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… check your pulse. VisitScotland has just released a new video featuring two adorable Shetland ponies named Fivla and Vitamin, standing on a barren winter hillside in cozy-looking wool cardigans. The video was shot to promote the Year of Natural Scotland, a celebration of the region’s glens, lochs, mountains, wildlife and other natural attractions. Check it out:


After watching this, the first thing I wondered was just how they got the ponies into those stylish sweaters! Luckily, VisitScotland has provided a video of that too.


Now I want to do two things: Book a trip to Scotland — and figure out how to get a Shetland pony as a pet.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane viewToday we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including a viral image of a flight attendant flipping the bird, the possible end of airline fees and an attempt to make airline loyalty programs “sustainable.”

Middle Seat, Middle Finger
The image, taken from a flight attendant’s rear cabin point of view, shows an outstretched arm with a certain finger aimed skyward. The sentiment is directed towards the fliers. Now Tatiana Kozlenko, an Aeroflot flight attendant said to have posted the pic on her Vkontakte page (Vkontakte is a social network in Russia), has been deplaned from the company. Russia-based news and TV outfit RT.com reports that the pic was posted back in October 2011 and had been languishing in relative obscurity until a popular Russian blogger reposted it on Twitter.

Kozlenko says it’s 1) not her in the photo, 2) not an Aeroflot plane and 3) not something she posted herself (she says she just tagged herself to it). Regardless, the airline has still laid down the long finger of the law. Aeroflot tweeted Monday morning that the firing was justified: “The fact of posting a photo shows Tatiana’s attitude towards passengers and her duties. She acknowledged her fault when she spoke to the leadership of the company.”

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Airlines Running out of Fee Ideas?
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimate $36 billion in ancillary fees in 2012. But on Time.com, Brad Tuttle ponders whether a la carte pricing may have reached maximum altitude. Simply put, there’s almost nothing left to charge fliers for. What gave him that idea? The CEO of Spirit Airlines, the undisputed czar of deconstruction, recently told American Media Public Marketplace that the wellspring of added-fee innovations is starting to run dry. We’re not convinced. (Still left on the docket are a fee to talk to a human, fines for in-flight flatulence and an up-charge for armrest dominion.)

In the end, Tuttle doesn’t buy it either. He argues that any dearth of new ideas would be outweighed by ascending fees for baggage, onboard meals and the like.

An Airline Fee We Might Actually Want to Pay

Loyalty Pays Less
Veteran travel writer Chris Elliott reports that Delta is the first legacy airline to bind the value of its frequent-flier program not only to the number of miles passengers fly but also to the amount they spend. From January 1, 2014, loyalists will reach new echelons through a combination of miles or segments flown and annual spending on Delta flights. The key downside, among others: Snagging a great deal will help you less in the loyalty program game.

Naturally, Delta’s new program will help the airline’s bottom line. In the airline’s mind, too many undeserving fliers were benefiting. For Elliott, “As painful as these changes are, they make sense.” JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America already have programs that reward fliers based on how much they spend, he says. “Air travelers tempted to give their loyalty to an airline like Delta now won’t cling to an empty promise that they can reach elite status any other way than by spending their way there. Some will refuse to participate and will instead purchase a ticket that makes sense for them, and not for their loyalty program.”

Frequent Flier Miles: How to Use ‘Em, Not Lose ‘em

– written by Dan Askin

bottled waterIn a world where being a green hotel often translates into simply asking guests to reuse towels, a new initiative by several hotel brands to eliminate bottled water has gotten our attention.

According to SustainableBusiness.com, a group of hotels and resorts including Virgin, Ritz-Carlton and Banyan Tree plan to reduce their use of plastic water bottles by filtering, bottling (in reusable glass bottles) and selling their own water.

One of the cool things about the project is not only that it will reduce the number of plastic bottles used by the hospitality companies, but also that a portion of the proceeds from the water sales will go to the nonprofit Whole World Water, whose main purpose is to bring clean drinking water to populations that don’t have it.

Virgin expects to eliminate more than 200,000 plastic bottles a year from its Necker Island Resort, Virgin founder Richard Branson wrote on his blog.

“With Whole World Water, we plan to stop use of almost all plastic bottles on Necker,” he wrote. “We’re aiming to reduce the amount of plastic at our other Virgin Limited Edition properties and our new Virgin Hotels.”

Green Travel Tips

The initiative is modeled on a system used by Soneva Resorts at its Maldives and Thailand properties since 2008. The resort’s founder, Sonu Shivdasani, also is a founding member of Whole World Water. The program has improved clean water access for more than 600,000 people, Shivdasani claims.

What we find particularly impressive is that so many competing companies are working together. For instance, Soneva Resorts is actually providing the seed money to get the project going. But it’s not a free ride for any of the companies; each has to pay $1,000 annually per participating property, plus install a water filtration and bottling system at each property.

Participating brands so far include Virgin Limited Edition, Virgin Hotels, Banyan Tree, Auberge du Soleil, Tao Restaurant Group, The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, JetWing Hotels, Dusit Hotels and Resorts, and The Ranch at Live Oak Malibu.

The initiative officially kicks off on March 22, World Water Day.

Top 10 Ecolodges and Green Hotels

What do you think of the initiative? Would you choose a hotel specifically because it’s participating? How would you feel about buying water filtered and bottled on-site?

– 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 otherworldly shot was snapped at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, the world’s largest salt flat.

salar de uyuni bolivia salt flat reflection


Post Your South America Questions

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

– written by Sarah Schlichter

oops signWe’ve all heard the old saw about lemons and lemonade, and nowhere is it more apt than travel. Maybe you’ve parlayed getting lost into an unexpectedly rewarding detour, or an hours-long flight delay into the opportunity to chat with friendly fellow travelers. But even when your trip is spiraling down into a fiasco of epic proportions, you can almost always get one thing out of it: a good story to tell later.

In this week’s Friday Free for All, we’re looking for those stories. Tell us about a travel snafu that turned funny or entertaining — if only in retrospect. I’ll kick things off with my own anecdote, as documented in The Most Awkward Moments in Travel:

“My gate was set to close in 15 minutes. In my frantic dash through the airport, I attempted to breeze past an older woman on a moving walkway, but accidentally clipped her with my backpack. ‘Sorry!’ I called over my shoulder with an apologetic wave. ‘EXCUSE YOU!’ she hollered furiously at my retreating back.

“Seconds later, I was horrified to realize that I was actually running in the opposite direction from my gate. Cringing at the thought of turning tail and facing the woman I’d just ticked off, I took the coward’s way out and ducked into the nearest ladies’ room till the coast was clear.”

Comment below with your travel fiasco story by Tuesday, January 29, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Our favorite will win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug!

Editor’s Note: This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Mike Crome, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com mug with the following hilarious tale. Thanks to everyone who submitted their stories.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

gentoo penguins antarcticaEach month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

In this month’s featured review, reader Dileep Bhandarkar goes penguin- and glacier-spotting on a cruise to Antarctica. “The weather could not be any better!” wrote Dileep. “With temperatures in the mid-40′s, we dropped our jackets on the rock near the beach and hiked up to see the gentoo penguin colony. We were within 100 feet from a large group of penguins. Some were still building their nests — stealing rocks from each other. Some had eggs they were protecting. We even got to see some mating activity! … This was our most favorite landing site!”

Read the rest of Dileep’s review here: Air-Cruise with Antarctica XXI on the Ocean Nova.

Dileep has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

Slideshow: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Sarah Schlichter

dream of vacationWith temperatures dipping as low as 10 degrees the last two days here in IndependentTraveler.com’s neck of the woods, we’re thinking about ways we can pretend we’re someplace warmer — without emptying our wallets or burning vacation time so early in the year. The result is a list of tongue-in-cheek ideas for how to bring the sun and sand to us. Read on for a five-step plan to travel without leaving home.

Step 1: “Pack” for a week’s worth of beachy fun by bringing all those summer clothes to the front of your closet. Put together the most crazy, touristy outfit you can find — Hawaiian shirts, board shorts, white athletic socks, hats, sunglasses, lanyards and even some zinc oxide for your nose.

How to Pack for a Beach Vacation

Step 2: Create a menu of tropical drinks and mix ‘em up. Then set up beach chairs in your living room, and invite several friends to lounge and sip with you. You get bonus points for playing ocean sounds on your iPod or scenes of beaches and palm trees on your television.

Step 3: Dig the kiddie pool out of the basement, fill it with sand — colorful play sand is always fun — and pick up a bucket-and-shovel set to make yourself some sandcastles.

Step 4: Crank the heat up to 85 degrees, put on your tiniest bikini or Speedo, and set up a “beach” volleyball tournament in your dining room. (Use a beach ball so as not to break anything.)

Step 5: Soak your feet in a warm foot bath to get that ocean sensation while applying self-tanner. (Keep your swimsuit on while you do it, as tan lines add to the authenticity.)

Living room party just not enough? Plan a real getaway with our slideshow of 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

conciergeEver wanted someone to make your restaurant reservations for you when you’re traveling? Or grab tix to the latest theatrical extravaganza on your behalf? Or let you know what the weather will be like tomorrow and the next day? All these tasks and more are what hotel concierges have been doing for their high-end clientele for years. Hand over an extra 20 and the concierge would get you into the hottest ticket in town.

But no longer is that 20 bucks a necessity. Travelocity is getting in on the action, offering concierge service to any customer who books a packaged vacation through the site — for free!

Some of the concierge services offered to customers (only those who purchased from Travelocity after January 1) include restaurant referrals and reservations; theater, music or sporting event tickets; golf course tee time reservations; driving directions; salon and spa booking assistance; ATM and bank locations; weather forecasts; lost passport/travel document assistance; translation services; and legal referral and assistance.

The concierge will even keep customers who request it ahead of time up-to-date with sports scores.

In order to take advantage of the concierge, customers need only phone a special number given to them with their e-mailed travel documents. The service is available immediately after booking, during the trip and up to two days after returning home.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

The service, which launched January 1, 2013, is actually operated by Travel Guard, an insurance company that also offers a Concierge Desk. While the use of the concierge to obtain an item or service is free, the cost of the tickets to a Broadway show, as an example, are still the responsibility of the Travelocity customer.

According to Simon Bramly, vice president and general manager of transportation, vacation packages and cruises for Travelocity, the concierge service is intended to enhance the “value” of the site’s vacation packages beyond simply a low price.

But nothing in the corporate world is done without a real bottom-line benefit and one can only guess at the true reason Travelocity has launched this service — a service that must be costing the company money as it doesn’t actually provide it. Online travel booking sites have some of the highest turnover rates in the industry, as most of their customers are simply looking for the lowest price and will hop from site to site to find it. I think it’s a safe bet to say Travelocity is hoping that by adding this service, its vacation package customers will come back to the site not just for the low price but because they’re also getting the free concierge help.

Will the free concierge service influence whether you decide to purchase a vacation from Travelocity or not?

Unpacking Your Vacation Package Deal

– written by Dori Saltzman

asia fried insectsMaybe it was the first time you found yourself in a city where you couldn’t read a single street sign. Or your first experience of haggling in a busy public market. Or the moment a local proudly offered you a heaping plate of fried insects or boiled lamb’s head.

That feeling of disorientation is the subject of this week’s Friday Free-for-All. We want to hear about your first — or worst! — experience of culture shock while traveling. Where were you, and how did you get through it? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

If you need a little inspiration, check out this story about culture shock in Morocco from our own Traveler’s Ed: Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cabinTripAdvisor announced the winners of its Travelers’ Choice awards for the best U.S. hotels today. Ten hotels in six categories received “top” honors, including top overall, top hotels for service, top small hotels and top bargains. As I was reading through the list, I was struck by two things. First, I haven’t been to a single one of the 60 hotels mentioned (maybe I need to get out more often) and second, when I tried to think of places I would add to the list, I could only think of two properties, neither of which I’d really describe as a hotel.

Now, I’ve been to plenty of hotels (small and large), and I’ve enjoyed myself at quite a few of them, but none that I would actually call a “hotel” stands out enough in my memory that I would consider putting them on any list of top hotels.

In my mind hotels are fairly institutional. They might be gorgeously landscaped or situated in the perfect place, but they’re all similarly laid out and have a similar feel.

Big-City B&B’s

Sure, bits and pieces stand out. The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa in California had the best-smelling skin lotion I’ve ever come across. And the Virginia Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, had just the most comfortable porch for sipping drinks on a warm evening. But beyond that … eh, they were hotels.

The Soniat House in New Orleans is probably the nearest thing to a “hotel” that I’d put on a top list. Of course, the small 30-room guesthouse is more like a B&B or inn than a traditional hotel. Comprising three converted townhouses with flower-draped balconies, Soniat House exudes an unparalleled yesteryear atmosphere.

But my favorite U.S. place to stay is as un-hotel-like as a property can get. Called Wellspring, it’s a small, off-the-beaten-path collection of about 17 cottages, cabins and permanent tents located just outside Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. With names like the Three Bears’ Cottage, the Treehouse and Timbuktu, each cottage, cabin and tent is completely different. But all are cozy, calming and completely unforgettable.

Not Just for Backpackers: 9 Amazing Upscale Hostels

What about you? What have been your favorite “hotels”?

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

– written by Dori Saltzman