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rugelachWe had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.

When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.

We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.

We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.

It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.

Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels

The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.

The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970′s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.

The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.

I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.

It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.

There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.

The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Josh Thomas

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.

This week’s shot is of a spectacular sunset in Big Sur, California.

sunset big sur california


Our Favorite San Francisco Hotels

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.)

The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is one word and represents a famous landmark.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, April 15, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Petra who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Acropolis.” Petra has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

mailbox with moneyHow do you fulfill your travel dreams when home expenses, kids and other necessities get in the way?

Obviously, saving money throughout the year helps a little, but it’s been my experience that what I manage to save is never quite enough to cover the one or two big trips I like to take a year.

What I really need is a decently-sized, lump sum of money suddenly handed to me. I play the lottery but so far that hasn’t paid off. What I have been able to count on is my yearly tax refund. And while I’ve never gotten enough money back from the government to fund an entire trip, what I do get helps a lot.

Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations

Apparently, I’m not the only travelholic eagerly awaiting her IRS refund in the mail. A recent survey of some 1,788 U.S. travelers found that a little over 40 percent (43.8) will use all or part of their tax refund to pay for their travel. More than a quarter (27.4 percent) said they’d use all of it.

Equally as many respondents said they’d use a little less half — or $1,000 to $1,499 — of their refund (assuming a $3,000 refund). Just over seventeen percent said they’d use $1,500 to $1,999, while 13.7 percent said they’d use $500 to $999.

The survey results come care of Travel Leaders Group, a massive travel agency company, so their customers aren’t entirely unbiased when it comes to travel. As an example, 94 percent of survey respondents have already taken or plan to take at least one leisure trip this year. Travel is not unimportant to them.

It’s so important, in fact, that 36.1 percent said they plan to take more leisure trips this year than last, and 39.7 percent said they will spend more on their leisure trips this year as well.

Travel Budget Calculator

What about you? Will you use any of your tax refund to fulfill your travel ambitions this year?

–written by Dori Saltzman

airplane silhouetteI have just as many gripes about airlines as the next person, and given that I’m a travel journalist, I tend to smile and nod vehemently when they’re crucified for decreasing seat sizes and charging for things like carry-on bags. But I can’t keep my mouth shut on this one.

After analyzing federal data, a group of private researchers says airline complaints from passengers increased by about 20 percent in 2012, despite more on-time flights and fewer lost bags, the Associated Press reports.

While I agree that customer complaints are bad — in an ideal world, there would be none at all — the article goes on to say this: “United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.” Forgive me if I sound insensitive, but is there really a reason to be terribly concerned if the worst offender generates only four complaints for every 100,000 of its passengers?

And let’s not forget this added tidbit: “That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year.” Oh, the horror! Now four of every 100,000 United passengers are angry instead of two? I think I just heard the audience gasp.

To be fair, these numbers only include the passengers who were annoyed enough to report their grievances to the U.S. Department of Transportation; there are probably many more who took their complaints solely to the airline. And of course, seeing the number of complaints double is never a good sign. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

The AP also notes that larger planes and smaller seat sizes, which allow airlines to cram more passengers onto each plane, still aren’t enough to offset the decreased number of available flights — meaning last year saw a rise in the number of passengers bumped due to overbooking. “The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.”

In plain English, it means that of every 10,000 passengers, less than one person gets bumped because his or her flight is full. Can I get a big, fat “so what?”

Let’s focus on what the airlines are doing right. Want your bag to get to your destination at the same time you do? You’re in luck. According to the AP, the mishandled bag rate was 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags the previous year (and a high of 7.01 bags back in 2007). That means about three of every 1,000 bags were mishandled in the last two years. Yes, I’ve had lost luggage, and I know that for those three passengers, it’s terrible. But the stats are getting better.

The same is true for on-time arrivals, about 82 percent of which arrived on time in 2012 — an improvement over the 80 percent that landed on time in 2011.

I happen to think this is a positive outlook for the industry. Now, if only someone could figure out ways to speed up the security process and keep that middle seat unoccupied.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

What do you think? Is the report full of hot air, or does it have merit? Weigh in below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

san francisco golden gate bridge nightAs the Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, one of the inevitable questions I’m asked when someone finds out what I do for a living is “What’s your favorite place?” Or the equally impossible-to-answer “What’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?” Honestly, I’d have a hard time just narrowing it down to my top five. You might as well ask a mother to choose between her children.

Of course, if you travel long enough, you’ll also develop a list of places that maybe you didn’t love as much. In the Huffington Post, fellow travel writer David Landsel has come up with a doozy on places he’d rather not see again: 10 Terribly Overrated Destinations (And Where To Travel Instead).

Landsel dubs San Francisco a “grotfest,” disses Denver as “a weirdly bland, Midwestern snore” and rejects the entire Caribbean region in one sweeping stroke (“Too many of the islands are depressingly violent, pathetically corrupt and/or hopelessly dysfunctional”). Ouch.

He also takes issue with Asheville, North Carolina, describing it as “a bottlenecked blot on a lovely landscape” and a “physically and emotionally fragmented mountain town full of people who seem really annoyed by everything.”

But after returning from my second visit there a few months ago, and having included it in IndependentTraveler.com’s favorite spots for a weekend getaway, I have to disagree. Maybe Landsel should have come with me and my mom to one of Asheville’s Friday night drum circles, when it feels like the entire town gathers for a lively, joyful musical party that goes for hours.

And Asheville’s food is “just fine”? Bummer — he must’ve missed out on the decadent, dinner-plate-sized sweet potato pancake at Tupelo Honey Cafe, topped with spiced pecans and peach butter. I’m still dreaming about it.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Of course, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. My own let-down list would probably include Belfast, Northern Ireland; Atlanta, Georgia; and Aix-en-Provence, France. I’d heard good things about all of them, but somehow they just didn’t speak to me. That said, I’d be willing to give them all a second chance; maybe I was in the wrong neighborhood, or simply the wrong mood.

So lest any readers out there are considering avoiding places like Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Costa Rica or Chicago on the strength of this article, allow me to throw my own advice into the ring: take the trip and see for yourself.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

This week’s shot shows the dramatic architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

sheikh zayed grand mosque abu dhabi night


Post Your Questions About Middle East Travel

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.)

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Kick off your weekend with another edition of our Friday Travel Puzzle! You can solve it by tying the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words (one per line) and represents a famous tourist attraction.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, April 8, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Shereen, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Forbidden City.” Shereen has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

My husband and I took a two-week cruise for our honeymoon, paid for primarily by guests at our reception who kindly used our honeymoon registry. For each person who “donated” money, either to the overall experience or a specific onboard or shore adventure, we took a Polaroid photo of ourselves doing that activity and then mailed it off. It was our version of a honeymoon postcard. Recipients loved it — but how much cooler would it have been if we’d been able to easily send people a short video of ourselves hiking on a glacier or kissing the Blarney Stone?

Sadly, such a tool did not exist six years ago. It does now.

Vine is a new social media platform that lets you take a six-second video with your smartphone and then post it online. It’s perfect for travel, allowing you to capture more of your experience than you could with a still snapshot.

For instance, what photograph can truly capture the grace of these dancing fountains at Bellagio (care of Twitter user @StyleCounselor), the way this video does?



The way Vine works is this: You download the app on your iPhone (unfortunately no Android version is yet available). Then when you’re ready to make a video, you pull up the app and touch the screen to start the camera rolling. Lifting your finger will pause the camera. Do this until you’ve captured six seconds of footage (it stops automatically).

Because there’s currently no way to edit your footage, some Vine videos look a little choppy, like this 360-degree video of Union Square in San Francisco (care of Twitter user @origiful)…



…or this video of the Montmartre funicular in Paris (care of Twitter user @sourenian).



But a well-thought-out idea and a sense of humor can produce six seconds of fun (care of Twitter user @clove).



7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone


– written by Dori Saltzman

Did you know that the first Wednesday in April has been declared National Walking Day by the American Heart Association? Well, now you do.

While the AHA aims to encourage more physical activity among those of us who spend hours upon hours sitting at a desk, we couldn’t resist putting a travel spin on the day — because let’s face it, most of us walk much more when we’re off exploring a new place than we do when we’re at home.

We recently asked our followers on Facebook to name their favorite city or neighborhood for strolling — and the list of places we got in response would inspire just about anyone to hit the pavement. Following are a few of our favorites:

“Assisi, Italy … peaceful, quaint & beautiful!” — Tracey Pino

assisi italy church



New York City — especially Broadway from Columbus Circle to the 80′s” — Beth Glass

central park new york city dog walking



“Old City in Jerusalem” — Rose Kemps

old city jerusalem souq souk market



“Definitely Sydney — from the Rocks all the way around to the Botanical Gardens” — Gill Harvey

botanical gardens sydney



What Not to Do in a New City

Which city tops your list of favorite places to walk?

– written by Sarah Schlichter