport parking lot shuttles have been no match for me.

I think it’s inevitable that every avid flier will miss at least one flight at some point in his or her travel career, and I’m determined to thwart fate as long as possible. But I have to admit, I admire those dauntless travelers who stroll into the airport 45 minutes before departure and never run into any problems. How do they stay so calm? After all, arriving at the airport less than an hour before departure is not exactly the recommended check-in protocol.

In What to Expect at the Airport, we suggest the following: “For domestic flights, you should be at the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to leave if you’re planning on checking luggage. If you’re bringing just a carry-on, allow at least 90 minutes. If you’re flying to Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands or an international destination, arrive at least two hours early. During peak travel times, allow even more time at the airport — perhaps an extra 30 to 60 minutes.”

What’s your take? Are these rules meant to be broken?



– written by Caroline Costello

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,'” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

beer festival



2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

bahia honda state park florida keys



3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

alaska inside passage boat sunset



4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

gettysburg battlefield cannon civil war



5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

san francisco giants baseball ballpark



Get more summer vacation ideas!

– written by Dan Askin

hotel room man laptop bedEvery 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.

You’ve shopped around, read hundreds of reviews, scrutinized neighborhood maps and finally booked a great hotel — with a great rate to match. Now you can sit back, relax and dream about how fantastic your stay is going to be, right?

Wrong. If you want to get the lowest possible rate on your stay, your work isn’t necessarily done after you’ve made your initial booking. As we recommend in Get the Best Hotel Rate, “Once you’ve booked your hotel, don’t just rest on your laurels. Call back or check online in another month or so and see whether rates have gone down. If they have, cancel your booking and rebook your stay at the lower rate. (Read the hotel’s cancellation policy carefully before doing so to make sure you won’t have to pay any penalties.)”

Yapta.com is well known for monitoring airfare and alerting travelers when prices drop, but the site recently added hotel tracking as well. Before or after you book, you can select specific hotels for the site to keep an eye on. If the rate drops, you’ll get an immediate e-mail, enabling you to act quickly to make or change your reservation.

Of course, you may be out of luck if you’ve already put down a hefty nonrefundable deposit on your hotel, or if the property has a stringent cancellation policy. But if you’ve got a little wiggle room, checking for falling rates is an easy way to trim your vacation budget.

Don’t miss 14 more ways to save on your hotel.

– written by Sarah Schlichter