Many modern rental cars offer sophisticated “infotainment” systems that can link up to your smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing you to make hands-free calls, stream your music through the vehicle’s speakers and use your favorite map app for navigation. But these systems can pose a security risk by storing your personal data, including contacts, call logs, text messages and the places you visit during your rental.
“Unless you delete that data before you return the car, other people may view it, including future renters and rental car employees or even hackers,” cautions the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
So how can you enjoy the convenience of your car’s infotainment system without compromising your security? Collin Ikim of Magrenta, a Romanian car rental company, says he always shows clients how to wipe their data from the system before returning their vehicles. “Most people return [their] rental car at the last moment, when they’re already in a hurry,” he says. “You should give yourself time to remove the personal data stored in the car. It’s a matter of minutes.”
Ikim recommends going into the settings menu of the infotainment system. “There you’ll find a list of devices that have been paired: locate yours and follow the prompts to delete it. If you used the car’s navigation system, clear your location history.”
If all you need is to charge your phone, both Ikim and the FTC recommend using an adapter to power the device via the car’s cigarette lighter rather than connecting via USB to the infotainment system, which might capture your data automatically.
If you do decide to use the system, you can usually choose which data you want to share. Keep your permissions as limited as possible to avoid putting information unnecessarily at risk.
For those renting a car in their own local area, Ikim offers one final suggestion: “Consider setting your home address to a nearby intersection. If strangers get … access to your car, they won’t know the precise directions to your specific home address.”
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
Avoiding Identity Theft: A Cautionary Tale at 35,000 Feet
— written by Sarah Schlichter
A new app that debuted last month allows you make calls anywhere on the planet for free.
And by free I mean “in exchange for your free time” — because that’s what you’ll need to give up in order to earn enough credits to make a worthwhile call to a friend or family member overseas.
WhatsCall — riffing off the name of the unrelated free text messaging app WhatsApp — permits you to call any type of telephone in 230 countries for no cost. Other free calling services like Skype require that both you and the recipient of your call be on the same program, but WhatsCall can connect you to a landline, mobile or online number.
To be able to make a call, you need to earn credits by completing tasks mostly related to advertising. For example, by spending 30 seconds watching a video promoting a free casino gaming app, you’ll earn 402 credits. If you sign up for a big box discount shopping club, you could earn 4,732 credits. You can also earn credits by clicking on a “daily check-in button,” by referring friends to the app and completing other tasks. The app founders say each user can earn more than 2,000 credits a day, providing more than 30 minutes of free calls.
With 1,200 credits in my new account — 1,000 for signing up for a free account and 200 for clicking on ads — I tested out the service by calling my mother-in-law in Sweden.
How much time would that get me? I tried to figure it out in advance of my call, but the provided list of rates for Sweden was confusing. The list showed seven options, ranging from 20 credits a minute to 450 per minute, depending on where in Sweden I was calling and the type of phone I was dialing. That’s a big disparity, and the confusing list didn’t allow me to predict how much time I’d have.
It wasn’t until I dialed my mother-in-law’s phone number and hit “send” that I discovered the rate would be 440 credits a minute — the stated cost for calling a mobile line even though I dialed her landline. Based on that, I could speak to her for around two minutes and 40 seconds, but somehow we spoke for a full minute longer than that. Perhaps there’s a grace period?
After I hung up, the math didn’t work out. I started with 1,200 credits, but the total cost based on the displayed rate should have been 1,320. Yet my call record shows the total cost as 1,760 credits. So I was nowhere closer to knowing how many credits I’d need the next time I call her.
I reached out to WhatsCall to ask about the credit disparity. A spokesperson told me the company had never encountered this issue and offered me free credits as a courtesy. She also noted that the company offers so many different rates because it works with numerous local providers.
On the positive side, the clarity of the call, which I made via my home wireless network, was high quality — as crisp and clear as if I were using a landline phone and dialing my next-door neighbor. The app has a dial pad, and you can select the country you’re calling to automatically add in the country code. That’s a nice convenience, especially if you only have a local number and aren’t sure of the country code. And caller ID on the receiver’s end shows your normal mobile phone number.
WhatsCall is available for free for iPhone and Android devices.
Would you try WhatsCall?
Avoid Smartphone Sticker Shock: How to Pay Less Overseas
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Check out what you might have missed from around the travelsphere.
Many Ryanair Flights Could Be Free in a Decade, Says Its Chief
Most airline news these days is about reduced services and extra fees, but here’s something a little different: The CEO of Ryanair, a European discounter, recently said that he wants his carrier to offer free flights within the next five to 10 years, reports the Guardian. Instead of charging for airfare, the airline would make money via a revenue share with the airports from which the carrier’s passengers fly.
Airbnb Broadens Its Business with Tours and Travel Experiences
Airbnb made a splash this past week when it announced that it was expanding its offerings to include tours and activities, reports the New York Times. Examples include a two-day Behind the Art experience in Miami, in which you can meet local artists, and stargazing excursions in Los Angeles.
Visions of Kenya
We love this black and white photo essay from Maptia, in which the photographer offers both wild landscape images and intimate portraits from his monthlong solo trip to Kenya.
Every Country’s Tourism Slogan, In One Map
This Digg map of the world’s tourism slogans makes for fun browsing. Some countries’ slogans are enticing (“Brunei: a kingdom of unexpected treasures”), others are odd (“El Salvador: the 45-minute country”) and still others simply make us laugh (“Visit Armenia, it is beautiful”).
In Praise of Bus Travel, the Least Glamorous But Most Lovable Way to Travel
This first-person essay from the Los Angeles Times is a paean to both the pleasures and quirks of traveling by bus, from the ratty seats and the diversity of the passengers to the “sweet way the self disappears during bus travel.”
Why It’s Time to Rethink Frequent Flier Programs
Airfarewatchdog founder (and frequent traveler) George Hobica argues in the Huffington Post that airline loyalty programs are becoming less useful to many travelers — and should therefore inspire less loyalty.
Inside the Airport of the Future
Conde Nast Traveler rounds up more than a half-dozen technological innovations happening at airports around the world, including scanners that don’t require liquids to be removed from your carry-on and personalized navigation systems that send you directions based on where you’re standing in the terminal.
This week’s video, which features a narrator reciting Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” captures the spirit of why we travel.
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel
Survey Says: Travel Makes Us Happier
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Airfarewatchdog.com.
If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.
We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.
IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke: It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.
IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC: Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.
People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.
Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo
IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC: It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.
IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC: We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.
When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.
And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.
IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC: While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!
IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC: I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.
IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC: I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.
I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.
IT: And where are you going next?
AC: A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!
Check out more travel interviews!
Homestays and Farmstays
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
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!
Hint: This famous waterfall is hidden in the jungle, accessible only by boat or plane.
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 21, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com prize. 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 Brian, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Angel Falls, Venezuela. Brian has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.
See All “Where in the World?” Challenges
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Check out the stories you may have missed from around the travel-verse this week.
This Travel Hacker Paid $400 for a $52,000 Round-the-World Trip — Here’s How He Did It
Business Insider profiles an ultra-creative traveler who stockpiled a million frequent flier miles via various travel credit cards and then used them to fund an extensive around-the-world vacation.
Why I Think Travel Is So Important Now
Wendy Perrin offers a moving essay on the importance of travel after the recent U.S. election, which has started a national discussion about which of us live in our own little “bubbles.” Perrin argues that all of us live in such bubbles, and that travel is a good way to break out of them and experience other perspectives.
Lessons from the Road: What It Was Like to Write the First Ever Rough Guide to India
Ever wondered what it’s like to write one of those authoritative guidebooks that help you get around a new place? Rough Guides interviews one of the authors of its first India guidebook in the early 1990s; he reveals the most memorable, strangest and scariest moments of his six months researching the book.
United Airlines Launches Basic Economy, Also Known as ‘Misery Class’
If you’re looking to save on a flight next year, you could consider United’s new Basic Economy class — but it comes with a price, reports the Independent. You won’t be able to choose your seat or bring any carry-on bags beyond a single small personal item.
Family Travel in a Time of Fear
This New York Times essay describes a family trip to France in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last year. Traveling helps us confront fear, the writer says, but it can’t protect us from the knowledge that there’s danger at home too.
The Persian Art of Etiquette
BBC investigates the Iranian notion of taarof, a complex system of etiquette that involves politeness and indirect communiation.
Most Millennials Put Travel Above Buying a Home or Paying Off Debt
Travel + Leisure reports on a new study by Airbnb and Gfk that found millennials (aged 18 – 35) would rather spend money on travel than they would on buying a home. In the U.S., only savings and investment funds ranked higher than travel among millennial priorities.
We love this colorful video from central Mexico, including footage from Guadalajara, Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.
12 Best Mexico Experiences
10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
— written by Sarah Schlichter
In the market for a new toiletry bag? ToiletTree Products, a company that sells bathroom and travel accessories, offers a couple of options worth considering.
The Toiletry Bag with 3 TSA Bottles weighs less than half a pound and has a hook you can use to hang it from your hotel or cruise ship’s bathroom door. The main compartment is separated into two parts by a mesh divider; here you’ll find three TSA-approved refillable bottles, with caps labeled as “conditioner,” “shampoo” and “body wash.” (Note that if you’re bringing these bottles in your carry-on on a flight, you’ll need to take them out of the toiletry bag and put them into a clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag with your other liquids and gels.)
There’s enough room in the main compartment for other items as well, such as makeup, toothpaste and a toothbrush. The bag also has two flat mesh pockets with zippers where you could slip things such as cotton swabs, feminine products, bandages, razor cartridges and the like. Once you’ve zipped the whole bag, there’s a handle at the top for easy carrying.
This bag sells for $18.95 at ToiletTree.com or at Amazon.com. It currently only comes in one color, navy blue.
If you’re looking for a heavier-duty option, the Toiletry Bag with Sonic Travel Toothbrush is larger and sturdier, made of synthetic leather instead of polyester. Weighing in at 1.2 pounds, this bag has a main compartment large enough to store full-size toiletry bottles (shaving cream, sunblock, etc.) as well as a hairbrush, comb, large tube of toothpaste, etc.
On the bottom of the bag is a flatter compartment with elastic bands that hold three refillable TSA-size bottles — again marked for shampoo, conditioner and body wash — as well as a slot for the included travel-size sonic toothbrush. (Note that you’ll need to add your own AAA battery.) In this compartment is one wide, flat mesh pocket with a zipper.
This bag isn’t really designed to be used while hanging, so there’s no hook — but there is a handle at one end to carry it. It sells for $29.95 at ToiletTree.com or at Amazon.com. It’s currently only available in black.
Which one should you buy? For travelers looking to pack light and travel only with a carry-on, the smaller bag is a better bet. The larger bag is more suited to road trips or longer vacations where suitcase space and weight aren’t as much of a concern.
The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
11 Versatile Travel Essentials That Do Double-Duty on the Road
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editorial Disclosure: Some products are sent to us free of charge to be considered for review. We choose products to review based on their relevance and usefulness to our readers. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not promise any editorial coverage, particularly positive reviews.
From backpackers to retirees, more than 300,000 people a year travel through Europe by train, and it’s now possible to visit 28 different countries by train on a Eurail Global Pass. A lover of the rails herself, Silvia Fischer serves as sales and marketing manager for Eurail Group G.I.E. Fischer chatted with us about what’s new in Europe train travel and where she dreams of going.
IndependentTraveler.com: If a traveler hasn’t been on a European train in a few years, what will they find that’s new?
Silvia Fischer: One of the key differences is the quality and breadth of services, including high-speed train lines. In first class, seating is now more spacious, and many seats recline. Food is often served right to your seat, and in several countries you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi straight from your seat.
With the Eurail Pass there have been plenty of improvements too, including the Children Travel for Free program that allows two children between 4 and 11 years old to travel for free with an adult Eurail Pass holder. This covers grandchildren as well.
Some other changes also include the addition of four new countries for Eurail — Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — and new passes like the Scandinavia Pass and the Greek Islands Pass.
IT: Eurail’s research shows that Central Europe is the most popular destination for travelers 50 years old and up. Why is that part of Europe trending?
SF: Countries like Germany and Switzerland will always be popular rail destinations due to the extensiveness of their networks. However, when people are coming back to Europe for a second, third or even fourth time, they are often looking for new experiences away from well-known hot spots. They are keen to explore areas that didn’t used to be as accessible, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia. It also helps that long-haul flights from the States are opening up to these countries too.
IT: You were recently in the U.S. What do you like about rail travel in the States, and what do you think could be improved?
SF: Similar to Europe, the U.S. offers some grand scenic journeys that can only be witnessed by rail — there’s nowhere else in the world where you can see the likes of the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your seat! On the flip side, passenger or commuter rail within the U.S. can be quite limited, and in many cases stations are only located within city limits of major hub cities. Coming from Europe, where there’s more than 10,000 stations accessible by passenger trains, I find the difference quite striking.
IT: What tips can you share to save money on rail travel in Europe?
SF: One of my top tips would be to book in advance before landing in Europe. One bonus of the booking period is that travelers can take advantage of promotional offers throughout the year and then travel up to 11 months later.
If you’re looking for a vacation that’s easier on the wallet, consider traveling within Eastern and Central Europe, or in the quieter months outside of the busy summer season.
IT: Which European routes are absolutely essential to reserve in advance?
SF: Due to popular demand, some high-speed, international and overnight trains in Europe require a reservation. That said, high-speed and international routes for countries popular with U.S. travelers like Germany and Austria don’t require a reservation. And in many cases there are alternative regional trains that passengers can opt for instead. The journey might be longer, but you skip having to make a reservation.
IT: What are your favorite tips for train travel?
SF: My number one piece of advice is to download the Rail Planner App. It’s a great tool that provides train timetables and tells you where connecting routes or reservations are necessary. The app is free and works offline.
If you’re in search of some quiet time, it’s quite common in Western Europe to find trains with “silent” carriages or cabins — no chitchat allowed! This is ideal for catching up on a book or sleep. And don’t forget to admire the views from the window!
IT: What are your personal favorite rail routes in Europe?
SF: That’s a tough choice! For the idyllic views in wine country, I’d say the Rhine Valley Line between Koblenz and Mainz in Germany. … For historic significance, it would have to be the Bernina Express between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This route follows two UNESCO World Heritage-listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina.
And for the uniqueness I would have to say the route between Hamburg in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The train literally rolls onto a ferry to cross the sea.
IT: What train trip — anywhere in the world — is on your travel bucket list?
SF: Outside of Europe, the Seven Stars line on the island of Kyushu, Japan, is on my wish list. A relative newcomer — it only opened in 2013 — it’s a luxury sleeper train that travels around Japan’s southernmost main island with views of lush green landscapes and even volcanoes!
Within Europe it’s tricky to choose, but if time allows, my ultimate dream would be undertaking a single trip that encompassed all the 28 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Now that would be an incredible European experience!
Check out more travel interviews!
Top 10 Reasons to Travel by Train
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
This week’s puzzle is a country shapes quiz! Take a look at the silhouette and below and tell us which country you think it is.
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 14, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. 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 Douglas Haddow, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Norway. Douglas has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Catch up with the stories you may have missed over the past seven days.
Top 20 Post-Election Travel Destinations
USA Today reports that TripAdvisor experienced a surge of booking activity from midnight on Election Day to 1 p.m. the day after. The site released the 10 most-booked countries and 10 most-booked cities during that time period. You might find some of them surprising. (The most-booked city? Dubai.)
The Roof of America
Your travel eye candy for the week is this photo essay from Maptia, offering stunning shots of trekking in the mountains of Peru.
Italy’s New ‘Scattered Hotel’ Trend May Save Its Historic Towns
Conde Nast Traveler reports on a fascinating trend in Italy called the albergo diffuso, or “scattered hotel.” This involves turning abandoned historic villages into a resort of sorts, with guestrooms and apartments surrounding a central lobby.
Kris Tompkins: ‘Fighter by Trade,’ Wild at Heart
CNN profiles a woman who has spent more than two decades preserving the Patagonian wilderness in Chile and Argentina by purchasing land and turning it into national parks.
Europe’s Mosquito-Free Island Paradise: Iceland
There are few places on Earth where you won’t be bitten by mosquitoes, but Iceland is one of them, reports the New York Times. This may be thanks to its climate, but global warming could change that in the future.
The Modern Rebirth of the ‘Golden Rule’
BBC explores the state of Penang, Malaysia, where the locals are coping with their multicultural identity with an emphasis on mutual tolerance of different religions and cultures.
Antitrust Suit Against Airlines Can Move Ahead, Judge Says
A lawsuit accusing major U.S. airlines of colluding to set high airfares has been given the go-ahead by a federal judge, who rejected a motion to dismiss it, reports the Los Angeles Times.
This week’s video features a sweet in-flight proposal aboard a Qantas flight from Sydney, Australia to Santiago, Chile.
The 9 Best Places to Travel Alone
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.