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From amateur shoots by first-time travelers to travel company promos and professionally produced films, 2016 has been a stellar year for capturing the world in video. Below are the four best travel videos of the bunch (plus a bonus video that I simply can’t get out of my mind).

The Inspiring Story of Blind Surfer Derek Rabelo
Many travel company videos are straightforward commercials promoting their products. But Turkish Airlines took a different approach this year with a touching film about blind surfer Derek Rabelo. His perspective on the ocean, for example, forces you to reexamine yours. More than 9 million people have viewed the three-minute video, which is in Turkish with English subtitles.



New York City Drone Film Festival Montage
Drone videos are all the rage among amateur and professional videographers alike, and so many are stunning that it’s hard to pick one as the best of the year. The 2016 New York City Drone Film Festival released a 2.5-minute montage of the best scenes from its 2016 submissions. My favorite snippet was the volcano flyby.



China: A Skier’s Journey
Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots contrast two ski cultures in China — the emerging middle class that is starting to embrace skiing as a leisure sport, and peoples who have skied for thousands of years as a means of survival. The staff at Vimeo selected this 16.5-minute film as the top travel pick of 2016.



This Magic World
Mexican student Mariana Osorio won International Student.com’s annual travel video contest this year with a sweet and sad 4.5-minute video that’s part autobiography, part travelogue. Osorio wrote an original song about how her violin skills gave her the ticket out of her small Mexican village — which is plagued by drug cartel activity — and into New York City.



Bonus Video: Autumn Leaves
Here’s the bonus video. Admittedly, it was first shared in late 2015, but I didn’t have the opportunity to see it until 2016. It’s easily one of my favorite videos of all time. A polite Korean tourist visiting Florence surprised some local street musicians by asking if he could join them. He took up a spot next to the contrabass and led a peppy rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Though the musicians don’t speak the same language, they communicate beautifully through music, and feed off each other’s energy in this impromptu jam session near the Florence Duomo. The video is pure joy, and captures the essence of what travel is all about.



4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
5 Recommended TED Talks on Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

The STM Drifter Backpack makes an attractive option for travelers who bring laptops, tablets or both when they hit the road. There’s room not just for your devices and chargers, but also for travel documents, a book or magazine for the plane, and even a change of clothes. You can also use the bag at home for commuting or hiking.

stm drifter backpack


After taking the bag for a quick spin, here’s what we liked — and didn’t like so much — about the STM Drifter.

What We Liked
It’s comfortable to wear. The back is well padded, and the adjustable back and sternum straps make it easy to distribute the bag’s weight.

It feels sturdy. Everything from the heavy-duty zippers to the thick, well-padded straps feels durable and well made.

It’s got lots of storage. There are three pockets on the front of the bag, including one fitted with slots for pens and other small items, and one that’s padded for a cell phone. On one side is a pocket for a water bottle or umbrella; on the other is a small zippered compartment. In the main section of the bag are a see-through mesh pocket (with zipper), one large open pocket, padded sleeves for a laptop and tablet, and a few other nooks and crannies. The sleeves for your devices “float” above the bottom of the main compartment, helping to protect them if you drop the pack.

It’s got a rain cover. Hidden away in zippered compartment at the bottom of the bag is a thin rain cover that you can pull up to protect the bag. (Mustard yellow isn’t the most attractive color for it, but its high visibility might be an advantage if you’re walking or biking on a gray, rainy day.)

It’s easy to pair with a wheeled suitcase. There’s a wide strap on the back that lets you slip the pack down the extendable handle of a rolling suitcase.

What We Didn’t Like
It won’t work for large laptops. The bag is meant for 15-inch computers, but will hold most 11- to 16-inch laptops. If your machine is larger, you’ll need to try a different bag.

The main compartment doesn’t unzip very far. This is a top-loading bag, and the zippers for the main compartment don’t extend too far down the sides, so it’s not as easy as it might be with other bags to reach in from the side to grab something, or to find things at the very bottom.

It’s expensive. At a price point of $135 to $140 (depending on where you buy it), the STM Drifter is pricier than most other laptop backpacks.

The Bottom Line
This is a good-quality laptop backpack that’s ideal for both traveling and commuting, but the price point may make it a stretch for some travelers.

You can buy the STM Drifter at the STM website or at Amazon.com.

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help
12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip

— 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.

We recently introduced you to a travel startup whose staff designs long-weekend getaways without revealing your destination until just before you depart. All of the destinations on Pack Up + Go are medium or large cities in the United States and are usually just three or four hours from your departure point.

adventurous traveler leaping in the mountains


Apparently, that’s not intrepid enough for some travelers. Another new travel company called Jubel plans longer themed journeys to overseas locales.

Like Pack Up + Go, Jubel will design a custom trip based on your destinations of interest, preferred activities and budget. First you choose a theme — such as “party purist,” “culturist” or “chilled nature.” (These can be combined.) Then you fill out an extensive survey that details such preferences as hotel budget, scenery desires, transport options and how much (or how little) of the trip you want to be a mystery.

You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like in telling the staff where you want to go. If it’s mid-winter, you’re fed up with the cold and you just want to go “someplace warm,” that’s enough info for Jubel’s team to plan your vacation. But you can also be more specific — museum hopping in southern Europe, for example, or a rain forest destination in Ecuador.

After conducting research about your trip and curating a personalized experience, your Jubel travel consultant will send you at least one proposal, purposely vague enough that the trip will be a surprise (if that’s what you request) but detailed enough for you to make a decision. If you decide you want to make a booking, you’ll need to pay a deposit of 50 percent of the trip’s estimated total cost, which varies based on the length of your trip and your budget constraints.

“I never realized how mentally taxing doing all those travel details [was] until I was completely freed of them,” one traveler, Filip Victor, says in a testimonial on Jubel’s website.

Once you’re paid up, Jubel provides travelers with a sealed envelope revealing your destination. If that’s the maximum amount of surprise your nerves can handle, Jubel can provide the full itinerary too.

But if you’re more adventurous than that, Jubel will provide a pack of sealed envelopes to be opened during your trip. They contain details about different legs of your adventure, so the “Mission Impossible”-esque surprises continue as your trip progresses … should you choose to accept them.

The Healing Power of Travel
12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Would you try Jubel?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

man on cell phone and laptop at cafe


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

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.

toilettree bag with tsa bottles


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.

toilettree bag


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.

The delightful cottage I rented through Airbnb last month seemed to have all right elements to provide a restful long weekend — a pretty location, plenty of space to spread out, a well-appointed kitchen. But my two-night stay ended up being less than restful because I barely slept. The bed was so squeaky that every time I rolled over, the metallic oinks and squeals would wake me up.

bedroom


I love that Airbnb, Home Away, VRBO and other vacation rental property websites exist, providing alternatives to hotels. But one of the downsides is the lack of consistent standards.

A new travel site called Sonder aims to correct that.

Like the other vacation rental sites, Sonder allows you to book individually owned private properties by the night. But Sonder requires that the owners meet a checklist of standards before they can be members and offer their “hometels” for rent. In fact, there are 237 items on Sonder’s checklist.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

Owners must agree to have homes professionally cleaned after each stay. All properties provide consistent amenities, including speedy Wi-Fi, hotel-like bath products and kitchen essentials, including coffee and tea. And bookings are confirmed instantly; no need to wait around for the homeowner to respond, keeping your vacation plans in limbo until he or she decides whether to accept your booking. Units must be accessible via lockbox and key code; no need to coordinate with the owner to hand off a key.

The springy bed I slept on would never pass Sonder’s test — the company states that all beds are comfortable and decked out with luxury hotel-style linens.

The founders of Sonder said they came up with the idea after they arrived at a rental apartment in San Francisco. After waiting endlessly for the owner to call them back to let them know where to find the house key, they went into the apartment, only to find dog hair all over the furniture and half-eaten food in the fridge.

Right now, Sonder is only available in eight cities in the United States and Canada — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — and others will be added soon. Even though the West Virginia cottage I rented was lacking in comfort, such a rural destination isn’t even available through Sonder. So there are tradeoffs.

For city properties, rates tend to be comparable to Airbnb, but you’ll have fewer options. For example, I searched for a $200-or-less private home in Boston for a mid-December stay. Airbnb turned up 279 properties and Sonder just 11.

If you’re seeking a private space in a city, Sonder is a great alternative to other rental sites and hotels. But for now, you’ll need to stick with the other websites if you’re seeking non-urban rentals.

15 Things You Don’t Know About Vacation Rentals
7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

In early October, I embarked on a weeklong family vacation around the southwestern United States. This loaded itinerary promised hiking, rock climbing, swimming and a family reunion spread across five cities, three states and eight days. While I’m generally an efficient packer, I was having difficulty narrowing down my clothing options and keeping myself organized this time around.

ezpacking packing cubes


Normally, I’m skeptical of any packing cubes or aids. I’m a bare-bones traveler who has managed just fine with rolling, folding and cramming in the past. So when I was given the EzPacking Starter Set, a collection of four packing cubes in various sizes, I can’t say I expected much. If anything, I figured they’d complicate the packing process and add unnecessary bulk to my bag.

I was wrong. In fact, these little plastic cubes worked so well for me that I ordered another set shortly after this trip.

I used the large cube (which measures 16″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for casual wear, the medium (12″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for athletic clothes and running gear, the small bag (10.3″ x 6″ x 4″) for my bathing suits and intimates, and the extra-small bag (6″ x 6″ x 2.5″) for toiletries. When detouring to Page, Arizona for two days in the middle of the trip, I took the largest cube as an overnight duffel rather than lugging my full-size suitcase all over the Southwest.

Altogether these bags nestled nicely into my suitcase, maximized space and worked well with our multi-faceted and activity-intensive itinerary.

What We Liked: The EzPacking organizers are like the Mary Poppins bag of travel. These little things don’t look like much on the outside, but they can fit a lot. For instance, one of the larger bags comfortably held nine warm-weather outfits and a light jacket. (Disclaimer: I’m a petite, 5’0″ female.)

Beyond compactness, these bags are also lightweight and sturdy. They added very little extra weight to our luggage (20 ounces), and held their shape no matter how much stuff I crammed in around them. Unlike some other packing cubes, EzPacking organizers are transparent on four out of six sides, so it’s easy to see what you’ve packed where.

What We Didn’t Like: While the cubes are compact and convenient, they will take up the bulk of your bag. Because of this, I had difficulty squeezing in some last-minute souvenirs that were too delicate to fit elsewhere.

Another downside is that these cubes make it dangerously easy to overpack. I had to transfer several items from my suitcase to my carry-on just to keep my bag within the airline’s 50-pound limit.

Bottom Line: While a bit on the pricey side for a set of four (they retail for $48), the EzPacking organizers are a great asset for people with packing OCD, or travelers looking for extra organization.

EzPacking organizers can be ordered individually or purchased online in one of several bundles. They come in different colors and are TSA-approved (in fact, the smallest bag is perfect for TSA’s liquid and gel regulations). You can buy them on the EzPacking website or on Amazon.com.

Want a chance to win our gently used EzPacking Starter Set? We’re giving it away. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Starter Set. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
11 Travel Essentials That Do Double Duty on the Road

— written by Christina Janansky

Two travel startups have come up with distinctive ways for travelers to earn rewards merely by booking trips.

travel money jar


At a time when frequent flier miles and other points-earning opportunities are harder than ever to manage and use, Upside and TRVL are refreshingly innovative options for accruing bonuses for purchasing airfare and hotels.

Upside rewards you with gift cards for being flexible with your travel plans. When you book airfare and hotel rooms, which the company offers as a package, Upside will offer you gift cards to Amazon, eBay, Home Depot, Whole Foods and dozens of other stores. Willing to fly during less desirable hours, or to stay at a hotel a little farther from the city center? You’ll earn even more in gift card rewards.

I priced out a weeklong trip to Madrid, flying from New York and staying at a modest hotel near the Royal Palace. The total came to $1,440, and I would earn $314 in gift cards. If you see the gift cards as a rebate, that’s a 22 percent discount.

Upside, founded by Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, is currently taking bookings for flights from New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with 40 international destinations currently available. More will be added in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the premise behind the soon-to-be-operational TRVL is to allow individuals to earn commissions from hotel, air, car and activity bookings that you make for yourself or for others. Those others could include friends or family, or even strangers around the world who read about your areas of expertise and ask you to make their trip arrangements.

How much could you earn? The website provides a few ballpark examples. Planning a three-night jaunt to New York City for two people could earn you $100, whereas a two-week, multi-country European journey could net you $450.

Once it’s up and running — the company is currently collecting email addresses of potential users, to prepare for a beta testing period — the website will allow you to recommend your favorite hotels and activities. You receive ratings based on how much the travelers enjoy their trips, and presumably, the higher the rating, the more booking requests you could receive and the more commissions you could earn. As with Airbnb and Uber, you also get to rate your customers.

Both sites are suitable for use by individuals going on vacation or for companies booking business travel.

Would you try Upside or TRVL?

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.

kind traveler screenshot


Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)

At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)

When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.

The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.

While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.

Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

You need a vacation — but if you haven’t settled on a destination and your travel dates are flexible, it can be difficult to find the best possible deal. Enter Fareness.com, a flight search website that launched last year.

fareness screenshot


While most travel search sites ask you to put in your preferred travel dates (plus or minus up to a few days), Fareness offers larger blocks of travel dates — such as “Next 2 weeks only” or “All of December.” You can select more than one option if you want to search, say, October through January. Enter your departure airport and a trip length of anywhere from 3 to 17 days, and the site will show you fares to destinations around the world.

You can filter your destination results by region (such as Europe or U.S. cities) or theme (beach, popular, family). The results are displayed both on a map and in a Pinterest-style tile layout featuring large, beautiful photos of each destination.

We plugged in Los Angeles as our departure city and came up with some pretty eye-popping fares, including $458 roundtrip to Bangkok and $114 to Chicago, including taxes. (The site lists these as discounts of more than 60 percent over typical fares on these routes.) When you decide on a city and click on it, the site shows a calendar of when the lowest fares are available. Choose your dates and you’re taken to a screen where you can select your outbound and return flights.

The flight selection screen was a little confusing at first, but I eventually figured out that the blue bars under each itinerary represent both the length of the flight and the time of day that you’ll be traveling. You can filter results by departure time, number of stops, airline and airport. Once you choose your flights, Fareness directs you to Priceline to make your booking.

I checked a few of the prices I found on Fareness against those on Kayak for similar itineraries and dates, and discovered that in some cases the fares were the same, while in others Kayak or Fareness was cheaper by a few dollars. This leads me to an unsurprising and time-tested conclusion: You should never book a flight without checking multiple sites.

That said, Fareness is a valuable resource for travelers in the early stages of trip planning who haven’t settled on a destination and/or exact travel dates. While Kayak has a somewhat similar search feature (you type in your home airport and the season or month you want to travel), Fareness offered a more comprehensive calendar of results.

The bottom line? I’ll be adding Fareness to my own personal travel toolkit. Check it out at Fareness.com.

10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter