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passport controlIf you’ve traveled outside of your own country enough times, you’ve likely encountered all manner of immigration officers – some friendly, some indifferent and some decidedly inhospitable.

I’ve certainly seen my share of all three, including one nasty run-in with power-happy officers at the Manhattan cruise port who treated my husband like a terrorist and accused us of bribery (after we explained that we’d recently paid his Green Card renewal fee). So when my in-laws arrived in the United States from Romania last week for a month-long visit, I nervously awaited word from my husband that they’d gotten through okay. In the end they lucked out, getting a friendly jokester who welcomed them warmly into the United States. What a relief!

Listening to my mother-in-law talk about how the immigration officer gave them a smile and a big thumbs up brought up memories of some of my most memorable immigration experiences — like the time I waited in line for nearly three hours at the JFK airport because it was shift change time, and rather than stagger the closures, they simply shut immigration down for about an hour.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Another time, I was leaving Romania, where I had been living for a couple of years. I did not have a permanent visa, so I left the country every three months for a week or so. Nobody cared, except for one passport control worker who told me as I was leaving that I wouldn’t be allowed back in and that I should stay in my own country. I was shocked and spent several hours in Madrid, Spain, trying to find the Romanian consulate so I could get permission to go back. By the time I found the consulate it was closed. My Romanian fiance told me not to worry (ha! Fat chance of that). But he was right. Coming back, they didn’t even give me a second glance.

Not all my memorable immigration experiences have been bad. My favorite passport control story is the time my sister and I were training it from Prague to Switzerland. Passing through Germany, the train was stopped and several immigration officers got on to check passports. When the stern German officer got to our car he methodically took a passport, looked at the photo, looked at the person and handed it back. Except when he got to one young Italian man. With him, the officer looked at the photo, looked at the man, looked at the passport photo, looked at the man, then kept the passport. He then checked all the other passports. Returning to the young Italian, he repeated the photo, man, photo, man routine. Then with a wink, he simply returned the guy’s passport and left. I guess that was his way of having fun.

Passport Information

How about you? What have been some of your most memorable experiences with immigration and passport control?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot was snapped at sunset on the beach in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica.

playa santa teresa costa rica sunset


Costa Rica Travel Guide

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

– written by Sarah Schlichter

seatbelt airplaneFlying in the face of safety regulations around the world, one airline executive is speaking out against seatbelts on planes. “If there ever was a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seatbelt won’t save you,” claimed Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, as reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

Actually, Mr. O’Leary, we beg to differ. In a recent test crash, scientists found that passengers without seatbelts would have died, while those wearing seatbelts and using the brace position on impact would have survived. (See How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life for more details.)

Even in non-crash situations, seatbelts can keep you safe. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 58 people are injured each year by turbulence when not wearing their seatbelts.

Naturally, O’Leary’s diatribe was brought about because those pesky seatbelt regulations are keeping him from making money. According to the Telegraph, he wants to add “standing room only” cabins in the back of Ryanair planes, allowing budget-minded travelers to stand throughout their flights (while holding onto a handle for greater stability) at a price of 1 GBP, about $1.58 US. This is not permitted under current aviation safety laws, which require air travelers to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. “We’re always looking for new ways of doing things; it’s the authorities who won’t allow us to do them,” complained O’Leary. “They are all a bunch of plonkers.”

Would you buy a ticket in a standing-room-only section of a plane if the price were cheap enough?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

jetblue food truck new york cityOn top of decimating houses and deluging city streets, Hurricane Sandy temporarily upended what we travelers take for granted: the ability to hop in a car or plane and go. But while that “right” has been more or less restored for most, many New York and New Jersey residents are still reeling (yesterday’s nor’easter didn’t help matters). Thankfully, along with an outpouring of aid from individuals and the expected charitable heavyweights, a number of popular travel brands have jumped in to help, some leveraging their leisure offerings in creative ways.

Last week, non-legacy favorite JetBlue partnered with NYC food trucks to offer free meals and snacks to hard hit residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Hoboken. The airline says thousands of locals were offered bites from mobile purveyors of grilled cheese, pizza, Lebanese specialties and cupcakes. JetBlue is also matching all donations to the Red Cross up to $100,000, and touting frequent flier miles as a bonus incentive. Those who give can earn six TrueBlue points for every $1 they donate by November 30.

Sandy Response: Which Travel Companies Stood Out?

Hip “for rent by owner” site Airbnb has partnered with the city of New York in an effort to offer free housing for residents displaced by Sandy. Several hundred local hosts have offered up their couches and spare rooms. Airbnb uses a mutual verification process — owner and potential renter must meet virtually and the owner always has final approval. (Renters and rent-ees can be both be “reviewed” and Airbnb cautions never to rent unless you’re completely confident in the occupant.) Though no money is changing hands, hosts are still covered by Airbnb’s guarantee. For those who can afford to shell out a bit for their temporary digs, there’s also a list of “discounted for Sandy” spots.

Toilet Paper Tussle at the Airbnb: How I Survived a Homestay

American Airlines is using its Web space and social platforms to promote the efforts of the American Red Cross — and throwing in some bonus frequent flier miles for good measure. Through November 30, 2012, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.

Have a favorite travel brand you think deserves kudos? Share it in the comments.

– written by Dan Askin

trinidad cubaLast month we reported that U.S. citizens can once again put Cuba on their bucket list. A number of license renewals have finally been issued to cultural tour operators by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), after an unexplained delay.

This week I caught up with Michael Vanderbeek of the Port Everglades Department, who told me that the port has been speaking to cruise lines for a number of months, with a view to operating day trips from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (about a five-hour journey), so sure are they that the travel ban to this wonderful island will be lifted. Vanderbeek and I spoke about this yesterday, ahead of the election, and judging by last night’s result, they could well be right. Cuba could soon be closer than you think to the U.S.

I’m lucky — as a Brit, I can travel to Cuba whenever I want, and I fulfilled that dream back in 2006. The island had always been on my bucket list, but I’m not sure exactly why: Perhaps it was the romantic image combined with its uniqueness in a largely homogenized world.

I spent two weeks there: a few days in Havana, then to the far west to a tiny village called Maria La Gorda, and then on to Trinidad via Varadero. My trip was in turns maddening, exhilarating, saddening, fascinating, surprising and moving.

Maddening because nothing seemed to work, and you had to change your money into a tourist currency, shop in tourist stores and fill up with tourist-priced petrol; exhilarating when I talked politics and Fidel with locals (who, back then at least, were still “officially” not allowed to talk to tourists); saddening to see the poverty, the appalling food and the crumbling architecture; fascinating to get a glimpse into a culture that has been trapped in time for the best part of 50 years; surprising when I’d stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant or a sight; and moving when I gave away soap or pens, or gave someone a lift.

IndependentTraveler.com Readers Share Their Cuba Experiences

I spent much of my time there trying to reconcile a country that has some of the finest doctors in the world and the best education with one that, back then, banned free movement of its citizens (this restriction will lift in January) and where food stamps still exist, food is rationed and the gift of a bar of soap can move people to tears. It’s that all-too-common dilemma for a Western citizen who yearns to find a place in the world that isn’t full of Starbucks and McDonald’s and mobile phones, but at the same time sees a country whose people are yearning for just those things.

What I did pick up in my two weeks there was that things take a long time to change in Cuba. Stuff in the West that we take for granted is hampered by a glacier-slow bureaucratic process, wrapped up in years of inefficiency.

But things do change, and that is happening right now. The danger is if it happens too fast.

Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. playground. Should all the barriers come down in one go, it may become that again.

My advice: Go there now, before the changes alter the country forever.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

– written by Adam Coulter

democrat republicanDeciding the direction of your country for the next four years is heavy business and not something we at IndependentTraveler.com have any interest in analyzing. But examining the differences in travel styles between Republicans and Democrats – that’s much more up our alley. Turns out we differ more than you’d think.

The findings, released by Hotels.com, revealed that Republicans are more likely to stay close to the 50 United States, while Democrats are more willing to venture further afield. In fact, a whopping 86 percent of Republican travelers prefer to stay within the U.S., Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, while Democrats are 11 percent more likely to visit Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

Democrats are also more free-wheeling with their money. According to Hotels.com, “Democrats admitted to spending slightly more on items such as clothing and accessories, as well as drinks with friends and family while traveling for business.”

Destination: Washington D.C.

While Democrats are more willing to spend on things, Republicans would rather spend more to extend their vacation. Of the 1,000 respondents to the survey, Hotels.com found that Republicans outweighed Democrats by 11 percent when asked if they would call out sick to get an extra vacation day.

But Republicans and Democrats also are alike in some of their business travel habits. Both are just as likely to expense amenities such as hotel Wi-Fi, flight upgrades, room service and upscale dining.

And both are almost equally unlikely to pilfer an item from a hotel. Ninety-three percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats said they had never stolen from a hotel.

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot was snapped inside the Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

alcazar seville spain


Spain Travel Guide

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport waitThis week, super-storm Sandy grounded planes and snarled travel itineraries across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, with some travelers still marooned even now. In today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear from readers whose travel plans were affected by the storm. Did you have to reschedule a flight, cancel a hotel booking, reroute a train trip or make a travel insurance claim? Was your airline or other travel provider helpful in responding to your dilemma? Tell us in the comments below!

Several staffers from our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared their own Sandy stories.

Managing Editor Colleen McDaniel gives US Airways a gold star for its assistance during the storm. “Six hours before my flight was scheduled to depart from Norfolk to Philadelphia, I got a call notifying me my flight had been canceled,” she told us. “I called US Airways to reschedule, and was able to speak to a real, live person who helped get me booked on a flight a few days later. Sandy came and went in Virginia, causing damage and some power issues, but when it hit New Jersey, knocking out power to millions and causing widespread damage, I realized I was better off staying put. When I explained the situation, the US Airways agent was perfectly agreeable to another switch. I wasn’t charged a dime for the changes either time, and the agents were perfectly pleasant despite, I’m certain, some tough customers.”

Foul Weather Travel Tips

Senior Editor Dan Askin was also booked on US Airways, but his experience was complicated by the fact that he’d booked with frequent flier miles. “When the airline announced to the world it was waiving change fees … we didn’t apply,” he said. “Naturally, there were no ‘awards eligible’ seats available on any flights leaving inside of three days, so there was nothing for us, ostensibly the most loyal fliers, to switch to. Our only option — if we wanted to avoid change fees or recoup the miles — was to wait until the flight was actually canceled. We did so, and were able to rebook on a Wednesday flight. Then that was canceled, so we scrapped the trip altogether.”

United Airlines gets mixed reviews from Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul for a cruise. The airline canceled her flight a full two days before the storm even arrived. “At least I had some notice and could make an effort to find another route, but United was absolutely unreachable — as a platinum member all I could get was a fast busy signal when I called. I didn’t even have the pleasure of being put on hold,” she said.

Brown generally doesn’t recommend that cruisers book airfare through their cruise line — “they usually cost more and don’t accommodate personal preferences” — but in this case, asking for help from her cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, saved her trip. “A quick e-mail to Regent’s air/sea department at midnight resulted in a rebooking on Swiss Air, same night, though this time from JFK. It got me onboard — and on time.”

The takeaway? Brown told us she’ll consider booking a cruise line’s airfare for complicated itineraries; that way, “you’ve got back-up if you need it.”

4 Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

How did Sandy affect your travel plans? Share your story in the comments.

– written by Sarah Schlichter