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This week’s travel puzzle is a “guess the flag” challenge. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 1, 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 Autumn Case, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Fiji. Autumn has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tour guideThere’s no better way to get to know a new place than by meeting up with a local friend or family member who can show you all the secret hot spots that first-time visitors usually miss. Alas, even the most well-connected travelers can’t possibly have friends everywhere — and that’s where a site like Tripbod.com can help.

The site, founded in 2007 and recently acquired by IndependentTraveler.com’s parent company, TripAdvisor, bills itself as “your friend at the other end.” It helps travelers connect with local experts called Tripbods who can provide trip planning advice, put together a personalized itinerary, or offer unique experiences such as a photo safari in London or lunch in a Moroccan souk.

In some respects the site is like a modern version of a travel agent. One typical listing from a Tripbod in Guayaquil, Ecuador, offers “Skype conversation, emails, advice in how to make the most out of your time, best restaurants, budget hotels, and local operators so that you can develop your own detailed itinerary” for 23 GBP (about $38 USD). For travelers who enjoy planning their own trips, it’s an ideal way to get information and guidance without having to be led around by an actual guide at all times.

Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

If you do want a guide, the site offers that too. There’s an enticing array of experiences and tours ranging from meeting indigenous populations in the highlands of Mexico to cycling through rice fields in Yangshuo, China.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Some of the experiences are on the pricey side — such as a homemade Icelandic dinner outside of Reykjavik featuring lamb, potatoes, salad and dessert for 75 GBP per person (more than $125 USD). I also encountered a few search glitches. When I looked for tours in Wellington, New Zealand, the site turned up results almost everywhere but (New Delhi, San Salvador, Glasgow, Muscat …). And while the site offers a space for past travelers to review each experience, none of the ones I clicked on had received any reviews yet, making it tricky to decide whom to trust.

Still, as a traveler who’s eager to meet locals and find experiences beyond the usual sights, I know I’ll be checking out the site before my next trip.

20 Ways to Blend in with the Locals

Would you give Tripbod a try?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Who knew travel was the key to true love? This past weekend, some very lucky bachelors celebrating in Charleston, South Carolina, welcomed a surprise guest when none other than Bill Murray wandered into their party. Held in a cult-like status for not only his celebrity but also for doing this sort of thing — showing up uninvited to events and then doling out sage advice as only he could — Bill Murray didn’t disappoint with a speech that can be seen below:


We love that Murray suggests taking a trip with a future spouse before actually tying the knot — not just because it promotes travel, but also because we’ve experienced firsthand the way travel can both strengthen and challenge a relationship. From navigating the cold, rainy hills of Montreal without a map, to feeling like the only two people in the world on the charming streets of a medieval Austrian city at night, traveling with my significant other has had literal ups and downs. Check out these anecdotes from our office full of travelers:

“The first trip I took abroad with my ex-husband was to London and it was a miserable trip. During our marriage we traveled to St. Lucia, Jamaica, Mexico and Paris together, and every trip was a wreck. Since our divorce, I’ve returned to those places, including a week solo in Paris, and I found that I love each place I’ve been and that it was just the company I was with that spoiled the trip. I’m still single, so I guess I’m waiting to find the person who loves travel as much as I do and who can enrich the trip. Maybe I’ll follow Murray’s advice and marry that person once I find him.” – Lissa Poirot, Editor, Family Vacation Critic

18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion

“I’m a firm believer that if you love to travel you should travel with the one you love before marrying him/her. I traveled to various places in Asia with my husband before we got married, and it definitely brought us closer. Traveling can be very stressful and you can see how the other person copes in a difficult situation and if you work well together as a team.” – Kathleen Tucker, President

“When Corbett and I travel we always find out new things about each other. Recently, we were on a Silversea cruse. The DJ in the very small lounge was playing some great old disco. Between the modest crowd and several bottles of wine at dinner, I learned unequivocally that Corbett cannot dance! Just horrible.” – Jim Walsh, Sales Manager

“Back in December, my boyfriend and I went to Boston for a weekend together. It was our first trip together as a couple so it was a great bonding experience and it really brought us closer together — not only because we had to plan our days and figure out how to get to all of the different attractions that we wanted to see, but also because my car ended up getting broken in to and my laptop was stolen. Although it was a terrible situation, my boyfriend really helped me get through that and he supported me and comforted me, which made our relationship stronger.” – Hilarey Wojtowicz, Production Assistant, Family Vacation Critic

“After meeting my future husband on half a dozen occasions, we met up in Hawaii and then he joined me to travel around Australia a few months later. We decided to spend our lives together somewhere along the way. If you can live together in a station wagon for three months, future homes will never feel small!” – Carrie Gonzalez, Senior Marketing Manager

“On one of my first trips with my boyfriend, I learned that my family’s dog had been diagnosed with cancer and would soon need to be put down. Hours from home, my boyfriend became my sole source of comfort, and despite the fact that the rest of the trip was ruined for me, he didn’t once tell me to ‘try to have a good time’ — he understood, and that in itself meant the world to me. We’ve since taken many, much happier vacations together.” – Amanda Geronikos, Associate Editor, Family Vacation Critic

“My boyfriend (now hubby) and I were long distance when we first met (he lived in England and I lived in New Jersey). My first time ever overseas was to visit him, and we took an awesome trip visiting Dublin, London and Venice. Venice was particularly memorable, as we had no idea how to navigate to our hotel once we got there, and a sweet little old Italian man led us there and showed us around. We also were in London briefly the day of the Royal Wedding, which was pure insanity. The trip made us closer than ever and we had an amazing time bonding and having fun visiting all these new places. I’ll never forget it!” – Jessy Parkes, Sales Planner

10 Ways to Be a Less Annoying Travel Companion

“I decided I would marry my husband on our first trip together.

“The long weekend in the island of Dominica was all Don’s idea. At the time, my vision of the Caribbean had been limited to all-inclusive resorts and Jimmy Buffett music, so I was skeptical. He assured me that we would hike, snorkel, and suss out local chicken stands and rum shacks. Sold! During the trip, not all went according to plan. Carnival was in full swing and the already hazardous steep mountain roads were full of partiers, stray dogs and the occasional goat. On one particularly knotty turn, I looked over at Don. He looked calm, cool and collected under his Caribbean hat, a cigar in his teeth and one hand on the steering wheel. Not only was Don able to keep up with me, he was HANDLING IT. I was impressed. We didn’t talk marriage until three months later. But my mind was already made up. Any guy who could deal with the chaos of the Caribbean could take on anything life would throw at us. And he has.” – Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor, Cruise Critic

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Each 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!

halong bay kayak kayaking vietnamIn this month’s featured review, reader Brian W Fisher describes an unforgettable experience in Vietnam. “Ha Long Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the up-thrusting limestone karsts hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves and hidden lagoons that can only be reached by small craft navigating through breaks in the karsts — and only at low tide,” says Brian. “From a wooden jetty at a floating village, we changed craft … either into two-person kayaks or flat-bottomed boats, small enough to enter the low openings in the cliffs and emerge into fully enclosed lagoons. Quite magical!”

Read the rest of Brian’s review here: Up and Down in Vietnam. Brian has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five words that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

deserts-of-the-world


Enter your list of deserts in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 26, 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 Sandy DeSiervo, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

deserts of the world


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

nile river egyptThe last time I was in Egypt, the most popular tourist stretch of the Nile between Luxor and the Aswan High Dam was a nonstop bustling waterway populated by small sailboats, working barges and river cruise vessels.

The scene from my vantage point on the sun deck of MS Grand Rose tells a very different story. There are more than 250 passenger ships licensed to sail on the Nile, but at present only about 30 are in operation. The majority lie idle, moored up to five abreast with their doors locked or inhabited by solitary watchmen.

Tourism used to account for 11 percent of the Egyptian economy, but Arab Spring took a heavy toll. River cruising in particular was hit hard. Between 2010 and 2012, the total number of U.K. passengers cruising the Nile fell by more than half, from 58,000 to 28,000 (and there are far fewer Americans).

In 2013, the number of U.K. passengers dropped to a mere 12,200, which was due to tourists being advised against all but essential travel to most parts of Egypt during the peak summer holiday season. This has since been lifted.

The U.S. State Department has a travel alert in place, and warns travelers that political unrest is likely to continue in the future. In particular, the government advocates avoiding travel to the Sinai Peninsula, where a bomb was detonated on a tourist bus, killing four people in Taba (which is near the Israeli border, far from the Nile Valley).

The State Department also urges visitors to avoid any demonstrations, “as even peaceful ones can turn violent.” The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is within a few blocks of Tahir Square, and occasionally has to close when protests occur.

In short, Egypt is unpredictable.

Visitors are coming back to Egypt, though it’s more of a trickle than a flood on the Nile at the moment — and involves few Americans.

9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Grand Rose, the ship I am on, is an all-inclusive ship that will be exclusively sold to the British market when tourism picks up. My fellow passengers — mostly Brits and Germans — on the seven-night Luxor roundtrip cruise have no qualms about returning or visiting for the first time, particularly with the added benefit of tempting fares. On our excursions, we meet Europeans and a smattering of Chinese and other visitors from further afield.

The welcome we receive is as warm as the sunshine, with low-paid locals desperate to see the tourists come back. I speak to carriage drivers waiting patiently outside the ship who tell me their livelihoods virtually dried up overnight.

While the hassle from hawkers, the ensuing obligatory haggling and demands for tips for everything from taking a photo to handing out sheets of toilet paper is light-hearted, it is also tiring. There are some things in Egypt that never change, and the relentless pestering was just as I remembered it last time around. I felt sorry for some of the vendors, but if they just left tourists alone — particularly the Brits who love to browse — they would sell far more.

The next day, we drive past lush fields and sugarcane plantations irrigated by the Nile to reach the Valley of the Kings, dug deep into the desert mountains and dating back to the 11th century B.C. It contains the tombs of the pharaohs, most famously Tutankhamun, whose burial chamber was unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. A few years ago this would have been full — today there are only a handful of other tour groups are visiting the sun-baked valley.

Next stop is the newly opened replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb on the grounds of Howard Carter’s former home. Originally I wondered why people would want to see a facsimile when they can see the real thing. Then I was told that the boy king’s burial chamber is being damaged by humidity and the thousands of tourists who have filed through over the years, so much so that many experts have called for it to be closed. The re-creation is a meticulous copy and, having seen both, I feel as if I am in the real thing. It’s also much more accessible for anyone with mobility issues and can be combined with a visit to the house, left just as it was in Carter’s time.

We sail out of Luxor past the imperious facade of the 19th-century Winter Palace, once a retreat for the Egyptian royal family and now a “grande dame” hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote her 1937 novel “Death on the Nile.”

Read Egypt Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

As Egypt turns the page onto the next chapter of its long history, I am glad to be back. As long as you’re an adventurous traveler comfortable with a changeable and potentially volatile political landscape, now is a great time to go. You get to explore ancient sites and walk past towering statues with hardly anyone else around.

In spite of its recent difficulties and an uncertain political future, Egypt has withstood the test of time. Its history brings in the tourists, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

Would you travel to Egypt right now?

– written by Jeannine Williamson

bellhopEver had a bellhop sweep in to grab your bags even though you’d hoped to carry them yourself (and not have to pay a tip)? You’re not alone. In a recent survey of 2,719 Americans, Travel Leaders Group asked travelers how they cope with this and other common travel dilemmas. Turns out many of us are actually passive in uncomfortable travel situations, and the majority of us tip — even in cases where we’re not quite sure if we’re supposed to.

When it comes to an unoccupied but reserved beach chair, the majority — about 30 percent — would wait more than four hours before claiming it as their own; another 29 percent gave it an hour before calling dibs.

Almost half — 49 percent of respondents — would tip a bellhop if he or she assisted with luggage, even if they didn’t ask for help. Another 32 percent said they would tip, but less than if they had made the request, and 19 percent would not tip.

I was surprised to read that while 35 percent of respondents tip their maid service every day regardless of length of stay, 26 percent never tip.

Tips for Tipping Abroad

When asked what they would do if someone else brought kids to an adults-only pool, 28 percent would alert hotel staff only if the children were being disruptive, and 27 percent would alert hotel staff either way. Only 16 percent would say something directly to the parents. The remaining 29 percent would say nothing.

Disruptive noises while staying at a hotel or resort should be dealt with directly by hotel staff, according to 88 percent of respondents. Nine percent would do nothing, while the remaining three percent would do anything from banging on the wall and calling the room directly to being loud themselves to send the message.

When flying, you may notice the trend is to load your luggage overhead as soon as you board the aircraft so that you can leave quickly and grab your luggage on the way out. However, only 4 percent of survey respondents admitted to doing this. Three quarters of respondents said they try to get as close to their row as possible before stowing their bags overhead. The remaining 21 percent walk to their row and then ask a flight attendant for assistance.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Some of these situations I grapple with all the time — how much to tip and when, should I speak up when others are stowing bags at the front of the plane and they’re sitting in the back — but some I’ve honestly never even thought of. I was surprised there were no questions about cutting in line — something I’ve encountered at almost every airport or attraction line I’ve stepped foot in.

What are your travel pet peeves? How have you or would you react in these situations? Share your comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two unique, almost otherworldly landscapes.

Would you rather…

… see the one-of-a-kind baobab trees in Madagascar, or …

baobab trees madagascar



… hike to the Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand?

emerland lake tongariro national park new zealand


Madagascar is home to several endemic species of baobab trees, which can live up to 800 years. The best place to see them is the Avenue of the Baobabs in Toliara Province, where a cluster of trees makes for striking photos (especially at sunset). A show-stopping view of the Emerald Lakes is the reward for completing the daylong Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes. The trip takes seven to nine hours on average.

13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

underwater, sculpture


Hint: This sculpture garden is renowned for its scenic diving and unique underwater inhabitants.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 19, 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 Margot Wilson, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Grenada Underwater Sculpture Park. Margot has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

living roomIt’s easy to see a broken bone, but it’s harder to prove you’re feeling too distraught to travel. So if you or a loved one has ever struggled with mental illness, don’t count on travel insurance being there to reimburse you if your condition adversely affects your trip.

Two recent articles by NPR and Consumerist offer a cautionary tale about a couple who was refused coverage for a canceled trip due to their son’s mental health emergency (after a medication change, his doctor suggested that he not be left alone). Despite a letter of support from the psychiatrist, the couple was denied their $1,800 claim.

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Travel insurance is not included under the Mental Health Parity Act and Affordable Care Act, which now mandates that health plans must cover preventive services like depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost, and that most plans won’t be able to deny coverage or charge more due to pre-existing health conditions, including mental illnesses. In fact, on the CDC’s website it says to be aware of “exclusions regarding psychiatric emergencies or injuries related to terrorist attacks or acts of war” when purchasing travel insurance. That means that unless your ailment is physical in nature, don’t expect anything in return for your turmoil from travel insurance.

According to NPR, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has received about 10 complaints about travel insurance discrimination over the past year. Travel insurance is state-regulated, so policies, fine print and subtleties will vary across the U.S. Some states flat-out do not offer mental health coverage or consider it a pre-existing condition. Options at this time seem limited for anyone who struggles with bouts of anxiety, depression or even loved ones who may require additional care.

To me, the stigma attached to mental illness reflects an outdated taboo about real disorders and serious conditions that affect one in four adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In my opinion it is discrimination, and coverage should extend to families who cope with mental health issues as much as it extends to physical ailments. Everyone deserves to travel and not worry about the consequences if they can’t.

Safety and Health Tips for Travelers

What are your thoughts about travel insurance coverage for mental illness? Have you experienced a similar issue with coverage?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel