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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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!

woman riding elephant sri lanka


In this month’s winning review, a traveler has a life-changing volunteer experience at Sri Lanka’s Millennium Elephant Foundation. “It’s 7:00 in the morning,” writes TS Buchanan. “It’s 35 degrees [Celsius] already, the sweat is pouring off me and I’m shoveling crap. Literally … shovelling crap. But not just any crap, I’m shovelling elephant dung. And I’m having the time of my life!”

Read the rest of TS Buchanan’s review here: Anything for the Elephants! This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review! Submit your review by May 11, and you could win a $50 Amazon gift card!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s a marine biologist in Sicily named Emilio who is as fond of studying sea creatures as he is of cooking them. His house is in a seaside village called Torretta Granitola, and when he’s not crunching numbers in the lab, he’s in the kitchen, whipping up dishes with the fish he catches and with ingredients from local farms.

pasta italy


Wild asparagus omelets. Fava beans and artichokes cooked in a clay pot. Fresh sheep cheese and croutons made of locally made rye bread.

Dinner at Emilio’s sounds like a dream.

Now, thanks to a new website called My Italian Friends, you can pull up a chair at Emilio’s patio dining table and spend three hours savoring one of his home-cooked meals. Or you can book a spot in a home restaurant in a different Italian city — Rome, Milan and Perugia among them.

My Italian Friends is the perfect solution for travelers who get weary of dining in restaurants for every meal. The website allows you to reserve a meal in a local Italian home, viewing the menu, location and background of the home cook before you book. The website also lists cooking classes, if you prefer to learn to hand-roll your own pasta rather than have it served to you, and foodie tours, such as an escorted visit to Florence’s main market.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

The site only recently launched, yet already has dozen of listings. They are widely distributed throughout Italy, and the hosts seem welcoming and intent on providing good food and good conversation. They list sample menus, but you can make requests (and note allergies or dietary restrictions) when you book.
Some hosts provide additional services, such as rides to and from public transport and walking tours of the area.

The website offers a range of experiences and range of prices. We spotted a pasta dinner in Rome for 18 euros (about $20.50 USD), and a truffle-hunting expedition in the medieval town of Gubbio with an expert guide named Danilo and his trusty dog for 172 euros ($196 — includes lunch and a guided tour). The four-course meal at Emilio’s house, including wine, is 29 euros per person ($33). Some home cooks provide discounts on select dates.

To learn about other websites offering meals in local homes, see Beyond Restaurants: Eight Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene.

Like This Story? Get More Travel Tips in Our Newsletter!

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

A young British gal caused quite a stir in the mid-1800s when she finally admitted that she, a mere female, was the author of the popular book “Jane Eyre,” not the man whose pen name she had assumed. The book then landed on everyone’s must-read list, and novelist and poet Charlotte Bronte became a massive success.

bronte parsonage museum haworth england


In just a couple of weeks, England — and all of the literary world — will mark the 200th birthday of Charlotte Bronte. Here are a few spots that were important in her life, many of which will be commemorating the anniversary on April 21:

Thornton, England: Most of the Bronte children, including Charlotte, were born in the village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England, at 74 Market Street. Visitors can see remains of the chapel where Charlotte’s father preached just opposite the village’s current church on Thornton Road.

Haworth, England: When the Bronte sisters grew up in Haworth, a village in Northern England, it was a congested industrial town where most residents barely survived into their mid-20s. Today Haworth is a charming mountain village that celebrates the lives of its most famous family. The surrounding region is now nicknamed Bronte Country, and their home is now the Bronte Parsonage Museum, run by the Bronte Society, one of the oldest literary societies in the world. A special exhibit commemorating the anniversary opened in February.

New York, United States: If you don’t have the opportunity to see the special Bronte exhibit at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, you can learn about her life and work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which will host “Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will” from September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017.

Banagher, Ireland: Charlotte and her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, didn’t venture too far for their honeymoon. They spent it among the bogs and castles of Banagher, in County Offaly in the Irish midlands.

Brussels, Belgium: Charlotte lived in Brussels twice, both times working as a schoolteacher. She resided at an ordinary pension on the Rue d’Isabelle. Nothing remains of the original structure, but an arts center called the Palais des Beaux Arts commemorates the site with a plaque. And nearby are remnants of cobblestone streets that Charlotte and her sister Emily once walked.

London, England: The Brontes had one brother, Branwell, and he fancied himself an artist. He created a portrait of Charlotte with sisters Emily and Anne — a piece that was folded and hidden in a wardrobe. The National Portrait Gallery obtained the piece and is displaying it, along with other works of art, in the exhibit “Celebrating Charlotte Bronte.”

9 Great Authors and the Places That Shaped Them
Photos: 13 Best England Experiences

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Catch up on the most interesting travel pieces you may have missed this week.

street in trinidad cuba


Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined
In this incisive op-ed for Flood Magazine, a Cuban writer challenges the widespread view of Cuba as a romanticized, “stuck in time” destination that’s going to be ruined by a wave of mass tourism from the U.S. “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba?” Natalie Morales writes. “Running water? Available food? … Access to proper healthcare?” It’s a must-read for anyone interested in visiting Cuba and seeing what it’s truly like to live there. (Warning: There’s some colorful language.)

Meet a Traveler: Michael Palin, National Treasure on Loan to the World
Lonely Planet interviews comedy legend and frequent traveler Michael Palin, who sounds off on his favorite places around the world, the best souvenir he ever brought home and his most challenging travel experience (which involved tainted camel liver).

Inside the Radical Airline Cabins of the Future
Vogue offers an intriguing look at how airplanes might be designed in the future. Windowless cabins? Stackable sleeping pods? A small viewing bubble on top of the plane? Welcome to a brave new world.

In Praise of Small-Town Travel
National Geographic celebrates the pleasures of visiting towns and villages rather than just big cities, including the slower rhythms of life and the chance to connect with local people. The writer also recommends her favorite small towns on each continent.

Doctors Share What Really Happens When There’s an Emergency Mid-Flight
Conde Nast Traveler interviewed several medical professionals to gather these stories of in-flight emergencies. One doctor delivered a baby; another couldn’t save a patient but used the tragedy to petition the U.S. government for a requirement that all planes have defibrillators and expanded medical kits. (Fortunately for all of us, he was successful.)

Shhh! Take a Peek at 15 of the World’s Most Exquisite Libraries
Book lovers will swoon over this CNN slideshow featuring photos of incredible libraries around the world, from Spain to South Korea.

The Abandoned Mansions of Billionaires
BBC Travel takes us into the fascinating Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India, where a collection of opulent havelis (mansions) are falling into decay. Covered with magnificent frescoes, these buildings are only just starting to be preserved as museums or heritage hotels.

The Travel Industry Now Supports Nearly 10 Percent of World’s Jobs
Those of us who love to travel are in good company. Skift reports that more than a billion people traveled internationally last year, contributing to a tourism industry that provided jobs for one out of every 11 people worldwide.

Have a laugh over this week’s video from Jurys Inn, an Irish hotel chain, which has invented the “suvet” — a suit made of a hotel duvet. Looks pretty comfy!


— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

iceland ice cave


In this month’s winning review, a traveler explores Iceland’s natural beauty during a wintry off-season trip. “Inside the Ice Cave was AMAZING,” writes John Connaughton. “Beautiful blue ice, as well as some clear and some coated in white from the snow. We crawled further in to a second chamber where you could again stand up. We took a lot of pictures in the Ice Cave and this was the highlight of our trip.”

Read the rest of John’s review here: Our Iceland Trip in Detail. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We’re celebrating the start of spring by daydreaming about … what else? … travel. Feast your eyes along with us on these incredible spots to see spring flowers around the world.

netherlands tulips windmill


Tulip fields bloom each spring across the Netherlands.


flowering trees nami island south korea


Flowering trees line a path on Nami Island, South Korea.


poppies california coast


Poppies add a dash of color to the California coast.


lupines lake tekapo new zealand


Lupines create a vibrant carpet beside Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.


tuscany italy spring flowers


Tuscany’s rolling hills are blanketed with spring flowers.


jefferson memorial cherry blossoms washington dc


Cherry blossoms wreath the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.


Where should you travel this spring? Take our new quiz!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Discover the best travel articles you may have missed this week.

phnom penh


Visiting Phnom Penh: How I Finally Relaxed in a City That Scared Me
This compelling essay from Conde Nast Traveler explores a traveler’s experience in Phnom Penh, where she skipped the Killing Fields and instead went searching for Cambodia’s more hopeful present.

How to Get Compensated — Generously — for Delayed Flights and Dirty Hotel Rooms
Travel + Leisure profiles a new app called Service that will advocate on your behalf to get you reimbursed for snafus such as lost luggage, incorrect hotel charges and flight delays. (It’s not limited to travel either, so between trips you can use the app to do battle with your cable provider.)

In Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom to Myself
It’s unlikely that many of us will ever travel to Saudi Arabia, so it’s fascinating to see this in-depth look from the New York Times. The writer visits an island with only one hotel, explores pre-Islamic tombs and attends a local festival.

17 Incredibly Amazing Women Who Will Inspire You to Travel Solo at Least Once
BuzzFeed interviews 17 female travel bloggers about their best advice for traveling alone as a woman. “Waking up each day and thinking ‘I can go anywhere I want’ is one of the most incredible, liberating feelings a person can experience,” writes one blogger. We couldn’t agree more.

These Amazing Photos of Thailand Will Satisfy Your Wanderlust
If all you’re looking for today is to scroll through gorgeous pictures of exotic places, Rough Guides has your back with this photo essay. Dreamy!

Monotony and ‘Moments of Terror’ Mark Search for Flight 370
Nearly two years after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, both the fate of the plane and its location are still shrouded in mystery. This AP story captures the difficult and often tedious job of searching the ocean floor with sonar for the lost aircraft.

What It’s Like to Live on a Cruise Ship for 8 Years
Forget retiring in Florida — the Washington Post profiles an 87-year-old woman who’s spending her golden years on a cruise ship. Lee Wachtstetter began her life aboard Crystal Serenity a few years after her husband’s death.

New Senate Bill Proposes End to “Ridiculous” Airline Fees
Two Democratic senators have put forward a bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to prevent airlines from raising fees or charging prices that are “unreasonable or disproportional to the costs” of a service. Will the proposal ever make it into law? Here’s hoping.

This week’s stunning travel video will put the Philippines on your bucket list if it’s not already there. Do yourself a favor and view it in full screen.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.

Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.

rolling paper at repapel dominican republic


I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.

Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)

I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.

clay filters dominican republic fathom


My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.

Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.

In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.

Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.

Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.

Would you consider a Fathom cruise?

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

hot water beach poolIn this month’s winning review, a traveler discovers New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula during the winter off season. “Hot Water Beach is famous for its underground hot springs that can filter up through the sand at low tide,” writes Lauren Meeks. “Visitors from all over the world bring shovels and try to time their digging so that they’ve built up their little pool right around the time that low tide is reached, so that they can sit and enjoy their very own homemade sauna. The pictures in the tourist brochure definitely promise big things … the reality for us was a bit different.”

Read the rest of Lauren’s review here: Exploring the Coromandel Peninsula. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

March 1 marks the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Hoover Dam — the engineering marvel on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. Aside from its primary job of preventing floods and providing water to millions of people, the Hoover Dam is also a major tourist attraction. Some 7 million visitors tour the dam annually.

hoover dam


Aside from the Hoover Dam — which, in my opinion, is far more interesting than actually spending time in nearby Las Vegas — here are five other dams that are attractive to travelers:

Luzzone Dam, Switzerland: Adventurists flock to this high-altitude, 540-foot-tall dam on the Swiss-Italian border for one reason: to conquer one of the world’s tallest artificial climbing walls. A German company affixed one side of the dam with hundreds of climbing bolts and holds. The YouTube video below shows what the acrophobic climbing experience is like.


Grand Coulee Dam, Washington, U.S.: Nightly summertime laser light shows projected onto the dam’s wall make Grand Coulee, about 1.5 hours from Spokane, a fun destination for travelers. The surrounding Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is popular for boating, swimming and camping. The free light shows run from Memorial Day through September 30 each year.

Aswan High Dam, Egypt: Threatened by floods, more than 20 temples in the vicinity of Lake Nasser had to be removed and painstakingly rebuilt elsewhere to make way for this Nile River dam system, which controls flooding. UNESCO supervised the moves, and several of the temples were relocated to other countries that supported the effort. The best known is the Temple of Dendur, which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

grand dixence dam


Grande Dixence Dam, Switzerland: Another high-altitude Swiss dam, this one, in the Val d’Herens Valley, is a popular starting point for hikers. This is considered the world’s highest gravity dam, and its reservoir is completely fed by melting water from 35 glaciers. Guided tours and cable car rides are available.

Almendra Dam, Spain: Also called the Villarino Dam, the Alemendra Dam is one of Spain’s tallest manmade structures at 663 feet high. It provides hydroelectric power to a great wine-growing region known as the Douro River Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth a quick photographic detour when visiting the charming university town of Salamanca.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens
The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma