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What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this zany travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

hiker weird funny view jungle

To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, March 18, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

elderly woman suitcase airportOlder travelers at select U.S. airports will no longer have to take off their shoes at the security checkpoint as of Monday, March 19. It’s part of a new set of screening procedures that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing for fliers age 75 and up.

The new measures go beyond just leaving your shoes on. Older travelers will also be permitted to make a second pass through the full body scanner if any anomalies are spotted (as opposed to submitting immediately to a pat-down), and will be able to go through the machine without removing light outerwear. The TSA says screeners will also rely more heavily on explosives trace detection.

Senior Travel Deals

Of course, there’s no guarantee that older travelers won’t face a pat-down or have to take off their shoes: “These changes in protocol for passengers 75 and older could ultimately reduce — though not eliminate — pat-downs that would have otherwise been conducted to resolve anomalies,” says the TSA statement. “If anomalies are detected during security screening that cannot be resolved through other procedures, passengers may be required to remove their shoes to complete the screening process.”

The new screening procedures for seniors initially will only apply in a limited number of security lanes at the following four airports: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver International (DEN), Orlando International (MCO) and Portland International (PDX). You won’t need to show ID to prove your age, says the TSA; instead, officers will “make a visual assessment” to decide which passengers are eligible for the new screening procedures.

The modified screening procedures, which are similar to those instituted in the fall for children age 12 and under, are meant to help the TSA focus its efforts on more risky travelers. To learn more, see our Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

— written by John Deiner


Sending postcards while traveling is a quaint habit some of us are loathe to let go. Yet it’s such a hassle to gather our loved ones’ addresses, buy stamps and find a post office, when we can just upload a few shots to Facebook or send a mass e-mail.

A new service called Postcardly looks to bring postcards into the technological era. Take just a few minutes to register online and create an e-mail for all the people to whom you’d like to send a postcard — a simple process — and you can create and send personalized postcards as easily as you send an e-mail.

Picture-Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer

Here’s how it works. Once you register at Postcardly.com, you can load your contacts’ names and mailing addresses into the system. Each will be assigned a unique e-mail address to which you can send a photo and brief message (700 characters or less).

Postcardly will print your photo on a piece of 4.25″ x 6″ cardstock (standard U.S. postcard size) with your message on the back. A real, tangible postcard should reach your recipient within a week. (Our test postcards arrived in three days.)

The cost is $0.99 for a domestic postcard and $1.98 for international mailing. Postcardly gives you three free postcards to start when you sign up for a monthly plan ($4.99 for five postcards, $9.99 for 15 or a one-time charge of $19.99 for 20) and you can earn extra freebies when you get others to sign up.

What we liked:

-You can send your own photo instead of a generic shot.

-It’s convenient — you can send a postcard from your computer, smartphone or tablet.

-It’s great for staying in touch with the technophobes in your family. If Grandma is afraid of Facebook, you can send her postcards of the same photos the rest of the family enjoys online. Bonus: She can decorate her fridge with your smiling face or show you off at bridge club.

-Military APO and FPO addresses are priced the same as domestic addresses.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

What we didn’t like:

-It’s not practical for large mailings, such as birth announcements or party invitations.

-The picture quality isn’t much better than what you could produce with a decent photo printer at home. (For best results, upload the highest-resolution image you can.)

-There’s no pay-as-you-go option, although you can cancel at any time.

Final verdict: Could be a fun alternative to Facebook updates — especially for those who appreciate mail or like to put their fridge magnets to use.

— written by Jodi Thompson

pyramids egyptThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Ian Jonsen, who wrote, “Don’t know where he came from … he said he was looking for his mummy.” Ian has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug!

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Indiana Jones … And the Raiders of the Goofy Clowns. In theaters in June!” — Justin

“Yes, definitely that is the fashion police. And they are moving in fast.” — Wendy

“This sand trap has a big slope to it, I’m going to need the 9 iron.” — Jill Diaz

To read the other submissions, click here.

pyramids egypt camelIn addition to all the funny captions, we also got an e-mail from reader Bob Scherago, who wrote, “I don’t have a funny photo to submit, but I saw yours and discovered it was taken from the same spot that I took a photo from about 25 years ago! … I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” You can see Bob’s photo to the right.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this zany travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

pyramids egypt

To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, March 11, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday.

The photo above was submitted by reader Nancy James, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel comfort kit. About the photo, she said, “I thought this picture was funny. Like — the pink-shirted fellow ruined my Indiana Jones moment! I had the right look and outfit — then HE came along!”

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

ami vitale portraitWe all take them — the posed pics in front of iconic structures and vistas. But how do we transform our travel photos into a narrative of our journey? To help us, we turned to Nikon professional photographer Ami Vitale, who tells intimate stories through her camera lens. We learned not only how she creates a connection with her subject, but also how we can forge our own bonds.

Vitale’s work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. She has won numerous awards, exhibited in museums and contributed to a collaborative book project. Based in Montana, Vitale is working on her first solo book of stories behind the images she’s taken.

IT: Many of your photographs are close-ups of people. Do you ask permission to take someone’s photograph before you do it? Many travelers feel shy doing this; how do you approach the conversation?

Ami Vitale: Always. I usually sit down and talk with people for a few minutes, hours or even days to make sure that they are comfortable with my being there. If I don’t speak the same language, I will make gestures first asking if it’s okay or I will ask if someone nearby can translate. I always invest time in the people I’m photographing. It’s more respectful, I learn more and it elevates the image from being just a snapshot to an image with a real story.

Recently I was in India during the Pushkar Camel Fair and I was photographing a girl named Subita. I was not the only one taking her pictures. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive, firing away.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lenses. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing — what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt; she was simply the prize.

The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.

And that always takes time.

ami vitale african women

19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

IT: What’s a shot or a moment that most people miss with their travel photography?

AV: Instead of getting only posed photos with people looking directly into the camera, it is more revealing to get images that show something deeper about their culture and lives. It’s pretty simple. It only takes time and the willingness to speak with the people you want to photograph.

IT: If we could all just do one thing to make our travel photographs better, what would it be?

AV: Take more time in one place. Instead of zipping around to dozens of locations in one day, slow down, get to know the people and culture more deeply and the images will show that knowledge and trust.

ami vitale boy

7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone

IT: How does being a photographer change the way you travel?

AV: I don’t consider myself a traveler even though I’ve traveled to almost 85 countries. Instead, it’s about telling stories and learning about the people and places I visit. The experience is not about me but rather about the people who open their lives to me.

It’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about 10 percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work: planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.

So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.

ami vitale boat

Read more about Ami Vitale and see her galleries at Nikonusa.com

Check out more travel interviews!

— written by Jodi Thompson

zipper suitcaseIn The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time, I offer advice on how to avoid checking luggage even on long vacations. Here’s how I put my own tips into action on a recent two-week trip.

I was visiting New Zealand in the springtime, and temperatures fluctuated from the upper 30’s to the low 70’s. To cope with the changing conditions, I packed the following clothing:

-Two pairs of pants: jeans (worn on the plane) and lightweight hiking pants
-One set of lightweight thermal pants
-Five long-sleeved T-shirts (including one worn on the plane)
-One lightweight hooded sweatshirt
-One heavy hooded sweatshirt (worn on the plane)
-Water-proof rain jacket with zip-in fleece liner (worn/carried on the plane)
-Two pairs of shoes: hiking boots (worn on the plane) and walking shoes
-Seven days’ worth of undergarments and socks
-One set of lightweight sleepwear
-Gloves, scarf and knit hat (stuffed into pockets of rain jacket)

This was enough clothing to get me through the first week, at which point I did laundry. To save carry-on space, I wore all the bulkiest items on the plane — jacket, hiking boots, jeans, heavy sweatshirt. And during the trip, I was like a Russian nesting doll, adding and shedding layers of clothing as needed. In the colder regions of the country, I wore both my sweatshirts plus my jacket every day, changing nothing but the T-shirt underneath.

In addition to clothes, I also had a camera, travel-size toiletries, a snack-size plastic bag full of medications, a baseball cap and sunglasses, a plastic rain poncho, a travel journal, a guidebook, an MP3 player and, of course, the essentials — passport, credit cards and air/hotel/car confirmations. All of this fit easily into my carry-on (a roll-aboard suitcase) and personal item (a backpack), leaving room for souvenirs.

Poll: Do You Check Bags When You Fly?

A few things I didn’t bring: a laptop or tablet (I paid a few bucks to visit Internet cafes twice during the trip), dressy clothes (I ate only in casual restaurants) and a hair dryer (I used the ones supplied in hotels). I don’t have an e-reader, so I packed a few used paperback books that I’d picked up at my local library for 50 cents each. As I finished each one, I left it in my hotel room or at the airport for other travelers to enjoy.

This is just one strategy for traveling without checked luggage. What tips and tricks have you used?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

overhead bin airplaneOn my last flight, the gate agent announced that anyone in boarding zone five with a roll-aboard carry-on should go ahead and bring it up to the desk to be gate checked, as there wouldn’t be enough overhead bin space for it on the plane. I wasn’t particularly surprised; it seems that every time I fly, the boarding process turns into a chaotic mess of passengers stumbling down the aisle with their hefty carry-ons, searching row after row for a precious sliver of overhead bin space. (And don’t even get me started on the de-boarding process, when all the people who stowed bags 10 rows behind their own have to fight their way against traffic to be reunited with their possessions.)

Fortunately, the airlines — who created this problem in the first place by imposing fees on checked baggage — are responding by making overhead bins larger. According to a report from the Associated Press, four U.S. airlines are planning or have already begun making changes to the overhead bins on select aircraft: American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. These updates include more spacious bins as well as new bin doors with a more generous outward curve, allowing bags to be stowed wheels first rather than sideways.

Jet manufacturer Boeing is also tweaking the bin designs on its new planes to better accommodate standard roll-aboard bags.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

On the one hand, it’s about time. Having effectively instituted penalties for checking bags, the airlines ought to be prepared to accommodate more carry-ons. On the other hand, if fliers know the bins are getting bigger, will they just bring more stuff? (According to the AP story, the airlines are going to be more vigilant about policing the size of carry-ons — so it may not be an issue.) Plus, the ballooning bins are just more dispiriting evidence of what we already knew: that those pesky baggage fees are definitely here to stay.

Hate gate checking your bag? Here’s how to prepare in case it happens to you: A Bag Inside a Bag.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

businessman fishing beachThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Nancy James, who wrote, “*Mumble Grumble* The sign on the restaurant DID say ‘Fresh Sushi’…” Nancy has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug!

There were so many good runners-up that we thought we’d share a few:

“When I asked the best place to fish around here, the guy at the bait shop said, ‘Suit yourself.’ I hope this works!” — Gregory Ellis

“I knew it was a bad idea to tie her engagement ring to a fishing pole! If I don’t find this before she arrives…” — Ginny

“Harold was a workaholic who had never had a real vacation. His boss & co-workers finally bought him a trip to a beach resort and pushed him out the door. Harold is really enjoying himself. Here he is trying his hand at fishing, which he was told is a good way to relax. So this is what a vacation is like, he thinks. And tomorrow he just might go para-sailing.” — Anne

To see all of the submissions, click here.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

Check back soon for another caption contest!

— written by Sarah Schlichter