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airport shoppingPeople who discover that I travel often, long-haul mostly and for weeks at a time, say, sagely, during cocktail chat, “You must be a genius at packing.” Actually … no. I’m a graduate of the school of “But what if I need…”

As a packer, I’ve cut back on the books, thanks first to Kindle and now to iPad, though not so much when it comes to movies (Netflix doesn’t transfer out-of-country). Fashion-wise, I have found ways to maximize variety while minimizing outfits. But I’ll confess: Give me too much time in an airport and all hell breaks loose.

On a recent vacation jaunt from Newark to Helsinki, which took a whopping 22 hours thanks to late departures and missed connections, my most egregious problem was neither sleep deprivation nor travel annoyance. It was the extra time for shopping.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Once I got bored with sitting in the Newark lounge, it occurred to me that I could buy presents. In the airport’s expansive mall, I found a slinky New York-themed T-shirt for my teenage niece, a Big Apple-decorated onesie for the latest addition to my spouse’s Finnish family, and a couple (okay, a bulky wodge) of magazines to support me through the three-week-long English-language desert that is a vacation in Finland.

And that was just Newark. Once we arrived in Frankfurt, where we’d just missed our connecting flight and had four bleary hours to kill, the airport’s liquor stores offered quite the bargain-hunger’s justification. Finland’s taxes on alcohol make otherwise reasonable prices for wine, vodka and Champagne ridiculously expensive, so we loaded up. My husband’s impulse purchase of German sparkling wine put us over the top.

The Ultimate Travel Packing Guide

Suddenly, we were carting seven bags of carry-on stuff onto an airplane (these in addition to the two very chunky suitcases, full of American gourmet items, DVD’s and other necessities, that we’d already checked). Boarding the two-hour flight from Frankfurt to Helsinki, I felt like — to paraphrase my Finnish husband’s charming interpretation of American aphorisms — one of the “Beverly Hilly-Billies.”

So no, I am not a great packer. I will invariably have too much of one thing and not enough of another. But I can offer one silver lining: the things you scramble to buy because you don’t pack well will be the souvenirs you remember the most.

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

singapore changi airport movie theaterWhen vetting flights and possible layovers, I take my options for connecting airports very seriously. What’s the distance between connecting gates? How speedy is immigration? Can I find something halfway decent to eat and a quiet, clean spot to sit and wait?

The availability of ultra-hip technology never entered the picture for me, until I recently discovered two airports where it’s actually fun to have a layover.

LaGuardia International Airport, New York City
Mention LaGuardia, and you can pretty much be guaranteed a grimace, wince or groan. But perhaps no longer. LaGuardia has Botoxed its image with the installation of 2,500 iPads throughout Terminals C and D. Tall tables with stools (like those you’d find in a bar) are anchored with iPads that are free for anyone to use.

The Best Airports for Layovers

Scroll the Internet, post on Facebook, play games, monitor your flight — even order a fancy cured beef panini and a beer and have them delivered directly to your table from a nearby eatery. The iPads are a great way to kill time.

(Good news for Minneapolis and Toronto: They’re both scheduled to see similar iPad installations in the coming months.)

Changi Airport, Singapore
Changi is a techie’s dream. The airport won the 2012 World Airport Award for best leisure amenities from Skytrax, a British airline data compiler that runs an annual airport passenger satisfaction survey in 160 countries. The Wi-Fi is free and signals are Speedy Gonzales fast. More than 500 free Internet stations are sprinkled throughout the concourses and gates.

But what’s happening in Terminal 2 is the main attraction. The terminal houses an entertainment center where you can distract yourself with Xbox 360’s, Playstation 3’s and other gaming stations. There are also free, 24-hour movie theaters (in Terminal 2 and also in Terminal 3).

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

And if all of that isn’t cool enough, the airport has 3D and 4D motion simulators that show eight movies with “visual, sound, motion and environmental effects.”

A long layover has never been more fun.

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

learn a languageMy entire life my dad has joked that he can say “Everybody loves Saturday night” in five languages. I don’t know how helpful that has been to him, but I do know that no matter where in the world you travel, people love it when you try to speak their language.

It’s not simply polite; it shows that that you are aware that you are the stranger in their land and that you’ve taken the time to learn a few important phrases. It’s even more effective if you say the words from memory and not simply try to read from a phrase book or phone app (though at least that’s something).

Every time I travel to a non-English-speaking country I try to learn a series of words and phrases: “please,” “thank you,” “how much is this?”, “do you speak English?” and the all-important “where is the bathroom?” When I got married in Romania I made a laminated phrase guide for all my out-of-town guests. It was a hit. The Romanians at my wedding loved it when folks from the United States and England said thank you in their own language.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

Believe me when I say just attempting one or two words in someone’s native language goes a long way in fostering good will — especially in an age when so many Anglophones just assume the rest of the world speaks English.

Since “thank you” and “please” are probably the most common words travelers make an effort to learn, I’ve decided to list “how much is this?” and “do you speak English?” in several languages. Audio clips are included where available so you can listen to the pronunciation.

How Much Is This?
Chinese (Mandarin) – Zhe ge duoshao qian?
Dutch – Hoveel kost dit?
French – C’est combien?
German – Wievel kostet das?
Italian – Quanto costa?
Japanese – Ikura desu ka?
Portuguese – Quanto custa?
Romanian – Cat costa?
Russian – Skol’ko eto stoit?
Spanish – Cuanto cuesta?
Swahili – Hii ni bei gani?

Do You Speak English?
Chinese (Mandarin) – Ni shuo Yingwen ma?
Dutch – Spreek ge engels?
French – Parlez vous anglais?
German – Sprechen Sie English?
Italian – Parla inglese?
Japanese – Eigo ga dekimasu ka?
Portuguese – Fala ingles?
Romanian – Vorbitz Engleza?
Russian – Vy gavarite pa angllyski?
Spanish – Habla ingles?
Swahili – Unasema kiingereza?

Know these phrases in other languages? Add them in the comments!

— written by Dori Saltzman

cuba taxiIn August, we reported that Cuba trips could be in jeopardy for U.S. travelers, as many tour operators and cultural institutions that offered educational excursions to the long-verboten nation had not had their licenses renewed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Fortunately, Americans can put Cuba back on their bucket lists, as a number of license renewals have finally been issued over the past few weeks. Organizations including Friendly Planet Travel, Insight Cuba and Grand Circle Foundation are now once again authorized to offer “people to people” trips to the Caribbean nation. These trips, authorized by the Obama administration last year, are required by the government to have a focus on cultural exchange with “meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba,” according to the OFAC’s guidelines.

We asked Peggy M. Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, why it took longer than expected for licenses to be renewed. “We were not given any explanation by OFAC as to the delay,” Goldman told us. “However, there was a change in the rules for granting people-to-people licenses in May of 2012, and that change, coupled with fewer people to work on the many applications, no doubt added to the delay in reviewing the applications.”

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

The rule change was sparked by a speech from Cuban-American Congressman Marco Rubio that questioned whether the trips were “cover-ups for tourism,” reports the Associated Press. After this, the application for a license got significantly longer, incorporating increased scrutiny of the day-to-day itineraries of each proposed trip to Cuba. (Rubio had taken issue with such activities as salsa dancing and visits to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.)

“For Friendly Planet Travel, it meant a lot of extra time in preparing very detailed descriptions of each day on tour, plus other information,” said Goldman. “The sheer scope of the new applications must have been daunting for OFAC to review, and from what I understand, there was less staff than before to cope with the work. However, it appears OFAC has gotten on top of the work, because from what I’ve heard, a number of renewals as well as new licenses have been granted in recent days. We are obviously thrilled that we’ve been renewed for a period of two years.”

Given the high demand these trips have seen over the past year, we’re betting many travelers are thrilled too.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Sarah Schlichter

australia kanagaroo sign skiThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Fiona Wiltshire, who wrote, “Stop taking the piste, Sheila and get back in the yute!” Fiona has won a travel mug from IndependentTraveler.com.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“An Aus-ski.” — James Reardon

“When in Rome…” — Elaine Erback

“Are ya sure it’s this way to the Piste Skippy?” — David Southern

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 funny travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

australia kangaroo sign ski

To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Monday night, October 8, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Tuesday. Remember, keep it clean; 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

cameraLast month, I finally decided to replace my camera. It had served me well for close to a decade, but technologically it was a bit outdated — and after an unfortunate fall off a cruise ship bed in Alaska, it was literally being held together with a rubber band. The time had come.

When I mentioned to a coworker that I was purchasing a new camera, she told me she no longer uses one, but instead relies exclusively on her iPhone. And she’s not alone. European market research company Mintel released a study earlier this year showing that digital cameras are losing popularity in the U.K. as more people turn to the increasingly sophisticated cameras built into smartphones. The study found that U.K. sales of digital cameras fell 29 percent between 2006 and 2011.

19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

In a recent informal poll of IndependentTraveler.com readers on Facebook and Twitter, several respondents seemed to corroborate this trend. “With the megapixels in cell phones being about the same in a regular camera, using a cell phone works for me,” James Jones told us on Facebook.

“I use my iPhone for vacation photos,” wrote @BetsysBFF on Twitter. “I’m happy with the quality and can tweet or message them easily.”

7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone

“Dropped DLSR for [Samsung Galaxy] S3 on short trips. The quality [is] great. Only switch back for safari/specialist trips,” said @swalwell on Twitter.

But the majority of IndependentTraveler.com readers weren’t ready to ditch their cameras just yet, many arguing that the quality still isn’t up to the standard of a traditional camera. “I have tried numerous times to not use [a] real camera,” @StevePariseau told us on Twitter. “iPhone still no match for the real thing. Zoom, flash, night shots, etc.”

Twitter user @alisonashley7 agreed: “Still using the camera. Better range of settings. Next one will have SLR lens. You don’t get those with a phone!”

Pro Tips from a Travel Photographer

For me, given my current options, it was a no-brainer. My aging flip phone takes small, grainy shots that can’t compare to the beautiful photos I can snap with my new Panasonic Lumix. At least for this traveler, a camera is still the picture-perfect choice.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

republican democrat elephant donkey gopToday we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including JetBlue’s toe-dip into presidential politics, a robot suitcase and a new approach to reducing airplane aisle gridlock.

If That Stupid [Candidate A/Candidate B] Wins…
I’m leaving the country on the next JetBlue flight. Even after Goodwill trucks pack up the last box of “Yes We Can (Again)”/”I Built This!” T-shirts on November 7, the losing side can take some solace. Nonpartisan airline JetBlue is giving away 2,012 flights to destinations outside the United States after the election. Entering is easy: Go to JetBlueElectionProtection.com and pick Obama or Romney. If your guy loses, you have a shot at becoming a temporary expat via one of JetBlue’s international routes, which include the Caribbean and Mexico. All of America wins.

About Time: Robot Luggage
Aussie air travel news site Terminal U is reporting on a new type of robot luggage that could someday hit an airport near you. An inventor has created a prototype of a hands-free suitcase, called “Hop,” which stalks its owner via signals from a cell phone’s Bluetooth. You move, Hop moves. You move, Hop doesn’t move? Hop alerts you by making your phone vibrate. (Hop moves, you move? The TSA bans Hop and you end up on the no-fly list.)

Check out this video of Hop in action:

About Time: Moving Airplane Seats
Reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail: U.S. company Molon Labe Designs claims that its “Sider Seat” — an aisle seat that can slide over and atop the middle seat — will save airlines two hours of extra flying time a day. Molon Labe says the movable seats would expand aisle width from 19 to 43 inches, allowing for whimsical twirling and quicker loading and unloading. The seats are not robots — a passenger or member of the flight crew must physically move them — and they do not recline. As one commenter on the Daily Mail site correctly pointed out, the approach to boarding would have to change in tandem with the furniture. What happens when the already beleaguered middle-seater finds he now has no seat?

IndependentTraveler.com has requested access to the airport bar napkin the idea was originally scribbled on.

Surviving the Middle Seat

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

— written by Dan Askin

tieks ballet flatsBallet flats can be ideal for travel. They’re small and easy to pack. They’re almost always cute and they go with many different outfits. But – and this is a big but – they can be iffy when it comes to comfort. So when Tieks, an online retailer of the “reinvented” ballet flat, asked us to test their shoes, which they claim you can “wear all day, every day,” we decided to take them up on their offer. After all, a truly comfortable pair of stylish ballet flats we could travel everywhere with would be an amazing find.

I picked a clover green pair of the shoes (there are more than 35 colors to choose from) and waited for them to arrive.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

When they did arrive I was in for a small treat. The shoes come in a pretty box, wrapped with a flower bow. I expected to open the box and pull out the shoes, but no, it’s not that simple. The box is full of goodies besides the shoes, which come tucked into their folded-up style. There’s a small black stretchy carrying case for the flats, a larger scrunchable bag to throw your heels into if you’re switching shoes and several clips to pin up your trousers for going from heels to flats.

But the shoes were what I was really interested in and I immediately slipped them on.

It was apparent right away that they were cute – and I’ve since gotten numerous compliments on them. Their comfort was also immediately obvious. They just molded to my feet. The leather is soft and bends easily. It felt more like slipping on a pair of comfy house slippers than putting on shoes.

But I work at a desk all day. How do they hold up when you’re out and about, I wondered. After a week of wearing them to the office every day I finally had a chance to street test them when the entire IndependentTraveler.com company hit the streets of Princeton for a scavenger hunt. I spent nearly two hours running around 10 square blocks.

They did okay. The first hour was fine, but after that I could feel a sore spot slowly growing on the bottom of my left foot. By the time I sat down for dinner, I had a bona fide blister. So I probably won’t wear them again for heavy-duty walking – sorry, no walking tours through Paris in these shoes. But for a casual stroll, yeah, I’d slip them on.

 tieks ballet flats So, are these shoes good for traveling? Definitely. Even if I can’t wear them for a day of sightseeing by foot, these shoes are so easy to pack. When folded in half inside their carrying case, they really don’t take up more space than a camera. If I want to wear heels on the plane but don’t want to sit in them, I can easily switch them for the flats. They make great dinner shoes, because they really are stylish. For a moderate day of walking, they’re perfect as well.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

There is one drawback to these shoes, however. Definitely geared toward the trendy jetsetter, the price tag is quite steep. The clover green pair I selected cost $165 – and that’s the least expensive option! Other price points are $195, $235, $265 and $295.

I rarely spend more than $75 on a pair of shoes, so even at their lowest price point these shoes are out of my budget range. Besides, I’d find it difficult to justify spending $200 or more for a pair of ballet flats. But they certainly are cute and comfy, so if you’ve got the means and you don’t mind shelling out the bucks for fashion, then I say go for it. I doubt you’ll regret it.

– written by Dori Saltzman

lion south africaThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from
Trisha Willsey, who wrote, “Whew! Now I am ready for Kilimanjaro!” Trisha has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Honey, I can’t make it home tonight, I’m stuck on a rock. … No it’s really the truth, I’m not Lion’!” — D.D. Walters

“Queen of the mountain! Let the boys have [their] jungle, I have a better view!” — Damon Hernandez

“That last tender morsel of Wildebeest has kept me from being ‘King of the Hill’!” — J. Eric

To see all of the submissions, click here.

This photo was snapped by reader Tracey Campbell in South Africa’s Kariega Game Reserve. Tracey has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel comfort kit. 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