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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!

monument memorial



Hint: The memorial above celebrates the first president of this country. Can you guess which?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 30, 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 Jerry Green, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Accra, Ghana. Jerry has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– 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!

trinidad cubaIn this month’s featured review, reader Shareagift writes about visiting Cuba for the first time. “With its markets, colonial architecture and arid setting, Trinidad is reminiscent of North Africa and its souks,” writes Shareagift. “Trinidad is also home to one of the main Cuban music scenes. Each night the local bars are filled with drunk European tourists dancing independently of the rhythm while being spurred on by attractive locals. Like with most of Cuba, the atmosphere is warm and inviting.”

Read the rest of Shareagift’s review here: Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember … A Travel Guide. Shareagift has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 glimpses into the past.

Would you rather…

… see the jaw-dropping Mayan temples of Tikal, Guatemala, or …

tikal mayan temple guatemala



… explore the ruins of ancient cultures in Tunisia?

ruins mahdia tunisia sunset


Mayan ruins are scattered throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, and the ones at Tikal are some of the most spectacular. The tallest temple is more than 200 feet high. In Tunisia, you’ll find ruins from a number of ancient cultures, including the Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantines.

Explore More Destinations

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

ilulissat ice fjord greenlandGreenland is the world’s largest island, but it’s also one of the most remote, with most of its 836,000 square miles buried under a massive layer of ice all year round. Exploring Greenland requires warm clothing and a sense of adventure. You’ll also need a bit of extra money; because roads don’t connect the isolated towns and villages here, your only transportation options are expensive flights and ferries.

The most convenient choice is to visit Greenland by cruise ship. That’s what I did on a recent trip aboard the Fram, a 256-passenger expedition vessel run by the Norway-based Hurtigruten line. I chose the “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, one of several summer sailings from Hurtigruten. (Another itinerary later this summer includes the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.)

During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience in Greenland. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.

HITS
The Itinerary: The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Local Experiences: In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language, but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.

Enrichment: Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.

Staff: From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.

MISSES
Missed Calls: We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) It was a reminder that expedition cruises to remote parts of the world always come with a little unpredictability. Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.

Buffet Meals: Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)

Internet Access: During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed. Of course, not everyone wants to get online during their vacation, but if you do, for now you’ll have to rely on your phone or be out of touch completely.

See Our Latest Cruise Deals

– written by Sarah Schlichter

dori saltzman Todai-ji Buddhist temple nara japanA lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m such an expert at independent travel that I plan everything on my own and eschew any kind of organized tour. After all, who really wants to be herded from place to place with 50 strangers, some of whom are super annoying? And what “true” traveler likes to be rushed between sites with not enough time to linger and take it all in?

But the truth is I like tours, especially in places I’ve never been before, where English is not widely spoken, the culture is very different and I’ve got limited time.

Doing tours in such places is relatively stress-free. On a recent trip to Tokyo with my husband, I wanted to be sure that I’d get to see all the most important tourist sites in as little time as possible (we only had two days), so we’d have time to explore other places on our own. The easiest way to do that was to book an organized tour.

On one half-day tour with tour company Viator, we visited Tokyo’s most popular Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple, and walked around part of the Imperial Gardens. We also passed by Skytree Tower, the Japanese Diet and the Imperial Palace.

I didn’t mind the zipping-past-sites part of the tour; we ended up going to Skytree Tower another day on our own time, and we were both totally uninterested in touring the Diet. The Imperial Palace is off-limits all the time, so we weren’t going to get too much closer anyway.

12 Best Japan Experiences

I will admit I would have liked more time at the Meiji Shrine. Located in a large park, there are lots of paths to walk, and there was more to see at the shrine itself when our guide started herding us out.

There were plenty of tourists there on their own. But without our guide, how would I have learned how to correctly pray at a Shinto shrine? (Throw a coin in the donation area, bow twice, clap twice, think your prayer, and bow again.) How would I have known that most Japanese people come to Shinto shrines to celebrate good things, like marriages and births, and go to Buddhist temples when someone dies?

Some of what the guide told us I could have read in a guide book, but not all of it. That detailed information that goes beyond guidebook fare is another reason why I like organized tours. A good guide will tell the story of the places you’re visiting, giving you the details and providing the nuances that make each place special. And they’ll answer whatever questions they can.

They also give me an idea of what places I might want to go back to if I’m ever in the area again. With only a day and a half in Kyoto, we chose to spend our entire time on guided tours. I’m glad we did; it was the easiest way to visit all the area’s main attractions. If we ever go back, I know we’ll visit the Golden Pavilion again as there was so much we didn’t get to see. And we’ll be able to explore the rest of Kyoto knowing that we don’t have to run around just to cram in the “most important” sites.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Do you do enjoy organized tours when you travel or do you prefer to wing it on your own?

– by Dori Saltzman

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 experiences that will put you in a “purple haze.”

Would you rather…

… wander through lavender fields in Provence, France, or …

lavender field provence france



… see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at sunset?

imperial palace tokyo japan


The Provence region of France is well known for its sweet-smelling lavender fields, which bloom throughout the summer months (usually peaking in July). The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is home to the Emperor of Japan; on the grounds are a museum, gardens, a moat and the remains of Edo Castle.

12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 experiences that will get you up close and personal with unique marine wildlife.

Would you rather…

… snorkel or dive with green sea turtles in Bonaire, or …

green sea turtle bonaire underwater



… go whale watching in South Africa?

whale hermanus south africa


The southern Caribbean island of Bonaire is one of the world’s best spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. Along with green sea turtles, you may also see garden eels, frogfish, parrot fish, rays, whale sharks and much more. In South Africa, you’ll see the biggest marine animals of them all: whales! Visit between June and November to see migrating southern right whales; humpbacks and Bryde’s whales can also be spotted at select times of year.

Photos: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

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!

houses, ice




Hint: It may not look it, but it’s springtime in this colorful country. Can you guess which?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 9, 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 Jennifer Parry, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Greenland. Jennifer has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

cabo san lucasNot every destination makes a stellar first impression. Misunderstandings happen, plans fall through, expectations are dashed. And nowhere in recent memory did I find that truer than in Cabo San Lucas.

I had high hopes before I arrived in this happening resort town on the Mexican Riviera. As a celebrity magazine addict, I knew that Cabo was considered the perfect spot for A-listers to blow off steam: Justin Timberlake plays golf there, George Clooney celebrates birthdays, the Kardashians do what Kardashians do. Jennifer Aniston comes so often that she might as well be on the tourist brochure.

But I forgot that they don’t go where I went, which, unfortunately, was straight to Medano Beach. I knew from the moment I arrived at a popular beachfront restaurant there that I had chosen … poorly.

I ordered a margarita, singular. Little did I know this was an impossible request in Cabo. A waiter arrived bearing two aquarium-sized glasses. “No, no, just one,” I told him nicely.

“No, lady. Two is better!” he replied. We went back and forth over my request for a while, until he finally took the unsolicited beverage away. (At that point, I was so irritated by his persistent upselling that I almost needed the second drink.)

That wasn’t the end to the Medano madness. Within a few hours, I was hassled by timeshare salesmen, encouraged to smile by water taxi drivers and offered illegal drugs. I saw more ugly tattoos than on an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and it wasn’t even spring break. The last straw came when I slipped on one of Cabo’s steeper streets, landing firmly on my rear.

“I hate Cabo,” I texted to my husband.

Luckily, I had time for a do-over; subsequent days there exposed me to the city’s first-class adventure opportunities, including kayaking and snorkeling with Baja Outback, parasailing with Cabo Expeditions and a camel safari with Cabo Adventures (yes, camels! It’s become the company’s number one excursion). I even found some great places to go on Medano to escape the nuttiness free-for-all, including Nikki Beach (for those who like Miami style) and Tabasco Beach (for those who like feet-in-the-sand style). I have a list of things to do if and when I come back, including visits to San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos and a deep-water fishing excursion.

Learn More About Mexico

But the experience made me think about the best ways to handle a new destination if it isn’t exactly what you expected:

Switch gears: The best thing I could have done after the margarita skirmish was hightail it out of Medano on a water taxi to the Marina, a less pushy part of the city. If you’re in a neighborhood that’s rubbing you the wrong way, try another one — stat.

Blow off steam: Zip-lining wasn’t what you expected? Don’t stomp back to the hotel angrily. If time allows, walk around, do some shopping or enjoy a snack at an establishment that looks more your speed. Being able to calm down and look at the situation with some distance will usually turn it into an amusing memory rather than a trip-wrecking horror.

Conduct a post-mortem, part I: That night, make the effort to talk to a few fellow travelers, either at your hotel or a local bar. What have they done that you haven’t? Swapping stories means you can unearth valuable intel that may allow you to make out better the next day.

Conduct a post-mortem, part II: Once you’re home, go online and see if others have had your experience. (Our forums are a great place to chat with other travelers.) Did they have the same issues you did, or did you just happen to catch that attraction or neighborhood on a bad day? Keep in mind that factors like weather, local strikes and staff turnover can vary the experience significantly.

When Destinations Disappoint

Maybe it’s you. We all have bad days. Maybe you’re not feeling well, or maybe your travel companions are working your last nerve. If you set out for the day with a monster chip on your shoulder, don’t be surprised if the slightest thing knocks it off — and really, who’s to blame for that but yourself?

Tell us! How have you salvaged a poor experience in a new destination?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos