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hillary clintonRecently, those of us at IndependentTraveler.com asked our Facebook and Twitter followers which famous person, living or dead, they would want to travel with.

If Susan P. Brackett gets a chance to travel with her pick, she’ll have to bulk up on passport pages. She chose Hillary Clinton, who on just her last trip traveled more than 27,000 miles and visited nine countries (France, Afghanistan, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel). In total, Clinton has visited 102 countries and flown more than 843,000 miles — an all-time record for a U.S. Secretary of State.

Everyone else who responded to our poll chose slightly less traveled companions. But only slightly: Rick Steves got a couple of votes and we’re pretty sure he’s probably visited close to 100 countries, even if he hasn’t flown some 800,000 miles.

Avoid Jet Lag

Another celebrity with multiple votes was Michael Jackson. We’re not exactly sure why he would have made a good travel companion, but you’d probably never have to wait in a security line again if you were in his entourage.

A couple of writers also made it into the list of famous folks our readers would like to travel with, namely Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare. Facebook follower Runaway Brit, who chose Shakespeare, explained her choice: “He would entertain me with stories, plays and poems along the way.”

We decided to ask a few folks in the IndependentTraveler.com office who they’d want to travel with. Here’s what they came up with:

Sarah Schlichter, Editor: “I’d like to travel with singer/songwriter Dar Williams, who seems like she’d be a friendly, down-to-earth travel companion — and she could play my favorite songs during long layovers.”

Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor: “Tina Fey because she’s hilarious, a great writer and she hates cruising, so I’d love to pick her brain.”

Aubrey Manzo, Public Relations Specialist: “Betty White. She seems like the ultimate travel partner: feisty, always up for a good time and able to bring humor into any situation — plus we’re both animal lovers, so we’d definitely add a few animal encounters to our itinerary.”

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Morgan Balog, contributing writer: “I would travel with Jeff Goldblum, because let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to travel with that dude?”

My own pick? Anderson Cooper. He seems like he’d be a lot of fun and he knows everything there is to know about everything. Plus, knowing everybody as he does, he’d probably be able to get us behind the scenes everywhere we went.

Who would you want to travel with and why?

– written by Dori Saltzman

zebraThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Gini Dilley, who wrote, “Cut off my mohawk? NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” Gini has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Like my teeth? … I only use the toothpaste with the stripes.” — Ian J

“But I don’t want to be a referee!” — Paul

“Man, whoever said that tattoo removal wasn’t painful certainly never had to deal with this.” — Meghan Finley

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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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

zebra


To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, July 15, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday. Please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

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

refrigerator magnetsWant to know where I’ve traveled? Just check out my refrigerator, which is covered from top to bottom with colorful, magnetic mementos of the places I’ve been. When I travel I collect magnets. I have magnets from countries, states, cities and attractions. I have plastic magnets, ceramic magnets and metal magnets. I even have a magnet made out of compressed volcanic ash. Some are hand-painted, some sculpted; others are photographs or shaped to represent the attraction.

Though I’ve been collecting magnets for many years, it’s only in the last two years that I’ve begun doing so religiously when I travel. Why magnets, you ask? Well, they’re relatively inexpensive — though even I sometimes balk at paying $10 for a hand-made piece. They’re small, so easy to fit into an already over-full suitcase. And I love watching my fridge fill up with reminders of where I’ve been. So far I have 39 magnets. (I used to have 40, but my cat decided my sculpted ceramic replica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona made a great toy.)

Whenever possible I try to select magnets made by local artisans. They tend to be unique — and often funky — and I like being able to support the local community with my purchase. It’s so much better than dropping a few bucks in a tourist trap on a magnet that was probably made in China (of course, I’ve got some of those as well!).

Here are a few favorites from my collection (mouse over the images to learn more about them):

refrigerator magnets refrigerator magnets
refrigerator magnets refrigerator magnets



– written by Dori Saltzman


Cooking Up a Travel Memory

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

us passport globeOne oft-forgotten rule of international travel is that many countries won’t allow you to enter if your passport‘s expiration date is less than six months away. It certainly was a rule that I forgot about until I was reminded by a cruise line that my European voyage next month would be null and void if I didn’t have a new passport number, even though I have a few months left to go on the old one.

Which meant I was in “your passport must be expedited” territory.

I assumed my Google search of “need to renew passport” would lead me straight to the State Department’s Web site. It didn’t. Instead, I ended up in the nether regions of a for-profit site called USPassportOnline.com. Clicking along obliviously — the Web site makes it somewhat but not overly clear that it’s not the official State Department site — I registered for the renewal. I checked off the box for the $45 nonrefundable fee even as a flickering in my brain began to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t where I intended to go.

It wasn’t until I started downloading the renewal forms that it twigged: This is a for-profit service with for-profit prices. US Passport Online passes along the State Department’s $170 official fee ($110 for the passport + $60 for expedited service) but then tacks on an additional $54 for processing, the aforementioned $45 nonrefundable reservation fee and $30 for shipping. And that was for service in 8 – 12 business days; charges rise steeply if your turn-around time is shorter. My bill totaled $299.

In contrast, the State Department charges $110 for the passport, $25 for processing, a mere $12.72 for overnight shipping and $60 for expediting — a grand total of $207.72, almost $100 less.

I don’t know about you, but spending nearly $100 extra for nothing special makes me cranky. And while I could have, and should have, paid closer attention while submitting my request, US Passport Online’s Web site, with its red, white and blue color scheme, really could be mistaken for the official “passport” site.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

In a call to the company’s toll-free hotline, I expressed my dismay about the process, and the sales representative’s terse response led me to believe he fields a lot of these calls from frustrated travelers. I canceled the order. The kicker? In an e-mail confirming the cancellation, US Passport Online notes that the refund, minus the $45 cancellation fee, will take a jaw-dropping “12 – 15 business days from your cancellation date” to return to my coffers.

Was it all just a scam? Not necessarily. Using a for-profit expeditor makes good sense if you have a really challenging turn-around time (less than a week) or if you don’t live near a regional passport agency where you can apply in person. (See Passport and Visa Expeditors for more info.) But otherwise, there’s nothing easier or cheaper about using them over the State Department.

In checking out other expeditors for my not-quite-an-emergency needs, I noticed that CIBT.com at least didn’t use US Passport Online’s stars and stripes Web page design to confuse you into thinking it was part of the State Department’s passport services, but it still wasn’t terribly helpful; you have to go through the whole process of registering to find out what the fees are (or call its toll-free number and wait on hold; I hung up after 10 minutes). At G3 Visas & Passports, the pricing info is right up front and seemingly easy to access; my two-week expedite cost would have been $245, but there was no mention of special fees and, yes, you have to go through the registration process to find out what other costs there are.

Ultimately, I was most comfortable with simply going through the U.S. State Department’s passport renewal service. I made an appointment for my nearby office in Philadelphia, planned it around a lunch with an old friend and saved money in the bargain.

5 Common Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

electronics rechargingMy brother — a total tech geek — recently posted a picture on Facebook of his hotel bedside table during a trip. It was cluttered with gadgets recharging via the power strip he packed. My other brother countered with a bedside shot of his own, a bottle of wine and a new wine opener that he obviously hadn’t yet mastered, as the cork was bobbing in the half-empty bottle. I was appalled — by the technophile brother’s pic, not the oenophile brother’s pic — until I realized I often travel with just about as many gadgets. My electronics and their accoutrements seem to swallow more than their fair share of my carry-on’s real estate.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if my hotel provided me with a recharging station, so I could at least leave power cords at home? Aloft properties, such as the one in Brooklyn, have a plug and play connectivity station that charges all your electronics in addition to linking to a 42-inch LCD TV. And according to CNN.com, the Ecclestone Square Hotel in central London features in-wall docking and charging points for your electronic devices.

The Opus Vancouver hotel goes one better: It provides guests with the use of an iPhone, as reported by USA Today. This is especially cool if you’d otherwise have to pay for international roaming fees on your own phone. Plus, the important numbers for the hotel (concierge or housekeeping) are already programmed in. And they wipe the iPhone clean when you check out to protect your privacy and security. The Opus also offers an iPad 2 in every room, loaded with an iPad virtual concierge.

The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo lends iPods to guests. The devices at the Peninsula can guide guests on walking tours of the Imperial Gardens and other city sites.

You could also use these loaner devices to take photos and upload them to social media sites where your sibling will try to one-up you.

Would you prefer to use electronics supplied by your hotel, or would you never leave home without your own gear?

– written by Jodi Thompson

silly man leaping out of waterThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Louis Johnson, who wrote, “Next time I’ll study the travel brochure more closely when it says the resort offers water sports and hot air balloon rides.” Louis has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“…and just moments later, ‘Balloon Diving with Fins’ would lose its status as an Olympic Event.” — Nancy James

“Dear Daughter,

“I know that you are now seriously studying in college, but this is just to remind you to take some time to de-stress and be a little silly once in a while.

“Love, Dad” — Dale Lowhat

“And the film ‘UP’ made this look so easy…” — Jeffrey C

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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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

silly man leaping out of water


To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, July 8, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday. Please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

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

airplane turbulenceA few weeks ago, problems with the hydraulic system forced a JetBlue flight into an emergency landing at Las Vegas‘ McCarran Airport. As the stricken plane careened into sharp turns and lurched from one side to the other, passengers became sickened and many began vomiting. This went on for several hours, as the plane had to burn off enough fuel to land safely.

Have you ever been on a plane that lurched or dipped or swerved? Have you ever thrown up on a plane?

I have. In fact, my strongest airplane memories involve bad experiences. Like when I was 13 and the plane I was on, flying from San Diego to New York, was hit by lightning. I saw the lightning strike the wing and I felt the plane lurch downwards. I started to cry because I thought the plane would catch on fire — I mean, that’s what happens in movies.

A nice older man a row in front of me turned around to calm me down. The planes are grounded, he said, so nothing bad can happen. (I found out later that this isn’t exactly the case; airplanes are protected from lightning because their exteriors are made of aluminum, which conducts the electricity out into the air, protecting what’s inside. But my fellow passenger’s words were comforting at the time!)

Fear of Flying

Another bad experience that stands out was flying in a puddle jumper from Punta Arenas in Chile to Isla Navarino, a small Chilean island located between Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The flight passes over the Strait of Magellan and several channels including the Beagle Channel. For reasons I’m sure a meteorologist could explain, the wind currents in that area are pretty rough.

I won’t go into details, but let’s just say the hot dogs I’d eaten prior to the flight had to be washed off of my sweater later that afternoon. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.

Airplane Horror Stories

But perhaps the worst flight experience I’ve ever had was also one of only two times in my life I actually thought I might die. It was a flight from Atlanta to New York’s JFK airport. Though the weather was clear when we took off, by the time we’d gotten to Maryland the New York area was experiencing heavy storms. At first they put us into a holding pattern, but then we began to run low on fuel.

Only one runway was open in the New York area and we were told it would take too long to change our approach to reach it. So we were diverted to Stewart Airport, a smaller airport in the Hudson Valley area of New York. Why that was deemed closer I don’t know, but to get there it felt as though we had to fly right through a doozy of a storm. That plane shook and rattled and bumped so violently I honestly thought it was going to crack apart. Overhead bins opened and bags fell out. Dozens of people threw up as the flight attendants passed handfuls of air sickness bags around the cabin. Landing that dark evening in an airport hours away from my original destination was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

What has been your scariest flying moment — or your most embarrassing?

– written by Dori Saltzman

london heathrow lineHere’s hoping passengers flying into Heathrow Airport last week packed a good book. The lines for immigration at the London airport stretched for half a mile at times, leaving some travelers waiting for nearly two and a half hours, reports Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

The delays — mostly caused by inadequate staffing — are nothing new for London’s largest airport, which has been suffering from lengthy immigration queues for months. (See this April 2012 report from NBC News.) The problem is increasingly worrisome with the Olympics starting in just a few weeks; the Telegraph notes that the Games are expected to bring an extra 650,000 travelers through Heathrow. The immigration minister, Damian Green, has promised to increase the number of workers on duty in time for the Games.

Best Spots to Stay in London

Long immigration lines can happen anywhere, of course, especially with the recent economic recession forcing cuts in budget and staff. In 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster, our own Traveler’s Ed writes, “I recently stood in a line I estimated at more than 1,000 people at Newark airport, oof.” And don’t forget those dreaded airport security lines, which can stretch out just as long as the queues at customs. Just about every experienced traveler can tell a tale of sweating it out as their flight time loomed and their line inched agonizingly along.

What’s the longest airport line you’ve ever had to suffer through?

– written by Sarah Schlichter