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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!

world destination


Hint: This city is home to thousands of farms and gardens, as well as one of the world’s tallest free-standing totem poles.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 25, 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 prize. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

close up detail of rome's trevi fountain sculpturesYou’re in Rome for the first time. You’ve got your euro penny in hand to throw into Trevi Fountain. You’ve been thinking about what wish you’re going to make since you first stepped off the plane at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. But when you get there the fountain is dry, enclosed in scaffolding with only a small metal bridge for limited access. Signs in several languages warn against throwing coins. Your wish dies on the tip of your tongue. You’ve come all the way to Rome, and one of the main sites you wanted to see is closed.

Many travelers have faced a similar situation on their journeys. (Trevi Fountain will remain closed to the public through fall 2015, for example.) Logically we understand it. Buildings, attractions and works of art that have been around for hundreds of years or more must be maintained so they’re around for hundreds more. There are no promises they’ll be open or on display for you on the day you visit.

11 Best Italy Experiences

But when it’s something you had your heart set on seeing, logic goes out the window. Disappointment and anger mingle, and your satisfaction with your vacation dims just a bit — or a lot, depending on just how important seeing that attraction was to you.

The best way to avoid this situation is to research your trip ahead of time and temper your expectations. It’s not just renovations that can upend your plans; traveling during a national holiday you didn’t know about could leave you standing outside the locked doors of that museum you were hoping to visit.

If you have always wanted to see the Mona Lisa and are thinking about a trip to Paris, check to make sure that the Louvre will be open at the time you’re planning on visiting. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, as well as annually on May 1, July 14 and December 25. When preplanning your visit, make sure to slot in the Louvre on any day but one of these.

12 Best France Experiences

Attraction hours are easy to find, but how do you find out about other events that might prevent you from seeing the attractions you want? Your best bet is to contact the tourist board of the destination you’re visiting. Country tourist boards are okay, but if there’s one for the city you’ll be in that’s better. Give someone at the tourist board a call. Ask if there are any renovations going on at the attractions you want to visit. Ask if they are aware of any protests planned. (In April 2015 the Eiffel Tower was closed down for part of day during massive anti-government protests.)

There is no way to guarantee you’ll never be on the outside looking in at an attraction you wanted to visit. If you can (and we recognize it’s really difficult), try not to get your heart set on anything. Every destination has multiple attractions, and missing out on one does not have to ruin your trip.

Have you ever visited a city with your heart set on seeing something specific only to find it closed when you got there?

— written by Dori Saltzman

singers cuba el tanqueRecent changes from President Obama mean that it’s gotten significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba, but they must still travel under one of 12 categories mandated by the U.S. government. A research trip or a visit to see family? No problem. A beach vacation or simple sightseeing? Those are a no-go. (For the full list of legal categories, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For those of us who aren’t journalists, professors or baseball players starring in an exhibition game, the easiest way to get to Cuba is with a company operating “people-to-people” tours, which fall under the umbrella of Educational Activities as far as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is concerned. These trips focus on cultural exchange by putting American visitors directly in contact with the Cubans themselves — often in ways that would be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own.

I recently traveled on such an itinerary with smarTours, which arranged numerous people-to-people activities during our four days in Havana. One highlight was a visit to El Tanque, where an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within.

5 Things You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

cuba photographer artist lorenzo lopez sheningThe interactive experiences continued throughout the trip. We ate lunch one day with a local magazine writer, the next with a retired pitcher who’d played for various Cuban baseball teams. We were treated to a private concert by Ele, a dynamic singing group, as well as a performance by incredibly talented children who were studying acrobatics and other circus skills as part of an after-school program called Angels of the Future. (One child swung from the ceiling; another contorted herself into painful-looking poses; still another stood barefoot on his friend’s head!) On our last day in Cuba, we were welcomed into the home of a local artist/photographer, who generously spent an hour answering our group’s questions about his life, his work and the future of Cuba.

While I loved strolling the streets of Old Havana and watching the Buena Vista Social Club perform at our hotel — activities I could’ve done easily on an independent trip — it was the people-to-people aspects of the itinerary that proved to be the most informative and rewarding. At this pivotal point in Cuban history, it was important to hear the voices of the people themselves, expressing their hopes and fears about what’s ahead. (“After the embargo” was a phrase we heard over and over again.)

Yes, group trips have their drawbacks, especially if you love wandering and prefer your schedule to be your own. And I support the right of all American travelers to visit Cuba independently when it’s legal to do so. But I hope that even after all the restrictions are gone, there will still be companies offering people-to-people itineraries in Cuba — because there are few better ways to understand and appreciate this unique culture.

Read About Other Travelers’ Experiences in Cuba

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

prague czech republic


Population: 10.6 million

Currency: Czech koruna

Phrase to Know: Dobry den (hello/good day)

Fun Fact: The Czech people consume more beer per capita than anyone else in the world, beating out the Irish in second place.

We Recommend: Join the locals in foraging for wild mushrooms, a popular hobby during the summer and fall in the Czech Republic.

10 Best Czech Republic Experiences

Have you been to the Czech Republic? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

lanai, hawaii sweetheart rockIf you’re planning on visiting the small island of Lanai — just off of Maui — any time before mid-2016, you might not be able to stay there. Larry Ellison, ranked the fifth wealthiest person in the world, purchased 98 percent of the island in 2012 — a steal at $300 million. According to a story on Road Warrior Voices, affiliated with USA Today Travel, Ellison has closed most of the island’s accommodations in order to make Lanai “the first economically viable, 100 percent green community.” Just 11 hotel rooms remain available, located at the Hotel Lanai. Both of the island’s Four Seasons properties — totaling 303 rooms — will be closed, allowing for construction workers to stay at one property, the Lodge at Koele, while they renovate the other, the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay. Both properties are set to reopen later this year.

Editor’s Note: Visitors can still reach Lanai via day trips from Maui.

Ellison, former CEO of the software company Oracle Corporation, has been described by a biographer as a “modern-day Genghis Khan,” according to an article in the New York Times, more for his intense and extravagant style than any war games. However, Lanai has had a history of dictatorships — by Mormons, pineapple-growers, other billionaires and, as legend has it, a god of nightmares. Luckily, residents seem to be grateful for the new owner and his bold vision for the island, according to interviews in the Times article. This vision includes infrastructure such as bigger airport runways and a state-of-the-art desalination plant as well as organic wineries, a film studio and a bowling alley.

“He is renewing, refreshing, rejuvenating every part of the island,” a woman named Mimi Evangelista told the Times. “I feel blessed, blessed beyond my wildest dreams.”

However, not everyone on the island is fully in support of how Pulama Lanai, Ellison’s management company (he never attends meetings or addresses residents in person), communicates its plans for the island. (Jon Mooallem, the author of the Times article, encountered a near code of silence.)

Despite any changes taking place over the next year, only time will tell how one man’s vision — in a line of many — will pan out for Hawaiian island of Lanai, home to 3,200 residents and a potential vacation destination for countless travelers.

Check Out 5 Top-Rated Honolulu Hotels

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

patagonia mountains argentina hiker


Population: 43 million

Currency: Argentine peso

Phrase to Know: No entiendo (I don’t understand)

Fun Fact: Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s widest avenues; 9 de Julio Avenue stretches up to seven lanes in each direction.

We Recommend: Take a cruise at the edge of the world in Ushuaia, one of the planet’s southernmost cities. The nearby Beagle Channel is home to sea lions, albatrosses and other wildlife.

10 Best Argentina Experiences

Have you been to Argentina? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

havana cuba classic carI returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”

With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.

Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)

If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.

And speaking of CUCs…

Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)

Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.

Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

cormorant fisherman yangshuo china


Population: 1.4 billion

Currency: Yuan renminbi

Phrase to Know: Xie xie (thank you — pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”)

Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was not actually invented in China; it’s believed to have been created in the early 20th century in California. In fact, Wonton Food attempted to establish a fortune cookie factory in China in the 1990s, but had to close it because the cookies were considered too American.

We Recommend: Cuddle a panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s an extra fee and you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

12 Best China Experiences

Have you been to China? What was your favorite spot?

— 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!

world destination


Hint: Where in the world is this fort that was erected in 1891 to defend the city and protect its palm groves, and now hosts a permanent exhibition with works by a British adventurer?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 4, 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 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 Janice, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Al Jahili Fort in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Janice has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

Have you been to Sweden? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter